The Stories Behind the Stories

The Siren and Other Strange Tales is my first foray into writing fiction. The stories were inspired as I suppose all stories are, by a mixture of experiences, events, reading, people I have met and places I have lived or visited, all helped along with a dollop of imagination and occasional dark humour. I thought you might like to know a little about the stories behind the stories. The photos are just teasers for what you might find within each story.

That Cat is a story sparked off by a newspaper clipping about a stray cat that visited a care home to sit with the dying.

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That Cat

The character of Mandy is a figment of my imagination. Thankfully, the staff of the care home where my mother spent the last years of her life provided a loving, respectful environment. However, from time to time scandals do emerge. Further elements came from a story my mother told me. When I was a baby she put me in my pram in the garden. As she was hanging out the washing our next door neighbour’s big black cat crept up onto the pram and snuggled down, almost on my face. She was scared of cats and had to get the neighbour to come an remove it!

Toussaint – set in France where I live. The bones of the story come from two sources – an Australian report of a car accident where the driver of a passing car is said to have picked up, telepathically, the cries for help from the driver of a car that had skidded off the road. The second element was my meeting at a gallery exhibition with the wife of the featured artist. After several glasses of Chablis, she had a lot to tell me about life with an artist.

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Toussaint

Sukie – This is a story based on some of my experiences when, at fifteen, I went on an exchange holiday to France. On my own for the first time, without the security of family around me, I found it a daunting experience but, with hindsight, a formative one. However, my early life bore no resemblance to that of Sukie’s except that I did love my Granny Grapes and the eyebrow raising trick did irritate my mother.

Ste. Maxime is near St. Tropez on the Cote D’Azur and, when I was there, it teemed with the overspill of the young and beautiful who couldn’t quite swallow the cost of being seen in that celebrated town. There was a Sean Connery look-alike but alas he had no eyes for a gauche teenager teeming with a heady mix of hormones and unrequited lust.

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Sukie – and no, that’s not the name of the car!

The Boy with a Harmonica is loosely based on an incident that happened in a village near me during WWII.  This part of France was known as the Free zone and governed by the Vichy government on behalf of the occupying Germans. The Maquis were very active in this Zone and in my area there are numerous tales of derring-do and heroism.

 

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Boy with a Harmonica

The character of the Boy has elements of a child I knew, labelled “autistic” by the medical profession. He had a remarkable ear for music and could pick out and create the most beautiful melodies on the piano. Clearly a piano was of no use to me in this story but an old guy playing the harmonica outside a cafe in Toulouse gave me the instrument that up until then had eluded me.

The Last Word 

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The Last Word

My parents together with my Aunt and Uncle held regular Sunday Canasta nights. Their play, just as in the story, would be punctuated with cries of “Why did you play that card?” or “Freda, you’ve frozen the pack again.” I used to like to watch and listen to the interplay between these four.

When my mother moved into a care home I visited her regularly and nearly always found a group of residents playing whist. One of them, Alice was a passionate but rather ineffectual player. As I passed by the lounge where they sat I would often hear her girlish giggle as she cried “I’ll beat you all yet, if it’s the last thing I do.” She was a lovely lady and I wrote this story for her.

The Siren

Wartime observation post tipped over the edge at Mappleton beach

The Siren

Inspired by the landscape of the Holderness Coast in East Yorkshire – a 32 mile stretch from Flamborough Head to Spurn Point, it is a fragile, sometimes desolate landscape subject to regular cliff falls through erosion. With the cliff falls come stretches of gloopy mud and fossils. A snippet in the local newspaper about a young girl becoming stuck in one of these mud patches as the tide came in and the efforts to rescue her sparked off the idea of the story and my imagination supplied the rest.

There you have it – the weird convolutions of a writer’s mind!

 

Ghosts – They’re Out There

 

I thought I’d let you know that ‘The Siren and Other Strange Tales’ my book of spooky stories is now available for pre-order or, if you can wait that long, directly available from all Amazon sites from 8th May.

the sirencover

Today I’m offering you some teaser quotes in the hope that they will part you from something just less than three pounds/dollars/euros. I know cash is hard to splash these days.

First up is ‘That Cat’ – care worker Mandy meets a mysterious cat that knows when death approaches. But does Mandy?

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That Cat

We move to France for ‘Toussaint’ when egotistical artist Gavin is given some ghostly marriage guidance.

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Toussaint

Staying in France, rebellious teenager ‘Sukie’ receives one life-lesson too far.

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Sukie

German-occupied France provides the setting for  ‘The Boy with a Harmonica’ – a tale of collaboration and betrayal.

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The Boy with a Harmonica

Back in England in the Roaring Twenties for ‘The Last Word’.  What could be more normal than a genteel game of whist for four middle-aged ladies?

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The Last Word

Finally, in ‘The Siren’ we meet a stranger in a remote seaside village in the middle of winter. Is it grief or guilt that haunts him?

the siren

 

 

What’s in a Title?

Those of you who are kind enough to follow this blog may remember that a couple of weeks back I held my own referendum…er straw poll about the title of my collection of short stories. The winner was “Spook Me Out”.

I was not happy with the result. I protested. I argued that the demographics of the poll were skewed (as were the participants after copious amounts of the juice of the grape). I pointed it that it was a meaningless collection of words and that titles need impact. In short, I wanted a recount.

Do you judge a book by its cover? Those who are said to know about these things say yes, the cover and the title are a big part of the decision to buy or not to buy. I tend to look at the blurb on the back but it is usually an intriguing title that catches my eye and preferably one that gives me an idea of the genre as well. Quite often the cover design leaves me cold. I’m never moved by the piccys of impossibly handsome muscle men with fine etched six-packs and thighs like tree trunks, wielding their swords with gusto. Well, not on a book cover anyway! Have you guessed by now that fantasy is one of my favourite genres?

Now let’s be serious. A few days after the results of my poll were in some of the participants sidled up to me murmuring that er…perhaps they’d got it wrong; they didn’t like the title any more and perhaps a rethink might be in order.

Much heartened by this chink in the voters’ armour I rethought. It is, after all my book. I have created and disposed of the characters within. Their fate is and has always been in my hands. Is this not the annual occasion when I assert myself? Yes, it is.

And so, a retitled collection of six short stories. It is a simple title – it describes the content. Let me introduce you to:

the sirencover

I was going to use the word ‘ghostly’ rather than’ strange’. Unfortunately the typeface I’ve chosen makes it look, at a quick scan, a bit too much like ‘ghastly’. I shied away from it. The reader might find the stories ghastly but my amour-propre won’t allow it.

Publishing day is now 8th May in the Kindle Store on Amazon and if any of you dear readers feel impelled to give the book a toot on your own social networks I shall be Uriah Heep-ish in my ‘umbleness and gratitude.

The Editor’s Oscars

The editing of my collection of short stories is now complete and to celebrate I had a little Oscar Ceremony. There were three categories. Are you ready for this?  Here is category number one.

Nominees in the category for The Most Over-used Word in the Collection:

  • Think
  • Wonder
  • Realise
  • Understand

And the winner is:

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This simple word appeared it its various verb and noun forms a magnificent 100 times in the twenty five thousand word collection. Brilliant!

Nominees in the second category for The Most Empty and Useless Word:

  • Rather
  • Somewhat
  • Then
  • Just

And the winner is:

alphabet-word-images-then

“Then” is of course an old friend of the Editorial Oscars and it is reassuring to see its appearance in this collection. An objection made by “Just” on the grounds that it wasn’t fair was overruled.

And finally, the category you have all been waiting for. The nominees for The Best Title award:

  • Haunting Tales
  • Spook Me Out and Other Scary Stories
  • The Haunting of Jacques Ferrier and other Ghostly Tales
  • Simply Ghostly

And the winner, chosen by a bunch of semi-literate, half-sozzled book lovers is – hang on a minute, let me find the right card…

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The judges chose this title for its modern, fresh feel and, as one voter expressed it – “gets away from all that gloomy Victorian stuff“. The author’s protest of “but I like gloomy Victorian” was met with uncalled for mirth and an unprecedented amount of catcalls and jeering. Needless to say, she was overruled.

I don’t know what you think. Does “Spook Me Out” do it for you? Let me know. Drop me an Oscar…sorry, no I mean drop me a line.

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PS “Spook Me Out” (whatever!) will be on Amazon at the end of March at an incredible, unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime little price.

Short Story, Novella or Novel?

That was the week that was. Last Tuesday the editor’s report on my spooky stories came in, threw me a complete curve and left me in a tizzy – my poor synapses working overtime.

It started well –
“Like your style and what you’ve done with the stories”
“Very good writer, stories have real merit.”

Oh goodness I was having a warm fuzzy glow moment (actually a bit tearful) of pride.

I read on. She took each story in turn, made some very helpful suggestions and complimentary comments and the fuzzy glow began to turn into a flush to rival any of those crappy menopausal ones.

I arrived at the last few paragraphs. Here’s where the kicker came in. She suggested in effect that I turn the collection into a novella or even a novel.

“What” I shrieked at the computer screen. I’m writing short stories. I can’t do novels not even short ones. I have the evidence to prove it – three half written very dead ones mouldering away in a drawer somewhere.

But the damage was done. Stealthily at first, my brain woke up; then gathering speed it zigged and zagged through a zillion different scenarios. Ideas came; ideas went. What if? What if? Oh yes I could do this or that or even this and that. After a week of serious brooding I felt like one of those stupid chickens trying to hatch a pot egg. I used up a ream of paper drawing out scenes, new chapters, the mechanisms I could use, the new characters I could develop.

Hatching a pot egg

In the end I took last weekend off and painted a lambris clad (tongue and groove) ceiling a fetching chalky white. There was method in my madness because to paint lambris well you need to pay attention – all those little grooves that a roller misses have to be painted in by hand. It’s a boring job but takes my mind off more meaningful things and I’m working on the principle that my brain will be free to rove around on its own, unfettered by my attempts to coax and corral it.

For two days, whilst I played Michaelangelo and lay on my back painting the ceiling (sadly with no Sistine Chapel effects) I left Richard, my possible protagonist festering in the Nonesuch Club – a very unusual and select establishment. Will he emerge shoe-horned into a short story? Shall I give him more air time and expand him into a novella or shall I go for the big time novel?

I haven’t the faintest idea – the pot egg hasn’t hatched yet. I think I’ll go find another ceiling to paint.

Where to go in search of a New Idea?

Where do ideas for stories come from? Probably a stupid question for a writer to ask but I plead insanity. I suppose the answer is everywhere-imagination, experience, observation, music, books, films and the eternal question”what if?”

As I put the finishing touches to a collection of spooky short stories (to be launched on the world ere long) I began to notice how many of these factors had crept in sometimes almost uninvited.

There are two local legends that form the basis of “The Siren” and “The Shoemaker”. Snippets from newspapers added to the former and gave me the plot for “No Ordinary Cat”.

Places where I have lived or visited in the UK and in France have provided the settings, and imagination allowed me to demolish a house here and there and move a church up a hill.

My own life experiences and people I have met snuck into “Toussaint” and “Sukie”. A recent experience of being blocked as a writer – not able to string two…er…two…um…thingys, you know, words, like, together – gave me the theme for “The Nonesuch Club” as did the words of the song ‘Hotel California’.

I’ve played Frankenstein and used a few traits or characteristics of people I know or have met to populate the stories with my very own monsters. No! Really, I didn’t mean that everyone I know/have met is a monster…well not all of them perhaps.

Of all the stories in the collection the hardest to write was “Boy with Harmonica”. That was the one that blocked me. Whilst the story is set in a village almost on my doorstep which I’ve come to know well (the village not the doorstep…well that too I suppose) I could not create the characters – a small band of Maquis (French resistance fighters during WWII) and a troop of Germans.The story was there but the characters were hiding in the shadows. So I read first-hand accounts of the German Occupation of this part of France; I walked the woods around the village where I wanted the story to unfold and criss-crossed the village streets and alleyways until I was sure I’d get arrested for loitering with intent. But they came, those characters, they slipped out of the shadows and onto the page. It was the hardest story of the collection to write yet, in spite of that (or perhaps because of it) it is one of my favourites.

Add to all these factors a large dollop of my weird and just occasionally wonderful imagination and a bunch of stories are born.

Simple eh?

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.