The care of tadpoles

September 26, 2020 § 2 Comments

Christopher is my enemy today and his tadpoles are dying. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said, poking the tadpoles in the jam jar with a stick. ‘I think I’ll be a spy when I grow up’.

You said you were going to be an astronaut,’ I reminded him.

‘That was last week. I will be a spy. Hide round corners and shoot bad people. Be responsible. Honour my country. Could be bloody.’

I kicked him on the shin. ‘Copycat. In any case your tadpoles will die if you don’t feed them.’

‘They live on water, stupid. In any case girls can’t be spies. You’ll have babies and wash and scrub and cook all day long.

‘Oh yes they can. Who says I have to have babies?’

Christopher stuck out his bottom lip. ‘Do you really want to be a spy, then?’ He fished out a dead tadpole with his fingers and flicked it at me.

‘I hate you. I shall be an artist or a pilot and grow flowers and make perfume. In any case, tadpoles eat bacon. Shall we go and ask Mum for some?’

‘Cissy,’ he said.

‘Murderer,’ I replied.

*

rain cloud

January 28, 2017 § 5 Comments

dc2308e18d8349c6c3d7b6e3289ab92e

a single cloud

slow enough to close

the scarlet pimpernel

~

This annual wildflower is called poor man’s weatherglass in my neck of the woods. It’s petals open only when the sun shines…

Safely Dead:Three

November 30, 2013 § 12 Comments

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Earth was in deep trouble. Food mountains were shrinking to the size of molehills, deserts  appeared where none had been before, and everyone was suffering from S.A.D.  I tossed and turned and grew bags under my eyes. It was all my fault: if only I’d kept a closer eye on Bert.  I avoided the spy holes – I couldn’t bear to look. There was nothing to be done.

I kept busy. I enrolled on courses, studied hard, passed exams. As I climbed higher up the slippery pole of responsibility towards enlightenment, I began to hear rumours God was having trouble bringing the sun and all the clouds back to Earth.

I was attending a seminar on The Morals of Interference, and as I listened I was reminded of Bert’s mischief. ‘Excuse me,’ I said to my tutor. ‘May I unburden myself ?’

‘Please do,’ she smiled.

‘I once had a friend who interfered.’

‘And what happened?’ So I told her. ‘I wish you’d said earlier,’ she gasped. She sprang into the air, spread her wings and disappeared.

A few hours later I heard a distant crash. Holding my breath, I peered through a spy hole. Planet Earth was being soaked by a giant thunderstorm. Flashes of lightning shot through the darkness, and thousands of rain clouds were emptying their contents over the world. The seas became full, snow fell on the Himalayas, and the monsoon flooded the Bay of Bengal and turned it green. I even saw one or two smaller thunderclouds sitting over East Anglia. As the clouds cleared, a watery sun appeared over the horizon.

It was my turn on duty by the back door. Heaven was getting a lot of drowned people coming in that way, and they got confused if no one was there to meet them. I heard the familiar knock: it was the third request since I’d started my shift half an hour ago.  ‘Welcome,’ I said, holding my palms together in supplication. ‘Do come in.’

  ‘Didn’t know angels wore trousers,’ said the man with a face the colour of someone with heart disease. ‘Well, you’ll learn something new every day here,’ I said, adjusting my halo. ‘Hang on a mo…,’ said the man. ‘Don’t I know you?’

I stared a bit too long, and blinked. ‘Bert. Is it you?’

He nodded. ‘Never asked to come back. Was having a brilliant time.’

The words escaped from my lips before I could stop them. ‘Damn and blast and seven Hail Mary’s!’ I crossed myself quickly, and curled my mouth into a smile. ‘And to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?’

            ‘Too much booze,’ said Bert. ‘Ticker gave out. Not my fault. The new wife – thirty years younger than me, she was – wore me out. And then there were those blue pills…’

            I tried not to flutter my wings in irritation, but they fluttered anyway. ‘Hmm,’ I said, remembering I was wearing a halo. ‘I suppose you’d better come in.’

*

Safely Dead: Two

November 29, 2013 § 13 Comments

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‘You don’t think she noticed, do you?’

‘Noticed what?’

‘The clouds, stupid.’

‘Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t,’ Bert replied. ‘Anyway, I don’t care. Not my problem. Don’t live there anymore.’ He scratched the shiny skin on top of his head. ‘Still, I am beginning to wonder where the sun’s gone. Maybe it’s an eclipse or something…’

Bert got down on his hands and knees and peered through one of the spy holes in heaven’s crust. ‘Looks a bit bleak down there. Still, Norfolk will have nice clear skies now. Shame about the dark.’ He struggled to his feet and stopped breathing. ‘Got it! It’s a side effect. Sun went ‘cos the clouds did.’

‘Ahh…’ I replied, not sure I was getting it at all. ‘You mean like when you take medicines and they make you even sicker?’

‘Exactly,’ said Bert.

‘That’s why you’re here, remember? The side effects of those pills you took for your little problem down below.’

‘What are you on about?’

‘They finished you off. Those Viagra things. Did you forget?’

‘I had rather.’ Bert started breathing again. ‘Oh dear. I feel quite peculiar.’

‘What kind of peculiar?’

‘Hot around the gills.’

‘You do look a bit weird,’ I said. ‘You’ve gone all rosy cheeked like you did before the ambulance came.’

‘I feel weird. Got pins and needles all over – like I’m not quite dead any more.’

The dust stirred underfoot and the trapdoor creaked open – all by itself. With a whoosh like a rather large tornado, a silvery wind coiled itself round Bert’s body and sucked him through the door. Then, it clicked silently shut.

Safely Dead: One

November 28, 2013 § 9 Comments

This is dedicated to mikesteeden who writes in the satirical genre much better than I ever could. Check out his site.

Parts Two and Three will be blogged Friday and Saturday. Any comments gratefully received…

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            ‘Dear me,’ I said, pursing my lips. ‘Now you’ve done it. How many clouds can you see then?’

            ‘Don’t get shirty,’ wheezed Bert under his breath. ‘Saw fifteen cumuli hanging over Norfolk this morning, and a few lenticulars loitering over the Himalayas. Can’t see any now though – it’s gone all dark.’

            ‘Did you mean to get rid of the clouds?’

            ‘Course. That was the whole idea. Part of my plan to improve the weather for East Anglia.’

            ‘But you didn’t reckon on the sun disappearing as well?’

            ‘What do you think?’ Bert replied. He knew he’d been rumbled. ‘If I did do it, didn’t mean to!’

            ‘Keep your hair on,’ I smiled, patting his shiny bald patch. Bert took a lazy swing at me and missed. ‘Got to watch the old blood pressure. Anyway, can’t say I didn’t warn you. You shouldn’t muck about with the weather until you’ve practiced on other things that don’t matter quite as much.’

            ‘Like what?’

            ‘Well,’ I replied, stroking my new beard. ‘You could have a go at turning zebras spotty or making rivers go uphill. That sort of thing.’

We were in trouble – at least Bert was – and as usual, I knew I’d have to pick up the pieces and do all the apologizing. But this time was different. Bert was in up to his neck, and I didn’t have a clue how he was going to wriggle out of it.

We’d only been in heaven a week or two, and we’d both read the rulebook. Bert had flicked through his in five minutes, but I’d taken the whole day and read it twice – cover to cover – so I could recite it word for word in case anyone asked. Top of the list in big red letters was the bit about playing God. Not allowed. Ever. Rule Number One said it was strictly illegal to change the course of history until you’d passed all your exams and been given a special certificate.

‘What we going to do then?’ said Bert in his best wheedling voice.

‘Not doing anything,’ I replied. ‘Had enough. You’re on your own, mate. Use your common sense.’

 Bert stamped his foot. ‘What was that?’ he exclaimed, staring at an old trapdoor hidden under a thick layer of dust. A gust of wind came out of nowhere, sparkled a bit, then settled as if nothing had happened. But it had: an angel had appeared – and was wagging a finger at us.

‘Rule number thirty two,’ she said with a sweet kind of smile that I didn’t quite like the look of. ‘Don’t bang on any of heaven’s doors! Not ever. That trapdoor hasn’t been used in years. We’re obliged to come and check to see if anyone wants to come in. We don’t like practical jokes.’

‘Sorry,’ I said, bending myself double in a respectful bow. ‘Won’t happen again.’

The angel nodded, turning her lips into a thin smile. ‘Enjoy your time here,’ she said. ‘And don’t forget that everything that happens is for your own good.’ She winked, waved prettily, and flew off.

Don’t Forget To Breathe: Part Two

November 25, 2013 § 2 Comments

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Tabitha lived off her great aunt’s inheritance and didn’t know what to do with herself. But one day – perhaps by coincidence, perhaps simply by accident – she discovered something that allowed her to get closer to her obsession – the aeroplane.

‘I’m taking flying lessons,’ she announced to her husband over dinner.

‘Whatever for?’ he asked, gulping down his second glass of Verve Cliquot Rose Reserve 1985.

‘It means I’ll get a better view of the clouds, silly.’

‘That’s nice my love,’ he said, finishing the bottle. ‘Delicious. I must order some more 1985 tomorrow.’ Tabitha slid the flying logbook off the table and sat on it. He really wasn’t in the slightly bit interested.

Tabitha’s idea of heaven was no longer a new pair of Manolo Blahniks – it was gliding between her beloved clouds as her wingtips glittered like sparklers in the sunlight. But her instructor was no ordinary man: he taught her how to land on them. ‘Saves on the landing fees,’ he said. He found a cloud with a flat top and Tabitha set up the approach path. Playing with the throttle settings, she let the flaps down fifteen degrees or so to get her angle of descent right, then flew along the top pretending it was a runway. Then flaps up, full power on, and the take off was in the bag. If she messed up the landing she disappeared into the cloud and came out the other side with dewdrops on her wings. Flying was like being in a magic place – rather like a mystical experience, she decided – and she soon grew silent and sullen and didn’t want to land.

Don’t Forget To Breathe: Part One

November 22, 2013 § 6 Comments

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Tabitha liked clouds. Cirrus, altostratus, cumulonimbus, lenticular formations – it didn’t much matter. She drove for hours for the pleasure of trawling through mildewed bookshops and adding to her already considerable collection on nephology. On her return, she took her acquisitions into the garden and stretched out flat on her stomach. Carefully unwrapping each one, she flicked through the photos with the joy more often seen on a child’s face in a sweetie shop. Afterwards, bathed in a warm glow, she rolled over, pointed her face to the sky, and watched the objects of her obsession drifting overhead.

The Painting Garden

October 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

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The garden in June is best expressed in watercolour. It reminds me of Monet’s paintings – particularly his much maligned, semi-abstract works crafted towards the end of his life when he was nearly blind.

I sit with half closed eyes. The shapes become indistinct, the colours overlap and fuse. The flowers are fragile yet eloquent – they know their life is brief.

This garden is not for vigorous digging now, but for gentle pruning, dead-heading and musing. Nor is it for the bright prime colours that will grow later in the year. I will use graded washes and modified hues: thin, raw umber and zinc white, with a dash of dioxazine purple for an old blousy rose, diluted cadmium red and white with a hint of black for a graceful hollyhock.

            I paint horizontally on wet, stretched paper, with sponge, a rag, and a voluptuous sable brush dripping with wash. The paint spreads and granulates, and I allow the wash freedom to express itself, occasionally directing by mopping or tilting the painting from side to side to help the paint flow. There is no detail in this painting: just a trace, a promise, an intimation of what is.

           Time slows, and I see the garden through an ephemeral mist. I try and evoke a sense of spiritual place and emotional peace; a reminder that my inner life can be like this, too.

 

        But my garden in August demands to be painted in oils.Time is speeding up now, and the plants that flourish in these dry conditions own the colours of the North African and Mediterranean garden. The sun does not compromise: it’s sharp, bright light mirrors the flamboyant blooms. The flowers are vibrant, provocative, vivacious – I think of Rousseau or Pollock – the shapes grandiose and architectural. The plants shoot aggressively out of the ground overnight: their vigour and hurried growth expressing the final push before the plants die down and rest.

            The colours are primary and bold. Pure undiluted cadmiums now: red for the spikes of gladioli, deep yellow for the canna lilies that hold water in their leaf hearts, and then ultramarine for the deadly yet handsome aconite. I mix a vibrant palette beforehand for I will need to paint quickly and vigorously in one sitting – the plant energy demands it. I use thick oils with palette knives: vigorously spreading, smoothing, cutting and flicking the paint to capture the bold energy of the August garden.

 …

Must I Write?

October 23, 2013 § 4 Comments

For those insecure times when all one needs is approval…

Paris, February 17, 1903

Dear Sir,

      Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism : they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

      With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, “My Soul.” There, something of your own is trying to become word and melody. And in the lovely poem “To Leopardi” a kind of kinship with that great, solitary figure does perhaps appear. Nevertheless, the poems are not yet anything in themselves, not yet anything independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them, managed to make clear to me various faults that I felt in reading your verses, though I am not able to name them specifically.

      You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

      This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.

      If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it.     Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

      But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say

      What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.

      It was a pleasure for me to find in your letter the name of Professor Horacek; I have great reverence for that kind, learned man, and a gratitude that has lasted through the years. Will you please tell him how I feel; it is very good of him to still think of me, and I appreciate it.

      The poems that you entrusted me with I am sending back to you. And I thank you once more for your questions and sincere trust, of which, by answering as honestly as I can, I have tried to make myself a little worthier than I, as a stranger, really am.

Yours very truly

Rainer Maria Rilke

A Writer’s Voice

October 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

My blog is two weeks old today – just a baby. Instead of another story, I’d like to share with you how I found my voice.

How did you find yours?

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Finding one’s own voice as a writer is rather like growing up. As a child one emulates those one thinks are better than you – or at least that’s what one believed at the time…

When I was about twelve I read everything by D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. I kind of fell in love. They became an obsession. I buried myself deep in their worlds and refused to come out until I’d read every word. I must have found what I was looking for, but I stayed hungry.

In 1997, and used to writing academic non-fiction, I had a shock. I discovered Arundhati Roy. She won the Booker that year for her novel, The God Of Small Things. It was a light bulb moment. I recognised her. I loved the way she thought, loved the way she constructed sentences, loved the way she handled the subject matter. I also recognised something else – it was if I understood what she was doing. Maybe I could do it too. So I copied her, or rather emulated her – for about twenty thousand words – in the form of a fledgling cathartic novel. But the little bird died – it got to be such hard work feeding it, and I let it fall out of the nest. It was as if I was trying too hard to be her – and so I was doomed to failure.

I learnt a lot from that experience, so I did it again and again. Over the years I devoured contemporary writers and developed a passion bordering on obsession. Most writers didn’t touch me at all, I could establish no relationship with their minds: but a few held me fast. As well as reading their work, I found out about their lives. I read many Irish writers like Colum McCann and Colm Toibin, American and Canadian novelists like Attwood and Isabel Allende; and the wonderful Asian and African writers who have emerged over the last twenty years. And I recognised something in their work that had an affinity with my own. I immersed myself again.

Then I began to steal. Not borrow, but steal. I’d take an idea, or maybe just a sentence, and run with it. Sometimes it grew and became indisputably mine, at other times it simply died.

Some writers I fell out of love with – it can be hard after all to stay friends with ex lovers; but others, particularly poets like Eliot and Hughes, stick around to be good, reliable companions when I need to touch home base.

After a few years of writing and experimenting, the balance between reading and writing changed. The books lay about largely unread, and I began to write more. I starting breaking the rules I’d learned, and realised I’d started making up my own. Then it started to happen: my writing voice flourished. The strange thing was I didn’t like a lot of the stuff I had written. It took me a while to realise what was happening – I was still refining that voice. It was changing – it had to change. So I decided to be kind to myself – I stopped reading fiction. I read travelogues, books on art, gardening – anything that interested me. And I just wrote for the love of it.

Today that voice isn’t that different from before – but now I know it’s mine.

 

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