A Little Black Book

The credit card companies had cancelled all his cards. His wife was degenerating rapidly and he couldn’t pay the carers, and the signs of dereliction showing in the house were too many to ignore. The post didn’t bring bills any more. Those had stopped coming and now it was just legal letters, angry letters from relatives and old no-longer friends, letters from the authorities and the courts. He knew he had moved up a level with these. But today there was something different, an anonymous envelope with his name and address printed on it. Neat and even, an open and alien hand beckoned yet he thought he saw something vaguely familiar in the script. It echoed.

“Owen, Owen quickly they’ve come back, they’re here and they want you to talk to them.” The cries of excitement bounced down from her room and he jumped up, hurrying with the post into the kitchen, anxiously chewing at his thumb. He dropped the interesting envelope and the rest onto the kitchen table and rushed upstairs, grabbing the leaning banister to help himself along and taking care not to trip on the threadbare sections of the carpet with their amateur darnmarks and hanging threads. Before he entered her bedroom he took a deep breath, the scents of dry rot and cat were infinitely preferable to the scent of her, his once fragrant and still much loved wife.

“Elsa, I’m here, I’m here” he said as soothingly as he could manage and went to pull back the curtains.  His wife shrieked “Nein, Owen daß mus’d nicht tun. Don’t do that, du darfst nicht.” Then “You must talk to them. They’re here” as she sat up in bed wild eyed and agitated, patting her hands on the grimy covers. He moved over to her and put his hand on her head, stroking her hair, holding her frantic gaze, looking as always for someone long gone. It wasn’t working and she wasn’t calming; nor would she ever come back. He knew that, and yet. Excitement was turning into distress and she was beginning to rant. “They’re here, you see them, they’re here, talk to them, tell them, tell them I am well, tell them I can see them and tell them, tell them to stay. Tell them to bring us our grandchildren.”

As the images she thought she saw faded, Elsa started to weep. She slumped back down into her pillows, twisting the duvet cover in her hands and muttering incoherently. She let go to push Owen’s hand away, but didn’t move when he leant to kiss her. His tears rolled slowly down to mingle with her own, soft on her flacid cheek. The episodes with the imagined children were getting worse, more frequent, more violent. But at least they were less destructive than the episodes when Elsa thought she saw old friends, old friends Elsa now classed as enemies. Or when she wanted to clean the kitchen and went into battle with a dishwashing brush and a bottle of bleach. She usually chose a random spot on the floor and scrubbed and scrubbed at it until her hands were raw and bleach burnt spotted and streaking patterns into her clothes and skin. The yearning for the children was probably the preferrable option. The yearning for their early days, before the children would have been better, but those memories seem to have been finally and irrevocably lost some weeks ago. “Liebchen, meine liebchen,” he whispered And she looked up from her tears and smiled at him, before turning away once more.

Elsa had brought him to Heidelberg 35 years ago, to try his luck working there, to see how it would be living near her parents. It wasn’t necessarily a long term thing, but it had worked. Two sons, lots of holidays, a lovely house in the suburbs, affluence and a new car every year. And then Elsa’s mother and father had died, their younger son moved to China and was still there, and the other boy got caught up in his own life, moved to Düsseldorf and forgot about his parents. Depression, denial, emotional stress and the need for Owen’s attention burning ever brighter. He resisted at first, but couldn’t take the constant raging. He gave up photography and Elsa wouldn’t come with him on his long riverside walks any more. She wasn’t interested to see the whirls and swirls of the dark and fast moving current, nor in the barges laden and low, making their way to the Rhine. She didn’t want to tell him stories any more.

He took time away from the business, hoping she’d ease up, trust him more. They travelled further and wider and more often. Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, a short visit to China when the younger son got married to lovely Feng Mian and then back to Heidelberg. In China she had panicked at the wedding and they had to take her back to the hotel. They missed the reception and took an early flight home, drinking steadily all the way. On a skiing holiday in France she got lost on a slope she’d skied since her teenage years. The ski patrol found her leaning against a tree, staring at slow falling snow. In Tokyo she followed Owen onto a metro train but refused to recognise him, slapping him away as he tried to take her arm. 

The decline had been slow and steady, a gradual erosion of Elsa. And then one Christmas she wouldn’t get out of bed because she said the children had said they would be there with her. Some weeks later she refused to see several of her translation clients on the basis that they needed more practise, though she never specified at what. Nor would she go to the little school in Neckargemünd to help children with their homework. For a while she wouldn’t even talk to Owen and instead hurled abuse in hysterical German whenever he came near. He moved out of their room, worked with the local hospital to get a diagnosis and slowly turned away from his own life, to preserve hers. He told their friends they were cutting their social circle right down, “Just so difficult to keep up with people.” “We’re focusing on our own travels now.” “Now that the children are gone, we’ve more time for each other.” Most people went with it, especially the more recent acquaintances who had never quite understood their own uneasiness around Elsa, or Owen’s tension. His business, previously thriving, went into decline and he was forced to sell it on at submarket value. 

Elsa was calm again, singing in the shadowy room, calling out to the river to take her home. This was one of her happier places. As he watched his wife losing herself, he wondered how long it would take to sell the house. And then there was this curious envelope. What new horrors would it hold for them?
Owen returned to the grubby kitchen to ignore all of the post except the one he knew wasn’t from a solicitor or a court representative.

It was a large envelope and it contained a handful of black and white prints and a little black book. There was also a copy of someone’s will, a someone Owen recognised from the list of people with whom he and Elsa would have no contact. A name and a memory. The images he recognised as photos he had taken and developed many years ago, pictures of him and a young man holding hands. Owen allowed himself a wistful smile. The little black book he did not recognise. And the will he was afraid to open. The little black book though, this was intriguing and he started to read. There were stories there, stories of his life as a young man, and a crush he had once had. There were stories of Elsa from when she first moved to London, stories of how they met, walking in Richmond Park and helping a horse rider who had taken a tumble. The pub lunch in Chiswick, the night train from Victoria and the romantic weekend in Paris, it was all there in the little black book. And at the back of the little black book was a list, with three and four letter codes, dates and numbers. And Owen’s name. And the words “For past sins” followed by XXX.

Then Owen looked at the will. It was dated a few years earlier and most of it had been redacted, including the name of the deceased. Thick black lines covered most of someone else’s end of life wishes, most but not all. There was a reference at the end to Owen Clayton and an instruction that Owen contact Thredwell, Snelling and Fastless, solicitors. How on earth did this find me? Owen whispered half under his breath, turning the will, the photos, the envelope and the little black book over and over in his hands before reaching for the phone. He didn’t have any idea what to expect, but surely he could cope with yet one more horror.

The conversation with the solicitors was almost on a par with conversations with Elsa. Owen introduced himself and there was a long pause, so long he almost hung up. Then with a brief apology, the receptionist put him through to Theresa Snelling herself. Ms Snelling’s voice was warm, but cautious. ”Yes Mr Clayton, I am very glad to hear from you. I understand you live abroad now. Would you mind answering a few questions for me, before we start. I need to be sure I am talking to the right person.” She spoke quickly, and Owen pictured an unsmiling face, a face familiar with delivering fresh shocks to the newly vulnerable.

Theresa Snelling’s voice grew slowly less busy and as Owen answered the bizarre collection of questions, fascination gradually replaced anxiety. By the time they got to “Your friend in the polo club, why was he expelled?” Owen burst out laughing, something he hadn’t done for a very long time. “Ha, ha, ha, they said it was for behaviour prejudicial to the club’s reputation, but it was because he was caught with the Chairman’s son. It was behind the bar very early on a Sunday morning. They’d been inadvertently locked in. The cleaners found them.” Memories of that wild night bounced around in Owen’s head and he knew that these questions could only have come from Robert Jenson, his long forgotten dalliance and one of his rejected friends. The man had tried very hard to make up for so many little sins over the years, but Owen resolutely ignored him. Borrowing money and never paying it back. Not showing up when he said he would. Teasing Elsa with just a tad too much sarcasm. And when they were young, leaving the pub without getting a round in. Those yearning eyes. Telling so many lies. Drinking too much and offending Elsa. Pushing her in the river and screaming at the top of his lungs that “Owen loves me you fucking cunt, so fuck off and drown in the Neckar why don’t you” was easily the worst. Elsa, then still relatively sane had taken it in stride, clambering up the bank some few meters downriver before calling to Owen to deal with “your very drunk friend” before turning back for the house and dry clothes. Looking back it was all quite funny, but their threeway friendship never really recovered. Perhaps it was always that fragile, once the dalliance had been recognised as just that and nothing more. Theresa Snelling was speaking again, asking about the little black book. “Yes I have it. It’s just a collection of reminiscences from years ago.” “Please look at the last two pages, at the list. Have you found it?” Owen looked again at the mysterious codes. “Yes I see it. What about it? It’s just random numbers.”

At the other end of the line Theresa Snelling allowed herself a small smile. “Mr Clayton, please keep that little book safe until you receive further instructions, after which you can take action. I will be sending a colleague to formally confirm your identity and deliver my letter.” Owen Clayton began to think it was all a stupid hoax and waited for Theresa Snelling to tell him that he needed to cough up €1000 or some such amount before her letter would be handed over. But she didn’t and Owen decided it was all too much, all too complicated and why were they scamming him in the first place. Perhaps they didn’t know his money was all gone.

Some days later while Owen and Elsa were sitting in the garden discussing rabbits, a car drew up and a serious-looking man in dark gloomy clothes approached their front-door. Leading Elsa by the hand, Owen came around to the front of the house and waited. With a slight bow the man introduced himself in flawless English and proceeded to explain that he represented a co-respondent firm of lawyers in Frankfurt and was here to deliver a letter, subject to proof of identity.

The legal summons and court requests piled up in the kitchen were an adequate start. Owen’s passport, birth certificate and residency documents were handy too, as were documents relating to the sale of his company. Owen was careful to keep track of everything, vaguely anxious that this hoax might in fact be a theft. He waited patiently as Elsa clutched his hand and occasionally gasped when the man glanced at her and smiled, and nodded sympathetically at Owen. He waited and waited, and eventually their visitor looked up with a smile and a nod. “Everything is in order. Quite satisfactory,” he said, stacking the documents into a neat pile and pushing them to one side. “Here we go,” thought Owen as the man pulled a letter out of his bag.

Owen waited for the line, wondering how much they would be asked to stump up for this probably worthless letter. But the letter was pushed towards him as the visitor rose and extended his right hand. He checked his watch and with a slight nod said “Thank you for your time and your assistance.” With a gesture towards the documents he added: “My job has been made so much easier. And things I hope will improve for you soon Mr Clayton”. 

Together Owen and Elsa, still clutching very tight to her husband’s hand, saw their guest out and then Elsa wanted to go and lie down. It was some time before Owen could return to the kitchen table and the mysterious letter. As promised it was from Theresa Snelling, who explained that the strange envelope he had received some days ago was prepared by his friend Robert Jenson many years ago shortly after the Claytons had moved to Heidelberg. It further explained that Robert Jenson had died some weeks previously and was now buried in the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, a borough of New York City. Mr Jenson had been living in New York for many years, and the letter said that the property on 64th Street in the Upper East Side was to be left to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, along with all other assets. There was one exception, the assets listed in the little black book now in Owen Clayton’s possession. Theresa Snelling explained that the list is of shares Robert Jenson wanted Owen and Elsa Clayton to have. Owen looked at the strange codes with new eyes: GOOGL 100 @ $85 ’04 ’14 ’15; MSFT 100 @ $21 ’86 x 9; AAPL 100 @$22 ’80 x 5; FB 100 @$38 ’12. Shares with their purchase prices and dates, and their splits. Owen’s hands shook and the world was spinning and the letter said Robert hoped that one day they might visit him in Flushing, forgive his past misdemeanours and say sorry for having so long ignored him. 

The White Gates

They sat on the stoop watching lazy crows hopping along the furrows. Occasional seagulls floated above the flat brown, fading into the clouds. The white gates were closed. No one was coming. It was just them. Beatrice poured another glass of warm Chardonnay and lit another cigarette. “Fifteen years we’ve been coming here and for fifteen years they’ve been coming to stay. Through early marriage years, through pregnancies, through babies and little children. Fifteen years and now, now this.” Beatrice’s voice trailed off.

“Sorry, but I don’t really know what you mean.” Clarissa looked at her new friend trying to work out quite how the conversation got here. They’d been chitchatting about Beatrice’s husband, about how both he and Clarissa are workoholics. They’d just got onto the interesting bit, about how there’s no cure, and now this peculiar switchback detour. Clarissa didn’t really know Beatrice very well, although she had known her husband, Andreas, for many years. A friendship and a business partner. Perhaps there was some weird sort of confession coming on from Beatrice. Clarissa wasn’t really sure if she wanted to hear it. She liked the relationship with Andreas just as it was. She didn’t want to know any disturbing secrets. She didn’t want knowledge about either Beatrice or Andreas that they were not themselves privy to.

Sad stranger

Over the years, Clarissa and Andreas had worked together on many projects, exhibitions and the like. He had the ideas, was the investor and risk taker. Clarissa was the risk averse freelancer of choice for project management. And that’s as far as it went. There was no attraction between them, only mutual professional respect. This trip was the closest Clarissa had ever come to Andreas’ family world. And here she was in a remote village somewhere in northern Germany. They’d been working on the next stage of an educational initiative Andreas wanted to get off the ground. It had been a good week, productive. Now Andreas had taken the children back to town for their weekend clubs and to get ready for the coming school week. Beatrice had wanted a break from him and from her children, none of whom she appeared to like very much. She had suggested Clarissa stay on for the weekend and keep her company.

The invitation had seemed like a good idea. Clarissa had nothing waiting for her at home: her little girl was with her father that weekend, the house would bear another layer or two of dust, a few more cobwebs and flies. She was exhausted after a tiring week. Why not stay here in Schleswig Holstein, relax, hang out and eat her new friend’s lovely cooking. The amazing cinnamon buns were an added bonus, as was the excellent cellar. 

Clarissa was curiously drawn to this strangely unpredictable woman. On the one hand she went for the supermother gig, and yet she took her work as a museum curator very seriously, keeping both well apart. Clarissa’s parenting style could best be described as intensely loving but sporadic, and she had no interest at all in museums. Clarissa worked very hard, but didn’t necessarily work smart, so she was always stressed. She rather liked it. Unlike Clarissa Beatrice was laid back, a dutiful and dedicated mother, but not particularly in tune with her children. She had no interest in her husband’s business or its workings and when it came to any sort of work was a great believer in delegating, from signage installations to swimming clubs and piano lessons. The two women newly met, shared a mutual interest in their differences, more intuited than expressed.

“Beatrice I’m not sure I understand what you mean.” Maybe it was a language thing Clarissa wondered. Beatrice puffed out her smoke long, dragonlike. She threw back her hair, tucking it behind prominent ears, her cigarette clenched tight to suck in another dose. “I don’t know. Sorry. I am in a state of shock you see. A call. Nothing. It’s hard. I’m sorry. It’s really nothing. Call it the Chardonnay.” This last with a rueful smile. Clarissa looked out at the white gates again, still closed. She was uncertain what should happen next.

Beatrice continued. “This house, this space, it has seen so much, everything, everyone in our lives. It all comes through those white gates. I tell myself, sometimes its good, sometimes it’s bad, but whatever it is, it comes through those white gates. And I think you understand how special this place is to me, to us, to me and Andreas both. And to them too. When they come through those white gates the next time, things will have changed.”

By this time Clarissa was utterly confused and wondering if staying on with batty Beatrice was such a good idea. It was just the two of them, starting now, a Friday evening all the way to Sunday when it would be time to find a train to get Clarissa to the airport. Time that at first had stretched elastic and supple, expansive, generous, was starting to look steely hard, rigid and confining. Roll on Sunday. Clarissa slogged her remaining halfglass and went to get a fresh bottle. She put another in the freezer, figuring it wouldn’t be long before it would need opening.

“Who?” She said as she slumped back down on the stoop. “I am sorry but I don’t understand. Perhaps you want to talk about it?” It wasn’t so much that Clarissa was interested, as the fact that if they were to be alone until Sunday, it would be good to have common topic, some point of reference. Clarissa figured listening to someone else’s problems would be an ok way to spend the weekend, though it had started to feel more trap than relaxing escape. And Beatrice was clearly upset.

Beatrice looked across her glass and nodded. “Yes, you’re a stranger, you know none of these people. It shouldn’t upset you, they’re European aliens in your little English world.” Clarissa wasn’t sure she quite cared for this appraisal but smiled. “Well, I might have a secret of my own to share,” she offered raising her eyebrows and putting a confiding arm across her new friend’s shoulders. The delicate Chardonnay was tickling Clarissa’s throat in a wonderful teasing fizz. The alcohol was relaxing her and the passive smoking was really quite enjoyable.

“You see it’s my best friend. She thinks her husband is having an affair. But she can’t fault him. He’s there for her, for the children, helpful with the house, chores, cooking all that. That may be a reason to suspect, but he’s always been that way. Always.” As Beatrice spoke, brows knitted, words tumbling out between little clouds of smoke, Clarissa was suspicious. She wanted to build a picture in her mind of a mousey sort of man, not browbeaten but diligent, devoted to his family, in love with his wife. “Perhaps he’s just too good to be true? Perhaps your friend is so in love with him, that she’s afraid of losing him?” Clarissa said. “You know them well, so surely you would be able to see any signs of infidelity? Or is it you, you’re talking about? If it is I can assure you… ” Beatrice’s hands flew up to her face “Oh God, not, no it isn’t me. I’m not talking about me, no, not and I hope you don’t think… ” Clarissa stared not sure whether she was being accused, exonerated, or lied to. Silence swelled between them, aggressive, cross.

Beatrice stood up and went to fetch a candle and some cushions. Sitting on the steps was more suited to the conversation than sitting in real chairs would have been. More honest perhaps, more painful, unprecedented, a small foreign space for a small foreign conversation.

“I’m sorry. It’s just hard. It’s nothing to do with me and Andreas. We’re the same as always, both too busy, both waiting for the part of our lives when we are just us again. Neither of us would risk that. But you’re right of course, to wonder” Beatrice said. “I am sure I would see signs in this man, but I haven’t. There was something Andreas said a few weeks ago that made me wonder. But it was probably nothing. I don’t think either of us really knows what the signs of infidelity are. We’ve only ever been with each other. We live such controlled and regimented lives. There’s no room for affairs.” Clarissa laughed, “well I certainly know the signs, and I can tell you they don’t amount to dutiful and attentive. Apart from anything else, if he’s having an affair he won’t have the energy to take care of your friend.” They laughed and instinctively veered away from any discussion of sex, licit or otherwise. “It’s about opportunities and the kind of opportunities he has,” Beatrice added.

Clarissa was able to establish that the company this man worked for had him spending a lot of time on the road, especially recently. He had been away every week in the last two months, sometime just for a couple of days, sometimes over a weekend. Opportunity was certainly there. “He always comes back with presents for her and for the children. But that might be guilt?” Beatrice suggested.

Clarissa was getting tired of this dreary speculation about people she had never met, and was never likely to meet. Boring middle-aged people leading boring middle-aged lives. “Oh for heavens sake,” she said, “you’re weaving a complicated tale out of perfectly normal, conventional behaviour. And you still haven’t let me tell you a) my secret and b) the signs to look for, apart from the energy thing of course. That’s far more entertaining.” Beatrice sighed and tried to put her suspicions aside. “I’m sure you’re right. So what should I look for? And how do you know? Has this happened to you? Is that why you and your husband split up?”

Clarissa’s heart was beating just a little bit faster and she coughed awkwardly waving at the smoke. An unexpected tightness in her throat made it harder to breath. “No. Not exactly. It was more complicated than just an affair. It was about the end of love, at least I thought it was. But then when it was nearly all over, I realised that it wasn’t that either. It was just the end. No drama, just a man too tired to bother anymore. Too worn down with the whole marriage, family gig. Just the end.” Clarissa felt a long lazy teardrop run down one side of her nose. “So how do you know?” Beatrice brushed away the teardrop and waited for Clarissa to start speaking again.

Clarissa’s voice was very small in the dark. Moths and other small flying night creatures were bouncing an insistent percussion on the outside light. “Actually I don’t, I only know what it’s like to be having an affair with a married man. It’s fine for me. I don’t have anyone to keep the secret from. But for him, it’s harder. He has to lie and pretend to care for a woman he no longer loves, perhaps never really did love. It’s a guilt he says he’s hidden for years. I wonder whether he just keeps the two of us in separate compartments in his life. I guess I’m lucky because we can both travel and meet even though we live in different countries. But I do love him, sincerely, genuinely. I’ve never been with a man who is so, well, so very masculine, who makes me feel so much a woman. And the strange thing is, I don’t care at all that he lies. I guess I have no hope that it will ever be anything more than an affair.”

“Your mystery man sounds gorgeous, but so’s my friend’s husband. He’s handsome and very male, fit I think you say.” Beatrice was still speaking in that lazy slow way of hers, but the topic was shifting. Beatrice was more interested in how to spot the signs of a lie. “If the compartmentalising thing was true and how affairs could work for so long, there would be no lies, no visible signs, just mistakes.” she said. “Then it makes sense not just for him, but for his wife, except that she’s only got the one compartment, she’s not having an affair but instead she’s frantically watching his every move, looking for the signs but there won’t be any, at least not until he wants to start signalling an affair? Maybe that’s where the mistakes come in?” It was all getting a little muddled.

Clarissa smiled in the dark, remembering her man, their love, the passion, the unexpectedness of it all. They’d been at PharmaPack in Paris some nine months ago. He’d wanted extra lights in the meeting rooms on his company’s stand. She’d been in sight wearing her organiser’s badge. Andreas had waved across the aisle and he’d waved back. Clarissa thought the handsome man, his hands clutching a mass of cables was waving to her, cables and all. That’s how it started. She shook her head to push out the images. Those eyes. That voice. A smile that held her entire life in its brief moment. Clarissa shook her head harder.

“This whole thing is doing my head in,” she said. “What say we go for the third Chardonnay. It’s in the freezer so it should be perfect? And give me a drag would you, the passive thing isn’t working for me any more.” Beatrice stood up and wobbled inside, bumping in the dark into doors, walls, furniture, and finally emerging with the iced bottle and another pack of cigarettes.” She waved at the moths and sat down heavily, sloping sideways into the handrail and staring out at a glimmer of white, the outline of the white gates. Clarissa followed her gaze, sipping the cold wine. “What industry does your friend’s husband work in?” As she asked the question, she knew the answer. “Pharmaceuticals I think. It’s too cold out here now, let’s go into the warm.” Beatrice stood up, slowly moving indoors. Clarissa sat very still, wine in hand a lit cigarette burning in her fingers, watching the white gates. If she waited long enough she knew he would pass through them.

Into the light

The hive was stuffy and busy. When Burly squeezed himself into wakefulness he was beset with a curious sense of annoyance. Little snuffling sounds told him that his brothers Curly and Twirly were still asleep, but why this sense of irritability? Food? Maybe a sip or two of some uncapped honey would sort out his temper. He meandered his way, lazy and slow, watching as his many sisters moved rapidly across the comb, nimble and focused to disgorge their nectar and unload collections of pollen and propolis they had already collected. By carefully controlling its water content, they would turn the nectar into honey. Burly knew that, still unaccountably cross as he muscled his rough way past his sisters to sip. Being nearly six weeks old, he now understood how it was that the different parts of the hive could have honey that tasted different. The knowledge didn’t sweeten his mood.

When he was newly born, he remembered being told the colony’s honey tasted vaguely of daffodils and crocuses. That’s what the nursing bee who had made him and his brothers her special project, had said. He remembered it tasted of chilly mornings and sunlight slowly seeping, soft and lazy into the hive. His favourite nanny also told him: “we gathered this in the Spring, early in the season when it was really a bit too cold and windy to go out. Stores were running low so we needed to take a bit of a risk. Not much was out except a few daffodils and crocuses, and the occasional primrose. But we can’t reach primrose nectar because our tongues aren’t long enough. We leave the primroses to the hairy footed flower bee: their tongues are way longer than ours.” Burly hadn’t entirely followed her but he got the bit about daffodils and crocuses being risky.

Burly remembered the conversation and pondered the fate of his nurse. She had of course died from overwork, like so many of her sisters. Curly had told him that she would, so she must have. Curly was always right. Curly told him he had been watching the nursing bees and all the others. He told Burly and Twirly that they shouldn’t expect to see too much of their nurses any more. Curly told them the nurses were moving on to other duties in the hive. Depending on how old they were the girls would be nurses, cleaners, undertakers, workers, assassins, chemists, guards, scouts and advisers. They might also be builders, engineers and royal attendants looking after Mother.

Curly observed all this as he and Twirly moved together about the hive, vaguely following Burly who always seemed to know where all the tastiest honey was stored. Curly had to go slowly with Twirly whose nerves and weaker legs made it impossible for him to cope with the colony’s chaos on his own. Their favourite flavour so far was the honey made from lupin nectar, but that was already nearly fully capped. They were looking forward to making do with rose, which was just coming onstream when they came across Burly sulking, his belly full, his antennae being cleaned by a diligent sister. “And don’t ask me what the matter is” he snarled at his brothers. It’s the weather I think, I don’t know, I’m restless and feeling stifled in here, it’s so hot and clammy and sticky. I need to get out.”

Twirly stared at him in horror, the signals reaching his brain from his enormous eyes a tangled mass of confusing terror, his antennae almost rigid with terror. “No…” he croaked, shaking and running a foreleg across his back to check that his wings were still in place. “No, you cannot even be thinking such a dreadful thing, it’s madness, utter madness, we belong here, we’ve got important work to do, they told us, the sisters told us, important work. Important work!” he kept on repeating the phrase in a low mumble, his mandibles working, big eyes glancing to and fro between Curly and Burly, looking for reassurance.

But it was no good. They were ignoring him. Again. He was alone in his festering fear. Again. And they were still ignoring him. Twirly steadied himself chewing on a bit of old wax he liked to keep handy in his leg hairs. He told himself over and over that he was alright, it was just a little shock, I’m alright, I’m alright. and then tired of being ignored, Twirly drew closer to hear what Curly and Burly were saying. He eavesdropped news that put him back into a state of terror: “… we have to go out because we’ve got work to do on the outside”. Burly was nodding slowly as Curly said this in patient and gentle tones. As he heard it, Burly’s mood started to soften only to harden once more when Curly answered his next question. “I don’t know. That’s the thing with this. I really don’t know what the work is, or how we do it. No one will tell me and none of the other drones know either.” Curly bit at his hard edged lip and pulled on his antennae, his brain running in overdrive as he pondered the question. But Curly’s limited answer was enough for Burly. Burly shoved past his brothers, energised “I’ll go and find out for myself” he snarled over his shoulder and disappeared into the throng.

Curly and Twirly didn’t see him again that afternoon, but as twilight was settling they saw him arrive home wobbling and unbalanced, exhausted and dazed as he collapsed onto the landing board. “I did it” he said, “I went out into the light and flew and flew and flew until it seemed I was on the other side of the world.” Curly rubbed at the bee’s grubby head and dew dropped eyes anxious concern twittering in his antennae. “What happened?” he said with some urgency, “what was it? What was the work out in the light?” “That’s the thing” Burly replied in an uncharacteristically small voice. “I don’t know. I still don’t know what it is or how to do it. And I’ve been flying all day.” His voice was weak and thin and tears were creeping into his sleepy eyes. “All I know is that I had to keep flying on and on, until I knew I just had to come back again, but it took a long time because it was so very far.” His voice was almost inaudible and his eyes were dimming. Curly and Twirly looked askance at one another. They looked at Burly. “Tomorrow I’ll have another go” he whispered and fell asleep slumped where he stood. zzzzzzzzzzz

Delete

(published November 2021, in WriteTime Anthology Two http://www.writetime.org)

Meredith March studies the wreck peering at her from the mirror and adds a touch more mascara to already overly mascara-ed eyes. She is always heavily made up, having never fully recovered from her Dusty Springfield circa ’69 phase.

     She’s sitting at a mock rococo dressing table wrestling with curling tongs. The dressing table has three mirrors so there’s no escape. The curling tong cable has folded back on itself in many places and refuses to straighten. Not in its nature. When Meredith tries to grab a lock of hair with the tongs, the tightly wound cable kinks, stiff and unyielding, knocking over bottles and assorted lipsticks. Stuff rolls to the edge of the dressing table. Meredith tries to stop things falling to the floor, but the tongs burn her cheek and tear her hair. Weak tears streak black under her eyes. Three sad faces remind her that she is tired and forgotten and life’s pretense is overwhelming.

     The dressing table vibrates. There’s a message on her phone. “On way,“ it says. “Flight on time.”

Very happy to have been included in this collection. And flattered.

     Delete, she says. Delete and back to the primping which needs more care to be convincing. Delete says Meredith aloud at her three reflections, carefully unwinding her hair from the too-hot tongs. Delete she says again, dabbing cold cream on the red burn mark.

     Delete. But then what?

     What would she do instead, how would she persuade herself to do anything, go anywhere, see anyone if not for the stranger buckling up and peering out of the window at an airport monotony. He’s her main topic of conversation, with her friends, with the children … but with them less often, they know how she feels about their dad. They understand.

     She knows it isn’t love with him, never was really. They don’t know that. It’s not lust any more, and they couldn’t even go there. It faded in about year three. “When I was seven,“ she ponders, struggling into a loud floral print dress he bought her for Christmas.

     Seven in dog years is 49. Too old to still be living in different countries. Too old to be waiting for him to get a London posting. Too long to be so old, so static, so floral, so tired. Too long for this same routine.

     It wasn’t so bad when the children were young. It wasn’t so bad when the money was anovelty,  and the holidays too. New cars. Shopping with the girls. Inane gossip. Housey housey fixy upping. Following the lines. All of it too old. And now: Delete.

     Downstairs, Meredith checks her black outfit in the hall mirror, florals now under the wheels of a dark revision. She searches for her car keys, checks the time, puts down food for the cat who’s asleep on a sunny window ledge. He ignores her wistful stroke of his head.

     Meredith takes frozen pastries out of the freezer. He likes those Danish cinnamon whirls.

     She puts on her coat, picks up her bag and … Delete. Puts the bag down again and runs upstairs. Breathless, she finds her passport and retrieves her stash of €784 in old holiday money. Waters a plant. Glances around the kitchen.

     The journey to the airport is about as long as the flight from Madrid, give or take. There’s no need to hurry. She ponders his appearance in arrivals. He’ll be underdressed for the murky Manchester skies. He’ll shiver as they leave the terminal. He’ll say: “Ooh, so much colder than Madrid. I’ll need to pick up a coat.” He’s coming back to his home town, but he likes to remind her of his difference, it will give them something to do, something to fill the space between them. Meredith hears the reruns of those filler conversations as she starts the car and switches off the radio. Delete. No distractions now.

     The phone tracker app shows flight BA0461 casting its line across the sky. The M6 is slow as ever and Meredith March has time between stops to scan her phone, check flights, book parking in the short-term carpark. £20 should be enough. Sitting in the traffic, silent, another message on the phone. She texts back: “Yes, I know I booked parking.“ Delete.

     It’s Friday night. They can go and get him a coat tomorrow, hit the shopping mall masked and hand-sanitised and count the empty stores. He’ll want a pub lunch. She’ll explain that they can’t. He’ll tell her this commute will only be for another few months. And then he’ll change the subject.

     She turns on the radio: “A shooting in Tampa, Florida … ” Delete. Tampa, Florida. We were there once. Flew in direct and spent two weeks arguing about alligators and sun cream with the children. Tampa. Delete.

Pulling into the short-term car park, watching the barrier bounce satisfyingly up, Meredith March smiles, parks and switches off the engine. She leaves the key on the rear passenger side tyre and turns away. She is early. There is time to kill. Kill or be killed. Delete.

     When Mr March in his too-thin coat comes out of arrivals, his expensive four-wheeled carry-on in tow, Meredith is watching out of sight. She notes his handsome profile and the way his look slides across the people waiting, as he seeks her out. She’s not quite ready to turn away.

     She sees him frown, sees him tap at his phone and wonders why her phone isn’t ringing. As Mr March stands legs astride his case, Meredith March heads quickly for Security before anything can happen to divert her. Amidst hoards of people she is reminded to social distance and to keep moving.

     The bored security man in a purple turban is repeating his lines as he scans the queues, checking, always checking. “Laptops, tablets, shoes off, coats off, number four please, and madam to number two. Take off your jacket please”.

     Bang bang with the boxes, through the screener, then shoes on, coat on, tablet retrieved. Phone buzzing.

     A host of duty free shops on the other side, a host of strangers, a host of new worlds. It’s credit-card heaven in the Kurt Geiger shop with an excessively-made-up young woman, also channelling her inner Dusty. “Lovely make-up,” Meredith can’t help but say and the lovely young girl beams and pats her beehive. She hands over three bags with three new pairs of shoes and one with Meredith’s discards. “I’ll keep these on and you can keep the old ones,” smiles Meredith, handing back the bag.

     Next stop is an expensive Tumi expandable carry-on for the shoes and now the Hugo Boss Japanese stretch crepe jacket and matching trousers. The Hermés scarf. The Cartier watch. And the lingerie. And the many hundreds of pounds worth of Sisley make-up.

     Another glamourous young woman is massaging her face and holding sample skin tones, head on one side quizzical, eyebrows tight, unfeasibly long fingernails flickering under artificial light. “You have wonderful skin, you know. Shall we try something a little different?”

     “Yes, please,” says Meredith. There’s a message from him. “In arrivals.” Delete.

     She hands over the credit card and glimpses something a lot different in the mirror. She packs the new beauty regime in the new carry-on and heads for the cashpoint, teetering on her new heels. She withdraws maximum cash from all of his credit cards and has to sit down to stop from feeling dizzy. Picks up her phone again. “Waiting.“ Delete. “Are you held up?”Delete.

     Meredith March steps away and checks her gate number, 46. Meredith March heads for the lounge. Sipping cava and picking at cheese she goes online and posts a picture on Facebook of her new suitcase and stilettoed feet with the message: “At airport still waiting for John.“ She crafts a text message to their son: “When you get this, tell him the keys are on the tyre. Level 2 K32. ”

     The phone is buzzing again but it’s time for gate 46. Deep breath. Stand tall in those high heels. Tits and teeth. But that buzz. “Where are you?” Delete. As she wheels along in the high new shoes, behind her mask Meredith is gone. Delete.

The Three Bees and the Giant Grub

The light was pushing in far too brightly thought Curly, as he turned away from the morning. Gentle murmuring sounds and tiny whistling snores told him that his brothers were still asleep. As he turned to shade his large eyes from the sunrise Curly was aware of a draft coming from the other side of the comb. They had settled down some hours before near to the uncapped honey that was still curing and where nursing bees could access it easily for the brood and hopefully for Twirly, Curly and Burly. Soft summer air dawn chilled caressed Curly’s back, his lazy wings slowly rising and falling. He sensed tension and focused fully on a strange activity that was beginning to build. His brothers were slowly waking up and the three of them, antennae rising started moving towards what appeared to be the cause of the commotion.

They crossed cautiously to the edge of the frame, forgoing breakfast in their tense urgency, for now it was clear that something was wrong on the other side. Creeping around the edge they saw a terrible sight. A large section of brood comb had fallen away and the grubs inside were now horribly unclothed, naked along an entire side. The damage to the cells was considerable and the three bees looked in horror at the exposed, gestating grubs. Their little bodies were white, translucent and barely formed. They had no bee-like shape other than the pale shadow outlines of legs folded and wings merely hinted, but all just white. Their eyes were formed and densely black. There was the merest hint of antennae shaping along their newly blacked heads. They were ghosts waiting to be born but now might never arrive. Worker bees worked at frenzied pace to salvage what they could from the avalanche of comb and Curly could hear the hissing fear at the implications of this terrible loss if the damaged nursery could not be saved.

An evil beekeeper in full harassment mode. Guard bees already on the alert.

How this had happened wasn’t clear. It seemed that somehow a section of comb in the brood box had suffered an impact and collapsed. It was clear that the priority had to be repairing the damage. The loss of hundreds of grubs would mean that too few new bees would be born in the coming weeks. This would mean fewer resources to collect nectar, pollen and propolis, and so less to feed the colony and ensure it had sufficient numbers and nourishment to survive the coming winter.

Curly could hear the urgency buzzing across the frame as the workers struggled to repair the harm. Then he noticed that the space beside the frame with the damaged cells was larger than it was last time he and his brothers had cruised this part of the hive. He now saw multiple wax hexagons on the wall of the colony, irregular and inconsistent and also in need of repair. Could it have been that the brood cells had been attached to this part of the wall? And if so, had they fallen under their own weight as the grubs grew from tiny little commas into curls of white and then to recognisable grubs? Did they get too heavy once they had filled their cells ready to complete their transformations into new bees ready to be born and take up their duties in the hive? All this Curly pondered as he looked at the broken wax on the hive wall.

Burly was ambling about watching his sisters work and wondering aloud if it would be ok to help himself to some honey from part of the unexpectedly uncapped honeycombs. Twirly was cowering behind his brother looking in horror at the devastation. He had barely recovered from the trauma of the Hornet attack and reminded both Curly and Burly that “my nerves are in absolute shreds, I simply cannot cope with any more terrifying moments”. “I think the terrifying moments have passed” Curly told him narrowing his antennae into what passed for a bee frown. He was inspecting the tears and fallen bits of honeycomb, fascinated at the translucent new life that his sisters were desperately trying to protect and salvage. 

But for an unexpected moment all efforts ceased as the bees felt a strange movement on the frame they were repairing. The movement was a sort of shift away from them, an upwards pulling and then a sharp release before they found themselves rising up through the air into the harsh bright sunlight. Worker bees, nursery bees, undertaker bees, housekeeping bees, bee assassins, the three drones, hatching and vandalised cells, all of them suddenly were in the grip of a giant beast with giant eyes staring black and vacant at their frame. It breathed a horrible carbon dioxidey scent and apart from the awful black eyes shone bright white in the harsh morning light. The bees swayed on the bottom edge of the frame, linked barb to barb in an anxious effort to keep their positions and to carry on working on the repairs to their vandalised brood cells.

Burly was uppermost of the three drones and took a few paces forwards to face the monster, before thinking better of it and burying himself in a cluster of worker bees who were desperately trying to block the light and keep the exposed grubs somehow safe. Twirly was nowhere to be seen having panicked immediately and set off randomly into the morning air emitting tiny squeals of terror. He could be heard for quite some time whining “my nerves, my nerves” and was by now about a quarter of a mile from the hive. He soon settled on a wavering beech leaf crying miniscule bee tears, and then crying some more because his weeping blocked his pheromone receptors so he had no chance at all of finding his way back, at least not immediately.

Curly was just as terrified of the monster, but in addition intrigued to know what it was. Did it have anything to do with the brood comb collapse and what could turn out to be a grub massacre? The creature tall and forbidding was now puffing acrid smoke at the frame, and Curly and his companions were forced to shift away from the dirty air. The worker bees went immediately into emergency mode, moving to fill their little bellies with honey, as a preamble to general evacuation. This was the established drill in the case of fire but the urgency of their response never seemed to include any consideration of whether there was really a fire or not. Curly had observed the giant grub, for that is what he concluded the invader to be, based on his extensive and detailed evaluation of the creature’s many beelike characteristics. He had already noticed that far from being a fire it was this horrible giant grub that was scaring the bees into departure mode. He decided to stand his ground but the smoke was too much for him, interfering with his breathing, blinding his eyes and, in the absence of his fellow bees, leaving him uncomfortably exposed. He moved back to the safety of the edge of the frame barely managing to hang on as the giant grub flipped over the frame with all the wickedness and malice of the evil badger, tales of whom had been passed on bee to bee for generations eternal.

With respect to the poor exposed grubs, the frame was now in a slightly safer position because they were out of the direct light. Throughout the trauma of this bizarre framelifting business, the bees had continued working to repair their damaged brood cells, tirelessly tickling the wax back into shape and adding new wax. No one knew if the vandalised brood would be able to recover. No one would know the full implications of the harm until there were signs that the colony’s population was falling and not showing fast enough signs of recovery.

Suddenly they were all flying once again through the warming morning light, the smoke swirling and pushing them all away from the edges of the frame. Curly and Burly made for the bottom away from the light and in search of breakfast before noticing that the same strange stretching and pulling movement was occurring on the adjacent frame. As they peered up at the sky they saw another frame grasped in the awful paws of the giant grub, its black eyes once again come close to the comb and its awful paws turning the frame this way and that. Again the smoke and again the eyes bearing down on the frame, almost as if it were counting. The frame was finally returned and Curly hurried across the gap to the next frame, only to see the process repeat itself. The giant grub was pulling each from the colony one by one, deliberately and consistently wrenching away the propolis the workers had carefully placed to insulate the hive and protect it from drafts. Curly concluded that this was truly an evil beast with a sick sense of humour, tricking them into thinking there was a fire and meanly breaking up their draft excluders.

Eventually after every frame had been pushed, lifted, twisted, peered at and replaced, all was steady and calm. The colony was once more wrapped in warmth and darkness and Curly could reassure Burly that it was all over and that they were safe again. The giant grub had gone, hopefully never to return, but where was Twirly they wondered. It was not until night was starting to fall that Twirly fell into the hive exhausted and desperate for food. He found his brothers napping contently on a fallen piece of disused comb. Some workers had picked up his scent and didn’t understand what a young drone was doing sitting on a beech leaf. They had guided him home giving him only a few minor if baffling chastisements about not leaving the hive until he was ready. And they told him that he had a duty as a drone to on no account waste time outside the hive sitting on beech leaves. He had much more important work to do when he was ready. Twirly was still wrestling with this curious advice as he stepped his careful cautious way towards his brothers. He was still grizzling a little, and with relief accepted some food from a sympathetic nanny. He fell asleep where he lay, safe between Curly and Burly snoozing contently into the night.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – A Review

Part II

This is the second part of my review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. This part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Authors under attack

Author Jeanine Cummins was attacked by a cohort of women of central and northern American backgrounds, on the basis that Jeanine Cummins should not have written American Dirt because she is not Mexican. And? 

In the case of Jeanine Cummins the controversy kicked off when American Dirt was selected by Oprah Winfrey, a big name USA celeb, as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick. Accusers say that as a white American woman Ms Cummins should not have written a novel about a brown Mexican woman. She had no right to the story, even though it’s a work of fiction based on creative thinking, research, hard work and peer reviews. The charge is not unlike that levelled at Edna O’Brien for Girl a novel that follows a group of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and one girl in particular. Both authors have been attacked for their work, despite the fact that their books illuminated otherwise very dark and unseen places. Besides vilification, the two writers also share another rather more important quality: imagination and dedication. But for that they get no credit. 

Half empty, half full, twice the size it needs to be, or a glass in need of topping up?

Why can these half-empty types not just appreciate American Dirt for the wonderful writing, the strong characterisations and the insight into what thousands of people face every day just to survive, baffles. When are we going to get over this proprietariness when it comes to ideas, characters and stories? It seems that it’s more important to discourage and block, to put people off their work, to prevent them expressing the stories and ideas in their heads, to stop them sharing what they see, how they see it and why they think it matters. Does imagination and commitment to the work of getting it onto the page need permission? And if so, why? Is it because people don’t want to be offended? If so there are plenty of intensely offensive books out there. Don’t buy them if you think you may be offended. But also don’t whinge because someone else told the story first.

Same pic as in part one of this review because Jeanine Cummins’ agent has ignored my request for a photo. And why not, I’m a nobody and clearly not deserving of courtesy.

Headline news

That American Dirt had massive support from a powerful publishing machine (Headline, a Hachette imprint) makes matters worse for the antis. It makes it better for readers and the author, because it means more people are exposed to the book and the ugly realities it describes. The antis overlook that the deal to publish followed a three day bidding war involving nine publishers. They believe, probably correctly, that another author might not have received the seven figure advance, the promotions and publicity that Cummins got. But the original book proposal was instantly resonant for so many publishers because of its timeliness and relevance, plus its commercial potential. Cummins was signed to a major publisher and got the ginormous advance not because she is white but because her work sells. Cummins has already published three other books which sold well so she’s got solid track record of delivering the goods. A known quantity. In commercial terms the subject matter and the author of American Dirt are low risk. Publication of American Dirt isn’t about exploiting underrepresented authors, being insensitive to cultural fragilities or not supporting emerging talent. It’s about commercial risk and sales. That’s the reality.

In 1890 Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray “To define is to limit.” Perhaps we should all stop trying to limit the imaginations of creative people, and should instead put aside envy and jealousy. We should stop letting life’s unfairness get in the way of appreciating what others create, whoever they are. Let’s stop the creeping censorship, let’s stop seeking out people to criticise and condemn, and let’s think about the real implications of the whole concept of individual cancellation. It’s been tried many times in the course of history and it always ends badly.

Book club pick

I came to this book because it was required reading for our book club. I knew nothing about it or the fuss, but was hooked from the first page. The insights and perspective and horror for Lydia, Luca and the two sisters is impossible to step away from. They cling and invade with increasing tenacity as the reader moves along through the story alongside these people who exert such a pull. They’re with me still. American Dirt helps us to gradually understand that all of us are vulnerable to this awfulness, but for a few twists of fate and luck. The migrant’s desperate trek is not an abstract, distant, elsewhere problem. It is here and now, it is part of our humanity and inhumanity. In her details and the reality she creates, with imagination, research and dogged hard work, Jeanine Cummins sustains excitement and tension throughout the 454 pages of American Dirt. When you put it down you may be surprised to find yourself shaking and your blood pressure up. Prose like breathing, intense and rapid from start to finish.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a Review

This review is in two parts. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. The second part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Part I

American Dirt is the story of Lydia and Luca, a mother and her eight year old son. They are on the run following the brutal assassination of all their relations, sixteen people, at a family birthday party. Lydia’s husband had been an investigative journalist. The brutal murders follow the publication of Sebastián’s in depth profile of a local Mexican cartel boss and his growing influence. The massacre is supposed to kill the entire family, everyone at the party. But Lydia and Luca, hiding in the loo, are overlooked and escape.

The book follows Lydia and Luca’s terrifying progress as they flee their home city, Acapulco, to make their way north to the United States. The journey is over 2700 km. The cartel equivalent of an All Points Bulletin, complete with Lydia’s image, is shared across Mexico throughout the criminal network and beyond to spies, informers and hangers on, anyone who’ll turn Lydia and Luca in for gain. It’s a terrifying premise made all the more sinister by the fact that Lydia, unaware of his identity, had become friends with the head of the cartel.

Javier, boss of the vile Los Jardineros cartel, had been a frequent visitor to the bookshop Lydia owns and the two share a love of books and poetry. Their kindred platonic bond had grown increasingly intimate and personal over several months. Javier calls Lydia the Queen of his soul, rather than the Queen of his heart (his wife) or of his pants (his mistress). Lydia treats their closeness as an asexual and private personal intimacy based on a shared love of literature.

These two complex and conflicted characters evoke all that is precious about relationships that don’t count as extramarital affairs, yet are profound and meaningful in an extramarital dimension. As Lydia flees she constantly re-examines to horrible effect her latent deceit or not deceit, naivety or trust, truth or lies and how she was so duped or not duped. What did she not see? What did she see? Who was that man? Who was she?

Ignore the fuss and read this book. It will stay with you.

Following the murders Lydia is a perpetual twist of emotional confusion  which gradually resolves into the only emotion she can feel: hate for Javier. She examines her relationship with her murdered husband, their deep love, romance and friendship, all that they shared. Mixed in with the hate and fear, she must hold fast to and protect Luca, all the while travelling under a veil of horror. Lydia must allow Luca his pain and his grief, and yet keep uppermost the urgency and danger of their journey. “If there’s one good thing about terror, Lydia now understands, it’s that it’s more immediate than grief”. No time for sorrow. This must be balanced with trust and Luca’s faith in her. For the most part Cummins achieves this balance and only occasionally does the reader feel that Luca is just a little too good to be true, that his flawless acquiescence to his situation and his mother’s ministerings is real. The tears are too few.

Javier is another matter. Lydia knows him viscerally as do we as the story unfolds. She knows that Javier will never let her go, that he wants to own her in death if not in life. Lydia and the reader are unaware that Lydia and Javier share in loss, until towards the end of the book. Running from Javier and his interlinked network of ghouls to a place of safety is all that matters for Lydia and Luca. That network ranges from hotel receptionists to bus drivers, so evil and ever-present death dog their every moment. They are unable to pause to mourn or grieve or even to fully comprehend the horror of what has and is happening.

Cummins handles this tension deftly whilst keeping the book’s momentum going. Along the way they meet up with two young sisters following different but equally dreadful terrrors. The two girls and Lydia and Luca are cautious, suspicious and reluctant to share their stories. There’s the fear always that the more you share, the more you have at risk, and might lose. As the small group pushes on in the blind hope of new life in El Norte, other migrants some new to the migrant path and some not join them. And yet never is there much sense of comradery. All of them know this is fragile, transitory. They know the chances of reaching safety are slim, that everyone is an enemy, a threat, a risk. So they keep mostly quiet and trudge on, an intense blend of fear and hope pushing them all forwards. And we are there too, with every agonising and possibly futile step.

Read this book!

This is a story everyone should read. American Dirt is a story that takes a wrecking ball to our cosy sense of first-world safety and security. It leaves us bereft and distressed, haunted and overwhelmed. Shock and fear creep over us with every page; a sense of ghastly, guilty relief echoes though our senses as we keep on turning the pages, urgent and desperate to know what happens next. We are guilty because we know it’s not us, but there are lots of others suffering what these migrants suffer. The awfulness of Lydia and Luca’s experience can be kept at arm’s length, but it cannot be kept entirely away from our sense of safety. We read wide-eyed and gorge on this awful story. Yet we are secure and largely protected from the organised lawlessness that is everyday reality in Mexico, Honduras, Guatamala and elsewhere around the world.

This is a story everyone should read, because it hasn’t been told quite like this before. This is a story everyone should read, despite the hostility it provoked when first published. It is so vital a story that it doesn’t matter who wrote it. This is a story everyone should read, because its author binds the reader tight to the characters with every dangerous step of the way. In our guts comes some glimmer of understanding of what these people, the unwilling migrants, go through and the horrors of their experience.

A structural edit? What? Thank you Helen Francis

I have heard that when starting out as a novelist, getting your manuscript finished is the easy bit. I always thought that a little bit silly, because you’ve sweat blood over the thing, spent months or even years on it. But I’m beginning to see there is some sense to this. For a start there’s all the additional prep, the formating and understanding the process. Then there’s the cover design and blurb to sort, both of which are easy and exciting. But then comes the structural edit. This is not nearly so easy or as exciting, and sweating blood plays no part. 

structural edit has to ensure that the plot makes sense, so if it doesn’t you’re faced with some heavy duty rewrites and rearranging. The structural edit also checks that the characters in the novel are believable and consistent, and that you haven’t overloaded them with tropes that undermine or distract the reader. As important is a check on the consistency of voice and point of view, of tense and credibility in terms of dialogue. These are all things you think you’ve addressed during your umpteenth rewrite, prior to submitting the manuscript to the publisher. But no matter how thoroughly you think you have gone through your work, you’re bound to have missed stuff. This is why editors are so vital and so lauded by their authors. They can literally help to spin gold from dross.

I’m now working on implementing the structural editor’s recommendations for The Draftsman, wrestling with the dross and trying to find the gold. In the process I’m learning a lot about writing. I’m struggling to resolve all the queries and suggestions to make The Draftsman better. Struggling, but at it.

Without seriously competent editing advice, this never could have happened.

Helen Francis did the first big edit of the Draftsman for Unbound, the publisher. She has given me a mix of mild critique and several excellent suggestions to improve the narrative. Helen has also pointed out that I use far too many pointless and distracting adjectives. Both my mother and my sister noticed this after they briefly skimmed some early chapters, but I thought I knew better. Ms Francis agrees with them. I was wrong. Now the adjectives thing is making me wonder why I thought I needed them in the first place. It might be that using too many adjectives is a way to avoid getting to the point. That’s probably because I wasn’t quite sure what that point should be or even what happened next in the story. More likely it’s a tendency to hide behind excess words because I don’t trust myself. This isn’t surprising because I trust virtually no one, so why should I trust me? There’s no habit for the trust thing.

Fixing all the points raised in the structural edit is extremely demanding and quite frankly exhausting. It’s at this stage that you understand that your book really is going to be published, and even if you might not agree with your editor’s suggestions, together you’re creating something that people will buy, a viable product. You might have to completely rethink how you present your characters. You might need to focus on how much or how little you want readers to get to know them and their role in the story, beyond helping to drive the plot. And yes, you must decide how many adjectives to use and which ones.

There is some real risk involved in this process. You need to make sure that the story doesn’t distort in the course of the rewriting and edits. This is almost harder than writing the thing in the first place, because you’re probably now working on some other work, one that’s completely different. Keeping within the bounds of the book is tough and it’s very tempting to bring in all sorts of other ideas as part of the structural editing process. You find there are lots of possible new digressions, subplots and thoughts you have in the middle of the night and think will made a massive improvement. Resist: they’re bound to go nowhere. Keep them far away from your editing process, keep them for another day, maybe as notes for a different story. Stay focused wholly on the work in hand.

And remember that you have to watch that fictional characters don’t start to change on the page. If you aren’t careful, this can happen almost without you realising it. Be disciplined and make sure to keep your face out of the narrative pie. Taking suggested edits one at a time and considering each one in the context of the paragraph, chapter and overall work, is slow and tedious work. It’s a first for me so I’m finding that process difficult. The structural editing thing is pushing me beyond what I thought were the limits of my abilities. Or perhaps I should say beyond whatever it is that feeds my sense of limits. I know I’ll get it done and in the end The Draftsman will be a much better product. Thank you Helen Francis.

(from July 2020)

Review of The Draftsman

The Draftsman is a story straightforward in overall theme, but is written with an incredible focus on detail. Some authors leave you to decide what or how the characters form, but in this book, every detail of each character and the interaction in the story is richly laid out for you. This by no means lessens the read, in fact it is nice to indulge in the language used and not have to work too hard building images in your head. Whilst reading the story, knowing the specific details of each character allows you imbue the whole storyline without guessing the direction of the theme or road the author is taking you down. You easily get into the connections between the lead character Martin Cox and feel how he wrestles with the issues in his life. You see Martin come out of his shell as he gets deeper and deeper discovering the new property he has purchased and this in turn leads to the twist every good story has at its conclusion. I would thoroughly endorse a read of The Draftsman, it was a book I felt I needed to read cover to cover.

Isn’t that lovely? Much appreciated. Thank you Brian Sims, reader.

You can find other reviews of The Draftsman here:

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1078

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1082

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1094

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1087

… and buy the book here: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Laurel-Lindstrom/The-Draftsman/25875852

You can buy the book here: https://unbound.com/books/the-draftsman/

Picture this

It’s a peculiar sensation to see first cover visuals for your first novel. They’ve got the story’s title and your name – your name – writ large. And one of them is a perfect expression of what the book’s about. It jumps at your throat, it’s gorgeous, professional and an image that you couldn’t ever think of, not in a million years. 

The sensation’s almost as good as the moment when a publisher’s email says “I’d like to see more” although only almost. That feeling shimmers and shines for a very long time, forever maybe. It’s so powerful that it’s almost impossible to answer the email. And then you can’t find the file you need and when you do you can’t open it. You can’t spell the name of the person who wants to see more of your work, or indeed your own name because you can’t spell at all. All the words have dried up and blown away under your hot frantic panting, your overexcited breath. Worse, you have totally forgotten what the story’s about and how many words it is. Because you can’t find the file again, it’s impossible to find out, and because you’ve inadvertently deleted the precious email you can’t send the requested material in any case.

……..a massive thank you to John Walsh for providing this cover endorsement!

After some minor moments your blood pressure’s so high it’s making your eyes go funny. And the banging in your veins and pulsating brain drowns out your own voice, and you can’t hear yourself saying no, no I haven’t really deleted it, it’s still in the bin, still on the mail server and still on the automatic back up. It’s data, it still exists, it does, it must, it has to. It’s got to still be there somewhere. Except you’re still panting to the point of hyperventilation, your eyes are still being weird and you can’t really see the details on the screen so it’s impossible right now to try and retrieve the email.

If you reach this point, for any important email, not just the one from a potential publisher, the best thing to do is to go to the window, open it, look down, look up, make sure to stay inside and not jump, and wait until your face starts to hurt with the cold. This only works in winter, so in summer you have to actually leave the building; try to do this calmly so as not to terrify colleagues and other members of your household. Once outside pretend to be exercising very slowly until you can be sure that your vision is not made up entirely of darting silver spears and unpredictable colour flicks. If the sun’s shining, don’t look at it. Keep your eyes down.

Once your eyes are being sort of normal and you are relatively calm, stay away from your desk for a few more minutes and think of restful things, like the majesty of snow clad mountains or sleeping puppies. If you go back to your desk too soon, there is a very real risk that the demon will roar once more and the whole scary scenario will repeat itself. You must prioritise finding the important email, reading it carefully, understanding the questions and systematically answering them like a grown-up. Panic and hysterics have no place in this process.

The cover designs are exciting and tell me that publication of the Draftsman is really happening. Tears will be in order when I see the first edits come back from Unbound. That someone has taken the time and trouble to fix my text somehow means more to me than a publisher wanting to read it. I know it’s what they’re paid to do, but still it’s all quite wonderful. Each step of the way makes a change, transforms, recreates and confirms. Not just for the book, but for me too.

Where the sun’s always setting. Or is it always rising?