A meander down Memory Lane and a short ghost story, The Blue Lady

I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a bit of nostalgia this week. (Correction: a lot of nostalgia) But in my column, Ideas Store, in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am writing about the house I grew up in and how it inspired my sister and I to make up stories (usually involving ghosts).   There wasn’t room on my page for the story itself so I’m setting it out below and including some more detail about the story behind the story and the farm where I spent most of my childhood.

The house was an old Manor House, parts of which dated back to the 16th century (picture below) and before you run away with the idea that I am one of the landed gentry, let me explain some of the house’s more recent history.  

It was on a 350 acre farm in South Somerset, set in a stunning location which I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate at the time, mostly because it was in the middle of nowhere and at the top of a very steep hill.  I had to push my bike up with an overflowing school satchel cutting in to my shoulders after a long school day which started with a 2 mile bike ride, a 10 mile bus ride and a 15 minute walk – and ended the other way around in the evening.  (At least in the mornings the bike ride was downhill)  But the bus journey gave me chance to catch up on my homework – and check out the boys from the Grammar School.  (I went to an all girls school)

The farm and manor house was bought by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) back in the 1950s.  The farm had the most up to date machinery money could buy (my dad was the farm mechanic and looked after it all) and the idea was to run a model farm to show the farmers how brilliant ICI fertiliser was and how they could improve their  own farms by using it.  It would probably have been cheaper to have taken out a few adverts in the Farmer and Stockbreeder, I would have thought – but what  do I know?

So, the house, which I now see is a grade 2 listed building, was split up into four parts, one being the farm offices and the other three into dwellings for the farm workers.  It was a beautiful house, with high ceilings, tall mullioned windows  and acres of space.  I am one of six children and we had moved from a very cramped cottage.  I can still remember the joy of moving into that house and have vivid memories of my younger brothers riding a sit-on wooden train that Dad had made for them that first Christmas round and round the huge kitchen/living room.  

I loved Henley (in spite of it being in the middle of nowhere) and was desperately sad when my parents finally moved out, even though by then I’d long since left home.  My parents were still living there when I got married and we had our wedding reception in the farm’s Conference Room.  And, as you can see below, one of our wedding pictures was photo-bombed by  the ICI roundel!

There were six other families on the farm, many with young children so although we were several miles from the nearest town  there was always someone to play with.  I was a very bossy little girl and soon had all the other children on the farm press ganged into appearing in my various plays and pageants.  One of these, a pageant written for St George’s Day involved a lot of galloping around singing “For all the saints who from their labours rest” and precious little story.  This event turned into a complete fiasco when one of my younger brothers refused to be an angel any more and quit his post on top of an oil drum in the middle of the performance. It was the inspiration behind one of the first short stories I ever sold.  It was to Woman’s Weekly and called Angels on Oil Drums.

But the short story I want to feature this week is The Blue Lady, which, like many of my stories had its origin at this time of my life.  My sister and I would make up ghost stories, based on the house and its long history, and frighten each other to death. The Blue Lady was our favourite and the only one we can still remember.  What is interesting about that story is that it has now found its way into the local folklore.  

So when many years later I wanted to write a ghost story I remembered our Blue Lady and incorporated her into the story which ended with what I thought was quite a neat twist.  

THE BLUE LADY

‘For goodness sake, come in and shut the door.’ Jane Armstrong scowled at the woman who hovered behind her in the doorway. ‘I don’t pay you to stand around gawping like a goldfish.’

Elizabeth Parry, a  timid grey woman in her mid-fifties, flinched but didn’t move. ‘I’m s-sorry. – ‘ she stammered as she backed away. ‘I  can’t stay here.’ 

‘What?’  Jane was astonished.  She wasn’t used to people standing up to her, least of all mouse-like Elizabeth.

‘I said I can’t stay here. Oh, Mrs Armstrong, something terrible’s happened here. Can’t you feel it?’

‘The only thing I feel is the urge to slap some sense into you.’ 

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her thin body and shivered.  ‘It’s like – listen!  Can you hear it?’

‘All I hear is your idiotic babbling.’

‘Up there.’  Elizabeth pointed towards the upper landing.  ‘Oh, please, let’s get out while we can.’

This time even Jane heard the low, rasping noise, like something heavy being dragged across the floor.  She strode to the bottom of the stairs and called up: ‘Who’s there?  Show yourself at once.’

A door opened and a plump, red-faced woman with hair like steel wool leaned over the banisters.

‘My life, you startled me,’ she said.  ‘It’s Mrs Armstrong, the new owner, isn’t it? The agent said you wouldn’t be arriving until this evening. But not to worry.  I’m done here.’

She bustled down the stairs, her blue plastic bucket overflowing  with polishes and dusters

 ‘There’s your precious ghost, ‘ Jane sneered.  ‘A cleaner, moving a bit of furniture.  Am I right?’

The cleaner nodded then peered anxiously at Elizabeth’s pale face.  ‘Didn’t mean to startle you, my dear,’ she said. 

‘So now we’ve solved the mystery of your so-called ghost, Elizabeth, do you think you could do some work?  It is after all what I pay you for.’

But Elizabeth shook her head.

Jane  snorted. ‘Did you ever hear such nonsense, Mrs –er?’

‘Minty. Sarah Minty.’

‘Well, Sarah Minty, this madwoman here refuses to stay in this house,  Says it’s haunted, even though I’ve proved to her the ghost doesn’t exist. She’s losing her mind.’

‘If she is then so’s half the folk in this village.’ Sarah said. ‘She’s not the first to be afraid of Waytown Hall.  Several around here swear they’ve seen a ghost in this house  I’m one of the few who’ll set foot inside.’

‘You’re obviously far too sensible to believe in all that nonsense.’ Jane said.  

‘I believe in the spirits,’ Sarah said quietly.  ‘But I know this one means me no harm, though some think she was responsible for Major Harvey’s death.  He was the old gentleman who lived here before you.’

‘How did he die?’ Elizabeth  whispered, wide-eyed .

‘Fell down these very stairs.  Broke his neck, poor chap. Although I wonder if it wasn’t the spirits from a bottle that did for him rather than the Blue Lady.’

‘What did you call her?’ Jane  asked sharply.

‘The Blue Lady.  Nobody’s really sure who she is or why she walks but –’

‘No one .. except  … me.’ Jane said between wild gusts of laughter that left her gasping for breath. 

‘Mrs Armstrong, remember the doctor said over-excitement was bad for your heart,’ Elizabeth warned,  then turned to Sarah. ‘You’re wrong, Mrs Minty, about the ghost being a friendly one.  I feel intense hatred in this room.’

Sarah frowned. ‘Now you mention it there is something.  It wasn’t like it when I arrived but now… there’s a disturbance in the air,  as if – .’

‘When you two have finished scaring each other witless with your ghost stories, I’d like to tell you mine .’  Jane’s acid voice cut in. ‘It’s not scary – just very funny.  When I was a child, I lived in this house.  My mother died when I was a baby and so there was just me and my father, Charles Maidment.  I dare say you know the name?  There were generations of Maidments at Waytown Hall until my fool of a father sold it.’

Elizabeth gasped.  ‘You never said –’ 

‘It was none of your business,’ Jane snapped. ‘I’m only telling you now to end this nonsense.   I used to play with a girl called Margaret who was so gullible, she believed everything I told her. I’d frighten the life out of her with stories of headless monks and weeping children.  But the one that terrified her most was about the ghost who was supposed to haunt this house and how, if she touched you, you’d drop down dead.  Now do you see why I’m so sure your precious Blue Lady doesn’t exist?  I invented her!’

But still Elizabeth refused to stay.  When Sarah Minty left Waytown Hall,  Elizabeth, with one last anguished plea for Jane to come with them, went too.

‘Don’t come whining back to me when you find no one wants to employ someone of your age with no qualifications or reference,’ Jane yelled, slamming the door behind them.

‘Your temper’s as nasty as ever I see, Jane.’

Jane whirled round to stare up at a slender young woman who stood at the top of the stairs.  Her long, blue dress shimmered as she moved.

‘I knew you’d be back,’  The Blue Lady said.

‘Who are you?’

‘You know perfectly well who I am. I’ve been waiting for you. I had to frighten poor Major Harvey into falling down the stairs because I wanted the place unoccupied, ready for you.  Pity, though. He was a nice old chap.’

Jane shivered in spite of the central heating. ‘What do you want?’

‘To ask you why.’ The ghost closed her eyes as if, even after all these years, the memory still upset her.  ‘Why did you push me down the stairs? I loved you and thought we were a normal happy family.’

‘A normal happy family?’ Jane forgot her fear as the years slipped away. ‘I hated you. Daddy and I were happy until you came along.  He used to call me his Little Lady.  He didn’t need a wife and I certainly didn’t need a step-mother.’

‘Yet my death didn’t bring you what you wanted, did it?’  The Blue Lady began walking down the stairs towards Jane. ‘You and your father were never easy in each other’s company again.’

‘Of course we were,’ Jane said defiantly.  ‘Without you around to spoil things, we had a wonderful time.’

‘I know you’re lying because I’ve been watching you all these years.  Watching and waiting.’

 As the Blue Lady got closer, Jane felt a chill wrap around her like November fog.

‘You’ve been alone all your life, haven’t you? Nobody could stand being near you for long.  Your husband, even Elizabeth left in the end.  I made sure of that.  And as for your father -‘

‘I’m not listening -‘ Jane said but the quiet voice went on pitilessly.

‘After my death, Charles sold this house.  He couldn’t bear to be reminded of what had happened here because there was this tiny seed of doubt in his mind.  He saw you – did you know that? He saw you at the top of the stairs.’

‘I don’t believe you.’  

‘He thought your strange, too calm expression as you looked down on my body was the result of shock.  But over the years, every time you went into one of your uncontrollable rages, the doubts grew until he was finally forced to admit the truth.  That my death was no accident – and you were responsible.’

‘He couldn’t have –’

‘He died of a broken heart, you know, Jane.’

‘No!’ Jane screamed.  ‘That’s a lie. You were always lying to him.’

‘I never lie.  Unlike you.  You even made up the ghost story to frighten poor little Margaret.’

‘That was only a bit of  harmless fun.’

‘Your Blue Lady served my purpose well.  I even added my own little touch.  Can you smell violets? I was always very fond of them.  Don’t you think I’m a convincing Blue Lady?’ The gossamer material whispered against her legs as she gave a small twirl. ‘Your harmless fun appears to have backfired on you.’

She laid a hand on Jane’s wrist. ‘Come along now.’

The ghost’s touch had been icy but Jane’s wrist stung as if a red hot iron had been laid on it.  She remembered how she used to frighten Margaret by saying how if the ghost touched you … but it was only a story.  Wasn’t it?

As if she had no will of her own, Jane stumbled up the stairs, her heart beating erratically, frantically as she did so.  She remembered the heart pills in her handbag on the hall table, but instead of turning back to get them she kept climbing the stairs, her breath coming in short, painful gasps,  her eyes focussed on  the Blue Lady.

……..

Two days later, Elizabeth, worried about her employer, called the Police who found Jane’s body on the stairs.  It wasn’t until later that Elizabeth realised the sense of evil that had so frightened her earlier was no longer there. 

Now, there was nothing in the air but a faint lingering scent of violets.

My short story. The Kindness of Strangers (and where I got the idea from)

Before I was married I used to work in Bristol city centre and would catch the bus (it was, if I remember, the #18 for Clifton) to and from work.  And the buses were, at times, erratic.  No electronic thingy in the bus shelter showing when the next one was due.  You just waited and waited – and then three would come along all at once.

All that is a very long winded way of saying that I haven’t posted to my blog for several weeks and now I’m posting twice in one week.  I could tell you it’s because I’ve been poorly, but you don’t want to know that and I’ve waffled on quite enough.

So the reason for this, the second post of the week is the fact that issue 216 of Writers’ Forum is out this week and in my Ideas Store column, I said (among other things)….”and you can read the whole story on my blog.”  But, of course, it wasn’t there.

So apologies if you went to my blog hoping to find it.  But it’s here now.  (Although chances are, you have voted with your feet and decided not to bother, in which case I am talking to myself again.) 

IMG_9437
One of my earliest entries

In my column I was writing about notebooks and how I’ve kept one, on and off, for the last 15 years.  My first notebook was an old A4 hardback that I’d liberated from the day job but once I’d filled that, (it took my four years) I started using Moleskine notebooks because I was earning some money from my writing by then and could afford the luxury.

When I was writing short stories, I needed a steady influx of ideas to keep the stories coming.  (Wendy Clarke, who also started her writing career as a short story writer, touches on this in my interview with her). 

img_2311-2.jpeg
Very often, I would use a prompt, many of which came from Judy Reeves’ A Writers Book of Days.  I hope you can see from the illustration how well used my copy is.  One of these days I am going to add up all the stories that I’ve sold as a result of this book!

But the story I feature in this month’s Ideas Store, The Kindness of Strangers, does not come from a prompt but from my Fiction Square.  In Judy’s book, there is a prompt for every day of the year and I’d already used that day’s prompt in a previous year and had sold a story as a result of it.  So I didn’t want to use that again as I couldn’t get the original story out of my mind.  Instead, I used the Fiction Square from my column.

If you’re not familiar with the magazine, there is a 5 x 6 grid printed each month, showing 6 characters, traits, conflicts, locations and objects.  The idea is you roll a dice to find all the ingredients of your next story. On this particular day my dice rolls came up with:

Character 1. a sullen child

Character 2. an heroic climber

Conflict: Dispossessed

Location: charity shop

Object: a book.

IMG_1639I began writing in my notebook: Ok, I see a boy. Sullen, defensive.  He’s shoplifting.  Been dared to do so by so-called mates.  But, like everything else he tries, he’s not very good at it. He’s Billie-No-Mates.

Caught in the act by the climber, Rob.  (Something more valuable than a book) Rob is broken.  On crutches? Certainly doesn’t climb any more.  Why?  An accident.  What’s he doing in a charity shop?  Helping someone – his mother? No, he’s a customer. He’s a hero because he got a party of children to safety.  Doesn’t feel like it because one of them died. 

Since the accident, he’s been numb.  Blames himself even though the enquiry exonerated him. Praised him for his courage. He’s walked away from everyone who cares about him. Drifting from one dead end job to another. One dead end town to the next.  Sleeping rough. Shopping in charity shops for warm clothes. 

My notes went on for another two pages and at the end of it I had almost outlined  a complete story. I’d like to tell you it always worked like that but, sadly, that is not the case.  In fact, at one time I thought it had the makings of a serial.  Which it may well do one day.  Who knows?

So, as promised, here is the final version of that story, which was published in the UK magazine, My Weekly and has had subsequent overseas sales as well. 

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

As shoplifters went, the kid wasn’t even very good. Drawing attention to himself with each furtive glance. The idiot might as well be wearing a striped jumper, black mask and carrying a bag marked ‘swag’ over his shoulder.

Mac took a jumper off the hanger. It was a horrible mustard yellow, hand knitted thing, which was probably why it ended up in a charity shop. Not that he gave a toss what it looked like. The people he mixed with didn’t set too much store on sartorial elegance any more than he did. It was warm. It was cheap. Job done.

 He turned to take it to the till. The kid was still by the CDs. Probably just browsing after all. Whatever. None of his business.

The kid’s head suddenly shot up as three lads of about the same age as him came up to the window. One signalled him to hurry up. Mac watched as the boy slipped the CD into his pocket and hurried out to his giggling mates. He saw him show them what he’d got, heard the shrieks of derisive laughter. He saw, too, the kid’s head go down, shoulders hunched, as he shoved the CD back in his pocket.

Mac shrugged. No need to get involved. He’d be moving on tomorrow. To another dead end job in another dead end town. But at least this time accommodation of a sort went with the job. That would be good. The nights were getting too cold to spend many more on the streets and the pain in his leg was getting worse, the colder it got. Sleeping rough was not one of his better ideas.

The girl at the till looked ridiculously young to be alone in charge of a shop. No wonder the kids were stealing off her. Mind you, if she kept the more valuable items, like that little egg cup he was pretty sure was silver,  nearer the till, that would be a start. 

“I’m so glad someone’s bought this,” she smiled as she folded the jumper. “My gran knitted it for my brother and he refuses to wear it.”

“Lucky for him he can afford to be choosy,” Mac growled – and instantly regretted it. It came across as whingey, and self pitying and he was neither. 

“Oh Lord, I’m so sorry.” A flush stained the girl’s pale cheeks. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t,” he said tersely. Why didn’t she just bag the thing and let him go? He didn’t come in here to get her life history. Didn’t want to know about knitting grannies. Certainly didn’t want to think about his own, who didn’t knit. But worried. Even though he was thirty two next birthday, she still worried about him. Probably a little less now he’d given up climbing.

“I don’t usually work in the shop,” the girl was saying. “I’m happier looking after the animals. But the rescue centre needs the money desperately and when we had the chance of this empty shop for a few months, we jumped at it. But I’m not very good at it, as you can probably tell. Take these biscuits, for example. There were eight of them but now there are only six and I know I haven’t sold any. Look, I’m going to have a cup of tea and a biscuit while they’re still here. Would you like one? I made them, so it’s ok.” 

“No thanks.” Mac grabbed the bag and headed for the door. What? Did she think he was a bloody charity case? Or, maybe she thought he was the one who’d been nicking her precious biscuits? He might look a down and out. He might shop in charity shops. But that didn’t mean –

He stopped. He was angry. Hell, yes, he was angry. It was the first time he’d felt anything, except an icy numbness, since The Accident. Correction. Since the day after, when Mrs Pearce had screamed at him, called him a murderer. Said she hoped the knowledge that he’d killed her daughter would haunt him for the rest of his life. Well, she wasn’t wrong there.

He’d coped by training himself to feel nothing. No pleasure. No joy at the sight of a sunrise, no warmth in the company of friends, nor even the comfort of a soft bed. It was, he reckoned, a price worth paying. To be where no one knew him. Or tried to make him feel better by saying the accident wasn’t his fault. That he’d done all he could. 

When he knew, just as Mrs Pearce did, that he hadn’t.

Why then, had he got so angry, because a young woman with a big soft eyes and a sweet smile had offered him kindness? Was it because she’d seen him as an object of pity? Someone who couldn’t even afford the price of a cup of tea and a biscuit? Who relied on the kindness of strangers?

Much better save her pity for the downtrodden donkeys and abandoned dogs.

As he reached the door, he was surprised to see the young shoplifter approaching and stood back to let him in. Then, on an impulse, he turned and followed him back into the shop. Outside, the others were urging the kid on. Obviously, the CD was not to their taste and they’d sent him back for bigger fry.

The kid reached into his pocket, took out the CD and put it back on the shelf. Mac watched as he edged up to the shelf where the silver egg cup was. Saw the furtive look as he picked it up, the relief when he saw the girl was busy on the other side of the shop.

Without realising he was going to do it, Mac walked across, put his hand over the boy’s stick thin wrist. Waited until the hand opened and the boy let the egg cup go. He looked up at Mac, his eyes wide with fear.

“Look, I’m sorry, mate,” Mac said loudly. “It’s no good asking me about volunteering. You should ask the lady over there. It’s her shop. I’m sure she can do with some extra help. Isn’t that right?” he said as the smiley girl came across to them. “Who knows? She may even offer you a cup of tea and a biscuit while she tells you all about the rescue centre.”

She looked surprised. Saw, too, the egg cup, upside down on the shelf. He could see she understood what had happened here. Would she call the Police? Up to her. It was stupid of him to have got involved anyway. It was just there was something about the kid. He’d seen it many times before. 

Back in the day, before The Accident, he’d worked with kids just like him. Not bad kids, most of them. They came to the Outdoor Pursuits Centre where he’d worked, full of bluster and bravado when they first got there. Scared witless at their first sight of a mountain close up. Trying desperately not to show it. Hell, but he used to get such a kick out of the ones who ‘got it’, the ones who scraped their knuckles, cramped their legs muscles, forced themselves so far out of their comfort zones they’d never be the same again. The ones who stood with him on the top of the mountain, their eyes full of awe, their faces full of wonder.

This boy wasn’t a bad kid. Just had some bad mates. Not that Mac gave a toss what happened to him, of course. 

“Here,” the girl gave the boy a beaming smile and handed him a leaflet. “It’s really good of you to enquire about volunteering. We run the rescue centre on a shoestring, you know, and need all the help we can get. Why don’t you read that and, if you’re still interested, come up to the centre, meet the animals and we’ll talk about it?”

The boy mumbled something barely audible and scuttled out of the shop.

“Thank you, Mac” the girl said quietly. “You handled that really well.”

He spun round, his mouth dry. “You know me?” he whispered, rubbing his hand through his straggling beard, his long lank hair.

“I do now. You are Rob McKinley, aren’t you? I wasn’t sure when you first came in. But my brother – the one who hasn’t the wit to recognise a good jumper when he sees one – he has a poster of you on his wall. Climbing’s his passion. You’re one of his heroes.”

Hero? He was no bloody hero. He was the guy who hadn’t been able to stop a young girl fooling around on a mountain. Hadn’t insisted she stayed with the group and not forge on ahead. Hadn’t been able to get down to her quick enough. Hadn’t been able to stop his own out of control tumble down the treacherous scree covered slope as he tried to reach her, his leg snapping like a twig during the fall. Hadn’t been able to move her, nor force her to hang on to life as they’d waited for the rescue party. 

Had cradled her lifeless body, long after she’d gone. 

“I was so sorry to hear about your accident,” the girl said softly. “Sorry, too, about the girl. It wasn’t −”

Mac’s hands were shaking as he wrenched open the shop door. Time to move on. Fast. Before she had chance to tell him that the accident wasn’t his fault, that he was – what had they said at the enquiry that had exonerated him? – a hero. 

So he did what all ‘heroes’ do when they come up against something they can’t handle. He ran – as fast as his wreck of a leg would carry him.

………..

“Thank you,” Mac said as the man dropped money into the bowl. He felt a cold nose touch the back of his hand and reached to fondle the dog’s head. Archie was never far from his side.

“Well, how are we doing?” Beth asked.

“The money’s rolling in,” Mac said. “It’s typical of Tom to turn his leaving do into a fund raising bash, isn’t it?”

“He’s a great kid, isn’t he? And he’s going to be a great vet, too.”

“He’s got a long, hard slog ahead, though. Getting into vet school’s one thing. Staying there’s another.”

“He’ll be fine, Mac. Don’t be such a pessimist.”

He pulled her towards him and kissed the top of her head. “You always see the best in everyone. And I love you for it.”

He loved her for a whole load of other things as well and there wasn’t a day went by that he wasn’t thankful for the way she’d run after him that day. Taken him back to the shop, made him sit and listen and eat those damn awful biscuits she’d made.

“Of course I see the best in people,” she said. “And you don’t, I suppose? That day in the shop, you could have had Tom arrested for shoplifting.”

“And so could you. You knew as well as I did he wasn’t in the shop to volunteer.”

“Yet look where volunteering’s taken him,” she said. “I knew, from the first moment he turned up at the rescue centre that he was as nuts about animals as I am.”

“Nuts being the right word.” Mac ducked quickly. Beth could pack a hefty punch, a result, she claimed, of standing up for herself against her bully of a brother.  The same guy who was now Mac’s best friend, climbing partner and soon to be best man at their wedding.

“Well, get on with it,” Beth said. “There’s a load of people heading this way who haven’t bought raffle tickets yet. You’re slipping.”

Mac smiled as he watched her hurry away to talk yet more people into sponsoring donkeys or adopting ducks. 

Beth could never resist a stray. She treated the frightened, the abused and abandoned with the same quiet patience she’d dealt with him. Gently, but firmly, she’d chased away his demons and dragged him back to life. 

A life which, amazingly, she wanted to share. Along with four donkeys, a foul mouthed parrot and goodness knows how many dogs, cats, chickens and ducks.

 THE END

A short story for Christmas – and a Dalmatian called Jemima

Sleeping Dalmatian by a Christmas tree
Too much partying, too much booze, Gives you spots and makes you snooze. Jemima Christmas 2011

Well I did it! I hit ‘send’ on my second Much Winchmoor novel on the due date, so as promised in my last blog post, I’m posting this short story by way of celebration. Also, it’s a thank you to all you lovely people who have followed my blog during my stumbling journey towards and beyond publication of my debut crime novel, Murder Served Cold.

It is not a Christmas story but one I enjoyed writing very much as it features a Dalmatian called Jemima – and here’s a photograph of the dog that inspired it. She was a sweet natured, gentle dog and was very much loved.

This story is dedicated to her and all the other dogs we have been privileged to share our lives with.

Mail Order Husband

“WANTED: A Husband.  Must be young and fit with good teeth and bone structure.”

I read out what I’d just written to Jemima, who was watching me, her lovely amber eyes focussed intently on my face.  “What do you think so far?” I asked. “Is there anything else you’d like  me to say?  Good sense of humour?  Enjoys long walks in the country?”

Jemima gave one of her special smiles, then went across to the door and looked back at me impatiently.

“OK, I’ll be there in a minute,” I said.  “But I’ve got to finish this ad first.  It is, after all, for your benefit, so don’t rush me, otherwise I’ll forget the most important bit.  ‘Must have spots’. Better not leave that out, had I?”

After all, spots are pretty important to a Dalmatian – and Jemima, my two year old Dalmatian was pretty important to me.  In fact, since Simon stomped out of my life, she was the single most important thing left in it.  

Maybe, this tiny niggling voice inside my head was saying, that was the case before Simon stomped out – and maybe that was why he stomped.

That and the dog hairs, of course. They used to drive him bananas.  If he was wearing light coloured clothes, the black hairs would show while the white ones stuck like a shower of tiny barbed magnets to his smart, something-in-the-City suits.

But now Simon had gone, there was nothing stopping me letting Jemima have a litter of puppies, hence my quest to find her a husband – or in her case, a one night stand.  In fact, for Simon, that was the final straw, or do I mean dog’s hair?  He didn’t quite say ‘it’s me or the puppies’, just the usual stuff about growing apart and how it was him, not me.

I finished writing the ad, popped it in an envelope ready to put in the post box when I took Jemima out for her walk.  There were some wonderful dog walks close to where I lived and in the two years I’d had Jemima, I’d got to know and like most of the other dogs and their owners in the area.  

All, that is, except one.  The dog was the most peculiar looking creature you could imagine, with weird, angular limbs that stuck out at awkward angles when he ran.  He had huge clumsy paws, hair that looked like a worn down yard broom and a bark that could have been used as a foghorn in the English Channel.  I have no idea what his owner looked like because he was invariably a couple of fields away, bellowing at the dog to come back.

Only of course, the dog never did.  If that dog had been human, he’d have had an asbo slapped on him ages ago.  He was a nightmare.

As I crossed the stile into the next field, there ahead of me, was Asbo Dog who took one look at me and Jemima and ran towards us, no doubt trying to warn us there was a giant oil tanker bearing down on our starboard side.

I did what I always did when I heard him.  I turned, went back over the stile and into another field, calling Jemima to follow me as I did so.

But she didn’t.  Instead, for the first time in her life, instead of coming when she was called, she took off across the field towards him, like Cathy and Heathcliff on the Yorkshire moors.

“Jemima.  Come back now.” I yelled, but it was no good.  The two of them streaked through the hedge and out of sight, leaving me to run as fast as I could after them.

“Was that your dog chasing mine?” a young man with wild hair and anxious brown eyes asked me.

“My dog chase yours?” I stopped to get my breath and realised I was talking to the owner of Asbo-Dog.  “Let me tell you, Mr -?”

“Nick.  My name’s Nick.”

“Well, Nick, your dog is the worst, the most out of control dog I’ve ever met. Have you never heard of training classes?”

Nick pushed his fingers through his hair, making it wilder than ever. “I tried – but he got expelled.  Untrainable, she said.”

“Nonsense.  You should have found another class.  No dog is untrainable, you know, just their owners.”

“And what would they teach me?” he said, his mouth twitching like he was trying to hide a smile.

“To get your dog to come when it’s called, for a start,” I said, realising too late I’d  walked into his trap.

“Like – what was it you called her?  Jemima?”

“Yeah, all right.” I couldn’t help laughing but it soon faded.  “Seriously though, we ought to find them.  I don’t know about yours, but mine’s got the road sense of a paper bag.  And if they should get as far as the main road –”

“Good point.  Mine usually sticks to the fields, but it looks like your Jemima has turned his head well and truly today.  Who knows what might be going on in that pea brain of his.  I’ll try calling him again.  Dolly!  Come here boy.”

“Dolly?”  We were half way across the second field by now but I stopped and turned to stare at him.  “You have a great bruiser of a dog who’s built like a tank, looks like a giant bottlebrush and has a bark like a fog horn – and you call him Dolly?”

Nick shrugged.  “I don’t know much about dogs but the name suits him when you get to know him.”

I stopped myself in time from saying I didn’t think I wanted to get to know Dolly and I certainly didn’t want any of his bad habits rubbing off on Jemima.

“He was a rescue dog,” Nick went on.  “My girlfriend bought him, said she couldn’t resist his cute face.  She knew even less about dogs than I do, but we could see he was a right old mixture of breeds, so we thought it would be very clever to call him Dolly.  For Dolly Mixtures?  We thought he was a she, you see.”

“Obviously,” I said.  “But even when they’re little puppies, it’s fairly easy to tell little boy dogs from little girls.”

“I did say we didn’t know much about dogs,” he said with a rueful grin.  “And by the time we discovered out mistake, the name had stuck.  Unfortunately, at about the same time, my girlfriend realised she’d made another kind of mistake and that she wasn’t really a dog person, or, when she stopped to think about it, a me person, so she walked out, leaving me and Dolly to rub along without her.”

By this time we’d covered most of the field and I was beginning to get seriously worried about Jemima.

“She’s never run off before,” I said, my throat feeling quite sore from calling for her.

“I’m afraid Dolly does it to me most days,” Nick said.  “I live in the cottage at the end of Henley Lane and by the time I get back, he’s there, waiting for me, a big silly grin on his face like he’s saying ‘what kept you?’  Hey, come on, they’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

But by the time we trudged back to his cottage, there was no great overgrown bottlebrush of a dog waiting on the doorstep with a big silly grin.  No sign of Jemima either.

I was seriously worried and ready to burst into tears.  “If anything’s happened to her, I’ll never forgive myself,” I said as I tried but failed to imagine life without my stupid, scatterbrain, intensely affectionate dog who would wrinkle her lips back in a smile – and steal the food off the table the second my back was turned.

“Look, why don’t you come in and have a coffee or something?” Nick asked.  “You look all in.”

“No, I must keep looking.” 

“Just a quick coffee – and I’ve got some very nice chocolate biscuits. Come on round the back.  It’s easier -“

He stopped so suddenly that I bumped into him on the narrow path that led around the side of his cottage.  To one side of the cottage was an old lean to that Nick obviously used as a log store.

And there, cosied up together like Brad and Angelina was Jemima and Dolly.  He was looking like the cat who got the cream while she looked like she’d not only got the cream but the champagne and chocolates as well.

I went to get her lead from my pocket when I felt something crackle. I pulled it out.  It was the envelope I’d forgotten to post.

“You’re all right,” Nick said.  “There’s a post box just outside the cottage.”

“I think it’s a bit late for that,” I said.

He shook his head.  “No, I don’t think it’s been collected yet.  Do you want me to -?”

I shook my head and laughed.  “I meant it’s probably too late as far as Jemima’s concerned.  This is an advert for a husband for her.  I was trying to find another Dalmatian, you see.  Only it looks very much like Jemima had her own ideas when it came to finding a mate.”

“Oh Lord, I am sorry,” Nick said.  “But don’t I remember hearing somewhere that there are injections dogs can have, sort of like the morning after pill?”

I looked at Jemima, still cosied up to Dolly.  And I looked at Dolly with his sweet trusting face and friendly eyes.  And do you know, he was quite a handsome looking dog, after all.  The sort that grew on you.  Very much like his owner, come to think of it.

“Oh I don’t know,” I said, “Goodness only knows what the puppies will be like.  We’ve probably invented a new breed.  We can call them –”

“Dolly-dallies.”

We both said it together, proving what I was coming to suspect.  That Nick and I had as much in common as our dogs. 

THE END

Now, all that remains is to wish you all a happy Christmas and a hope that 2019 brings you everything you wish for. xxx


Where do you get your ideas from?

IMG_1361

Angels on Oil Drums

As I started writing this week’s blog, the flag of St George was flying from the flagpole on the top of our village church for St George’s Day, England’s patron saint. 

I have good reason to celebrate St George’s Day because it was the inspiration behind the very first story I ever sold.  

 I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write.  As soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil, I was writing.  Plays, stories, comic books, poems and even a pageant or two. Throughout our childhood,  I bullied my three younger brothers  into appearing in various ‘plays’ I’d written which we’d then perform for all our neighbours – at least, the ones who weren’t quick enough to come up with a decent excuse.

My first publicly performed work was a bit of a cheat as it didn’t involve any original writing.  It was a pageant, enacted to the words of the hymn “For all the saints, who from their labours rest…” to celebrate St. George’s Day.  

The ‘stage’ was to be our front lawn, the backdrop Mum’s washing line with a couple of old grey blankets draped over it.  I’d filled two large jugs with armfuls of  pink and white blossom which stood at the front.  It looked perfect. Except for the oil drums.  One on either side of the ‘stage’. 

My mother drove a hard bargain and insisted that if she was going to allow her garden and washing line to be turned into a stage, then my two youngest brothers (three year old twins) had to be given parts in the pageant.  I was not keen.  But, in the end I capitulated and said they could have non-speaking parts as angels – as big a piece of miscasting as Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.

But there was a slight problem (and I’m not talking Tom Cruise here).  The twins were quite small and so would not be seen. So I had the brilliant idea of standing them on upended oil drums, one either side of the stage. (Now why didn’t Tom Cruise think of that?)   

I then tied one of Mum’s sheets around their necks to cover both them and the oil drums and commanded them to hold their arms up as wings.  I also made them beautiful blonde wigs from unravelled binder twine which, they complained, itched.  (Did I say I was also the costume and set designer?  Not to mention writer, producer and chief press-gang officer).

I was St George, of course.  After all, it was my pageant.  And my other brother, Mike was the unfortunate dragon who spent most of the time being beaten around the stage by me wielding a wooden sword.

We were about half way through the first verse of “For all the saints...” when the left hand ‘angel’ started to fidget and fell off his oil drum.  The right hand ‘angel’, who probably had more sense than his brother, decided he was bailing out before he too fell off his oil drum and made a dash for freedom across the garden, trailing his sheet behind him and ending up hiding in the middle of the raspberry canes.  He was closely followed by the family dog who thought this was the best game ever.

I, like the trouper I was,  carried on singing.  And beating the dragon about.  Until he decided that he, too, had had enough.  So there I was, St George,  victorious and alone, singing away to myself and failing to notice that my mother had disappeared into the raspberry canes after my brother and the dog.  And the rest of the audience was falling about with laughter.

After all these years my brothers still claim they were traumatised by the event, which gets told and retold at every family gathering.  So when, about twelve years ago I was looking to break into the short fiction market and trying to follow the advice ‘write about what you know’, I wrote this short story based around my ill fated pageant.  

Angels on Oil Drums” was the first of many stories I sold to Woman’s Weekly and it still remains one of my favourites.  Not such a favourite with my brothers, though – although I did buy all three of them their very own copy of Woman’s Weekly which I’d like to tell you they have treasured to this day.  But I very much doubt it!

A few years ago now, my brother Mike (the ex-dragon) came to one of the pantomimes I’d written for our village theatre group  (link here to my thoughts on writing this year’s). He remarked what a relief  it was for him to come and see something I’d written that he hadn’t been bullied into appearing in.

My story, Angels on Oil Drums, will be in my first collection of short stories, entitled “Selling My Grandmother” which will be published later this year.  Watch this space!

Other News

I’m finishing the final edits of the final chapter of my serial, The Primrose Path, this week – and am at that stage where I think I’m never going to be able to cut it down to the required word length.  Although I always do, somehow.  As for tying in all those loose ends…

Duke, the Dalmatian has had a poorly paw and after a week on anti-inflammatories and antibiotics is now confined to lead only walking for another two weeks.  Trying to keep a Dalmatian quiet and rested is like trying to contain a Jack-in-the-box with a faulty lid. But if you’ve got to do an on-lead-only walk, then the beautiful Bishop’s Palace Gardens, in Wells, Somerset has got the be the place to do it.

DukeTulips.JPG

Daily Prompts. May 1st to 15th

I hope you’re enjoying the daily prompts. (For details of how to use them, follow this link)  I have now caught up with myself, so below are the prompts for the first fifteen days of May.

I always keep a note in my journal of where the ideas for each new story came from and I can see that of the fifteen, four made it as completed (and sold) stories.  So it does work!

  1. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May (Shakespeare)
  2. A time when you wanted to leave but couldn’t
  3. Being discovered in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  4. “I have spread my dreams beneath your feet/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” (WB Yeats)
  5. Suffering the consequences of doing something to excess.
  6. Write about a premonition
  7. Your first day at school, work.
  8. Look back in anger. (John Osborne’s play of this name opened in 1956)
  9. Fear of getting old.
  10. Things done in the heat of the moment.
  11. He/she is the sort of person who….
  12. Write about your earliest memory
  13. Living the dream
  14. Through the open window comes the sound of someone playing the piano.
  15. On this day in 1918 the first regular air mail service began. Write about receiving an unexpected letter.

Thanks for reading this far.  Each time I post, I promise myself that I’ll keep it short and snappy this time.  But I never do.  And that’s what I love about blogging.  After three days of trying to cut 5800 words down to 3300, writing this has been sheer bliss!