There’s shortcuts…

26 07 2013

Hello hello hello!

Not one, but two Granny Battle chapters all in one go to delight (hopefully) and confuddle (probably)!

To catch up with the story so far, click here… (As usual, I’ve added these latest chapters to the end).

Chapter 12

Location: Chuntie Knowe, Glenbourach”

Ellis felt his tummy turn upside down, inside out, twist sideways, do a backflip, then settle down into a state of indescribable jitter. He dragged his gaze away from the phone and looked up at Granny, who appeared to have dissolved slightly. In fact, it looked like there were about seven of her. Numerous appendages extended and something white zoomed towards his face.

‘Have a tissue,’ Granny said.

Ellis blinked, took the tissue, and rubbed his eyes hard. Granny settled back into the singular, and Ellis became aware of a gentle kneading sensation on his tummy. He looked down to see Ian gently treadling him with his front paws and staring intently into his eyes. Ellis automatically tickled him under his chin, and Ian closed his eyes, stretching out his neck contentedly. Dabbing his eyes again and feeling a bit self-conscious, Ellis blew his nose. There was a faint creak from his lap, and Ellis saw – without much surprise now – that Ian had returned to his scaly self.

He looked up at Granny, who appeared to be extremely busy in her bag with her back to him. There was a muffled parp, which sounded suspiciously like someone trying to blow their nose in secret.

She turned, giving her loud glasses a final polish on her cardie before shoving them back on her face, and squinted at Ellis.

‘Ok?’ she asked, ‘Ready to carry on?’

Ellis took a deep breath and exhaled. The exhale came out a bit more wobbly than he’d have liked.

‘Yeah,’ he croaked, then cleared his throat and tried again. ‘Yeah, it’s just – well…’ he shrugged, ‘It’s proper real now, isn’t it.’ He looked up at Granny. ‘He’s… my dad… he’s not…’ Ellis struggled for the right word. ‘He’s not lost anymore, is he?’

Granny smiled a little tight-lipped smile. ‘It’s always been proper real, lad. And no, he’s not lost anymore. Never was, really, not in that sense; but he needed finding. And we done it.’ She smiled again, a little less tightly. ‘And that’s your fault that is. Right, come on now, let’s get your old man into our maps so’s we can keep our eye on him and find him properly.’

She switched her phone back on, clicked on the words “Ellis’s Dad” and selected the option “Add to map“. The orange dragon span lazily on the screen for few seconds, then the map app automatically opened, and Ellis saw the three coloured blobs that were himself, Granny and Ian, clustered around Lower Brimpton. Then Granny pinched the screen a few times to zoom out and Ellis’s jaw dropped.

According to the map, Lower Brimpton was a small town, just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Berwick?!’ exclaimed Ellis, ‘No way can we be right up there! We were only on the train for, what, half an hour? Forty minutes? It’s impossible – it must be at least 200 miles to Berwick from Arnotts Hollow!’

Granny pushed her glasses up her nose. ‘There’s shortcuts,’ she said quietly.

‘Shortcuts?’ asked Ellis.

‘Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that bloke closed all those railway lines down donkey’s years back. Kept that part of it quiet tho, didn’t want people knowing. Not good for business. But this side found a way to keep them open, but hidden, see. Until a few years back, when all The Trouble started. That’s what we were fighting against when It happened.’

Ellis looked incredulous. He’d read about the time lots of railway lines were closed – including the one that ran past Granny’s house. But… shortcuts? Then he replayed the last bit of what Granny had just said.

‘We?’ he asked.

Granny looked uncomfortable.

‘We who?’ pressed Ellis, but in the back of his mind he thought he knew.

Granny took off her glasses and started polishing them on the bottom of her cardie again. ‘Me and your dad,’ she said quietly.

Ellis once again felt as though his world was going backwards and sideways all at once.

‘You and dad? Hang on, so you’ve known all along that he wasn’t…’ Ellis paused briefly, ‘…dead?’ It seemed easier to say now that he knew he wasn’t. Or at least, had some very peculiar sort-of-evidence that he wasn’t. ‘And you didn’t tell us?’ Ellis voice rose in pitch and got louder, ‘You didn’t say anything to us?! You just let us believe that… that was it?! He’d gone?!’

‘Shut up.’ Granny said sharply.

Ellis gaped at her and was about to reply when he realised she was staring coldly and rather dangerously over his shoulder. Then his nose noticed the smell – and this time it wasn’t Ian. This was a much darker smell, a bad smell. A smell that boded.

And not in a good way.

——————————————

Chapter 13

A rather whiney, scratchy voice broke the silence.

‘Well, well, well, if it ain’t the Old Woman and her scrawny pet,’ the voice said, sounding just as dark and boding as the smell. ‘And who’s this squirt? No wait, I can smell him…’

Ellis turned, his hot anger disappearing into cold fear as a tall, skinny figure in a raggedy robe – no, Ellis checked himself – it was more of a hoodie than a robe. A dirty, raggedy, floor length hoodie, with the hood up and the drawstrings pulled so tight that the face was lost in shadow. Ian had woken up and gone rigid in Ellis’s lap, his eyes narrowed to slits and the occasional spark flickering around his nostrils as he fizzed quietly. The thing leaned towards Ellis, who recoiled in disgust, and it sniffed deeply and snottily. Then it gave a huge involuntary twitch that raised one shoulder up to where its ear would be if it didn’t have its hood up, and its head appeared to twist halfway round on its neck. It spat a large gobbit, which splatted wetly onto the platform. ‘Aaaaaaah,’ the thing said, exhaling noisily, ‘The son…‘ it hissed, with a snickery giggle.

‘Mousole,’ said Granny coldly, ‘What are you doing here? I didn’t think you lot used the railways.’

‘We use whatever we like,’ the thing hissed, it’s head snapping towards Granny. ‘We knew you was here,’ it continued, ‘We smelled you.’

‘I’ll bet you did,’ said Granny, and to Ellis’s ears she sounded as though she was trying to sound annoyed, whilst also trying to hide a touch of smugness.

The thing gave a piercing whistle, and more skinny, be-hoodied figures melted out of the darkness around them. Well, three of them were skinny. The fourth was a lot smaller and definitely not skinny. It’s hoodie was stretched tight over an podgy belly and trailed on the floor around it, and a large pair of thick, round glasses protruded from the tightly draw-stringed hood. It hung back a little from the others and projected an air of nervousness.

‘All right Moleface?’ said Granny loudly and cheerfully, ‘still trying to burrow your way into the wrong crowd? Bet your poor old mum’s turning her grave.’ The figure jumped and tried to sidle behind one of the taller shades, mumbling inaudibly.

‘Leave him be,’ snapped Mousole angrily, then turning to the figure nearest to him, he hissed ‘I tole you not to bring him! Whatchew bring him for?!’ A muffled, hissy, argument ensued between the two of them.

Ellis leaned towards Granny, trying to make it look as though he wasn’t leaning towards her, which was a little difficult because he was.

‘Who – what are they?’ he asked out of the corner of his mouth.

Before Granny could answer, a deep, resonant voice, that seemed to have a hint of hootiness about it boomed out of the shadows making them all jump. The voice was accompanied by a presence which oozed authority and a total unwillingness to even slightly bend even the most loosest of rules. At all. Ever.

‘MISTER MOUSOLE! ACCORDING TO ITEM SEVEN CLAUSE OPEN BRACKET THREE CLOSE BRACKET OF OUR STATION BYLAWS, NO PERSON OPEN BRACKET OR OTHERWISE CLOSE BRACKET SHALL SPIT ON THE RAILWAY. YOU JUST DID. SO SOD OFF AND TAKE YOUR LITTLE FRIENDS WITH YOU.’

——————————————

Gosh, what an earth will happen next?!

Incidentally, that station bylaw is true. As is this one, which made me giggle a bit:

“No person shall enter or remain on the railway if, in the reasonable opinion of an authorised person, he is in an unfit or improper condition or his clothing may soil or damage any part of the railway or the property or clothing of any person on the railway.” Section 219 of the Transport Act 2000: Station bylaws.

So beware, rail travellers – make sure what you wear isn’t likely to soil or damage stuff or staff…!

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Handy things, cats…

22 07 2013

What, more? Yes, more! Two Granny Battle instalments in two days – has the world gone mad?!

To catch up with the story so far, click here… (I’ve added this latest chapter to the end).

Chapter 11

The tiny orange dragon chased its tail on the screen of Granny’s phone for a few moments, then faded and the screen went black.

Ellis and Granny waited a few seconds. Nothing happened. Granny frowned, and pressed the power button on the top of the phone – the screen lit up briefly, then died. But it gave them both enough time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the tiny text next to the battery icon which said 1%.

‘Bugger.’ said Granny.

Ellis looked a bit worried. ‘Now what?’ he asked worriedly.

Granny was rummaging around in her bag again. ‘Wake Ian,’ she said, ‘We’re going to need his help.’ She pulled a knot of cable out of her bag and began untangling it; one end had the normal charger-type plug on it, and the other end – Ellis couldn’t quite see it properly, but it looked flat and shiny. He gently shook Ian, who opened his eyes sleepily and burped. Meanwhile Granny had had another rummage in her bag, and was now holding up a fluffy silver ball and eyeing it with distaste.

‘Can’t abide fluffiness,’ she muttered, ‘Ah well, needs must…’ She waved the ball in front of Ian’s nose and cooed in the high-pitched voice of the terminal cat-talker ‘Ooooh, lookie here Ian! It’s your favourite fetch-ball!’

Ian’s ears pricked up and he swivelled his head to follow the ball as Granny waved it about. Keeping his eyes on it, he sat up suddenly on Ellis’s lap.

‘Ready Ian?’ cooed Granny, ‘Ready? Reeeeeeadyyyyyy?’ Ian flicked his tail impatienly. ‘Iaaaaaannn… FETCH!’

Granny chucked the ball.

Ellis winced as Ian leapt off his lap and raced down the platform after it, disappearing into the dark in a clatter of claws. There was a slight thud, silence, then Ellis saw something orange racing back towards them, the dull glow of the lamp shining off the silver ball in its mouth.

Ian leapt back into Ellis’s lap, dropped the ball on the bench, and purred. Ellis blinked.

‘He’s a cat again!’ he exclaimed.

‘Can’t resist his fetch-ball,’ said Granny as she plugged the cable into her phone. ‘Now just hold him still while I give him a good going over.’

Ellis realised that the shiny flat thing on the other end of the cable was a tiny metal comb, and he laughed in disbelief.

‘You’re kidding!’ he said, ‘You can charge your phone by combing a cat?!’

Granny was working up a sweat combing Ian vigorously, who’s purring got louder and louder. There was a sudden loud snap. Ian twitched and flattened his ears, Ellis jumped, a bright white spark flashed up the cable and the screen on Granny’s phone flashed back into life.

‘Static electricity,’ she said matter-of-factly, ‘Handy things, cats.’ She peered at the phone’s screen. ‘Still only 98% tho – I’ve never managed to get it to a hundred.’

Ellis shook his head grinning as Granny stuffed the cable and Ian’s fetch-ball back in her bag.

‘Now then,’ she said, dumping her bag on the ground and hutching up the bench nearer to Ellis, ‘Let’s see what we’ve got.’

She tapped and swiped at the phone’s screen, pursing her lips and making “tch-tch-tch” noises under her breath, then she said ‘Aha!’ triumphantly and showed Ellis the screen.

“Found Three Nachos”?’ he read out loud.

Granny looked at the screen and tutted. ‘How did I not pick that up?!’ she said resignedly. ‘Matches, it should say matches. Stupid spellchecker.’

‘Ohhhh,’ said Ellis, then ‘Oooooooh!’

Granny tapped on the screen and they both leaned in close to read the tiny writing, apologised as their heads bumped together, then leaned in again a bit more carefully.

The tiny text on the screen read:

1. Name: Ellis
Species: homo sapiens
Gender: male
Age: 10 1/2
Location: Bench, Platform 1, Lower Brimpton Station

2. Name: Bernard
Species: mus musculus
Gender: male
Age: 1 1/4
Location: Cupboard Under Sink, 23 Station Road, Arnotts Hollow

3. Name: Ellis’s Dad
Species: homo sapiens
Gender: male
Age: 36 1/2″

Ellis stopped breathing as Granny scrolled the screen with a stubby finger.

———————





The thing about leather…

21 07 2013

Wotcha!

It’s time for another Granny Battle instalment – hold on to your hats! If you want to catch up with the story so far, click here… (I’ve added this latest chapter to the end).

Chapter 10

Ellis and Granny stood panting on a narrow platform, lit by a solitary lamp which cast a weak, flickery orangey glow around them. Ian was struggling under Granny’s arm, and a few stray crisps twirled around the ground in the backdraft from the train, which had made just the briefest of stops, giving them barely enough time to jump clear before it gathered speed amidst a cacophony of painful clanking and disappeared into the night.

‘Where are we?’ asked Ellis, shaking crisp crumbs out his hair and looking round for a signpost.

‘Here.’ said Granny. ‘Come in, let’s plonk ourselves on that bench for a few minutes before we head off, there’s a few things we need to do first.’

She dutifully plonked onto the bench closely followed by Ellis, and Ian jumped straight into his lap and went to sleep again. Ellis tickled him behind one scaley ear, and the orange dragon gave a gentle creak. More of a dragonette, really, thought Ellis as he smiled down at him. He was getting rather attached to the strange creature.

‘Ooft!’ said Granny, as she leaned back and dug her phone out her pocket, ‘Right, pass it over here for a mo.’

Ellis held out his own phone and Granny looked at it blankly, then up at Ellis. ‘Not that!’ she said.

‘What then?’ asked Ellis, confused.

‘Oh. I hadn’t got quite that far explaining, had I?’ She huffed on the screen of her own phone and polished it on her trouser leg. ‘I noticed that thing you’ve got,’ she continued, ‘well, when I say notice, I don’t mean notice – it’s rather obvious so probably anyone would notice it. I mean more like, when I got close, I could feel it. And that’s what I need to borrow for a moment.’

Ellis was still confused. ‘Nope, still not a clue,’ he said, fiddling with the old leather bracelet on his wrist. He stopped fiddling suddenly and looked up at Granny, who cast her eyes down at the bracket, then back to his face and nodded. ‘That’s the bunny!’ she said encouragingly.

‘This?’ asked Ellis, ‘It’s just an old leather thing I found at home – mum said I could have it. I guess it was something from her hippie days.’ He fiddled with it again, spinning the chunky silver bead around, and found that he felt rather reluctant to take it off.

Granny gave a faint smile. ‘You’re sort of right,’ she said, ‘but it wasn’t your mum’s – she has hers on a necklace. That one’s your dad’s’

Ellis felt his stomach give a little lurch and he looked down at the bracelet, then back at Granny.

‘This – really? This was dad’s?’

Is your dad’s,’ said Granny, ‘which is why I need to borrow it for a mo. Come on, chop chop!’

Ellis hesitated for a moment longer, then carefully squeezed the bracelet over his hand and held it out for Granny, who took it gently and laid it on the bench in between them.

‘The thing about leather,’ Granny said, as she flicked open a tiny, sharp-looking penknife she’d produced from a pocket, ‘is it’s absorbent, see.’ She held down the bracelet with one hand and brought the knife towards it with the other.

Wait!’ yelled Ellis, horrified, ‘you can’t cut it! What are you doing?!’

Granny’s knife hand paused. ‘I’m not cutting,’ she said, ‘more like taking a little shaving. Don’t worry.’ She very gently sliced off a tiny sliver of leather from the inside of the bracelet, whilst Ellis held his breath. ‘Your mum and dad made two of these silver beads when they first met at some festival or other – you mum put hers on a necklace, and your dad put his on this. It’s odd he wasn’t wearing it when he disappeared – ‘ she paused and pondered thoughtfully for a second or two. ‘Unless of course he left if behind on purpose. Yes, I suppose that’s possible. And rather interesting.’ She picked up the sliver of leather on the tip of her knife and squinted at it. ‘That should do, you can put it back on now.’

‘How do you know all this stuff?’ asked Ellis, squeezing the bracelet back on.

‘Oh, you know…’ said Granny, who’d picked up her phone in her free hand and was holding it up, as if focussing it on the tip if the knife to take a photo. ‘It’s complicated…’ She grunted. ‘Give me a hand here – just hold this really steady for a sec.’

She passed Ellis the penknife and he took it carefully, making sure he didn’t dislodge the tiny shaving of leather on its tip.

Granny aimed the phone again, gave a satisfied ‘Hmph,’ and tapped the screen.

There was very quick, sharp whistling buzz in Ellis’s ears, and a bright blue flash from the back of Granny’s phone. It was so blue it hurt. He blinked, trying to clear his vision, and saw that the sliver of leather had disappeared from the tip of the knife.

‘Oh. Sorry…’ he began, and looked down at the bench trying to find it.

‘It’s okay,’ said Granny, ‘I got it. Now then, do you want to see something clever?’ She twisted round on the bench so that Ellis could see the phone’s screen. It contained an extremely high resolution image of the piece of leather, which appeared to be floating against a black background, turning gently.

‘Hey,’ exclaimed Ellis, ‘You have a 3D camera on your phone?! That’s awesome!’

‘It’s not exactly a camera,’ said Granny, trying and failing to hide her smugness. She shook the phone gently, causing the piece of leather to drift up and down the screen. ‘It didn’t take a picture of it, it took it.’

Ellis looked incredulous.

‘Well I did say I’d modified the phone a bit,’ said Granny, turning it over and showing him what looked like a tiny hole in the back. He’d noticed it before in her kitchen, but had forgotten about it. ‘Now, cross your fingers – let’s see if the leather still had a bit of your dad left in it.’

Something in Ellis’s brain clicked into place. He suddenly felt very excited, and held his breath as Granny typed a very complicated-looking formula into a pop-up window on the screen and pressed ‘OK‘.

———————–





‘Tis a strange little village is Lowdham…

20 07 2013

Back in June I was working my way through Mark Billingham’s excellent Tom Thorne series of crime fiction novels on audiobook (for the second time) when I happened upon a tweet from him about an up-and-coming event at the Lowdham Book Festival . After a) feeling rather ashamed that I knew nothing about a book festival happening only 5 miles down the road, b) checking the date and finding it didn’t clash with Glastonbury Festival and c) checking my work roster and finding I was free that evening, I booked a ticket. The event was called An Evening to Die For and was being held in the local parish church, with Mark Billingham and John Harvey. I’ve only read (well, listened to) one of John Harvey’s books – mainly because the first few in his series of books set in Nottingham aren’t available (yet?) on iPlayer. And I do like to read books in order!

I decided to head there staight after work by train and grab a pie and a pint in the village pub on the way to the do. It was a lovely sunny evening, and as I sat outside the pub watching the world (well, village) go by, this popped out of my pen:

‘Tis a strange little village is Lowdham,
Quite easy to miss and drive by;
So stop for a gin
In Ye Oldie Ship Inn
And a helping of homemade steak pie.

I say pen, it actually popped out of my finger into my phone.

Then I headed up to the church.

Churches and me go back a long way. Not in the religious way, but in the… sort of… familiar way. As a wee young thing, I was recruited by my dad to help start up a choir at one of the three local country churches for which he played organ. He’d landed the role (I say role, not job, as he wouldn’t accept payment apart from a few quid here and there to cover petrol, and he did it more for the enjoyment of being able to get his hands on lovely old instruments than for any religious tendencies) by way of not being able to turn down a plea for help from a friend during an organist-shortage. So I became used to choir practises and services in delightfully ancient musty old country churches, often going up there with dad when he went to practise and either turning pages for him or exploring the church and churchyard, making up stories in my head and generally being In A World Of My Own. I never saw the mouse though – according to dad, he lived under the organ of one of the churches and would sometimes pop out and run around, though I now suspect this was a little invention of dad’s to encourage me to sit quietly and not fidget… So anyway, walking into any old church and being hit by that musty churchy smell never fails to transport me back to those days. I also have to fight the urge to run up and adjust the hymn numbers on the board if they’re not perfectly centred.

A nice lady introduced the evening’s guests and two blokes ambled out the vestry and took their places on a couple of chairs placed at the front of the chancel.

And they chatted.

I’ve said before that I don’t do reviews, and I’m sticking to it. But I will share a few interesting points that came up amidst the chuckles and writerly banter.

They discussed the subject of titles for their books and experiences differed – one nearly always had a title from the start, but didn’t let it worry him if the occassional one took a while to come; the other said he gets frustrated if he hasn’t got one. I found this interesting, and related to them both. Sometimes I find the title comes before the thing (be it a book, story, poem, blog post…), sometimes during, and sometimes after. Some titles stand out immediately and shout loudly at you. Others you have to search for, and I’m familiar with that slightly panicky feeling when the title hasn’t come yet.

Both authors read pieces from their latest novels, Mark Billingham from The Dying Hours, and John Harvey from the manuscript of a book-in-progress, which was rather thrilling – I don’t know why seeing him turning loose A4 pages rather than reading from an actual book was exciting, but it was!

During a short break I succumbed to temptation and bought The Dying Hours from a little stall at the back of the church set up by The Bookcase, Lowdham’s independent bookshop and organisers of the festival. Then, as I was enjoying the evening so much and there wasn’t much of a queue, I self-consciously took it up for signing. I spent about the next half hour trying to stop blushing after Mr Billingham said “Rose Appleby?” and asked if I’d enjoyed my pie when I told him what name to write in it! The magic of Twitter! How cool was that?!

After the break it was question time, and a member of the audience asked them their views on eBooks. A pointed dislike for them from one of the authors at first surprised me, until he explained his reasoning – the huge increase in “self-published” eBooks cheapening the industry and lowering the quality of writing. I’m totally with him on that point, but I do buy eBooks – mainly because I do a lot of travelling and have to pack light, and an iPad is easier to carry round than a big hardback novel. But I’ve never bought a cheap, self-published one, and I always check to make sure the book is also available in printed form. If it isn’t, I don’t buy it – it just doesn’t seem right to me, especially knowing how impossible it is to edit your own work. A book published without the input of an experienced editor surely isn’t going to cut the mustard. When eBooks first began appearing I was hugely against them – nothing could replace the smell and feel of paper for me. But then I started my current job, and one day couldn’t fit the hardback of a new Terry Pratchett into my bag… so I bought the eBook version for my iPhone. These days I generally have an eBook and an audiobook on the go on the road, and a Proper Paper Book (or two…) on the go at home. Different books I hasten to add. Yep, I read a lot…

On the subject of writer’s block (another question from the audience), both strongly agreed it doesn’t exist, especially if you’re a full time writer. They agreed there were distractions (the internet, twitter etc) just like in any other job, but neither have experienced The Block. Perhaps when (!) I become a full time writer I’ll be better placed to comment on that one….

To sum up, it was a thoroughly wonderful evening, well organised by the Lowdham Book Festival team. There’s something rather magical about hearing writers talk about their craft, and I’d recommend it even to folk who aren’t big readers. It’s so interesting! And I’ll definitely be looking out for the festival again next year.

ps: In case your wondering, no I couldn’t fit the hardback of The Dying Hours in my workbag. So I bought the audiobook version too.

pps: It’s brilliant!

ppps: And I bought (and am thoroughly enjoying) the first Charlie Resnick novel by John Harvey. The eBook version. Delighted that I have 11 more in the series to get through!

pppps: I didn’t get my pie – unfortunately the pub wasn’t serving food that evening, so I had a bag of crisps instead.