Blue Pencil Agency

I am lucky enough to have been taken on by Blue Pencil Agency for mentoring. I had my story and a draft and I thought all it needed was tweaking before submitting to literary agents. How naïve I was! With careful guidance, honest feedback (sometimes painful!), and general cheerleading and pushing me on from my mentor, my novel is taking shape. It’s jolly hard work – but I love it! I certainly wouldn’t be at this stage without her.

My mentor discovered my blog and BPA did a lovely little piece about me. I hope you like it (except the rather large photo of my face, of course!).

I have a flash story in here: Saving Amy
My piece: The Edge of the World was chosen for this chapbook. I read the piece live (on Zoom) at the Urban Tree Festival on 24.05.2020. You can find it on YouTube

Paragraph Planet

My Shetland-inspired piece was chosen by Paragraph Planet (an online magazine publishing flash fiction pieces of 75 words each day).

Almost Tipped Over

I went to the edge of the world today to see if I could find you. I had intended to fall off, to join you. But I couldn’t find you there. The edge of the world looked at me, questioning what right I had to be there. I heard you whisper: ‘Turn away, my love. Turn away.’ And I did. I turned my back on that brooding horizon and carried you home.

Published in Ink in Thirds

How to Eat an Apple

Choose the smallest, smoothest apple from the bowl and inspect it closely for wormholes.

Run the tap until the water almost burns, scrub hands with washing-up liquid and then scrub apple. They say that apples are coated in a wax to preserve them longer. The wax is carcinogenic. So scrub, scrub, scrub.

Dry the apple and hands on kitchen roll. Be sure to discard the first three pieces of the paper as they will be contaminated by airborne germs.

Place the apple on a pre-scrubbed chopping board and choose sharp, clean knife. Examine the apple again for blemishes.

Cut the apple into quarters. Remove the core. Rinse under a hot tap and examine the flesh. Ensure there is no evidence of decay. Cut away any spots that look suspect and remove the peel. The peel hides blemishes and bruises which could make you sick.

Cut the remaining pieces into smaller chunks. Examine each one carefully.

Take a deep breath and prepare yourself. Select a piece of apple and hold it to your nose to smell its aroma. Move it towards your mouth, feeling the moist, almost pliant cube between your fingers. You press too hard. Stop! It may now be bruised.

Examine the remaining pieces of apple on the chopping board. They will have taken on a beige hue or attracted dust in the air. Take the chopping board into the garden and scrape onto the bird table.


National Flash Fiction Day: 2018

First Love

It started with a kiss, as most romances do.

I was a school freak, fifteen years old, hiding behind my bird’s nest of hair in the hope that it would cover my spots and personality. You were a lanky sixth former from the boys’ grammar. The only thing we had in common was the road we lived on: a row of respectable semis sporting gleaming windows and weed-less lawns, uniform and cropped like bristles on a brush.

I would have liked it if you’d talked to me on the bus but I understood that obviously I wasn’t someone to be seen with in public. An association with me would have ruined your credibility. I got on the bus the stop before you and would sit at the back in the corner, not wanting to be noticed by anyone and yet aching that you would shoot me a smile as you swung up the stairs with your handsome group. Before school I would rehearse my returning smile in the bathroom mirror: cool and lazy with a slight flick of my hair. I never had to use it.

Once we rounded the corner, out of sight of the other kids, you would hurry to catch me up and sling your arm casually around my waist. I was grateful for those crumbs of affection. Grateful for the kiss and the way you held me. Grateful for those moments during that cold November when I felt like I was coming alive. I remember the way your cold hands would touch my face, the way we would stand so still, the chill creeping in through my wedged shoes until my toes went numb. But mostly I remember your brown eyes and soft lips and the way my heart beat so strongly, it ached through my chest.

One afternoon I felt a shift in the mood. A progression. I’d been excited but scared and I made an excuse and raced home. Mum was waiting, angry.

‘Where have you been?’ she’d demanded.

‘With Tom,’ I’d said. ‘He kissed me.’ I said nothing more but Mum suspected.

I got a different bus home after that day. Bringing it out into the open felt wrong. This was no romance at all, just a boy trying his luck.

So Mum said.

FlashBack Fiction

A Pot of Usefulness

‘D’you fancy a cuppa, love?’ Bill calls from the back door. He takes the battered and tannin patinated pot from the shelf: a leaving present from the lads.

He’d worked at the steelworks since he was a scrawny lad. Sinews hardened into manhood but fifty years of pick hefting and shovelling wore him back to the start. When he was used up the lads gave him the grand title of Chief Splosh Maker and he’d spent a few happy weeks warming the pot, spooning loose tea and pouring for the exhausted gang. But they couldn’t cover for him for long and soon he was rooted out. Management said he wasn’t productive and in an effort to keep up supply for demand they had to eliminate all waste. He’d never thought of himself as waste. Not until then.

Bill sets the kettle to boil and sits on the old green stool to rest his aching hip. Beth wants him to see the doctor but there’s no money for that now.

Beth rushes into the kitchen, covered in dust. She runs her hands down her skirts and Bill’s not sure if she’s trying to smooth out wrinkles or remove the dust from her hands.

‘You don’t need to beat the rugs, love,’ he says but he knows she won’t take any notice. Housework has been her life and she’ll cling to it like a drowning rat to driftwood. While he’s all adrift, she still cleaves to routine.

‘I’m leaving the house clean for the next tenants. Nobody’s going to say that I’m slovenly.’ She raises her chin in stubbornness and pride and Bill catches a glimpse of the girl she once was. That tilted chin had at first set against him but softened to half-mast in their courting days.

Her eyes fix on the old teapot.

‘Oh Bill,’ I thought you were going to throw that out.’

Bill puts a hand on it, protectively and looks at the shelf, wishing there was room for him. A shelf for eliminated waste.

‘I’ve a surprise for you,’ Beth says, pulling out a letter from her pocket. ‘My sister’s sent money for the train tomorrow.’ Bill gives no reaction. Thinking he doesn’t understand, she says: ‘Bill, we won’t have to beg for lifts!’ She’d been dreading the fifty mile journey, knowing that Bill wasn’t up to walking much.

 ‘I can’t accept charity, love. You know that. It’s enough that they’re putting a roof over our heads.’

‘It’s not charity. It’s family and we’ll earn our keep. You’d help if they needed somewhere to live.’

Bill looks at the teapot, his eyes clouding over.

‘Come on.’ Beth smiles encouragingly. ‘I need to get on with the packing. We’ll put your teapot in last; we don’t want it getting crushed. You’ll be needing it to make tea for the farm labourers.’

Beth bustles out and Bill sets to making the tea. At least there’s still something he can do.


Life Sentence

Arts Council grant application refused and after a few glum days have decided to continue with project, although it will take much longer to complete.

Carers UK

Egg and Cress on a Rainy Day

Dear Nurin,

Happy birthday! I hope this card finds you well and that you like the earrings. Another year on and we still haven’t managed to meet up. How is work? I hope you’re enjoying the promotion – it’s lovely to see that all your hard work has paid off.

I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch for a while but things have been a bit tricky here. You see, about six months ago Daniel had a stroke. It was completely out of the blue as these things are, I suppose. He’s recovered fairly well, although we’ve had to make some adjustments around the house. We’ve got a stair-lift which sort of dominates the hallway, but it’s okay, I’ve even had the odd ride on it myself! And I’ve had to take up a couple of rugs because Daniel tends to trip easily; he’s unsteady on his feet and his left leg drags a little. I’ve had a huge clear-out and rearranged the furniture so there’s room for his walking frame. I feel quite modern and minimalistic!

How’s your mum? Is she still going off on her coach trips and hiking holidays? I suppose she must be in her eighties now; she’s amazing. And your sister, and niece? It’s funny how time moves on, isn’t it?

The other day I was thinking about our graduation. Your family couldn’t afford to travel all that way, so you’d hung out with mine. At dinner Dad asked about your plans and I’d jumped in saying that you were applying for a work visa. I was so excited by the future and wanted to show off about the job I’d been offered, certain that you would get something spectacular (your grades were always much better than mine). Later that evening you told me you were returning to Malaysia. You explained that your sister was marrying and starting a family, while your duty, as the youngest, was to look after your parents.

‘They’re fit and healthy!’ I’d been scornful. ‘What about what you want? What about your life?’

You’d stayed calm and explained how grateful you were to your parents, how indebted. To repay the debt was what you wanted.

‘But that’s not how it works!’ I’d said.

You’d smiled in your quiet way, head slightly bowed: ‘It is my duty. As it should be.’

You left the following week, as quietly as you had come. We promised to stay in touch and to meet up again one day.

It has started to rain. Big fat drops that smack at the window proclaiming they are here to stay. I was going to take Daniel to the park. I’d already prepared the picnic: egg and cress sandwiches, his favourite (if I remember correctly, they were your favourite, too!), and his wheelchair’s loaded in the car with the bag of supplies that goes with us everywhere. I was timing the trip between medication and physio but I’ve missed the slot. Each day dances to its own beat: time is measured not in hours and minutes but by Daniel’s wants and needs. Breakfast used to be a ten-minute rush of cereal and coffee before work. Now it can take an hour or more. There’s no rushing Daniel, and each day slides into the next, punctuated by night and, hopefully, sleep.

Did I mention that I left my job? Well, I couldn’t face the thought of carers coming in so it was the only thing to do. I don’t miss the daily grind and stress of the office but sometimes it would be nice to put on some work clothes, go out for lunch and chat with the girls. I am lucky, though, we’ve got lots of friends who pop in when they can. And thank goodness for the internet! It helps me keep in touch, and shopping is so easy – we don’t need to leave the house at all.

Sadly, I don’t think we’ll be able to travel as we’d planned. Retirement has come early for us and we have to make our money stretch as far as we can now. Besides, I’m not sure that Daniel will ever be up to it. If a trip to the park today is out of the question, I don’t know where I’d find the energy to plan a trip abroad. I don’t mind too much. I would have liked to visit you in Malaysia but I suppose it’s not to be.

It’s funny, Nurin. I’d railed against your sense of duty, not understanding how you would willingly put your life on hold. But now I understand what you were trying to say, it was more than duty, you did it for love. I made a vow ‘till death us do part’, but the promise is inconsequential. I am still in love with Daniel, and always will be: ‘in sickness and in health’.

Anyway, I can hear Daniel getting restless. I don’t want him getting up by himself and having another fall. So I’m going to set the table with the picnic tablecloth and pretend we’re at the park. I’m not fond of egg and cress sandwiches myself, but I’ve got used to them. You get used to anything after a time, don’t you?

Much love

              Anna xx

Speculative 66

Phantom Pregnancy

Unafraid, I didn’t believe them when they said to lock my bedroom door against the ghouls that patrolled the house. I awoke to scratchy nails and squeezing hands, no air to breathe through the smothering stabs. It was there for only a few moments, no time to understand. I breathed when it was gone.

Afraid, I lay exhausted, and wait for them to bring my baby.

The Guardian

A letter to . . . a woman who was vile to me at the supermarket checkout

The letter you always wanted to write

I emptied my basket slowly, items placed one by one on the conveyor belt, tucked neatly against the checkout divider. I studiously moved them into the order in which I would place them in my Bags for Life. Their solidness tethered me to the moment: if I focused on the job in hand, everything would be OK.

I vaguely became aware of you leaning over me, reaching across to add a handful of things to your shopping already being scanned by the cashier and packed by your husband and son. I concentrated on my things: very soon it would be my turn to pay and then I could go home.

Then you jostled me as you tried to push past and a reflexive “excuse me” rose, whispered, from somewhere deep within me. I was slow to move and you pushed harder, giving a shove to the small of my back. I turned to look at you, startled.

You were immaculately dressed, perhaps on your way out to Sunday lunch but your makeup didn’t disguise the revulsion on your face.

“You rude woman!” You towered over me as you spoke and I shrank, wanting to curl into a ball. “What’s the matter with you?”

“You pushed me, you didn’t say …” I could feel people staring. You raised your voice to drown me out.

“How old are you? Old enough to know better. You could see I’m in a hurry.” I hadn’t seen anything. I’d been concentrating and I looked at my groceries, now melded into a jumbled blur. “Just look at yourself. What a state!”

I’m not sure what happened next. My heart hammered and I could hear the blood rushing through my head. I picked up the cereal box, wanting to feel its sharp corners dig into my thumb. I put it back, muttered my apologies to the cashier and I left. I sobbed in the car for nearly 20 minutes before I could face the short drive home.

I suppose you were right. I did look a mess. I had rushed straight from the shower to the supermarket with no time for drying my hair or putting on makeup. My eyes were sunken from days of snatched sleep, my face and hands blotched by patches of psoriasis: a combination of stress and neglect.

I don’t usually look like that. And I’m not a difficult, obstructive person.

I wonder if you would have acted in the same way had you known that my daughter had been taken seriously ill six months previously. If you had known that the doctors still didn’t know what was wrong with her.

My life was driven by frequent calls to the emergency services, resulting in hospital admissions, endless days spent on the medical high-dependency unit, trying to make sense of it all and trying to convince my daughter that everything would be OK.

I don’t expect you to care and I certainly don’t want your pity. But I would like you to know that on that Sunday morning you picked on a usually strong, articulate woman who was trying to hold on and not let fear and worry overwhelm her. You picked on someone at her lowest ebb, someone fragile and vulnerable.

I hope you never have to endure what I have – I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But I hope that you learn to be kind, and if that’s too much of a stretch, that you at least stop your bullying ways.

Caring Magazine Issue 42 (Carer’s UK)

A Carer’s Guide to: What not to say

Paragraph Planet

The Eyes of the House

The eyes of our house are cataract cloudy, the nets a grim yellow-brown. Mum says we live on the best house on the street, we’ve got the best view. She doesn’t see the burnt out cars, the take-away boxes flung into our front garden as she studies Better Homes & Gardens puffing on one fag after another. I hate those nets, but I let them stay, let them cloud her view.

Ad Hoc Fiction

Days Like These

The cloth of my life is purple. Each morning when I wake it waits for me. On good days I wear it lightly; a cape woven from the finest Merino wool patterned with innocuous swirls and swoops. If I am lucky, the cloth will remain soft but those days are rare. Each fold traps the day’s stresses within and the pattern becomes an angry jangling mosaic of migraine and despair. On bad days the cloth swells into a huge greatcoat, sopping with troubles that hold me tight and I breathe shallowly, desperately, longing for the day to end.

I dream of leaving this loathsome purple cloth behind. I will no longer carry the weight of daughter, sister, wife, mother: the tags that define my life. One day, just for a while, I will wear peach: cobweb light and butterfly free. One day I will return to me.

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