Do Not.

Do Not

Do not tell me

What I am,

What I can do,

What I must think,

Who I must be,

In order to be

A good person,

An acceptable person

A sound person

A person you might like.

Do not tell me

That I must conform

Be like others

Be like everyone

Be like you,

Be positive

Hide my faults

My failings

My pain

And my griefs,

Just so I fit the slot

You have so kindly

Allocated for someone

A little like me.

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Caterpillar soup

Caterpillar soup

Caterpillar soup

Some years ago I came across a rather curious theory, suggesting that caterpillars and butterflies (or moths) are somehow two different animals in one. You can read about the theory here:

https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/08/01/157718428/are-butterflies-two-different-animals-in-one-the-death-and-resurrection-theory and while there’s no conclusive proof that this is so, I find it oddly an oddly compelling way of dealing with the frankly rather amazing life cycle of such creatures. One day perhaps there will be a definitive answer to this question but for the time being, it’s almost a philosophical issue. Continue reading

My Reading Round-Up of 2017

My Reading Round-Up of 2017

According to my notebook that I use instead of Goodreads (which I loathe, more of that later) I read 78 books in 2016. I’m coming in a bit behind that this year. At the time of writing, it’s 73 completed, but as I am close to the end of a number, there’s a real chance the total will go up a bit before midnight strikes and I turn into a pumpkin. Oh, sorry, wrong fairy tale.

Around 30 or so of those titles were non fiction, some of which were poetry, some of which were part of my journey into Jungian thought and some were to do with health and on natural history.

Of the fiction, I’m not going to talk about the books that I read and didn’t enjoy, or the ones I gave up on. It’s too common for disgruntled authors to take umbrage and offence if a reader mentions they didn’t like a book; it’s one reason I avoid Goodreads as a reader. As an author, I avoid it because there are plenty of readers who can be extremely mean and unkind when a book has failed to live up to their expectations; it’s also quite difficult to be thick-skinned about seeing a fellow-author give a low star to one of my own books when they’re someone I’ve chatted with on social media etc and been quite affable with. While almost all writers I know are wonderful and supportive people, I’m sure we have all come across a few who would take your breath away with how nasty they can be to other writers. I heard a tale recently of one author who tweeted a picture to another author, of that other author’s book in a remainder bin at a cut-price book shop.

I stepped out of my comfort zone too, and I read two novels that fit very much into the fantasy genre and one science fiction. Early in the year I read and very much enjoyed https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mountain-Darkling-Chronicles-Sophie-Tallis/dp/1909845973/ White Mountain by Sophie Tallis; it has the unique aspect of a main character being a dragon and a “goodie”. It took me out of myself during a tricky time. The second fantasy novel was https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Ice-Lord-Parallels-Clement-ebook/dp/B00L72RTY0/ Song of the Ice Lord by J.A Clement; I found this a fabulous read, not only because of the beautiful and compelling descriptive writing but also by the sensitive way Ms Clement handled various relationships. Another bonus was the little green bird who became a beacon of hope in the story. Also by the same author is a wonderful seasonal novella/longer short story A Sprig of Holly: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sprig-Holly-J-Clement-ebook/dp/B00AICTQSM/ which is free to enjoy.

The science fiction title was Running Out of Space by S.J Higbee. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Running-Out-Space-Sunblinded-One-ebook/dp/B076BV5LS8/ I found this a refreshing reintroduction to sci-fi, something I used to enjoy very much but abandoned in my twenties when it became too mysogynistic and entirely male-dominated. Depicting a somewhat dystopian future, this fast-paced novel entertained me while slogging away at the gym.

I revisited my old favourites, acquiring a variety of secondhand paperback copies of some classic Agatha Christie mysteries, some of which I had not read for decades. It was good to read them again and understand quite how much she created the genre of cosy mystery.

Not quite cosy, but still very compelling, was another departure from my comfort zone, in the form of Ailsa Abraham’s Attention to Death https://www.amazon.co.uk/Attention-Death-Ailsa-Abraham-ebook/dp/B01MRBTYLX/ . A murder mystery set among military police, with the two main characters trying to conduct a discreet love affair (very much against protocol, in all sorts of ways) this contains one of the grimmest of murders (be warned, not for the faint of stomach) and does not flinch from revealing inherently homophobic attitudes among many of the characters and institutions. A good, if somewhat grim at times, variation on the classic murder mystery. I’m not a fan of romance, gay or otherwise, but I didn’t find that aspect of the story intruded unduly.

On the same sort of genre (but not precisely) I read my way through two box-sets of the Charlie Parker mysteries, by John Connelly. Of the eight books that I raced through, some I found better than others, and more than half were superb. Quirky, veering into the supernatural territory, they’re a real treat if you like detective novels that challenge the norm and subvert the genre. Another novel that comes under that heading was Thea Atkinson’s Grim. Billed as a Young Adult novel, this was another nicely diverting read for my gym torture. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grim-Reapers-Redemption-Thea-Atkinson/dp/1543087876/

One of my Christmas presents last year was Caitlin Matthews Diary of a Soul Doctor https://www.amazon.co.uk/Diary-Soul-Doctor-Ashington-Casebooks-ebook/dp/B01N94TS3M/ . I had to make myself read this slowly, because I wanted to make it last. In the same genre (whatever it might be) as Dion Fortune’s Tales of Dr Taverner, this collection of linked tales is a highly diverting and intriguing exploration of the esoteric using (as Fortune did) fiction as a medium. I also read Matthews’ non-fiction Hundred Steps to the Grail, about the process of researching and writing a book about a book on the search for the Holy Grail https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hundred-Steps-Grail-Writers-Diary-ebook/dp/B01EXKSNDS/ and as a writer, I found the details of the process fascinating and revealing.

Among the non-fiction were a couple of excellent natural history books. Peter Wolhlenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Life-Trees-International-Communicate/dp/0008218439/ kept me from my fear of flying when I went to Austria in February, and was a deeply enjoyable and informative book. Fiona Stafford’s The Long Long Life of Trees covered a very different aspect of tree lore but was equally interesting, though I felt at times it tended towards a journalistic skimming of the surface rather than a deeper exploration. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Life-Trees/dp/0300228201/ . I also very much enjoyed Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-Places-Robert-Macfarlane/dp/1783784490/, though I did find at times a certain sense of irritation at the apparent assumption that the things the author did and the places he visited are open to all (when they aren’t), regardless of ability or status. But that’s only a slight cavil and speaks more of my own growing frustration at my health challenges.

Roz Morris’s Not Quite Lost (travels without a sense of direction) was a good read, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Not-Quite-Lost-Travels-Direction/dp/1909905925/ There’s a sense of great British-ness about this travel memoir that is infused all through the text like the scent of tea.

One novel I got to read this year I cannot give a link to. Philippa Rees asked me to beta read a novel she entitled Acer and I am not sure quite what genre is falls under. Magical Realism might do, but it veers almost into science fiction. One of the premises of the tale is on human-plant hybrids, which makes it sound clinical but it’s a very tender tale of what makes us human and what parenthood is really about. I hope that she makes a decision to stick by her guns and the original vision of the story, and publishes it (and another novel I read last year). Perhaps the world is ready for the visionary and metaphysical works that Philippa has hidden on her hard drive.

In addition to these I read a number by Marie-Louise von Franz, acolyte, pupil and colleague of Jung’s, and a whole range of books on alchemy, psychology, Arthurian myths and legends and the grail. I’m around a third of the way through Jung’s own book on alchemy, but am unlikely to finish before year’s end, as it is much to think about and digest.

Having read all that, you might think I didn’t have time to write, but you would be wrong. I’ll save that topic for another post.

“The Lantern Bearers” by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Lantern Bearers” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Sometimes a book comes back to you, decades after you first read it, and you find there was far more to it than you grasped at the time. I first read “The Lantern Bearers” in my teens, but it didn’t grab me the way the first of the series (“The Eagle of the Ninth”) did. It’s a much subtler, more nuanced and more ambiguous book that to my mind surpasses the Young Adult category it’s been pigeon-holed in. Even the blurb does not do it justice:

The last of the Roman army have set sail and left Britain for ever, abandoning it to civil war and the threat of a Saxon invasion. Aquila deserts his regiment to return to his family, but his home and all that he loves are destroyed. Years of hardship and fighting follow and in the end there is only one thing left in Aquila’s life – his thirst for revenge . . .

The novel sounds… schlocky, and it’s not. It explores the relationship between love for native land and family, and more abstract concepts such as honour and mercy. There’s plenty of action but compared to “The Eagle” the action feels very different. In “The Eagle”, Marcus (who is Aquila’s ancestor) is invalided out of the army (he’s a very young officer, almost fatally injured in his first conflict) and later sets out on a quest to discover what became of his father’s legion, the famed Ninth Legion that vanished. Aquila’s quest is a very different one, and one that is not fully defined to him; he grasps at vengeance as a reason to stay alive and to fight his way through the truly terrible things that happen to him. Yet long before the novel is over, he grows to understand that there is more needed of him than exacting a private vendetta.

Aquila is not the attractive, charismatic figure that commands instant liking from a reader; he’s a very damaged man, and he’s not much liked by his fellows, or even by his wife or son. But I found myself warming to him much more than I did when I first read the book; he seems a more complex, more REAL figure than Marcus did.

The last few years I have felt very strongly that we are on the cusp of some very dark times ahead. During my lifetime, there has been a greater level of peace and prosperity than there’s been in the world, pretty much ever. You may know that I studied Latin at university, and also have long had an interest in the long history of the Roman Empire. I cannot help but see powerful parallels between the last days of Rome in Britain and what I see now. Reading “The Lantern Bearers,” brought this back to me quite forcibly.

I’d like to share some lines from the last few pages of the book. Aquila is talking with an old friend, the surgeon attached to Ambrosius’s army.

I sometimes think we stand at sunset,” Eugenus said after a pause. “It may be that the night will close over us in the end but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

Aquila was silent a moment; and then he said and odd thing. “I wonder if they will remember us at all, those people on the other side of the darkness.”

Eugenus was looking back towards the main colonnade, where a knot of young warriors, Flavian among them, had parted a little, and the light of a nearby lantern fell flush on the mouse-fair head of a tall man who stood in their midst, flushed and laughing, with a great hound against his knee.

You and I and all our kind they will forget utterly, though they live and die in our debt,” he said. “Ambrosius they will remember a little, but he is the kind that men make songs about to sing for a thousand years.”

The “he” that Eugenus refers to is, of course, Arthur, called here Artos. The Once and Future King of so many of our legends, novels, songs and films. The darkness may sweep over us, and that scares me. I don’t want to be lost, but Eugenus’s words haunt me. History does not tend to remember the little people, even though it could not be made without the participation, and often the sacrifice of ordinary people.

This time of year, as the nights become colder and longer, and sunshine less brilliant and far less frequent, it feels as if we are going into the night and being lost. There’s a lot of psychic debris around, a kind of dark, malign stickiness, not quite sentient but almost, that lurks in the corners like supernatural cockroaches that you see from the corner of your eye but when you look straight at them, they’re gone. There’s a lot of stress and angst around, and people try to lose their unease by focusing way ahead of time on festivals such as Christmas, but that can just make things worse as midwinter feasts have become overwhelmed by materialism that just drains people of joy and finances.

I can’t do much to help. I’m fighting deep depression, and world events (mad leaders of world powers for example) and national ones, local ones and personal ones, are getting on top of me. But what I can do, I do.

And I light a candle as dusk falls, to remind me of my duty as a lantern bearer to kindle a flame and guard it as long as I may, in the hopes that on the other side of the darkness, those who live there may bless the unnamed hosts who kept hope and light alive for them.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lantern-Bearers-EAGLE-NINTH/dp/0192755064/

“It’s the quiet ones you need to watch…”

It’s the quiet ones you need to watch…”

When I wrote Little Gidding Girl, the world was a different place. We’d only just got broadband internet, and compared to dial-up (remember that and shudder) it was lightning fast. Each member of my family owned a mobile phone but smartphones were not yet on the market. We all had a computer but mine was deliberately not connected to the internet; if I wished to go online I had to wait till the computer in my husband’s study downstairs was free. Looking back, I can see how many hours I spend a day just noodling around online and not being productive at all. I wrote six novels like that, without being distracted by googling goats or otters or weird symptoms.

Another thing that has changed is the way that female main characters are portrayed. There’s been a significant rise in the feisty, fiery, sassy, outspoken and kick-ass heroine; they existed before, obviously, but it would seem that writing women has become a problematic matter if they are anything less than the template that various tropes and memes depict. Isobel from Away With The Fairies and Chloe from Square Peg both have qualities of that template; they’re women who are generally confident of who they are and of their own value. It’s the shaking of that confidence that provides some of the tension and the driving force behind their stories. Jenny from The Bet falls fairly and squarely into the strong woman camp but she is also venial and exploitative and selfish; she qualifies more as a villain than a heroine, but it’s not these qualities of self-belief and self confidence that make her so. Rather it’s her lack of ability to see others (especially the hero Antony Ashurst who definitely qualifies as a quiet one…) as people rather than things, that twists her into an outwardly attractive character whose heart is pretty nasty all round.

I wrote Little Gidding Girl immediately after all three books mentioned and Verity, the main character, could not be more different. She has little confidence and her self-esteem has all but vanished, but to my mind, she more than qualifies as strong. She endures without crumbling a variety of life situations her adult life brings to her: a dead-end job with a bullying boss, a set of parents who abrogate their responsibilities to run away from debt and failure, an unplanned pregnancy that scuppers her and her husband’s plans for joint careers in teaching, and the passing of a grandfather who was mentor and rock to her during a critical phase in her younger life. But though she does not crumble, she does not thrive either. She goes inward, thinking the things that Isobel or Chloe would have said, loudly and with utter confidence. Her rebellion towards her hectoring boss Juliet is silent and unspoken; her acquiescence to her old school friend Carla is only nominal and superficial.

Yet for all this passivity, she’s not actually passive at all. Under the surface, deep currents are stirring and rising, becoming steadily more inexorable as a better equilibrium is sought for her life. I can’t help thinking that many of us will find this both restful and exciting, because we’re constantly exhorted that if we don’t grasp our futures with both hands, nothing will ever come to us. It’s exhausting, that sort of philosophy, and it’s infiltrated everything in the years since I wrote the book. It’s the complete opposite of the idea that what is meant to happen will happen without us needing to lift a finger. I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle, but at the moment, the pendulum has swung so far in one direction that many of us feel worn out and defeated by the demands on our time, intelligence and interests. It’s no longer enough to simply enjoy a hobby like knitting, or jam making or even writing or painting; we are badgered to make it pay, make it into a business or high art. Sometimes I think this may be the dark root of why I have found writing so hard in recent years, this constant internal and external pressure to be the best, to sell the most, to be (I have begun to hate both word and concept) professional about it all.

It’s when the quiet ones rise up and stand firm that the world will quake, because in my estimation, there are more of the quiet ones than there are of the other sort. The quiet ones are the ones who conform to every request from employers who have leaped into the gap made by the Dunning-Kruger effect, until one day, enough is enough and they say NO, and walk away or resist. When the quiet ones find their voices, the mouse will roar and the lions will cower.

Ringing Some Changes

Ringing Some Changes

Sometimes I hate trying to think of titles for blog posts. After more than a thousand, it gets hard not to repeat myself, and to be honest, this one is just a sort of round up of my own news. Possibly a tad tedious, but maybe not.

First bit of news is good(ish). After over six years of some pretty extreme symptoms, finally it feels as if there might be an end in sight for my hideous menopause. One of the worst was something that for many women is a mere inconvenience: hot flushes. For me, they became life-threatening. Not in themselves, though at times I did wonder whether spontaneous human combustion might be more than a myth, but rather because they were so extreme and so frequent life became almost unendurable. Drama queen you might think. I wish. At their very worst, they came at a frequency of up to 20 PER HOUR. You read that right. They were of an intensity that made my skin feel as if it were burning; the moment before it happened, it made me feel sick, as if I had stepped off a precipice. That feeling you get when you bite into a proper chilli pepper? Imagine that over every inch of your body. It meant that for about a year, I slept in perhaps 20 minute bursts if I were lucky. To say it was hell is an understatement. Given the way my GP surgery has treated me, I did not seek medical help; the idea of even speaking to one of the doctors here reduced me to a shaking, weeping wreck. So I endured. I tried many, many things to no real effect. I considered filling my pockets with rocks and walking into a river or the sea; lack of local rocks, lack of a shoreline or a river deep enough and close enough for me to get to are probably the only things that stopped me. But slowly the situation began to improve. I still get hot flushes you could power a small town from; I still get woken two or three times a night. But the intensity has reduced and the frequency too. Recently I experienced three or four days in a row where no flushes occurred during the hours of daylight. I have hope that I might have survived.

For anyone reading and thinking, “pshaw, what a fuss she makes!” and feeling smug that because they do yoga/sports/are vegan/insert reason it won’t or didn’t affect them, let me say this: it’s luck of the draw, not virtue, that means some women have a bad time and others don’t. I may write more on the topic another time.

Second bit of good news: I did a new edition of Away With The Fairies in paperback. The original edition was done via Lulu who don’t offer a matte option for covers; I’ve not been happy with their services for some time, for other reasons. One is the sheer glacial slowness of their reporting of sales. So I’d redone Strangers and Pilgrims a couple of years ago, and now Fairies. I’m pleased with the new edition; I wish I’d had the energy to do it sooner.

Third bit of good news: I sent the latest short story collection to some beta readers, and those who have had a chance to read and report back have been not only very helpful but also very encouraging. It would seem that contrary to how I feel about my abilities, I can still write. I’m waiting on the feedback of the others, then I’ll set about some edits and on with the process of getting them out. Unlikely to be before Christmas but given how small fry like me get drowned out in the big noise of promotions for key periods for sales, trying to launch a book for Christmas or summer holidays is folly.

Fourth bit of good news: for the period that begins at Samhain (Halloween/All Saints/All Souls) both Away With The Fairies and Strangers and Pilgrims will be on offer at £1.99 or local equivalent, and my short novella The Hedgeway will be on flash sale for 99p for the three days of Samhain itself. Billed as “a chilling tale for Samhain” it’s the perfect read as the nights draw in and the clocks go back (it’s a spooky story but it’s more unsettling than terrifying). For a scarier read, perhaps try The Moth’s Kiss (a collection of ten short stories, perfect for the season). I’m considering whether to also make that 99p for the Kindle version for the same period.

Which brings me to point five, which is the not so good stuff. If you are an author, especially an independent author, you’ll have spotted that it’s much harder to sell books now than it was a few years ago; virtually all the indy authors I know have seen a steady slide of lower and lower sales, with the occasional blip when a new book is launched. It’s depressing as hell. Lowering prices seems to be a way of potentially enticing a reader to take a punt on a book, but how low can you go before you are not meeting even basic costs? Lots of authors still tout the route of give a book away free (especially in a series) but there’s evidence that this tactic that worked a few years ago, is now bringing in very diminished returns. Readers have quite literally MILLIONS of books to choose from, and many pride themselves on never actually buying one. Again, depressing. Some respond by writing and publishing much faster, so that there’s always something new to tempt readers with; the risk is that you can potentially rush things and lose both quality and originality in the process. This year I have published one novel and two collections of poetry; I’ve finished writing a novel that I’m sitting on for a while. My mental health in particular means that even getting books out from my extensive “back catalogue” of books on my hard drive has become the equivalent of climbing Snowden or Scafell Pike (not Everest or K2): difficult, dangerous, and while not impossible, will take much preparation and training.

Sixth point: mental health. The current deep dark valley sometimes feels like the valley of death itself. Everything is such an effort and I find most things are not worth the effort involved. If you’ve never felt the tentacles of depression, you probably might find it hard to believe quite how debilitating depression is. You cant just cheer up, make an effort to focus only on the good things (and every other cliché people suggest). I feel paralysed by it. So the projects I would like to work on gather dust (real or virtual) and I stand in danger of slipping away as an author and poet because I cannot compete in the bright, immediate, throwaway world out there that is the world of books.

So, a mixed bag, really. I’ve put the good stuff first and in the spirit of making a proper shit sandwich (a fabulous term, that you can probably work out) I’m going to end on a good bit too. I’ve always found that autumn is the best time for my own creativity; I’ve never felt much like joining the whole NaNoWriMo that goes on in November. But what I am going to try to do is to focus on short fiction; I began a collection of short stories, each based on a famous perfume. They’re good fun to write and it indulges my love of fragrance. I have also several sets of Storyworld Cards as story prompts and I’ve got plenty of journals to dedicate to them. So even if I can’t come up with a new novel that grabs me by the throat, I can spend time honing my skills in short fiction.

I might even share some here…

Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

You’d have to have been under a rock not to have noticed the recent focus on sexual harassment, especially with a high-profile perpetrator (not giving names because I don’t want to give air time to someone like that by name) being finally outed. What I have spotted too is that virtually every woman I know has been on the receiving end of horrible harassment at some point. For those of the generation I belong to, and the one before (and before that too) it was so common in the workplace that there was a culture of silent acceptance. You didn’t rock the boat because you’d find yourself out of a job if you made a fuss about what was dismissed often as “That’s just what men are like.” I’ve also realised that probably almost every woman has lived in fear of harassment, and not just the verbal kind. I’m not detailing my own experiences (there are many) because it seems futile.

For me, not speaking up is also out of fear, and out of a kind of cultural conditioning that leaves me often feeling like I need to apologise for existing, for taking up space. In the back of my psyche is a version of my mother than constantly undermines attempts to be anything other than subservient, to know my place as a woman. It’s very, very hard to break free of conditioning like that even when you have become aware of it; everything is against it being challenged, even your own psyche. But I am trying, so very, very hard. We owe it to ourselves and to the girls growing up now not to keep silent any more, because it will never be addressed and changed if the sheer prevalence of it is not revealed.

I think I channelled my inner warrior woman who does fight back against harassment into Chloe from Square Peg. I’ve thought about her a lot lately as I started writing a sequel over a year ago, and the more I have analysed her, the more I realise she’s a powerful aspect of myself. She’s polarised readers; some have decided they don’t like her, dismissing her as rude (because she’s forthright and doesn’t take fools gladly) and others see her for her vulnerability. I also think she may well be an Aspie… In the novel she finds herself in conflict with her own profession, when a project she’s meant to be working on is very much against her own conscience. I’m sharing this extract because I really wish I were this tough, this able to handle myself under harassment.

She glanced up as a number of colleagues came into the canteen. There was a certain gung-ho attitude about some of them that irritated her hugely, so she wasn’t pleased when they came over to her table, all loud voices and bravado.

Hello, Red,” said Dave, who was the loudest of them all. “Hugged any good trees lately?”

She looked at him evenly, actually feeling her fists bunching with instinctive aggression.

He turned to his companions.

Red here is turning into a hippy, you know that, lads. She went off into the woods yesterday for hours, communing with nature and having a fumble with that other red haired bitch,” he said, and they all sniggered like over-grown schoolboys.

Chloe felt her face flushing.

Have you not got anything better to do than bother me?” she asked.

No, we haven’t, since all you hippy-dippy sorts have put a hex on this project,” he said. “Mind you, what else can we expect, employing a woman when we could have had a man. No point expecting anything from a girl.” He said the last word almost as a curse.

Chloe got up very slowly, and faced him. She was actually a little taller than he was but she didn’t feel it.

If you think I shouldn’t have this job, just go ahead and say it plainly,” she said. “I don’t like this sort of insinuation, and I’m not putting up with it.”

He glanced at his companions and then began leering at her.

Red’s got PMS, lads, or else she hasn’t had her leg over lately,” he said.

Grow up,” Chloe said. “You must have some sort of brain or you wouldn’t be here at all; try using it for a change.”

It’s a scientific fact that men’s brains are bigger than women’s,” he said, still in that jeering tone.

Yes, well size isn’t everything, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know,” Chloe said. “It’s what you do with it that counts.”

I know just what to do with it, love,” he said.

I doubt it.”

Want to try?”

Drop dead, moron. I’m not here to entertain the troops.”

That isn’t what I’ve heard.”

Then you should get your ears washed out as well as your foul mouth,” Chloe said. “If you’re the best example of the gene pool, then I’d hate to look in the shallow end.”

He went red, then, largely because his friends were listening avidly.

If you were a man,” he started to say. But Chloe cut him off.

If I were a man, you’d be on the floor begging for mercy by now,” she said. “You’d never dare to talk to a man the way you’ve just talked to me; and believe me, it’s not lack of brawn that stops me breaking your nose.”

Yeah? Go on then, try it, Red.”

No,” Chloe said. “That isn’t exactly fair; after all, you’d not hit a mere woman would you? Even scum like you usually have standards.”

Retrospectively, calling him scum was not the brightest thing to have done, because he swung for her then, palm open in token acknowledgement of her gender, and would have knocked her down even so had she not managed to get her own punch in first, burying her fist deep in his paunchy midriff and doubling him over as he gasped for breath. She put out her foot, and with a sharp kick on the bum, toppled him right over.

Right,” she said to the others standing behind him, open-mouthed. “Anyone else care to suggest that I’m not up to my job? No? Good.”

Her knees were shaking as she exited the canteen, but they couldn’t see that. As she passed the counter where the dinner ladies were still serving up, there was a ripple of applause, and Chloe grinned at them, and went back to her desk to try and think what she could do.