Friday fictioneers – His house

Old houses

PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

‘This is your house?’ she says. She’s not imagined something so large, so sprawling hiding among London’s crowded streets.

He nods, and a muscle in his jaw twitches beneath the shaving cut she’s sure he won’t want her to notice.

‘What wonderful parties we can hold!’ she says, hands outstretched, as if already reaching for a cocktail glass. No matter that she has no friends yet. She will make some; for what else could a house such as this be built?

‘Parties? Goodness, no.’ His hand grips the gate, rattles at a lock she hasn’t noticed. ‘That’s what this is for: to keep my wife in and everyone else out.’


If you’d like to have a go at writing your own 100 word story, click here. And if you’d like to read other people’s take on the picture, click here.


In praise of libraries

I heard from an old colleague last week. While we were both still at what many of its staff called “the Mothership”, we occasionally used to pass a slow morning discussing what we intended to do in our next lives. I wanted to write and she wanted to read. ‘All day, on a chaise longue,’ she’d say. ‘A yellow velvet one, under an open window, with a tree right outside.’ Although we agreed that yellow, at least where velvet was concerned, probably wasn’t the most practical colour, she was immovable on the idea of the piece of furniture itself. We also agreed that I probably wouldn’t ever make a living as a creative writer just as she was unlikely to pay the bills from horizontal on a peculiarly decorative sofa. However, I hoped I might be able to supplement stewing over novels and poetry with freelance writing, while she thought that working in a library or bookshop were appealing ideas.

Some years later, after we’d both left, she emailed me a picture of a chaise longue in a sort of dark mustard colour (much more attractive than it sounds). ‘This is mine,’ she wrote. ‘I like to lie here and read when I get home from the library.’ Actually, I don’t suppose she did as much lying and reading as she’d planned; anyone who reckons small children are conducive to that sort of relaxation is either lying or delusional. Anyway, she loved that library.

She worked hard at it too. The hours varied over a fortnightly shift pattern – an all too common childcare challenge – and some nights she was still there long after her children’s bedtime. However the variety, she said, made it worth it. It wasn’t just book-shelving, issuing fines and checking out books; it was recommending titles, writing reviews for the library’s blog, running story time, dressing up for special events, organising computer classes, art classes, a writing workshop……a whole series of activities designed to help a community function as both a cohesive whole and a group of individuals.

Lonely people came to chat, new mothers turned up to drink coffee, to cry and to make new friends under the safe pretence that their six-week old needed to learn both words and actions to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, students used the large, well-lit tables as a study base and job-seekers wrestled with the Sisyphean requirements of the DWP on the public computers. I’m sure they were all welcomed with a smile.

I’m a library-lover myself. I can’t remember my first visit (to the large stone Birkenhead Central Library, grand as any stately home – and now under on-going threat of closure) but I know the early years of story time soon segued into hours reading everything the children’s library had to offer. An omnivorous reader, I made little distinction between classic, contemporary and even, oh the horror, American high school stories (hello Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High). The joy, though, of being given an adult library card! Suddenly I could take out eight books rather than four, and I did so every week. Even now, almost thirty years later, I can still remember some of the books and authors I first discovered in that huge curved room of other worlds. There was Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Dora Shafe’s Miss Read novels, Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride (which led me  on to read an entire shelf on the Special Operations Executive), David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest; the list, truly, is too long for a single blog post.

My library use at university was more utilitarian but, one day, breaking away from the law library, I went to the section of the Stacks used by the English department, and discovered that Sylvia Plath had written diaries – and they had actually been published! I read and I read.

Then came the ancient and beautiful library of the Inner Temple, the well-resourced libraries of a City law firm and, by now accompanied by a squirming, often screaming and always sleepless infant, the surprising spaces of the Barbican library. I loved them all in their own ways.

Nowadays I spend a good deal of my leisure time at my current local library: Winchester’s Discovery Centre. Note the name. Library is no longer good enough in this multi-purpose age of ours. Libraries have to be about more than books and, indeed, mine manages this with consummate skill.  Not only do my children and I read its books, we go to plays and concerts there, we attend workshops and exhibitions, and eat in its café. One of the highlights of my month is Winchester’s Loose Muse poetry night, run by the esteemable Sue Wrinch, where I’ve had the good fortune to hear Liz Berry, Jo Bell, Kim Moore and Sarah Howe amongst many equally talented others. There’s also the Winchester Poetry Festival, which makes good use of the library building. We would all be so much the poorer without our library.

And my friend, my old colleague, feels the same about her library, which now faces closure. The only way it seems some vestige of it can be saved for its community is for all the staff to lose their jobs and their positions to be replaced by volunteers. To say my friend is sad is too simplistic. She wants to keep her job – needs it – but she wants the library too.

I don’t want to get into the political side of this. I could say a lot about how I feel about the voluntary sector stepping in to cover what the State once assumed responsibility for but I shan’t. It’s not fair to my friend, to her library or her community. I hope they find a solution that works for as many people as possible. A library is too important to be lost.

Friday fictioneers – After tea


Please forgive me the second blog post of the day; I’m on something of a roll. This piece for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’ Friday fictioneers was (once again) inspired by the novel I’m currently writing. The following picture is the prompt. And isn’t it beautiful?


© Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

He was leaning back, yawning and kicking his heels against the chair legs. Her eyes detached him easily, away from the crowd of chattering parents and girls, the cucumber sandwiches and the half-drunk cups of tea.

Outside, behind the tea tent, they high-stepped its guy ropes to reach the line of stacked hay bales. ‘We were told not to go beyond these,’ she said, already scrambling up.

When he dropped down beside her, his eyes were restless and his face no longer ruddy.

‘Don’t worry! Who is there to see?’ she said, looking up at the sky and laughing. ‘There’s only God and He won’t tell.’


If you’d like to have a go at writing your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.



Of Birds and Beasts

A tourist stopped me the other day. I was hurrying along the high street, congratulating myself for being on a World Book Day trawl of the local charity and haberdashery shops a full three days before my children were expecting to pitch up at school as Pippi Longstocking and Just William (their school’s theme: books that have stood the test of time). The woman looked at me over the top of her guide book. ‘Can you help me?’ she said.

            I glanced to my left and prepared myself not be the least bit patronising or sarcastic when explaining that, yes, the cathedral really is just behind Debenhams.

            ‘This is my third day here,’ she said, forestalling me. ‘I’ve seen the cathedral, the Bishop’s palace, the Round Table, the museums and the College. Is there anything else? My train isn’t until three.’

            Out of the corner of my eye a pigeon, its wings hunched around its head, shuffled sideways along a window ledge. It had to be my imagination but it seemed to be moving away from a small pile of grey and white feathers. Perhaps they were the remnants of a nest, thought it was still early, even for pigeons, or perhaps…..

            ‘Peregrines,’ I said. The name came from nowhere. If I’d thought it before speaking, I wouldn’t have said it at all. ‘At the cathedral.’

            But the woman with the guidebook took a step forward. ‘Really? Here?’

            ‘Oh yes.’ Forgetting about pipe cleaners and school caps, I said, ‘There’s a few of them about. One pair used to nest on the old police headquarters on Romsey Road, opposite the hospital but were relocated before the building was demolished. The site’s being developed for houses now, you see.’

            She raised her eyebrows. ‘And the peregrines? They’ve moved them to the cathedral?’

            ‘I’m not sure they moved them exactly but you can see them flying above it sometimes.’

            She grinned, and dropped the guidebook into the canvas shopper bag over her shoulder. ‘I’ll go there now,’ she said. ‘I might be lucky.’

            I nodded. ‘I hope you are.’

            After she’d gone, I thought about the other creatures I could have told her about.  There are the otters at the City Mill and, in particular, the one that my daughter, then aged two and somewhat zoologically challenged, misidentified as a lion. There are the water voles in that stretch of the Itchen where it flows through the water meadows that border Winchester College, the roe deer and kingfishers at Winnall Moors, and the mallard who, one spring, led her ducklings not from one river to another but to the Butter Cross, favourite meeting place of generations of teenagers. To the amusement and bemusement of shoppers, the family circled the monument just as if they might have swum around a pond. They stayed long enough to get their picture in the local paper until someone at last guided them towards the nearest water. And then there’s my current favourite: the thousands of starlings that mass at twilight in great stormy-grey clouds in the neon-lit skies above the Tesco superstore.

            Back on my shopping quest, I thought how even though my city might be England’s ancient capital, famous for its Roman heritage, for its cathedral with the longest nave of any European Gothic cathedral, for Alfred and his cakes and Arthur and his knights, I know it best through its birds and its beasts. And I like that.

Flash fiction – Her beginning


Photograph © Roger Bultot

The air outside her front door was all bitten through with ice but she stood there anyway, sleeveless and bareheaded, listening as he climbed the staircase.

Inside, he crossed to the window. ‘Orchids in the snow,’ he said, laying his hat next to them. ‘I knew this was your apartment as soon as I saw them from the street,’

‘Oh?’ She poured him the drink he hadn’t had time to ask for and drew off his jacket. ‘It’s been a long time,’ she said.

‘Hasn’t it? I’ve fought a whole war.’

‘And I’m just beginning mine,’ she said, watching him unbutton his shirt.


The above is my contribution to this week’s Friday Fictioneers run by the lovely and ever diligent Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.


Friday fictioneers – This way

It’s been a while since I managed to get down to writing a Friday fictioneers’ piece. This one is inspired by current happenings. I’m not sure if it’s written in hope or fear or some mixture of the two.



Photograph © Dale Rogerson


‘This way, Sir.’ A command dressed up like respect. He’ll understand only half of that.

He talks. ‘Who was the architect for this place? I know a fellow-’

‘No, Sir. You don’t.’

Behind them, the sun is gone behind the barred and bolted door. So, too, the howling crowds. This new light is sepulchral, pooling on the ground. He stamps over it.

‘Do you want to pray?’


‘Yes. Everyone finds their God in the end. Some people like Him to accompany them into the darkness.’

‘Horseshit. Trump’s had this God guy’s back for long enough. He’s on his own now.’

A head shake. ‘This way, Sir.’


If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Puig de Maria

For five summers the hill looked down on us. I imagined it chuckling to itself as, on nearby Port de Pollença’s beautiful white beach, we chased toddlers with bottles of sun cream, wiped small faces clean of ice cream and endlessly shook sand-encrusted raisins from bags.

But 2016 was The Year. No more nappies, pushchairs or My First Shoes. We assembled the children and announced a short walk before swimming. One of them – what a little star – said ‘hooray!’, one said ‘no way’, one asked if there would be ice cream, one looked as if she might cry while the not-quite-three-year-old carried on rifling through someone else’s handbag. We had a rethink and left the two smallest with Grandma.

Guidebooks describe the Puig de Maria as an easy forty minute climb. At the top is the sandstone Santuari de la Mare de Déu del Puig, a monastery and chapel dating back to the 1300s and dedicated to the Virgin Mary to plead protection from the Black Death. The Bishop of Palma ordered out the original inhabitants in the mid-1500s and different religious orders have used the place sporadically ever since. In the 1980s, twelve cells were converted to bedrooms for overnight stays by ascetics, peace-and-quiet seekers (possibly parents of young children) and those averse to ensuites, air conditioning and other fripperies.

Lined with pine, olive and holm oak trees, the path is patched with shade. It makes for hot, thirsty walking but the views are matchless: westwards, the Tramuntana mountains rise dark and rocky above Pollença town, while to the east, Cap de Formentor and the bays of Alcudia and Pollença give way to the blue expanse of the Mediterranean. The children enjoyed seeing “their beach” from this new viewpoint, although, it must be said, displayed similar enthusiasm for the biscuits my brother-in-law produced from his rucksack.


Starting as well-maintained tarmac, the path becomes rough cobbles closer to the top. Sturdy-soled though they were, I regretted my Birkenstocks (my only footwear option; I pack light) and wished for my trekking sandals, relics of another life. The children, however, scampered back and forth, probably covering twice the 2km distance, while discussing ice-cream options for the top, where there’s a small restaurant, apparently serving some of Mallorca’s best food, as well as that promised ice cream.

A goat, leaping across the rocks that flank this upper reach of the path, welcomed us to the summit. It posed for photographs, with the casual aplomb of the well-practised, before disappearing between the stone gate-posts. We followed, variously seeking shade, the incense-scented chapel and ice-cream. In our different ways, we were all disappointed. The sun was high and shade scarce to nil, both chapel and monastery were closed and locked and, despite a garish ice-cream sign, the restaurant, too, was shut. And yet, with air rich with resin, wood smoke and sea-salt, our hands gripping a warm honey-coloured stone wall – and, everywhere we looked, that incomparable view, it seemed impossible to expect more.



Friday fictioneers – Condensation


Photograph © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields


When she saw him opening his mouth, she pressed her nose to the window and stared at the ponies pulling at their hay in the field.

‘Father’s dead.’

‘Oh.’ The ponies were clouded with snow but their tails dripped and their warm bodies steamed.

‘Haven’t you anything else to say?’ His hand tugged at her arm as if he hoped to shake it out of her.


She regretted the question mark even before the little word had turned to condensation on the glass.


If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.


Friday fictioneers – After the hunt

PHOTO PROMPT © Jan Wayne Fields

Perdy had triumphed on the hunt. She sat outside her tent, arms around the corkscrew horns of an enormous kudu bull. Its blood-clotted nose rested in her lap.

‘What a trophy,’ someone said.

Perdy smirked and looked across at Violet.

‘Jolly well done, darling,’ Violet said. ‘Do you have the right wall for it? Back home?’


‘You’ve not moved in with me, have you!’

Perdy’s mouth twitched in a sort-of smile.

Violet took the smile and turned it into her own. Her fingers caught at mine. ‘Goodness, if everyone who came to one of my parties moved in, there’d be no room for me.’


If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Serengeti blues


The Serengeti was blue. Not only the sky but also the acacias; squares of vivid indigo material crowded out the leaves.

‘Tsetse fly traps,’ our guide explained.

I checked my trousers (dual purpose khaki: camouflage for game viewing and, supposedly, an unappealing colour to tsetse flies) were pulled down over my ankles and my shirt buttoned to the neck.

Tsetse flies and the parasitic disease they transmit – sleeping sickness – is something of a mixed blessing for the Serengeti. European colonisers avoided the area, sparing the wildlife the worst of the ravages it was subjected to elsewhere. However sleeping sickness still troubles the inhabitants of the villages hemming the park edges. Easy to treat if caught early, it is difficult to diagnose and impossible without appropriate healthcare. Hence the traps in this remote eastern corner of the park.

Perhaps the migrating herds are as big an attraction for the flies as for the tourists. Silent in our open-top jeep, we watched as wildebeest kettled themselves on a broad lip of earth overhanging a chocolate-brown river. The biggest and boldest tarried hardly at all, crashing through the group to hurtle into the water below, where they kept to the centre of the crowd of swimmers. Meanwhile, the current was bearing smaller animals sideways, dragging them closer to flotillas of log-like crocodiles and further from dry land. The hot air was thick with the cow-like calls of separated mothers and calves.


In the long, yellowed grass on our side of the riverbank, a lioness swivelled her head left, right and left again as wildebeest after wildebeest, streaming water, charged past her. Here and there, uneaten corpses showed it is not only foxes that get carried away in the presence of such plenty.


When the sun was half-gone below the horizon, we started the engine to drive past the stragglers – young calves, mostly, still calling with hollow desperation for their mothers. I tried not to think of the lioness on the riverbank. The road took us away from the great herd, which was heading north towards the greenness of the Maasai Mara, but not from all of their hangers-on.

I heard the buzzing first, beside my left ear, and flapped a hand at the sound. Silence. And then I looked down and saw the fly settling on my trousers, somewhere below my hipbone. When it scissor-closed its wings, I knew what it was. I raised my hand again to swat at it but the creature dipped its head as if in prayer, and bit through my trousers and underwear in one quick lunge.

There was blood – a surprising amount – and the bite hurt out of all proportion to the size of the fly but, as the evening deepened into the same indigo-blue as those tsetse fly traps, I counted myself lucky. I’d be watching for the symptoms, I had no fears about the quality of the medical care available to me – and I was not alone with lions on a riverbank.


[These events happened almost ten years ago so I’m guessing I’m safe from sleeping sickness. The piece was inspired by a sort out of my photographs on a cold day, when the heat, dust and indigo blues of the Serengeti seemed like a lifetime and another world away. Sadly, sleeping sickness continues to be a threat in much of sub-Saharan Africa and, to my knowledge, the campaign against tsetse flies is ongoing.]