Launching “Minus One”

I’ve been very busy all week finalising the text and cover for my poetry collection, Minus One. I’m going to publish it next Friday, the 29th January. Would anyone be willing to help with the launch? I can email the text, the cover, photographs and some author facts. If you could write a short review as well, that would be terrific. It’s not a long book, sixty pages in all and the poems are short. I include the title poem and the cover here:

MINUS ONE

My magic circle broken

Minus one

The first one

To close his eyes

At first I hardly noticed

You were gone, but now

Your absence grips my throat

Chokes my breath

How much of you is me?

I have your hands

Your hazel eyes

Your quick dismissive shrug

I have your taste

In books and booze

I hear my voice

Confirm your old convictions

How much of you is me

Stretching to close the circle?

Thank you so much to anyone who is willing to participate.

Quotes from “Coming Up for Air” by George Orwell

“I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.”

There is so much more to Orwell than Animal Farm and 1984 and I love this book – Coming Up for Air. It’s the story of a man on a day out, searching for scenes of his childhood. It’s so very readable and engrossing. I read several passages over and over again. But I’ll just add one more here.

“I bent down to pick up a primrose. Couldn’t reach it – too much belly. I squatted down on my haunches and picked a little bunch of them. Lucky there was no one to see me. The leaves were kind of crinkly and shaped like rabbits’ ears. I stood up and put my bunch of primroses on the gatepost. Then on an impulse I slid my false teeth out of my mouth and had a look at them. If I’d had a mirror I’d have looked at the whole of myself, though, as a matter fact, I knew what I looked like already. A fat man of forty-five, in a grey herringbone suit a bit the worse for wear and a bowler hat. Wife, two kids and a house in the suburbs written all over me. Red face and boiled blue eyes. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But the thing that struck me, as I gave my dental plate the once-over before slipping it back into my mouth, was that it doesn’t matter. Even false teeth don’t matter. I’m fat – yes. I look like a bookie’s unsuccessful brother – yes. No woman will ever go to bed with me again unless she’s paid to. I know all that. But I tell you I don’t care. I don’t want the women, I don’t even want to be young again. I only want to be alive. And I was alive that moment when I stood looking at the primroses and the red embers under the hedge. It’s a feeling inside you, a kind of peaceful feeling, and yet it’s like a flame.”

There, that’s enough. Has anyone else read this? Or other Orwells?

Five Best Endings . . .

I got the idea for this post from Stephen Writes at Top Five Memorable Endings I Read In 2020 – Stephen Writes (wordpress.com) and he kindly allowed me to use his idea. For me the ending of a book, the last sentence, indeed the last paragraph, is very important. Often, especially in thrillers, the last few pages are long-drawn out and boring. So when you love a book, and are approaching the end, it’s great when the last words are just as good – and just as important – as the beginning.

No. 1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

The story is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are sent by their boss to kill someone. They have various adventures on their journey. The younger of the two is tired of the harsh life they lead and wants to go home. Here’s the wonderful last paragraph:

“I dropped into sleep but awoke with a start some minutes later. I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bath tub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

No. 2. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

When Quoyle, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he heads for his ancestral home on the wild coast of Newfoundland with his two small daughters. He secures a job on the local paper, reporting on the shipping news. This book is the story of his life there, and the characters he meets. It finishes thus:

“Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat;s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

No. 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I’m sure everyone knows this story of the Joad family, and their trek through the Oklahoma dust bowl during the great depression of the 1930s in America. At the end of the book they take shelter in a barn where they find a man dying of hunger, and his small son. The daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, (Rosasharn) has just given birth to a still-born child, and sharing a deep look with her mother, agrees to breast-feed the dying man:

“For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head closed. ‘There,’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

No. 4. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

From the blurb on the back of this book – It is a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic version of eternity, and a tender, brief, erotic story about the unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle.

“We saw, standing with his back to us, an enormous policeman. His back appearance was unusual. He was standing behind a little counter in a neat whitewashed dayroom; his mouth was open and he was looking into a mirror which hung upon the wall.

‘It’s my teeth,’ we heard him say abstractedly and half-aloud. ‘Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.’

His face, when he turned, surprised us. It was enormously fat, red and widespread, sitting squarely on the neck of his tunic with a clumsy weightiness that reminded me of a sack of flour. The lower half of it was hidden by a violent red moustache which shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal . . . He came over ponderously to the inside of the counter and Divney and I advanced meekly from the door until we were face to face.”

‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.

No. 5. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been a fan of The Boss and I know he writes his own songs, but still, I was a bit surprised by how good his writing is in this autobiography. The book flowed along and I thought the prose was delicious. This is how he finishes the book – he is riding his motorbike south to Manasquan Inlet:

“My “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars thrust my arms out and skyward to shoulder height, opening me up to the winds full force – a rough embrace – as my gloved hands tighten their grip on that new evening sky. The cosmos begins to flicker to life in the twilight above me. With no fairing, a sixty-mile-per-hour gale steadily pounds into my chest, nudging me to the back of my seat, subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel, reminding me of how the next moment holds no guarantees . . . and of how good things are, this day, this life, how lucky I’ve been, how lucky I am. I turn the corner off the highway onto a dark country road. I hit my high beams, scan the flat farm fields looking for deer. All clear, I twist the throttle as rushing into my arms comes home.”

That will do for now. Reading all these wonderful writers makes me question my ability to write, or even to put a sentence together. I’m very happy that the world is full of so many wonderful books – I’ll probably do another five endings in the future!

From Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti | an excerpt

I am always interested to know where sayings and quotes come from so I was delighted to come across this verse in Goblin Market. The poem is sixteen pages long and tells the story of Laura, who, led astray by the Goblins, eats their fruit and thereafter pines away until she is almost dead. Her sister, Lizzie, braves the Goblin Market and acquires the antidote. Laura recovers and they both live long, happy lives.

One may lead a horse to water,

Twenty cannot make him drink.

Though the goblins cuffed and caught her,

Coaxed and fought her,

Bullied and besought her,

Scratched her, pinched her black as ink,

Kicked and knocked her,

Mauled and mocked her,

Lizzie uttered not a word;

Would not open lip from lip

Lest they should cram a mouthful in:

But laughed in heart to feel the drip

Of juice that syrupped all her face,

And lodged in dimples of her chin,

And streaked her neck which quaked like curd.

At last the evil people

Worn out by her resistance

Flung back her penny, kicked their fruit

Along whichever road they took,

Not leaving root or stone or shoot;

Some writhed into the ground,

Some dived into the brook

With ring and ripple,

Some scudded on the gale without a sound,

Some vanished in the distance.

I enjoyed reading the whole poem; I loved the imagery and the sounds – I read it aloud. There’s something so luscious about it.

Quotes from A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell.

I first read this book when I was in my forties. It was hard going but I persevered. It was written in 1946, seventy odd years ago, and there will have been many, many changes in thinking since then. But as it’s the early philosophers that interest me, that doesn’t matter too much. Some of the sentences seem peculiar to me but I will leave them as they are.

I am beginning with a quote from Thales who lived, approximately, in 585 B.C. and was one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. He believed that everything was made of water.

“According to Aristotle, he thought that water was the original substance, out of which all others were formed; and he maintained that the earth rests on water. Aristotle also says of him that he said the magnet has a soul in it, because it moves the iron; further, that all things are full of Gods.

The statement that everything is made of water is to be regarded as a scientific hypothesis, and by no means a foolish one. Twenty years ago (1926), the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen, which is two thirds water. The Greeks were rash in their hypotheses, but the Milesian school, at least, was prepared to test them empirically . . .

There are many legends about him, but I do not think more is known than the few facts I have mentioned.

The history of Sparta I found much more interesting, not least because of the movies made about it.

“When a child was born, the father brought him before the elders of his family to be examined: if he was healthy, he was given back to the father to be reared: if not, he was thrown into a deep pit of water. Children, from the first, were subjected to a severe hardening process, in some respects good – for example, they were not put in swaddling clothes (why is that good?). At the age of seven, boys were taken away from home and put in a boarding school, where they were divided into companies, each under the orders of one of their number, chosen for sense and courage.

. . . for the rest of their time they spent in learning how to obey, to away with pain, to endure labour, to overcome still in fight. They played naked together most of the time; after twelve years old, they wore no coats; they were always nasty and sluttish, and they never bathed except on certain days in the year. They slept on beds of straw, which in winter they mixed with thistle. They were taught to steal, and were punished if they were caught – not for stealing, but for stupidity.

Homosexual love, male if not female, was a recognized custom in Sparta, and had an acknowledged part in the education of adolescent boys.

There was little liberty at any stage in the life of a Spartan.”

There is no mention of women in these chapters. Were Spartan girls kept at home to cook and sew? I will try to find out, and I’ll have a look at Plato and Aristotle next.

An excerpt from “Undermajordomo Minor” by Patrick de Witt

This is Patrick de Witt’s third novel, completely different from the previous two. It isn’t quite a fairy story; some of it is surreal, nightmarish, incredible, but all totally delicious. I was in awe of the author’s creativity and the wonderful dialogue and prose.

Mr Olderglough opened his eyes. “There were once were twenty souls in our employ here, boy. Can you imagine it? Coachmen, waiting maids, porters, a cook, a nurse. All gone now, alas.”

“I thought you’d said Agnes was the cook, sir?”

“Originally she was the chambermaid. When the cook left us, then did Agnes step forward, claiming a deft hand.”

“But it seems you take issue with her cooking, is that correct?”

“Not so far as she knows. But in my private mind, yes, I am unenthusiastic.”

“And why do you not speak with her about it, may I ask?”

“Because I dislike unpleasantness. Also there is the fact of my being somewhat afraid of her. And then, too, I’m not much interested in eating.” He looked at Lucy. “Are you?”

“I like to eat,” Lucy said.

“Is that right?” Mr Olderglough shook his head, as if to accommodate an eccentricity. “Personally, it never held much sway for me.”

Lucy said, “May I ask what became of the others?”

“Well, they’ve gone away, haven’t they?”

“But why have they, sit?”

“I suppose they thought it the wisest course of action, is all.”

Mr Olderglough looked wistfully about the room. “Twenty souls,” he said, “and here, what’s become of us? Well, we’ve got you in our company now, boy, and this heartens me, I can tell you that much.”

Lucy was not so heartened. He followed Mr Olderglough to the larder; the shelves were all but bare. There came from the corner the scratching of rodents, and now began a thumping, squabbling battle, a lengthy affair concluding with the agonized squeal of the defeated: high and sharp at its commencement, distantly windy at its resolution. Mr Olderglough wore a satisfied expression, as though the outcome were favourable to him. Drawing back his cascading forelock, he said. “I find the constant upkeep of the body woefully fatiguing, don’t you?”

Final part of “Myrtle” from We All Die in the End.

Silas Bell followed Myrtle into the sitting-room; he opened his case and handed her the catalogue and set a laptop on the table.

            “Fresh outside today, Madam,” he said, sitting down when she did. “Bracing. Very warm in here though.”

            Myrtle turned the pages and the pictures slid past her eyes. She could feel him watching her.

            “Page sixteen, Madam,” he suggested.

            “I thought, since you’re getting a cat you might like a basket. There’s a really nice wicker-work model, well lined with cotton. It’s just the thing for cats these sharp nights. You can’t be too – “

            “Yes.” Myrtle looked up at him. “A basket.”

            “Wonderful!”

            Silas Bell opened his laptop and typed into it very quickly. 

            “You’ve made a good choice, madam. I thought you would like that one.”

            “Name?” he said, fingers poised.

            “Oh – Smith – Myrtle Smith.”

            “Well now.” Silas Bell beamed at her.

            “My dearest aunt was called Myrtle, dead now I’m afraid. Lovely name I’ve always thought – lovely, and you don’t hear it much these days.”

            Myrtle watched him as he put in her address and the details of the cat basket.

            “Phone number, Miss Smith?”

            “Oh . . . no . . . I don’t – “

            “Well, you’re just right, so you are, they can take over your life.”

            He put away the laptop and the catalogue. Myrtle’s heart jumped – he’d be gone in a minute – should she ask him to have a cup of tea? What could she say? Would you like tea? What about a cup of tea? She stood up and so did he. She tried the words in her head but before she could speak he was holding her hand, shaking it up and down.

            “Delighted, Miss Smith, Miss Myrtle Smith.”

            He pressed her hand harder; his eyes and teeth shone at her.

            “Would this day week be convenient for delivery? About twelve?”

            Myrtle nodded slowly.

            He bowed from the waist and then he left. Myrtle stood at the window, hands clasped together. She had forgotten to take off her old lilac fleece but it didn’t matter.

*

            The hailstones hurt her face and her fingers were frozen from holding up the hood of the raincoat. If she could just put on her gloves, but her hands were too wet. She had to lean into the wind to walk forward, her breath catching. The sea was black and white and grey and the hailstones fell in silently.

            “I wish I was,” Myrtle sang, “in Carrick-fer-er-gus . . .  “

            It was almost dark in the sitting-room when she got home and she turned on the lamps, but it was warm and quiet and she stood still for a minute, savouring the comfort of it. In the kitchen she unpacked the tins – Liver and Bacon, the label said. The cat in the picture was pale yellow with green pointed eyes. Myrtle balanced the tins against the others and put the kettle on.

            He’d be here soon. In a minute she’d go upstairs and comb out her hair, put on the black dress and redden her lips.

            She dipped her biscuits and curled her toes in the warm socks. Rain hissed in the chimney and the window shook – she’d have to jam it with newspaper, and she would, in a minute. She folded her hands on her stomach, the heat of the tea still in her throat. Her eyes closed, the fire burned, the wind rattled at the window. She could call the cat Bunty – or Bella – or Sammy . . .

            The knock at the door frightened her. She sat up looking straight ahead. It was him! She’d have to get up and open the door; she’d have to talk. There was a louder knock; he’d be cold out there, waiting . . . Myrtle stood up and thought briefly about the black dress. She looked at her thick, tennis socks.

            “Good morning, Madam, Miss Smith. What a day, what a day.”

            Silas Bell tried to smile, fighting the wind. There was a parcel at his feet and he picked it up and darted inside. The rain shone on his black hair.

            “Cosy in here, Miss Smith, great altogether.”

            Myrtle stared at the floor.

            “And here’s your lovely basket. I got the best one there was, the very latest.”

He unwrapped the plastic covering and pushed the basket towards Myrtle. It was dark brown; the lining was blue and padded like a dressing-gown.

            “Well.” Silas Bell stood up.

            “Where had you thought of putting it?”

            Myrtle breathed loudly; her shoulders were high, her fingers moving.

            “Over here in the corner? Or not?”

            “Just . . . it’ll do . . . just – “

            “No, no, we must find a place for the little kitty. It might be better in the kitchen – more heat there at night you know. It holds the heat from the cooker and that. Is it through here?”

            He elbowed the kitchen door open. Myrtle put out her hand to stop him but he was already in, looking at the tins of cat food, his eyebrows high on his head.

            “What?” He turned to her, swinging the basket.

            “Have you got the cat already?”

            Myrtle lifted the Trout and Tuna and hit him very hard on the side of the head. He dropped quietly at her feet, his face saying, oh . . . his legs were sprawled out, there was a smudge of blood at his temple and she wondered if he was dead but then he made a sound and moved his hands. She curled his legs neatly and pushed him into the corner.

            I’ll tell him he slipped, she thought, splashing water on the floor, he slipped on the water and banged his head.

            She rolled up a bit of newspaper and stuck it into the rattling window-frame. The black car parked at the kerb shone in the rain. Myrtle looked at it for a minute, shrugged and sat down.

Myrtle is one of nineteen stories from the interlinked collection: We All Die in the End available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.

Part 2 of “Myrtle” from We All Die in the End.

“Cat . . .   “

            The word popped out of Myrtle’s mouth.

            “Wonderful. How nice – “

            “No! I . . . No, I – I’m getting a cat . . . soon.”

            “A new arrival then! How exciting! Now let me see . . .  “

            He rummaged in the case.

            “I don’t seem . . .   “

            He shook his head.

            “I have a lot of toys for dogs you know. I find these days most people have dogs, for the company – they like the company when they get on a bit – of course you’re not . . . “

            Myrtle stared at the top of his shining head as he lifted plastic bones and leather dog-leads.

            “Very little for cats with me. They’re so independent, as you know I’m sure, no interest in toys. What’s this? Ah no, worm and flea powders – Madam won’t be needing those.”

            He laughed and Myrtle shook her head. He moved his left foot forward.

            “There’s a new catalogue in the office – I could call tomorrow if that would suit – you could have a look. I’m sure there’s cat-baskets, yes, and bells, door-flaps, all that. Would it be convenient?”

            He whipped a business-card from his pocket.

            “There you are.”

            He flourished it at Myrtle.

            “That’s my name there at the top –   Silas Bell. Mr Silas Bell, that’s me.”

            He smiled and made a little bow.

            “Until tomorrow, Madam. Same time suit you? It’ll be a pleasure to see you again.”

            ” . . . Yes,” Myrtle said.

            She clutched the card to her side, watched Silas Bell get into the shiny car, and then slowly closed the door. For long seconds she stood in the hall, staring at the letter-box. Minutes passed; her feet began to get cold. She lifted the card to read it again and breathed out noisily. She had talked, she had made a friend! Didn’t he want to come back the next day? He had almost begged her to let him come back.

            Myrtle ate a huge lunch and cut the apple-tart after. She was conscious of her new position as someone’s friend and she felt virtuous, holy almost. She licked cream from a spoon and eased the waistband of her tracksuit, trying to think of names for cats and wondering what would be in the catalogue. Her fingers were sticky and she wiped them on a tissue.

            She’d have a bath instead of a shower, she thought, a lovely, long hot bath. On the window-sill she found an old bath bomb. There was a smell of violets when she dropped it into the steaming water but it wouldn’t dissolve. She poked at it with a toothbrush until it broke apart. Gingerly she sat down; such an expanse of skin. Her long, pale hair hung wet and straight, and then she remembered the rollers.

            She dried quickly and tied her dressing-gown, but she couldn’t find the rollers! Where were they? Where! Drawer after drawer was tumbled. Myrtle breathed with quick, loud, anxious gasps and spit ran across her chin. There! She had them! She divided her hair carefully into ten sections, rolled it around the curlers and snapped the elastic into place.

            In the morning she was up early. Her head ached in ten places. She stared at the ringlets, pulled them down and watched them shoot back up again. She drew a hairbrush through them, gently over the sore spots. The tracksuit was dropped to the floor – it wouldn’t do – wouldn’t match the curls. There must be something – there’d be something in the spare-room – there was a box . . .

            The black dress fitted very neatly; Myrtle held her breath to get the zip up. It was all right only she was cold. She put on her old lilac fleece – she could take it off when he arrived. The face in the mirror looked odd, not like her own face at all, and too pale against the dark dress. Lipstick! She should have lipstick, but . . . wasn’t there a book with a hard, red cover . . . yes. She wet her finger and rubbed until the colour began to run, then pressed the colour to her lips. Well . . . it would do only she couldn’t have a cup of tea now.

            What time was it? He said, at the same time. She stood in front of the fire, trying not to lick her lips or bite them.  Eleven, half-eleven, nearly twelve – and there he was, the shiny, black car coming to a stop outside her door. Silas Bell pushed his hair flat behind his ears, lifted his case from the back seat, and smiled.

            “Well, here I am again as promised,” he began when she opened the door.

            He gaped at her, his mouth open; there was a glitter of teeth and then he went on:      

            “I’ve brought the catalogue.”

            He waved it in the air, smiling and sliding his right foot forward.

            “Yes, Myrtle said.”

            He shivered suddenly and hunched his shoulder against the breeze.

            “Maybe . . .  “

            Myrtle opened the door wider.

            “Maybe, would . . . ?”

            “Yes indeed, thank you. I would indeed.”

            Silas Bell followed Myrtle into the sitting-room; he opened his case and handed her the catalogue and set a laptop on the table.

End of the story tomorrow.

Two poems published

I’m happy to say I’ve had two poems published in the Qutub Minar Review, Volume 3, Issue 2. They will form part of the collection “The Red Petticoat” which I hope to publish on amazon early next year. They’re short so I’ll include them here:

Unholy Things

Your eyes have shut themselves away

I watch them glance and bounce and spin

Deeper into alien things

Alien to me, my friend

Although you think I travel with you

I shrink from where you’ve gone

But still, a sting of envy

Your head is filled with beating wings

Bearing you high, and higher yet

Above unholy things

Too far from sweat and blood

From wormy worms and fleshy flesh

I’ll let you be.

Almost Whole

The punch is spiked with glory

My senses leaping and alive

For tonight to listen is enough

And through the music of the music

Runs an old familiar voice

A thread of scarlet joy, moving

In my blood, weaving through my heart

And lungs and lights, pulling tighter

Ever tighter ‘til I scarcely breathe

Caught like a bunch of doe-eyed pansies

My eyes are dark and wild with wonder At such intensity

That I must weep for being almost whole.

Percy Bysshe Shelley | Ode to the West wind

Every year at this time I quote this poem to anyone who will listen to me. I learned it off by heart at school when I was sixteen and still remember most of it. And this is my old school book – A Pageant of English Verse. The poem is quite perfect. I’ll just quote a few verses here, to give you a flavour of it – it’s very long in its entirety.

O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multudes – O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds . . .

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?