Monday 31 December 2012

Oath, Boast, Toast 2013

Well, I can delay no longer. I'm not a big fan of New Years' resolutions, but I shall charge my drinking horn to a good ol' heathen oath, boast and toast.


I'm going for something modest this year, in the hopes of achieving it. Preferably within the first six months of this year, I will finish writing my fantasy novel. It's currently at 45,000 words, 165 pages, and it's the most fun I've had writing in a long time. I've kept putting it off because I feel as though I should be writing something more 'contemporary,' 'historical' or 'literary.' But, sod it, I just want to write about elves. So, this year, I'm going to stop using the things I think I should be doing as an excuse for not enjoying the things I actually want to be doing. Fantasy novel, ahoy!



I have officially done a book signing at Watersones this year. Come on guys, that's fairly wicked awesome! 



I'd like to raise a glass to my wonderful friend Martine, who recently jacked in her job to go off around the world - first to her acushla in Ireland, then on to her daughter in Australia, and finally off to Vietnam, a place she's always wanted to visit. Martine is one of the bedrocks of my being, and watching her die a death in a job that bored her stupid was horrid. So, firstly, well done lady for finding the courage. Have the time of your life! And here's to the spirit of adventure - may it rub off on the rest of us.



Sunday 30 December 2012

Beautiful Book Art

Not sure where the above came from. It was doing the rounds on Facebook.

There are a few absolutely stunning artists working with books and paper. Perhaps the best known is Brian Dettmer, who uses surgical equipment to sculpt incredible pieces of art from old encyclopedias, one page at a time

There's also Marc Hagan-Guirey, who was featured on the BBC last Halloween, making entire haunted house scenes out of a single sheet of paper.

iAuthor has dedicated a Pinterest board to fantastical works of bookish art, including this one carved from ice.

As sheer coincidence would have it, shortly after starting this blog, I Googled to see whether anybody else was using the same name. Turns out there's a Deckle Edged website, and it's run by a book sculptor! Some gorgeous stuff on there.

Feast your face with eye candy!

[UPDATE 2019 - that website seems to have disappeared.]

Saturday 29 December 2012


I saw a tweet recently: How to Write Good

It's humorous, yes, but point #1: Avoid Alliteration. Always, has oft been repeated in more serious writing tip lists.

Far from meaning 'non-literate', alliteration is where words start with the same sound or letter. There, that was one. And another.

Impossible to stop once you start. I just don't see why people have such a downer on it. Alliteration is bloody beautiful. It takes quite a bit of effort to do it badly. I was reading a Booker Prize nominee last night that came out with the line: the whole wide white world of winter they have only each other.

Now, even I'd admit that's slight overkill. Possibly due to additional adjectives, rather than alliteration.

Sometimes it can be fun to see how far through a sentence you can get using only alliteration:

Thomas took that telescope to track tomcats trying to take treacle tarts to transient tramps talking together, taking turns troughing through the trash to take out turnips.

Or try out the traditional tongue-twisters, like:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

She sells sea-shells by the sea-shore

Used sparingly, alliteration lends a lyrical quality to prose. Besides, where would the Wicked Witch, Mad Max and Postman Pat be without it?

Thursday 27 December 2012

Bad Sex Award

Just in case you haven't heard, this year's winner of the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award went to Nancy Huston for Infrared. According to Amol Rajan of The Independent: Sex Doesn't Get Worse than This.

Last year, David Guterson won it for 'an over-reliance on coy terms such as "family jewels", "back door" and "front parlour".' The year before, AA Gill found the news that he was odds-on favourite to win 'irritating' and didn't turn up to collect this prestigious prize for "most embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel."

This year's winner beat off stiff (oo-err) competition from the likes of J.K. Rowling and E.L. James to clinch it with her 'vivid imagery.' Congratulations!

Sunday 23 December 2012

Make a Flake

Stuck for something to do over the break?

Happy holiday goodness!

Friday 21 December 2012

The Crone of Winter

Celebrating Winter Solstice with my poem The Crone of Winter. You can find the text version on my website.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Reading List: booQfest

Last September I did my first turn at a literature festival: booQfest in Northampton.

There's some pictures on my Events Page, and memories earlier in the blog.

Perhaps I'm a late developer, but it was the first time I'd put together a reading list. Usually I just grab whatever's closest on the bookshelf. This time I came away with a set of books, all of which I knew that I'd read.

It took you three months to read three books? I hear you ask.

Well, no. Not quite. Soon after putting that list together, I went for a more ambitious 'Charity Shop List'. I've been alternating, one book from each pile, since then. I've got one book left from the Charity Shop pile, so I've read seven in total. Which makes me feel much better about myself, as I always thought that I was a particularly slow reader, and I only read at bed-time. That's a fairly respectable number, I feel? 

Anyway. Here's what I thought, in the order I read them...

Will was giving a reading on the opening night of booQfest. He's an absolutely lovely guy, and more talented than anybody rightly deserves to be. He doesn't just write about trapeze artists - he is one. Click his name above for pictures.

He won the Betty Trasker Award in 2007 for his debut novel, My Side of the Story. He's since developed the main character from that and turned it into a free online serial called How Not to Survive.

We've done a bit of a book swapsie. As a result, I owe him a copy of Georg[i]e next time I'm in London. Hoping it'll coincide with a performance.

I absolutely loved the book. Left my review on Amazon, under the title Cirque De La Vie. Thoroughly recommend it, and think that I fell in love with Jethro the Clown, perhaps, just a little bit. I'm always drawn to the deeply damaged, rough-diamond, thwarted-in-love and suffering in embittered silence characters, but they're rarely written so well.

Jane won the 2012 Romantic Novel of the Year for Please Don’t Stop the Music.

Popped in to see Jane talk about VSoM at the festival, and enjoyed getting thoroughly sloshed with her and daughter, Vienna, at the opening night after-show party. That was certainly a night to remember... if only I could! 

I must admit, this is not a genre I'd usually browse in a bookstore. Hand on heart - I judged it. I took one look at the cover and thought Twilight

I should have had more faith. It was bloody brilliant. Vampires... in the civil service. York Council, to be precise. Thoroughly, thoroughly British, with enough originality to carry you through. Romance, with a bite.

Still, she sealed it for me at the Veyron. She gave her lead character, Sil, a Bugatti Pur Sang: "I hardly dared touch the immaculate chrome of the door; this was less of a car and more of a machine for taking your fingerprints," going on to describe it as being "strapped inside a bullet." 

Look, the devil's in the detail, and I like cars. Okay?

I'm easily pleased.

I guarantee you, if anyone's going to turn you (into a vampire lover!), it's Jane. Great fun.

A work of non-fiction thrown into the mix.

Its full title is: Gateway to Heaven: Fifty Years of Lesbian and Gay Oral History, named after a famous lesbian bar in London. It spans a 50 year period in LGBT history in the UK from the 1940s-90s. Spanning the period before decriminalisation in 1967, through to the battle for equality that followed.

I saw Clare give her reading from this, and it was excellent. She delivered each of the contributors' voices, from a broad Scottish accent through to German and Geordie. Born performer. Extremely poignant piece of work.

I've recently been following the progress of SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda), after corresponding with GayUganda back in 2008, shortly before the government there proposed a 'Kill the Gays' bill. I have very fond memories of Uganda, and it was a bit of a shock when that happened. There were a couple of sections in this book on the influence of the press and legal persecution of gay people that seemed to parallel certain things going on in Uganda at the time of reading. So, I packed up a couple of copies and sent them off to Kasha Jacqueline, head of Freedom and Roam Uganda and leading rights activist. Looking forward to hearing what they make of it.

It really was astonishing reading, to think how very far we've come in 45 years. People in Uganda often look to the UK with an attitude that we have always been liberal here, and that equality comes naturally on this matter. Yet I learned from reading this that it was only 55 years ago that our own Home Secretary declared homosexuality to be a 'plague,' and the media suggested it would be the downfall of Britain.

Non-fiction, yes, but broken down nicely into topical sections and short, interesting accounts. Very nicely done.

If you have trouble sourcing it through Amazon, you can buy it via her website.


So, that was my first reading list. I don't think I've done it before because I'm worried about finding one book that I just can't finish, which would feel a bit like 'failing' the reading list. OCD? Err, yes, just a little.

But it's been a fun exercise, and I've almost finished by second pile. This was certainly a special list to start with, having met each of the authors, however briefly. I was reminded of Ian McEwan at Cheltenham Literature Festival this year:

He said that he never gives books to friends, and went into the different experience readers have when reading a book by someone they know, or are about to meet. How the temptation is there to look for clues to that person's psyche in the book.

Not so much with Clare, because her book was all about other people's stories, but certainly with Jane and Will, I could almost hear them between the pages. I'm not sure whether I would have enjoyed the books any less if I hadn't met their authors, though perhaps I would never have come to read them in the first place.

Very enjoyable, all three.

You can find Jane and Will on Twitter: @janelovering / @WilDavis2012

Sunday 16 December 2012

The Incantation

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.

The above picture and verse were shared by a friend on Facebook the other day. I thought it was rather beautiful. The verse itself is Byron. It goes on:

    From these our interviews, in which I steal
    From all I may be, or have been before,
    To mingle with the Universe, and feel
    What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.

With such love of nature, it sounds more like Shelley, a man Francis Thompson described after his death as having: 

[T]he child's faculty of make-believe raised to the nth power... [Shelley] is still at play, save only that his play is such as manhood stops to watch, and his playthings are those which the gods give their children. The universe is his box of toys. He dabbles his fingers in the dayfall. He is gold-dusty with tumbling amidst the stars. - Wiki

Shelley is the guardian of what we aspire to be. Byron bears testament to what we probably are: mad, bad and dangerous to know. Why else would we love him but for his Darkness? Irresistibly dystopian and poetic in vengeance:

    When the moon is on the wave,
    And the glow-worm in the grass,
    And the meteor on the grave,
    And the wisp on the morass;       
    When the falling stars are shooting,
    And the answer’d owls are hooting,
    And the silent leaves are still
    In the shadow of the hill,
    Shall my soul be upon thine,       
    With a power and with a sign.
    Though thy slumber may be deep,
    Yet thy spirit shall not sleep;
    There are shades which will not vanish,
    There are thoughts thou canst not banish;       
    By a power to thee unknown,
    Thou canst never be alone;
    Thou art wrapt as with a shroud,
    Thou art gather’d in a cloud;
    And for ever shalt thou dwell       
    In the spirit of this spell.
    Though thou seest me not pass by,
    Thou shalt feel me with thine eye
    As a thing that, though unseen,
    Must be near thee, and hath been;       
    And when in that secret dread
    Thou hast turn’d around thy head,
    Thou shalt marvel I am not
    As thy shadow on the spot,
    And the power which thou dost feel       
    Shall be what thou must conceal.
    And a magic voice and verse
    Hath baptized thee with a curse;
    And a spirit of the air
    Hath begirt thee with a snare;       
    In the wind there is a voice
    Shall forbid thee to rejoice;
    And to thee shall Night deny
    All the quiet of her sky;
    And the day shall have a sun,       
    Which shall make thee wish it done.
    From thy false tears I did distil
    An essence which hath strength to kill;
    From thy own heart I then did wring
    The black blood in its blackest spring;       
    From thy own smile I snatch’d the snake,
    For there it coil’d as in a brake;
    From thy own lip I drew the charm
    Which gave all these their chiefest harm;
    In proving every poison known,       
    I found the strongest was thine own.
    By thy cold breast and serpent smile,
    By thy unfathom’d gulfs of guile,
    By that most seeming virtuous eye,
    By thy shut soul’s hypocrisy;       
    By the perfection of thine art
    Which pass’d for human thine own heart;
    By thy delight in others’ pain,
    And by thy brotherhood of Cain,
    I call upon thee! and compel       
    Thyself to be thy proper Hell!
    And on thy head I pour the vial
    Which doth devote thee to this trial;
    Nor to slumber, nor to die,
    Shall be in thy destiny;       
    Though thy death shall still seem near
    To thy wish, but as a fear;
    Lo! the spell now works around thee,
    And the clankless chain hath bound thee;
    O’er thy heart and brain together       
    Hath the word been pass’d—now wither!

                                                     - Incantation, from Manfred

Wednesday 12 December 2012

First Snow

12:12:12 on 12/12/12

Waiting for the world to end... again.

I was listening to Gold in the shower and they said 'Any moment now we will experience this moment. And then it will be gone. But it will be good.' I'm still trying to work out what that means.

Also, thirty-two days after my first mince pie of the season, I opened my curtains to find the first snow! Not a lot, just a little... yay.

Saturday 8 December 2012


During my Behind the Scenes interview, I revisited the inspiration for my debut novel, Angorichina.

It's set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in South Australia, which is now a backpackers' hostel. The fascination, as I mentioned in the interview:

Can you imagine: 1930, TB killed two-thirds of all people infected. Sent off to hospices in the middle of nowhere, lumped in with people you’d never met before, waiting for the inevitable – or a miracle. Ten years later, the invention of antibiotics meant that nearly everyone got to go home. The cusp of medical history is a haunting prospect.

Writers, like parents, try to avoid favouritism among their offspring. Yet, I bet if you asked most authors, there's one character they can't help feeling particularly proud to have written. One that seems that little bit more real, or that little bit more human. A character that you don't just find yourself writing, but also sympathising with.

Mine appeared in Ango. Thought I'd share an extract from a grouchy old man. 

Three times I’d been back to Angorichina. Twice they’d cured me but third time lucky? I didn’t think so. I was tired of fighting. I was tired of everything.

I’d sit out on the veranda of Hayward some nights with a candle, trying to finish whatever book I happened to be reading. Now and then you’d hear a buzz and see a wisp of smoke go up, look down at the table to see a fly. Usually a small blowy or something. It’d been attracted by the light and flown too close, burned its wings clean off.

I felt a terrible kinship with those flies, right down in the pit of my stomach. I’d watch them sit there for a minute trying to work out what just happened. They’d clean themselves, little heads twisting from side to side. Then they’d try to launch. The one thing a fly is meant to do is fly, that’s why it’s called a fly. So a fly that can’t fly doesn’t even have a name. It’s just a little black blob jumping up and down on the table, trying to cover its embarrassment every now and then by washing, pretending everything is okay.

When there was just one of these flies, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’d watch it going round and round, wondering if it knew the true horror of its own deformity. Wondering if it realised it would never fly again, knocked out of the sky forever. Then maybe one or two others would do the same thing and join it, and I didn’t feel so bad. Yes, there was twice as much suffering, but it was like Angorichina itself. You suffered together, and somehow that seemed a little bit better than suffering alone.

I could never kill them though. I thought about it a lot, wondering if it were better just to put the poor things out of their misery. But I just couldn’t. Would I want someone to end it for me? Yes, probably, if there were a quiet, peaceful way of doing it. But what you might choose for yourself you can’t inflict on others. It’s not God’s way.

I know people here don’t think much of me. I’m not naturally sociable. I find it hard to make conversation in a group, and, to give the good oil, most of the time I don’t care a fiddler’s for what folks here talk about. I see it’s all a mask, one of those great big smiley ones you see for Comedy over the proscenium arch of a theatre. I know underneath is the other one, Tragedy. I’d prefer we all just be up front and honest about that. I can’t be doing with all the forced laughter but I understand why people do it.

I don’t mean we should all depress ourselves either; I’m not morbid or macabre. I just wish we could get down to talking about something that’s real once in a while, something that’s deeper than the crossword.

Guess that’s why I like Heath. He’s a genuine sort of bloke. If I’d had a son he’d be the kind of son I would have wished for. He’s terribly young to be suffering such an affliction, but then sickness doesn’t care how old we are or what gender. It just sees us and swoops in there.

I like to listen to him play the piano. It’s a blessed relief from that old drongo, the General. The man gets right up my nose with his God Save the King every night of the week. Why the hell does he think we chose a national flag under which he could go blow his horn in Gallipoli? Sure, it hasn’t broken all the ties. We still have the Union Jack in the corner, but glowing in the light of the Southern Cross. In the Southern Hemisphere.

I won’t lie about it. My mother’s side came here looking for gold in the eighteen fifties; my father’s side were criminals. Petty theft is how the story goes, but whatever the reason, they worked hard. They earned their release, and they made a life here, a home. And it is hard here. It’s a big country, a tough one, and a man ought to have the right to own what he works for.

You ask us true blue Aussies, and we can tell you just how many generations of labour went into what we own. We can tell you where we come from and how we got here. Can’t say that for those bloody poms. Most of them are so inbred they can’t tell you two generations back. Too confused about who is their mother or their sister, they have no idea where they came from.

I met an Englishman once. He’s not the only one I ever met, but he sticks in my mind. He laughed at me and said: “You know, we really ought to start calling you Aussies the Poms instead.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Well, you are all descended from criminals aren’t you? Prisoners of his Majesty’s Service.”

“Look, fella,” I told him, squaring up at the bar. “I am a free man. You want to see a prisoner of his Majesty’s service, take a look in the mirror, mate.”

He daren’t look at me after that. Rightly so.

But that’s what pisses me off about the General. It’s one thing taking that sort of crap from a pommie, but from one of your own fellow countrymen who stood there with the blood of young Australian men flowing all around him. Who fought under an Australian flag. Well, you’d think he’d have enough spine to say, ‘This is my country, my land.’ The Americans realised a long time ago they weren’t going to bow to an unseen monarch halfway across the sea. Why should we?

But there aren’t many here who want to hear my republican views. Just smile some more and keep on playing the piano. That’s what it’s all about.

So I just sit out with my book and the candles, or take a walk down to the pond out back. Whilst I still have some strength I like to spend it out of doors. Try and put off for as long as possible the time when I’ll be bed ridden and cooped up with all those false smiles. I like nature. It doesn’t pretend to you; it tells it like it is.

When you stare at a tree, it doesn’t stare back with sympathy, sadness or regret. When you watch a kite dive down on a field mouse, it doesn’t come up afterwards and ask you if you’re okay, apologise for what you’ve just seen. Nature just gets on with being nature. If only human nature were as steady.

I guess again that’s why I like Heath. He just gets on with being Heath. When he doesn’t feel like talking, he goes for a walk, or he sits and plays the piano. When he does laugh and joke, he’s young enough for it to be genuine. He watches the sad things around him and acknowledges them quietly. He doesn’t gloss over anything, and despite those things, he still stands tall like a man ought.

Yes, I would have had a son like him if God saw fit to grant me one.

God did grant me a wife though, and a beautiful daughter…but that I cannot think about. Some things in this world can break a man’s heart and what happened to them - well, that broke mine.

I remember the first conversation Heath and I had. He’d been here about two-and-a-half months, laid out flat in Charles Moore. I was in Hayward, and other than on his first day introduction I didn’t see him. I keep to myself.

I spend a lot of time down on the vegetable allotments. There’s a shed for the tools; it’s large enough to lay some sacking down and sit on the potting tables. I used to drive Nurse Clark mad like that; I could always tell when a storm was coming and I liked to sit in there and watch the rain pounding down, washing the land clean, making the plants grow. I’d disappear for hours.

Then one day I saw the lightning in the distance. I got myself down there and into a comfortable position. Moments before the rain started, this young lad appears. He looks white as a sheet with these big black smudges under his eyes. I can see he’s not doing too clever and should be back in his bed. When I try to suggest that, he’s adamant that he’s going to sit out the storm with me.

“I have to get some air,” he says. “I’ve been lying on my back in that room for weeks and weeks and weeks. I’d rather die out here with the wind and the rain than rot away smothered in a blanket and stinking of disinfectant.”

I knew exactly how he felt. I thought from that point on he’d probably start to look a little better. He did. We all need to rest. We all need to eat and sleep and wash, but there is other nourishment that our souls need in order to be strong and fight the infection. These indefinable nutrients are different for each person and depend on the time of day. For some it’s music, for others it’s reading, and for people like us it’s the outdoors.

We started meeting down there regularly. If we’d been allowed cigarettes it would have been our smoking shed. Instead, it was our talking shed, where we escaped to for a bit of a chin-wag or just to sit there quiet and watch the weather. Yesterday, I could tell his mind was elsewhere. I took a slow walk down to the shed late arvo, inspecting the cabbages, keeping an eye out for caterpillars. When I got there, he was already inside. We never arrange to meet, it just sort of happens that we’re there at the same time.

Anyway, he was quiet even by our standards. He kept looking out at the field, chewing his bottom lip thoughtfully.

Eventually I asked. “Something on your mind?”

He smiled and shook his head, then a moment later he spoke. “Do you think it’s wrong?”

“Do I think what’s wrong?”

“People like us, you know, with the infection and all. Do you think it’s wrong of us, irresponsible, to get involved - with a woman?”

“Well, that depends. Are we talking about a woman who’s clean? Because yes, if we’ve still got the infection and she hasn’t then that would be irresponsible. It would be putting her at risk. Or,” I paused for a moment, watching his expression, “are we talking about another woman, one who’s already got consumption?”

He didn’t meet my eyes for a moment, but I could see them flick back and forth, thinking. He was no fool, this boy. He had a good head on his shoulders.

“Are we talking about Laura Wheeler, by any chance?”

Finally he met my eyes and grinned sheepishly. “Might be.”

“She’s certainly a looker, I’ll give you that.”

“So, would it be wrong?”

“Well, it certainly would be if Clark or Lemont ever found out.”

He laughed and ran a hand through the back of his hair.

“Yeah, that could never happen.”

“That answer your question?” I could tell by the way he looked away again that there was something more, something deeper. “Come on, what’s got you asking?”

“I don’t know. I just – I mean, do you ever wonder if there’s a reason we’re like this? Do you think there’s a reason we got sick, something that says we need to take real good care of our souls?”

He looked directly at me then, and for the first time I saw a little boy, just a child, with big worried eyes. All of a sudden I felt the age difference between us. I felt I had a weight of responsibility to answer him in a certain way and to sound as genuine as I possibly could.

“Listen, mate, I don’t ever want to hear you talk like that, y’hear? That’s utter bullshit. There’ll be no laying down of religious guilt here, and I am a man of God. I believe in God, and I believe in the Holy Spirit but vengeance is not theirs in the form of tuberculosis, son. This is a disease. It’s part of the human condition. Everybody gets ill in their life: some get rubella, some get smallpox, some get mumps, others get fever. We’re none of us immortal. But you are no less than any other man, you remember that. I’m sure as hell no less than any other man so you can’t be either. And you have just as much right to happiness as any other person on this earth. We are all made in God’s image, and we are all tested to see what we can bear, yet each and every one of us has the right to seek happiness alongside that. There is nothing wrong in who you are, the only thing that’s wrong is this illness which we’re fighting. Maybe that’s our test; maybe we’re the chosen ones because we can bear it. You can’t second-guess the mind of God, Heath. It’s not even worth trying. God doesn’t hate you, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to deny your happiness.”

He was still staring at me when I got to the end of my spiel. Without even blinking, he opened his mouth to respond. I was expecting some words of thanks, perhaps. I felt I’d made a convincing argument for him.

“Jesus, mate, were you a preacher in your past life?”

I was dumbfounded. I thought I’d said exactly what he needed to hear, given him permission to do what he wanted to do, the permission he was denying himself. A split second later and we both burst out laughing. There was never any tension between us. We were too alike for that. We laughed until our sides hurt and we doubled-up with tears in our eyes. Then we both started coughing, only we couldn’t stop laughing, so we laughed and coughed for a good ten minutes or more.

When we finally stood up straight again, he ran the back of his hand across his mouth and smiled. “I really like her, you know.”

“Good on ya. I reckon she’ll give ya a fair suck of the sav.”

“Yeah, well, I hope so.” He stood in the doorway for a moment, looking up at the clouds. “Right, well, I’ll see you later.”

“Sure, no worries.”

After he left the hut, I stood there for a long while on my own, thinking about what I’d said to him. It hadn’t been him that I’d been trying to convince, the reason being that his question had been my own for so long now. Did I deserve to have this; did I deserve to be dying of this? I always thought that I did. It never bothered me. I felt I’d earned it, but I never considered whether other people deserved it.

Heath’s question had thrown me. I believed pretty strongly that I’d brought this about myself, that I’d wound God up to such an extend he just thought, ‘screw you, you bastard’ and did this to me. But Heath, no way. There wasn’t a thing that boy could have done to deserve this. For one thing, he hadn’t lived long enough to commit any real sins.

I felt so strongly that he wasn’t to blame that it came across in my little speech. I think I shocked him with my vehemence. But in telling him all of those things, that this was nothing to do with God, that this was just life – I had to accept that about myself too. And I couldn’t.

So maybe I was wrong. Maybe God is a vengeful old codger, sitting up there on a cloud somewhere throwing stones at people he doesn’t like. Maybe Heath did something to piss him off. Maybe everyone in this hostel did something to deserve TB.

Or maybe nobody did. Not even me.

I honestly couldn’t tell you which of those two options scared me more.


Thursday 6 December 2012

Behind the Scenes

booQfest 2012

At the risk of sounding like a McFly rip-off, this week it's all about me.

Novelspot run a section each month, sort of a 'week in the life of'. Each day until the end of the week they'll post a different segment.

[UPDATE 2019: The interview has since disappeared from Novel Spot, but you can find it reconstructed here.] 

Saturday 1 December 2012

The Invisible Typo

How amazing is this?

It's not entirely true that this came from Caimbridge (see this article), but so long as you keep the first and last letter of a word the same, you can jumble up all of the other letters and your brain can still read it. This helps to explain: Why Typos Are So Hard to Catch.

[Tip: It's worth turning on text-to-speech in Word to help catch those pesky typos. Sometimes you can hear mistakes even if you can't see them. This doesn't work with homophones, though.]

Thursday 29 November 2012

Lost Heart

I'd like to share a sad little story with you.

If you like it, you can find more in Splintered Door.

Lost Heart

It was my first day on the ward, and I’d never seen anything like it. All of my training could not have prepared me for this. It was like something from a horror movie.

Men and women lay in lines down separate sides of the room. Men to the right, women to the left. It was difficult to distinguish, though. Both sexes looked alike in their suffering. Alopecia stripped many of the women of their hair. Others had plucked it out, strand by strand. Many of the men were balding, and even the young ones were turning grey.

Deep lines furrowed their faces. Not one of them looked at me as I passed, their eyes glassy and despondent.

“Where would you like to start?” A blonde nurse appeared at my elbow.

I fished my stethoscope from my pocket and tried to bide time, draping it around my neck.

“I don’t know-”


“Nurse Vergessen. With the most urgent case?”

“They are all urgent, Doctor.”

Yes, I could see that. Each one of these men and women were wasting away before my very eyes. I began to fasten my white coat. Another distraction whilst struggling to arrive at a decisive action.

“I suggest,” she said with due deference, “that you begin at the far end and work your way down.”

“Thank you, Vergessen. An inspired proposal.”

She smiled at that, and I realised that she was actually rather pretty.

We began to walk down the centre of the room, flanked on either side by these foundering pieces of flesh. One woman sat upright in her bed. She reached out to me, yet she wasn’t reaching for me. Her expression told me that she was seeing something far beyond my mortal form. Past my shoulder, through the wall – a lifetime away.

It sent a shiver down my spine. I stopped for a moment until Vergessen touched my arm and prompted me to continue.

“They do that occasionally,” she whispered.

When we reached the far end of the row, I faltered once again.

“The women or the men first?”

“Chivalry dictates the fairer sex.”

“Yes. I suppose it does.”

I took the stethoscope from around my neck and pulled up a stool beside the first woman. It was difficult to look her in the face. She had probably never been beautiful, though even plain was a vast improvement on what this illness had done to her since. Her cheeks were concave, the bone of her skull pressing through paper-thin skin. A network of blue veins webbed her temples, and I found myself wondering what colour her hair had been when she had any.

I lifted her wrist to take her pulse with my finger, and noticed the scarring. Thick red welts crossed her skin from beneath the elbow to her Bracelets of Destiny. Lines both horizontal and vertical.

I swallowed.

“Probably a razor,” Vergessen explained.

“And this?”


I avoided touching the wound, though well healed. It felt as though touching it might touch a part of her soul that I had no desire to look into.

“Right, well.” I separated the first few buttons on her nightgown, and pressed the bell of my stethoscope inside. Listening for a few moments, I concluded that – although shallow – her breathing was normal enough and required no critical attention. As I stood and turned away, I noted a single tear sliding down the side of her cheek.

“Why do they do that?” I asked.


“Why do they just stare upwards, with their eyes open? Can’t we do something about that? Tape them shut or something?”

“You’ll get used to it. After a while you won’t even notice.”

I doubted that very much.

“Have you been vaccinated?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“It’s only effective in fifty-six per cent of cases, you know. Hardly seems worth it.”

“Any protection is better than none. Shall we continue?”

She blushed apologetically. I was in no mood to highlight the risk I was putting myself at. We had been warned about all of the dangers before leaving med school. I knew the signs to watch for. The rest was up to Fate.

On the opposite side of the room was an elderly man, recently admitted. There was still flesh on his bones, and no signs of the self-harm present in many of the younger patients. His breath came in tight hiccups as he clenched a crucifix to his stomach, turning his knuckles white.

“We should probably remove that, before it cuts into his hand,” I said.

“Good luck there.”

“Can we get one of the orderlies to do it?”

She took the man’s medical notes from the end of the bed and wrote on it with her pencil.

“I’ll bring it to the attention of someone,” she said.

As she leant down to replace the clipboard, I happened to notice the graceful curve of her inner wrist. Annoyed at myself, I returned to the elderly gentleman.

“Mr. Agées,” I prompted. “Mr. Agées, can you hear me?”

It was clear that he could not.

“How long has he been this way?”

“He arrived Wednesday.”

“No improvement?”

“None whatsoever.”

With a heavy heart, I had to admit: “He isn’t going to make it.”

She nodded and we moved on to the next female patient, zigzagging our way down the room, alternating between men and women.

By the time I had finished my round, I felt as though somebody had filled my suit with lead. “None of them are going to make it, are they?”

She bit her bottom lip, nervously.

“It happens sometimes,” she said. “Every now and then a miracle comes along.”

“Does it?”

“Yes. I remember the last one. Olivia, her name was. She was here four years. We almost lost her twice. Then, one day, she simply started eating again. Ravenously. As though she had been starved her entire life. After a month she regained her colour and checked herself out.”

“After only one month?”

“Yes, very quick. That seems to be the case. Once a patient makes the decision to survive, it is a rapid transformation. But very few ever do so.”

I contemplated this. It was a constant wonder: the power of the human mind, both to harm and to heal.

I hung up my coat and my stethoscope by the door. As we walked down the corridor outside, I caught her eye. Passing the store cupboard, I checked both directions and then pulled her in with me.

“You’re beautiful,” I breathed, as I pressed her against the corner.

Her arms splayed to either side, gripping the wall with painted red nails.

“We mustn’t,” she panted, as I began to lift up her skirt. “The risk of infection – it’s too high.”

“We only live once.”

She clasped my shoulders and parted her legs.

We emerged, rearranging our ruffled clothing. We had both needed the release. You can’t work in such an intense environment, day-in day-out, without recreational recharge. Some turn to alcohol, others to hard drugs. Me, I just like sex.

The next day was terrible. We had a crash-and-burn case. A young woman, only eighteen, was rushed in after her paramour ran off with her best friend. We had to restrain her in the bed. She kept screaming: “Let me die, just let me die!”

“Fuck,” I said, leaning over to check her pupil dilation. “Two grains of Heartache and one of Melodrama – STAT!”

Nurse Vergessen had administered it even before I had finished giving the order. The woman fell back against her pillow with a shrivelled whimper.

“That should stabilise her, but it won’t be enough. What else do we have?”

“We could try half a milligram of Lost Wishes?”

I considered this, then nodded my agreement. “Sure. It’s worth a shot.”

It had been a shock to see someone in such immediate distress. It never usually happened like that. Normally, lovesickness was an insipid little disease that wasted away at a person’s neurological welfare over months and even years, replacing their blood with Want, and sapping their self-esteem. Such a violent strain of the disorder was an anomaly. She must have loved him very much indeed.

By late afternoon the elderly gentleman with the crucifix had stopped trembling and turned to stone in his bed. He was approaching the end rapidly. Wherever his wife had gone, he was about to join her, through sheer obstinate will.

It was a pitiful place to earn a living. By the time people ended up under our care, they were usually so sick with love that there was nothing could be done for them. The symptoms had come on gradually. Almost imperceptibly:

Lack of appetite.
Lack of sleep.
Inability to make eye contact.
Inability to string a coherent sentence together.
Dilated pupils.
Shortness of breath.
Blushes like burns.

None of which were dangerous in themselves. Not unless an antidote failed to be administered. Like any disease, it required a trigger – that trigger was rejection. Or, in the case of the old man and the girl – loss.

Once they accepted that the antidote was completely unobtainable, the symptoms progressed:

Constant weeping from the eyes.
Loss of speech.
Occasional vomiting.
Sometimes self-harm.

Sooner or later it would render them incapable of functioning in civilised society. They were referred here and, ninety-nine per cent of the time, it was up to us to nurse them to the end.

A tragic waste of life.

I peeled off my gloves and threw them at the medical waste bin. Rubbing a tired hand across my brow, I opened the door and made my way down the corridor towards the staff changing rooms. As I passed the store cupboard, it opened and a manicured hand reached out to pull me in by my collar.

“Thought you could use a little light relief,” Nurse Vergessen smiled.

“What a day.”

“Shhh,” she said, pressing her finger to my lips. “Don’t think about it.”

“Say, what is your name, anyway? Your real name?”

“Immer. Immer Vergessen.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

When I returned to the overhead hum of strip lighting, I had to squint against it. I enjoyed working in medicine. I enjoyed the success stories – being at the cutting edge of life and death. But the smell of detergent, and the bright whiteness of everything, I could do without.

The next few weeks passed in a blur of bed rounds and burials. It did become easier. You don’t want to believe that. You want to believe that every person’s life is worth something. That all men, and women, are equal in importance. But they’re not. It’s not that some matter and some don’t. But the ones that are important to you, are the ones you know. Every day new faces arrived and old ones left. You never spoke to them, you barely even registered. When they looked at you, they either looked through  you or saw someone else. Their eventual passing ceased to disturb me in the way that it had during my first few days. It almost seemed like a natural conclusion to their existence. An organic ‘rightness’ that they should close their eyes and move no more. I was there to farm the dead.

There was one girl that did hold my attention, however. Her name was, or had been – I’m never sure whether ghosts can carry names – Dolore.

Dolore was in her early twenties. She had fallen for her father’s best friend, who had been married. He had flirted with Dolore and led her to believe that he might leave his wife for her. Then, just as cruelly, he took his family away to live in another country. Dolore’s symptoms progressed rapidly after that, yet the disease had not stripped her of all her beauty. Unlike the frail and contorted shapes in the beds next to her, Dolore retained a youthful glow. Her skin remained smooth and her lips rose-petal pink against her pale skin. She looked almost like a marble carving from the great churches of Europe. Perhaps a fair lady, taken prematurely.

Each day, before turning in my stethoscope, I would sit and take Dolore’s blood pressure, counting the beat of her pulse beneath my fingers. It fluttered like a falling leaf.

The day that she expired, something in me recoiled at the work I was doing. This seemed wrong. I was in the wrong profession. What was I doing here, overseeing a mortuary, when I could have gone into research? Tried to find a way to prevent people becoming lovesick in the first place? That would have been the way to make my mark. To forge a name in the world.

On the shifts Nurse Vergessen and I worked together, we almost always ended up in the store cupboard. She smelled of honey. Thick, sticky honey. On the afternoon that Dolore passed away, I was particularly rough with her. She almost protested, but I eased off a little before she had to. I don’t know why I acted like that. It was against my nature.

“Hey, look at me,” she said, lifting my chin with her finger. “What’s gotten into you?”


“You’re clammy.”

“I feel fine.”

She frowned at me and reached down to adjust her skirt.

That night I hardly slept. Dolore’s silent features floated to the surface of my mind like the raising of the Mary Rose. What had her life been like, I wondered. What had she taken pleasure in before she came of age to love? Had she had a happy childhood? Had she had friends? Had she known true pleasure – the type you find in chocolate and merry-go-rounds? The type that is yours entirely, and requires no other person. Any pleasure generated between two people has the potential to falter beneath the imperfections of both.

True pleasure is an experience of the singular self.

Had Dolore known this?

I found myself wondering about the man who had caused her downfall. I doubted that he had ever known what a precious creature he had attracted. Like a lacewing to the deadly Sundew. One sip of its nectar and the fragile insect is swallowed whole. Was it worth it – that single sip?

By the time my alarm signalled the start of my shift, I felt drained. I quenched my thirst with a glass of cold water and then went to work.

We lost a further two patients that day. I administered ridiculous quantities of Hope, Acceptance and Forgiveness, but none of it seemed to make any difference.

I paused by the cupboard door, pretending to adjust my socks. When Nurse Vergessen appeared, she went to walk past me.

“Wait,” I said, reaching for her.

“I have something to do today, Doctor,” she said, avoiding my eyes.

“Please. I really need this.”

She hesitated for a moment. Looking to check that the corridor was clear, she accompanied me inside.

“I’ll be quick,” I promised.

I was.

But something was wrong. As I grunted my last, I found my face pressed to her neck. I couldn’t bring myself to pull away.

“I really must go,” she whispered, trying gently to wriggle out from beneath me.

“Please. Just stay a while. Just a little while.”

“No, Doctor.” Her voice sounded harsh. “You need to let me go.”

I clutched her hair in my hand and brought myself to look into her eyes.

“Oh dear,” she said, a look of concern crossing her face.


“I think you should book an appointment with Doctor Harding.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

“Have you been sleeping?”



“A little.”

“You don’t look well.”

“What are you implying?”

“The vaccination. I don’t think it’s worked.”

“I’ll get a booster.”

“It may be too late for that.”

She was right. I knew she was. Yet it still hurt to hear it.

I couldn’t help it. Dolore had gotten to me. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Of all of my charges, she had been the only one I could not forget. The only one that I would have given up my profession to save. I would have swapped places with her if I could have. If only to see her open those pretty eyes and look at me once with recognition. I would have kissed the pain out of her, sucked the viper’s venom from her soul.

Like a wild flower, she had blown free in the gale. Left her wilting flesh for a world far beyond ours. A place where I could never reach her.

She had left me.

It cut to the very core.

My colleague, Doctor Harding, looked deeply sympathetic, but he didn’t pull his prognosis. You can’t when you’re speaking doctor to doctor. There are no secrets to go unsaid. You both know the score.

I was admitted to a private ward. Given a bed with a television of my own. There was never anything on. At least, nothing I felt able to focus upon.

Nurse Vergessen came to visit me once. She brought grapes and a copy of that week’s paper. I could tell by the way she said ‘goodbye’ that I would never see her again. It was a relief of sorts. I felt like a failure, even though it had never been my intention to become lovesick. I had followed most of the rules. I’d been as sensible as anyone else. I just couldn’t have predicted such a simple twinge of humanity opening up into a gaping, infected wound.

It didn’t take long for emotional septicaemia to set in. I found I couldn’t eat, I’d start crying for no apparent reason – other than the fact my heart was rent in two. I found myself biting the back of my hand to stop my own sobs. Harding never said it, but I knew he was chalking it up as ‘self harm’. 

All the time, the only thought in my mind was Dolore. How our worlds had been separated by time. Had we only been born in the same neighbourhood, the same decade… I could have saved her all this. She would have loved me, and I would have loved her, and none of this would ever have come to pass.

She was the death of me.