Abigail had only one fault. Being right. Charles had always said so, back in the old days. Days before he died so suddenly, keeling over in the churchyard during that dreadful funeral. Elspeth; that was the woman’s name. Fairfax, or Fairweather, something like that. Grand sort of name for the mousy, waiflike creature with long fair hair who lived at the shabby cottage at the far end of the village. How she’d come to live there, no-one really knew.
Idleness is a sin, as Abigail knows only too well, gazing out at the snow swirling onto the patio and the neat lawn beyond. Jolted back to the present by the harsh ringing of the telephone, she goes through to the hall to answer it. Knowing it will be her son, Simon, she simply says “Hello”. Looking at the black and white graduation photograph of him on the hall table, she listens for a long time, saying nothing. “Mum; Mum, are you still there?”
“No Simon, I’m somewhere else entirely.”
“Oh come on, Mum, it’s not that bad, is it? Poor Dad didn’t even have a chance to get to know her.”
“Quite right, too, she should never have been born.”
“Really, Mum, I can’t speak to you about this any more right now; I’ll call back later when you’re in a more reasonable mood.” Simon hung up; Abigail dropped onto the chair by the phone, sat picking absently at a pulled piece of grey wool in her cardigan sleeve. Trust Charles to have gone and done something stupid and then left them to pick up the pieces. Unbelievable, that’s what it was, that her husband of forty years could have had a daughter that none of them had any idea about. Vile thoughts ran through her mind, of revenge and justice and things turning out for the best. What a pity Elspeth had been allergic to peanuts and that she had had no idea about it when she invited her for afternoon tea that day when Charles had been away on business. Extremely unfortunate, too, that Charles’ pre-existing heart condition and the fact that he’d run out of his medication, had meant that he’d dropped dead at his bastard daughter’s funeral.
Zealously, Abigail set to work polishing the silver cutlery and laying out cups and saucers for bridge club later on that afternoon.
This is a short story I wrote a number of years ago. It is from my first collection of short stories and has been broadcast on Two Lochs radio in their Westwords programme.
Afternoons in the Brown household were generally given over to drawing spaceships. Barry tended to do intricate scale diagrams of complicated designs. Charlie’s efforts were usually brightly coloured, with birds and animals added for decorative effect. Daphne worked diligently, doing complex calculations concerning power outputs, thruster positions and light year estimations. Every evening, the three siblings would compare notes, pinning their efforts onto a board and pointing out special features. Finishing a spaceship drawing was something none of them had ever achieved. George, their father and inspiration, was long dead. He had been a technician at the local spaceship factory and harboured desires of going to Mars one day.
“If only we could get someone to build one of these, to see if it worked!” Daphne said one winter’s evening, her mouth full of tea and bourbon biscuit.
“Just let me make some phone calls,” said Barry, brushing custard cream crumbs from his Arran jumper.
“Knit one, we could knit one!” shouted Charlie, waving his arms around, a jammie dodger in each hand. Lovingly, his siblings smiled at him and then at each other.
“Maybe, Charlie, maybe,” Daphne said, gently.
“No, really, I saw a pattern in last month’s “Novelty Knitting for Novices”. Only snag is how many balls of wool we’d need; I think it was two and a half million of blue and one and a half million of white.”
“Perhaps we should see how Barry gets on with his phone calls,” said Daphne quietly, watching Barry pick up the phone and dial.
“Question for you. Richard, on the funding front. Spaceship project; some fabulous designers have a terrific plan. Time to get up to date and move into new sectors, eh?”
Until that moment, neither Daphne nor Charlie had any inkling that Barry was on nodding terms with Sir Richard. Very soon after, the call concluded and Barry was grinning from ear to ear.
“We’ve got a deal; he fell for it hook line and sinker! Extra income from our pension payouts next month will make up the balance.”
“You’re a genius, Barry!” cried Daphne and Charlie.
“Zog, here we come!” shouted the three grey-haired siblings, waving slices of Victoria sponge in celebration.
The day before yesterday
I met an old friend on the street
we embraced, kissed on both cheeks,
held each other longer than was
Yesterday, I went to the supermarket
stocked up on what was required
respired, relieved, thankful to behold
full shelves and smiling people
standing close and chatting
not steering clear
two trolley lengths away
at all times
Yesterday, I took the dog to the park
threw his ball, watched the children
on the swings and roundabout
playing tig and tag, holding hands
watched a mother wipe a snotty toddler nose -
I didn’t flinch or move away
Today I drove out, out into the countryside
as far as I felt like going
and took the dog for a second walk
in the woods, because I could
Tomorrow, I shall book a two night stay,
for three months’ hence
in a favourite place
a treat, a retreat, a getaway
a stay away - a place where
I may well encounter strangers
in the bar - make new friends, perhaps,
sit close together, conversing
The day after tomorrow, I’m going to the cinema
with a friend.
We’ll eat out beforehand,
nowhere fancy, just out – we’ll
raise a glass to friendship
Tomorrow, I’ll make up the beds
in the spare room, for my friends
coming to visit
The day after that,
I won’t feel annoyed when the
football comes on the telly
I’ll be glad for all the fans
out there, enjoying their Saturday
Next week, I’ll play music with my friends
at one of their houses
enjoy a glass of wine,
company, convivial conversation
The week after that, I’ll join the writers’ monthly
enjoy a glass of wine,
company, convivial conversation
Today, I shook hands with
someone new I met on the beach.
Today, I did not feel afraid.
This is a poem I wrote for last month's writers' group meeting; the theme was 2021.
This is another of my "alphabet" stories. The first one is still here. I'll be posting a series of stories here regularly in the coming weeks and months. This one has been recorded for broadcast on local radio and is in my first collection of stories - "A Short Collection of Small Stories". Enjoy.
Absently, George stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into his solitary mug of coffee on the draining board below the kitchen window. Breadcrumbs lay in a random scatter across the stained grey work surface around the bread bin and the air had a faint tinge of burnt toast mixed with bacon fat. Coming towards the house along the narrow lane, beyond the low beech hedge at the bottom of the garden, he spied a familiar blue car. Damn Lydia for coming to visit just now; why couldn’t she call before she turned up? Everyone else seemed to understand that he needed to be on his own at the moment; why couldn’t she take the hint and stay away, leave him alone?
“Frosty morning, isn’t it, George?”
Greetings with Lydia were always of the stating-the-bleeding-obvious kind. Huffing on the back doorstep as he took in the sharp, clean January air, George attempted to be civil.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you till later, at the meeting in the village hall, Lydia.”
“Just as well I popped round then, isn’t it; the meeting’s been cancelled, so I thought I’d bring you some courgette soup and see if you needed anything.”
“Kind of you, but I’m fine, really.”
“Look, I know it’s none of my business, but -”
“My sentiments exactly, it is none of your business. Now, if you don’t mind, thank you for the soup, but I’m really rather busy.”
“Oh, I see, well if that’s what you want; but George, are you really alright?”
“Peace and quiet, that’s all I want; peace and quiet and to be left alone by busybodies who think they know what’s best for me.”
Quite unexpectedly, Lydia began to weep; copiously and messily, still poised on the doorstep. Reluctantly, George took her gently by the elbow and led her in to sit at the worn old kitchen table. Still sobbing, but quietly now, Lydia tried to explain. That everyone in the village had known and loved Penny; obviously not in the same way as George had, but that they had all missed her terribly these past six months and wanted him to know that. Useless, that’s what they all felt, and many of them had stopped coming to visit because he had made it clear that they were not welcome. Visibly shaken, George stood again to put the kettle on, find some digestive biscuits and gather his thoughts.
“Widower, that’s what I am now; such a horrible word, such a horrible thing to be,” he though, his gaze fixed on the crows gathering in the treetops at the end of the lane.
“Xylophone lessons, that’s what I’m going to take up; there’s a new class starting at the hall next Tuesday evening,” Lydia blew her nose noisily on a square of kitchen towel from the roll that George had thrust in front of her.
“You should come along, it might be fun.”
“Zither, that’s what I used to play, you know; got an old one in the attic, maybe I’ll get it down and see if I can still get a tune out of it” he said as he poured two mugs of tea, the long-lost shadow of a smile nudging at the edge of his mouth.
I have been very fortunate to find a writers' group to join in my new location. They have been very welcoming and I already feel very at home with them all. It's such a pleasure to share writings with others who write, and to hear everyone's contributions at our monthly meetings. It is often only when you read a piece out loud that you find the stumbling blocks - literally tripping over words and so finding out that they are probably not in the best order after all. There is always something to learn, things that can be done better.
As a result of joining the writers' group, I've recently had the great pleasure of being invited to record some of my short stories for the wonderful local radio station - Two Lochs Radio. A couple of these have been broadcast in the half hour programme, Westwords, which is broadcast on the first Wednesday of the month (at 9pm), and then repeated on the first Sunday (at 8pm). There are short stories, poems and longer pieces, all by local writers, delightfully interspersed by little snippets of appropriate music. One of my longer short stories is to be included in the next programme, on Wednesday 4th March (and then again on Sunday 8th March). If you are not in the local area, you can listen online, via the Two Lochs Radio website.
In the meantime, I thought I would share one of the stories which was broadcast for the first time at the start of this month, "Beyond the Begonias". It is also available in print in my first self-published volume of short stories, "A Short Collection of Small Stories". For anyone who is interested, it is one of my "alphabet" stories, where each sentence starts with the consecutive letter of the alphabet (and the story thus consists of 26 sentences). A little leeway is allowed when it comes to the letter "X"!
Beyond the Begonias - short story
After the rain stopped, she started planting again. Blood red begonias in big terracotta pots. Celia’s favourite flowers; she scooped handfuls of compost from the bag beside her, pressed the plants in firmly, watered them carefully. Digging her hands into the warm brown peatiness, she felt something akin to relief. Even breathing had been hard, recently. Forever looking over her shoulder, watching her back, thinking carefully before she spoke.
Gordon had become impossible. Hard to believe that the inert form sitting benignly beyond the French doors had once been a loving husband. Inch by inch, he had tortured them both into a living hell. Just when she had got to the point when she knew she must leave, a different plan emerged in her head. Kneeling on her cushioned weeding mat, a voice within had spoken quite clearly. Laughable though the thought was, Celia turned it over in her mind for several days. Moving through time in a stupor of misery, she nurtured the idea from tiny seed to little seedling. Now it was firmly planted; had taken roots, put out grasping tendrils. Only the timing had to be completely right. Piggishness on Gordon’s behalf had become the norm; she simply could not tolerate it one minute longer. Quelling her doubts, which were numerous, irrational and invalid, she acted quickly.
Right after supper one evening, she summoned him to the rooftop terrace to examine a fictitious missing slate. Shoving him over the tiny balcony had been easier than she had imagined. The body landed close to the new flowerbed, dug that morning by the young gardener she had recently employed. Under the dim sulphur glow of the streetlamps that night, she dragged the corpse into the hole. Violent waves of nausea overcame her and she gave her stomach contents as a parting gift. Where he had gone, no-one would ever know. Exiled to another country, run off with that brassy woman from down the road? Yes, maybe.
Zinnia, that was the name she had been trying to recall; that would be perfect for the new bed, Celia thought with a smile.
Photo credit : Ailsa Watson
For National Poetry Day
I wrote this free-form poem (with minor alterations) at the start of this year. It was a contribution to the Sustaining Life as a Creative Programme, run by the wonderful Creative Learning team in Aberdeen, which I was very fortunate to take part in.
The brief was to describe our creative journey.
I am the small pigtailed girl
Perched on the window seat, with
sugar paper and poster paints,
brush and water pot,
the wooden trolley
I am that girl in shorts and tee-shirt
on the west coast shore
searching for crabs every summer
before rockpooling was a thing
collecting shells and pebbles,
sticks and stones
I am the girl playing in the
corrugated iron shed behind
my granny’s house
wildflowers in a jam jar on the rickety table -
the hedgehog visiting -
imagination my best friend
I’m the schoolgirl sailing on the loch
with my first love
I'm the teenager climbing hills with friends
gazing over Scotland -
hills and heather
burns and boulders,
I am the student, drawing in my lab book,
Learning the nature of science
I am the scientist, fishing for facts about
Trout and mackerel and herring,
I am the translator, editor, creator,
putter-together of research volumes,
organiser of conferences and treasurer of troves
I am the mum with no clue -
doing, not making,
(except soup and cakes and occasionally marmalade)
with a head crammed full, jammed full
a scarcity of time to call mine
I am the thirty-something friend,
persuaded to trade
My violin for a fiddle,
To play tunes with people
Who would become pals
To add another dimension
I am the mandolin-playing ceilidh band member,
calling out dance steps
- Oh, the feeling of power!
I am the teacher of students,
The organiser of labs and lectures,
Marker of essays,
Developer of screen-based things
With no song to sing
Or dance to bring
I am the escapee,
Fleeing to evening classes -
Some shaky pots, a few pale paintings,
My sketchbook brought along
On family holidays
For rare moments of
I am the e-learning adviser,
Brain addled by screens,
Quitting the squeaky lino floors
Before it was too late
I am the pupil once more, online
And for real,
(because I respond well to being
I am the walker,
Walking with purpose -
In three years.
And Ben Nevis
No hesitation –
I am the delivery driver,
Dropping off veg
I am the spinner of stories
Weaver of yarns
I am the open studios partaker
Opening the door to my shed,
Pretending it is a studio,
letting people in to my life
To ask me questions
Which I find hard to answer –
When, What, Why, How?
It seems that some
Wish they had my life, whatever they
May think that is – living the dream –
An endless stream of ideas, most of which
Get washed away in the shower -
Down the drain, never to be
I am the artist, maker,
Creator of things
Which bring joy
I am the West coast
Still walking the tideline
In search of shells and pebbles,
Bleached bones of wood
Filling my pockets
Again and again
Still looking out to sea
I started writing this poem seven years ago. Today I finished it. This was prompted by a conversation last night about "mental load" and being directed to a cartoon illustrating this concept. It is an interesting concept and I realised its close connection with my thoughts while writing this poem. The pie chart above was constructed in 1999; that was not just about "mental load", but "physical load" as well. I am half-hoping that the legend is illegible!
NB: The poem was written at a time when we had a dog, a guinea pig and probably a budgie as well.
This is the path
That leads to the shed
That Jennifer wants to write in.
This is the poo
That lies on the lawn
That blocks the path
That leads to the shed
That Jennifer wants to write in
This is the guinea pig
Nice and warm
Out in his hutch,
ignoring the storm
that needed fed
and straw for his bed
on the path to the shed
that Jennifer wants to write in
these are the garments
washed and wet
that need some drying
and ironing yet
here is the post
on the mat
There is the telephone
Waiting to ring
Daring to call
To see if she’s in
Here are the dishes
In the sink
Here is the dog
Who needs a drink
Here is the clock
As it slips away
There is the rain
Falling out of the sky
Rescue the washing
-It’s nearly dry!
These were the obstacles
All in her head
Things to be done
And some to be said
Now she sees clearly
What she must do
-leave all the small stuff
And find a way through
To go on the path
That leads to the shed
That Jennifer's going to write in.
Do you recognise this painting? Yes. it's one of mine! The Green Boat, gracing the cover of The Leopard magazine.
A wee while ago, a lovely lady called Annie Woolridge contacted me, asking if I would be happy to be interviewed for an article she was writing on artists based in northeast Scotland. There was to be a series of articles. I happily said yes. Annie came to The Cabin one morning a couple of months ago. We drank coffee and chatted; she admired my paintings hung around the walls. I had tidied the studio a bit. At some point she turned on a very unobtrusive recording machine. It was all very relaxed and pleasant; I felt as if we had known each other a while.
I partly forgot about the process. then realised last week that the article might be in the current edition of the magazine. I popped into our local Co-op (I knew they stocked it) and lo and behold, there was my painting on the front cover! Above it on the magazine stand was the Scottish Field, with Alexander McCall Smith's name writ large upon it. I was thrilled to be in such excellent company, even in print! In fact I was so excited (not a very accustomed state for me, as those who know me well will confirm), I mentioned to the poor young lad at the checkout that it was my painting on the cover of the magazine, when I purchased a copy. He smiled politely.
In the run up to receiving copies of my new book of short stories, I thought you might like to read the first one free! Here it is; hope you are sitting comfortably. It is one of my "alphabet stories".
Arthur hated going on holiday. Beautiful sandy beaches and cloudless skies did nothing for him. Christine, on the other hand, spent all year looking forward to their fortnight’s break on the coast. Dutifully, Arthur looked out his khaki, knee length shorts and camel-dung coloured sandals. Every year, some mystery ailment would attack Arthur, usually on about day three of the holiday. Fretting over him as he lay under the floral eiderdown on the twin bed nearest the window, Christine would ask if he minded if she popped out for a little stroll on the promenade.
“Go on, you enjoy yourself. Have some fun, my dear, you deserve it. I’ll be fine here; I’ll just have a little snooze and then I’ll be as right as rain. Just give me a little tinkle on my mobile phone when you’re on your way back, so I know to expect you.”
Kenneth was waiting on the corner, a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums only partly hidden behind his back.
“Lovely to see you again, my dear!” he boomed so loudly she feared the whole street would hear.
“Must we carry on like this forever?” she asked, much later, as they drank tea at the little café on the prom.
“Not if you don’t want to, of course not,” Kenneth replied, holding both her hands in his.
“Only the lonely” was playing on the car radio, as Arthur pulled up outside Zena’s little house at the far end of the town. Parking in front of her tiny, neat garden, he sighed with relief at the sight of her smiling face at the open door.
“Quite the man about town, aren’t you?” she laughed, taking in his smart blazer and regimental tie, his neatly pressed trousers and shining shoes.
“Right, this old soldier is ready for some action,” replied Arthur, bounding up the front steps and into her arms.
“Steady on, you’ll end up having a heart attack, Arthur!”
“That would never do, imagine the scandal.”
Under the esplanade, Christine sat alone, staring out to sea. Valerie had given Kenneth an ultimatum; stay or go. Wise woman, Valerie, she had waited until she was dying of cancer to let him know that she had always known. Exactly at the moment when Christine was about to phone Arthur to say she was on her way back to the B&B, she saw a couple, happy and smiling, walk down the sandy shore and into the sea. Yesterday, holidays had seemed wonderful. Zena, her arm in Arthur’s thought she heard a splash at the end of the pier, as they turned back towards the town.
I'm in the process of editing a new book of short stories. After sifting through the pieces I've written over the past couple of years, I realised that I had enough to put a new collection together. It also seemed a wee bit overdue, the first one having been published in 2013. The format will be similar to the first volume - ten short and very short stories, half of which are "alphabet stories". The tales are told by a range of characters and include a walk in the park which turns sinister, a misunderstanding about money and affairs which end badly. I'm looking forward to finishing the editing and making this new volume available to you. If you would like to pre-order a copy, this will be possible very soon.