Word on a Whim

Archive for the category “Writing”

Formal Writing – finding the balance

Formal writing has become much less formal over the years. This is fine if it makes the message easier to understand, but sometimes frivolity gets in the way of clarity, or the tone makes the reader feel patronised.

I like the style of correspondence that starts with a brief explanation of “Why we are writing to you…” followed by a sub-header, “Action you need to take”.  This immediately lets you know if you must read any further.

Instruction manuals have shifted from the passive “this must be done” to “you must do this”, and in the interest of globalisation, images and diagrams are often used instead of words.

Many years ago, I watched a televised interview with Peter Ustinov and there’s a bit that stuck in my mind because it made me laugh. He used to travel on an overnight train where bedpans were available, with a notice that said, “Passengers are reminded that these receptacles were not designed to receive solids.” I can clearly picture men in suits, sitting round the boardroom table, having a meeting to discuss the wording of the notice. If such receptacles still exist today, I imagine that notice has been replaced by something like this:

Whilst I’m on the subject, NHS information leaflets now have poo all over them! The bowel “takes nutrients and water from food and turns what is left into poo (also known as faeces, stools or bowel motions)”. I guess they take the approach that everyone knows what poo is, but it still jars outside the context of potty training.

Correspondence from banks has become overly friendly and jokey in style, and I recently came a cropper when I was distracted by it …

My debit card is due to expire soon, and I was grateful when the replacement arrived early, meaning I wouldn’t have to switch cards whilst online Christmas shopping was in progress. Ta-da — here’s your shiny new debit card,” said the letter. “Dust off a pen and sign the back.”

Somewhere amongst all the joviality were the last three digits of the account that was linked to this new card. Unfortunately, I was so busy rolling my eyes at the lingo and assuming this was a replacement for the card that was due to expire, that I failed to notice it was linked to my other account – the one with a card that doesn’t expire for another three years. Marvellous.

So, I had to phone the bank and tell them I was an idiot and I’d cut up the wrong card! They can’t hurry along the new one, as it’s currently ‘pending’, whatever that means. Lesson learned … in future I must focus on the important details within the message, and try not to be pedantic about the delivery!


The Landlady – flash fiction

I had my reservations about sharing my home with students, yet this place is far too large for me to be rattling around on my own. Individually, they are quiet and studious – but as a group they tend to shout, rather than speak quietly to each other. Curtis even shouts, “LOL” instead of actually laughing. At least they are keeping me young with their energy, and up-to-date with the ever-evolving English language. But please not “some think” or, worse still, “summink”. The word is “something”. Surely you wouldn’t call a King a “Kink”?

Aside from the generation gap and their bad taste in music, I do enjoy their company. The better I get to know them, the more maternal I feel. Harriet is the one I feel most attached to. Some weekends, the other students go home to their parents – but Harriet is always here. I have listened to their conversations, and get the impression she was more or less brought up by her grandparents, so she must be used to older people like me. I have tried to engage with her when it’s just the two of us, but she seems uneasy with conversation and tries to ignore me. Her choice, of course. Afterall, she’s a paying guest. But she knows I’m always here if she wants to talk.

All these youngsters are paying more than they can afford. But with this ridiculous energy price cap hike I keep hearing about, they understand that it’s a fair price if they want a warm bedroom this winter.  And a hot shower if they can be bothered. I just wish they’d all help with the cleaning. The grouting is getting grubby and it wouldn’t hurt them to wave the brush down the toilet once in a while.

Thursday evening is the one time they all seem to be here. Supermarket beer and wine is flowing, and Dylan is passing round a roll-up cigarette that smells strange and musky. Then Harriet starts whingeing to her housemates that she feels nervous being here without them at the weekends. She finds this place a bit creepy.

Creepy? A little old-fashioned, maybe, but I wouldn’t call it creepy. I hope perhaps one of her housemates will take it up, and invite her back to theirs for the weekend, but no-one does.

Then Haydn, the philosophy student, starts going on about everything being nothing more than a perception – and there’s a discussion about whether or not this solid wooden table will continue to exist after they have left room. Of course it bloody will! I stifle my laughter and tell them it’s been here donkey’s years. They ignore me – except for Harriet, who looks straight at me, but without smiling.

I go upstairs and leave them to it.

Harriet spends most of Saturday doing her course work, sitting at the solid wooden table which is conveniently still existing. It’s only when I join her in the evening and sit in my usual armchair that she mutters something about the crap WIFI connection and storms off upstairs. I can’t help feeling rejected. I’d thought maybe she needed a break from her work and, if I’m honest, I liked the idea of a bit of company. I’d hoped she might put the TV on, and we could watch a film together.

I gaze up at the ceiling. It sounds as if Harriet is packing her bags. I go upstairs and hover outside her bedroom door. I can hear her crying. The yearning to go into the room and comfort her is so strong – but it’s not my place. To enter her room would be overstepping the mark.

Sunday morning, I can hear her on the phone, sounding bright and business-like. At least she’s cheered up. The kettle boils and clicks itself off. The toaster smells of burning. Those students really should consider emptying out the crumbs occasionally!

Curtis and Haydn return together, looking tired and relaxed. Harriet greets them dramatically. Her luggage is in the hallway and they struggle to get past with their rucksacks.  I watch and listen from the landing at the top of the stairs. She tells them she is moving out. Apparently, she’s had enough of this place and has found somewhere else.

“This place is haunted, I’m sure of it! I can’t stay here another day!”

“Haunted?” says Curtis.

Haydn shrugs and gets a beer from the fridge. “I guess it’s just a perception …”

“Haunted?!” I laugh out loud at the idea, and Harriet rushes away, slamming the door behind her.

I’m sorry to see her go. Harriet was the only one I felt really in tune with. And of course this place isn’t haunted!  I should know – I’ve been here more than two hundred years.

The Chwyrn Bay Lighthouse – a short story

Maria knelt on the beach hugging Victor the greyhound as she gazed in awe at their home. One month into her new life and she still had a sense of being on holiday. Victor wagged his tail, his long nose pointing skyward to sniff the sea air.

  ‘So much fresher than London, eh?’ When Maria had heard that the decommissioned lighthouse at Chwyrn Bay was on the market, she had seized the opportunity to escape from London; sold her apartment and quit her office job to move to North Wales.

  The estate agent had been dubious. ‘I’m not sure it’s suitable to live in, although I’m not aware of anything in the deeds to say you can’t. It has got plumbing and electricity, and a built-in cabin bed, but there’s very little space.’

  Maria was undeterred. She was a competent oil painter who specialised in seascapes. This was her chance to try to earn a living from a hobby, and the profit from her London home would allow her to live on savings until she became established and formed contacts with galleries.

  Victor leaned into her and she rubbed his shoulders. ‘I hope the locals don’t resent us, coming up from London and buying their lighthouse.’ She felt conspicuous and identifiable owing to her striking red hair and pale skin. The old lady at the post office had given her a funny look yesterday when she gave her address as the lighthouse.

  ‘Welcome to Chwyrn,’ said a soft voice behind her. ‘I hope I didn’t startle you.’ A man with twinkling blue eyes and greying hair was smiling down at her. His border collie was on a short lead, tail wagging coyly between her legs. ‘I’m Tom, and this is Elsa. Is yours friendly?’

  ‘Maria and Victor.’ Maria stood up and smiled. ‘I don’t trust him with tiny dogs, but he should be okay with Elsa.’ Tom was looking at her with a curious expression, like the post office woman had. ‘It’s because he’s an ex-racer,’ she added to fill the silence. ‘They have a strong prey drive and he’s not so good on the recall if he sees something moving.’

  ‘Well … it’s good to meet you.’ Tom raised a polite smile, and began to walk away down the beach, then turned back. ‘Bring him along for a run with Elsa, if you like. She won’t go out of sight so if he’ll stick by her, they’ll be okay.’

  Maria bought a paraffin lamp as a backup for the dodgy electricity supply, and took to lighting it in the evening for a couple of hours. Nowhere near as powerful as the original beacon would have been, but it cast a warm glow on the beach and brought the lighthouse back to life. Painting was going well – the sea, as a living force, giving spontaneity to her seascapes. She’d made contact with a few art shops who were happy to exhibit her work, and made a few sales on the internet.

  Tom walked Elsa along the beach most days and, if Maria wasn’t engrossed in painting, and saw him passing, she’d join him. Mostly, they walked in companiable silence, watching the dogs and laughing at their antics as they chased the waves up and down the shore.

  ‘Storm forecast for tonight,’ Tom said the one day. ‘Hope you’re okay for paraffin – you know what the electric’s like!’

  Maria was excited by the prospect of capturing some dark and stormy scenes that night. The wind was picking up already, and dark clouds hurried across the sky.

  After tea, Victor curled up in his bed with a sigh. Maria knelt and stroked his back in the bed that curved into the wall, then ascended the spiral staircase, lit the lamp, and prepared her paints and brushes.

 The storm rushed in, bringing waves crashing up the beach – closer to the lighthouse than she’d thought possible. She felt the lighthouse being buffeted by the wind. The electric light on the staircase flickered, whilst the paraffin beacon glowed steadily. She painted with frenetic energy, daubing her fingers in the paint and sweeping them round the canvas to make waves, then drumming with white paint on fingertips to create an appearance of surf and sea spray.

  Lightning came before the thunder and she scratched her nails through the wet oil paint, down to the white canvas below to create jagged streaks of light. Satisfied with the effect so far, she wiped her hands on a rag and picked up a fine brush to add some detail. The sky lit up again and, for a second, she saw a figure on the beach. Brush poised, barely breathing, she waited for the next flash of lightning. Yes! There was a man on the beach looking up at the lighthouse. A tingle of fear crept through her, and when the thunder finally crashed, she almost dropped the brush. The electric light went out and she froze at the sound of scratchy footsteps on the dark staircase … but it was only Victor. He pressed against her and trembled silently. ‘Poor boy, it’s okay,’ she soothed, sounding more confident than she felt.

  The dog settled and she turned her attention back to the beach. Now that the only light was from the paraffin lamp, she could see outside more clearly. There he was! A man standing some distance away, staring at the lighthouse. He must be able to see her silhouette. What was he doing out there? If he needed help, wouldn’t he wave or come closer? She decided to include him in the painting. A small figure would put the height of the waves in perspective, and add mystery to the scene. She resumed painting, this time using a fine brush …

  Maria woke up next to Victor but wasn’t entirely sure she had slept. The storm had passed. The paraffin lamp had burnt out, but weak daylight was casting some light around her. She glanced up at the oil painting that was still on the easel, rubbed her eyes and moved in to take a closer look. Startled, she hurried down the staircase, clutching the handrail tight as Victor pushed past to get down first.

  The electricity was still off so she unpacked the camping stove and set some water to boil in a pan to make tea. She checked her phone but there was no reception. The storm must have brought something down. Naturally, the lightbulb beamed into life just as the water was finally coming to the boil. She made tea then fetched the painting down, and stared, frowning at last night’s work …

  Craving human company for the first time since moving to the lighthouse, she watched out for Tom and Elsa, and was relieved to see them ambling along the beach around their usual time. She stepped out onto the beach with Victor as they approached.

  ‘The tower kept getting knocked by the wind. I could feel it shaking. I thought it was going to fall down!’ She laughed, trying to lighten it, but Tom could see she looked paler than ever, with dark shadows beneath her eyes.

  ‘Don’t worry about that, it’s got interlocking bricks that dovetail together, so it’s not going anywhere. It’s Smeaton’s oak tree design. Before the coastal defence work, the waves would sometimes come right up to it, but owing to the curved shape, they’d roll just a little way up and then fall back.’

  ‘Isn’t Nature a wonderful architect?’  

  ‘Aye, that she is. Rest assured; this one won’t be falling down. Not like the old one.’ He read her expression. ‘Didn’t you know?’

  ‘I knew this wasn’t the original Chwyrn Bay lighthouse, but didn’t know the old one fell down! I tried to look it up this morning but there was no internet connection. No phone signal either.’

  ‘Oh well, at least the electric’s back on.’

  ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’

  ‘That wasn’t a hint – but since you’re offering!’ 

  In the small kitchen area, Tom was staring at last night’s storm painting.

  ‘I’ll move that out of the way,’ said Maria, but Tom stayed in front of it.

  Maria made the tea. ‘It’s not finished yet. As you see, they have no hands. I often leave those details until last as I find hands tricky. That man was on the beach last night, so I decided to include him but …’

  ‘But what?’

  ‘I’ve no idea why my self-portrait is next to him.’ She put the mugs of tea on a small table and took out two folding chairs, carefully positioning them around the dogs’ legs and tails.

 ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I don’t remember painting myself next to him. Occasionally, when I’m painting, I get a sense that someone else, or maybe my subconscious, is taking over and steering the composition. I tend to just go along with it, sometimes completely moving away from my preliminary sketch.’ She laughed lightly. ‘But it’s the first time I’ve accidentally incorporated a self-portrait!’

  Tom was quiet for a moment, apparently engrossed in dividing a biscuit equally between the two dogs. Finally, he looked up at her and said, tentatively, ‘I don’t think that’s a self-portrait. Her name was Anna, and she looked very much like you.’ Maria’s eyes widened. He went on, ‘The first time I met you I did a double-take. You look exactly like the photos I’ve seen of her. As for the man on the beach, that must be Joseph, still out there looking for her after more than a hundred years. I guess it’s the light you’ve put up there that’s attracted him. Hey, don’t be scared! Sit down and I’ll tell you the story, and you can make up your own mind.

  ‘Joseph and Anna were lovers. Joseph was a lighthouse keeper at the old lighthouse; the one that collapsed. Anna was trapped in an unhappy marriage and used to meet him secretly at the lighthouse. The evening the storm brought the lighthouse down, Joseph had walked into the town to get supplies and was on his way back to start the night shift. He knew Anna was waiting for him because the key had gone from beneath the rock on the cliff; the place he left it when he went out, in case she came to him. As he’d turned the corner, ladened with candles and a couple of days’ worth of food, villagers were huddled together in the wind and rain and there was some sort of commotion going on. You can imagine the relief when he turned up – they thought he’d been in the lighthouse, you see.

  ‘So … they all start cheering and hugging him, then he looks over the cliff and sees the lighthouse has gone! Apparently, he ran along the raised path, yelling her name, then jumped down on to the beach. They tried to stop him but he fought them off and, well, the sea took him. His body was washed up on the shore a couple of days later, but hers was never found.

  ‘Over the years, some folks claimed to have seen him on the beach if they were daft enough to be out in a storm. But not since the lighthouse was decommissioned. Your little paraffin beacon must have brought him back.’  

  They both looked again at the painting, and a few silent tears ran down Maria’s face.

  ‘You need to finish the painting, Maria. But not yet. Wait until the next storm comes.’ 

  They didn’t have long to wait.

  ‘It’s going to be a rough night. I brought some paraffin, so you don’t run out.’ Tom looked at her, meaningfully.

  ‘Then, I guess it’s time to finish the painting.’ She hesitated. ‘I don’t suppose you’d come along for company?’

  Maria prepared the paints and set the unfinished painting on the easel. She looked nervously out to sea and watched the black clouds approaching, and was relieved to see Tom and Elsa strolling casually along the beach.

  ‘The tides have always been unpredictable in this bay. Fast and rapid. That’s what “chwyrn” means, you know. It’s safer since the work they did along the coast, but you’ve still got to be careful.

  It wasn’t like Tom to make unnecessary conversation. She guessed he was nervous too. The storm arrived with a vengeance, and angry waves crashed on the beach. ‘I see what you mean about it shaking the tower. Perfectly safe though. As I told you –’

  Maria was pointing to the beach below. Tom saw it too; the silhouette of a man standing looking up at them. He turned up the paraffin lamp and the light illuminated the figure. A well-built man with strong features and thick dark hair, inappropriately dressed for the weather … Joseph.

  Maria raised her paint brush and Tom nodded. ‘It’s time to paint.’

  Tom felt a thrill of adrenalin as a second figure began to materialise on the beach next to Joseph; indistinct at first, shimmering in and out of vision. He found he could see it more clearly if he gazed beyond, out to sea. Looking directly seemed to make it fade. He glanced at Maria to see if she’d seen it too, but her eyes were twitching and unfocussed, whilst her hand worked deftly with the paintbrush. Back on the beach, he could see the second figure clearly now. A woman with red hair and pale skin … Anna.

  Maria had stopped painting. Tom looked at the canvas and saw the couple were joined by their hands, which were clasped together.

  ‘Maria,’ he said softly. She didn’t respond so he took the paintbrush and clasped her hand in his. She blinked a couple of times then looked at the painting before her.

  Tom pointed down at the beach. As they watched, Joseph and Anna turned away, joined hands and walked out to sea. Their images faded. Tom and Maria sat in silence for a while. The storm passed over and the moon began to shine through the clouds.

  ‘I don’t think we’ll be seeing them again,’ said Tom. ‘They’ve found each other now, and finally moved on to wherever they belong. Good work, Maria.’

  Maria smiled at the completed picture, happy with the result. ‘But it wasn’t all my own work though, was it?’

Sex scenes in fiction

I blogged about writing sex scenes back in May 2012 but here we go again.  Not because I’m fixated (my partner will vouch for that!) but because I feel it’s a difficult subject to write about and have respect for authors who achieve it sensitively, without being off-putting or sounding like a biology book.

I read 99p Kindle books, selected from suggestions that come up on my Facebook news feed.  Before splashing out 99p, I read the description and some reviews – and it’s surprising how opinions differ.  Some of these books are so good I feel guilty that I only paid 99p.  Others are crap and I either abandon them or rush through, wondering how they got such good reviews.

When reading a paperback, you see the title and the author every time you pick it up and if there’s a character that wasn’t built strongly enough to remember who they are you can easily recap to the point where they came in. With Kindle, I tend to forget the name of the author and the title of the book. I can’t recall who wrote the sex scenes in this 99p book I’m half way through but the cringe-making nature of the following snippets means I’m either going to ditch this book, rush it through, or plough on out of morbid curiosity in case there are any more of these gems:

Name that tune! 

Never did feel hypnotherapy would work for me.

“her actual vagina” :-/

Update 26/07/21 – a couple of good ones from the crime fiction I’ve just finished:

Stop unfolding me!

Sounds like a bad bathroom experience!

Whilst it’s easy to take the Mickey, I’m not claiming I could do much better.  I only attempt a sex scene if it’s relevant and it would be cheating the reader to simply leave the couple at it and move on to the next chapter.  I find sex scenes excruciating to write and therefore I imagine not too easy to read. 

The 99p book I have quoted from has lots of five-star reviews, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it.  My own 99p book (available from a link on this site) only has two reviews – both of them five-star.  Hilariously, one of those reviews is from someone who hadn’t yet read it!  Guessing they must’ve been taken with Dean Harkness’s cover design!

“The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury – a lost treasure rediscovered.

I have always been a lover of lighthouses and, as a kid, had a romantic idea of being a live-in lighthouse keeper.  In the last year at middle school we studied a short story and then had to write a poem on the theme of loneliness.   The short story was set in a lighthouse and I loved it so much and was so moved by it that I kept the printed handout it was typed on, instead of giving it back.

Some years later I looked for it amongst my junk – it was only about five pages and must have been inserted in a book that got charity-shopped, because I never found it again.  I tried, a couple of years ago, to find it on the internet with no luck.  I hadn’t taken any notice of the name of the author, and I thought the story was called “The Sea Monster”.  Today, having an hour or two to spare, I looked again on the internet; typing in snippets and phrases from the story that were still stuck in my mind after thirty-seven years and I found it!  “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury.

It was a surprise to discover that it was written by Ray Bradbury – I had pictured some old Cornish gent as the author.  I read it just now and I love it all the more – with a better understanding of the themes as an adult.  As a kid I only cried over the poor sea monster.  A link to a PDF is below.  Read it if you’ve got time – it won’t take too long and I think it will stay with you long after you’ve read it.


28/05/16 – I see from my stats that this post is still of interest but the link to the .pdf no longer works.  Therefore I am pasting the story below.  I’m sure someone will let me know if I am breaching copyright:

by Ray Bradbury

OUT there in the cold water, far from land, we waited every night for the coming of the fog, and it came, and we oiled the brass machinery and lit the fog light up in the stone tower. Feeling like two birds in the grey sky, McDunn and I sent the light touching out, red, then white, then red again, to eye the lonely ships. And if they did not see our light, then there was always our Voice, the great deep cry of our Fog Horn shuddering through the rags of mist to startle the gulls away like decks of scattered cards and make the waves turn high and foam.

“It’s a lonely life, but you’re used to it now, aren’t you?” asked McDunn.

“Yes,” I said. You’re a good talker, thank the Lord.”

“Well, it’s your turn on land tomorrow,” he said, smiling, “to dance the ladies and drink gin.”

“What do you think McDunn, when I leave you out here alone?”

“On the mysteries of the sea.” McDunn lit his pipe. It was a quarter past seven of a cold November evening, the heat on, the light switching it’s tail in two hundred directions, the Fog Horn bumbling in the high throat of the tower. There wasn’t a town for a hundred miles down the coast, just a road, which came lonely through the dead country to the sea, with few cars on it, a stretch of two miles of cold water out to our rock, and rare few ships.

The mysteries of the sea,” said McDunn thoughtfully. “You know, the ocean’s the biggest damned snowflake ever? It rolls and swells a thousand shapes and colours, no two alike. Strange. One night, years ago, I was here alone, when all of the fish of the sea surfaced out there. Something made them swim in and lie in the bay, sort of trembling and staring up at the tower light going red, white, red, white across them so I could see their funny eyes. I turned cold. They were like a big peacock’s tail, moving out there until midnight. Then, without so much as a sound, they slipped away, the million of them was gone. I kind of think maybe, in some sort of way, they came all those miles to worship, Strange, But think how the tower must look to them, standing seventy feet above the water, the God-light flashing out from it, and the tower declaring itself with a monster voice. They never came back, those fish, but don’t you think for a while they thought they were in the Presence?”

I shivered. I looked out at the long grey lawn of the sea stretching away into nothing and nowhere.

“Oh, the sea’s full.” McDunn puffed his pipe nervously, blinking. He had been nervous all day and hadn’t said why. “For all our engines and so-called submarines, it’ll be ten thousand centuries before we set foot on the real bottom of the sunken lands, in the fairy kingdoms there, and know real terror. Think of it, it’s still the year 300,000 Before Christ down under there. While we’ve paraded around with trumpets, lopping off each other’s countries and heads, they have been living beneath the sea twelve miles deep and cold in a time as old as the beard on a comet.

“Yes it’s an old world.”

“Come on. I got something special I’ve been saving up to tell you.”

We ascended the eighty steps, talking and taking our time. At the top, McDunn switched off the room lights so there’d be no reflection in the plate glass. The great eye of the light was humming, turning easily in its oiled socket. the Fog Horn was blowing steadily, once every fifteen seconds.

“Sounds like an animal, don’t it?” McDunn nodded to himself. “A big lonely animal crying in the night. Sitting here on the edge of ten million years calling out to the deeps. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. And the Deeps do answer, yes, they do. You been here now for three months Johnny, so I better prepare you. About this time of year,” he said, studying the murk and fog, “something comes to visit the lighthouse.”

“The swarms of fish like you said?’

“No, this is something else. I’ve put off telling you because you might think I’m daft. But tonight’s the latest I can put it off, for if my calender’s marked right from last year, tonight’s the night it comes. I won’t go into detail, you’ll have to see it for yourself. Just sit down there. If you want, tomorrow you can pack your duffel and take the motorboat into land and get your car parked there at the dinghy pier on the cape and drive on back to some little inland town and keep your lights burning nights. I won’t question or blame you. It’s happened three years now, and this is the only time anyone’s been here with me to verify it. You wait and watch.”

Half an hour passed with only a few whispers between us. When we grew tired waiting, McDunn began describing some of his ideas to me. He had some theories about the Fog Horn itself.

“One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said “We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I’ll make one. I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like the trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and to all who hear it in the distant towns. I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.””

The Fog Horn blew.

“I made up that story,” said McDunn quietly, “to try to explain why this thing keeps coming back to the lighthouse every year. The fog horn calls, I think, it comes…”

“But-” I said.

“Sssst!” said McDunn. “There!” He nodded out to the Deeps.

Something was swimming towards the lighthouse tower.

It was a cold night, as I said; the high tower was cold, the light coming and going, and the Fog Horn calling and calling through the ravelling mist. You couldn’t see far and you couldn’t see plain, but there was the deep sea moving on it’s way about the night earth, flat and quiet, to colour of grey mud, and here were the two of us alone in the high tower, and there, far out at first, was a ripple, followed by a wave, a rising, a bubble, a bit of froth/ And then, from the surface of the cold sea came a head, a large head, dark-coloured, with immense eyes, and then a neck And then-not a body-but more neck and more! The head rose a full forty feet above the water ona slender and beautiful neck. Only then did the body, like a little island of black coral and shells and crayfish, drip up from the subterranean. There was a flicker of tail. In all, from head to tip of tail, I estimated the monster at ninety or a hundred feet.

I don’t know what I said. I said something.

“Steady, bot, steady,” whispered McDunn.

“It’s impossible!” I said.

“No, Johnny, we’re impossible. It’s like it always was ten million years ago. It hasn’t changed.. It’s us and the land that’ve changed, become impossible. Us!”

It swam slowly and with a great majesty out in the icy waters, far away. the fog came and went about it, momentarily erasing its shape. One of the monster eyes caught and held and flashed back our immense light, red, white, red, white, like a disc held high and sending a message in primaeval code. It was as silent as the fog through which it swam.

“It’s a dinosaur of some sort!” I crouched down, holding to the stair rail.

“Yes, one of the tribe.”

“But they died out!”

“No, only hid away in the Deeps, Deep, deep down in the deepest Deeps. Isn’t that a word now, Johnny, a real word, it says so much: the Deeps. There’s all the coldness and darkness and deepness in the worldin a word like that.”

“What” we do?”

“Do? We got our job, we can’t leave. besides, we’re safer here than in any boat trying to get to land. That thing’s as big as a destroyer and almost as swift.”

“But here, why does it come here?”

The next moment I has my answer.

The Fog Horn blew.

And the monster answered.

A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone it shuddered in my head and my body. The monster cried out at the tower. The Fog Horn blew. The monster roared again. The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away. The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness. That was the sound.

“Now,” whispered McDunn, “do you know why it comes here?”

I nodded.

“All year long, Johnny, that poor monster there lying far out, a thousand miles at sea, and twenty miles deep maybe, biding its time, perhaps a million years old, this one creature. Think of it, waiting a million years; could you wait that long? Maybe it’s the last of its kind. I sort of think that’s true. Anyway, here come men on land and build this lighthouse, five years agao. And set up their Fog Horn and sound it and sound it out towards the place where you bury yourself in sleep and sea memories of a world where there were thousands like yourself, but now you’re alone, all alone in a world that’s not made for you, a world where you have to hide.

“But the sound of the Fog Horn comes and goes, comes and goes, and you stir from the muddy bottom of the Deeps, and your eyes open like the lenses of two-foot cameras and you move, slow, slow, for you have the ocean sea on your shoulders, heavy. But that Fog Horn comes through a thousand miles of water, faint and familiar, and the furnace in your belly stokes up, and you begin to rise, slow, slow. You feed yourself on minnows, on rivers of jellyfish, and you rise slow through the autumn months, through September when the fogs started, through October with more fog and the horn still calling you on, and then, late in November, after pressurizing yourself day by day, a few feet higher every hour, you are near the surface and still alive. You’ve got to go slow; if you surfaced all at once you’d explode. So it takes you all of three months to surface, and then a number of days to swim through the cold waters to the lighthouse. And there you are, out there, in the night, Johnny, the biggest damned monster in creation. And here’s the lighthouse calling to you, with a long neck like your neck sticking way up out of the water, and a body like your body, and most important of all, a voice like your voice. Do you understand now, Johnny, do you understand?”

The Fog Horn blew.

The monster answered.

I saw it all, I knew it all-the million years of waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back. The million years of isolation at the bottom of the sea, the insanity of time there, while the skies cleared of reptile-birds, the swamps fried on the continental lands, the sloths and sabre-tooths had there day and sank in tar pits, and men ran like white ants upon the hills.

The Fog Horn Blew.

“Last year,” said McDunn, “that creature swam round and round, round and round, all night. Not coming to near, puzzled, I’d say. Afraid, maybe. And a bit angry after coming all this way. But the next day, unexpectedly, the fog lifted, the sun came out fresh, the sky was as blue as a painting. And the monster swam off away from the heat and the silence and didn’t come back. I suppose it’s been brooding on it for a year now, thinking it over from every which way.”

The monster was only a hundred yards off now, it and the Fog Horn crying at each other. As the lights hit them, the monster’s eyes were fire and ice, fire and ice.

“That’s life for you,” said McDunn. “Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving some thing more than that thing loves them. And after a while you want to destroy whatever that thing is, so it can hurt you no more.”

The monster was rushing at the lighthouse.

The Fog Horn blew.

“Let’s see what happens,” said McDunn.

He switched the Fog Horn off.

The ensuing minute of silence was so intense that we could hear our hearts pounding in the glassed area of the tower, could hear the slow greased turn of the light.

The monster stopped and froze. It’s great lantern eyes blinked. Its mouth gaped. It gave a sort of rumble, like a volcano. It twitched its head this way and that, as if to seek the sounds now dwindled off in the fog. It peered at the lighthouse. It rumbled again. Then its eyes caught fire. It reared up, threshed the water, and rushed at the tower, its eyes filled with angry torment.

“McDunn!” I cried. “Switch on the horn!”

McDunn fumbled with the switch. But even as he switched it on, the monster was rearing up. I had a glimpse of its gigantic paws, fishskin glittering in webs between the finger-like projections, clawing at the tower. The huge eye on the right side of its anguished head glittered before me like a cauldron into which I might drop, screaming. The tower shook. The Fog Horn cried; the monster cried. It seized the tower and gnashed at the glass, which shattered in upon us.

McDunn seized my arm. “Downstairs!”

The tower rocked, trembled, and started to give. The Fog Horn and the monster roared. We stumbled and half fell down the stairs. “Quick!”

We reached the bottom as the tower buckled down towards us. We ducked under the stairs in the small stone cellar. There were a thousand concussions as the rocks rained down; the Fog Horn stopped abruptly. The monste crashed upon the tower. The tower fell. We knelt together, McDunn and I holding tight, while our world exploded.

Then it was over and there was nothing but darkness and the wask of the sea on the raw stones.

That and the other sound.

“Listen,” said McDunn quietly. “Listen.”

We waited a moment. And then I began to hear it. First a great vacuumed sucking of air, and then the lament, the bewilderment, the loneliness of the great monster, folded over upon us, above us, so that the sickening reek of its body filled the air, a stone’s thickness away from our cellar. The monster gasped and cried. The tower was gone. The light was gone. The thing that had called it across a million years was gone. And the monster was opening its mouth and sending out great sounds. the sounds of a Fog Horn, again and again. And ships far at sea, not finding the light, not seeing anything, but passing and hearing late that night must’ve thought: There it is, the lonely sound, the Lonesome Bay horn. All’s well. We’ve rounded the cape.

And so it went for the rest of that night.
The sun was hot and yellow the next afternoon when the rescuers came to dig us from our stoned-under cellar.

“It fell apart, is all,” said McDunn gravely. “We had a few bad knocks from the waves and it just crumbled.” He pinched my arm.

There was nothing to see. The ocean was calm, the sky blue. The only thing was a great algaic stink from the green matter that covered the fallen tower stones and the shore rocks. Flies buzzed about. The ocean washed empty on the shore.

The next year they built a new lighthouse, but by that time I had a job in the little town and a wife and a good small warm house that glowed yellow on autumn nights, the doors locked, the chimney puffing smoke. As for McDunn. he was master of the new lighthouse, built to his own specifications, out of steel-reinforced concrete. “Just in case,” he said.

The new lighthouse was ready in November. I drove down alone one evening late and parked my car and looked across the grey waters and listened to the new horn sounding, once, twice, three, four times a minute far out ther by itself.

The monster?

It never came back.

“It’s gone away,” said McDunn. “It’s gone back to the Deeps. It’s learned you can’t love anything too much in this world. It’s gone into the deepest Deeps to wait another million years. Ah, the poor thing! Waiting out there, and waiting out there, while man comes and goes on this pitiful little planet. Waiting and waiting.

I sat in my car, listening. I couldn’t see the lighthouse or the light standing out in Lonesome Bay. I could only hear the Horn, the Horn, the Horn. It sounded like the monster calling.

I sat there wishing there was something I could say.




The Mayor’s sponsored reading ‘Mayorathon’

I saw the Mayorathon advertised in the free weekly paper a few weeks ago, and knowing I wouldn’t be at work on this day, decided to take part.  Each participant could buy a five minute slot to read to an audience an extract from a book, a play or a poem of their choice.  You could buy as many five minute slots as you wished, so long as you raised sponsorship of a minimum of £5 per slot. So I pledged a fiver and rehearsed reading a five minute extract from The Rise of Serge and the Fall of Leo. The Mayor had chosen a charity that supports people with acquired brain injuries and this seemed particularly appropriate as it is the cause of Serge’s disability.  I didn’t only take part for charitable reasons; I saw it as a potential opportunity to publicise my book and it was also a challenge to myself to read out loud in front of people.  The thought was terrifying.  I don’t know where my confidence has gone over the years. In my early twenties I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at the prospect – in fact I was in a local amateur dramatics group and even had the nerve to sing a solo in a pantomime as the Prince in ‘Sleeping Beauty’.  Looking back, I was a different person then – although I doubt my singing voice was much better than it is now.  What a cringe-making thought!  I want to get a bit of confidence back you see, so that I don’t turn up at job interviews like a gibbering wreck.

So, I found an extract that wouldn’t entail doing Serge’s voice or Paddy’s Northern Irish accent and turned up, as instructed, fifteen minutes before my appointed time.  The place was packed; standing room only. I had expected a more casual affair – but there was a platform, a lectern and, gulp – a microphone. Looking up, even the gallery was full – and they were mainly children.  I can’t remember what was being read at the time, but it sounded good.  I think it was an extract from a Dickens novel.  I thought about the extract I had chosen to read and whispered to the lady at the door who was doing the register; “Will it mess things up if I don’t read?  Only this isn’t a children’s book.”

She beckoned me out into the entrance hall and some of the other organisers followed us to see what was up.  “There’s no rude words but urm … this guy’s about to top himself by jumping into the Thames on a freezing cold night and he doesn’t actually do it and it turns out okay but there’s a fair bit of detail and I don’t think I should read it to the children.”  It was at that point that I wondered whether it was a good idea to be reading it to anyone.

They assured me it was fine – the children would be leaving in about ten minutes. They had been surprised and honoured that the whole school had come along to listen and to support the event.  Sure enough, ten minutes later, the children filed out, leaving an audience of about six – plus the organisers and the Mayor.  Cool.

I was surprised how good the readers before me were – and the ones I listened to after my turn, as I didn’t like to dash off the minute I was done.  I waited until some more folk arrived and then slipped out.  The readers I listened to had such lovely voices and great presence.  I have a thing about voices – you know how sometimes someone looks gorgeous but then they open their gob and ruin it?   I have never liked my own voice – it’s a bit nasal and I can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’ pwoperly; but I don’t mind sounding northern – if ‘a’ and ‘u’ were supposed to be pronounced the same there would only be four vowels in the alphabet.  Northerners make good use of all five.  I think swear words have more impact with a northern accent but am not sure whether that’s a good thing or not.

Anyway, my bit went okay.  I didn’t faint or have a coughing fit or anything.  It seemed odd to be out of the office on a week day, doing something different and being able to appreciate the time and effort that people put into organising these charity events. Then I came home, took off my Jules Lucton costume, put on my warmest top that smells slightly of yesterday’s cooking, and applied for a job as a Test Analyst.

New Year’s Eve

Christmas had been a miserable time for Ella – searching frantically for her engagement ring yet trying to be discreet so Jim wouldn’t catch on that it was lost.  Well, it wasn’t lost – of course it wasn’t… it had to be somewhere…

The living room being so cold had done nothing to improve her mood but she couldn’t turn on the gas fire because a bird had come down the chimney on Christmas Eve.  Since then, its intermittent futile fluttering had become a fixation.

“At least we’re saving on the gas,” said Jim.  “Hey, turn it on if you’re cold.  The fumes will either kill the bugger or make it fly away.”

Ella had turned on him. “Don’t you think the poor thing would fly away if it could?  Anyway, the gas man’s coming some time today to take the fire out-”

“On New Year’s Eve!  How much is that going to cost?”

“I don’t know! It’s not like it’s a bank holiday. I just hope he manages to get here today.”

Hearing the tears in her voice, Jim left it.  Pre-wedding nerves, no doubt.  His own nerves were frayed only by worrying about how they were going to pay for the event.

Ella could remember taking off the ring to make mince pies…

“Lost something?”  Jim startled her as she knelt on the kitchen floor, yet again sweeping a runner-bean cane beneath the gas cooker.

“No… I just thought I dropped a sprout down here on Christmas Day – it will stink if I don’t shift it.”

Jim stooped to kiss her briefly.  “I’ll see you this evening.  I guess you’ll have to wait in for this gas man.”

The door clunked shut behind him and she slumped back against a kitchen unit and gave way to tears of frustration. She had succeeded in losing a little weight to look good on the wedding photos and the ring had become too loose.  It could be anywhere.  The bird fluttered again from behind the gas fire…

A van pulled up outside and she hurried to the door.  “I’d almost given up on you!”

“Oh? Sorry, it’s been a busy few days…”

“Look, I know I should have asked when I phoned you – but what do you charge, you know, for birds?”

“I do birds for free.”  Noticing her fleeting anxiety – a glance at her ringless finger, he hurried on, “I mean… we all have to do our bit in whatever way we can.  But I suggest you get a cowling, you know, over the top of the chimney.”

“Oh!  Yes, okay.  We’ll do that next year.”

He pulled out the gas fire and caught the bird easily; gently cupping his hands around its body to prevent it from flapping.

“A Magpie.  Poor thing. Shall we put it out in the garden – give it some water maybe?”

Ella sorted out the water and some fat off the ham in the fridge.

“Erm, if you don’t mind seeing to him it’ll give me a chance to clear out all that muck from behind the fire … before you put it back in place… thanks.”

From the kitchen window she watched as he placed the Magpie on the shed roof and then slowly retreated whilst it took a moment to gain its bearings then flew away.  Gas man clocked Ella’s smile, grinned back at her and returned to reinstall the gas fire.  Finally, she saw him out, handing him a litre bottle of Magpie.  “We had expected to pay you, but … well … we happened to have this.  Happy New Year!”

When Jim finally returned, she was kneeling by the fireplace smiling happily.  He stooped to kiss her but over-balanced and rolled over on the hearthrug, pulling her on top of him, laughing merrily as she told him about the Magpie and all the dirt she had cleared out from behind the fireplace.

Jim was about to kiss the engagement ring on her finger then hesitated with mock-disgust.

“I do hope you took this ring off before clearing out fifty year’s worth of bird shit!”

“The Snow Cock.” – Flash fiction

It was no great surprise to Mr Petrov when he looked out of his bedroom window and saw a huge snow cock in the front garden next door.  His neighbours were artists.  Olga was a sculptress who chiselled erotic shapes out of lumps of stone, whilst Luigi painted landscapes – mostly white.

Mr Petrov marvelled at the anatomical correctness as his eyes wandered from the asymmetrical testicles, up the shaft to the skilfully crafted knob.  He had always found Olga’s sculptures bizarre and grotesque, but this one made him smile.  He was still smiling as Olga crunched through the ice to load yet another of her stone sculptures into the van.  It looked heavy.  She was a tall and well-built woman, but surely her husband should be helping her?

By the time he had made it to the sub-zero outdoors, Olga was going by again with yet another sculptured lump of stone, bigger and heavier than the last.  She had to stop for a breather …

“I’m sorry I can’t help you with that, Olga.  You know I would if I could.”  He leaned on his walking stick, already shivering with cold but noticed she was sweating from exertion.

“Don’t worry, Mr Petrov, I can manage.  Hey, did you know we were moving away?”


“Yes … to a faraway country where the climate is warm.  I am leaving tonight.”

“So soon?  So suddenly?”

“Ha!  We have not been good neighbours for you … I hope you will get better neighbours next time.”

It was true that Mr Petrov had not enjoyed listening to the arguments next door …  Luigi was a small, fiery Italian and Olga seemed to thrive on lighting his fuse.

“But why isn’t Luigi helping you with this?”

“Luigi?  He has gone already.  Gone to the hotter place.  His landscapes now will mostly be red!”

Mr Petrov shook his head.  How selfish of Luigi to leave his woman to clear the house.  He didn’t know what to say …  “Well, they forecast that it’s going to be warmer this weekend.  We’re expecting a bit of a thaw.”

“Really?”  Olga glanced with regret at the magnificent snow cock she had created.  “But of course I will be far away by then.”


It was no great surprise to Mr Petrov when he looked out of his bedroom window and saw that the sun was shining and the snow cock had begun to shrink.  But what was that mark on the top?  By the time he found his binoculars and focussed them it had expanded.  Mr Petrov dropped the binoculars and fell back on his bed.  The knob had melted away to reveal a mop of short black hair.



Screenplay Finished

I have just finished adapting ‘The Rise of Serge and the Fall of Leo’ into screenplay format.  When I say ‘finished’, I am still going to have to give it a final read through before sending it off – but the last thing I want to do with something I have just finished writing is to read it. I still have time for that later, as the BBC Writers Room has not yet published its open dates for the autumn Script Room submissions window.

Re-writing the story as a screenplay meant that I had to cut it down to its bare bones to keep the running time within two hours. This meant omitting any scenes that were purely for entertainment value; scenes that did not progress the story towards its conclusion.  Serge and Fran’s wedding ceremony had to go, which I thought was a shame, but for the sake of the plot it was sufficient to see them living happily together.  For elements that were essential to the plot but would have used up too much screen time, such as Leo’s developing relationship with his son, I resorted to a montage but regretted having to gloss over scenes that I would have liked to see played out in full.

My conclusion is that the story would make a better multi-part drama series than a film, and one day I might re-write it as such, giving it all the time that it needs … but not right now!

The BBC is not looking for ideas to produce – the script readers are looking for writers they can develop. They receive thousands of scripts each year so I mustn’t be too hopeful.  Writing seems to have become so ‘closed doors’ that I am grateful to them for offering an opportunity for unknown/unrepresented writers to send in unsolicited scripts. After the closing date for submissions, if I am not contacted with two months, I must assume they are not interested.

Whatever the outcome, I get a little dream to float on during autumn …



All the books I wrote before ‘The Rise of Serge and the Fall of Leo’ were written in the past tense, which I believe is the more traditional style of telling a story.  I wrote those early stories without having to give a thought to the grammar – it just seemed to flow. With the Serge character, I felt that the present tense seemed appropriate for Serge’s outlook; he lives in the present moment and his actions are responses to what is happening right now.

I started my latest book in the present tense, as this now feels more natural to me, but at the end of the first chapter I decided to do this one in the past and rewrote it.  Rewriting it was more than just a case of sticking ‘ed’ on the end of words as I found that some bits just didn’t sound right and had to be rephrased. Moving forward, if I finally settle with the past, I will have to concentrate to use ‘said’ instead of ‘says’ and so on, until it becomes natural again.

I did go looking on the internet to see if people had tense preferences, and I think it was this comment on a forum that swayed me towards the past:

“Reading an extended piece in present tense often makes me feel as if I’m being hit repeatedly over the head with a teaspoon.”  (Emma)

I kind of know what she means, but yet it was this same quality that I felt gave my book a freshness, a faster pace and a sense of the seasons rolling quickly by.

To help me decide, I took an extract from ‘The Rise of Serge and the Fall of Leo’ and converted it into the past.

Here it is in the present tense:

Leo has had enough – it had been funny and intriguing at first – but now he will block the number.  Better still he will plunge the mobile into the water – as far down as he can sink it – and then jump in after it and follow it down to the depths where the water turns to mud.  He raises it above his head to achieve the maximum downward thrust but slips on the ice and falls to his knees – the phone flying from his hand and almost slithering over the edge.  He remains kneeling on the ice and clasps together his painfully cold hands, and sobs in despair…

  “Oh, Lord.  If you really do exist – as my mother believes you do – then please don’t let me ruin her Christmas.”

… and this is my ‘translation’ into the past tense.

Leo had had enough – it had been funny and intriguing at first – but now he would block the number.  Better still he would plunge the mobile into the water – as far down as he could sink it – and then jump in after it and follow it down to the depths where the water turns to mud.  He raised it above his head to achieve the maximum downward thrust but slipped on the ice and fell to his knees – the phone flying from his hand and almost slithering over the edge.  He remained kneeling on the ice and clasped together his painfully cold hands, and sobbed in despair…

  “Oh, Lord.  If you really do exist – as my mother believes you do – then please don’t let me ruin her Christmas.”

Have I got myself confused here? Do I need to change “will block the number”, “will plunge” and “can sink it” to “would block the number”, “would plunge” and “could sink it”, or are they still valid in the future when I am writing in the past?  I think I could have got away with the future, but it grates a little when followed by “He raised” instead of “He raises” – or would that read okay to everyone else?

Anyone’s feelings or advice on this will be very much appreciated and will help me to decide whether to go forward in the present or the past.



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