Funky, Fun, Feminist and Flippin Hypocritical

Last week's Sunday Times Style Section - which has become utterly cliched, like a send-up of itself - ran a piece titled 'Funky, Fun and Feminist.' Yes, it said, you can wear lipstick and be a feminist. You don't say. Except that a few pages earlier, they were also showing a triple picture of Karren Brady, Lorraine Kelly and Fern Britton all looking pretty gorgeous in low cut dresses. Titled 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' the accompanying snide little paragraph was more or less reinforcing the curious idea that women over a certain age should go about wearing full length sacks. So don't talk to me about new feminists. Never have Western women - mostly at the behest of some of their 'sisters' in the media - been so thoroughly paranoid about their own bodies. And what price any kind of feminism at all when a broadsheet newspaper can still be printing such garbage in the name of journalism?

A Spooky Tale for Christmas

OK, so it doesn't have a wintry setting, but this is the time of year for ghost stories, so here's one I wrote earlier. It was published in a magazine called Ayrshire Life, some time ago. It's called

The renovation had taken time, effort and money but now it was almost complete. Jack had bought the stone cottage in the long village street because he wanted somewhere of his own, a place on which he could lavish a little affection. Originally, the house had been part of a terrace. On the right it was still attached to the row of old weaver’s houses, but on the left there was a neat gap where another cottage had long since been demolished. “Room for possible extension” the estate agent’s schedule had said.
Jack had also acquired the demolished cottage’s wilderness of a garden as part of his own, though as yet he had scarcely done any gardening. He had been much too busy on the house. His neighbour on the right hand side was an elderly widow who lived alone. A friendly pub was within walking distance and for the first time since the sudden death of his wife, a couple of years earlier, he found himself achieving a kind of contentment. He had worked steadily through the winter and now, with the coming of spring, he could look with pleasure on newly sanded and waxed floors, a restored stone fireplace, a white tiled bathroom and a kitchen in fumed oak. He had resisted the temptation to buy an Aga. That had been his wife’s dream, not his, and besides, funds were getting low.
Like all old houses, the cottage had objected to the disturbance, throwing a hundred problems at him. There had been a certain satisfaction in finding solutions. In his more imaginative moments, he thought that he and the house had sized each other up, and grown used to each other. All its nightly noises were familiar now: the creak and rustle of cooling wood, the tap, tap of hot water in the pipes, the occasional mousy scuttering from the loft. There were idiosycracies too: the spare bedroom door that would not stay shut, but swung open without warning; the cool spot at the bend in the stairs. But none of them worried him although his occasional visitors, friends from the city, commented on them. But there was a consistency about them that was reassuring. Now he could begin to think about getting the garden into shape. He anticipated the work involved with real pleasure.
He was a young man and had taken the loss of his wife very badly. They had planned children, later. Now he was torn between sorrow over what might have been and relief that he hadn’t been left alone, to cope with an family. Unable to bear the pain of so many associations in the city where they had been together since graduation, he had asked for a transfer and come to work in a nearby town where there was a smaller, quieter branch of his bank. He didn’t care so much for promotion any more. All his hopes for the future had been shared with Debbie. Now she was gone, he was content to spend all his free time on the house.
“He hasn’t an idle bone in his body” they said of him in the village and that was praise indeed, for they were slow to accept strangers. But they had begun to like him.
The house, however, lacked one finishing touch and at first he was at a loss how to remedy it. At the bend in the stairs and quite high up, there was a round stained glass window, like a small porthole. Or rather there had once been such a window but what was left of it was so cracked and splintered that he had had to seal it with hardboard to keep out the winter draughts until he should decide what to do about it. He was very much afraid that he was going to have to fill the space with clear glass but for some reason the idea disappointed him. He was conscientious about such things, liking the unusual features that characterised the place.
Jack had been discussing the problem one night in the pub with a friend, who had come down from the city to admire the work on the cottage. Billy, the landlord, happened to overhear their conversation, or it may have been that he was listening. At any rate, later on in the evening, he approached Jack. “About that stained glass…”
“I could let you have a window. I didn’t know yours was broken. This one’s just the same.”
Jack was mystified. “You could?”
“Aye. It came from the cottage next door to yours, just before it was demolished. That was before my time, but they took out the glass. So my father said. I suppose someone thought it was too nice to throw away. It’s been up in our loft for years. You’re welcome to it if you can use it.”
“Why was the other cottage demolished?” asked Jack’s friend.
“I wouldn’t know.” Billy shrugged. “It lay empty for years. They couldn’t seem sell it. So the dry rot and the wet rot and the woodworm got to it. The way it nearly got to yours.” He mopped at the bar with a cloth. “They were always a pair those two houses. Built at the same time. But houses in this village weren’t fetching the prices they are today and nobody could be bothered with it.’
‘It’s given me a nice bit of extra land,’ said Jack. ‘I’m going to have my vegetable garden there.’
‘You’re really into all this self sufficiency stuff, aren’t you?’ said his friend, draining his glass.
‘Not really. I’ve always wanted to grow veggies.’
‘Tatties’ said Billy.
‘Potatoes, that’s what you have to grow in the first year. Cleans the ground. You’ll need seed potatoes.’
‘Will I?‘
‘You will. And since you’ve got the land you may as well have the window.”

Billy brought it round the next day. It was wrapped neatly in yellowing newspaper. Jack took it out and set it carefully on the floor, sidetracked for a moment by the old advertisements for corsetry and tricycles. He folded the newspaper carefully. Worth keeping, he thought. he could see that the window was a fine piece of work. The glass was clear red with an intricate little chain of flowers and leaves as a border. Afraid of damaging it, he contracted a local glazier to set it in and was pleased to notice how the afternoon sun cast a rosy glow through the red glass, shedding a beam of light over his stairs.
The window fascinated him. Every time he passed through his hallway, he found himself pausing to admire it. Next morning, a fine spring Sunday, he took a bowl of warm water up to his landing, stood on a stepladder, and began to clean the old glass, carefully sponging away the dirt of years, and the traces of putty left by the glazier. Presently however, he found his attention focussed on the patch of garden he could see outside. The stone walls of his house were very thick and blinkered his view. Also the glass itself had a flaw in it that slightly blurred his vision but, leaning a little to the left of his window, he found that he was looking down at what seemed to be a small cherry tree. He could just make out a blurr of blossom, as well as a patch of grass with scattered petals beneath. Somebody was sitting there. The warp in the glass prevented him from seeing clearly but it seemed to be a young woman, dressed in light clothing, her head bent over her lap. She might be reading, or even sewing. He screwed up his eyes. It occurred to him that he must be looking into next door’s garden: the one to the right of his own house. The window must have somehow funnelled his vision.
The old lady had visitors; a grand-daughter perhaps. There was a suggestion of long dark hair, a slim frame beneath. He stopped in his work of cleaning, his hand poised over the glass. A young man had come up and slipped his arms around the girl from behind. Jack saw a pale shirt, pink in the light from the glass, though he guessed it must be white. A loose shirt, dark trousers. The girl reached up her hands to grasp his. The man bent over and kissed the top of her head. Then she half rose, and they were in each others arms, embracing passionately in the sunlight.

Jack was embarrassed. He felt himself beginning to blush. It was as though he had intruded on their sudden moment of intimacy, although they could not know it. He took himself downstairs so that he shouldn’t be tempted to spy on the couple from the bedroom window. He was a good natured young man, and felt as though it wasn’t quite honest to watch them like this.
But the stained glass held its own attraction. The morning wore on towards lunch time. Whenever he had reason to pass through the hall, going out to the shop for the Sunday papers, or carrying a mug of coffee from kitchen to sitting room, he found his eyes straying towards it. It made him uncomfortable.
At last, he went out into the garden, on the pretext of making some plans for new borders and his vegetable patch. To his right, the old hedge between his own land and his neighbour’s garden next door, was high and thick, a tangle of rosa rugosa and privet and juniper. Much further down the garden it thinned out a bit and it was there that he usually looked over it, and held friendly conversations with the old lady, as she pottered about among her roses. He had given her his phone number. ‘If you need anything, just give me a call’ he had told her, promising to come through and do some weeding for her later in the spring.
But he could see nothing from this end, close to the house. He stood outside his back door for a long time, listening, but he could hear only birdsong, and the usual Sunday village sounds: a distant lawnmower, an occasional car, the excited mooing of cows let out to grass at last, the lazy drone of a small plane, practising aerobatics, high above. Nothing else. No voices at all. Were they still kissing?
Unable to withstand his own gnawing curiosity he went back upstairs to the window, stood on the ladder, and peered out again. He felt extraordinarily furtive, seeing without being seen. The couple were still together. There was a desperation about their caresses that he found both moving and distressing. Thoroughly ashamed of himself, he was about to descend and leave them to it, when he noticed a sudden quick movement, just at the edge of the glass.
A third figure had come within the compass of his vision, another man he thought, from the general size and bearing. The newcomer was standing just behind the tree trunk, in an attitude uncomfortably suggestive of extreme tension. Indeed the figure seemed at once furtive and yet poised as if ready to spring. As Jack watched, he saw the man raise a hand, a whole arm. But it was too long, too strong. He was holding something. What was it? A stick? Worse, an axe? He was stretching it up and out with a terrible tension about all his movements, a prelude to violence. It was the only interpretation Jack could place upon the gesture.
In an instant he had jumped from the ladder, and was running down the stairs, out of the back door and into his own garden, shouting ‘Hey!’ foolishly. ‘Hey! Stop that! Stop that!’
But even before he reached the part of his garden where the hedge ran low enough to see over, he felt that something was wrong. Feeling foolish, he parted the leaves and peered back along the length of the old lady’s garden. It was quite empty. A well tended lawn gave way to a newly dug vegetable patch. Jack remembered that she had told him her son was coming round to do it for her. There was a little group of apple trees bunched up at the far end. It was as he had remembered. She had no cherry tree. No trees at all.
He turned slowly back to his own garden, looking towards his cottage seeking some explanation, but it too was basking innocently in the spring sunshine. ‘How stupid to live in a place for six months and not to remember ….’ , he thought, confused. His gaze slid across neglected flowerbeds to the rotting stumps of the old fence posts that had once marked the border between the two gardens, his own, and the demolished cottage. There was no cherry tree in the garden of his own cottage. The cherry stood fair and square in the middle of what had once been the lawn of the house next door. He could see it now, quite far away, with a pool of pink petals shed on the lengthening grass beneath. He glanced up to his little round window. Not easy to see that garden from up there. Particularly if you were standing to the left of it. Impossible to see the cherry tree. Completely impossible. The words dinned into his mind. His legs moved reluctantly as he retraced his steps back up to the window and peered out. The patch of grass beneath the cherry tree was quite empty now, the red glass turning the shed petals a vivid shade of crimson.

He had the window removed, the very next day. He gave it back to Billy with his thanks, explaining that it made his hallway too dark.
“I’ll just get some plain glass” he said.
With what may be considered a remarkable lack of curiosity, Jack made no enquiries at all in the village as to the history of the demolished house next door to his own. He liked his cottage far too much for that. Better not to know what had happened. When that year’s flowering was over he had the cherry tree chopped down. “It only covers the lawn with dead petals” he said, by way of explanation. Some of the villagers thought it was a shame. Others, older people for the most part, did not.
Catherine Czerkawska

The Saturday Play

What, in the name of all that's holy, possessed the powers that be at BBC Radio 4 to schedule a dark psycho-sexual drama as the afternoon play on the saturday before Christmas, for God's sake. So there I am standing in the kitchen, mixing a (late) Christmas pudding and slapping white icing on my cake - a big snowball, as usual, don't go for the fancy stuff. I love my kitchen at this time of year. It smells of oranges and vanilla and coffee and the light gleams off the ancient oak press cupboard that has swallowed everything from bread flour to salted peanuts in preparation for the entertaining ahead. He always comes into his own at Christmas - the cupboard I mean. He goes by the name of George, because I have the distinct feeling that he was made for somebody of that name, almost 400 years ago. A marriage piece, and one of the initials is G. I found myself giving him a therapeutic polish this morning as I so very often do. He pays for polishing and whenever you open one of the cupboard doors the fabulous smell of old beeswax floods out.
Yes folks, I'm in love with my cupboard.
But there I was, working away, and I switched on the radio expecting, ooh, I don't know, something Christmassy, or at the very least something spooky, to find myself being warned about the psycho sexual content of a worthy play about Melanie Klein. The effect it had on me was the one my old radio drama producer used to call the 'Shit Click' effect. You know. When you listen for a couple of minutes, say 'Shit!' and reach for the off button.
I put on some music instead, and stirred up my pudding with a will. But has Radio 4 taken leave of its senses, or what?

Work in Progress

In between trying to get ready for Christmas and fighting off some kind of bug (have you noticed how, even though you have the flu jab, which as an asthmatic I always do, you can still find yourself feeling distinctly under the weather and as though your immune system is working overtime to combat some invader? It remains to be seen who wins this particular battle!) - anyway, in between all this, I've been finishing off a draft of the Physic Garden. Today, I sent it to my agent, all 86,000 words of it! I know she won't read it till January, probably late January, but I still felt I needed to send it before Christmas. It's a psychological thing. I've printed out yet another copy of it, and filed it away in a desk drawer.It still needs a bit of work, even though it has already been through many drafts. Chiefly, there seems to be a wee 'dip' in the middle, which I've struggled to address. But I don't think I'm quite there yet. Distance will lend perspective. But the urge to fiddle around the edges is very strong. So I'm attempting to put it out of my reach so that I can move on with something else in the meantime. There are other things I want to do now - a plan for a new novel, a drastic revision of an old one turning it (I hope) into a different book. And a fairly bizarre collection of short stories which have been flitting around my mind like so many bats, these many months past. I intend to get going on those over Christmas. I do love this wintry hiatus in the year. Even when I don't do as much writing as I would like, it is still a time when I catch up with reading and thinking, and I don't seem to have enough time for either of these in my normal working week!

The Dog Ate My Homework, Miss!

The latest draft of the new novel is nearly finished. Last week, in an effort to concentrate my mind, I emailed my agent and told her that I would definitely be sending her a copy of it by tuesday. Er, today. Except that I haven't done it yet. No, the dog didn't eat my homework. But here's what happened. I had been working on a printout, making changes and corrections, and was beginning to be reasonably pleased with the results. All novels get to that stage where you are much too close to them to be able to make sound judgements. You need somebody else to read them - but even more importantly, you need a break of weeks so that you can return with fresh eyes. The plan was, and still is, to send the book to Sarah in the knowledge that she wouldn't be able to get back to me about it until the New Year. Which would give me space to stand back from the whole project. I had also just bought a big new book about the period in question and wanted time to read it, just in case I had got something very wrong.
Last week, I was browsing through our local branch of Waterstones, looking for Christmas presents for various people when my eye alighted on another enticing non fiction paperback which didn't just cover the period in question but was a mine of information about the very specific area covered by the novel. I bought it with a mixture of excitement and the sinking feeling you get when you suspect that you may have got something important very very wrong. As it turned out, I hadn't got it wrong at all. But this wonderful book not only confirmed one of my major plot points, but added to it, giving me yet another interesting reason why things would not go according to plan for my main character. This in turn involved a few important rewrites. Hence the delay. I'm still sitting here with a marked up manuscript, all 86,000 words of it - and I promise that I will get the corrections typed up this week!
There are so many excellent historical books out there that it's always going to be a problem knowing when to stop researching and I have to remind myself that I'm working on a piece of fiction. As long as it's accurate enough, it doesn't really have to be a manual on early nineteenth century gardening. As long as something theoretically 'could' happen, as long as there is a modicum of truth about it all, then that's fine.
But I know that when I'm reading historical fiction myself, nothing yanks me out of my suspension of disbelief more quickly than a sudden howler. I don't mean small inaccuracies. I mean the really big stuff. And I know we all make compromises and you can't write in archaisms, but if an eighteenth century character says 'OK' - and this happens in films all the time, God knows why nobody spots it - it definitely jars.
On the other hand I well remember an (English) editor querying every single Scotticism in one of my manuscripts as 'anachronistic'. These included my phrase 'ghostly gear' to describe a dead 18th century woman's possessions. She was thinking Liverpool, 1960s. I was thinking of a very old Scots word for goods or wealth. I had to send her the dictionary reference. There is an excellent piece about just this problem here.
Meanwhile, The Physic Garden will be landing in my agent's inbox before the weekend is out. I promise. I really really do.