Writing updates

BlazeTwo rather nice literary things happened last week. The first was that the marvellous folks at Liars’ League Leicester posted their recording of actress Helen Vye-Francis doing a fabulous job of reading out my short story Wee Glory Boy.

Helen got the accents and emotions spot on – I definitely recommend watching it if you have 7.29 minutes to spare, and not just because I wrote it. There’s something magical for me about hearing my characters’ words in someone else mouth, which only adds to my enjoyment of Helen’s performance.

The second thing is that gorgeous artists’ collective Blaze Studio (pictured at the top of this post in all their Day of the Dead finery) agreed to stock my short story collection Remember Me To The Bees. Lucy put some effort into arranging the copies prettily and attaching the bees I’d brought for the purpose, cut from an early, unproofed copy of the book.

Remember Me To The Bees at Blaze

I think the collection looks right at home there, surrounded by curious and lovely works of art. If you’re passing Colston Street in Bristol, pop in and take a look for yourself!

Ooh, and tomorrow from midday you can hear me on Ujima Radio, when I will be chatting to DJ Cheryl Morgan about my writing and multi-arts interests. So tune in to 98FM!

Remember Me To The Bees – Travelling North

Travelling North cr Louise BoulterThe 20th story in my debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is Travelling North. The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

Before I even began compiling this collection of short stories, the title of it settled on me like a bee on a flower, and refused to flit away. Initially I thought it would be the title of the short story that became Travelling North.

I knew I wanted to write something about following the crops, through Britain, but couldn’t find my way into the tale, until I saw a news story about a man who had frozen to death while camping on the Scottish island of Skye. It wasn’t the story I wove in, but it gave me an image of an older man travelling with the crops, with a far younger companion to offset his beliefs and impression. This pairing became Alun and Shiv, and gave me an opportunity to explore the assumptions we make about one another, as well as the lies we tell ourselves.

In case you were wondering, the phrase Remember Me To The Bees is explained in this story. You’ll have to read the tale to discover the meaning though!

A short excerpt from Travelling North

Alun was a surprisingly good travelling companion. Something about him was deeply reassuring. He was good at deciphering bus timetables, charming waitresses into giving them a bit of extra blood pudding with their breakfast, that kind of thing. She had a feeling people assumed she was his daughter, despite the milkiness of his skin next to hers. The confusion on their faces as they tried to puzzle it out alternately amused and irritated her – she’d experienced it often enough with her mum.

Couldn’t they see she was too old to be travelling with her dad in any case?

Their time together was full of misunderstandings. She couldn’t work out whether it was an age thing or a culture thing. Sometimes they’d be in the middle of some great conversation and she’d gradually become aware that they were talking about completely different things.

Last weekend, for example, on their free day, they’d journeyed to the beaches at Claigan, north of Dunvegan Castle, staying there till the sun began to slip down towards the waves. The sky was still blue in places, but the clouds were golden, rimmed in pink like sea creatures with vulnerable undersides. He’d reached forward suddenly, towards her, stopping just short of touching her face. She’d been wary, realising she no longer wanted to be kissed by this man who had become like an uncle. A friend.

“My daughter would be your age now,” he’d breathed, and she felt her insides chill, sensing some terrible tragedy. She looked at him, full of pity, but he shook his head, almost seeming confused.

“Is, I mean she is. Your age or thereabouts.”
No tragedy then, at least not in her terms.
“You miss her?’ she asked, trying to account for the grief in his eyes.
And he nodded, looked alarmingly like he might actually cry, and said, “For the past fifteen years. That’s how long it’s been.”

Then clammed up, refused to speak another word on the subject, leaving her completely bemused. What kind of man doesn’t see his daughter for fifteen years? She tried to imagine it, if, say, her dad had wanted to move back to Niger rather than England, if her mum hadn’t wanted to go and they’d separated. But even if that had happened, surely he would have visited, wouldn’t he?

Bees cr Judy Darley

Remember Me To The Bees – The River

The River cr Louise BoulterThe 19th story in my debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is The River. An earlier version was published by Gemini Magazine – actually it was one of my first published stories, and really encouraged me to keep writing.

The story enmeshes you in the world of a small girl for whom losing a pair of shoes in a river is at least as worrying as the concept of death.

The exquisite artwork at the top of this post is by Louise Boulter. The others are my own.

A short excerpt from The River

Phoebe sat on the bank and unfastened her patent leather shoes. She dipped her feet into the cold flow, giggling as mud oozed between her toes and small hidden things tickled her soles. Her shoes bobbed in the shallows like a pair of tiny dinghies.

The River near bank cr JDarleyTucking her skirt into her knickers, she slipped off the bank into the river, wading along with gentle waves lapping at her pale, freckled thighs. She heard a splash behind her as Alec joined her in the swirling water. Phoebe led the way, taking care to put each foot down gingerly to test the depth before putting her full weight onto it, just as Alec had shown her.

Alec knew everything there was to know about animals and nature. He pointed out a heron as it unfolded into the air from the bank, transforming from a motionless grey stick into a billowing sheet like a magic trick.

As they followed the river from one field into the next, Phoebe saw something caught in the reeds ahead: a few bright flowers tangling with something more solid. Intrigued, she walked as fast as the water allowed, but as she neared it a small paw was loosened by the current and swung out. She stepped back in surprise and almost fell.

“What is it?” she asked. “An animal?”

Alec picked up a branch and prodded the small corpse, turning it so that a neat whiskery face was revealed: shining, vacant eyes and a pair of astonishingly long ears. A dark red mass glistened where the fur of the stomach should have been.

“A hare,” Alec said. “Killed by a fox, I reckon. Dying, dying, dead and it’s not coming back.”

“Really?” Phoebe asked, disconcerted. Dying was what Mum said was happening to Granny.

“Dead,” Alec repeated, sounding equally unsettled. He heaved himself out onto the riverbank. “Come on, out. That water’s disgusting. We’ll walk back along the lane. Where are your shoes?”

Phoebe gasped in horror, realising she’d left them floating amidst the weeds. Alec took her hand and they ran back to where they’d entered the river, but the shoes had disappeared, gone forever, as surely as the life of the hare.

The River far bank cr JDarley

Remember Me To The Bees – Flyleaf

Flyleaf cr Louise BoulterThe 18th story in my debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is Flyleaf. A few years ago I spent several months travelling up the west coast of America, pausing in Portland for a couple of weeks. While there I dipped in and out of one of my favourite ever bookshops – Powell’s City of Books.

As I had been travelling for a while I’d accumulated a few books which, now read, I couldn’t justify the space for. I needed that space for new books to read! Powell’s buy second-hand books, but didn’t want the ones I had, so quietly, when nobody was watching, I ‘rehomed’ those books on Powell’s shelves.

But what if somebody had seen? What would they have thought of my actions? The thought amused me afterwards, and became the initial seed for this story.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

A short excerpt from Flyleaf

She glances around furtively, guiltily, stuffs the book onto the shelf, and flits away. The reverse of stealing: surreptitious gifting?

I follow her at a distance, looking at the shelves she has been adding to, and find I can’t tell which books she has inserted. It seems that whichever volumes were retrieved from her bag have been placed in exactly the space for which they were intended.

Then I reach one where there was clearly no gap to fill, and see a book resting atop of the others, the same title and author, but not yet catalogued by Powell’s – an outsider in their midst. I pick it up, rifle gently through its pages, look- ing for… what? A note? A stray hair? A clue. I even raise it to my nose and quietly inhale, but it smells only of paper, perhaps of dust; pleasing smells but certainly not telling. The book itself is perhaps the one clue: Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’. And scribbled onto the flyleaf: To Mara. Hope the journey is every bit as much of an adventure as the destination. Love N.

So now I have the woman’s name. The book is well-thumbed, presumably well-read, or possibly just worn out with being shoved into the bottom of a backpack. But why abandon a book that evidently meant so much to her?

She’s leaving the bookshop. I follow as fast as I can without visibly chasing her. I try to appear aloof, perhaps even a little self-obsessed, trying to maintain the persona I assumed on leaving the gym earlier this morning.

Remember Me To The Bees – Drops of Wax

Drops of Wax cr Louise BoulterThe 17th story in my debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is Drops of Wax. I wrote it while visiting Cyprus with my family, thinking about how powerfully location can match or contrast with our emotions, and how a single moment can change everything in your life.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

A short excerpt from Drops of Wax

At the nearby tavern I order a strong shot of Cypriot coffee, no sugar. The shock of bitter caffeine helps to keep me in place, preventing me drifting inwards to replay that night again and again.

To the left of the harbour, rock pools glint. Michael loved rock pools. I remember him hunting for hours beneath sea- weed fronds for crabs and small quicksilver fish.

I pay for my coffee and skitter down the road to the pools, pretending Michael is skipping along beside me. I even imagine his voice, nattering away about some sea beastie he intends to hunt down and capture with his small blue net. But the rock pools, when I reach them, are oddly still. No seaweed wafts in this salt water; no crabs scuttle for shelter as my foot descends. It’s like stepping into a warm bath.

I wade in the water, disconcerted by the jagged volcanic rocks surrounding them. Nothing seems to live here at all.

“Karen? How are you?”

I turn and see Nola, Gigi by her side wearing a pink swim- suit and a pair of jelly shoes. They both beam at me.

“Nola,” I manage. “Kalimera, good morning.”
“Oh, you speak Greek.”
“Just a few words.” I’m self-conscious suddenly. “What are you doing here?”

“Gigi likes to look for crabs. They don’t live in the pools though – we find them in the sea, where it is cooler.” She says something to Gigi who holds out a small plastic bucket to me. Several miniscule white shells lie inside, spiralled into sharp points. The child picks one up, showing me the thin spiky legs that poke out. Look, I want to say, Look at that, Michael.

“Lovely,” I say, and Nola laughs.
“I think they’re horrid,” she says. “More like, what is the word? In Spain we call them araña. Oh yes, spider. I think these are more like spider than crab.”
“Spain?” I ask. “You’re on holiday here?”
“Georgios, my husband, is Greek Cypriot. Gigi and I just flew back from visiting my family in Madrid.”
The word husband makes me swallow hard. “You must miss your family when you’re here.”
“And I miss my husband when I’m there,” she shrugs, accepting the situation with a matter-of-factness I crave.

St Georges rock pools cr Judy Darley

Hiding out in Bloom & Curll

Bloom and Curll interior cr Judy Darley

Independent bookshops seem few and far between these days, but if you know where to look and what to look for, you’ll discover they’re far from extinct.

Bloom and Curll exterior cr Judy DarleyOne of the finest I know totters on a sweep of road just above Bristol’s Christmas Steps. Currently sans signage, it’s easy to spot thanks to the heaps of books piled inside and out.

This is Bloom & Curll, owned and run by Jason, though occasionally ‘babysat’ by his mum (her words).

What a treasure trove this is. Modern classics nestle alongside works be emerging local authors, shiny new volumes next to previously own and beloved texts.

Lanterns hang from the ceiling, toy trains sit ready on tracks (in the adult department, no less), and clocks show a random assortment of times, as though to remind you that inside this shop the only times that truly exist are those mentioned in the passages of the books.

Bloom and Curll clocks

And should you need sustenance to fuel you through your literary treasure hunt, there’s almost always a plate of Jaffa cakes near the till.

Bloom and Curll Jaffa cakes

My short story collection Remember Me To The Bees recently took up residence at Bloom & Curll, and I find myself both proud, and a little jealous that it gets to spend its days there, waiting to be discovered by some reader seeking a few short stories to transport them in the way Bloom & Curll does me.

Bloom & Curll, 74 Colston Street, BS1 5BB Bristol, United Kingdom; tel: 07786 960941.

Remember Me To The Bees at Bloom and Curll

Remember Me To The Bees – Hedgehog

Hedgehog cr Louise BoulterThe 16th story in my debut short fiction collection Remember Me To The Bees is Hedgehog.

I wrote this story  in a bid to examine the challenges we can face when trying to identify right over wrong. When does it become acceptable to poke your nose into someone else’s family life? What gives you the right to draw judgement on their home life?

To explore these questions I created a protagonist in the form of a young school teacher whose life seems to be a quagmire of querulous and often inconsistent ideals of morality, and the bullied pupil she wants to rescue.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

A short excerpt from Hedgehog

The estate is at the far end of the town from Kiran’s own smart rented flat, line after line of little terraced houses with square scrubby lawns sprouting sofas, armchairs, old television sets – like impromptu open air living rooms. A silver-grey Alfa Romero is parked outside – incongruously posh for the area. Other than that, Timothy’s house is like so many others, the discoloured curtains twitching when she rings the bell. She’s seen his mum just once before, and it’s a shock to be greeted by her narrow, suspicious face, see the deep lines burrowing into her cheeks. She’s only a few years older than Kiran, yet resentment and uneasiness hang over her like the cloud of cigarette smoke she seems to exude through her pallid skin.

“What you want?” She keeps the door half-closed behind her, as though trying to prevent the young art teacher seeing inside.

“Mrs Hedginstall? I’m from Hedgeh… Timothy’s school. He leant me some items of school uniform for a project on Guy Fawkes. I’m just returning them.”

The air smells of milk on the turn, a faint tang of old nap- pies. She looks at the skinny woman in front of her, trying to assess whether it’s possible she’s recently had a baby. There’s no sign of one in the crack of room visible behind her – just a lot of old magazines, ashtrays, general detritus, and a glimpse of a man’s bare arm: strong-looking, densely haired. “Guy Fawkes?”

“Yes, yes,” Kiran tries to refocus on the task in hand. “He tried to burn down parliament. We were building Guys, some of the children supplied uniforms to dress them in.”

She hands over the bag quickly, anxious to be out of there, away from the resentment and the sorrow and the disconcerting stink of outright fear. She all but runs down the front path to her car, all but breaks the speed limit on her way back to the school, and back towards the safety of Ben’s bungalow.

School cr Judy Darley

Remember Me To The Bees – The Beast

The Beast cr Louise BoulterThe 15th story in my debut short fiction collection Remember Me To The Bees is The Beast. I wrote it in response to a call for submissions from bi-annual journal of new fiction Riptide for their Cornwall-themed issue, and was really chuffed that it was selected for publication in  Riptide Volume 7.

I wanted to write a story blending together urban myths, in this case the Beast of Exmoor, along with the taboos and secrecy thrust upon us by society, as with regards to domestic violence, and then explore these through a child’s eyes who may not fully differentiate between the two.

The artwork at the top of this post is by Louise Boulter. The others are my own.

A short excerpt from The Beast

The school day was long and achy and boring. Especially at break-time when the other kids watched him and whispered together as he shuffled outside to sit while they played footie. He hated the fact that they hadn’t known him before, when he could run and kick as hard as any of them. As far as they were concerned, he’d always been damaged, and always would be. Through their eyes he could only see himself as he was now. The real him was nowhere in sight.

Mrs Braithwaite had got his mind whirring, wondering about the creature that was too terrible for her to risk telling him about. Back in the classroom he toyed with the idea, trying to imagine what it could be.

‘Tyler Clarkson, I’ve been calling your name!’ The teacher’s voice made him jump, but she sounded more worried than cross. ‘What are you thinking about?’

The Beast‘The Beast,’ he said, without meaning to. He hunched down in his chair as the class erupted into giggles.

‘Hush, class,’ the teacher said firmly. ‘Do you mean the Beast of Exmoor, Tyler?’

The note of kindness in her voice made him brave enough to nod. ‘Yes, Miss. What is it?’

She smiled, seeming pleased. ‘Well, class, here we have a newcomer who doesn’t know our local legend. Who can help?’

A dozen hands shot up, some waving furiously. Tyler blinked around at them. It had to be something good to get such a response.
‘A giant cat, Miss.’
‘A puma, Miss!’
‘Loads of hikers have been attacked by it, torn limb from limb.’
‘My great-uncle was a farmer and in the 1980s he lost more than 100 sheep to the Beast!’
‘My granddad once saw its footprints. He said they were bigger than dinner plates!’

The teacher clapped her hands, making them fall silent. ‘Well, most of you are right, in one way or another, but perhaps the most important thing is that it’s a myth, which means what?’

‘That it might not be true, Miss?’

She nodded, pleased again. “It probably isn’t true. If there ever was a Beast, which I doubt, it’s long gone from Exmoor now. So there’s nothing to be afraid of at all.”

The Beast: The moor cr Judy Darley

Remember Me To The Bees – Otters

Otters by Louise Boulter

The 14th story in my debut short story collection Remember Me To The Bees is Otters. It came to me in a flash one day as I considered that disconcerting moment when you realise your parents actually aren’t immortal after all, and find yourself worrying more about them than they do about you.

It’s a curious time of transition, and one I wanted to explore through two characters, a grown woman and her ageing father, who, despite his advancing years, still has a thing or two to teach her.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

A short excerpt from Otters

At the reptile house he seemed to find an affinity with the giant tortoise, one wrinkled face gazing at another. “Says here he’s over 80 years old!” he said, peering at the notice.

“Wonder what keeps him going in there. Reckon he’s got an Enrichment Programme of sorts?”

They moved quickly through the insect house, passing the cockroaches and ants with barely a glance before coming to a halt in front of a beehive, where you could see the worker bees returning with their loads of pollen. “Never get to grow up, these ones,” he told her. “Never get to reproduce, poor things.” He touched her shoulder when he said that and she had the feeling he meant it as a compliment, a way of saying he was glad he’d produced her.

He led the way outside, pausing at one of the benches adorned with a plaque commemorating someone who’d apparently loved the zoo till the end of their days. Perhaps she could get one for him when he died, Rachel thought, then felt sick that it had crossed her mind so easily.

“Lunch,” he said, opening his backpack and bringing out a bottle of juice and two fat packets of greaseproof paper. “Tuna sandwiches!”

“Shall we save one for the seals?” she suggested, regretting her comment the moment she saw him seriously considering it.

Rachel was keen to see the seals being fed, to recapture another childhood memory, this one of sitting on his shoulders for a better view in a similar zoo thirty years before. She led him through the crowd, hoping the other visitors might notice his now narrow and sloping shoulders, his shrunken frame, and make space for them. At last the glinting water was right there before her, the stench of fish strong in the air, but when she turned he was gone.

“Dad?”

The keeper began the show, and she had to force her way back through the wall of people to the entrance. “Dad!” She scanned the hordes, hoping desperately, and spotted the flock of yellow-hatted youngsters.

“Have you seen an old man? He was with me earlier. Wearing a red jacket and a grey backpack.”

They shook their heads and she moved on, retracing her steps, past the insect house, the ancient tortoise, the ape enclosure. Panicking she ran to the map on the wall of the gift shop and tried to guess what could have caught his attention. Perhaps he was hungry again, had gone to the café. Then she saw it, between the signs for the marmosets and the meerkats: Otters.

Bristol Zoo giant tortoise cr Judy Darley

 

Remember Me To The Bees – the launch

Remember Me To The Bees book launchI’m a great believer in doing the things on your wishlist, your bucket-list, if you get the chance. A book launch was on mine, though I hadn’t dared look it straight in the eye.

So when the opportunity came to have my short story collection, Remember Me To The Bees, published, that was exciting, but glimmering at the edge of my vision was the launch.

But I almost didn’t do. Almost lost my nerve. Almost let the idea of ‘what if no one comes’ fright me into inaction.

I pushed past the fears – started planning the night.

And one excellent piece of advice from Mike French on throwing a successful book launch made it work – plan it not as a selling exercise, but a celebration, as a party.

Here are the ingredients of my book launch

1. The venue

I thought about what I would do if money was no object and set my heart on my dream venue, The Birdcage – a coffee shop cum vintage clothes shop cum bar cum music and lit night hosts.

The Birdcage, BristolI had a few chats with them about what I wanted to do, and they agreed to let me have the space free of charge on a Monday night. And that was that, preparations in motion.

The Birdcage Bristol

2. Live music

Having achieved this, I had the courage to come up with a dream list, and a pretty clear picture of the kind of tone I was going for – going with the party theme and the vibe of the venue, I was keen to have live music…

Rabbit City at Remember Me To The Bees launch

I asked around a discovered that a friend of a friend, Anders aka Rabbit City, is an extremely talented musician and singer/songwriter. I listened to some of his sets on SoundCloud and realised his music would work really well with the stories in my collection, create the vibe I was after and was exactly what I was after.

Rabbit City play Remember Me To The Bees launch

3. Original artwork

Art was always my vision for the night. Bournemouth-based artist Louise Boulter created the cover for Remember Me To The Bees and artwork for each of the twenty stories in the collection. I checked with the venue and then asked Louise if she fancied holding a one-night exhibition of her work at the Birdcage on the launch night. She was keen – so that was the décor sussed, if a way that matched the feel of the book, the music and the venue.

Louise Boulter Fishermen

4. An outfit for the author

Okay, this one may feel pretty frivolous, but for me the right clothing can help to put me in the right frame of mind, and I wanted a fancy frock. I opted for a vintage-look silky navy blue number with a wonderfully flowy skirt and lacy back, and felt like a literary princess all night long. It helped give me an extra boost of confidence, and added to the party feel for me.

Judy Darley Remember Me To The Bees launchI also wore a gold bee pendant my hubla had given me, just in case people weren’t aware this was a book of stories smattered with bees.

5. The readings

I prepared four excerpts to read at the launch, only around ten minutes in total, and just enough to whet people’s appetites. My reasoning was that a full story demanded too much attention from attendees – I wanted everyone to be intrigued by what they heard, and be left wanting more. It seemed to work!

Judy Darley reading from Remember Me To The Bees I practised diligently in the weeks before the launch so that I almost knew the snippets off by heart. It definitely helped to be so well prepared when I took to the stage and saw quite how many people had turned up!

Remember Me To The Bees launch

Which takes us to…

6. The invitations

I invited people I loved, people I liked, people I respected and people who I simply thought might be interested.

Philip at Remember Me To The Bees launch This included members of my family, local publishers, authors, journalists I’ve worked with, and just a lot of people I’ve enjoyed the company of at one time or another. The majority of the people I hoped would come did, and a few more besides. The place was packed!

7. A compère

I was happy to go up and introduce myself, but my hubla wisely pointed out that it would look far more professional if someone introduced me and then Rabbit City, and he kindly offered to take on that role, and did a grand job!

James as compere fro Remember Me To The Bees launch

8. The signings

Judy signing copies of Remember Me To The BeesThe Birdcage is a curious l-shape, with a main room that has the bar at one end and the stage at the other. A slightly smaller space spills off this and we took over a large table in there to pile up the books onto. I sat there and signed copies of the book and chatted to my fans (!) while Rabbit City played. It was utterly exciting, but when I felt overwhelmed it definitely helped to have a friend come and sit with me, or get lovely Louise Boulter to come and sign a few books too!

Judy signing copies of Remember Me To The Bees1

9. The photography

Last but not least, the gorgeous photographs that will helped me remember this night till the end of my days. Pete Gettins turned out to be the perfect man for this – unobtrusive and keen-eyed. Pete took all the photos published in this post. He captured many moments I hadn’t seen and many that made me exclaim as I laid eyes on them for the first time. Working in low-lighting and a party atmosphere he managed to take a collection of images that feel to me part art, part reportage.

Remember Me To The Bees photographer Pete Gettins

And on the night everything went swimmingly – there was a golden glow to the evening that brought to mind weddings, birthdays, the gladdest of times.

I shared excerpts from Girls in Windows, Stalagmite, On The Ledge and Singing For Seals, signed and sold a lot of copies of Remember Me To The Bees, basked in the shimmer of a job well done, saw the pride on the faces of family and friends, revelled in having my own, one-person house band, posed for photos, forgot to pose for photos (those ones turned out better, I think), made contacts, had some jolly chats, felt like a literary star, and floated home feeling like moonlight was seeping from every pore.

So this is my advice. If you publish a book, even if your publisher has no publicity budget, have a launch. It raises awareness of your work, but more importantly it marks a pretty special achievement, and you’re bound to have a fantastic night.