The Story So Far

I’m about to disappear for a week in the wilds of the west of Ireland so I thought I’d take the opportunity to recap on where I am with The Novel. I ‘m about three-quarters of the way through –   60,000 plus hand-written words – (I just cannot write direct to my PC…too many distractions) – building up to what I hope will be a thrilling climax.

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60,000+ hand-written words so far

It has been truly hard labour these past weeks. I have a track record of starting to write a novel and then throwing in the towel at about the mid-point as I always seem to lose my way. This time I have been determined to get past the mid-point. Now I think I know what the ending is going to be so I truly believe I’ll get to the finishing line. (sorry about the mixed metaphors!)

My “baddies” the vengeful Madame Ombrine and the inscrutable Oskar have ridden through the centuries, thanks to…oops no, can’t tell you that (but it’s not a time machine), lying, cheating, robbing and killing to arrive in France in 2013.  As a last throw of the dice in the game they have been playing they open the Nonesuch Club – a club for struggling writers.

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Are these the doors to the Nonesuch Club?

 

 

There they draw in my neurotic protagonist, Richard a writer of ghost stories who is broke, blocked and bedevilled by his past.

In the club’s writing room Richard finds he can shake off his writer’s block and, at the same time, lay some of the ghosts of his past to rest. But all is not as it seems and Richard becomes suspicious as other club members begin to disappear and ….That’s all for now folks.

So, a week exploring the Emerald Isle seems like a fair reward and I feel quite sure I’ll come across a heap of spooky stories to provide new material.

A Devilish Tale

The beautiful medieval Cité of Carcassonne offers rich pickings for a writer of ghost stories and things supernatural.

Within the walls and narrow streets of the Cité phantoms wail, weep and wander, fairly aimlessly by all accounts; cowled monks manifest only to disappear through walls but the tale I particularly like concerns a large well – The Well of the Fairies – which was one of several providing water for the inhabitants.


This photo of Carcassonne is courtesy of TripAdvisor

One dark night back in Medieval days seven archers went on a bit of a binge, roistering the night away in a number of local taverns. Well and truly sozzled they tumbled out of the last ale house and wandered through the deserted cobble streets. Filled with boldness and courage (I’m told drink can do that)they began to chunter among themselves and during their grousing and grumbling they were extremely rude about the patron saint of the Cité, St Gimer, the first archbishop of Carcassonne. They then compounded their discourtesy by dissing the Devil and all his powers.
As they stopped to draw breath after all their shouting and hollering, they noticed something just ahead of them in the narrow street – a donkey no less and one that was blanketed with a rich (and no doubt valuable) cloth.
It did not seem to occur to them to wonder why a richly-clad donkey should be wandering the streets of Carcassonne at that time of night rather they grabbed hold of it and one by one scrambled on its back. As each archer jumped onto the animal, it performed an extraordinary anatomical feat – that of stretching its back so that each man could be comfortably seated. Once all were aboard the donkey set off at a fair old pace, the archers whooping with glee. The donkey headed for the cemetery where the gleeful whoops turned into cries of terror as one by one the graves opened up and their occupants moaned a piteous lament.
‘Sacré bleu’ (and other appropriate French oaths) screamed the men, ‘it’s the Devil himself’ and they tried to dismount and flee but strangely they seemed stuck to the donkeys back by some sort of supernatural glue. The beast then whipped round and charged back through the streets to the great well in the square. There it plunged down the well with its doomed cargo who were never to let loose an arrow again.
If, one stormy night you dare to approach the well, you may find it lit up by the fires of hell and hear the heavy groans, moans and pleas of tortured souls rising up to greet you and if by chance, you are there when the clock of the church of St Nazaire strikes midnight, you too may find yourself transfixed with terror as the chimes resonate with the shrieks of the damned.

Bit of a wicked glint?

Bit of a wicked glint?

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

I have never been able to make my mind up about Ghosts and as a writer of spooky stories and things that go bump in the night this may seem a little odd, (but then I am a little odd). I think I may have had a few supernatural experiences; sometimes a place or building seems to me to resonate with times and people of the past – the battlefield at Culloden in Scotland was one such place; other times I have thought I saw someone or something out of the corner of my eye that just shouldn’t and couldn’t be there. Maybe there is a rational explanation:

1. Over-enthusiastic imbibing of alcohol
2. Over-heated imagination
3. Fatigue

There is just one experience where my rational jury is still out.

I was fifteen at the time and on an exchange holiday in France. I was thoroughly miserable at the time suffering an outbreak of teenage angst. After another day of trying and failing dismally to “fit in” with the crowd of posh teenagers on the beach who formed the circle of friends of my exchange family, I went to bed sore, sunburned and sniffing snuffles of self-pity. I shared my bedroom with Arianne, the seven year old daughter of the family with whom I was staying.

Sometime during the night I woke up. In the corner of the room was a huge ‘peacock’ chair, one of those woven basket-work affairs like a throne, and sitting in the chair was my Gran of whom I was very fond and who had died earlier in the year. She looked at me, smiled and said “don’t worry love, it’ll be alright, just be yourself.” Then she seemed to fade away. It was all very calm and not a bit scary.

I would probably have put this down to a half-waking dream or subconscious thoughts of my Gran were it not for the fact that my roommate, little Arianne asked me in the morning who the nice lady was that I was talking to in the night – the one sitting in the chair. “She had a kind face.”

My Grandmother

My Grandmother

Now umpty years later as I am writing spooky stories I still wonder – was it a ghost who came to comfort me? I don’t know but whatever it or who it was, my French exchange holiday took a turn for the better.

What about you? Do you believe in or are you a sceptic?

‘Tis the Season to be Merry

No, there isn’t a breach in the time-space continuum, the season in question is the start of the vide-greniers – aka car boot/yard sales and I have to admit I am a v-g junkie.

When I moved to France  I rapidly discovered that every week from about now onwards, the v-g’s start. They vary widely and I prefer the small village affairs where there is anything and everything on offer – from great-granny’s frilly bloomers to rusty scrapers for getting the hairs off a pig’s skin – once it had been swiftly dispatched first of course and a load of other ancient artefacts whose purpose escapes me completely.

Oh, the rustling, rifling, poking and picking over in boxes of…well, stuff…only to stand up, victorious holding just the thing you were looking for. The cut and thrust of complex negotiations to get the price down by 50 centimes; the waving of arms, pulling of faces ( you have no idea how many different faces a Frenchman can pull to express his disapproval and disappointment at your offer); I love it.

Among all the trash and gash there are goodies to be found for anyone like me trying to “dress” a room once it is renovated. The room in question this week is my Tart’s Bathroom (or to give it a more genteel title, Guest Bathroom). Granted there is tiling to be done, the bath to be installed – well to be honest it has yet to be totally renovated – but it’s never too early to start collecting bits and pieces together. This bathroom is to be a vision of black, white and silver, with a bit of saucy wallpaper to boot.

Saucy Wallpaper

Saucy Wallpaper

I’ve been seeking out bits and pieces for this room. This is my haul to date which includes a ceramic oil lamp for those lazy soaks, two silvered champagne buckets and a bath salts jar- a gal has so many bits and pieces to store, wrought iron hooks and a pair of opalescent glass wall lights for around the basin.

Goodies haul

Goodies haul

The V-gs are very sociable affairs and there is always time for a cup of thick black coffee, a natter with friends and neighbours (they aren’t always one and the same thing) and a reveal of each other’s ‘finds’.

The serious buyers, (dealers and brocante shop owners) as opposed to flibbertigibbets like me walk round purposefully, like hunting dogs on the scent. Eagle-eyed, elbows sharp and at the ready, their hands reach over your shoulder to whisk away the object you were about to pick up and mull over. You have to be quick to make up your mind; ‘after you’ has no place at a v-g.

Then, when you get your haul home, unpack it, try it out in its designated future place, that is the moment when you find that it is just perfect or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s not quite what you were looking for. Ah well, it can go back in a box for a while, it’ll come in handy some time.

” When Sorrows come, They come not as single spies but as battalions”

The sorrows I’m talking about are snails – from the Big Daddy with mottled brown shells to the smaller more delicate brown yellow and cream ones. Over winter they gather in gangs in my plant pots and down the bed-edgings discussing tactics and waiting for spring and a humid evening before launching their assaults. They’re here! It’s happening now.

Big Daddy

Big Daddy

Let's start on the wisteria buds

Let’s start on the wisteria buds

When I moved here the house walls were covered with Virginia Creeper and Wisteria. I had to strip it back to make repairs to the stonework and in doing so evicted hundreds of the beggars. Last summer was the summer of the snails’ revenge. They tiptoed among the tulips; gobbled the hostas; crunched the clematis and invaded the veggie boxes razing lettuce, spinach, peas and beans. They breached the defences. Gravel, grit, eggshells – bring’em on, no problem; sticky tape – we eat it; mass eviction to the fields beyond – ha we’re homing snails; copper wire – shock? What shock?

Tea for Two

Tea for Two

This year the Gardener Fights Back. But how?

I can’t bring myself to deliberately stamp on them but if I accidentally squish one I confess I get a hypocritical shiver of satisfaction when I hear the juicy crunch.

I have Mr (or possibly Mrs) Toad by my side. He lives in a disused drain and comes out to sit on the stone bench where I take my nightcap (drink that is, not headwear). We have had long meaningful conversations about strategy – granted he doesn’t say much apart from ‘ribbit ribbit’ – however I have installed a number of small water features intended to facilitate the expansion of the Toad family.

Similarly the hedgehog that slept all winter under a pile of leaves has joined in the battle enticed by a promise that I will create a more des. res. for her…perhaps a little more insulation…for next winter.

Then there are the birds. I don’t recognise some of them that frequent this French garden but we are entering into negotiations which exclude the use of the gut-busting pellets and include a daily donation of juicy morsels.

Eating them? Out of the question. I know I live in the land of snail eaters but have you ever tried eating them? They are truly tasteless, rubbery and without question one of the most unappetising comestibles ever.

Can I win this battle? I doubt it but possibly I may be able to agree a compromise and cease-fire. However any tips and hints that exclude the use of noxious chemicals and pesticides to add to my armoury would be more than welcome.

Two Years in France

This week it is exactly two years since my goods and chattels turned up in a whopping great van at my new French front door. The heavens opened, great spattering rain – welcome to the Languedoc. Lace curtains in the houses opposite danced the Twitch, faces peered out cautiously at this short, stout alien disturbing the peace of Petite Rue.

I had burnt all boats and bridges in England to buy a house, with big bro Mike, and move to France. The idea which came from nowhere – I mean I wasn’t looking to move across the Channel – was for me to live here permanently and my brother would take on the apartment on the first floor. It was to be one last great adventure.

Garden on first viewing

Garden on first viewing

My kitchen - 1st generation

My kitchen – 1st generation

My bedroom - 1st generation

My bedroom – 1st generation

As I attempted to marshall order out of the chaos of furniture and boxes that were disgorged from the van I tried to quell fears about whether I had done The Right Thing. How would I cope? Would my schoolgirl French stand up to scrutiny? Would I feel isolated, would I fit in, would I, would I? The thoughts buzzed around like a swarm of angry hornets.

We had spent just a week looking at properties and The Old Lady of Petite Rue got our vote. It is a village house in the middle of a row of others. There’s a barn at the back, a walled garden and about a quarter acre of land beyond. The house had received the twin curses of basic neglect and “modernisation”. I’ve come to the conclusion that many French do not like old property and do all they can to eliminate or cover up its origins with cladding, Upvc, plaster board and the dreaded crepi (sort of decorative plaster). It was a case of ‘out with the new and in with the old’ as we tracked down old windows, shutters, doors, door handles and so on.

I have learned a whole new vocabulary relating to building, electrical, plumbing and roofing along with more colourful tradesmen’s terms, appropriate for moments such as when opening up an electric socket and a whole wriggle of burnt out wires, which had no business being there in the first place, spew out like demented worms.

As I have got to know my neighbours I have also learned to tread carefully through the tight-knit family circles that make up the community. Some folk have lived here for generations and spats will break out from time to time which resonate through the village. Last Armistice day at the little ceremony held in the village square, the divorce of a village couple had split families and friends. A ceremony intended to celebrate peace was blanketed by silences, back-turning and gorgonesque glances. It is hard to know at first who is related to whom so the fear of putting foot in mouth is always at the back of my mind.

Like many rural villages its currency is gossip and the old stone benches that have survived modernisation and sit outside some of the houses – gossip seats – provide the means to pass on the latest ‘on-dit’.
“He didn’t, never! Bah alors!”
“She said what? Incroyable! Oh ma foi”.

After two years I still feel I’m a bit in limbo land, wedged between England and its culture and my adopted country. I miss my UK friends but now there is a civilised spare room, I expect visits and I have my french and other expat friends. We expats are known collectively – Les Anglais, Les Irelandais and so on. This last summer I almost graduated to becoming an individual again – Shayla or Madame Weelliams – so I must be making progress.

Group conversations still baffle me a bit – they go so fast, ‘du coq a l’ane’ (from the cockerel to the donkey). often I’m still framing a response to the cockerel whilst the conversation has whizzed on to the donkey. But I arrive in the end.

I am writing a lot more regularly now; the house is still work in progress; I scour the vide-greniers (boot sales) for goodies for the house and the garden is beginning to take shape. I have centuries of history on my doorstep waiting for me to discover and breath-taking (literally) landscape to explore. So this last great adventure – based on a totally unplanned, spur of the moment decision – is proving to be one of the best I’ve ever had. I hope I’m not tempting fate.

For Hands That Do Dishes

Hands! A strange subject for this blog but one somewhat forced upon me this week. To be specific I am talking about my hands. They want to retire, to give up working for me; to lie still, sun-warmed, on the armrest of a deck-chair, waving languidly from time to time as friends walk by.

I’ve known them all my life, from the chubby pink starfish waving out of the pram to the wrinkly-backed, blue-veined veterans that they have become. They have square palms, short fingers, one bearing the scar of a momentous tussle with a tin of salmon and a vintage can-opener. The nails are always short, often ragged particularly after a bout of gloves-off gardening.

They have cooked, cleaned, baked, lifted, hammered, twisted, built and demolished. They are hands that once twinkled over the piano keyboard, playing Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and the rest of the gang in a manner I’m sure the composers never intended. Once they could span an octave+2, now, I doubt they would reach a 6th.

They have played midwife to countless ewes in distress and brought forth their lambs, covered in eggy yellow slime, for their mothers to lick and nuzzle, whickering softly as they worked. They have also sadly buried those that never made it.

These hands have never held a baby of their own and were always anxious when a proud new mum thrust her new-born into them. The mite always pee’d, pooh’d or bellowed, red-faced – more often than not all three.

They have caressed in love and occasionally struck in anger.

They have tried and failed dismally to master the art of sewing – a button is about their limit. Similarly they never got past knit one, pearl one, damn, I’ve dropped ten stitches.

Now, poor things the dreaded arthritis is slowly fossilising them and I fear, that one day in the not too distant future I will wake up to find them encased in stone like the ammonite that sits on my desk, their history forever locked away.

They have worked hard for a living (they belong to a Saturday’s child after all) but now, when I pick up my pen or hunt and peck at the computer keyboard, they protest, painfully – the flesh and bone is weak but the spirit is still willing. They will soldier on encased in warm mittens that my friend Brigitte has knitted for me, embalmed in Nivea, sustained by glucosamine but if anyone out there has any ideas to help them, however weird and wonderful (short of ritual sacrifices) do let me know.