The Healer of Kabul

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I haven’t shared one of my own stories here for a while. In the light of what is going on in Afghanistan at the moment, and our fears for the rights of women and minorities, I thought I’d share something set in Kabul. It is a bit of action / adventure I wrote for a competition and it tries to look beyond the tropes of terror and insurgency to a more hopeful future. That hope is in pretty short supply right now.

The story got me into the next round of the competition. I hope you enjoy it.

The Healer of Kabul

Hana took a deep breath and steadied her nerves. From across the room Ester gave her a thumbs up.


“This is my signature piece,” Hana said, lifting a creamy bowl decorated with vivid poppies in bloom. She remembered the instruction to smile. “Anti-tank mines have a porcelain liner to make them harder to detect.” She put the bowl down and lifted another, dull beige with a hole in the base to show the original state. “Each liner is hand-painted, with a resin insert to make it watertight.” She gestured to the side. Ester panned the tiny GoPro around to show the display. “You can use them as planters, or for decoration, maybe to serve your favorite sweets. My country has seen so much violence. The reminders of it are everywhere. I hope to take these objects and show my people we can grow beyond war to lives of peace and beauty.”


Ester tapped the GoPro to stop recording. Hana took the opportunity to shrug off her abaya. It was stifling in the tiny shop.


“Perfect,” Ester said, “I’ll splice it together with our other segments. We’ll have your first promotional video ready in no time.” She clipped the little camera around her neck and glanced at her phone. “This is going to be a real success Hana, I can feel it.”


“A success for us both, Ester. We should be partners.”


Ester laughed and reached out to touch Hana’s cheek. “That’s not allowed, my dear. Anyway, no one works for a charity to get rich.”


The door to the tiny room opened, letting the clamor of Kabul’s traffic flood into the room. Ashar popped his head in.


“Finished?” he asked. Hana nodded, trying not to smile as she watched her brother’s eyes swing to Ester, softening in adoration. He was smitten by the tall German woman, even though she was technically old enough to be their mother.


Without shifting his gaze he waved a satchel by its strap. The flap was thrown open. The shop lights glinted off the grenades stuffed inside. “Delivery,” he said. Ashar didn’t have many words in any language, but he was smart enough to use them effectively.


Ester’s eyebrows shot up. “Are those…?”


“Hand grenades,” Hana said. She snapped her fingers to get Ashar’s attention and gestured for him to keep hold of them. He swung back into his seat under the awning in front of the shop.


“Are they safe?”


“This is Kabul,” Hana said, a little surprised that Ester was rattled. The flare of her nostrils gave Hana away, Ester shook her head and laughed. The German worked for a non-profit organization that promoted local artists in some of the world’s most troubled countries. She had an office in the highly protected Green Zone, and while she had arrived in a rickshaw, her armed guards had followed in a dented Pajero and now watched from the tea shop across the road.


Ashar’s shout from outside stalled the conversation. Hana bumped her hip hard on a table corner as she hurried to see, Ester hot on her heels.


A skinny man with a scraggly beard pulled at the strap of the satchel. Ashar tried to keep hold of it. With a yank the thief snatched the satchel, still loaded with its contents, from the boy’s grasp and leapt away onto the back of a waiting motorbike.


“Hey!” Ester yelled. She grabbed Hana’s arm and ran out into the street. A rickshaw idled by the side of the road, the driver squatting beside it, dragging on a cigarette and watching with disinterest. Ester leapt in. Without thinking Hana got in beside her.


“Follow them!”


The driver shrugged and looked away.


Cursing in German, Ester hopped into the driver’s seat thumbing on the GoPro. She stabbed the throttle and the rickshaw lurched away. Hana yelped as she over-balanced, shoulders slamming into the rickshaw’s metal frame. For a few paces the barking driver kept up with them. He reached in and grabbed a handful of Ester’s light headscarf. It fluttered away as they sped off down the little side street.


The motorbike was an aged, sputtering Honda. It hadn’t got far ahead. Ester twisted the handlebars to swing the rickshaw into the stuttering traffic on the main street. Horns blared as the rickshaw tipped on two of its three wheels. Hana threw herself the other way to counterbalance it.


Hundesohn!” Ester swore at the slow-moving traffic and hawkers with wheeled carts. She pumped her palm on the horn.


A gout of diesel smoke from a brightly-colored bus hid the motorbike for a moment. The air cleared. Two men pushing a heavy wooden cart laden with cages blocked the road, stalling the motorbike. The thief and his getaway driver twisted and backed up.


“Hold on,” Ester called over her shoulder.


They careened towards the motorbike. A crash was inevitable. The world slowed. Hana looked into the dark eyes of the thief. Cold, calculating. There was a menace there. Was it a crime of opportunity, or were they targeting her? A woman running her own business in this fiercely patriarchal country. A woman bringing a message of peace with the relics from fifty years of near-constant war.


In those agonizingly slow seconds, she realized this wasn’t about theft, it was about her.


The motorbike leapt away. Ester slammed on the brakes, hurling Hana forward. Hana’s face planted between Ester’s shoulder blades. Ahead of them chickens pecked and shuffled in their cages, entirely unconcerned.


Sheisse.” Ester hauled on the handlebars, manoeuvring around the cart and back into the chase. The road cleared for a few meters. The thief looked back from his pillion seat, held out the satchel and dropped it in the road.


“Stop.” Hana grabbed Ester’s shoulder and jumped from the slowing rickshaw. Her sandal twisted away from her foot. She hopped, jumped and landed on the satchel, smothering it with her body. She counted the seconds, dimly aware of horns blaring, shouts. From somewhere a long way away – Ester’s voice.


The grenades were all meant to be safe. Dismantled, fuses and explosive material removed, then reassembled. But the thief had known her and had dropped the satchel for her to pick up. He could have added a real grenade. She couldn’t allow innocent bystanders to be harmed for a vendetta against her.


Three breaths. Four. Plus the time it took to get to the satchel. If it was an old grenade the chemical fuse could have degraded. Five, six.


“It’s OK. I think we’re safe.” Ester’s shadow fell on Hana. It was brave of her, Hana thought, to come so close. She gripped Ester’s outstretched hand and got to her feet. Hana’s hijab was awry and a crowd of onlookers had gathered, unaware of the potential for mortal peril. She glanced around. They were more interested in the tall blonde woman in jeans and boots who had been driving a rickshaw. There was a beep as Ester switched off the GoPro that still hung around her neck.


Hana slung the satchel over her shoulder. “We’d better take that rickshaw back.”


Business boomed for a while. The promotional material Ester filmed in the shop may have won Hana some international sales, but it was the jerky video of an expletive-laden chase through the streets in a rickshaw that won Hana brief renown. The “Healer of Kabul” – a slightly built, modestly dressed, hijab-wearing young woman became a social media star. Those dignitaries that ventured outside the Green Zone looking for a photo opportunity or a souvenir from the real Afghanistan asked for her by name. Hana smiled and sold them her hand grenade candles and bullet kohl bottles.


Hana’s fame was waning by the time Ester managed to arrange an exhibition of Hana’s painted porcelain in Berlin.
“It seems a terrible risk,” Hana said, as they sipped tea in her small apartment. “You can’t seriously mean to buy all those pieces yourself.”


“The gallery is threatening to pull out and the sponsors are losing interest.” Ester shook her head. “There’s a Rohingya kid in Burma who makes kites that everyone’s gushing over now. That’s just the way of the world. But I believe in what you are doing here, Hana. I want the world to see it properly. I’ll buy the inventory and underwrite the exhibition. Are the crates ready to go?”


“Ashar has been packing everything carefully.” She smiled across at her brother. He’d grown more accustomed to Ester but was still clearly besotted.


For a moment Ester stared into her tea. Lipstick marred the edge of the glass. “I have an appointment with the customs people,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”


“Ashar, see Ester to her car please, then buy us some bread for dinner.”


Hana tidied while she waited for his return, humming to herself. The fading of her fame did not bother her the way it seemed to bother Ester. Her items still sold enough to make a decent living and Hana felt happy to be independent, able to support herself and look after her brother. For a long time that had been a distant dream. In a way her independence was a greater symbol of Afghanistan’s healing than the art she made.


Ashar was late getting back. He’d probably stopped to watch the local boys play soccer. By the time he wandered home the bread would be stiff and cold. With a sigh Hana readied herself to go and find him, tying on her hijab with practiced efficiency and shrugging into her loose abaya, and checking the deep pockets for all her necessities.
She opened the front door and stopped. Ashar stood in the doorway, his pose still and unnatural. There was a sharp stink. He’d wet himself. Tears stood in his eyes


“Ashar!” she started, angry and upset. He hadn’t done this for years. Then she saw the muzzle of the gun pointed at his ribs.


“Take the boy inside, tie him up and leave him. Someone will find him eventually. It’s the woman we want.” The gunman spoke in heavy, hill tribe Pashtu. She knew those eyes. The grenade thief. Fear rooted her to the spot as a bag went over her head and rough hands tied her wrists together. She stifled her scream into a sob. They had her brother.


Hana gasped as her shins caught on something hard. Someone pushed her into a van. They didn’t travel far, she guessed no more than fifteen minutes of bumping on the uneven roads and stuttering through traffic.


The bag came off in a large spartan room. There were two men. The thief and his getaway driver. Hana’s mind whirled. Why them? Why now?


The room was well lit. Her blood went cold. One wall was adorned with an ISIS flag. She turned around. On a heavy wooden table a GoPro pointed at the flag. The thief untied her hands and gave her a shove.


“On your knees.”


She slumped down. Tears dripped on the black cloth of the abaya. The thief wound a cover over his face, leaving only those cold eyes showing. He ranted a speech to the camera. Hana vaguely registered something about the erosion of values, the disease of liberalism. She couldn’t focus, she knew what was coming. Everyone knew someone who had been lost to war or insurgency. Not third or fourth hand but direct relations, close friends.


She’d made herself a target, the symbol of a different life, the different country Afghanistan could be. She could accept her fate, but who would look after Ashar?


She blinked away tears and stared into the camera. The camera. She knew that GoPro. She’d rehearsed in front of it, the scratches on the casing were etched into her memory.


“Ester,” she said, her voice hoarse.


The ranting thief stopped.


“Ester,” she said again. Clearly this time. Her voice pitched to carry. A shadow crossed the doorway.


“We’ll have to edit that out of course.” Ester stepped into the room. She nodded to the thief who took a couple of steps away from Hana towards the door and stopped, his hand resting on his gun.


“Is this some kind of game? A publicity stunt for the exhibition?” Hana asked, her voice rising as panic gave way to incredulity. She started to get to her feet but the jerk of the muzzle sat her back down again.


“Publicity, yes. But not a game.”


“You can’t be serious. Who are these men? Are they actors?”


Ester dropped to her haunches, eyes almost level with Hana. “Deadly serious, my dear. We had a good run, you and I. But I’m cashing out now. Can you see the headlines? The Healer of Kabul, a martyr for peace. If it’s any consolation your exhibition is guaranteed to be a success.”


“You said no one ever joined a charity to get rich.”


“I won’t be. Just comfortable, without worry.” Ester reached out to touch Hana’s cheek. “I’d need several more like you to be rich.”


Hana jerked away, slipping her hands into her abaya as she did so.


“Kill her,” Ester said to the thief, stepping back.


“Wait.” Hana pulled her hands out of the abaya. In her right hand she held a grenade. In her left, she held the pin.
Ester laughed. “Really? I know all about your grenades.”


“Do you? I want to heal my country Ester. I may dream of a better, peaceful Kabul. But I live in the real one. Do you really think I go about without protection?” The thief was backing away, the driver had his back to the wall and was sidling to the door. “Your henchmen don’t seem too confident.” Hana taunted, rising slowly.


“It’s a bluff. Kill her.”


Hana gave the thief a chill smile and tossed the grenade towards the door. One breath. There was a plink as the lever released and fell away, a pop as the fuse lit. The grenade skittered across the floor stopping just outside the door. Two breaths. Hana was already diving for the table, tipping it as she fell, the GoPro sliding off beside her. Three breaths. Hana’s shoulder hit the floor as she curled and covered her ears. She heard heavy footsteps pounding.


Scheisse.”


The explosion rocked the room, ripping plaster from the walls and ceiling, filling the air with dust. The house groaned, a crash reverberated over the echoes of the blast. A billow of new dust wafted over the edge of the table.


She crawled out into a monochrome world of plaster dust. Ester’s booted foot poked out of the rubble, motionless. A messy pile of spattered blood and shredded cloth was all that was left of the thief. Hana stumbled out of the room. The explosion had torn through the wall of the hallway leaving a gaping hole to the courtyard below.


The driver had made it some way down the hall. The blast had taken him in the back. His handgun lay a little distance away. She picked it up and slipped it into the pocket of her abaya, opposite from Ester’s GoPro.


Kabul was not yet the city she dreamed it could be, and it would take her a while to walk home to her brother.

END

You can find out more about my writing here

* If you’d like to lend me a Kabul streetscene to replace the Karachi scene above get in touch

Talking to myself

A bit behind with this one.

This year I had the good fortune to take part in the Lockdown Film Festival – 45 films of isolation inspired monologues. Each in our own bubble, writers wrote, actors performed to their smartphones, and the producer Suki Singh put it all together.

You can head over to the festival home page to browse through all the successful contributions, and there are some crackers, or just jump straight to mine – Rats, performed by the excellent Dani Claydon.

Each one only lasts a minute or two. Go have a listen, come back and tell me what you think.

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And you can find out more about my writing here

Aside

Return of the Queen published on Crimson Streets

Ambrien is a warrior serving the God-Queen. With her city besieged by a relentless foe, Ambrien’s unique abilities take her away from the battle to challenge everything she believes in order to bring an end to the war.

 

You can read, and I hope enjoy, Return of the Queen as a simple fantasy story on Crimson Streets – head over there to take a look.

 

Of course, there is a bit more to it. If you’re interested…

 

Getting it right

I wrote the first draft of Return of the Queen in a bit of a rush around March 2018. The deadline for a submission call loomed and I had left things a little late. One form rejection and one personal rejection (“it’s a bit slow to develop”) later and I decided to let my beloved beta locusts loose on it. I don’t do that with all my stories; their time is precious but this one seemed worth the candle.

 

It came back littered with comments. Structure, pacing and grammar were all thoroughly examined and thoughtful suggestions given on what to improve, what to cut, what to keep. We had a debate about whether the sacred knives in the story (kindjal, from khanjar) should be an invariant noun, I decided the plural should be kindjali to help the reader while accepting the technical point on invariance. And then the fighting details – style, weaponry, armour – getting these physically plausible and to a point of consistency with the setting.

 

My beta locusts are awesome. They did all that for the pleasure of doing it and I love them. Of course, I’m still seeing things in this story that I am itching to edit.

 

The next rejection showed the benefits of all that hard work: “terrific epic fantasy feel, with terrific magic and worldbuilding” just not quite right for that anthology.

 

Finding the right home

It gathered dust for almost a year, I tinkered every now and then, but the right opportunity didn’t come up, until I came across Crimson Streets. You can see the outcome of that and the interpretation of the brilliant artist Chlo’e Camonayan on their site.

 

The bigger themes

For me, Return of the Queen is more than a bit of fantasy escapism (nothing wrong with that!). We were deep into #metoo in 2018, I was curious to know if I had a legitimate voice to add, and what my contribution might be. That culminated in “Me and Me Too. Even You” late in the year. Return of the Queen precedes the poem but is part of the same thought process. The setting is a matriarchal society, a female deity, and no backhanded Steve Trevor’s to save the day. In this case I had two questions: is it power or masculinity that corrupts? and is there a path to redemption?

 

Guilt, forgiveness and redemption are themes I orbit around, and occasionally crash into, so this will come as no surprise to regular readers.

 

Now you know what I was trying to do go and add a comment on Crimson Streets and let me know if I got close to it (or here, talk to me people). If that dimension of the story doesn’t float your boat, I hope you appreciate the design of the battle skirt, the use of short spears instead of swords, the work that went into the detail, and Chlo’e’s awesome picture.

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Hilt detail from the “Splendours of the Subcontinent” exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in Aug 2018

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Find out more about my writing here.

There is a Ruswa Fatehpuri chapbook out there too

Publication Announcement – Finding Galatea in Transcendent

Transcendent - Amazon Kindle.jpg

A little late with this one – I was travelling. I’m delighted to have my story Finding Galatea published alongside fabulous contributions in this lush (and large) anthology.

In Finding Galatea we meet Cyrus, a man with exceptional senses. He escapes the sensory overload of London to take refuge in Seville, where he meets Beatriz. She is perfect, a woman of peculiar beauty who has no scent. Their lives and love flourish.

When Beatriz’s sister Joanna goes missing Cyrus must return to London and the sordid underworld he left behind. But in searching for Joanna he risks losing the woman from beyond his imagination.

You can listen to me reading a bit from my story here

And there is an excerpt on Transmundane Press’s site here

Fans of English renaissance tragedies will be pleased to know there is also a character called Rowley.

Here’s the blurb for the anthology:

A parallel dimension exists below the surface of reality.

Its doors swing open every time we sleep, allowing us passage into the land of DREAMS, a plane rich with exotic fantasy and limitless bliss. Within this wonder world, however, lurk dark corridors and terrible creatures—some unfortunate travelers never escape the NIGHTMARES waiting in the shadows.

Many have tried bridging our worlds. Seekers and wise men have meditated for VISIONS and ingested intoxicants for HALLUCINATIONS in hopes that the veil between our realms will thin, allowing access to all the thrills, joys, and horrors beyond our senses.

TRANSCENDENT is an open gate, a gangway linking our realm to the shimmering sphere where nothing is certain and anything is possible.

Get your copy now!

Head over to the Transmundane Press site for readings, excerpts and author interviews.

 

 

Rohit Sawant has put together this lovely credits list:

Transcendent Author List Rohit Sawant.jpg

Find out more about my writing here.

The Footsteps of the Valiant

I had a tilt at the Bartleby Snopes dialogue only writing contest this year, an entirely new format for me. The rules are simple – only dialogue, no “he said”, no directions, just conversation. They keep the top five entries on the boil and reject everything else. I clung on for a few days, but inevitably got tinned.

That said I had a bit of fun with this and I hope you do to:

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Studded Door

 

The Footsteps of the Valiant

 

“Who’s there?”

“Archon? Archon, is that you?”

“It is. Child, you don’t sound like one of my regular guards.”

“No, your holiness. Far from it. I have come to save you.”

“Bless you daughter, but you are taking a terrible risk. Flee, before they find you.”

“Don’t worry; no one will be coming for a while. Your long captivity is almost over.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“The guards on this watch have been bribed. They’re all looking away.”

“‘By their own greed shall they be undone’ as it says in Acolytes Three.”

“Yes, your Holiness.”

“What is it that you are doing? All I can hear is a scratching at the door.”

“Trying to pick the lock. This one looks like a regular forbidding dungeon door with a big unsophisticated lock that a halfwit gaoler can manage, but it turns out to be surprisingly complex.”

“Well, they have had me locked up in here for a long time, I’m sad to say you are not the first devout soul with fire in your belly and righteousness in your heart to try and save me.”

“I know, there are memorial cobbles hidden throughout the city with the names of the holy martyrs.”

“Cobbles?”

“They prise one up, engrave it and replace it overnight. There’s also a threnody that is sung by everyone in attendance: “The Footsteps of the Valiant”, it’s quite a moving tune.”

“Cobbles are not lacking in humility I suppose.”

“You are a prisoner of the state Holiness. They could hardly erect statues.”

“No indeed. How are you getting along with that lock?”

“It won’t be long; the Duke had a similar one on his strong room. There’s a trick to it.”

“I see. I take it the path of righteousness has not always been the one you have chosen?”

“No your holiness I’m a thief. I don’t actually have any of that belly or heart stuff. Your followers got tired of sending each other to certain death trying to save you. They hired me. I’m a professional.”

“So what about that business with the holy martyrs and the cobbles?”

“It never hurts to empathise with the client. Especially when the client thinks they have a cause. It can get you ten, maybe fifteen basis points on the price. Bitter, hard bitten pros with no emotional intelligence have to sell their services at a discount.”

“My goodness, I had no idea it could be so complicated. I must admit I’m not sure how I feel about being rescued by someone who has not been saved.”

“Oh it’s your flock that are saving you. The money was raised by subscription. As best I can make out, you’ve had everyone from widows and orphans contributing pennies, to businessmen putting an entire year’s profits into the fund. It was very touching, but of course it doesn’t pay to get sentimental.”

“But you are the one who is doing the saving.”

“‘Judge not the sword, but the hand that wields it.’ That’s from Ruminations Six.”

“You know your scripture!”

“Good research on the client, adds another ten points to the price every time. Those surly hero guys hanging around in taverns half drunk and unshaven really don’t know what they’re doing. I have an office, and a secretary. Prospective clients get cinnamon tea and a brochure.”

“I suppose that makes me feel better about it. How is that lock coming?”

“Nearly there. Just one turn…got it. Stand back your Holiness. There’s a torch out here, and the sudden light may be painful.”

“That won’t be a problem.”

“Oh.”

“To be fair, no one else has ever got this far. We’ll have to review security arrangements.”

“Gosh. It’s rather nice in here isn’t it?”

“Well, there had to be some trade-off for being locked up all these years.”

“Your carpets are as good as the Duke’s and I happen to know that’s a third century jade vase.”

“You’re an educated woman.”

“Well, yes. But that one I stole to order for…”

“That was you? God bless you. It was originally stolen from the Church by the second Hieromancy. ‘It will profit them not the things they take unto themselves. For all shall be returned to its rightful place in time for judgement.’ Divination Twelve, in case you were wondering.”

“It seems I’ve been an agent for the Church before then. It’s good to know we’re on the same side.”

“Indeed. If you like what you see here, you should come out onto the balcony.”

“How do you have a balcony in a dungeon?”

“Come and see.”

“Oh. Oh my word.”

“It’s quite something, isn’t it?”

“I never imagined there would be a cavern inside the mountain. Where does the light come from?”

“As I understand it there are crystals in the rock that run right the way up to the surface. Or they redirect light to each other or some such. It does give the whole thing a lovely glow. And the rainbow over the waterfall is almost permanent.”

“I did wonder why you stayed here.”

“I am a prisoner, child.”

“Yes, but there are stories about how you gave sermons in two villages at the same time. I always wondered why someone who could do that would allow themselves to be locked up.”

“You believe the stories? I’m surprised.”

“I stole some records from before the dissolution of the Church. The parishes kept records of who came and went.”

“You really do your research very thoroughly.”

“Thanks, I had an intern do the actual data work.”

“And these records showed me in two parishes at the same time?”

“Yes, and it happened more than once.”

“Unfortunately it’s not a miracle or some God given power. The truth is a little more prosaic. I served four parishes as a young priest, and I had to walk from one to another. I wasn’t actually that devout, and they were all about fifteen miles apart around the Sky Lake.”

“I know, I have the records, remember?”

“Yes, but what you have to factor in is that two of the parishes were in a different diocese.”

“So?”

“I got paid by the sermon. I knew no one would cross check the records from one diocese to the other. They used to hate each other.”

“You were fiddling your attendance to get paid more.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I’m a thief, not a fraudster.”

“I always thought putting around the story that I was able to perform miracles by being in more than one place at a time was quite inspired.”

“Divine inspiration?”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I take it you aren’t coming with me then?”

“Not as such, no.”

“You can let go of my arm.”

“You see, the Duke and I have an arrangement. He needs the people to believe in something to stop them falling for heathen influences. And the firebrands have a predictable cause to rally around. It makes them easier to track.”

“You’re quite strong for an old man.”

“You see those spars and blocks in the corner?”

“Yes.”

“That’s actually exercise equipment. I also do yoga. I’m in pretty good shape for someone who hasn’t been outside in a decade.”

“Do you have to grip so tight?”

“The arrangement serves the church as well. Nothing keeps the people as devout as a live case of someone suffering for their souls. Donations have never been so high, even though the services are held in secret.”

“I imagine that saves a lot in overheads.”

“You’re very astute. Church buildings are in need of constant repair. This way the worthy lend us their houses, and I’ve cut an entire layer of management out of the structure. It’s very efficient.”

“My arm is hurting pretty badly, do you think you could let go?”

“I’m afraid not. There are very few people who know what is happening. Even the guards just pass what they think they’re feeding me through a hole in the door. My meals actually come on a dumb waiter from the palace kitchens.”

“I’m really pleased for you, but I really think I ought to get going. I only bribed one shift of guards and they’ll change soon.”

“And there’s the rub. The arrangement works because it is secret. And a secret is only a secret if no one knows it.”

“Penitents Seven?”

“Good guess. Penitents is a go to book if you’re in doubt because no one ever reads that one, but actually that is all my own.”

“It’s an awfully long way down.”

“‘He who dies to serve the faith shall live for ever.'”

“Does it matter that I’m a she?”

“Not to God. On the plus side, maybe you’ll get your own cobblestone.”

 

THE END

If you are interested in my writing take a look here

 

You May Be Shakespeare But…

“You may be Shakespeare, but get yourself a job first.”

My mother’s advice has guided and bounded my life since I first told her I wanted to write for a living at the age of twelve. The advice was born out of her own experience, the curious mix of aristocratic and working class sensibility with which she was imbued.

During my childhood we were proudly, honourably working class folk. My mother had a clerical job in a bank, and before that had worked in a factory, a green grocer’s stall and a dry cleaner’s shop. In contrast my mother was born in a palace in India, which at the time still retained some vestiges of the wealth and influence of her family’s glory days.

She watched as the diversion of wealth: the fascination with language and poetry and lifetimes spent indulging it, was retained long after the wealth had gone. She saw indolence and inaction fritter away the estates and her uncle fighting a desperate, lone rearguard action to slow the inevitable decline, while the rest of the family looked on unwilling to believe that what had taken centuries to build could be so rapidly lost.

More of decline and fall, and indeed that ancient heyday in other posts. Suffice it to say that my mother’s sentiment was borne out of watching orchards being sold off while her elders discussed Persian poetry, and her own experience of knowing what it took to secure financial stability.

I started full time employment at the age of 21, and worked until I was 40. In between my brother and I managed to convince our mother that she should retire, despite her protestations. Marriage, house, children followed in that order, and then I hit the age milestone and my elder daughter said “We only see you when you are tired.”

I’m not sure I can explain how strongly that statement affected me. As a child I would wait by the window of our terraced house and watch out for my mother coming home from work. We forced her to retire so she could enjoy the livelihood she had worked so hard to secure. Yet here, with the benefit of that security all my daughter would take away about me from her formative years was seeing a tired man at the end of the working day.

It made me realise I wanted to be more than the breadwinner, I wanted to spend time being a father, I still wanted to be a writer, I wanted to build a treehouse for my kids to play in.

I stopped work in June of that year with modest savings and no plan for how the world would work in the time to follow, other than trusting in my experience.

I took over the school run in the mornings to give my wife a break from the routine, and spend those precious chatty morning minutes with the kids. I’d frequently do the pick up as well, walking home with each daughter holding a hand and listening to the stories of their days.

I built a treehouse. It’s actually a platform on stilts because the pear tree in the garden might not be strong enough. It took weeks, I had no plans, no tutorials other than the DIYing and carpentry I had picked up over the years, and a whole load of ambition.

I wrote two books. I have given away more copies than I have sold, but I wrote them, they exist. My name is on more than just a few emails on an office server somewhere.

And things worked out, I’m back in a job, and if money is a little tighter than it was before, at least there is something to show for the time I took off.

If that is a little smug, a little not about the regret of not doing, but the pleasure of finally doing it, well I’ll say I earned it. And as the royalty cheques haven’t been rolling in, I’m glad I did it Mum’s way.

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What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Choosing the title for a book is an increasingly difficult task. In a world of marketing and focus groups and branding there is more to think about than just picking something that represents the content.  However innovative and “out there” marketing and promotion folks like to think they are, the fact is, apart from a rare outlier, they tend to drag things towards a lowest common denominator. There is a  narrow range of things that will have a universal appeal, that will call out to everyman, and bid them to buy.

Of course there is some segmentation, Sci Fi has a different lexicon of potential titles to Historical Fiction. But within the genres you see that lowest common denominator emerging (how many sci fi books have Stars in their title was a recent discussion with a book reviewer friend).   Reach back in time and the titles of classic sci fi books were just woeful. Today I don’t think “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” would pass the publishing companies’ doors. The money men would barricade it in. If only they spent as much effort on editing, rather than relying on spellcheckers, but that is a separate rant.

And yet in those halcyon days with names like a mouthful of rocks, the galaxies like grains of sand, sold. In numbers. Big numbers.

So what has changed, what has made us conservative, safe, following the herd on book titles?

It is in parts due to affluence, falling print costs, improved technology and self publishing which have all lead to an explosion in the amount of content. And it is no longer sufficient to aim for a sold out print run, with a few boxes of remainders in the attic. In fact in the age of digital printing the concept of print run is becoming obsolete. Today every writer has half a sleepy eye on the dream of film rights, or a tv mini series. We can’t trust the movie execs to see through DADoES to see Blade Runner.

But there is also the dreaded Return on Investment. The money men are all about de-risking, payback periods and net present values. Making something safe to get a small return is better for them than something bold that may fail. So titles are researched and winners are “proven” chosen based on “evidence”.

Ask what people will buy and they will tell you what they know, it is the trap of the focus group.

If you stick to what people know you narrow your range into the domain of cliches and tropes.

And here’s the rub, fans of a genre know the tropes. They can spot them in a title, and it will be a warning sign of “nothing new here” for the contents.

As a proof by counter example some of the best recent fantasy written has been by Joe Abercrombie, whose book titles are seeming non sequiturs pulled from the middle of famous quotes. And the content was fresh, challenging and hugely engaging.

Lynch’s “Lies of Locke Lamora” – tricky title, was better than his follow up “Red Seas Under Red Skies” which started to become a little predictable.

It’s the internet, two examples are incontrovertible proof. But the paradox is real enough, for the experienced reader, bold content is unlikely to hide behind a bland name (note unlikely, not impossible), and yet for the general reader, a bold title is a challenge they may shy away from. The real question is does the money win, or the art? More thoughts on art and money here.

All of which leads to me to moment of self reflection. I agonised more over the naming of my book than I did over naming my children.

There is a well established precedent that the title of a book of short stories should be taken from one of the stories, or, if they are all based on a theme, setting, or character, they reference that common element. It is not a law, but it is a precedent, which post Magna Carta has the strength of law.

That narrowed my choices to seven, as the stories cross genres, plot lines and no character is reprised.

The objective was to find something representative, memorable, and to which I could associate an image to make an attractive cover.

I discarded “Ali Baba and the Little Thief” straightaway. It was too long, and with the addition of “and Other Stories” the whole thing would become too unwieldy with too many ands.   It was a shame because I’m quite proud of the story.

I won’t take you through them all, but I narrowed down to the following, which I put to my own focus group.

coveroptions

Broadly the guys liked The Lethe Cluster, the girls liked Image. The clincher was that only two of the stories are Sci Fi, but Lethe would only invite a sci fi readership.

Even without a marketing team or sales experts I fell into the same trap as above. Lethe is the centrepiece, but it would be a challenge for a broad readership to pick the book, so I went with the title that has more general appeal, but is bland.

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Mistake? You decide.

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