If I die

This poem was inspired by the childhood prayer, which I always found rather morbid.

 

If I die before I wake, remember happy me,

a song for each occasion, busy bee.

Forget the eyebrows in the air, tut-tut.

Don’t think of the thankless, if only, but…

Remember the time I fell off my chair,

lay on the grass giggling, feet in the air.

Forget harsh words, regrets and sorry tears.

Remember dreams followed, conquering fears.

 

When my soul is taken away to rest,

remember me as my wonderful best.

Don’t think about things I shouldn’t have said.

Remember the cuddles, snuggled in bed.

Forget the many failings I acquired.

Remember wild dancing round the fire.

Know that I wished to be open and true.

And never forget, I died loving you.

Singing in the train

If life was music, I could waltz and wail

down this grey aisle, sing out my soul and pain.

 

Tap dance on grubby tables, strewn with snacks,

swing high from dusty, laden luggage racks.

 

Vault prickly, itchy, threadbare railway seats,

terrify little children scoffing sweets.

 

Take hold the hands of a dark, handsome man,

share duets, fall in mad love, make some plans.

 

My fellow passengers in quick time clap,

The guard skips along, whistling, his feet rap.

 

‘Tickets!’, his hole punch plays like castanets,

as we rumble on through worldly regrets.

The robots are coming

My son played me a video of the latest robot technology. It showed a strange creature, something reminiscent of the monstrous hound from Fahrenheit 451, walking, running and jumping. The engineers pushed the robot to make it overbalance, then right itself.  Suddenly, it appeared vulnerable. I found the image disturbing, even saddening.

The next day, I heard experts in a discussion on the radio suggest we will need to ensure robots can feel pain so that they react accordingly to get themselves out of difficult situations. With advances in artificial intelligence, robots will think and feel emotions just like us. This brings up ethical and moral questions. We will build these machines to do the unpleasant and dangerous tasks that humans would rather not do. We will subject them to terror, anguish and suffering. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness towards animals and those who have less power or status, the future for robots seems pretty bleak to me.

Added to this, is the fact that robots are predicted to take over more and more of the jobs people currently do. Our world will be run by a robot workforce. To some, these scientific advances seem exciting and necessary. I simply feel concern. What are humans going to do with themselves when there is no work to be done? We are all ready becoming a civilisation of social media recluses; hiding behind our screens. Obesity and illness due to inactivity are growing issues. There is disconnection with the natural world and being out of doors which many believe is linked to mental health problems.

I am grateful for new technologies allowing me to surf the internet, discover knowledge at my fingertips and share this blog with the world. I am grateful for electric lights, central heating and a washing machine which make my life easier. I am grateful for medical procedures and antibiotics that keep me alive. I am grateful for cars and planes that carry me to far-flung places in the shortest of times. However, I am aware, as much as these advances have given us wonderful benefits, there are costs to the environment and our health.

We humans are always striving for more and better. We get carried away thinking about how we can improve our lives. The grass is always greener, if only we had this or that, life would be perfect. Our large brains look for solutions that give us more time on our hands; yet with less to do, we seem constantly busy, rushing from one pointless activity to the next, often not looking up from our phones. Fuelled by advertising and the media we fill our lives with stuff, but more technology makes our lives empty and we get further away from our natural selves.

I wonder if continuing to make advances just because we can is always a good idea. Maybe we don’t need a legion of robots to work for us. Maybe we need to scale back: keep only what we need; return to a simpler life, with some hard work involved, much of it outside under the sky. It might even save us.

The robots are coming

My son played me a video of the latest robot technology. It showed a strange creature, something reminiscent of the monstrous hound from Fahrenheit 451, walking, running and jumping. The engineers pushed the robot to make it overbalance, then right itself.  Suddenly, it appeared vulnerable. I found the image disturbing, even saddening.

The next day, I heard experts in a discussion on the radio suggest we will need to ensure robots can feel pain so that they react accordingly to get themselves out of difficult situations. With advances in artificial intelligence, robots will think and feel emotions just like us. This brings up ethical and moral questions. We will build these machines to do the unpleasant and dangerous tasks that humans would rather not do. We will subject them to terror, anguish and suffering. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness towards animals and those who have less power or status, the future for robots seems pretty bleak to me.

Added to this, is the fact that robots are predicted to take over more and more of the jobs people currently do. Our world will be run by a robot workforce. To some, these scientific advances seem exciting and necessary. I simply feel concern. What are humans going to do with themselves when there is no work to be done? We are all ready becoming a civilisation of social media recluses; hiding behind our screens. Obesity and illness due to inactivity are growing issues. There is disconnection with the natural world and being out of doors which many believe is linked to mental health problems.

I am grateful for new technologies allowing me to surf the internet, discover knowledge at my fingertips and share this blog with the world. I am grateful for electric lights, central heating and a washing machine which make my life easier. I am grateful for medical procedures and antibiotics that keep me alive. I am grateful for cars and planes that carry me to far-flung places in the shortest of times. However, I am aware, as much as these advances have given us wonderful benefits, there are costs to the environment and our health.

We humans are always striving for more and better. We get carried away thinking about how we can improve our lives. The grass is always greener, if only we had this or that, life would be perfect. Our large brains look for solutions that give us more time on our hands; yet with less to do, we seem constantly busy, rushing from one pointless activity to the next, often not looking up from our phones. Fuelled by advertising and the media we fill our lives with stuff, but more technology makes our lives empty and we get further away from our natural selves.

I wonder if continuing to make advances just because we can is always a good idea. Maybe we don’t need a legion of robots to work for us. Maybe we need to scale back: keep only what we need; return to a simpler life, with some hard work involved, much of it outside under the sky. It might even save us.

Twenty-four hours from Tumble

His hands slide around my waist…

Don’t. Don’t think about it…concentrate on driving. Hands gripping steering wheel, foot on accelerator, wipers cutting through rain thick like treacle down glass.

His skin smells bitter-sweet in my hair, on my body; cologne and sweat…

Rhys will notice. Shower soon as I’m home. Pizza night. Half an hour with a gin and tonic selecting toppings…another half hour deciding which film to watch.

His voice whispers in my ear, lips touching lobe, tingle reaching to toes…

Think about mundane stuff. Rubbish needs putting out. Is it black bag week? Rotten job in this weather. Do it before my shower…bound to get drips down back of my neck…bloody trees. Still waiting for Rhys to get his chainsaw out.

P1010328

It’s hammering down…curtain of rain hiding the road…What’s he playing at? Idiot! Showing off in his fancy car. Overtaking in this…must have a death wish. Rhys will be worrying. Long drive in a downpour. Not used to me being away…coping alone. Hope he managed to feed himself. Did I remind him to defrost his lasagne? Must have…gave him a list as long as his arm.

‘You’re beautiful…don’t go home yet.’

Don’t want to go home. To face Rhys with this knowledge festering away inside me like a wound…What’s going on? Bright lights a few cars behind me. Pulling over…let it come past. Flashing, piercing blue…that noise goes right through me…pounding behind my eyes. Giving me a headache. Guilt that is. Deserve a headache…gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing migraine.

Wonder what poor bugger needs an ambulance? Maybe that guy in the sports car…that nightmare junction up ahead. There’ll be a hold up if it’s an accident. Must get in the shower before Rhys gets home. Put my clothes on a hot wash. Get rid of this stink.

Rhys was so pleased for me. Getting my place on the conference…posh hotel in Cardiff…encouraged me to go. Something I’d always wanted to do. This is your time, he said, all those years looking after me and Eleri. You go for it. One trip, one flattering remark and my head turns. From faithful wife to push-over fling in the time it took to down two bottles of wine. Nasty crossroad’s just coming up now…no ambulance, no hold up. Not far to go…I’ll be in good time.

Rhys will know. Never could hide a thing from him. Can read you like a book, he says. He saw through me when I pretended some fool had backed into the car while I did the weekly shop. How can I hide an enormous betrayal like this? It’ll be a cancer eating me away.

His kisses burn on my neck…

Heart’s escaping through my throat. Only a couple of miles to go…Think I’m going to be sick. Find a lay-by. Got to park up. Get out of this car…need air…Breathe. Like when I was giving birth. Deep breaths in, count to ten, slowly breathe out. I’m shaking…knees turned to liquid.

Eleri was such a sweet baby. Round and cuddly. I just watched her…sleeping…couldn’t take my eyes off her. She’s the best thing I’ve ever done. So proud of her…getting her place at Oxford. Never imagined she’d grow up to be a mathematician. Rhys’s influence. I’m all airy-fairy natural therapies and herbal remedies. Old hippy, he calls me. Don’t half miss her…her easy conversation and funny ways. It’s like I’ve had an arm cut off…no longer complete. Lost my purpose, I suppose. This was the beginning of my new life; career as an alternative practitioner. What a joke…me helping others find peace amongst the chaos of their lives…can’t even keep my own life in order.

His eyes take a last, longing look…

Stop. Just stop…Haven’t felt longed for in ages…not desired or wanted. I’ve felt comfortable and safe. Nothing wrong with that. We’re happy. Our silver wedding last summer. Barbeque and drinks in the garden. Friends and family, presents and laughter. Lovely day amongst the pretty flower borders. Spent years nurturing those.

Rhys made me promise, we’d never keep secrets. Father was a serial adulterer…watched it destroy his Mam. We agreed we’d always be honest. Well, if we felt the need for an affair, something was seriously wrong with our marriage. Except, it wasn’t…isn’t. We’re doing fine. So, why spend the night with a stranger? Why derail our marriage, send my cosy existence hurtling down some unknown path? Risk everything for a moment of…what…passion or madness? Stupid fool.

He smiles; lopsided like some cad in a Victorian melodrama…

I can’t act as if everything’s normal. As if nothing’s happened. Won’t be able to live happily with a lie between us. I’ll have to tell him. Before he realizes for himself. God…oh, God…just this corner and I’m home. Skull’s squeezing my brain…I’m going to pass out. I can’t do this…This will be the end. Rhys will never forgive me. I’ll turn around…drive away…keep going and never come back.

What’s this now? People in the road…gathered round…the ambulance is here. Not poor Mrs Thomas again, I hope. Another stroke would be the end of her. No…not her…I think…no, it can’t be…the ambulance…it’s outside our house…

Chick mother

In the garden, the birds are getting busy. They sing beautiful, flirtatious songs. They flutter and spiral in aerial dances designed to impress.  They collect twigs and soft cashmere undercoat from the goats, helpfully deposited along the wire fence as they rub luxuriously along it. Two shiny blackbirds, bright yellow beaks and beady button eyes, face off at the bird feeder whilst a dowdy brown female watches with indifference. All is industry and love making. Soon, nests will be full of hatchlings; oversized beaks gaping and calling for food. Soon, parent birds will be even busier keeping their youngsters satisfied.

All this activity has reminded me of my old dog Sam, a few years back when he was a little more energetic. One spring afternoon, I stepped out of the back door to find him crouched on the pavement, head bowed. As I got closer, I noticed between his paws, two tiny featherless baby birds. On the fence, staring in anticipation, sat my three cats, licking their lips meaningfully. Helpless creatures fallen from the nest above, safe in Sam’s attentive care. He had protected them from becoming a tasty snack.

I’d noticed a pair of blue tits building a home in our rafters over the previous weeks. The babies had obviously tumbled down and landed on the path. Luckily for them, they were unhurt and Sam had found them before his feline friends. My heart was touched by his tenderness but I didn’t hold much hope for the pathetic little things. There was no way their parents could get them back in the nest and they were very young; bald, cold and eyes firmly shut. After Sam’s show of heroism, however, I couldn’t leave them to die so I scooped them up gently and took them indoors.

This was the start of a new role for me: chick mother. I found a little box, lined it with kitchen towel and placed them with care inside. Then I decided it would be more comfortable and warmer for them if they had a nest, so I took an old plastic bowl, put it in the box and filled it with shredded paper and tissue. They seemed happy in their new nest but still cold. I borrowed a small soft toy, a fluffy bear, from one of the children and sat him atop the nest like a surrogate mother bird. Then I searched the internet for any advice on rearing baby birds. Nothing encouraging came from my searching, mostly the information was don’t do it; never move a baby bird if you find one as its parents may return and rescue it. I could see the sense in this but my situation was different. If Sam hadn’t protected those birds, the cats would have had them for dinner. I had to bring them inside and see what I could do. I had to try. Further searching followed and I discovered that parent blue tits feed their young on green caterpillars that are abundant in the trees in springtime. They feed them many, many caterpillars every hour each day and into the night until dark. Never ever feed baby birds worms as these are too sticky.

My next job was a caterpillar hunt. There were plenty of trees; bashing the branches with a stick sent down all kinds of invertebrates onto my big white sheet of paper. There were quite a few caterpillars too. I took them inside and chopped them into pieces. A yucky, mucky job, poor caterpillars, but I knew parent birds regurgitate their offspring’s food and I wasn’t going to chew them! I found some cocktail sticks to use as a feeding implement. By this time, the baby birds were making quite a lot of noise and opening their beaks wide in starvation. I stabbed a piece of caterpillar and gave it to the first bird, which took it gratefully. This was the beginning of many days spent collecting caterpillars and feeding baby birds. Every two hours, to begin with, I fed my babies.

SONY DSCSadly, on the second morning, I came down to find one of the birds was dead. The process continued for the other bird, however, which seemed to be doing fine and ate greedily. After a few days, I bought some live meal worms and chopped them up to feed too. I was struggling to find enough caterpillars; the baby bird ate and ate. The more she ate, the stronger she got and the more food she wanted! I’d also developed a system for giving her a drink of water using a cotton bud. I called her Chickpea.

SONY DSCOver the days and weeks, Chickpea grew bigger and more active. Her eyes opened and she grew feathers, downy at first and then beginning to show her true blue tit colours. As she began to move around more, I realized the box was no longer a safe home so I constructed a makeshift cage from a bigger box and a clear plastic seed tray lid. I put in a small branch as a perch. She began to hop out of the nest and flutter clumsily onto the branch. Soon I realized she would need lessons in feeding herself and flying practice.  I started squashing meal worms onto the branch where she could pick them off. At least the gaps between feeding times were growing longer. Eventually, she had a bowl of meal worms to pick at as she chose. Then I started letting her out of the cage so her wings could grow strong. She would fly up onto my shoulder, then back to the perch, then up to a shelf and back to me. Once she was flying with confidence and feeding herself happily, I realized it was time for her release back into the wild.

One morning, just after dawn, I carried Chickpea, tucked safe in her box, far into the woods. When I got to a tranquil spot, full of the calls of other blue tits, next to a babbling stream, I opened the lid. She didn’t waste a moment, out she flew, up into a tall pine. She sat on an uppermost branch and sang. Then she pecked at the mossy bark and flew away. I’m not sure if I ever saw her again. On my woodland walks, I often hear a familiar trill but there are many, many blue tits living in the woods. I hope she lives there happily with them.

Characters not caricatures

People are not simple. They are full of complexities and contradictions. As writers we must be careful to create characters that are not cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes. We must make our characters come alive and appear real. We want our readers to be engaged, to believe in them. They may not like them but they must be willing to invest time and interest in them. After all, our main aim is to keep our readers reading.

How do writers do this? How do we reveal our characters in ways which make them seem true to life? There are many techniques we can use. We can provide a physical description of the character: how do they move, look, smell, how does the way they look affect the things they do? We can write about the character’s behaviour in their world: how they interact with others; any habits they have; how they react to external forces. We can use dialogue: what the character says; any speech patterns or phrases; what the character doesn’t say. We can think about the character’s back story: how this made them into the person they are. We can reveal the character’s inner life and thought processes.

As writers, we must be observant of people in our everyday lives. We must notice the ways they behave, the things they say, how they react to each other and their environment. We must remember to use our notebooks and keep a record of what we see and hear. These life experiences will help us develop our characters.

We must be readers too. We must study the way other writers portray characters. Do we believe in the character we are reading about? What techniques is the writer using? What works well and what doesn’t? We can keep notes on character portrayals that we find useful or particularly good.

Before we begin to write a story, we can make a character profile. This can include: the character’s looks, relationships, behaviours, habits, likes, dislikes, back story and motivations. This will help us make our characters well-rounded, fully developed people. Not forgetting, of course, that sometimes people can behave ‘out of character’. We are not straightforward after all and cannot be put into neat boxes. That’s what makes being a writer so interesting.

 

How do you develop characters in your stories? Do you write character profiles before you begin?

Death by chocolate

Some time ago, I wrote this odd little story for a competition in a local free paper. We had to include three random words: dream, chocolate and glasses. The competition was cancelled, so I thought I’d share it here:

 

Two glasses sat smeared and grimy on the coffee table; dregs of cheap red wine congealing. Greasy entrails of foil tubs spilt over the chipped woodwork. Stale aromas of spice mingled with cigarette smoke. An alcoholic fug filled the room. Weak sunlight struggled to reach dusty corners. A low moan rumbled from the tatty sofa.

‘Oh…’ a deep voice rasped,’…my head…’

A shadowy hump rose slowly from its resting place.

‘What a night…think we overdid it…’ the hump said staggering across the floor transforming into a man.

The man stared into a smudgy mirror. He rubbed his stubbly cheeks vigorously.

‘Ugh…’ he said to his dishevelled reflection.

He looked around the unkempt room.

‘Sandy!’ he called gruffly. No reply. Where was his wife?

The man picked his way gingerly out of the lounge, through the cluttered hallway and into the musty, dark bedroom. Sandy liked a lay-in on Saturdays. Her only chance for one. The rumpled bed was empty. He sat heavily on the lumpy mattress. Was Sandy there last night? It wasn’t her late shift at the factory. Yes, he remembered her coming home from her cleaning job at the hospital. She’d found him asleep in the kitchen. He’d woken with a start when she banged her bag down on the table. She’d glared with contempt at the sink full of oily dishes, the grubby work surfaces and basket of dirty laundry sitting shamefully by the washing machine. All as she had left them.

‘I see you’ve been busy,’ she’d said; voice quiet and hard.

He hadn’t been shopping or prepared the evening meal either. Since being made redundant two years ago, a dull laziness had seeped into his bones. Lethargy he could not shift.

‘Sorry love…’ he’d simpered, ‘We can go to the supermarket now…get some bottles…a takeaway…treat for you…’

Sandy had driven them to the supermarket. She’d tutted as he put two extra wine bottles in the trolley. They had picked up a Chinese then come back to the flat in bitter silence. The rest of the evening was blurred.

The man rubbed his hands over his distended stomach. His skin taut, firm and tender to the touch. They – well he – had overdone it last night. He let out a bilious belch which left a bitter sweet tang at the back of his throat. Chocolate; rich and dark. The sensation relit a memory. Something odd. A dream. Last night…

He was sitting on the sofa with Sandy. She was quiet; still angry with him. The air simmered with rage. He turned to speak to her, to apologize. He couldn’t bear the atmosphere any longer. Sandy sat immobile. Glossy, brilliantly tempered. A perfect impression made from delicious, luscious chocolate. He touched her gently. She felt cool and smooth. He breathed in the exotic, sweet smell. His mouth watered, taste buds tingling. He put out his tongue and licked her statuesque face. She tasted good. A high quality chocolate from a posh shop. He wondered if he could risk a nibble. A small bite. Of her ear. He couldn’t resist. The flavour was divine. He began to gobble greedily. Gorging himself on the chocolate. It melted and dripped from his lips. Soon he had devoured his wife with big, hungry mouthfuls. He felt a sickly burn in his throat. His stomach felt swollen and sore. He slept.

The man looked down at his enormous belly.

‘Oh my God…’ he moaned, panic fluttering in his chest, ’I can’t have…it’s not possible…’

He rose from the bed and stumbled into the hall. Frantically, he began to search the house. Pushing, smashing and renting furniture, ornaments and clothing as he went. He shouted and wailed for his wife, his voice tense and hoarse. He tore at his hair in desperation. Silence surrounded him. Fear filling his lungs so he could hardly breath, he surveyed the wreckage of his home. He collapsed on a kitchen chair and swept the table free of clutter in frustration. Putting his head in his hands, he sobbed convulsively.

‘No…What have I done?’ he wept.

Underneath the table, hidden amongst the carnage, sat a pristine square of paper. On it, in neat script, was written:

Dear Rob,

I can’t stand living like this any longer. I want something better and I’ve gone to find it. I’m sorry.

Goodbye,

Sandra

 

 

 

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Sitting in the grey and slate reception of a plain, somewhat dowdy, office building in lovely, ugly Swansea, I wonder what it would be like to be a receptionist. I have no idea what the role actually entails. I assume one would have to welcome people, organize appointments, do administration of some kind, talk on the telephone, tap on a keyboard, look at stuff on a computer screen, be smart and smiley.  This one is friendly and helpful. She has made me a cup of tea while I wait for my interview, which is running half an hour late.

It’s a worrying problem deciding what you want to be when you grow up. I envy people who are driven. As a child, I sometimes pretended to be working in an office. At the dining room table, I would sit, toy phone, typewriter, notepad and pen by my side: “Mr. So and So will see you now.” My father, on being told I was clever at school, said to me, “You can be whatever you want. You can be a secretary!” I had bigger ambitions. Enjoying telling stories, I dreamt of being a writer and journalist. Travelling the world, I would search out and share exciting tales.

My second ambition was to become a vet. I adored the James Herriot stories. Once qualified, I would publish hilarious tales about my antics. This, however, did not come to pass. On a work experience, aged fourteen, at a local veterinarian practice, my mind was changed by the old, head vet who told me of his experiments on calves as a student; transplanting their livers into their necks. Despite his assurances that it was pioneering work, allowing successful organ transplants in humans today, I was horrified. I wanted to be a vet to help, not harm, animals. That same vet had me wash his car too!

As for journalism, I went off that idea when I got bored in typing classes: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. How could I be a successful writer if I couldn’t touch type? Instead, I became a teacher, sharing my love of books and writing with others. In fact, that is why I’m waiting in this reception today. I have an interview to join a teaching agency. After fourteen years of home educating my children, I’m going back to the world of paid work. It’s a scary thought, especially as I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life, despite supposedly being a grown up!

The scribbling has always gone on though. I’ve continued to create stories and scenarios in my head. If I get some teaching work with this agency, I fully intend to keep writing and working on poems, short stories and my novel. One letter tapped on the keyboard at a time.

I’m getting braver about sharing my work, so I mustn’t stop now.