Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 2

“I need some other clothes. I mean, I have to get something else.” And she adds trying for laughs, “I can’t stand up in these all the time, can I?” Aretta gave her an appraising look and steered her towards the ladies trousers. With a skillful eye she guessed Brenda’s size and chose a pair of jeans that had barely been worn. Pimlico. Brenda, amazed at the skill, the attention and the clothes accumulating on Aretta’s sturdy arm, could only nod. “You can try them on in here” Aretta said warm and kind. “I’ll see what else I can find.” Some forty pounds later Brenda has had more new clothes in one go than she has had in all her adult life. And she had some jewelry and shoes, even a handbag of her own.

Later that day, while Brenda was parading about the kitchen in selected outfits and getting ready for the boiler man to arrive, Aretta was sighing to her husband. “These women, they never ask for help. They’re so afraid. It’s like a disease.” Michael looked up from his despatch box at his lovely wife, “It is a disease, but they are just the symptoms. You see it’s almost worse because you cannot help her except with her clothes. You said the same last week, the same problem, women with bruises, women who don’t know how to get help, women who won’t tell.” 

Some of the clothes that Aretta has found for Brenda look almost new. They are modern, stylish and Brenda doesn’t recognise herself when she puts them on. She settles on a pair of loose fitting linen trousers in navy blue. The Meringo cardigan looks especially nice with them, moonlight shining over midnight. Aretta has also picked out a sequin embellished tee shirt in pale green which works wonderfully with the navy and cream. Brenda has paid careful attention to Aretta’s advice, memorised the combinations, but still spent the afternoon in the kitchen mixing up different combinations, just to see. To Brenda’s eye all the outfits work. Aretta was right about all of it. When it’s almost time for the boilerman to arrive, Brenda finds herself combing her hair, and stealing a swipe of lipstick from Audrey’s dressing table. But when Brenda hears the doorbell ring she drags her hand across her mouth to wipe it away. When Brenda heaves open the door, Mimis Chipman is standing deferential and polite. “That door wants planing” he smiled and handed her his card.

Brenda ushered him in, pulling at her teeshirt and wishing she knew what she was supposed to say to a boiler repair man. This boiler repair man is younger than Brenda, dark haired, olive skinned and strong looking. As she notes the width of his shoulders, the powerful forearms, she shrinks away and carefully peers at his card. “I am sorry I couldn’t come last week. It was a mess and I hope you’ve been ok without the boiler” his eyebrows raised in enquiry. “Oh, yes, yes it’s fine. I um I yes.” Brenda smiled. They stood there awkwardly for a few moments, Mimis waiting to be shown the boiler, Brenda wondering what she might be supposed to do. “It’s in here” she said, “this way” before stopping at the kitchen door having no idea where the boiler was or even what it looked like. Mimis waited expectantly for a moment and then, “right” he said, “I’ll just get my tools from the van. Shall I bring a dust sheet or do you want to use your own?” Brenda knew about dustsheets for painting but had no idea where one might be hiding in Audrey’s house. Mildly confident she said “er, er you, er you can bring yours”. As soon as Mimis was heading for his van Brenda racked her brains as to where a boiler might be lurking. It wasn’t downstairs in the basement she was sure. And why would it be? It could only be in the kitchen. But she had looked in every cupboard and not seen a boiler. 

Mimis was carting in a large toolbox and noticed Brenda’s slight flush under her messy grey hair. “Lead the way” he said brightly and as Brenda shifted her weight from foot to foot, he jokingly said “is it gone missing then absent in the line of?” “Well you see, I don’t really know. Where should it be? It isn’t in the kitchen …”. “Shall we look upstairs” Mimis replied, unaware of the effect this simple sentence was having on Brenda. She blushed “yes, that’s it, it’s probably upstairs, in the bathroom perhaps.” And as she headed that way Mimis watched her bare heels clip the stairs and found a line running unbidden in his head “her blue veined feet unsandaled were”. It was from Christabel he was pretty sure. And then unexpectedly he said it aloud followed by “Coleridge”. And Brenda turning on the stair saw, she was quite certain, a man who wasn’t there and said so. It was the only bit of poetry she could remember. Mimis was drawing a blank. “Yesterday upon the stair I saw a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today, I wish that man would go away” Brenda repeated. “It’s not really a poem, more a nursery rhyme I think. But it’s the only poetry I can remember. I don’t know why I said it. I can see you’re really there”. Brenda felt oddly bashful and slightly too warm in her Merino cardigan as she moved on towards the bathroom, following her Mimis was frowning slightly.

There skulking in a floor to ceiling cupboard was a fairly new combi gas boiler. Mimis spread out his dustsheet and started unpacking his tools. “What was that about the feet?” Brenda asked with some trepidation. Her own were entirely blue with cold, not just the veiny parts. “It’s from Christabel, the poem, Coleridge. I can’t remember all of it, just bits. I’m quite keen on poetry you know.” Brenda adrift in confusion tried to answer. The best she could manage was, “… poetry? Would you like a cup of tea?” Mimis smiled wide “I’d prefer a strong black coffee if you have it?” And Brenda scuttled bluefooted and relieved back down to the kitchen, but the black coffee was to prove tricky. There was no instant coffee in Audrey’s house, and Brenda had no knowledge of any other sort. There was just the strange machine and the kettle. She put the kettle onto boil and pressed a switch on the machine to see if it made a difference. Nothing. Inert. Unwilling. Unhelpful. Unfulfilling as to Mimis’s request. And then soundlessly he was there, suddenly present, at her elbow, watching with a quizzical expression as Brenda looked back at the kettle, her hand resting on the coffee machine. “Can I help? You’re looking like you don’t know what you’re doing, if you don’t mind me saying.” He grinned. “Shall I do it? Let me help. We drink a lot of coffee in my house.”

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 1

At Longbourne House Audrey was calm, musing, as she watched the nurse remove the syringe, that it wasn’t important if Mrs Snipcock got the message or not. The day looked promising. Perhaps a little outing on the terrace would be in order. She drifted off wondering how much fuss she should make about borrowing a phone cable, deciding on balance that the calls to Cumin Elk & Fancy or Flom and Millichop could wait. Afterall the debts would have to and they, like Audrey, weren’t going anywhere.

Under the same promising day’s sky, the answering machine has told a goggle-eyed Brenda that Audrey’s clients can expect their new wardrobe samples next week. Like the nice voice on the message, Brenda wonders would Audrey like the usual venue booked or to host them at home? Looking through Audrey’s Filofax, Brenda pretends to choose Tuesday week and using a well-buttered piece of toast as Audrey’s phone pings a message to the kind lady who is arranging the clothes, the invites and the venue. What life is this? Brenda is starting to talk to herself more loudly and even to answer her own questions. But this question hasn’t got an answer. For a middle-aged much bullied woman who’s only ever been to Bognor and Great Leigh and its surrounds, the London territory, a London life, is unmapped. She’s parochial, but Brenda hasn’t always been deadminded. She had already been accepted into the civil service before she finished school, but those soul turning eyes got in the way. All memory of the exam, her affinity with numbers, the top marks, the job offer, all of it drowned in that liquid brown. Brenda married Luke instead and now it was all so far away as to be forgotten.

“Clothes are the problem” Brenda said hesitantly to the kitchen cupboards through a bite of Audrey’s phone. She repeated her words to the presenter on the radio and tapped in a buttered message to the answering machine lady: problem is clothes. Problem is, Brenda doesn’t have any unless she pilfers shamelessly from her absent and unknowing host. Washing out her pants every evening was one thing, but the nasty jeans and sweat shirt wouldn’t dry and were now distinctly pongy. Brenda was determined, almost. She checked the time on the hob clock and consulted Audrey’s diary. The Ocado delivery was due today between noon and two o’clock this afternoon. The boiler man was coming at four. Her phone sitting on Audrey’s immaculate granite was buzzing. Luke again. Brenda watched the phone skittering across the glitter and caught it as it fell and Luke gave up. The phone. A world was waiting. Yes. Find the router, hope the codes are on it. Yes. Now what? Find something that does searching. Keep an eye on the time. Hah! Soon. Only been twenty minutes and then. Charity shops and Audrey’s address. Directions from your location said there are two nearby, just close enough to make it there and back in time for the boiler man if Ocado arrives by two, which it might well do. All this trivial activity, all this independent action, all these decisions were intoxicating, thrilling even.

Banging again from the hall and this time Brenda is ready and has practised her grinning and gushing, “hello, great to see you” and the lady driver smiling says “gorgeous day isn’t it” and starts heaving what appears to be colour coded shopping across the threshold. “… well yes, yes it is” says Brenda watching the numerous bags accumulating. “That’s about it.” Mrs Ocado finally says and Brenda smiling back has made her choice. “Yes. That’s about it. I’m doing it today. I am. I’m about it too.” It wasn’t the sort of response Mrs Ocado was expecting and her instincts told her to shift sharpish before the conversation turned weirder. “Off I go. See you next time. Or rather I won’t as I’ll be moving on.” “And me. I won’t see you. I’ll be moving on.” Brenda called to her retreating back. “And me” she repeated, half to herself and again, “and me”. Brenda put the shopping away with immense precision, keeping everything aligned as far as she could, a far cry from the usual shoving of stuff random and messy into the cupboards of the Great Leigh bungalow under Luke’s scathing eye.

Then having surveyed the kitchen for traces of any activity or mess, Brenda picked up the door keys. She remembered to get one of Audrey’s business cards from her desk so that she knew where to return to, and some cash from Audrey’s purse which Brenda replaced with an IOU. Phone, cash and keys safely stowed in her smelly jeans pockets and following the map on her phone, she headed for the Sue Ryder shop some few hundred yards and many corners away. The traffic beyond the little square where Audrey lived was terrifying and the crowds parting around Brenda barely noticed the shabby looking woman peering into her phone and constantly checking for road names, missing traffic lights and tripping on the pavement cracks. Somehow she had the idea that London would be smooth and even and its streets comprehensively named. Brenda passed her destination several times, caught in tides of Chinese tourists dragging luggage towards Victoria Station. After the third time Brenda recognised the shop, and successfully navigated her way across the shoals to fall inside the silence and a curious smell that brought to mind old people and fabric softener.Brenda had no idea what she wanted. Racks and racks of clothes lined the walls and interior of the shop, narrow causeways separated dresses, skirts, trousers, tops, shoes and accessories. Like Brenda they were all anonymous, patient and waiting, like Brenda, for a new life. On a Tuesday afternoon the shop is quiet and the volunteers chatting in the back have taken note of Brenda’s worn and shapeless clothes before one of them comes over. “Can I help you?” The voice is heavily accented and Brenda is embarrassed to find herself staring at a beautiful African face shining out underneath a mad arrangement of colours towering high on the lady’s head. And even more embarrassed to find herself blushing. Aretta noted the blush of surprise, the yellowing bruise on Brenda’s cheek and the manky clothes she was wearing, no bag, messy hair, no makeup and broken looking shoes. She can recognise the signs. “I know what, let’s look together for you.” She flashed an encouraging, generous smile, and gestured to the nearest rack. Brenda nodded inanely and squeezed out a smile, keeping her hands deep in her pockets, fist tight and fearful of being found out, found out a thief, a runaway, squatting in someone else’s home, having never seen a woman quite like this one. Being bold with Mrs Ocado who looked pretty much like her, that was alright. But being bold in the shade of this amazing looking lady in her riotous colours and beads was impossible.

Chapter 1 An unexpected fall – Part 3

… of biscuits, so Alistair was shooting gleefully between the three and his one true love, thrilled at the exciting shift the mud sliding game was taking.

A crisp and efficient voice said “What service please?” “What service please?” Deirdre repeated in her sing song imitation, before Audrey bellowed out “ambulance, ambulance, tell them to send a bloody ambulance” so Deirdre did, “ambulance, ambulance, tell them to send a bloody ambulance”, while she picked at the little bobbles of wool on her ancient purple cardigan. It was her favourite and she knew vaguely that she had knitted it herself, but that was long ago, at school perhaps, or when she worked in the school after Peter died. She couldn’t remember who Peter was though, nor why he had died. Or indeed if he had died. She sighed and just knew she had once liked knitting. Now it was too confusing for her, more knotting than knitting. As she alternated the bobble picking with fondling Alistairs soft little ears, she mimicked the questions coming down the phone, “are you breathing?” “Yes” Audrey bellowed; “are you conscious”; “Yes” Audrey bellowed; “are you in pain” “yes I’m in bloody pain” Audrey bellowed, this last even louder and making her companions jump, including the dogs. Deirdre forgot to listen to the instructions from the ambulance lady watching instead as the little entourage made their hot and grubby way into the kitchen.

Deirdre was still watching and not listening as her parents, the Labrador, Audrey and the walking frame fell foul of the bricks edging the ancient and slightly undulating kitchen floor. A brick floor was a substantial advance in flooring technology in the 1850s, but no one had fully thought through how the floor would fare over the decades. Neither floor nor bricks were even any more and to the floor’s many undulations had recently been added some very deceptive gaps. One such soon claimed a leg of the walker bringing little injured huddle crashing down.

As they went over Audrey let out a loud and agonised cry, that made the lady on the other end of the phone flinch in sympathy. Audrey’s agonised squeal as she flattened the walker brought additional flinching and new urgency to the call. The walker was a buckled mess beneath Audrey now severely bruised and draped painfully over its contorted tangle. Alistair absolutely adored this new chapter and used the human heap as a special training exercise for his future as an SAS rescue dog. Every sorti brought forth new squeaks and groans that added to Alistair’s excitement. Every paw found purchase on soft and bulging and tender flesh. With every jump Audrey squeaked again. It was terrific terrier fun.

At the other end of the telephone, the 999 lady could hear the series of alarming sobs and squeaks. At the sound of the fall she wisely confirmed that “an ambulance is on its way” before Deirdre dropped the telephone and scurried over to the heap to disentangle her frail and crumpled parents from the pile. “Give me the telephone” Audrey sobbed through her agony, wincing in intense pain as she extracted her injured leg from the grimy heap of mangled walker, aged Godparents and dog leads and decrepit Labrador. As she grabbed the phone, Audrey managed a surreptitious swipe at Alistair persuading him to give up his game and wait behind his beloved instead.

Both the lead with a dog attached and the lead without a dog attached had contrived in the way of ropes and wires to become completely entangled with as many ankles, wrists, leads and bits of walker as possible. The drooling Labrador had no choice but to sit as close as he could to his parents, gagging slightly and panting. Unable to move at all, but feeling quite warm, what with all the bodies around them Stephen and Margaret started smiling and then slowly giggling at each other. They were not at all concerned with getting up again. Their bodies hadn’t been so unexpectedly and toasty warmly close in years. The memories of where this might lead was intoxicating, for all its unlikelihood.

Pulling herself with extreme care from the wreckage and leaning against a vegetable rack full of sprouting potatoes and black bananas, Audrey rapidly explained to the ambulance lady that she now might also have a mild concussion and a damaged back as well as a suspected broken ankle and a twisted wrist. The ambulance lady said “I repeat, an ambulance is on its way.” And so it was.

Deirdre managed to get the three of them fully upright and into chairs. She had taken the almost dry kettle off the hob and refilled it and while she waited for it to boil she told them many times, “a cup of tea, that’s what you need, a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit”. She repeated the phrase, one of her favourites because of the biscuit part, until the kettle boiled and she had made the tea, put the teapot on the table along with cups, milk and biscuits. Deirdre was unaware that the chocolate digestives were rapidly disintegrating in the dog’s water bowl. Audrey sat damp and dirty staring blankly at the tea and dog biscuits, much deflated. She tried to explain the unscheduled slip that had led to the lethal glissade on the muddy slope.

“I fell. I fell trying to get back up your bloody bank. Alistair was charging forwards but this bloody lump of a Lab couldn’t get the momentum going to get up the slope. I tried to pull him, then Alistair came back down to help, and I slipped trying to turn and over I went, pulled in two directions and then none, no balance and the mud like black ice.” She sniffed her self-pity. They vaguely got it. Later when all this was over and far away, Audrey explained more calmly that she had almost made it to the top of the bank separating the house and the drive from the lower lawns and the river. As she was about to take her final step onto level ground, the Lab had stopped and her downhill foot slipped forcing her forwards, almost losing her balance. Turning slightly to get upright her slipping foot had slipped further, forcing her backwards and into an unexpected pirouette, that didn’t include much of her right foot. The foot responded with the sound of crunching, hammered honeycomb toffee and Audrey went over. On hands and knees and with the dogs unintended help she eventually managed to drag herself back to the top where she called and called. No one, not even the person disappearing out towards the lane, had heard her.

Chapter 1 An unexpected fall – Part 2

In between watching Deirdre and Walter strut up and down, as long as they can stay awake Stephen and Margaret spot the gifted and lythe from the fat and clumsy. Like Deirdre’s dancing it’s a bit hit and miss. They usually doze off once the music starts, and resurface snorting and snuffling when the applause kicks in. Then they drift for a while lost in bygone days when, young, gorgeous and agile, they too skimmed endless floors in endless ballrooms all around the world. That tall willowy woman with a tight blonde chignon. Those sumptuous yards of flowing silks, bias cut and eddying in shwooshing waves with every flawless turn. Her partner, slightly taller and angular, spare and pale, has gleaming auburn hair and golden lashed green eyes set high and wide in a long oval face. Time has seen them both crumpled and very small, skin creped, bones eroded and joints calcifying. They are wrinkled and withered and still deep in love.

Stephen and Margaret never notice these creaky impediments as between naps they move in their chairs ever so slightly, in time to the music. They sympathise when Deirdre’s pirouettes stop with a stumble as soon as one foot leaves the floor. They duck when her rampant arms reach full extension. They make sure to keep their feet tucked in. And they are content to let the television give back their shared beauty and the joy. “We’re still here old girl” he says, and she nods lovingly back at shabby remnants and vague hints of glittered copper in his hair, roguish green eyes, freckled cheeks. Once plump lips curl still in a smile that melts her. She tingles and grows warm. She sometimes blushes at the memory of what those lips could do. She falls reckless every time, before turning back to hide in the dancing on the screen, eyes blurred and cheeks burning.

But that was on Saturday and today was an eventful Sunday about to get even more eventful. The three stood peering at the small collection of letters and printed catalogues that had appeared, suddenly it seemed, on their door mat. Deirdre leant to scoop them up, using her Father’s walking frame as an aid and nearly bringing him with her as she bent down. Her Mother’s gnarled and twisted hands reached out ineffectually and hopelessly to catch her Stephen as he teetered. Having long since lost all elasticity or capacity for extension her hands stretched barely a few inches, more in prayer than salvation. Leaning over the frame Stephen caught his breath, and put a hand on her arm. “There there old girl, I’m not done for yet” he wheezed, still out of breath from the earlier bellowing. 

Deirdre, oblivious and still crouched, had her ear to a whistly crack in the door. She waved the letters at them, a frantic request for silence. “Shush will you shush, there’s someone out there” she hissed. “Of course there’s someone out there dear, it will be the dogs coming back with Audrey,” said her mother patiently. “Audrey?” the younger woman replied. “Yes dear, Audrey, you remember our friend, our friend who has been here all weekend with us, our friend who brought you the lovely present from Angus, who has died. You remember the pearls? The pearls Audrey gave you because Angus wanted you to have his Mother’s pearls? And you remember that we stood on the driveway and said goodbye to his ashes, in the box in the boot of her car?” Deirdre’s hand reached to her neck and stroked the triple string of pearls, warm and soft against the draping folds of her neck, but she couldn’t remember Angus or looking into the boot of a car. “There, there it is again, can’t you hear it?” she said instead. Her parents looked from one to the other, sad but resigned. Another little brick had fallen. Deirdre’s mother pushed her cold hands into her pockets and looked out at the gloom expecting to see her dogs and her friend coming back from their last minute walk. “What on earth? What on earth is that? There’s someone on the ground over there, quickly Deirdre, turn on the outside light”. Deirdre did and the three of them moved slowly out into the porch and the pool of light, slightly afraid of what they might find. Behind them the ancient house, blank eyed, sighed and sifted into black.

Peering through the dark they watch enthralled as their two extremely dirty dogs come slowly into focus, wide mouthed with scarlet lolling tongues beating time with their panting. The dogs are just slightly ahead of Audrey who is covered in mud and bits of moss and stick and appears to be crawling on her elbows over the edge of the bank. She too is panting heavily, her mouth opened wide, her teeth bared, her tongue’s pulse possibly beating time along with the dogs’. Random dirty patterns decorate the soft amber of Audrey’s new and as yet unpaid for coat. Her tangled hair, interspersed with globs of dirt and bits of grass, falls over her face and blocks her view. She struggles noisily to get over the top of the bank and as a recognisable amount of filthy wet Audrey appears, her little audience lets out a collective gasp.

Audrey’s face was tear streaked, grubby and red. She was gasping open mouthed at the air and moving with extreme care, clutching the dogs leads for some sort of balance and cursing the terrier for his enthusiasm. “Get an ambulance” she panted as she hooked her elbows further onto the drive and the relative stability of the gravel. The dogs heaved her along a few centimeters closer to the pool of light, desperate to reach their own place of safety. “Get me an ambulance immediately I think I’ve broken my ankle,” she whimpered weak and desperate. Then the tears came back despite her efforts to hold them in and she grisled pathetically in a tiny incoherent voice that she’d fallen down “this damn bank” trying to get back up it.

Audrey is struggling to pull herself together, mustering all her strength. She calls through clenched teeth, “Quickly! Deirdre, dial 999 on the telephone. Now!” Audrey, her hands still tightly wrapped in dog leads, was now heaving herself onto her knees, leaning on the ancient Lab whose bulk and general immobility could support her a little. Together they inch towards Deidre and her parents. Audrey, her fine woolen trousers sodden and cold, her coat a complete mess is sniveling, the Labrador’s lead wound tight around her hand. The terrier she lets go and it gleefully follows Deirdre into the house. Deirdre is his one and only real true love. Deidre knows where the biscuits live and the biscuits were calling him.As she headed for the kitchen Deirdre was repeating in a singsong voice nine nine nine, nine nine nine, nine nine nine, and as she listened to the ring of a distant phone, was trying hard to remember what should happen next. She knew it was important so she knitted her brow in concentration and stared at the filthy carpet and hummed to herself. As she waited, Deirdre saw Alistair dive back and forth between her and her parents and their burden. They had managed to lodge Audrey’s soft frame between them and, using the walker as support were moving very, very slowly out of the dark and inching towards the house. This novelty eclipsed all thoughts 

Winter is come

The sisters were waiting. And Curly was keeping his head as still as he could, standing as straight as he could, eyes fixed and antennae up ,and listening as hard as he could. He tried not to tremble and tried to imagine he was his brother Burly, lost somewhere in a summer’s haze. A single whisper was passing around the colony as the bees drew in closer. They were waiting, waiting and alert keen to hear Curly’s plan for their survival.

With Burly in his mind’s eye, Curly stood up even straighter, moved his head from one side to the other and started to outline his plan. He began with a grateful acknowledgement of the priviledge he had been given, honour, blah blah until he became aware of a cacaphony of blah blah blahing. He stopped ostensibly to clear his throat. “Just get to the point would you?” and his friendly messenger bee raised her head as her six sisters nodded in agreement and mutterings about drones wittering on, better off without them, better off alone, are we sure we want to do this? This last an alarming suggestion that brought Curly straight to his plan.

Few sights are as distressing to a beekeeper as that of a dead colony at the end of winter. Image courtesy of The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright

“Right. Our objective is survival. We must keep Mother and the nest warm, but not as warm as summer as there isn’t so much brood to care for. We need the nest ready for when Mother feels it’s right to start laying again. I can’t tell you when that is, but she will know. All I can tell you is that we must be ready.” This last Curly said with some urgency, as it had only just occured to him that indeed if the darkness and cold continue to grow, the colony will soon be dangerously low on everything: food, water, brood and bees. Any mistake, any miscalculation will mean the end. He noted with some satisfaction that all around the bees were watching and murmuring agreement with his explanation of the objective. Recognition and agreement of the objective was the first step. 

“The plan I have devised is one you can follow every time the dark and cold come. We know from Mother that this thing called winter comes every year and that every year it is different, but eventually spring comes and the sun starts shining once again and we can stay warm. Now it’s getting colder so we need to cluster around the nest so that Mother survives and will start laying again in the spring. We’ll only have a few days between her laying and the birth of new bees who can help nurse the eggs and grubs as they come along. They’ll also help us with the warmth, but in the meantime we need to cluster, we must cluster.” “We know that you fool of a drone” came an angry voice from somewhere out on the edge. “We know that, yes,” Curly hesitated and tweetled his antennae anxiously before adding “but it doesn’t always work does it? We don’t always survive the night and we know that we lose sisters when it gets really cold and the grey light turns black quicker and lasts longer. We know only this much.” A general bee-harumphing rippled through the assembled bees and a small voice, that of a bee only recently born could be heard to whisper “I don’t want to die before I’ve lived”.

Curly’s plan was bouncing around his head and he was struggling to control the conversation. Too fast and they wouldn’t believe him, too slow and they would think he was making it up as he went along. He remembered Burly and his habit of stroking his antennae and mandibles, and followed the model as best he could, while the hubbub lessened and the young sister was comforted by some of her siblings. Curly heard with some concern, “at least you’re not a drone, at least you know we’ll take care of you”. Judging the time to be right Curly started to outline his plan. He knew he had to be completely clear, leave no possibility of misunderstanding or doubt, and to make sure that there was just enough concern about the plan to ensure that the Seven Sisters would not trust themselves to pull it off without Curly.

“We cluster like we always do, but we don’t just clump up around the nest. We do follow the principles of clumping, keeping Mother and the brood safe and warm in the middle.” “What’s he talking about? Swarming? We only swarm when the weather’s hot and the hive is too full and when Mother gets the hint that it’s time for new blood?” Curly did his best to nod in wise agreement, slow and careful and continued with his plan. “We use scouts to check how cold people are getting on the outside of the clump, they can crawl into the centre and as they go tell the sisters to prepare to move back from where they are, and out towards the periphery. The scouts will need to move slowly to conserve energy, but their movement will generate heat. It might balance out.” At this point 30,000 bee brains were whirring at the idea that they would rotate in layers from the centre of the nest out to the external layers of clustered bees. It was a lot to take in, but Curly had his senses closely tuned to those of the Seven Sisters who were not communicating. He took this as a good sign, a sign that each of the seven was thinking hard and that none had made any judgement about his plan, at least not yet.

“With every rotation we minimise the loss of bees on the outside to the cold. You all know what happens to us when the temperature drops to 9º. We stop moving and we gradually atrophy and die. We drop to the floor and wait to for the end. I know because I’ve seen it, I know because it’s what happens if a bee isn’t lucky enough that the sun comes to warm her up again before she has to die.”

Curly then explained how he had survived following the drone massacre some weeks earlier. He explained how he had hidden during the day in a tiny space pulled together from disused and empty comb. He explained how he had been lucky that the small corner of the hive where he had been lodged happened to be the part of the hive where the sun hit first, so the cold did not last as long. He told them how he moved about the hive at night, only sipping uncapped honey and only where there were sleeping bees. And this is how he found out about them dying in the cold. “I saw with my own eyes how once chilled a bee has no chance of survival without help.” Survival, he explained can only happen if the colony follows the plan.

Curly could sense that the Seven Sisters were communicating, not visibly or with much intensity but there was something going on and he could see the old drone patrol getting into position. He noted there were some new members in the group, replacing those who had died off since their prevention convention. Curly pulled himself up to be as tall as he could manage, and did his best to adopt an air of nonchalant authority. If he had had fingernails he would have been studying them as he waited for some response. None being forthcoming he asked in as casual a tone as he could muster, “any questions? Or are you all happy with the plan? It means you can live longer than usual in the cold and dark, and it means Mother and the babies will survive too.” At this Curly noticed the Seven Sisters and drone patrol rearranging themselves one on either side of him, to form a sort of channel or corridor. Curly soon realised that this was in fact an aisle and that Mother, her retinue in train, was slowly coming towards him. He looked anxiously from side to side at the drone patrol standing to attention and at the Seven Sisters as they bowed in reverence to the Queen. Their reverence was more for the benefit of the colony than in deference to her Majesty and as a one they were sighing with some annoyance at this unprecedented overstep of the usual boundaries. What was she doing interfering in the business of the colony? The Queen’s only function is to mate and lay eggs and her involvement in big decisions is nil. Curly bowed as low as he could manage without tipping over and said “Your Majesty” in a grovelling tone as he did so. He could see the Seven Sisters antennae working furiously and understood that this was not so bad.

“Your Majesty has arrived just in time to hear our decision and the plan of this remnant drone to help us survive the winter.” The Queen looked up absent mindedly. Her intention had never been to get involved with whatever it was that was going on, here so close to the middle of her nest. She was confused and leant her head on one side with a view to taking a nap instead. One of her retinue tidied the drooping antennae and positioned the Queen close to some empty honeycomb cells so that she could doze more comfortably. To the surrounding bees this all looked suitably majestic and grand, but mainly because a Queen bee is so much larger than all the other bees, and so elegantly put together with a long pointed torso and huge hairy eyes. She is also constantly fed and groomed so her appearance has none of the scant lankiness of the other girls. A gentle snoring soon proceeded and the ranks of the drone patrol and the Seven Sisters closed around Curly, slightly irritated at the distraction of the Queen’s random and unintentional visit.

A spokesperson for the Seven Sisters came forward and the drone patrol ensured she had space and the attention of the whole colony, apart from that of the Queen who was now deep asleep. “Well thank you drone for this illuminating plan. If it works, your idea will help us we are certain. We are not certain of how much it will help us, or if we can train scouts in time or if we can organise them properly. But that is another matter, another task for you, another task that you must undertake straightaway. We’ll follow your plan and we will let you stay to see it is properly done. The drone patrol is dismissed and you are now an honorary guest in our home. If this works and we are most of us still when the winter ends, you will indeed be called Curly the Wise.” 

Curly stared back at his sister and nodded slowly, his antennae alert to any signs of disagreement or dissent within the ranks of bees surrounding him. There were none and Curly was gradually aware that the bees were gradually moving back to their various tasks. Outside the wind had dropped and foragers were setting off to gather the last of the autumn’s nectar from late flowering ivy creeping up and around the trees surrounding the hive. Curly watched as bees capped honey and fed the few grubs that were expected to add to the colony’s numbers over the coming weeks. He moved away to his little corner and started working the numbers. How many bees in each layer, how often the rotations would have to happen, how cold it would get, how many babies would be born, how he himself would survive, and for how much longer. At least he had had this one more day he smiled to himself and slowly drifted off to sleep. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. 

Delete #2 New Boy

(The first in this series was published here: https://writetime.org/anthology/)

The whisper went around the classroom, every time Miss turned to the board. Fight. They’re going to get him. After school. That’s what John Carter said. Little new boy‘s gonna get it. But Mrs Vurley didn’t hear it as she turned back to her year 9s and reminded them of the homework. Pointing to the board and “… by Friday no later please.” The bell rang and Mrs Vurley watched them pile out from behind their desks, rushing towards the door. She hadn’t heard the dark whispers but she watched as the new boy slunk away from her, separate from the rest. Did she see fear? “David, David? How are you settling in?” “Yes Mrs Vurley,” he mumbled. Mrs Vurly put her pencil behind her ear and looked at the boy again, eyebrows raised. She sighed. “Hurry now, it’s hometime, you’re out of here for today.” Looking up at her he said, “Yes miss, but John Carter said …” “John Carter? What about John Carter?” Mrs Vurley didn’t have a John Carter in her class. “John Carter? I don’t think I know him. What about John Carter?” “Nothing miss” said David moving quickly to the door. Delete.

Mrs Vurley looked out of her window at the usual scene of children milling towards the school gates, the lines of cars waiting for some, parents waiting for others. A few were on foot heading home or for the bus. There was only one small knot of boys, with a couple of girls in tow, lingering by the gate. She didn’t see David out by the gates and gradually the group of boys and their groupies drifted away. 

When David came to school the next day as soon as his dad dropped him off he ran a gauntlet of teases and taunts. His dad smiled as he watched with fond memories of his own school days. He didn’t see what he was seeing as he drove away, lost in reveries of a super posh school for boys. Delete. He didn’t hear when they said “white boy, hey whitey, come on, come on tell us who’s in that picture. We got the picture innit. Who is she?” As he drove away his brain had the scene with his boy centre stage, but he wasn’t seeing it. Delete. His brain heard the voices, unhearing the words. Delete. He moved on and stopped thinking about his boy. Delete. 

The catcalling was lost in the group, and no one was brave enough to be seen specifically to call out to the new boy. “Fresh off the boat are ya? Fresh from Alabammer are ya? Black Lives Matter ya know, yeah.” Fist saluting and laughing and then mocking his accent, like he was from the deep south and not from New York City. That accent was harder to copy his dad said David had told him when it first happened. And his dad, strong and tall and believing himself a streetwise New Yorker had no idea of how alone his child was. Delete. And so David didn’t speak much at school, not after the first day when he said his name in class and they were all supposed to welcome the new boy. Instead they stared at him and laughed at the way he spoke. Afterwards a couple of them had asked him his mobile number, although he didn’t know what they meant at first. “Oh, cell you mean my cell?” And that had set them off. “Yeah, your cell Yank. Give us your cell.” And they’d all laughed. David small and living in his head, processing the new country, this city school, the scale of it, the weird sports and having to read so much, write so much, confused and uncertain and very alone.

In the staff room Mrs Vurley was reminding herself of what they were supposed to look out for so that they could submit a pupil concern email. In her day bullying was just part of the day, some children were just marked out for it. Would it be how fat or thin they were, how shabby their uniform or beaten up their shoes? Would it be how clever they were or how stupid? Would it be their accent or how clean or dirty their hair was? Would it be how small or big they were, geeky, Jew, Christian or Muslim? She knew that it was impossible to predict, but that it hung on a chance moment, a thin thread and an unpredictable hook. And it was part of school life, ugly or not. Now they had guidelines and rules which at least gave an opportunity to do something. Now at the first sign they were alert and could take steps. And guidelines meant there was no need to convince sceptical staff or heads. Guidelines meant they could do something, not nothing. But guidelines and actions could also push it out of view. Delete.

It was Mrs Vurley’s day to monitor the lunch room so she made a point of watching this new boy, freshly arrived from America with his heavy accent and fretful eyes. She saw him sitting alone as two bigger boys took their places on either side of him. But she didn’t see David leaning forwards into his tray nor did she see the two boys sit closer and closer. Both had been held back from last year. Neither was bright and both were strong and confident, popular. They had pulled their chairs in close to David and were leaning into the boy. She smiled as she saw the Kendulu boy suddenly pull away and David fall sideways under the force and weight of the kid on the other side and they were laughing. Relieved Mrs Vurley turned away to deal with a fuss about mashed potato blowing up in the queue. Delete.

But her attention was soon drawn back to the boys. David’s tray had fallen sideways with him and Kendulu was no longer laughing, but up on his feet. “Look what you done man, look what you done, your shepherd’s pie is all over me trousers. Look at the mess you made!” And his friend jumped up to join in. “Look what you done to Ken’s gear man, look what you done.” They were both towering over David, hands pointing upwards, heads turning from side to side, voices rising, looking for the audience, for response. And they were laughing and patting David on the back. It was impossible to see that the pat was just that little bit too hard, lingering just a little bit too long pushing the boy down. David tried to stand but they had blocked his chair with their feet so he was stuck between the table and his chair half up half sideways and now Ken’s leg with its smears of shepherd’s pie is in David’s hair. It was time to intervene and as Mrs Vurley hoved into view both boys stood back, moving their feet and smug as David’s chair scraped unexpectedly back and he fell onto one knee, baked beans stuck to the tears and his tormentors with their hands in mock surrender. “He’s such a laugh Miss, he spilled his food on me on purpose miss. I done nothin’” and “Yeah Miss, it was on purpose, he’s bullying us, he thinks he’s cool ’cos he’s an American miss.” 

As two other staff members started ushering the small audience back to their food, Mrs Vurley looked at the two boys. “What’s this about?” “David?” “Ken?” “Jason?” David said nothing, but shrank even smaller into himself. Kendulu repeated it was on purpose and that they were being picked on by this new boy, who thought he was so great because he came from America. “And you Jason, what do you have to say?” “It weren’t me miss.” The bell rang and Mrs Vurley gestured them away and the two boys sloped off leaving David alone. As he looked up to answer Mrs Vurley’s unheard question David saw Jason draw a long finger in a straight line across his throat, before turning it into a wave and a laugh as Mrs Vurley followed David’s gaze.

“David, how long have you been at this school?” Mrs Vurley was a little embarrassed that she hadn’t really noticed the boy. Delete. Embarrassed but unsurprised. He was an unprepossessing thing, quiet and withdrawn, keeping his head down, avoiding contact. “Five weeks Mrs Vurley.” “Five weeks” she repeated, ”and how long have you been friends with Kenulu and Jason?” David stared sullenly at his lunch tray and its unappealing mess. “They’re not my friends” he mumbled and tried to straighten his shoulders, tried to claw back some sense of dignity. “But they like to follow me and send me messages on FaceBook an’ all. So maybe. Dunno.” There followed a series of questions, questions that Mrs Vurley knew she should ask, even though in the back of her mind she knew the answers already.

Yes, there was harassment, although he was evasive as to its frequency and intensity. Yes there were incidents, like today only mostly unseen and yes there had been unflattering pictures posted online and shared with various school groups. Girls and some boys sent him flirty messages and then ridiculed his replies. They invited him to online chat sessions only to block him at the last minute or worse to hide behind fake accounts and make ugly threats, sometimes with pictures of cats with their throats cut, or birds with their wings ripped off but still alive and bleeding. They threatened to tell his dad that David was staying over with friends, but really they planned to kidnap him and sell him as a sextoy to white supremacists. Mrs Vurley rolled her eyes at this, but still. The digital world’s a dangerous place. “How many David? How many boys and girls are doing this to you?”

By this time David was crying and the lunch room was empty. Mrs Vulney was glad she had no lessons this afternoon and persisted. “Do you know what mobbing is David?” “No miss,” he sniffed. “Do you know how to block people on your social media accounts?” “My dad’s told me I should do that and I’ve tried. But Snapchat messages disappear straight away and they use fake names. I know it’s them, and I want to be their friend though. That’s why I kept my Facebook account after … ” “After what? After what David?” “Nothing” he mumbled drowning in their power. Delete.

As she hit send on her email and its attached Pupil of Concern form, Mrs Vurley hoped that her colleague’s initial call to the family would go somewhere. It didn’t. They laughed it off. Delete. But later Mrs Clayman tried to talk to her son, except that the talk was more a forced encounter. A bully’s privilege? “It’s gone.” “What do you mean gone, David? Are you being picked on or not. You have to tell me.” “It’s gone because it’s SnapChat. The messages disappear straightaway.” “Don’t lie to me David. That makes no sense. I know you’re hiding something from me.” Mrs Clayman didn’t know she needed to get him to take screen shots. Would he have done? Would she have looked? Delete. Mrs Clayman tried another line. “Well what about FaceBook? Show me what you’ve got on FaceBook.” Here David had more to say, “I know I should block them on FaceBook, but if I tell them I’ll block them they just laugh, ooh you know how to block do you. Then they send me notes in History saying sorry. So I unblock them, then it’s ok for a while and then it starts up again. And on Instagram they pretend to like my pictures, but they’re just mocking me. You can tell in the comments.” The tears were rolling down his cheeks as David continued: “And I tried setting WhatsApp so that no one can see my picture and status and Aunty Jean got upset, so I put it back.” David could see that she wasn’t hearing what he said, wasn’t seeing, was inhabiting her own old world. Delete.

Mrs Clayman was starting a block of her own. This was all too silly. They’re just boys being boys with the new kid. It will pass. He was still adjusting to the new life. The school had it in hand. “David, let’s keep this in perspective shall we? They’re just lads and you’re different and sensitive, you know that don’t you? Let’s not get all bent out of shape about kids at school. It’s just their way, the British way, you know that I am pretty sure. You’ll get used to it. It’ll be fine.” Delete.

Sex in The Draftsman

There isn’t much to be honest, at least not much that is actually described, breathless and torrid. Sorry if that’s your gig. Sex is however one of the underlying themes of the book, even though the sex scenes aren’t explicit. In part this is because trying to write a sex scene is just so cringey. Try it and you’ll see what I mean. I have found that whenever I try it, the words invariably twist around and turn themselves into something that is very funny. I didn’t want that to happen in The Draftsman, so I avoided getting into too many details.

Is every exploration basically about sex? How do we need to understand it? What is its contribution to identity? Not sure. Read the book and tell me what you think. Or not.

The other thing that happens when trying to write sex scenes is that I start to blush and get embarrassed even though I am alone. It’s a problem and I don’t know any other writers well enough to discuss this with. I do know that when discussions head into the sex weeds in creative writing classes, the women take the topic very seriously and the men stare at their shoes. Perhaps it was just that particular group. Or perhaps sex is something that men writers find harder to chat about than women writers do. I fall into the men writer category, and I do have some very lovely shoes.

In The Draftsman, protagonist Martin Cox is a man whose sexuality is not clearly defined, it’s ambivalent. He’s a man who is always alone and who functions mostly in his head. For him sex belongs in an abstracted part of his psyche, a need rather than a dimension of his identity. Martin’s interested in sex, but not in any of the dramaturgy that for most people has to go with it. He just doesn’t care, cannot relate to any other aspect of his sexual partners, and is only concerned with their willingness to oblige. For Martin sex sits in its own box. Like hunger or the need to sleep, it’s not a defining characteristic of Martin Cox and it isn’t part of his identity. And yet that may not be entirely true.

Obviously I know why that is and you will too once you’ve read the book, but I wonder how widespread this disconnect is. Do we wall up parts of our natures in spaces that only occasionally can be accessed or, more darkly, that surface unexpectedly? This is an idea I plan to explore in the second book about Martin Cox, as he learns more about what happened to Ruth Lorne and her Canadian lover. In The Draftsman we learn a little bit about these characters, but only superficial details gleaned from diaries, police reports and newspaper cuttings. Ruth and Charles are certainly lovers, but sex may not have been part of their shared experience. Martin can be fascinated by these two people precisely because they are from another time, distinct from him but linked to him through their shared localities. They spent time in the same landscape as Martin, but over fifty years ago, far away enough on the continuum that Martin doesn’t need to integrate them into his world. They are in their own private box.

Martin Cox may be afraid or anxious about relationships and making a connection with someone who might have expectations about where that connection might lead. But this need for separation doesn’t have to be fundamental. This is addressed briefly in The Draftsman, but its implications are likely to be missed by many readers. That’s my fault for failing to add sufficient data to the scene, but the lack of data is precisely why Martin Cox reacts as he does to traumatic situations, including sexual ones. Read the book and let me know what you think.

The Draftsman and technology in the age of XXX

The world is awash with writers, fitness trainers, dog walkers, chefs and book bloggers. And around each of them is a web of service providers, sales channels and even sometimes paying customers. Yet very few of us have been able to give up the day job. As a début author (The Draftsman) I am totally drowned in an ocean of other writers and overwhelmed by the expectations of what one must do to stand out and build a following in the wild, wild world of XXX where XXX means whatever you want. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the work, the actual book, but everything to do with how skilled you are at managing the online channels, from Amazon to Wattpad (don’t ask), and how good you are at name dropping. And I am absolutely crap at all of it. I don’t want a relationship with algorithms or the XXX anons.

This is ironic, given that I have spent my career writing about technology, and that technology is what’s making all this possible. From word processors like Apple’s MacWrite and Microsoft Word, through to layout tools and the container for print ready pages that is PDF, I’ve been mostly on top of it. Looking back over the years I am pleased to see so many of the amazing innovations we’ve covered, now in the hands of so many creative people. These media production technologies are cheap, readily available and make it possible for anyone to produce a book, newsletter or whatever. And that has driven author incomes down.

The Draftsman, one in a gazillion.

It’s been the same story in the music industry as technology made production processes cheaper and accessible to more people. This is all quite wonderful because it lowers the bar to entry, so that more ideas can be shared in many different creative ways. Technology is central to The Draftsman, and how clever inventions make a difference to inventors, users and the planet. 

Technology is central to everything, so it’s fair to say that the publishing industry’s raw material, imagination and passion, is completely entangled with it. Today writers must develop an online following in order to be noticed. The online following comforts publishers who might be reluctant to take risks with new ideas and points of view. A following suggests a swathe of keen buyers and so informs budgets, project planning and print run lengths. Technology creates opportunity for so many expressive formats and allows publishers to identify and target potential readers for a given work. But there is way too much noise in the online world and much of it is self-serving and rather ugly.

In The Draftsman, set in 2006, two years after FaceBook launched, there is no social media apart from a passing reference to emails and the speed of internet connections. And there is a bit of foresight too, when Martin Cox ponders the rate at which many forms of printed content will migrate online, to decimate the printing industry and create opportunities for new business models. Even in 2006 when FaceBook was only two years old, it was clear that internet technologies were reaching not just into industrial applications, but also becoming central to daily living. By 2012 when FaceBook went public the platform had 845 million users and social media was a habit.

And yet I didn’t want Martin Cox to be an online junkie. He’s obsessive and dark, and what he would do with an online existence would be as obsessive, as dark. I didn’t want to write about how dark, given his personality and history, and his various confusions. But perhaps I should have done because that would have required more research into the whole social media eco-system and the paths through it. It might have made me a more adept manipulator of the channels and algorithms and it might have made me more popular, in a bitsy sort of way. (That’s binary digitsy, not little particles.) And the darkness in The Draftsman might have found an audience. Then I would have lots of followers and publishers might have been swooning at my feet. But then again, the lack of swooners might just be that I don’t write as well as I think I do. Read The Draftsman and decide for yourself. Ever yours, XXX.

The Trials of Getting Your Novel Published – Part 5

Getting through the publishing process, or not? (from October 2020)

It’s taken weeks to get over the trauma of the structural edit of The Draftsman. And in between then and now, life and the outside world have weaseled their ways into brain and heart to make it even harder to think fiction.

This might be a natural part of the process. You think about characters, you eventually consider what they do and don’t do and then you get the whole thing down on the page and suddenly without any warning it’s all gone, forgotten about. Then people ask you about the story, the characters and what they do, and what happens in the end. It’s not polite to offer the first response that comes to mind, but it is polite to smile and say “thanks for asking” and then to change the subject. Sometimes this works. If it doesn’t you can tell the truth. “It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what it’s about”. It’s only a little lie.

So fab, you send in your structural edit. And fab you wait, and you wait some more and some more and eventually you forget about it again. Then you see a diary note: “deadline for structural edit to Unbound” oh bugger. Then hang on, not oh bugger at all you say to yourself. Then slightly louder you say to the cuckoo clock “I sent that in, and I’ve heard not a whisper. Did they even get it? (who knows) Should I nag? (probably not) Can I resist the urge to ask? No I cannot.” And yes, they did get it. Pull some more teeth with another question: what happens next? 

After the structural edit?

A good structural editor will check for holes and that they are all in the right places.

Fortunately this is an easy question to answer, so the answer comes within weeks. What happens next is that the structural edit is reviewed and the editor puts together another set of queries and questions. These are so that the author can clarify why Mrs Himplestanger says she hates cheese in chapter two, but tucks into a cheese fondue in chapter nine. Oops. These are the sorts of things that authors really should notice, but often don’t. And why is that a surprise? Who knows about cheese or not when you’re forty thousand words away?

And while the structural editor is once more doing their wonderful thing, and you’re dreading having to read the bloody book yet again, you have other tasks to fulfil. The publisher wants a Style Sheet completed. This has nothing to do with formatting or paragraph properties but everything to do with “character lists and timelines”.

Character lists and timelines

I am not entirely confident that I can pull this together for The Draftsman, but I am trying. The trouble is that every time I take a stab at character lists and timelines, something terribly important needs doing and gets in the way. I have to straighten my speaker wires, polish my collection of novelty USB sticks and take an urgent inventory of the household rice collection (four varieties, all in good supply and all very surprisingly in date). Once the excitement of such activities wears off the character lists and timelines spreadsheet beckons once again. But then faced with a menacing array of empty Excel spreadsheet cells, arranging pens and pencils in size order on a far corner of the desk is suddenly an absolute must to do. And this vital task can take so long because the naughty pencils keep rolling off the desk. Then there’s the fringes on the rug to comb out, and the dead flies to line up and measure, and those spiders won’t spin their webs without a song or two to help them along. And so it goes. Thinking about it, there will be a couple of weeks before the structural edit second edition comes back with some important changes. Perhaps I’ll wait for that instead. Just in case.

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)