Time to Write

I’m very pleased to say I have been awarded a commission from Paper Nations, as part of their Time to Write call for people struggling with their writing practice.

Unfortunately, creative writing has fallen down the list in the last couple of years as family and other commitments have taken priority. I never even considered funding before, but when I read about Time to Write, it seemed to apply very closely to my current circumstances.

I made the application back in December when the coronavirus was just a speck on the horizon. Ironically, I now have quite a lot of time to write (although it’s still a challenge in my household), but I’m immensely grateful for the funding which will help towards living costs while work opportunities have reduced.

All writers who received a commission have been asked to write a response to the crisis we are facing, in particular, the aspect of isolation. I’ve just begun to give this some thought and am hashing out a few ideas.

I’m really excited to get going on it and feel thankful to have a project to focus on in these unnerving times.

Look forward to sharing what I’ve come up with further down the line!

The message

“Man admits to string of rapes in Manchester area.. “

Colin looks away from the newsfeed on the wall of the bus and down at his phone. He swipes at the pop-ups, just in case any messages have been smothered. Nothing.

A flashing ad on the back of the seat forces his gaze.

“Protect your family’s future with life insur..”

He shuts his eyes and tries to imagine positive energy radiating out of him and passing over to the hospital where James and Daisy are.

When he opens his eyes again, the bus is passing under the bridge. Discount offers reflecting on the river from its underside look strangely beautiful.

The bus joins onto the main road. Projections and billboards light it up.

“Trump orders airstrike on…”

“Twenty one dead as fire rampages…”

“40% off our range of carpets…”

Colin checks his phone again and banishes the pop-ups. Still nothing.

He turns his phone face down and looks at the back of his hand. Veins are popping. His knuckles are red. Perhaps he’s getting too old for these early starts.

As he steps off the bus in the centre, a message arrives. Colin opens it.

“It’s a girl! We are over the moon. All is well. Daisy is resting now. Lots of love xx”.

Colin looks up and for a moment the billboards blur, their vivid colours only serving to elevate this happiest of occasions.

The inescapable truth

In the dim light, the curve of the pillow was soft and undulating. It gave way to shadow, which doused the recessed wall next to the fireplace. He took in these gentle textures for as long as possible, their contours like a final vestige of the dreamscape.

Then, sure enough, his alarm broke the silence and he rose from the sofa. He passed down the corridor from the living room, stopping to lean into Edith’s room, as he always did. In the thick dark he picked up soft breaths. They were both soothing yet telling of the great responsibilities that lay upon him. Some mornings he would pass by, determined not to be tied to this ritual, but he would always hurry back, irrationality telling him that this might be the one time he needed to check, the one time the breath was not there.

He splashed his face with cold water and then gathered his belongings from the hallway table. The door to the second bedroom was slightly ajar. No need to enter. For inside lay aggravation that was too complex and jarring to resolve with a few whisperings, but would need dealing with, nevertheless.

Outside, porch lights twinkled on wet car rooftops. He slid into the seat and started the engine. The dashboard lit up and he switched on the radio, quickly shifting from the news to classical music. News was never a good thing at any time of the day.

As he joined the A-road and picked up speed, a meditative state washed over him, which often seemed to occur at around 50mph. He concentrated on the tailights ahead of him as they drifted round the long curves.

By the time he reached the bridge, glimmers of blue were spreading across the sky and a thousand other cars twinkled under the floodlights of the port below.

He arrived at the park and ride with five minutes to spare. The engine was already running as he sat down and the driver was busy chatting with another from the 6.45 behind. Then they were off down the dual carriageway towards the city centre, the sky a little bluer now, belying the ragged outline of the limestone gorge that towered above.

For now, he could lose himself in the juddering motion and the river as it flurried passed the trees before the weight of work and its drudgery became an inescapable reality.

On the way home

Boys in navy blue blazers jostle each other outside the Marriott hotel, looks of uncertainty over what to do with so much privilege.

Metres away, skaters slam their boards into the paving slabs on College Green, while pedestrians march through the middle, determined to exert their right of way.

A small group gather on the grass, watching intently as a man gives a lesson on how to repair a bicycle puncture.

Further on, four men lounge in the shade of the cathedral, waiting for something. Close by is a tent pitched beneath a tree; the council turning a blind eye or quietly piecing together the paperwork to shift it?

The Old Man and the Museum

I hadn’t been working there long when I first noticed the old man. He was padding round the balcony, glancing about with a look of quiet fascination at the old maps displayed on the walls. He made three circuits, before descending to the ground floor and tipping his hat at the meet and greeter as he left.

I quickly learned from my colleagues that he was a regular to the museum and had been for some time. Aside from taking walks around the upper floors, the old man also liked to tell jokes. He would often come over to the information desk and whisper “Have you heard the one about…” to whoever was stationed there that day. The punchlines were terrible, but we would laugh anyway out of courtesy and also because it was a brief spell of cheeriness amongst the drone of weary visitors.

From then on, I paid close attention to his habits and saw how he would pause on occasion to pat a handrail or a stone column, like it was a trusted friend. At other times he would suddenly become fixated by an exhibit and beam at it with a knowing smile. This often had the profound effect of drawing other visitors to the object at which point the old man would slip through the bustle and continue on his steady meander. Most of all, he enjoyed looking at the Didier-Pouget that fills the wall outside the wildlife gallery. Nothing seemed to please him more than taking in the sunlit tufts of heather and the sprawling hillside as if it were a view he knew too well or perhaps longed to see in person.

The first week he stopped visiting the museum, things began to deteriorate. Chunks of marble began breaking off the staircase in the front hall as visitors passed up and down. Surveyors were brought in to assess the problem, but they were unable to determine a cause and management had no choice but to close them off, indefinitely.

The old man appeared a few days later, using the back stairs instead to reach the galleries. Although he still made his rounds, word quickly spread that he didn’t display his usual level of affection towards the exhibits or the building.

The following week, the preventative conservator became convinced that there were new cracks appearing in the Assyrian reliefs. At first, no one believed her until she began taking pictures that illustrated the encroaching damage. The curators were bewildered, but those of us who worked on the galleries knew what was happening. You could feel it in the walls and the great oak doorways – everywhere was withering in his absence.

The last time I saw the old man, his face was deathly pale. He still wore his broad-brimmed hat, but he’d swapped the tweed for a grey woollen suit jacket. He didn’t tell us any jokes. He barely made it up to the balcony.

Over time, things returned to normal; mostly. The steps were able to be repaired and the cracks in the reliefs no longer seem to be increasing.How many have noticed the new addition, I couldn’t say. It’s barely acknowledged, except through the briefest of whispers or in the flick of an eye. But if you care to look, you’ll see that a second figure has appeared amongst the rose-tinted hillside where once there stood a lone female. There’s not much detail to make out apart from a broad-brimmed hat that’s being held aloft as if the person is embracing the scene.

No doubt there’ll be others who’ll become a fixture amongst the museum and its collections. It’s what they deserve after contributing so much to the masonry and the treasures within. You might even call it a public service. For those yet to discover their own cherished item, I wish them long and healthy lives.

Dead leaves

Sam looks at the pavement as they walk. It’s covered with dead leaves and scraps of litter and there are weeds sprouting at the edges. The sight of it makes him uneasy.

Meanwhile, his dad is looking up at the sky. There’s a hot air balloon floating overhead, red and yellow striped.

Sam can see his dad smiling and he tries to copy him, but there are too many things wrong with the world today.

His dad reaches up towards the balloon and plucks it from the sky, his black hair turning white as it touches the clouds.

You can do anything, he says and tugs the balloon down to earth. The people inside it scream and yell as they are tossed from the basket to their deaths.

He looks at the limp balloon in his hand, wondering what went wrong.

No, we can’t, thinks Sam and he returns his attention to the decaying street and the brittleness of dreams.