The best place to start this blog lark is with a quick explanation of its title - why 'Scallops'?  
It came to me in a dream:  short stories are like scallops!  Similes and metaphors don't usually come to me in my sleep, I wish they did,  but on this occasion  I had watched rather too much of Hell's Kitchen before bedtime.  At some point, the wannabe chefs had competed to free perfect scallops from the gelatinous mass inside the shells. Craggy-faced Gordon was not pleased if any scallops had been spoiled in the process which, of course, most were.

A short story should also be small and perfectly formed:  it is the result of the skillful cutting down of a large, slippery concept in to a small, firm morsel of art.  As a writer still learning her craft, I know how easy it is to mutilate a good short story.  But I am hoping I'll get better with practice and - fingers crossed - that'll happen before my face turns too craggy...

Monday, 8 November 2010

A Stitch in Time

As a reader I am gratified by well written books. However, as a writer I can be gratified by a badly written one. I know how uncharitable that sounds, sorry.

As a reader I read Sarah Waters's Affinity and was blown away by the writing and the narrative twist. As a writer, I've just read her more recent novel, The Night Watch and was greatly irritated, mostly by the narrative.

The story goes in reverse chronology starting with 1947, then 1945 and finally 1941 and I couldn't help wondering if this was nothing more than an attempt to make it more interesting. In the right order, it would have been a very unremarkable story indeed. The frustration was that we meet the characters at the end of their development arcs and, quite frankly, none of them were very likable. I wasn't so bothered about how they got to the positions they were in as how they would get out of them.

A good story is seamless, smooth and tight like a pair of silk stockings; the writing so good it is nearly invisible. The Night Watch, however, is a roughly knitted jumper that starts out full of holes and loose ends, then unravels with each section until the narrative threads end up in a jumbled heap.

It's good to know the masters of the art drop stitches from time to time, just like us apprentices.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

My First Story

To Be With The King is my first ever story, written a whole decade ago. I'm putting it up on my blog now because I know I never will enter it into competitions. Being my first, I am very fond of this story, so much so that I don't care what anyone else thinks of it! Although your comments are welcome, of course.

The inspiration for this story is a gorgeous folk song, Galway to Graceland, by Richard Thompson. Despite originally receiving permission from his music production company to publish, I have left off the lyrics to the song that complete the story and recommend you find a copy of the song instead...

To Be With The King

She dressed in the dark and whispered Amen. The bedroom is moonlight grey but Sally is pretty and pink like a young girl again. She crouches at the foot of the bed, her knees pop and crack under the strain. She slides out her suitcase. Until yesterday, all it had contained for twenty years since her honeymoon were a pair of woodlice shells and a single sock zipped into the lining compartment. There had been no time to wonder what had happened to its partner.

She glances up at Seamus. He lies uncovered and naked despite the night’s chill; turning the quiet night air into noise through his cavernous nose while the vast dome of his belly rises and falls in time. She knows where those twenty years have gone: Seamus swallowed them whole, one by one, gorging himself on them without ever being satisfied. No, she thinks, she won’t miss him and she says under her breath ‘not one little bit’.

The truth was that Sally was in love with another man and everyone knew it. It was Love the night she first caught sight of him at the local picture house; he was larger than life. Larger than her life. She felt like the only woman on earth when he looked at her and he soon became all she could talk about. From the hairdresser’s to the butcher’s Sally would swoon over her lover’s latest movements. Father O’Reilly had sat patiently as Sally had giggled her way through her daily confessions of impure thoughts. His eyebrows, on his otherwise immobile face, often dived down the centre of his nose in disapproval but they had once shot up so far they almost slid over his bald head.

In the beginning, her friends had joked about Sally’s obsession on street corners and over the fences on washing day;

‘Guess what our Sally did today?’

‘What now?’

‘She only wrote to him, told him she’s in love with him and her life would be unbearable without him.’

‘She never did! Mother of God! Whatever next? How did she get his address?’

‘She told me she wouldn’t need one, the postman is bound to know where he lives. She’s a funny one.’

Everyone agreed.

Lately, Sally had begun to think of her house as an ungrateful old relative who creaked and groaned constantly, despite the care she had showed it over the years. Sally knew it would try to interfere with her escape tonight by waking Seamus with its snapping joints and whining hinges. She had practiced night after night, waking the snoring heap at various stages en route but avoided suspicion by blaming a weak bladder. No more practice runs, this is her last chance.

In her stocking feet Sally tiptoes across the bedroom floor on the safe places like she did as a child to avoid the bad luck hiding in the pavement cracks. The wailing door to the landing only squeaks meekly, sedated by a treatment of fat from the Sunday roast. Sally shuts it behind her. On the landing she ties a length of rope to the suitcase handle and lowers it over the banister into the dark hallway below. She stands at the top of the staircase, every stair is prepared to scream out to Seamus but now, taking a deep breath, Sally tucks her skirt into her knickers and straddles the hand rail before inching slowly passed the mute stairs towards freedom.

It was not long before Sally’s friends had ceased to see the funny side and were embarrassed when, for her 40th birthday, she had ‘Elvis I love You’ tattooed upon her breast which, without shame, she showed everyone. Poor Seamus was a laughing stock. Everyone agreed he would have to put his foot down, he would have to show her who was King and so he did. He stopped her house keeping money which she had been spending on records and magazines. On one night the neighbours would talk about for weeks, Seamus threw the TV out of the window when he had returned from the pub to find THAT MAN gyrating his hips in his very own front room. To add insult to injury the ancient television set had created a triple image - Elvis in the flesh and two ghostly companions; it had to go, everyone agreed. What’s more, every time Sally hummed Blue Suede Shoes in absentminded reverie Seamus would reach for his brown carpet slipper.

Very soon Elvis was a dirty word in Galway and Sally was totally cut off from news of her sweetheart. No one mentioned him for fear of undoing all Seamus’ good work in curing his wife’s affliction, even Father O’Reilly offered him wholehearted support and stood Sally at the front of church on one cold morning and preached for three Catholic hours about worshipping false idols. It was for her own good, everyone agreed, despite their pins and needles. The good Father also stopped paying Sally for cleaning the church so that through penance she would also cleanse her own poor soul. Galway severed every link between Sally and her lover but Elvis found a way and every night he came into her dreams singing Are You Lonesome Tonight? and then loving her so tender that she cried out in her sleep.

At the backdoor, Sally slips on her shoes and in to the night, down the network of alleyways that lead to St Catherine’s church. The clock face glows in the moonlight and reads a quarter to two as Sally lets herself into the vestibule. Sally is nervous: she tucks a stray auburn curl under her headscarf, adjusts her horn-rimmed spectacles and approaches the Madonna in pigeon steps like a disobedient school girl. She kneels at Her feet and looks up. She knows Our Lady intimately, she has dusted every nook and cranny for 15 years but notices now that she had forgotten her nostrils on her last visit and the legs of a spider are poking out like unsightly nasal hair. Sally draws out her hanky and wipes the Madonna’s nose, she thinks it is the least she can do, after all she is the only friend she has left. Is she mistaken? Did Our Lady wink? Sally blinks, adjusts her glasses again then looks up for the last time at the stain glass tableaux of the devoted followers gazing adoringly up at The King of Kings with a child in his arms.

One day The King was dead. Sallys the world over wailed, tore at their hair in grief, set up shrines and began to flock to Graceland but our Sally had no way of knowing. Seamus wore the smug smile of a victorious lover, the corners of his mouth pushed upward by the news that filled it. But instead of spitting it out he savoured it, rolling it around his mouth like a bully with a stolen sweet. His tongue tingled with the delicious anticipation of revelation but it was not long before he could take it no more, after all Seamus had needs, everyone agreed. Sally had been saving herself for Elvis for so long and now her true love was food for worms, Seamus saw his chance. Spurred on by a night in the pub with his friends, he staggered home with a tingling in his loins, practising the Presley hip thrusts they told him were guaranteed to turn his wife’s knees to jelly. It couldn’t fail; he was so confident in fact he had made a bet with sceptic Billy O’Connor on his success. He found Sally sitting at the kitchen table, spelling out Elvis with the peas on his plate of cold dinner which scattered all over the table as he pushed it aside. He opened his shirt and thrust a hip in her face. Nothing. Not a bloody flicker and certainly no flush of lust. He belched to clear his throat then slurred tunelessly in her ear…We can’t go on together with suspicious minds…and something ignited in Sally’s eyes, she whispered;

‘We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out because I…’

Seamus looked behind him because Sally seemed to be seeing straight through him to someone else.

‘Bloody hell fire woman, what are you whittering about?’

‘Why can’t you see what you’re doing to me?’


‘You can’t see these tears are real, I’m crying, we can’t go on together with suspicious minds.’

Sally was singing now and the penny dropped.

‘Bloody hell fire woman’ he growled as he reached into his pocket for his secret weapon, he held out the tabloid clipping heralding: THE KING IS DEAD. Her singing stopped and his grin spread to reveal his remaining teeth that were sunk into his gums at angles like miniature, neglected headstones. He stooped to look her full in the face, breathing death on to it. Having dealt his blow and seen that the spark had been extinguished, he dragged his stunned prey up the stairs. First thing the next morning, Seamus hammered on Billy O’Connor’s door to collect his winnings.

Sally kisses the Madonna then finds her way through the gloom to the vestry where Father O’Reilly keeps the coffers which are swollen by the new roof appeal. Sally lifts the velvet bag of coins and notes and bites her lip. Doubt washes over her but as she decides to replace the bag a voice whispers to her in a familiar soft Southern drawl;‘Darl-in, it’s yours. Uh huh. It’s back payment, your penance is over.’ He is right, it is just enough to cover her unpaid wages. Sally lifts the bag again and it feels lighter now.

Seamus opened one eye. Something wasn’t right. Breaking the crusty seal on his other eye with a fat finger he saw very clearly that something was wrong. Where was she? He called once and waited. Nothing. With every step he took and door he opened, the house found its voice and it cried ‘She’s gone, she’s gone’. In anguish he looked out of the windows front and back and replies ‘gone where? gone where?’.

From a distance St Catherine’s clock face watched. Before her hands had turned a full circle, news of Sally’s disappearance had been passed over the walls and around the tavern tables of Galway, each storyteller adding a new twist to the tale. Within weeks it had passed from speculation to folklore and, on the rare occasions Seamus was not in the pub, some even sang…

(To find out what they sang, download Richard Thompson's 'Galway to Graceland' on i-tunes).