A lot of what we read (and write) is description of what the characters see. We call it ‘setting the scene’ or ‘backdrop to the story’. The other senses are often overlooked or not used in the best way to promote our understanding of the characters.
In the next few posts I will be looking at how we can incorporate the other senses to tell us more.
Today we will look at HEARING.
‘As Alison came in from the garden she heard music playing. The radio was plugged into the socket nearest to the kitchen door. Its wire stretched across the hall. Balanced on the bottom step of the stairs to the attic, it sent waves of 1960 into the air and up the narrow staircase.
‘Gold.’ She shook her head. How could her sister, just two years older than herself, have such an ancient taste in music?’
We now know we have two sisters, quite close in age but with very different taste in music.
We might conclude that Alison is the more cautious as she notices the wire across the hall, whilst her sister is oblivious to the trip-hazard.
Might we question what the elder sister is doing in the attic? She is obviously planning to be there for some time as she has organised background music.
Are we looking at an old house, possibly with a separate staircase leading from the kitchen to servants’ quarters in the attic?
Our attention is caught.
Will Alison change the station to the type of music she prefers?
Will she climb the stairs to join her sister?
Is there a link between the era of the music and the trip to the attic?
Will she be worried by her sister’s preoccupation with the past?
So much of the story may evolve to explain a sound that might just have been written as ‘music was playing’.
Look for opportunities to sow these seeds through the senses.
Next time we will take a look at the often evocative sense of smell.
As my novel takes shape (slowly), I am still enjoying ‘meeting’ new characters. This is perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of writing. It feels like making a new friend who will accompany you on a journey. Of course, this may be a short journey with minor characters but some of the more central figures may be joining you for the rest of the story; giving you chance to get to know them well. Is she the sort of person you would trust with your password, is he the sort of person you would trust with your daughter?
With every written word you are inviting the reader to come along on this journey so you must keep them safe too. You don’t want them to be disappointed when a character does something that doesn’t seem likely, unless that’s a deliberate ploy to shock them.
They, too, will feel for the characters and try to understand what makes them ‘tick’. That makes it vitally important that you know. Why is that character so loud and bossy. Is he just a bully or is he covering up some insecurity? Is she really just very shy or is she hiding some secret behind that coy expression?
The last character I introduced was an ex-wife. We didn’t know her when she was married but we have heard the husband’s side of the story. We meet her as she sits brushing her hair at the mirror and reflecting on where life is taking her. Was she really the victim of an unfaithful husband or the villain who had got what she deserved?
Now I have another newcomer in which to invest some thought. She is young and pretty and I might give her freckles but don’t get too fond of her because, sadly, she won’t be with us for long as she’s heading towards an early death in a car crash that will have repercussions many years down the road for a number of the central characters.
I will share with you a few more musings as the shape of this work comes into focus and hopefully inspire you to start thinking how you could build a character of your own and enjoy getting to know them.
As we head out of lockdown and start to plan summer outings I am sitting out these last (hopefully) weeks by reading the few remaining books that I stockpiled at the beginning of our enforced stay-at-home.
This week I have finally managed to read the last of Eva Jordan’s trilogy. I had read the first two books, 183 Times a Year andAll the colours in betweenwhen they first came out but it was easy to pick up the story as each book can be read as a stand-alone story.
Meeting the Lemalf family again was like meeting up with old friends; the characters so life-like that I wanted to ask all the usual catch-up questions.
I wanted to know how mum and step-mum, Lizzie, was coping with her grown-up children. Does it really get easier as they get older, or maybe harder?
How had the dimensions of this enchantingly dysfunctional family changed?
This third book, Time will Tell, gives us the answers but raises more questions as we visit them in the quiet fenland market town that has been their home for the series.
Earlier mysteries are revisited and we come to understand how the hidden past of an older generation are still impacting on Lizzie and her blended family.
For the first time we join Lizzie as she explores the less familiar world of 1960s London where the Krays were not the only villains lurking in the shadows.
How did such unsavoury characters from the past come to be instrumental in the functioning of a modern fenland family?
Eva Jordan leads us through the latest developments with her usual mix of humour and insight.
Highly recommended for these last days at home, or to pack as you head off on holiday.
This book and all Eva’s books are available on Amazon.
As we continue in lockdown and feel even more isolated by the snow that has recently marooned us indoors, it feels like a good time to remember past holidays when the sun shone and we enjoyed the freedom of travel:
Stop the bus – I want to get off
It was the 1970s when my eldest daughter was still a toddler. I was a single parent and dreams of a holiday looked doomed to stay just that – unaffordable dreams. Then I met Glenda at the gate of nursery.
She was a single parent too. She had two boys, both under five – and I thought my life was hard.
We struck up a conversation and a friendship. I quickly realised that she was much more optimistic than me. I saw obstacles and she saw opportunities. I saw holiday brochures and cringed. She bought a tent.
Caught up in her enthusiasm, I was talked into camping. After all, why shouldn’t two perfectly sane ladies be able to enjoy a week under canvas with three wild animals, oops, sorry, three delightful under-fives.
No reason at all so I bought a tent too.
I bought a few holiday essentials for my daughter; tee shirts, shorts and canvas beach shoes. Then I treated myself to a pair of snazzy striped canvas shoes; blue and white. When I showed them to Glenda she just burst out laughing, great minds and all that, she had bought an identical pair.
She laughed even more when she saw my solution to that particular problem; not wanting us to get them mixed up I had put my initials in mine. That seemed logical to me and I didn’t see what was so funny and she wouldn’t tell me.
I didn’t get the joke until we took them off to paddle and there they were, side by side at the edge of our towels – her pair of size nines and my dainty size fours.
The wait for the end of term had been a long time coming and I was afraid the weather might break before we went but, finally, it was the day of departure and the sun still shone on us as we walked to the bus station. Isn’t it amazing how much luggage will fit into two buggies?
A tent, two tightly rolled sleeping bags, changes of summer clothes, woolly jumpers and wellingtons just in case, and a toddler balanced on top to secure the load.
We were off to Skegness and the kids started their rendition of ‘Can we go to the fair?’ as soon as they saw the Butlin’s camp.
We had not foreseen this problem as we didn’t know that the bus dropped off and picked up passengers there. We had budgeted for a Butlin’s day ticket so they could enjoy the thrill of the rides without actually staying there. We were camping a mile further on, at a much less exciting venue.
Our entertainment had to be self-made; beach games, sand castles, picnics, chips on a bench for supper.
Every morning the cry went up from one or another shrill little voice, ‘Is it today we can go to the fair?’
We had booked it for the last day of the holiday to savour the anticipation but each day the call became more plaintive.
On Monday we patiently explained the character building benefits of delayed gratification. On Tuesday we just said ‘You’ll have to wait.’ Wednesday was dismissed with a curt, ‘Just wait, will you?’
By Thursday it was a frazzled ‘I am sick of telling you to wait…’
It was Friday before Glenda finally resorted to the threat, ‘If you mention fair again, you won’t be going.’
Saturday dawned bright and sunny. We had all slept well and we hadn’t heard the word ‘fair’ for nearly twenty-four hours.
I think the kids thought the wait was worthwhile as they didn’t even complain on the way. With the buggies free of the luggage, they were able to walk a bit and ride a bit.
They made full use of the ticket, trying everything at least once. On the way back they were contentedly quiet and we knew we had scored a success.
Next day we packed, loaded the buggies and trotted to the bus stop for the latest bus that would take us home. What good parents we were, and what lovely children. They were still talking about what a wonderful time they’d had. When they asked if they could all sit together on the long bench seat at the top of the stairs, we were happy to leave them there and made our way to the front of the top deck.
The bus stopped again at Butlin’s and both decks filled up. We were sitting right next to the fair. I’m sure there was a little boy about to burst but we were unaware of this volcano of excitement until he could finally contain the words no longer.
Then the little voice squeaked out over the heads of twenty or so passengers: ‘Mum, you know that word beginning with F that we’re not allowed to say…’
I know it wasn’t my daughter because she couldn’t spell but, none the less, Stop the bus – I want to get off.
Wishing everyone a happy new year seems a little ironical this month as we head towards the threat of tighter restrictions, so perhaps a wish for a productive new year would be more appropriate.
During the coming months I will try to put forward some ideas to make us all feel more positive about our achievements, however small they might appear.
As writers we often have to wait patiently for recognition of the merit of what we have produced.
That’s one of the advantages of belonging to a writing group such as ours. You know that feeling: it’s one in the morning and you have just finished the last thousand words of your masterpiece or put the final twist at the end of your latest short story. But what now?
Family don’t always share your enthusiasm, (especially if they have just got to sleep or have an early start in the morning).
Friends can sometimes muster a word of congratulations but sometimes is not always right now.
So, who’s likely to be burning the midnight oil? Who is likely to share and understand your euphoria? Who has experience moments like this?
Of course, it’s your fellow writers.
They know the frustration of trying to find a receptive audience for your new baby and the long waits for shortlisting. They have probably known the angst of demands for rewrites and rejection letters bouncing through the letter box.
So, if you are writing or planning to write or even just trundling through lockdown with the seed of an idea fighting to surface, do seek out other like-minded people. Even if you can’t meet in person at the moment, it’s good to know someone supportive is there at the end of a phone line.
Must go now. I need to share the news that I’ve written a blog post before midnight.
Next month… I will be looking at how we plan (or don’t plan) our writing time.
Just an afterthought if you want a challenge:
We try not to pad out our writing by adding unnecessary words but those who might know better do not always conform to this idea. Perhaps you can find an example?
This one was on BBC Radio 4 this morning:
It was only a very short meeting with Dominic Cummings, ten minutes in length.
Might we have imagined that it was ten minutes in width or ten minutes in height?
As we continue to be thwarted in our efforts to meet – we almost made it this week, planning to book a room for the first face-to-face meeting since March before the rule-of-six overtook us – we are trying to keep our spirits up and our brains engaged. We don’t want the ink to dry up in the ink-well or our quills to gather dust so we are setting challenges to follow at home and then share our findings online.
This month’s challenge is to find something that someone didn’t mean to say – and it’s surprising how often that happens. I have found three this week which escaped the eye of an editor:
The vacuum cleaner is fixed. The filter needed cleaning badly.
They watched as the boats went through the lock and enjoyed a picnic on the benches.
Police searched a property where the family lived at the weekend.
The idea is that if we, as writers, can spot the errors of others, we are more likely to pick up our own bloomers, so it’s READ, REREAD, READ ALOUD, READ TO OTHERS, ALLOW OTHERS TO READ OUR WORK.
The theory will now be tested.
Next month we may have a collection of bloomers to share with you – and hopefully, they won’t all be ours.
I have spent the last two days researching for my novel. Sometimes research can be a time-consuming chore but I think I have found the answer. Set your characters in an interesting location and then you have an excuse to visit. Now we are allowed to travel again, (following any recommendations, of course,) we can start to explore again.
So, to get the feel of the waterways, where one of the characters in my novel lives on a boat, I took a trip up the canal.
My journey started at Gayton, on the Northampton Arm, where I was lucky enough to watch a narrow beam boat being lifted out for blacking. In the company of boating friends I was able to ask lots of questions and learn a few technical terms.
I took my camera and notebook and hitched a lift with a boaty friend as far as Bugbrooke on the Grand Union Canal.
This is only four miles from the junction but it was a glimpse of life aboard: the slower pace, the closeness to nature,
and an interesting look back to the time when the waterways played an important role in transporting goods as industry grew.
This picture shows the cross-over bridge where horses would climb the bridge to cross the canal when changing to the tow path on the other side.
My writing Group, the Whittlesey Wordsmiths, continue to meet monthly, courtesy of Zoom and are now working on a collection of stories with each member writing a chapter, then handing over to someone else to write the next chapter. This has led to some interesting twists as everyone takes up the story and adds their own contribution. The stories include Ghosts, Sewers, reinvented Nursery Rhymes and many other fascinating themes. August should see the completion of this project.
AND EVEN MORE EXCITING… group member PHILIP CUMBERLAND has used lockdown time productively, completing his first book, ‘Killing Time in Cambridge’. This is an epic novel set in Cambridge so I’m sure the background will be familiar to most of you.
Luckily Philip had done most of his research, involving many trips to Cambridge, before travel became restricted. We are now waiting for him to do the final editing before we can announce a publication date. Hold your breath. I will keep you updated. Here is a short taster.
Whilst eating his breakfast, Arnold thought back to an incident that occurred earlier that year, during the dark winter months.
After a few minutes thought, he had it firmly in his mind: recalling events as if it were a video playing out before him – not just as an observer, but as an actor in the scene.
It had been dark when he’d slid out of bed. Whether he was woken by the urge to empty his bladder, habit, or an inbuilt alarm he was never sure, but he had always been an early riser.
He had pulled the dressing gown around his naked torso and tied the belt. It was tighter now than when his wife had first given it to him, a forgotten number of years ago. It had probably shrunk in the wash. She had been dead now five – or was it six years? He needed a new one, certainly a larger one, but keeping it was keeping something of her, no matter how illogical or tenuous the connection.
Returning from the bathroom, he had pulled the edge of the bedroom curtain aside and looked out of the window of his flat onto a frosty King Street below, recalling frosted windows of his childhood with thick ice on the inside and cold lino under bare feet.
A cuppa is required, he’d thought, making his way to the small kitchen. Returning a few minutes later with a mug of hot strong tea, he looked again through the window. A few people were making an unenthusiastic journey to work on foot muffled against the cold in thick coats, hats, gloves and scarves. A solitary student cycled gingerly down the icy road, a college scarf flapping about him.
After returning to the kitchen for a session with the toaster, he had returned to the window, the curtains now pulled further open, a plate of hot buttered toast in one hand. He had demolished half a slice when movement in the street below caught his attention; two young men were attacking a third. He grabbed his trousers. Stepping clumsily into them, he fastened them at his waist then carefully, despite his haste, zipped them up. Zipping the fly when not wearing underpants can be a painful experience for the unwary. He’d stepped into his shoes, shuffling further into them as he ran. Bugger it was cold.
He stumbled down the stairs, ran into the street and reached the fracas.
One man was holding the victim whilst the other thumped him in the face and stomach, so engrossed in their assault that they didn’t see Arnold approach. He grabbed the thumper by the ear and twisted it viciously then, as the man turned, he hit him square on the jaw, knocking him out cold.
The other assailant released the victim, undecided whether to run or fight. Too late, he aimed a punch at Arnold who retaliated with a swift kick in the groin that doubled him up and stopped all thought.
Arnold had turned to the victim. “Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
“Have you got a mobile phone?”
“Right, dial this number.” Arnold dictated a number.
He turned to the two on the floor, one in the foetal position, the other showing signs of regaining consciousness.
“You are both under arrest for assault. You do not have to say anything…”
Their victim handed Arnold the phone. “It’s ringing,” he said weakly, then sat down on the frosty path.
The desk sergeant had answered the call.
“Chief inspector Lane here. Can you send a car to Kings Street and an ambulance? There has been an assault and I have arrested two assailants. For Christ’s sake hurry; I am bloody freezing.”
The car had turned up about ten seconds after the ambulance. The victim was taken in the ambulance, the two villains in the car. Arnold told the two constables he would sort out the paperwork when he reported for duty.
He was about to return to his flat when he saw something in the gutter on its edge against the kerb: a tiny plastic box. It turned out to contain an SD card – familiar now, but unknown to him at the time. He had picked up the box and slid it into the pocket of his dressing-gown to be inspected later.
Breaking from his reverie, Arnold wondered what on earth he had done with it.
He remembered he had gone into Marks and Spencer that same day and treated himself to a new, thicker dressing gown. He had nearly bought himself a pair of slippers too but resisted that temptation. He hadn’t thrown away his old dressing gown: the attachment to his late wife stopped him from doing so.
Presumably, the plastic box and its contents were still in the pocket of his old dressing gown. He wondered how he could have forgotten the box and then remembered the armed bank robbery.
The news had come in as he returned to Parkside later that day, after his lunch and shopping expedition. He had very nearly lost his new dressing gown in the confused response.
Commandeering a pillion seat on a motorcycle – the police driver nearly threw a fit at Arnold’s lack of crash helmet – they had made their way to the bank.
It worked; they reached Cherry Hinton before the squad cars. The getaway driver, seeing the police motorcycle, bravely drove off, abandoning his colleagues to their fate. Arnold sent the motorcycle driver after the getaway car and looked around for something to use as a weapon.
There is never any shortage of bicycles in Cambridge. Arnold found one leaning against the wall of the bank although chained, the padlocked chain immobilised the back wheel against the frame, without securing it to the building. He had stood close to the doorway, gripping the bicycle by the back wheel. As the first man came through the door, holding a shotgun, Arnold swung the bike, knocking the shotgun barrel into the man’s face causing him to pull the trigger. The gun discharged into the air, the second man tripped over the first and both fell into a heap at the bottom of the stone steps. Arnold threw the bike down on top of them, picked up the shotgun and covered the two men with it.
“You two you are nicked. Do not move.”
At that moment two squad cars skidded to a halt outside the bank, sirens blaring and blue lights flashing. A number of visibly shaken bank staff and customers appeared at the Bank’s door. Assured that there were no other robbers on the premises, Arnold asked them to remain inside. Adrenaline had kept the cold at bay on the back of the motorcycle and during the action but, as the robbers were led away, Arnold became aware of the chill of the day.
It was dark and frosty again when he returned to Parkside. He’d decided to call it a day and remembered his new dressing gown, eventually tracking it down in lost property. He slithered home on the icy paths. Once there, he had folded up the old dressing gown and placed it in the bottom of his wardrobe, without giving any further thought to the small plastic box.
He wondered if it was still there.
It was amazing how much clutter you collect, he mused as he removed books, DVDs and a couple of new unopened shirts before finding his old dressing gown. The small plastic box was in the left-hand pocket. Arnold held up the dressing gown. Definitely past its best he thought, viewing the threadbare collar and frayed cuffs, but he refolded it and returned it to the wardrobe. He still could not bear to part with it.
After replacing the other items in the wardrobe, he turned his attention to the plastic box and its contents.
He turned the SD card over in his fingers. It had a maker’s name and 64 GB on it. There was no other marking on card or box. It could be a new card, he thought.
His tea was now cold. He made a fresh cup and sat down to drink it whilst thinking. Abruptly he rose again, carrying his tea to the bathroom.
Eight o’clock saw him at his desk, Marvin open in front of him open and switched on; a cup of coffee to one side. The screen lit up with a message.
“Good morning Inspector Lane, you have an SD card you want me to look at; place it in the slot.”
Arnold did as instructed and waited.
“Not something I can make sense of I am afraid; the code is unknown to me.”
As text filled the screen, Arnold thought back to his meeting with Sylvia Miller the previous day, and her description of the time machine.
Marvin typed, “Could be, we really need those passwords.”
Arnold thought some more. Might it have some connection with the time machine?
The words appeared on the screen.
“I don’t know; I only store and process data. I receive some of that data by way of thoughts; otherwise it comes to me electronically through computer networks and the internet. If I don’t have access to that information, I can’t process it. There is information on the card which can only be accessed with the right passwords; until we have them, I can’t unlock it.”
Trying a different tack, Arnold thought about the disappearance of William Miller. He ran the information through his mind, hoping that Marvin could offer some insight.
Marvin responded. “It could involve a time machine, yes. I understand your thinking, but we need more information. Here is Sergeant Drew with your coffee, Good morning Sergeant Drew.”
Roger put the coffee on the corner of Arnold’s desk next to the earlier mug, now empty. He glanced at the screen and stood sipping his tea.
Arnold looked up at him.
“Thanks, Roger. Do you remember the armed bank robbery in Cherry Hinton earlier this year?”
“The one with the weaponised bicycle?”
“That’s the one. Earlier that day I arrested two lads who were beating the living daylights out of another in Kings Street. Could you find out who the victim was? How he was connected to the two who were beating him up?”
Roger picked up his tea and walked to his desk. Arnold turned back to his notebook looking for another line of enquiry. Drawing a blank on that front, he checked through messages on post-it notes stuck to his office computer screen, none particularly urgent.
Just as Arnold reached reluctantly for the expenses sheets that had magically multiplied since he last looked, Roger returned.
“My word, Roger, that was quick.”
“The two yobbos are known to us with plenty of previous; the victim though may be of interest.”
“One Justin Black, employed at Plantagenet Software.”
“Is there any connection to these two villains? It was early in the day for those types to be about.”
“They were on the way home from a night out apparently, both the worse for drink. Just an opportune mugging, it seems – something they both have form for.”
“Was Mr Black okay?”
“He seems to be; we heard nothing more from him. The two you sorted out pleaded guilty at the magistrate’s court and got three months apiece.”
“Do we have an address for Mr Black?”
“There is nothing with his details.”
“What about a phone number? I know he had a mobile.”
“No, nothing listed.”
“I will have someone’s guts for garters. Okay, I will phone Plantagenet and have a chat with Mr Black to see if he lost anything at the time.”
Roger returned to his desk Arnold picked up his phone and punched in the now familiar numbers for Plantagenet Software. Once connected he asked the receptionist if he could speak to Justin Black.
Justin Black had left earlier that year, about a month after he was attacked.
I have recently been interviewed by Eva Jordan, local writer and columnist for the Fens magazine (May edition).
Eva has kindly followed this up with a review of my book, (The Railway Carriage Child) in the June edition of the Fens magazine.
Both editions of the Fens Magazine are avaliable on line.
It is encouraging to get the support of a talented local author.
Thank you Eva.
This has not been a good time for promoting book sales with venues closed and signings cancelled but it has been a good time to concentrate on my first novel. With the freedom to range in my imagination, it’s almost as good as having a sneaky day out during lockdown. Yesterday I introduced three new characters and spent the day getting to know them. They live in Rutland so it was lovely to visit the rolling hills again, (in my mind of course).
New characters are always fun, getting used to the way they speak and any little quirks that endear them to the reader.
A notebook is essential. I have a separate section for each character so I don’t get caught out later by conflicting information and there is always the opportunity to visit them again _ no invitation needed. So if you are writing at the moment, take this opportunity for a day out in a favourite spot whilst still sitting at your desk.
As we all continue our struggle to survive lockdown without our families and friends at our side, I have realised how much I rely on them for so many things. The first that comes to mind is technology.
At the moment my phone is that black device that lurks in my pocket and makes a funny noise when someone wants to contact me. Phone calls I can manage, texts make some sense and even emails have been known to send, at least to someone if not always the right person.
So it is with great trepidation that I have tried to follow what is happening with our writing group, the Whittlesey Wordsmiths. Some of the more adventurous have taken this opportunity to practise meeting virtually via Zoom, (apparently that is not just an ice lolly any more).
We have started a new online project, writing twelve novels where each member contributes a chapter, so twelve or so chapters, I think. (Put my name down for Maths as well as IT).
So WATCH THIS SPACE for more publications.
In the meantime we have been thrilled to learn that we have been taken on board by Waterstones, who are now selling the following titles online:
Where the Wild Winds Blow Whittlesey Wordsmiths
A Following Wind Whittlesey Wordsmiths
The Railway Carriage Child Wendy Fletcher
A Year Before Christmas Cathy Cade
Not on Waterstones yet but available on Amazon:
Witch Way and other ambiguous Stories Cathy Cade
So, if you’re looking for some new reads you can find us there.
As we struggle through these difficult times with stories of illness and death all around us, I have been fortunate this week to see a new beginning; the birth of my granddaughter, Gwen Francesca.
My daughter and her partner enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the Midwife Unit at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and were discharged a few hours after the birth with their precious 7 lb 1oz bundle.
She is now at home and thanks to technology I have been able to receive and forward photographs and watch videos of these first special days.
A first cuddle is, of course, going to have to wait.
I will try to be patient, along with all the many people who are keeping their distance to protect their loved ones.
Meantime I shall use this spare time productively; continuing to research and write my first novel which has now grown to 19,000 words.
My first words today are to those of you who have been adversely affected by the Corona Virus. I guess that’s most of you. Many lives have been changed by this. No work. No school. No visits to family and friends.
As writers, we are perhaps in the fortunate position of being able to use this time productively. With the availability of technology, I can research online and if I ring another member of my group for advice, inspiration or moral support, they answer the phone because they, too, are at home.
Two planned book signing events have been cancelled: the Octavia Hill museum in Wisbech at Easter, and March Library later this year and I have had to put on hold interviews that I had planned with the people who lived at King’s Dyke so that book is on hold for the moment.
On a more positive note, my novel, Goodbye Bella Blue, is benefiting enormously from the lack of distractions and now stands at 12,000 words.
Perhaps if you are housebound and running out of reading material, you would like to read an extract from my first book. I have chosen this particular piece as it may raise a smile – always good at times such as this…
I hope you enjoy it, Best Wishes and Stay Safe
Abridged from The Railway Carriage Child
High windows gave our classroom an ethereal light. In summer, bright shafts of sun pierced the air and an older boy from the class next door would be summoned to open the very top pane with a hook on a long, wooden pole. In winter, only the area nearest to the windows was illuminated by natural light, supplemented by electric lights suspended on chains from the lofty ceiling.
A boiler in the cloakroom heated pipes which ran along the outside walls. Glass bottles, containing a third of a pint of milk for each child, rested in rows along these pipes, waiting to be distributed by the milk monitor. As the frozen milk thawed, the rising column of ice pushed off the tops. Watching this slow process as I listened to the teacher, I remember the milk but not her words. At this time of year the aroma of summer flowers was a distant memory. Now the air was filled with the combined medications of winter; clove-oil, eucalyptus and mentholatum. We had chilblain cream on our feet and camphorated oil on the corners of our hankies.
On the coldest days it was not unusual to arrive to find the husband of our headmistress, who was also the only male teacher; already busy at work, not preparing the day’s lessons but shovelling snow from the path so that we could reach the door. We came in through the cloakroom, sat on wooden benches to pull off our wellies, and hung our coats and hats on rows of pegs. This cloakroom was like a communal airing cupboard, warmed by the breath of the huge boiler, in a wire enclosure.
I never felt at ease in this confined space, with a beast so fierce that it had to be caged. It rumbled and shuddered and I always watched it with one eye as I quickly put on my indoor pumps and headed for the safety of the classroom. Sometimes the teacher poked very wet gloves into the holes in the mesh to dry but I didn’t trust it not to eat them before playtime.
My other enduring memory of the boiler is that I was too scared to go near it while everyone else was in class. One morning, I was told to fetch a hankie from my coat pocket but fear held me in the doorway. I snuffled and sniffed and put up with the lecture when I arrived home with stiff-dried cuffs, where I had wiped my nose on my sleeve.
Another area of unease was the row of lavatories at the far end of the playground. We queued under the shadow of the brickyard chimneys, before entering the gloom of the poky cubicles with wooden seats and very hard paper. This was the first time I had ever had to shut myself in such a dark space. I was tormented by the fear that if I locked the heavy wooden door, I might not have the strength to unlock it again. As voices outside urged me to ‘’urry up, will yer’, I knew I could not perform under such adverse conditions; hence I developed excellent bladder control.
I loved playtime, with the hopscotch drawn in chalk and the brightly coloured hoops. We played lots of group games like ‘The farmer’s in his den’ and ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ and I relished all this company and interaction. My infant teacher was a lovely lady called Miss Steeper. She had no children of her own but mothered all of us. She had an open face and an honest expression. I would have trusted her with my life.
In her care, we were nourished, praised and encouraged. She instilled in us a love of words, numbers, colours and music, as we learned sums and spellings that would take us through life. We benefited from individual attention and a curriculum, although that sounds too formal, which was tailored to our abilities.
My only regret was the unfortunate timing of my Easter birth. In all the years of my schooling, I had only one birthday that fell in term time; just one occasion when I was able to have Miss Steeper read out my stack of birthday cards, and the class sung ‘Happy birthday, dear Wendy’, as was the custom for each birthday child.
Miss Steeper knew each child as an individual and had a good rapport with every family. Enveloped in this warmth, I developed my social skills and my imagination. There were times, however, when the easy familiarity between home and school could have disadvantages; especially for a child who was prone to confusion over where the boundaries lay between fact and fantasy.
One day she asked us what pets we had, and I had wanted a pet for so long. Mother, with her obsession for hygiene, thought otherwise. I had listened, with little regard, to her warnings that ‘Yer’d be catchin’ all sorts from dog shit’, and ‘How ’d yer like t’ get in bed at night wi’ a load a’ cat fleas?’
I had seen a photograph of Mother and Granny with a dog lying on the front doorstep and, under cross-examination, she had admitted that a dog had once been part of the family; years before my birth. His name was Rip and she then told me the story of how he had once jumped up at the kitchen door when he heard the dustman. This had been at a time, before the blight of black plastic bags, when a dustman came into the garden, collected the galvanised bin from the back of the carriages, hoisted it onto his shoulder and emptied it into the cart, before returning it to its home outside the wash-house. On this occasion the door had not been properly bolted and Rip escaped.
She described how he ‘Frit the dustman ’alf t’ death’, and added ‘Yer should ar’ ’eard the clatter when ’e dropped the bin an’ run’.
It appeared that this had caused her much amusement, but she would have been a lot younger at the time, perhaps a child, herself. It did not change her stance that I should have no similar tales to tell.
Eventually, I thought a compromise had been reached, with a pet who could live outdoors. Father built me a smart, detached residence for a rabbit. The front looked like a classic dolls’ house with windows on two levels and a door with a knocker and tiny letterbox. The back was a large hinged door, opening to reveal two floors connected by a ramp so the lucky occupant could reach the upper floor. The roof lifted, with storage space for hay and food in the loft. It stood taller than me, resplendent in doll’s house colours and was all ready for its first inhabitants.
Mother would not budge on her ‘no animals’ policy. I can only assume that Father had believed she would be won over by the regal house-hutch. His optimism was unfounded, his labours unrewarded. It stood at the back of the wash-house for years, deteriorating in the weather and was never occupied; a sad monument to the lack of communication between my parents.
Perhaps as some well-meant attempt at compensation, Father always let me bring home anything dead that we found on our walks. Despite Mother’s loudly expressed fears that I would catch some dreaded disease, I was never made to leave a body; be it a bird, a rabbit or a field mouse, to the mercy of predators. All were borne home and buried with sombre respect at the bottom of the garden in the shade of the hedge. We thought of names for each one, which Father carved with his knife onto little wooden crosses. My cemetery marked the resting place of Wanderlust, Beauty, Furry and a number of Brownies and Snowflakes, all of which I had never known in life but had cried for in death.
It was against this back-drop, that I listened to the other children answering Miss Steeper’s question about their pets.
‘A cat’ was a popular answer.
‘A dog’ claimed some of the luckier children.
So, as ever, when real life didn’t live up to my dreams, I invented an alternative. Miss Steeper reached me and, without blinking, I looked into her kind eyes and said, ‘A pig’.
She looked impressed, as I had known she would. She didn’t know that we kept pigs, of course, as we didn’t, but she was interested enough to approach Mother at home-time to have a chat.
I tried to pedal off, calling back to Mother to hurry, but she was happy to linger and I could only watch as the two women discussed my pet pig, or perhaps my loose relationship with reality.
I think I had an innate need to liven things up. If a drama wasn’t happening, I would invent one. During this same period in Infants; biking home one dinner-time, I allowed Mother to get a little distance ahead, just to the point where a high hedge obscured her view of the knot-hole. Then I called, excitedly, ‘Look. Did yer see that? There’s a plane crashed right in the knot-hole.’
‘Really?’ She called back. ‘I’ll ’ev a look later.’
Her pedalling never faltered. I think she knew me well.
I’m pleased to tell you that I have been asked to take part in an event at Octavia Hill’s Birthplace Museum in Wisbech. The event is to be held over the Easter weekend and will feature a number of local writers and poets.I will be giving a brief account of my journey to becoming a writer, followed by a short reading from my book, ‘The Railway Carriage Child’ and then answering questions from the audience. I will be happy to sign copies of the book which will be available on the day at the reduced price of £8, (Amazon price £10.10)
I am now collecting material for my second book, (A history of Kings Dyke). This is going really well. I have been buried under a mountain of replies and, believe me, a mountain is a rare sight in the fens. Perhaps it is symbolic of the time when a lot of these people would have been children and looked out of their bedroom windows onto a landscape that resembled Welsh countryside.In this flattest of flat scenery, they overlooked valleys and ridges, gentle slopes and sheer drops of around 100 feet. Do I hear you ask HOW?
Well, hopefully the new book will provide the answer, so back to the writing…
Just started collecting information for my new book, a social history of King’s Dyke, Whittlesey. This was a small development of houses with their own shop, school, chapel and social club, built around the turn of the century by A W Itter. The houses were rented out to local brickyard workers and were occupied until the 1980s. I have already had a huge response from former tenants on the Whittlesey Community Page and would like to thank all those who have taken time to contact me. I have already found a complete record of occupants in 1911, from the census of that year. I am now trying to make a plan of the houses, with numbers, terraces and names of more recent occupants. If anyone lived there, attended the school or chapel, used the shop, belonged to the social club or worked in the brickyards, I would love to hear from you.
Also, does anyone remember the names of the terraces? I believe there were Jasmine and Laburnham, among others, and does anyone recall the order of the numbers, these details would be very helpful, many thanks, Wendy
‘The Railway Carriage Child’ continues to sell well and is now available from the museums in Whittlesey and Peterborough, as well as at Whittlesey’s Parkers Newsagent.
Meantime, the Whittlesey Wordsmiths, the U3A creative writing group which I set up in February 2017, grows in numbers. We are now 13. Our membership includes two other published authors. See details below. Philip Cumberland is penning his first cross genre novel, a crime – science fiction – thriller set in Cambridge.
Tessa Thomson is working on a collection of her thought provoking poems.
Other members are enjoying success with short stories, magazine articles and competitions.
We have just launched our second anthology of short stories and poetry: ‘A Following Wind’, after the success of our first book last year, ‘Where the Wild Winds Blow’.
Stephen Oliver is awaiting publication of his novel, he has previously published a self help book “Unleash your Dreams.”
Cathy Cade has currently two books in print the most recent of these “Witch Way”was published on 11th December 2019.
I was privileged to be invited to a memorial concert today in Peterborough, for Fenland poet and author, Edward Storey. I wrote to Edward for several years while I was working on my book, The Railway Carriage Child, and received much good advice and support from him. This also led me to setting up the local u3a creative writing group, Whittlesey Wordsmiths who have just launched their second anthology of short stories and poetry, A Following Wind.The concert was a beautiful tribute to Edward with performance of his favourite pieces of music and some of his own compositions, as well as readings of his poetry. Around 150 people attended, some from as far away as Wales, where he spent the last years of his life. The event was hosted by his wife who made everyone welcome and spoke of Edward’s sense of humour and lifelong love of his native Fens.A fitting tribute to a wonderful writer.
At the U3A meeting in Whittlesey yesterday I did a book signing session at the launch for my first book, The Railway Carriage Child. Over 100 members attended and the afternoon was a great success. I hope that is encouraging to all would-be writers who may be having doubts about stepping onto the public platform with their own creations
Do you ever pass a car in a layby and wonder about the occupants? Is it a man travelling alone? Could he have stopped to gather his thoughts before an important meeting? How will the outcome of that meeting affect his life? Is there a family in the car? Can you see luggage through the window? Are there children aboard? Has it broken down? Will their holiday be ruined if they miss the ferry? Is it an old car? Could they be heading to a classic car event? What about the lone lady driver? Is she waiting to meet someone or perhaps deciding whether she was right to make this journey? The options are endless. Take this car and make it feature in your story. August 1, 2019 by thewriteway709 Edit
My name is Wendy I am group leader of Whittlesey Wordsmiths, a U3A creative writing group based in Fenland. We have published an anthology of our poetry and prose, Where the Wild Winds Blow, and are currently working on a second volume.
Individually, we are at various stages of writing and publishing.
I have just completed an autobiography, recounting my childhood in two railway carriages, which I hope to publish in September. The Railway Carriage Child will be available from Amazon.
I will keep you updated on my progress and would love to contact others on a similar mission, Wendy