Living a simple life: F is for Friendship

F is for… Friendship

This post is part of the 2017 A-Z Challenge. Woot! 

I had two choice for F: food, fandom or friendship. Truth is, the three are fairly tightly connected. However: today we are talking about friendship.

I am drafting this from a train, where I sit with my other half, P and my friend R. We are heading to Glasgow to see another friend (K), and go and watch Caro Emerald in concert. This came about because K moved to Glasgow a while back, and we wanted to visit.

As things fell out, K moved away from Glasgow before the time for the concert came about. By that point, however, we were committed.

So it became an adventure. Travelling to Glasgow is not quick — the train journey is five and a half hours, and that from Northampton, where we spent the night with my friend R.

It reminds me of the time I did an exchange with a university in the USA. I had a group of friends I had made from an online forum, and I criss-crossed the states in that six month period, couch-surfing from one place to another. It was a mad adventure, where I went from LA — rubbing shoulders with teenagers with perfectly sculpted hair and tanned skin who claimed to be professional skateboarders — to a tumbledown house deep in the Bible belt where we threw lightbulbs into a bonfire of junk. America is a strange and varied place.

Internet meme plus MLP. How could I resist.

I can be a solitary creature, and yet other people and my relationships with them have shaped my life far more drastically than any decision of my own.

Meeting P, for example. A chance meeting at best, when he happened to be in the same room as another of my friends and took my screen name from him. We talked, we became friends and then fell in love. Faced with the problems of a long-distance relationship, we got married — a whirlwind event, that we agreed to do before we had lived together. In fact, we had barely spent any real time together. Anybody would warn against such a choice; to tangle your life up with someone that you barely knew.

Yet that decision ended up being the best I have ever made.

I like to read Vonnegut books; it’s one of my guilty pleasures to re-read them. In Cat’s Cradle he talked of finding your ‘karass’, your cosmically significant group of people.

If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons that person may be a member of your karass. — Bokonon aka Kurt Vonnegut.

I am an atheist, but this speaks to me. It is less about cosmic significance, perhaps, than finding the people that make you feel comfortable, at home, safe to be yourself — and thus safe to be able to do the things that only you can do.

We constantly perform. At work I am one person, with some other friends, arms-length friends, I am another. But with the people who are my karass I can be exactly as goofy, forgetful, distractible, obsessed and silly as I like — and I can also be as passionate, as earnest, as determined as I feel.

Squad goals: living in a temple on a beach playing music.

What is this entry? It is a rambling, disjointed post. It hasn’t got across how important my friendships are, my relationships are. It hasn’t really explained how, when I am with them, I feel whole, put-together in some indefinable way.

As I get older, my friendships become more important. They also get harder. My friends have jobs that suck up their time and energy, some have children, everyone has responsibilities. Mortgages or student loans to repay. I cannot imagine being able to up-sticks and travel the USA couch-surfing for months on end now. Yet somehow the five hour train journey to Glasgow means more than that whole adventure, because it is harder — and more precious as a result.

Sun Ray

other people write of
broken edges, sharp lines
blood soaked linen and
gutters overflown with tears

i want to remind you
of sun-rays through leaves
scattered drops of gold
in the blue edged shadows
of a beautiful world

there’s bloody suicides,
poverty and starvation
murder, war, and rape within
cities of smoke and steel

i just want you to remember
the laughter and the smiles
magic kisses, sweet reminisces
the joy of a good book, and
music running wild

people talk of razor edges
cold faces, icy caves
frozen into endless sorrow
locked into endless tomorrows

but here’s my silver lining
here’s the diamond of my life
an orgasmic, emphatic, fantastic
erratic, dramatic, ecstatic
limitless ray of light

Waiting for the end of the world

The world is alive, changing every second, breathing through me, breathing through you. Someone, somewhere is drumming, stamping out the beat of life. Someone, somewhere is singing – for pleasure, for sorrow. We are united in flesh, in sweat and fear, in love and laughter. We are strong, striding out along these unexplored paths. We are weak, coming to the ends of our lives, but with the paths still branching out ahead of us. Here is my wisdom, here is my reason for being. Carry on. Range far, see the mountains tipped with burnished gold, find the people scattered to the winds.

Find the people scattered to the winds. When you are strong, lend them your strength. When you are weak, let them lend you theirs. We are united in flesh, in sweat and fear, in love and laughter. We are a shared story that unravels over the generations. When you are broken, crushed with night terrors, when you know the face of the monster; find something to cling to. Hold on with everything you have. One day the sun rises again, one day the monsters turn to dust. We are born in fear, pain, blood, and love. We die in fear, pain, blood and love. But in between we range far, we are strong, we see the mountains tipped with burnished gold, we find the people scattered to the winds.

 

No trouble

Another week, another terribleminds flash fiction challenge! This time the prompt was bad parents and we had 1,000 words. I really wanted to stay away from the whole ‘starvation, drunken rage, cigarettes getting stubbed out in painful places’ kind of story. Not because those things don’t happen, but because there’s only three ways for those stories to go. It either ends in tragedy (kids die), triumph (kids escape and/or kill parents) or stasis (isn’t it dreadful).

At the end of this post I’ll link to a few of my favourite stories that other authors have written in response to the prompt.

No trouble

I throw the slivers of chicken into the pan with the onions and stir. The pink meat turns white, the oil hisses and spits

“Sarah?” Her voice, thin and scratchy, crackles over the baby monitor. I bite my lip, stir the chicken and add a splash of stock to stop it from burning.

I go upstairs and open the door to my mother’s bedroom. She lies there, propped up against her pillows. Thin, skin translucent, crazed with wrinkles. You can see all the veins in her hands, wrapping up and around those knobbed knuckles. I stare at her hands and avoid looking at her face.

“What is it, Mum?”

“I’m thirsty.”

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“A tonic water,” she says. “With a slice of lime. A thin slice. I don’t want the lime to overpower it.”

My heart sinks. “We don’t have any lime.”

“Can’t you go to the shop?”

“The corner shop won’t have them. I’ll need to drive to Tesco, and that’s fifteen minutes there and back. I’ll go after I finish lunch, okay?”

Silence. I stare resolutely at her hands.

“I don’t want any lunch,” she says. Her voice quavers.

“You need to eat. It’s almost done. I’ll get the lime as soon as I’m done cooking.” I try to make my voice firm.

“If your father was here—“

“But he’s not here,” I cut her off. “I’m in the middle of cooking. If I leave now it’ll be ruined. I’ll go after lunch. Do you want a glass of water?”

“No.” Her voice is sulky.

She starts to sob as I close the door.

While the chicken and carrots finish cooking, I take a separate pan and make the gravy. Butter, flour, stock, herbs, a slosh of white wine. I add pepper, hesitate, then add another shake of pepper. Last time she told me there wasn’t enough pepper, that it made the meal bland. I take her plate, the special china one with the blue swirls around the edge. I shape the carrots into a pyramid and place three pieces of chicken in a fan shape next them. I use the back of a spoon to swish an arc of gravy on the other side of the plate and stand back to scrutinise my handiwork. I add a garnish of fresh parsley, dropping it onto one of the chicken pieces.

I put the lid on the pot to keep the heat in, then put her plate on the tray. I take out a tumbler and pour some tonic water into it. I’ll take it up to her, and then go and buy the lime.

When I open her door the sobbing starts again, little hitches in her throat.

“Please don’t work yourself up, Mum.” I carry the tray over and put it down on her lap.

“No lime,” she says.

“I’ll go and get you one now.”

“Don’t bother,” she says. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble. I just didn’t want to go while lunch was cooking, and—“

“I know how hard it must be, looking after your old mother. I remember how hard it was for me, when I had to look after you.”

“Mum—“

“Oh! I slaved over your food, and you wouldn’t eat a bite. I tried everything, organic baby food, pureed dinners, I spent an hour once making a special soup out of roasted squash and you just threw it on the floor.”

“I was a baby.”

“You were always as good as gold for your father. He’d come home and you’d eat any old rubbish. You never really loved me, of course.” Her voice cracks. She knows I can’t stand it when she talks like this.

“I love you Mum, you know I do.” I pat her hand awkwardly. “Look, just eat your lunch. I’ll go to the shop now, you’ll have your lime slice as soon as I get back, okay?”

She heaves a deep sigh. I head for the door, but before I can reach it there is a clatter and crash from behind me. I spin round.

She’s knocked the tray onto the floor. Gravy, carrots, chicken, all over the carpet. The tumbler rolls across the floor until it knocks into the leg of her bedside table. I bite my lip.

“Oops,” she says. Smiles.

I don’t answer. I pick up the tumbler and the broken bits of plate and put them on the tray. The food goes in the bin. I get the vacuum cleaner and suction up the rest. There’s a gravy stain, but I can deal with that later.

I go downstairs, put on my coat. I’ve worn through one of the elbows.

Tesco is busy. I don’t see anyone I know. Most of the people I went to school with have moved away. Sometimes I see Kate, but she’s always too busy running after her toddler to see me. She isn’t here today. I buy the lime, smiling tentatively at the woman behind the checkout. She gives me a blank smile in return.

When I get home I stir up the remaining carrots and chicken and give it a quick blast of heat to bring it back up to temperature. I take out a new plate, build the pyramid of carrots. I fan out the chicken, swirl the gravy.

I pour the tonic water, slice the lime nice and thin. The tonic fizzes when I drop the slice in.

I carry the tray upstairs. She smiles as I bring it to her bed.

“Oh, you sliced it just right. And look, you made such a pretty gravy swirl.”

“Thanks, Mum.” Happiness blooms in me at her words.

She cuts a tiny piece of the chicken, puts it in her mouth, chews. “It’s a little dry. You left it standing too long. And there’s too much pepper.”

“Sorry, Mum.”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t expect you to take any trouble over your old mother.”

Some other stories about bad parents

These were my favourite stories written in response to the ‘bad parents’ prompt.

Beneath One Wall, Inside Another by JP Juniper. Great sense of time and place in a short word-count, and just enough detail about the children to whet your imagination.

No such thing by Chris White. Such a fantastical story and original setting. I would love to see this world developed further.

Deals with the Devil by Alex. A sharp toothed story about the way society regulates women’s bodies, especially those of mothers.

Eugene Onegin: 100 novels challenge

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Eugene Onegin. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.

Eugene Onegin

So there comes a point on any 100 novels list when you hit something like this: Eugene Onegin. A Russian novel written entirely in verse.

In verse.

Purely from a technical viewpoint this felt like a bad idea. I can’t read Russian. Translating poetry is notoriously difficult, and this was a mega-poem of 389 stanzas.

From a personal perspective it also felt like a challenge. I don’t ‘get’ poetry. You can blame it on the education system, I guess. Or on a culture that is rapidly replacing oral communication with text. For whatever reason, reading poetry fills me with a deep terror.

So I did what any self-respecting former English student would do. I procrastinated. I read Vonnegut and 87th Precinct  novels and occasionally told people that I was still deciding which translation to get.

Eugene Onegin - operaIt wasn’t until I had a weekend that involved spending eight hours on a train that I decided to to tackle Eugene Onegin. I downloaded it onto my kindle and sallied forth.

Turned out that once I had started I couldn’t stop.

As a poem it is unpretentious; written in a witty but down to earth voice that quickly pulled me into the story. There is little in the way of dense and tangled imagery. Instead, Eugene is a rather straightforward tragic love story. There’s a couple of passionate letters, a duel that ends in murder, and a love affair that ends up unrequited for both people involved. There’s also, in the style of old books, a few amusing digressions – such as several stanzas all about feet.

I sniggered out loud a couple of times, which is pretty good going for a book written in the 1800s. I also felt genuinely sad for the characters, caught up in rigid social niceties that prevented them from achieving anything like a happy ending.

In short, it was everything I could have wanted from a train read.

It is generally considered a classic in Russian literature, and there is something haunting about it. Despite the witty, almost irreverent language, the actual story is horrible. Nobody wins – except, perhaps, Olga?

Overall, if you are looking to get into your classics, Eugene Onegin is a good place to start. I’m almost inspired to attempt a visit to the Opera!

Buy Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (Penguin Classics).

Sex scenes which were actually essential for the story

Recently, over on Tunblr, I have been engaged in a discussion about George R.R. Martin’s inclusion of the rape/de-virginisation scene of a 13 year old girl, and whether it was, you know, actually necessary. I sit in the camp that the whole thing is creepy and gross, and completely unneeded. However, usually what happens after I state that a sex scene is creepy and gross is that people assume I think ALL sex scenes are creepy and gross.

Which I don’t. And in that spirit, I’ve decided to compile a short list of sex scenes that I think actually served a purpose within a story, rather than just being there as a sort of ‘oh look they are having sex!’ type scene.

1. All erotica ever

Well, yes. Because the point of erotica is to be titillating and to get you off. So pretty much if you’re reading erotica you are hoping for sex scenes in their dozens, if not hundreds. I’ll also include ‘racy romance’ in this category, since the pay-off is the characters getting together and sex/marriage is pretty much the way that gets signalled to the reader.

Why it works: Because the sex is the point.
Shop for erotica

2. The sex scenes from Choke

Choke is Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about a sex addict, who goes to a sex addicts 12-step program. So it kind of figures there’s going to be some sex in this book. You’ll either love Palahniuk, or you’ll hate him. But given half the point of his books is to push right to the edges of what is acceptible and to try and make you feel uncomfortable; the sex in these books is pretty fundamental (and not really written to turn you on or make you think of sex in a positive way)

Why it works: It’s part of the nihilistic, taboo pushing backdrop to the book and an essential part of the character
Shop for Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

3. The rape scene in Clan of the Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first Earth’s Children novel, and whilst the novels very quickly go downhill, and even the first is filled with rambling purple prose that you can easily skip, it’s also one of the best explored and logically thought out ‘alien’ cultures. Ayla is a Cro-Magnon girl who ends up growing up with a group of Neanderthals. There is a point where she is repeatedly raped, but because of the society she lives in, the rapist can carry out his crime pretty much in the open wherever he wants. The consequences of the act have a massive impact on Ayla, from a character development point of view, but also lead to her child.

Why it works: It isn’t romanticised, it’s written from the female character’s perspective, and it permanently changes both her character, and the nature of her relationship with the rapist (not to mention the rest of the clan)
Shop for The Clan of the Cave Bear: Earth’s Children 1 by Jean M. Auel.

4. The sex in all of Robin Hobb’s books

Robin Hobb writes Fantasy, but she writes grown-up, incredibly well thought out fantasy with complex characters. Sex turns up often, but it always feeds into our understanding of character, advances or complicates the plot, helps the character come to terms with or understand aspects of themselves, and generally is realistic and often beautiful. Did I mention I love Robin Hobb? I love Robin Hobb.

Why it works: Robin Hobb is a genius for character
Shop for books by Robin Hobb

5. The sex in Earthly Powers

Earthly Powers is an Anthony Burgess novel that opens with a fairly infamous line that references sex. It is a giant novel that explores morality, humanity and religion and you can’t really talk about any of those things without talking about sex. Read the book, it’s great.

Why it works: It’s irreverent and playful, and underscores the main themes.
Shop for Earthly Powers

6. The sex in The Illuminatus Trilogy

A book by Robert Anton Wilson, whose stated goal is pretty much to get you to trip the fuck out. There is a rather memorable sex/death scene involving an apple (I won’t tell you more than that).

Why it works: It’s part of the whole magical mind-bending sixties sexual freedom vibe.
Shop for The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Suggestions from others

  • Rochefort and Dariole from 1610
  • Woman on the edge of time
  • Anything in Diceman
  • Swastika Night
  • Lolita
  • The Time Travellers Wife

There are many more examples, and it would be great for people to share any that they think worked particularly well – using sex to develop character, illuminate a main theme, or for some other reason that you think makes it work.

X is for… eXcuses

I’m slightly disappointed I didn’t manage the last four posts of the A-Z Challenge in time. The only thing worse would be to not complete the challenge at all. So here are three of my last four posts (happily condensed into one post for ease). I’m missing W – but look for it turning up tomorrow. (I’ll give you a hint, it will be some lovely wallpapers for your computer).

X is for Excuses

Success
Original image by swissmiss.

It only seems right that a late and limping almost-final entry into the Challenge should be about excuses. And I’ll be honest; I have a lot. My second novel is still not finished. I haven’t done a pull-up for almost four months. My low-sugar challenge went off the rails spectacularly (who knew it would be so hard to quit the demon sweetener?) I missed a project deadline at work — actually it went flying by at the speed of light about four weeks ago!

For all of these things I have reasons. Excuses. I moved house twice in the last five months. My commute now takes anywhere from an hour to two hours. Other projects got dumped on me. I just want to relax for one night and I’ll get back on it tomorrow.

Difficult. The problem is, of course, I want to finish that novel (and a third, and a fourth). I want to be fit, and able to crank out twenty pull-ups with ease. I want my job to go well, and my career to be a success. I want to enjoy health and a long life.

There are lots of productivity tips out there, and I’ve applied some of them already. Productivity isn’t the issue. I strongly believe working hours are too long across most of the world. With unemployment so high and wages so unequal? There is no reason two people could not do the job that one person does now; and both would get better quality of life.

Exhaustion, stress, depression. These have become almost default positions for so many people.

But these are the parameters we work with. Changing the way the world works is out of my control, for the most part. So what can I do?

I think a little bit of forgiveness to ourselves is allowed. A celebration of what we do get done, rather than reflecting on what we don’t. One project at work fell by the wayside — because I got pulled off onto another, highly critical and more important project. I worked (and am working) my ass off on that project!

I haven’t finished my second novel, but I’m halfway through the second draft and I keep on keeping on. Progress is made, and I know now that I will keep plugging away, at weekends and on holidays and eventually at least a handful of these stories will get written down and released to the world.

I can’t do a pull-up yet, but my fitness is light years away from where it was two years ago. It’s a part of my life now, and even though I’m not as fit as I want to be, it’s still nice to feel so much stronger than I used to be. The other day I even managed a feat of strength after someone else had failed — something that would never have happened before. (I used to be the weediest person you can imagine, with arms like tiny soggy spaghetti strands).

Excuses? Is often another word for reason.

If I’m making progress, I’m doing okay. It might be inching and slow, it might be blazing fast (it won’t last!) but as long as I keep heading towards the things that I want, it’s fine.

Every journey is made up of thousands of steps; but also rest-stops, conversations, detours, meeting strangers, getting pissed off, being attacked by a horde of orcs, having your brain taken over by the Borg — okay, you get my point.

Life would be boring if we just walked in a straight line to our destination without pause.

Y is for… yesterday and yankee.

Me and my other half
Me and my other half

Yesterday was a Saturday, and one of the first I have spent at home and relaxing. It was nice, and here’s why:

My partner is American. Of the four+ years we’ve been married, we’ve been apart for probably half of that time. Even when he finally moved back to the UK, we had some housing issues that stopped us from living together. We have not had what you might call a straightforward courtship and marriage.

It doesn’t matter, however, because all the chaos and craziness has just gelled us together stronger and harder than ever before. Yesterday we hung out, we watched a movie, we snuggled and every second of it was precious. 🙂

Z is for… endings (and new beginnings)

Book shelves filled with books
Original image by brewbooks

So much for the A-Z Challenge. I hope you enjoyed this rather frantic ride. I’ve decided to do another challenge (one that doesn’t involve blogging quite so often). If you are also looking for a blog challenge, here’s one you might want to try:

May Blogging Challenge

However, I am thinking of doing something a little more rounded and ticking off another life goal – namely, to read the Telegraph’s ‘100 novels everyone should read‘ list, and writing a review for each one.

Right this minute, however, I’m off to do some writing.

Have a great day xxx

Djullanar: Red Scourge of the ocean

Another terribleminds flash fiction challenge. 1000 words. A choice of five settings. I picked: On the battlefield during a war between two races of mythological creature.

Lan thrust the trident into the serpents tail and sending up a froth of blood and bubbles. The serpent screamed, sending out a spray of venom that darkened the water to a poisonous purple. Lan, already darting upwards, felt the acid sting as droplets splashed across her tail. Continue reading Djullanar: Red Scourge of the ocean

We rise above

Written for the Shuffle Flash Fiction Challenge at Terrible Minds. When I hit shuffle, I got We Rise Above, by Arcana.

“You are in detention.” The exercise book slapped onto Martin’s desk. Looking at the page it was open to, he saw the big red F at the top of the page, and the littering of angry red comments all the way down. He looked up at his teacher, whose nostrils were flaring. He found himself fascinated by them; their cavernous, fleshy depths.

“An absolutely horrific story! I want to see you after school to discuss this.” His teacher swept away, and Martin heard the giggles of the other students. He shrugged to himself, and pulled the book towards him. He frowned at his story, and then packed the exercise book back into his bag.

The bell sounded, tinny and harsh. Voices rose, giggles turned to laughter, gossip ripped through the ranks of students, chairs screeched across the cheap floor and the students became an amorphous creature that swelled into the corridors of the school. Martin watched them dreamily, the black jumpers and trousers blending into a wave of darkness punctuated by hands and faces. Continue reading We rise above

Connected

Written for the Flash Fiction Challenge: Brand New Monster at Terribleminds.

Harris lifted a hand to his head, groaning. Beside him, Sarah rolled over. “Feeling it, are you?” she asked without sympathy. Each word struck like an axe, and synapses screamed.

“Coffee?” Harris asked. One hand scrubbed across dry, gritty eyes, the other twitched on the cover of their bed. His wife snored; too theatrically to be real. Sighing, Harris clambered out of bed, and squinted at the bedroom door. His legs trembled; his tongue, furry and swollen, tasted like it had started to rot in his mouth.

“Shit,” Harris said.

“You kept me up until twenty past four,” Sarah said.

“Sorry, honey.” Harris stumbled to the door, creaked it open and picked his way down the stairs. They had a small house, him and Sarah, but it was clean, homely, and he had never been jealous of his friends as they had moved up the corporate ladder, buying bigger and bigger houses, but spending less and less time in them. Yawning, he went to the kitchen and started changing the filter in the coffee machine. The kitchen table was covered with empty cans. His stomach turned over at the smell of stale beer and he quickly looked out the window.

He saw a body, sprawled halfway down the stone stairs that led down to the road. Continue reading Connected