Out to Pasture

Newborough Warren

I’m playing hooky, skiving, swinging the lead, whatever you want to call it. The sky is black and a stiff wind is getting up, sending frothing waves crashing into the shore. Blobs of foam drift over my head and I paw at them attempting an Ali shuffle ankle deep in shingle. It doesn’t cheer me. I’m still in my shirt and tie, my only concession is an unbuttoned collar and sleeves rolled to the elbow as I kick up the surf and skim stones, desperate for that elusive seventh bounce from the water. I’m alone and there isn’t a soul, not even a solitary dog walker or fisherman, within a mile. The car park beyond the dunes is empty with windblown sand weighing heavy against a sagging fence. Without the steady supply of ice cream and burgers the gulls have given up and sought richer pickings inland. I take a deep breath and suck the salt-air down into my lungs. It’s what my Dad and the Victorians called bracing and it brought them here in their millions. I’m here for a different reason: it helps me forget.

I cheer and shout something rude about Pickering’s parentage but the wind blows my words and a spiteful sting of sand straight back in my face. My feet are blue and my legs pale where I’ve rolled up my trousers like those Mini-Milk lollies we queued for as kids. My skin tingles and burns the way your ear does when someone catches it square with a snowball, but I feel great and I feel free and I shout in a gap between the gusts.

Out in the bay a cormorant takes flight. It’s Monday morning, just before ten. Right about now, I’d be sending out the first of Pickering’s reports and sipping scalding coffee – coffee’s what the label on the machine says anyway – before being summoned into his office.

I grab the flask and take a swig of my own blend and jog back into the dunes. It is still and almost silent here, away from the crash of the waves. I have my own little den far up the beach, protected by millions of tons of golden sand and a forest of spiky marram grass. We once had a Scout camp here and Skip told us that many years ago the grass was harvested by the cartload to be made into mats and other household goods. Skip was an avid reader of local history. But take away the anchoring properties of the grass and the dunes are cast to the wind, he said. And before long the rich and fertile farmland becomes dunes too. I know lots of shit like this; none of it useful. Holidaymakers didn’t put bread on the table back then, so Elizabeth the First decreed that anyone gathering grass from the dunes would forfeit a hand. You had your hand chopped off for cutting grass. I’m sure Pickering would think that punishment liberal.

It’s not the failing that hurts because I haven’t – I’m second for sales this quarter – instead it’s being put ‘out to pasture’ that’s insulting. He wrote our names on a scrap of paper, mine was the only one beneath that heading. Yes, he’d actually written ‘Out to Pasture.’ I’ve got that note somewhere safe, tucked up case I need to use it. I push my toes through the sand and feel the grains fall between them. The note isn’t much, but I think it buys me today at least.

 

 

Posted in Outsiders, Short Stories | Tagged , | 7 Comments

A Perfect Day in the Country – Shropshire

A piece I wrote about a perfect day in Shropshire

View of Shropshire countryside from Hawkstone Park

View of Shropshire countryside from Hawkstone Park

The sun sparkles on the Severn. Rushing waters fetched down from the Welsh mountains shimmer as they twist and turn beneath us. We’re standing on the Ironbridge built in 1779. The industrial revolution began right here in Shropshire with Abraham Darby. We walk a muddy trail past abandoned workings through Benthall Woods. Industry has given way to heritage and nature. These days the only smoke is the drift of grilling bacon that draws us to breakfast at Darby’s, named for the great man.

Ironbridge has some fascinating museums – tiles and science and engines and Victorian shops and streets – but Joe and Jake have visited on recent school trips so, fortified with tea and full English, we decide to swap industry for royalty.

Boscobel House lies close to the Shropshire/Staffordshire border, surrounded by woods and farm fields. It’s a timber-brick house full of hidey-holes and most famous for being the place where a king hid up an oak tree.

Boscobel House where Charles II hid

Boscobel House where Charles II hid

Sometimes when we visit historical houses there are too many plaques and Joe and Jake’s attention drifts. We spend the next two hours keeping them away from wobbling candlesticks and precious vases.

But Boscobel keeps us busy with a ramble over to that famous oak (or at least its descendant) and a beautiful mile-long walk down to the ancient ruins of White Ladies Priory.

Most important of all for young Cavaliers the history is wrapped in activities and the scariest game of high stakes hide-and-seek imaginable.

When King Charles II fled after defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 he arrived in a desperate state – exhausted and soaked through with shoes full of gravel and feet ‘not only extremely dirty, but much galled by travel.’

As the search closed in the King took to the woods with a local Royalist officer. They spent the day in a thick, bushy oak tree as soldiers hurried beneath them searching the woods.

When the soldiers had gone the King returned to the house to hide in the attic. We crept up the same stairs and the boys pressed their noses to a glass plate covering a tiny, cramped space between the floorboards.

Charles would have hidden here and watched anxiously for signs of Cromwell’s militia. Another hidey-hole is reached beyond wood-panelling and down through a hatch. A wooden box is carved with a tiny Royal face peeking through the branches of a lush oak. The boys loved finding those faces and symbols.

Descendant of Royal Oak

Descendant of Royal Oak

Those surprised to find industry or kings hiding in trees may also wonder that Shropshire has lakes. Ellesmere is a beautiful and tranquil spot to finish our day. The mere is a legacy of the last ice age and a popular haunt of day-trippers forming snaking queues for farmhouse ice cream.

We grab the last table and take a delicious cream tea as ducks waddle past in search of crumbs. One decision remains: Shall we take the boat onto the mere or the horse and trap along the shore?

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Review of Sitting Ducks

Potteries author Lisa Blower

Potteries author Lisa Blower

My review of Lisa Blower’s Stoke-on-Trent-based novel Sitting Ducks has been published on Structo literary magazine’s website here.

 

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Lizzie’s will – a short story

Birmingham Town Hall from Chamberlain Square - cut from Anglesey stone

Birmingham Town Hall features in Lizzie’s will

My short story ‘Lizzie’s will’ has just been published on Platform for Prose.

You can read it here via login.

Platform for Prose published another of my stories ‘Trials.’ Their site is well worth reading and they’re open to submissions of poetry, flash fiction or short stories.

 

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A Head for Business

Bishop's Move

Lang’s toenails bit into his soles. Lang hated silences, didn’t like eye contact, so Lang put an end to it.

‘You’re asking me to kill someone. You’re not buying a settee,’ he said.

Darcy’s pencil tapped on the blotter. Lang stood perfectly still, staring at the watercolours of the Lakes on the wood-panelling, waiting.

‘OK, enough,’ Lang said, turning for the door.

Bonner coughed. He was stood in the corner of the room, leather gloved hands clasped, shoulders rolled forward a little, mindful of dirtying Mr Darcy’s wallpaper. Bonner was there to mind Lang’s Ps and Qs apparently. It made a change from squeezing rent cheques out of drunks.

‘Half now,’ Darcy said, sliding an envelope across the desk, ‘half when the job’s done. The same as we always do it.’

Lang reached and pocketed the envelope, feeling it smooth, like shirt cardboard, against his chest.

‘And we’ll want proof,’ Darcy said.

Lang nodded.

‘So we know we’ve got what we paid for,’ Darcy said.

Bonner’s brogues creaked on the woodblock, reminding Lang he was there.

‘Proof isn’t a problem,’ Lang said.

He noticed Darcy had nicked his throat, staunched it with a tear of toilet paper, but it had still pinked his collar. He had blood on his collar and blood on his hands.

‘Don’t you want to know what he’s done?’ Darcy said.

Lang shook his head. He stared where the razor had cut.

‘Picked on you on the playground, didn’t he?’ Darcy said, smirking.

Lang gnawed at his cheek, snaring a flap of gristle and snapping it free tasting the coppery blood with the tip of his tongue.

‘Gerry said you were at school together,’ Darcy said. Bonner was Gerry, the huge lump he used for debt collecting, minding his sorry collection of bookies and pizza parlours.

‘Is that all?’

Darcy rolled his eyes, said he wanted his fucking head and dismissed him. Lang took the stairs two at a time, glad to be out of there, glad to be paid. He tapped out a cigarette, cupping his hands as he lit up. ‘H. Darcy’ it said on the brass plaque beside the door. Lang didn’t know what the H was for. No profession, no explanation, just a cheese-plant and a spilled stack of motoring magazines coffee rimed and dog-eared. Lang grinned, taking a deep drag, blowing the smoke through his nostrils. He was earning but, in truth, it was a job he would have done for free.

*******

Lang breathed on a smear of mayo, buffing the glass clean with his elbow. He brushed pastry flakes from the bald upholstery.

‘Take your seats ladies and gentlemen as a full ticket inspection will be taking place shortly,’ the voice said.

Magazines and newspapers went up like windbreaks in the seats around them. Fisk insisted on taking the window seat. Lang let him have that at least so Fisk could smile at the suburban semis with their rosebushes and their twinkling patio lights. Fisk could dream. He’d wanted all that one day and he might’ve had it if he’d knuckled down and stopped scamming folk. Tricking old folk out of their hard-earned was always likely to land Fisk in hot water and then he’d gone and stolen Ethel’s Christmas club money. That had been his worst move yet. Ethel Darcy.

Folk were still shuffling up and down the train in search of a seat, too polite to tell people to shift their arses and bags. A student in an Aussie hat hovered, clearing his throat. Rainwater dripped from the brim spotting the threadbare carpet near Lang’s feet. Lang’s cheek twitched. His jaw tensed. He gripped the armrest until his knuckles turned white, bloodless. Lang watched the student, eyes like slits. He knew his type well enough: a streak of piss with an Adam’s apple like a ballcock and a shower of blond curls. His rugby shirt had chewed cuffs where he’d picked at them. The student made like he was checking the seat numbers. Lang waited him out, humming, while the student dripped.

‘Excuse me,’ the student said. ‘Is this seat-’

‘My pal’s sitting here,’ Lang said. ‘You can see that.’

The student frowned. Lang started humming again. The student scratched the nape of his neck, staring at the window seat. His skin flushed like nettle-rash. The student hefted his bag and retreated.

‘Smart choice, pal,’ Lang said, snapping his newspaper out, business-like. He sipped the over-priced coffee he’d bought. It tasted of fillings. Fisk stared out of the window, tracing shapes in the condensation like a kid. He drew a noose and a scaffold. He dangled a stick man from the rope, legs flailing. The stick man had eyes like crosses and a downturned mouth.

‘Shrink would have a field day with you, Derek,’ Lang said to Fisk.

A guy with a beard like iron filings stumbled into their carriage, sucking on a crumpled juice carton. The automatic doors shuddered and snapped on the beard’s rucksack. He looked like a stricken tortoise. Lang laughed.

The carriage was silent, save for the tinny hiss of headphones. A woman clutched her handbag inside her cardigan. She wasn’t going to the toilet, she was changing carriage. Lang sniffed and wiped his nose on his wrist. He trailed a silvery snail-slick of snot across the seat in front. Lang drifted into sleep, remembering a time when Fisk had hurt him. They could have been back at high school. Whenever Lang pushed his luck Fisk would gouge him or strike him or burn him. It was the same all through school. Fisk always had to take charge.

The conductor waited till folk were sleeping so it gave him half the work. He could avoid doing his job and make out he was being considerate. He shuffled along, hitching his sagging waist, glimpsing at dog-eared tickets used as bookmarks or sketchpads. He was passing them when Lang thrust out a fist clutching both tickets. He’d paid walk-up price and didn’t want folk riding for free.

‘Thank you, Sir. He’s in the toilet is he?’ the conductor said, striking a pen through the tickets.

Lang frowned, puzzled. ‘Who is?’

‘Your friend,’ the conductor said, ‘the other ticket?’

Lang didn’t answer. It couldn’t be an easy job at times and this guy was clearly brain-fried. The conductor blinked. ‘Very good,’ he said, handing both tickets to Lang.

‘Best get the luggage off the seats. We’ve still got people standing,’ the conductor said, nodding at the blue box.

Lang stared at him. ‘This is my pal’s seat.’

The conductor nodded. His shift ended with a brandy; then it was someone else’s problem. Buying two tickets was hardly fraud, was it? Maybe the guy was at the on-board shop or having a crafty fag in the toilets.

Lang looped his coat around his shoulders and wriggled down into the seat. He didn’t hear a peep from Fisk. They took turns to sleep or stare at the moonlight reflecting on the flat, wet fields.

**********

Darcy was getting impatient. They had a number for Lang but it kept ringing out. Bonner begged to be let loose, but Darcy preached caution.

‘He’ll come,’ he said. ‘He’ll want more money, he always does.’

Bonner hammered his fist into his palm, liking the slap of polished leather. He was thinking he’d plug Lang in a concrete drainage pipe or bury him head first in the forest when the buzzer sounded in reception. They saw him on the CCTV, staring up at them, bug-eyed, lugging a holdall.

‘You’ve taken your time,’ Darcy said, when Lang strolled through the door.

Lang shrugged. ‘I had to find him first.’ He set the holdall down at his feet.

Darcy stared at the bag. ‘I didn’t know you enjoyed tennis, Dennis. Ha,’ Darcy said. ‘Tennis Dennis, I said. I’m a poet and don’t know it.’

‘The rest of my fee,’ Lang said, holding out his palm.

‘We had an arrangement. Proof was required,’ Darcy said.

Lang dropped to his knees.

‘And I didn’t tell you to come here,’ Darcy said. ‘You were meant to meet up with Gerry. Have you heard of text messages, emails and things like that?’

Lang unzipped the holdall. Bonner stepped forward. He reckoned Lang was unhinged, didn’t like the boss dealing with him. Lang took out the wooden box he’d carried with him on the train journey. It was painted blue and had a padlocked clasp.

‘What’s this?’ Darcy said.

Lang lifted the lid and took out a black plastic bag. Something toppled inside, weighty and bulging against the plastic.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ Darcy said.

‘Patience,’ Lang said.

Lang produced the blade and slit the bag. He peeled back the plastic and set Fisk’s head down on Darcy’s desk. Darcy’s eyes widened. His chair screeched as he leapt back against the wall. ‘Jesus,’ Bonner bawled. Lang stepped away from the head, hands raised as if he’d finished a sculpture.

‘You’re crazy,’ Darcy said.

He stood back, keeping the desk between him and Fisk’s leaking head.

‘He owed you money,’ Lang said. ‘He owed me too.’

Darcy’s voice was hoarse, throaty. ‘You could’ve taken a photo.’

Fisk’s eyes were open, bloody and dark. His hair was matted with blood at the collar.

‘The head symbolised power for the Celts. If you take your enemy’s head-’ Lang began.

‘Take it away,’ Darcy roared.

‘I’ll kill him, boss,’ Bonner said.

Darcy shook his head. ‘I want him out of here, now.’

Lang held out his hand. Darcy snatched an envelope from the drawer, throwing it at Lang.

‘Get out and take it with you.’

Lang dropped Fisk’s head into the bag, but it tumbled out where he’d cut.

‘Get out!’

Lang held Fisk’s head by the hair, like a war trophy, pocketed the envelope, and set off down the stairs.

Posted in Crime, Short Stories | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Sitting Ducks – the Potteries in fiction

Potteries author Lisa Blower

Potteries author Lisa Blower, photo credit – SOT Lit Fest

Sitting Ducks is a great title and Potteries author Lisa Blower has form for using her home city’s phrases and landscape in her work.

Last Saturday I went along to see Lisa in conversation with Staffordshire University lecturer Dr Catherine Burgass.

Lisa’s Broken Crockery won the Guardian short story prize in 2009, attracting the attention of agents and publishers and she has gone on to work in academia, radio and publishing further short stories, so I was keen to hear her work and thoughts.

(Broken Crockery can be read here).

Lisa said much of her fiction identified with those on the fringes. ‘When I write I tend to think of people who are slight outsiders.’

There is nostalgia – she has written of Potteries holiday excursions to mid-Wales – but she says although the past is an influence she prefers not to write about it. ‘I’m not nostalgic for a Stoke-on-Trent that has been and gone as I wasn’t there for it.’

She did confess bravely that she wasn’t Arnold Bennett’s (author of Anna of the Five Towns and son of Stoke) biggest fan either, but it’s refreshing to hear an author looking to the future.

The talk, at the third Stoke-on-Trent literature festival, took place in the appropriate surroundings of the Eastwood room at Emma Bridgewater’s pottery in Hanley.

North Staffordshire’s economy has suffered with the demise of traditional industry – particularly pottery, coal and steel – but Emma Bridgewater’s pottery is among those attracting increasing trade in keeping with Lisa’s bright, forward-looking attitude.

A short extract from Sitting Ducks:

“Meagre in build. Mouthy in nature. One good owner and pottery trained: Josiah ‘Totty’ Minton is bang out of sick notes and harbouring the dream of a three-bed semi with bay windows, fully-fitted carpets and enough of a garden to stretch his legs.”

Lisa read several extracts from Sitting Ducks and I bought a copy and chatted to her afterwards. She is sincere and passionate about what she wants to write and not to be dissuaded by the views of others.

I asked her how she’d adjusted to writing novels and she admitted it had been difficult, saying she was a short story writer at heart and describing her novel as connected stories.

Sitting Ducks is a series of arguments or rows, Lisa said. It is why she’s opted for Rounds (as in boxing) rather than chapters.

I look forward to reading Sitting Ducks, which I’ll be reviewing for Structo, and look forward to hearing more about Lisa.

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Published in Silver Apples

I’m delighted to have a piece published in Silver Apples magazine.

The piece is about our experiences of driving in Europe and the pressures, but ultimately rewards, of a family holiday.

Small, negotiable payment is required to view but please take a look at the website and consider supporting or sending a piece into Silver Apples.

Thanks to Gráinne and Alex for their support.

Click here.

If you’d like to know more about Silver Apples or perhaps submit:

Silver Apples Magazine is the brainchild of Gráinne O’Brien and Alex Dunne. They had a vision to create a magazine that would show off new and emerging talent alongside established artists. Initially intended to be a magazine that published just literature, they soon became consumed with the idea of creating something that published all forms of artistic talent. From that, Silver Apples Magazine was born.

Silver Apples

Silver Apples

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