REASONS TO BE VICIOUS – PART TWO

There are no pictures or jolly graphics in this post, for reasons that will become apparent later.

My explanation of why I abandoned what was my current WIP is in Part One of this post.

So, for those still reading, here’s what happened next.

I began writing a novel (and a documentary)  about a subject close to my rage threshold in the late 1980s and ever since then it has surfaced regularly, waving a small, polite flag, before sinking once more into that ocean of mostly unusable ideas with which writers are either blessed or cursed.

A short while ago it started being less than polite. That I was not completing this novel was making me feel guilty. The Savile enquiry kicked it to the front of my list.

It’s about child abuse.

The reason it was never completed was because I had, and still have, reservations about using this subject in a thriller. I researched and tried to make a TV documentary about it in the 90s, but could find no finance from any source – I know the reasons for that and they were insuperable at the time. Might still be. One broadcast company commissioning editor told me, in 1993, if I remember rightly, ‘This just can’t happen; it’s too fantastic.’

‘And Soon The Song’ – my last novel - has elements of child abuse in it, but to some extent, because it is wrapped in a classic ghost horror story, the abuse becomes apocryphal and somewhat distant from the reality. To encapsulate the reality of abuse within a genre horror story is beyond my ability as a writer, simply because the reality is far more horrific than anything my imagination could conjure. It’s real.

The new, old story attempts to deals with that reality, albeit against a crime thriller background. This background allows me to cop out of full-blown descriptions and instead use the crime thriller structure to explain the bestiality of child abuse without aiding abusers to get their rocks off on graphic word pictures. It also enables me to explore what motivates people to even contemplate inhuman acts against children and how the Establishment and the public would rather believe that this dark element of the human psyche does not exist, despite repeated evidence over many years that it does.

I don’t want anything I write to come across as some middle class, old bloke ranting against the injustices of the world and the inhumanity of man to his (or her) fellows, so my research has been careful and painstaking, as it was in the ’80s.

But I realise that, to some extent, it will. It’s almost inevitable. I have two children – both grown now – and if any abuse had happened to them, my rage towards the abusers would have been boundless and possibly uncontrollable. I think that is the normal response of any father, but I understand that ‘normal’ is difficult to pin down, so I will say I believe it to be the response of every father I know, or have ever known, in my personal life.

I am on familiar terms with the objections, because I’ve wrestled with them. The terms ‘thriller’ and ‘child abuse’ should not occupy the same page. But, if I were to write a serious book about it, I would have to take my readers to places I, personally, don’t want to take them, just for the sake of veracity. It is also true that in order to inform the maximum number of people of an evil, the task might best be done through a popular fiction genre.

And, I’m still not sure that it’s the right thing to do, even so, but I will plough ahead and see what happens. It’s down to every writer worth his or her salt to write what presents and then worry about ‘rightness’ later. You may or may not agree with me, but your opinions are always welcome.

If I finish it, then I will make a decision whether or not to publish. I will need help from my friends in the form of many beta reads. Anyone who would be prepared to brave a look at what will be a difficult read will receive my immense gratitude. Just let me know, either on here or by DM on Twitter. Please comment if you wish – this will be harder to read than my short story, ‘The 500’, which is about abortion, so please bear that in mind and if you prefer to keep away, I understand completely.

I know that all the foregoing might seem like a lot of fannying around based on the meanderings of an elderly halfwit, but that’s the way it has happened and my new WIP is the result. I can say no more, but thanks for reading.

Note: Because this started life as a screenplay it is written in the present tense. I didn’t want to lose the immediacy of the script. There will be an opening chapter on this blog soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REASONS TO BE VICIOUS – PART ONE

WinonaSavingsBankVaultMy current work in progress is no longer current.

It sits in a deep vault on the hard drive and I’ve bolted the door, for now. It had taken me around two years to write, so the decision was hard. It needed to be done. And it was better than a bonfire: metaphorical or real. Book_burning

Why? It is written as well as I could write it, has a terrific storyline and tackles an important subject with which most readers will be familiar, if not totally au fait, but it doesn’t work.

It started life as a 120 minute screenplay, but begged to be a novel, so I thought ‘why not’ and plunged in like a fool, or rather as one. But, when the screen characters developed and grew in the novel, it wandered away from its original theme and became something else entirely. Much of the difference is because my screenplay relies on visuals to spin its narrative, which need description or explanation in words when the pictures are absent, but it’s not the whole story.

Now I know I have a tendency to go ‘off message’ in my writing if I find an interesting topic and I tried to guard against it, but to no avail. What I ended up with was a fast paced thriller melded with a philosophical rant about reality (those who’ve read ‘Northman’ and ‘Song’ might recognise a marginally psychotic pattern here) and several interesting, but unnecessary characters – some of them have nothing whatsoever to do with the narrative thrust of this purported ‘thriller’.

It was an odd experience.

I could see the original story, but its dimensions had increased exponentially and part of it was occupying a different space-time continuum from that which I could observe as recognisable in terms of genre. I do have an interest in quantum mechanics, but the effect, in this instance, was not only disconcerting, but also seemed to violate all concepts of the thriller genre. I have already experienced reader complaints about mixing philosophy with horror stories/ thrillers and completely understand why any apparently didactic elements might not sit well with some. So, I’ve stuffed it away in a dark drawer, there to mature like a round of Stilton… or rot away in electronic Purgatory; I have no idea which possibility will eventually become reality, but hopefully it’s not Schrödinger’s Cat.Katze

It might be a good novel when I’ve decided what it is and edited the hell out of it, but I’m currently without an editor – one prepared to work for malt whiskey, that is – and the novel’s nature has escaped me. Which reminds me…

In the olden days, when I used to fish, I was fly-fishing on the glorious River Spey in Scotland for trout and hooked a big salmon. Salmo_salar_maleMy fishing tackle was light and not intended for salmon, but, after half an hour, with a little patience and gentleness, I’d managed to persuade the salmon to come to the bank and, lacking a suitable landing net, I was going to walk the fish along to a shingle beach and invite him to come ashore for tea, at which he would be the main course. The water next to the bank was about five feet deep and I could see him below me, twisting and flashing in the peaty water. He was fresh run, of a brilliant silver hue, and about twenty-five pounds in weight. It was a miracle that my line of seven pounds breaking strain and tiny six-foot fibreglass brown trout rod had even coped thus far. I began to walk him, leading him alongside the bank and he came at first, like a dog on a leash.

Then he stopped. Abruptly. Refused to move. I peered down into the water and he was only about a foot below the surface and looking at me. It was as if he were saying, ‘well, that was fun, but there’s a lady salmon of my acquaintance waiting a little further up the river, so…’ he turned once, flashing and, quite lazily, but before I could react, snapped the nylon leader like rotten sewing thread and was away.

The abandoned novel was a bit like that. It wasn’t ready to be caught, I couldn’t hold it and my equipment wasn’t good enough. When I come to it again I will make sure it is as perfect as can be, my gear is suitable to the task and my grip is tight.

What I’ve just written is the logical explanation for abandoning a novel that was very nearly finished.

There’s another explanation.

I’ll explain all in my next post, if this one hasn’t bored the pants off you. Tosa3

Here’s a picture of Chan, my favourite Japanese Tosa, from And Soon The Song.

Chan isn’t boring. At least, you’d better not call him that.

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When Cupid meets the Muse…

Originally posted on Mari Biella:

This cherubic little fellow has much to answer for...

This cherubic little fellow has much to answer for…

Q: I recently met a man whom I really like. It’s early days, of course, but he’s charming, intelligent, generous, and really quite romantic. Sounds ideal? There’s one teeny, tiny little problem. I think he might be a writer. He hasn’t actually admitted it as yet, but I keep finding him scribbling away in a notebook and tapping at a laptop keyboard, often at some rather inappropriate moments. Yesterday, he talked admiringly – and with a touch of envy, I suspected – about “the supreme fluidity and grace of A.M. Homes’s prose.” What should I do?

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HEARTHSTONE HALL – THE BEGINNING

ASTS 6 HIRES7 Cover2RedI first came across Hearthstone Hall in the spring of 1978. Of course, its name wasn’t Hearthstone, but it was, is, a mediaeval hall and remains in a remarkable state of preservation.

My first impression as I crossed the ancient bridge over the river and saw the building rearing against a pebbled sky, was one of solidity, mass, almost as if the Hall had sprouted from the land and, in deep underground fissures, its roots twisted and turned through infinite depths. ‘In caverns measureless to man’, as Omar Khayyám so perfectly puts it, in his Rubaiyat.

My second impression was of coldness. Not the normal coldness of an English spring, but something uncaring of my presence, brutal and arrogant. Then, as a horde of schoolchildren streamed from the massive, studded, English oak doors, the impression evaporated and it was just a pile of well-arranged stones with a turbulent history.

Hearthstone is a fine building, but it has housed the great, the good and a whole horde of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells for over a thousand years. Perhaps the emotional response I felt was not simply the coolness of stones but the spiritual detritus left by its former residents.ASTS NEW Twitter BTM

As I walked the uneven oak floors, dodging around a dozen Nikon F wielding Japanese tourists who were being told ‘no photography’ and repeatedly pretending they did not understand English, the idea for my latest novel, AND SOON THE SONG, was generated. It would be a ghost story in the classical tradition of Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James or Poe. I had thought of writing a ghost story when visiting Repton Church crypt whilst researching my first novel, NORTHMAN, and in some way I suppose that dear old Thorkild was a traditional ghost, despite being something far more evil, but he didn’t satisfy my desire to have a real ghost with a despicable history tramping the panelled corridors of an ancient English house in search of victims old and new, so Elyssia was born.

Elyssia Tilling is dead for most of the novel. She returns from the asylum in which she has been incarcerated for many years to her home, Hearthstone, as a ghost. In her madness, she has an evil agenda to repeat her unspeakable sins and it involves all those who were present at the Christmas Ball, twenty years ago. But something else drives her and it lives in Hearthstone Hall. The idea of Elyssia (or the reality) came from a painting.

As the Japanese glided noisily through to another room and silence descended, I happened to look up and to the right of an ornate cherubim-clad fireplace and there she was. Raven hair, imperious bearing and just a hint of madness in her green eyes. The painting dominated the room, but more that that; it was the room.

Sadly, I forgot to jot down the name of this grand mistress of Hearthstone. I revisited the house in the summer of 2011 and the painting had vanished. I asked one of the guides – a very knowledgeable lady of indeterminate years – what had happened to the painting of the dark-haired, green-eyed woman and she said that she had never seen a painting of a woman of that description in the twenty-eight years she had been a guide in the property. To this day and, despite extensive research, I have never found a trace of this painting, or any indication of who this woman might have been. But I remember her green eyes.

The first attempt at And Soon The Song wasn’t begun until the 1990s. It was almost twenty years until Hearthstone and Elyssia became more than a few notes written in biro on the back of a Player’s Navy Cut cigarette packet.

It refused to be written.

Every time I began it, something would take me away. The storyline was hard – it involved a taboo subject, one about which I felt deeply and I had to constantly reassess whether or not I should be writing about this subject at all. But, after a couple of years, I had a draft of sorts.

It was awful. None of the characters breathed and although I could accept this deficit in the dead, even the living were moribund.

Then I became ill. It might have been the nature of book that encouraged the illness, or it might just have been the result of my hectic lifestyle, but thoughts of The Song drifted away and were replaced with no thoughts, apart from those sufficient to get through the day. Autopilot took over for ten long years as I wrote and directed TV commercials about wood preservative or supermarkets and promos for banks, bands and earthmoving equipment manufacturers, but the earth refused to move on the fiction front and the first draft of The Song languished in a drawer with several dead moths who, like me, found it unpalatable.

When I visited Hearthstone in 2012 the disappointment of not seeing the painting galvanised me into fevered action, overriding my first instinct to leave the manuscript alone. I wrote a second draft, a third, a fourth… and so on. The book’s time appeared to have come.

Elyssia, dead these long years, now lives, as do Raoul de Courcy and his clan, Sir Marcus Tilling, Tom, Charlotte, Martha, Annabelle, Wigley the butler and the magnificent dog, Chan – a Japanese Toser of the finest ilk. This time there was no hesitation, no coyness or recalcitrance – every character had been waiting for his or her chance to strut across my stage, and strut they do, including the wonderfully evil but infinitely sad Elyssia. Her eyes continue to haunt me and I know that somewhere in the world her painting sits, perhaps in the dark, I hope in the light, where her green eyes stare out at the gawping masses with contempt… and we all pray she stays in the damned painting.

The book is not selling well. I have no idea why. Suggestions on a postcard? It could be the cover. It could be the complexity of construction, flitting through and between time periods; the storyline, dealing, as it does, with a sensitive subject, maybe the impatience of modern readers, the odd misplaced punctuation mark, or it might just be a rubbish book; I have no way of telling. My beta readers all seemed to understand and enjoy it, but some recent readers find it incomprehensible.

I won’t go to Hearthstone again, either in fiction or reality, but, I’m glad I wrote The Song, if only for the characters, most of whom I’m pleased to have known – some more than others. There remains a nagging, but minor, thought that perhaps I should have listened to my instincts and left the first draft to the moths. Or maybe let Chan chew it up.

Tosa3

*My next book does not contain ghosts. Well, not many. Out October or November (laughs and falls over clutching a whisky glass). Incidentally, I’m looking for a copy editor who is prepared to work for good Scottish whisky or whiskey, if you prefer. DM me on Twitter if you have the necessary skills and are prepared to spill blood, preferably your own.

Free chapters of AND SOON THE SONG are available to read on this blog. http://wp.me/p24Exb-av

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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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