The shepherd boy’s grave

I wrote this for my writing group; I had set them the task of looking at the endings of a variety of novels, poems, stories etc, and then using the ending as an inspiration to work towards – not to end with the particular situation or lines, but just as a stimulus… I thought since I had set them such a tricky task, I ought to have a go. I had the last stanza of a poem by Martín Espada, ‘Ezequiel’, and here is what i wrote:

“Oh look, look at this!”
Russell walked on a few paces and then stopped with exaggerated weariness and turned and plodded back to her. Why was he being like this? What was wrong? When she’d asked, he’d said in an offhand way ‘nothing, why should there be?’ … which meant something was wrong.
She was looking at a small limestone block with a grey metal plate attached.
In loving memory of Ezekiel, our son, cruelly torn from our embrace; “I will also bring upon you a sword which will execute vengeance” Lev 26:23
“Who was he?” she asked.
“Some kid, mucking about with his mates…” Russell stared at it and his face, which had once been so easy to read, every expression familiar and understood, was closed, his thoughts private and far away.
“Did you know him?” Ronnie asked trying to make conversation… her words felt dry and forced on her tongue, words which used to come so easily and flow without thought.
“Not particularly…” and he turned and continued his tramp up the hill.
How can you not particularly know someone? It was so hot on this bare hillside, she wanted to sit down and admire the view or sit down and talk, talk about things… But she roused herself to follow him, with a big sigh and a sense of foreboding.  This was, if not the end, the beginning of the end…
“Hello, there! Wonderful day, isn’t it!”
She turned back and a man with a walking pole was climbing steadily towards her up the slope.
“Perfect,” she answered, not sure whether to slow to converse, or hurry on to catch up with Russell.
“I see you were looking at Zeek’s place,” he said coming up to her. Before she could make any comment he went on, “Is that Russ walking on ahead? Russell Broome?”
“Yes…”
“I’m John, Russ and I were at school together, way back in prehistoric times.”
He glanced up the path and lifted his pole in salute; Russell, further up the dusty, chalky trail was looking down at them. He didn’t wave back but turned and continued to tramp up the track, quickly as if he was in a hurry.
How awkward.
“I was looking at this… this memorial but actually I was pausing to catch my breath.” Ronnie hoped the man, John would continue his walk but he stood, looking down at the memorial.
“Zeek was helping his dad with the sheep, he came up here and it’s thought he met rustlers, he was shot and the sheep were taken.”
Ronnie looked around; she’d heard the sound of sheep but there was no sign of any.
“How old was he?”
“Seventeen.”
How tragic… a seventeen year-old shot and killed on this peaceful hillside. She asked the man if he’d known the boy, yes, her replied, they’d been at school together.
She wanted to say – the three of them, Russell, this John and Zeek, they’d been friends… but she didn’t and after a moment of silence, he said cheerio and began to follow the path.
“Oh, another thing, if you’re interested in history – it was in all the papers at the time when Zeek died here, that this was already known as the shepherd boy’s grave – some lad way back in ancient history was killed here too… people used to leave flowers…”
“How interesting,” and she was annoyed at repeating his word.
“There used to be a white wooden cross here, just a small one, I’m never sure whether I actually remember it or just think I do! Cheerio!” and he turned and continued his walk.
She was hot and fed up, Russell had disappeared completely behind a rocky outcrop and she sat down on a big stone, more of a boulder with a smooth indentation as if many people had sat here over the years.
In the sheltered side of the stone was a burst of yellow and she’d thought it might be some rubbish, a plastic bag perhaps, but it was a clump of yellow flowers with black centres… black-eyed Susans maybe? But up here on this hillside?
She stood up and looked up the pathway. She could see Russell half a mile ahead now, stumping along, head down, not admiring the view or looking where he was going. The other man, John was not far behind and she watched as he caught up with Russell and passed him.
There may have been an exchange of words, she couldn’t tell, the man had slowed but didn’t stop, and soon was striding away. Russel walked a few more paces then turned and looked round, presumably to check where she was. He was looking back along the path, then glanced down the hill and saw her.
She waved. He flailed his arms to beckon her, come on, hurry up, what the hell are you doing down there, he was clearly saying.
“Hello! Stopped for breath?” this time it was a friendly couple of middle-aged ladies, in khaki shorts, big boots, and woolly socks. “Shepherd boy’s grave!”
Ronnie took a deep breath and walked on with them, their friendly, hearty chat, raising her spirits.

Ezequiel, you are buried in the valley of dry bone,
There is thirst in the wood of your white cross
Heat in the tyre planted with sunflowers by your grave,
Prophecy in the bones. When your voice booms
Over the desert, all the bones will rise knocking,
Skulls snapping hard onto spines, sinews roping around shoulders,
Flesh swelling like bread on sinew, and the four winds
Gusting breath into the lungs of the dead. Ezequiel,
You will walk again with your grandfather of the .22 rifle.
You will walk again with your goats.

 

Although this was supposed to be a contained short story, as I wrote it other ideas came into my mind, and it maybe that it will become part of something much longer – not necessarily the beginning, although I think I want to start with the memorial on the hillside. It isn’t a mistake that there are two different stories about Zeek – one that he was mucking about with friends, the other that he was shot by sheep rustlers… and the mystery of why, if Russell had known him, did he bring Ronnie up the hill past the memorial… hmmm, lots of thoughts for me!

 

Another episode from the old umbrella factory

I wrote a true story the other day, heavily disguised, so the actual people involved remain private; it was about a person who I know very well who I called Blaine, and in a fictitious location, The Easthope and Area Local History Museum, I transposed another real person as a fictional curator who I called Darius. I’ve changed everything about the people in my true story – I might even have changed genders! You won’t recognise these people, even if you knew them, but the facts of the story are absolutely true. My friend was telling me about another episode.

Georgie, an old friend of Blaine’s who didn’t visit Easthope very often called to say she was in town, looking at an exhibition at the museum on rope and rope-making, and could they meet for coffee… and maybe some cake!
It seemed an excellent idea, and with a little quiver of anticipation, in case Darius was working, Blaine agreed to meet her. Blaine thought she was a little early, as she strolled in; she had walked as it was a pleasant day and she thought she needed the exercise. However Georgie was already there, and to Blaine’s surprise and delight another friend was with her, Paddy, who she hadn’t seen for a very long time.
Paddy and Georgie were sitting at a table in the main café part of the museum – it was all open plan so visitors were walking all around; they had got a chair for her and it was facing them, and facing the window looking out into the little courtyard. In a way, Blaine was glad she had her back to the counter, and to the museum desk and little shop.
Blaine was so pleased to be with her two old friends and they chatted and laughed, and caught up with each other’s news, and with the latest on families and other friends. There were tables on either side of them, rather close in fact, but it didn’t matter, there was nothing private or confidential in what they were saying.
“I say young man,” said a rather sever looking woman on the ext table, her glasses perched on the end of her nose.
Someone came and stood beside Blaine to talk to the woman who was complaining about her coffee being too strong, and it was Darius.
He talked about the coffee, served from the café and took her cup away to get her tea instead.
“let’s go and look at the rope-making exhibition!” exclaimed Blaine and jumped up and got he coat and bag.
Her friends had finished their drinks and were ready to move to the upstairs gallery where ropes, rope makers and rope making were on display, and feeling embarrassed herself, Blaine hurried across the stairs before Darius could return with the tea.

I have used The Easthope and Area Local History Museum as a setting for my truly fictional story about Malcolm the curator – he really is an invention!

A dazzling smile

This a true story which I heard from someone I know very well; I have changed all the details and concealed and changed the identities and locations of all; only the actual story line is as it was. I have called the main character Blaine, who, if you have read it, you might remember was the sister of someone in my novel ‘Farhom’. I’m imagining that Blaine is the person in my true story

The Easthope and Area Local History Museum was located in what had been the old umbrella factory; part of the building housed the museum, and was attached to community areas, a café, meeting rooms, and storage for all the items not on display. There was a suite of rooms housing records and archives, which anyone and any group could access – completing all the correct paperwork and through the proper channels of course! Another part of the building was undergoing development as a town art gallery, but funding was slow in coming through so the completion date was repeatedly delayed. There was also a proposal that the library should move from its cramped Victorian building at the other end of town and be accommodated at the other end; this would allow for all the modern facilities libraries now accommodated such as computers.

Blaine had first come to the museum when it opened with her husband Tom; he was very interested in rope making and knots for some reason, and the first exhibition had been about the local fishing industry over the last couple of hundred years. Because it was a special event in the ‘new’ museum, there were refreshments, and talks, and competitions and activities for children. Tom had wandered off and Blaine for some reason stopped to listen to a brief talk about bricks; the main brick producing area had been the local big town of Castair, but Easthope had also had brick kilns.

Blaine found that she was more interested in the man giving the talk than the bricks he was talking about. he was a lot younger than her, maybe fortyish, but she thought he was stunningly good-looking. Someone spoke her name and touched her arm and it was her friend, Penelope.

“Surely you’re not interested in bricks?” Penny whispered.

“No,” Blaine whispered back, “But I’m enjoying the view!” Penny looked mystified. “The guy who’s talking!”

The brief talk finished and the two women wandered away looking for their husbands. Blaine would have stopped to ask pointless questions about bricks just to chat to the handsome curator but it seemed silly. Penny hadn’t even noticed him, and when Blaine pointed to him, now moving chairs about for another longer talk in another area, Penny seemed perplexed at her interest; he looked quite ordinary to her.

After that, Blaine visited the museum as often as she could without it being ridiculous, and felt silly and school-girlish in her secret crush on the man who worked there. He was married, she learned somehow, married to the deputy of the local junior school where many, many years ago, Blaine’s two daughters had gone. He had three children, quite young, and his name was Darius.

Blaine’s book club started to meet in one of the alcoves of the museum café – the museum encouraged groups to come and use their space. Sometimes Darius would be working, but often not; Penny had once made some comment about him to the others, calling him Blaine’s ‘eye-candy’ – a term which she hated, and which made her feel ridiculous.

One afternoon, having spent all morning decorating the lounge, Blaine went out for a walk and fresh air. it began to rain and the nearest place was the museum so she hurried over and went to have a coffee and a piece of the café’s renowned lemon drizzle cake.

It was very busy, but she sat, a book on her table, reading as she always did when she was somewhere alone. A couple came, shared her table, then left, but it was still raining and Blaine didn’t fancy going back to the decorating.

She sensed someone near her, and there, clearing the coffee cups from her table was Darius.

“Hi!” she said, spontaneously.

He greeted her and grinned, a dazzling smile…

If you haven’t read Farholm, here is a link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/FARHOLM-Lois-Elsden-ebook/dp/B007JMDAFO/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1476278856&sr=8-8&keywords=lois+elsden

The Curator of the Umbrella Factory Museum

Meeting other writers, and working with others is a most stimulating, interesting and useful process, and I’ve joined a course which is taking place at the American Museum Bath – “Using objects from the Museum’s collection as prompts, Alex and Jude will inspire you with their creative writing exercises and help you find your writing voice. Sessions are fun, informal, and will explore character development, point of view, and plot, among other subjects. The sessions are suitable for complete beginners or for writers who would like an inspirational boost.”

This is what I wrote during the first session:

The Curator of the Umbrella Factory Museum

I knew that Malcolm worked in the local history museum; it’s on the road leading out of Easthope, but tucked away round the back in a nineteenth century building which was part of the old umbrella factory.

He was one of my house-k=mates in the shared Edwardian villa at the other end of our little town, and I probably wouldn’t have got to know him if our rooms weren’t opposite each other across the small landing on the top floor.

he didn’t come downstairs very often, never chilled in the lounge part of the open-plan area on the ground floor, but would come down to cook his meals. The rest of us would cook for ourselves, share a meal, or get a take-away… Malcolm never did. He was invited to join us and responded pleasantly but always cooked his simple meals and took them upstairs back to his room.

By the time I rented my room,the others were so used to him that there was no gossip or char and though he sort of fascinated me because he was my nearest neighbour, I didn’t really ask about him. I guess Malcolm was in his thirties, or maybe forties, brown hair cut in a normal but vaguely old-fashioned way, I don’t know if women would think he was good-looking, he just looked normal to me.

One evening as I was trying to concentrate on the massive tome which was all I needed to learn for my next exam to be a financial advisor… so dull, so dull, there was a knock on my door.

Most people in the house would knock and stick their head round the door if it was open, as it usually was, but Malcolm knocked. I rolled off my bed and opened th already ajar door.

“Hello David, sorry to disturb you, but something has slipped down the back of my wardrobe and I can’t shift it.”

“No worries, Malcolm, I’ll see if I can help.”

II must say I was intrigued to see the inside of Malcolm’s room; he had stepped back as i opened my door and he didn’t so much as glance over my shoulder into my room. My room is pretty much as you’d expect – untidy, clothes in heaps, books in piles, an array of dirty mugs along the window sills, an Irish flag hanging off the side of the wardrobe, and photos of my family and girlfriend on the small chest of drawers.

Malcolm had closed his door behind him and now keyed in the code on the number pad. His room was the same as mine, but the other way round, a sort of mirror image but it hardly looked as if anyone lived there. Apart from a couple of books on the chest of drawers there was absolutely nothing personal on display. The bed was pristine, a plain brown duvet cover, beige pillowslips… it was almost shocking in its emptiness, and the friendly witter I was about to utter died on my lips.

I knew Malcolm had lived here for a couple of years – I’d been here just over a year and he’d been established for longer than that.

“Er… David…”

I’d been staring around – staring at nothing actually because there was nothing to see. It looked like an empty room.

I apologised and went to help him manoeuvre the wardrobe.

My featured picture is not of an umbrella factory, it is of the Underfall yard in Bristol

Here is a link to my books on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=lois+elsden

What do you do?

When I meet people for the first time, one of the most common things people ask – and one of the things we often ask  as we get to know each other is,’What do you do?’

For the first time in all my life, I can answer what I have always wanted to answer “I write.” I’ve always written, ever since I could remember, but the conversational question means what do you do as your job or profession, how do you identify yourself – because like it or not, and I didn’t much like it before, you are very much what you do in the eyes of others.

“I’m a student.” Emerging into the seventies with the sixties behind us, there were different reactions to my reply; when I was a student most of us had grants, most of us worked hard and drank hard and clubbed hard, unsaddled with debt and the need for a part-time job as poor kids are these days. Being a student might be refined, Oxbridge, red-brick, others… Polytechnic? Polytechnic, definitely second class except Manchester Polytechnic wasn’t! I went to Manchester Poly in its first year, it was described by the director Dr Smith as ‘the Rolls Royce of polytechnics’; we sneered then, but looking back he was right – it was a brilliant place and I owe the poly and my teachers so much. If I could go back and swap it – I wouldn’t!

Here I am, aged 18, just arrived in Manchester - a whole exciting world before me!

Here I am, aged 18, just arrived in Manchester – a whole exciting world before me!

And while I was a student, I was writing, mostly poetry, but short stories too.

“I’m a civil servant.” There was little or no career guidance when I finished my degree, and an arts degree then seemed to lead in no specific direction; I wanted to be a journalist, or a an abstract writer, but in the days before the internet it wasn’t so easy without any contacts in the business to find an opening. So I became a civil servant and wish to draw a veil over those nine months, and not just because I signed the official secrets act. I resigned without another job to go to because I just couldn’t stand the though of any more time in the small office near Old Trafford Station.

And while I was a civil servant I wrote and had the first of my short stories published in ‘Honey Magazine’.

“I’m a bing-bong girl – well, I work at the information desk and make flight announcements at Manchester Airport.” I worked there for a wonderful year, it was a brilliant job, I loved every minute of it, the way the airport was like a village, awake night and day; I loved the people I worked with and the people I met, passengers, crew, other airport workers. I liked working shifts, I loved night shifts, I loved the variety and the little dramas and the happy endings.

And while I worked at the airport I wrote and had more short stories published, and began my first novel ‘Shadows on a Silver Screen’ which is best forgotten!

“I’m a teacher.” Much as I loved working at the airport, I wanted to travel, but needed some profession or certification so I could work abroad… teaching, that was the thing. You can work anywhere as a teacher… so back to college for a year, working at the pickle factory to help pay my way, and I became a teacher. I have been so lucky in my teaching; I have worked at three brilliant schools. Birley High School which sadly was pulled down. It was in Manchester and had a great head teacher, Mr Glyn Young, great, tough, funny staff and fantastic, amazing young people.  I think I probably learned more than my students did! After a brief two terms in London, I returned north and worked in another great school Hathershaw, in Oldham, – well, it was great under the leadership of Mr John Cole, another amazing and much-loved head teacher.

And while I was teaching I wrote… my first long novel, ‘Man in the Sun’ which may one day be revamped as something else, and then my first proper novel ‘Telling All the Truth’, which maybe has the germ of a better novel in it.

“I stay at home with my children.” later than most people I had two children; I was so lucky to have two beautiful and lovely children at a time when most of my friends children were already at secondary school that I didn’t want to put them in someone else’s care while I went back to work. What was the point of that? We had to struggle with only one income, but we managed and I was so lucky that I was able to be with my children in those early years and see them safely through infancy and into school and the beginnings of an independent life.

Mads and Rory Sept 2005

And while my children were sleeping or at play-group I wrote, ‘A Strong Hand From Above’ and ‘Flipside’. I began to send off manuscripts, tried to find an agent, entered every writing competition I could find.

“I teach children who struggle in school.” I began to work in a PRU and having worked those long hours writing when my children were small, squeezing it between, housework,, cooking child-care, I had the discipline to write at night after I’d caught up on chores, prepared my lessons and spent time with my husband! he was busy with his music and often out playing and rehearsing so he wasn’t as neglected as it sounds! Now the novels flowed, hard work, but they came. ‘Farholm’, ‘The Double Act’, ‘Loving Judah’, ‘The Story of Rosa Czekov’, ‘Night Vision’. My writing flowed even more into my teaching, and I wrote my three novels for reluctant readers – nothing like having your audience reading your work right in front of you!

“I’m a writer.” At last! All my life I have wanted to say that, but could only say “I write in my spare time.” Now, hurrah! Yes, I am a writer, that is what I do, that is what I work as.

me and horsey

Cissy Hears Things

I mentioned before that I had had some short stories published in a woman’s magazine called Honey many years ago. I have no idea now where the idea from this story came from, but I did have a spooky experience at about that time.

I was living with a couple of friends in a rather ghastly flat, on the ground floor of an old Victorian house. There was no central heating in those days and the only heater was an electric fire in the sitting room which we huddled round doing our college work. There was a short passage from the sitting room to the kitchen. The sitting room had a tatty carpet, the passage way had lino and there was a step down into the kitchen which had a wooden floor. It was so miserably cold in the kitchen that we took it in turns to go and make a hot drink of tea or coffee. It was my turn and I was in the kitchen when I heard footsteps on the lino in the passage and then the clink of heels on the wooden floor. I turned round to give whoever the drinks I had just made… and there was no-one there. I went back into the sitting room and my friends were sitting as I had left them, deep into their work… so who, or what had made the foosteps I heard?

honey 3

The Scatophaga

When I was in my twenties I wrote a lot of  short stories and poems although I had started a novel called ‘The Man in the Sun’… a  family saga I think!

There was a women’s magazine called Honey, and I was lucky enough to win a short story competition and then have several other stories published too! Here is one I wrote while I was working at Manchester Airport; on night shift there were all sorts of odd people about, working there or just being there… so this is based on what I observed and what my imagination did with it!

Isn’t it a great illustration? Forget the story, it’s probably rubbish but the pic by Peter Till is amazing!