Monday, 22 January 2018

Hello I'm back after a year that really was and Tommy gets lucky — a short story

The past year really has been something else. I entered 2017 waiting to have open heart surgery to repair a faulty aortic heart valve I was born with, but which only came to light after 73 years thanks to my being diagnosed with 'established fibrosis of the lungs' in the summer of 2015. I had the operation at the end of February and spent six months recovering (all went well and the NHS treated me like royalty), then just as I thought I could return to writing proper and posting to Senior Fiction my wife Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time (the first time being in 2006) and had her operation the week before Christmas. We will know tomorrow if she needs chemo.

Then, as I was recovering, a link posted to Susan's Ancestry website page in April lead me to finding out the name of my father after 73 years and meeting 
in October a half-brother I didn't know I had, who is nine years older than myself.

So I think it not unreasonable on my part to claim that 2017 was an exceptional year. What I did do was to continue scribbling in notebooks, so I have a few stories to type up over coming months. It's just a question of where to begin, so I've decided to start with the latest, 'Tommy gets lucky', a revenge story of sorts, as well as an exercise in description and dialogue, written for a friend. I hope you enjoy...


How my Tommy looks. A picture I found on the web without any accreditation (it just says 'download'). If anyone knows the copyright holder or the website it is from please tell me and I will try to get their permission to use this image.

Tommy was bait. He could pull far better than Clancy, who the former called ‘Top Dog’ in his head but never said.

Tommy got the introductions, always his name first. They would stand and talk a few moments, maybe walk together. Clancy would make a note if he liked what he saw and heard. Dog owners have routines and Clancy’s golden rule was never to interrupt or disagree. Woman with dogs like adoration and Tommy gave this to perfection.

Clancy chose to live near the town centre so he could play all the parks and nature reserves around the town, including the riverside but not the canal. Another rule was that they had to be on bus routes. Tommy loved buses and if Eileen the clippie on the 16 hadn’t moved he may have stopped a long time ago. Then there were holidays, always self-catering. Whitby was popular with single women of a certain age — ‘cougars’ he heard them described and the term stuck in his head.

He had a nice two up and down house on Old Station Street behind the town’s new railway station. Well it was new 50 years ago and it had just had a makeover. Now it was described as ‘A world-class interchange’ despite the fact that the town’s bus station was a five minute walk away. The house backed onto the town’s canal, the towpath of which was on the opposite bank. Clancy had his own mooring where he kept a small boat complete with a daybed and a galley so that he and Tommy could entertain.

Clancy’s house was worth four times what he paid for it ten years before. At the time he had just inherited half a house from his grandfather and had a decent job copying images so they could be placed onto tin boxes without infringing copyrights. When the factory closed he went solo and he was doing OK. What helped with the house was the town’s old technical college becoming a poly, then quickly morphing into a new university. This last change attracted academics and related professionals, plus better-off students, all needing homes or rooms and almost overnight Old Station Street became prime real estate. It really was a case of location location location.

Tommy couldn’t leave the house without attracting attention and he loved that. So did Clancy, female students bending down to stroke Tommy became his favourite kind of eye candy and they were good competition for the cougars. He was beginning to like the taste of kittens. Tommy though preferred the oldies and it showed. Those Top Dog liked often came with a pooch, so Tommy got some action too and he enjoyed that. The truth be known, the town had a good few Tommy lookalikes. If Top Dog could do it, so could he. 

Clancy knew the dangers, which is why he conducted his affairs one at a time and let a location where he scored lay fallow as long as he could. Better an affair die of boredom than in a big fight. The few times that happened Tommy was in there somewhere. More than once he was left holding a box of small puppies. 

“My little sweetie how could he? She’s a pedigree and that dog of yours is no better than the mongrel he is!”

“I’ll have you know Tommy’s a cross-border collie.”


At some point a door usually slammed and Tommy was clever enough to know what his kennel was for. Top Dog would  give his secret tickle and say “You’re a sly one you clever old dog. How come I never catch you?”

The thing about cougars was they just wanted a nice time whereas kittens often came with expectations. They saw Clancy as a guy 10-12 years older with  a good job and a stylish home in the centre of town. “A weekend crashpad” was how Zara described it. They met on the campus when she stopped to make a fuss of Tommy and since he had no cougar in tow at the time Clancy took full advantage of the opportunity. Zara was easy meat — more pork rib than shank, his favourite cut — but she turned out to be a tasty morsel and, worryingly, had his measure. It all came to a head a month before graduation when Zara asked “Can my mam stay with you for my graduation? She manages, but you know how hotel prices go up for this kind of thing. You are coming aren’t you? You could come together”. How could he say no? He couldn’t.

Anthea arrived on the 4:33 from York and Clancy agreed to meet the train. Platform 1. Clancy couldn’t miss her, just like Zara only bulkier and he liked what he saw, but she was ahead of him, waving, then shouted “Tommy”, who broke Clancy’s hold of his lead and shot across ten metres of platform as fast as his four legs could carry him. “My my, you’re every bit as handsome as your photo” then looking up saw Clancy close-up for the very first time and she liked what she saw. “You must be Clancy” but they couldn’t shake hands because Tommy was earning his keep, jumping against Anthea, lifting her skirt as he did so, barking as if to say “Look what I’ve found”, Clancy and a few others nearby turning their heads towards Tommy registered a nice pair of thighs wearing proper black stockings and suspenders. Anthea came action ready and Clancy was already finding his thoughts hard to control. Tommy was panting and his tongue was dripping for more of Anthea’s hand as she stroked back and forth under his chin. Tommy was as close to dog heaven as he could get in the absence of an amenable pooch, all helped by her soothing voice saying “Good boy good boy” over and over again.

Seeing Clancy close-up Tommy turned his attention to Top Dog, still barking as he did, his tail now battering Anthea’s knees. “You must be Clancy. I’m Anthea. Thanks for putting me up. I really do appreciate it”. “That’s okay” Clancy lied, but he was already beginning to change his mind. She would be nice to have around the house for a few days. “I’m sorry about that. Tommy get’s very excited when anyone makes a fuss of him”. “So do I” came back Anthea with a grin spreading across her face as she spoke the words.

“I keep meaning to take Tommy to training classes” Clancy said in a half-hearted way. “Oh I wouldn’t do that. With Tommy you’d lose what we’ve just enjoyed. I like him just as he is”. “Maybe you’ve got something there” Clancy replied as he picked up her bag and walked to a gate from the platform which went straight onto a road. “This is Old Station Street and I live in that terrace on the left, at the end there, two minutes walk”. Tommy was quiet, walking between them, his lead hanging loose, listening and understanding what words he could. In his company there was no such thing as a private conversation. 

“Can’t wait to see it, Zara says it’s lovely”.

“Don’t know about that. Plain is how I’d describe it” adding after a pause “It reflects my Baptist roots. I hate homes heavy in colour as much as I hate white text on coloured backgrounds.”

Anthea picked up on the use of the word ‘home’ and liked what she heard. “Zara says you’re a graphic designer”.

“Not really. I used to copy images onto tin boxes, now I do book covers mostly, working with publishers and marketing people. I only occasionally get to meet an author, then they are usually self-publishing”. She picked up on the fact that he pre-empted her questions and wondered if it was something he was going to make a habit of whilst they were together?

All Anthea got to say by way of a reply was “Sounds interesting” as Tommy pulled on his lead and Clancy let ago as they stopped. “Home” was all he said as he looked at her and put a key in the door.

“Your house”.

“How did you guess?” he said with a smile every bit as broad as her grin.

As the door opened Clancy invited Anthea to go first. He was warming to Zara’s mum. 

“That’s clever”.

“You like my little lobby?”

“I can’t wait to see what’s on the other side”.

The door he opened was half-glazed, the room beyond hidden from view by a moon-white fabric blind on the other side. Anthea guessed that the blind only obstructed the view when he was out or had an unexpected caller. “Wow” was her reaction, “When can I move in?” laughing a deep throaty laugh which hinted she had once been a smoker, but Clancy could pick up no trace of nicotine or tabacco on Anthea’s clothes or her breath. Had he done she would have been a complete no no. The thought of ash in his home made him feel sick.

The ground floor beyond the door was covered in cord matting. Clancy saw Anthea looking. "It's made from horse hair. I couldn't afford it now". Against the wall was a straight staircase beneath which was a door leading where?  "A cellar" he said. The rest was one large space with a glass roofed extension to the back which flooded the ground floor with light and overlooked a small back garden. Beyond Anthea could see the canal and, she suspected, the boat Zara had mentioned. There was a galley kitchen to the right but a surprising absence of lingering smells — something Anthea hated about open-plan living. Clancy read her mind yet again. “What makes the space work is air-conditioning. Cost as much as everything else put together, but worth every penny”.

‘Do you have any more surprises?” she asked, laughing again. Clancy obliged by lowering an electrically controlled fabric screen, moon-white again, from above the sliding extension doors. He waited for a further exclamation and it came on cue.

At the time £12,000 seemed like a lot of money but it was an investment which repaid itself time and time again in the bedroom above. It played out a hundred ways, all enjoyable. The cougars and kittens he enticed into his lair invited themselves into his bedroom with no help from him. The toilet was part of his ‘must try’ glass panelled bathroom, complete with a small hot-tub and a walk-in shower big enough for two, and was actually part of his bedroom, but which could be screened off by yet another electric moon-white blind.

Clancy let the ladies discover these things for themselves and excused the openness of his bathroom saying “There’s just me and when I have guests I use the screen.”

The front third of the first floor was petitioned off to provide Clancy with a workspace and from the front windows he could watch the trains as they arrived and left the station. Only pedestrians using the footpath which marked the line of an old level crossing and a short-cut to the canal walked by, apart from his neighbours of course in the half-dozen houses beyond his. It really was quite idyllic if you liked living in a once industrial town. A small copse of silver birch and beech marked the line of a long gone railway line. There was a murphy bed in the workspace for overnight guests, but Anthea would not be sleeping on that Clancy was sure.

Breaking one of his very own rules Clancy heard himself say “Would you like to see upstairs?” He let Anthea lead the way and lingered behind so he could enjoy what he saw. The only potential fly in the ointment was Zara if she decided to stay over, then it hit him! He was a baton being passed daughter to mother. He heard Anthea say “I’ve a pooch at home called Maisie. She and Tommy’ll make a great pair. Tommy’s bark said it all — Clancy was cougar meat! Not long after it was his turn to say “Wow” and Tommy’s barking at the end of the bed seemed to be saying “I’m one lucky dog.”

Robert Howard
20 January 2018
2096 words.

This is a revenge story of sorts, as well as an exercise in description and dialogue written for a friend.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The joy that comes from a mess and how do you go about polishing a story?

Emma Donoghue.

I have just added a second quote to my right-hand column. It comes from an interview in yesterday's Guardian with the author Emma Donoghue. It encapsulates how I feel about writing. It's the first time I've come a cross a successful author speaking so plainly. Certainly, none of my tutors have been as bold as to say, in effect, 'Just write, you can make sense of it later'. My problem is that I don't pay enough attention to the after bit.

Perhaps, having come to fiction writing late, my head is full of a lifetime of ideas, all competing to escape, so I write them down and, the ones I like, I share on SeniorFiction. Most have been read and re-read half-a-dozen times before I have the courage to share them, even then I continue to edit the stories online. I tell myself that what all successful authors have is an editor. I know I need an editor buddy to do, in the words of Emma Donoghue, 'The polishing'.

Ian Rankin.

Over the years I have read enough articles, listened to and watched successful authors talk about how they write, a few of whom are honest enough to go as far as to say what they have with their editors is 'a relationship'. Ian Rankin is one of them. He also says that such relationships are not always successful. In one of his interviews I remember him describing an editor he worked as 'a real plot doctor'. The book was called Westward and published in 1990. It was, to quote Rankin, 'a mess'…

…which brings me neatly back to Emma Donoghue.

Perhaps the moral of this story is the age old one of 'be careful of what you wish for', but if anyone out there wants to edit one of my stories and sell it, providing we share the money fifty-fifty I'll be happy. I'll also agree to the editor having his/her name alongside mine.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Living with Isla and the Part stories

Isla Goodchild has been with me since early-2011 when I joined the Beeston WEA writing class, then led by Mike Wareham. He was a good tutor. I joined the class because I was looking for ideas as to how I might write a memoir. The local historian in me was already well aware of reminiscence writing, life story telling and autobiographies, having read hundreds over the twenty odd years Susan, my wife, and I published Local History Magazine. What I hadn't expected Mike to do was divert me, by introducing me to short story writing and its challenges.

Quite early on, Isla Goodchild came into my life. I knew from the off who she was — a amalgam of people and events, men and women, personal, family, work, politics. You name it, she was it. I could see her, hear her, feel her and she has been part of me ever since. Early on Mike asked the class to write in a gender not our own and there was Isla, in my head, waving, 'I'm here, I'm here'.

I love her. I have been writing and parking stories about her ever since. I have probably said before that I am more interested in how words tumble onto the page and how we remember the past, how we prioritise what we write, how easily we are distracted and diverted. Story telling is not a straight line, so why should we expect a life story to be a chronology of dates and events. It is not how we remember things.

Our heads harbour the lives we think we have lead, the ones we wanted to lead or could have had, and when we speak of them those we love and others are there waiting to correct us.

When I first met Isla in 2011 she came, it seemed at the time, out of nowhere, prompted by Mike Wareham. I quickly realised she has always been part me and her life is mine and those of others I have connected to, some fleetingly, whilst others will be with me I until the day I die.

Life is a collection of parts and this fact is enough to explain why I have began to post my Part stories. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Remember as we write?

What comes first, the thought or the word?

It could of course be an image or something we hear. I sometimes hear a story in my head which prompts me to write and as I write the story changes. I have, on occasions, watched my hand write, then read the words. I have had 'out of body' moments for as long as I can remember. Watching myself. And since my mother died in 2006 I have thought myself to be her a few times, not that we were ever close, given that I rarely lived with her.

Published fiction is 'sanitised' fiction insomuch as what the author writes is picked over by the publisher's editor and comes out in a form which may be different in terms of plot and wording. What the author writes and what the reader gets are two different things. Neither should we forget how many times the author re-works his or her text before it is handed to the editor. All writers do it, self-edit.

Should we be afraid of what we write? Perhaps. I am glad that I have come to fiction writing through my interest in local history and life-story telling. I see the me in what I write, the good and bad, what I want the truth to be and what it is. 

Some years ago, a friend's mother was worried that she was showing signs of dementia. After a long chat we came to the conclusion that her mum was a seventy-something with too much unoccupied time and that she needed an interest. The solution turned out to be bread-making, so my friend bought her mum a bread machine. Within a week she had become the family baker and so she remained for next ten years or so. There was always something to talk about, orders to make, recipes to discuss. I was able to help because I introduced my step-father to soup making and bread-making when he was 71 and recovering from a heart attack. Not that he appeared to be in any danger of suffering from dementia  as his mornings were taken up by the Red Cross shop he managed in Eastbourne, then his afternoons were spent in the kitchen, shopping or help my sister in Hastings look after her garden. My mother watched and read. Both made it into their mid-eighties without any hint of dementia.

My friend's mum finally succumbed to dementia and my friend said to me "I can tell you the moment I knew the worst and what made it worse was that Mum knew too". It was when she forgot something and no longer knew that she forgot things. It seems as good a description of dementia as any others I have heard or read.

You may wonder what all this has to do with writing? I believe that how we write is an exercise in how we remember. Nothing comes from nowhere. I begin to write and unlock memories of sorts, but if or when I forget how to write that is when I will be locked in my head, unable to communicate.

We articulate our thoughts with words, except when we cry or scream or act in some physical way. Even then we will return to words.

Perhaps all published fiction should be accompanied by an online copy of the author's original text. We may find we prefer the un-sanitised version, but then what would editors and publishers do to re-order the world?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Memories of trollies and Joy - memoir or poem?

I wrote this memoir cum poem prose style for a WEA Beeston writing class I attended from 2011 until the end of 2013 in response to an exercise we were set by our tutor. It is based on memories. I did think of it until recently as a poem, now I'm not so sure. I admit to liking it, for having been inspired to write it, and for the memories it brings back.

Re-reading it after a long time, I am struck by what I now remember of the seventeen year old I then was. Joy knew me better than I knew myself and I never said. 'Awe' best describes how I felt.

I liked girls, but I held back, always waiting for permission. My distant cousin Caroline gave me permission, but family warned us off and, aged 16 and 15, we obeyed. She died of breast cancer aged just 38. We were close to the end and she used to come and stay with me and Susan after her marriage ended.

An early girlfriend told me I was 'undemonstrative' and I remember going home and looking the word up in my beloved Words dictionary.

I let another girl go for fear of being overwhelmed by my feelings for her. She didn't understand and life moved on. She went to university in Reading. Her name was Anne and she was a vicar's daughter. I wonder more with the passing of years what became of her, her life.

I was thirty-one before I got the permission I wanted, to be me, and I fell in love in a moment and made it the subject of my first poem, written a couple of days after Christmas 2010, inspired by my grand-daughters. Again, it is a memoir of sorts.

I have just helped a friend publish a collection of poems, which I will blog about on my beestonweek blog next week. They are full of memories and passion and in them I recognise something of myself.

Right now though, I leave it for you to decide, is this memoir or poem?

Memories of trollies and Joy

Another day done
And over the road
I stand at the bus stop
With four in front
It's damp and I'm cold.

I wrap a scarf around my face,
To keep the sulphur out,
Every 3 to 4 minutes they come
Along the Harrow Road from
Paddington Green and Kensal Rise.

Then thru the February fog
Still a distance away
Pinheads of light, an indistinct shape 
Enveloped in winter's dark folds
A trolleybus comes.

Embryo like, it clings to its wires
Smog yellow, dirty red
Then a surprise, it's three in a line
As they come to the Jubilee Clock
A 664 for Cricklewood, then mine…

A 662 that's Sudbury bound
5:45 and it's heaving
'Room on top. Two upstairs'
'Don't hang about'
'And you, son, inside'.

Two regulars look and nod
I see Joy in the front wedged tight
She turns and gives a little wave
Maybe a chat when we get off
I can't wait for our Wembley stop.

She's engaged
I wish it was me
We always talk
We met on the trolley
Older than me, I love her to bits.

Wet windows inside, Pearl lights
Warm bodies, Narrow seats
Grey faces, Woollen coats
Baskets and bags, where voices
And silence share the same space.

Painfully slow we glide
On and off they get at every stop
Harlesden's rush hour crowds
Craven Park 'rumbles' ahead
And then Mr. Jones.

Every time the same
'How's Pop?…'
'Tell him he owes me a pint',
Then he takes a bench to himself
And I slide in with Joy.

Small talk, shared passions
Barham Park Library
Books and museums 
Past Stonebridge and Tokyngton Hill 
The trolleybus goes, unnoticed by us.

Above the rooftops to our right 
Wembley Stadium, all lit up tonight
We shudder to a halt
Roads and pavements overflow
A welded line of buses, cars and us.

Then an exodus above our heads 
And the Trolleybus sways
To the rock of the stairs
Joy. Heaven. Puts her hand on mine
'Time for tea I think… My treat'.

'Shall we get off and walk?'
Down the trolley and off the back
'You'll break your necks one day'
We hear the clippie shout
As holding hands we jump.

In a world of our own
Shrouded by vapours which cling
We could be any High Road couple
Past the Majestic and old Town Hall
We see Lyons still open for tea.

No one we know
Joy tells me her fiancé's away
Gone home to Sunderland
'Are you expected?…
If not, come home with me'.

'I'll phone' I say. 'Nanna won't mind'
Nothing happened
It never did
But those times were special
Joy, the trolleybuses and February.


Twelve months later
The trolleybuses had gone
My Nanna was dead
And Joy was married
I was there for them all.

The day Joy married
Was the only time we kissed
She squeezed my hand and said
'Next time it will be you. I promise'
We never spoke again.

There was one last glimpse of Joy
Years later on the Bakerloo Line
Our carriages stopped, side by side
I saw the wave, then her smile
And she was gone. This time forever.

Robert Howard
26 March 2011.

Written as an exercise whilst going to

a WEA Beeston Branch writing class.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

A bouquet of words

My earliest experience in art occurred at the Benjamin Rush public school,’ (Louis) Faurer remembers. ‘Miss Duncan, who seemed to float on a rose petal scent, having requested that numbers be written on paper with lead pencil, was shocked when my sheet yielded a drawing of a locomotive.’ He also submitted drawings to Walt Disney aged 13, who invited him out to California. ‘It seemed unreachable and so I didn’t go,’ he said

Louis Faurer (1916–2001) - New York photographer’. Click on The Guardian, 13 October 2016 to see photographic essay of his work.

The text above is the caption to image no.3 and what jumped out were the words 'Miss Duncan, who seemed to float on rose petal scent'. I lost the 'a' without noticing at first, yet it conjured up a powerful image in my head, not at all related to the photograph itself:

Photograph © Louis Faurer estate, courtesy of Deborah Bell and Howard Greenberg Gallery. An exhibition of Faurer's work is at Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, until 18 December 2016.

The description of Miss Duncan reminded me of my first ever 'poem' written just after Christmas 2010, which I called 'Unknown Certainty'. The first four lines were:

Grey blue eyes and rowan hair
Smell of cloves and apple pie
To all the world another woman
To me a perfect vision

The poem is my account of my first evening with Susan. I ramble on with another four verses before ending:

There is no going back
The past's undone
The future beckons
Unknown certainty awaits.

Susan is not alone in this respect and Miss Duncan reminds me of this. All the stories we tell or we write come from somewhere and, I suspect, smell is more important than we realise. 

'A bouquet of words' sounds like an original thought, but it isn't. Typing the words into the web, I came up with this link to a blog post by a writer called Sean Platt:

Well worth reading if you have any doubts about yourself as a writer. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

'Each of us has what it takes to be a better writer.  It is already inside us, waiting for its salutation. For some, this means discarding the rules that the gatekeepers have handed down, and listening to the quiet whisper of our instinct.  Only we know how we view the world, and it is us who best understand how to make our thoughts sing...
When we speak through our heart, our fingers dance across the keyboard or glide across the page, then we can make every post as pretty as a bouquet, each word placed as perfect as a posy.'

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Waiting in the wings like other stories for Pat

I have posted another story today, Love is all it takes. My usual girl man theme, except this time is boy girl woman. You can click the link here of go to the entry in the right-hand column.

I have some others still to post and even more to type, edit, then publish here. When that will be I am not sure.

It does have adult content.

This one inspired by a painting:

Pat is a friend in Gainsborough who we do not see enough of, but she says kind things about my writing and I have been promising to post a story for ages, so here one finally is.

The truth be I am slowing down and sleeping more as my heart condition takes a firmer hold of how I feel. I have had all the tests and scans and see my cardiologist this coming week, when I hope I will get a good indication of when I will have open heart surgery. As a friend said recently, 'It's not knowing when, so you put your life on hold' and that about sums up how I feel. I want to get on with life again, but for now I will settle for doing a couple of final promised jobs for people, then my decks are clear!