Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Badger on the roof

Here's a sneak preview, and a word of explanation. Believe it or not, this is based on a true story. 

Julia lay in bed holding her breath. She didn't know what had woken her so abruptly, but something had, and she lay with her head held stiffly just off the too-soft pillows, straining to hear any sound.


Slowly she blew out a breath and tried to relax but the earlier rush of adrenalin had made her heart pound in her ears.

It was very dark, and very quiet. Too dark, and too quiet. Out here in the countryside there were no streetlights, no passing headlights, no light pollution of any kind, and so when it went dark, it really did. Sometimes moonlight sneaked through the thin yellow cotton curtains, but not tonight.

The first time Julia knelt on her bed and looked out at the beautiful world of blues and silver trees and hills on a moonlit night she had been enchanted and amazed at how bright the moonlight was; the shadows it cast. Another night, one without a moon, she had picked her way through the soft blackness to the clearing at the side of the house and sat wrapped in a blanket gazing up at the sky, enthralled by the billions and billions of stars. She had shaken her head in amazement; surely she had been under the same sky in London, but she had never seen it before.

There were stars and planets and galaxies and ... what else? What else was up there? Constellations and meteors and satellites and things. She remembered that some of the constellations were named after gods and stories in ancient mythology: Zeus and Cassiopeia and Andromeda and so on, but she had no idea which they were. Which was Orion? One with a belt, somewhere. And one shaped like a 'W', was that the Big Dipper, or a saucepan?  Julia had shaken her head with irritation at her lack of knowledge and knew that she'd have to find some books on the subject.

Tonight she wasn't thinking about the stars. She was wondering what on earth that noise was.

A thud, and then a scrabbling noise. She lay, tense and immobile, eyes wide open as if to gather any stray photons of light that might be of some use. The bedside lamp was no good to her as she hadn't yet replaced the bulb, and the main light switch was by the door. Julia felt like a small girl, unwilling to get out of bed in case something grabbed her ankles. She gripped the covers in both hands beneath her chin.

Julia had never minded the sounds of the city around her. She was used to car engines, gear changes on the hill behind the house, distant sirens and the all-life-is-here noises of people on their way home from a night out. Even the most peaceful day in the garden in London had a soundtrack of traffic, aeroplanes, voices, telephones, and she had wrongly anticipated quietness in the country. She was quickly learning that the countryside had it's own soundtrack. Birdsong, squawking pheasants, mooing cows, the whisper of stirring leaves, drumming of rain on the roof or the whistling of wind in the chimney. And, in the small hours, the downright unnerving and unidentifiable.

Scrabble, scrabble.

It was some sort of animal. She relaxed a little at the conclusion that it wasn't an escaped convict or someone trying to break into the cottage, but only a little. She had locked up securely and checked the doors and windows four times.

Thud, scrabble, scrabble. Whatever it was, it was on the roof. The noises were closer now, almost directly overhead. What on earth was climbing on the roof in the middle of the night?  What creatures were out there?

Julia's imagination spun out of control. Squirrels? Were they nocturnal? Surely they wouldn't be heavy enough to thud. Cats? The only cat she had seen was the stripy ginger one that bounded recklessly across the lane in front of her car the other day. Surely a cat would be quieter than 'thud, scrabble'? Cats were supposed to be stealthy. Rats? Julia shuddered in horror at the idea and pulled the covers closer to her face. She would buy traps the very next day. Could you do things like that out here? Was it allowed? What if she caught some innocent little creature that had a right to be there? Do rats have a right to be out here in the countryside?

Not on my roof, she decided.

Birds? She'd heard birds up there before with their tck tck claws. No thud, not even if it was a big, fat owl. What else was out there? What lived in the woods and came out at night?  Hedgehogs? Not on the roof. Voles? Mice? Too small and light.


How big were badgers? Julia had only ever seen pictures and it was hard to gauge how big they were in real life. Like a small dog?  She'd heard that they had big teeth, badgers. Quite aggressive. Could badgers climb? Could one have jumped from the hillside onto the low gable of the house and scrabbled across until it was over the bedroom? Or from a tree?

Can badgers jump?

Even as she lay there, wild thoughts running through her mind, Julia had a faint inkling of the absurdity of the conversation she was having with herself.

Was there a badger on the roof?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Bird by bird, buddy

Well, it hasn't been the most productive week in the history of this project; it might be more accurate to say that it has probably been the least productive yet, in fact. The computer was only switched on once or twice and the brain less often than that.

Life kind of took over. Started with a poorly daughter and ended up with widespread poorliness and lethargy and everything put on hold.

The bright point of the week was reading Anne Lamott's wonderful book 'Bird By Bird'.

I realised that my 'protractor' idea of breaking down a huge writing project into tiny chunks to try to get your head around it was not at all original - it was her idea a long time ago.

This isn't one of those moments where I thought I'd had an original thought and then found out with crushing disappointment that it's nothing new (I've had quite a few of those); no, this is a rare and precious time when the fact that I've stumbled on a path well-trodden is a huge, whopping relief.

Listen to this:
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and unopened books on birds, immobilised by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." 

As I said in the last post, I've been feeling overwhelmed and intimidated by the vast scale of the project and that sense of inadequacy, combined with being an ailing member of The House of Poorliness this last week has made me feel like giving up. Ms Lamott's 'Bird by Bird' has restored my faith in my story, and I will try to put on the blinkers that prevent me from looking at the whole thing, just concentrating on one small job at a time. One brick. One degree.

One bird.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 1994 Anchor Books, New York.
Chapter Two, page 18-19.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Cogs and levers

It's been a bad week.

I've been busy, things have happened that have knocked my duck off, as they say here in Derbyshire, but the main thing regarding my Work In Progress is that it's suddenly become overwhelming. Too big, too ambitious, too complicated, too many words. So I've backed off.

I'm waiting for some feedback from someone who's casting an experienced eye over what there is to date, and suddenly it becomes more important that I wait and see what she says before I go any further. It might be that the whole thing is a non-starter. With the new realisation that I have to address some fairly heavy issues rather than introduce an idea but then not take it anywhere I find I'm stuck. I've lost confidence, not in the story, but in my ability to tell it.

I'm stuck. It's not a writer's block kind of thing, because I'm not sitting at the keyboard waiting for words to come; it's just that the thinking has become too difficult. I find myself not even wanting to sit at the keyboard.

Do successful novelists have times like this?

It's as if this story is an elaborate structure of cogs and levers and all was going well; it was starting to whirr into life, and then I realised that I have to insert another big cog. As a result, the whole piece needs re-engineering and work has ground to a halt. The cogs and levers lie all around me, waiting to be incorporated into the new machine. It'll work better, smoother, and it'll be more satisfying, but... it's just not built yet.

The engineer is tired and confused and not feeling up to the task.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, I hope. In the meantime, let's put the kettle on.

Custard cream, anyone?

Image credit: ashton_cogs1.JPG by doctor bob. Courtesy of Morguefile.com. Used with permission.