Saturday, 31 July 2010

On the mudflats

It's nearly dusk, but  there is no sun on the horizon. There hasn't been one for days. Just grumpy skies filled with low, grey clouds, indistinguishable from the sea that meets the end of the mudflats. Growing up inland, the first time she saw the broad expanse, she felt dizzy as if she might fall off the edge. She'd struggled to walk through the soft sands down to the muddy cockle banks. The only sand she'd seen before was in her father's time turner. He used to let her play with it while he read engineering reports. She'd loved turning it up and down, seeing the sand shift and slide, shift and slide - watching as time ran out.

Each day at low tide, the path through the soft sand marks the passing of her days. On the way out, her boots are clean, her tray empty. On the way back, she is mud-spattered, cold, wet, carrying a full tray back to the Collector waiting on the shore. There is no room for slacking. Only a full tray will do. And her father needs the money, so a full tray is what she will collect. Though her back is sore with the constant stooping, her arms ache, with the raking of the shellfish beds. Rake, sift, rake, sift - the pattern of her days

The shift is nearly over, the day is nearly done, but her tray is not full enough. These beds have been over-harvested, there are slim pickings to be had. Her fellow workers have moved towards the edge of the mudflats, closer to the incoming tide. She can see by their increased activity they have struck lucky. She squelches towards them, every footprint filling with water the moment she raises her boots. They will have to be quick.

On the seashore, the Collector looks down at the workers crouched over the shifting sands. Sky and sea meet in a dark grey huddle, it is hard to distinguish where the water's edge is. It is beginning to rain again. He cannot call the cockle-pickers - they will not be able to hear him. He could raise his arm, but it is unlikely they will look up from their labours. He considers his losses and turns towards his van.

On the mudflats, the workers have completed their haul. They stand up and begin the long march back to the beach. The sand shifts and slides beneath their feet. Shift, slide, shift, slide  - time is running out.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

#fridayflash Too Close to the Sun

This week's #fridayflash is dedicated to the Our Lady's School Storytelling Club a fine bunch of young storytellers and creative writers led by their inspiring deputy headteacher Mr Edwards-Grundy. This year we've been listening to Greek and Roman myths. The children have then mapped the key points of the story and learnt how to tell them to each other. Here's my version of one of the stories we spent a lot of time on. With many thanks to everyone in the group for their hard work and fabulous creativity. It's such a pleasure to help out.

The sun is high in the sky. It is too far away to see Apollo with his fiery chariot and his flaming horses. Icarus sighs. He wishes he was up there in the heavens, soaring in freedom, not trapped in this tiny tower room with his father. Why did Daedalus have to upset the king so? They should be honoured guests down below where the guards flash red, white and blue as they march up and down the courtyard; gardeners water the olive trees and orange groves; the queen's women shimmer gold and silver on their morning walks. Instead Icarus is forced to watch from the window, as he gathers feathers the birds leave behind on the ledge. His father is collecting them for some strange reason that he has yet to explain. But Icarus is an obedient boy, he picks up the morning offering and brings it back to Daedalus without question.

"Thanks son." His father is crouched in the corner, his back to the grey stone wall. He is sewing feathers together in what looks like an enormous cape. He adds the last few to the bottom and then sits back satisfied. He stands up and lays it on a table next to three others. "Now come here." He picks up a candle and lights it, letting the wax drip from the wick, and build in pools on the base of the candle. "This is going to hurt a bit." He pours molten wax on Icarus's right shoulder, down his arm, and the centre of his back. Icarus yelps with pain.  His father ignores him but quickly picks up one of the feather capes and sticks it onto the wax. The wax hardens and the cape clings to Icarus' back. It is itchy and heavy. Daedalus repeats the procedure on the other side.

"Now do you see?" he says. Icarus moves his arms up and down with wonder. His father has fashioned wings that fan out as he moves his limbs. He helps Daedalus fix his pair and they move towards the window.

"Two pieces of advice before we go," says Daedalus in a stern voice. Icarus nods, but he is only half listening. The ground looks a long way down. Can he trust his father's contraptions to work? He drags his attention back. "Aim for the middle of the sky. Fly too low, and the sea water will spray on your wings, weighing them down, dragging you into the water. Fly too high, and the sun will melt the wax. Did you hear what I said?"

"Not too  high, not to low. Got it."

"Good luck,"  His father pushes him to the edge. "Go, fly. Be free." He shoves him off. Icarus falls forward and sees the ground rushing towards him. The soldiers look up from their marching and scatter at the sight of the boy hurtling in their direction. The gardeners drop their watering cans. The women put their hands over their mouths in horror.

"Spread your wings, Icarus. Spread your wings." Just in time Icarus hears his father's words and spreads his arms out. At once the air currents lift him up. He flaps harder and moves higher, leaving the shouting, open- mouthed guards and astonished women behind. Daedalus dives off the tower to join him. Father and son swoop over the palace, out across the fields towards the sea.

After months confined to the tiny turret, the sheer expanse of sky and sea is a marvel. Icarus thrills to feel fresh air on his face, to be able to stretch his arms and legs. He soars and plunges through the sky. He is young. He is alive. He is free. He laughs with delight.

"Save your energy son," says Daedalus in warning, "It's a long way to go."

Icarus just laughs and leaps above his father's head. The sea stretches ahead of them for miles. The coastline is invisible. Daedalus has a point. The boy flaps his wings and settles into a rhythm. Gradually, Icarus finds his arms beginning to get heavy. A breeze builds up, and he floats for a while. But this brief respite does not last and soon his stiff limbs are forced to move again. On and on they fly, no land in sight, just patches of sea mist, which begins to thicken around them. The air becomes dank and chilly. Icarus shivers. He flies a little higher in an effort to keep warm. The mist swirls about them. He loses sight of his father. Cold drips through his bones. Where is Daedalus? How far now? Perhaps if he can rise above the cloud he can see where he's going. He flies higher, and higher. At last he emerges from the cloud into a blue sky glowing in sunlight. His veins flood with heat, restoring his energy. The coast is approaching. Below him, some distance away he can see his father beating a steady path with his wings. He sighs with relief.

Icarus laughs and soars upwards. He forgets his father's warning. He is drawn towards the smouldering orange sun above him.  Higher, higher and higher he flies. Now he is close enough to see the wheels of Apollo's chariot, the blazing eyes of the horses. He can even see Apollo's gold curly hair and bronzed skin, the concentration on his face as he whips his beasts along, straining in the heat of the fire-ball behind him. Icarus feels his cheeks sizzle and burn. And  something else -  a drip of liquid running down his arm. Then another, and another. Suddenly, he remembers his father's warning. Feathers are falling off him as his wings begin to peel off his body. In terror, he throws himself down, away from the melting heat of the sun. But it is too late. The wax is running over his skin, the wings are falling apart. He hurtles down through the sky, through the sea mist. He calls for his father, but Daedalus is too far to help. The terrified boy plunges down, down, down until he hits the water and is swallowed up by the deep blue waves.

Daedalus flies back to the spot, hoping against hope to see his son's face, an arm, a finger even. The water rises and falls, but there is no sign of the boy. At last, Daedalus feels his wings droop, and he knows if he is to survive, he must fly on to the shore.

He lands on the beach, and stands looking back towards the island. The waves lap at his feet. Across the horizon he can see Apollo's chariot reaching the end of its daily journey. A gull calls out over the darkening sky.  Suddenly he sees a mass floating in the water. His heart leaps for a moment. Then the waves shift and he realises it is simply pieces of broken wings bobbing in the tide. A wave crashes on the beach leaving behind bubbles of sandy foam. And something else. Daedalus stoops to pick it up and sighs.

This is all that is left: a small brown feather, caked in sea foam and marked with spots of red wax.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Plug of the Month - Evolve Journal

I discovered Evolve Journal almost by accident. Readers of this blog will have noticed by now I take part in the wonderful writing community that is #fridayflash (which deserves and will get a plug all of its very own soon). Jon Strother, the #ff coordinator, tweeted a link to an interesting article about whether to grade the writing in #fridayflash. You can find that article here. I was one of the myriad of commentators who argued that #fridayflash is about writers supporting writers and was struck by the way Chase, the author of the article, engaged with us and was willing to listen to our point of view. At the end of my comment, I invited Chase to visit this blog, which he duly did.  I was so interested in the discussion (and to be honest, don't have much time to be looking at websites in much depth) that I didn't register the article was posted under the title Evolve Journal.

So when EJ started following me, I didn't make the connection. I did what I always do, checked their twitter page and website, and liked what I saw. An online magazine promoting writing and writers, with a belief that "that literature can and should entertain while working to better society. We believe that literature should engage its readers in every possible medium, and that it is the role of the writers, publishers, and patrons of literature to help others enjoy and learn from literature"  In other words - my kind of magazine. It was only when Chase asked me to submit a story that it dawned on me that this was the person who'd been kind enough to listen to a tirade of comments from passionate #ff writers and my admiration for EJ was complete.

Each month EJ publishes a short story in a format that looks easily accessible for readers who you use EBooks and easy to read for those of us who don't. Each story has a front cover, chosen with great care to reflect the tale that is being told. They also do excellent book reviews and fascinating and encouraging interviews with writers about how to deal with rejection.

I know I'm biased, as EJ very kindly published me last month, but this is a great new magazine, already publishing interesting writers and reviewers. You only have to look here at July's story by Chloe Ackerman to see what  I mean. It deserves a wide readership, so please go and visit them soon!

Friday, 9 July 2010

#fridayflash Memento Mori

She looks so fragile in her sleep. The firmness of her finely sculptured face has crumbled into cavernous folds of skin between her cheek bones. Those hands - those powerful hands - are withered, covered in liver spots. Once, she was considered beautiful. Now - as death waits to claim her - all that is left is ugliness.

Some feel sorry for her. It doesn't matter anymore who she once was. Now she is simply a frail old woman, sick and in pain. She needs our loving care, just like all the rest. After all, we know her because she was in the public eye, Ginny says, Who knows what these others might have done in their time? The girls nod and sip their tea, before returning to soothe aches, change soiled clothes, turn bodies to prevent bed sores.

I remain behind in the staff kitchen, swirling the last dregs of my tea round and round, a tannin whirlpool at the bottom of my cup. I am not like my colleagues. It is precisely because of who she was that I cannot let her be.  Thanks to her, I watched my father lose first his job, then his way, finally his life. Cirrhosis of the liver. No surprise - we had lived with the memento mori of yellow skin and bloodshot eyes for years - yet the real culprit got away. Those hands, those powerful hands, waved away factories, call centres, shops and with a flourish of the pen, signed away benefits and health care. Whilst those beautiful chiselled cheeks smiled to the cameras as she explained it would create a leaner, fitter, more productive society. How can I forget?

I will be alone tonight. Once these sick women have all been tucked up like small children, my colleagues will leave. Over the next eight hours I will wander from room to room checking that the patients are sleeping, breathing - that all is as well as can be expected. It is not uncommon for death to come in the dark hours before dawn. I am often the first to find, and then report the passing of someone's mother, grandmother, aunt. It would not be so unusual if it happened to her tonight. She is very old, she is very sick, and in great pain.

The girls all leave at ten o'clock, laughing and joking as they escape back into the life that exists beyond these mortuary walls. I pace from room to room until I arrive at hers. I look at her still, sleeping face. She is barely breathing. I plump up the pillows, and steady  myself for what comes next.