Original writing

I’m on the train! Again… :(

Christmas pens

Once again I am on a train travelling south to London, and once again it is winter.  I’ve made this journey many times since I last wrote about my fellow-travellers in January, but today it is quite cold outside and the people who have crowded on to this train are much more reminiscent of my January acquaintances than any I’ve encountered since.

Today, the people travelling in first class (it is very cheap on this service) are lively and cheerful.  Most are talking to each other animatedly, so there is less scope for me to guess about their backgrounds or attribute murderous motives to them.  Some are clearly business people, but many are going to London for a day out, to shop for Christmas.  Several appear to be families engaged in both activities: the man (or woman) poring over spreadsheets or reports while other family members chat noisily over his or her head.  One conspicuous difference at this time of year is that all the blocks of four seats around the large tables are taken.  The ‘airliner’ seats for one, each with a smaller table, have mostly been shunned.  I love the airliner seats, which are usually in heavy demand, but today I feel anti-social, sitting here in solitary splendour tapping away at my laptop.

The most extraordinary thing about these pre-Christmas travellers is that not one of them is glued to a mobile phone.  There are no raised voices enunciating “I’m on the train”, intruding upon others’ thoughts with infuriating penetration; no ever-so-busy women spending the time from when they board the train at Doncaster to when they get off it at King’s Cross systematically calling everyone in their address book (it’s surprising how often my journeys have fallen victim to one of these); no raucous men calling their mates to reminisce about having had a few too many the night before.

The only thing that disappoints about this group – and the disappointment is a big one – is that not a single one of them seems to me to be likely murderer material.  I realise that murderers come in all shapes and guises, but they have one thing in common: if they’re not being paid to kill, they exhibit some kind of negative excess.   All are excessively desperate, or vengeful , or greedy, or deranged.  It is hard to believe that any of these joyful, excited people now sharing the carriage with me harbours such qualities with sufficient intensity to be transformed to a killer.

So what shall I say about them?  Guessing what they’d like for Christmas might be fun.

I’ll start with the easy ones.  The two femmes d’un certain age sitting opposite me are both swathed in expensive scarves: one sports a bright red pashmina-style creation with tassels, the other a svelte black velvet cravat discreetly patterned in silver.  If they buy presents for each other, I’m sure that it will be festive scarves again.  Again?  Well, the ones they’re wearing were probably last year’s reciprocated presents.

The man at the next table, still hunched over his report as his wife and two teenage daughters chatter and wave their arms, is making occasional notes with an ancient, chewed biro that looks as if it might have started life as a promotional gift from Kwik-Fit.  If he really has to toil so hard for the whole journey (and is not just taking the soft option by ignoring his family), I feel that he deserves a decent pen.  A Waterman, at least, if not a Mont Blanc.  The two girls, both dressed in gauzy tops with lots of silver jewellery, huge eyes accentuated with expertly-applied make-up, are probably expecting to receive more of all of these things… and a lot more besides.  The elder  looks old enough to drive …. so Dad probably does need to keep on with the grafting. His wife, fingertips nail-barred to perfection, is sporadically reading on her Kindle between joining in the laughter and the chat.  I doubt that Kindle vouchers will hack it for her, though.  She, too, is wearing jewellery, much less than her daughters, but items of a different order from theirs: two sleek rings, one with a diamond embedded; a slender gold necklet; studs in her ears, which look suspiciously like diamonds.  Her watch is probably gold, though mounted on a plain black leather strap.  I’m sure she’d like an upgrade: a new gold watch for her, complete with a gold bracelet this time, please.

Time to hazard a guess at the tastes of the more inscrutable passengers now.  The three companionable men sitting together: what would they like?  They don’t look like football fans and, mercifully, aren’t discussing sport.  One is reading the paper; one (I’m pleased to say, silently) listening to music; one sipping coffee and looking out of the window.  No clues there.  I could award them all new boxers and socks, but it wouldn’t be very enterprising of me.  I think I’ll take a risk and give them all tickets for a murder mystery weekend.  I know that Walton Hall, near Wakefield, has a couple coming up.  I might even go to one of them myself.  I may not be able to spot any latent murderers on this train, but there’s no harm in getting some of its occupants into the right frame of mind.

The Rhyme of the Flying Dutch Man

A bewhiskered and bespectacled Rotternaut

Koos Fernhout, a bewhiskered and bespectacled Rotternaut

In the land of the Rotternauts dwelled a man
Whose hair was wondrous white;
Bewhiskered and bespectacled,
He glimmered pale at night.
And around the port he would pace with the gait
Of one who’d sailed the waves
And told his tale to anyone
He transfixed with his gaze.
Just so it happened when I peered at the shape
That rose in front of me,
He motioned me to silence
And began beguilingly:

Image courtesy of Koos Fernhout

Flower Bird , image courtesy of Koos Fernhout

‘There is, in a necklace of paradise isles
Beyond the eastern sea,
A jewelled piece of heaven
Where grows a magic tree.
And when the keel of the ship grinds the sands there
And rests from ocean gales
The trav’ller may find solace
And hear the songs of whales.
For the things of the sea fly in air out there
And birds swim in the deep –
Pluck flowers from the seabed
For the magic tree to keep.
And the pebbles of the land are wont to hatch
Into mammals, birds and fish –
The magic tree takes care of all
And fulfils every wish.’
And with that, the mariner vanished away!
Spell-bound, I saw them all:
Fish and birds and flowers…
And a magic tree, grown tall.

When I saw it on Facebook, I was captivated by the above Flower Bird artwork by the Dutch photographer and artist Koos (pronounced as in ‘rose’) Fernhout; it had a narrative quality and immediately conjured up for me a combination of mental images: Far Eastern art, mystical tales, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Flying Dutchman, the world as it was before humans minimised it, the fantastical stories of sailors returning from voyages of exploration, paradise, the next world. As you will see from the FB conversation, others were also smitten. Koos so much enjoyed the poem I felt compelled to write that he put it alongside his image, which is, believe me, quite an accolade. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you may enjoy a visit to his gallery, where you will find that he has an unerringly gifted photographic vision. To whet your appetite, I have also included an example below. Incidentally to all this, Koos happens to be a resident of the barge community I have described here. Many thanks to him for the pleasure of posting his pictures today.

Fernhout landscape

Fernhout landscape

Auschwitz-Birkenau butterfly, from the husband of Christina James…

Peacock butterfly on the steps to the death chamber, Birkenau

Peacock butterfly on the steps to the death chamber, Birkenau

I asked for a riposte to Christina’s cider-pressing post, but that was not to be! However, by way of recompense, she has allowed me space to comment on what must be one of the greatest crimes inflicted by man upon man. While she has been busy with what she calls ‘the day job’, which has been, on this occasion, a publisher-librarian conference held in Krakow (for the pedantic, this is pronounced by Poles as KrakOUF, with the stress on the second syllable), I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, one hour and forty minutes away by bus.

On the face of humanity, a carbuncle, perhaps now healing slowly, but sensitive to the touch and destined to leave a permanent scar. Yet the body politic suffers still and continues to break out in boils symptomatic of the same underlying disease. Mankind, disfigured, cannot find a cure and treats, always too late, the symptoms alone. These gross and scabbing reminders of our failure as a race to reach the root of our ills do not make comfortable our self-examination in the mirror of consciousness, but I found, on this, my second visit after some years, that the experience was already becoming, for the latest visitors, too organised, desensitising.
Brick, concrete, iron, steel, stone and dust, all strung about with the twisted barbarous wires; original timbers are gradually disintegrating or have gone. All about, the millions of October leaves are falling, falling. Summer’s beauty choked by approaching winter cold, they are gathered up in heaps, loaded into barrows and trucks and taken away for burning or to rot down. Colour and life turned to ashes. Shorn of their tresses, the trunks and branches are emaciated, twiggy fragile limbs starkly outlined against the sky.
Irony in the bus loads of tour groups disgorging their cargoes and delivering them into the hands of the camp guides. Selection by language. An industry in itself. The cameras click; the iPads embrace the scenes as each former terror is re-hashed for public consumption. Work makes free. Tourism makes realism – ‘No photographs here’ signs ignored as every shred of individual dignity is wrenched from the heaps of human history and saved for later: ‘I was there; it was awful; look at my pictures.’ I have to step away, unable to stem emotion. My leaves fall like tears, like lives.
Symbolism of railway lines, stretching through the gate to infinity. The sleepers are relinquishing their hold upon the rails, wasting from within. Will those be replaced, like wooden huts, to show what it was like? The other sleepers are softly breathing their message to us, the words falling as gently as leaves, and we strain to hear against the sound of the narrative of the guide. Their language is universal. The guide says that we are now walking the same way as the doomed, but we are not. Once more I break away, this time for good, and let imagination tell the story. And then, on the cracked steps to those underground chambers, now guarded by a staunch metal grid, a delicate beauty opens wings amongst the many fallen leaves and flies into the air. The loveliness of lost lives is captured for me in a butterfly.

All text and photographs on this website © Christina James

On the road to self-sufficiency and thrift…

Stocked up...

Since returning from my holiday at the end of July, I’ve spent a considerable portion of my time freezing fruit and vegetables.  My husband has been growing produce for several years, a neighbour having generously allowed him to fence off part of a paddock for the purpose.  This year is the first year that we’ve had a glut, so, in the interests of both quality of life and thrift (quickly skating over the cost of a new freezer and pasteuriser and their running costs!), I’ve taken up food preservation on an almost industrial scale.  I wasn’t going to mention this, as I thought it might bore you, but now I am, since today’s newspaper contains half a page of tips from the wife of the new Governor of the Bank of England on how to avoid spending too much on pencils, folders and pencil cases when preparing for ‘back-to-school’ (she recycles everything: I’d have hated her if she’d been my mother, as I loved buying stationery at the start of a new term, the more colourful and expensive, the better; besides, imagine her embarrassment if one of her kids were to flaunt a pencil with ’10 Downing Street’ inscribed on it! I recommend that she visits Poundland – of which more anon).

So, here are my top five dos and don’ts for successful freezing.  I’ve included some advice on harvesting the crop as well – think Nigella Lawson (I wish!) with a touch of Alan Titchmarsh.


  • If you have to pass beehives on your way to your vegetable garden, DON’T walk across the front of the hive.  This will annoy the bees, particularly if your favourite colour is blue and you are wearing blue clothes, which to a bee is (pardon the simile) like a red rag to a bull.  Instead, walk round the back of the hive, even if this means bumping your head on the low-hanging branches of any apple trees that might just be growing there.  (In the good life, experience is everything.)
  • If a horse should put its head over the fence that separates your garden from the paddock, DON’T offer it a handful of whatever it is you’re harvesting, however much it appreciates your friendship.  If you do, next time you look round, you’ll find four or five horses, all of which seem to have the necks of giraffes and the effrontery of Barbary macaques.
  • DON’T allow marauders into the kitchen to steal handfuls of the raw peas or fruit that you’ve harvested and prepared.  Bolt the door and make them go out and pick their own.
  • DON’T bother to blanch peas.  They’re fine placed straight into the containers from the pod and you can munch them as you work – after all, you picked and shelled them.  (But you will have to blanch beans, otherwise they turn brown).
  • It’s a good idea to chill the water that you plunge vegetables into after having boiled them for one minute to blanch; but DON’T do this by adding ice cubes.  It is sossy, inevitably causes you to skim across the kitchen on the one that got away and requires a new batch of ice cubes for each lot.  Instead, place a freezer brick in the water.  My mother-in-law, who never did culinary tasks by halves, once gave me one only slightly smaller than Sisyphus’s rock; but two ordinary ones will do the job.


  • DO use small plastic boxes (rather than bags) in the freezer.  They stack better and protect the contents.  Recycled Chinese takeaway cartons are excellent (although on no account allow this as an excuse for increased male consumption of chop suey).  My rather poncy local supermarket sells boxes at £2 for eight.  I bought up all its stock (three packs of eight) and, in desperate need for more, for the first time entered Poundland’s less portentous portals, where I found similar packs of eight costing what it says on the shop.  While there, I also bought a book that I’d been looking for about British colonial Africa, which is probably the most unlikely literary find I’ve ever made!  Poundland rules, OK?  But never let it be said that Christina is cheap, like Maureen 118 212.
  • If you think ahead and buy ice cream to accompany your defrosted fruit, DO conceal the tubs behind items unlikely to appeal to the male psyche – e.g., ‘cubed beetroot for borscht’.  Understand that this may not be a sufficient deterrent: the tubs may also need booby-trapping.
  • DO label the boxes with the date and note of the contents – though there is no need to go overboard.  Mine say ‘Peas, July 2013’ or ‘Beans, August 2013’.  It is a mistake to convert labelling into an art form: “White Lady, sliced.  Harvested 6th August at 06.00 on a dewy morning, sun just peeping through.  Blanched and chilled between 10.10 and 10.20 hours.  Put to freeze at 10.30 hours.  Twelve ounces: serves four.”  Apart from the time that it takes, it will turn you into a freezer nerd.  And no, I don’t harvest beans at 06.00.
  • DO fill the freezer pretty much to capacity if you can.  I can’t prove this personally, but all the electricity companies say that this cuts down on fuel consumption (and who would doubt their integrity?).
  • DO remember how much stuff you’ve got in there, especially when you’re shopping for fruit and vegetables in the winter.  You don’t want next summer to come round and find that you’re still eating last year’s produce, having in the meantime absent-mindedly spent a fortune and incurred thousands of airmiles on asparagus from Peru.

Finally, I have one tip that can be either a DO or a DON’T, depending on your point of view:

If you want to pick and freeze blackberries, you may choose to ask your husband to accompany you, as he will probably know all the best places, can reach higher and further into the brambles than you can, and may be impervious to their thorns.  However, be aware that he may also be paranoid about other blackberry pickers discovering his favourite spots, especially if these are close by a road.  He may therefore expect you to squat down behind the brambles every time a car passes by, in order to avoid drawing attention to your blackberrying activities, which is not only murder on the knees, but will convince your dog and other dog-walkers and their dogs that you are mad.  The choice is yours.

I hope that this has been useful… and at least as interesting as pencils.  Happy freezing!

Disclaimer: All characters in this post are fictitious.  No husbands or mothers-in-law have been harmed in the freezing process.  (Though chest freezers do lend themselves to…  no, I won’t go there.)

Led to a lovely real place by reading a magical book…

Het Witte Huis

Het Witte Huis



Valerie Poore's Vereeniging

Valerie Poore’s Vereeniging

Open air workshop

Open air workshop

Heavy metal

Heavy metal

Oude Haven

Oude Haven

'Shakin' that ass!'

‘Shakin’ that ass!’

Lots of hard work and just a little rest

Lots of hard work and just a little rest

Raised from the mud

Raised from the mud

Along Haringvliet

Along Haringvliet

[Click on pictures to enlarge them.]

Though I’m not a travel writer, I’d like to share a recent visit to a place I had previously never considered exploring, but, having read a book by a Facebook and Twitter friend and seen pictures of it on her pages, I resolved to stop and have a look at her world. I occasionally pass close to this location, but am always en route to somewhere else (Aren’t we all?), with deadlines and people to meet, and it had never before spoken to me with seductive siren tones nor even given me a glimpse of its hidden beauties and charms.
This time, I wasn’t even sure if we would manage the detour, but my husband and I started out early from Germany and covered the intervening kilometres without delay, aided by what he had always previously eschewed but which now proved absolutely essential, sat nav. Negotiating foreign cities, especially those with road systems apparently designed to doom motorists to madness, is always fraught with tension; navigating Rotterdam’s streets may be a piece of coffee and walnut to its residents, but without help or prior knowledge, the new visitor might as well be in the wilderness.
We were heading for Oude Haven, the ‘Old Port’, or the oldest harbour in the city, now home to a collection of historic Dutch barges which Valerie Poore, @vallypee, not only writes about in her books, but has lived on and restored here, for Oude Haven is a working museum with a team of enthusiastic owners, metal- and wood-working skills and the heavy gear to lift huge vessels out of the water to repair and return them to their original state.
I can tell a nightmare story of parking in Amsterdam, which perhaps I’ll relate here some other time, so we were prepared with plenty of small change to feed the greedy meters and defy the wardens, when we eventually turned into Haringvliet, which we had strolled down on Google Maps and determined as our best stopover point for the harbour; however, our research had not been thorough enough, as we discovered that the meters are not fed with money, but with prepaid cards to be got from a range of locations (however, it was a Sunday and we had no means of finding them easily). Then we discovered, by dint of guessing at the truly double Dutch meter instructions that some meters could be accessed by credit card, but we couldn’t immediately see one of those. The masts of the barges and the gorgeous array of moored boats just in front of us seemed to float off into the mists of meter mania.
Rescue came in the form of a bluff but very personable gentleman who had just been buying flowers from the stall at one end of Haringvliet, where, he said, was a credit card meter. Not only did he walk us to it, but used his own card to meet our two-hour stay and accepted our cash payment only very reluctantly. How’s that for hospitality?
The way was now open to explore, albeit quite briefly, the harbour and to locate Vereeniging, the elegant barge belonging to Valerie. The place is a marvel of architecture, considering that most of the area was flattened in WWII. Perhaps most striking is Het Witte Huis, The White House, an art-nouveau skyscraper building designed by architect Willem Molenbroek and erected in 1897-1898, which miraculously escaped destruction in 1940 and which still towers over the port, though it has long since lost its original place as the tallest multi-storey structure; the eye is then ineluctably drawn to the astonishing ‘Kubuswoningen’ or ‘Cube Houses’, the 1984 brainchild of architect Piet Blom, just along the wharf.
But we were here, as lovers of English canal boats and boating, to look at what was on the water (or, in the case of barge Luna, raised out of it to the dockside repair cradle and undergoing some heavy metal treatment – welding was well under way, if the boat wasn’t!). The barges are remarkable, with their sheer size, huge masts and characteristic leeboards (for they are sailing cargo vessels), and we should have loved to have been able to look inside them.
Vereeniging, just about the smallest of them all, nestled in her elegant green and red livery amongst the others… and I could see at a glance what had captured Valerie’s heart about her. She seemed so much more of a living presence, thanks to my reading of ‘Watery Ways’, and her character was buoyant and bubbly, with all the sprightliness and effervescence of a gig compared to the barouche landau sedateness of most of the other boats. I can’t wait to read the next instalment of her history, ‘Harbour Ways’, now in the making! An old bicycle stood to attention on the deck; theft of about eight others has made the owner chary of leaving a valuable machine on board.
We walked around the harbour, ate and drank local beer at one of the cafés (probably not the best one!) and captured a picture of Vereeniging’s stern from across the water. Strolling back along the other side of Haringvliet, we came upon the corpse of a once-yellow bicycle rescued from the muddy depths (but unlikely to be restored like the barges!) and said hello to a ship’s cat, a ginger pirate with the capacity to leap eight feet from deck to harbour steps and to take his ease in the sun.
But time had sadly run out for further sightseeing. We had avoided the parking police, thank goodness, and sailed away to Europoort with the powerful sensation of having travelled to somewhere very special indeed. The homeward ferry was a terribly disappointing contrast to what we had just been seeing.

GBH in a quiet country lane…



He is a loafer and a bandit, sauntering along the lanes and woodland rides, nonchalantly taking his ease amongst the shadows. Nothing of the soldier in him: he is not on patrol, nor does he work with comrades, though he might consort with them. He’s a poser in aviator shades – lazy, handsome in a dark way, always with an eye to the main chance and single-minded in his conquests. Though his tastes swing either way, he much prefers women: he adores their scented hair, their soft and fragrant flesh. Men can’t compete for sweetness; they are coarser-skinned, sourer to the taste and less aromatic, but he’s not too fussy – if one comes along, legs provocatively bared to the knee against the heat, he’ll rise to meet him. Not head on, though. Never that. He is a guerrilla, with tactics to match.
At first he introduces himself as a companion, humming softly at the ear, a wayfarer travelling in the same direction. He slouches along sloppily, dipping and swooping around the head and shoulders of his prey, weaving ever closer to the skin, seeking perhaps an undone button or an untucked shirt rippling in the breeze. He annoys, perhaps is flapped away, but he is droopily persistent. The more he’s repelled, the more assiduously attentive he becomes, though still languid in manner. Not for him the spitfire menace of the wasp or the swiftly suicidal sting of the honey-bee. His passion becomes a frenzy of desire as he smells sweat rising from skin, imagines the blood beneath. He penetrates, spiking the flesh and wounding, then flitting out of range, drunk now with the luscious red fluid that he has extracted. He’s swapped it for some of his poison. But he’s not finished yet: dizzily inebriated, he lusts for more. Half in ecstasy, he swirls and dips in taunting arrogance, whisking himself beyond the reach of now flailing, panic-stricken arms; he may distance himself for a while, waiting for the flapping to falter , but still he is there, riding the air, pacing himself, moving as one with his victim, ready for his chance. When it comes, he dives in again, landing so softly he can pierce and suck unnoticed, until he is so glutted that he is forced to let go.
If quick enough and not too distraught with pain, that innocent victim now has a fleeting chance for revenge. The attacker, bloated and engorged, is sluggish now, eyes drooping with sleep. A lucky handslap or dexterous swat with a stick may pitch him, whirling, into oblivion.
Self-defence, m’lud, but come too late: the great red poisonous weals that he has inflicted will impose their own sentence of many days.

[Footnote: In fact, it is the female of the species which bites and sucks blood, but I’m a fiction writer… 😉 ]

A merciless killer…

Late blackbird
A half-tunnel of hedgerow shades the path from the sun; new bramble tentacles rear up and across the way, reaching for light, their tips still soft, but their stems already clutching at clothing; rabbits are nervous tics at the edge of vision, ready to bolt. This is a lonely, little-used link between roads, though at one end, in the undergrowth under the hazels, illicit, smutty relationships are consummated and discarded with their condoms; the entrance by the field gate, where cars can pull in, is a drift of fast food bags, cartons and fly-tipped debris. Ah, the beauty of rural England!
It is, in fact, part of a favourite walk for us and, especially, the dog, since pheasant and partridge are here in numbers; he will hold a point for over half an hour, which would, were we shooters, make a twelve bore superfluous – a butterfly net would make better sport. As I climb over the stile into the field, where a small herd of bonny brown cows and calves grazes the bank, I encounter a neat heap of dark feathers. The Python team would call this a late blackbird, too late in its take-off to escape the trademark kill of the sparrowhawk. Foxes and cats dispatch their prey untidily, scattering feathers far and wide and often leaving other debris as well. The sparrowhawk, by contrast, is the most thrifty and purposeful of murderers. He calculates. He acts with intent, each action precise and pre-meditated. He uses the terrain, hedges being particularly appropriate for his silent up-and-over surprise attack. Small birds may just flit into the dense hedgerow in time, but his yellow-rimmed eyes are burning with bloodlust and his whole being utters supremacy. He extracts nourishment gram by methodical gram from his hapless quarry, gorging on blood, flesh and bone until there is nothing left except that pathetic heap of feathers, dropped straight down from the branch on which he sits as he feasts.
Imagine that you are the sparrow or the blackbird, caught in those dread talons even as you realise the danger, so swift is the arrowed form. At least your exit is quick.

Slaughtered before their time?

Light thickens
As I walked down in the woods today, there were no bears, but dark forces were threatening beauty, as they do every year at this time… but this May is different, for the beauty is still young.

The cold, snowy winter and even snowier March, following a brief spell of mild weather that fooled both the birds and the very early flowers, upset the order of the usual harbingers of spring, as many are late: the daffodils have collided with the tulips; flowering currant and cherry are blooming together. Perhaps ironically, the fruit trees are full of promise; up here in the hills, they often succumb to the devious daggers of frost, but their blossom has arrived so late that it has dodged the devastating chill. I’m anticipating a late summer and early autumn laden with bounty.

Anyway, back to the woods, where normality is not well: the bluebells, one of my favourite wild flowers, have been cautious, dithering in the cold and arriving at least two weeks later than usual. The trees, by contrast, are embracing the spring in a rush. Perhaps nurtured by the continuous snow and rain of the endless winter months, their green leaves are burgeoning unusually thickly and very fast for the time of year. The bluebells, in their huge swathes, have yet to reach perfection, that moment when the understorey is carpeted so richly with their violet-blue that all the trees appear to be floating in an indigo haze. This year, however, they will have to make haste if they are to work their customary mood magic, for the woodland canopy is fast closing over. It seems that they will be slaughtered before their time, starved of light and stifled. In most years, by mid-May, they are bedraggled by a month in flower, their loveliness fulfilled and their seeds set. But not this year.

The phases of woodland plant life are delicately juxtaposed, each species adapted to take advantage of the moment. But now the time is out of joint and there is nothing to be done to set it right.

Dog eat dog on the street…

Dog eat dog world

Life can be raw on the mean streets of Barcelona. Down La Rambla, in spite of the police presence, teams of pickpockets roam, taking advantage of the tourists’ distraction to coax valuables out of pockets and purses from handbags. ‘Three-cup-where’s-the-ball?’ hoodwinks naïve player and unwitting audience alike (not all are audience). Along the pavements, with heads and shoulders bent into four-wheeled municipal refuse bins, scavengers of everything from metal to cardboard sift and sort the unwanted detritus of urban life and load it into supermarket trolleys, selling it on later at street corners where, next level up, men with vans pay only low denominations in return. Beggars with appealing canine companions or a pair of crutches play to the emotions of passers-by. Buskers in teams work the subway trains, as does the ‘poet’ with his single learned verse. Tuneless extroverts invade bars and restaurants to serenade diners, prodding shoulders with a nudge and placing an empty bowl on the table. The homeless sleep in parks.
A separate economy is operating beneath the tourist world and it is hard-bitten and single-minded; it has its own hierarchy and its own rules. Though the casual observer may see nothing much of it, careful scrutiny of just a small portion of a street or a tube station unveils the surreptitious transfer of illicit packages, information or cash; eyes that are everywhere and nowhere, looking for gain or Guardia with equal determination. There is a quality in shiftiness that singles out its owner from the rest of the urban swirl and it’s always interesting to use the invisibility of a café vantage point to sift out bad from good. Crowds down the ages have been the haven of criminals, cutpurses and vagabonds, the noise and crush and apparently innocent jostle enabling skilful sleight of hand and surreptitious, instant disappearance.
Too much mistrust springing from too much reading of crime? Not so: watch the hands and eyes and see for yourself. It’s a dog-eat-dog dogfight on the streets.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Barcelona, its lovely Catalan people and its edge. I’m just playing with reality…

The Village: Short story opening 5


Madison left Cathy to live with me.  They got a divorce, even though she didn’t want it, and we were married immediately.  Five months later he was dead.  His death was quick, but strange; even the doctor didn’t really know why he had died.  Several causes of death were listed on the birth certificate: organ failure, oedema, pneumonia – but they all seemed wrong, somehow.  He wasn’t a young man, but he hadn’t been unhealthy.  However, at the inquest, the coroner accepted that he’d died from natural causes.

At the time of his death, no settlement with Cathy had been agreed.  Madison had been astute financially and had employed excellent lawyers and accountants.  He’d started salting money into various bank accounts for me, some of them offshore, almost as soon as we met.  He knew that it had always been my ambition to run my own business and he was determined not to let Cathy stand in my way.  He said he was too old to work again, but it would be his very great pleasure to watch me succeed.

There was a will: it split his assets equally between Cathy and me.  My lawyer said that this was fair, since, if he had left Cathy to live on his own and offered her a fifty-fifty split, this would have been more than generous.  Now that he had passed on, his share had come to me, as was fitting.  After all, I was his wife.  Her lawyer disagreed because of the surprising smallness of the estate: it was worth less than fifty thousand pounds.  Even the house that Cathy lived in had been re-mortgaged.  There must be much more money, concealed somewhere, said her lawyer.  Madison’s accountants blamed the modesty of the inheritance on some unwise business ventures.  Cathy contested the will, but her appeal failed.

Braemar Cottage, the house that I had shared so briefly with Madison, was old – built in the eighteenth century, according to the deeds, though Madison thought that an even older property had once stood on the site.  Montrose, the house that Cathy now lived in alone, was also several hundred years old – Madison had liked old buildings.

I don’t care for the past: thinking about it depresses me; seeing evidence of it all around suffocates me.  Besides, the neighbours said that there was a ghost at Braemar Cottage, of a headless woman in a blue dress.  The place gave me the creeps.  I decided to sell it and buy somewhere bright and new: a place that would give me a clean sheet, with no past.  I found a buyer almost immediately – it is amazing how many people are sentimental about ‘period’ properties.  It was through him that I discovered that Montrose had also been put on the market (I suppose that Cathy couldn’t afford to keep it), but he had preferred Braemar Cottage, because of the new bathrooms and kitchen that I had insisted should be installed before I had agreed to live there.

The sale went through so quickly that I had to move into a hotel for a while.  I found my perfect residence quickly, too: a luxury flat on the top floor of a new tower block in Camden – the internal fittings and decorations weren’t even completed when I viewed – with integral office space for my new business.  The building possessed all of the virgin blankness that I craved.  It was ultra-modern, stylishly asymmetrical, minimalist but opulent in an understated way.  For example, although there were three conventional lifts for tradespeople and visitors, residents were given a pass to a special glass lift that had been installed exclusively for their use.  Day and night there were two porters at the security desk in the main entrance, as well as a doorman standing sentry at the revolving doors.  It was one of the porters, a short, cheerful East-Ender called Jarvis, who, during one of my inspection visits, volunteered to introduce me to the glass lift.

“I hope you don’t get vertigo,” said Jarvis as, with a waft of his pass-card, the glass doors slid open.  We were on my floor at the top of the building, the eighteenth.  He pressed the button, the doors snapped shut and the lift shot swiftly into motion, all, it seemed, in the same second.  I had hardly had time to take in the spectacular view across London before the lift, its glass walls, sides and floor all so highly polished that we appeared to be suspended in air, plummeted like a diving angel.  The sensation was extraordinary: it was like being in free-fall through space, both exhilarating and frightening.  I held on to the rail, and looked down through the glass as the marble floor of the basement flew towards me.  As I looked, the black-and-white squares of the floor broke apart and revealed a gaping pit beneath.  There was something in the pit, writhing and hideous.  I tapped Jarvis’s arm, forcing myself not to grip it.

“What’s that?” I gasped.

Jarvis and I stared down together.  At the same moment, the lift slowed and drew smoothly to a halt.

“What?” said Jarvis.  “See something interesting as we was coming down, did you?  What was it?”

I shrugged.

“I thought that the floor was opening up.  Obviously I was wrong – it must have been a trick of the light.”

“It’s with it being glass,” said Jarvis.  “It plays tricks on your eyes.  Optical illusions, innit?  That’s part of the fun.”


Footnote:  This concludes the series of five short story openings under the theme of ‘The Village’.  Readers of In the Family may perhaps recognise my experimentation with some of the fundamental features of fictional writing (plot development, narrative voice and perspective, character depiction, dialogue, context, atmosphere and mood and so on) that did influence my writing of the novel.  I hope that you have enjoyed dipping into them.   Thanks to those of you who have commented here and on Twitter and to those who have very kindly retweeted for me whilst I have been away.  Normal service resumes tomorrow! 


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