SURPRISING GIFTS

Being a self-published author I have to go it alone in more ways than one. Having come to creative writing late in life, I don’t have the time to wait for literary agents and publishers to reply to my query letters only to hear ‘thanks, but no thanks’, so I decided the quickest way for me to get published was to go the indie route. I had a story bursting to come up for air and this seemed the perfect solution.

Although initially a very steep learning curve, I found self-publishing perfectly acceptable  except you have all your own marketing and promotion to handle yourself, which, for a complete novice, is bewildering to say the least.  The realisation that you are a minute fish in a very large pond comes home to you with a jolt, so imagine my delight when I was asked to give a talk at my local library! Here I was able to strut my stuff, although I was ‘bricking it’ at the thought. I have never been confident at public speaking, (I hated having to stand up in front of the class or in assembly at school) but once I got started I found my audience was enjoying my stories. I even sold some signed copies, just like a ‘real’ author.

Since then I have given away more books than I have sold but this has paid off. My first publication NO ONE COMES CLOSE a memoir, now has eleven wonderful 5 star reviews. I am very proud of this. I published my second book WHERE THERE’S A WILL last September. This is a rom-com novel and I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I gave a few copies to friends for Christmas and sent one to a professional reviewer. I waited with baited breath. I wasn’t disappointed. Yesterday I went on my Amazon page and did a happy dance after reading two reviews – one by a friend and one by the professional reviewer – that had been added. A wonderful way to kick off the New Year!

When I first began writing in  2008, I wrote an article titled ‘A Day Trip To Ely’ and sent it to Evergreen magazine. I was over the moon when they published it in 2010 – people were reading my work! Since then they have published eight more of my articles – some in This England, some in Evergreen, and each time I am just as thrilled as the first. Yesterday I decided to send them another article titled ‘Waste not, Want not’, something that is becoming very relevant in today’s climate with the increasing amount of food waste and discarded plastic packaging. I took the opportunity to include my publication news in the email. I didn’t really expect anything to come of this but having been a contributor for ten years, I thought they might be interested. So, imagine my surprise and delight when I had an email this morning telling me they would certainly read and consider my article and asking me to send them a copy of my memoir!  I have no idea where this will lead but to have my work read by a person in the media is very gratifying. For me, these little gifts are what makes writing so worthwhile. It just goes to show you should never give up.

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FATHER CHRISTMAS DELIVERS

Santa loaded the last of the presents onto the sleigh and arched his aching back. Christmas Eve again. His memory wasn’t what it was but he did remember a little girl named Jenny who had started asking questions – things like, ‘How does Father Christmas know what I want? How can he deliver presents to all the children around the world in one night? And how come there are so many Father Christmases in different grottos?’ He scratched his head. He needed something to make the child believe.  Now where did he put those big foil-covered chocolate discs?

Santa went back indoors, stamped the snow off his boots and slumped down in his armchair beside the fire. He’d look for the chocolate discs later, when he’d thawed out a bit. He never used to mind snow, quite enjoyed it really, but he was becoming less and less enamoured with the stuff, especially when there was nowhere to park the reindeer on those modern estates. And what with the vet’s bills and the M.O.T. on the sleigh – it was all rather depressing.

He went to put the kettle on. He was tempted to have a glass of rum punch but that would have to wait; he couldn’t risk being drunk in charge of a sleigh on top of everything else.

As he sipped his Earl Grey his mind began to wander back to when things were much simpler; when children were happy with a stocking, an orange and a few nuts. Not like today, always wanting the latest Xbox or whatever. To be honest, it all went over his head.

He awoke with a start. Rudolph was banging on the window with his antlers.

‘All right, all right, I’m coming.’

Santa glanced at the cuckoo clock. Oops! Five to twelve, but what about Jenny? The disc? Oh well, he didn’t have time to look for it now.

It was just the sort of night he liked – crisp and clear so he could see where he was going. Racing through the skies had always cleared his head. Ah, now he remembered! Chocolate discs, kitchen cupboard. He quickly spun round, parked the sleigh, went to find one and put it in Jenny’s sack.

Meanwhile, Jenny was sitting up in bed hoping to see Father Christmas come in with her presents. She desperately wanted to believe but Lisa at school had said she was silly – of  course there was no such thing as Father Christmas. But surely, that couldn’t be right? Her mum and dad wouldn’t lie to her all these years, would they? Even so, she couldn’t help wondering…

Jenny’s eyelids began to droop.

Father Christmas parked the sleigh, dug out Jenny’s sack of presents and the saucer-sized disc.  He wrote in the foil with his special pen and placed it on top of her sack. That should do it.

It was still dark when Jenny opened her eyes. The sack was there! But how had she missed him? She jumped out of bed to see if he’d brought all the things she’d asked for. Lying on the top was a big foil disc like a big old-fashioned penny. She rubbed her eyes. There was a message scratched into the foil – ‘To Jenny with love from Santa.’ Wow! He’d written it with his own hand! She couldn’t wait to tell Lisa.

MAKE DO AND MEND

When I was growing up in the 1950s nothing was thrown away. Unless clothes were damaged beyond repair they were mended and when they finally reached the end of their useful lives they were torn up and used as dusters.

My mother made most of my clothes and knitted my cardigans. When I grew out of my dresses the hems were let down and the seams let out to make do for another year. She ‘turned’ the collars on my father’s shirts and darned his socks. Jumpers past their best were unravelled and the wool reused. There was always a pile of mending by my mother’s needlework box.  Both my mother and grandmother would sit by the fire in the evening, with their knitting or sewing, and listen to the wireless or watch the limited black and white television programmes.

I remember my mother knitting all my sister’s matinee jackets, bonnets and bootees long before she was born. The terry nappies were soaked and boil-washed and hung on the line to dry. There were no disposables.

Shoes were repaired unless they were worn out or too small. I remember the cloying smell of the leather and the noise of the machinery in the shoe-menders’ shop. On the counter sat all sorts of accessories for sale including tins of polish and shoelaces in various colours and there were always racks of labeled shoes waiting to be repaired. The finished shoes looked like new, polished and wrapped in a paper bag.

As for household items, my father’s motto was ‘If you can’t afford the best, go without’. He would never buy second best, saying it was false economy. Things were made to last in those days with the idea that you only bought the large items once; hence our three-piece suite was recovered rather than buying a new one.

All cakes were homemade. Having come through the war years with the  ‘Waste not, want not’ mind-set, my mother would scrape every last bit of cake mixture or icing from the bowl before letting me lick it out. Rationing had only ceased in 1953 and everything was used sparingly, eggs treated like gold dust. Cheap nutritious meals were cooked from scratch and nothing was wasted. Freezers were unheard of; all food was bought fresh or in tins and dried foods were packed in paper bags. There was no plastic packaging, no plastic carrier bags. We went shopping with string bags or a basket on wheels with which to carry our groceries. Air miles were unheard of – all produce was grown locally and purchased when in season. We were well catered for in our village with two butchers, two greengrocers, two general stores, a bakery, a hardware shop, a draper and haberdasher, a chemist, a toy shop and a stationer. There was also a high-class ladies fashion shop and a shoe shop. The only thing that was missing was a gentleman’s outfitters but my father bought most of his clothes in London’s West End where he worked.

We had a large garden with two pear, two apple trees and a Victoria plum tree. These fruits were used in various puddings or bottled by my mother to be used in the winter. My favourite apples were bright red and green, the sort you see in a child’s story book. We never knew the name of this variety but the flesh was pure white with a faint pink vein; very crisp and juicy. I was told to eat the windfalls rather than pick them from the tree but I was always wary of wasps after my mother told me a troubling story of when she was a child: she bit into an apple without looking and bit a wasp in half, stinging her mouth very badly.

We recycled long before the term was brought to the public awareness. Our milkman, Mr Miller, delivered milk in glass bottles from his horse and cart, and collected the rinsed out empties to take back to the depot. His horse was called Darkie and I liked to feed him apples. Many a time I was reprimanded for being late for school because I had waited for Mr Miller to give me a lift. Sometimes he would let me hold the reins. My father bought his beer and lemonade from the off license at the Black Horse and we would carry the empties back in the baskets on the front of our bikes on a Sunday morning.

Things began to change in the 1960s with the advent of synthetics such as Nylon and polyester. Foods were beginning to come ready-packed in plastic bags and frozen foods were readily available. Self-service stores and supermarkets took over from the individual high street grocers. Charity shops were beginning to emerge; Oxfam I think being the first. Shopping catalogues like ‘Brian Mills’ and ‘Littlewoods’ sprang up which made it possible to order clothes and household goods from the comfort of one’s own home, at a reduced price. This was the forerunner of online shopping.

Nowadays it’s easier and cheaper to buy half a dozen pairs of socks from a discount store than to darn them. Clothes are more affordable than ever, but this leads to more landfill as they are discarded more readily.

However, there is a very small glimmer of light on the horizon with paper bags and home-made goods making a come-back. Hopefully, this will lead to a more environmentally friendly world for future generations.

 

 

To Commemorate the Centenary of the Armistice. 11.11.1918

HELL IN A POCKET

Cornwall 1918

Ada quickly wiped her floury hands on her apron and took the official-looking letter from the postman. Holding it between finger and thumb she wandered through to the back parlour and placed it on the table where it sat menacingly waiting for its reader to give life to the words.  Heart thumping, she went back to her baking, but despite the warmth of the scullery a chill ran through her veins. She snatched the letter from the table and stuffed it in her apron pocket. She would read it later when they were all together.

*

Jack leant against the hay cart and took out his chunk of bread and cheese and a raw onion, salt on his cuff to dip in. Cutting up his food with his pocket knife he surveyed his eighty acres of God’s earth bathed in autumn sunlight. It had been a wet harvest at Highcroft Farm but they’d managed to salvage a lot of the hay. He’d had his doubts at first – women working the land – but he’d been amazed at how the land army girls threw themselves into their work. He thanked the Good Lord for without them he didn’t know what would’ve happened; what with the government making huge demands on his output, and Charlie and the other lads away fighting for king and country. He fell to wondering what it was like for them on the Western Front. If the newspapers were anything to go by it was hell on earth, but here, intense peace – buzzards circling high up in the thermals, sheep and cows grazing on the hillside while the river Lynher flowed calmly below. The contrast tugged at him.

The jingling harness jogged Jack out of his reverie. Most of his horses had been shipped over to France but Dale and Clyde, his two remaining heavy horses, snorted and dug their hooves into the rich earth while they waited to resume their work. They could feel it too, he could tell.

*

Edith stopped feeding the pigs and leant on the railing. She had been working since daybreak and now the smell of the pig food was beginning to turn her stomach.  At times like these her thoughts turned to Charlie.

It had been a warm May evening when he suggested they walk to the west meadow to watch the setting sun. Edith had been glad to change out of her unbecoming land service smock and gaiters and into her one-and-only frock she’d brought with her, just in case. Charlie’s face had lit up at the sight of her in the pure white dress that complimented her glowing complexion and red hair, but Ada had scoffed, ‘Huh, too fitty for these parts!’

Charlie had whisked Edith outside and kissed on her the cheek. ‘Take no notice o’ ma. Bark’s worse ‘en her bite.’

Taking Edith by the hand Charlie had led her through the five-bar gate and up the narrow lane to where the sun was beginning to slip behind the hill. Edith had been stunned by the streaks of pink, purple and orange in the sky, when Charlie gently turned her face to his and kissed her. She didn’t know how many times she’d relived this moment – the sight of the orange glow on his corn-coloured hair, his loving smile. She could almost weep with the beauty of it. And the time when she felt his strong body, skin against skin. She’d never felt anything so wonderful, and how handsome he looked in his khaki. She felt the envy of every girl on the platform as he dragged her through the crush of people towards the waiting train full of young men in uniform bound for France and Belgium. Pushing down the window he shouted, ‘We’m get wed soon as I come back!’ He bent to kiss her goodbye and ignoring the urgent whistles, they held hands as long as possible but finally the train gathered speed and wrenched them apart. Waving frantically they kept eye contact until the train snaked into the distance and he was gone.

Betty came bounding up to her like a playful puppy. ‘Hey, wassup? You look like you’ve lost a pound and found a penny. Come on, let’s get these piggies fed then it’s off the milking shed.’ She looked closer at her friend. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Oh,’ sighed Edith, ‘I don’t know. It’s just…nothing to do but work, work, work. When was the last time we had an afternoon off? It’s worse than working in munitions.’

‘Now then, don’t start all that again. You were the one that dragged me down the recruiting office, remember? You who wanted to be out in the countryside instead of being cooped up in some stuffy factory turning our faces yellow, and…’ she grinned, ‘you who would never have met ‘You-know-who’ if you’d stayed in London.’

‘I know but I haven’t heard anything since his censored letter two weeks ago. There’s something wrong, Betty. I can feel it.’

Betty draped an arm round Edith. ‘Cheer up. He’ll be fine. He’s a savvy lad.’

Jack trudged into the milking shed and smiled at the sight of Edith getting on with her work. He could see why Charlie was taken with her. ‘A’right  there, maid?’

‘Not bad, Jack.’

Betty darted him a look. ‘I think she needs a rest.’

Jack ignored her remark. No rest on a farm till all the work was done. They knew that. But come to think on it, Edith look a bit wisht.  It was hardly surprising; a woman’s place was in the home, like Ada, looking after the chickens, making bread, butter and cheese, not doing men’s work on the land.

Young Davey came sauntering into the shed with three dead rabbits slung over his shoulder.

‘Ah, you’m bin busy,’ said Jack. ‘Put ‘em down and give us hand, will ‘e?’

Davey did as he was told and set to work with his father, tying the cattle up in their stalls ready for milking.  Jack wondered how long it would be before his youngest was joining his brother in the trenches. He hoped for all their sakes that the war would come to an end soon.

*

At 5 o’clock, Ada dished up five platefuls of rich rabbit stew and set them on the table. Jack, ravenous as always, got stuck in straight away. Davey followed suit. It did Ada’s heart good to see her husband and son tucking into her food. But there was one missing.

Missing…

Betty came rushing in through the door and plonked herself at the table. ‘Mm, this smells good.’

But Edith dragged her heels and stood staring at the brown congealed mess on her plate.

Ada glared at her. ‘Not hungry?’

Edith shook her head and ran outside.

‘Been a bit off colour all day,’ offered Betty, ’I’ll go find her.’

‘Her’s not cut out for farm work’, said Ada, ‘more suited to hob-nobbin’ with her fancy London friends.’

‘Let the maid be, Ada,’ said Jack. ‘Her work’s well enough.’

Outside, Betty found Edith hanging over the privy.

‘Oh, Edith. Whatever is it?’

Edith wiped her mouth and looked in the direction of the house. ‘Don’t you dare say anything.’

‘Oh, no! You’re not…’

Edith nodded. ‘Swear, swear on your mother’s life.’

‘Of course. But what will you do?’

‘Wait till Charlie comes home, of course. Then we’ll get married.’

‘Oh Edith.’

‘Stop saying that. It’ll be alright. And if not… I’ve been saving up. I should have enough to rent a little place on the Bayswater Road. I can’t go home. The shame would kill my parents.’

‘But how will you manage? You could stay here – surely they’ll understand.’

‘I doubt it. Jack’s alright but it’s her. If looks could kill…’ she brightened. ‘Anyway, Charlie’s coming home and everything will be alright. You’ll see.’

*

He could feel the wind stinging the gaping wound in his back. It had taken him all day to crawl on his belly under heavy shelling, heaving himself over slaughtered bodies of men and horses half buried in thick black and bloody shell holes. He was buggered if he was going to lie down and wait to die. Oh, no. The thought of Edith was spurring him on towards the Red Cross flag fluttering in the distance.

*

In the evenings, Edith and Betty reminisced about the good times they’d had in London before the war.

‘What about Marie Lloyd as Burlington Bertie,’ said Betty, ‘and this one,’ she burst into song. “The man I love is up in the gallery, the man I love is waiting there for me…”

‘Oh, Betty, I do miss all that. The best they can come up with here is St Martin’s fayre or a dance at the village hall. It isn’t the same, is it? What about the dances at the Palais dressed up in our finery…?’

‘…yeah, and the warm lemonade,’ giggled Betty.

‘Mm, you’ve got a point there. Cornish cider’s much better. Come on, let’s see if there’s any going.’

They crept downstairs and into the parlour to find Ada in her rocking chair, clicking her knitting needles, the glow from the oil lamp her only company. As the two girls slid silently into the cool pantry, Edith absently put a hand on her belly.

‘You’ll have to tell ‘em soon, you know,’ said Betty, ‘you’re starting to show,’

‘Shhh! She’ll hear you,’ hissed Edith.

‘What’s that?’ shouted Ada, ‘tell un what?’

‘Now you’ve done it,’ breathed Edith.

Betty mouthed, ‘Sorry’.

The two of them emerged from the pantry like naughty children. Standing firm side by side, Betty squeezed Edith’s hand.

‘Well?’ said Ada.

In a tiny voice Edith said, ‘I suppose you’ll have to know sooner or later. I’m expecting Charlie’s baby.’

Ada dropped her knitting. ‘You’m mistaken, maid. I brought my Charlie up proper.’

‘It’s true,’ said Betty, ‘ Edith’s been so worried…’

‘God have mercy.’ Ada got up and began pacing the floor.

‘Anyway,’ said Edith, ‘Charlie wants to marry me. It’ll all come right. You’ll see.’

But Ada’s face crumpled. She bent over and clutched her pocket.

‘What is it,’ asked Edith, ‘are you ill?’

Ada looked sideways at her, ‘I should’ve told ‘e afore…’

‘What? Told me what?’

‘Seems we’m both been keepin’ secrets.’ Ada pulled the screwed up letter from her pocket. ‘Here.’

Edith snatched it and began to read; her heart hammered and her eyes prickled with tears.

Jack was hovering in the doorway, mud-caked boots, sleeves rolled up. ’Wass that you got?’

They all looked at one another.

‘It’s a letter from Charlie’s NCO,’ Edith glared at Ada. ‘She’s been hiding it for weeks.’

‘Wass it say then?’

Edith handed the letter to Jack and turned on Ada. ‘Why didn’t you tell us? What if he’s badly wounded somewhere and they can’t find him?’ She slumped on the nearest chair and Betty put a protective arm round her.

‘Now then, don’t go thinkin’ the worst when us don’t know,’ said Jack. ‘We’m just have to hope for the best. I’ll tell Davey in the mornin’; I’ll not wake him now. The lad’s worked flat out today.’

*

Edith woke in the night fearful of the pains that were advancing. She thought of Charlie in the trenches and the pain he might’ve endured. She must be brave, she must. He would be so proud of her.

Betty was at her side. ‘Don’t worry Edith. I’ll get help.’

‘No! Don’t leave me. I’m scared. The pain’s awful. Feels like my whole body’s going to split wide open.’

‘I’m sure every woman feels like that. How long has the baby been coming?’

‘I don’t know. All I know is it woke me up. I was dreaming – Charlie was here.’ Another pain ripped through her body and she clutched Betty’s nightdress. ‘Help me Betty!’

Betty went to fetch a flannel and a basin of water but by the time she came back Edith was in a stupor. Betty ran to Ada and Jack’s room. ‘Quick! Do something! It’s Edith, the baby’s coming.’

As soon as Ada saw Edith she knew something was wrong. She ran to fetch Jack. ‘You’m better come, no time to get midwife. Can’t be much different to calfin’ cows, all said ‘n done.’

Jack was in two minds – childbirth was women’s business – but when he saw Edith he knew he had to act quickly; the baby was coming bottom first. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Ada mopped his brow while Betty stood in silent horror at the blood-soaked sheets.

Utterly exhausted, Edith felt herself slipping away as her son slipped into the world. With eyes shining she reached out to take Charlie’s waiting hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do people come to writing workshops?

Jenny Alexander's blog: Writing in the House of Dreams

When you talk to non-writers, they often assume there could only be one possible reason for coming on writing workshops, and that’s in order to become a published author. I find this assumption rather odd.

It would be like saying the only reason a person might take piano lessons would be to become a concert pianist or piano teacher, and the only reason for joining a football team would be if you want to be a pro footballer.

My observation as a workshop provider is that it’s a rare participant who signs up because they want a new career. I mean, of course that may be something that develops down the line, just as playing the piano or football might eventually lead to career opportunities if you find that you love it enough to want to practise and practise – but in the first instance, it’s all about pleasure.

Most…

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How I Created Jess

If anyone had told me, ten years ago, ‘You will publish two books by 2018,’ I would’ve laughed at them. But ten years ago there was a big turning point in my life – my husband retired and we went to live in Cornwall.

Cornwall is very beautiful but once the novelty of country walks and visiting the beach wore off I was wondering how to fill my days. We had lived in Haddenham, in Cambridgeshire for twenty years so I had left everything I knew to start a new life. As it turned out, that life materialised as a very creative one.

We moved in the spring of 2008 and by the September I was looking for adult education classes to join. One day I went to the local post office and staring me in the face was a poster for a 6 week creative writing course called ‘Finding Your Voice’. This was aimed at beginners or people without much writing experience and feeling excited, I signed up. Little did I realise it would be so addictive!

My debut novel started life as the seed of an idea during one of the creative writing sessions. We were asked to create a character. I created Jess, the protagonist of ‘Where There’s a Will’, and  although I didn’t know it at the time, I had written the first page of my novel. Jess was very persistent so I began to write to see where it took me. No plan. No outline. I just ran with her and asked questions along the way. What if this happened? What if Jess did this? Before I knew it I had written 50,000 words.

However,  this writing course covered a  different subject each evening, one of which was devoted to writing articles for magazines. ‘Write a day trip to somewhere you are familiar with,’ was the brief, so I wrote ‘A Day Trip To Ely’ and sent it to This England. To my delight and surprise they emailed back saying they were retaining the article for future publication. To say I was over the moon is an understatement. Someone wanted my work! It was published in their sister magazine Evergreen in 2010. I was elated. I could now say I was a published author. Fired up by my success I wrote another eight articles all of which have been published in either Evergreen or This England.

Having enjoyed my first creative writing course, I signed up for other writing courses, one of which was a historical short story course in conjunction with The Caradon Hill Heritage Project, mainly to attract visitors to the Bodmin Moor area. I had two short stories published, one set in the English Civil War and one in WW1.

Meanwhile Jess was sitting on my shoulder saying ‘Hey, what about me?’  but I ignored her in favour of writing my memoir. This is a project I had started ten years previously – a special event in my life – hand written in three A4 volumes. These were stashed away in a cupboard because I didn’t know what to do with them, but they were very close to my heart. I transcribed them in Word and reformatted them and I finally published ‘No One Comes Close’ a memoir, last year.

Back to Jess. ‘Coo-ee! Don’t forget about me. I’m still here.’ Oh, all right then. So last January my New Year resolution was to take Jess out of the cupboard, rewrite and edit ‘Where There’s a Will’ and I finally published it last month. September seems to be my month. The story of my memoir starts in September, I started my very first creative writing course in September, I published my memoir ‘No One Comes Close’ in September and now my debut novel, ‘Where There’s a Will’ has been given wings. I think Jess is relieved!