Saturday 30 January 2016

eyeing up his rewards

Our brief for Creative Writing homework this week was to get outside our comfort zone and write a narrative piece getting under the skin of another character. Have I succeeded?
Back home now, he straightway went upstairs and unlocked the back bedroom door. Flicking on the lights he sat down at his work bench in the otherwise completely dark room. His bed had long ago been moved out, down to what had been the dining room. He’d boarded up the windows when he’d started, not wanting any other eyes in here. No one else ever came into this room. Not yet. For now they were his and only his. His rewards.  
It had started the night in the park, all those years ago, as he was dragging the red head into the undergrowth. She’d been surprisingly easy. Too easy in retrospect. Always walking the same route home after her late shift finished. Her black skirt tight across her backside, her black top taut against her chest, nipples hard, her unfettered boobs bouncing, almost jumping out, demanding attention. No doubt the punters in the pub salivated over the bar at them as she pulled their pints, or wanked themselves off under coats conveniently draped across their knees as they squatted on the bar stools. He’d salivated too you might say, he joked as he recalled his first. She always had pride of place. His first. Susan Jones. Such a tease, always joking with the clientele, always smiling at them as if they were Sean Connery, as if you were the only man left in the world, as if she had eyes for only you. What sorry drunken fools they were, these middle aged, greying men who sat alone and pushed back the beers night after night. Most of them wouldn’t be able to get it up if she was laid out in front of them for the taking, he thought. But not him, he’d had no such problem even there in the middle of the park in the quiet of the wee small hours of the night, he’d had her, back and front. She’d been easy to subdue, her tiny frame overwhelmed by his. His knife first at and then in her throat. He’d known to be careful, not to leave his DNA, to wear gloves, to cover his hair in his balaclava and to use a condom, much as he hated them. But it was the only way. He had to stop her taunting everyone, parading around like this, and this was the only way to stop their gawping. Her terror excited him, propelled him on as he thrust in again and again, climaxing with her last gasp as she lay bleeding out. As he rearranged himself before the walk home, he’d stood examining his work, the naked body laid out now in a perfect X, his knife marks carved out the cross on her chest. But something was not right, not as he had foreseen it. Her eyes were still open. Beautiful brown eyes. That wasn’t right. She shouldn’t be seeing her entry into Hell, she should be in panic, filled with terror of the unseen as she felt the external flames in the Darkness scorch her, she should not be able to see what would happen to her at the hands of the Devil and all his kind. So he’d cut them out.
Tonight he’d sent another miscreant soul to her Deliverance. By now he had got his work down to a fine art. He laid them out their own homes now, in their own beds. He’d found this added their shock, their horror, their fear and often to their initial submissiveness. He found he could spend more time with them this way, both before and after. He found that his thrill and organism was different before and after. Their before warmth giving way to a tissue tightening he found doubly stimulating. He increasingly enjoyed his work, and he felt that his knife work had improved, gaining a certain flair resulting in a more artistic final presentation. He did however maintain his discipline, neatly laying them out correctly for the Devil’s pleasure, and each time was permitted his reward.
He worked quickly and efficiently to mount tonight’s reward. Mixing the plaster of Paris, then ensuring their perfect alignment, measuring their exact spacing with his ruler he set them in place. Once dried and hard, he draw back the curtain hanging across the far wall and mounted them along with their name and date on the next available space. Each night he stood eyeing up his rewards collection reading each in turn, starting with the brown of Susan Jones, 14th November 2013 and tonight climaxing with the blue of Marcy Dawson, 26 February 2015. Only after completing this final part of this ritual did he strip off, drop his clothes in the washer, and shower before making supper and taking it up to his mother in the front bedroom.
© Sheila Ash 30th January 2015

May my heart be open to little birds who are the secrets of living

“May my heart be open to little birds who are the secrets of living” EE Cummings
I’m walking along the lane, stealthily, silently. Decisively placing one foot in front of another. Eyes alert, glancing briefly, constantly from side to side. Alert to all the hustle and bustle. I’m on a mission. The stall sellers line both sides of the alley. The smells and sounds of their wares overflow onto it. The clash of tin wares falling, the dud thud of plastic bowls and buckets, the blood red drainage from the butcher’s and from the haberdashery shop the song of chattering woman and a flash of bright yellow ribbon. My first stop. They like me there. I step inside and walk the length of the shop and back again before finding a plush green silk cushion to settle on. After a few minutes the haberdasher comes over with my milk “How are you today?” she says as she strokes my head. I snuggle in close. “Such a good boy” she announces to her customers. “The best vermin catcher” She turns back to her clients. I nestle deep in the cushion softness, sip my milk and fall into an ever so gentle snooze.
As I awake, I see the shop has become much busier. Woman and the daughters. Bales of pink cottons and silks are strewn across the counters. Bangles are being chosen. Ribbons measured. Perhaps I can sneak out quickly before that horrid little girl with the pigtails spies me. But I’m contentious of my “free” milk so I dutifully wander down the shop again, check behind a few of the bales of cotton, rummage in the remnant ends left piling up in the corner. But there is nothing else to be had here today. So I head on out.
I continue on down the alley heading for the chicken seller at the far western corner where there are always good pickings but it means passing the place run by the man in the white coat with its strange smells. I give it a wide berth, as always. There’s something about those smells and his coat I don’t like - too clean, like death, like the aroma from those new houses built on the edge of town, too clean, smelling of pine trees where there are none.
The alley has got much busier as the morning progressed. The woman are out doing their shopping and the stall holders are loudly and proudly trumping their wares. I negotiate the maze of legs. Spying a pair of red stilettoes I follow behind them for a while lulled by their luxury. I am thinking I am hers, with its lazy life, dreaming of cream and cuddles all day and night, the good life far away from the daily toil of the alley.
My dream is broken by a kick to my left side. “Ouch, that hurt” I’m flying through the air, landing in the drainage in front of the animal seller. Dazed, I try to take in what happened. I’d not seen the blow coming. I can’t identify the culprit. I try to stand. I need to get away from here. Tempted once by fat juicy fish swimming in a bowl, I had ventured in. But deep in the bowels of the store I had found fear. The sight of ferrets unable to turn round in their glass cages, of white rats engulfed by never stopping wheels, had never left me.
It’s then I hear it. A song bird singing. It is beautiful. I try again to stand, and inspired by the striking song I manage to do it. I’m still shaking but I am on my legs. The bird continues to sing its song. She is high above me in a wooden cage. I stare up at her. She continues to sing to me. For the first time I hear a mournful tone hidden behind its joyful chorus. I am hearing her real song, her real message. I try to reach her, but am unable to reach the cage, hanging out of reach, high on the stall’s door. Before I can try to stretch up again, the stall owner is on me “Shoo, get. Get out of here.” I run, the bird’s song is with me, getting louder and louder now as all the birds have joined in. Their symphony floods over me, embalming my bruised muscles, empowering my legs. I run, faster and faster. I don’t look back. I don’t stop until I am at the other end of the alley. I scramble behind the lumber pile, and resting there I look back down the alley knowing why a caged bird sings.
© Sheila Ash 25th January 2016

Sunday 24 January 2016

Sheltering from ties that bind

    A Sheltered WomanA Sheltered Woman
    This short story is available online
    It won the Sunday Times Short Story Prize in 2015, at GBP30,000 it is the richest prize for short fiction, and the author is the first woman to have won it.

    It is the story of Auntie Mei who works as a one month nanny with newborns and their nursing mothers, leaving after each baby turns 1 month old. Auntie Mei is currently working for Chanel, a Chinese American wife, whose much older husband is away working, and staying away. The young woman is a reluctant mother, struggling to produce milk and love for her child, possible post natal depression, although perhaps just a post delivery recognition that her seduction and capture of the older man has backfired on her.
    The title is interesting - who is the sheltered woman? and what is she sheltered from? Is it Chanel, is it Mei, was it her mothers, her grandmother? Or all of them. Mei's own upbringing is a strange one, brought up by mother and grandmother, without male influence. The final line " When she moved on to the next place, she would leave no mystery or damage behind; no one in this world would be disturbed by having known her" suggests to me that it is Mei herself you is sheltering herself from her true self by the life she has chosen to lead - a childless woman perpetually working with newborns, only to leave them untouched and untouched by them when they are one month old. No wanting any ties that bind, she moves on quickly and apparently unregretfully to the next Baby. In many ways no different to the other characters inthe story, who all loosen, break ties to others.

    ashramblings verdict 4 * I do like stories which do not have a traditional ending!

    Love does not necessarily conquor all

    The Cove Audiobook


    The Cove


    Ron Rash

    Narrated by Jennifer Woodward

    This story is basically a doomed war time love affair. Laurel Shelton and her war wounded brother Hank live in the cove, a dark forboding place in the Appalachian Mountains that their now dead parents had got cheap as no one else wanted it and which locals still dread. One day in the woods she finds a stranger, stung almost to death by yellow jackets and brings him home to their cabin. He cannot speak, but once recovered stays, helps around the farm and their love blossoms. But his past catches up with them all as Chauncey Feith, the local army recruiter, whips the town into a patriotic fervour, hunting down German sympathisers, getting German Professor Mayer bannished from the college campus, commandeering German books from the Library, setting up the boys brigades, and finally organising a big shindig as the local town prepares to welcome back its wounded local hero, gassed by the Hun.

    The story is well written, with good hooks along the way which are not explained but which lead the reader to the outcome of the story very well. The language is lovely, depicting time (towards the end of WW1) and place well (Appalachian Mountains in rural Carolina near the Tennessee border). There were lots of references to plants I'm not familiar with but which served to give the idea of a pre-war rural idyll with undeveloped, unspoilt countryside. Rash also portrays the hard life of the agricultural inhabitants in such a backwater, ignorant and bigoted, where the lynch mob rules whether targetted at those with a birthmark who are deemed to be a witch (Laurel Shelton), or of those of German ancestry who are deemed to be spies. Sadly one could make parallels with views held in some quarters about muslims today, and as we are shown in the Prologue to the story, the insular nature of such locations lasts on.

    I'm really not a fan of American women readers – usually their voices are too brash, too high pitched for my ears, but this one was OK.

    ashramblings verdict 4* My first book by Ron Rash and mightily impressed by him as a story teller

    Thursday 21 January 2016

    Gok Wan restyles Anne Reid!

    The Matisse Stories


    A.S. Byatt

    I’ve only read one AS Byatt before The Children’s Book which I had struggled with. This led to my book club buddy recommending this collection and the Djinn in the Nightinggale’s Eye as the best ones to try and I have only now got round to reading more Byatt because my online book club’s short story thread is reading the first story from this collection over the next fortnight.

    The collection begins with the story “Medusa’s Ankles” which can also be found online. Middle aged and plump like the Matisse Pink Nude which had originally drew her to this hairdresser’s salon a year or so ago, Susannah is sat in the chair struggling with the continuous inane commentary from the hairdresser about his mixed up love life, his revamp of the design of his salon to jarring techno-black, her own increasing flabbiness and concern with her aging body and dying hair. Her cathartic explosion in the story is dramatic and its ending brings home just how much our own view of our bodies differs from the view of others.

    I struggled with reading this story, finding many of Byatt’s sentances jarring and hard work to read. Perhaps this was the author’s intention – to get this reader into the same frustrated state of mind as Susannah – if so it worked and the story in the end made an impact on me such that it encouraged me to hunt out and listen to an audio version of the whole collection (The Matisse Stories unabridged audiobook by Recorded Books read by Virginia Leishman (1997) is available on Scribd). After listening to the story read, I realised this would make an excellent screen play/short film, with a sort of Gok Wan like actor playing Lucien and Anne Reid playing Susannah.

    The second story “Art Work”  tells the story of the family life at 28 Alma Road where Debbie a rushed of her feet mother handles her work-at-home artist husband, Robin, her own “breadwinner” work as design editor at a magazine, their children and their housekeeper Mrs Brown. Debbie believes Mrs Brown has become indispensible, making cushions, jumpers in bright colours and goading and baiting “him” by moving thinks around that Robin is sketching causing Debbie to act as peacemaker between her cleaner and her husband. This relationship between Robin and Mrs Brown, comes to a climax over a disagreement on colour.

    Then gallery owner Shona McRury comes to see Robin's paintings  which she considers to be about the littleness of life, whereas he thinks they are about the infinite nature of color. Robin sees them as non repetitive series about colour and space, whereas McRury  sees then as increasingly repetive and increasingly boring. Unable to articulate what he is trying to achieve, McRury leaves Robin without the hope of a show. Mrs Brown follows her out of the house and Debbie sees the two engage in conversation but hears nothing, She is left in as much of the dark about the conversation as the reader is until the next scene when Debbie’s magazine is invited to McRury’s gallery.

    I suppose the story if about transformation of Mrs Brown and of Robin, but Debbie remains as before the stalwart,m ainstay of the family, holding it all together with the help of a replacement cleaner and Robin and Mrs Bown adjust themselves to the experience. 

    The third story is entitled “The Chinese Lobster” and can also be found online. Its a story about academic politics and how it handles an accusation of sexual assualt on a student who openly wants a different tutor, one more sympathetic to her viewpoint. Sadly ths story, once again left my totally bemused by Byatt.

    Byatt stories for me always seem to evoke an elitist, middle class, London intelligensia, not only in her characters but also in her words, symbolism and references, in this case to various artworks. I suspect this makes her works rather inaccessible to some readers. I remain to be convinced by her writing which always makes me feel I am missing something from her work but which also makes me keep trying.

    ashramblings verdict 2*   I continue to struggle with Byatt.

    Sunday 17 January 2016

    The snowman cometh


    “Hurry, hurry, before it goes”
    Where it came from no one knows.
    On with the hat, the scarf and the gloves
    On with the wellies still covered in mud
    On with the mac and out of the door
    Running and sliding and shouting for more.

    Rolling it up into 2 big balls
    Laughing and waiting for more to fall.
    2 stones for his eyes, a small clump for his snout
    A twig for his cigar stuck into his mouth
    3 stones for his waistcoat to give him some style
    Our hat and our scarf complete his profile.

    Now back in the warmth, we all stand and smile
    We check on his wellbeing every little while.
    But bedtime comes round and sleep fills our eyes
    We dream of the snowman and mum’s christmas pies.
    Tomorrow he’s gone, we don’t really know where,
    The sun is now shining, we don’t really care.
    He’s only in transit, he comes and he goes
    Forgotten for now till the next time it snows.

    © Sheila Ash 17th January 2016

    Friday 1 January 2016

    A runaway success!

    The Year of the Runaways


    Sunjeev Sahota

    This is the story of the lives of migrants, legal and illegal. Randeep, Avtar and Tochi live in a house in Sheffield. It shows the reasons why they made the trip to the UK – lack of money, lack of work, poor harvests, the precariousness of life in the face of mounting debt, parents and siblings to support back home (Avtar) , or after their violent caste provoked deaths (Tochi). The routes taken – selling kidneys, taking out loans to pay for student visas, loans to secure the family’s business in times of economic stress, the arranged marriage-visa route and the “back of a lorry” route. Randeep’s visa wife is Narindar a highly religious British Sikh, who has chosen this route, against family honour and community values, to help where once she could not, to now do what she considers “the right thing”. This is their story over the course of a year when their 4 lives are flung together. They struggle to find work with their “fauji” status, even with student visa, a marriage visa, there is a fine line of difference between them and Tochi’s fully illegal status. They  have to keep their money as cash, sending most of it back home, as regular, and as much as possible, balancing the need for this, with the demands of the loan sharks UK agents, with eating, surviving on roti and sabzi fo rthe most part. They are easy prey to the unscrupulous gang masters, shop and restaurant owners who pay them a pittance for long hours of work in terrible conditions, never mind those who steal their passports and lock them up at night between workdays. Its a grim but realistic account of a life most of us are comfortably ignorant of. Sahota captures very well the characters, their plight, their hopes and fears, their brotherly love, their isolation, their moments of tenderness and humanity, of brutality and survival.

    ashramblings verdict 4* and a very just 2015 Booker shortlisting. The audio version is read brilliantly read by Sartaj Garewal giving the Hindi vernacular an authentic ring, thereby helping readers not used to the sounds, intonations, or vocabularly, the integratiion of which, in my opinion, Sahota handles really well removing the need for a glossary.