Then and Now

I didn’t realise that Monday’s post was my 100th. Have I really done that much burbling? Have I really frittered away my time grinding out the words that hopefully someone will read and
appreciate? Did I keep an anxious vigil watching over the statistics pages? Did I agonise about when I’d be DISCOVERED? Nah, not really or at least only at the very beginning.

When I started off in January it was all deadly serious stuff about the writing process and my book Time for Your Life . Now it’s just random burblings interspersed with snippets from one of the two books I’m currently completing – both of which I’m sad to say have run aground on a sandbank and are sitting there waiting for me to rescue them.

I had no idea what to expect when I started blogging – certainly not to gain a respectable number of followers which I have – although most of them I suspect were just “fishing and farming” and have never been heard of again. I did think at first that they’d just got bored and “unfollowed” but wouldn’t someone have told me…who knows?

Those who have stuck with me I’ve come to regard as virtual and possibly virtuous friends and if I don’t hear from them I worry about them wondering if all is OK or whether I’ve just pissed them off too. I’m humbled (OK not obviously so) by their talent and facility with words.I try to give feedback and comment but I’m not as forthcoming as I should be. I have to be ruthless in allocating time to deal with social media otherwise I’d be lollygagging about all day, still in my PJs and curlers.

In these eight months of blogging so much more has changed than tying myself to my PC to write a blog. I’ve the one book under my belt – not a runaway success but then it was never meant to be. It’s done what I wanted; through licensing it to clients, it’s paved the way for me to spend a lot less time running after the day job and much more time writing. Any sales now are a bonus.

I’ve got back into the swing of writing short articles and features for magazines and I’ve even delved into the world of short stories and competitions although I don’t know the results of that yet. This week I received my first commission (as opposed to sending in a pitch) for an article as a result of someone reading this blog; I’ve broken into the national magazine market for the first time and most exciting of all I’m in discussions about ghost writing an autobiography for…mum’s the word.

I haven’t missed the day job; in fact the few days I do work at it I enjoy much more than I was doing twelve months ago. Its not just work; it’s an opportunity to socialise as well. That is one aspect that I need to add more off to the mix – there are times when I go a whole week without having a conversation with anyone except myself, the birds, the plants in the garden and my characters. It may seem odd for someone who is the author of a book about work-life balance, but then anyone who has read it will know that I put a lot of emphasis on making conscious choices about where and when to put time and effort rather than acting by default. But I do worry sometimes about becoming that batty old bag who waddles around the village muttering to herself so I just phone a friend.

What comes next? You’ll just have to wait and read the next exciting episode of Sheila in Blogoland.

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Seductive Synopses

Something from the motivational conference I attended earlier this week must have snuck into one of the spare rooms in my brain because I have shifted some work this week. For the first time ever I chose to put writing above the day job so I got a real feel for what life might be like if I ever give up the day job.

In line with my policy of trying to get a couple of articles accepted every month I have a queue of pieces all waiting in their allotted folders to be fully developed. The basic idea is there together with notes and research material. To get them all placed I sent out a half-dozen pitches and whilst I was at the conference two came back as acceptances…well one had a laconic “let me have a look” but ever the optimist I take that as a yes. Writing those two articles kept me full at it until the witching hour on Tuesday.

But the big thing this week was a nibble from a publisher and very pleasant it was too. In a rush of enthusiasm, on spec I had submitted a 150 word general summary of the book The Uncertain Coast via the publishers’ website. Just in case you’ve forgotten the Uncertain Coast is an illustrated light-touch history of the towns and villages lost to the sea on the unstable Holderness coast and of some of the people who lived in them. On Wednesday the publishers came back and asked for a full synopsis.

Yikes – this presents something of a problem. They want details of word count, how many photos/piccys, chapters and chapter summaries, markets and market sizes, hat and shoe sizes – no I made those up just to check you’re still awake. The problem is I simply don’t know. I’m about a third of the way through the research and have just the first chapter written plus two others.

I’m not great at planning out a structure, chapters and content before I’ve completed the research. When I judge I’ve got all the material I can access together, then I start to fit the pieces and the book evolves. So collecting up some emergency rations – fruit, energy bars and sport water – what? Who wrote that? My emergency rations come in the form of choccy, cashew nuts and a fruity red wine. I went into conclave with my co-author i/c photography and we knocked something into shape. I was elected to turn that something into a persuasive, seductive come-and-buy-me to the publishers.

I’m currently on version 5, weary, wordless (well almost) and most telling of all, I’ve realised that seduction is not my forte.

Y’all have a good weekend now.

I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

Yesterday was a glorious day for a bit of field research and, purely by chance, I happened to have a commissioned article to write which entailed just that. I needed to take some photos and to pay a visit to a local museum in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales.

I’m finding that short (1000-1200 words) articles are a useful way of adding to the coffers whilst working on my magnificent octopus…oops, opus. My goal is to have two to three of these articles on the go each month. It’s a bit of an ask but I’m sure I can rise off my beloved sofa and meet the challenge full on.

I don’t look to the nationals to stop my financial wheels from falling off; it is mainly regional magazines, small press and trade press that keep the Writeonthebeach literary aspirations on the road. The pay is reasonable and (so far) reliable and it’s fun to write for them too.

The only problem is that I get so immersed in the research that it takes me a lot longer than it should to produce the finished article and that impinges either on writing time for the M.O. or on the day job. But then, when you’re striding out across the moors with only a few tatty-wool sheep for company and a lone curlew calling overhead, who cares?

The article is finished and the photos ain’t too shabby so after a few days “mulling time” (just to be sure I’ve not made any howlers) it’ll be winging its way to the editor and after a decent interval the next pitch will follow.

I love it when a plan comes together or am I tempting fate?

Suffer the Little (and no so little) Children

Whoa I’m not used to a full week working the day job any more. It’s left me with a full Reader so if you’re waiting for a comment, reply or ack. Apologies for the delay.

My trips to London are always illuminating and this one was no exception. At dinner I found myself with three of the workshop participants who, between them, had seeded this planet with eleven little look-alikes ranging from 2 to 20 years. This left me the odd one out since I’ve never had the slightest urge to contribute even one mini-me to the human race.

This, to me unremarkable fact, created a fluttering of feathers in the dovecote; looks were exchanged; questions were formulated (in the nicest possible way). I sat back and waited.
“Don’t you feel you’ve missed out by not having your own children?”
No – my choice and no regrets.
“Don’t you feel, well …just a bit unfulfilled?”
Er, no again.
“Who will you have around you when you get old?”
I’ll throw myself on the mercy of the State.

By way of compensation for my childless condition, I was treated to the life and times of eleven completely unknown sprogs. Oh the births, the schooldays, the visits to A&E, the girlfriends/boyfriends, the costs – this epic of parenthood continued for a couple of hours until rigor set in and I fell off my chair. The empty wine bottles on my side of the table were pure coincidence.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not Cruella de Vil of baby world. Granted I find them difficult to get on with; perpetually moist at both ends, they cry lustily whenever a misguided mother tries to plant one in my arms. But otherwise when they’re a bit older children and me- we get along just fine.

Take the toddler on the train mining his left nostril and depositing the er…deposits on the back of the seat. We had an animated conversation whilst his mother chatted to her friend.

Or the exuberant, full of the joys of life youths throwing empty drink cans at my car in downtown Hull. Although their vocabulary range was just a teensy bit limited we held a full and frank exchange.

I certainly don’t get uptight about the fascinating, high-volume, fast-paced mobile phone conversations between girl-friends, you know, like, puncturing the silence of the Quiet Coach, you know, like, on the train. I have my earplugs with me.

I’ve even been known to go all warm and fuzzy watching little sticky fingers wave goodbye from the backseat as their mum’s car disappears down my drive and I reach for the stain remover and sponge.

No-one can accuse me of being insensible to the abilities of other folks’ children. In fact I think I can safely say I’m one of the most tolerant non-parents around in this part of the world.
Now, time to let slip the dogs and pull up the drawbridge.

Catching the Rhythm

This week is a day job week so rather than my usual posts – here’s a short story for you altho’ it’s a bit long for my usual posts. The story was inspired by my mum who struggled valiantly against the after-effects of a stroke. I entered it in a comp and it won first prize. Hope you like it too.

Catching the Rhythm

I wake early as usual. It’s still there, squatting in the corner, a malignant black and chrome goblin, with red handles turned back like goat horns. It’s only a wheelchair but I loathe it.

It arrived…when was it? Oh, I don’t remember now. Rosie the physiotherapist brought it in.
“Your chariot awaits” she trilled. “This one’s been specially tailored for you.”
‘Specially tailored for you’ the words sounded ominous. “Why?” I’d asked. “I won’t need it for ever. I’ll be walking before long…won’t I?”
“I’m sure you will” Rosie soothed, “but it takes time you know. You’ll be more comfortable in your own chair rather than the small hospital one”.

After breakfast, Rosie pushes me down to the gym. The chair smoothes silently over the lino floors. Once I’m in it I feel as though it will never let me out. I’m almost sure the footrests will snap over and shackle me for ever. I know I’m being fanciful but it’s how I feel about the thing.

In the gym, Rosie and Karen, her helper, manoeuvre me on to the bench.
“Sit up straight Kate, look up, look at me” Rosie encourages as I try to hold myself upright. I push on my arms as she tells me but it’s exhausting. They catch me before I can flop forward onto the floor. Rosie straightens me up and positions my hands, arms and legs. I feel like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“You’re improving Kate. It’s just a matter of time and confidence” Rosie says.

Back in my room, they lift me back into bed and prop me up with pillows.
“Don’t put that where I can see it” I nod towards the wheelchair that Rosie is pushing into a corner, “it gives me the creeps.”
Rosie looks puzzled.
“It’s only a chair Kate. You won’t need it for long.”
“I know it’s only a chair” I snap, “but I don’t want it there. Take it somewhere else.”
Rosie shrugs, “OK I’ll leave it outside.”
I know I’m being tiresome but I can’t explain to her how the chair scares me, or rather, what it might signify for the rest of my life.

Susan, my ever-so-sensible daughter arrives on the tide of afternoon visitors.
“How long have I been here?” I ask.
She says its seven weeks since I had my stroke. Seems like forever to me. I don’t really remember it happening. Just a few confused images and the sound of music on the radio. Susan says Frank found me on the kitchen floor when he came to pick me up. She says it was a good job it was my dance night and or I could’ve been there til’ morning. She says I’m making progress even though my face looks lop-sided and I dribble. She says a lot does our Susan but I’m thankful to have her. She comes at three fifteen every day, regular as clockwork, bless her.

She takes me on a tour round the Hospital, swerving the wheelchair down the long corridor to the lifts. My stomach gets queasy. She giggles.
“Do you think I need a driving licence for a wheelchair, mum? I wouldn’t pass my test if I did; this chair of yours seems to have a mind of its own.”
I shiver. Silly words, but they upset me.

We stop every now and again so she can point out something she thinks will interest me. At the chapel – “Mum, aren’t those flowers lovely?”
“They look like the leftovers from a funeral” I snap.

We go up in the crowded lift to the cafeteria. No faces to look at when I’m in this squatty chair. All I see are bums and crotches. Mostly people take care not to notice me. They talk to Susan though.
“It’s your mum is it? Poor thing.”
“A stroke was it? Can she remember?”
“Ah, never mind, there’s always someone worse off than us, isn’t there?”
I feel invisible, a no thing, just part of the chair.

Susan leaves with an indomitably cheerful “Bye mum, don’t worry, you’re getting better. Uncle Frank says he’ll come in as usual this evening. See you tomorrow. Love you” and with an airy wave she breezes away.

Frank is my brother-in-law and dance partner. Every week for the past ten years we’ve gone ballroom dancing at the Astoria. That I do remember. I think we even won some prizes but I’m not sure. My memory’s still iffy. Apparently that’s what happens with a stroke. Still the memories are coming back now, swirling around like specks of dust in the sunshine, settling in confusing new patterns.

It’s true though, what Rosie said, I have improved. I can wiggle my fingers now and grasp the bed sides. But why aren’t I back on my feet as I should be? What if I never dance again? What’ll I do? All my life there’s been music and dance. I used to dance through the housework – waltz with the Hoover, glide with the iron, a quick cha-cha-cha with the duster – I was never still. Couldn’t help myself. There’s a rhythm for everything. You just have to catch it.

Another day and I’m waiting for Rosie to come. I’m really moithered this morning; sick, anxious, twitchy. I slept badly too. I dreamed about the wheelchair – how I was stuck in it and it ran away with me and we came to a cliff and it threw me out over the edge and I just kept falling and falling into darkness. It’s really got to me, this damn wheelchair. The more I use it, the more I feel scared and trapped by it.

Back down in the gym it’s still not happening for me. I tell my leg to move; I will it with all my strength; I strain every part of me. Nothing.
“It’s no use” I sob. “I can’t make my leg work. I can’t do it”. I’m propped between the exercise bars. Rosie’s holding me up. My left leg sags, lifeless. I’m trying to take one small step – what’s the phrase, one small step for mankind? Well mankind’s going to be disappointed. I can’t do it. I never will, I know that now. The wheelchair sits in the corner… just waiting for me.
“Let’s call it a day” Rosie says and she gets me back in the wheelchair. I yield to its soft leather embrace. It has me. I must learn to live with it.

Rosie bowls me back down the corridor. “It’s there Kate; there is movement in the leg.” She tries to encourage me. “We just have to keep working at it.”
She and the nurses lift me into bed. I tell them quietly, “no more. I can’t do this any more.” They look at each other and leave.
Tonight I’ll tell Frank to find another dancing partner. He won’t be short of offers, I know. That Joan Lawson for one, she’s always been after him. Strange, isn’t it how I remember that so clearly when there’s so much that I can’t quite recall.

Oh but I’m so tired. How can my body feel so dead and yet give so much pain? It’s not fair. I’m young still, only 65. I’ve done all the right things, diet and exercise and so on. Ha, look where it’s got me.

It’s visiting time and Frank has arrived.
“How you doing Katy lass?” he asks. I think he’s the only person who ever calls me Katy.
“It’s no good Frank,” I tell him. ”I’m never going to walk again. Never. I know that now.”
He’s silent. I can’t look him in the face. I suddenly feel hot and … ashamed. Eventually he does speak, slow and serious, not like him at all.
“Katy Simpson, I never thought to hear you say something like that. I thought you were a fighter. All these years we’ve known each other, all those dances we learned together, all the time you nursed your Bill through his last days…you never gave up. You never once said ‘I can’t’.”
I get defensive with him. “But I can’t Frank.” I hear the whine in my voice and it disgusts me. Yet I go on anyway. “It’s not my fault; I’ve tried, really tried. If I can’t walk, well then I can’t. I have tried Frank.”
I’m almost pleading with him to understand. He takes my hand.
“You have to believe you can Katy, believe it with all your heart.”
I shake my head; can’t speak; I’ll cry.
“I’ll drop in soon to see how you’re going on” he says as he leaves.
I let the tears fall now. I’ve let him down. I look at the wheelchair in the corner; a gleam of sunlight glances off its chrome. “You win” I whimper, defeated.

I haven’t slept well. Shafts of early morning light pierce the broken blind, creating patterns on the wall. The wheelchair is in its usual corner. This morning it doesn’t quite seem so sinister, I guess I’m coming to terms with it. It’s a few days since I had any physio – giving me a rest – the nurses said. Frank hasn’t visited either. I suppose he’s fed up with trailing in here every evening. No, fed up with me, more like.

Rosie comes in. “Right Kate, you’ve had a couple of days to rest, now we’ve got some work to do.”
“No, no” I protest,” I don’t want to. It’ll just be another pointless, painful round of ‘head up, back straight, push on your good leg’. It’ll make no difference, so why bother?”
“Kate, we’re going to try something a bit different today. If you don’t like it, we’ll stop straight away and bring you back” Rosie promised.
“It’s a waste of time, you know that” I chunter, but deep down I want her to persuade me different.
“We don’t think it is. Let’s try again.”
I let her hoist me into the wheelchair and whizz me down to the gym. We go through the sitting down exercises and I don’t do too badly with those now. My balance is definitely getting better.
Then it’s on to the bars. Rosie has me wedged between them. She bends down to straighten my left foot which insists on turning inwards all the time. “OK” she says “let’s see how this works for you.”
To my amazement, Frank appears and switches places with Rosie.
“Now, madam” he says politely, “may I have the next dance?”
Suddenly, the haunting strains of “Moon River” fill the room. I feel my heart lurch, my eyes brim with tears, and my breath comes in short hiccups. “Frank, you fool. What are you doing? You’ll drop me.”
“Never” he says sternly. “Now will you dance or no?”
“I can’t” I whisper.
“Just catch the rhythm Katy, catch the rhythm. Remember, it’s a glide not a step. Ready?”
I know I have to try. I close my eyes tightly and there’s nothing in the room for me other than the music and Frank.
“One two three, one two three, one two three” he murmurs, and I feel my body slowly responding to the beat.
Suddenly I’m filled with the music. The weeks fall away and I’m in the ballroom; Frank is elegant in black and white; I’m in midnight blue and silver. We move as one, gracefully, effortlessly.
The music stops. I open my eyes. Frank is smiling. Rosie is applauding. I’m crying now – I don’t know why. I’m exhausted too. My whole body aches.
“You did it Katy, I knew you could”, Frank says.
I look round in amazement. We’ve gone the length of the bars. Just six short faltering steps but it’s a start. I begin to tremble. They fetch the wheelchair and as my body sinks down into it, my soul soars, singing, to the sky. Funny, how comfortable this wheelchair really is.

Alter Egos – Doncha just love ’em?

After a Stakhanovist long weekend putting the garden in order this bag of bones that claims to be a body finally gave out on me and I spent the evening slumped, like a misshapen jelly, on the sofa. It’s at times like these, unguarded moments, when my alter egos rise up and take over. Last night it was RSS (rational sensible self) and flaky, pie-in-the-sky, it’ll-be-alright-on-the-night self – FLIP for short.

As usual RSS started it.

“It’s your own fault; you had your chances; you were good at your job you could’ve had a great career and the fat inflation-linked pension that went with it.”

FLIP groans. “Here we go, same old, same old.”

RSS continues to harangue. “But no, you just had to blow it. Chuck it all away to write and follow your crackpot self-sufficiency ideas. I mean who, in their right mind that is, would go to live 1000 feet up a barren hillside in an old stone quarry with not an inch of cultivable land in sight? And then,” RSS is getting worked up now “and then,” she squeaks, “import and pay for tons of top soil to be brought in just to grow your own carrots.”

“Actually” FLIP replies haughtily, “I grew all our own veg; most of our fruit as well as eggs, lamb, pork and beef for the freezer. And you stuffed you face with all of it and never complained. It was not my fault that the world wasn’t ready for organic food and preferred a supermarket lettuce that tasted like wet flannel.”

“Yes but you never had any money; never saved anything. Never put anything aside for your old age and infirmity. You always said it’d come right somehow. But look at you now, dining on nicked rhubarb and custard.”

“It wasn’t nicked. I liberated it from the nettles and brambles next door. The house is empty and it was going to waste. Besides I like rhubarb and custard.”

RSS heaves a sigh. “Irrelevant. The point is you’re at it again.”

“At what?”

“Pipe dreams. You’ve bought this cottage to renovate just because you always wanted to. Now you’re scrabbling up and down ladders splashing paint all over yourself and, knowing you, it’ll never be finished and Heaven only knows if you’ll ever pay off the mortagage. Now you want to buy a place in France and write full time. How’s that going to pay for your old age?

“It’s not. That’s what the day job’s for. The point is that instead of actually living the adventures I dream about which admittedly sometimes have cost a great deal, I write about them instead. It’s a whole lot safer and costs a lot less. I can roam worlds, in any guise or persona, having all the adventures…

“and romance” pipes up Little Romantic Self “don’t forget the romance. You seem to have forgotten about it these days.”

“…OK and having all the adventures and romance I want” FLIP continues. “Don’t you get it? That’s the beauty of writing. The buzz of creating. The fulfillment of…”

“I get it, I get it.” RSS is getting tired and testy. “But you’re still the grasshopper and it’ll never come right. You’ve left it too late.”

“And you’re still the ant and a boring old fart to boot. I mean look at you in those silly fluffy slippers, hugging your mug of cocoa as though your life depends on it.”

“I am not.”

“You are so.”

Finally I step in to shut up my alter egos.

“Enough already” – I shout. “I’m trying to get to sleep.”

Was I the victim of a changeling plot?

This week is a “day job” week so it’s just a quick hello from me before I disappear to lovely Liverpool. However, I wanted to share a momentous insight with you. Recently I read a couple of biographies about ancient worthies of this land and their families.

In one, the biography of Charles Waterton, a notable but lovable eccentric, we learn that on his death his only son completely obliterated, trashed and destroyed his father’s life work and burned his papers. Why? Was he scarred so deeply in some way by the admittedly odd behaviour that his pater displayed from time to time? Was his old man so tight-fisted his son had to go without the latest in horse and carriage? Who knows – but there seems to be something more than the typical father-son edgy relationship that is often seen.

Then take the wonderful Fitzwilliam family, made fabulously wealthy through “black diamonds” – in other words the coal fields they owned in South Yorkshire. (Black Diamonds is also the title of the family biography). At different times down the generations they hide away and exile to Canada (no offence dear Canadian readers) the epileptic heir to the estate; then there are the claims that the next heir is actually a changeling – a boy child substituted for the baby girl actually born to his lordship;later down the family line a mother disowns her son for marrying someone of whom she disapproved and sets in motion a huge and costly lawsuit.

These are not isolated incidents in the lives of the so-called great and good. History gives us untold examples of dysfunctional families in the upper echelons of British society. How is it they could get it so wrong? You would think that with all they had going for them materially, economically and with the privileges they took for granted, they could have made a better fist of it as families instead of tearing themselves apart.

But back to my revealing insight. Yesterday whilst shuffling dutifully on a tour around one of these weird family’s ancient pads, (now a true seat of learning) it dawned on me that I too was probably a victim of a changeling plot. It came to me in the duchess’ boudoir. There was something so familiar about the delicately painted gilded ceiling, the rich curtain hangings, the soft ankle-deep carpet. It was as though I had come home; as though I knew the place just as if it were my own. It has convinced me that breeding will out. I was never intended to get on my hands and knees to mop up the spill on the kitchen floor, nor wield an iron so ferocious that I give myself a facial sauna. So now, I am on a quest to take my rightful place in society, preferably with the £2m income (in today’s money) the Fitzwilliam family enjoyed. I will have justice.

Now where’s the bell? I must ring for tea.

Have a good week y’all.