Less is more

This was the easiest lesson for me to learn when I tried writing stories and the hardest when I started to write poems. It’s that thing about murdering your darlings; there are some lines/images/phrases I found (and still find) very hard to let go. And I do tend to bang on a bit…

In the end I came up with the 25% rule, to focus my mind: the final version of a poem ought to be 25% shorter than the first draft. Now, I stuck to that pretty rigidly when I submitted ‘On the Record’ to the March 2017 edition of Snakeskin, an online journal which deserves to be read more (it’s here, for those of you are interested). To my great delight, the poem was accepted – it was the second of my poems to be published. But when I went back to it after a couple of weeks I could see that it needed to be much tighter and in the end I reduced it by getting on for another 20%. And changed the title.

Maybe I ought to review that rule?

Here’s the revised version of the poem:

Secrets of a Political Wife
(after William Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope and Sarah Vine)

Reflect, I told him, get to know your skin.
His is terribly pink, of course, as if he’s
scrubbed it clean. I call him my choirboy,
my dear, darling, good little pet politician.
He’s far from breed standard, although

wonderfully affectionate. To the victrix
the spoils. Consider it not so deeply,
I said, cut out all forms of sugar, eat
good fats and don’t unbend your strength.
Although there are no miracle cures,

things on which I resolve are generally
accomplished. Don’t let folly unman you,
I said, sex is a cerebral activity. Exercise,
my love, screw your courage to the sticking
place and always give as good as you get.

Rest, I told him: you know the season of all
natures is sleep. Remember that stress
shows on your face. You must have specific
assurances. Exfoliation really works. Do not
concede any ground. Be your stubborn best.

My favourite child

Not, of course, my favourite child, although I have enjoyed the thought of Dan and Laura looking at this blog title with a degree of outrage. As we all know, parents don’t have favourites.
What I mean is my favourite poetic child. When I send off a little batch of poems to an editor, I always include a poem I am especially proud of and maybe one to make up the numbers – one that I’m not especially convinced by. As often as not, that one is accepted and my favourite is rejected. And though I still get ridiculously overexcited at any acceptance, when that happens I always feel a little – what? – miffed, I suppose, that my special baby hasn’t been fully appreciated.
This may, of course, mean that I am a crap judge of my own work. While that’s always possible, I mostly submit poems that I’ve either submitted for MA assignments or workshopped with friends and that I know have gone down well. What the rejected poems have in common is that they tend to be more playful and experimental in their approach. Fundamentally, I need to find some poetry journals that will let me play.
Suggestions, anyone?

Bull, horns, etc.

This is the first poem I had published, in the February 2017 Three Drops from a cauldron. Good magazine, if you don’t know it (have a read here). By spooky coincidence, it appeared on my 60th birthday.

The Blue Fairy Book
after Andrew Lang

The girl reads as they comb the nits from
her hair. Her mum. Betty from upstairs.
The mannikin tore himself in two. Red
Roses by Yardley is thick in the air. Snow
White was quiet and helped in the house.
Toads came out of the saucy girl’s mouth.

The women tell each other tales. The girl
wonders where they get their stories from.
Someone had a breast took off and a man
turned into a beast. His wife saved up for
years to leave, but she still comes back to cook
his tea and wash and iron his clothes each day.

A good deed brings its own reward, said the fairy
to the king. Betty thinks up her shopping list
while her husband’s doing it. It don’t take him
long, she says. When the bear came close, his
skin fell off and showed he was a prince. A girl
has been found in the bath. She’d cut both wrists.

His dead wives were lined up by the walls.
Dried blood darkened the floor. She’s in a
world of her own, says her mum. God knows
what’s going on inside her head. The girl
dreams as they comb nits from her hair.
Red Roses by Yardley is thick in the air.

Oh dear…

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that I’ve not posted a single thing on this blog since January 2016. Idleness? Perhaps. Alright, then, certainly. But it wasn’t just idleness. Shortly after I last posted, I discovered that any stories I posted here would be immediately disqualified from being published. Posting = publication, you see, even if that post isn’t read by anyone. Who’d a thunk it? Lots of people, I’m sure, just not me. And then – no connection – I stopped writing stories and started writing poems instead. Thing is, I write poems so very slowly and obsessively that I had neither time nor mind space for any other writing. And then there was that MA in Creative Writing I started… I know, excuses, excuses. But I read Maria Donovan’s blog over the weekend (have a look at it: https://mariadonovan.com) and, quite frankly, realised what a wuss I’d been, so I’ve made a New Blog Resolution. Which is that I’m going to blog.

Mr Boyt’s First Day

It was half past five on the morning of the first of September, 1968 and Mr Boyt was afraid.
He was a man bald and round of head, round of face and of feature, who resembled nothing so much as a very large baby. Mr Boyt had lived happily and calmly for forty five years and had – at least, until recent weeks – been entirely content with his achievements and his prospects. Entry to his local grammar school at the age of eleven had been followed by solid, though not outstanding, academic achievement, culminating in what he thought of as a decent degree from the local university and then a modestly successful career in teaching. There had been great happiness when his pleasant colleague, Miss Minster, had agreed to be his bride and thereafter contentment with the respectable and orderly life they led together. As he entered his forties Mr Boyt had been somewhat disconcerted by the sense that the values he held dear – values of decency, propriety and restraint – were increasingly mocked, by pupils and by his younger colleagues. Yet none of this had threatened to upset the even tenor of his tidy life in the manner of the acid fear that paradoxically both filled and hollowed out his stomach on this, his first day as Headmaster of King George’s Grammar School for Boys.
Mr Boyt eased himself out of bed tentatively so as not to disturb the slumbers of the former Miss Minster who lay, snuffling and content in curlers and winceyette nightdress, on the left hand side of the bed. Despite his terror of what lay ahead he congratulated himself on the propriety of this arrangement, the right hand side being, of course, conventionally allocated to the master of the house. Even so, as he sat on the edge of the bed and looked around for his slippers, the very appearance of the bedroom, with its pine furniture and indian cotton curtains, caused his stomach to contract painfully. Had it been entirely wise to accede to his wife’s wishes in this respect when they had taken up residence in the Headmaster’s House? Should they not have purchased something – something darker, more traditional? But Mrs Boyt had insisted on the modern furniture.
‘It’s 1968’, she had asserted, ‘not 1958. We must move with the times.’
He sighed. Although he suspected it to be foolish (after all, who else would ever see the bedroom?), Mr Boyt nonetheless felt that he would have been more confident, more secure in his respectability, had the house been solidly and traditionally furnished throughout. But then, as he ruefully acknowledged to himself, he would have felt more confident and secure in his respectability on this, the most important day of his career, if he himself had, as it were, been more solid and traditional throughout. The truth was that Mr Boyt felt himself to be lacking: in solidity, in substance, in gravitas. And the fear which had gripped his body and soul and which was even now almost suffocating him seemed proof enough of his inadequacy: it was, he thought, hardly the demeanour of a headmaster who would command the respect of both masters and boys, who would bestride the school like a colossus, whose name would go down in its annals, who…he brought himself up short.
‘You’re getting carried away,’ he muttered to himself, still feeling around for his slippers, ’and talking rot into the bargain. Colossus – annals – drivel, old chap. You won’t get away with cliches like that with the masters,’ he continued with a shudder. For this was the heart of the problem: the masters. Mr Boyt’s heart quailed at the very thought of the masters of King George’s, who were renowned throughout, if not the land then certainly the county, for their academic prowess, social superiority and what might be politely termed independence of thought. Or, as it had been put to him by the outgoing headmaster Dr Bradshaw, sheer bloody-mindedness.
The rubicund and peppery Bradshaw had invited him to lunch at the Old Boys’ Club. ‘Congratulate you on getting the job, don’t you know? Give you a few pointers, that sort of thing’. Boyt had sat patiently breathing the club’s sticky atmosphere of boiled vegetables and gravy, steamed pudding and custard whilst Bradshaw elaborated on the bewildering list of ways in which an unwary new headmaster might unwittingly infringe the school’s customs and traditions and thus mark himself out as unfitted to the role. Bradshaw had concluded with the slights and subtle insults he had received from the masters. ‘Don’t take any damned nonsense from them, Boyt,’ he had concluded in a tone which – so Mr Boyt had felt – rather implied that Mr Boyt might as a general rule be all too well inclined to take nonsense.
‘Quite so, headmaster, quite so,’ he had replied with an air of calm confidence which entirely belied the fear that had just started to peck at his heart.
‘Jolly good, Boyt old boy, jolly good. There’ll be some ribbing to begin with. Only natural. Unusual to have a chap like you at the reins of a school like this, don’t you know? First headmaster from a red brick university. That sort of thing.’
Boyt had involuntarily echoed Bradshaw’s words, hoping as the words came out that it didn’t sound like mimicry. ‘That sort of thing?’ he had responded, wishing that he could loosen the tie which seemed to be gradually tightening around his throat.
‘Grammar school boy yourself, weren’t you? Father a foundryman? Nothing to be ashamed of, not these days. An achievement, first headmaster without a private education. Pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, don’t you know?”
Mr Boyt had only been able to nod and swallow, fear pecking ever faster at his heart as the torture continued.
‘Degree in Classics, what? School tradition to have a mathematician at the helm. Nonsense of course, all nonsense. But tradition’s tradition, don’t you know? Tradition’s tradition. Masters see a weak spot, they go for it, old chap. Damned clever at finding weak spots. Twist ‘em about and use ‘em to justify bloody insubordination. Excuse my French.’ Bradshaw had pulled himself upright in his seat, the expression of his hazel eyes sharpening as he continued, ‘Nothing to worry about, though. Just show ‘em who’s in charge and they’ll soon buckle down. Deputy’s a good sort, give you a helping hand. Brilliant mathematician. Bentinck’s the name. Oxford rugger blue, don’t you know? Try to keep him on your side.’
This, then, or so Mr Boyt had thought bitterly to himself over the ensuing six weeks of sleepless nights amongst twisted sheets, had been the point of the invitation to lunch. Bending down to look under the bed for the elusive slippers, Mr Boyt suspected that Bentinck – who had by now assumed in his imagination all the characteristics of gravitas and solidity he felt himself to lack – would have been an altogether more appropriate choice for headmaster. Bentinck wouldn’t have been groping under the bed, unable to find his slippers, fear pecking his heart and burning his stomach. No, Bentinck the rugger blue would be on tip-top form, ready for the scrummage – he wondered if that was quite the right word, being a cricket rather than a rugby man himself – and prepared to take on all comers. Whereas he himself (at this point he glanced resentfully at his slumbering wife) couldn’t even take on his own wife in the matter of bedroom furniture.
Sighing and giving the bedroom slippers up as a lost cause, Mr Boyt resigned himself to the discomfort of bare feet on cold linoleum and went downstairs.

It was half past four on the afternoon of the first of September 1968. Mr Boyt was smiling contentedly as he prepared to leave his study.
His first day as Headmaster had not – of course, he said to himself, of course – been half as bad as he had feared. Not half as bad. There had been the odd ticklish moment: he had been quite taken aback to discover that the school had its own pop group. A lover of operetta and the lighter classics, Mr Boyt had little familiarity with popular music beyond a sneaking affection for the comic songs of Val Doonican. But he had, he congratulated himself, recovered well from the shock of hearing the strains of something he now knew to be called “Honky Tonk Woman” emanating from the music room at lunchtime. Not his cup of tea, not his cup of tea at all, but it wouldn’t do to get the reputation of being a stick in the mud. Never a bad idea to show oneself to be a good sport. It was 1968, after all. Mustn’t let standards slip too far, of course, but a little leniency here and there would do no harm.
The staff meeting really had gone remarkably well, all things considered. The odd fast ball from the staff but nothing he couldn’t field. And the last question – the last question had certainly allowed him to whack the ball into the long grass.
It had been almost the end of the meeting when the Head of Mathematics, Dr Edwards, had stood up.
‘A final question, if I may, Headmaster,’ he had declared. Mr Boyt’s heart had sunk. Respectable though Dr Edwards looked in his tweeds, his agitated tone led Mr Boyt to fear the worst. ‘It was the view of the previous Headmaster,’ Edwards had continued, his voice shaking, ‘and indeed I understand it to be the view of the Deputy Headmaster that the interests of this school, a school which has survived for five centuries as a boys’ grammar school, would be best served’ – and here Edwards had paused to give the words their full effect – ‘by it admitting girls and becoming a mixed comprehensive. What, Headmaster, is your view of that?’
Mr Boyt had, for a moment, been taken aback by the question. So it was this that had been behind the lunch with Bradshaw, behind Bradshaw’s praise of Bentinck and his criticism of the masters. Here, then, was Mr Boyt’s opportunity. And Mr Boyt glowed with pride at the memory of his reply. Inelegant, yes, but to the point.
‘Not on my watch, Dr Edwards,’ he had replied,’not on my watch.’
Mr Boyt chuckled, recollecting Bentinck’s obvious discomfiture at the hearty round of applause that had greeted his reply, and looked appreciatively at the oak panelling and velvet curtains of the Headmaster’s study. His study. This was a room which exemplified all the virtues of decency and restraint it was incumbent upon a headmaster to embody. A room – he elaborated to himself – which showed that respectability could and would prevail, however unfashionable a quality it might be. Tradition, that was the thing.
As for Bentinck: not a bad chap in his own way. Misguided, to be sure, but it took all sorts to make the world. He’d have to have a word with him about his hair, of course. It was hardly fitting for senior staff to go about with hair past their collars. Not to mention (and here Mr Boyt shuddered) the fact that the chap was wearing a purple paisley shirt. Shoes could do with a good polish too. Still, it would do no harm to let him have the odd minor victory. Softly softly catchee monkey and all that. Yes, old Baden Powell knew a thing or two.
Mr Boyt packed his briefcase and took a final glance back at the study as he left. Entirely appropriate room, entirely appropriate. Could do with a bit of brightening up though, make it look just a touch more modern. He’d ask his wife if she had any of that cotton stuff left over from the bedroom. After all, it was 1968.

Chrysanthemums

Dusk made it hard for Helen to read the landscape from the steep garden of her new house. Land and sea abstracted to tones of grey; casual scribbles of white foam at the edge of what must be the beach; over to the right, the lazy sparkles of light as cars nosed slowly up the misty lanes of the opposite shore. Closer at hand, borne on the still air, she could hear the chink and jostle of boats, harboured safe from the autumn storms. What was is that John Clare had said? I often think the West is gone. Yes, that was it. Decay, his great poem of loss and disorientation. Helen had dismissed the poem with abrupt arrogance when she’d first read it. All of twenty two she’d been at the time, fresh from university, stumbling – spiky and awkward in those days – towards adult life. Hardly more than a girl, clever, defended from feeling by a crust of irony, just wanting to get on, get away.
‘You’ll be completely cut off from everyone you know down here. No motorways, hardly any trains. Marooned. It’d be easier to visit you if you moved abroad, for goodness’ sake.’
Helen started at the voice behind her. It had been kind of her daughter to offer to help with the move. Still, she could tell by the set of Kate’s shoulders, the angle of her chin, that she was cross.
‘You look just like when you were little and I fetched you from school wearing my purple dress,’ Helen replied.
‘It’s too dark to be wandering around out here. You’ll trip over and hurt yourself. I’m going to find the kettle and make a cup of tea.’
Helen watched as Kate stalked up the garden path. She knew that she shouldn’t have given into the urge to needle Kate, hearing her own mother’s voice in her head. If you can’t say anything nice or kind don’t say anything at all. But then, that had always been her problem. What else had her mum said? Stop trying be so clever, that was it. Clever. Not nice, not kind. Clever. Better clever than daft as a brush, Helen had retorted, at least I’ll make something of myself, not be stuck in this dump for ever. But here she was, close to forty years later, newly divorced and returned to the coastal village where she’d grown up. Come home, if it could be called that after so long away.
Not her daughter’s home, though, she realised. The house Kate had been brought up in and had still called home, right up until the keys had been handed to the estate agent, was two hundred miles away. Kate’s attic bedroom – ‘my bedroom’ even though she had her own flat now – was no longer crammed with the old books and cuddly toys which had never quite made their way to London.
‘Give them to charity,’ sensible Kate had said, ‘if I’d wanted them I’d have taken them by now, wouldn’t I?’ Perhaps she should have kept just the odd thing, after all, to make this house feel more like home to Kate. They’d have made it feel more like home to herself as well, she realised. What’s done’s done. Her mother again.
But still, there were other ways of making a house into a home, Helen thought as she followed Kate up the path to the back door. As she did so, she caught sight of a patch of pale flowers, luminous in the dusk. White chrysanthemums, her mother’s favourites. Caught by a sudden impulse, Helen bent over and picked a handful to brighten up the kitchen.

Lyin’ Eyes #2

I didn’t like the first version of that story much. In fact, I had abandoned a very different first draft because I thought I should push myself in a different direction, but I don’t think it worked. Partly, I think, because what I was trying to do needed more words. And partly because it just didn’t suit me. So I went back to my first draft and played about some more, using some advice on the OU CD that goes with this course. This is what I ended up with:

Andrew assures himself that he has always remembered that night, that whilst some outlines might have blurred, he has sufficient grasp of the detail to have nothing to fear. Or nothing much: from time to time sharper fragments of memory had broken the surface, flashing brightly in the light before disappearing once more. These were, mostly, inconsequential details. A momentary glimpse of a girl with red hair might do it, the faint waft of patchouli or an orange-spined penguin edition of Under the Volcano. Had anyone asked him, asked him outright if he remembered what had happened, he’d have said yes. How could he forget? But what he said, what he thought he remembered, would only have been part of the truth. So it is – let us say – clever of the inspector not to ask but to casually flip the photograph across the desk to Andrew. Note, please, that I say desk. They are still at the stage of having apparently informal chats in Inspector Kent’s office.

So, there it is. Cambridge. June 1977 in faded kodachrome. It was the year punk took off, not that you’d know it to look at them, both still hanging on to the last wisps of hippiedom. A young man in cheesecloth shirt and green loons, a young woman in madras cotton maxi-skirt and muslin smock. Only the two of them in the photo, though he’d have sworn they were in the college bar with a crowd, just before they went up to the disco. Hand in hand, love’s young dream or so you’d think, until you looked more closely. It was their hands that started to give it away – her left, resting on the table, both of his gripping it. And of course, once you’ve seen that, understood her fear, you can’t unsee it. He can’t unsee it, there in Inspector Kent’s office, can’t unsee the tension in the woman’s awkward pose, her body angled away from him, even though she knew that she would always be his.

His breath comes more shallowly, rapidly; he feels sweat gathering at his hairline and starting to slide down behind his right ear. Inspector Kent uncrosses her legs, bends towards him. She has had a sense of discomfort with this man since their first encounter and reflects that she has always dismissed the notion of a detective’s sixth sense, preferring to base her conclusions on cut-and-dried facts. But in truth there are few facts in this case, just the mummified corpse of Melinda Harris, disinterred from the foundations of a large sculpture in the grounds of one of the less prestigious colleges. And, inside the young woman’s body, an embryo of some three months’ gestation. There is so far nothing to link this podgy self-effacing banker with the young woman other than the photograph, that and the expression of panic she can see behind the blankness of his eyes.

Rejecting her habitual caution, Inspector Kent decides to take her chances.

‘Did you know she was afraid of you at the time?’ she asks, doing her best to make her tone conversational. Andrew freezes. Afraid? Of course Mel had no reason to be afraid, not then. A flash of memory: the college disco winding down with the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes”, the two of them close. Mel’s whispered words in his ear. Her period was late, she said. ‘What shall I do? Will you stand by me?’ He had hardly been able to speak. This brilliant, beautiful girl would be his. His, always. She had no choice. He would take such care of her.

The words stumbled out: ‘Of course I’ll stand by you.”

Then her harsh and mocking laugh. ‘No chance. First thing I’m going to do after graduation is get rid of it. Think I’m going to tie myself to a loser like you for the rest of my life?’.

She had had no reason to be afraid, until she tried to dump him. But, later still, he had taken the very best care of her. She would always be safe.

The inspector speaks again, chiding and urgent. ‘Did you hear me, Andrew? Did you know that Mel was afraid of you?’

‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ he replies.