Thursday, 27 September 2012

Things not to start a sentence with AKA thoughts from a previous call centre existence.

  1. I'm not being mean/rude/insert pejorative here but...”
    You are, you know. You're just being a coward about it. Either don't say it (really – just don't) or at least have the guts to stand by your words.

  1. To be honest with you...”
    So you're about to lie to my face. Telling me you're not just means I'm expecting it. What are you, five?

  1. You know me, I'm not one to make a fuss...”
    Yes, I do. Yes, you are.

  1. I know you're on lunch, but...”
    Unless the next part of that sentence is either “Yip-de-feckin'-do, we won the lottery!” or “the office is on fire!” I won't be listening so you might as well save your breath.

  1. I'm not having a go at you, love...”
    You're going to scream at me for 20 minutes – what else would you call it? And kudos for the casual chauvinism, by the way. The 70's called – they want their macho back.

  1. I want to speak to your boss – he'll understand...”
    Holy sexism, Batman! Apart from the obvious, there were two problems with this:
      I. My boss was similarly deficient in the testicle department.
      ii. Neither of us found this affected our ability to fix phones. I mean, do penises come with a camp-on attachment??

  1. An interruption. ANY interruption.
    Well, apart from 'Duck!' maybe. I'm actually trying to help you. Could you please let me finish before you scream/cry/start a dirty protest.

  1. Am I talking to a human...?”
    I get it- - honestly I do. I hate going through those automated systems too. But one of these days, the temptation is going to be just too much and I'm going to reply, “No, my name is Wrtzfukle from the planet Ayseedee and I'm here to impregnate you digitally with my young. What? You thought only humans did outsourcing?” Fun while it lasts but the last call I'd ever take. Please don't be that person. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

With everything that's been going on recently about the erosion of women's rights, I thought it might be a good time to share this story.

A few months ago, I went to a storytelling night at (Good place - if you haven't been yet, you need to!)Their theme for the night was 'Awkward Sods and Local Heroes' and, as my Grandma seemed to fit quite comfortably into both of those categories and was far and away the strongest woman I'd ever known, I asked if I could come and tell them about her. But then, while I was getting my idea together, something unexpected happened, and I found out I had not one, but two heroines in the family to share with them.

My Grandma's given name was Catherine, but no one ever called her that – she was always Kit. The first woman to chair the local Urban District Council, the first female mayor when the town expanded and a holy terror to anyone she thought was messing her around. She lived in the same town for over 70 years and was a Labour Councillor for over 40 of those. She knew the people she represented and they knew her too.

I thought everyone had a Grandma like mine. That it was normal to walk round with her after school posting out election leaflets, or to sit in a draughty school hall and have everyone come and tell you their problems so you could make them go away. I mean, isn't solving problems what Grandmas are meant to do?

But that didn't mean she didn't have time for her family – both my parents had to work so I spent an awful lot of time before and after school at Grandma's. I learned to bake watching her make pastry and getting to play with the off cuts. I also learned from my Granddad that it's possible to put out a fire with your bare hands, but that's a story for another day.

Grandma's house, for me, was always this warm hive of activity. Never tidy as such, but always full of love and comfortable, wide waisted hugs. Especially when you compared it to my other Grandma – my Nanna.

My Nanna was a different kind of person completely. My Granddad had been killed in the war and she'd had to raise my dad on her own. She was precise and guarded and liked everything 'just-so'. A spilled drink wasn't actually a hanging offence but it could feel like it sometimes, especially if you'd been misbehaving. Don't get me wrong, we still knew she loved us, but it was a more formal kind of love, a tell rather than a show.

Guest's at Nanna's tended to be invited, but at Grandma's, it wasn't out of the ordinary for there to be a knock at the door and for this timid voice to ask 'is Kit there...?' and Grandma's front room would be turned into an impromptu surgery dispensing tea and advice. Once they'd gone, she'd set herself down at the telephone table in the corner (for anyone who remembers the days before cordless phones and mobiles) and set about righting wrongs.

I secretly loved these visit because it meant I got to see Grandma's secret weapon in action. Grandma had a magic finger. Didn't look anything special but we kids knew it was a weathervane for her emotions. If she was on the phone making a request it would be vertical and fairly relaxed, just being used for emphasis, as anyone would. But if the person on the phone wasn't listening to her request properly, or showing any inclination to help, there'd be a change. The finger would stiffen and travel through 90 degrees and the request would become a direction. If stage two didn't work then the finger would move again until it was pointing straight down and used to punctuate every syllable until she got what she wanted. And that finger cound drill through concrete. By the age of 3 I'd learned enough to avoid this and was fascinated that many supposedly responsible adults couldn't.

Although she was a lifelong Labour Party member, she never let her political views get in the way of helping people - She even managed to get herself suspended from the National Labour party for a few months because she refused to support a national policy on social housing which she knew would harm the local community. It wasn't a grand gesture of national or earth-shaking importance but it certainly let people know whose side she was on.

She finally had to step down because of prolonged ill health but made sure she went out on the roads with the new candidate, showing him around and making sure he introduced himself to each and every voter. She wouldn't go to to doors with him because she didn't want to undermine him so she'd wait across the road, or at the end of the drive. And he did his best. He knock and wait. Then someone would come to the door and he'd explain he was the local Labour candidate and he was replacing Kit Ward. And they'd listen politely, but all the time he'd be aware of them inching slowly to one side so they could see around him to where Grandma was standing in what Peter Kay would call her 'big coat'. And she'd wave and nod, and they'd nod back and that would be it. If Kit was happy with her replacement, then so were they because they trusted her to do what was right.

I didn't realise how much of a difference my Grandma had made, or how much she meant to the whole town until she died. I'd been working away in Brussels and missed most of the preparations for the funeral. I walked into the church with my family and it was full. Every available space was packed with a town of people who'd taken time out of their day to come and say goodbye to their Kit.

I'd got so many stories about her I wanted to share and was sitting at my desk, trying to remember back the best part of 30 years and squeeze out the stories in some kind of coherent order. It wasn't going well. So I took a break and did something I've done a hundred times before: reach out and grab a random book off the shelves to dip into for a diversion. This time I picked up this book. Doesn't look anything special. It's called 'Selections from Modern Poets' but given it was printed in 1934, they're not all that modern any more. It belonged to my Nanna and when she died, I was given it to remember her by.

So I started idly flicking through it and it opened where a page had been ripped out. I know that doesn't sound like a big thing but this is my Nanna we're talking about – everything dusted and everything pristine. She got the book as a form prize at school and she looked after her things. The idea that she would have ripped a page out of a book was so alien that it got me curious. The book had an index of first lines so I popped on Google and let my fingers do a little detective work and this is what I found.

And it was like I was seeing my Nanna for the first time. I could picture the nineteen year old she was sitting there with this book in her hands, reading this poem and seeing herself in it. And then just reaching out for the page and tearing it out and throwing it away along with the future she'd had planned – a career, a husband – who knows what else – all gone.

And then she picked herself up, said goodbye to the life she thought she was going to have and set herself to raising my Dad on her own.

And that's the point I realised I didn't just have one strong woman in the family, I had two. One was a very public figure, the other more private but strong as steel all the same.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

I've run the occasional live-action murder mystery for friends and taken part in a few others. I didn't realise how much of a mark it had made on my subconscious until I was asked for advice on how to do it and this just spewed out of my head. 


1. Never underestimate the stupidity of the party.

2. Never underestimate the...
OK, you get the idea but it is, unfortunately, true that people's inability to grasp what to you should be a simple point increases exponentially with the number of people in said group.

To use the old chestnut of three pensioners sitting on a bench:

Granny #1: "Isn't it windy?"
Granny #2: "No, I think its Thursday."
Granny #3: "Ooh, so am I, lets have a cup of tea.''

Now add in Granddads #4, #5 & #6 who, respectively, know that tea comes from Ceylon, that Ceylon is now Tibet (No, I know it's not but that's the point!) and that the Dalai Lama comes from Tibet. Rather than someone in the party going outside to see if the wind has dislodged a clue from the trees as you planned, you have six very earnest characters thinking their main goal is to free the Dalai Lama from Chinese oppression. And they'll get the rest of the party thinking the same way. The weird thing is, sometimes it's better that way – who wouldn't want to free the Dalai Lama? In once early instance this led to Dracula's castle being attacked by trampoline-launched methane-powered exploding cows. Actually it wasn't Dracula's castle, it was Frank n' Furter's Transvestite rocket ship because someone deliberately misled the party (you know who you are...)

3. Never expect things to go exactly as planned.
- people cancel at the last minute
- You run into problems. I did almost an entire night with no voice and had to substitute dodgy Clannad tracks for various chants that should have been included.

4. Mine! Mine! Mine!
People don't always share the information they should. Imagine Gollum sitting in a corner in fancy dress with a hoard of clues whispering "My precioussssses "and you won't go far wrong.

This problem can increase with the shyness/inebriation of the character in question.
- Best not to put all your eggs in one basket. Either give the same clue to different people or have an alternative distribution method held in reserve.

If you give everyone their own sub-plot in addition to the murder (who stole Auntie Ethel's gold-plated dentures?) they have to ask each other questions and then have to actively choose not to get involved /ignore information.

5. The "luvvie" syndrome.
  • Do I have to be ugly/poor/mean?
  • My character wouldn't pawn an old lady's false teeth."
People can get very into it and think they know more than you do, Depending on how
much background filling you've done, this could well be true.
Give them as much character history as you can. I try to do at least a couple of sides of A4 on the characters themselves and then another side of background info. 

It also helps if you can compare them to someone they'll know, e.g. 'Hugh Grant, but with actual acting ability', or 'a bargain basement Derek Acora, doing readings in pubs'.

Characters will still try to argue the toss but if you've told them they hate old ladies because they were brought up by their Gran who always dressed them in hand-me- downs and used their pocket money to buy FixaDent (yes – they stole Auntie Ethel's teeth!) it's a lot easier to argue your corner. And far less likely that you'll need to.

6. Stage fright.
what seemed like a good idea in the pub after a night of shots and improbably named cocktails (Combine Harvester, anyone?) suddenly seems far less do-able in the cold
light of day and the even colder courtyard of a castle dressed up in your Dad's old tweed coat pretending to be an archaeologist.

All you can do is give people plenty of warning and lots of background info. If you love them, set them free!

7. Zebras!
'If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras'. In real life, the mundane explanation is usually the right one. In this kind of game, however, you need people to look for Zebras. You actively encourage them to look for Zebras because mundane is boring.

Unfortunately, once this zeal for the weird is released, it gets out of hand. They hear hoofbeats and think ..

Sometimes it's a little less exciting but will still send people off track. I left an iron in the bath once because I was behind with my prep. People started arriving and the iron was still hot. I started imagining all sorts of horrific keloid-scarring accidents happening if I left the iron where it was to cool down (Zebras!) and came to the conclusion that the only non-flammable safe place to leave it was in the bath. So in I popped it and closed the shower curtain so no one could see. Only later did I find out that this was discovered and declared to be the murder weapon. Though how you use an iron to shrink a man, strip the flesh from his bones and leave a desiccated skeleton and no mess at all, I have no idea.

You can't stop this happening – I'm not sure you'd want to.

8. The Font of All Knowledge.
Some people just know more than others. Annoying but true. Especially if they know more than you about the subject in question (murder, dismemberment, the occult... I didn't say they had to be nice people.)

I've had plots derailed because someone who knew Latin translated a clue about two hours too early. Once a character (a priest) came under undue suspicion because he lost his place in the prompts he'd been given and instead of giving the last rites started quoting lines from The Exorcist leading another character to think 'they're not the right words … HE'S NOT A PRIEST!'

While it's not necessarily a bad thing – a little extra suspicion goes a long way to getting people into the swing of things – it will keep you on your toes. All you can do is make sure you do your research well and give the characters the info they're going to need and enough time to absorb it. Other than that, there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

9. Keep your friends close...'
The people helping you need to know what's going on. Unfortunately this means that if they see a way they think they can improve things they might act without consulting you. Suddenly you've got a whole new subplot to consider and work around. If you're really lucky, you'll have more than one!

Other than asking/telling them to speak to you first, there's nothing you can do. In the heat of battle, people do really strange things.

10 Alcohol is a deceiver...
A little drink beforehand can make people relax. Too much and you can have World War Three on your hands. People either can't think through plot devices and alibis or they think they know everything.

11. Beware of invisible plot holes.
No matter how many times you read/work through your script/plan, you will miss something, You might as well just take that as a given. The only thing you can do is hope it will be some small thing the whole plot doesn't depend on but at some point you will get that horrendous roll and flip of your stomach as someone says "No... hold on a minute..."

12. The Case of The Missing Character.
- the dog stole my character sheet.
- The kids are sick.
- The roads are flooded.
- I'm sick.
- Great Uncle Octavius died and wants his ashes FedExing to the Congo so he can be at one with the Gorillas.

People will be missing on the night. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes because they just couldn't be bothered. Sometimes the excuse is so good you really wish they could have turned up – they'd have fitted right in!

Whatever the reason, you'll suddenly find yourself frantically writing your way around a clue-shaped hole in your plans for the night and again, there's no way round it. You're never going to second guess who'll go AWOL. Well, not unless you're a billionaire who's managed to predict the right lottery numbers every Saturday for the last ten years. All you can do is make sure any major clue or plot device isn't given to just one person and be prepared to play a couple of parts yourself if you really have to.

13. If you're going to be a murderer, why stop at one body?
Lay down ground rules - what is allowed (Enthusiasm, getting into the part) and what isn't (physical violence, property damage, whatever else you choose). I'd imagine there will be far more rules if you're doing it somewhere public for profit than for friends.

You can always kill off a character as a last resort if someone persistently refuses to play by the rules. One person out of control could spoil everyone else's night so don't be afraid to wield your tools of office (candlestick, untraceable poison, laxatives... well, two out of those three maybe). More bodies keep things exciting, anyway.

14. You can't fit a square peg into multidimensional hole offset in time and space.
There's no point giving the part of a Mata Hari wannabe to a 60 year old Nun from Kidderminster if she's going to be too uncomfortable to do it justice. If you don't know the people coming, ask them what kind of things they would like to do.

15. The engines cannae take it captain...
People can find it hard to stay in character all the time, especially if they're novices. Every one wants a bit of validation their first time (am I doing it right? should I twist and jiggle or jiggle then twist? Should I really have put that banana in the statue's ear...?)
Rather than have people popping in and out of character as they choose (and when) and ruining the flow, you might want to designate One room a "chill out" room where People
can go to (briefly) to let off steam and chat as themselves (… I see... the banana was for the icecream...) Talk about the actual game plot is forbidden, though. And don't let anyone stay in there too long. It's like falling off a horse - the longer you leave it, the harder is to get back on. I know - I was that newbie!

16. Oh look! There's a line from the original plot...
Sometimes, no matter what you do, people get far more interested in the little sub plots you gave them than they are with the overriding story arc. If they're having more fun that way and you really can't coax them back on track – give in. You're putting it on for them after all – the fact that they're massacring your carefully woven masterpiece is neither here nor there. And you can always make them suffer later.

17. to summarise (which was probably all you wanted in the first place).

- Never underestimate the stupidity of the party, But you will. Oh, yes.

- If it can happen, it probably will. Unless you want it to, in which case - no chance!

- Don't give just one person an important clue (or be prepared for someone else to find it if person #1 does nothing.)

- Give your characters time to prepare.

- Give yourself enough time to prepare!

- Try and have fun.

- Try not to do yourself any permanent damage!

These are not all my ideas – I'm still a relative newbie too. I have friends who do this far more than I do and have shamelessly plundered their experiences to round this out!

Monday, 5 March 2012

OK. Thought I might post something that's currently undergoing a major rewrite. I started this a good five years ago and got bogged down halfway through. Managed to finish the first draft last NaNoWriMo but, having done  some scriptwriting in the intervening time, the style is so dissimilar, it's like two different books and I'm going to have to redo the whole thing. But in the meantime, here are the first couple of chapters of 'The Lost Ones'.


Flames raged redly in the distance, out of control and consuming everything in their path. On the horizon, once proud towers shimmered in the incredible heat, beginning to twist and fall and the rising wind carried with it the faint sound of the screaming of horses. Long lines of broken and beaten humanity snaked slowly away from the remains of the city. The final battle had left almost all of the men dead or dying and the old, the injured and the infirm were burning along with their homes.

A young man with a shock of red hair sat on a rock staring moodily at the scene unfolding in front of him. His armour lay discarded by his side, the inscribed bronze designs now dented and obscured by dust and blood. His tall, slender frame had fooled many into thinking him a priest or a poet but there was a certain readiness of posture and regard which, to the perceptive, counselled a more cautious approach. Wiry muscles slid under olive skin as he picked up a stone and hefted it at one of the many helmets lying discarded on the battlefield. He'd ordered the bodies burned long since - more to avoid pestilence than from any deep-seated religious beliefs.

A stone whipped past his ear to strike the target he’d missed and in one smooth motion he was off the rock and spinning round, sword held ready to meet this new threat. Recognition came and he relaxed enough to lower his weapon. “My sins are heavy enough without adding fratricide to them,” he gave a wry smile then continued “and you of all people should know that a friend can kill you as easily as an enemy.”

The newcomer grimaced his agreement at this truism and moved towards his brother. Taller by a head and broader again by half no one could mistake him for anything other than he was, a warrior-king, proven in battle and confident in the depth of his power. He sat down on the makeshift seat, indicating that the other should do the same and untied a wineskin from his belt. Taking a long pull at the neck he tossed it over to his companion. “You’ve spoken to the witch, then?”
The younger man nodded. “Do you trust her?”
I think we have to. If it hadn’t been for her we could have been here another nine years, no matter how much the Old Fox insists that he saved our necks.”
The red-haired man’s expression darkened. “I still haven’t forgotten that you two got me into this in the first place.”
His sibling frowned. “And what would you have had me do, little brother? Allow her to be bound to another and have him go all-unknowing to her marriage bed? Or do as Alexandros and spirit her away?” He extended an arm towards the fires burning in front of them, his voice tight with anger and rising with every word. “Can you love your homeland so little that you would have it razed to the ground?”

His companion’s shoulders slumped. “I know... I know. I went into this with my eyes open.” He too looked at the approaching column, close enough now that the hopeless expressions of the captives could be seen. “But it gets harder each time we do something like this. They don’t know they’re making a sacrifice, or why we burned their homes to the ground. In another fifty years they”ll be trying to do the same to us in revenge.”
He picked up his wineskin and rose. “I don’t think I can stomach any more today.” With a final glance at the burning horizon he turned and strode back to the camp. The older man made to follow his brother, then let him go with a shake of his head. In time he would accept the necessity of their actions. They had to sear out the evil, root and branch or the revenge inflicted would be terrible indeed and probably more than they could withstand. And then she would be free to do as she pleased. He set his jaw and turned to watch the slaves being herded towards him, as if by doing so he could share in their pain.

The head of the column drew level with his vantage point and began to pass by. One of the women stumbled and the nearest guard, impatient to join the victory celebrations, shoved her forwards with the butt of his spear. Weak and emaciated from years of siege where most of the food had been shared amongst those still able to fight, she stumbled again, fell to the floor and did not move.

Mama!’ came a piercing scream from further down the line and a young girl of about eight or nine years old broke ranks and dashed forward, her long black hair streaming behind her. She ducked under the guard’s spear and knelt by the inert frame in the dust, crying quietly “Oh mama, please get up.” She managed to raise her mother’s shoulders off the ground with one malnourished arm while the other caressed the pallid face, a futile attempt to coax back a semblance of vitality. The lifeless head lolled backwards, lank curls scraping the dirt, sightless eyes accusing the man on the rock. 

The contact was broken when the guard, tired of waiting, flipped the woman over with a sandalled foot and prodded the child with his spear to indicate that she should rejoin the column. When she continued to kneel by the corpse he seized a handful of her long hair, wound it around his fist and began to drag her back himself, pulling insistently. A jolting blow to the small of his back halted his progress and for an instant he thought the girl was fighting back. Then he looked down and saw the point of a sword poking out from underneath the bottom of his breastplate, shining wetly with his own blood. As his fingers plucked feebly at the blade its support was withdrawn and he crumpled, first to his knees and then over and onto his back to stare up at a sun turned blood-red by the dust and the heat from the fires. A shadow moved across his fading vision and he faced his king, lips struggling to form a question his voice no longer had the strength to ask.

The older man plunged his sword into the sand to clean the blade before sheathing it. Bending down, he gently scooped the almost catatonic child into his arms and as he straightened he cast a final, bleak look at the dying soldier. “We are put on this earth to make choices, my boy. We make the best ones we can and then live with the consequences. You made the wrong choice for the wrong reasons and this is the consequence. Live with it…if you can.” Then he turned to walk back towards his own lines and the sound of drunken celebration, to face the consequences of the choice he himself had made.

Chapter One

It was all too bright. Even through closed lids Kiernan could feel the glare of the electric lights, re-igniting the fire inside his skull and touching off pinpoint explosions of pain. He raised his arm to protect his eyes only to find them already swathed in bandages. A grunt escaped his lips as unease turned to panic and he scrabbled with both hands at the ties that held the material fast. He could hear running footsteps and voices coming closer but couldn’t understand what they were saying, then a pair of delicate hands closed over his and a softly accented voice murmured “don’t struggle, you’re safe.” Blind and adrift, Kiernan didn’t know why these words should calm him but they did. He felt the sharp prick of a needle in the back of his hand and drifted back down into darkness…
and into the strangest dream. He was back on the hillside, baking in the Greek sunshine and enjoying what he’d been assured was the best view on the island. Even in his somnolent state he could feel the heat prickling on his skin and knew that he was going to burn. He cast about for shelter and time slowed as he caught sight of a tiny, one-room building with a scarred and pitted dome for a roof. An entire wall of the ancient structure had been reduced to rubble and the whole thing looked as if it was just waiting for a good enough reason to fall down. At some point a great tree had rooted high up in the structure, burrowing deep into the walls in search of life-giving moisture. Moving closer, he could see that the choking roots this gnarled and desiccated leviathan had sent forth had slowly wrung almost all the life from the walls only to hold them together just on the point of death. Curiosity building, the dream-Kiernan strolled on for a closer look. He walked once around the remaining walls trying to gauge their strength until he came full circle and hesitated before the obsolete doorway. Weighing up the possibility of being buried alive against the certainty of being burnt he gave a shrug and ducked forwards under the chest high lintel. It wasn’t as if anyone would miss him if he didn’t come back. Emma had made that perfectly clear.
It turned out to be pleasingly cool underneath the dome. The stone floor shimmered with rays of sunlight drifting lazily down through the holes in the roof and thanks to the missing wall, the building trapped none of the oppressive heat. Kiernan stripped off his shirt and let the cooling breeze play over his lean frame. Blond hair and blue eyes had their advantages but resistance to sunlight was definitely not one of them. He’d already burnt and peeled twice in the last four weeks and wasn’t about to try for a third. Reluctantly he replaced his shirt, leaving it open down the front and began to examine the flaking remains of the once brightly-coloured frescos on the walls. He paused in front of an almost intact rendition of a garden scene, a theme entirely unlike the stylised epic themes and sword-and-battle motifs that typified most of the ancient Greek art he’d seen so far. But this, this was entirely new. Painted by what could only charitably be called an indifferent artist it drew the eye nonetheless with its longing for a simpler life than could be allowed. Kiernan didn’t know why but he was convinced that this was once a real place, somewhere the unknown artist could be at peace with himself and with each deliberate brush stroke he could feel the painter’s lost soul committing to memory a place that might never be seen again. He reached across the centuries with the fingertips of one hand and slowly traced the outline of an empty swing “I hope you found your peace, my friend,” he said softly, “I wish that I could find mine.”
Kiernan remained lost in contemplation of the fresco for some time. Abruptly he became aware of a presence at his shoulder and realised that someone else had braved the hike to the summit. He inclined his head to point at the designs on the plastered walls and ventured polite conversation.
Amazing how they last so long isn’t it?” Getting no reply he looked to see who the newcomer was and found himself still completely alone. Shrugging, he turned his attention back to the wall and felt the same presence flow back, stronger than ever and bringing with it a chill that minutes ago he would have welcomed. As the hairs at the back of his neck began to rise, Kiernan took a couple of shallow breaths, the most his bubbling, building panic would allow and turned resolutely on leaden feet to meet whatever waited head on…

In the middle of writing her report the duty nurse paused and put down her pen as bed seven started to moan in his sleep. She waited to see if he would quieten but when he began to twist uneasily she pushed back her chair. He’d already had his drip out once tonight and looked as if he was working up to another attempt. Before she could do anything more, though, an agency nurse she didn’t recognise came into the ward and waved her back down.
I’ll deal with him, Sister. You look as if you’re swamped over there.” Returning to her notes, Sister Eidica let the patient’s mutterings fade from her hearing and submerged herself once more in her report.

again there was nothing there. For a second Kiernan thought he’d caught a glimpse of a shadow, a faint outline of a shape in the dust and then…nothing. He exhaled heavily and forced himself to laugh, muttering, “You’re going nuts, man! First you start hearing things, then seeing things – next thing you’ll be talking to yourself and then there’s no hope left.” Still uneasy, he headed outside, noting with satisfaction that the sun was finally going down. As he crossed the floor he heard a scraping sound, then felt a jolt under his feet as a dull thud rumbled around the chamber - someone was moving about underneath the stone floor. Irritated with himself now he’d found a practical reason for his unease, Kiernan knelt and beat with the palm of his hand against the clay packed stone floor. “Hello!’ he shouted, “who’s down there?” and then waited, ear pressed to the floor for a reply. 

 His only answer was a shuffling sound, of feet creeping slowly away, then silence. Angry now and convinced that he was the butt of some hugely unfunny practical joke Kiernan jerked himself upright, raised his foot knee high and then slammed the heel down as hard as he could against the stone. He had a split second to reflect that this was perhaps not the wisest possible course of action to take whilst standing on a three thousand year old floor before the flagstones split and dropped him down into darkness.

The nurse bent over the side of the bed to wipe the multiplying beads of sweat from her patient’s brow, trying to keep up as his head twisted painfully from side to side. He raised his hands as if to push something away and she made a grab for the hand with the cannula in it. If it came out again, her carelessness would draw the attention of the night sister and then she’d be in big trouble. The patient seemed to calm at her touch though and when she looked down at his face she could see the tension and pain begin to recede, leaving behind a fresh and open countenance. Long-standing creases at the side of his mouth suggested an easy disposition and one quick to smile, but she could also see the faint beginnings of pale frown lines outlined against his sunburnt brow. At first she thought they'd been caused by the trauma of the last few days but then realised her mistake.

What brought you here, I wonder?” she murmured as she ran her forefinger down the side of his face, lightly tracing the outline of one prominent cheekbone and moving down across a stubborn jawline.
Is there a problem, nurse?” Sister Eidica’s voice, dripping with disapproval carried clearly across the ward.
No, sister,” the nurse started guiltily. “I was just trying to keep him calm.”
Very well. I know you’re new to us, but please remember there are proprieties to be observed here. Come to my office tomorrow before you start your shift and I’ll discuss them with you”
Yes, sister. Sorry, sister”. The woman at the bedside nodded in what she hoped was a suitably subservient manner and busied herself in routine, first checking the flow of the drip then updating the patient’s temperature chart, all the while feeling her gaze pulled back to his face where his eyes moved rapidly under closed and abraded lids. Something was definitely going on in there.

Kiernan relived the moment in slow motion, unable to change a thing. Looking down as his foot descended he could swear the mortar between the huge slabs dissolved before he made contact with them and then his nightmare plunge began. In the fading light of dusk, he saw the lower floor just too late to brace against it and heard all to clearly the sickening snap of his ankle as it gave way and pitched him forward, slamming his head against a stone block in the middle of the cellar. He lay still for some time, fighting for consciousness and then, unable to control the waves of nausea washing over him, he turned his head and vomited. Cursing the world at large and his rebellious stomach in particular, he inched himself over and onto his back, trying to move his ankle as little as possible. The pain was excruciating but he needed to get an idea of his surroundings and any possible way out before even this faint light was lost. He tried to raise himself to a sitting position but warm blood poured down from a deep cut over his right eye, obscuring his vision and setting his head to spinning once more. 

 To his left, Kiernan’s groping hand gained purchase on the top of the stone block he’d crashed into. It appeared to be hollow and at some time in the past its lid had been displaced and was propped drunkenly against the side of the container. Inch by dizzying inch Kiernan eased his back up against this welcome support and then, target achieved, he closed his eyes in relief and leant his head back against the cool, carved stone. For some time, the pain in his head had been trying to persuade him that passing out would be a good idea and he decided that perhaps now would be a good time to listen. As he allowed himself to sink into welcome oblivion he heard a rustling sound behind him and dust-dry, paper-skinned hands followed him down into the depths where he fell to reach around his neck. As he let slip all ties to consciousness, Kiernan heard a wind-faint voice whisper in his ear. “Warn Manny she is restless. Hold close the marriage ties.”
And then he was gone.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

5am, a computer and a fresh mug of tea. Fantastic. All the ideas from your dreams still floating round your head with nothing to interrupt them. No feelings of guilt because I told my husband I'd be with him in ten minutes two hours ago, no phone calls, no texts – not even the dog wants to go out and pee at that time in the morning. It's just me and a keyboard full of plots with no excuses. You should try it sometime - just make the tea strong enough so the tannins dissolve the spoon and you'll be fine.