Faber Academy Course – The End

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Every end is indeed very much a new beginning.

The eight weeks of this Faber online writing course have whizzed by but what a lot I’ve learnt in such a short stretch of time. This week has been breathing time to look back over the course and complete any unfinished tasks, before the classroom closes tonight.

Having my work critiqued each week by fellow classmates and in turn critiquing theirs has improved my self editing skills tremendously. Tiny little things you can’t see from the inside get spotted by someone on the outside, and can then change the whole dimensions of a piece of writing.

The most important thing I feel I’ve gained from this course is a new found confidence in myself; in my own writing ability. Something I didn’t have enough of before I started.

I would recommend this short, extremely helpful, online basic writing skills course to anyone who feels they may be missing something in their writing and just need that final push to convince themselves they are indeed on the right road!

Thank you to all those who took time to read my words and comment along the way, it really has been appreciated.

Here’s to a new beginning!

The End

 

 

 

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Faber Academy Course – Week 7

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This week we’re into the final stretch of the eight week online writing course and it’s all about tying everything together with a last longer, 3000 word piece.

I chose to post the opening of a novel I am currently working on.  The story is of Beth, a forty year old wife and mother who is devastated when her mum, Grace, suddenly dies. Convinced that there is no such thing as spirits or heaven, Beth struggles to cope with the fact that her beloved Mum has gone forever. But her daughter, Lily, has other ideas. 

Thanks again for dropping by.

 

          “Beth, it’s Stan…”

          Stan? Mum’s next-door-but-one neighbour Stan?

          “…I need you to come, dear. Now.”

          I squinted in the dark at the too bright, illuminated screen of my mobile phone. 3.19am shone out. Why was he ringing me in the middle of the night?

          Oh…

          I don’t think I spoke back to him and he may’ve said more, but I couldn’t hear him through the odd rushing sound in my ears. My heart pumped so fast I thought it might burst right out of my chest and land, splat, on the bed in front of me. I pressed the red, end call button.

          Maybe Mum had taken a tumble again and he was calling me to come and help get her up. Or she’d been burgled, or there was a huge ginger cat stuck head first in the old cat flap left in the back door by the previous owners.

          But I knew. I just knew what it meant. I tried to think, but I couldn’t. And then the autopilot I didn’t even know I had kicked in and I began to move. Will sat up next to me in bed, touching my arm.

          “Beth, Beth, say something,” he whispered. “Who was that on the phone? What did they say? You didn’t say a word. What is it?”

          I stared at him. Why was he talking in slow motion? His mouth was moving. I knew he was speaking to me, but it all happened so slowly.

          It took me a moment before I found the right words. “Mum’s gone,” I said, peering into his half-open green eyes. A sliver of moonlight peeked in through a gap in the curtains. I concentrated on every detail, every line and crease on his face. The stubble on his chin looked like an old yard brush worn down to nearly bare from years of sweeping. His short dark hair was sticking up at the crown, making him look like a small boy. The scar on his cheek from many moons ago looked different in the near dark. “Mum’s gone,” I repeated.

          “Gone? Gone where? It’s the middle of the night.”

           I didn’t answer him. Instead, I swung my legs out of my warm bed and slid my feet into the cold slippers on the floor. The black ones, with the bow and the sparkly glittery bits, the ones Mum gave me last Christmas. Still clutching my mobile phone I opened the bedroom door and started down the stairs, Will tailing me.

          “Beth, you’re worrying me. Please tell me what’s going on,” he whispered, creeping past our daughter’s bedroom door. I put my coat on over my pyjamas, took my car keys from the hook on the wall, and turned back to him.

          “She’s dead,” I said.

           He looked at me as though he didn’t recognise me, his wife of nearly a decade. Had I spoken out loud? I wasn’t sure, especially the longer he stared. But then he sat down, on the bench next to our front door, and the worried expression turned to disbelief.

          “You stay here with Lily. I’ll call you when I get there.” He nodded as I unlocked the front door. A blast of freezing February air rushed in and swirled around us, sending a handful of dry brown leaves dancing in after it.

          My fingers slipped on the key as I started the car. 3.26am glowed from the dashboard clock. Should I get back out and scrape the ice from the windscreen? I turned the heater up full blast and directed it on to the frosted glass instead.

          I thought I’d sat there for only a few minutes but when I checked the time again it said it was 3.52am, and the windscreen had cleared.  The inside of the car was now hot, but something inside of me was now cold.

          Pulling out of the drive, I glanced up and down the road. I don’t know why though, there never tended to be a lot of traffic down our little lane at any time of the day, let alone that time of night. Turning right, I started off along the way. Mum only lived ten minutes away. One pretty much long straight smooth road actually; took you right to her doorstop. How many times had I made this journey? Countless; somewhere in the thousands probably.

          3.56 am. Only a few more minutes and I’d be there. Breathe.

A rather podgy, scruffy old badger crossed the road up ahead of me, opposite the pub where Mum and I went every Thursday for lunch. The road curved off to the right and I drove past Mum’s favourite garden centre – the one we always stopped in at on the way to do the weekly shopping, for a cake and a coffee. So many memories around every corner.

          As I pulled into her drive I glanced down at the clock. I’d made good time – only nine minutes.

          And then I looked up at the bungalow. Curtains still open, the light still on. Breathe.

          I started to shake. First in my feet and then my legs, up through my body to my face. My teeth began to chatter to themselves.

          Stan’s old white classic car sat on the drive. He was huddled in the front seat, the engine ticking over.

He looked up as I parked in front of him. Even though I couldn’t see his face through the reflections of both of our windscreens, I knew he was sad.

Time jumped in stages. Stan opened my car door and stood back so I could get out. We neither looked at each other nor spoke. I guess he, like me, had no idea what to say. I stepped out onto the shingle path and the tiny stones crunched under my shoes. Sparkling frost dusted the path to the bungalow. Keep breathing.

          Stan stood by Mum’s front door, and waited, so I went there, too. He raised his arm and I noticed a fraying patch on the elbow of his jacket. He pushed down on the handle and the door creaked open. Had it always done that? Again I followed. The smell of Mum and all her worldly things hit me. I took a long and deep breath.

          Stan had gone left, along the narrow hallway into the lounge. But this time I couldn’t follow. I’d already looked up and seen Mum, sitting with her back to me in her armchair, her brown leather handbag on the floor next to it. A small pile of books sat on the little table beside her, along with a half-drunk glass of orange juice.

          Why had Stan brought me here? He obviously didn’t realise Mum had simply fallen asleep and needed waking and helping to bed. But no, I knew. I wanted to turn myself around and go straight back out that creaking door but my feet were numb. I couldn’t function.

          Stan stood across the other side of the room; his hands folded together in front of him, staring down at his boots. I studied them, too, for a moment. Maybe they were muddy. They seemed clean enough to me. And then he looked up, and over at Mum. That’s when I saw the tears in his eyes, the strain across his forehead. He reached for the hanky in his jacket pocket and rubbed at his nose.  As much as I wanted to pretend Mum was just sleeping, I knew she wasn’t. I knew she’d gone. To a place I couldn’t follow.

          I wanted to crumple into a heap on the floor right there and then; curl up into the tightest little ball I could manage and pretend it wasn’t happening. But the untrained autopilot inside of me took over again and instead I walked the hardest steps of my life and came around to stand in front of my mother. The person who’d carried me inside of her. The person who’d taken me to school on my first day and gone home crying; who’d taken me to swimming lessons every week for nearly two years before I got the hang of it; who’d shed tears when we bought my uniform for big school. The person who’d helped me move into that first tiny flat I’d rented when I eventually left home, aged twenty three; and who’d been at my side for the arrival of my own daughter. The only one who’d been there my entire life. She was my person. And now she was gone.

          She now sat so very still, and so very quiet.

          The room behind me fell away and I was left with just Mum and me, alone, on a mountain top. The air around us was bone-chillingly cold. Her heating had long since turned off; she usually went to bed at ten.

          There was no sound, just an absolute eerie, silence. I stared at her; she looked asleep. Her eyes were shut but her mouth hung open. Today’s hanky  poked out of the sleeve of her favourite old cardigan. The hands on her black leather watch still going round. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

          Maybe, just maybe, if I stared hard enough and for long enough I’d catch her out, and she would flutter her eyelashes a little by mistake. But I watched her carefully, for a very long time, and nothing moved.

          I still shook, but now a panic rose inside of me, creeping up through every bone in my body. I wanted to look away but I couldn’t. I wanted her to stand up instead and take me in her arms. Feel her warmth around me and hear her voice telling me it was all going to be all right.  But that would never happen again. 

          Stan coughed behind me bringing me rapidly down from the cold lonely mountain and back into the bungalow with an almighty thud.

“Thank you very much, Stan, for ringing me,” I said in my autopilot voice.

          “Oh, Beth, I am so, very sorry…” His hoarse voice trailed off. He couldn’t continue.

          He turned and rested his hand on my shoulder for a few seconds before he left. The smells of tobacco and chocolate surrounded me.  No more words to be said for now. The front door clicked shut. I looked again to Mum.

          In slow motion I knelt down by her feet and laid my weary head on her lap. The tears came then. Single droplets at first. Followed by a silent stream. And then the gushing floods. My whole body heaved as I sobbed, emotion attacking every cell of my body.

          Why had she left? Why had she gone where I couldn’t follow? Why hadn’t she told me she was going? We always told each other everything. I wasn’t ready for this. I wanted her here, with me, with us. She was our family, I couldn’t manage without her.

          I imagined her then, lifting her hand and stroking the back of my head, smoothing my hair down. Her gentle voice washing over me.

          “Come on, Beth, don’t upset yourself, love. It’ll all be okay,” she said. Except that she didn’t, because she couldn’t. She was no longer. I would never see her again. The whole blackness of it enveloped me, pulled me down, and tried to swallow me up in one gigantic mouthful like Jonah and the Whale.

          I don’t know how long I sat there for. Time really did seem to stand still. From the corner of my eye I saw her handkerchief peeking out from her cuff. Its tiny detailed pink roses danced across the cloth, losing me in their never-ending pattern.

          Mum loved the world’s amazing gifts – the flowers, the trees, the plants, the very soil itself. She loved to spend the day with her hands caked in her garden’s dirt. Giving life to each bulb and seed that she planted. I’d come and sit near her sometimes on those days, watch her at work, bring her a cup of tea when she got lost in the moment and forgot about the time ticking by.

          Who would look after those lives now? Who would come and start a new chapter of their life here, in the bungalow, where Mum’s had ended? I couldn’t bear to think of it. My head felt heavy, and sore, and then my pocket began to vibrate as my mobile rang. Will. I’d forgotten about Will. I fumbled for my phone.  Pushed the green button and held it close to my ear.

          No words came, from Will or myself, but I knew he’d be feeling my pain. I needn’t explain. I heard a single, very quiet, lonely sob escape from his end. We’d had our ups and downs over the years, like all married couples. But he’d always been there for me.

          “I’ll be home soon,” I managed and clicked the red button.

Time wouldn’t stand still though, because it couldn’t. The sun had arrived. The long cold darkness of this awful night was already turning into a new day. How bloody dare it. Did it not know what had happened? Did it not have any respect?

The pins and needles in my legs told me I had to get up. I had to go home. I had to phone someone. All of a sudden the day that I’d planned was gone. I didn’t need to take Mum to the supermarket now, or pop into the garden centre on our way back for a cup of her favourite coffee. Didn’t need to make space in her fridge from last week’s shopping because she hadn’t eaten all of the rhubarb yoghurts she’d insisted on when we bought them last Tuesday. Now I had to ring people instead. Who? I didn’t know. I only remembered seeing people on the television ringing lots of other people at times like this.

          I pushed myself up onto my knees and leaned into Mum’s face. My hand stroked her soft cheek. She was cold. Why hadn’t the heating come on? And then I remembered. She wasn’t that sort of cold. She was empty of life cold. She was never to be warm again cold. I bent forwards and kissed her soft, cool forehead.

          “I love you, Mum,” I whispered into her ear. On unsteady legs I got up and left the room without a backward glance. – I’d never felt so alone.

           How would I carry on without her?

                                                  ……

        We all three sat together on the blue sofa that’d lived in our cosy lounge for the past seven years, and had become a part of the family. An old friend and a place of comfort in times like these. We put Lily in the middle and each placed an arm around her.

           We’d made attempts for three days to break the news to her, but it was just too hard to say. The words got caught in our throats and never made it up as far as our mouths. She was only seven, how was she possibly going to understand? We tried to think of nice ways to put it. We even looked up ideas on the internet of how to break death to a child, but they all came down to the same thing – you had to tell them. And keep it simple and honest.

          “Lily, honey, we have some very sad news to tell you,” Will started. Lily looked up wide eyed at her daddy, her hero. I held my breath, nerves shook my hands.

          Their matching green eyes stared at one another; Lily’s from under her straight blonde fringe.  She waited for whatever he was about to say. What was she thinking? Maybe she thought he’d run over her pink scooter on the drive earlier because he hadn’t seen it, or maybe that he’d eaten the last of her favourite biscuits.

           He blinked, opened his mouth, blinked again, and then closed his mouth. Breathe.

          “Lily, darling,” I began instead, surprised at how calm my voice sounded. “Nanny has gone, honey.” She turned and looked her trusting young eyes up at mine. Her soft hands rested in the lap of her yellow cotton dress. Her feet didn’t quite touch the floor yet, but it wouldn’t be long.

           Mum would never see that. How much was she going to miss? She wouldn’t see her turn eight on her next birthday. She wouldn’t see her open presents on Christmas morning ever again. I tried my hardest to keep the lump of sorrow rising in my throat down. I wanted to be calm and comfort her. I didn’t want her to be comforting me.

           “Where?” she asked after what seemed like an eternity. “Why has Nanny gone?”  That’s when the good friend I now knew I had – my autopilot – switched itself on again. I took a deep breath.

          “Because she died, honey. Nanny’s dead.” My voice quivered slightly. But there, it was said. Her beloved grandmother was gone now. Forever.

          She sat very still, and very quiet. Had she heard? Had she understood?

“When will I see her again?” she asked eventually.

What could I say? I couldn’t lie. Simple and honest they said.

          “Lily, you’ll never see her again,” I replied, trying to hold back my own heart-breaking sobs. Lily frowned.

          “But what about heaven, Mummy? When we die we go to heaven and then when the other people who are left die they come to heaven too and then we all live happily ever after together on a cloud.” She turned to look at Will and then back again to me. Neither of us had the answer she wanted.

          Simple and honest.

          “Well, nobody actually knows if heaven is a real place though, sweetheart.” I endeavoured to swallow my next words, but they came out anyway. “I don’t think I believe it’s real, Lily.”

          She stared at me, her eyes fixed on mine. Was she trying to determine if I was telling the truth? She raised her eyebrows as she spoke.

           “Does she not love us anymore?”

          “No Lily!” we said, in unison this time, and held her even closer, even tighter.

“But Nanny still loves us, doesn’t she?” Her voice was soft.

What could we say? Mum was gone. She couldn’t love us anymore because she was no more. I didn’t know what to say.

          “Honey, Nanny died, she didn’t choose to die but she did, and if she was still here she would still love us but she’s not…” Will replied, taking Lily’s hand in his and kissing the back of it. I stroked her silky hair.

          “Well, I still love Nanny,” Lily said with a pout, pulling away from us.

          I wanted to reply. “And Nanny loves you too, Lily,” but I couldn’t, because she couldn’t, because she was no more. My stomach churned. 

          Silence. Nothing but silence. Tears slid down both mine and Will’s faces, but not Lily’s. Not one. No sobs, nothing.

          She climbed down off the sofa, picked up the remote control and turned the television on. Seconds later she was smiling at Tom, as he chased Jerry out through the cat flap, like nothing had happened.

 

Faber Academy Course – Week 6

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This week it was all about structure. Weaving together all the elements we’ve been learning about throughout the course.

I chose to post a short story using the classic five stage structure: Set-up. Complication. Crisis. Climax. Resolution. Not an easy task bringing everything together. But, I received some lovely comments again this week so I’m hoping I got it right.

Here it is…

 

                                         Sweet Dreams

 I want to reach out and touch her hair as it moves in the breeze, but I’m reluctant to distract Chloe from her book. So I’ll just sit and watch instead. 

    She looks so beautiful, lying under the magnolia tree at the bottom of our garden. Spring has arrived, along with another year of my daughter’s life. She’s turning into a young lady. It’s hard to believe she’s a teenager already.

      The glorious scent of the blossoms wash over me as I turn my face towards the April sun. Isn’t it lovely to feel the first warmth of spring sunshine on your face? A warm glow but with the hint of much hotter summer rays to follow shortly. The grass will need its first cut of the year soon; I do so love that smell. How can this not be the most perfect day?

      She smiles as she reads. I can’t see the title of the book, but it’s obvious she’s engrossed by the speed she’s turning the pages.

      I look back up to the house and see my husband, sitting in his chair in the conservatory, glasses perched on the tip of his nose, reading the paper. Tom looks just as handsome as the day I married him. A few grey highlights now streak his thick dark hair, and his six pack is long gone, but he still looks good for his forty eight years. A fine catch.

      They argued this morning, about Chloe going out tonight. And they haven’t spoken since. I guess it’s the start of things to come. I suggested I’d go as well, keep an eye. But no. Not that they listen to me any-way. Stubborn father, stubborn daughter.

      Chloe was a long time coming. We struggled through six rounds of IVF treatments before we struck gold. And what a winner she is. A real mixture of Tom and I but with so much extra, thrown in. With my long blonde hair, and his lean, graceful limbs, she’s a beautiful creature. But she isn’t our little girl any more. She’s growing up, fast. Changing, becoming a young woman. She has to make her own path. But that isn’t going to be easy, for any of us.

      Tom must sense I’m looking at him because he lifts his head and smiles. Chloe doesn’t notice, though. She’s far too buried in that book. They had a really close relationship, until recently. -Well, since our daughter turned fourteen, and started pushing her new boundaries. They worry me now. I don’t like standing by, watching their awkwardness grow and tangle around each other.

      “Cup of tea?” Tom calls as he pushes the conservatory door open. I smile at him, shaking my head. Chloe hesitates for the briefest moment, before looking up from her book.

      “That would be nice.” It’s a start. At least they’ve spoken to each other.

      Tom goes off to put the kettle on.

      I close my eyes and lay back on the grass. It really is a gorgeous spring day. Birds are singing their happy songs, and bees are buzzing around the flower beds. I love this time of year, a season so full of promise.

Tom arrives a few minutes later, with Chloe’s favourite mug in his hand. “Good book?” – he asks, passing her the steaming cup.

“It must be,” I answer for her. “She’s not spoken since I sat down.”

I don’t open my eyes.

“It is, yes,” comes her brief, tense reply.

I could lie here, like this, with my little family, forever. The best things in life really are free, trust me.

“Soon as that sun goes in it’s going to get chilly though,” Tom says, more to himself, than to us. At least he’s trying. – “I was thinking about fish and chips for tea.”

I don’t need to say anything; he knows it’s my favourite.

      “Sounds good.” – Chloe nods, letting the book rest in her lap, and takes a sip of her tea. Fish and chips, another delicious smell. How many others are there? Hot toast is another for sure.

      I open my eyes and look at my husband and my child. How did I get so lucky? Two wonderful people. They just need to get passed this new, difficult phase. Find each other again. Be the father and daughter they used to be, not so very long ago.

“Come on, let’s go up now,” Tom says. “It’s getting cold.”

“You two go,” I say, “I’ll be up in a minute.” I just want to stay here for a few more minutes.

“Meet you up there.” Chloe sighs, starting off up the garden, alone.

“She is such a lovely girl,” Tom says, once she’s out of ear shot.

“Of course she is – she’s ours.”

“I’m worried. It’s getting harder now she’s growing up, and so fast. I honestly don’t know how to handle this…” He mumbles away to himself, pushing his hands into his pockets and shrugging. Things are certainly getting tougher.

I remain silent. Not that he would hear my advice anyway. I’m always by his side, but he needs to work this one out, by himself.

Tom follows Chloe up at a much slower pace, leaving me to the dregs of the sunshine. Why can’t things slow down? Life is too rushed. Work and school will come again tomorrow, and I’ll be left to mooch about the house by myself – once more. Can’t they just stay home all day, with me?

Chloe shuts herself in her room and turns the music system on, loud. Tom stands in the kitchen and stares out of the window – to the garden below. The ceiling vibrates with the noise from above.

      “Come on, love. Put the kettle back on, make some tea. Let’s sit down together, relax for a bit.” And so Tom clicks the kettle back on, and I wait for him in the conservatory. We sit in silence, he in his chair and me in mine. Funny how people do that, isn’t it – pick a seat and stick to it. We do the same thing in the lounge. I guess other people do this, too.

      The music stops and we both look up.

“I’ll go and see her, Tom, have a little chat.” And so I leave him drinking his tea.

Chloe is sat on the edge of her bed, the book she’d been reading lying open in her lap, staring out at the same view as her father downstairs. They should be looking at it together. I sit down, on the other side of the bed.

“Chloe, honey, you know your dad loves you. He’s just worried about you, that’s all. You’re still so young – to be out – without us.” And she is, young, but, she does have to start somewhere. It must be hard for her too, starting out on her own adult journey. I remember being her age – like it was yesterday, except there hadn’t been a father at my house, just a mother, who wasn’t actually home very often. And so I’d been able to come and go, by myself, from far too young an age, and I grew up fine. But things are different now. I’d turned out okay, granted, but what if I hadn’t been so fortunate? What if something bad had happened when I’d been out, alone? And so I understand where Tom is coming from, trying to keep her from harm, but, well, our daughter needs to start taking a few steps by herself, at least. “Your dad’s only trying to keep you safe, Chloe. Just go with it for now, sweetheart, please, he’ll come round.” She doesn’t answer, but the expression I can see on her face, in the reflection of the window, tells me she isn’t convinced. “Come downstairs soon, love. Don’t sit here by yourself too long.”

When I get back downstairs, Tom has moved to his seat in the lounge, watching the news – and frowning. The usual horrific story lines flash across the bottom of the screen as the presenter informs us the missing teenager, from a town not far from ours, has just been found, strangled and dumped in a derelict cement works.

“Maybe you should go and talk to her, Tom, I don’t think she’s listening to me.” He sighs and points the remote control at the screen, to make the awful, tragic news disappear.

The day Chloe was born had been a tough one, but Tom had stayed with me the whole time. He hadn’t shied away at the blood that spilled out of me. Hadn’t faltered when the doctor said the baby was in danger. He’d stayed. With me. It was just a shame I couldn’t have stayed with him.

I’m with him now, nearly every day, he just doesn’t know it. I try to help out, whispering little things in Tom’s ear I think he might forget, like Chloe’s things for school, or his pass for the office. He always smiles when he thinks these things have just popped into his head, in the nick of time. I send him dreams, too, sweet dreams, snapshots of the times we shared together – before I had to leave.

Chloe saw me – quite a few times – when she was a baby, but obviously she couldn’t tell anyone. How do I know? Because she used to smile and point at me – when I sang her lullabies at night in her crib – when she woke, and I soothed her back to sleep again. I send her dreams, too, sweet dreams, where the world is made of candy floss and chocolate. I would love to have stayed, to be her mum, but that’s never a role I was destined for. I understand that now, and one day she will, too.

      I wait on the stairs, until Chloe starts down from her bedroom and Tom comes up from the lounge. I touch the both of them at the same time as they meet, stiff and awkward, in the middle. It takes a few seconds before my love brings them back together again.

      “I’m sorry, Dad.”

      “No, I am sorry, honey.” I’m not sure whose arms go around the other first, but it doesn’t matter. All that does is they are together again and will work it out. And they will, because I’ll always be here to make sure they do.