I KNOW YOU’RE A WRITER, BUT HAVE YOU GOT AN ELEPHANT?

In mid-nineteenth century Britain the Theatre was changing. Theatre audiences were demanding entertaining acts and Shakespeare was no longer classed as entertaining by the hoi pilloi. So, classically trained actors had the choice of either working to diminishing audiences or becoming a variety act in the burgeoning Music Hall, complete with elephants. Elephant1Barbara Ewing illustrates this very well in her novel, ‘The Mesmerist’, which, in passing, is well worth a read, if a little expensive.

Today, fiction publishing is changing for everyone concerned: writers, agents publishers; no one is sure of the model, or if there even is a model.

Major publishers have reacted to the threat of Amazon and Indie publishing by becoming vanity publishers, charging novice authors several thousand pounds to see their work in print. They do it through surrogate companies so as not to sully their, ahem, reputations. Meanwhile, middle ranking, traditionally published authors are finding it difficult to either get a reasonable advance or make a living from writing. The superstars of writing are safe from this reversal of fortune for the moment, but that will not last.

Publishers have missed the point.

Chaps and chapesses of the CFLB, or ceaseless free literary beano, it’s all changed and you are surplus to requirements. I have no idea if that’s a good thing or not, but it is the current reality. 256px-Gustave_Courbet_auto-retrato

Writers too have missed the point.

The arithmetic is simple. The more authors there are, the less visibility any one new author will get. Forget about building a platform of twenty-three readers; unless you have a lot of money and a PR company you will struggle to find an audience, or rather the audience will struggle to find you. Sure, there will always be the ’50 Shades’, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Hunger Games’ phenomena, but they succeeded because they gained a little traction for a variety of unpredictable reasons and then the money men piled in, sniffing gold.19

I’ll make a prediction. One day and soon, every book, except those of superstar writers, will be free.

Currently, around eighty per cent of all Indie books for the Kindle are offered free at some point on Amazon KDP Select. My own novel, NORTHMAN, went that route and in just a few days amassed over 7000 downloads. The aim was to increase visibility and ‘discoverability’ to ‘build a platform’, creep up the Amazon rankings and get a few paid sales in the aftermath. I’d read this was a good strategy and a cunning plan.

It was a waste of time.

At one point NORTHMAN was #1 in the Mystery/Thrillers/Supernatural Amazon list, or somesuch. When the promotion ended perhaps twenty books were sold at the normal price of £3.99 before tailing off into single figures per week.  Increase ‘discoverability’ and visibility? Build a platform? I’m neither a lost continent, transparent nor a railway engineer, but any idea appeals when a cunning plan fails. Three new reviews, twenty new Twitter followers and two or three new blog followers disabused me of the notion. 7267 people have NORTHMAN on their Kindles and I have no way of finding out if they have even read it.Amazon_Kindle_Touch

Was there any purpose to the promotion?

Absolutely.

It taught me what not to do and what not to be.

First, I learned I was not a marketeer. The ‘how to’ writing pundits tell me that lack of marketing nous represents obscurity and starvation. Promote, promote, promote is their mantra and I would find it difficult to disagree with them if it were not for the fact that I don’t give a flying fart. I hate marketing. I hate cold calling. I hate all the energy wasted in trying to sell books when I’m primarily interested, as a writer, in two ways of justifying my life.

Writing. Reading. The first is so I can tell stories. I love telling stories. The second is so I can wonder at the stories of other writers and marvel at how complex is the human mind, how imaginative, how unique, how full of infinite variety. Minds like these can conquer the universe and will.

Writing. Reading. Not marketing.  Timeless_Books

Not waving my arms about and shouting ‘look at me’. I did that as a child. Then I became an adult (almost) and no longer felt the need to be patted on the head. Not  as much, anyway.

The promotion also taught me that people like free stuff, but are not keen on paying. I do. You do. We all do. It’s in our DNA to gravitate towards free stuff and gorge ourselves on it in case tomorrow, there is no more. Check your Kindle. How many free books are languishing there, never to be read?

Jane_AustenJane Austen didn’t need to make money. In some ways she was a dilettante writer: a posh lass having an ironical,  gentrified giggle about and with her awfully nice chums. For her – and I know Austen fans will disagree – writing was a hobby. There were few female fiction writers at the time so she captured the imagination of a generation of women with her works, almost by default. The TV ‘reality’ show, ‘Made in Chelsea’ springs to mind as a dumbed down version of her social commentary. It’s interesting to note that Austen only became truly popular after her death, so the writers and stars of ‘Made in Chelsea’ obviously have a better cunning plan than had dear old Jane.

There are, perhaps two ways for fiction writing to go. One is the Billions way, where a billion writers, some of whom can write and others who struggle, flood the streets with their pamphlets in the vague hope that someone will be interested enough to read them and not use them for lighting the stove. For ‘street’, substitute Amazon and you’ll see where that’s going. They will all – with a few exceptions – be hobby writers: not because they write badly, but because they cannot make a living from writing through sheer weight of free reading material and because few read their books. My heart goes out to them (us) all. Fiction has to be wrung from the soul and it deserves to be more than kindle-ing.

The second way is to find a new model.

I know what I think the new model should look like and in it everything is free.

There will be no publishers. No agents. Indies rule, okay? I’m going to test the model later this year. I won’t be able to do  comparative testing, so it won’t be a fair test or even definitive, because I have no intention of wasting my hard earned dosh on shiny-faced 14 year old marketeers so they can buy a new Ferrari, or spending endless days tweeting, getting passengers to my platform, being found with a gasp of surprise around a bend in the Orinoco or wearing a clown’s outfit to increase visibility. 256px-Pipo_de_ClownMy wife tells me I don’t need an outfit to be a clown.

It should produce more information, but won’t be a model that suits everyone. What I have in mind doesn’t suit me too well, but the alternatives are not pleasant.

It will enable me to write with fewer restrictions or possibly more and remove the present concept of marketing when I could be writing, or just  staring at a cloud that looks like Buddha or Groucho Marx. There will be a price. There is always a price for every human action.

I’ll give you a clue.

I know you’re a writer. But have you got an elephant? Certain_Elephant

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NEW NOVEL PREVIEW

ASTS COVER NEW BLOG

It’s nothing like giving birth. At least, as far as I’m capable of judging, from the second-hand experiences of an interested observer and part-time punchbag (twice).

It’s more like dragging a recalcitrant teenager out of bed on a school day.

Those who write as well as read will know what I mean. AND SOON THE SONG, my second novel, is almost out. It’s at the door holding on to the door-frame and yelling obscenities. As I write, I’m prying its fingers off, one by one.

This book is not a cousin to NORTHMAN, or even a descendant; it’s more a sibling. It addresses many of the themes visited in my first novel, but from a slightly different perspective. It also has a few new themes that are particularly close to my heart and perhaps, my anger. In essence it’s a classic ghost story, but with a few twists. It’s a bit rude, a bit violent and is set in my native Derbyshire, with forays into the US via New York and the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia.

I’ve posted the first few chapters here, before publication tomorrow, so my friends can have a look first. You might not get a feel for AND SOON THE SONG from these chapters, which, in marketing terms is bad, but I’m lousy at marketing anyway, so I thought I’d write ASTS with the slow-ish build, lots of characters sort of structure I enjoy reading and risk the wrath of readers who prefer more immediacy. Even in this incarnation it’s not as gradual a reveal as I would have liked, but, as writers, we have what we have and life is too short to waste tinkering around the edges.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the sample and, of course, welcome comments, no matter how derisory.

Apologies for the WordPress formatting. It and MS Word seem to have differences and delving into HTML has never been an ambition. It’s all fine and dandy in the full Kindle edition. Unless the ghost has been at it again.


AND SOON THE SONG

by

J.D. HUGHES

MAY, 1977

The playful slap of waves against the hull of a small boat is a pleasant sound on a summer day in a flat calm. It is not pleasant in a force ten gale. Neither is it playful.

Six miles off St John’s, on the coast of Newfoundland, Elton Chelford heeled the thirty-two foot yacht ‘Windfall’ into the howling storm and prayed.

That day his gods were not listening.

The wave came from nowhere. It towered forty feet above the boat and smashed down with the force of an angry leviathan, tearing the fibreglass hull in two.

Briefly, Elton saw his wife Marjorie tumble past him in the foaming water as the ‘Windfall’ sank. She seemed to be attached to the yacht and he could see why. Rope from the windlass was wrapped around her neck and she followed the yacht into the depths like a dog on a leash.

Above the thunder of the waves he heard a thin scream.

His thirteen-year-old daughter slid away from him in the swell, rising and falling, her mouth an ‘o’ of distress.

Below him, Marjorie’s face was almost lost in darkness.

“I’m sorry,” he shouted to his daughter and heard her scream once more, before she was lost in the trough of an enormous wave. “I’ll just get your mom, hold on,” he said to himself and had a surprising thought that he had just uttered the last of all the words he was ever going to say.

Only the stern of the yacht was visible now. Taking a deep breath, he dived to the fading yacht, to Marjorie, ever falling under the great, green Atlantic Ocean.

PROLOGUE

1191: ACRE, THE HOLY LAND

 

Richard’s red hair flamed in the hot sun, his double-handed sword flashing like a turning salmon against the cloudless sky. Behind him the solid bulk of St Anthony’s Gate rose and around him the bodies of black clad warriors tumbled, arms gone, heads cleaved, as the sword hewed them into the afterlife with righteous passion. Spread for a mile across the field of conflict, beneath the massive walls, the knights of eight Christian nations and their armies drove the enemy back, back to the desert, back to the mountains, into the sea, away from the gates of the recaptured city of Acre.

The stench of the layered dead rose from the battlefield, mixed with the reek of vinegar and urine and Raoul de Courcy drank it in, his own sword beating against the soft flesh of the dark Musulmen in a coruscation of silver and red, adding to the pile of the dead and the dying. Carving a way through the retreating warriors, he was soon at Richard’s side, the king towering over him, the light of killing in his ice blue eyes.

Despite himself, Raoul was, as always, awed in the king’s presence; the man was a giant and his sword the hand of God, or rather the hand of Pope Gregory VIII, but the king’s brother, Prince John, had ordained what must come next, so Raoul slipped the curved and ornate Khanjar dagger into his left hand as he shouted “Coeur de Lion, Coeur de Lion!” and ploughed his sword through the guts of yet another of the horde of Salah-ad-Din. As he twisted the sword from the screaming man, he fell backwards onto Richard, his dagger aimed for the gap between armour and tabard, but Richard, swinging his broadsword through the neck of a grizzled Ayyubid veteran, slipped on a blood streaked shield splattered with greasy intestines and staggered. Raoul’s killing blow met only empty air.

Abruptly, the battle was over and an eerie silence descended on the battlefield, only broken by the flapping of flags, the crackling of bodies in the final stages of consumption by Greek Fire and the diminishing sounds of retreat. Richard lowered his sword, blood pooling under the tip, as the last of the Musulmen scattered from Acre, pursued by a band of Knights Templar led by Grand Master Robert de Sablé. The Templars streamed from the gates of Acre on horseback, pounding the dead and injured to pulp under the hooves of their giant warhorses. The cracking of bones and the strange susurration of bursting flesh was lost, as a thunderous roar went up, like the toppling of a thousand stones, as Richard raised his sword to the men surrounding him, a huge grin spreading across his bearded face.

Raoul slipped away into the crowd of soldiers and moved towards the gates of the city. He was disappointed. Richard’s death promised, at the very least, rich lands in England or Normandy and his sadly bastard branch of the noble and powerful de Courcys – of which he was the only remaining representative – was almost bankrupt and in severe peril of losing their small lands in Derbyshire, England, acquired by Raoul’s ancestor, Armand, in 1066.

A smile crossed his thin, ratlike features as he slipped through the gates against the tide of troops and into shadow. He ran his lips over blackened teeth and his green eyes glittered in the darkness. There would be another chance to do the bidding of his master, John, but for now the captured children of Acre awaited his pleasure.

 

One

TOMMY THE BOY, 1971

 

Tommy’s first memories were of the woman with sparkly glasses. Anything before that was a grey mist.

“He doesn’t understand.”

Tommy didn’t.

“You can’t expect…” The woman with the sparkly glasses and watery blue eyes pursed her lips in a thin line and glared down at the boy. “It’s not just for now. You know that, Thomas.”

“Mmm.” Tommy couldn’t look at her dinosaur eyes. He tried to read the reversed sign on the frosted glass door. Social something.

The man with the red nose cleared his throat. “Rosemary, it’s no good telling him this. He’s only six.”

I am, thought Tommy. I’m six, I am.

Glasses sniffed with a thin nose covered in shiny brown marks. “Boys are all the same. No backbone.”

Tommy saw her eyes crinkle cruelly and thought that they should be green like a sea witch, not blue.

“Look, he’s crying, Mr Garvey. See?” Her shoulders moved back in a gesture of righteousness. “Crying.”

Tommy was and didn’t know why. It was just welling up in him like sick, and the tears made her glasses look like big electric lights, like a lighthouse on a rock in the sea, in the dark. Her head swivelled in response to his thought and she bent over him. Her breath smelt of mackerel.

“Be a man, Thomas, you’re not the only one in this particular predicament, you know. If you can’t remember anything, it’s probably not worth remembering.”

“Leave the lad alone, Rosemary,” Rednose interrupted. “It’s hard enough on him, broke both legs for Chr…” He put his arm around Tommy’s shoulders and patted the boy’s striped cotton tee shirt, as if it were a dog that he didn’t know. “It’s all right, old man. You’ll soon settle in, lots of lads your age get…well, lose their parents, you’ll like the Gables.”

Tommy the boy, Tommy the child, Tom the man, squirmed away from Rednose and put his hand in his pocket to touch the silver shilling. The treasure. It was real. It meant something. He glared up at them both, fighting the tears, knowing that tears were what they wanted, what they expected.

Rednose moved to a brown desk and sat on it with a sigh, shaking his head, but Glasses moved back in and frowned at Tommy, her searchlights crackling with coldness. “Don’t you look at me like that, boy. You’re no different…”

“He is,” Rednose interrupted softly, “Oh, yes. His father is a very important…” The man stopped as if he’d swallowed a rock.

Father? Tommy tried to remember but the thought was like a frightened mouse and it made his head hurt. He gripped the treasure more tightly; that was real.

“What’s that he’s got? In his hand.” Glasses pulled Tommy’s hand from his trousers and tried to prise the little fist open.

“It’s mine,” Tommy said, “Not yours.”

“Show me. Please?” Rednose made no move to force him so Tommy opened his hand. The silver shilling gleamed there: the one with the head of the King.

“Give it here.” Glasses held out her hand.

“It’s only an old shilling, Rosemary. It’s probably all he has. Not even legal tender anymore.”

Glasses sniffed. “They’re not allowed money at the orphanage.” But she lowered her hand, and sniffed again.

Tommy could feel the cold fire sweep from her eyes and numb his brain. But he knew and she didn’t.

Creak.

The warm, frightening familiarity of the messages from the future washed over him and he felt reassured.

“You’re going to die soon,” he said to her and it was only a whisper, “in Africa.”

They put him on the special coach to the orphanage and forgot him.

Five months later, at the precise moment that the number 14 bus hit Rosemary Arless just outside the Fulham Road tube station, she did not think of Tommy. She was, in fact, thinking of the red carnation she had just bought from a flower seller and was so entranced by its redness that she stepped into the road without thought.

Unaccountably, she remembered Tommy when the black bus driver leant over her and she realised that although he was talking she couldn’t hear him, only a distant patter of drums. She tried to clear her nose and there was the exotic odour of limes. Everything was so red and warm. She smiled. Tommy was wrong. It was going to be a good holiday.

Africa.

Must be.

Two

TOMMY THE BOY, 1978

Seven years after Rosemary Arless and Rednose sentenced him to the orphanage, the creaky messages were arriving thick and fast for Tommy. Trouble was, most of the time he couldn’t figure out what they were about. It was like watching old TV films with long dead actors in them. And they were all about pain, grief or death. The messages were not happy messages. Someone always had to suffer.

Invariably at the end, when the little puppet humans had run or stamped or screamed across the tumbling images, there was the dark haired girl with the name of a boy, (Chaz? Charles?) her mouth screaming a big ‘O’. She was the only consistency. He wanted so much to help her, to save her, but all he could see was her mouth open wide and the soundless scream.

Today, after finding Stick Jensen industriously beating up a sickly boy called Pimple, Tommy cracked the bully’s nose in a relatively fair fight – except that Tommy used a house brick to counter Stick’s forty pounds weight advantage – and he felt his brain tighten and creak, as if tuning up for the messages.

Inside the recreation room, he leaned against the old oak bookcase in the library, heart pounding, took out a roll-up and felt the headache coming, the one that always came after the door in his head opened; but it was only a twinge and he allowed himself a restrained smile of pleasure.

“One day I’m gonna chew you up Buchanan, you little shite. Strawberry fuckin’ jelly, you.” Stick, flame red hair falling over his acne-damaged face, leant round the door, but didn’t enter. “Strawberry fuckin’ jelly.”

Creak.

“Not on one leg you’re not.” Tommy said, flicking on his cherished brass Zippo – stolen from one of the posh kids who made short appearances at the orphanage – and lighting up. He could hear Stick thinking, reminiscent of the grind of a Stone Age cart.

“Twat, you are,” Stick said. “Two fuckin’ legs, see?”

Tommy smiled to himself. Stick was spent like a spinner on the pond. All used up. He was a Gables boy, wild until he hit the wall of a displeased Guardian – like old Claybollocks, former Marine and built like a tank – then he was a pussycat.

The rest? Just fucking apes. Tommy liked that expression. It was always the worst thing he could think of, the worst thing to be.

And they were all rubbish after all, himself included: the ones who’d been passed over by the male/female combinations who came to the orphanage behaving as if it were a supermarket. When he was eight he’d hoped, tried to look happy and cheerful, combed his hair neatly, scrubbed until his face hurt, and worn a clean shirt so that someone would take him, so that he could have a mum and dad again; but there was something about him that they didn’t like, something in his eyes that said trouble and they’d go for the ones with blue eyes and blonde hair, not the black haired boy with brown eyes smiling manically like a pre-pubescent anti-Christ.

Then he’d started to hate them. Those people who picked a child like a dog from the pound. It became satisfying to watch some prospective parents take on an angelic little thing when the kid was harder than seasoned oak and thicker than pig shit. Now he was thirteen, the supermarket shoppers didn’t even see him anymore and that made his hatred a comfort.

But despite this dubious comfort, he felt envy as another child was driven away through the gates and when he was alone he would turn the silver shilling over and over in his hands until his chest felt tight and his eyes got stupidly wet. The same questions always, repeated like a tired old song. Why did my mum and dad throw me away? Why can’t I remember their faces? Who are they? Where are they? But when he tried to imagine their faces he felt the trembling edge of the headache approaching, the signal for the doorway in his head to open and it soon became the only thing he feared, tied in with a remembrance of two people whom he knew that he would never, ever, meet.

Poor old Stick and all the other lads were the same. Discarded. Unsatisfactory. Badly made crap. It gave them all a mutual hatred, a commonality, a brotherhood. He switched on the television, sitting down with his back to Stick. His head creaked again.

Not just the leg, but the diamonds too. Poor Stick.

Stick stayed in the door for a minute but Tommy did not look around knowing that most of Stick’s anger was dribbling away. Later, he thought, later. But it came to him that he would never see Stick again.

Tommy heard him leave and for a moment felt a great weight on his chest, a sort of sorrow was how he described it to himself, a sorrow for poor, old, tough Stick. Poor, old, tough, one-legged Stick.

“I’ll look after the dog, Stick,” he murmured and didn’t know what he meant, but he could see it – big, black, with weird eyes, and a funny name.

Some hours later, by the pond in the grounds of the orphanage he watched an old pike, maybe fifteen pounds, circling in the weeds, watched as it snapped a minnow in its jaws with barely a movement of the savage head and he thought of Stick.

Poor, old Stick.

The first part would be soon.

 

Three

TOM THE MAN, 1982 -90

At seventeen, unqualified and uneducated, the Army was the only place he could go, so he went.

The Third Battalion, Parachute Regiment, was better than the orphanage. In 3 PARA there were no cow faced prospective parents to piss all his confidence away. There were only hard squaddies who didn’t give a toss about the colour of his hair.

They sent him to Ulster where he met Siobhan, a Catholic girl, known what it was to love for the first time and at last thought he’d found the foundations of the family he’d always imagined.

“A man takes care of his woman, Tommy.” She’d said it with pride and he received it with pride.

The Provos killed her because he was a British soldier and there was no longer any pride in that, no point in anything.

Her black hair, like some exotic undersea frond on the stiff hospital linen, told him that everything was pointless. They had sent him home, to England, given him a new job as an instructor and put him on a day release college course. It hadn’t worked. He didn’t give a stuff about the recruits. There was no one to save anymore. She was dead.

So, he returned to active duty with 3 PARA and requested a second tour of Ulster. It had come to him in England that he should die, should make it so and should atone for Siobhan. But he’d failed miserably at that too.

Alone, on a Republican housing estate off the Creggan Road, he’d shot a known Provo sniper, Eamonn Dooley and waited for the man’s pal to cut him down with the AK47 he was carrying, but the pal ran away, with the gun.

Court martialled in 1990 as a political sop to the South, Tom served six months in the glasshouse and was then booted out of the Army with a dishonourable discharge. Dooley became an official Republican hero. Dead heroes: Ireland rotted with them.

And he’d not seen it. No doors opened, no creaking, no images of him leaving the Army in ignominy. The prescience only worked with other people’s lives, not his own. It had worked with Stick.

Poor old Stick.

Every time he thought of Stick he could see diamonds. The first part of his prophecy had proved correct. Blood poisoning after a badly serviced Flymo hover mower lacerated Stick’s leg. They had to cut it off below the knee and he was lucky to be alive.

But there was still the second part. It involved diamonds in some way, but it was unclear how. He saw a picture of an enormous house, almost like a castle or a stately home and Stick was limping across grass to a river with the big, black dog. There was something familiar about the dog – it had run through his dreams often – but, as with the diamonds, he had no inkling of the significance of either. It was like the attempts he’d made to remember anything else at all – besides the ‘O’ of the dark haired girl’s mouth – before Rednose and Glasses had sent him to the Gables. Result? A headache, a blank, a mystery.

Hearthstone. The house is called Hearthstone, silly. It was as if someone (a woman?) murmured in his ear, but as soon as it was said it faded away and the name with it.

Too many mysteries, he thought. There was no mystery about being dead, heroes or not. Dooley’s dead. She’s dead. If they are truly dead, why do they live in me?

She lives in me. Always.

If my mum and dad were here, I’d go home, be a son, do the right things and maybe tell them about her. Who she was. Who she made me be. What we were together.

But I have no mum and dad.

They didn’t want me and it’s too late for all that. Too late to be a man, or a son, or a husband, too late to be anything except a piece of shit.

All too late.

I didn’t see it coming.

All I’ve got now are the headaches.

 

Four

1995

The blades of the helicopter beat the black air and slid into the Guinness dark night; a toy against an infinite backdrop of grinning stars. Soon, the ululating cadence of violated air had died away and Hearthstone Hall was silent once more.

Inside, away from the lighted butler’s pantry where an old man sat humming, a tangible darkness swept along the corridors, bleeding through the ancient walls, enveloping the cold stone and felt only hunger and need.

After so long away, it was time. Three were close and three were far away.

Softly, it began to sing. First to the man, Marcus, in the helicopter, but he was lost in a mind storm of thoughts and needs of his own and there was no entry, then to the woman, Elyssia, sinking in darkness and joyfully the song entered her, with ease, as it had done so many times before.

She would come. And in her madness she would call the others. The girl, the boy, the dark man and the other one: those necessary. They would have no choice, for they would all hear the song and then the hunger could be assuaged.

Lost to the gaze of God, Hearthstone waited.

Waited for the guests.

Waited for the children.

 

******

 

Alone in the gloom, Elyssia cried black tears of remorse, as she did every night.

All gone now. She’d lost them all. Her two babies and the man for whom she would have given her life. All because of a misunderstanding – a teeny-weeny misunderstanding. It was not fair. She pounded the walls of the room and felt her fists sink into the walls.

“Please turn the light on.” The soft walls, the soft floor and a ceiling that sucked the sound away muffled her voice. “I want you to turn the light on. Now.” But no one came, and the night was so long.

Thomas and Charlotte did not come to see her, and that made her cry, but Marcus had probably told them to ignore her. It was the sort of thing he would do.

“Children, let me out. Daddy is a bad man, an absolute shite, but I can save you from him. Listen, you remember this…” and she sang, her voice muffled in the room: “I dreamed a dream next Tuesday week, beneath the apple trees, I thought my eyes were big pork pies, and my nose was Stilton cheese…” But she couldn’t remember any more of the silly words and anyway the children had gone.

Thomas and Charlotte. Bad children.

Very, very bad children.

I will have to punish them. I will definitely have to punish the other one – the one who ruined my life.

She heard the crooning of the song and for a moment it stopped her gnawing at the thick canvas edge of the doorframe and gave her an overwhelming sense of serenity. From that serenity she remembered what had to be done.

Hearthstone. Marcus, her husband. Her son. Carlos, the dark man. The other one. And sweet little Charlotte. From the memory came purpose.

The Christmas Ball.

She knew she could get out now. After twenty-four years, they trusted her. Trusted her to be sensible and not piss in her pants, kill people or try to escape.

Escape? Not through the front door. Oh no.

They would never, ever let her out, even though the medication was curing her, they said. So, it would have to be the special way. The way they couldn’t stop.

When they turned the lights out she felt under the bed for the piece of sharp plastic she’d broken off the plant pot and fingered the jagged edge.

Therapy, gardening. An interest, gardening.

An escape route, gardening.

It was easy to find the pulsing vein in her throat and then to plunge the plastic into it. She was surprised how painless it was after the initial sharp prick. She moved the plastic around in her throat to enlarge the hole, feeling the warm blood pumping over her hands as if an invisible drummer were co-ordinating the beat.

Yes.

The cell door seemed thinner now.

She stood, surprised to find that the blood had stopped. There was no more. The dead woman lying on the bed had it all, a poppy on the sheets.

The door was locked, as always, but it was ridiculously easy to just slide through it.

“Children?” She stepped into the corridor. “Children? Are you there? Mummy’s coming home. Right now.”

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Your Blog Posts

For some reason, I’m not getting the posts of those friends I follow. I have no idea why this should be, or how long I’ve been denied your wondrous posts, but I am investigating. I thought that none of you were actually posting anything!

I may have to unfollow you to reset the damn thing, but I will then immediately follow you back.

For those who have enquired about the fate of William the Cat, he is still doing time behind bars for his misdemeanors. No more furry or feathered lunches for William, so at least the greenfinches and bank voles are safe. Another cat, Sheldon – a cat with a dramatic black mark at the corner of his mouth giving the appearance of a scar – has taken over his haunts and has acquitted himself well, but I can’t help feeling bad for the imprisoned serial killer, William.

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MY FIRST AUDIOBOOK

Well, it had to come.

A few months ago, I decided to ‘do’ an audiobook. My first thought was that my novel, NORTHMAN, would be an ideal candidate. The thought lasted until the moment I realised that it would take about twenty six hours of recording to accomplish. Oh and a further week to edit.

I’d spoken to an actor and voice-over artist I know and he was strangely unwilling to dedicate the next three months of his life to my novel. It might have had something to do with his fee, which in this instance was to be a few pints of Old Peculiar and a pork pie. Normally, being a greedy pig, he would have snatched my hand off for a pork pie and ale, but he recently appeared in a popular UK soap and his horizons rapidly expanded beyond the delights of mere victuals into the heady atmosphere of actual folding money. Now, the demon of celebrity beckons him and he is lost to the barter system.

Twenty six hours. No VO artist. NORTHMAN sailed away to the far north and was lost.

There was no choice.

Sights lowered, I decided on one of my shorts, written last year. I would have to voice it myself since all the actors I know emigrated, or pretended to be dead or about to enter therapy when I approached them.

So, which one?

BOMBER is quite a dramatic story, but has a number of regional accents – quite difficult for a novice and a non-actor, but maybe one for the future.

THE 500 is better in that it has little dialogue, but it is from a female POV and my dresses are all at the cleaners. Another for the future.

It had to be ISSUE 49. Apart from the fact that I like the story, it’s set mostly in Yorkshire and I know the East Coast resorts of Bridlington, Scarborough and Cleethorpes well, since, as a child, I spent many holidays on their windswept beaches. Finest Haddock and Chips in the world!

So, without further gabble here’s the link to the wonderful Soundcloud. It’s free and lasts about 25 minutes. You can listen now, or download it for my future humiliation :)

Disclaimer: This is my first voice-over despite having directed many actors in the past. I would love your comments, even if you think the end result is abysmal, so I know what to do or not do, if there’s a next time. I promise I’ll get a proper VO artist in for the next one, if I can find a good actor willing to trade in pork pies!

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TREASURE ISLAND 2013

pirate flag

“Ahar!” said Long John, hitching his Chinese quilted doublet over his privatised Kevlar blade-leg and adjusting the carbon fibre Windows 8 parrot on his shoulder. “Find the cripples and throw ‘em overboard. Them what sinks is innocent of being a burden on my ship and them what don’t sink is guilty of freeloading, so should be drowned!”

The crew cheered enthusiastically, apart from those with any kind of infirmity, who confined themselves to polite clapping and checking whereabouts the lifeboats might be situated.

“What about old people?” shouted young Jim Hawkins.

“Over the side with ‘em.” Long John said.

“How old should they be?” Jim asked, with a measure of trepidation.

Long John counted up on his fingers and beamed “Any of them dogs what’s older than me, Jim, lad.”

Jim breathed a sigh of relief. “How old are you, Long John?”

“Not old enough for Davy Jones’s locker, Jim, lad. And not young enough to divulge the account number of the offshore bank account I have in the Caymans.”

“How about the malingerers and shirkers, John Silver?” Doctor Livesey enquired.

“Hang ‘em from the yardarm, good Doctor, particularly them what’s never had a job and are aged fifteen or so.”

“Isn’t that age demographic still at school, Long John?”

“They be. That be where all the future malingerers and shirkers are spewing from, so we’ll hang ‘em afore they can get to the Jobcentre and swell the figures. Then we’ll keelhaul them wot lost their job through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And them wots been daft enough to get caught in negative equity. That’ll larn ‘em.”

“And what about the Bankers?”

A silence descended on the ship. All eyes swivelled to the questioner. Long John, pneumatic blade-leg fully working, was by his side in an instant. Even the parrot looked worried and rebooted, leaving an unpleasant stain.

“What’s that you say, mad Ben Gunn?”

“I was just making an enquiry about bankers, that’s all. I’m not mad, yet. I have an NVQ in Facebook. Anybody got a nice bit of cheese? Stilton? Gruyere? ” Ben scanned the crew, who were still silent and avoiding eye contact. “What?”

“I allus knowed you was a troublemaker and cheese abuser, Ben Gunn.” Long John cocked a beady eye at Ben. “Are you seriously suggesting that we should kill the golden goose, the one industry wot makes doubloons galore for us, the only industry we has left on Treasure Island, sorry, England?”

“But didn’t they cause the last financial crisis by running off with the all the gold and aren’t we still suffering the consequences? And won’t we still be paying off the debts they ran up for the next 200 years?”

Long John put a friendly arm around the slight figure of Ben Gunn. “Ah Ben, me lad. You have a hold of the wrong end of the stick and if you isn’t careful with that lip of yourn that stick’ll stick you good. Let me explain. The Bankers only had to borrow treasure because we woz spending it all on cripples, coffin dodgers and feckless youngsters, see? They woz looking after it for us.”

“So, where is it now?”

“Safe. On special islands in the Caribbean.”

“So, when will they give it back?”

“That’s the beauty of it Ben, they won’t ever give it back, otherwise it’d be wasted on the so called public.”

“So, to get this right, the Bankers stole our money which resulted in the collapse of health care and housing, caused recession, unemployment, soup kitchens, riots and produced starving children and pensioners in this green and pleasant land. And they’re going to keep all the money?”

Long John looked uncomfortable. “You is putting a black face on it, Ben.” The crew hissed. “Oh all right, you is putting a face of undefined colour on it, Ben.” He turned to the crew. “Satisfied?” The crew nodded.

Ben continued, his parchment face reddening with indignation and perhaps a little blusher: “And they’ll never give that money back? Ever? That sounds preposterous; they should be… “

“Seize the traitorous dog!” Long John shrieked, the anger on his face as flimsy as a Greek five Euro note in a mild breeze. The crew pounced on poor Ben and soon he was bound hand and foot. Long John gave him the eye, but then returned it to its socket. “You’ll rue the day you crossed me, Ben Gunn. You’ll be marooned on an uninhabited island off Tortuga, me lad. And there you’ll rot and earn the epithet of ‘mad’.”

“Is Tortuga in the Caribbean? Is there cheese? Will I have access to the gold the Bankers stole?”

“You’ll have access to the crabs, Ben Gunn, that all.”

“Had those last year, so no benefit there, then.”

“Ahar. Ahar. Ahar. You an’ me both. Portsmouth town has a lot to answer for.”

“Will this mean no day-care for my old mum and no benefits for the Swedish au pair who looks like a member of Abba and with whom I’m having a one sided affair that is frowned upon by the Church and most godly Englishmen, but not necessarily the Abba Apreciation Society?” Jim piped up.

“You can keep the Swedish au pair, Jim lad, under the European Human Rights Act, Part Sixty Four: free exchange of labour and even get another three au pairs from Romania and a tax credit for each, but your old mum, sadly, will have to rot in her own urine. ‘Tis only fair.”

“Ship ahoy!” The shout came from the topsail crow’s nest.

“What is it?” Long John roared.

“Long thing, sails, made of wood.”

In a flash Long John drew his pistol and with one shot the lookout fell into the sea.

“And such is the fate of all comedians and dissenters” he said, sticking the pistol back into his extravagantly crafted silk waistband made in GuangDong Province by cheap labour under a totalitarian regime and sold in a chain store in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (formerly Hispaniola) for $1.05, 74 pence or half a groat.

“It’s a Portuguese man o’ war, Cap’n!” cried lookout number two.

“I ain’t afeard o’ no jellyfish,” Long John said.

“It’s not a jellyfish, Cap’n. It’s a long thing, sails, made of wood…”

Once more a shot rang out and once more a lookout fell to the sea, but this lookout had observed the fate of lookout number one and was wearing a Kevlar vest fashioned from Long John’s spare leg. Sadly, it was little protection against the sharks.

“Such is the fate of all those without a hedge fund and shark repellent,” Long John grunted, blowing the smoke from his pistol and executing a short, highland reel on one leg, to the nervous amusement of the crew.

Without warning, a cannonball crashed through Squire Trelawney, removing his braces and causing his trousers to drop. The crew were ecstatic; no TV on a long voyage meant little entertainment apart from knifing each other through the extremities, which usually palled after about ten minutes and could sometimes turn nasty. “Do it again!” they shouted, but the Squire could not answer since his lungs and intestine were hanging from the mizzenmast. “Boo!” The crew expressed their disapproval at his lack of guts.

“Man the cannon!” Long John bellowed. “It’s them filthy Eurobucanneers after me endowments. If there’s any cripples left, push ‘em in the cannon. Nothing them Portugee likes less than Stephen Hawking landing on ‘em from a great height.”

The crew burst into life, running backwards and forwards to stirring music reminiscent of an Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp movie and before long the Portuguese ship was close to starboard and her crew were hanging over the side, leering and making rude reference to the lack of insurance of and scarcity of comfortable chairs on, the English ship.

The crew drew back in horror as they beheld the opposing crew.

“Captain!” Jim screamed in a girly voice, unsuited to a young man, but acceptable on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. “Captain! The Portuguese… they are….!”

“The undead, Jim, lad… or lass,” Long John said, eyeing him with renewed interest. “Bankers.”

At the word, the sky split open like a ripe Liechtenstein based derivative and an unearthly light enveloped the two ships.

“Tis the ghostly aerial fire of the Bank of England,” Ben Gunn said, in awed tones. “That tool of the US Federal Reserve and thinly disguised money machine for the rich and famous.” Almost immediately or at least within the hour, he dropped to his knees, “Mad. Old Ben Gunn. Mad, that’s what he is, mad, mad, mad!” Upon which, he fell to the deck, drooling and singing the names of the top companies in the FTSE 100 to the tune of  ‘Old MacDonald’s Farm’.

“Saves us popping in to Tortuga and burying him on the beach as the tide rises, then, but he’s not the first to be driven mad by interest rates designed by the Bilderberg Group, so he’s got off light.” Long John’s further musings were interrupted by the ghastly Bankers, who streamed over the side of the ship like vomit from a Cross Channel Ferry carrying Manchester United supporters on a day trip to Calais.

“Defend the Pound!” Jim shouted bravely, before being throttled by a dead Belgian carrying a clipboard complete with the latest exchange rates and a list of European Union rules about piracy. With a crafty manoeuvre involving a draft Fisheries Plan designed to gift the entire North Sea to Russian factory trawlers in return for a numbered Swiss bank account, Jim managed to slip the deadly grasp and bounded for the poop deck.

Long John tried to rally the men, most of whom were hiding under printouts detailing the latest mortality rates for those unfortunate enough to become involved with the once proud, but now dreaded National Health Service.

But it was too late.

One by one the men fell, dying, as coward always die, safe in the knowledge that they died for nothing except a handful of crumbs from the rich man’s lunch box, until only two figures stood alone on the poop deck, against the horde of savage Bankers.

“Oh dear,” Jim said, fearfully.

“Now you know why it’s called a poop deck, Jim, lad,” growled Long John, turning upwind from the boy and  unsheathing his Chinese cutlass, from which the blade promptly fell with a tinny rattle. Long John picked up a piece of paper rolled into the hilt of the ex-cutlass. Help. I’m trapped in a cutlass factory. Enquiries please phone ShanDong 32781526. No Returns, it said.

“What can we do Captain, they’re going to kill us, or worse, involve us in pay day loans and insurance mis-selling scams!” Jim’s voice had assumed a falsetto now and he had acquired dreams of appearing on ‘America’s Got Talent’ before an operation to remove his…

“Nothing you can do, Jim, lad.” Long John turned to the approaching zombie throng, their pinstripe suits twinkling in the eerie radiance. “Looks like you’re a goner.”

“Me? Surely that should be us…?” Jim cast a sideways glance at Long John, as the pirate’s tunic dropped away to reveal a pinstripe suit and the cleverly contrived silicon mask slipped sideways to expose the grey, dead face of a Banker.

“Just you, Jim, lad. Just you.” The host shuffled forward, bespoke leather shoes creaking, immaculate Turnbull & Asser shirts crisp and well ironed.

It was over in a second or two. Just before he lost consciousness and as his soul was being stripped from him by a series of bribes and legal violations of his humanity, the face of John Silver swam into view.

“Captain…” Jim croaked, “We all… trusted you. I trusted you.”

Silver smiled and there was a tear in his eye. Rousing music in a similar vein to ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ struck up from a captive male voice choir on the quarterdeck. “Always trust your Captain, lad. And you will trust me again, Jim, cretin that you are. When you’ve forgotten all this. When you get back to your beer and skittles. When you can watch Chelsea play in the Champion’s League again or the Red Sox at the Superbowl. When I give you enough Oriental cushions to choke a horse and cheap bread that’s been crossed with a gecko, plump chickens stuffed full of hormones, tasty sausages made of genitals, lips and ears, wind farms that are only there because my brother makes ‘em, TV shows devised for an IQ level below that of a tree sloth, politicians that are essentially the same people with different coats, nationalities and skin colours but who will always say what you want to hear… and so much more. All yours, Jim lad. All yours. And all you have to do… is forget….”

“Is that all there is?”

“For you, Jim, that’s all there is.”

Jim’s eyes closed and John Silver looked down at him fondly. “You are essential, Jim. Without you and your forgetfulness there can be no me, and that would never do. Ahar.”

Behind him, the Bankers laughed and waited for the yacht to take them home to Monte Carlo.

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ANOTHER BIG THANK YOU!

A lot of people downloaded NORTHMAN in my recent free promotion on Amazon KDP Select. I can’t tell you how many because – I was surprised to learn – I would break my contract with Amazon if I were to do so. Betcher didn’t know that. Suffice it to say it was ten times the number of my first promo, last year. And it was a lot. Did I mention that already?

NORTHMAN hit #1 in the Horror/Occult charts, #2 in the Horror charts and #44 in the Free Kindle charts. All in the US. Truly amazing and totally unexpected! It hardly showed in the UK charts, possibly because most of the free book sites on which I placed the book were in the US.

There is a childish fascination in watching the numbers tick over. The thought that people whom one does not know are downloading one’s book in countries many thousands of  miles away is quite satisfying. I’ve mentioned this before and I know the FREE header has attracted many of those readers, but I don’t care. For a brief moment in time it gave me the same feeling that the greats must have had as they watched their books vanish from the shelves. Unlike the greats, my moment will pass and I’ll return to looking at the download numbers once a month.

But that doesn’t sadden me.

If anything, it makes me oddly happy that a large number of readers will have my book on their Kindles. It makes me wonder if I should write everything for free.

There are so many books out there and many are free for a greater part of their lives. Will the time come when every book is free? Do we need a new paradigm for publishing? How would a starving author earn a crust in the new paradigm? What do you think?

Things are changing. Things have changed.

What hasn’t changed is the interaction between human beings who write and human beings who read. We will always need stories. Stories tell us about ourselves, about others and most of all about possibilities. The Norse ‘skald’ would tell tales around the fire and the children would listen. From those tales the children would extract loose templates for living as adults. It enabled them to survive and grow in their society.

Now, we watch TV and movies and interact through virtual social networks to achieve the same end.

And we still read books. In increasing numbers. Perhaps, sometimes, we tire of the visceral reality of the moving image and prefer to use our own imagination, rather than the imagination of someone else. Or it could be that, occasionally, a retreat from socialising into a private world created by one, for one, is simply  a way of staying sane.

I don’t know, There are now so many things I don’t know, I’m wondering how I managed to forget so much, since I knew everything at 21.

Anyway, I’m drifting. I just wanted to say ‘thanks’ again for the wonderful support I’ve had over the last year from both readers and fellow writers. It has been a revelation to me and restructured my thinking about people after a lifetime in a hard, commercial world. Maybe not ‘restructured’ but rather ‘returned to default’. I’m immensely grateful for that reminder of innocent belief.

Once I have an idea of what worked and what didn’t I’ll post it for your amusement. It won’t be a template, because I know the Philosopher’s Stone only exists at Hogwarts.

Or where William the Cat buried it.

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FREE DOWNLOAD OF NORTHMAN TODAY AND TOMORROW!

It was very exciting last night. Lots of people downloaded NORTHMAN and at one point the book was at #3 in the US Amazon charts for Horror and knocking on the Top 100 Free. I think I have my Goodreads, Blog and Twitter friends to thank for it.

:) A BIG THANKS, FOLKS! :)

Of course, I’m under no illusion that it means anything at all. Statistics tell me that Northman will lurk about in the back of numerous Kindles for many months and may never be read.

But.

It’s gratifying that readers even download the book and there is always the chance that a few will read it and enjoy it. There’s a remote chance that even fewer will remember the book and when my next one comes out will download that, too.

It’s what authors want.

Readers.

Most indie authors are not looking for fame or to make truckloads of money but, unless an author is an ego driven artist, we all want people to read our stuff. It’s funny, but I had my first two star review the other day and I was, quite perversely, relieved. The reviewer didn’t enjoy the last section of Northman, but was honest and compared it to Marmite: either love it or hate it. She also thought the first two-thirds was okay. I don’t mind that sort of review.

So far, in this free promotion, twice as many readers have downloaded the book in one day than downloaded it in three days last time. When the dust has settled and I have an opportunity to examine what happened during this promotion, I’ll post it, but I have a feeling that there is no formula and it’s all chance or due to sunspots. We’ll see.

In the meantime, despite a desire to constantly monitor the Amazon charts, my new novel is telling me to get off my fat bottom (it’s quite slim, actually) and rush out to research the way one of my characters appears to die. I haven’t quite decided whether or not he should depart early or stay until the show is over.

Or perhaps he hasn’t decided.

It’s a bit like life, this writing lark.

NORTHMAN is still FREE until the 11th April, so tell your friends, relatives and any cats and dogs with access to a computer to download it!

us: http://tiny.cc/dfcfow

uk: http://tiny.cc/77bfow

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