Goodbye then, 2016 …

Well, what a year it’s been!  America elected Darth Trump for President; the unholy trinity of Farage, Johnson and Gove managed to con the great British public into casting itself adrift from the European Union into uncharted and dangerous waters; an awful lot of people died violently in Syria, and quite a few in Brussels, Berlin and lots of other places; several rock stars and other famous people also died; the world got a bit warmer, again.

As for me, ups and downs, really: my mum had a fall and was in hospital for a while;  I had a couple of nice holidays and saw my daughter perform at the Edinburgh fringe; got rather more teaching work from Leeds Uni than I bargained for, meaning I did less writing than I wanted to, but did nevertheless make some progress on my new novel (and I won a poetry competition – that was probably the best bit). Nothing earth shattering, really, but because of what happened in Britain and the wider world, I still count this the most depressing year since 2007 (and believe me, that was really bad, for reasons I don’t want to go into).  I’d rather like to consign it to history and forget about it. Except I won’t be able to, because Teresa May will trigger Article 50 and Trump will take up the presidency and start throwing his weight around.

It’s customary to end a gloomy retrospective with a message of hope, and I’m going to honour that tradition (well, sort of). Not because I am actually seeing light at the end of the tunnel just yet – I fear it may be quite a long tunnel – but because it’s essential to hold on to hope, and not to allow the reactionary, xenophobic forces that currently seem to be in the ascendancy to win in the longer term.

So I wish all my friends a brave and strong 2017.  May it at least be a better year than this one.

 

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A Bit of Festive Fun

Everybody likes games and puzzles at Christmas time, right? So I thought I’d set a little challenge for readers of this blog. Below is a little story I wrote at Holmfirth Writers the other day (not a festive one, I’m afraid). It was written in response to eight words chosen at random from a book taken off a library shelf – they all appear in the story.  Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to guess what the eight words were and tell me your guesses either here or on Facebook. It’s just a bit of fun. People who were at the HWG meeting on 19 December are ineligible, for obvious reasons!

 

“You may leave us now, Feldwebel,” said Doctor Schuster. “The prisoner’s hands and feet are secured, are they not? I need to examine him and ask some questions. In my experience, it is easier to obtain the information I need when the … patient … is as relaxed as possible.” How were you supposed to obtain a normal pulse when the subject was expecting a beating at any moment?

The soldier looked uneasy, but a firm stare from the doctor induced him to click his heels and leave the room. The prisoner’s expression was a mixture of relief – his face bore the marks of Feldwebel Vogel’s recent attentions – and fear.

“Good.” The doctor gave his customary reassuring smile, as if he was addressing one of his wealthy patients rather than an inmate from a concentration camp – the same smile he would wear tomorrow when examining Frau Ziegler’s varicose veins. His exciting new work for the Party demanded a great deal of his time now, but he remained faithful to his long-standing clients.

“Please show me your hands.”

The prisoner shuffled around, allowing Schuster to verify that his hands were indeed handcuffed behind his back, then turned to face him again.

“Now.  Some questions.” The doctor retrieved a sheet of paper from his desk and placed it on the desk in front of him. ” What is your name?”

“Trollmann, Peter, sir.” Schumacher picked up his gold fountain pen and wrote down the name.

“Your racial origin.”

“Roma, sir.”

The doctor nodded. It was good to have some gypsy subjects in the experiments, to help correct for any genetic effects.

“Your occupation prior to detention.”

“Entertainer, sir.”

The doctor snorted. Playing a penny whistle on street corners to coax coins from passers-by, no doubt. In between picking their pockets.  He paused for a moment and wrote “unemployed” on the form.

“Your age?”

“Twenty-seven , sir.”

“Good, good.” Likely to be more healthy than average, then. The man looked in reasonable physical shape. But that needed to be verified.

“I will need to examine you.” The doctor briskly unbuttoned Trollmann’s clothes, allowing them to fall over his handcuffed wrists and ankles.

“Sit down. Please breath smoothly in and out.” The patient complied, shuddering momentarily as he felt the cold metal of the stethoscope on the skin of his back.

As the examination proceeded, Trollmann looked around the large consulting room. To his left, positioned between the Swastika flag and a picture of one of Hitler’s political rallies, was an ordinary coat stand, bearing the doctor’s elegant coat and hat. Behind the elaborate wooden desk and was a door to another room, and against the wall to the right, oddly incongruous in the office of a Nazi official, was a large aquarium – no doubt intended to help calm the nerves of the doctor’s paying patients. A convoy of small fish was swimming from one end of the tank to the other. Trollmann would have rather liked to eat them.

“I need to examine your legs now.” It was important for the experiment that the subjects should be adequately mobile. However many times he told Vogel not to damage them too much, you would always find the odd one with a broken ankle or something similar. “You must remain perfectly still, or else I shall ask for Hauptmann Vogel’s assistance. Is that understood?”

Trollmann nodded. The doctor bent down and began to examine the left knee. This was the moment. Behind his back, Trollmann slowly eased his hands free of his clothing. He had already removed the handcuffs. In a swift movement he grabbed the stethoscope and wrapped its tube tightly around Schuster’s neck.

“You should have believed me when I said I was an entertainer. I worked in music halls. As an escapologist.”

When the body was quite still he lowered it gently to the floor. He freed his feet and replaced his own clothing with some of Schuster’s, then he put on the coat and hat and walked past the desk into the room beyond. Good, there was a window.

 

 

 

 

The Ghost of Christmas Past

My publishers, Crooked Cat are running a series of daily posts with stories and other little treats in the run up to Christmas (https://www.facebook.com/christmaswithcrookedcats/)

For my contribution, I thought I’d offer a little story featuring some of the characters from the novel I’m currently writing. Narrator Claire is dreading the impact of Christmas on her recently bereaved father, who is also losing his memory …

 

It can be such a cruel time. There are more suicides at Christmas than any other part of the year. When people get together to engage in the more or less compulsory seasonal merriment, it only makes things worse when a person is feeling far from merry. Or, in this case, when one of those people is conspicuously no longer present.

I’d been dreading it, this second Christmas since Mum died. Not so much for my own sake – I mean, she leaves a big hole behind her, and this time of year inevitably brings back memories, but I’m a big girl. I can take it. No, it was Dad I was worried about.

For all that the two of them were always grumbling and cussing at each other, they had grown together like two plants so entangled you can never work out where one begins and the other ends. I had seen what happened to him when she was ripped away. Damage like that doesn’t heal – the best you can do is leave it alone and try to forget it. And forgetting was something Dad was getting very good at.

But Christmas had always been her time. She would orchestrate every last detail of it, from the glass baubles on the tree to the icing snowman on the cake. How could the memory of her not be forced back into Dad’s consciousness when Christmas was shoved in his face once again? This time last year you could see him shrinking into himself, ageing visibly day by day. You could feel her in the room with us, not as a presence but an absence, a person-shaped vacuum, sucking what was left of him into itself.

I’d thought seriously about trying to escape Christmas altogether – just taking him somewhere quiet and remote for a few days and let the whole circus just pass us by. His memory had got to the point now where he wouldn’t know it was Christmas if he wasn’t reminded of it. But then my sister Karen, who never comes up from London at those times when it would actually be helpful, decided that she and her entire family would descend on our house with a car full of presents, demanding seasonal food and entertainment. I think she had got it into her head that we wanted this, that she was doing us a favour.

And like a wimp, I capitulated. I put it off to the last possible minute, but as their car was already setting off up the M1, in my own resentful, half-hearted way I began to fill the house with the ritual trappings of the season, spread the table with its customary foods: cold meats, pies, pickles, cheeses and trifle. I did it more or less how Mum used to, but not half as well.

“There’s a Christmas tree in the corner,” he observed when he came back from the day centre. “Is it coming up to Christmas time, then?” Poor old bugger, he had no idea. He’d probably been eating mince pies all afternoon.

“Yes Dad, it’ll be Christmas quite soon.” Well, it was Christmas Eve. It wasn’t actually a lie. Perhaps if he thought it wasn’t quite Christmas yet, it wouldn’t affect him so badly. It seemed to be working. For the next couple of hours he seemed to maintain some kind of equilibrium – not exactly happy, not exactly sad.

Any illusions about what time of year it was were smashed by the arrival of Karen at half-past six. “Merry Christmas Dad, Merry Christmas Claire,” she cooed, enveloping us in over-enthusiastic hugs. Then she handed us each a big bag full of presents. He turned towards me with a confused look in his eyes. Was it starting?

“Grandad!” Seven year-old Jacob and six year-old Amelia rushed to wrap themselves around their grandfather, bringing a broad smile to his face. The kids – thank God for the kids! He loved them to bits. If anyone could keep his mind off Mum, they could. When they had all dumped their things in their rooms and come down for dinner, I suggested that Jacob and Amelia might like to sit next to Grandad and tell him everything they’d done since they last saw him. They were happy to, bless ‘em. That left me with Karen and Paul, and the duty of being the gracious hostess.

“So, Paul, how’s the world of accountancy these days?”

He thought for an inordinately long time before his weary response.

“Much as ever, you know. Too much work, too little time. You just get on with it. Pays the bills.”

It was faintly amusing to see that he was as unenthusiastic about coming as I was about his being here. But Karen was having none of it.

“He’s being far too modest, aren’t you, Paul? The reason he’s got so much work on is that he’s been promoted! He’s in charge of an audit team now, working for some big clients. I’ very proud of him. We might even be able to move to a bigger house, give the kids a bit more space. And how about you Claire? How’s school?”

I told them about the day to day hassles of being in charge of a primary school, with about as much enthusiasm as Paul had shown. From the other end of the table, meanwhile, came earnest voices and laughter as the children regaled Dad excitedly with all their news. We continued in this vein for quite a while, gradually shifting about half of the cold food from the table to our bellies as we talked. Then, since it was Christmas Eve, after all, I brought out some prosecco, and made milkshakes for the kids. It hadn’t gone too badly so far. But now came the moment I’d been dreading.

“Jacob, Amelia, it’s time for you to get ready for bed.” They reluctantly got up from the table and plodded towards the door. Karen turned to me. “I’d better go up for a while and get them settled down. Otherwise they’ll be too excited and they won’t sleep all night.”

That left me, Dad and the taciturn Paul. Leaving the stage free for the ghost of Mum finally to make her appearance. Dad was already looking round the room, inspecting the decorations and what was left of the dinner. But instead of the desolate, empty look he had worn last Christmas, there was a light in his eyes and a broad smile all over his face.

“By heck, that was a good spread, that was. Can’t beat a nice bit of trifle. She’s done a grand job, hasn’t she?”

“Who, Karen? Yes, they’re good kids, a credit to their parents. I’m happy they could spend time with you.”

“No, not Karen. Your mother. I don’t like to say too much to her face, or else she’ll think I’ve gone all soppy all of a sudden. But I don’t mind telling you when she’s out of the room. She always does a great job at Christmas and she’s done us proud again this year.”

A confused look came over Paul’s face.

“Herbert, I think you’re …”

I turned to him and put a finger silently over my lips. Let the old man enjoy this time. If we can talk to the kids about Santa Claus as if he’s real, surely there’s room in the house for one more imaginary figure. Why let the truth get in the way of a good Christmas?

 

 

 

Sunday Sojourn – Delphi

A post about Delphi, a place of immense beauty and deep historical and spiritual significance which plays a pivotal role in my novel Zeus of Ithome. Thanks to fellow Crooked Cat author Jennifer Wilson for hosting me.

Zeus of Ithome

Jennifer C. Wilson

Happy Sunday everyone! Today, it’s Tim (T.E.) Taylor’s turn to take you a-travelling, this time, to Delphi.

T E Taylor T E Taylor

Hi Jennifer, many thanks for inviting me onto your blog.

The place I’d like to talk about today is Delphi, in central Greece.  It is a unique place, with an astonishing combination of natural beauty, artistic splendour, deep mystical significance and layer upon layer of history.

As some readers will know, Delphi was the home of the most celebrated oracle of the ancient world. It was thought to be the centre, the ‘navel’ of the world, sacred to the god Apollo, who was believed to speak through his priestess, the Pythia, as she writhed in a trance induced by hallucinogenic fumes emanating from a crack in the earth beneath the temple. Her pronouncements were trusted not only by the Greeks but by people from other cultures who would…

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