The Picture Left Behind

The Picture Left Behind ~ on serendipity & happen-stance

I’ve moved house more times than many in my life, though I’ve rarely had much (if any choice) of where I have lived. On the one occasion when I did get to choose what house I was to live in, the process of house-hunting had to be fitted into ONE day, where seven possible properties were scheduled. It’s a long story why we had to do it all in such a short time but we settled on the second house; awareness of budget and other factors made it clear enough that there was no point in looking further.
It’s never bothered me (much) that when it’s come to housing, the default is pretty much Hobson’s Choice (this, or nothing). I’ve never thought there was a perfect home for me somewhere if I just kept looking; and since our residence also comes as part of the package of my husband’s job, I’ve learned to see that every home has draw-backs and advantages. My favourite house so far (in terms of practicality, looks, comfort and location) also happened to be on the flight path for East Midland’s airport, so every two or three minutes a plane would roar across the sky, alarmingly low, and drown out the birdsong.
When we moved into our house on the east coast, it had the advantage of being a half hour walk from the sea-shore, but moving in was part of a traumatic change of life-style and the first six months were cramped and confusing. I kept walking into walls, believing in a sleep-befuddled state that there ought to be a door into another room. Like any house move, we found small items left behind by the previous owners. Mostly junk and the usual detritus of bits of paper, the odd rug, oven tray and so on, there was one item I saved. Every move we have made we have usually found that previous occupants have abandoned or deliberately left behind furniture and other possessions; we once acquired a huge box of interesting old books, several (useful) beds and a wardrobe. I’m not fussy about where my belongings come from, and if they suit out uses, they are welcome (indeed, I have the three piece cottage suite donated by an aunt the year before we got married; it was over twenty years old even then). But the east coast move the single item I saved was a picture. It stayed stacked in a corner with other of our own pictures that I never got round to hanging on the walls of that house. Only after our most recent move did I look at it properly again.
Initially, you’d maybe not see why I didn’t bin it when I found it in the last house. It’s a print, framed many years ago by Boots (the Chemists) who used to do quite a range of things other than cotton wool, aspirin and toiletries, in a dark wood frame. There’s no intrinsic value and yet something made me keep it to one side and not throw it away. The signature of the artist is not legible (or I’d perhaps have tried to find the history of it). It’s a night time or twilight scene, somewhere exotic, probably Arabic or Persian, of a caravan of camels leaving a walled city or caravanserai by lamplight. The camels are being led through a high arched opening in the shadowy walls; moonlight seems to catch the tips of the long spears carried by turbaned figures. The lead camel is carrying a sort of covered palanquin, the colours of which are reminiscent of a Persian carpet, and inside sits a serene-faced man, dressed in rich robes quite unlike that of the camel drivers walking beside the animals. There’s a feeling of expectancy, a journey being embarked upon in hope and some trepidation.
In my mind is conjures words like Istafan, and a sense of the deserts beyond, the Silk Road and other such evocative things. And even though it’s an old, slightly faded and probably cheap print, it’s filled for me with mystery and stories waiting to be told.
And yet, when I found it, I had no story that would ever touch upon the images and the atmosphere this picture holds.
But now I do. Whether the memory of the picture has worked within my unconscious or whether the story has created the need to incorporate the feelings and the images and the connections from this picture, I do not know. Whatever the process involved, the picture now hangs on the wall of my study, near the door. I see it many times a day and it works upon my imagination.
Sometimes life throws us gifts we don’t realise the value of, when they arrive, because they don’t appear to fit our needs or wants at the time. But something can make our instincts prick up, and if we listen, we might see that this thing, this person, this occurrence is a way-marker or a guide or some kind of clue or prompt that has greater meaning that we at first can see.

Interview and give-away

I’m gearing up for surgery tomorrow but I thought I’d share this interview that Sonya did with me this week. For the very first time, I am offering a giveaway. There are 3 copies of The Moth’s Kiss in paperback up for grabs for those who comment at Sonya’s blog, so pop over and have a read and enter the competition:

I’m hoping to have a post  for Monday as usual but it depends how I feel. It also depends whether I’m home from hospital or not. I know I could schedule one but even after five years, I like hitting *publish* for a post.

“Life feels better when you have a plan” ~ on plans and oracles

Life feels better when you have a plan” ~ on plans and oracles

I’ve got a difficult couple of weeks coming up. On Saturday, I am in for surgery to remove a tumour in my throat, caused by hyperparathyroidism. It’s a benign tumour in so much as it isn’t cancerous, but it’s been causing serious physical and mental health problems for heaven knows how long. The surgery is predicted to last about an hour, longer than I’ve ever been under anaesthesia before, and will leave a scar a couple of inches long in the hollow of my throat.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, because I am. Terrified, in fact. But it needs doing and that’s that. I’ve put a lot of things on hold that I’d intended to crack on with: final edits for Square Peg, working on several novels, garden stuff. You get the picture. What scares me almost as much as the surgery itself is the possibility that this won’t bring me significant relief. I’ve not been able to make any plans for some time. Even things like going away on holiday have been put to one side; many of the things we enjoy doing when off on holiday I’ve been too poorly to contemplate.

There’s an ad on British TV at present from insurance company Scottish Widows and it’s haunted me. The images and the music and the voice over have got under my skin.

Life feels better when you have a plan.” Note it says, ‘feels’, and doesn’t say ‘is’. People get hung up on plans, especially things like business plans, five year plans and life plans. Plans don’t work out the way you think they will but they give a sense of purpose and structure to what might otherwise be a meandering, spiral or even circular wandering through life. Plans are the coalescing of hopes, dreams, ambitions, giving you something to aim at.

I’m a sucker for oracles, as regular readers might know. Oracles like tarot don’t foretell the future, or even predict it; used skilfully, they can show you potential futures based on past experiences and choices. There’s nothing like understanding where you’ve already been for helping you understand where you’re going. On my birthday last week I bought Colette Baron-Reid’s The Map, a book and card set to help map out your life so far and see where it’s leading; I’m enjoying exploring the book (though it’s quite superficial and a little too whimsical for me) and finding the cards helpful too but one of the reasons I bought them was to do with something I started writing three years ago.

If you’ve been with me that long, you might recall I did a weekly serial called Lost. I posted ten episodes as I wrote them, and at a certain point, I stopped. I began the project after events in real life left me feeling worse than Lost; every time I got into a state about it, I worked through things and came to write a new instalment, in a state of trance. I didn’t plan or think or even care much; I let the words of the story draw me to a point where I could stop. I came back to it a year ago and began working the same way, though the excruciating emotional pain was gone. I realised it was a deep project, exploring my inner landscape and have been working on it slowly since then. I have no idea where it will go or when it will be finished, or even if once finished will I publish it.

Here’s a segment of it to illustrate my point:

I walk round, my feet leaving a silvery trail in the dew laden grass and select a tree I think I may be able to climb and find a massive oak, its bark green with lichen and moss and scramble up into the lower branches without much problem. Up and up I climb, awkward and inept and trembling at times when I look down.

It’s one of the tallest trees and when I reach the canopy, and have to stop to catch my breath, I make the mistake of looking down. A tangle of branches weave in and out like a mandala below me and my mind becomes confused by the pattern. I shut my eyes and try to focus.

I open them and steady myself, gripping the wood tightly and shift a little so I can turn left and right without risking slipping. Over the sea of greens, the sun is rising, a great red ball that becomes golden as I watch the mists spiralling up out of the forest. For as far as my eyes can see, there is only trees, mile upon mile of forest. I can see no roads or significant clearings beyond some that seem to be where the more ancient of trees have fallen to their deaths. I see no buildings or signs of people. In the extreme distance, I can see the faintest glimmer of a mountain range, a thin blue line of hummocks at the furthest horizon.

The forest is waking as I stand gazing over the canopy and I can hear birds and other creatures greeting the new day and I can also hear my stomach rumbling.

Slowly I realise that having got up this high, I have now to get down again and after fixing the direction of those mountains in my mind, I begin my shaky descent.

As I climb nervously down, all I can think about is that sea of green and the miles of endless forest ahead of me.

There are no paths. All around me, endless shades of green, with some brown and red and orange as counterpoint, and no opening, no indication that anyone has ever come this way before. I sag against the trunk of the tree I have just climbed, the memory of those distant mountains burned into my retina like the after-burn of lightning flashes, and for a few long minutes, I want to curl into a ball, and bury myself in the moist leaf-litter and return to the earth.

But somehow I square my shoulders and take a long deep breath. I gaze around carefully and I spot it: not a path as such, just a thread through the greenery. It’s probably a deer path but it seems to be going in the right direction at least, so I begin.

The way is not easy; I cannot walk, but rather have to weave myself in and out of fallen branches, over rocks and heavy rotting trunks. Sometimes, in the soft earth I see the footprints of the deer who use this trail and sometimes droppings, but they are old, and I feel sure the deer do not come this way often.

I merge with the forest, my mind slipping into its rhythms as the sun climbs higher and higher. I sip water from a tiny rivulet that crosses the path, scooping water into my mouth; it tastes earthy, a tang of smoky peat teases my taste buds, making me remember something I cannot quite put my finger on. It’s not unpleasant, just odd. I eat leaves, to stave off the hunger, and the occasional berry. In the back of my mind, I wonder how I know whether something is safe to eat or not, and worry that perhaps I do not.

By late afternoon, as the sun has begun its decline to evening, I have covered perhaps a mile in a straight line and am exhausted and filthy. I’ve crossed and recrossed the same ground, and it was only seeing my own footprints in the moist ground my a stream that told me I had doubled back. I never once thought they might belong to someone else. Throughout this great wide forest that seemed from the treetops to go on to the edges of the earth, I cannot sense another human soul. Only birdsong and insects disturb the peace here.

I can sense the sunset even though I cannot see it and I know I must find shelter for the night. I’ve nothing to keep me warm and I am dimly aware that the food I have eaten would be sufficient for a family of field-mice to live on. Every limb aches with exertion and my heart sinks because I know that those mountains are still as far away as ever.

As I climb into a tree and try to snuggle as close to the trunk as I can, feeling the living force of the sap slowing inside, I ask myself, why am I heading for the mountains?

But I sleep before I can even start to answer that question.”

Why am I heading for the mountains?”

An excellent question. But all I can say for this story and for my life is this:

Life feels better when you have a plan.”

 (you can watch the ad here. It’s rather moving)

Wearing Thin

Wearing thin

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced a garment malfunction that left me with a very red face, though civilian casualties were thankfully zero. I’d gone to the loo in the Castle Mall in Norwich, and as I reached for my bag to leave the cubicle there was the shriek of fabric ripping and a sudden inrush of air to my nether regions. My jeans had split right up the arse, making me so glad I’d chosen to wear a longer coat that day and my blushes were unseen.

I’m not interested in clothes much, fashion even less, and jeans are worn till they are worn out. I’d not been paying much heed to this pair but once I got home and looked at them, I could see the fabric had become worn to tissue paper thinness and it had been inevitable they would give way before too long. The other pair I’d bought at the same time as that pair were duly inspected and it became a wonder that they too had not ripped before now.

I have a horror of breaking down in public, of crying in front of people, of having a complete meltdown. Most people who’ve suffered with depression and anxiety worry about this, especially when you are in the middle of an episode of unstable emotions. But the truth is, even though anxiety attacks seem to come out of nowhere like summer rain, there are both triggers and warnings to let us know that our souls are unravelling and wearing thin and that we might rip right open at the slightest stress.

I’d like to share two accounts of panic attacks, taken from the same unpublished novel (the second sequel to The Bet). On both cases the trigger for the panic attack is something quite trivial; the first is set off by a pen breaking with a loud noise in the middle of a lecture and the second by the loss of car keys when he needs to make a swift exit from home.


Dr Collins’ voice carried on beyond his spiralling thoughts, like distant birdsong, irrelevant and disconnected from his rapidly diminishing world. He could feel the faint tremors running through his entire body and he began to think he might even be making the whole row of interlinked seats shake too.

Take a deep breath, he told himself sternly. Get a grip.

It was a matter of pure chance that Dr Collins paused for breath at that moment; his hand gripped the pen convulsively and the barrel snapped apart with a tight sharp report like a tiny gunshot. In the quiet lecture theatre the sound was bright and distinct and like a Mexican wave, heads turned to see where the sound had come from. Face reddening, he dropped his gaze and saw that ink had covered his hands and the surface in front of him.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

He could feel his breath coming in short sharp gasps that rasped and caught at his throat as if he were about to throw up. Somewhere there were drums pounding. Why are there drums in a lecture theatre, he thought and then realised the drums were the sound of his own heartbeat pounding out of control.

He felt a tug at his sleeve again and looked without seeing that Gemma was pressing a handful of tissues into his shaking and ink-stained hand. He stared at them blankly, doing nothing. Numb, he watched blankly as she leaned over and scrubbed first at the desk surface and then took his hands and wiped the still running ink from them.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. For God’s sake why can’t I breathe? There’s no air in this place, why is there no air?

The pain in his chest reached an unbearable level at the same moment he became aware of it and he knew it was because all the air had vanished from the room.

I have to get out of here. Now. Or I am going to die.

He dropped the remains of the pen and struggled to get to his feet, stumbling as he did so, and ran from the lecture theatre, letting the door bang behind him.

Outside, he emerged into the drizzle and blindly rushed on, not knowing or caring where he went. He was dimly aware of bumping into people as he blundered along, and of people saying or even shouting things but he didn’t seem to be able to understand a word anyone said.”


Ending the call, Ashurst entered his bedroom, and did his usual flat-on-the-floor drop to glance rapidly under the bed before packing an overnight bag and heading back down to collect his laptop and the bag he usually carried into the university. His mouth was dry and he was finding it hard to swallow, so when he suddenly couldn’t find his car keys, the baseline panic rocketed into a full-blown panic attack.

He curled against the stone-cold Rayburn, shaking so completely he was aware of his body causing the metal to shake too, his breath coming in snatches and deep shuddering gasps. His vision blurred and he realised he was crying, uncontrollably.

It passed slowly but it passed. His most important discovery had been that these attacks were time limited, that eventually ordinary breathing returned and that however awful it felt, he wasn’t going to die of it. Sometimes this knowledge alone was what got him through quicker than if he fought it. Eventually, he found himself becoming still again, his body still trembling but these were only after shocks and as he wiped his eyes, he looked up a little and saw his car keys exactly where he had left them on the kitchen table.

He laughed out loud, at his own reaction and for sheer relief. He ran some water at the sink and splashed his face with it and drank some from cupped but still shaking hands and then hesitantly made his way out of the house to go back to his car. He glanced around the area of land around the back door but he didn’t have much sense of fear as he shut and locked the door behind him; leaving the house never had as pronounced an effect on his psyche as returning. He’d often wondered about that. It was as if his fears centred solely on going into a place and not on coming out. Well at least that meant he wasn’t likely to add agoraphobia to his growing list of neuroses, and despite the pounding headache that was the usual after effect of a panic attack, he found himself chuckling slightly at that last thought.”

Now, as the author, I can tell you that Ashurst is suffering with depression and also with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, both with good reason. It’s easy enough for me to pinpoint why his meltdowns occur. Yet applied to my own life, if I have the sufficient focus to look at things, I can see where the fabric is wearing thin enough to give as soon as it’s put under a different sort of pressure. Too often I don’t look properly. Denim like my jeans wears differently to a wool jumper that might show wear by developing small holes or snags. The truth is that with both jeans and life I don’t want to look. I don’t want to face the reality of either needing to buy new jeans (I loathe clothes shopping) or of altering and adjusting my lifestyle to give me more breathing space and less stress.

My writing process #mywritingprocess

My writing process~  #mywritingprocess

Janet O’Kane invited me to share my writing process as a part of the current blog tour that’s doing the rounds. It consists of four questions. I am tagging Suzie Grogan to carry the baton after me but do feel free to do the questions yourself. Add the hashtag #MyWritingProcess and see what is already out there on Twitter.

What am I working on?

Apart from waiting for surgery, I’m working slowly on a number of projects. I’m very close to getting my next novel Square Peg out on Kindle. For those who loved Away With The Fairies, this novel features Isobel Trelawny and her husband Mickey, but some years in the past when Mickey was at training college. The main character of Square Peg is Chloe, whose temperament and character is probably summed up by the title of the novel. The initial blurb is as follows:

Chloe is a square peg in an increasingly uncomfortable round hole. Brought up by her wildly unconventional grandmother, she’s a true free spirit and has never learned to pull her punches. She’s just married trainee Church of England clergyman Clifford, and is living at the theological college and trying to figure out what’s going on around her. She’s had very little connection with formal religion, and has a talent for stepping on all sorts of emotional land-mines with the wives of the other ordinands. That would probably be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that her grandmother has inconsiderately died, and left her a house full of exotic souvenirs of her days as a travelling doctor, instructions to track down her father and sister, and what everyone else regards as a really bad attitude. She’s also lost her job, her temper, but not the will to live.

Chloe’s life begins to unravel in ways she could never have imagined as she tries to understand her own background by setting out to find out what became of her sister and father. But trying to integrate her uncompromising approach to life brings her into escalating conflict with the other women of the college, leaving her isolated and friendless. In Clifford’s final year of training, Chloe meets the arty, anarchic Isobel and together they concoct a plan whereby the irrepressible Isobel becomes the mole amid the college wives and they start to undermine and sabotage the status quo with a series of practical jokes and psychological warfare that has terrible consequences for Chloe when things go horribly wrong.”

I’m working also on getting The Bet into paperback finally. The manuscript is being slowly readied for print. I’m really looking forward to having this one in my hands.

Writing wise, I am limping along with two projects. One is a novel that is running under the working title of Belle Dame, and which I don’t want to say more about yet. I’m around one third to one quarter done, and I’m very pleased with how it’s going. The other project is a little harder to explain. About three years ago I started a serial on this blog called “Lost” and I posted ten installments before stopping. Each episode had been written in a form of trance, and I decided to continue with this. Because the right mental state is quite hard to get into, the process has been slow, though I’m actually very proud of and intrigued by what has been emerging. Working title of Tabula Rasa, this novel is a journey into the hinterlands of soul and beyond and is quite unlike anything I’ve ever produced. I’m about 20k words into this and have no real idea of how long it will be.

I’m also ready to publish a longer short story, of around 18k words, called The Hedgeway, which is something I may save for the autumn and especially Halloween.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, as I’m not entirely sure of what my genre(s) is/are, I’m not sure how to answer that. Away With The Fairies and Strangers and Pilgrims are both listed at metaphysical fiction, which to me implies that the story has its roots firmly in the spiritual/psycho-spiritual realms. The Wild Hunt touches on that but is also heavily touched by mythology and folklore. Moth’s Kiss is very much about karma and consequences. The Bet is also hard to place, falling somewhere between literary fiction and psychological fiction.

Why do I write what I do?

I write the stories that come to me, starting with seed pearls that can be a single word, a dream, a scent, a feeling or sometimes a combination of factors that coalesce into a complex mix of narrative and characters that live and breathe in my mind. I am hopeless at following rules and guidelines and my few attempts to write to certain formula have been flat, dead and rapidly binned.

How does my writing process work?

It’s changed. At one time I would be consumed by a story and I’d write pretty much non-stop until it was done. The Bet was written in only 17 days, for example. Since my illness, the processes by which a story emerges have become blocked by memory problems and concentration issues, and it’s much harder work to get from Once upon a time to The End. But I have a general rule that when I do sit down to write, I write for a minimum time and word count, so I aim to produce a thousand words at a sitting. I sometimes set my kitchen timer for an hour, so I stay put for that hour, to ensure I have a chance to get to the thousand mark.

When I do sit down to write, I make sure my study door is shut, to ensure that cats or humans won’t be able to interrupt me. I start by lighting a stick of good incense; it’s been observed that incense smoke raises the levels of serotonin in the brain. Then I light a tea light under the oil burner, and put on essential oils that get me in the mood or which are somehow part of the narrative I am working on. I do put music on, but I find it hard to find music that doesn’t distract me by making me listen to the words. So most is instrumental. I also like using the various pink,white and brown noise generators available for free on the internet. There’s one site that you can set the noise to oscillate. Combined with a site that has rain sounds, the noise coming from my speakers ends up sounding like waves on a shingle beach. It’s often enough to put me into the semi-trance state I need to be in to allow words to flow through me from my unconscious. You see, I believe that my own creativity is not in my direct conscious control and I have to be able to step out of my own way to be able to write. That’s why my illness has been devastating, because it’s made the connections between conscious and unconscious harder to bridge, as well as affecting my ability to carry the memory of what I have already written in a story.

I also believe that the stories I write have an element within that comes from beyond me. Whether it’s from a collective unconscious or from a kind of divine inspiration, I feel sure that what I am writing is not pure fiction, that is carries with it a form of truth that at core all good stories must carry. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve started to call “Forever Fiction”, that is to say stories that people come back to time and again, and which are rediscovered and treasures by new readers and even new generations. My greatest wish is that I may write such works. If this sounds pompous or narcissistic or frankly “up myself” I apologise. I have always felt I was born to write. Along with the tens of thousands of other writers who believe themselves to be talented or gifted, I offer my work as a gift to the world and to my own soul.

Strip cartoon

Strip cartoon

Take away my clothes

And what is left but flesh?

Pink and pale, shivering

Stretch-marks and scars,

Muscles poorly defined

Beneath layers of fat.

Take away my success,

And what is left but obscurity?

Another also-ran

Amid the hordes of hopefuls

Bunched in the mid-list

Left behind by the winners.

Take away my words

And what is left but silence?

Ringing like an ancient bell,

The absence and memory

Of sound and meaning

Fading to nothingness.

Take away my strength

And what is left but weakness?

A wasting of limbs and sinew,

A withering of vigour,

Thinning to feebleness

And the shame of dependence.

Take away my visions

And what is left but blindness?

The future fading to black

The hoped-for worlds

Unborn and uncreated

Dying in the mind-womb.

Take away my memories

And what is left but emptiness?

A person without past

A woman without precedents

Unanchored by time

Unplaced in the world.

If you take it all away,

What is left of me?

How deep must this stripping go

Before I become unadopted atoms

My identity and meaning

Blown to the four winds

Like summer dust when gales

Usher in the autumn cold?