Monday, 20 March 2017

Several Pieces for My Mindometry Collection

Work in Progress. 

I am writing and collecting pieces that mirror my reflections on my time over the last three months on experiencing what the medics call  'low mood.'

 It's not all bad.

I hope eventually these pieces will build into a collection called:


Mindometry

States of mind

La Même

Thinking he was someone else
you leaned down and kissed him
But he wasn’t someone else,
he was the same -
the same slow delight,
the same pale, bright eyes,
the same puckish smile.
But you must admit
he was not the same.
Not the same.


Descartes

You sheltered under a dry stone wall
on the windy side of the moor
sharing the contents of his leather bag:
red wine and round biscuits.
You spoke of thinking and being,
your laughter echoing his,
across drying heathers.
When the storm blew up
you scampered down,
his leather bag over your shoulder,
leaving behind an empty bottle
and the last round biscuit,.
Je pense donc  je suis. 
OR 
Cogito ergo sum
OR
I think therefore I am 

Promise

It was a new car.
You did like your cars
You drove me two hundred miles
to the place where you were born -
the street where you played as a child
and the beach where you fished with a long line
and then to the road
across from the grammar school
where you walked with your father.
He said to you,  'The red brick building 
over there will be  your gateway to power.
Be sure of that.' 



Still a Problem 

Turmoil in your mind
stops you sitting down
to do what you want to do
These are not hard tasks –
simple transcriptions or
straightforward amends. Easy.
But it’s like I’m stone or steel
Lacking the power to move from
sofa to  desk.
  

  

 The  Door

The desk in the window is making a difference. This is it, she  thinks That light streaming into the room and onto the grass and the tall trees. It will be easy to sit here for three  hours and concentrate on a book or a blank, naked page. It's truly not so intimidating as the other place
.
The other space is a back room with a big black door. Once, she wanted it to be the perfect workroom with a living fire , space for shelves and tables for papers.  And, of course,  a desk for the big computer.

But now she cannot enter that room at all and has moved into this room with the sunny window.

She begins to think that her revulsion against  the back room has something to do with essence, spirit. In her life she has glimpsed and heard things that she knew where not there. She has learned not to speak of this because of the knowing looks, the half-smiles shot in her direction.  As a child she was   accused more than once of being away with the gypsies.

Now she thinks again about this essence.  Perhaps her feeling of dread comes from the spirit of some eighteenth century maid or wife, for whom the room was a much-feared place. Or perhaps it is the  strange world flooding in through the firecracker gateway of the computer: a world which is too vast, packed with too many people, too many things, too much pain,  all of which stain  the screen with abandonment and cruelty.

Then perhaps this  revulsion is to do with her own guilt about work undone, tasks untackled. Or perhaps it's the timid soul which she knows is at her core.

This morning in this sunny window-space she decides to pull herself together, to get out of the house and away from its essence, its spirit. It could be too easy, she thought, to  stay locked in and fall asleep yet again,

 So she  flees the house and drives out through  trees to find a calm.cool space where she can attend  to her life, manufacture order out of chaos and make decisions to move forward.   She thinks this new strength is about being away from the house, freeing herself from the inner strings that tie her down.. Now she is away from the dull routine which makes her dislike the person she has become. She knows she is not that person. She had manufactured that person to meet the low expectations in her life.

She knows that she loves the house in her own way, She knows they are woven into each other after so many years,. Caring for the house was no different to caring for herself, she thinks, Revolting against the house is revolting against herself.


Yes, it's complicated.   Be sure of that. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Using Great Writers in your Writing Process


I am occasionally dismayed by the weight of instructional material to teach new writers around these days. There seems a plethora out there particularly now on the internet, on blogs and even on Twitter.


It’s as though for writers to ‘succeed’ (however you define that…] the new writer just need to apply – for example -  ‘five things’ to their short story, or their paragraph, or the beginning of their novel, or  the ending their novel, or publishing their book, or designing their  cover, or marketing their book or building their brand and hey presto! They have a book that thousands of people that people will put on their reading pile. Or not.

This all begs the question that true writers those creative, instinctive, loose-cannon type individuals can be ‘instructed’ and led to success by obeying instructions.

It also begs the question about the expertise of some instructors.  Does their expertise lie in Lit Crit credentials acquired in places where their own instructors have endorsed arcane bullet-point lists simplified and extracted from the work of great writers in the chimera that is writing of distinction?

Or does it come from the journalistic facility emerging from reviewing books in the national or local press? Or to a lesser degree, even from reviewing books on the internet through their blogs or Twitter? Or does it come from owning a PhD in Creative Writing. acquired through literary study, sanctioned peer bullying, and imitative practice pieces  rather than a body of work, showing that they really are experts in this esoteric process of writing, which remains harder than gossamer to pin down?

For myself I look to great and successful writers who have earned their credentials by writing long and short  fiction themselves which opens doors in the minds of readers, making them think, hate, love,  laugh, cry, identify, salivate, relish and learn, without even noticing the time passing by.
Walter Mosely


Of course, with the exception of generous individuals like Walter Mosely*, most committed writers are too involved cooking up, concocting, dreaming, empathising, scribbling, pounding the keyboard and channelling all the realms of their experience into their stories, to give new writers  the comfort of instructive lists about the path to success.
That’s not to say we cannot learn from them.  But the method is much more challenging than making lists. To learn how to write a short story I would advise a new writer to read six stories by substantial and accomplished writers such as William Trevor or Guy de Maupassant, or Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf or by Raymond Carver. (Or choose five successful writers in your chosen field or genre.)

It’s important to read 5 or 6 stories by any single 
writer. Each writer is different. I
Virginia Woolf 
would advise a new writer to read them and raise him or herself out of the passive role of reader into the attentive role   writer and note -  either on the book itself, or in a dedicated notebook – just what these acknowledged masters are doing – each in his or her own unique way.  

The new writer will notice then that these writers don’t dissolve into a common list of qualities or methods. What is shared between these works is the way the stories illuminate some particular qualities of mind, motivations and events that rings true to the reader, like a perfect bell, even if all these aspects are world away from this new writer’s own experience.

The same approach is entirely appropriate if the novel is the writer’s desired form. I would say read intensely the work of several great novelists - read as a writer, note what you recognise -  about the way each writer gets to his own truth, using language as a tool – sometimes fine, sometimes blunt - and developing a particular form and structure as the best vehicle for this truth.

I say to new writers, ‘If you do this you will notice and internalise many significant things.  And when you sit down buzzing with original ideas for your own story you will have furnished your subconscious with insights and instincts that will guide you through your own unique process without addressing your task  in any imitative way.’

This might look  like a long  process  but if the new writer is seriously keen on being a good writer as well as a successful writer, this intense study phase is very enjoyable and life enhancing. It takes years to become a potter, a cabinet maker or a doctor – all equally significant professions alongside that of a writer.

Becoming a writer through this process means that every day you add to your insights into the writing process. In the end you will be a better person and a better writer than you could ever have dreamed. And you will have produced a good story, or a great novel.

And not a list in sight,


This is a good article about quality in short stories :https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/oct/17/the-10-best-short-story-collections 




Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A writer defining Dips – the Ups and Downs of Low Mood.




So, you’re sailing along, feeling great.
Even greater.
Then you take a dip, a curtsey, a nod to fate,
a dark dip into the black, a mind filled with
storming thoughts: Rachmaninov’s brain fever -
a creeping paranoia that makes the world your enemy
crowded with open mouths, crying and wailing,
demanding attention, Attention.
Achtung! Achtung!

Now for the first time flirting with death.
No. Flirting with the idea of that unspeakable state
brought into being by the recent death of a friend -
other deaths punctuating my long life,
going back to the deepest loss.

There you have it: a great big dip. Proving that this
is not just  a chapter setting the future theme
but a timely reversal,  a dip to keep you grounded
on the way back to normality.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Free Lines inspired by Len Cohen’s phrase, 'Dance me through the panic ...'




Dancing
Strings vibrate your soul
Embracing the unreal
Drums thump against  your heart
You breathe, your distinctive sweat
threaded through with Elan by Coty.
Your feet itch to stomp, to jump and sway,  
Your body invades your brain  
Your voice sings  along, anticipating
the new world drenched with promise




Panic                                                      
Crowded places, detailed lists,                    
a thousand colours in your eye
sidelong looks, curling lips
leaden heart, boiling brain
shaking hands, frozen self
trapped tightly in one place
recalling futile actions 
and aborted promises
copping out, settling for less, 
embracing compromise.
haunted by unborn children,
breathing behind a wall of glass

Here comes  the panic and now there is no dance





Sunday, 12 February 2017

Love Song for France

(Inspired by Leonard’s Cohen’s eponymous prose piece)



Why I Love France

The heat in the morning, the click of rigging and the rustle of  
of sailing boats setting out for Africa: a long old journey
The wash of the tide against the staithes
Spreading out the seaweed yet again. And again

Francine and Joe waiting in the shadows to walk into my story
Pere Goriot walking arm in arm with Jean Valjean
Alongside Jean Sablon and Simone de Beauvoir.
The padding of my sandalled feet matched by the click of jackboots
And the hollow calls of Jean Moulin

Church celebrating the sea breathes smoke and scent
Seagulls, cormorants; a man counting untypical ducks,
their ducklings ticking along behind.
Boys - a whole day to play with -  swoop into the sea on a tripwire.
Pink sunset catching the tall buildings in relief
Rose red moon rises yet again over…
Moliere, Robespierre, Desmoulins, Beaudelaire, Maupassant
Inspiring revolutionaries and English poets.













Then there is Paris, dusty elegance in straight lines
Bateaux mouches cruise the slumberous Seine  
Markets like still-lives illustrating a world of plenty
Men in overalls drink cognac with their morning coffee,
Music and chatter leak out of riverside cafes and
songs gargled with laughter spill across the cobbles
towards paintings lined up against the stone walls of a church
A woman in a black dress pocked with fragrant lavender seeds
tips her ear to the voices of Americans who
have danced in this favoured city.

France is world of veils and shadows, pregnant with story.







Afternote: Francine and Joe walked into my novel Writing at the Maison Bleue. W
See sidebar 

Also see sidebar for An Englishwoman in France

Monday, 6 February 2017

This Writer’s Perspective on the Legend of King Arthur


The Book of the Graal



The following tumble of thoughts was inspired by another post-Christmas read, The Book of the Graal by Josephus, originally written about the year 1200. translated in this 2016 version by E C Coleman who offers this partial narrative, ‘… what I take here to be all in good faith the original story of Perceval and the holy grail, whole and incorrupt as it left the hands of its first author.’

The straight narrative here is a deep pleasure for this writer, uncorrupted as it is by nineteenth century romanticism and the ongoing twentieth century Disneyfication of the egregiously plumped-out legend of King Arthur and the Round Table.


Our human condition hard-wires us physiologically and psychologically to search for story. Story is the way we make sense of our complex worlds. We inherit, build on and invent narratives that give form to the chaos that is human experience.

When I say story I don’t mean stories written down as text-to-be read out loud and handed down, I means told stories which, through millennia, build themselves into our so deeply into our DNA -  not just the brain but in the flesh. It sits there for us to dig into intuitively for an explanation, a rationalisation for the strongest and strangest of human experiences – love, hate, death, murder, revenge, lust, passion, poetic delight. We call on this intuitive understanding of story to find an appropriate explanation to the palimpsest of our own unique experience. This ‘hard wiring’ explains why some us experience flashes of past and future events, apparently shared, by others in the past and the future.

Reading the pages in Josephus’s book I found my own story-hard-wiring sparking up like a Catherine wheel. I was on familiar ground. Hadn’t I used this whole panoply of fourth century sources - images, objects, song and story when researching my Welsh/Celtic/Roman novel The Pathfinder? The time-context of my novel predates the time-context of Josephus’s narrative. In fact the historical Uther Pendragon – father of Arthur – has a walk-on part in The Pathfinder,

So here we go.

As translated here Josephus’s narrative has the distinctively singular tonality the flowing movement of the oral storyteller rather than the transformative poet or pedantic historian. In those times Celtic priests - sometimes called Druids; in my novel I call them Seers - were alarmed as the emerging custom of writing things down rather than remembering them. They feared  that their acolytes would lose the gift of intricate memory that could install a thousand years of memory in a single human brain. These were times when high culture was expressed in prodigious memory, intricate social organisation, beautiful artifacts and world-wide trade – and did not rely on the written form. This written form emerged with Roman invasion and occupation and is often used to support the   false 'fact' that the Romans were among primitive people who could only benefit from being conquered,

The people's own oral narrative tells a different story. However, even in this intriguing volume we only have half of the grand history. The first half, (which must be buried in some archive)  is missing.  In this narrative we have to take for granted what we have been brainwashed with: the grandiose Victorianised version of the kingdom of Arthur and his round table of perfect gentle knights.

Josephus’s fascinating original narrative takes up the story half way through, presenting the interweaving narratives of the knights Percival, Gawain, and Lancelot with the shadow of a broken Arthur behind them. Arthur really only emerges towards the end, revivified by the heroic exploits of his three top knights. 

 The picture this story paints is of a South Western Britain and Northern France covered with forests as closely as rabbit’s fur. Knights are depicted as emerging from,  and retreating into the forest on their horses. Forest clearings are the locations of encounters between enemies and knights and fair damsels. Robbers – not worthy of a gentleman’s death by the sword or the axe,  are taken into the forest to be hanged   

 Scattered across this sylvan territory are castles of various kinds and quality, inhabited by tribal kings who are seen by the storyteller as good or evil. The knights of each court battle against their opposite numbers. Good against evil. Evil against good. The situation is clearly very fluid. As the depressed King Arthur’s virtuous rule recedes in the country,  evil Kings gain a foothold. So Arthur  sends Percival, Gawain, and Lancelot on various challenging quests to restore the balance between good and evil. The central thread binding their quests together is to find the ‘holy graal’ (not grail), which is here represented   here as a platter rather than the more recently evolved cup 

Alongside the ubiquitous fine horses, the accoutrements of battle – swords, axes, shields - are central to this narrative. Knights are identified (sometimes mis-identified) by their shields. As the questing knights enter a castle they dis-arm themselves,  or are dis- armed by ‘fair damsels’ who go on to wash them and dress them in silken robes so they can be entertained at the feasting table in a civilised fashion, even by their enemy

As I thought about  this I got a quick flash of a 1960S Western where the heroes and the villains leave their guns on the bar. Then I got a flash of secondary school children leaving their phones on the teacher’s desk as they enter the classroom.

As well as disarming and dressing the knights the damsels carry precious symbols like a golden circlet and the graal,  They also have their own personal quests. In the case of one damsel this is to carry round the heads of slain nights to mark the victory in battle.

This cult of the head is everywhere – carried around to identify and sometimes honour the dead, displayed as an offering to a leader or stuck on posts at the gates of a castle to claim victory.  ( A Custom which lasted down to the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The weapons of execution are also highly symbolic. Central to one part of this narrative
Joseph  of Aramathea
is the sword that struck off the head of John the Baptist and brought to the British shore by Joseph of Aramathea. The story has it that this same sword was stuck in a stone column in a chapel  (not a rock) waiting to be pulled out by an honourable knight.

This cult of the head struck a chord of recognition with me. Although this volume was not part of my research for my novel The Pathfinder, in that novel the hall of a powerful northern chieftain (dreamed up by me) is lined by the skulls generations of defeated enemies and honoured ancestors. He too lives in dense forested land, as does the chieftain father of my heroine Helen, who lives deep in the forests of West Britain in the land we now call Wales.

My novel also marks the gradual change from Celtic pantheism to the worship
The Pathfinder Click for Amazon
Also on Kindle
(sometimes forced) of one God and the emergence of Christianity. This narrative is also threaded through with the historical imperative of the spread of the Christian church in the wake of the Roman occupationm

As the knights go hither and thither on their various quests they encounter hermits in chapels where they say mass when they return from, or set out on their journeys. Masses mark the passing of time for these itinerant knights.

As the story evolves King Arthur (sensibly wanting God on his side) confirms the importance of the masses and the hermits. And this , interestingly, is when he ordains that all chapels should have a big bell  to ring out their celebration of this new faith,

The female element in this legendary narrative is well established by the attendance of  comfort damsels, by their ritual deceased-head and symbol-bearing role mentioned earlier. The holy presence of the Virgin Mary as the female ideal underpins much of the narrative, This is sustained by the presence of the mother of Percival and the offstage presence of Guinevere who dies, also  offstage before the end. In this early narrative there is no mention of a dishonourable relationship between  Lancelot and Guinevere, merely his veneration and deep love being unrequited

So here is a perfect narrative surely handed down in the Celtic oral fashion and written down hundreds of years later  in 1200AD- praising the role of honour in society, knitting together various actual events, distilling the actions of symbolic heroes and villains inhabiting a world on the edge of chaos. It welds together the ancient spirituality  with the dawning dominance of  Christ worship, making some kind of order through claims and counterclaims, evolving rules  of courtesy and precedent, embodied in the person of the gentle perfect knight who is trusted because of his natural valour and virtue.

This is a much more graceful and charged account of those days, coming down as it does through oral accounts. It is so much purer  than the later romanticised, over-decorated Victorian  renderings such as Morte d’Arthur, which lean  on  it Victorian context rather than its true Celtic origins.

Interestingly, missing in this narrative are such familiar embellishments  as dragons. (There are real lions here,, not dragons. The only dragon is on the shield of a West Briton Knight).  And  missing also is betrayal of Arthur by  Lancelot’s and Guinevere. Also missing is the concrete existence of Camelot except by naming.  Then the castles here are not be-ribboned edifices; they have little resemblance to the Hollywood Camelots. I have the impression of  those great wooden stockades more familiar to us from the American Western.

I loved reading this book because its reflection of Celtic and post-Celtic culture has a ring of truth for me. And I loved reading it because it made me realise that in writing The Pathfinder I had quite intuitively rung the bell of my own narrative  truth, as clear as one of Arthur’s chapel bells.




Wednesday, 4 January 2017

A Writer’s Commentary* on 'The Invention of Angel Carter' by Edmund Gordon,

 I've just finished reading my Christmas present from @lickedspoon : the new biography of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon. It was a thoughtful present. She knows  I am very interested in the esoteric elements of the writing process as well as the unique cultural and political processes of the twentieth century,

So, I passed several days avoiding the inevitable post-Christmas torpor in reading this biography of a writer who perhaps saw herself - and was seen - as the Che Guevara of English Post WW2 letters.

 I don't envy this biographer his huge task of apprising the millions of words, in terms of work, journalism, commentary, and letters in her archive, including a thousand pages in letters to a single friend - all now deposited in the British Library, if you want to dip into it -   that flowed from her pen in the complex task of self-creation - of  defining and redefining herself, inventing herself, endowing reason to her impulses, adapting her interpretation of her thoughts and experiences  to 'prove' the truth of the centrality of myth in her world-view.



Even as a feminist from the beginning I have never thought of Angela Carter's work as more than marginal and of esoteric interest (although she did anticipate with prescience the present-day tranche of simplistic erotic vampire teenage sub-literature.)

But the more I read Gordon’s book the more interested I became in the way the unique psycho-drama of her own life and the weird psychopathology exploded into her writing. Having just finished a novel myself, focused on the inner life of an imaginative girl child I was a particularly captivated. 


I began to see how 'the clever-undergraduate' characterises Angela's writing. Because (although she had a truly big brain tuned into fantasy and turned that to good effect) she didn't get to Oxford at eighteen. Her intense reading was a rag-bag - widely eclectic and impulse-driven, and - although she later did a degree as a mature student - without the essential filter of intellectual discipline or  academic discourse to sort it all out so she could internalise it and allow it to bed down in her consciousness. Only in this way do we begin to integrate our acquired knowledge into our unique conssiousness  – to make it our own. She was confident enough then to rubbish certain lecturers and experts and adore others. So she missed out on the true academic discourse that prevents youne junior school argument
Jane ‘tis so!
John ‘tis not!
Jane ‘tis so!
John ‘tis not!
Jane ‘tis so! 
Jane bashes John over the head,

As the details emerged in this biography it seemed to me that Angela was like a magpie picking up bright things (and people) with which to line her writer's nest. The result of this unique evolution has been - despite the hagiographic splurge of comment that emerged after her very sadly early death at 51, the range of her literary output can still be seen is somewhat chaotic, derivative and distinctively un-synthesised.

These are the characteristics of an autodidact, of course. Being a bit of an autodidact myself I am aware that we grasp on every new bit of knowledge or insight like a sweetie and parade it around like a banner. Angela Carter did this with her mixture of Freud, Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, de Balzac, Baudelaire, Burgess, de Sade, Grimm, Perrault and many others (A formidable task for this biographer to explore ...)  Sweeties from all these sources were selected to fit her particular imagined world-viewn regarding what it was to be human or animal, what it was to be a man and what it was to be a woman. And she communicated her special view  that the differences between all these -  (animal, human, man, woman) were essentially a social construct rather that a given identity -  through her literary and journalistic output.

I began to think that there is something of the infant in Angela’s phenomenal self-absorption.  I was also very impressed by her literary self-confidence. She always felt she was a great writer and fated to be famous, and convinced the people around her of this, through her forceful self belief, her overt un-synthesised scholarship, alongside her mannered whimsical charismatic charm. These qualities in total made her  free spirit attractive to a wide range of people who were much less sure of themselves in those changing times. These included Carmen Calill and Liz Calder, themselves gifted literary change makers; they included her baffled depressed first husband and her silent, enamoured young second husband. They included her two Japanese houseboy/lovers – one who thrived in later life, on who didn’t. They included some of the students she mentored at the Universities of Sheffield and East Anglia. (The advice she gave, documented here, seems strange to me.)

I began to think that her greatest creative product was herself; self-made, self-storying, self-constructed. Her complex  construction included the paradoxes confident/awkward, boastful/overtly modesty.

I ended up wondering whether Angela had ever recovered from being the intensely spoilt, greedy child of indulgent parents especially including an obsessively possessive mother. The latent cruelty which blossomed in Carter's emotional make- up and in her encyclopaedic writing was brought to flower in part through her lifelong demonising of her mother, in her struggle to declare her own separate soul. The stifling, intense feminisation of her childhood experience, it seems to me, set in motion her further dogmatic (ie intellectually unsynthesised) assertions that the differences between men and women are a social construct. And that there need be no rules, no boundaries to her writing.

Still, when she feels strongly about something one can trace an inverted snobbery in her commentary. She flags up her distant working class background when it suits her, to despise the pretentious middle class around her, of which she is a member. And then her reflections on the working class people around her focus more on the ridiculous and comedic than the human,

It seems she is such a dedicated individualist she lacks empathy with both the middle class and the working class contexts in which she finds herself. This might have afforded her much greater insight as a writer into the true nature of myth and fairy tale in society. This might have happened had she not hi-jacked them to fit her own psycho-social worldview and make her personal art form.

The inchoate tumble of these ideas - much vaunted as 'groundbreaking' and 'original', by her reader and writer-fans - lacks the discipline which would have allowed her to work out a credible coherent argument and contribute widely to thinking and storying in this field. Her self-described role as the 'moral pornographer' is disingenuous. It has a   lot of esoteric charm but it lacking in rigorous thought.

Reading Gordon’s engrossing account of the talented Angela Carter’s invention of her own life did not at all put me off recognising her as a good writer in her time.  But  I kept thinking of the bright universal wisdom of Ursula le Guin which for me places her way above Angela Carter in terms of the skill, the fantastic insight which endows true literary value of her work in the similar field.

The Invention of Angela CarterA Biography

By Edmund GordonChatto & Windus 2016 

NB* This is my own commentary* - a writer’s reaction this book.
For a more straightforward review read
Rosemary Hill’s review in the Guardian 

Monday, 21 November 2016

WIP Another Patch for the Quilt that is my Big Novel

Primrose’s Kingdom

                      12th  November 1942

There was no doubt that Primrose Baggot loved men. This was useful because there were many men in her life. She dealt with them in business. She dealt with them in the bar. She had a different banter for every customer. . Maggie, who admired her free and easy ways, thought that Primrose had something of the man about her. She didn’t kowtow to anyone. ‘I’d never fettle for any man,’ she once told Maggie. ‘That’s why I never married. Bed, board and body, that’s all they want. But when they’re that side of the bar they’re canny enough,’
Maggie thought there was no doubt that the men liked Primrose. Her regulars  liked her free and easy, near the knuckle banter and they laughed and joked with her as they never did with their wives, as they sat down to  their Sunday dinner on the dot at three o’clock before they went to bed for a snooze before returning to The Bell at six o’clock on the dot.
Maggie had a suspicion that one part of Primrose’s life with men had been more professional in nature. One night an old man picked up his pint from the bar and leaned forward till his face was close to Maggie’s.  ‘Like our Primrose, do you?’
Maggie smiled. ‘Doesn’t everybody?’
The old man winked, ‘Ye should’ve seen our Primrose before she had the pub. Glamorous as any film star. That Katherine Hepburn was nothing on her. A lady she was, like, but hard with it. She had them queuing up. He slurped his beer. ‘That’s how she got the pub, like.’
Maggie moved down the bar to pull a pint for another customer.
In time Maggie realised that a version of this was still going on at The Bell. In the first week she realised that she wasn’t the only one on the top floor. Her cluttered room took up only half the space. Sometimes when she was settling Alice down at eight o’clock she could hear bangs and laughter through the dividing wall. That night as they were gathering dirty glasses she asked Primrose. ‘Is someone else living in the attic Primrose?’
Primrose hefted a heavy tray onto her hip and drew on her cigarette. ‘Malisi? Well she doesn’t actually stay in the loft. She lives back of Princess street in the old court. She works here at The Bell .’ She smiled, her white teeth beaming in the smoky pub light.
‘Works?’ said Maggie.
‘Works!’ Primroses nodded. She wedged her cigarette in her mouth,  squeezed her eyes against the smoke and put the tray on the bar. See to these, will you? I’m just off to put my feet up.’
After finding out about the woman called Amisi Maggie started to notice men slipping through the door that led to the stairs. One day  as she was coming down the stairs to the bar at twelve she passed an olive skinned girl with a cloud of black hair.She nodded at Maggie. ‘Mornin!’ she said, a slight smile on her face. ‘Off to work? Me too.’ Then she went on up, her gait somehow lopsided.
Maggie nodded at her and later, as she took the tea-towels off the pumps, the image of the girl’s smooth olive face came to her mind. It had been somehow familiar. As she pulled a starter half-pint from each pump, it dawned on her just why the girl seemed familiar. She was like Amoss, Alice’s father. She looked like him. Almond skin; dense black hair, dark liquid eyes. Maggie wondered if she like him was from Egypt. She saw Amoss again, in his sailor’s coat, his sailor’s cap. She watched him again, with his rocking sailor’s gait as he departed from her, down the Quayside to his ship.
And that day in the bar that day she noticed now the men who came in, bought a pint, out it down on the bar and slipped away through the staircase door. Forty minutes later they would come bar and pick up their pint and join their table, as though they’d just been to the toilet. But Maggie knew the toilet was not upstairs. It was across the yard. Maggie looked at the other men at the man’s table. They went on playing their dominoes.
The next night she met the woman agin as she went up with the sleeping Alice in her arms. The woman flashed a smile. ‘Is she yours?’ she said.
‘Oh yes,’ Maggie smiled back. ‘She’s all mine.’ She stopped and pulled the blanket away from Alice’s sleeping face.
The woman put out a slender hand and stroked Alice’s face.  She looked up at Maggie. ‘A beautiful bairn, so peaceful.’ She paused. ‘I’m Amisi. You must be Maggie?’
‘Amisi?’ Maggie frowned over the name.
‘Egyptian,’ the girl said. ‘It means flower.’
Maggie frowned at her. ‘I met an Egyptian once. His name was Amoss. He was in the merchant navy.’
Amisi smiled. ‘That name means child of the moon.’ She glanced back at Alice. ‘You must be Maggie? Primrose told me about you. Getting out from under the bombs at Shields, like.’
Maggie nodded. ‘Seems like a world away from here. Looks like they’re still getting it in London.
‘My cousin was in Coventry,’ said Amisi. ‘They didn’t half get it.’
Maggie wondered how many babies were born in Coventry, like Alice with the bombs raining down.
‘So you’re working here now?’ said Amisi. ‘Me too.’
‘How do you like it here, then,’ Maggie instantly regretted her slipshod words.
Amisi beamed, ‘It’s all right for the time being. Pretty nice working for meself, I’ve gotta say. Primrose doesn’t even charge me for the room. Really, though, I fancy being in pictures, me. You never know. Mebbe if I were in London. I might just get into pictures.’ She paused, ‘I might just get blown to bits meself, but.’
Maggie wrapped the blanket more closely around Alice.
Watching her closely, Amisi said, ‘Do you like the pictures Maggie? ‘
‘Not since I came here,’ said Maggie,
‘You should get yourself there. There’s everything there, in a film. War, love, life death, murder, crime. They are just like real. That’s what I want to do. To be in pictures. I might just do it. This man gave me an address to send my photos too.’ She turned and made her way further up the stairs. ‘Nice to meet you Maggie.’ And then went on singing. My darling, hold me tight and whisper to me, Then soft through the starry night I hear a rhapsody.

When Maggie got there the bar was full, but the noise was down to a murmur. There was no loud, deep chatter, no clink of glasses. Primrose’s corsets creaked as she stretched up to turn on the beautiful polished radio lodged safely behind the bar. A few squeaks and whines exploded from the wireless and the bar fell silent. Then a voice boomed out. This is the BBC news and this is Alvar Liddell reading it… They listened to the routine, unvarnished news of the war and then a cheer went up as they heard of General Montgomery’s successes at El Alamein. There was another cheer for snippet of news a about a British soldier captured in Dunkirk who had escaped from a prison castle in Germany. The news ended and the hubbub rose again in the bar. At one corner table two old men, who had fought in the trenches on the Somme, raised their pint glasses to the General for sorting out those Huns in the desert,

Alice was whimpering when Maggie got back up to their room after her shift.  She picked Alice up, undid her blouse and held her close to feed her, relaxing now after a hard day.
She was aroused from her own drowsy state by a knock on her door. Still holding Alice, she went to open it but it wasn’t Primrose, as Maggie had expected. It was the girl Amisi, looking tousled but still glamorous in a fine red blouse and a narrow black skirt with a slit above the right knee. ‘Is the bairn all right?’ she said. ‘I heard her crying.’
‘Come in.’ Maggie opened the door wider, ‘She’s fine.’ She sat down on the bed. ‘It’ll take her a little time to settle down again, but she will.’
Amisi sat down on the only chair, an ancient thing with brown velvet cushions and a seat that slid forward and backwards. She pulled off a high-heeled shoe and rubbed the arch of her foot. ‘I was wondering if you’d like to go to the pictures on Saturday afternoon? There’s this American film, Citizen Kane. A customer told me it was the best film ever. He says go and find out a bit about America that’s not about the war.’ She pulled a packet of Players from her sequinned bag and offered Maggie a cigarette,
Maggie shook her head. Soothed by Alice’s contented sucking, she was feeling sleepy. ‘About the pictures, I don’t know if Primrose…’
‘Go on! Primrose is a good sort! She telt me you don’t get out enough. You’ve worked here day and night since you ducked the bombs. I know that.’
Maggie unhooked Alice and wrapped her snugly in her blanket and placed her in her cot.
Amisi stood up and pushed her hands down her thighs to straighten her skirt. ‘Well, better get off home.’
‘Do you live near here?’
Amisi drew on her cigarette and spoke to Maggie through trailing smoke. ‘Yeah, with my old mam and dad. Ancient they are. Me grandparents really.’
‘Don’t they mind that you …’
‘Do what I do? Nah. They don’t know. They think I’m an usherette at the  Tivoli.’ She laughed. ‘They’re very old, like. Mam does know the time of day, but not him. Born underground, worked underground, lived underground. A bit like a little old mole putting out his snout now and then. The money suits them, like. I give them the usherette’s wage and keep the rest.’
‘You keep the money?’
Amisi flashed a smile. ‘Yeah. I’m saving it for when I go to London. That’s where things will happen.’
As she closed the door behind her Maggie wondered how an exotic creature like Amisi was related to Mr and Mrs Mole. It might just be that Amisi had something in common with Alice. And, she thought,  with Maggie herself.
   


(c) Wendy Robertson 2016

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