Sunday, 23 November 2014

Crowning Glory

A few weeks back, I was proud to win the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival 2014 International Writing Award.  The trophy has pride of place on my bookshelf, and I'm very pleased to be able to reproduce the story, 'Crowning Glory' for you in full here.

It's Saturday night, half past nine, and the lights are out again.  I get the front door closed with a kick and drag the carrier bags into the lounge where they finally split completely, dumping the groceries all over the floor. 

I wasn't sure if he'd be here.  Sometimes in the evenings, he goes to the pub or to visit his friends, but not tonight.  Instead Michael sits at the table, reading one of his scraggy paperbacks by candlelight.  His fingertips protrude from his gloves as he picks at the pages.  He doesn't look up to greet me.

'You were ages.'

'I stopped off in the library,' I say.  'More research for my project.'

'What did you get at the shop?'

'I bought bread.'

'Anything to put in it?'

Michael isn't the kind of man to bother with smalltalk.  None of this 'how was your day, how are you feeling' nonsense.  He ignores me as I grope around in the shadows, searching for apples that I remember running through the checkout.

'It's cold in here,' I tell him.

'So put on a jumper.'

'You could help,' I say, fishing under the sofa for a can of tuna.

'I could,' he replies, turning a page.

Even doing something so simple, Michael's movements are nimble.  Perhaps it's because he's so thin.  It makes his limbs and his fingers seem longer than other people's.  By rights, he should feel the cold more than me, but it never seems to work that way.  He has a large polo-neck sweater that he wears pretty much straight through the winter, though it's not a nice one like you see sometimes in magazines.  This is proper army surplus, complete with patches on the elbows.  His trainers are so old that his feet practically poke out the front of them.  His hair is sandy, thick for the most part, though sometimes when I run my fingers through it, I can feel it thinning at the crown.

He doesn't like it if I mention his thinning hair.  It reminds him of his age, of his mortality.  Or maybe it's a man thing, his vanity.  In his mind, Michael still wants to believe he's twenty, though I know for a fact he's double that and more.  When it suits him, he can ignore the twinges in his joints and still act like a young man.  It lets him pretend that his potential is still resting just under the surface, waiting to be tapped.

'So, anyway,' he says.

'There's jam,' I reply.


'I think so.'

He takes the jar from my hand, scrutinises it under the wavering candlelight.  'This is raspberry.'

'Is that a problem?'

'No, I just prefer strawberry.'

It's one implied criticism too much.  I've worked twelve hours today, and I ache.  I checked my till at the end of the day and I was so tired I nearly fell asleep while doing it. 

'If it's not good enough,' I say, 'maybe you should buy your own jam.'

Instantly, he's on the defensive.  He turns one of those long, wiry shoulders to me and sulks behind his book.

'I didn't say it wasn't good enough.'

'You didn't have to.' 

It's not the money that bothers me really, though there are days when I wish that handsome millionaires weren't in such short supply in Gowrie.  It's that I'm never the first thought he has.  There's always a baccy tin that needs topping up, or a mobile short of credit.  A while ago, I thought that I'd like to get a dog.  It would have been nice, a chance to go for walks together, rediscover ourselves a bit.  Just now, I don't think we'd cope with the expense, much less the rediscovery.

Michael lights one of his reed-thin roll-ups, eyes me warily.  I sense that he knew this was coming, has probably been rehearsing the argument in his head while he was waiting for me to get home.

'I'm a bit short of cash at the moment,' he says.

'Aye, I bet,' I say.  I don't have any reason to say it, except that he never has cash, and I'm fed up with coming home to find the meter empty and the house in darkness.

'What does that mean?'

I open the kitchen cupboard and am assaulted by the twin smells of damp and mould.  I stack the baked beans next to a tin of pressed ham.  There's a v-shaped dent in the top of the tin that I'm sure wasn't there when I picked it out.  'Nothing.'

'Nothing is something.'

I'm annoyed then, just wanting the right to be irritated without having to list the reasons.  I lean around the doorway.   'I told you.  It's nothing.'

He turns another page, avoids my eye.  The candlelight flickers.  'Jess, you know your problem has always been that you bottle up your feelings.'

There it is, the charge he has laid at my door for four of the five years we've been together.  I ferment the anger inside me, immediately proving him right.  I feel like a port barrel, my insides burning with the whiskey touch.  For four long years, I've been uptight.  If I told him what I really think, he tells me, I'd feel better.  Twelve hundred days and more spent searching for the words.  In the beginning, my mind whirled with the search while he just cupped my breasts and fucked me so hard that my eyes watered.

'I have a job coming up,' he says.

'Really?'  I'm surprised, and my voice betrays me. 

'Don't sound so shocked.'

For a moment, I'm contrite, and I want to say something nice, tell him I'm pleased for him.  But the feeling is coming back into my hands from where I was carrying the bags, and the knotted plastic has left painful red marks around my wrists.

'Does it pay?' I say.

I imagine his frown.  'It's an exhibition.  It'll be good publicity and it might lead to other things.  But I'm never going to be Damian bloody Hirst, right?  This isn't London.  I can't cut cows in half or sell our dirty bedsheets to some wealthy twat.  I'm never going to be rich.  You need to accept that and move on.'

Michael is a poet and performance artist.  He mostly does readings at festivals and occasionally shows photographs that he takes around the city.  A few years ago, he was commissioned by the tourist board to write about the new village of Scone.  He wrote about kings and the weight of their crowns, intending it as satire, but they missed the point and published it anyway.  It's the most successful thing he's ever done, and to this day he's still sore about it.

I finish stacking tins and try to let the anger go.  It isn't easy.  My insides are twisted and tearing at me like the handles of the carrier bags.  I feel more relaxed when there's a wall between us, when I can't see Michael's lips narrowed in that way they get when he argues – or worse still, when he demonstrates his superiority by refusing to argue.  The kitchen window is small and thin, and the band of light that seeps into my space is granite grey.

'Will you make me something?' he calls.

My mind is halfway to telling him to take a running jump out of the large lounge window, but I'm already next to the worktop and I don't have the energy left to argue.  I pull at the bread bag, tearing it open, and grab the cleanest looking knife from the grimy drawer under the sink.  For a moment, I test its weight in my hand.

'I don't want the jam,' he says.  'Did you get beans?  You could make beans on toast.  You're good at that.'

Even when he compliments me, Michael has a way of turning the words, exposing their edges.  We can't make toast without topping up the meter, and he knows it.  I reach out with my empty hand and stroke the spot on the wall where the ashen light falls.  For a moment, I watch the shadows dancing like puppets.  It's the smallest thing but for a moment, I'm just pleased that there's something I can actually control.
'I know it's a pain now but it won't be like this forever,' he says.  'I'll make it up to you when I have some money.'

I bite back every sarcastic reply that I think of and take a deep breath.  I just want something from him, some acknowledgement.  It was his work that inspired me to study local history, but he's long since lost interest himself.  I wonder if I worked harder, would he notice me then?  If I was smarter, if I could match his quick wits, would he respect me?  If it wasn't always easier to go along with what he asked, if I said “no” from time-to-time, where might we be now?

'Jess?  Are you listening?'  His voice, so sulky, petulant.  'The shop closes in a few minutes.' 

I want to see him then, this slender man I loved once.  When I step through the doorway he is studying his wristwatch in the candlelight.  The flame burnishes the links, making them glow, golden brilliance reflected in his eyes.  I stare at him as he stares at them, each of us locked into our movements as though everything set out before us is pre-ordained.

I turn back to my stone-coloured shadow in the kitchen and imagine a crown atop its head.  Michael thinks only of men-made-kings, but I'm interested in the women who became queens at Scone.  They're my project.  I'm studying them, learning about their pains and the indignities they suffered.  I know that expectation weighs more than any band of gold.

I am the epitome of calm as I take the ten pound note out of my pocket, unfold it, and place it down in front of Michael.  He looks embarrassed then, his skinny shoulders hunching down inside his rancid jumper.  'Do you mind going?  I've been getting the aches in my knees again today.  I wouldn't make it there before it closes.'

There's a strange pressure in my head, as though something is trying to escape but can't find a way out.  I should feel bitter or resentful, but I think of those queens and their steely resolve.  I channel their regal serenity as I take the electric card and the ten pounds, pausing only to think about how strange these simple items suddenly feel in my calloused palm.  A minute later, I am walking down the dingy stairwell, out of the front door and across the street.

A hundred yards past the shop, I reach Smeaton's Bridge.  The river below me runs thick and fast, like arterial blood.  I watch it for a few moments, and then I take the card out of my pocket and drop it over the side.  It bobs momentarily, a shrill square of white in the darkness, and then it rushes away forever.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Combatting Bullying in the Workplace - a guide for Younger Workers

It's anti-bullying week here in the UK!  With this in mind, the lovely folks at Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust asked me to pen a few thoughts on bullying in the workplace, with particular emphasis on younger workers.  This is a handy guide that you may wish to share with someone who you suspect may be being bullied at work.

Other resources:

Trade Unions Congress website:

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Nanowrimo, and a General Update

I'd just like to begin this post by apologising, as it's been a couple of weeks since I last did an update.  There's not really too much of an excuse, seeing as I've been doing a lot of reading and a lot of writing.  Of course, there's been Nanowrimo, but some of my compatriots are not only successfully heading for 50,000 words, but they're managing to blog every day about their experiences.

In terms of writing, I've managed to meet my pre-Nano target of 25,000 words, and I'm confident that if I'd been able to stay with the project, I would have finished comfortably with days to spare.  Plus, it's been really nice to work on something other than my novel, and feel the excitement of a new project taking shape.  Before November, I'd been reading Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories and watching 'Vikings' on The History Channel, so I was really in historical fiction mode.  You might have read my own three-part starter from my own work, starting here.

While we're on the subject of historical fiction, why not check out the awesome theme music from the show?

While details about the first Viking Age are sufficiently rich and vague enough to throw up ideas for any interested writer, one thing that struck me is how the stories are very focused on male heroes and villains, and for that reason, I was keen to mix it up a bit.  Hence, my Nano project focuses on Runnmidr Sigurdsdohtor, a shieldmaiden from the eighth century.  She is the first daughter of a Jarl (the closest Viking equivalent to an aristocracy) and a tough, flighty teenage girl.

Married off at sixteen to the son of a nobleman from Norway whose father wants him sent far away from war, she is left at home when the rest of her tribe heads south to honour the obligations of their allegiance.  Her new husband, who is no older than her, is similarly frustrated by having been sent away.  He encourages the headstrong Runnmidr to steal one of her father's spare ships by exploiting her relationship with her oldest friend, who is apprenticed to the Jarl's shipwright.  Runnmidr and her husband ride with his retinue to England, determined to be raiders and bring home treasure from Christian lands.

Their initial sorties are successful, but a lack of judgement on Runnmidr's part sees her marching against a mercenary band with more resources than at first there seems.  She is captured, and despite several attempts to escape, is dragged into the life of the mercenary band.  She also meets their leader, Oswine of Rocdaele, and he gives her instruction in fighting skirmish battles rather than the regimented battles she was taught to expect as part of the shield wall.

As the pair learn more about one another, she realises that she has more in common with Oswine than she ever had with her husband, despite the fact that he is twice her age and more.  She admires his quick tactical brain and gregarious ways, while he is an admirer of her strength and determination, and is keen to persuade her to fight alongside him as he attempts to gain control of his family's former lands on the isle to the west.  However, when she receives word from a countryman that her brother has been killed and the Jotun father she loves so much has been sorely wounded, will she seek to return home to protect her family's legacy?

Hopefully that whets your appetite a bit - it was certainly fun and pretty easy to write, even if it does tend towards YA a bit much for my liking (note to self: add more pillaging.)  I'll update you once I've had a chance to review it, and maybe post an edited section here once I've organised my work under headings.
In terms of my reading, as well as having been through Bernard Cornwell, I had a chance to revisit George RR Martin's second 'Song of Ice and Fire' novel with my reading group, and I also finished Emmi Itäranta's 'Memory of Water'.  I'll publish a full review of that one soon, but it was a novel that bucked the trend for me.  I'm used to reading books that tail off as the author gets close to the finish and clearly tires of their subject matter, but everything good in that novel is composed into a powerful third act that subsumes the first two like no other book I've read since '1984'.  For the record, that's high praise indeed.

Finally, I've decided to spend some time concentrating on other authors I know based in Norwich who have been busy publishing their novels while I talk about mine in vague distant terms.  I have recently bought myself a Kindle and added Lucian Poll's tale of bloodsoaked horror, 'The Floors' to my collection.  I also have high hopes for Simon Poore's 'An End of Poppies' and 'The Last Englishman and the Bubble', which interests me for no lesser reason than that the main character bears my name.  Hey, there's a good marketing strategy - name your characters after people with giant egos, and let them do all the advertising for you!