Monday, 21 August 2017

No Sherlock by Jo Cameron-Symes

He knew that he must keep very still while he waited. He was crouched into an uncomfortable position to say the least of the matter and tried to maintain a good viewpoint of the illicit activities that were sure to unfold. He was ice cold from head to toe. In moments like this he tried to recall the scorching heat of India to warm his bones. Now he was back, returned to London and his curious profession of Private Detective which he found to be both intriguing and frustrating. He loathed and secretly admired Arthur Conan Doyle for creating the character of Sherlock Holmes. He was teased mercilessly by the delinquent youths outside his rooms who shouted, “Oi Sherlock!” at him on a daily basis, but admired Sherlock’s powers of deduction and his scientific techniques which he sometimes adopted to help with his cases. Of course, he also did not have the benefit of having a Dr Watson to assist him. 

He was a man who was sorely alone both in his professional and private life. His wife had recently run off with a London Agent from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. God, how he hated those interfering Pinkertons! He had only come across them infrequently but with every encounter he had always felt that they were unbearably smug and no, he was not just bitter about what had happened with his wife. He felt that the Pinkertons barged in unnecessarily when what was needed was in some cases a more delicate approach to the matter in hand and patience, yes, lots of patience was always required, especially on cases like this one. He had been hired by Mr Brooksbanks of Chelsea, a successful importer of rare porcelain from the East. He was concerned that his imports were being used to smuggle nefarious items such as opium into the capital and wanted him to investigate.

He listened and heard, then saw the waves of an approaching ship churning up the Thames. A new ship was preparing to dock. The fog was thickening now, it no longer swirled in serpents’ tails across the river but formed dense clouds, thickets from which it was hard to clearly identify individual people and objects. Instead the figures looked like shadows, shapes that were various shades of grey and black. This did not help matters but he held the small pocket telescope to his eye to vainly try to get a closer look at the ship which he knew should be the one in question. The Salvador was a Spanish vessel that had been bought by Brooksbanks in a complicated sale, he used an English crew but the origins of the boat were Spanish, originating in Cadiz. Brooksbanks was a superstitious man and after losing three English ships on consecutive voyages he decided that Spanish vessels were superior. Being unfamiliar with shipping himself he could neither agree nor disagree with the man and found himself nodding along to his assertions.

The truth was he desperately needed this case for though the popularity of Sherlock Holmes had created more work for him; he had declined many cases due to ill health after his wife had left. He was ashamed to admit that he had become too fond of drink and could not last a day without consuming half a bottle of gin. He knew that he had to stop and that it was rotting him from the inside out so he vowed to take on more work. His mother was so worried for him that she said he should become a Methodist, though not being especially religious himself he had declined her suggestion.

The ship was now in the port and ready to dock. A stevedore shouted out and the rope was thrown as the ship prepared to disembark its crew and cargo. He realised that his stakeout was entirely useless, for all of the cargo was in sealed wooden boxes. He would need to get closer to the ship to investigate further. He threw off his thin beggar’s blankets and brushed down his smart gentleman’s attire. Why not approach the crew overtly he thought? He put on his top hat and took his cane. Whistling jauntily, he walked along the docks to the vessel approaching a crewman unloading the cargo. “Hello fellow, I must speak with your Captain” he said in a light, breezy tone. “Captain is currently indisposed.” He replied with a suspicious frown. “Blast” he said, “I promised Mr Brooksbanks that I would personally attend to a matter for him and it’s imperative that I speak to your Captain at once.” The mention of Brooksbanks’ name did the trick and the crewman stood up straight and nodded saying “I shall fetch the Captain at once Sir. Who shall I say is asking for him?” “Mr Anderton, a business associate of Mr Brooksbanks.” He used a false name for what he had to do would require him to act fast then disappear into the night. When the crewman went into the bowels of the ship he looked around and noticed that everyone was busy with their own tasks and far away enough for him to do what he needed to. He used the top of his cane to prise open one of the cargo boxes and saw packing straw, large vases of fine porcelain and blocks of what looked like opium packed inside oilskins hidden within. He only needed to take one vase as evidence, so hid it under his long cloak and quickly hurried away into the night, disappearing into the now beneficial fog that covered him like a shroud.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Me, in Palermo, Sicily

I was invited to participate in this particular project in Sicily, because of my experience in enterprise and entrepreneurial skills development. I work across NGO, Third Sector and Private Sector Business development.

The two of us, seated across three seats, is always going to be a lovely flight for me. My neighbour, was seated at the window, and me in the aisle seat.  She kept trying to strike up conversations with me in Italian. She was very jolly, so a lot of gesticulation and laughing ensued, as we mis-communicated excitably. Most times, I am just grateful that not everyone is as shy as I am, to talk to strangers.  I said Si a lot, when I ought to have been saying non capisco.  I am sure at one point, she was trying to find out my destination in Palermo, and how I was getting there. She mimed ‘steering a wheel’ as she talked. We giggled and she threw her hands up, and I shrugged my shoulders as we hit yet another wall. It was a few days into my visit before I fully understood, the richness of her gesture.

I bounced over to some airport staff and said ‘bonjourno’ with a big smile. They looked at each other, then one of them beckoned to another a few feet away, and he came over and spoke to me in English. My simple question was where to find taxis. It was 21.30 and I realised the following day that I had actually said ‘good morning’ to them.

I approached the taxi rank and a smart looking man, took my luggage.  I showed him my address, asked him the fare, and he barked 50 Euro, and turned on the ignition.  As I queried this price, he started to drive. I shouted at him to stop, as I needed to verify that price with my hosting organisation, as it seemed to be 15 Euro more than my guide price. Well, before I could get my phone off air plane mode and 3 Mobile to recognise my location, my two suitcases were slung out onto the pavement, amidst a flurry of abuse and flailing arms, I suspect it was that Sicilian passion.  Other men gathered around to hear the ‘story’, I climbed out of the car and stood amongst them, as they looked at me, and me at them…and I wondered …now what? Would anyone take me?

Then a man took my luggage, and beckoned to me to follow him… of course all the while I imagined that I was in a scene from the God Father, how dare I question the fare LOL. I moved at a trot behind this man towards the back of what seemed like a never ending line of parked taxis. By the time we got in his little battered car, my phone had connected, and I informed people that I was in a vehicle.  I quizzed my driver on his legitimacy, ‘legal’ he understood, and chuckled. I asked why I was slung out of the other car, his word I understood, was ‘premier’. Say no more. He was lower down the food chain, and I paid him 40 Euro for taking me, not the 35 we had agreed on, and he beamed from ear to ear.  

I was relieved to reach my destination 40 minutes later, and was made aware that I probably did have a brush with the Mafiosi in my experience.  So much here is ‘controlled’ in a way which makes the experience unpleasant. I had one other frightening taxi experience at night, which cost me 28 Euro for a journey I could have walked in 20 minutes max, if only I had felt it was safe to do so, and had known the route. I had to shout and bang, to get this particular hoodlum of a driver to stop driving around in circles, so that I could walk the 5 minutes to my destination, after he had whizzed past it deliberately a few times at breakneck speed without stopping.    

What’s really exciting here though, is the growth in Social Enterprise Businesses, and the redistribution by government, of confiscated mafia property for public good.  One organisation I am working with has a ten year free lease on a building used for training the disadvantaged and migrant communities in sewing and up cycling garments and fashion retail.

SHOW ROOM reclaimed building – Sartoria Sociale

The Dalai Lama visiting Palermo, 16, 17, 18 September 2017. Buddhist Center Muni Gyana a few months ago found a home in Pizzo Sella, a confiscated possession of the mafia and assigned by the Municipality of Palermo.  Stunning Building up in the mountains overlooking Palermo City

Monday, 7 August 2017

Ten writing mantras by Andrew Shephard

Writing is many things but mostly it is a habit. As habits go, it is not as destructive as some, but also not as instantly rewarding as drinking or gambling. The rewards can feel quite distant with a large project such as a novel. So distant, in fact, that even the false summit of a completed first draft can be hard to make out in a swirling mist.

To combat writing fatigue, general bone-idleness, and competing attractions (see drinking and gambling above) I have collected the writing mantras that speak to me. I write them on to post-it notes, and stick them to the wall above my writing desk. They come from many sources, including other writers and my wife’s interest in Buddhism. They help get me started on a writing session. Perhaps they might be useful to you. Better still, perhaps you can tell me how you remind yourself that writing – that poem, blog, chapter, play, or Tweet, is a very good idea and now is the best time to do it. Please add any suggestions via the Comments below.

  1. Start from where you are. (To me, this means working with what I have got, finishing what I have started, and not clutching at fantasy straws. It is unusual to go from office cleaner to managing director in one step.)
  2. Write with a light heart. (There’s enough bitterness in the world without adding to the sum with my gripes.)
  3. The mind is a machine for jumping to conclusions. (This is a reminder to write fiction with holes in it and to allow the reader to do some work.)
  4. Coherence is a useful illusion. (Life is not often coherent, but people like to think it is when they read a story.)
  5. Tell the damned story. (A reminder to focus on the purpose of the activity and not get bogged down in waffle.)
  6. Banish all doubt. (At the time of writing, doubt is the enemy and can lead to paralysis. Doubt, and a little humility, is good later on in the process when editing or deciding what to do with piece.)
  7. Give up hoping for results. (Unless you are solely motivated by fame and money, writing has to be done for its own sake. Do not expect applause just because you’ve written something.)
  8. Reach out to other writers. (Every creative act is a risk, and it is good to appreciate the risks other people take when they share or publish.)
  9. Writing something is better than writing nothing. (Phew! At least I wrote something… I can improve it later.)
  10. …………………  (Insert your mantra here.)

Monday, 31 July 2017

Elspeth's Magic Lamp by Annabel Howarth

Elspeth was in the corner, tucked between the wall near the window, and her bedside table.  She was looking at the white lords and ladies on the base of her pink lamp, and talking to them, as she did at times like this.  They were dancing to an increasing crescendo, while she beat the bass drum in time, by flicking a round ball at the top of one of the tassels on the fringe of the lampshade.  She counted as she flicked, as she felt the sound of the orchestra play faster and louder, stomping along the hall and crashing through her bedroom door.

Elspeth didn’t hear much of what he said.  From under water, sounds are muffled.  His lips moved, mouth wide, teeth, spittle, eyes large, face red, neck tight and stretched with rage.  Elspeth heard the odd word.  “Stupid” mostly, and “selfish”.  She saw the hand, raised her arms across her face and closed her eyes, as she felt her head jerked from side to side.  The blows were grey and purple behind her eyes, but she felt nothing.  A disembodied voice said, “I’m sorry.  It was an accident.”  That just seemed to add to the rage.  The force from the tug of her hair, she did feel.  She heard a scream and “Please!” and heard the thud of her own feet trying to keep up and the bang of her shoulder against the door frame.  Saw the bird cage fall from the stand by the front door, onto its side – a flutter of yellow and green.  The cage door fell open.

            “Leave her alone,” screamed a voice from the kitchen, “I’ll deal with it.”  She was thrown to the floor.  From where she lay, Elspeth could just see her mother, through the open kitchen door – on her hands and knees, mopping up the white puddle Elspeth had left there, 10 minutes before.

“That’s right!  Take her side! You always do!  I’ll leave all right.  I’m off t’t pub and this lot better be cleaned up before I get back!”

Elspeth relaxed a little, when she was sure he had gone.  She still lay there on the floor, staring at the open cage door, marvelling that the budgie didn’t spy his chance and fly away.  In her head, she was the budgie, Noah, traversing the mountains and running through the mazes of the green patterned carpet of the hallway floor.  But Noah, simply stood up in his upside down house and sang the “telephone ring” song he always sang, to his friend in the mirror, just from a different angle.

Elspeth pushed her head and shoulders up with her arms.  She could feel the bruises on her arms and shoulder begin to ripen, and her head was a ringing fizz.  In her make-believe world, her mother, a lady dressed in white, would dance over and help her up, cradle her in her arms and say, “Come on my love, let’s pack our things and leave this place.  I’ll never let him hurt you again.”  But this mother didn’t run to comfort her.  This mother continued to clean up the broken glass and mop up the milk, with her back to Elspeth, in silence.

Elspeth got up slowly and picked up the cage.  Noah flapped about again and then found his perch.  “Fly away, Noah, while you can,” whispered Elspeth.  But Noah wasn’t listening either.  She left the door open for a few moments, watching and willing him.
            “Mu-um,” Elspeth said, her heart beating fast, her tongue feeling enormous and like a foreign object in the back of her throat.
            “Yes, Elspeth.”
            “Why don’t we leave?”
            “I want to go Mum.  He scares me.”
            “But where would we go, Elspeth?” said her mother, sounding hollow, like an echo. “And besides, I love him.”

            Elspeth felt a familiar thud, as her rapidly racing heart plummeted into her stomach and the grey Nothing worked its way into her intestines.  She turned to walk back to her room. 
Her mother spoke again.  “It’ll be alright, Elspeth.  You’ll see.  You’ll just have to learn to be less clumsy.”

Elspeth felt a black stabbing pain in her chest.  The Nothing now seemed to bleed through imaginary wounds and with every step her veins carried it back to her heart.  “Those are HIS words,” she thought.  As she passed Noah, she closed the cage door.  She’d be blamed if he did get out and made a mess anywhere.  “Not this time, Noah,” she whispered.  “It’s just you and me now, we’ll have to find another way.”  Elspeth walked back to her room without wishing her mother the usual “good night” or telling her that she loved her.  She closed the door of her room, went to the window, and gazed out at the grey buildings and the expansive sky, and imagined herself flying. 

A boy from one of the flat’s below was leaning against the veranda, staring at the horizon too.  He lit up a cigarette and inhaled deeply.  Elspeth recognised him.  He used to call for her and ask her to play, when they were younger, but she’d never seen him like this before.  She watched a while, standing back from the window.  She liked the way he flicked his fringe.  Less so the way he shoved away a cat, but she’d stop that. 

Elspeth lay on her bed, with a smile on her face, staring up at the ceiling.  Now she was the white lady, dancing, with her sights on a white lord.  She thought of her friend, Sue, with her baby and her own flat.  She pictured Noah, in his cage, in a big kitchen window, as she closed her eyes.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Light Bulb Moments by Dave Rigby

Great Grandma’s house. I still think of it as hers, even though she’s been dead over forty years. My home now.
Down the stone steps and into the front cellar, door slamming behind me. Screwdriver needed from the toolbox for a minor bit of DIY. Poking about in the dim light of a 40 watt bulb. Sudden darkness.
We’ve had power cuts before. We’re told there’s a problem at the switching station – whatever that is. They don’t generally last long.
Pitch black is a good description. No phone to light my way – it’s on the bedside table – not even the illuminated dial of my wristwatch. As for a torch or a match – forget it.
Inch over to the doorway, arms outstretched to give forewarning of hidden obstacles. An unnecessary precaution as the cellar is empty apart from the tool box and two packing crates which I know I’m walking away from.
I try the handle, but the door won’t budge. There is a knack to it but after several increasingly panicked attempts I realise it’s not the handle that’s the problem. It’s the bolt on the other side. But how…..
The creak of floorboards from the living room above. It’s just their age. That’s what they do.
Another creak. That’s not age, that’s footsteps – pretending not to be footsteps. Breath held.  
Mind racing. Someone’s up there. Maybe it’s not a power cut. Maybe that someone has thrown a switch and silently slid the bolt into position. And now they’re up there, car keys, house keys, wallet, phone, tablet all for the taking. Shouting for help? No point! It’s an end terrace and beyond the single party wall is hard-of-hearing Mrs Jackson. The only person who’d hear me hollering is him upstairs. At least I assume it’s a him. I’ve a sudden distracting vision of a lady burglar in a black catsuit and mask. No, sweep that away! I can picture him, all my prejudices to the fore, trousers tucked into socks, retro trainers, baseball cap on backwards, hoodie up, sniggering.
The coal shute! In my head, the dull rumble as each bag is emptied, the smell of the dust, the whistle of the coalman.  A way out? Back to the tool box, fingers searching for hammer and chisel. Striking one against the other in the darkness, left thumb vulnerable. An almighty racket as I remove the panel from the boarded-up shute. He must have heard it. Relief as light trickles in. As a boy I’d ignore dire parental warnings, remove the grid above and climb down the shute. But going up is a different story and I’m somewhat larger than I was. Trying to grip the rough brick sides and haul myself upwards, worrying that ‘he’ will appear above me at any moment, sneering. Almost in reach of the underside of the grid, my hand hold slips, I slither back down, falling in a heap onto the flagged floor of the cellar.
Winded, sore, grazed, angry. Slowly pulling myself to my feet and hobbling across to the door, I’m disbelieving when the 40 watt flickers back into life, incredulous when the handle behaves perfectly. Climbing the stone steps is agony. I peer around the cellar-head door cautiously.
‘The burglar… with a piece of lead piping … in the hallway?’
But the hall is empty, as is the rest of the house, I find, when I finally manage to cart my bruised limbs around the place. All my precious belongings are where I left them. Imagination can be a wonderful thing – or a curse.
A cup of tea, a string quartet on the radio, a bag of frozen peas on my left knee, a cigarette smouldering on a saucer. Contentment.
Instant darkness descends again, the strings are silenced, floorboards creak in the bedroom above. Fear swoops back onto my shoulder. He’s playing games with me. But what if he’s just my creation? What if Great Grandma was right all along about what she saw, what she felt? She never stopped talking about it, but nobody listened, nobody believed her.

She was never the same again.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Field by Clair Wright

“Get down!” Lisa flapped her arm urgently. I dropped to the ground behind the stalks at the edge of the field and shuffled closer on my haunches.

Lisa was eleven, two school years above me.  James and Andrew, aged twelve and from the next road, knelt ahead of us, further into the field. 

“What? What is it?” I whispered. 

“It’s the Crow Man!” Lisa pointed. “Up there!”

“Who?” I craned my neck towards the bridge across the motorway, which over-looked the field.  I couldn’t see anyone. “Who’s the Crow Man?”

“Shush!! He’ll see us!”

I crouched down lower. My legs started to prickle with pins and needles. 

“But who is he? What will he do if he sees us?”

The boys glanced back at Lisa, and she shook her head. She held her finger to her lips. 

“We can’t tell you,” mouthed James.  “Sorry.” 

I stared up at the bridge but I still couldn’t see anyone. The sun was harsh and my eyes smarted.

The stalks scratched my ankles and stuck into my bare feet in my sandals. I tried to shift my position, scared my head would bob above the waving heads of barley.

“Should we go?” I whispered to Lisa. I glanced behind me.  We were still close to the path which led between the back fences of the cul-de-sac. I thought I could reach it, if I ran fast.

“We can’t.  John’s disappeared. The Crow Man’s taken him.” 

“What? What do you mean?” I looked towards Andrew, John’s older brother, but I could only see the back of his head. 

John was only seven. He liked to hang around with his brother’s friends. I was nine, and considered John to be a baby, and rather annoying.  But now I imagined him, frightened, black glossy wings bearing down on him, sharp beak tearing at his eyes.... I shuddered.  

“What are we going to do?”  Sweat began to gather behind my knees.  I needed the toilet. 

“Come on!” James beckoned to us, urgently. I stayed close to Lisa as she half crawled, half crouched along the stony edge of the field. Andrew and James stayed close to the fence. Every few steps they stopped, and stared up at the bridge, whispering to each other. 

We followed.  I tried to hear what they were saying but the sound was lost in the constant growl of the motorway and the hiss of the barley. Nettles stung my legs and feet and I bit my lip to stop myself crying. 

“Down!” James and Andrew flung themselves into the dust. Lisa and I did the same. Panting with fear, the soil caked my wet face and crept into my mouth and nose with every sob. I waited, sure that any moment there would be the beat of wings, of claws in my neck. 

Nothing happened. The silence went on. The pressure on my bladder burned.  I lifted my forehead from the ground, and squinted through my fringe at the bridge. There might have been a dark figure there, in the shadow the hawthorns. It was hard to tell. 

There was a scuffling and panting and Andrew and James crouched beside us. We got to our knees, still keeping our heads low.

“We need to get John back,” said Andrew. “My Mum’ll go mad.” 

“What’s the plan?” asked Lisa. 

Then they all turned towards me. They suddenly seemed very big. They seemed to surround me.

“A swap,” said Andrew. “Cathy, you go up there, and take John’s place. You are nine, after all.” 

Lisa nodded.

“No!” I stammered. “No! I can’t!”

“You have to,” said James firmly. “We have to get John back. Go up to the bridge. The Crow Man will take you, and let John go. Then you can try and escape.”

“No!” Tears dripped muddy trails down my knees. “No!” I shouted, and scrambled to my feet. I ran back towards the path, my hands clamped over my ears.  I didn’t look back. I was sure the Crow Man was swooping down on me, casting a great black shadow over my head. 

“Cathy!” Lisa shouted after me, “Cathy!”

I ran all the way home, scuffing my toes as I tripped in my sandals. My feet were bleeding through the dirt, my legs covered in nettle stings, and, shame of shame, I had wet my shorts. 

“What on earth have you been doing?” asked my mother when I burst into the house. “You’re filthy!” 

I tried to stop crying as she changed my clothes and washed my face.  “I’ve told you about playing with the older children,” she said, stroking my back in a soothing way. “You should have come home earlier if you needed the toilet. Never mind.” 

She gave me some orange juice and I began to see it all. They had played a trick, to frighten me, to make me look stupid. I burned with humiliation.

I didn’t try to explain what had happened. It all seemed silly now. 

It was a few hours later, when I was in bed, when there was a knock at the door. I listened in the dark at the top of the stairs. The policeman said a seven year old boy was missing. He had disappeared, while playing in the field.