Today was the fortnightly meeting of our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe. As usual, two weeks ago we were set a theme to which to write something: gardens/gardening or the like.

I chose to write a short story in a genre I have not tackled before. I called it:

The gardener

His speciality was potatoes. Every day he was out there, first digging deep trenches which he half filled with horse manure brought in enormous black plastic bags on his wheelbarrow. Then he shovelled the soil he had removed on top, forming long straight rows from within a foot of the back of his house to the end of his garden. It was not unusual for him to be out there digging and shovelling long after dark. Later, I understand when depended on what varieties of potatoes he was planting, he dibbed holes in those long rows, dropped in a potato then shovelled a little soil on top.

Our garden was mostly lawn but I sometimes had a brief chat with him over the fence when I was cutting it. Joe wasn’t very talkative, but not unfriendly. I did ask him about the potatoes. He told me he grew so many to get some superb ones for the village show. Evidently his potatoes always won their class.

Once or twice he gave me some unusual ones, pink and odd shapes, but really tasty.

His wife Rose was not happy about it. We often heard them arguing on the other side of the garden fence which divided our two properties. “Why can’t we have some flowers like next door?” she’d ask, “just a few outside the house.”

I’m not good with flowers,” was his surly reply.

Over the two years we had been there the arguments had become more and more acrimonious. Rose had a habit of extending her finger, emphasising each complaining sentence with a jab in Joe’s chest. The arguments became so loud that we could hear them when they continued in the house. Then they stopped. “She’s left me for a bloke who grows championship dahlias,” he told me in one of our chats over the fence. I wasn‘t surprised, she’d surely had enough of potatoes.

He must have been taken into hospital when we were out as the first I knew of it was when I saw a woman I’d never seen before looking down the potato rows. A new girlfriend I thought. “Do you like potatoes?” I asked as a way of making her acquaintance. “Not especially and I prefer to buy them at the supermarket. I suppose they’ll rot now Joe’s not around.”

What, has he left too?” I asked.

Oh, you didn’t know? He had a heart attack last week and died in hospital. I’m his sister and am just here to clear things up. Look, if you want some potatoes just come and dig some up. Take as many as you like. The side gate’s open and there’s a garden fork outside the back door which I suppose Joe used.”

I don’t mind a bit of digging and the thought of those tasty little pink potatoes had me round there the next fine day with a large bag. Sure enough, the first fork lifted a clod filled with those ugly but tasty little morsels – fur apples I think they are called.

Seeing one, long and slender covered in soil left behind I bent down to pick it up. It didn’t come up easy. There must be a big bunch of them down there I said to myself, giving it another pull. It still wouldn’t come free. Grasping it tightly between thumb and first finger of both hands and giving a mighty wrench at last it was free, with something between a squelch and a dull crack.

The detached finger, a bloody bone projecting from the rotting flesh, was silent now, but just as angry as it pointed at my small haul of potatoes.

§

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A photo of the repro Dansette in the shop window

The ‘Dansette’ in the shop window

I set out this morning with the intention of resuming work on my ‘long short story’, yesterday having been taken up largely by ‘chores’. On the two or three hundred paces from where I can park the car to my ‘early morning’ haunt, Wetherspoon, I pass a few shops and was stopped by a ‘Dansette’ in the window of one of them, straight – it seemed – from the era of my story.

USBs and flip flops (bistable switches)

Of course it was not (though you can still buy the genuine article in Leeds market – I’ve often been tempted), the disguise pulled off by “allows you to record all your vinyl to a USB stick”. A USB stick has typically millions of little electronic switches, flip flops we used to call them; I remember being proud of making just one, the size of my little finger nail, at the request of my then director of research who asked for it to be “as small as you can possibly make it”. That was less than ten years before the time of my story, when I did own a model of this portable record player.

Picture of an original Dansette

The real thing

The Dansette features in my story; in some ways it is a principal character.

Now if the offer recently from my dear friend Iulia (teacher of English, poet, writer and blogger in Bucharest) to read a draft of my story when I’ve knocked it more into shape were not enough motivation to work on it (it is), then that ‘Dansette’ should set me off.

Way back at the beginning of September our writers’ club was, as usual, given a theme to write on: ‘After four failed marriages, the world’s tallest woman …”; there was more which I won’t bother you with. The theme didn’t do anything for me so I didn’t write anything. Yesterday I had an urge to write a short story about a tall lady. It’s raw, pretty much unedited.

___________ § __________

The Girl in Block 18

Elenor, aloof yet smiling as I passed her small office at one end of the lab. I fell in love with her almost from the minute I first set foot in that section.

It was the section to which I had been posted after completing the obligatory three months training in each of the sections devoted to mechanical, electrical and glassblowing work. The first section in which I would be doing real work; its staff worked on developing applications for semiconductors, particularly radar. Even without Elenor I would have been excited by that posting.

Elenor’s office, the section secretary’s office, had windows giving a view down the lab and thus giving me a view of her tapping away on her typewriter whenever I diverted my gaze from the oscilloscope, the Avo multimeter or the soldering iron. I frequently burnt my fingers.

Her slender figure curved over the typewriter, she being four or five inches taller than my not inconsiderable five feet eleven and a half inches. She was also two years older than my seventeen years, a fact elicited from the all-male team around me. I also learned she was “cold”, having refused all invitations to have a date from each of the several quite attractive young males – mid twenties to mid thirties – in the department, all graduate physicists.

She was, I was assured, “odd” as she had never had a boyfriend, as far as anyone knew.

Several times a day she would walk down the lab to deliver some document to one of the staff members and I was quite unable to prevent my eyes following her, there and back. As she passed me, before I could lower my eyes in confusion, she would look directly into them and smile.

It was perhaps in my third week in the section I was asked to deliver a bundle of papers to her. The words tumbled out, partly gibberish as I said something about the documents then, to my amazement, I looked directly into her eyes and heard myself saying “You’re very beautiful.”

She said nothing but, as I rushed out, I just caught her smile.

It took me a week to summon courage to enter her office again, a week in which she walked past me several times a day as usual, never saying a word but always meeting my gaze with a smile.

Meanwhile I had asked some ‘disinterested’ questions of the colleagues around me and discovered she was passionate about ballet.

I became more courageous, entering that office at least a couple times a week over the coming weeks. Early on I broached the subject of ballet, saying I’d heard that she liked it and telling her of my visits to all the best known classical ballets with my grandmother. She told me she had had ballet lessons for years with the aspiration to become a ballerina; then she was told she had become too tall and, disappointed, stopped the lessons.

I was due to be in that section for six months before moving to another. For four months I cut out smoking, ate little, economised on everything possible and put as much of my weekly wage as I could in a money box.

Four months later, with what I thought was sufficient in the money box, I entered that office and, visibly trembling, I asked her if she would like go to Covent Garden with me. I was truly amazed when she immediately said she would love to.

I was awkward on the tedious train journey to London, never having been in her company for more than a few minutes. In the opera house I felt more at home though I’d never been in it before. I almost forgot about Elenor once Swan Lake got underway, until I felt her hand find mine. Her passion for the dancing and the music was transmitted by frequent tightenings of her grip. We chatted animatedly during the interval, or was it intervals, and I easily took her hand after each act. She never withdrew it.

I remember little about the meal we had in a good French restaurant close by, other than we chatted easily about almost anything; none of the awkwardness of the train trip down.

The last train back was almost deserted and we were alone in the compartment. Within minutes she was asleep with her head on my shoulder. She woke just once on the two hour journey, when I gently kissed her on the forehead. She opened her eyes, smiled, kissed me gently but firmly on the lips and was immediately asleep again until we reached our destination.

I walked her home; this time the kiss was an affectionate one on the cheek, again the smile.

Monday came and the walks up and down, my eyes following her, resumed, with occasional short visits to her office in which sometimes we had a brief chat. Always the smile.

The following week, six months up, I was assigned to another section, maybe fifteen minutes walk to Block 18 where Elenor had her office, through the jumble of huts making up the central research laboratories of one of Britain’s largest engineering companies. I never made the walk.

Sixty years later, I often think about what might have followed had I done so.

§

Ilkley Literature Festival logoLast evening our writers’ club Writing on the Wharfe was ‘performing’ in the Ilkley Literature Festival ‘Fringe’ with the title Every leaf tells a story. I had intended to read my first attempt at a ‘fairy tale’, inspired by one of the two delightful daughters of one of our members. We each were allotted 4 minutes. When I offered to stand down having ‘done the fringe’ last year, to give newer members a bit longer, that wasn’t accepted. So when my fairy tale turned out too long I thought I’d read part of it. I could not get that short enough while retaining the sense so I did, as John Cleese famously said in Monty Python, “something completely different” – a short presentation about tanka. What I did is below, followed by the full fairy story. For the second fairy tale, already written, inspired by the younger of the two sisters (who took second place in the club’s ‘Young Writer Competition’ last year), you’ll have to wait till sometime in December.

My three-and-a-half minute ‘fringe’ presentation

I sometimes write haiku; last year I read some in our fringe presentation. Less often I write tanka. Both are short Japanese poems. Tanka: tan – short; ka – poem, or song. Tanka are rather like sonnets in that both have a strict structure and in each the first part might suggest a dilemma, the second proposing a resolution. Autumn – nature – is an ideal subject for all three forms. Love is another.

In the sonnet it is the ninth line which signals this change of mood. In the tanka, the English version of which has five lines of five, seven, five, seven, seven voice sounds, or syllables, 31 in all. Ideally the first three lines should stand alone, as should the final three lines. So in the tanka it is the third line which is the pivotal line.

I had a dilemma this evening: our club membership has grown so much over the past year that each participant has only four minutes. My autumn fairy story, one of two fairy tales, inspired by one of two young ladies, sisters, in the audience this evening, is too long for today. That’s the dilemma. Solution, present a tanka and publish my first fairy story on my blog tomorrow where the first young lady can read it as she cannot hear it this evening as I originally intended.

The second story, inspired by her younger sister, I intend to read at our Christmas presentation in Ilkley Library.

Here’s the tanka prompted by my dilemma:


autumn tale written
too long for this fringe reading
fairies won’t be timed
so settle for a tanka
blog sleeps   waiting for Mia

Here’s another written specifically for this evening’s theme:


colours leached from sky
clouds grumble grey   tinted rain
caught by leaves and fruit
apples flushed red invite bites
delight swaps from eyes to tongues

 

A haiku is like the first three lines of a tanka, just 17 syllables. But you have to squeeze the same rules into just three lines. Here’s an autumn one I wrote when I noticed the leaves were firmly on the trees when they were all down at the same time last year:


autumn comes tardy
nature’s paintbox still half closed
birds gorge on berries


Fairy tale – When Dreams and Leaves Dance. Title proposed by Linna, Nelle and Helmi in Latvia

Sitting before the open door on a warm autumn day, Mia carefully traced the outlines of the three fallen leaves she had collected, flushed with the russets and yellows of early autumn.

Removing the leaves from her drawing paper, she began carefully to draw the tracery of veins, thinking of the colours in her paintbox and how she might mix them to match the beautiful colours in the leaves, some dramatic, some subtle. One leaf, with strange curly edges, was a medley of green, yellow and russet; another, rather fat with a pointed tip, was bright yellow; the third, much slimmer, was still green and white from summer though the green was flushed with yellow.

A sudden draught of wind seemed to lift the leaves but, as the draught stilled, they remained upright and two of them began slowly to pirouette, the broad bases of the stems straining down till they resembled the foot of a ballet dancer ‘en pointe’. The third leaf settled with his broad stem base firmly on the table.

Mia watched entranced as the leaves began to dance together before the curly edged one took a mighty leap to the floor, seemed to beckon to the two on the table at which they floated down like feathers to join him. Seeming to acquire two legs in place of the single stem, the three leaves ran to the open door. As they reached it they turned and, curling their pointed ends repeatedly, were clearly urging Mia to join them. She climbed down from her chair and took a couple of paces towards the door. As she moved forward the leaves appeared to grow, the curly edged one becoming quite a bit taller than her, the slim one a little shorter and the more rotund one about the same height.

Mia looked back towards her chair and realised the leaves had not grown; she had become tiny. Trembling with fright, she was ready to run back into the house and even more frightened when the fatter one appeared to speak: “Don’t be frightened; you will grow again when you go back.”

But you’re trembling as much as me,” Mia protested.

Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m always doing it when there’s a little breeze. By the way, my name’s Aspen, though some people call me Quaking Aspen because I’m often trembling. Let me introduce you to my friends; the beautiful slim one is Willow and that mighty fellow is called Oak.”

Come on,” urged Aspen. “There are many more of us who’d love to meet you.”

Pulled by Aspen on one side, Willow on the other, Mia stopped as she saw a carpet of hundreds of leaves with scores of different colours. It was here she had picked up the three leaves she had been drawing earlier. But now there were even more colours, all shades of yellow, brown, red and green.

As she watched a little breeze stirred the leaves and soon they were all upright and pirouetting just like her new found friends had done on the table.

Come on, come on, come and join us,” several of them called.

I don’t think I can do that, pirouetting like that,” Mia answered.

Of course you can,” said Oak as he wrapped himself around her and began to spin her. Faster and faster she span till, lifting one foot off the ground and lifting the other till she was on her toes, she was surprised to realise she could pirouette just like the leaves. She was spun from Oak to one of the other leaves, then another, then another, until she was quite out of breath. “Oh, that was fun,” she gasped as she sat down among the dancing leaves, who one by one sat down too.

Let’s have a story,” called one. “Yes, yes,” many answered. “Who will start?” asked one with a different shape to Mia’s new friends, with five points like half a star.

She’s a really good story teller, her name’s Maple,” said Aspen to Mia, “but everyone can tell a story. There’s usually a big argument about whose story is best.”

Mia stood up. “Look, I’d love to hear your stories but I must go back or I’ll be missed and my mum will panic. Can I come another day to listen to your stories?”

Oh please do,” the sitting leaves chorused.

You’re right,” said Aspen, you will be missed and that will never do. Come on, lets go. Oak and Willow will come back with us and no-one will know unless you tell them about us. But they won’t believe you, so that’s alright.”

But first we want to give you something to remember us by, something which will help you with your art,“ said Aspen. “Look, it’s on the ground right in front of you. It’s for you but you must keep it a secret. Even if you tell about us you must never mention what our gift can do.”

Looking down Mia saw a tiny acorn, like no acorn she had seen before. It sparkled with dozens of ever changing colours.

Go on, pick it up. It’s for you. It will always tell you how to make the colour you want but remember, you must never tell anyone it can do that. If you do, it will lose its power and become an ordinary acorn.”

Now, let’s go back. Put us on the table, climb back on your chair and nobody will know you’ve been out.”

Joining ‘hands’ the four friends danced back to the door and as they went inside sure enough, Mia grew to her former size and climbed up onto her chair as the three leaves appeared on the table and lay down just as they had been before they began to dance.

Mia, Mia wake up. You’ll fall off that chair and hurt yourself.” Mum’s voice was a little worried. “Wow, I’m not surprised you’re so tired. Those paintings of the leaves you collected are really beautiful. I don’t know how you managed to make all those colours.”

The leaves took me to the woods and showed me how they get their autumn colours. They are called Oak, Aspen and Willow. And they can dance.”

Come on, you’ve been dreaming. Did you learn the names of the leaves at school or did you look for them on internet?”

No, they told me their names. They are so clever; you know, every leaf tells a story.”

Oh well, if you say so. But your painting is really beautiful. Now, come into the kitchen, it’s teatime. You’ve been dreaming for sure.”

Mia climbed down from the chair, taking a last glance at the three beautifully coloured drawings. Had she been dreaming? Opening her hand, the tiny acorn sparkled at her …

… and she smiled.

§

I haven’t yet got a title for this story. Can anyone suggest an enticing one?

I’m not going to tell you a story here, just hopefully to wet your appetite for a post soon after the 14th October. That’s the day on which the writers’ club of which I am a member, Writing on the Wharfe, will be doing its stuff at the prestigious Ilkley Literature Festival ‘Fringe’, having been invited back after its successful debut last year.

I’m working on my first ever ‘fairy story’ for the event. Because our club has grown since last year we each have only a short ‘slot’. That’s OK for my usual haiku and short short stories but having decided on one longer fairy story I’ve been working out how to present my story in the allotted time. I’ve decided to omit the centre section, just reading the opening and the ‘denouement’, with a brief explanation at the start.

Poster for our ‘fringe’event

Motivation

I’ve been motivated to write a fairy story by two delightful young ladies who generally come to our public events. So, in fact, I’m endeavouring to write two stories, the second for presentation at a later Christmas ‘show’ in Ilkley library, again a repeat of last year, but we’re hoping to take this ‘on tour’ to at least the library in the village in which I live. That one I’d hope to post here on the day after the Ilkley library ‘show’.

Talent

Part of a display Kelly currently has in the Keighley library Showing some of her illustration style

Part of a display Kelly currently has in the Keighley library

We have a tremendous range of local talent in our club, covering many different genres, some members having been published. We also have our wonderful singer/songwriter, Emma Nabarro-Steel, who published her debut (almost) album last year. Her CD is often in my player. Another member, Kelly McCarthy-Wright, not only writes stories but is a superb illustrator, her style including illustrations ideal for children’s books.

So, look out for my first fairy story (complete version) on or about 15th October and the second early to mid December. I’ll be truly interested in your feedback on each.

The trees are just beginning to colour for autumn; the rowan berries are ready. pictured today from our sitting room window

The trees are just beginning to colour for autumn; the rowan berries are ready for the birds. Pictured today from our sitting room window

She’s done it again: Ruxandra, the wonderful leader of our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, has persuaded the organisers of the prestigious Ilkley Literature Festival ‘fringe’ to let us loose on stage again following our debut last year. Each of us will have a spot of around 5 minutes to read our contribution in a one hour programme. The overall theme will be autumn. I’ve still to write something so any ideas from you wonderful writers/bloggers out there will be gratefully received.

Most of my followers are far away from Ilkley but, just in case, we’re on at Church House, Ilkley, 7-8pm on 14 October. Entry is free.

Haiku and short story

Last year I mixed some haiku with a short story for my contribution (if you have the stomach for it you can see a video clip on a post I did following it). I’ll probably do the same again. In fact I already have a haiku which might fit the theme, though it was written as part of answering the given theme of ‘Reflection‘ for a club meeting last year. For that I experimented with several different kind of poetry – including a first attempt at writing a Shakespearean sonnet – as well as a short short story. I inflicted it on those of you following me at the time in a post.

Here’s the haiku I might use:

leaves in still puddles
reflections of lost summer
rusted     yet to fall

As many of you know, I enjoy writing short pieces with a precisely defined structure or number of words – haiku, tanka, stories of 75 and 100 words exactly. Shortly before this summer’s trip to Romania I came across 50 word stories and resolved to attempt one, or more. Now, having largely renounced anything other than my Facebook journal Dusty2Romania, and a very few blog posts, while travelling I thought it might be a way to ease myself back into so-called ‘creative writing’. I haven’t dared pick up my ‘long short story’ which, at approaching 25,000 words, was turning into a trilogy but I will, eventually.

So, here’s a bit of ‘fun’ in 50 words – precisely. 

She sat in the sun, he close to her. Their three little ones scampered below watched by the vigilant parents. A warning cry ended the carefree melee; a few seconds attentive inaction then the youngsters hurried to join the adults.

Frustration polluted the air with every twitch of Tabby’s tail.