Review – Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan


Oh Ian McEwan, the big tease – master of the great turnaround, the twist that has his readers jumping from their seats, hurling the book across the room in amazement. A twist you instinctively know must be coming, but which nevertheless fails to shock. You think you’ll see it before it hits, and then at the very last moment, McEwan pulls the rug out from under your feet.

But it’s not the twisty-turny aspect of McEwan’s narratives which gives them their sap. It’s rather the handle he has on his characters’ moral tuning: the way he gradually raises the emotional temperature until the story is, to overcook a metaphor, on the boil. As Serena Frome agonises over her role in Sweet Tooth, an MI5 operation aimed at wringing political purchase from cultural endeavour, so does the reader.

Posing as the representative of a foundation which supports the work of young artists, Serena offers young novelist Tom Haley a stipendium which will enable him to give up his work as an academic and focus purely on writing his first novel. The rightist bent of Haley’s short stories is considered another potential weapon in the cultural war against communist propaganda. And the fact that Serena then falls in love with her mark prevents her from warning him of the potential trap into which he is about to fall as a dupe of the secret service.

One suspects that McEwan also had a lot of fun while writing this book, with his knowing references to the ‘up and coming’ authors of the 1970s, like Martin Amis, or the ‘new-fangled’ Booker prize. But at its heart, this is a novel which has very serious things to say about artistic integrity and the precarious relationship between politics and literature. And fundamentally, it’s a love story, and a beautiful one at that. Reading Sweet Tooth was yet another reminder of just how adept McEwan is at calibrating the vagaries of the human heart.

Leda – A Short Extract

A short extract from Leda, book three in The Duellist series. Hal is haunted by a series of terrifying dreams and discovers that the real enemy lies within, not without.


That dream again. This time, Hal found herself buried beneath the streets of Colvé, a crowd of people thundering over the cobbles above her head. The ground shook to the thump of their feet, the earth above her head muted the chaos of their voices. And, of course, she could not move. She twisted, squirmed, moaned, her mouth filling with dirt. She was choking: every breath desperate, painful and exhausting.

“Hal!” From somewhere above her came Meracad’s faint, muffled voice. Struggling, Hal realised she could no longer open her mouth, that her arms were pinioned to her sides.

“Hal!” Meracad’s voice was louder now, but still too far away for help. They had lost each other. Perhaps, Hal thought, she had died already – that Meracad was calling to her from beyond the grave. That made her weep.


She woke with a gasp, a sudden rush of damp night air filling her lungs, the room swinging and swaying around her head. Hal sucked in every breath with hunger, her body drenched in a cold film of sweat and every muscle and tendon, every last fibre of her being shaking. She sat, drew her knees up to her chest, and buried her face in her hands.

“Hal, what is it…what do you dream of?” Meracad slipped her arms around Hal’s shoulders and drew her close. Her skin smelt warm and carried a light, honeyed fragrance. Hal surrendered to her embrace.

“I dream…” but how could she explain the thud of feet above her head, the weight of earth as it crushed and paralysed, starving her of breath? For in truth, that was never the worst part of the dream at all. “I dream that you’ve gone,” she whispered at last.


Leda – ‘The Duellist’ Part Three on Wattpad

The descendant of ancient emperors, Leda Nérac has finally come into her birthright: the wealthy northern city of Dal Reniac. Yet, power brings new responsibilities and dangers. Her distant cousin Castor has claimed the imperial throne, instigating a reign of terror. And famine stalks the Nests, forcing Hal and Meracad to sacrifice all that they hold dear. Will Leda be strong enough to return peace to these troubled lands? Find out in Leda, the final part of The Duellist Trilogy.




Finally, Hal’s back! I’ve started publishing the final part of ‘The Duellist’ trilogy on Wattpad, and of course, once it’s complete and edited, it will be available on Amazon. So here’s the prologue to whet your appetite.

Hal and Hannac are both currently available on Amazon:





The air was heavy, stale and scented sweetly with death. Sodden with sweat, Castor’s silken shirt and breeches stuck to his chest and thighs. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. This was all so unbearable. Why wouldn’t the old bastard just admit defeat? Diodiné seemed intent on clinging to life as he had clung to his throne. Drawing in each last breath with hoarse, desperate rasps, the Emperor’s withered frame shivered beneath mounds of quilts and blankets as he coughed and wheezed but would not, the spirits damn him, die.

Half curious, half revulsed, Castor stretched out a hand and touched his Uncle’s forehead. The old man’s skin was as rough as leather, as chill as the marble floors of the palace, and filmed with sweat. Recoiling, Castor wiped his fingers on his shirt and rose.

It was far too humble a room for such a royal man to die in, with its plain, whitewashed walls and pallet bed, its stained carpet and threadbare drapes which let in a slim sliver of moonlight. But then that was how Diodiné had chosen to die, having caught, in his final fever, a religious zeal that he had singly lacked in life. On the promise of a seat amongst the demigods, the Emperor had displayed a sudden hatred of luxury: of the court and all its trappings, of grand salons and lush gardens. Instead, he had withdrawn to a mere cell: a forgotten room in a forgotten wing of the palace, admitting no one to his bedside. No one but that wretched bunch of priests who turned up once a day to choke the air with incense, and chant dirges over his fading frame. That was before Castor had reminded his Uncle’s would be guardians that Diodiné having one foot in the grave meant that his nephew had one buttock on the throne. Their resistance crumbled. He cajoled, he threatened: they let him in. Too weak to protest, Diodiné was forced to endure his presence. And so Castor’s lonely bedside vigil was fused with the sweetness of revenge. Because all his Uncle’s sly, dry insults, the half-muttered barbs, the raised eyebrows, smirks and withering looks – they still cut and wounded. But those harsh words and disdain would die along with Diodiné. And then, rising like a new sun over a corrupt, cankered empire, he, Castor, would usher in a fresh era of greatness.

Diodiné had tolerated dissent, had allowed feuds to fester like open wounds, had played off one noble house against the next, granting concessions, fraternising where he should have ruled. But no such decadence would stain the reign of Castor, third of that name. The entire empire would jump to his command, from the lowliest crofter to the most powerful of nobles. He would expand its borders, would bring the Yegdanian barbarians to heel at last, would finally extract true fealty from the North…

A long, racking, phlegm-inflected cough issued from the bed. Irritated, his reverie of power and greatness shattered, Castor paced the room once again before stopping beside an alcove. A crystal decanter and goblet rested on a shelf in its shadows: a treasure he’d smuggled in when the priests’ backs were turned. Well, he was a man after all: could hardly be expected to endure such grief without some kind of balm for his nerves.

But as he reached for the glass, his knuckles brushed against something else which lay, tucked away in the shadows on the shelf. Something cold to the touch and hard. He prised it from its hiding place and held it to the light: a slim circlet of gold-forged laurel leaves. For all his rejection of worldly needs, Diodiné had clearly failed to part with his crown.

Castor stepped back into the room, turning the burnished coil over and over in his hands, imagining all the imperial heads upon which it had rested. And now it was almost his! Just a single breath was all that rested between him and greatness: a final, fading heart beat, a slow glazing of the eyes. So close! And that being the case, how could it hurt?

Closing his eyes, he indulged in the mental image of his coronation: the nobility gathered on one side of the imperial temple, senators on the other. His mother, brother and the soon to be dowager Empress, his aunt, seated at their head, watching proudly. The streets of Colvé thronged with cheering crowds…solemnly, slowly, he lowered the crown upon his own head.

“I’m not dead yet, you know, boy.”

Castor froze, his hands still raised to his forehead, a yelp of surprise and irritation catching in his throat. He slipped the crown off with furious haste, stowing it back on its shelf in the alcove.

“I know that, Uncle,” he said, smiling so tight it hurt. He inched back towards the bed, bent over and peered with feigned concern into Diodiné’s rheum-ridden eyes.

“Then why were you playing Emperor?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Sir.”

“You know very well what you were doing. And it’s still not too late to unmake you my heir.” The words came out as if from some old squeeze box, accompanied with wheezes and rasps. “Your brother Josen has twice your intelligence and charm. Your only saving grace is that you’re a year older than him.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

There they were. Hovering on death’s threshold, those little cuts and barbs still slipped out. Almost as if his dying wish was to strip his nephew of all self-respect: to gnaw away at his ambition until he formally renounced his claim and passed his entire birthright onto his brother. And in the past, Diodiné might have succeeded in shaking Castor’s resolve. Now, his insults only served to strengthen it. He dropped to one knee at the old man’s side, leant forward, his lips almost brushing the Emperor’s ear. “No. You’re not dead yet, Uncle. But you will be. Soon.”

From distant corners of Colvé, the night bells rang out the late hour. Diodiné’s lips parted as he strained to reply. But what issued was a long series of spluttering coughs, each followed by a desperate bid for breath. Castor dabbed delicately at the blood and spittle which flecked his Uncle’s lips with a handkerchief. He was a patient man, after all. He could wait.

Keeping Time – Chapter Five

The final chapter of my short story, ‘Keeping Time’. I’ll be making the entire story available for download from my blog soon.

4th attempt

An old teak grandfather clock beat out time in Nigel’s office, no doubt salvaged from Clayre before the Trust decided to make the place a hostel. Couldn’t possibly have the hoi polloi sullying such treasures.

We sat at his desk waiting for him to return, water dripping from our sodden clothes and trainers and pooling around us on the floor. Outside, the rain had faded to a drizzle, and from time to time a faint light broke through the thinner stretches of cloud.

At last he came back, bearing a thin smile and two mugs of tea, a few documents tucked beneath his right arm. He set down the mugs.

“Luckily, our insurance should just about cover the damage, providing we can prove no negligence.” He peered at us through the thick lenses of his glasses, his eyes dense and dark.

“Nigel,” Lid said, “I believe insurance companies call this kind of thing an ‘act of God,’ don’t they? Negligence doesn’t even come into it. And if there were any structural issues with Clayre, that’s surely the Trust’s responsibility.”

“Yes, yes, well…be that as it may.” He slid a slim, liverish slice of tongue across his lips. “We can’t possibly keep the hostel open in its present state. And that means no income during peak season, which means…”

“Yes, we  know what it means, Nigel,” I cut in. “We may lose our jobs. We’re well aware of that.” I took a long slurp of my tea, which seemed to annoy him.

“Well, you young people now. Used to flitting from one job to the next. I’m sure you’ll find something better to do than managing an old place like Clayre.” His smile was ragged, revealing an uneven assortment of yellowing teeth.

“I’m sure we will,” Lid said. “We’ll survive. Let’s just hope Clayre does, too. Anyway, that’s up to the Trust now, not us.” She took a few sips of tea. “We’d better go. It may still be possible to salvage a few things. Of course, if we’d been able to sort all of this out over the ‘phone, we’d have had a better chance.”

As soon as we’d finished our tea, Nigel rose and opened the door, as if only too glad to be rid of us. We saw ourselves out, traipsing back along the musty smelling corridor which passed for the Trust’s museum: odds and sods they’d found around the hall, like clay pipes, books from the library and photographs from the place in better days. I glanced at a few as I passed: a Victorian winter, the gables and windowsills of Clayre caked in snow. Tennis parties on the front lawn in the summer: all hampers, hats and stiff upper lips. And a few pictures of the various families who, through wealth or accident had acquired the old hall and made it their home: men with slicked down hair and outrageous beards, standing proudly beside their crinolined wives and a brood of sickly looking kids. The last picture looked to have been taken in the 1930s. Three young men peered back at me through the camera’s eye. One was in cricket whites, a bat tucked beneath his arm, his cap sliding off his head. The other two wore Sunday suits and smiles, arms draped around each other’s shoulders, looking clean shaven and wholesome. One held a trilby to his breast, while the other…I looked long and hard, until my nose was almost pressed against the display cabinet.

Tightly curled locks of hair framed a taut, angular face; a slight melancholia to the eyes belied the frozen smile. And his fingers dipped into the pocket of a pinstriped waistcoat, on the verge of pulling out a watch. I could just see its chain, and the rim. But I had already convinced myself.

“Helen, come on. We’ve work to do.” Lid tugged at my arm.

“Just a minute. Nigel!” I called through to the office.

“Yes?” His voice filtered back, tight and irate.

“Who…who are these men?”

“What men?”

“These ones. In this picture.”

“Let me see.” He rose with pointed effort and sighed his way down the corridor. “Ah,” he said, standing behind me. “The Kendall brothers.”

“The who?”

“Their father bought Clayre in the mid 1930s. Couldn’t hold on to it, though. Too many debts.”

“And what…do you know what happened to them? The brothers?”

“Very little. After the house was sold, they went their separate ways, I imagine. Except for this chap. He’d already left before his old man had sold up.” Nigel’s pink stub of an index finger fell on the boy with the watch.

“Oh, really?” I said, ignoring the tightness in my throat. “What…what happened to him?”

“That would be Steven. Youngest of the brothers. Bit of an idealist. Not content with stepping into the family firm.”

“Which was?” Lid asked, now interested.

Nigel shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. Owned a couple of factories up north, I think. Anyway, young Stevie disappeared off to Spain in 1937. Wrote a few letters back to his parents explaining that he was fighting Franco’s fascists and…never came back.”

“You mean he was killed?”

“Well, yes. We assume so,” Nigel said, now clearly tiring of the subject. “He sent a few letters back. The Trust still has them. But as far as I know, they never found his body.  Why do you ask?”

“Because…because,” and before I could help myself, the watch was out of my pocket. “I, er, I found this in the hostel the other day.”

“Helen!” Lid’s expression was a perfect blend of confusion and anger.

“Well it looks a bit like the one Stevie is pulling out of his pocket. Doesn’t it, Nigel?” I thrust it into his hands. He peered down at, adjusting his glasses.

“Yes, well. I suppose it’s possible. Unlikely, though.”

“So,” I said, attempting to sound casual and generous and cheerful, but failing miserably. “There you go. Perhaps you’d like to put it in your museum, Nigel. If you can get it to work, that is.”

“Well that’s very good of you, Helen,” he said, grudgingly.

“You’re welcome.” I looped my arm through Lid’s. “As you said, Lid, we’ve got work to do.” I half dragged her down the corridor, and as we turned the corner I saw him turning the watch over in his hands. He held it to his ear and shook it, before shuffling back to the office shaking his head.

“What did you do that for?” Lid rounded on me once we were back out on the street. “You were crazy about the bloody thing a moment ago!” Over head, the clouds continued to brew and break, a few fat drops of rain hitting the pavement.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I shrugged, suddenly feeling lighter, freer, as if I’d slipped a heavy rucksack off my shoulders. “Parting gift, I suppose.”

She continued to stare.

“Don’t worry about it, babe.” I kissed her, then, in the middle of the high street. “And don’t worry about me either.” I smiled. “I’ll be alright. Let’s get back to Clayre.”

“And from there?”

I thought for a moment. “Home,” I said at last. “Wherever that is.”

Review – ‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber

I read this book with a tiny bit of sick hovering at the back of my throat. And it’s kind of hard to reveal why that is, because to do so would be to give away the central twist of this story. But let’s just say, I’m assuming that Michel Faber is a vegetarian.

Seriously, it’s an irresistable story, and Faber succeeds in melding a whole set of genres – sci-fi, thriller and gritty satire – to produce what is a truly satisfying read. It turns the world on its head, it disturbs, unsettles and demands a lot of empathy from the reader for the protagonist, Isserley. It’s a book that interrogates our definitions of humanity, and prompts a whole set of questions about how we structure society, how we determine beauty, and of course how we, as ‘human beings’ impact on our environment.This is all relayed in a muscular prose which perfectly reflects the way Isserley is at once revulsed and enchanted by the world around her.

My only issue with Under the Skin, is that it hinges on one central conceit. Faber leaves sufficient ambiguity in his narrative to allow that twist to operate. Even so, as a reader I found myself querying the extent to which it works. Isserley’s reluctance to examine her own past or values is understandable from a psychological perspective, but as a reader I wanted more ‘fill-in’ here.

Apart from that, loved this book. It fascinates, shocks and enthralls on just about every level, and by the time it reaches its climax, you know there really is only one place left for Isserley to go.


Keeping Time – Chapter Four

The fourth chapter of my ghost story, ‘Keeping Time.’ Last chapter next week!

4th attempt


…at least, I thought I saw him. Even to this day, I can’t quite be sure of what or who it was that had slipped past the door as I opened it.  I caught a blur of pale skin, a crop of wiry, dark brown hair, what might have been a white, woollen sweater. The head turned to me as I peered in: eyes deep set, questioning, surprised; the lips blood red, almost effeminate, pursed as if on the verge of speech. And then it was gone – passing across the porch and into the main hall.

The breath stalled in my throat. And part of me – the rational ten percent – thought, damn. A hosteller. On a day like this. Must have sneaked in somehow. I stepped inside. The hostel smelt damp and earthy, like a dog after a wet walk. But there was something else, another scent – more exotic, brighter, reminding me of olive trees and the sea and the holidays we’d taken at Lid’s Dad’s place in Spain.

I closed the door quietly behind me, my thoughts feverish and buzzing like a nest of angry wasps. When I looked into the hall, there was no one there – no water on the floor or soaked rucksack to indicate a walker in search of a hot mug of tea, or a warm bed for the night.

“Hello?” I called out to the air. No response – just the continual pounding of the rain against the windows and from somewhere in the office, the steady tick of my watch, which had clearly sprung back into life again.

“Hello?” I stumbled back towards the office, willing Lid to come down. But then, crossing the threshold, I froze. For the watch now lay in the very middle of the desk. And around it, as if flung from a jack-in-the-box, papers lay discarded, crumpled, in some places torn. Edging forwards, I stifled a moan. The watch hands were ticking round. Backwards.

Once again, a door slammed on the floor above. This time, it slapped against its frame several times with violent thuds. I pocketed the watch. Why, I can’t say. Perhaps I thought that, left alone down there by itself in the office, it might somehow unleash more damage. It sounds stupid, I know. It was a watch: a useless bundle of cogs and metal strips. But then, common sense was never my strongest asset.

The great hall at Clayre is long and draughty, opening onto a kind of lounge for guests with a spiral oaken flight of stairs to its left. These I now climbed, my fingers tracing the whitewashed walls as if to reassure myself they were real, until I reached the first floor. Here, the long gallery had been converted into washrooms and then a series of dormitories, each still floored with gnarled wooden boards and panelled walls, only the skeletons of bunk beds and wardrobes indicating how time and necessity had altered the building.

I passed through the first room, aware of the watch ticking patiently in the pocket of my shorts, and of that light aroma of sunshine and olives, so incongruous on such a day as this. There was no sign that anyone had passed this way, and the doors were all wide open.

“Hello?” I asked again, this time in a half-whisper. Nothing.

My stomach burned. I sensed my pulse racing ahead of the watch’s ticking hands. “Hello?” Again, no reply. And why should there be? No one was here! Lid would have walked straight through, snorting at my hopelessness. Instead, I crept through the second dorm before halting outside the third, pushing at the grainy timber of its door and then stepping inside. Again, nothing. Nothing but the wind’s whistle, the rain’s hiss, the ticking watch. And in a corner, a steady drip, drip, drip of water into the plastic bucket that Lid had set beneath the ceiling.

I stared up at the engraved border of vines and flowers which had already begun to yellow around the crack, as rain worked its way through centuries of ancient plasterwork, surprised at how little I cared. Helen Winters: a woman who, from childhood had always obsessed over wrecks of bricks and mortar, over time-stained books, rusty suits of armour or fading, paint-peeled portraits. They were an echo of lives long lost; the residue of attitudes and beliefs now washed away by technology, by politics, wars, emotions or mere chance. But when I stared at that crack in the ceiling, I suddenly felt in a strange way that time was perhaps more porous than I had imagined; that the past was shaping us, that we in our turn shape the past, that at any moment those boundaries might crumble, break and come crashing down.

I glanced once more around the room to reassure myself, taking in the beds with their peeled-back quilts, a moth eaten old rug stretched across the floorboards, and in the corner a washstand. I caught my reflection in the mirror above it: my green waterproof still dripping, wet, lank strands of hair plastered to my forehead, my eyes shadowy and drained. I stared and stared, imagining it dissolve, how I might slip my hand through it like Alice and step into another world.

There was a sudden crack, like the sound a frozen puddle makes when you step on it. A fault line had split the glass, running just below my reflected forehead. Then another crack opened up, severing one eye from my head. As if in a dream, when you want to run but find yourself glued to the ground, I found that I couldn’t look away as the mirror splintered, my face fragmenting into a thousand shining pieces, before the whole thing dropped, shattering to the floor.

For a brief moment I crouched, arms folded around my head as shards of glass resembling shrapnel or crystal bullets ricocheted off the walls, skidded across floorboards. Then there was only the ring of silence and the continued clatter of the rain. I rose, turned and ran, just as the door slammed shut in my face.

I grabbed the wooden handle and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. Breathless, I seized it again, dragging it back an inch, before something on the other side tugged it away from me. One foot on the wall, I tore at the door, screaming for Lid and aware, in the intervals when I drew breath, of someone or something walking in steady, unhurried steps around the dormitory on the other side.

The world had contracted into this single room, with its bare walls and glass strewn floor. It was spinning, pulsing as if alive, as if it were real and I an intruder it wished to expel. Exhausted, my grip on the door handle weakening, I slid downwards to the floor, arms knitted around my knees, my face wet with rain and tears, my voice hoarse from screaming.

The door flew open. I screwed shut my eyes, buried my head in the folds of my coat, refusing to look, to have to respond in some way to whatever was now in the room with me.

“Helen?” It was Lid’s hands which peeled away the layers of waterproof. She crouched opposite me, pushing a few stray locks of hair from my eyes. “Helen, what happened?”

“There was something here.”

“What?” She gestured towards the bright square of paint on the wall where the mirror had hung, the floor now shining with broken glass. “Helen, don’t tell me you’re tipping back again, darling. Because…I don’t think I could handle that.”

She pivoted around to sit beside me, our backs resting against the wall, and we sat in silence for a few moments. I fought back a swelling tide of memory: of glass breaking at another time and in another place, of screams, flashing lights and the wail of sirens.

“It’s not that,” I said at last. “I’m better now.”

“You do remember why we came here, don’t you? Why I gave up working in Mum’s restaurant…so you could get out of London? Recover?”

“I said I’m better! I saw…I saw someone.” I struggled to my feet, biting back tears.

“Who, Helen? Who did you see? There’s no one here. Who…who broke that mirror? Was it you?”

“No!” I shouted then. “No! Of course I didn’t do it.”

I stopped there. I knew she wouldn’t believe me. Lid, so rational; so strong. Lid who’d spent a night at A&E waiting to be told I was still alive. Why would she believe me, now?

“Look…” I rubbed away tears and stretched out a hand. She was shaking, I felt it. “I’m still here.” I dragged her into my arms. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not slipping back again. And there is something here, I swear. But I know you don’t believe me. So just…just have a little faith. Alright?”

She held me at arm’s length and studied my face. “Alright, Winters.” Her smile was crooked. She sighed. “You’re on probation. We’ll clean this mess up later. Doesn’t really matter, given the devastation downstairs anyway. Right now, I need to speak to Nigel. Are you coming?”

I nodded, and let her lead me from the room.

Review – Ali Smith ‘Artful’



Here’s to the place where reality and the imagination meet, whose exchange, whose dialogue, allows us not just to imagine an unreal different world but also a real different world – to match reality with possibili… (Smith, Artful, 197)

Ali Smith is one of my all time literary heroes, so it’s kind of difficult for me to be objective about her writing. I understand some of the criticisms that have been levelled at Artful – that it’s too selfconsciously, well, artful, with its puns and its wordplay and its dizzying array of references to high art and low, to cinema, painting, TV, novels, poetry, songs and anecdotes. But, to be honest, that’s what I really want in essays or lectures. I don’t want some dry as dust expostion on the role of aesthetic form. It’s precisely the kind of grasshopper style that drew me to this book in the first place: the ability to cruise from Oliver Twist to Oliver! or from Miłosz to Rilke via Sappho. These associative leaps open up genuine dialogue, not just between the reader and author, but between the texts themselves.

But it’s not just those bold associations that Smith conjures, her linguistic pyrotechnics or the intellectual fizz of Artful which makes it such a wonderful collection of studies. It’s also the way that, at the same time, the author plays with the genre itself, inserting her essays within a narrative framework. Smith fictionalises herself, as the now dead author of a series of lectures which are read by her grieving lover. This is, I believe, one of the most beautiful examples of literature as love letter since Woolf’s Orlando, a gift of startling generosity since, as the narrator later realises, “To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.” (188)

This is what is so characteristic of Smiths’ writing. “Art,” she writes, “is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter” (166). It is this perception of writing as an act of exchange, as a circuit between reader, writer and text, “the place where reality and imagination meet,” which forms the bedrock of her literary project. Because, beneath the wit and wisdom of her prose lies compassion and warmth, an empathy which, she explains, is ‘art’s part-exchange…its inclusivity, at once a kindness, a going beyond the self.’ (178)

The Invitation – A Free Short Story

You can now read The Invitation – a short story based on the characters from The Duellist series here on my blog! I’ve also made it available for download in pdf and word formats.

The Invitation picks up eight years after the events of Hannac. It’s a light-hearted tale of love, self-discovery and extreme drunkenness, which feeds into part three of the series, due to be published in 2017.

Warning: if you haven’t read the earlier novels, Hal and Hannac, it does contain a few spoilers!

The Invitation – Word

The Invitation PDF

Keeping Time – Chapter Three

The third chapter of my ghost story, Keeping Time

4th attempt
By next morning the storm had passed over, but left in its wake rain that was so intense as to feel solid. It gushed down gutters and tore rifts in the lane to the hostel which were then clogged with gravel and broken branches. Dressed in sodden sandals, shorts and waterproofs, we trudged over to Clayre Hall, fractious and ill-tempered after the disturbances of the night.

As the power was still out, I brewed up water in a pan on the gas hob for tea while Lid explored. She returned grimfaced some minutes later, with news of the flooded games room and the ceiling leaking in the third dorm.

“Well what do we do now?”

“I don’t bloody know, do I Helen?” she snapped. “Advertise our new indoor swimming facilities?”

“I said we should have checked the place during the night.”

“And what good would that have done? It’s not in our remit to hold back the fucking forces of nature, is it?”

Too tired to argue, I huffed off with my mug of tea to the office, slid a sly glance back through to the kitchen and then opened a drawer. There lay the watch, its hands no longer ticking through the hours but rather stammering through them: flicking back and forth, moth-like. Swallowing hard, I slammed the drawer. Clearly the storm had wrung havoc with my nerves. The watch had been here all along. And the footsteps? Perhaps, after all, I’d drifted off while lying on the sofa.

“We’ll have to call Nigel now.” Lid entered the office, nursing her tea. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.” I picked up the receiver and put it to my ear. No buzzing or pips – just pointless silence. “Landline’s down, too.”

Her expression grew even sourer. “Great. We’ll have to use the mobile. Come on. Let’s call  Señor  Nigel.”

There was no reception in the valley. It was only possible to make a call by clambering up a wet slope at the front of the hostel and waving the handset around as if divining for water. This we now did, accompanied by the disgruntled bleats of damp sheep; Clayre Hall somewhere below us, obscured by rain.

“Perhaps we should call the contractors directly,” I yelled to Lid as she performed a mad dance around the field, an ancient Nokia raised to the heavens. “We need to deal with it now before more damage is done.”

“Well you can explain to Nigel why we didn’t consult him first in that case,” she snarled back.

Nigel Tenford: our first and only point of contact with that band of bigots, Clayre Hall Trust. Nigel, who had employed us two years previously with the reluctance of a man staring down the barrel of a discrimination claim.

“But you stated in your job ad that you required a couple to run the hostel,” I’d protested.

So we did. So we did indeed.” He’d run nervous, nicotine stained fingers through a finely maintained comb-over, his eyes brewing behind thick-rimmed glasses with contempt and alarm. “But we were thinking along the lines of…”

“What were you thinking, Mr. Tenford?” Lid had leaned forwards, one eyebrow raised in pointed question. He rolled his loose, blubberish lips together and backed away.

“I’m a very liberal guy.” He stammered the word ‘guy’ as if for the first time: as if he’d learned it for precisely this occasion. “But other members of the Trust might…”

“Might what? Might not welcome a pair of lesbians running Clayre Hall?” Lid suppressed a snort. “Let me remind you of what your advertisement states, Mr. Tenford. It says that you need someone with good management skills. I’ve spent the last three years helping my mother to run Micah’s restaurant in London.”

The Micah’s?” He folded his arms over the chest of his grey, knitted sweater.

“Yes. Which means I also happen to be an excellent cook. A skill also requested in your advert.”

“And I’m – I was – a history teacher,” I cut in. “And you also indicate that you need someone with a passion for the subject.”

“And you stated a couple,” Lid reminded him again before I could show off my recently acquired knowledge of Clayre Hall. “I’d say we’re a bit over qualified, quite frankly. At least, I’m sure that’s how equal opportunities will see it.”

His round, conceited face fell. “The matter is out of my hands, ladies,” he blustered. “It’s for the Trust to decide.”

“And as we understand it, Mr. Tenford, the only way for Clayre to remain in the Trust’s hands is to convert it into a tourist facility. Hence your hostel.”

He nodded sullenly, a tiny speck of spit flecking his fat lower lip.

“And a hostel requires wardens. Do you have any other interested couples with our level of competency?”

“I’ll be in touch.”

I knew we’d won. Lid and I went back to London, packed our few belongings and waited. Three days later, the ‘phone rang: Nigel.

“I, er, I talked the Trust round, Helen.”

“Did you, Mr. Tenford? That’s good of you.” I blew a smoke ring at Lid and winked at her. She screamed, running five laps of our flat in delight.

“Yes,” he continued. “I, er, I told them that you and Lidia were good friends.”

“You did what?’

Lid froze, mid cartwheel, and stared.

“Helen, you and Lidia are more than suited to managing Clayre Hall. But you know, the Trust….”

Yes, I knew the Trust. Or at least I imagined I did, with their blue rinses and their green wellingtons, their Range Rovers and their sense of entitlement.

“Well, Nigel,” I said, deciding then and there that there would be no more Mr. Tenford, “we’ll take the job. Just make sure you lock up your daughters.” And with that, I hung up.

So here we now were, in a field in the middle of Shropshire, half drowning and trying to make contact with Nigel. Or at least, Lid was. I was attempting to roll a dry cigarette.

“Yes. Yes, Nigel, it’s me. Lidia. Yes. We’re alright, except…no. No, Nigel. It’s not alright. The games room is flooded, and the ceiling in dorm three is leaking. No….no we couldn’t have done anything. What did you expect us to do? Walk around with our mouths open to catch the rain?…No…I’m not being facetious, but really. Nigel…fuck…Nigel!”

She almost dropped the phone in rage, plucked the cigarette from my mouth, took a drag and blew a vicious stream of smoke into the wet air. “He hung up.”

“I got that impression.”

“Yes. The self-righteous provincial little prick. He hung up the fucking phone!”

“Well what now?” I sank down onto the wet grass and realised I’d squashed my Rizlas.

“We’ll have to take a trip down into Chenton,” she said, waving the cig around with murderous intent. “Because if he wants to see his precious seventeenth century stucco again, he’d better do something about it.”

We trudged back down to the hall, fingers and toes now purple with cold, teeth chattering.

“I’ll lock up,” I said trembling. “You fire up old blue.”

Old blue, our twenty-year-old joke of a Fiat Uno was prone to fits of serious unreliability. Particularly at times when its services were most required.

“Fine.” She stormed off in the direction of the cottage while I squelched my way along the moat, climbed up the bank and crossed the footbridge, keys at the ready.

And that was when I saw him.