I wrote this poem the morning after dreaming of my Mum, it felt real, normal almost. Meeting in dreams eleven years after her passing is bitter sweet.
Gloaming – meaning twilight
I have began editing my novel, well it is more of a re write than an edit, but an edit all the same. I discovered recently that Microsoft Word has improved its Read Aloud function, so I decided to listen to what I have edited so far.
This is what I discovered.
- My prologue is really very visual and I’m excited about it. It sounds nice and punchy.
- The narrator sounds funny when she reads Scots.
- Read Aloud let me close my eyes and edit at the same time. I found parts that need cut back, and some that need further explanation
- More importantly, in chapter one alone, I found 25 errors. It might have taken me three or four edits to find those. They were mostly duplicate words or missing words that an online editor wouldn’t pick up.
- Read Aloud is my new best editing friend.
- The voice is better on my phone that on my laptop. I’m thinking when I do a deep edit, I’ll print it and use Read Aloud at the same time.
Do any of you guys use a narrator as an editor?
Thanks for reading my blog today and happy writing.
This advice is taken in part, from a conversation with a friend on messenger. I thought it might shine some light on my writing process. The question was, how do you motivate yourself to write a full length novel?
Hiya, I had the intention to write every day, but didn’t always manage. I didn’t beat myself up about it though, what’s the point.
Posting on Facebook was a great way to hold myself accountable, if only to myself.
I have a friend, (a non booky friend), who read each chapter after I had finished, errors and all. Her response to the writing, (and I mean response, not feedback at this stage), assured me that what I had written made sense and worked. I have a Helen too, who gives me the more honest and good feedback.
I had a loose plot, but it was loose. I let my imagination guide the shape of the novel and, regularly altered the plot line as I went. I guess the main thing for me was to think of why I wanted to sit down and write and, what I would get out of it. When I found the answer, I began to sit down and write purely for the love of writing. I wanted to enjoy the process, and have fun. I never gave myself pressure, I didn’t beat myself up if it seemed disjointed or went in weird directions, I just kept writing.
I had a rough idea of word count, but not a solid ending so that was changeable, and I did make some major changes in the last chapter and I think it gave the whole story a twist.
But I guess I went at it with a want to write, a real desire to bring my idea to life, to slow down in order to really enjoy what I was writing, and the actual act if writing itself. And with no publishing goal in site at this stage, I found the act of writing, for writings sake, fun. I guess that the process would change when working to a publishing deadline.
A maliable plot.
A strong desire to bring my story to life.
An intention to write.
Writing for the love of writing.
A desire to enjoy each part of the process.
Another thing. Finishing each chapter on a hook is great for the reader, but also for me as it made returning to the story exciting.
I always leave myself notes of ideas at the end of a chapter too. Scrivener is a great piece of software that lets you break the novel down into wee chunks. It’s not too expensive either.
Also, I take notes of loose ends so I always tie them up.
Don’t edit as you go, it’ll slow you down and you’ll get stuck. You’re going to have to edit anyway once it is written. Try just writing and ignoring the mistakes. It is liberating. That’s when your real voice comes out and the magic happens. That’s when you’ll love it for what it is, a weird fucking delve into the unknown.
If you are still struggling, meditation is a good way to shake of expectations. Or a walk before you sit down.
I began writing a novel on 1st April 2020, and tonight, at 11pm, I typed the last two words – The End.
What a journey it has been. What started as a love story, turned into something quite different.
I competed the novel in 77,234 words, 34 chapters and a possible sequel on the cards.
I guess the most important thing for me whilst writing this novel was a loose plan, and a refusal to follow a process. I’m not one for forcing myself to write when I’m not feeling it, or building the writing muscle as I’ve heard it called. I don’t have a method, I’m prone to procrastinating, and I only write when it brings me pleasure.
I feel a sense of not quite knowing how to feel right now. Maybe tomorrow that’ll become clearer, but for now, I’m satisfied.
Snow whipped down the Tarmachan Ridge, and gathered in hoof prints in a field by the Lochay.
That’s where we met.
You, hunkered in a grey fur coat
Bedraggled and stiff
Gathering the cold
Like a sobering drunk at a bus stop Knowing the last bus has gone,
And me, cowering from the wind,
Dressed for Siberia,
With hot-breath-blow-back flowing Like the Dochart beneath my mask.
I might have passed you by
Had it not been for the sun’s flame
Painted on the dead bracken
Catching my eye.
But I stopped, and a moment passed, You fluffed your feather boa, And I straightened my mask.
I told him to come.
I put the key in a plant pot,
And a slice of Madeira cake
Wrapped in cling film, on a floral plate.
I said, ‘Please, help yourself,’
And left the porch light on,
And brown sugar cubes
In a silver bowl, and a sachet of coffee mate.
I said, ‘It’s going to be a cold one.’
And I stoked the fire with extra logs,
Folded the scarf I’d knitted last June
And left it on the armchair.
I said, ‘I won’t wait up.’
And I drew the curtains on a blinding blizzard,
Took photographs from the shelf,
Leaving eleven lines in the dust.
I said, ‘Perhaps he’ll come.’
And left well worn slippers by the fire,
A blanket folded in a plasic bag,
And a kiss on an old book from another time.
In the morning I said, ‘I wonder.’
As I counted the sugar, dusted the crumbs,
Then drew the winters curtains
To size eleven footprints in two inches of snow.
With a fire whipped ocean
And the boatmen’s song.
Voices in waves
Sail the morning winds.
Tumbling from salt spray lips
Rhythm and hymns,
Caught on wings of a guillemot.
In a theatre of fog
Music takes flight,
Rising, like a streak of mist
To face heaven’s door.
And boatmen weep.
Sing goodbye, to the waves,
Lost upon the sorry sea,
As day dies still,
And the boatmen sleep,
And the boatmen sleep.
And we sleep.
Is the ocean chained to the land or is the land chained to the ocean? Are we free is this world or are we chained to a system that benefits the few over the many? Are we chained to a system who would drown those in need in order to keep those who don’t afloat?
I planned to write a prompt based on the above image but when I posted, all I could see is a big rusty chain and it got me thinking. Is it time for change? Can capitalism survive this pandemic or the next? How do the wealthy survive when there is no more capital, do they win or loose? Will the many ever be free from their chains?
Okay. I have a prompt
Write a short story in the form of a news article, T.V news report or radio report named, The Day That Money Ran Out.
Pick a ring, any ring. Take a moments to feel it in the palm of your hand. Now look closely, at the colours, the patterns, the tiny clasps that hold the stones. Now bring the ring to your nose. Smell it. What does it smell like? Where did it come from? Who once owned the ring that you hold in your hand?
Write a poem or a story about searching for the perfect ring in a charity shop. Who was it for, what was the occasion or, was it just a random purchase. Now tell the story of where it came from, perhaps the cashier told you, or you found a name inscribed inside it and looked it up, perhaps it was stolen and you found an article online while you were trying to find out what type of ring it was. Will you keep the ring, give it away, or return it?
Happy writing folks.
Imagine stumbling across an old grave yard. Imagine wandering amongst the dilapidated weather worn grave stones. Imagine a cold chill wrapping around your neck while a black crow squawks from a stone wall. Imagine the iron gate creaking as it swings to and fro on rusty hinges. Now imagine a shadow, small at first, but growing longer as a figure appears below the orange light on the old kirk building. Suddenly, you see a face.
Write a story or poem about the face that appeared in the old cemetery. Who is it, what do they want? How do you feel and do you stay to talk or run as fast as you can? You decide.
Happy writing folks and thanks for visiting.
Today was a never day,
A failure to arrive day,
A day lost like edges of the earth
In a mucky kind of fog day.
Today was a nothing day.
A ‘didn’t even walk the dogs day,’
A day lost like carrots in a stew
In an empty kind of dish day.
Today was a forever day
An ‘is it time to go back to bed day?’
A day lost like the end of this rhyme.
Imagine driving along a quiet country road and seeing this little guy with his arm out.
Would you or wouldn’t you pull over and offer him a lift?
Write a story or poem with only two characters, the driver of a vehicle, and a hitchhiker. The story should involve these items or scenarios:
- A baby’s rattle
- A tiny mouse
- A song by Neil Diamond
- The French National Anthem
- An upside down road sign
- Donal Trump
- And breaking wind
Good luck and happy writing.
Where does a poem come from? Where does it begin? When does a thought become a creation?
The same applies to prose. Where does that unplanned story strand come from? How, in a split second, can a character fall in love without first consulting it’s creator?
Is it inspiration?
I was walking the dogs yesterday. We went to our usual haunt which is generally the big field down by the river. The weather was average for Scotland in January, dreich, windy with a wee bit mizzle in the air, and damn cold. I was trying (and failing) to stop the dogs eating rabbit shit, while being careful not to step awkwardly on the uneven ground. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, in fact, I was just looking. I was looking at my feet, at the dogs, at the snowy mountains, and the people on the old railway in the distance. Suddenly, a sentence popped into my head.
I miss the sea.
This was followed by:
I miss the sea fi when a wis wee
Fair enough, I hear you say. Don’t we all miss what we can’t have at the moment in time, the pandemic has taken so much. And besides this, I’ve seen and heard references to the sea over he past few days through various mediums, so perhaps this subconsciously inspired me. The thing is, I haven’t written any poetry or prose since the start of December 2020. There is a number of reasons for this, (as discussed in previous posts, and I’m not going to bore you with them now), but I wasn’t looking for inspiration, or magic for that matter. And perhaps you don’t think the above lines could be classed as poetry, I mean, the two lines are statements aren’t they? Perhaps. But then the next line came to me in a rhythm so perfect, that I pulled my phone from my pocket and recorded it. This is written in Midlothian vernacular.
I miss sand
stickin to ma broon sauce piece
Is it sounding as epic to you as it is to me? Try saying it out loud, with a pause after sand, and the second line rolling of your tongue.
Or if you understand measuring meter in poetry:
I miss sand (strong, weak, strong)
Sti-ckin to ma broon sauce piece (strong-strong, weak. weak, strong, weak, strong).
Okay, you might not be as excited about the birth of my new poem as I am, but watch this space.
Back to my question though…
Did the poem arrive because of inspiration, or was it magic? My opinion is that it’s a bit of both.
Let me give you another example. Whilst working on my current novel in progress, Little Red Rowing Boat, I have become more and more aware of how often a new thread/strand appears during the writing process. This thread is unplanned, it might be an unexpected character appearing, a childhood flashback, and often a key plot line that materialises from no-where. I often find myself in a trance like state when I’m writing, or deep writing. This is when the magic begins. I generally do plan my writing before I sit down; I pretty much know the direction the story will flow, but regardless of my intention, there’s a genie in my head that sprinkles star dust on my fingers while I write and weird shit happens. Is it just me?
I would like to know your thoughts on this matter. Please leave a comment.
Below is one half of a telephone conversation. The person in the photograph is the person talking. The caller is a mystery.
They found what in my laundry bag?
Who found it?
I can assure you it doesn’t belong to me…
Yes. I’ll hold...
How could I have been so careless? It must have fallen into the bag when Harold was around. If only I’d left him on the doorstep instead of being sucked into party politics again.
Oh shit. What if Harold planted it in the bag.
If the team find out…
No, what if the family discover who I really am.
They’d never believe it.
I am so dead.
I’m still here...
Could you stop shouting…
Look it isn’t mine. You see, this morning, there was a man…
I understand that, but if this was anyone else…
I’m only 34 years old, why on earth would I be interested…
No. No. Please don’t , I can’t…
But if my mother finds out there was a...
I’ve never been on a cruise ship. In fact, I’ve never been on a bloody rowing boat...
Yeah, but that doesn’t count. Does it?
I think you’ll find I normally carry a red one. I usually keep it in the car though...
Is this a sick joke?
Who are you? Put the other bloke back on, I don’t want to deal with someone else…
You’re Kidding. Pat?
Thank God. Can you just pop it into the pocket of my jeans once they are dry? Your a babe...
Thanks. And tell Alan, I’m laughing now, but wait til I see him...
This is a one sided telephone conversation. It is a great way to add mystery to a scene. Perhaps someone is listening in on the conversation and trying to put the pieces together. Perhaps the protagonist is concealing the other half of the conversation. It is a fun way to write. This is also a great writing prompt.
Write the other half of the conversation.
Happy writing folks.
How colourful is this photograph? It was taken in the garden of our old house in Bannockburn. I was trimming the roses when I looked up and saw Buddah, and he looks like he’s sneezing. It made me smile.
I chose to post this photograph today because not only have I been clearing out my writing study/meditation space, but I’ve also been sneezing. To be honest, I think it was the dust from the tumble dryer filter that irritated my nose, but I have done a bit of rearranging so it might be that.
I love having a clear space to work. I find that along with regular meditation, and an uncluttered work area, I can sit down at my desk and write easily. I began writing a novel on 1st April 2020 and am now 63000 word into it. I haven’t written since the beginning of December, my partner had a relapse of her neurological condition, NMO, feel to look it up, then we both thought we had covid but, it turned out not to be, and obviously there was Christmas. Now I’m ready. I have the rest of the novel planned out, I reckon I could complete it in a few weeks then begin the editing process.
But I’m ranting now.
Write a short story or a poem in the form of an email. The email should be an apology for not going on a date and, the excuse should be allergies.
Happy writing folks
We were on our first caravan holiday in Arbroath, me, Helen and Kimber (we didn’t have Millie at that point). It had been a hell of a week, Kimber was stung by a jelly fish, then a bee the following day, but was treated to her first ice cream cone by the harbour while we tucked into some greasy chips.
It was our first time on Arbroath. The seaside town looked tired, ramshackled in parts, but with pockets of charm dotted around and we fell on love with the place. The beach was long, and at one end flies buzzed around slimy seaweed, rotten and stinking. But in the opposite direction, it was wide, flat and when the tide slipped away into the distance it left silver mirrors in the golden sand.
Famous for its Arbroath smokies (smoked fish), we expected the harbour to reek, but instead, we were greeted with the smell of the salty sea spray that lashed the rocks and soaked our faces. The smell of garlic from a nearby restaurant hung in the air, and as we passed fishing boats tied to metal cleats, a waft of engine oil. I was struck by how much colour was to be found on the coast, from the lobster crates stacked in piles, to rows of washing flapping in the wind above a small cove, to the pretty white lighthouse, stark against a blue sky. One night, we even saw a supermoon.
There was one place that stood out above the rest though. It was close to the end of our holiday and we were wandering. We’d climbed a hill above the harbour and had a picnic while looking down at the orange roof tops and the grey sea, then we strolled by the abbey, and shortly after, into a hidden garden. It was tucked away, between Arbroath’s high street, a park and a rural area. We wandered through an archway into a beautiful walled garden. The garden was in bloom with red roses, white roses, trees, a manicured lawn and a variety of shrubs. There was a wooden bench where we sat for a while. All around us, birds sung in bushes and trees, butterflies fluttered and insects buzzed, hovered and jumped. It was a lovely day and the garden offered shade and a pocket of quiet and stillness, a rest from the world outside.
I have such fond memories of this trip, and I never intended to write such a big post.
But perhaps a prompt?
Okay. Write of place of tranquility, somewhere hidden amongst the hustle and bustle of busy life. Was it found by surprise, why was it there, what did it look like, smell like, sound like, feel like? Was it surprising and did anything happen that changed you or your character? Now hide something, bury it, hide it in a wall or a tree or amongst shrubbery? What was it and who will find it?
Happy writing and thanks for reading my post.
This is me, my partner Helen and our youngest dog Kimber.
I love this photograph so much, it says a lot about our little family. The photograph was camptured by Helen’s mum while we were camping at Comrie Croft in Perthshire. You can see that is was a happy day, a fun day. I think we were relieved, it rained loads while we were there, but on this day, there was a break from the grey, the cold and the dampness, and it lifted our spirits.
Write a story or poem about a group of people camping, but write it in two parts.
The first should be set inside the tent. The weather is cold, wet and grey. Everyone is a bit damp and miserable. What does the atmosphere feel like? Is there conversation? What can you see, smell, taste, feel?
Now write the second part. The weather has changed, the clouds have shifted and the sun is high in the sky. The tent is suddenly warmer, there are voices outside as people unzip their tents and venture out into the bright open field. How does the mood change inside, and then outside of the tent. What happens? How does it feel? What can you see, smell, taste, feel?
Happy camping folks
There is so much going on in this photograph and that’s why I took it. It was taken outside the 17th century mansion Bannockburn House. Notice the man in his traditional Scottish dress, the wheelchairs – one neatly placed, one abandoned. Then there is the bike propped under a window beside a 1980’s wire bin.
Using the photograph above, write a short story or poem about arriving late to a party and finding yourself back on 1984. When did you realise and how? Who was there that you haven’t thought about in a long time? How was everyone dressed, what music was playing and what was on the buffet?
Have a ball and happy writing.
Can you remember the first time your work was published in print? I don’t, but I have the proof. This is a photograph of a story poem that I wrote in 1984. At the time I appear to be a compassionate twelve year old, it’s good to see that the issues that bothered me then, still concern me today. But, current affairs aside, I wonder how excited I was at seeing my words in print. I wonder if I showed the publication to all of my friends and family. I wonder if I called myself a writer?
I doubt it
I knew when I was twelve year old that I wanted to become a writer. I knew it when I left school and began working in a frozen food shop for £24.50 a week on a YTS, I even knew it when I fell into the role of retail manager and somehow survived the role for twenty years. And throughout that time, even though I spent my happiest hours writing, I was never a writer, not a real one that is. I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and began to see pieces of my writing appeared in magazines and newspapers. Yet when ever I introduced myself to someone, I was Eilidh, the retail manager, writing was just a hobby.
When is a writer a writer?
I began calling myself a writer half way through my undergraduate degree at Stirling University. That’s not to say I was comfortable with it. In fact, I would say it under my breath, quickly, and would try to hide my scarlet face. It felt uncomfortable, I felt like a fraud. By this time though, I had managed my way around an essay or two, I was getting decent grades and my reading had increased ten-fold. And as my confidence grew, I began to publish more. The writing itself was mediocre, the publications were small, but I was being published and more importantly – read.
I published a 42,000 word novella in 2014, (under a different name). It was a piece of work I had written many years before, and that was reflected in the writing style. Never the less, I sold over 1000 copies and made a small, very small amount of money. But I was still embarrassed to tell people that I was a writer, and even more so, published. Online was easier though, I marketed my book like hell. I went full on hard sell, talking to strangers, engaging with people who I couldn’t see, and hiding the fact that deep down inside I was terrified of the person I was becoming, the person I always wanted to be, I just wasn’t sure exactly who she was though.
In 2016, I began a Masters in Creative Writing. The course was okay, but it was the legitimacy I felt while doing the course that finally gave the confidence to say, ‘I am a writer,’ still, however, very quietly.
It was probably the year after graduating from university that I began to discover the answer to my question –When is a writer a writer? I was still working part time in the retail sector, but for a charity, and actually using my managerial skills to do some good. When I wasn’t at work, I was reading or writing, or at least thinking about writing. I began to send more and more of my work off to magazines, zines and competitions. I got plenty of rejections, but a small proportion was published and my confidence grew. I began to really enjoy my craft, I enjoyed putting new skills into practice and writing at my own pace. I felt connected to the work I was producing, passionate and I looked forward to it. I had read so many writing tips about when to write, how long I should spend writing, do I need to write daily, how do I find inspiration? I read articles on how to combat writers block, I was even told writers block doesn’t exist. And although all opinions are legitimate, they are only legitimate to the person writing them. In the end, I decided that the only advice I should listen to, is my own.
When I stopped putting pressure on myself to write a particular way, or at a particular time, or for that matter, act in a way that I thought a writer might act, I found I could just write. For me, and this is my opinion, a writer is a writer when they connect to their work, when they allow the writing to be part of them and them a part of the writing.
When I look back at the The Tramp, I see Eilidh the twelve year old writer, she is the writer I have been striving to become for all these years, connected, compassionate, self determined and confident, it just took me a while to find her again.
What are the first words that spring to mind when you see this image? Danger, security risk, unsafe?
Barbed wire is a barrier, a rusty knotted, a twisted barrier between YOU and IT, or visa versa. But what is IT, why does is IT need to be segregated, and what would happen if the barbed wire was cut and suddenly YOU and IT were confronted with one another?
Write of a character confronted with a barbed wire fence. What is behind the it? Why do they want to get beyond the wire? What are the risks? And what will they do when they get through?
I haven’t seen the sea for over a year. Living in Killin, I am close to several lochs and rivers, but there is something special about the sea. For me, it’s a feeling that wraps around my ribs like a hug. It’s that feeling of wonder, the mystery of nature and the universe. The sea is a place for contemplation, for stillness and a place to feel whole.
I love this photograph , I snapped it while walking on the beach at St Andrews. The photo is of some teenagers huddled together on the sea wall. I couldn’t hear their conversation but I noticed the long pauses where they all looked out into the endless grey water. Perhaps they were thinking about their studies or their future, perhaps they were lost for a moment in a memory. I like to think they were contemplating their place in the world, their responsibility to the earth and her future
Write a story with two characters, each going through individual difficulties in their lives. The characters should not talk out loud to one another, but sit together on a sea wall watching the sea. The story should record their thoughts, perhaps scattered like a stream of consciousness, or like an internal conversation or monologue. Notice the difference between the characters voices. Did the sea calm them or increase the storm within?
Can you see the climber? I took this photograph in Bannockburn in Stirling.
Did you climb trees when you were a child? Perhaps you lived in the city and liked to climb drain pipes, lampposts or onto roofs. It goes without saying that human beings like to climb, to look down at the world below and see it from a new perspective. Perhaps we want a broader view of the world, perhaps we want to separate ourselves from our fellow creatures, or perhaps we enjoy the challenge of the climb itself.
Write a childhood memory about climbing. What were you climbing? How high, wide, difficult was it? Why were you climbing? What did it feel like to climb and to reach the top? Where you climbing for a thrill or to get away from something or someone? What did you see, hear, smell, feel?
Happy writing folks
Twenty minutes later than scheduled, the blinking seat belt signs suggests they are about to leave. Juliette watches silently as bullets of hail bounce on the airplane’s wing. The early morning’s offering of sunshine that she’d been so relieved to wake up to, is now hidden behind scribbles of charcoal clouds and a heavy sky. She grumbles obscenities under her breath, Meanwhile, Isobel sleeps silently.
There are murmurs around the cabin; clicking of belts and rustling of newspapers. Juliette turns her head toward Isobel, whose flickering eyelids border between sleep and awake. She shushes her back to sleep. Isobel shivers, and her pale hand slides from a gap in her tartan shawl and pulls the garment up to her neck; she purses her lips, frowns, then rests her head on the back of seat.
As soon as the airplane is in the sky, the cabin fills with chitter-chatter and the smell of fresh coffee. Juliette sucks on a mint imperial, clattering it around her dentures until her ears pop. The tea trolley rattles past with a chorus of, “Any hot drinks or snacks? Anything from the bar?”
A middle-aged woman in PVC trousers and a pink poncho leans across the aisle toward Juliette. “I think Sleeping Beauty there is needing a wee espresso.”
“I’m sorry?” Juliette says.
“Well, it’s such a short flight. We’re hardly up before we’re back down again.” She flicks her hair over her shoulder. “Besides, the sun’s splitting the trees down there in Dublin. You don’t want your woman there to be missing out on a beautiful landing, now do you?”
“Your friend, your sister, your missus, whatever, I’m just saying, there’s a spectacle to behold down there in the autumn.”
And doesn’t Juliette know it. Autumn, as it happens, is a precious time of year. She rests her head on Isobel’s shoulder and closes her eyes.
She’d met Isobel in autumn of 1989. Juliette was on a return flight from Glasgow following four days at a horticultural course in the botanic gardens. She felt tired and her muscles ached from digging and stretching. Isobel had been sitting across the aisle with a group of friends, some of which were being loud and obnoxious. Juliette had noticed the young woman immediately and thought she must have the celtic blood in her veins to be blessed with hair of the color of fire. She caught Red Head’s eye and gave her an appreciative nod. The woman flashed her a quizzical look and turned back to her group. Juliette picked up her battered copy of Orlando and turned away from the hubbub.
Fifteen minutes before landing, her reading was disturbed by the sound of raised voices. She lowered her book and sat up straight to see what was going on. A man in a pinstriped suit four seats in front her was jabbing a finger toward the group of friends. His face was red and twisted in anger. From among the jumble of words being thrown back and forth across the aisle, she managed to pick out “queer” and “gay boys.” Her shoulders tightened, and she dropped Orlando onto the empty seat. She unclipped her seat belt with trembling fingers and was about to rush to the boy’s defense when two cabin crew swept down the aisle to defuse the situation. Juliette sat back in her seat, closed her eyes, and blew out a breath. Her heart was racing.
“Are you alright?” Red Head tapped Juliette on the shoulder.
“I will be,” Juliette replied.
“Do you mind?” She nodded toward the empty seat.
Juliette lifted her book. “Be my guest.”
The seat belt sign lit up, and both women fiddled with their straps until they were locked in.
“I can’t believe people still act like that,” Juliette said, still stiff with anger.
“I know. I’m so embarrassed,” Red Head said. “I told them not to be so, you know, out there in front of other people.” She shook her head.
“Oh no.” Juliette blushed. “I was referring to him there,” she said in a raised voice, pointing at the man in the suit, who was now arguing with his wife.
Red Head cowered into her seat. “I guess I’m just envious. I wish I had the courage to be so bold.”
They sat in silence for the next ten minutes. Juliette fidgeted in her seat, while Red Head twirled a strand of hair around her finger and whistled under her breath.
“I’m Isobel, by the way.” Red Head turned so that their faces were close; Juliette felt her warm breath.
“Juliette,” she answered; the skin of their arms brushed slightly. “Are you Scottish?”
“Can’t you tell?” Isobel smirked.
“You don’t belong to Glasgow, that’s for sure.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Student accent, I guess.”
“I see. What are you studying, Isobel?”
“I was studying public health. Just finished.”
The airplane dipped its left wing to turn and then begin its descent.
“Have you been to Dublin before?” Juliette asked.
“First time, but I’ve been told if the weather’s clear it’s a beautiful landing.”
“That it is.” She sat back. “Take a look.”
Isobel leaned over Juliette’s lap. A ringlet of red hair fell on Juliette’s bottle-green blouse, and the contrast was striking.
“You’ll be seeing Killiney Bay about now,” Juliette said, “and beyond that, the glorious Wicklow Mountains.”
“Wow. Would you look at the colors of those trees.” Isobel turned to face Juliette with wild blue eyes. “Do you want to see?”
“I’ve seen them a hundred times.”
“It’s like the mountains have captured a rainbow.”
“I like to imagine that every tree and every bush, and all the grass and flowers hold the entire summer inside of them, then in the autumn it all spills out.”
For a second, their eyes locked. Juliette held her breath, and although the blood rushed through her veins, there was a feeling of familiarity, like she’d been reunited with a long-lost lover.
“Thank you for this.” Isobel squeezed Juliette’s hand gently before reaching forward one last time and filling the window with hair the color of fire.
Juliette could see in her mind’s eye the Japanese larch, the pines and the spruce, stretched up to the sky and swaying from side to side, back and forth, sweeping brush strokes in the clouds. From up here, she could almost see the forest breathe.
“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but can I see you again?” Isobel asked as the airplane bumped to the ground. “I’m here for a week and I just thought, seeing as you’re local . . . ”
“What gave you the impression I’m local?”
“It’s the accent, I just . . . ”
“You’re right, I’m just playing around with you.”
“So, do you fancy . . . ”
“I’m free on Wednesday evening if you are.” Juliette laughed and felt giddy.
“I’ll make myself free.” Isobel grinned.
“Okay. Meet me in John Kavanagh’s on Prospect Square. Is seven o’clock okay?”
Juliette wore a pair of pin tuck trousers and a black polo neck. She waited at the bar, sipping Malibu and pineapple through a straw and tapping her feet to “Never Too Late” by Kylie Minogue. A few minutes later, the young doctor arrived. She looked younger than Juliette remembered and dressed casually in double denim with green Doc Martens and matching earrings. The long red curls that had first caught Juliette’s eye were tied into a ponytail. Juliette immediately felt her age. But later that night, as they stood in an alleyway to avoid the rain, Isobel leaned forward and kissed Juliette. It was the first time she’d been kissed like that.
Juliette pulls the inflight magazine from the seat pocket and flicks through its glossy pages; adverts, adverts, and more of the same.
“Excuse me, dear.” A voice interrupts her thoughts. A heavily made-up face leans toward her with red lips pulled into a smile revealing straight white teeth.
Juliette raises her eyes.
“Would you like a hot beverage? Tea, coffee . . . ”
“Someone was here just ten minutes ago,” Juliette says. “No thank you.”
“And for your daughter?” Juliette feels a stab in her chest.
“Yes. But . . . ”
“Nothing for either of us. Thank you.”
“If you change your mind, dear . . . ” She points at a button above the seat. “Just press this one.”
Juliette nods and raises the magazine to cover her flushed cheeks. If it isn’t bad enough being insulted with the title of “dear,” being mistaken for Isobel’s mother is deplorable.
The age gap hadn’t been so obvious at the start; Juliette had just turned forty and her premenopausal body was still trim with a flicker of youthfulness. Isobel on the other hand was twenty-one and glowed. Since their first encounter, they’d kept in contact with each other by telephone at least once a day, if not twice. Juliette was completely consumed with love, and according to Isobel, the feeling was mutual. Yet Juliette was reluctant to commit to a relationship, never mind that type of relationship. She assumed, as one would, that Isobel was just dipping her toes in the water and would soon get bored with the lifestyle of a middle-aged woman, never mind the gossip. But Isobel didn’t refrain from trying. Nevertheless, Juliette kept her lover at a distance for ten whole years, meaning both women would travel between Glasgow and Dublin at the weekends, birthdays, and holidays.
“Do you remember that first flight?” Isobel asked her on one of those sleepless rainy nights as they lay in bed together.
“Of course, I do,” Juliette said, stretching her tired limbs.
“I think about it every time I fly here,” Isobel said. “I almost kissed you on that flight. I’d never felt so drawn to anyone like that before.”
“I felt like I’d found you after years of looking,” Juliette breathed into her ear.
“You old romantic.” Isobel kissed her. “But isn’t it about time we began making new memories? Besides, I’m exhausted.”
The flights to and from Glasgow stopped in the first autumn of the millennium. And when Isobel moved in, not a word of gossip passed from the lips of the villagers. Assuming that unlucky-in-love Juliette was past her mothering years and was now a spinster, what else could the young Isobel be but the spinster’s lodger. After all, she’d been visiting as a “friend” for ten years. This suited Isobel well, although it irritated Juliette, but Isobel’s new career as a family practitioner and the sole female doctor in the practice meant absolute discretion. They set up separate bedrooms in Juliette’s two-bed bungalow, in case, as Isobel pointed out, of a surprise visitor or people passing by the back window. But Juliette corrected her, saying that whenever they were in bed together, the curtains were firmly closed. And as for the people passing the back window, that would only be the village gardener, Juliette herself.
For most of the time, their fabricated life wasn’t an issue; the back-room door stayed closed, the room gathering dust, and their relationship shone. Then one afternoon, Juliette was pruning Mrs. Candleberry’s Arthur Bell roses, when the lady herself appeared in the garden with a tray carrying two glasses of Pimm’s.
“So, tell me about your young doctor friend,” Mrs. Candleberry said, putting the tray on the table. She pulled out a chair and patted it. “Join me for a refreshment.”
“Isobel.” Juliette took a handkerchief from the pocket of her shirt and mopped her brow. “What about her?”
“Well, what’s she like to live with? Has she got a man-friend?” She put her hand to the side of her mouth and whispered, “I hear she’s friendly with Doctor Luton.”
“He’s new to the practice. A handsome young Australian man.”
“She hasn’t mentioned him.” Juliette dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand, leaving a line of half-moons.
“Well, I’m sure two attractive doctors don’t need any help from us old hens, but it wouldn’t hurt to give your little friend a nudge?”
Juliette almost choked on an ice cube.
“Although,” she continued, “I’m sure you don’t want to lose a good lodger. It must be nice to have the company of a younger woman in the house.”
“And the rent, of course. Such a shame to have to manage on your own without a . . . ”
“I manage just fine, Mrs. Candleberry.”
“I was just saying to Hilda and Betty at the church hall this morning that Isobel could almost be mistaken for your daughter.”
“My . . . ”
“There’s such a likeness, dear,” she went on, “over the mouth and . . . ” Her voice was drowned out by the scraping of Juliette’s chair on the concrete. She marched back to the roses.
“I’ve got to get on, Mrs. Candleberry,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Mr. Dingle is expecting me in half an hour.” But she raced home that afternoon, stripped off her grubby clothes, and stood in front of the mirror. Then she cried, all the feelings of doubt returning to her mind.
Isobel shrugged it off later that evening. “There’s hardly a line on your face,” she said, tucking a stand of brown hair behind Juliette’s ear and brushing her lips over her earlobe. “And besides, I would be lucky to look anything like you. You’re stunning.”
“But one day soon I’m going to be an old lady and you, you’ll be in your prime.” Juliette shrugged. “And then you’ll leave me.”
“Why would I leave you?”
And for the next decade their flights remained grounded, and together they celebrated each new wrinkle, cried over ailments, and watched each other grow. But sometimes, on a dark and rainy night, Juliette would lie awake wondering when it would all end.
The plane judders and the seat belt sign lights up again. Juliette gently lifts Isobel’s shawl and checks that her belt is firmly in place, then checks her own. She looks at her watch; they’ve been in the air for twenty minutes now, which means there are only thirty-seven minutes to go. She listens to Isobel breathe while all around her teacups rattle on saucers and a couple shout at a child. At the back of the airplane someone is crying. The cabin girl that earlier called her dear staggers from left to right as she makes her way to her own seat by the door. Juliette considers pushing the little button above her head, then scolds herself for thinking bad thoughts. Suddenly the airplane dips. There are wide eyes and a collective gasp, and someone screams for God. Juliette swings her arm toward Isobel, searching for her hand, and Isobel wakes. She struggles to free her arms from her shawl but, of course, she’s held tightly by her seat belt.
The airplane settles, followed by an apology over the intercom.
“It’s okay.” Juliette twists to face Isobel, who is thrashing around, red-faced. She puts her two hands on Isobel’s face and turns it toward her own. Isobel stops writhing and looks at Juliette. Their eyes lock. Juliette breathes sharply and holds her breath. She searches those familiar eyes, still as blue as the sky after a storm. Isobel smiles; a dimple that’s grown deeper with age bends as her lips stretch.
“Hey, my love.” Juliette’s heart quickens. “It’s me, Juliette.” She reaches out and takes Isobel’s hands.
Isobel clears her throat. “Do you have an appointment, dear?” She shakes Juliette’s hands away and starts pulling things from the seat pocket and dropping them on the floor. “I can’t seem to find my diary. What did you say your name was?”
Juliette feels a familiar gnawing of disappointment, but she blinks it away. “I’m not here to see a doctor, I’m here to see you.”
Isobel frowns and sits back in her seat. “Are we on a bus?”
Juliette pulls the shade down. “We’re on an airplane to Dublin.”
“Where’s Juliette? What have you done with Juliette?” She begins tugging on her seat belt.
“Stop this bus!” Isobel shouts at the top of her voice.
“Isobel . . . ”
“Help! I’m being held hostage!”
Juliette unclips her seat belt and stands up. She holds Isobel by the shoulders.
“Is everything alright?” A bald head pops up from the seat in front.
“Ma’am.” Juliette’s favorite steward stands in the aisle. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is fine.” Juliette puts her arm out to warn the steward to stay back. “She’s . . . ”
“Are you here for an appointment, dear?” Isobel smiles at the steward.
“She’s radio rental.” A little blonde girl with pretend tattoos drapes her arms over Juliette’s head rest.
“Don’t be so rude,” Juliette snaps, then turns to the steward. “She’s just confused.”
They thought it was fatigue at first, what with the extra shifts she’d been covering due to Dr. O’Brian’s pregnancy.
“You can’t just diagnose yourself with exhaustion, then go in to work on a Saturday,” Juliette snapped after finding an egg bouncing in a dry saucepan on the kitchen hob. “You need to take time off.”
“I can’t. Deloris is as sick as a dog with this wee one, and besides, there’s no one else to cover for her.”
“Fair enough, but remember you’ll have to finish early on Monday, you’ve got a hospital appointment to get that left leg looked at again.”
“My left leg?” Isobel looked puzzled.
“The trapped nerve . . . ”
“Aye, right enough,” she said, limping out of the room.
But Isobel didn’t finish early that Monday, or the following Monday, and as the weeks went by, Juliette lost count of the times she’d canceled and rearranged appointments. But it was six months later when things came to a head.
Juliette was in the kitchen organizing sandwiches onto serving trays. They were expecting a dozen friends over in the evening to celebrate their upcoming twentieth anniversary.
Isobel burst into the kitchen with arms full of shopping bags.
“Is the cake in the car?” Juliette asked.
“Cake?” Isobel dropped the bags at her feet.
“The anniversary . . . ” Juliette began.
A tin of dog food rolled from one of the bags and landed near Juliette’s feet. She picked it up and looked at Isobel. The confusion on her face sent shivers down Juliette’s spine.
“We don’t have a dog, do we?” Isobel said softly.
“We don’t.” Juliette pulled out a kitchen chair and took Isobel’s hand. “Sit down, love.”
Isobel was trembling.
After the diagnosis Isobel took sick leave from work and began reading prolifically. Being a doctor, she had access to the best medical books on early onset dementia. She collected them all and shut herself in the second bedroom and spent weeks poring over them. Then one day, out of the blue, she packed the books into a large cardboard box and took them to the office. Juliette waited in the car.
“Do you want to go on a road trip?” Isobel asked when she returned.
“Today?” Juliette asked.
“Why not. I want to make up for forgetting our . . . ” She held her mouth open, as if waiting for the word to drop out.
“Anniversary?” Juliette lifted her eyebrows.
“Aye, that. I feel so disconnected from everything.” Isobel blushed. “Shall we?”
“Where do you want to go?”
So, approximately three weeks after their twentieth anniversary, they laid their sleeping bags on the ground on top of a thick bed of moss and fallen pine needles at the foot of Wicklow Mountains.
“Who needs a mattress?” Juliette said and breathed deeply. The forest smelled of damp mulch and burning firewood.
Isobel tucked a cushion under her head. “We should have done this years ago,” she said, looking up at the trees swishing in the breeze. “Look”—she pointed—“Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers!”
Juliette looked up to see two Scots pines bent toward one another in a romantic embrace.
Isobel turned to Juliette. “Thank you for twenty years of good memories.”
“And here’s to making new ones,” Juliette replied.
“Memory might not be my strong point though.” Isobel sighed.
“I’m sure it won’t be as bad as you think.”
“Oh, Juliette. We need to talk.”
Isobel sat up and crossed her legs.
“I know you’re worried, my love. I am too.” Juliette brushed the palm of her hand over Isobel’s cheek. “But if things get difficult, I’ll look after you.”
Isobel turned to face Juliette. “Promise me you’ll bring me here every year on our anniversary.”
“Even if I forget you, I think this is the place that will bring it all back.”
Juliette reached over and held her hand. She choked back her tears.
“Will you collect me from Glasgow.” Isobel’s blue eyes were heavy and full.
Juliette sat up. “What?”
“I’m going back to Scotland. Everything’s arranged.”
“No. You can’t.” Juliette felt her body trembling. That familiar feeling that had kept her awake for so many nights. “You’re leaving?”
“I’m setting you free.”
Juliette feels the pressure change in the cabin as the airplane begins its descent. There’s the usual hustle and bustle before landing; bags being stowed in overhead lockers; seats being put back in upright positions; last minute queues at the toilets. Isobel fiddles with the air-conditioning above her head; it blows strands of red hair over her face and she laughs.
“Isobel.” Juliette whispers so as not to alarm her. “Do you want look outside?” She pulls the window blind up fully.
Slowly, Isobel reaches over and looks out. “No, no, no!” she shouts. “I think we’re falling!”
“Oh no, darling, I promise you we’re not.” Juliette takes her hand. “Look, we’re flying over Killiney Bay.”
Isobel edges closer, her eyes widening. Suddenly, she presses her finger on the window. “Aha!” she says. “Can you see that rainbow? That’s where I’ll find my Juliette.”
Juliette smiles and nods.
The forest floor is dappled with sunlight. Long lingering licks of amber coat the leaves and branches. Isobel sits in the car while Juliette unpacks. She tries to ignore the ache in her heart while she sets about re-creating the past. She lays out two sleeping bags on the blanket of thick green moss, and two cushions. Beside each she places a bottle of water and a bag of mixed nuts. Even though they’d returned to this exact spot for the last ten years, she checks for their initials on the bark of the spruce that they’d carved five years ago.
“I’ll never stop trying,” she says, tracing her finger over the rough bark.
Before she fetches Isobel from the car, she stands for a moment and breathes the cool damp air. High above her, Fred and Ginger stand still, like strangers.
This short story is published by Casule Stories.
She breathed deep, Jaggy at first, And at her feet a pigeon pecked at pickings While a bus shuddered close by - Its doors folded open to the street. She breathed out. Her second breath was smoother, And as people sped by Hunkered under raincoats, rain tap tapping In stereo around their ears, The walking school bus Marched hand in hand in high vis vests, And she sat with cold bus-stop-feet. She blew out an shivering ‘oh.’ Her third breath was quiet As still as the gap Between the ‘Caw’ of the rook And the flap of a pigeon’s wings. Behind her a shop bell tinkled, And the smell of baked bread Hung as heavy as coffee in the air, Warm and steady Like her out breath. She paused a while longer. Watching a line of charcoal cloud Make a bridge between two tenements blocks While a buddleia swayed left and right In an unused chimney pot.
Dedicated to Susie, from PauseandBreathe
Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway was not supposed to die first.
Margo pulled the front door shut and hobbled out onto the veranda. She put her mug of hot tea onto the table then pulled out one of the plastic chairs. Fastening her fingers around the handles, she began to lower her fragile body on to the seat. She held her breath, knuckles white under the patio light, arms trembling, but her elbows buckled and gave way. She gasped. Her bottom hit the seat with a thud. The chair skidded backwards – with Margo holding on for dear life – and its four legs scraped the concrete, ripping a roar into the night. She sat rigid, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She blew out a long whistling sigh. Clumsy old fool. A large brown moth tapped the light above her head. She watched as it hovered and tapped and hovered then dived, down towards her face. Unfastening her fingers from the chair, she swiped the air. The moth darted back into the light. Shug would have scolded her for swiping the moth, “God created this world for all living creatures, not just the pretty ones.”
“Oh Shug,” she wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulders shook and tears welled in her eyes. She coughed out her sorrow in a whisper.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dressing gown and inhaled the night. Autumn had begun to creep into the corners of the garden in little cold curls, and the air smelled of damp foliage and chimney soot. Margo looked out into the darkness and saw the moon, a white eyelash resting on a purple blanket.
The tea was hot. Margo held the mug to her chest and twirls of steam rose into the air, dampening her face. She turned away and caught her reflection in the patio window. How time had altered her face, it used to be so soft and smooth but now it hung in folds of sagging flesh. And those lips – sucked dry into a shrivelled line. She swept a strand of hair that had blown onto her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. How she missed her long fiery curls, her most defining feature back in the day. Now her hair was as grey as the chimney smoke chugging the air. Shug had barely noticed her changing though. “You’re bonnier than the sunset o’er the Forth of Firth,” he’d say, “as bonny now, as the day we met.” Shug had gone grey first. He was only twenty-three when it happened. In a single year, Shug’s hair transformed from bold black into fading grey. It was the year after Pearl died. Margo sipped her tea from trembling fingers. She heard the sound of a door opening, closing, and then footsteps. In the darkness, she could see the silhouette of a tall slim man walking down the pavement. It was Billy, her friend’s Grandson.
“Evening Mrs Galloway,” he waved, “Starting to get a bit nippy out eh?”
“Aye Son, it is.”
He continued walking. She watched as he stopped at the far end of her fence and lit a cigarette. The flash of orange light glowed for a moment, then he disappeared into the night. All that remained was the sound of his footsteps and a dancing orange dot. The smell of tobacco drifted through the air, lingered for a few seconds and she felt a flutter in her chest. She inhaled deeply. Margo had never smoked, never even tried it, but she had grown used to the smell of a newly lit cigarette. It reminded her of the first day that she had met Shug.
It was a warm afternoon in the spring of 1964. She was working from home at the time, a seamstress by all accounts, though a self-trained one. She had even built herself quite a reputation in the village where she lived. A craftswoman, the locals called her, “with an eye as sharp as a needle and fingers that can turn a tattie sack into a gown.” When Shug turned up at the foot of her steps, a handsome young man with a pair of trousers draped over his left arm and a cigarette paper balancing between two fingers, she stood in the doorway and watched him. He knew she was watching, but his eyes were focused on his fingers while he tore the wiry brown tobacco, spread it into a line then folded the paper, rolling and licking and rolling again. When he was done, he put the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and looked up.
“Are you Margo McNabb?” he cocked his head to one side.
“Aye.” She blushed and looked at the trousers over his arm.
“Great, my Maw said you could maybe take up the hem of my trousers,” he held them out. “Can you do it for me?”
Margo looked at the trousers and then at her visitor. He was short and stocky and the trousers would have been a good two inches too long. She sniggered.
“Aye okay,” she turned her back, leaving the door ajar, “Come on in.”
He followed her and closed the door.
“Who’s your Maw?” Margo asked taking the trousers and nodding her head to an empty seat.
“Betty, Betty Galloway. She said you two were pals during the war. Do you mind if I…?” he pointed to his cigarette and raised his eyebrows.
“Aye go ahead, but you’ll need to take it into the scullery. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Go on then.”
He got up from the seat and followed her through. Margo filled the kettle and put it on to boil.
“So you’re Betty’s laddie. Stanley is it?” she asked dropping two teabags into the teapot.
“Aye, but call me Shug, hardly anyone calls me Stanley anymore.”
“Alright Shug,” she leaned back against the wall and folded her arms. Shug lit his cigarette. He took a long draw and blew the smoke up to the ceiling.
“Nice place you have, Mrs McNabb.”
“Not Mrs,” she felt her face burning, so she turned to the cooker and fidgeted with the kettle, “Just Margo will do.”
“Just Margo eh? Interesting.”
She turned back around and watched as he blew little hoops of smoke into the room.
“Me and your Maw, we had some good times together, she used to wash and iron the clothes that I fixed, she was always singing, kept us all going so she did.”
“I bet you could hold a tune yourself,” he winked.
“Well I tried.” She twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. “Anyway, those were hard times back then, nae money for luxuries and all that.”
“Make do and mend,” he said, “Aye, she still goes on about it.”
A car engine rattled, snapping Margo out of her memory, and abruptly back to 2010. She jumped, and looked out into the street. It was normally so quiet at this time of the night. The car drove past. Lifting her mug, she took a gulp of tea but it was almost cold. She put the mug back on the table. Television lights flickered in the window opposite and an upstairs light in the house on the left, turned on. A curtain twitched. She watched for a moment then stretched her legs out in front of her. Flopping her head back, she looked up at the darkening sky. She closed her eyes and sighed, letting her thoughts drift off again. ‘Make do and mend’, she thought, ‘just like our wedding.’ In the space of a year, they had gone from talking in the scullery to walking down the aisle. It was a shame it had been such a small ceremony. Not many people approved of the twenty-seven year age gap. Shug had looked so charming in his taken-up trousers and suit jacket, while she had worn a dress she made herself. Oh and how wonderful she had felt in that beautiful dress, satin and lace that expertly skimmed her three-month baby bump.
Pearl was born in the back of an ambulance, eight days late, and after seventeen hours of labour. She was a scrawny little pink bundle – with a temper as fierce as her fiery hair. And those eyes, those little blue eyes that looked up at her Mother and filled her joy. They had fallen in love instantly. Margo remembered bringing her home, swaddled in a crocheted shawl. It took Shug a few days to hold his daughter on his own though.
“She’s not a bomb for goodness sake,” she took the baby from him and told him how to position his arms. He sat back in the rocking chair, and she placed the little bundle back into his arms. He stared down at her, a new twinkle in his eyes.
“She’s a gem.”
“Aye,” Margo smiled, “She really is. Are we giving her a name?”
“Pearl,” Shug replied, “Her name is Pearl.”
“Pearl.” Margo whispered her daughter’s name into the night. “I’ve missed you all these years.”
A cold breeze ruffled her hair and tickled her face. It felt like tiny ghost fingers touching her playfully. With her eyes still closed, she held on to the lingering chill. She touched the pendant that hung on a silver chain around her neck. Shug had bought it for her birthday in 1968, the year that Pearl died. She could still remember him dropping the pendant into her hand and closing her fingers around it. The stone had felt as heavy as the ache in her chest.
“I don’t want it.” She threw the pendant back at Shug. She hadn’t even remembered it was her birthday. After all, she had only buried her daughter three weeks earlier.
“But it’s Mother of Pearl,” he placed it on the bed side table, “Like you, the Mother of Pearl. It’s to remember our little girl.”
“What? You think a stupid necklace is a replacement for my baby? Really?” her body convulsed and tears fell from her swollen eyes.
“You’ll always be her Mum, Margo. You will.”
“Her Mum? But it was my job to look after her, not to dilly dally at some stupid ladies group. She was only three, for Christ’s sake, my only child. I should have been with her.”
“It’s not your fault,” he sobbed, “I should have been watching.”
Margo looked away from him and clenched her teeth.
“I only took my eyes off her for a second to roll my fag. I didn’t see her run. I didn’t see the car.”
“Come on Margo, you have to believe I’d never have let anything happen to our wee girl, not on purpose.”
“Too late. Where is she now Shug, eh? Where is my bairn?”
Shug bent down to touch her face. She swiped his hand away.
“Don’t touch me!” She shouted and pulled the covers up to her neck. “Just don’t”
“I’m so sorry,” he fell no his knees and wept into his hands, “I’m so sorry. Oh God. Oh God!”
Margo could still remember his cries, even now – forty-two years later. She shook her head, dropped the pendant onto her chest, and stared out into the darkness. Poor Shug. He’d never been the same after the accident. It hadn’t been easy for either of them to – just get on. But they did – get on – or at least they did their best. The television had stopped flickering in the window across the road. All the other windows were dark. She was alone.
Margo had always imagined that she would die first. Shug had joked about how he would go off and travel the world with all of their money when she was gone. After all, the success of her sewing business had allowed her to save for many years; so much so that she had comfortably retired at sixty. She remembered asking Shug to consider early retirement from his job in the carpet factory.
“I’ve plenty years in me yet.”
“But we can afford it, and you’ve worked so hard for all these years, don’t you want to spend more time at the dancing? You love the dancing.”
“We can dance anytime. Look,” he took her hand and pulled her into an embrace, then spun her around, catching her and kissing her on the nose.
“But we could do other things. You know. Together.”
“Get on a train and go somewhere new. My goodness, we could travel the world.”
“I already told you,” he slapped her bottom, “I’m going to travel the world when you’re dead and gone. What else am I going to do with all that money you’ve got stashed.”
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you are a bad man.”
But alas, it wasn’t to be. Shug was forced to retire in 2004 due to ill health. He was diagnosed with emphysema and heart problems. It had begun as a cough that had lasted for three months.
“Is it no about time you gave up on the cigarettes?” she’d asked him, knowing full well that he wouldn’t.
“How am I supposed to give up the fags now,” he said, “I’ve been smoking since I was eight.”
Shug had often recalled his early childhood memories to her. He had worked in his uncle’s cigarette factory when he was just a boy. He told her how he would sweep under the machines, collecting the loose tobacco in a paper bag so him and his pals could meet in the hay field after school and smoke the scraps. Margo had laughed about it, and people didn’t know the risks back in the fifties, and most of the boys did it.
Margo worried. Shug had lost his appetite and had grown thin, adding years to his face. His bottom lip was tinged in blue. He spent much of the day asleep or sitting up in his armchair reading the paper. Margo began to sleep in a chair beside his bed. One night, at the beginning of 2005, his heart stopped.
“I saw her Margo. I saw her standing there, waiting for me,” he gripped her hand through the bars of the hospital bed.
“She’s waiting, I saw her, and she was smiling.” Shug tried to sit up, but she put her hand on his shoulder and bent over him. Her back ached and her eyes filled with tears.
“She forgives me, my little girl.” He closed his eyes.
“It’s not time yet.” She said and kissed his finger then held them to her lips. “I’m taking you home.”
“Oh Margo, I’m ready to go now,” he turned his head towards her but never opened his eyes, “Don’t let them bring me back next time. Promise me?”
“I, I don’t know.” She whispered.
“Don’t let them bring me back.”
Margo looked up at the sky. It had turned black. She was glad that Shug had managed another six years after that, and although he began to fade away, his love never faltered. And he learned to laugh again. “You better get spending that money, Mrs Galloway.”
She reached for her mug; it was as cold as stone. Pouring the remaining tea into the wilting fuchsia in the flower box, she sighed deeply. She pushed her arms against the plastic chair and steadied herself. Her legs trembled and she shivered. The night had sunk into her dressing gown. She had waited long enough. Straightening her back, she walked slowly into the house. It was just as she had left it. The armchair, the ashtray filled with cigarette ends, and Shug. She kissed his cheek, closed his eyes, and watched another white eyelash fall to his purple blanket.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
Tears rolled down her face. She picked up the phone.
“Emergency services, how may I help you?”
“My husband has died.”
“Are you sure that he is dead?”
I remember her sitting there,
Long amber hair, and a chair with wheels
The colour of the sea.
I remember sitting there,
Daring her to care, wishing her eyes
Would fall from the sky into mine.
But we just sat there,
I paid my fair, while she looked for mermaid
Shapes in the clouds.
Yet as I sat there,
Listening to the whistle tear a note
Into the station
She looked, she smiled, and we shared,
And I sat there, and she sat there,
A pair, connected.
Then the train rumbled out of the station
This poem ‘A Moment,’ was been selected to be part of the Renfrewshire Mental Health Arts Festival, ‘Passing Time.’ This is an exhibition of Poetry on the station platforms of Renfrewshire. This particular poem was displayed in Johnstone station. For more information about the exhibition, click here.
When I think of food, I think of full bellies, and clean plates. I think of empty pots with sticky ladles, and big belly burps. I think laughter. I think love. But I haven’t always thought of food in this way. I was a hungry bairn you see, not starving by any means, but never quite satisfied. My wee Ma’ did her best though, and with a lack of money and a cooking education that barely stretched further than tin opener – you could count her recipes on one hand. But she did make a mean cheese and potato pie, and on a good week, she was a dab hand at a savoury flan – although my wee Ma’s definition of savoury is another story.
Being a hungry bairn meant that wherever I went, food was always on my mind. So, it’s no wonder that when I think of it now, my thoughts take me back to my hometown of Bonnyrigg. It’s the late 1970’s, we are off school for the summer, and its market day. The sun is unusually yellow, the pavements are packed, and my jelly bean sandals are stuck to the tar that’s melting like treacle beneath my feet. And I Am Ravenous. The air is thick and warm with a mishmash of flavours; sweet and salty, sticky and burnt, the kind of smells that clings to your soft pallet. I imagine it’s like dusting your tongue with icing sugar then dipping it into beef dripping. But for a hungry bairn, that wasn’t quite starving, but never quite full, market day was like a disco on my taste buds.
‘You could spread a piece wae yon smell,’ I can imagine my wee Ma’ saying, ‘thick as the potted meat you get o’er the counter in Campbell’s.’
Reaching the high street was always a thrill for me, the thrum of the sidewalks, the rhythm of the market trader’s, ‘Twenty-four eggs for-a-pound. Get your eggs here.’ And it was hard to miss the beatboxing butcher with his ‘Back bacon, shoulder bacon, any bacon here.’ My feet would skip, passing the gathering crowd, who were anxious to ‘pick two packs for-a-pound,’ and with my nose to the sky, I’d suck the smells of the market, deep into my belly. That was nourishment! Whenever my wee Ma’ stopped to talk, I would look up and see arms in the air, waving and reaching, bidding for shoulders, legs, thighs. In a decade when ‘what was on the dinner table that night’ was of such high importance, it was no wonder that the butchers had to auction their meat.
But the market wasn’t just a place to buy and sell, it was a meeting place for grownups, filled with chittering and chattering. It was the weekly news update in a pre-Facebook era; the who married who, and the who got who pregnant; and the biggest scandal on everybody’s lips, was the waiting times at the doctor’s surgery. I loved seeing my wee Ma’, surrounded by friends, super animated and smiling; this, I guess, was how she nourished her mind.
My Nana has a jewelry stall right in the back corner of the market – she used to make her own costume jewelry, and because I didn’t see her very often, I’d get a free bracelet or a beaded necklace. On a good day though, I’d get shiny fifty pence pressed firmly into the palm of my hand.
“Buy yourself a wee sweetie hen, but dinnae be greedy. Share them with your brother and sister.”
I would nod and trot off with my riches, the unlikelihood of sibling generosity dwindling, the louder my belly growled.
There were several sweetie stalls at the market, but I preferred Cathy’s sweetie shop on the high street. Cathy was oldest looking person I had ever seen. She had short purple curly hair and a face as soft as pudding. She would sit on a wooden chair behind the counter and read the local newspaper over the top of her half-moon glasses. I remember leaving my wee Ma’ outside the shop while, like a big girl, I went in on my own. The doorbell chimed as I entered, and Cathy stood up straight. She coughed, smoothed down her gingham pinny and smiled. The sweetie shop smelled glorious, like even the air was tinged with sugar. It’s neither wonder the customers often left with a smile and a bounce in their step.
“What’ll it be the day hen?” Cathy clicked her falsers together while she waited for an answer. My eyes trailed over the wall of plastic tubs, filled with multi coloured shapes resting on a thick sugary layer. There were cola cubes, sour plooms, sweet peanuts, jazzies, pear drops, lucky tatties, Chelsea whoppers, pineapple cubes, bubblies, and sherbet.
“Sour Plooms please.” I pointed to the tub filled with dark green balls.
“I’ve got fifty pence,” I held out my hand, “is that enough for Chelsea whoppers tae?”
“Aye, plooms and whoppers.” I held out two paper pokes, one in each hand. “Dae ye want one?”
On the corner of the counter was a huge silver weighing scale. Cathy poured my sweeties into the dish, added an extra two, then popped one in her mouth. She rolled it around then held it in her cheek. I could see it there, like a massive pluke ready to pop. She poured my sweeties into a brown paper poke and folded my whoppers into another. Then she took my fifty pence. I don’t think she thanked me for the stolen ploom, but I must have let her off for being nice.
“Did you buy something guid?” Ma was sitting on the wall waiting for me.
“No hen. I’m saving myself for soup.”
I stuffed my sweeties deep into my cardigan pockets ‘cause it was a sure thing I’d need them later on if it was soup day.
We walked up the coal road hand in hand. I turned, just once to sniff the air, but market day had been packed up, loaded into vans, and driven off to somewhere new.
I mentioned some time ago (2017), that one of my poems was selected to appear at two railway stations as part of the Renfrewshire metal health festival Scotland. A few days ago, I got along to see it displayed. I hope it moved some people, or just passed a minute while they waited at the station. A fresh batch of poems will go up in May.
It was dawn when they arrived. Two orange beams of light Cutting tight between the lines of furrows, And illuminating trees. Her baby stirred. It was dawn when they arrived. Gravel crumbling under tyres. A slither of sun crowning the hill, And puffs of cloud lay as still As her sleeping calf. It was dawn when they arrived. Two brown rubber boots crunching On grass, still tipped with frozen dew. A banging gate. A magpie flew. The baby shook. It was dawn when they arrived. Two white hands and a noose. A gate held ajar by a damp lump of wood Four white walls, a nest of hay, A trembling baby stood. It was dawn when they arrived. Two blue eyes trailing the floor, Stealing her crying calf out of the door White walls, empty bed, empty floor Her mother stood - alone. It was dawn they left.
Now published in Veggie Wagon Website.
Sir Walter Scott recalls in his book Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border that ‘The Twa Corbies’ was ‘communicated to [him] by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, esq. jun. of Hoddom, as written down, from tradition, by a lady.’  The use of the word ‘Tradition’ suggests that ‘The Twa Corbies’ ballad survived orally. According to Buchan
The nonliterate person does not possess […] visual imagination, words for him cannot be translated into pictorial symbols, they exist in sound groups; his facility for imaginative retention is largely auditory. 
The traditional methods of ballad structure such as form, convention, uncomplicated language, and rhyme create the sound groups that Buchan is suggesting. Whilst assisting the performer and the audience in memorising the ballad, the construction of the ballad ensures that its bones remain intact regardless of time and place. This allows the longevity of the story.
The anonymous ballad, ‘The Twa Corbies’ has a chivalric theme. Morgan suggests that in the chivalric ballad ‘Neither historical figures nor legendary idols escape criticism, [in] the ballads of chivalry [they] serve to strip the façade of honor from their social betters.’  Within a particular genre, the use of common tropes assists in memorising the narrative through fixed characters and themes. This also allows a performer to make a ballad contemporary whilst retaining the familiar narrative. Like most medieval ballads, ‘The Twa Corbies’ begins in Media Res, keeping the narrative brief whilst allowing the audience to quickly interpret the ballad’s intended meaning. The commonality of ballad themes means that multiplicity may occur, for example, ‘The Twa Corbies’ has great similarities to the English ballad ‘The Three Ravens’. Although the narrative of these ballads is similar, the tone sets them apart. ‘The Three Ravens’ conveys an optimistic tone which Morgan suggests ‘upholds the chivalric tradition of romance, complete with references to knightly behaviour, courtly love, and Christian piety’, (Morgan, p.119-120). The sombre tone of ‘The Twa Corbies’ however, implies a negative interpretation of chivalry with a realistic view of a social situation in which the importance of survival is crucial. This is found in the following three lines:
‘His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en another mate, 
The abandonment and disregard for the dead knight’s body offers the audience a natural and realistic account of life and death and the nature of survival. These three characters resume living in the most natural way. The theme of survival is clarified in the final line of the stanza:
So we may mak our dinner sweet. (TTC, 12)
This line highlights not only that compassion is essential for survival but also that all creatures are equal, a direct criticism of chivalric hierarchy. The tone of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, is similar to ‘The Twa Corbies,’ in that it demonstrates the danger of the hierarchal structure, for example
‘O wha is this has duin this deed
An tauld the king o me 
The phrase ‘duin this deed’, suggests that the speaker has already accepted his deadly fate which, predetermines the remainder of the ballad. In addition, these lines not only demonstrate danger of royal hierarchy but also of the Kings right to assume the role of God. The ballad audience however, are already aware that the elderly knight is responsible:
O up and sat an eldern knight (SPS, 5)
The use of ‘O’ at the beginning of the line mimics the form of the traditional hymn. As a result, this technique elevates the position of the knight to God. This allows the audience to question not only the idealism of royalty, but also the hierarchal structure of the royal court and it’s danger of improper decision-making. The effect of tone in both ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘The Twa Corbies’, in addition to theme, structure and word choice directs the reader to the underlying meaning and intention of the ballad.
The generic ballad form allows the performer to navigate his way through the ballad by creating self-contained narrative frames, or stanzas. Each frame consists of a variety of stylistic conventions that create auditory symbols, instructions, and prompts, essential for the performer and the audience in memorising the song. For example, the opening couplet in ‘The Twa Corbies’ acts as an essential idea, setting the scene of the narrative. The first person speaker recalls an incident in past tense:
As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane; (TTC, 1.2)
The use the of verbs ‘Walking’ and ‘makin’ rather than ‘walked’ and ‘make’ are coded words which have a dual purpose, firstly to fulfil the rhythm of iambic tetrameter and also to describe movement, firstly from the speaker then followed by the corbies. The progressive verb choices, in addition to the past tense narration demonstrate the continuity of life and the underlying theme of the narrative, which is survival. Performed in thin Scots, the mixed dialect gives the audience a sense of place, whilst acting as a comparison to the English dialect – the dialect of the hierarchal chivalry. In addition, the refrain of the rhyming couplets assist the performer in memorising the sound units whilst allowing the narrative to be adapted and developed within a set structure. In the first couplet ‘all alane’ (TTC, 1) is a triad of assonance, with the ‘a’ sound at the start of the three syllables. This acts as a sound group, important for memorising. In line two, ‘making a mane’ (TTC, 2) is a refrain of consonance. The ‘m’ sound lands at the beginning of a two-syllable word followed by a one-syllable word. This elongates the sentence making the ‘mane’ onomatopoeia. It is therefore the manipulation of sounds and beats that aid the speakers memory rather than the words themselves.
The symbolism of the corbies – a Scottish word for ravens, has various mythological connotations, one of which is that ‘Ravens as birds of knowledge appear throughout myth, especially in Odin’s two ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory)’.  This tale will have been familiar to audiences in medieval times, therefore informing the audience of the role of the corbies within in this ballad to represent thought and memory, crucial for the survival of the narrative.
There is a tense change in the final line of the first stanza when the narrative changes into dialogue:
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’(TTC, 4)
This change indicates a scene break that allows the oral storyteller to move on to a different frame with different conventions. The leaping between scenes or frames requires the audience to read between the lines and flesh out the narrative themselves. This closing line in stanza one is the last line in a long sentence, moving from past to present. This demonstrates movement in time, also survival and tradition – which is the link between past and present. The introduction of ‘we’ prompts audience participation, a further mode of memorising.
In stanza two, the speaker uses ironic juxtaposition in a couplet. The ‘auld fail dyke’ (TTC, 4) conceals ‘a new slain knight’ (TTC, 5). ‘Auld’ is the primary word, situated before ‘new’ in the stanza. This gives the former superiority. Not only does this romanticise an older way of life but also demonstrates the strength of the old through the symbolism of the wall and its survival. These conventions are important to allow the framing and unfolding of each stanza, important for prompting memory, and continuity.
The generic form found in ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is the most commonly found traditional ballad form; a four foot line followed by a three foot line. The consistent rhyming scheme, ABCB allows the framing of each stanza, which, like ‘The Twa Corbies’ is an arrangement of quatrains. Whilst this ballad is greater in length, the techniques are consistent of the ballad tradition. The sound refrains such as ‘whare will’ (SPS, 3) creates a sound like the wind, whilst ‘skeely skipper’ (SPS, 3) makes a storm like sound. These techniques not only create an ambiance, but also are sound symbols. Due to the length of this ballad, the refrain is demonstrated on a wider scale, such as ‘To Norway’ is repeated three times in stanza four. Using a variety of different conventions within each frame, aids the memory of the oral storyteller through the use of sound, symbols and prompts.
Whilst ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is a much larger poem in length than ‘The Twa Corbies’ the techniques of style and convention are similar. The overall effect of the style and convention in both ballads is to aid the memory of the performer whilst guiding and prompting himself and the audience. The purpose of this is to deliver a story within the bones of a well-known narrative theme, which, through auditory symbols and sound groups, makes it adaptable as it is re-told and reworked over time. Moreover, whilst many medieval ballads adopt a familiar theme, resulting in multiplicity, the tone and dialect set them apart.
Anonymous, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Penguin Books, 2006)
Anonymous, ‘The Twa Corbies’, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Penguin Books, 2006)
Buchan, David, The Ballad and the Folk (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1997)
Frankel, Valerie Estelle, The Symbolism and Sources of Outlander: The Scottish Fairies, Folklore, Ballads, Magic and Meanings that Inspired the Series (North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2015)
Morgan, Gwendolyn A., Medieval Ballads: Chivalry, Romance, and Everyday Life. A Critical Anthology (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1996)
Scott, Sir Walter, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1803)
Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, My Name is Leon (2016) by Kit De Waal is a heart tugging, sad yet hopeful book. Set in England the late 1970’s – early 1980’s, Leon and his baby brother Jake are living with single mother Carol. Leon’s father is in prison and Jakes father is married and wants nothing to do with Carol or the child. Carol is terribly lonely and desperately unhappy. Struggling with deep depression, the mother’s fragile state leaves her unable to care for her children :
Leon has begun to notice things what make his mum cry: when Jake makes a lot of noise; when she hasn’t got any money; when she comes back from the phone box; when Leon asks too many questions; and when she’s staring at Jake, (p.12).
After Carol takes to her bed, Leon, at just nine years old, takes on the role of carer and parent. Through the eyes of this young boy, the reader watches his world fall apart, fragment by fragment.
Eventually the boys are taken into care and find solace in the home of Maureen, an experienced foster carer with a deep love for both cakes and children. Maureen is a lovable character who feels a deep affinity for Leon, even though Leon is highly suspicious of anyone in the care system, but when Jake is adopted, it is Maureen who picks up the pieces. It is perhaps her honesty rather than her role as parent that soothes Leon in his most difficult times:
‘Now listen carefully because I want you to understand something and I don’t say this to all the children because it’s not always true but with you it’s true so you have to believe it. And when you believe it you will stop grinding your teeth […] You will be all right, Leon.’ (p.55-56).
But when Maureen is taken into hospital, Leon is left with Maureen’s sister Sylvia, a less motherly role model than Maureen but with a desire to please her sister none the less. Their relationship is strained and often uncomfortable, but soon enough Leon finds comfort in a new friend, Tufty. Tufty is a young man who looks after a plot in his father’s allotment. The man and the boy form a friendship that grows alongside the seeds that they plant in the garden, so when they both find themselves in the midst of the Birmingham riots, they naturally come together to save each other.
This is a coming of age story unlike any other, it is not a happy ever after but hope for a child and his future.
I love this novel, it is clearly written with believable characters and honest emotions. At the start of the novel I was concerned about the character’s point of view – a third person limited perspective from the child’s perspective – but it is cleverly done. While the reader gathers glimpses of emotions from inside Leon’s head, there is still enough distance to feel the tug of the story from the outside. It is as if the reader is holding the child’s hand and experiencing his life with him as it unfolds. Brilliantly done and brilliantly written. Go Leon.
The role of the cross-dressing male in literature for children serves to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. In order for the genre of cross-dressing to exist, however, the implied reader must already live in a society where dress plays a significant part in gender recognition and is generally practised as a social norm. Transsexual activist Nancy Nangeroni quoted that ‘It is not gender which causes problems; rather it is the imposition of gender on an individual by another.’ Due to the socialisation of gender in Western societies, the cross-dressing male in literature for children is treated as the ‘other’. By discussing David Walliams’s novel The Boy in the Dress in comparison to Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I will identify the key issues surrounding the cross-dressing male in literature for children such as masculine reinforcement, sexuality, humour, and gender performance.
Written in 2008, Walliams offers an original critique of the male child cross-dresser in his novel The Boy in the Dress by addressing the way that clothing can create ‘otherness’. The opening statement of the novel is ambiguous, ‘Dennis was different.’ This statement not only poses the question of what or who is Dennis different from but also puts Dennis into the category of ‘other’. The narrator proceeds by telling the reader that ‘When [Dennis] looked in the mirror he saw an ordinary twelve-year-old boy,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). This implies that Dennis is not ‘different’ because of his appearance but rather because ‘he felt different- his thoughts were full of colour and poetry, though his life could be very boring’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). In this quotation, the italicised ‘felt’ in addition to his thoughts of colour and poetry not only demonstrate Dennis’s aesthetic view of the world but also an unconventional representation of the traditional masculine expression. Social theorist Victor J. Seidler suggests that ‘expressing emotions allows men to connect to an aspect of their subjectivity that traditional forms of masculinity have denied them.’  Walliams is demonstrating that Dennis is aware that he deviates from the stereotypical Westernised idea of masculinity and therefore, feels different.
Masculinity in The Boy in the Dress, suppresses the protagonist’s subjective self. Walliams demonstrates this by exploring masculine reinforcement within the child’s family. When Dennis’s mother leaves home, his father makes a rule of ‘No crying. And worst of all- no hugging, (The Boy in the Dress, p.16). For Dennis, his father’s lack of emotion is a result of depression, (The boy in the Dress, p15). Fischer suggests that
men hardly disclose their personal feelings, and tend to conceal the expression of emotions like fear, sadness, shame, and guilt. This can be understood as a strategy to boost conventional masculinity.
By repressing his feelings, Dennis’s father reinforces his masculinity to the detriment of his sons. The repercussions of his behaviour are installed in Dennis’s brother who tells that protagonist that, ‘Only girls cry,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.17). Walliams demonstrates the effects that masculine reinforcement has on Dennis’s freedom of choice. When the protagonist is encouraged to try on Lisa’s dress, ‘he imagines for a moment what he would look like wearing it, but then told himself to stop being silly, (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). Identifying his discomfort, Lisa reassures him by saying she ‘love[s] putting on pretty dresses. I bet some boys would like it too. It’s no big deal,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). This contemporary reaction to cross-dressing is a result of the ‘differences [that] have been found in the perceptions of men and women towards transgender behaviours and people. In general, women are more tolerant.’  Dennis however, is torn between what he desires and how he has been taught to behave, ‘Dennis’s heart was beating really fast- he wanted to say “yes” but he couldn’t,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83-84). Walliams criticises the Western construction of masculinity by showing Dennis’s oppression due to the masculine reinforcement he receives at home.
Unlike Walliams’s criticism of masculinity, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 promotes masculinity in order to reinforce Western gender norms. The character of Toad is represented as a carefree independent and wealthy animal with a disregard for societal rules. Following his imprisonment for joyriding, Toad’s female prison guard suggests that he dresses as a washerwoman to escape, explaining that ‘You’re very alike in many respects – particularly about the figure,’  The character’s genderless shape allows him the ability to disguise himself. Dress for Toad is one of the ways that he can outwardly expose his masculinity in addition to gender performance and reputation. It is for this reason that he is delighted when the original washerwoman suggests she should be tied and up and gagged before he escapes as she wants to keep her employment, ‘It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished, (The Wind in the Willows, p.80). The word desperate in conjunction with dangerous reasserts Toads masculinity as he is proving not only that his cross-dressing is a necessary deviance but one that enhances his power. Moreover, whilst the cross-dressing incident is presented as humorous, ‘Toad’s behaviour simply reinforces the normative gender binary rather than engaging with the subversive function of the carnivalesque.’ For Toad, cross-dressing is a way for him to misbehave and divert attention from his true masculine self and as a result, gender binary is reinforced.
Gender performance is a key trope in male cross-dressing literature and highlights preconceived assumptions of gender roles. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in the United Kingdom in 1884, the protagonist is encouraged to wear women’s clothing in order to obtain information. Huckleberry’s friend Jim suggests that Huckleberry ‘put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl?’ In this instance, the act of cross-dressing is a fun experience and supplemented by an illustration by E. W. Kemble. This shows Jim kneeling down behind Huckleberry and laughing, whilst Huckleberry looks over his shoulder grinning and posing in a feminine manner. Flannigan suggests that
male cross-dressing is used for comedic purposes. The male cross-dresser, adored in feminine apparel worn in such an inexpert manner that his true sex remains no secret is a well-established comedic strategy,’ (Flannigan, p.135).
Flannigan’s suggestion demonstrates the reaction that the cross-dressing male has on its audience but fails to address the problematic response. In order for the act of cross-dressing to be deemed as comedic, the implied reader must already assume that the male character is acting incorrectly according to his perceived gender role. Walliams identifies this problem in The Boy in the Dress, by raising the issue of female inequality and the difficulty of femininity. Lisa suggests to Dennis that it’s ‘Not easy being a girl is it?’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.124). Furthermore, cross-dressing Dennis discovers the difficulty of being a girl:
Remember to cross your legs when you are wearing a dress, and most importantly, Don’t catch the boys’ eyes as you may be more attractive than you thought! (The Boy in the Dress, p.138).
In the above quotation, Walliams explores some of the rules of femininity. Not only is he discussing the female etiquette of ‘cross[ing] your legs’ but also the ways in which girls are sexualised by boys. The exclamation at the close of the quote illustrates male dominance, as it is the female who must divert her eyes from the male. Moreover, when Dennis’s father asks his son if he enjoys wearing a dress, Dennis replies, ‘Well, yes, Dad. It’s just…fun,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.167). The pause before ‘fun’ suggests that the protagonist is searching for the correct word that will console his father. Walliams is, however, criticising the way in which cross-dressing in literature for children is perceived as humorous. For Dennis, cross-dressing allows him the happiness that he normally suppresses whilst in his conventional male role, ‘He felt so happy he wanted to dance,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.100). This then raises the question ‘why are girls allowed to wear dresses and boys aren’t? It doesn’t make sense,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.175). Dennis can see how illogical the typical Westernised view of cross-dressing is.
Sexual orientation is often explored in literature for children when a cross-dressing male is a main character. In Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, written in 2004, Sam Lopez, is persuaded to cross-dress as part of an initiation into the Shed gang. The gang decide that Sam should go to his new school wearing girl’s clothes for five days. The novel is written with first person multiple narrators with the exclusion of the protagonist. This immediately demonstrates Sam’s lack of individuality. His first reaction demonstrates a common reaction to male cross-dressing, “You want me to be some kind of fruit?” Fruit or fruitcake is a common slang word that refers to a homosexual.  This association derives from the Victorian fin de siècle when ‘widespread contemporary fear[s] that perversion and deviation [from gender norms were] agents of degeneration.’
This notion is also identified by Walliams in The Boy in the Dress when Dennis is caught by his Head Teacher wearing the orange sequined dress in school. The Head Master expels the boy and tells him ‘I am not having a degenerate like you in my school’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.163). Cross-dressing is often thought of as sexually motivated. ‘Male cross-dressing is perceived as inherently sexual in nature (either in a fetishistic sense or in a homosexual context),’ (Flannigan, p.49). Sam’s reaction to cross-dressing in Boy2Girl demonstrates that the remnants of Victorian fear still remain. Similarly, in The Boy in the Dress, Dennis’s brother suggests that boys who read girls magazines are ‘Woofters!’(The Boy in the Dress, p.56), which is another popular term to describe the homosexual man. Whilst cross-dressing is identified as deviant behaviour in Walliams’s novel, Harrison suggests that cross-dressing can be referred to as:
“Gender Deviance” [which] simply refers to an individual who falls outside of our ordinary everyday understanding of male/masculine and female/feminine.’
This critique raises the question of how the male child cross-dresser can be legitimately deemed as deviant when he is still in the early learning stages of his life and may not be fully aware of the Western gender ideology.
Walliams addresses gender ideology in childhood as problematic. In The Boy in the Dress, Dennis becomes bored due to his confinement within a socially constructed gender role. The word boring is mentioned eleven times throughout the novel and cross-dressing allows him to ‘feel like he [doesn’t] have to be boring Dennis living his boring life anymore’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107). This quotation illustrates the stifling effect that conformity has over the protagonist. Cross-dressing gives him a feeling of liberty. Walliams demonstrates this freedom through a change in narrative voice, from the third person to first, ‘I can be whoever I want to be,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107). The ‘I’, allows the character independent thought, whilst the repetition of ‘be’ gives him freedom of choice and finally ‘whoever’ is gender neutral. The action of cross-dressing gives Dennis insight into life without gender conformity and he tells ‘Lisa I want to thank you for opening my eyes’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.207). Walliams is teaching the reader that gender should not be defined by what one wears.
The idea of gender neutrality is found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author demonstrates Huckleberry’s non-conformity due to his preference of wearing no clothes and his inability to accept and conform to civilisation:
We was always naked, day and night,[…] the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow, (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Para.3 of Chapter 19).
In the above quotation, Twain demonstrates Huckleberry’s relaxed nature and how he is comfortable in himself without the stifling effects of clothing. In addition, the author points out that adults are a child’s source of clothing, therefore limiting their independence. Huckleberry’s nakedness makes him gender neutral as opposed to conforming to socially constructed masculinity.
Cross-dressing in literature for children is often used to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. Walliams, however, demonstrates that cross-dressing simply means a person who does not conform to Western dress codes. Dennis identifies this in his Sikh friend because he is ‘the only one who [wears] a patka,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Dennis asks, ‘Do you feel different Darvesh?’(The boy in the Dress, p.63). The emphasis on the italicised ‘you’ alters the tone of the question suggesting that Dennis is aware of segregation due social conformity of dress. Darvesh’s reply allows Walliams to highlight how otherness is socially constructed; ‘When mum took me to India at Christmas to visit Grandma I didn’t at all. All the Sikh boys are wearing them,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Walliams is demonstrating how alienating clothing can be for children, not only in gender but also within a cultural context.
Walliams, at the end of The Boy in the Dress, addresses exclusion or ‘othering’ due to societal control over children’s dress. In order to include Dennis in the football match after his exclusion from school, the full football team dress in women’s clothing. Suddenly ‘There was a huge cheer from the crowd’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.192). Walliams normalises the act of cross-dressing to demonstrate that exclusion due to gender or cultural dress is unnecessary. The final message in the novel serves to convince the reader that clothes are irrelevant to gender; Dennis notices a red jacket coming towards him ‘And then the red jacket turned into a man,’(The Boy in the Dress, p.196).This defies the contemporary Western ideology of gender binary through dress.
I found that many of the authors wanted to demonstrate the effects of socially constructed gender. In The Boy in the Dress, this meant that the protagonist felt alienated through his family’s masculine reinforcement. Both Walliams’s novel and Blacker’s Boy2Girl, highlight the discrimination towards the cross-dressing male, which illustrates an out of date notion of homosexuality being linked to dress. Twain aimed to deconstruct the gender binary by presenting a character that was not affected by gendered clothing, whilst Grahame used the act of cross-dressing to reinforce gender binaries. Humour was a trope in all of the novels which was a result of inadequate gender performance, however, this highlighted that gender is socially constructed and therefore, unnatural. Not only did Walliams attempt to deconstruct the notion of the gender binary and demonstrate how emotions are similarly gendered, he also encouraged his reader to believe that clothing is irrelevant to gender. The originality of Walliam’s novel arises from his exploration of feelings surrounding gender and gendered dress and how these restrict individual freedom and result in segregation.
Adams James Eli and Millar Andrew H, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996)
Blacker, Terence, Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004)
Bolich, G.G, PhD. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007)
Fischer, Agneta, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Flanagan, Victoria, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)
Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908)
Harrison, Kelby, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013)
Nangeroni, Nancy, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)
Sedler, Victor J. in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007)
Steen, Edwin B. and Price, James. H, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Constable and Company, 1988)
Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company)
Walliams, David, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008)
 Nancy Nangeroni, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film , ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.258.
 Davis Walliams, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008), p.11.
 Victor J. Sedler in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), p.111.
 Agneta Fischer, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.173.
 G.G. Bolich, Ph.D. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007), p.271.
 Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908), p.79-80.
 Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.143.
 Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company), para. 9 of Chapter 10.
 Terence Blacker Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004), p.44.
 Edwin B. Steen and James H.Price, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Costable and Company, 1988), p.297.
 James Eli Adams and Andrew H. Millar, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.97.
 Kelby Harrison, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.9.
I have been toying with the idea of a social media down day ever since a tutor at university spoke of his own positive experience. Sunday past seemed like the perfect day to give it a go, not only because I already associate Sunday as a kind of down day, but also because I have just completed my first week studying mindfulness. I began the online mindfulness course because I often struggle with anxiety. Anxiety, for those who have experienced it, can be debilitating; exhausting on the mind and the body. For myself, I experience social anxiety, dread and an inability to rest; my thoughts go into overdrive and I feel them crashing together. My usual “go to” is social media where I can loose myself amongst everyone else’s lives – in other words I detach myself from myself. I knew something had to change; there had to be another way of dealing with my anxiety. Then right on time, along came an e-mail telling me about a free course with Future Learn – Mindfulness.
Mindfulness (and remember I am still learning) is learning how to be present in our experiences, an, in our lives. Even on my non anxious days I am constantly distracted by social media, not because it is a riveting alternative to real life, but because it is a filler. For me, Facebook more so than any other social media platform, fills the time between breakfast and walking the dogs or when the dinner is cooking, or basically whenever I have a spare moment. E-mail is another source of distraction, as a writer, I find myself falling into the trap of checking my e-mail whenever I have a spare minute; I send between five and fifteen pieces of writing to magazines and competitions every quarter so am always waiting on reply. So, when I sat down and really thought about it, it seemed that I had forgotten how to just sit and do nothing. Thus, the idea to go ahead with the social media down day was decided.
Sunday 11th February
It is amazing how your hand automatically reaches for your phone in the morning. I decided to turn my internet off so that I wouldn’t receive any notifications tempting me to pick it up. Once that was done, I put my phone on my writing bureau (it usually sits on the arm of the sofa) and got on with my day. I found myself enjoying really quite mundane things such as putting the clean washing away – not only did I tidy my wardrobe; I re-arranged it. Then I decided on a few items that were ready for the charity shop. It was nice to take time to look at my clothes properly, to see the nice items that I have purchased over the winter (mostly from charity shops or from sales), and appreciate what I have..
Lunchtime was interesting; I found myself looking at my lunch rather that looking at my phone while eating lunch – it is amazing how much better food tastes when you look at it and pay attention to what you are eating.
By mid afternoon I had forgotten about my phone and about E-mails and Facebook and all of the other internet distractions that usually filled my time and I sat and looked out the window. We have recently moved into a new house and the living-room window faces onto a private garden with lots of trees and sky and birds. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue and I just sat, and looked. It reminded me of my teenage self, eighteen years old, no internet, and looking out the bedroom window of our family home. There was fields and hills, trees – and a castle nestled behind some Scots pine’s. I was taken to a place where I felt like my old self again, (although I am sure if you asked my eighteen year old self how I felt, I would have declared my utter boredom) but at forty-five, letting myself be still, just looking and experiencing how that felt, I’ve never felt less bored in my life.
My phone vibrated mid afternoon and I got my other half to take a look. Somehow, without any internet, a notification had got through. I ignored it although I am still baffled by how that could happened.
All in all, my day trotted along at a much slower pace. I had the odd moment when I wondered about what was happening in the land of Facebook or if some magazine had sent me an e-mail, but apart from the weird sensation of not picking my phone up every twenty minutes, it was a pleasant experience. Now I know that it isn’t for everyone, and I am certainly not trying to encourage anyone to follow my example, but for me – someone who grew up in the days before internet – it was like opening my eyes after a long daydream. I do enjoy social media and I would be lost today without the wonder of internet, but I will continue to have my Sunday down days, where I can see the week through wider eyes.
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Using a limited amount of words can result in something quite meaningful.
I wrote this poem using a magnetic poetry set that I picked up from a charity (thrift) shop. I found the process of scattering random words across my writing bureau, and then carefully selecting the words that sparked my imagination both fun and challenging. Magnetic poetry is a great way to think about words, to explore theme and to construct something meaningful out of word chaos. You could also do this by collecting interesting words from newspapers and magazines, or writing inspiring words on scraps of paper that you hear someone use on a bus, or in the supermarket line. Pop your words into a jar, adding sticky words such as and, it, or, as etc. and have fun.
I wrote this poem during my MLitt year at the University of Stirling. The plan was to select one of the many sculptures in and around the campus and write a creative piece based on that sculpture. This was aimed at children between the ages of 9-12.
Growing Form is an acrostic poem; a visually pleasing as well as challenging form for younger students. I also increased the word count on each line of the poem to incorporate the theme.
Out of Shangri-la.
Waking the whispering world,
In melancholy maddening moans that
Night cannot conceal; his silhouette unravels.
Gathering height, he reaches, cutting sky with
Fork like antlers until the stars collide – like
Orion. He awakens the hunter. Down the cosmic fire
Rains upon the earth, blazing scorn and fury, and the
Mighty beast bellows. He gathers up the river and runs.
I am separated. Segregated-
An inch away from vertical blinds
And the switch to turn of the Sky.
To shake away the World Wide Web
Of fabricated lies.
I am separated. Segregated –
A mile from the world outside,
Hidden behind grey vertical blinds.
Dry from the rain,
Fighting the pain of oppression.
I am separated. And bleeding from the outside in.
I am separated. Segregated –
Peeking through artificial lines,
Looking for the ordinary kind,
The crowds of mankind,
Unveiled and unmasked, separate and free
Instead of shackled to the reign
Of her majesty – To the so-called face, of a modern race
Of dumbed down, media choked,
Free folk. I am chained.
I am separated. Segregated –
Pained by a society –
Rich in lies and Tory piety, flying toward
Mars in dream boats –
In hopes of a better land.
I published this poem in Untitled 8 in November 2017.
When attempting to evoke a sympathetic reader response in narrative fiction or creative non-fiction, it would be foolish for an author to assume that the reader will feel sympathy through theme, setting, or plot alone. Novels sought purely on theme may simply evoke an empathetic response, especially if the reader has an association with the theme. In this instance, evoking sympathy rather than empathy is more challenging. Moreover, if a reader does not relate to the subject or plot, evoking a sympathetic response relies on positioning the reader within the story in order for them to react. Segal suggests that ‘When reading fictional text, most readers feel that they are in the middle of a story…The reader often takes a cognitive stance within the world of the narrative and interprets the text from that perspective.’ This highlights the importance of deciding where the reader is placed in relation to the narrator in order to evoke a sympathetic response. Emotional response however, is a purely subjective experience. It is unlikely that all readers will have the same emotional reaction to a narrative, no matter how skilful the author. Yet, tailoring the way that the narrative is told, and choosing which character narrates, can enhance the probability of a sympathetic reader response. Narrative sympathy therefore, is possible, but it is not always guaranteed. This then raises the question, how do authors attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response in fiction and creative non-fiction? In this paper I will examine the various ways that David Vann in Legend of a Suicide, 2008, and A.L. Kennedy in Serious Sweet, 2016, use narrative point of view in an attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response. In addition, the essay will analyse the role of the unreliable narrator as a tool, which enables these authors to alter the reader’s perception. As a result, I will argue that narrative sympathy can be evoked in a reader through both first-person and third-person point of view.
Narrative sympathy is difficult to define. This is because of its closeness to empathy. Sklar argues that ‘empathy operates at what I call a “chameleon emotion,” in the sense that, when we experience it, we take on the emotional experience of another as our own.’ This would suggest then that for an empathetic reader response, they must ‘experience’ what the character is experiencing, thus seeing through the eyes of the first person narrator. Furthermore, he suggests that
Our immersion in that experience, […] may impede […] our capacity to form judgements about that character, since we may, […] become too close to view the characters reality objectively. (Sklar, p.48).
Sympathy on the other hand ‘involves a greater distance between the individual who feels and the person, towards whom it is directed,’ (Sklar, p.26). Sklar’s argument sets clear boundaries between how empathy and sympathy are evoked through narrative point of view. Therefore, novels in which the author attempts to evoke sympathy,
anticipate response on the part of the reader, either authorial, or actual. […] sympathy by nature is a responsive emotion, and therefore texts that elicit it provide structures that enable readers to intuit and interpret the appropriateness of sympathy at particular moments within the progression of a narrative. (Sklar, p.53).
If Sklar’s theory were correct, then it would appear that sympathy could only be evoked when the author uses a third person narrator, meaning that the reader has enough distance to make a judgement. Kellog and Scholes suggest that ‘In any examples of narrative art there are […] three points of view – those of the character, the narrator and the audience.’ In order for these three points of view to unite to evoke a sympathetic response, do they need to be independent of one another? Sklar’s theory would suggest so, yet David Vann illustrates that this theory is flawed in his novel Legend of a Suicide.
In the American version of Legend of a Suicide, the book cover reveals that the contents are ‘stories’. For the reader, this determines the way that the novel is read, and therefore, their reaction to the work. Moreover, in the acknowledgements at the rear of the book, in both American and English versions of the novel, Vann states that his stories are fictional, ‘L
but based on a lot that’s true.’ With all of these factors in mind, it is clear that this novel can be read in a variety of ways. In ‘Ichthyology’ for example, the first person narrator tells the story of his father’s suicide:
He took his .44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern under a heavy, gray-white sky and the cries of gulls, his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon. He may have paused for a moment to reflect, but I doubt it. […]. He spattered himself amid the entrails of salmon, his remains picked at by gulls for several hours. (, p.10).
Notice the lack of emotion in the above quotation from the first person character. The memory itself is written with intricate detail, yet whilst the subject is shocking, the only clue that the reader is given to Roy’s feelings is when he says that he doubts his father paused to reflect. Thus, we have a close first person narrative with regards to action, and a very distant first person narrative with regards to emotion. In the American version of the novel, this chapter would be read as a short story; therefore, the reader might assume that the narrator is hiding his emotions, thus unreliable. As a result, the response is likely to be one of shock rather than sympathy or empathy as the reader is only glimpsing over the character’s life, thus not invested in the novel as a complete entity. Alternatively, if the reader is aware that the story is based on real life events, and with the narration being in past tense, this then creates a distance between the author, reader, and character – this allows the reader enough room to form a judgement. Hildick, suggests that narratives written in first-person-past-tense demonstrate, ‘the effect of an incident on a certain kind of personality.’ By concealing the character’s emotions, Vann is revealing that the memory is too painful to express, thus sympathy may be evoked in the reader. There are flickers of emotion in this chapter though. Vann indirectly demonstrates Roy’s feelings by projecting them onto something less significant, such as the fly and the fish: ‘so little movement that it seemed not to have happened at all, and yet there was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.’ (LOAS, p.10). This technique reveals Roy’s feelings whilst creating a distance between himself and the reader, thus heightening sympathy for him. While these examples demonstrate how sympathy may be evoked through the first person narrator, it is not guaranteed, feelings of empathy may be more prevalent in readers who have experienced the death of a loved one. Thus, the reader response is unpredictable.
Reading the U.K version of Legend of a Suicide as a self-contained fictional novel, and without prior knowledge that the work is part autobiographical, can evoke sympathy in a more dramatic way. In chapter two, the author continues the technique of juxtaposing facts with emotion as the narrative steps back in time. This allows the reader to observe the other characters in the novel and also, and more importantly, it brings Roy’s father Jim back to life. Vann does this through retrospect but also free indirect discourse from Jim:
Rhoda in the walnut orchard that afternoon piecing together her thousand-piece puzzle […], never looked back to where my father sat utterly lost on the porch steps. He didn’t understand her. He had no idea how to comfort her. (LOAS, p.19).
The final line in this quotation could be read from either Roy’s first person thoughts, or through Jim’s third person point of view. It is clear here that Vann is juxtaposing the father and son to allow the reader to make a judgement. Roy’s interpretation of the scene for example, is to assume that his father is ‘lost’, suggesting that he is not there, or cannot be found. Then the third-person interruption from Jim, suggests that his father is very much alive. This desperation to bring his father back to life may evoke sympathy for Roy but it also sets up Jim’s narrative voice for chapter five.
The first-person-past-tense perspective in Legend of a Suicide, allows the character of Roy to speculate why his father killed himself, Hildick argues that
the method’s ‘distancing possibilities’: that is, the way it can be used to give the impression that the dust has cleared, that the action took place some time ago – possibly many years – [shows] that the narrator has had ample opportunity to see everything in perspective, (Hildick, pp35-36).
The first–person perspective allows the narrator and the reader valuable insight into Jim’s personal relationships, but through Roy’s point of view. In chapter one, for example, the reader experiences Roy’s parent’s marital break down closely, through Roy. Whilst Roy’s mother Ruth is kept at a distance in this chapter, allowing the suicide to be the prominent feature, the following chapter focuses closer on her character after the break up. On his return from visiting his father and stepmother Rhoda, Ruth question’s the boy about his father’s new wife, “Is she pretty?” My mother’s voice quietened on this.’ (LOAS, p.17). The quiet voice suggests an emotional fragility, as well as Ruth’s own reflection on herself. “No, she’s deformed,” I said, and my mother laughed again.’ (LOAS, p.17). Roy is clearly protecting his mother’s feelings in this scene. Yet in order to evoke the reader’s sympathy for Ruth, Vann has to juxtapose her character with Rhoda:
My new stepmother, Rhoda, untied the ring for my father with thin white fingers. I looked up again at that blank eye, drawn to it[…] I realized too late that she was watching me […] She laughed out loud, right there in the middle of service in front of everyone, at the same moment that she was slipping my father’s ring onto his finger. Her laughter startled all of us, but especially my father […]. His mouth opened slightly as he looked up, and for the first time in my life, I saw him frightened. (LOAS, p.11).
The description of Rhoda in the above quotation seems almost sinister. Moreover, this is described from Roy’s viewpoint, thus steering the reader towards negative feelings for Rhoda. This is further heightened by Roy’s observation of his frightened father. This juxtaposition of characters allows Vann to not only creates a sympathetic response for Ruth, but it is also allows Roy to divert blame from his mother. It is clear then that Vann is deviating from the traditional form of first person narration where ‘we are inside the characters head, so our experiencing of his sensations […] feel natural and plausible. […] It feels as if it’s happening to the reader.’ If Vann had chosen to use this type of narration, where the reader got full access to Roy’s emotions, the reader would feel only empathy for Roy. Furthermore, there would be no freedom for judgement, the novel would lack sympathy, and the response would be different to what Vann is hoping to achieve.
In her novel Serious Sweet, A.L. Kennedy uses third-person-limited narration interspersed with the first-person point of view presented as italicised monologue. Kennedy uses this technique to demonstrate the internal conflict of her main characters John and Meg. An example of this occurs when Meg visits the hospital for an internal examination:
Meg bent to remove her shoes, blood distantly roaring in her ears at the unexpected upset. Her body had decided to be nervy and easily unbalanced. This wasn’t her fault. […] there was this sensation of childishness in her fingers which, because she was in an adult situation, made her stomach tick and become wary. 
In the above quotation, the third-person-limited narrator begins by using the character’s name ‘Meg’ to create a distance. Furthermore, rather than describing her sensations, such as ‘her body felt’, the narrator separates Meg by saying ‘her body decided’. This separation between Meg and her body allows the reader to respond to the uncomfortable feelings of the character. The character of ‘Meg’, however, intervenes with free indirect discourse by saying, ‘This wasn’t her fault,’ thus indicating that something bad has happened to her. The gap between actions told at a distance and the immediacy of the characters thoughts evokes a sympathetic reader response. In, Consciousness and the Novel, Lodge describes this as ‘the realism of assessment that belongs to third-person narration [and] the realism of presentation that comes from the first-person narration,’ by combining the two, Kennedy creates a juxtaposition between seeing and feeling thus provoking a judgement. Furthermore, Meg’s ‘sensation of childishness’, in the above quotation, juxtaposed with her ‘adult situation’ creates a feeling of sympathy due to her adult vulnerability. Moreover, as Meg’s examination draws closer, the distance between Meg and her own bodily self becomes more distant:
And when this is suggested, you loosen the sheet until it’s opened and simply resting across your outspread lap as a rug might if you were reading at some fireside in some cosy evening on some other day.
It’s good to imagine that. (Serious Sweet, p.75).
Notice how the third person narrator changes the ‘she’ to ‘you’. Whilst it may seem that Kennedy is asking the reader to feel what Meg is feeling in order to evoke empathy, the ‘you’ in this instance is Meg. The character is creating distance, as if she is looking down on herself and her situation. In using the ‘you’, Kennedy provokes the reader to make a judgement based on how they might feel or react in a similar situation. The third-person distance, however, remains between reader and character, thus the reader is not feeling with Meg, yet is forced to feel for her. The italicised line at the end of the quotation is a direct intrusion into Meg’s thoughts; therefore, Kennedy is able to redirect the ‘you’ to the ‘I’ allowing the reader to direct their sympathy towards Meg. Whilst structurally Serious Sweet and Legend of a Suicide differ, the realism of assessment and realism of presentation is very much prominent in both novels.
Vann provides subtle clues throughout each chapter of his novel that something bigger is going to happen. At the close of chapter three, Roy realises he is unable is unable to bring his father back, and instead, his mother’s ex-partner John is ‘practically delivered to [his] doorstep,’ (LOAS, p. 34). This is the point in the novel where the point of view changes to third-person-limited and the reader questions the reliability of the narrator. Booth argues that ‘If he is discovered to be untrustworthy, then the total effect of the work he relays to us is transformed.’ Vann deliberately shows the reader that Roy is unreliable, not only through the change in point of view, but also through obvious changes in the plot. On page thirty-nine for instance, Roy speaks of a sister who is never mentioned before this point, thus indicating that what they are about to read is merely Roy’s fantasy. Furthermore, the change in point of view allows the reader to compare what they have learned about Roy at the beginning of the novel, with what they are about to read. By this stage, the reader has formed a relationship with the character of Roy from his first person point of view, and therefore, has gained his trust. Any alteration to his original narrative can therefore, be viewed sympathetically. Booth suggests that
By the simplest expedient of creating a character who experiences the rhetoric in his own person, it has been made less objectionable. Every adjective and detail intended to set our mood is part of the growing mood and experience of the central character; the rhetoric now seems functional.’ (Booth, p.202).
Vann is following this exact structure, which evokes sympathy for the reader by creating distance from the original narrative, thus allowing the reader to compare. On Sukkwan Island for example, ‘A place like Ketchikan, where Roy had lived until age five, but wilder, and fearsome now that he was unaccustomed.’ (LOAS, p.37), notice how Vann is juxtaposing Roy’s place of upbringing, as seen in the beginning of the novel, with this unfamiliar place, which causes a reaction in Roy. Yet what Vann is really doing is telling the reader that Roy’s journey into this fantasy is frightening for him. Throughout the chapter, the reader is immersed in this huge outdoor space, cold and unfamiliar with a heightened sense of monotony. Roy’s imaginary relationship with his father becomes one of perseverance rather than warmth, so when his father says,
I don’t know how I got this way. I just feel so bad. I feel okay during the day, but it hits at night. And then I don’t know what to do […] I’m really trying. I just don’t know if I can hold on. (LOAS, p.71)
the reader wonders just whose account this really is. Bearing in mind this is a fantasy chapter, the above quotation is in fact the voice of Roy, told through the voice of his father. Vann is indirectly demonstrating Roy’s desperation in this scene, and therefore, creating distance in order to evoke sympathy in the reader. As the chapter draws to a close, the reader begins to see that the real Roy has begun to figure out that his fantasy world has brought him no closer to his father:
Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as if this were what he has felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before him and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there. (LOAS, p.116).
The reader can easily see that Jim in fading away in the above quotation, yet by presenting the narrative through Roy’s point of view, and with a lack of emotion, the reader has ample room to judge. This technique allows the reader to feel sympathy for the character, so when ‘Roy became more and more afraid, and tired, with a sense that he could not continue on, and he began to feel sorry for himself.’ (LOAS, p.116), Vann is telling the reader that Roy’s fantasy narrative is too upsetting for him. Therefore, when on page 128, Roy puts a gun to his head and shoots himself; the reader sees this is a shocking act of desperation. This evokes not only sympathy for Roy, but also for Jim because the reader will have a deeper understanding, through Roy, of his father’s emotional state at the point he actually took his own life.
Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator in a more immediate form. Take for example the character of John Sigurdsson, rushing to his office in Westminster, ‘He was very breathless, which was not a good sign,’ (Serious Sweet, p.86). The beginning of this quotation is a distant third-person narrator; yet following the comma, the third-person-limited narrator brings the reader closer to how John feels. This is followed by his immediate thoughts, ‘But all is well. More than. Everything is fine,’ and then later, ‘And he wasn’t too hot. Not flustered. He did have these small red prickles of something on his skin – despair, unease, panic.’ (Serious Sweet, p.86). This type of alternation between distance, closeness, and immediacy, demonstrates how the juxtaposition between points of view can reveal to the reader that the character is trying to conceal his emotions. Thus, the italicised first person monologue is unreliable or untrustworthy. Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator to build tension in her narrative. John’s unreliability is a key tool in the plot as the reader discovers he is disclosing government information to the press. Without this, and without the third-person narrator, the reader would only see through John’s eyes, thus his actions might be seen us unprofessional. Furthermore, it would not reveal the difficulty that these actions cause his character, thus would not evoke sympathy. Therefore, when the plot unravels as it does the reader’s sympathy is heightened.
In Legend of a Suicide, the plot begins to unravel with a surprising shift in chapter five, when the third-person-limited point of view changes from Roy to Jim. Whilst Vann continues to ensure that the reader knows that these chapters are a fantasy; ‘[Jim] pushed himself back further away from Roy but this was phony, another act, […] And though it couldn’t be his son there, it kept being his son there.’ (LOAS, p.130), the last line in this quotation hints to the reader that Roy is still very much narrating. This is achieved through the use of free indirect discourse. The narrative is shown though the eyes of Jim yet Roy’s voice consistently intrudes:
If Roy were still alive, and Jim could take him somewhere now, he would take him sailing around the world. That was something Roy had actually wanted to do. He had said so himself. And it was something Jim could have arranged just as easily as homesteading. He had the money for a boat, he knew how to sail, he had the time. But for that to have been possible, he would have had to listen to Roy. He would have had to notice him while he was still alive. (LOAS, p.152).
With exception of the first line, the remainder of the above quotation is the voice of Roy. This can be identified in the tone. The first line is Jim fantasising, it seems light-hearted, dream-like, yet the remainder has an angry tone and is intensified by the use of ‘actually’ and the repetition of ‘had’. These lines correspond to Roy’s version of his life in chapter one, thus confirming that this is in fact Roy speaking. Vann’s use of free indirect discourse here is to allow Roy to express his anger, because if he had expressed these feelings in the previous chapter in third-person-limited, the reader would have been too close to Roy’s thoughts to feel sympathy. It is important to remember that chapter four and five are fantasy stories, and although Jim is the primary character in chapter five, it is Roy’s fantasy. Thus, the narrator that we hear in both chapters is Roy. The juxtaposition between Roy and his father allows Vann to evoke reader sympathy for Roy by indirectly revealing Roy in his purest form; therefore, the free indirect discourse is essential in maintaining a distance in order to allow the reader to judge. On discussing Jane Austin’s Emma, Booth suggests that
The solution to the problem of maintaining sympathy despite almost crippling faults was primarily to use the heroine herself as a kind of narrator, through third person, reporting on her own experience,’ (Booth, p.245).
It is clear that Vann is using this same technique, and by diverting Roy’s thought and faults onto his father, he is creating sympathy for Roy at a distance. It is through the examples such as the one above that Vann proves that sympathy can be evoked in the reader when they are close to Roy’s thoughts. Yet for the overall effect to be plausible, the unreliable narrator is an important, if not necessary, device.
In chapter five and six of the novel, the point of view returns to first-person, thus confirming that the chapters written in third person were fantasy. There is however, a final twist in Vann’s novel. In the final chapter, Roy is referred to as the boy: ‘I like to think that the boy is helpful,’ (LOAS, p.221). For the reader, this change identifies that the narrator is in fact Vann himself. This creates a distance between the author and his own childhood self, thus creating a sympathetic response. Furthermore, the reader can at this stage, feel a greater amount of sympathy for Vann due to the entire structure of the novel. The reader will be aware that Vann has brought his father back to life over and over again.
In this paper I have demonstrated the various ways in which narrative point of view can be used to evoke a sympathetic response in readers by looking at David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet. Whilst traditionally first-person point of view was believed to be more likely to evoke empathy, the essay has demonstrated that by using emotional distance, in conjunction with close observation, the author can create a sympathetic response; this is due to the reader having the accessibility to make an emotional judgement. Furthermore, the essay has looked at how the unreliable narrator can be an effective tool in concealing emotions, setting up the plot and diverting readers from the truth in order to create character sympathy. Overall, however, I demonstrated that in order for sympathy to be evoked, there must be a juxtaposition, whether it is between first and third person viewpoint, between characters, or between what is revealed, and what is not. This juxtaposition is essential in order to evoke sympathy in the reader.
Booth, Wayne C., The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961)
David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel (London: Random House, 2012)
Hildick Wallace, Thirteen Types of Narrative (London: McMillan and Co Ltd, 1968)
Kennedy, A.L., Serious Sweet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016)
Kress, Nancy, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint (Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2005)
Scholes, Robert and Kellog, Robert, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966)
Segal, Erwin M. in, The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion ed. Howard Sklar (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013)
Sklar, Howard, The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013)
Vann, David, Legend of a Suicide (London: Penguin Books, 2008)
I’m Letting the Outside In.
The double glazing is stained with winter splatter.
Porridge is cooling in a retro bowl and my bare feet –
Baking from the heat of a sun kissed puppy
Who is baking on a vertically striped carpet.
There is a reek of yesterday’s shenanigans at the burn
Wafting from tartan collars
and the air feels.
Music ripples through my rib cage
There’s washing hanging, half-arsed, on radiators
While a new load spins in the machine.
The sagging rope in the back garden
Is empty. Waiting for the weight of winter warmers
to be nipped with plastic tipped pegs and a satisfying sigh.
I’m letting the outside in.
Three squirrels scurry along the naked trees across the way.
I’m resisting the need to weed the garden
I’m letting the outside in.
The above photograph is my oldest dog Mille, she is a 6 year old chocolate lab.
I published this poem with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017.
They dressed you up like Christmas day. A faux
Silk blouse with ruffled trim – garnet red. Black
Pressed polyester trousers with an elastic waist,
The comfy yins. But the shoes,
the shoes were wrong.
Unworn kitten heels – black. The yins ye bought
Fi Marks and Sparks that rubbed yer bunions.
They dressed you up like Christmas day and put you on display. Painted
Your face back to life, with tinted rouge and peach lipstick that puckered
Like melted wax, concealing your smile,
Your tea stained teeth. They put you on display – Dead
Jon brought you a school picture of your grandson Jack; slipped it under your pillow
Then squeezed a private letter into your clenched right hand. I
Gave you a card. A pink one with a rose. I placed it beside your left hand – sealed
Happy Mother’s Day Mum
They put you on display, dressed you up like it was Christmas day but without
Your love heart locket, your gold embossed wishbone ring.
Those damn sentimental things that might hold tiny particles of skin,
Fragments of last week – lingering in the grooves.
Since writing this poem, I have begun writing a novel titled ‘Cheese Scones & Valium’, which is biographical fiction of part of my mothers life, and is embedded in memoir. This has a direct link to my poem.
I published Funeral Parlour with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017. The poem was originally written for an assessment at university and was difficult to write. This poem describes my own experience of seeing my own mother for the last time.
I believe that nature is a valuable tool for the creative mind. Does nature inspire your work? What season brings out the best in your creativity?
Alone in a Council Flat
The Curtains twitch. An ambulance passes. No siren. No need. There’s a hush - A breath Held harder than a hiccup As silence swells Into the four corners of o’clock. Through the letterbox A whiff of kippers; Of soup and salty socks, sink Like a stain into embossed Net curtains and settle. Settle. A beat - A tick of life – A wave from a crackling stereo; and the Corries pinch the space Before the light-bulbs blink And press the night like putty- Into the lips of the garden Behind the disinfected wheelie bin And the whittled bird box Tomorrow waits. For news and for open blinds, For fresh pheasant, hung dead On a hook by the washing line, And footsteps – And an old man Carrying a loaf of bread In a crumpled up carrier bag. The curtains twitch.
This poem was published by Tell-Tale Magazine on 31st July 2017.
It was like this…
We whaur raking for treasure this efternuin,
Doun the back of the bing,
The bit where ma Ma kin see us,
Frae ower the kitchen sink.
Buried doun beneath some foosty plastic bags-
Fou of someone else’s ‘sexy’ Tennent’s Extra cans,
We fund four wheels of a Silvercross pram.
We brought them hame and dunked them in a puddle by the kerb,
The drain gunk cleaned the rust up, they whaur looking quite superb.
Willie wis having a muck aroond –
Spinning the wheels, and ripping them
Roond and roond and roond,
Until the cauld muck spat
Intae the plumes
That our laughing made.
Oh, and then!
Willie chored a fence post frae oot the back eh Mr Bain’s
While I was shottie.
‘But it was Ian that made the bogie!’
And it was the best boggie the Fruit-and-Nut scheme had ever seen.
A pure dr-eeam.
He made the seat frae a scullery chair,
And drilled it tae a widden frame-
Remember? The fence post that Willie chored frae the back eh Mr Bain’s?
Then Willie – he bagged first go.
So he pulled the boggie up the hill.
Right oot the top of the street – and wow!
There I wis, racing him doun the hill like Seb Co
Aboot to cross the line –
And claim ma gold,
When Willies orange helmet slipped – or so am told
And the next thing I kent-
On the kerb –
And wi a skint knee.
And Willie –
He wis flying oor ma heed and
As you ken I was lying there – half deid
But the blooming bogie –
It didnae even ken tae stop,
into the back
Of Mr Law’s
New – fancy – Ford –
‘But is no oor fault officer – Ian never put any breaks on it. ‘
This poem is featured in the Lies, Dreaming Podcast #11 named Treasure. Click here to hear me read this poem.
This short story was published by Fairlight books on 13th November 2017. Click here to be redirected to their site.
She pulled a bunch of ribbons from her jacket pocket, selected a red one, then squeezed it in the palm of her hand.
“I wish,” she said, and closed her eyes, “I wish that today will be the day that I find you.”
She took the ribbon to the large elm tree and tied it onto a low hanging branch. It flapped lazily in the breeze. From her backpack, she pulled out a folded handkerchief and unwrapped it. It held a rusty nail with a battered head, but with a newly sharpened tip. Crouching down to half her height, she traced her finger over the neatly carved lines already on the tree trunk. Nineteen lines for nineteen years, and the first, still as deep as the day her father helped her carve it. She pressed the nail into the bark, and tapped it with a large stone that she’d found by the loch. She carved line number twenty.
It was still early morning and the sky was a brilliant blue. She sat cross-legged on her sleeping bag, drinking strong coffee from the lid of her flask and let her eyes trail lazily over the rugged outlines of the Trossachs. A lone osprey flew from the east and soared over the wide loch, its white belly and black-tipped wings, mirrored in the still water.
“Look at the giant seagull Kim, look, look!”
Kim held her breath as it dipped its wings, swooping downwards and breaking the water with its claws.
“Did it steal a fish?”
Blinking hard, she sighed.
“Where are you Nora?”
The osprey was already back in flight by the time she shook off the memory, rising to the sky, before disappearing into the forest of Scots pines on the opposite bank. All that remained was a ripple in the calm.
She took the longer route to avoid the main campsite; weathered hill walkers tended to stray away from the paths and the noise of people. The terrain at the south side of Loch Chon was reasonably accessible, although rock scatterings hidden amongst the greenery at the foot of the hill could be tricky underfoot. She dug her trekking poles into the grass and took long strides, breathing in the smell of mulchy earth and sweet oily bog myrtle. It was late spring and the hills were alive with wildflowers. Smatterings of dog violets grew amongst the long grass that swished in the breeze. She paused to watch a woodman’s friend bat its tiny orange wings as it landed on the spike of a blue bugle.
“Is it a moth Kim?”
“I think it’s a butterfly.”
The valley led down to an old stone bridge, where twenty-one years earlier, she had found a little red shoe among the reeds. The shoe was still warm, perhaps from the sun that shone on its shiny patent surface, or perhaps from the foot of her five-year-old sister Nora, who was nowhere to be seen. She climbed onto the bridge, took off her backpack, and leant over, watching the reflection of her orange cagoule flickering in the stream.
“Count to fifty then come and find me.”
“Fifty is too long Nora.”
She bent forward and put her face into her hands. “One, two, three…” She said out loud.
“Are you playing hide and seek?”
Kim stood up, startled. A little girl, no more than five years old, stood beside her. Her eyes were red and her cheeks glistened with tears. She crouched down to the little girl’s height.
“No, I’m Phoebe. Who are you?”
“Oh God.” She leaned against the bridge wall for support. “Sorry Phoebe, you gave me a fright. I’m Kim, where’s your Mum and Dad?” She stood back up and looked around but there was no one else in sight.
Phoebe began to cry. She held the sleeve of Kim’s cagoule while her little body shook.
“I got lost,” she sobbed, “I lost my Mummy.”
“It’s okay Phoebe, don’t you worry. I can help you find her.”
“Will I be in big trouble?”
“No silly, you won’t be in trouble.” Kim took a tissue from her backpack and wiped Phoebe’s eyes. “Now blow your nose and we’ll find her together.” She held the tissue to the girl’s face and laughed when she blew a trumpet.
“Now, which way did you come?” She asked, pulling her backpack on.
Phoebe pointed her finger east and Kim figured she must have come from the campsite. It was a five-minute walk on flat land, and easy to find.
“Can I take your hand?” Phoebe asked. “I’m scared.”
“Sure.” She held it out and felt the tiny warm fingers grip hers.
They passed through a grove of elm trees, stepping over protruding roots and clumps of moss. The temperature dipped in the shade.
“How did you manage to get lost?”
“I was following the big seagull.” Phoebe said. “Did you see it?”
“Yeah I did. But that big bird was an osprey. They look a bit like seagulls but they’re bigger and prettier.”
“Offspray,” Phoebe giggled, “Off. Spray.”
“Osprey, aye.” Kim laughed.
They emerged from the grove and found the man-made gravel path that led to the campsite. Kim could see a group of walkers ascending a softer hill in the distance. The odd tent was dotted around the flat ground while others clung diagonally to the side of the hill. When she saw the loch glistening at the far end of the horizon, she knew they were close.
“Kim. Who were you playing hide and seek with?”
“Oh. I was just pretend playing. I used to play with my sister Nora, she was five.”
“I used to be five. I’m seven now,” she smiled showing a gap where her front tooth had fallen out, “How are you going to find her if you’re taking me to my Mummy?”
“I’ll find her,” Kim pressed her lips together, “One day.”
“But isn’t she too wee to be left alone?”
“She’s lost Phoebe.” Kim took a deep breath before continuing. “She’s been lost for a long, long time. I come here sometimes just to look.”
“My Grandad got lost. He was in a home. Mum said he went to heaven but I heard her telling my Auntie Kate on the phone that they lost him.”
“Oh.” Kim squeezed Phoebe’s hand.
“If people get lost then they can get found too, can’t they?”
“I think they can.” She nodded her head. “My Grandad leaves me clues. Like one time when me and Mum were out walking Timmy, that’s my dog, and we found a card with a number eight and a heart on it…”
“Well, eight is the number of his old house, before he went to the home, and the heart is because he supported the Hearts.”
“That’s a brilliant clue. Maybe you could be a detective when you grow up.” Kim laughed.
“Aye, that’s what my Mum says.”
Phoebe’s little blonde bunches looked so much like Nora’s did on the day she disappeared.
“When I’m big, I could help you find your sister.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows.
“I’d like that.”
“Good. Does Nora leave you clues like Grandad does?”
“I’m not sure. I think so,” she said, “maybe I’m just too grown up to see them now.”
“How can you be too grown up to see clues?”
“You’re right Phoebe. Maybe I just forgot how to find them. Thank you for reminding me though.”
“Oh my God. Phoebe. Where on earth have you been?”
Kim stood by the door of the park ranger’s cabin. She smiled warmly as Phoebe’s mother ran towards them and scooped her daughter up into her arms.
“I got lost Mummy. I’m sorry but I was following an off spray, it’s like a big seagull you know, and then it flew away over the big mountain and then I didn’t know how to come back. But I found Kim.” She said, pointing at Kim who nodded her head. Phoebe’s mother mouthed a thank you and pulled her daughter in for another hug.
“You shouldn’t run off on your own. I’ve been worried sick.”
“It’s okay Mum, I only got a wee bit lost.”
“Well thank goodness you found Kim.”
“I know. She was playing hide and seek with Nora when I found her, but Nora got lost. Like Grandad.”
“Oh.” She lowered Phoebe to the floor and rubbed her hair. “Is your daughter lost Kim, do you need some help?”
“Twenty-one years ago, I’m afraid, and she was my sister.”
“I’m Kim, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful for your family.”
“Yeah, it was. Mum passed away the following year and Dad never forgave himself for losing her.”
“Is your Dad with you?”
“Gone too. Four years ago.” Kim coughed and looked out of the window.
“It’s okay, but thanks.” She felt her chest tighten. “I come back at the same time every year hoping to find something, you know…”
“Clues.” Phoebe interrupted.
“Yeah, clues.” Kim laughed.
“I don’t know how to thank you for finding this little rascal.” They both looked at Phoebe who stood with her tongue out. “I’m Sandra.”
Kim took Sandra’s outstretched hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you. She’s a good kid.”
“I’m so glad you found her, she tends to wander. I only nipped to the toilet, she must have run off.”
“Well, no harm done.” Kim smiled. “And it was Phoebe who found me, honestly. In fact, I think she might even have been sent as a clue.” She winked at Phoebe who clapped her hands in delight.
“Can I get you a coffee or something?” Sandra asked. “or a hot chocolate?”
“No thanks,” She said. “I need to get on, I’ve a bit of walking to do and I’m heading home tonight.”
“Please Kim.” Phoebe took her hand and pressed her face against it.
“Not just now,” She whispered, “I need to go looking for clues.”
“Oh aye,” she whispered back, “I hope you find some good ones.”
“Me too. Hey, maybe you could both come around to my tent after dinner. I’ll let you make a wish on my faerie tree.”
“You have a faerie tree?” Phoebe’s eyes opened wide. “Do faeries live in it?”
“Yes, they do. Now, do you have a ribbon?”
“Have I got a ribbon Mummy?”
“Erm, I don’t think so.” Sandra said.
“Don’t worry, you can have one of mine.” Kim smiled. “I’ll come by here at six.” She patted Phoebe on the head. “See you later detective.”
She climbed down the rocks blow the stone bridge. Gripping onto a dangling root, she lowered herself onto the pebbled bank and walked into the cold shadow of the bridge.
“Watch out for creepy crawlies.”
She ducked her head. The water echoed around her like whispers and she hunched her shoulders to her ears. She found the line she’d etched into a large rock the previous year and set down her backpack. Using the ends of her trekking poles, she flicked pebbles one by one into the water. After each plop, her eyes scanned the ground – searching. She got to her knees, cupping the stones in her hands, sifting through them with her thumbs, before throwing them into the stream.
“Where are you?”
She dug her fingers into sand and mud, scooping up wet clumps, and throwing them to the side.
“There must be something.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket. Just then, she saw the surface of a rounded piece of glass partially hidden in the dug-out hole. She pushed her finger into the mud and edged it out slowly, discovering a glass marble, cold, and smooth with green and yellow swirls through the centre. She washed the dirt off in the stream then rolled it around in the palm of her hand. Was it Nora’s?
“Come on Kim, play with me.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, searching her mind. Nora tugged her sleeve, blue eyes staring hopefully. Her pink freckled cheeks dimpled as she smiled. A smile that stretched over decades in Kim’s memory. The red velvet dress with white trim was as clear as the photograph in her purse. Shiny red patent shoes.
“Count to fifty and don’t peek.”
Did Nora play with marbles?
I can’t remember.
“Five, six, seven…”
“Damn it!” She threw the marble into the stream and it barely made a splash.
The sun had begun to dip behind the mountains by the time Kim had led Sandra and Phoebe to her pitch. They stood beside the slow burning wood fire and Kim looked over the loch. It lay flat and still, reflecting sky and mountains and creating the illusion of endlessness.
“It’s like the sky is upside down.” Phoebe pointed.
“I think it looks like the edge of forever,” Kim said, “like you could walk right inside the belly of the world.”
“Forever-land.” Phoebe said. “Like Peter Pan.”
“That’s Never-Never land.” Kim laughed.
“It’s pretty though, isn’t it?” Sandra said and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. Phoebe nodded.
“This is the best time for wishes.” Kim said, “It’s when the faeries come out to play. Come on.”
They walked up the stony bank. The oak tree stood alone on the grassy hill at the rear of Kim’s tent; its wide trunk topped by a full head of leafy branches.
“Where are the faeries?” Phoebe asked as she stepped into the shadow below the tree.
“You can’t see them, but listen.”
They huddled together, listening to the tree branches creak, and the leaves rustling gently.
“They whisper to one another,” Kim continued, “Can you hear them?”
“I think so.” Phoebe put her ear to the tree trunk. “What are they saying?”
“They’re waiting for your wish.” Sandra said.
“That’s right.” Kim smiled and took two pink ribbons from her pocket. She pulled down a long thin branch to Phoebe’s height, then held it while Sandra helped her daughter tie the first ribbon.
“Don’t let it go yet.” Kim said as she fastened her own ribbon to the branch. “Now make a wish.”
“Okay.” Kim took a deep breath. “I wish that one day I’ll find a great big clue that’ll help me find my Nora.”
“I wish,” Phoebe squeezed her eyes tight shut, “that my Grandad will look after her until you find her.”
Together they let go of their ribbons and watched as they flapped freely in the breeze.
Today my poem Dusk, was published in Tell-Tale Magazine. Click on the link to see more from Tell-Tale.
Dusk sucks the sun intae the mucky earth
And the night sky isnae born yet.
Ower the loch a purple landscape,
Scribbled and scratchy
Like jaggy curtains
Shuts out the day.
I force my eyes tight shut
So the wolf can cross my path
And drink the water that I bathed in.
I want tae hold this wildness
In my mind’s eye,
And feel the breath o night
Frolic with my daydreams
I want to sleep, I want to sleep.
©Eilidh G Clark
Inside the church
my heart went cold
I’m no longer the one
you want to hold.
You said ‘I do’,
the words still linger
like the pain in my chest
as his ring fit your finger
and genuine joy
spread over your face
on mine was just sadness
at what had took place.
Sealed with a kiss
the couple held hands
full of hopes for the future
and matching gold bands.
As I turned to leave
I caught your stare
with a flicker of memory
I knew you still cared
but the church bells rang
and I turned to go
would you always love me?
I’ll never know.
©Eilidh G Clark
As a poet, I feel I have to invest parts of my own identity into my work in order to build a relationship with the poem – I need to feel it tug on my sleeve. This means that prior to writing about a particular subject I have to take an emotional journey. This might mean simply touching parts of my mind that are easy to reach, however, it often means scouring through dark and lonely emotions that I have tucked away. I find this process is an essential part of my preparation. The emotional link, for me, is the most honest way to bring the subject to life.
The uniqueness of any poem comes from the link between the poet and the poem. The truth is the soul of the poem. The truth is etched into the poems conventions. Without an emotional link, language is flat, motionless, and stale. If I were to write about a tree, any tree, the tree is lifeless unless I can create an emotional link. A link could arise if it was planted as a remembrance for someone I love, or if the tree provided shelter during my first kiss. If a leaf falls from the tree and brushes my face, it may spark a memory of a loving touch. The tree might have a knot that resembles the face of an old school teacher or smell like the time I smoked my first cigarette in the woods. The swish-swish of the branches might bring to mind a road sweeper cleaning up litter, and my anger at people’s disregard for the environment. Without an emotional connection, the tree is just an object, an image, a flat word on a page. Poetry, ‘opens a corridor between the head and heart,’ (Andrew Motion, 2012) a statement I fully agree with.
In my own work, I use truth and personal experience in addition to the poetic conventions as an art form. In discussing the making of poetry, Jamie said that ‘just as much as sound and rhythm, what makes a poem is its relationship with truth’. (Kathleen Jamie, 2012). I believe that truth allows the poet to work more closely with form, imagery and most certainly tone.
I am greatly influenced by poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Chris Powici, Raymond Carver and Kathleen Jamie an. Duffy’s relationship with truth is evident in ‘Stealing’:
Part of the thrill was knowing
That children would cry in the morning. Life’s tough. (Carol Ann Duffy).
The blunt words and lack of emotion from the speaker actually give the poem an emotional feel. The tone is sombre, almost desperate.
Truth for me is found in reality, my own reality, and in experience, emotions, and a connection with the natural world. Finding the truth in the everyday, and exploring language, form the basis of my work. Therefore, the need that I have to invest parts of my own identity in poetry means building a relationship with the poem – I need to feel it tug on my sleeve.
©Eilidh G Clark
Duffy, Carol Ann, ‘Stealing’, in Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, ed. by Jo Shapcott and Mathew Sweeny (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2004)
Jamie, Kathleen, ‘Holding Fast – Truth and Change in Poetry’, in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry ed. by W.N. Herbert and Mathew Hollis (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 2012)
Motion, Andrew, ‘Yes and No’, in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, ed. by W.N. Herbert and Mathew Hollis (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 2012)
I sat on the doorstep. My head was filled with a itchy buzz that drowned out the noise from the road fifty yards away. The afternoon was damp and humid and a smell of rotten leaves hung thick. The air licked my skin and my scalp prickled as I sucked life into my lungs, attempting to clear the fog that stifled brain. I had been grinding my teeth ever since I received the phone call at 11am that morning and now my jaw ached. Outside, the doorstep was my reprieve, a place to escape. The mourning. It was the crying; the fear, it was the look of desperation etched on faces; pale, ashen and distorted. Outside I was alone, raw and separated from the solid hugging arms of collective grief and crumpled bodies. Fat blobs of rain began to fall, and I looked up to charcoal clouds scribbled over the sky.
“This,” I thought, “is how the sky ought to look today’.
From behind the rooftops of an adjacent tenement block of flats, a single black helium balloon appeared. I watched it stagger over the sky, bashing into thick air then sucked into jets of cold.For a moment it hesitated.
“Where are you Mum?” I shook my head and watched as the balloon skittered off into the distance. The world above was black and white.
How was I meant to feel today? How are you supposed react when you get a call at 11am on a Sunday morning telling you that your Mum is dead?
I had often tried to imagine how I would feel when this day arrived, especially more so in the last year as I noticed how fragile my mother looked and how tiny she had become. One thing was certain; I had always known my heart would break. What I did not expect was confusion, fear, emptiness and a feeling of no longer being safe. I got up and went back into a house that was no longer home.
Loss. I had experienced it before.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was off school. I wasn’t even sure why my Mum had let me have a free day but it was bound to be great. I got to pick my own clothes because Mum had gone out to see Granny in hospital. Before she left, Mum told me to be good and remember to brush my teeth. When I went downstairs to see who was looking after me, loads of aunties and uncles had come to visit. I felt really excited because that usually meant a party. The room was filled with pipe smoke and old lady smell.
“I got a free day off school,” I said, and tried to squeeze in between Uncle Jimmy and Auntie Agnes.
Everyone was looking at me and pulling weird faces. Auntie Phamie was crying. Auntie Isa had a crumpled up face and was looking at the floor. Uncle John coughed and left the room. I was afraid I had done something wrong.
“Your Granny died this morning,” Auntie Isa said, looking up.
I laughed because I didn’t believe her. My Granny was in hospital. Auntie Phamie started wailing so I turned around and stood in the corner.
“Poor Eleanor, not getting there on time,” Uncle Roberts voice came from near the kitchen.
I knew my Mum was called Eleanor, and I wondered if she had missed the bus this morning.
“And Chic, poor man, going home to an empty house,” one of the Aunties said. I wondered who Chic was and if he’d been burgled like the folk on Jackanory yesterday. I nervously picked wood-chip off the wall, and it fell in between my feet and on to the green carpet. I was hungry because no one had made me anything to eat. This didn’t seem like a party to me at all. I was scared to turn around, partly because I could still hear Auntie Phamie sniffing and grunting, and also because there was now a pile of wood-chip on the floor at my feet. I stood and looked at the mess for ages and thought about my Grannie. Why did they say she was dead? I thought this was a nasty lie to tell.
After what felt like hours, I heard the front door open and turned around. Mum walked in with Auntie Nan and Papa and everyone got up and started cuddling, just like at Christmas, except no one was singing. Papa was crying, and I felt like I should be crying as well but didn’t know why. My Mum took ages to come over and see me and when she did she crouched down so her face was close to mine. I wondered if my Mum would like what I had picked to wear.
“Your Granny died this morning,” she said.
I frowned and turned my back on my Mum, then felt warm pee dribble down my leg and into my sock.
©Eilidh G Clark