Overdoing it

depth photography of blue and white medication pill

This came to me in the wee small hours of this morning, almost fully-formed. We’ve just returned from a hotel holiday by the sea, and I’ve had a medical diagnosis which has been worrying. I think that many people when they are ill take advantage of their illness, consciously or not, and I wondered what it would be like if a naturally lazy and self-indulgent man became even more entrenched in his ways as a result of a vague medical condition.


“Shall we walk to Underdowne Sands today?” Jill said, taking another slice of toast and covering it with butter before sliding it under her fried egg, placing a rasher of bacon on top, and cutting off a less than delicate corner before conveying it to her mouth.
Her brother shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “How far is it? You know what the doctor said to me about overdoing things.” He stared resentfully at the untouched solitary poached egg that adorned his plate.
“I looked it up last night,” Jill said. “Three and a half miles along the cliff path. Or a little less if you go along the beach, and the beach would be flatter.”
“I’m sure that an hour’s walk wouldn’t be bad for you,” his wife, Lucy, told him. “I know Doctor Williams said that you shouldn’t overdo things, but he also said that you should get a bit of exercise. We’ll take it easy, and you can stop and take a rest whenever you need.”
“And there’s a café just outside Underdowne village which is meant to be really good,” Jill said. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Oh, very well,” Jack said.
The fourth member of the party, Alice, sat silently, eating her grilled tomato and mushrooms. She never said much anyway, so it was difficult for the others to know what she was thinking. As the unmarried sister of Jill’s late husband, Bob, she was invariably included as part of Jack and Jill’s family events, but there always seemed to be more than a whiff of condescending charity about the invitations.
Jack attacked his egg. He’d had a bad scare when he’d visited the doctor a couple of months previously with a mysterious pain less than a year after retiring from his job in the insurance company. He’d been relieved when the tests had showed that it wasn’t cancer, but even so, it seemed that something strange was going on inside him, and as he often reminded the others, he’d been warned not to “overdo things”.
If truth be told, Jack rather enjoyed being treated as an invalid. Lucy had always spoiled him a little anyway, fussing over him, making sure he was comfortable and that everything was the way he wanted it to be. He wasn’t ungrateful about that – far from it – but the doctor’s diagnosis had brought a new level of solicitude and care into his life. There was even a thrill, if he admitted it to himself, of danger – living close to the edge – which had never been a part of his previous existence.
Added to his natural hypochondria, which had seen him take to his bed on more occasions than many would have considered necessary, this change to his medical condition suited him very well indeed, thank you.
He was lucky, he thought to himself, chasing the remains of the egg yolk around the plate with a corner of dry toast from which his wife had thoughtfully and wordlessly removed the crusts, with Lucy. And with Jill, as well. Some people seemed unable to appreciate their brothers and sisters, but Jill and he had always got on fine, and had been proud of the other’s achievements at school, college, and work, and had divided the chores associated with looking after their elderly parents equally between them. There was an unspoken agreement between James and Gillian (who had been “Jack” and “Jill” almost since they were born) that they were good for each other.


Half an hour later, the party of four assembled on the steps of the hotel, with the three women wearing sensible shoes and thin sweaters. Jack was dressed as if for an assault on an Antarctic mountain.
Jill laughed at the sight. “Jack! You’re going to roast in that lot. We’re going for a stroll along the beach in England in July, not hunting polar bears or penguins or something.”
“I told him,” Lucy said to her. “But he wouldn’t listen.” But there was no malice in the words, almost a quiet pride in Jack’s stubbornness.
“I can always take something off,” Jack answered her. “And if any of you ladies get cold, as I’m sure you will, that’s exactly what I’ll end up doing, lending you my coat and sweater.”
“Oh, don’t be so silly,” his sister told him. “Off we go.”
She strode off, swinging the Alpine walking sticks that Jack and Lucy had given her for her birthday some years ago. The others followed in her wake.
They reached the beach to discover that the tide was in and they would have to find a path through the rocks and boulders above the high water mark, rather than on the firm sand that would have been exposed at low tide.
“This isn’t easy,” Lucy said, after a few minutes.
“It’s not,” Jack agreed. “I think this comes into the category of overdoing it.”
“Wait for poor Alice,” Lucy said. Her sister-in-law was some hundred yards behind them, making slow progress as she picked her way between the rocks. “I’ll go and fetch her.”
Jack perched on the edge of a large rock and caught his breath. “I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” he said.
“Well, there’s always the cliff path,” Jill replied, pointing upwards.
Jack groaned. “I’m not sure I can make it up there.”
“Of course you can. You lead and set the pace, then we’ll be sure we won’t be going too fast for you. Here, have one of my sticks.”
As she passed the stick over to him, Lucy and Alice joined them.
“Sorry,” said Alice. “I was looking at some of the plants growing on the rocks back there.” She was looking flushed and was breathing quite heavily.
“I didn’t mean to rush you, Alice,” Lucy said to her. “Sorry if I made you catch up a bit fast.”
“Oh, it’s all right. Just not very used to walking on stones like this. It’s a bit different from Edgbaston, isn’t it?”
“Will you be all right if we go up the cliff path?” Jill asked her. “It will be a bit longer, but I think the views will be lovely once we get up there. Jack will lead, so we don’t go too fast for him.”
“I think I can manage that,” Alice told her. “I’m ready to go on. Sorry, everybody.”
Jack strode off. Not too fast, he told himself. Remember what the doctor said about not overdoing things. With the staff in his hand, and the three women following him, he felt almost mythic. A sort of tribal leader, guiding his people. So, his body might be weak, but he had a mighty spirit, didn’t he? He breathed in the sea air as he started to climb the cliff path. It wasn’t too bad, actually. The path was clearly marked and quite smooth. There were even handrails in places. He strode on, the staff digging into the chalky soil as he climbed.
He started to hum wordlessly to himself, and suddenly recognised the tune. “Onward Christian Soldiers” – now where had that come from? He hadn’t been in a church since… since his brother-in-law Bob’s funeral, and he couldn’t remember that they’d sung that then.
“Are you all right?” Lucy’s voice came from behind him. “Need to rest?”
“I’m fine,” he said, stopping, “but it might be nice to have a bit of a breather. Did you bring the water bottle? I’m a bit dry.”
“Take off that thick jacket, then,” suggested Lucy. “I’ll carry it for you.”
“Thanks.” He shrugged his way out of the expensive insulated breathable windproof waterproof jacket that he’d bought specially for this trip.
“What a view!” Jill exclaimed, looking out over the bay. It really was wonderful, Jack had to agree. The sun was starting to burn through the mist, and the windows of the town below were shining in the sun.
“Where’s Alice?” Lucy asked.
“Here I am,” came a small voice from the path below them. “Sorry again, everybody.” Alice’s little round red face appeared from behind a gorse bush. “I just had to catch my breath a bit.”
“Oh dear, are you all right?”
“I’m fine now.”
“Do you want to rest a little more before we set off again?”
“I’m OK, really.”
Jack felt a little aggrieved. After all, it was he who had been told to not overdo things and to watch his health.
Almost angrily, he set off up the track with deliberate strides, going a little faster than before. By the time he had reached the top of the cliff, he was blowing hard, and felt the need to sit down.
Lucy caught up with him a minute or so later. “Are you all right, dear?” she asked, with obvious concern in her voice.
“I’ll be okay,” he replied in a martyred tone. “Just a bit winded, that’s all. Did you remember to bring those pink pills with you?”
“I’ve got all your medicines with me in my bag,” his wife told him. “I know you never remember to bring them with you when we go out. Here you are.”
“Water,” he demanded, putting the tablet in his mouth.
“Here.”
“Thank you.” He might be unwell, but that was no reason to be ungracious, he said to himself.
Alice and Jill appeared at the top after a while.
“The view’s even better from up here,” Alice said, looking around. To Jack’s relief, she seemed to have recovered completely from whatever it was which had affected her earlier.
“You’re looking better,” Lucy told her.
“Second wind,” Alice said. “Anyone want a bit?” holding out a bar of Kendal mint cake.
“Lovely, thank you,” said Jill, taking a piece.
“Thank you, Alice,” said Jill.
“I’d better not,” said Jack, “after what the doctor told me about eating too much sugar. Especially if we’re going to have a cake or something when we get to that café you were talking about.” Time for him to reassert his place as the invalid of the party now that Alice seemed to have recovered. “Just give me a couple more minutes before we set off again.”
“Take as long as you need,” Alice said to him.
The cheek of it! After waiting for her to catch up, three times now, she was the one who was telling him to rest. “Perhaps you’d like to go in front?” he suggested, more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“No, it’s best if you lead,” she said.
At least there was that. He heaved himself to his feet, with Lucy giving him a hand, and set off along the cliff path. The sun was shining now, and even without his jacket, which Lucy was carrying for him, he was still too warm, but he decided to say nothing, although the sweat was now running down his face.
“You’re looking very hot, dear,” Lucy said to him when he paused and looked back at his followers. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine. How much further?” he asked Jill, who was looking at the map on her phone.
“Another mile or so to the village. The café’s a few hundred yards inland from the rest of the village. Perhaps another thirty minutes. Can you manage?”
“Of course I can,” he replied indignantly. But despite the indignation, it was nice, he told himself, to be treated as the member of the party who needed the care and attention of the others. This was the compensation for being an invalid. Almost made it worthwhile.
He started to hum to himself again, and to his surprise heard Alice’s voice singing along.
“Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the church of God.
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.”

“Where did you learn that, Alice?” Jill asked, laughing.
“At the Diocesan Synod,” Alice said. “From one of the assistant bishops, actually.”
“I never knew bishops had that sort of sense of humour.”
“You’d be surprised,” Alice told her.
They reached the village. A bowl of muesli with plain yoghurt, one poached egg and a slice of dry toast seemed a long time ago, and a cup of decent coffee and a slice of cake sounded like a wonderful idea.
The café, which was only a few hundred yards up the road from the village, was appropriately Olde Worlde. There was a table in the garden, pleasantly shaded by a fig tree, and the waitress took their orders for two lattes (Jill and Alice), a cappuccino (Lucy), and an americano (Jack, reluctantly) and cakes.
While they were waiting for their order, “Just look at those roses,” Lucy said, admiringly. She had a passion for roses. The flowerbeds in the garden at home were filled with them. She got up, and Jill joined her as they walked over to the flowerbed.
“I’ll stay here and wait for them to bring the order,” Alice said. “Don’t be too long, or the coffee will get cold.”
Jack said nothing, but closed his eyes. He felt weary. He seemed to become tired and want to sleep more than he ever had done before the diagnosis. Slowing down, he told himself. Perfectly natural. But it was very nice to be able to do nothing, and for the illness, whatever it might be, to take responsibility for it.
A slight clinking of china and silverware told him that the drinks had arrived, and he heard Alice’s voice explaining which coffee and which cake went where. No need for him to open his eyes. He drifted away, listening to the sound of the bees in the lavender, a pigeon cooing somewhere close by, and a tractor somewhere in the distance… Thanks to the tablets he’d taken earlier in the day, he felt no pain…


He was woken by Lucy shaking him and shouting at him, “Wake up, you lazy lump!” There was a hysterical scream which he recognised as Jill’s voice.
Lazy? Him? Lazy? Why, he’d led them on this morning’s trek, hadn’t he? Lucy never used that sort of language to him. He opened his eyes. Lucy was standing in front of him.
“What’s the matter? If the coffee’s gone cold, we could get another one.”
“Look!” Jill shrieked at him. Lucy moved to one side. He could now see the waitress who had taken their order, bending over Alice, who was slumped over the table, her face half-buried in the slice of chocolate cake in front of her. “She’s dying, you fat fool!” his sister said. “And you just sat there and did nothing!”
“I… I…” He stopped. “Dying?”
“There’s a very weak irregular pulse, said the waitress. “I was a nurse, and I know what I’m looking for. I’m so sorry. I’ve called 999 but God only knows how long it will take for them to get here from the town. I’m so sorry,” she repeated.
“Did you really not notice anything?” his sister asked Jack. “You really are bloody useless, aren’t you?”
“I was asleep, I suppose. You know how easily I get tired with this condition and all.”
He felt a strong resentment against Alice. He had been supposed to be the invalid, not her. With a sudden stab of self-knowledge, he realised he’d never be able to rely on Lucy, or Jill for that matter, to sympathise with him again.
“Sorry,” he said, but if his apology was heard, it went un-noted.
There was a hostile silence as the women raised Alice back in her chair. The waitress disappeared and returned with a bowl and a damp cloth which she used to wipe Alice’s face gently. The bees still hummed, and the pigeon still cooed, but the sound of the tractor had been replaced by the distant sound of an approaching ambulance siren. Other than that, the brittle silence prevailed.
At length, the ambulance arrived, and the paramedics skilfully bundled Alice onto the stretcher. “We’ll give her oxygen,” one of them told Jill. “There’s an excellent chance of her survival, I’d say.”
“We’re going to the hospital,” Lucy told Jack, “Jill and me.”
“And me?”
“You’re going back to the hotel.”
“Walking? In my cond—” He broke off. His trump card had been out-trumped.
“Yes. Walking. Here’s your coat. And your bloody pills. And your water bottle. And all of your other crap I’ve been carrying for you.”
And with that, they were off in the ambulance.
And just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse…
“I know you didn’t drink your coffees and eat the cakes, and of course I’m terribly sorry about what happened to your friend, but I really do have to ask you to pay for them.”
It was the last straw. Lucy was the one who carried their money. He tried to explain, and ended up breaking down. Life was just so unfair.


Sadly, I do recognise some of myself in Jack – but I’m not that bad. Honestly.

Parents

a pastor standing beside a coffin conducting a funeral service

Our writing group (Lichfield Writers) gave us a prompt as follows:

The happy couple living next door have died in a horrific accident. When their parents show up for the funeral, you find out why the couple always changed the subject when you asked them about their families.

“Who was that?” Marianne asked Peter as he slumped into a chair and carefully put the phone on the kitchen table in front of him.

“The police. It’s about next door. Colin and Caroline.”

“Oh dear. Has their house been broken into? I didn’t hear anything. You went in yesterday to feed the cat and pick up their post while they’re on holiday. There wasn’t anything the matter then, was there?”

He sighed. “Sit down. It’s rather shocking, really. I mean, these things happen, but not to people you know. They’re both dead.”

Marianne turned pale. “Oh, the poor dears. What happened?”

“Accident on the M5. The one which was on the news last night.”

“Oh my God. Dead?”

He nodded. “For what it’s worth, the police say that death must have been instantaneous. They wouldn’t have suffered.” He thought about what an instantaneous death in a car crash would mean, and all he could think of was gory impalings or decapitations, or… He swallowed, fighting his nausea.

“I suppose I shouldn’t say it, or maybe I should, but it’s a mercy there are no children, isn’t it?” She made a face. “Oh, the poor dears,” she repeated. “Poor things. So young and so alive, and so devoted to each other.” She pulled out a handkerchief and started to cry. “Why did the police call you, anyway?”

“They had our name and phone number written on a card I gave them in case they ever needed to call us. The police wanted to know if we were next of kin.”

She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Well, we’re not, are we? Who are, I wonder?”

Peter scratched his head. “I suppose his parents, or hers. The police asked me, and I said I didn’t know. I suppose they have their ways of finding out.”

“They never talk about their family or their parents, do they?”

“No, they never do– did, did they? Always seemed to want to talk about something else if the subject ever came up. Never went away at Christmas to see them. Or had them to visit.” It was going to be strange, thinking of them in the past tense. As Marianne had said, they had seemed so alive. They’d been good neighbours, helping out when Marianne had had to go into hospital, always ready with an invitation to share their barbecues, or New Year’s parties, and excellent company whenever they came round for a meal or just for a cup of coffee and a friendly chat. In a way, Peter and Marianne felt they’d become their neighbours’ parents. He’d worked it out once; Colin and Caroline were literally young enough to be his children. Or was it that he was old enough to be their father? Anyway…

“Perhaps they don’t have parents,” Marianne suggested.

“That’s silly, everyone has parents.”

“Not if their parents have died,” she pointed out. “Or maybe they were fostered, and they never knew their parents.”

“I suppose so.”

He poured himself a cup of coffee, added milk and sugar, and sipped. “I suppose we’re going to the funeral?”

“How will we know? Who’s going to tell us?”

“Maybe it will be in the local paper.”


A few days later, there was a short paragraph in the weekly Chronicle describing the crash, with the last paragraph informing the reader that there would be a committal and cremation at the municipal crematorium on the following Friday.

Peter dug out his black suit, which he hadn’t worn since… He couldn’t remember. “Have I even got a white shirt that still fits me?” he called downstairs from the bedroom.

“Are you going to wear black and white?” Marianne called back. “That’s so old-fashioned. People wear all sorts of colours to funerals now. They put what they expect you to wear in the notice.”

“Well, maybe I am old-fashioned, then. And there’s nothing in the paper asking me to wear a psychedelic tie-dye T-shirt.”


The crematorium chapel was empty when Peter and Marianne arrived about ten minutes before the funeral was due to start. The two coffins were sitting at the front. There were no flowers. The chapel was cold, and the winter sunlight barely pierced the gloom. Almost as soon as they took their places near the back, a dozen or so people entered the chapel – mainly in couples – with nameless faces Peter and Marianne recognised from Colin and Caroline’s barbecues. Peter seemed to be the only one wearing a black tie. The front rows remained unoccupied.

“We’re the oldest ones here,” Peter nudged Marianne and whispered. “By a generation.”

“No parents?” Marianne whispered back.

“No relations at all, by the look of it.”

As he spoke, two men about Peter’s age entered, hand in hand, and made their way to the front row where they sat, almost ostentatious in their black suits.

“Who are they?” Marianne whispered. “What are they doing? Are they hers or his or what?”
Peter shrugged as the minister entered.

The service, if you could call it that, was a flat affair, devoid of all emotion, sentiment, or religious feeling.

“And that’s that,” Peter said as the second coffin slid out of sight and the curtains closed. “No pale ale and pork pies afterwards. Not that anyone’s said anything about, anyway.”

The two men who had been sitting at the front left their seats first, walking up the aisle between the rows of mourners, hands linked. Both held handkerchiefs with their free hands with which they dabbed at their tear-streaked faces.

Peter looked around, but it seemed that no one seemed to recognise the pair, or be recognised by them. The chapel emptied, with Peter and Marianne being the last to leave.

The two older men were still standing outside, alone, weeping openly. One of them looked Peter in the eye in a way that it was impossible to ignore, and held out a hand.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I take it you are Peter and Marianne?”

Peter, surprised, shook the offered hand. “Yes, we are.”

“So glad to have met you at last. Colin and Caroline told Paul and me about you when we spoke on the phone with them. How good you were to them when they first moved into the house, and how you continued to make them feel welcome.”

The other man, presumably Paul, offered his hand in turn, and Peter and Marianne offered suitable vague words of sympathy.

“Excuse me asking,” Peter said, unable to contain his curiosity much longer, “but who…?”

“Who are we?” the other answered. “I’m Neil and this is Paul.” There was a silent pause of a few seconds. “Colin and Caroline never mentioned us to you?”

Peter shook his head.

“Oh, I see, I know that they did feel a bit embarrassed about us. You see, we are Colin’s and Caroline’s fathers.”

“You are Colin’s father?”

“Not really. I’m his stepfather.”

“And Paul is his father? I don’t think I really get what’s going on here.”

“Of course.” He smiled. “Let me help you understand. I was married, and my wife and I had a baby girl, Caroline. Sadly, my wife died as a result of complications in her second pregnancy a few years later. The baby also did not survive. So I was left with Caroline.”

“As for me,” broke in Paul, “my wife ran off with another man a year or so after she’d presented me with Colin. Left me with a baby boy to look after.” He shrugged. “I got a divorce, of course.”

“And we met each other,” Neil taking up the story, “at a group for single dads. There are quite a few of us. You might be surprised. Anyway, Paul and I hit it off together, and we both discovered that we, not to put too fine a point on it, fancied each other. Hadn’t really crossed my mind before then that I might go in that direction, but there you go. Love’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”

“Same with me,” said Paul. “I just knew somehow that Neil was the person I wanted to share the rest of my life with. So we moved in together, and just like we had, my Colin and his Caroline got on really well with each other. All the way through primary school, secondary school, and then college. Never really had eyes for anyone else, did they, Neil?”

Neil shook his head sadly. “Match made in heaven, it was.”

“And they got married?” Peter asked. “Is that legal?”

“Why shouldn’t it be?” Paul answered. “Neil and I are married now. We weren’t when the two Cs – that’s what we called them – got married. But why shouldn’t they get married? They knew each other much better than most couples do when they tie the knot, and they were very happy about the idea.

“And so were we.”

“But they never mentioned you,” Marianne said. “You never visited them. And as far as we know, they never visited you.”

“Oh, they loved their fathers all right. But it was a case of what would the neighbours say – no offence to you as neighbours. It seems that you understand us. Colin was working with some quite sensitive stuff at the Home Office, and despite all the recent changes that have taken place in society, their rather unusual setup might have raised a few eyebrows in Whitehall. And Caroline, of course, was an infant teacher. Again, if it had come out that her husband was her stepbrother, and that her parents were two men…”

“I see,” said Peter. He looked at Marianne. “You will come back with us and have at least a cup of tea, won’t you? Spend the night at our house if it’s too far to get back tonight?”

“Actually,” said Paul, looking at Neil, “we were planning to spend the night next door to you, in Colin and Caroline’s house. We might even move in there some time in the near future, since we inherit the place as next of kin. This town is a much nicer place to live than Lambeth, believe me. We’re both retired, and it seems like a good opportunity to make a break in our lives. But we accept your invitation to a cup of tea with pleasure.”

“Make that supper,” said Peter. “And we look forward to having you as our neighbours in the near future.”

Jack and the Beans

green vegetable on white surface

Our local writers’ group gave as an exercise a re-placement of a fairy-tale character in a novel situation. However, I decided to be a little different (surprise, surprise) and ended up writing a slightly surreal piece of nonsense loosely based on what I could remember of Jack and the Beanstalk.


Once upon a time, there was a boy named Jack who lived with his mother in a small cottage hallway between the towns of Nowhere and Nothing. They were so poor that they used to beg for crumbs from the church mice who sometimes came to visit, but their sole possession, other than a 42” plasma TV, was a cow called Eric. The television had never worked, chiefly because there was no electricity in the cottage, but it was very useful for stopping the draft from the broken window.

“Why is our cow called Eric, Mother?” Jack would ask on long winter evenings. Sometimes he asked the same question on short summer evenings, but not so often, because the evenings were shorter.

He always forgot the answer that his mother gave him, and his mother always forgot that he had asked the same question twenty times already that month. So they were both perfectly happy with that evening’s entertainment.

“Who needs Netflix,” they would ask each other, “when you have a cow called Eric?”

But neither of them knew the answer to that question.

There came a time when even the church mice stopped coming, pleading pressure of work, and a disturbing trend in atheism.

“We must sell Eric,” said Jack’s mother. “You must go to the market in Nowhere and sell her, so that we can eat.”

So, one day, Jack set off for the market of Nowhere, leading Eric on a piece of string. His mother waved farewell to them with her last clean paper tissue, which she had been saving for Sunday best, but she had brought it out in honour of the occasion.

In six hours, Eric returned, leading Jack on the same piece of string.

Jack’s mother was about to ask Eric what had happened, when she stopped, realising that she had forgotten to put her false teeth in, and that Eric wouldn’t be able to understand her. She turned to Jack.

“I’m sorry, mother,” said Jack. “I tried to sell Eric so that we could feed ourselves, but no one wanted to give me anything to eat. All they wanted to give me in exchange was money. And you can’t eat it. I tried, and it tasted horrible.”

“Oh, you silly boy! Trying to eat money like that!” said his mother impatiently. “Surely you know that you can’t eat it raw. It has to be cooked. Tomorrow you must go to the market at Nothing, and sell Eric there.”

So, the next day, Eric and Jack set off for Nothing.

Jack’s mother was surprised to see Jack return alone a couple of hours later, holding a piece of string.

“Where’s Eric?” she asked.

“Sold her,” Jack said, with an air of pride.

“How?” said his mother. “I remembered just after you’d gone that it was Sunday, and there wouldn’t be a market. Still, I said to myself, the exercise will do you both good. It’s only five miles each way. So… how much did you get for Eric?”

Jack opened his hand to display five beans. “The man who bought Eric told me that these were really good if you cooked them in tomato sauce and put them on buttered toast.”

Jack’s mother sighed. “I don’t know how you can be so stupid. There are five beans there, and two of us. How are we going to manage to divide them fairly?” And she angrily snatched the beans out of Jack’s hand, and threw them out of the window (the one which wasn’t blocked by the 42” plasma TV), where they were snatched up by a passing squirrel and eaten.

Overnight, the beans sprouted and grew and grew. Which wasn’t so nice for the squirrel. But that’s another story. And not one for bedtime.

Eric grew to a ripe old age, and took second prize at the Miss Nowhere beauty contest two years after she had been sold for five beans.

Jack’s mother reluctantly dug up the box of £20 notes that she had been saving for a rainy day, although the forecast only said scattered showers, and went to Tesco, where she bought a Warburton’s sliced loaf, a pack of Lurpak spreadable butter which was almost past its expiry date, and three tins of baked beans on special offer. Jack and his mother lived, but not very happily, and not ever after.


I worry about me sometimes.

An extract from the other side…

I’ve talked quite a lot about On the Other Side of the Sky, so here’s a little part of of it. Jane Machin, the protagonist, has returned to England, with the assistance of two Sylphs – Air Elementals (find out a little more about Elementals here).

She awoke with a start to find her feet firmly on the ground, and the two Sylphs standing one on each side of her. They were clearly in the park of a great house. Deer were feeding some way off, and the sun appeared to have just risen. She looked to see a large mansion to her left, the golden stone of the house glowing in the morning light.
“We will vanish now,” said one of the Sylphs, “but we’ll be near you when you need us.”
“The music you played last night was wonderful,” said the other. “It reminded us of home.”
“But you don’t need to play if you don’t want to. Just want us badly enough and we’ll help you.”
“You’ve helped me a lot already,” Jane said. “Thank you so much.” She reached for the recorder, and started to play. This time the tune was a lively jig, and the two Sylphs broke into smiles, and then started to whirl in a fantastical dance. As Jane speeded up the tempo of the music, so the Sylphs’ dance became faster and faster until they were whirling so fast that they were lost to sight.
Jane sighed, placed the recorder back in the placket of her skirt, and wondered what to do with her old clothes from France. In the end, she decided to make a detour into the woods and hide them under a pile of branches and leaves before making her way to the house.
She hesitated before approaching the main door of the house. Would it not be more appropriate, she asked herself, to go to the servants’ entrance at the back? No, she decided firmly, she had come to see Thomas’s elder brother, whom Thomas had named to her as George, and when visiting the family, one should use the family entrance.
There was a bell-pull near the door, and she pulled at it, hearing the sonorous clanging of a bell somewhere inside the house. After a few minutes, she heard footsteps, the drawing of bolts, and the door swung open to reveal a liveried footman, who simply stared at her expectantly.
“I am here to visit Sir George FitzAlan,” she announced.
“Is he expecting you?”
“No,” she confessed. “I am a friend of his brother, Captain Thomas FitzAlan, and I have news of him.”
“I see, madam.” The servant’s manner was a touch more deferential at the mention of the family name. “Sir George is breaking his fast. I will ask him if he wishes to meet you. What name should I give?”
“Machin. Jane Machin.”

On the Other Side of the Sky, Chapter XIV, The House

Jane can request favours of Sylphs, and these two have taken a fancy to her.

The house, by the way is loosely based on Shugborough Hall (pictured here), though the FitzAlan family are not based on the Ansons (Earls of Lichfield). There is a strange inscription on one of the garden monuments. No one has yet found a definitive answer. I considered putting it, or something like it, into the story, but decided it would be a dead end, and not add anything to the plot. More in Wikipedia.


On the Other Side of the Sky

A novel combining history, adventure, and more than a little touch of the arcane


November 25 – a date for your diary

If you’re in Lichfield on November 25th, come along to Erasmus Darwin House at 6pm for a glass or two of mulled wine, a mince pie, and a good yarn.

For me, as the author, it’s incredibly exciting to be reading my fictional story in the real-life location where so many of the events in the book take place.

Jonathan Oates (“Jono”) will be hosting an event in which I shall be reading from and introducing On the Other Side of the Sky, my novel which blends local historical characters with fiction, and a splash of the paranormal.

£7.50 to include mulled wine and mince pie. Signed advance copies of the book will be offered at a reduced price, as well as copies of Jono’s book on the history of Lichfield. Tickets available for purchase here.

Book early – numbers are limited (COVID precautions).

It’s coming together

On the Other Side of the Sky is coming together nicely. Currently going through it with the assistance of a friend, weeding out all the typos, and also minor details of plot and character which don’t seem to hang together very well.

A friend from the USA has suggested a glossary, to provide a little background information on people and topics that may be unfamiliar to some readers, so I’ve been busy with that.

I now have a design for the interior of the book, and several graphical elements, all of which are meant to evoke something of an 18th-century feel to the book, and which I should be able toinclude in the ebook as well. It’s going to be a very pretty piece of work indeed (in my opinion).

The photo is a mockup of the cover (printout of the design, and wrapped around a book of roughly the same thickness (just under 2.5cm, with 380 pages). In fact, I’ve slightly changed the spine from the photo above, so that it stands out a bit better:

The other books are there just to provide a comparison of size and of other designs. The back blurb is basically there – I don’t see it changing very much:

And the print and ebook editions will be available on the same day – December 1, 2021.

Price for the ebook will be £4.99 and Amazon US has it at $6.82 for pre-order. The US Amazon has some more information about the book and its writing than the UK site. The paperback will be available for pre-order soon.

There’s also a very new Facebook page about this book, where I will be writing bits and pieces about the content.

Done (but not dusted)!

I’ve now finished the first draft of my next book. Provisional title: On the Other Side of the Sky.

Current length: 103,000 words. That’s a lot of words.

Date started: 20 August 2020 (I have written and published a couple of shorter books in the meantime)

Setting: 18th century Europe

Protagonist: A girl with a strange parentage

Antagonist: Her father – who is from the other side of the sky

Other characters: Some members of the Lunar Society including England’s greatest doctor, Erasmus Darwin, assorted alchemists, mesmerists, mountebanks, rabbis, and German Landgraves. A sprinkling of the English aristocracy and some revolutionary sans-culottes.

Supporting cast: Some beings from the other side of the sky, and some Rosicrucian-type Elementals (Sylphs, Gnomes, Undines and Salamanders).

Genre: Historical paranormal. Similar in its way to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Method of writing: Seat of the pants. Watch and listen to the characters and write down what they do and say.

Research and sources: 17th and 18th century books on alchemy, Jewish legends, serious scholarly work on Kabbala, biographies of some of the Lunar Men and of that period.

It’s been a wild ride through lots of Jungian landscapes. It’s either a complete load of self-indulgent crap, or it’s a very good book indeed. I’m not sure I can tell the difference at this stage.

Now comes the hard part – editing.

If anyone reading this is or knows an agent or publisher who might be interested, please let me know.

Advance booking

A short story that came to me – first I imagined the problem, and then worked out the solution

© 2020, Hugh Ashton

You get all sorts in this business. You get the ones who come in all dressed in black because they think it’s expected of them. You can tell pretty quickly what their interest in the dear departed is as soon as you start to discuss the cost of the funeral with them.

“Oh, I don’t think he’d have wanted anything fancy. Just plain and simple would be more appropriate.” Well, when you translate that and quietly dig down to the truth, you can often be sure that they’re looking to get everything they can out of the estate and not spend the money on the funeral. However, sometimes you can tell they really can’t afford anything better – there just isn’t the money. So in those cases I generally manage to either cut a bit off the price or upgrade them a bit for free. There’s some in this business who really gouge their customers, but there’s no way I’m going to do that.  Maybe these poor souls get a slightly better coffin than the one they paid for, or I accidentally on purpose leave the cost of the dry ice off the final invoice. Why not, after all?

And then there’s the ones who breeze in, and order things as though they really couldn’t be bothered with little details like price and what the whole thing is going to come to at the end of the day. I won’t say “more money than sense”, but it does seem that way sometimes, especially when they obviously don’t actually have a lot of money to spend. Believe it or not, I try to talk them into the less expensive options, but no, “nothing but the best for her/him” is the phrase I hear most of the time. Guilt, I reckon. They’ve neglected Nan or Granddad in her or his lifetime, and now they think that a big shiny coffin with brass handles, and heaps of expensive flowers are ways they can make up for all the affection that they failed to show when he or she was alive.

And the worst is when the whole family turns up – Uncle Tom Cobbley and all – and they find that they can’t agree on anything. “She always loved roses.” “No she didn’t, she liked carnations better.” “I always thought she liked lilies of the valley”. And then we have the endless arguments about what was their favourite music or song that’s going to be played at the funeral. They go on for ever. Spare me.

But those are everyday customers – you get used to them. Let me tell you about the really weird one I had recently. Small, elderly man. Fringe of white hair, mild-looking face. He was wearing an overcoat and a scarf wrapped around his neck, and when he took it off, I saw the dog-collar.

Well, priests are usually some of the easiest to deal with. They’ve got the experience, and they’ve got faith. They can cope with things rationally, but they’re not unemotional about it.

“I want to book a funeral,” he said.

Well, that’s a funny way to put it, but yes, we do operate a pre-paid plan so that there are no nasty surprises for those left behind when the sad day comes. So I get out the leaflets to explain how much and when and how it all works, and he waved them away.

“No, no,” he told me. “That’s not what I mean at all. I want to book a funeral for a particular date.”

“Oh, I see. And when is this to be?”

He pulled a little black notebook out of a small briefcase he had with him, and turned to a page that he’d marked by turning down a corner. “October 28.”

“But that’s only two days away.”

“No, no,” he said again, shaking his head. “October 28 next year. It’s a Thursday. Not one of my busy days. You are able to do it then, aren’t you?”

I didn’t have to look in my diary to check. No one, but no one, books their funeral a year in advance. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “Yes, we are free, but…”

“It’s my wife, you see,” he told me, as if that explained everything. “I think it should be a cremation rather than a burial,” taking it for granted that ordering your wife’s funeral over a year in advance was a perfectly usual way of going on. “Quite a simple affair. I am guessing that I will be the only one attending.”

At this point, I felt I was dealing with someone who wasn’t all there. Some clergymen are a bit like that. My mother used to tell the story of her vicar who always removed his trousers when he put on his cassock, and occasionally forgot to replace them when he took off the cassock and joined his parishioners after the service. Either I was dealing with one of those, or perhaps there was something more sinister. In any case, I thought it was a good idea to get his name and address so that I could pass it on to the relevant authorities; police, hospital or whatever seemed appropriate.

So I went through the procedure of starting to fill out our standard form, which gave me all of that, plus telephone numbers and an email address.

“And when would you like us to collect her from this address on the form?” I asked. “That’s where she is?”

“No, no, no. Not at all. I’ll have her delivered here, if it’s all the same to you.”

Now that’s weird. Hospitals don’t deliver the departed to us. We always have to go and fetch them. And in any case, what was all this about having the funeral in a year’s time? I changed the subject a little.

“Can you tell me the cause of her death?”

He caught, shuffled his feet, and turned a little red, clearly embarrassed. “Well, she’s not really what you might call dead,” he muttered.

By now I was sure that I had either a lunatic or a potential murderer on my hands. “I’m just going to have to check a few details,” I told him. “Please take a seat there. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

In the back room, I dialled the police station. “Yes, it’s Harrisons, the undertaker’s. Look, I’ve got a man here, the Reverend Edmund Philpotts, says he wants to book his wife’s funeral a year from now, and she’s not even dead. Can you send someone round to talk to him and find out what he’s on about? There’s something really odd going on. Thanks. Five minutes? That’s good of you. Ta.”

I put the phone down and went back to the Reverend Philpotts, who seemed to be engrossed in a florist’s catalogue.

“Everything all right?” he asked, looking up from a page of gaudy chrysanthemums.

Well, no, it bloody well wasn’t all right, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’m just waiting for someone,” I said.

He didn’t seem particularly bothered, but kept looking, tutting and shaking his head at some of the more flamboyant and tasteless (in my opinion, as well as his, anyway) offerings in the catalogue. Perhaps he shared my feelings about human vanity when it comes to this sort of thing.

Sergeant Timmins pushed open the door and came in. Decent sort of man, known around the place as someone who gets on with everyone, as long as they’re on the right side of the law. If they weren’t, that’s a slightly different matter. There were stories. Anyway, we’d played in the same cricket team when we were both younger, and still kept up a sort of friendship.

“Morning, Mike. Problems?” he asked me. “They didn’t tell me that much about it over the radio when they sent me here.”

“Not really problems as such, Ted, but I’d like the Reverend here to tell you what he wants and why.”

Philpotts looked up from his study of floral arrangements, seemingly surprised at seeing a police officer in uniform standing in front of him. “Why, are the police interested in what I am doing?” He frowned a little, seemingly in thought, and then a broad smile spread across his face. “Oh my goodness! You thought… Oh my Lord!” He started to laugh.

“Perhaps you’d like to share the joke, sir?” Timmins said.

“Well, let me tell you what I think you are thinking. I come in here, I want to reserve a time for a funeral for my wife a year from now, I tell you that you won’t be picking up my wife, but she’ll be delivered here. And then I tell you that she’s not really dead. So you,” and he pointed a finger at me, “think that I have plans to murder my wife a year from now somewhere secret and that I will arrange for persons unknown to drop off her body to you. Correct?” He looked up at us, smiling innocently.

“Thoughts like that had crossed my mind,” I admitted.

Sergeant Timmins looked bemused. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to tell us why this isn’t the case.”

Philpotts’ smile disappeared, and his face became serious. “My wife suffered from a rather rare form of bone cancer. There was no cure at the time, and still isn’t, though there have been some promising developments. Ten years ago, she fell into a coma, and after a few tragic months, she was pronounced dead. She and I had discussed her future before she slipped into oblivion. She wanted to be placed in what she called a “frozen sleep” in the hope that she could be awakened and cured in the future. As a Christian priest, I have faith that the dead shall be raised, but this went a little against my principles. However… this was her wish, and I had made all the necessary arrangements before she was pronounced dead.” He stopped, took a large handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. “She now lies in what they call a ‘storage facility’ on the other side of Birmingham. It costs a considerable amount of money for her to be there, and next year will be the last year I can afford to pay the fees. The contract ends on the 24th of October next year. After that time, they have informed me that they can no longer keep her there. I assumed four days would be sufficient time to make the preparation for a funeral when she can finally be committed to rest, so I chose the 28th as the date for her cremation. I trust that makes things clear?” He looked at Timmins and me hopefully. “I have all the paperwork, certificates, everything, here in this bag,” patting his small briefcase.

Sergeant Timmins and I looked at each other. We shrugged. In unison.

“I don’t think I’m needed here,” said Timmins, turning towards the door. “I’ll be seeing you in the Bull some evening soon, I hope, Mike,” he said to me. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss, Reverend. I hope someone takes as good care of me when it’s my turn.”

“Thank you, sergeant,” Philpotts replied.

“So,” I said to my customer when the door had closed behind Timmins. “A cremation next year on 28 October. Let’s fill in a few more details. What time do you want the service?”

-oOo-

Comments welcome…

On this side of the sky…

Looking over some of my recent writing, I seem to be slightly obsessed with the idea of beings living in some sort of parallel world to us, with an assortment of powers which might be best described as
“magical”. When I say “obsessed”, I mean in a literary sense – as characters and plot drivers in the stories that I write. I don’t actually believe that we are surrounded by a crowd of mainly invisible beings which interact with us.

The picture of the children’s tea-party came from bluelilyevents on blogspot.com

So what do these things look like? Well, of course they are imaginary, so I am free to make them look like whatever I want in my stories.

One thing I am certain of is that they do NOT look like the sweet little children with butterfly wings that the Victorians loved to portray (and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sure that two little girls had seen and photographed).

Nor do I believe that they sit around on toadstools (though I had a very interesting conversation the other day with my friend Vicky about this, and the idea of hallucinogenic mushrooms being associated with these beings).

In many cultures, they are referred to by a euphemism, such as “The Good People” or “The Gentle People”, in order to placate these rather nasty and amoral creatures, with their tales of stealing, kidnaping, and general enmity towards the himan race.

For me, one of the most interesting views of Faerie is to be found in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book I have read several times, despite its length. It makes a very plausible read, describing a world in which these beings interact with us in limited and very specific ways, and as a race have a range of rather unpleasant characteristics.

Another story which has gripped my imagination ever since I first read about it, mentioned in a story by Borges, is the Chinese legend of the demons trapped behind mirrors (and mirrors also play a very important role in Strange & Norrell). The idea that behind the pieces of glass that hang on our walls, there is a race that is out to destroy us, and is only just kept in check is not a comforting one.

Are they waiting for us to make the first move?

Perhaps it is this work that has influenced my current work in progress (provisionally entitled The Other Side of the Sky, but it’s also determined the direction of some of my other pieces, such as those in my Unknown Quantities collection.

Why the biscuits?

And with that in mind, I give you Gobblefinger, a short story in PDF format, which came to me out of nowhere. It was fun to write, and I hope it’s fun to read. “What’s it got to do with these biscuits?” you ask. Well, all you have to do is click here to download the story, and you can find out. If you like it, then come back here and leave a comment, or put something on Facebook or Twitter.

The Other Side of the Sky

Having delivered La Lucia for production and pre-order, I am now busily engaged on something quite a bit longer.

This book, provisionally entitled The Other Side of the Sky, is set in the Midlands (largely in Lichfield) in the 1770s. It is a time of great discoveries in many fields: what we now call chemistry, physics, geology, anatomy and medicine, zoology and botany. 

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Joseph Wright of Derby captures a moment of “philosophical discovery” and the reactions of various observers to a bird’s being deprived of air by means of an air-pump. The seated figure at right may represent Erasmus Darwin.

In addition, Birmingham and the surrounding villages were becoming industrialised, with such “manufactories” as Matthew Boulton’s employing many hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. In the north of Staffordshire, Josiah Wedgwood was transforming the traditional pottery business of the Stoke area.

And alongside this, in the liberal freethinking (often outright republican) world of the Lunar Society (so called because the members met at each others’ houses on the nights of the full moon – not for any esoteric or occult reasons, but because it was safer to travel at night when it was lighter) there lay some hidden beliefs – Doctor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), pictured above, believed in alchemy as a method of attaining wisdom, and it is more than likely that the members of the Society were interested in what we would now term the paranormal, as being part of the world in which they lived.

My story is looking at the interaction between the inhabitants of the land “on the other side of the sky”, home to a non-human race, and these people of the Enlightenment. I confess that my writing is at least partly inspired by Susanna Clark’s wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it is not the same universe as hers. There is no Raven King in my history, and the laws of nature are closer to ours than in her world.

I am now about 10,000 words into what I hope will be a satisfying 70,000+ words. Wish me luck.

A new book! (well, not that new, really)

As my regular readers (both of you!) will know, I am working with Steve Emecz of MX publishing, and Steve White to produce audiobook versions of some of my stories.

I’ve taken one of my favourites – The Hand of Glory – and turned it into a radio/audio script, which has now been narrated by Steve White. Before it can go onto Amazon, though, apparently the text must be made available on Amazon as a book or an ebook (I don’t pretend to understand the details, or the reasoning behind them).

So, here is the script of Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Hand of Glory as a Kindle title, priced as low as possible.

Mary Devereux tells Sherlock Holmes that her stepfather has obtained the corpses of two executed criminals, and is storing them in an outbuilding of the family seat in Warwickshire. Unknown men visit the house on Friday nights, and depart mysteriously in the family carriage, driven by her stepfather, who also appears to be making significant inroads into the family fortune.
She implores Holmes to investigate, and as he and Watson explore the sleepy market town of Luckworth, they encounter dark and macabre secrets that shock them to their core. Along the way, Holmes loses his left canine tooth in the waiting-room at Charing-cross station, as mentioned in “The Adventure of the Empty House”.

For a very short taster of what is in store in the audiobook, try this:

By the way, you can look up the Hand of Glory on Wikipedia, but it might spoil the story somewhat if you don’t know it already. If you have read the story, and you want to know more, then by all means look it up – it is definitely a macabre and dark subject.