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We Need More of These!

A terrific idea, contributing to the solution of two (or three) problems: dog poo pollution, global warming and lighting up a beauty spot!

Now all we need is a way of capturing cow’s burps. Maybe Brian Harper can address that one – their are plenty of cows in Hereford and Worcester for him to experiment on (not that I’m advocating experimenting on animals in the usual sense, you understand.)

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Getting to Know Your Characters

Earlier this week Stevie Turner posted a piece about character development. I commented on the piece, saying that I sometimes place my characters in difficult situations in order to see how they respond. Often these situations will be tangential to the actual work in progress. I’m posting here an example of that in which I explored aspects of the relationship between my main character in the novel Transgression and his partner through the partner’s eyes. I might add that it also impinges upon the recent discussion here about diversity in fiction because my characters are gay and I am not.

Egg on my Face

There are times when being alone is the most pleasant of things. And I shall always be grateful that there are still places where it is possible to be alone. That’s what I was thinking as I strode along the sand this morning. The tide was out and I could just about hear the sound of the waves coming from my right. On my left a line of dunes concealed the coast road. Somewhere above the dunes I could hear the song of a skylark as it soared invisibly into the clouds.

I had been walking for some twenty minutes when I came to the bank of the river. Here I became aware that the dunes had protected me from the wind which now declared its hand by whipping a fine dry powder in soft clouds close to the ground to highlight the ripples in the hard wet surface of the sand.

A swallow swooped low, skimming the ground in front of me as it looped around my legs several times. I had never seen such behaviour before and wondered where its nest could be, so far from human habitation. As I walked, sand flies skittered away and I concluded that the swallow found in them a ready source of food.

Vinny bounded ahead as soon as I released the lead. I’m not sure if Van Gough ever painted a dog, but if he had it would have looked just like Vinny, all lines and wrinkles around his face and fine golden curls under his belly. Seeing him in the pound, Roger and I both recognised it at once and immediately christened him Vincent, which we soon shortened to Vinny. That syncronicity of thought is what makes us so good together most of the time, the knowledge of it adding to the distress I feel at the way things have turned out between us in the past few weeks. This holiday is supposed to help us over it so that we can continue our lives together as always.

That’s why I wanted to be alone this morning; why I offered to take Vinny for his exercise, leaving Roger to prepare our breakfast, a task I usually perform. I needed space to think about recent events, and work out a way back from the frustrations that had begun to appear since he retired. The truth is the poor man misses work. We are not used to being together in the house on a daily basis. At first retirement had seemed like a long holiday. But there came a time when all the jobs that needed doing about the house and garden were done, and there was nothing left to fill his days.

Neither of us feels old enough yet to spend hours watching day time TV. I, always having been the one who keeps the house clean and tidy, can keep myself busy dusting, hoovering and washing and ironing our clothes. Roger has taken on some of that, and claims he enjoys it, although I suspect he says so only to appease me. As a nurse, I am in the fortunate position of being able, even after retirement, to take on the occasional shift filling in for absentees from the regular staff. It keeps me in touch with former colleagues and gives me something to do outside the home still.

I think that Roger needs something like that. I thought perhaps he might have been tempted to write a novel but that did not appeal. Too used to dealing with facts in his job as a journalist he claims. Making things up is not his cup of tea, not when real life is so much more interesting, or so he says. Anyway, it means that our relationship is going through a torrid time just now, each of us sniping at the other about the smallest things. Last night it was about the choice of TV programme: he decided he wanted to watch football. I was all for Master Chef, a programme we both like, both of us being enthusiastic cooks.

“We never watch football,” I pointed out. “Why the sudden interest?”

“I just fancied a change. I’m getting a bit tired of Greg and John and their staged debates about which contestant is going to be eliminated, when it is always obvious which of them can’t boil an egg.”

“Stop exaggerating,” I said. “You know it’s always between two who are equally incompetent. Anyway, it’s the insights into the workings of professional kitchens that makes the programme interesting. You always said that; or were you just saying it to please me?”

“I bet that’s staged, too. A star-rated chef would never let a bunch of amateurs loose in his kitchen like that. They are only in it for the publicity.”

“Oh go on then! Watch your football. You’re obviously in one of your stews.”

And that’s what we did. Sat there stiffly, neither of us really watching the game – I couldn’t even tell you who was playing whom – both of us in a bit of a sulk, wondering what had soured our relationship.

By the time the match was over we had both cooled down and we laughed at our stupidity. But I layed awake for ages worrying about where we will be if this carries on much longer. Things should be easier for us now that public opinion is generally less hostile to relationships like ours. I have seen young gays walking hand in hand on the street, something we still wouldn’t dare to do. But it’s reassuring to know we could if we wished. It’s all so much different from the days when we had to hide our sexuality or face the jeers and sneers of a society conditioned to believe we were a threat to them and their children.

In school my name provided the bullies with an easy epithet to add to the everyday ones of “poof” and “queer”. The inititials C.C. – for Conrad Clarkson – all too easily became “sissy”. Back then “Connie” was equally a name I abhored because it almost always carried the same connotation of contempt, as though I was in some way a lesser being. Now it is spoken with affection by most of those who know me and I am comfortable with it. Perhaps being comfortable is part of our problem, mine and Roger’s: we’ve been together for so many years now and been through so much together.

When we first met it was at the height of the AIDS crisis. That gave the homaphobes another stick with which to beat us. The Gay Plague it was called. I lost so many friends then, between the straight ones that were scared to be near me, and the gay friends who contracted the disease and died a lingering death. Roger was my rock back then, and I can’t imagine what would become of me if we were to part now.

Anyway, to cut a long story short so to speak – not boring you am I? – I needn’t have worried. When we got back to the holiday cottage Roger was full of excitement. Vinny sensed it and that’s how I got scrambled egg all over my face and everything – in my hair, down my shirt front. I was a right mess, I can tell you. Roger came to the door to greet us carrying the bowl in which he was mixing eggs and milk for our breakfast. Vinny, with that sixth sense dogs have, must have felt his excitement and bounded up, sending the bowl flying out of Roger’s hands and straight into my face. The egg everywhere wasn’t the worst of it. The edge of the bowl caught the bridge of my nose and left a nasty bruise. Whilst we were chastising poor Vinny and trying to clear up the mess the toast burned and set off the smoke alarm. For a while it was like something out of Brian Rix but without the double entendres.

When it was all over and we finally got to talk about something else, Roger explained that Madge Morris – you know, the woman that plays the part of landlady at the Red Hart pub in the eponimous soap – she comes from the same town as Roger. Well, she’s only asked him to help her write her autobiography. So now he has something to keep him occupied and we are going to be OK. I am so happy for him.

Surviving the Ice

When I wrote this story a few months ago I had in mind the circumstances of Scott’s last expedition to the South Pole and Mallory’s last expedition to Everest, both of which I’d read about recently. I originally called it simply ‘Cold’, but a blog post needs something more eye-catching. It’s quite short and contains scenes some readers might find distressing.

Cold

“I’m cold Grandad, can we go in now?”

I’m tempted to make a comment about how spoiled some children are today, compared to my childhood, but I bite my tongue. She is only six, after all. And I have to admit I’m ready for a coffee, liberally laced with Whiskey, accompanied by one of my daughter-in-law’s delicious scones. We’ve been snow balling and I’m starting to feel the pain from the chilblains in the toes my brain refuses to admit were removed a half century ago.

“Come on, then,” I say. “I’ll race you!”

She giggles. My racing days are long past and I need her pushing to help me propel the wheelchair up the icy hill. It’s electric motor is powerful enough, but on this surface wheel spin is always a risk. As we climb slowly towards the house my mind drifts back to that terrible final journey. My wheelchair is transformed into a sled drawn by huskies. My face is lashed by searing winds that even the deep fur hood of the Parka cannot completely protect against. Behind me, stretching back for miles, a trail of empty tins. If I am to survive I’ll need to start eating the dogs tonight.

The expedition had gone well enough to begin with. We’d reached the pole in record time. It was two days into the return leg that the storm hit. We hunkered down in our tents as the blizzard raged. When we finally crawled out, after three days and nights of frozen hell, it was to find the landscape transformed. We stared in horror. Not one of us dared to utter the thought that was on all our minds. The caches of food we’d left at intervals along our route would be buried. We had little chance of finding them. We couldn’t even be certain which direction to take.

The decision to split into two teams had been arrived at after a long and often heated argument. Tom’s team never made it. Their bodies were found just a few years ago, buried in the ice a hundred miles off the course that could have taken them to the anchorage; the course that I took with James and Peter.

I can only imagine what befell them. Did they suffer any more than us? At least they had the consolation of dying together. Neither of them had to complete the journey alone. After James was pulled into the crevasse trying to rescue Peter, I was on my own. I carried the only hope of reaching the anchorage and telling the story of our success and the terrible events that followed.

I was alone with those searing winds and the tins of sardines and bully beef that quickly became empty tins. Part of our planning had included the possibility of eating the dogs when supplies ran out. After the loss of James and Peter I thought I’d to be able to make it without having to resort to such extreme lengths. But the dogs needed food, too, if they were to perform their task.

Some people ask me how I chose which one to sacrifice. It’s a question I refuse to answer. Others want to know if we explorers become attached to the animals; the horses, the mules and, yes, the dogs, we rely on to take us to the furthest ends of the Earth.

I wonder why they feel the need to ask. Have they never owned an animal themselves? If they have they will know that animals have personalities. They become attached to us. To a dog we are part of the team. They trust us implicitly. Were we to be attacked they would defend us. Everyone who has ever walked a dog and met with another knows this.

Suffice to say it was an impossible choice, but one I had to make. Without it I would not be here. Minus hands and feet, of course; taken by those ancient enemies of polar explorers, frost bite and gangrene. But here, able to enjoy the company of my delightful grand daughter on this cold but bright winter’s day.

B is for Bruce: #atozchallenge

Not the Scottish king of that name, nor his brother who was responsible for a disastrous invasion of Ireland in the 14th Century. The Bruce I am thinking about was a family pet when I was a child. A Welsh Collie, he could have been a sheepdog. In the absence of the appropriate training he was simply an enthusiastic chaser of tennis balls and sticks.

I loved him as only a small boy can love a dog. We’d play together for hours in the small meadows that surrounded the stone cottage we inhabited back then. Then I went away to boarding school and Bruce and I were reacquainted only at school holidays. Until the summer of 1956.

My mother had taken up with a new man. He had several sources of income in addition to his full-time job. He kept bees, mended and maintained hedges and he used a small wire-haired terrier to catch rabbits. He purchased a house for us and the move was planned for the end of the summer holidays. On the morning of the the day scheduled for the move, Mum suggested I take a walk up the hill to a farm where the young owner provided the nearest we had to a barber in the district.

“Take Bruce with you and ask Les to put him down,” were the words she added. There was no room in the new house for two dogs. Bruce was old now and the terrier was a working dog so took priority.

I found the farmer working in his garden. He agreed to cut my hair. We discussed my life at boarding school and the house move taking place that day. I say ‘we discussed’. In truth, Les asked questions and I gave monosyllabic responses, trying desperately not to reveal the emotion I felt at the question I was supposed to ask of him.

Eventually I got the words out. Les reacted with horror and refused.

Back home, Mum said little in regard to this set back to her plan. Alternative arrangements would have to be made. By the time I came home for the Christmas holiday Bruce was just a memory.

My novel ‘Summer Day’ draws on this experience in describing the events that follow when a boy tries to stop his father shooting an old dog.

Did you have a favourite pet that died when you were a child? How did you feel about it? Have you ever used the experience in your writing?