A story and prizes for my second blogiversary!

The blog is two! Looking back I see I haven’t included as many short stories as I originally promised, so there’s one below. If you tell me what you think of it (good or bad), I’ll put you in the draw for a book prize – could be one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked or one I’ve written. UK only, sorry, readers elsewhere, but I’m a struggling writer….

Anyway, you’re all winners, because this story is for you. It came from my writing course at the British Library, when we had to identify an object in the Library to write about. No photos are allowed in the exhibition I chose, so you will have to make do with the brochure, but do visit; it’s free and very inspiring.

bl treasures
About the “Treasures of the BL” , from the current brochure

TEMPORARILY REMOVED

The exhibition’s sparkling name seduced me: “Treasures!” Entranced, I pored over illuminated manuscripts, hand scribed scriptures, painted vellum and pages of early print. I followed a sign that said: To the Magna Carta. But there was only a glass display case, containing a perspex-or-similar stand, and a printed sign with the  message: “Temporarily Removed”.

I racked my memory. What was the Magna Carta, anyway? And remembered: among other clauses, it declared that everybody, including the king, was subject to the rule of law and had the right to a fair trial. It was, in effect, one of the first declarations of human rights.

And now it had gone. Who took it?

Was it taken by a curator, for legitimate purposes? Perhaps it needed a polish, or was dog eared? Or letters had faded and blurred, and the curator had gone in search of ink and whatever medieval scribes used for Tippex – something made of flax, possibly. When she found nothing suitable for a running repair, she took the whole thing away for safekeeping. Temporarily, of course.

It was unlikely to have been stolen. The area bristled with alarms, the Magna Carta would have screamed “Traitors!” as it was lifted, and the thief immediately been apprehended by the elegant Egyptian security man and his Roman nosed Ukrainian colleague, with their ramrod backs and their epaulettes to die for.

I shared my disappointment with a fellow passenger on the trolleybus home. He confided a rumour, and a few days later it was confirmed by a brave investigative  radio reporter. The Home Secretary herself had had the Magna Carta since last Michaelmas quarter day. Picture the scene:

“Basil! I’ve forgotten the law of the land! Fetch me the Magna Carta!”

The under Home Secretary bowed. “You’ll have to fetch it yourself, I’m afraid, Cynthia,” he simpered. “Only you, the PM – and the King I suppose – have the right to remove the Magna Carta from the Treasures Collection.”

So the Home Secretary sent the British Library a pneumatogram and arrangements were made for her collect the Magna Carta at sherry time, to temporarily remove it to Queen Anne’s Gate or wherever it is the Home Secretary resides nowadays. You’d think it would be safe there, but…

… at tea time on All Hallows Eve, she was sitting by a roaring fire, her Persian cat Nero purring in his basket and Basil buttering steaming crumpets for the three of them. She was studying the Magna Carta, her eyes glowing in the firelight.

“This Magna Carta is too long.”

Basil knew that tone of finality. He put the butter knife down and wiped his hands on his pinny. Only that morning, during the regular watch he kept on the Fortnum’s community noticeboard, his careful fingers had stripped the address of a radical organisation from a recipe for gunpowder soufflé. Cynthia’s deft gesture was identical, pinching a section of the Magna Carta between her coral painted thumb and fingernails, and ripping it decisively away.

“Too many rights, too much to police, administer, and communicate. We can never assure them all. The country can easily do without this one.” Rip, tear.

“And this…”

With gusto the gleaming nails scored, tore and flicked.

Much of the Magna Carta lay in shreds on the Home Secretary’s monogrammed carpet. Basil scurried for the bronze dustpan and brush. Efficient percussion filled the room: stiff swipes of the bristles keeping time with Cynthia’s knuckles cracking.

“Decluttering, Basil. Taking back control. A compact Magna Carta will be neater than all that swollen old waffle.”

She rubbed her hands in satisfaction but her hooded eyes remained restless. “Then again, if a job’s worth doing…” She swooped on the shrunken pages.

“I’ve started so I’ll finish.”

That evening the British Library received pneumatogrammed instructions. The investigative reporter was too late to intercept them and could only report post factum. Visitors to the British Library now will find a new sign:

MAGNA CARTA. PERMANENTLY REMOVED

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Please leave a comment below before midnight BST on April 19th 2018 – improvements, continuations, deletions – to enter the draw. And please stay with me for a third year of words and fictions – it’s a fiction, by the way, that the Magna Carta is anywhere other than safely inside the British library, for now. It was something else – I didn’t check what – that had been temporarily removed.

prize 4

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The 12 days of EsseXmas (a secular celebration)

Here’s my 2017 swansong, inspired by a dash to the shops this morning.

On the 1st day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

A massive wide screen TV (no photo. Think I’m stupid, burglars?)

On the 2nd day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Cusk 7

2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 3rd day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling inflatables3 blurry Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 4th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling napkins 4

4 festive pants, 3 blurry Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 5th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

 

FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 6th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 7th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling snowflakes 7

7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 8th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 9th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling games 9

9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 10th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling prosecco

10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 11th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling balls

11 golden balls, 10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 12th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

a 12 days of Kindle deal so you can buy my book “The Infinity Pool” here for only 99p until sometime in early January (had 10 Proseccos, can’t work out exactly when…)

…11 golden balls, 10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a GINORMOUS wide screen TV!

510glyvrrdl

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone!

(If you try singing this do send me a video.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017

A goody bag from the funeral director

I wasn’t well last week, so this post replaces the advertised programme. I said I’d continue blogging about Lisbon writers. But Fernando Pessoa and Joe Saramago demand full attention. When your head and eyes ache, you burn with temperature, and you’re not feeling fit for human consumption, their wonderful words do little more than swim around like the ubiquitous Lisbon sardine.

By Saturday I could venture out, and a local shopping street again gave me a lesson in fundamentals. Once the lesson was about multicultural London; last time it was about birth. This lesson, as if to remind me there’s always someone iller than oneself (my cold had reached the self pitying stage), there was a beautiful pair of black horses, kept still by two top hatted gentlemen in morning coats with an elegant engraved glass carriage behind. All you need for a traditional East End funeral. Funeral 2a better

I prepared to walk past in a discreet and respectful way while getting a good look at the horses. But  – where was the coffin? There was only a cheerful lady dressed in black, standing in the doorway of the funeral directors, saying “Would you like a goody bag?”

My instinct, frankly, was to say no. It’s very kind of you but I’ve already felt like death warmed up this week and I am not in the mood for conversation with any representatives of the Grim Reaper, thank you all the same. (Although I did read a lovely blog post this week about the memoirs of an eco-mortician.)

But then all the way round Sainsbury’s I wondered, why would a funeral director be giving out goody bags? And what on earth would be in them? I renewed my supplies of tissues, honey and paracetamol with unseemly haste. What if the lady was no longer feeling so generous when I walked back past?

Funeral 1

 

I’ve only been into a funeral director’s twice (it wasn’t this one). I accompanied my father after my mother died, and a few years later I went back with my sister to arrange his funeral. I remember the employees as respectful, pleasant, rather inefficient on that second occasion (Me: You have been looking after my mother’s ashes so that they could be scattered with my father’s when the time came. Employee: Have we? Are you sure you don’t have them at home? But they did, as I knew, having been there when the arrangement was made, and they were tracked down in a warehouse – the actual scattering is another story.)

But why would you go into a funeral directors if you didn’t have a funeral to arrange or a body to view? Or possibly a crime to investigate or a novel to research?

If intrigued by a goody bag, you might.

The low sun shone on the still quiet horses. It was hard to get a good photo, and felt intrusive, even though there was no funeral, no coffin, no body. The goody bags were stacked by the open door of the shop (would you call it a shop?) but nobody was there now. How sad. Presents had been offered, but people were walking past. I peeped in, and picked up a bag: “May I take one of these?” I called, but softly, in case they were dealing with a proper customer.

Out came the lady in black, and another top hatted gentleman. “Please do. It’s our 200th anniversary. Please, help yourself.” In such uncharted conversational territory, my small talk dried up, I smiled, and left.

Tomorrow I shall go back, and if they’re not busy (but how would I know – outside is well screened and you have to press a doorbell) I shall call in again. When my father’s shop notched up any kind of anniversary, they had big boozy parties, celebratory offers and competitions. But a funeral directors can’t really be seen doing that, and yet, it’s quite a thing to celebrate. 200 years of funeral care! The social history they must have at their fingertips! It would be fascinating to hear more.

Also, it’s the best goody bag I’ve ever had. I benefitted from their need to keep things tasteful. Of course there was a balloon – there has to be a balloon in a goody bag – but it’s as understated as a balloon possibly could be. Some people with a baby are coming to view my house tomorrow, perhaps the baby would like the balloon, or would it send them the wrong message? Hmmm… There were two useful little tins of mints, and two packets of seeds which in a lovely coincidence were forget-me-nots (my mother’s favourite flower) and sunflowers (my father’s). There was a pen, and best of all – they must know I’m a writer – a very good quality notebook with lines ruled, a ribbon bookmark, elastic closure and a matching pen with holder!

funeral goody bag 2 better

Of course, funeralcare is a business like any other and if they don’t make a profit they won’t survive. They do have a captive market, and it was a celebration, but this was nonetheless effective advertising if passers by weren’t too inhibited to engage with it. So I said to B., “If I’m still living round here when the time comes, this firm, W. English & Sons, is the firm I’d like to  use.”

“The problem is, you won’t still be living,” he said.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Newborn

Sometimes a story arrives from nowhere with the emotional load intact but the end unclear. We were in the basket only checkout queue. The world came to a stop for us and for the cashier when our attention was magnetised by swimming eyes not yet old enough to focus. The baby’s mouth formed and lost small shapes, his head flopped on his mother’s chest, and all without a sound.

newborn Rob

His mother held one hand under his padded bottom, one on the handle of her enormous buggy. Her wire basket was perched against the handle. She leaned back, the baby pinned to her chest by an awkward gravity. Out darted her hand to transfer each item one by one from basket to belt, back it went to steady the baby between each grab. She gauged the risk each time with frightened eyes, but seemed unable to let go of the buggy.

She headshook away offers of help, but her gaze latched onto me, then onto my partner, then turned to the cashier.

“This one’s very new, I think?” I said. You don’t often see such tiny babies out and about.

“One week,” she announced. Her accent was French I think. Her eyes darted from one of us to the other, the pupils wild.

“Your first?”

“Yes. He’s all right in the pram. But not when I take him out. He cries when I take him out.” But the baby wasn’t crying.

“He won’t feed.” She stared us down: “Fourteen hours without taking milk.”

“He looks fine,” I said, because he did. Alert and content, relaxed, quiet. Perhaps nuzzling a little.

“I had to come out for some formula,” she said.

“Oh!” I said before I could stop myself. I’m a full time busybody, and over two decades ago had the luck to find breastfeeding came naturally.

Her face was very white and her stomach still big. I don’t think she heard me.

“He’s lovely,” intervened the cashier. My partner smiled.

At the next aisle, a good natured voice: “Excuse me…” The new mother was absently pushing her empty buggy back and forth, and the twisting wheels had caught in a lady’s trolley. I don’t remember, from my buggy buying days, what those fully rotating wheels were called, but at that time you paid extra for them. My wheels never got caught in anything that I recall. But my buggies were much simpler affairs.

Newborn mum tried to bend, baby and all, to free the wheels. The other customer bent as well. She got there first and they jiggled with the baby scrunched between them until the two contraptions were released.

Ros newborn 2

“You’re brave, bringing him out so young,” I encouraged her. “Well done! I took weeks when I had my first to go out alone with her.”

“He’s fine when he’s in the pram,” she repeated, still clutching him with one hand, still trying to push items along the belt. So why not put him back in the pram? Such an easy thought, at a distance of twenty plus years.

“And I had a C section,” she said. “One week, that’s all.” She repeated this, too. “C section. One week ago.” She needed to retell the story often enough for it to make sense. How vulnerable they both were.

“You’re doing very well.” Busybody me again, with little evidence either way. “But you must take care, take care of yourself, he’s fine.”

“Yes, take care,” said the cashier, and we exchanged looks. Surely this young woman should not be out alone yet with her baby.

“My boyfriend is …ing”. Our faces showed we didn’t catch what she said he was doing. Then they showed we thought he should be there.

We picked up our bags. Time had stopped long enough. Goodbye, good luck. A silent wish she would soon feel more comfortable. Outside, I was reminded of my gratification, once I’d relaxed from newborn nerves, when strangers clustered round my new baby. Once a stallholder shouted “Ow, look at the loverly biby!” (This is not a pastiche. It’s how they really sounded in Walthamstow  market where ‘enery ‘iggins could still have found work if anyone would stand for it.) But her husband added: “Ain’t you ashamed o’ yerselves, bringin’ a little angel like that into this terrible world?” And he gave an enormous chuckle to show it was not ill meant.

Of course, the world is even more terrible now. (And better, in other smaller ways.)

I keep thinking of the young French woman. She disturbed me, out and about, in shock. But at least outside, she can find an easy audience through the beacon of her baby. She can begin to talk out her trauma, with different or less detail each day until the structure of the story falls into place for her and the facts become familiar enough to make sense.

Whoever she is, wherever she went home to, whatever her boyfriend is or does, I hope four days on from this encounter her shock is subsiding. I wonder if the unspoken concern of strangers has been of any use to her and if she mixed the formula. It reminded me of writing the newborn scene in The Infinity Pool, and of how I tried to help my heroine get through.

When there is a birth, not only the baby is newborn.

Newborn Ros
Photos are of my own children, now adults, at about the same age.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

A day in the life of Agent X

Agent X stretched after a poor night’s sleep. She really ought to get more exercise…spend less time staring at screens…eat more sensibly.

But a new day beckoned. She had a fascinating submission to read – she’d requested the full ms after tearing through the first three chapters and was looking forward to finding out what happened next. She wasn’t entirely sure how to place it, but the writing was so good and the premise so original, she was expecting competitive bids from several publishers. If, of course, another agent didn’t snap it up first, like the author she’d been slightly too slow to respond to last year who ended up with a six figure advance.

Agent 4Her existing authors were clamouring too. There might be answers to their questions among the 112 new emails in her inbox. She made coffee, cut a crisp pear into safely unsticky wedges and took them to her desk.

 

Dear X, Lovely to see you at the Book Fair. I’ve now had time to read The Pontoon Bridge by Amos Fearsome and I agree the writing flows beautifully and the plot has some interesting twists. However, I couldn’t quite identify with the main character, and so, with regret, I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline this one.

Dear X, Thank you for reminding me I’ve had Pull the Other One by V. Erbose since last year. Sorry about that! It’s a great idea, but I’m afraid this one isn’t quite right for our list. I wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Hi X! Just to let you know I really enjoyed The Darkening Sun by Omar Zafiq, and will be taking it forward for consideration by the acquisitions committee next week. I’ll keep you informed on the outcome.

Dear X, Peter Plainman, Accountancy Services Ltd, is able to offer you a special offer of only £YYY for 12 months insurance against the additional cost of responding to any HMRC investigation during the tax year 2017/18.

Dear X, Please find attached the contract for Above and Beyond as agreed for signature by yourself and author Martin Middleman. Please sign and return…

Dear X, Please join us for drinks at the Globe on … This is a farewell jolly for all our associates over the past ten years. Regretfully we are winding up the company as the pressure on small publishers has become unsustainable. But we ‘d like to go out with a traditional publishing bang!

Dear X, Please join us at Amazon Towers for the Kindle Self Publishing Awards on….

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to The Bookseller is now due…

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to our worldwide publishing database is now due…

Dear X, I submitted my ms Tedium Dismissed! last week and I’m wondering whether you received it as I have had not a response from you as yet…

Agent 2Dear X, I am emailing speculatively as I appreciate from your website you dont deal with dystopian fantasy.  However I’m sure your going too feel differently when you enter my world! In 140,000 amazing words I explore landscapes no one else could possibly imagine, with my heroine Alexandra the Greatest who’s battles against the greatest evil the universe has yet known are inconceivable! I am a stay at home dad and would be available to meet, subject to childcare duties, at any time convenient to you within easy reach of Basingstoke…

X tapped keys, forwarding, deleting, commenting, replying, congratulating, ignoring. (But it wasn’t really ignoring, as deciding whether to ignore in itself took time and thought.) She remembered to roll her shoulders, a few random yoga moves her nod to preventing back ache. She highlighted sections of a trade press article about the legal ramifications of digital royalties – essential but dull information she regularly digested on behalf of her authors.

Agent 7
A range of agents are listed in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

It was wonderful working from home (the business couldn’t afford office overheads), but she missed the daily walk to the station, the water cooler banter and opinion exchange. Thanks to some recent successes she didn’t worry about losing touch – her existing connections kept her informed, as did social media and the trade press. For every promotion, move, retirement, or redundancy there was a new appointment, a new intern, or a regretfully slimmed down company to build productive relationships with, and weekly trips to meet editors and authors. She arranged these for coffee or tea times to avoid the cost of lunches – her accountant would only swallow so much – but they made for a change of scene. When she wondered if she wouldn’t be happier commuting all week, maybe to a desk in the foreign rights department of a glamorous trendsetting agency in Camden or Islington, she consoled herself that her one woman operation saw so much variety, personally dealing with each author right through from submission to post publication. Agent 1

Now to be inspired: the new ms! She settled on the sofa with her laptop and more coffee. Chapter Four…

It didn’t grab her as the beginning had. But it was definitely worth pursuing. Three hours later, she’d decided, impressed by the well produced text (no attention tripping typos). The middle sagged, and would need some robust structural editing, which she hoped the author would welcome, because the end more than compensated. What an exciting find (overall)! She emailed straight away to express her strong interest and suggest a meeting. It was important to meet authors, face to face or on Skype, because her role was to take care of their baby. She needed to know if they were open to suggestions, confident, adaptable, able, eventually, to help market their work. If you got on well it helped so much. Ideally there’d be more books later, so this could be a relationship lasting years – she checked. Yes, this author mentioned a sequel in preparation, and had a self published backlist that looked respectable enough to bring to a publisher’s attention.

She’d still eaten only a pear, but decided to tick off some admin before an early supper. (She ought to continue her line edit of a revised draft she’d been sent – it could be sent out once the author had agreed the corrections. But it would be better left to tomorrow; she was getting tired now.) She dumped a pile of unwanted paper submissions firmly in the recycling box. It felt less terrible to do that than it had when she first set up the agency, because she did state clearly on the website that she only accepted work  electronically…Although sometimes the only human being she saw all day was the postman, ringing the doorbell with the latest vast packages.

Dear X, Please would you clarify the position on my royalties for Celebration at the Pierhead. I have been chasing the publisher without success and wonder if you would be able to resolve this…

Agent 3Dear X, I’m very disappointed with sales for Going, Going, Gone. What are your thoughts, going forward, for promoting this? I didn’t realise, when you advised me to self publish because you felt you had submitted it to all possible publishers, that the onus for marketing would be so fully on my shoulders. Also I am wondering whether, if I had it translated, it would do better in the Latin American market. Can you suggest a translator who would be willing to undertake this? I would suggest we share the cost…

Dear X…

But it was time for supper. And to start the debut novel everyone was raving about – always worth trying to identify the spark that had inspired a record advance.

************************************************************************

Dear readers of this blog post/story. If you are an agent, please consider this a submission. Please advise whether it would be better if my heroine was a private detective rather than a literary agent. Please suggest whether it should be set in London or the Outer Hebrides perhaps? Please advise whether I’d have more chance of publication if I submit it under my own name (white middle class middle aged straight UK female) or give myself the nom de plume Fatima Begum or Leroy DaCosta? On the other hand bearing in mind the successes of McEwan, Faulks, de Bernières, and Barnes should I go for John Smith? And btw would I stand a better chance if I considered transitioning before or after publication? 

If you are an editor, edit away! I welcome critiques.

If you are a reader, please review it!

If you blog, do comment, reblog, share…

Note: Agent X is an entirely fictional character drawn from a composite of observations made to me by literary agents big and small over the last few decades. Her head’s just above water, and she’s on the verge of a big, big breakthrough (maybe). Or she may become a private detective. I invented her in response to this blog post which started a lively thread last week in the Facebook group, Book Connectors.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Long shots at short stories

I don’t go searching for short story inspiration, because although the imaginary ideal me often writes short stories, the real one only claims to. But occasionally a prompt pops up. Once, around 1982, it was a double bed in a Paris shop window. I was amazed by this cheaply made, ambitiously intended piece of furniture, with curlicues and carvings adorning each cream coloured plastic leg and corner. Shaded lamps were built into the looming headboard and incorporated bShort storiesedside tables featured radio cassette players and circular indents, the kind ships have to stop crockery sliding about in rough seas. The designers presumably anticipated lots of inbed activity.

I was so intrigued I got off my bus and walked back to inspect the bed more closely. Then for years in my head I developed a story of a young, pious couple without wealth, who are engaged to be married. One Sunday afternoon, out for a chaste stroll, they pass the same shop window and get it into their heads they can’t wed until they can buy this bed to bless their union. They save and save, but hopes of enough money become ever more distant…someone else buys the bed…they grow older and her reproductive years pass…they never marry. Like 1980s Chekhov, it would have been, had I written it.

JapanThe idea may have come from a fellow student in a shared house the previous year. This lovely, rather single minded Essex boy had never been out of the UK (not so unusual then). But his dream was to go to Japan, and he practiced for it, cooking tofu and miso in a wok, wearing a yukata, learning kanji, and saving frantically. He worked long hours in possibly the first Japanese restaurant in Brighton and did well: after six months he had over £200, a significant sum in 1980. Then he saw a state of the art sleeping bag in a travel shop, bought it for around £198, continued practising for his travels by sleeping in it every night until it was too worn to take anywhere… and was back at the beginning again, financially. (He did get there later, married a Japanese  woman and has had a good career, but my short story version would have been more poignant.)

In 1994, just after my son was born, a close friend was expecting a boy too. Our toddler Bobdaughters played together and we hoped for a similar friendship between our sons. Then her little boy was stillborn. In his memory I incorporated her descriptions into a story based around this juxtaposition of happiness and loss. I sent it with my friend’s permission to (I think) Good Housekeeping, but it wasn’t accepted.

Fast forward to 2013 and I did complete a second short story, following a mundane visit to a jeweller for a watch strap. clock 2Behind the counter I was surprised to see shelves packed with the type of clocks I didn’t know were still made, travelling alarms with attached coloured cases, Mickey Mouse clocks for children, faces with large numerals, Roman numerals, nothing digital. They were all priced and for sale, apparently without irony. But who would ever buy them? The shop had run out of time. My story, full of portentous time related imagery, about how the shop is not rescued by a Mary Portas type guru who gives it a makeover for reality TV, didn’t win the competition (Good Housekeeping again?) I submitted it to.

Two stories, two failures (in publishing terms). I gave up.

Until this year. Our Vienna trip provided an idea. We’d been to Mozart’s house, all bright display cases, clever montages, headphoned commentaries. We were unmoved. treble clef and mozartYou couldn’t sense the composer here, although the cheerful and informative staff would sell you Mozart chocs, jigsaws of musical scores, playing cards, and even a treble clef washing up scourer (the house warming present your musician friends always wanted). But the flat where Schubert died was another matter. We walked down a long, quiet street opposite the Majolika Haus, thinking we might be in the wrong place. The shops were closed and there was no-one about. We buzzed to enter the solid main doors, and climbed two flights of narrow internal stone steps. Quiet landings overlooked a quieter courtyard, the Schubert flat looking no different to the others. We rang Schubert’s doorbell. His own doorbell! (Well no, obviously.) In the lobby of the silent flat a young man sat behind the counter with a dull choice of postcards. My attempts at conversation met with a wordless response, but he did hand us an explanatory leaflet in English.

 

After the lobby there are two main rooms, not large, landing view and street view. One holds a few display cases with copies of documents written by Schubert and an inventory of his belongings at the time of his death. The other has his piano (see a previous post) and a console permitting visitors to listen to a small choice of badly reproduced recordings. I allowed the Mass in E flat to warble back through some elderly headphones for a while, but couldn’t turn it off and the soundtrack followed us into the third, smaller room, where Schubert died, possibly of typhoid fever, possibly complicated by the effects of syphilis and the mercury treatment he’d taken for it. His brother Ferdinand took him in and he was nursed at times by his thirteen year old niece. Ferdinand, his wife and children had moved into the newly built apartment only very shortly before, and the still wet plaster probably worsened Franz Schubert’s symptoms.

There were no other visitors. The ordinary apartment, the sparse displays, the bursts of beautiful, distorted music, the unfurnished room where the 31 year old composer died, the terrible start to the family’s life in a new home, presented without drama or sentimentality – no wonder the young curator was so reserved. Did he love Schubert’s music, and resent interruptions by the rare visitors? Did he want his museum to have the prestige and razzmatazz of Mozart’s? Was he oppressed or uplifted by the atmosphere, and did he have his own thwarted dreams? There may, one day, be a short story there, and if I could connect the themes of beauty, lyricism and malign fate with even a shadow of the musical interweavings in Schubert’s string quartets, I would have no need of rewards and prizes to feel proud of myself.

 

 

(I’m grateful for additional information to The Life of Schubert, by Christopher Gibbs.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Losing the plot

Six weeks ago I was in Japan, loving it so much I thought I could teach English there if I ran low on funds. I also have plans for Iceland, Cuba, India, Sri Lanka….

On Wednesday 2nd Nov, my horizons narrow. It’s a beautiful autumn day. Trees glow, low sun brushes everything gold. I drive to Epping Forest for a walk. The forest is almost luminous on this shining day. Most trees still have most leaves, but there’s already a crisp carpet of brown, red and yellow on the forest floor. Shuffling through is as fun now as it was in childhood, but we walk fast: it’s only 10am and the temperature is invigorating.

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Connaught Water, Epping Forest. Photo by Nikkii Barnett.

It’s the end of the year but the springtime of my ideas: the novel to which I’ve been doggedly adding 1000 words a day for the past month is taking good shape. Striking details and major plot threads form in my mind as I pace along the paths. Part of me can’t wait to get home and start putting them down – black for phrases to be added to my draft, red for ideas to be developed later.

Under the coating of leaves my foot hits a stump and over I swoop in an arc too fast to correct. My chin and nose make contact with the wooden edge of a footbridge and I’m sitting dazed on the floor with blood pouring from my mouth and nostrils. People pass tissues, but my shaking hands drop them on the dirt and others are soaked immediately. A lady with a pushchair offers baby wipes which sting my mouth clean. Somebody strokes my back, moaning “Oh Lord, oh my dear Lord“.

Behind me: “You’ll be on soup for the next few days, Jessica!” and “I knew a woman who fell that way and cracked a rib.” (OH Lord, oh my dear Lo…ord.) A third: “You need to sit in a long hot bath.” I love long hot baths but I think if I sat in one now I might faint and never get out.

I’m pulled to my feet and it feels more normal to be vertical. As I walk shakily along I only want to look at the ground. I’m aware of people staring but if I concentrate on small talk with my kind companion – who turns out to have been battling serious illness, bless her – then I’ll get back to the car park for the next decision.

Meanwhile I think, if I could get ice on this now….oh goodness what does my face look like..have I broken my nose? is that tooth in the right place? have I bitten through my lip? Blood drips on the top I bought at Tokyo airport (why am I wearing that?) I drive home followed by a volunteer, cautious as on my test.

I make hot sweet tea but can’t fit my lips round the mug. The wine sleeve I find in the freezer and hold against my face warms too fast (no wonder the Chablis is never cold enough). I try a huge packet of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel and the immediate numbness is a swipe of relief. I want to be left alone to mourn my face, the ruin of my day and all those ideas for the novel that seem to have trickled away with the lost blood. I lie with another old towel to protect the new cushions of the new sofa in the sunlit bay window in blissful agony enjoying the quiet hiatus.

B. arrives. He can’t believe our local hospital.What a maze of potholed paths, temporary huts, hulking arches, the derelict nurses home sulking in a corner. It was boarded up at least ten years ago. Somewhere in the mess is A & E, though it’s not where it was last time I visited, with my teenage son after he was mugged, and that location was different to the time before, when as a toddler he stuck a bead up his nose.

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At poor beleaguered Whipps Cross pedestrians have to watch their footing and the buildings have always looked sinister. But the staff delivered my children safely and have always come through in an emergency, despite funding that always goes elsewhere, reports of submerged morale, closure threats that ebb and flow and an ever increasing  patient pool.

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The nurses’ home

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At reception they say: “Gosh, you’ve made a mess of yourself!” which is gratifying as it means we’re not time wasters.I’m number 297; it’s midday and crowded. Most people are patient (sorry) and quiet. A couple with a two year old give her juice and crisps which she spills on the floor. She gathers them up with care and returns them to the packet. She is noisy, through boredom. They look at their phones and erupt about the wait: “For fuck’s sake!”

I’m called in. “How are you?” Well, obviously, I’ve been better. I’ll need stitches, preceded by the same injections given before Botox. Now I know for sure I’ll never have Botox: they’re as unpleasant as I was warned they’d be. I grip the metal bar of the couch and squirm and the surgeon who is kind but brisk says, Well done, well done.

Eat sweet cereal for glucose, she says. Then sleep. Don’t clean your teeth. Use a salt water rinse even if it stings. Oh, you’d better have a tetanus jab. I stand as though I’ve been punished in a corner of the empty room waiting for the nurse with the jab. I’m so cold I can’t control my shivers. See your dentist, they say. As we leave, about 2pm,  they call number 430.

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A & E

Thursday. I haven’t looked in the mirror yet. The ends of my hair are stuck together with blood but I don’t try washing it. I make tea and drink it lukewarm through a straw. I’m still cold. The dentist says I’m lucky – no nerve damage, no tooth damage and I could easily have cracked my jaw. I hide at home for the rest of the day dozing and watching Andy Murray’s downs and ups in Paris.

Friday. I sell my ticket for “The Nose” at Covent Garden. I have my own nose story, it’s pale grey and swollen. I pass time meandering round facebook and the internet. Somebody posts she can’t get down to writing her blog post and I challenge us both to finish one by 5pm. Getting it done feels like a step back to normality.

Saturday. I wash my hair! I clean my teeth! I’m tired and triumphant but it’s still only 10am. A nurse friend comes for coffee and advises Vaseline which makes my dry cracked mouth much better. My nose and cheekbones are yellow. B. takes me to South London for a change of scene and I watch a firework display from his top window. We eat very tender boeuf bourguignon and I try a small glass of wine. The food is delicious but the numbness the wine brings doesn’t feel right. I fear doing something clumsy to my stitches without noticing.

whipps-medicationSunday. A walk round the streets, hood pulled low. How awful if anyone thinks B.’s done this to me. On return my skin feels taut but he says it’s just the cold wind. A high point of Sunday is coming home on the Woolwich Ferry, not the horrible Blackwall Tunnel. We sit in the queue and contemplate the lights over the Thames. It’s a far cry from our night walk along the river in Kyoto. I sneeze several times and am perversely disappointed to find it doesn’t result in bleeding or particular pain.

Monday. My French pupil comes, a retired gentleman with a house in France. He doesn’t realise I have stitches until I tell him, so the wound must be looking better. But after teaching I lie on the sunlit sofa under a blanket and sleep for two hours. My nose is dark grey today but the bruise is smaller. In the local shop I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I’m ashamed of my battered face and cross with the beautiful autumn forest for betraying me when I just wanted exercise and fresh air. When did I last look at my novel?

Tuesday. My nose and left cheek are yellow again but the black gash on my lips is smaller.  I return unharmed from a daring long walk for a newspaper.Outside the world is worrying: Trump? Not Trump, surely. I decide to see if I can remember the ideas I had for the novel, and open the file for the first time for a week. But I’ve lost the plot, somewhere in the forest among the blood and the golden leaves.

Wednesday. Stop press: plot retrieved courtesy of Donald Trump. The horror of his triumph sends me back to the novel, because in it I’ve put people from different races, religions and belief systems living, learning and working together. Someone said this morning the only thing to do now is, each in our own way, to speak out against his values. What’s Trump done for me? Well, he’s directed me back to the outside world and he’s made me realise there are more serious matters than my face. Which in any case is almost back to normal now, thanks to the efficiency of the staff of poor old Whipps Cross hospital and the dentist. Thank you, NHS, and thanks to those decent politicians who created it.

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The proud Victorian arches are still beautiful in a sinister way.

© Jessica Norrie 2016