Them – a short story

I’d wanted to see them. But there was always something to stop me – an extra shift at work, money shortages, tiredness. At last the time had come, I was going.

It involved a longish walk, and as I left the outskirts of the town I quickened my pace, expectations growing. I tried dampening my anticipation, studying flowers in the roadside verges, watching clouds gather and disperse, swifts and swallows circling the sky. Deliberately slackening my pace, I told myself they would still be there if it took all day or all week. I had no need to hurry.

One thing troubled me. What if I came away disappointed? Just as I had been when I saw Stonehenge for the first time, imagining a giant circle of stones filling the horizon, but seeing only a miniature model a good two fields distant from the busy road.

I wasn’t entirely certain where they were or how to get there, so I tackled an old man who was cursing and tormenting a tiny dog. When I asked him for directions and swept an enquiring arm through a full circle he told me ‘You won’t go far wrong there’, and padded on, puffing at a foul pipe.

Further on I passed a boy crying by the side of the road. He’d come off his bike. ‘Help me, mister.’ I straightened the handlebars and tied a handkerchief round his bruised knee, and he raced off, thrashing the pedals and whistling. The young have short memories, and the past, however recent, mercifully turns into a forgotten place.

Several times I overtook groups of people walking in the same direction. Were they, too, heading to see them? What did it matter, they’d be mine today, no one else’s.

The walk was taking some time, and I tried not to think ahead. Down the years, alone in my room, I had thought many times about the journey, seeing it as a pilgrimage of sorts. And though I’m in no way religious, I felt that when you are contemplating an experience that promises significance, something spiritual happens inside. And if that can be called religious, then so be it.

Fortunately, the day wasn’t too hot or cold, which was apt for the occasion. Feeling too hot or too cold leads to distracting thoughts, such as whether to put on or take off a jumper or coat. I was pleased when I felt the beginnings of a blister and began to limp. Even an unbeliever like me thinks a pilgrimage, religious or otherwise, should involve a degree of discomfort.

The way imvolved a walk through a colonnade of poplars, the canopies gently waving in an unseen breeze. I trod on through scented spring air, midges thronging around my head.

Finally I saw them.

I stayed watching as long as seemed fit. Staying not long enough would mean diminishing their worth, and staying too long would involve adding something to the experience they didn’t possess. I was there to witness, not transform.

I came away altered to the core. As I walked back between the poplars, the late afternoon air still, the breeze and midges gone, I passed the boy with the bike. He stuck his tongue out and grinned, the bandage fallen from his knee. The old man was crouched on the grass outside an inn, picking at his toenails, still cursing. I met groups heading towards them, and a woman gave me a look, sensing, I think, where I’d been and what I’d seen.

As I neared home the doubts started, and I began to wonder whether I had actually seen them at all. Had they been figments? And were they still there for other watchers to see? How could I know? All I can know is my own experience.

Back in my room I pondered whether they were better or worse than I had expected, bigger or smaller, more or less special. All I can say is that they were what they were, nothing else. Surely that is the best one can say of anything. Trying to change them by forcing a feeling or a false affinity would be a transgression.

They remained as a faint imprint on my mind for months after, like the image cast on the retina by a burst of intense light.

I won’t go back to see them again.

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My three novels available as paperbacks

No Crisis for Hut Man

‘This is an uproariously funny read’ – Michael

‘Laugh-out-loud funny, and at times completely bonkers’ – Peter

I am not a natural comedian, and I envy friends who are always ready with a hilarious comment or quip. I never have been.

My two other novels are set in the 18th and 19th centuries. So where on earth did ‘Hut Man’ come from? I honestly have no idea. I thought I’d try something different – reluctant at the prospect of yet more historical research – and this ridiculous novel just happened. I’m a slow, painstaking, nitpicking writer, but this one wrote itself. Early readers say it’s a ‘laugh out loud’ novel, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

It has only a vestigial plot: Unworldly Hut Man, nineteen and a half years old, lives alone in the woods and talks to his Ikea furniture. He thinks hard about life, but invariably fails to understand what is actually going on in his encounters with the outside world. Yet, employing his own unique reasoning, he manages to survive and is always happy and confident.

When he finds an inscription in red ink in a book on hamsters at a jumble sale saying ‘Please return to Helen Jacobs, 31 Riverside Close, Budleigh Salterton’ he has to obey, and heads off on Lars his bike to find her with Ken the plastic iguana on the handlebars.

He has puzzling and ludicrous encounters buying a mobile phone and camping equipment, ordering an Indian takeaway, working in a lay by as an abstract artist, being tattooed, and getting arrested for being in possession of a firearm.

When he finally tracks Helen down he finds her to be very different from the girl he expected. But it’s no crisis.

And that’s it.

To read it visit Amazon. It’s available as an ebook and paperback.


Searching for Gilbert White
– out-of-date or still trail-blazing? A photographer’s quest to rediscover Selborne’s world-famous naturalist

Being a serious birder I’ve always been fascinated by the 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White. It sounds sad, but I’ve accumulated over thirty editions of his famous ‘Natural History of Selborne’. This novel offers a fictional account of late events in his life.

Gilbert White is known as the Father of Natural History. He wrote ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’, the fourth most published book in the English language, in 1789. But is he still relevant today? Or is he just another victim of the heritage industry?

Now, the acclaimed wildlife photographer Peter Sheldon, recuperating from a bad injury, is persuaded to join a Gilbert White ‘re-imagining’ project. He witnesses bizarre stunts, including erotic dancers and rappers. And who is the mysterious Noel Coward character wandering the hill above the village dressed as a hermit? Pursuing White in leafy Hamphire turns out to be very different from Peter’s usual assignments in remote regions of the world. So what should he be photographing to rediscover White?

In a parallel narrative set in 1783, White, increasingly deaf and short-sighted, is anxious to get his book published, and employs young Samuel Stokes to be his eyes and ears. White befriends Francis Witchell, a London actor, who is staying nearby. Helen, Witchell’s beautiful daughter, angry and desperate to return to her fashionable life in London, bewitches Sam, and the two embark on a cruel ruse to throw White’s plans for his book into disarray.

Does Peter succeed in his quest? And what is the naturalist’s true legacy and significance to Selborne visitors today?

To read it visit Amazon. It’s available as an ebook and paperback.


Cut and Run – a Victorian painter’s heart-wrenching flight to save his children

‘Cut and Run’ is a rewritten and re-edited version of an earlier novel.

What is the secret the painter Thomas Genoa is hiding as he flees through the West Country with his twin daughters?

It is 1849 and a summer of foul weather. Recovering from a breakdown, Genoa is certain of only one thing – that his pursuers will stop at nothing to recapture the two babies in the back of his cart.

He trusts no one. Racked with grief and guilt, he yearns for his dead wife.  His fears for the well-being of the children grow as epidemic of cholera closes in. And as the health of one daughter deteriorates he is cast into an impossible dilemma: if he returns them it will be to certain death. But where can he hide them that will guarantee their safety?

Could the eccentric photographer James Jacks who dabbles in pornography turn out to be the ally he needs? Will his attraction to the governess Harriet Julien help or hinder him?

Genoa’s frantic flight draws him relentlessly to Lynmouth on the remote north Devon coast and to a shock conclusion that changes everything – for him and for the two children he loves and has fought so hard to protect.

A bit serious and sometimes harrowing. To read it visit Amazon. It’s available as an ebook and paperback.

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My favourite writers

Below are a few of my favourite writers and books. No particular reason, I just felt like listing them.

Italo Calvino: Mr Palomar
Robert Walser: The Walk and other stories
John Berger: pretty well everything he wrote
W G Sebald: The Rings of Saturn, and others
Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet
John McGahern: Amongst Women, That They May Face the Rising Sun
J A Baker: The Peregrine
W S Graham: his poetry, particularly The Nightfishing
T S Eliot: Four Quartets
Jonathan Raban: Coasting, Passage to Juneau
John Cage: Silence

And while we’re at it, two of my favourite painters

Ivon Hitchens
Peter Lanyon

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A sonnet to a lost tern

Birders are always excited when they see a rare bird, alone and miles off course. But what is the bird thinking? Who knows, but this sonnet, I hope, offers another point of view. And I’m not being critical of birders, I’m one myself!

Sonnet to a lost tern

We men in green, bejewelled, with bins and scope,
Shout What’s that there, behind the reeds, tucked down,
A yankee tern? Too far off course, some hope!
But look, that pale-streaked breast, forked tail, black crown!
Heads down like men possessed we probe, we peer,
Page flip our guides to spot its beak, striped eye,
Confirm the twitch, then tweet ‘First of the year!’
What next then, Curlew Sand, Great White, Sea Pie?
We click shut our scopes in the failing light
And trek on to fresh finds, triumphant, blest.
Our stray forgot, dead beat, from polar flight,
Squats sullen, dazed, dull eyed, with panting breast.
Uncaring birders, think as you head for home
Your tern’s bewildered, fearful, and all alone.

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Spreading the word about the Quantocks and the Coleridge Way


Friends of Coleridge members, of which I am a committee member, will be aware that it is part of the society’s constitution to broaden the knowledge about Coleridge and Wordsworth among residents and visitors. Equally important is that we publicise the Coleridge Way and the Quantock landscapes which influenced so much of the writings of the two poets.

I have been working with two local organisations. Stowey Green Spaces improve and publicise the network of local footpaths, as well as maintaining and restoring local woodlands by planting new stands of deciduous trees. Stowey Walking have created a range of walks in and around the village and the Quantock Hills. I have also arranged Coleridge-themed Quantock walks as part of their walking festival.

The photograph below shows the official opening of the new interpretation panel I designed for the two organisations. It has been installed in the old gaol by the clock tower, which is to become the village information centre. The printing was generously funded by Nigel and Janet Phillips.

Stowey-based members of the Friends of Coleridge are working closely with the two organisations, and with the Quantock AONB. An expanded and nationally publicised Walking Festival is planned for next year, which will include Coleridge and Wordsworth themed walks.

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A Day at the Races

Just a bit of fun. The following story was runner-up in the National Association of Writers’ Groups comedy writing competition

‘Christ, whack me sideways!’

And Johnny did. Well and truly elbowed, I’m lying on the ground with a face full of mud.

The race was close, two gee gees hurtling for the post, the jockeys mercilessly thrashing their flanks. But I’ve won. At last. I can house myself and eat for another week.

At least I could have done – I’m staring at my outstretched fingers wondering where my betting slip has gone. I peer out through the drizzle. Where the hell is it?

It’s been chill and rainy all morning, the punters thin on the ground. This race was my last chance, as we’d been backing losers all day, me and my mate Johnny – well, he’s no real mate, just a bloke who stands in the same place as me at meetings. Over the months we’ve struck up a friendship of sorts. Two losers, but ever hopeful.

Well, one loser this time, because Johnny’s dancing around and yelling to the skies ‘I’ve won, I’ve bloody won,’ completely oblivious of my plight.

Miserably I scan the enclosure, wondering where the damn betting slip has gone. There’s just a straggle of race goers, the women decked out in fancy frocks, legs coated in fake tan, hobbling awkwardly on high heels towards the bar, arm-in-arm with their Penguin-suited partners. The whole scene’s like a TV advert for Moss Bros.

And then I spot it. It’s well and truly pronged on a woman’s high heel. She’s a looker, no doubt about it, wearing a purple dress of cascading frills barely covering her knickers. Her party are heading away fast, so I clamber to my feet and set off in pursuit. Luckily she’s wearing a hat like a bowl of fruit so following her’s no problem. I slip and slop through thick mud after her, calling ‘Excuse me, love, you’ve got my betting slip on your shoe.’

Finally she hears me and turns. ‘You talking to me?’

‘My betting slip. It’s stuck on your heel. I need it to collect my winnings.’

Pursing her lips she gives me a look, then lifts her leg, puzzled.

‘Look, it won’t take me a mo,’ I say, reassuringly. ‘Lean on me and I’ll prise it off.’

‘Won’t be a moment, babes,’ she calls out to her bloke, who’s almost out of sight, heading for the bar with his mates.

‘Lift your leg higher, love, we’re getting there,’ I say. ‘A bit higher, a bit more.’

Reaching down I close two fingers round the betting slip and give it a tug. Her heels are like six-inch nails, you could fix floorboards with them. ‘Keep still, just a second more and I’ll …’

She overbalances and lurches over, and lies flailing around in the sticky mud, screaming and shouting. ‘Dean, babes, over here! Dean, quick!’

Dean is quick. He sprints across faster than Lucky Chance over the final furlong.

‘Christ, Donna!’ He turns to me and yells ‘What the have you done, you stupid idiot!’

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ I plead, ‘it was an accident. I was just trying to get my betting slip back. It’s a winner.’

‘Was mate, not now.’ A fist thuds into my stomach and I’m face down in the mud again.

‘Get up, I’ll bloody kill you. You’ve ruined babe’s day.’

Donna’s still screaming, her mates crowding round, doing their best to wipe her down. But the dress is ruined, even I can see that. It’s like a mud bath battle from ‘It’s a Knockout’.

I’m still on the ground gripping the betting slip. But it’s hopeless, it’s scrunched up, covered in mud, and there’s a gaping hole where the number should be. It’s as ruined as Donna’s dress.

‘Look, I just need to talk to the bookmaker to pick up my winnings. Then I’ll be happy to pay for the dry cleaning.’ Yet as I’m saying it I know there’s no way the bookmaker will pay out against it if he can’t read the number.

‘You’re  going nowhere till we get our money, chum. How much was it, babes? Tell the man.’

‘Dry cleaning’s no good, Dean, it’s ruined. Anyway, the dress ain’t mine.’

‘What d’you mean it ain’t yours, babes?’ Dean flexes his fists. He’s big and looks very dangerous. Donna looks guilty. Flinching, she gasps for breath and croaks ‘I bought it online, babes. Just wearing it for the day. I was gonna send it back tomorrow. I wanted to look special, Dean, for our anniversary.’

‘Well you’ve ruined up my lady’s day well and proper, haven’t you, mate. Right, Donna, shut up and tell me how much it was. What’s this idiot in for?’

‘Three hundred, babes. And a hundred for the hat.’

Christ, I’m thinking. I haven’t got that sort of money. In fact without my winnings I haven’t got a bean in the world. But thank God, my mate Johnny has, I know he backed Lucky Chance big time. And it was his fault for elbowing me, wasn’t it? He’ll pay. I breathe a sigh of relief. Right, find Johnny. I peer around the empty enclosure. Everyone’s gone. And so has Johnny. He’s deserted me, the bugger.

Donna’s weeping, and Dean’s in a huddle with his mates, probably discussing how they’re going to work me over. Seeing my chance I make a run for it, and I’m halfway to the exit gate before they spot me. Then it turns into a chase straight out of Benny Hill, with Donna hobbling after me followed by a crocodile of her screaming mates, with Dean and his penguin friends sprinting along behind. Putting on a spurt I make it to the car park, duck low out of sight, then inch between the cars making for my Corsa. When I reach it I ease the door open, fall inside, and turn the key. Then I’m off, careering through the mud, chicaning in and out of parked cars towards the outer gate.

Thank God, I’ve made it! I breathe another a sigh of relief, put my foot down, and race back up the hill towards the town and safety. A close shave.

Then I spot it in the mirror. A black Range Rover, a hood’s car if I ever saw one, accelerating towards me as if the Corsa’s going backwards. Already it’s nudging my back bumper, and Dean (I assume it’s Dean because the windows are black as the car’s body) is forcing me off the road. I change down, hit the accelerator pedal, and we career forward, the old car rocking and screeching. When I glance down at the dash the needle’s in the red, the engine close to blowing its top. A sudden explosion under the bonnet and we’re out of control, skidding across the verge, the Corsa rolling from side to side. When we hit a tree the chase is over. Desperate, I lock the doors and sit tight. Dean’s banging on the window, yelling.

Then my phone rings. For some reason I answer it.

‘Hi Tim, Pete here. Hope you’ve been enjoying your holiday. Afraid you won’t be any longer, mate. The rumours are true. They’re shutting us down, we’re redundant. Sorry for the bad news, but thought I’d better let you know. See you when you get back.’

Some great day at the races this has turned out to be. And so much for Lucky Chance. A stone smashes through the window and a hand grabs me by the throat.

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The poets tell us nothing is unfit for a poem.
Shakespeare would furrow verses from an amoeba
Clare from a broken blade of grass.

I sit in this Montmartre café
Eager, expectant, ready to make a poem.
Thankful that Paris boasts a pedigree,
Verlaine, Rimbaud, Apollinaire.
For isn’t this what poets do in Montmartre,
Watch and wait for the miracle to happen?

I catch the eye of a coffee cup on the next table,
Bring it a fleeting glance, now a studied look,
Attempt to conjure a relationship,
Intense in my lack of willing,
Hoping the it of the cup becomes a you, and finally an us as we fuse into verse.

Time glides on, chairs scrape the floor,
Voices colonize the space.
Trays are discharged of crepes and croissant,
While you remain unperturbed, content in your stillness.

And so we wait without intent or expectation,
My cup and I, easy in our togetherness,
Open to the spark, the sudden transforming burst of light,
That turns a poem.

Now you are lifted to a woman’s lips,
Tipped then tilted, caressed, and lingeringly emptied,
While I crave transference,
Desiring my own inner space to be similarly voided by the touch of lips.

Your function dutifully fulfilled,
You are gently set down.

The mouth now gorging a pastry,
The lips disfigured by berry juice,
I shudder at a troubling Francis Bacon,
The spell abruptly broken.

I pay my bill, shun the redundant cup,
Aware our closeness was a sham
That its decreed utility was all there was in our joining,
And that the poem that might have come
A forlorn grasping, a delusion and conceit.

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‘Coleridge and Wordsworth in the Quantocks’ 12-page booklet

I have just written and designed my third Coleridge-related 12-page booklet ‘Coleridge and Wordsworth in the Quantocks’.

It is intended for walkers and visitors to Nether Stowey and Quantock country. Attached is an A4-size PDF that you can download for free.

I will be having a considerable quantity printed as a reduced size A5 booklet for distribution to Tourist Information centres, the Quantock Hills AONB, Exmoor Park Authority centres, local libraries, galleries and museums, and other tourist destinations. They will be available free, and I am very grateful to both the Quantock Hills AONB and the Friends of Coleridge for financing the printing.

Click here to download the PDF. To print it on A4 landscape format pages, select ‘reduce size to fit’ in your print screen.

Visit the Nether Stowey page under the ‘Coleridge Places’ tab on the Friends of Coleridge website to download my two previous booklets: ‘A walk round Nether Stowey in 1797 with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’ and ‘Thomas Poole’.

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Hirst Uncoupled – a story part 2 (see below for part 1)

He walked for half an hour, uncaring about direction, ensuring only that it was away from his landlady. On the outskirts of the town he spotted a used car dealer. He’d no desire to buy a car, but a comfortable place to sleep was important. He imagined waking every hour with cramp slumped in the back of a hatchback. It had no appeal.

‘Anything bigger than those?’ he asked the owner, a grizzled man in a dishevelled suit. Spitting out a cigarette butt, the man said ‘Follow me’. In a far corner he pointed at a ruinous ice cream van.

Hirst stared at it in disbelief. It was an ancient Mr Whippy, rusted through, its two-tone paint work faded. A jaunty Mickey Mouse grinned from the side panel, announcing ‘Guiseppe says don’t be dippy, lick a whippy!’

‘No freezer or equipment,’ the man said, ‘but it goes.’ He hauled at a rusted door and clambered inside, then sounded the jingle. Forcing open a window he called ‘That works. Do for you?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Hirst, imagining groups of children pursuing him down the road. ‘I saw a van near your office.’

‘Work to do before I sell it. Anyway, you don’t look the type.’


‘White van man.’

Hirst wondered if he looked like Guiseppe the ice cream seller, but said nothing.

‘Show me anyway. I’m interested.’

‘If you insist. Tyres near the limit but legal, a fortnight’s MOT left. Adequate little runner.’

Hirst smiled. He liked adequate.

He walked slowly round the van. It didn’t look what motor types call ‘clean’, but what did he know? Maybe it was surface rust. On the rear door was a sign – Corgi specialist’. Hirst imagined a pack of tiny dogs leaping out of the back, yelping. By appointment to HM the Queen? No, wasn’t Corgi something to do with plumbing?

‘It’s got fuel. Don’t know how much, probably close to full. Dodgy gauge.’

Exactly what Hirst had been hoping, he’d drive till it stopped. And where he ended up was where he’d be. It would be a destination of sorts.

The dealer named a price. ‘Do you?’ It would indeed.

‘Look, I’ll take it now if you throw in a couple of rugs,’ he said. Opening his wallet he fingered some notes. The dealer’s eyes widened.

‘Come inside, we’ll do the paperwork.’

The makeshift office was as bare as the room he’d left. Worn lino, a battered filing cabinet and a girlie calendar. Hirst watched the man slaver as he dealt out the money note by note.

He climbed inside his new purchase, shifted around on the seat to avoid a spring poking his backside, and pressed the starter. The engine grunted, struggling to turn over. He pressed it again and it fired.  Hauling at the heavy steering he edged the van gingerly out of the yard, battling with the clutch to stop the jerking.

Exhilarated, he set off. The steering wandered, and for the first few miles it was as if the van itself was deciding which road to take. Where and when it would finally come to a halt was of no consequence. Being somewhere else, wherever it turned out to be, was what he wanted.

He drove for two hours, keeping to the inside lane, never accelerating to more than thirty, the brakes complaining each time he touched them. He thought back to the ice cream van. A shame, he’d have liked sounding the jingle, it would be announcing nothing. Once he stopped at lights and glanced down at the car alongside. A woman was peering into a tiny mirror, applying lipstick. Looking up at him, she frowned, grinned with embarrassment, then broke into laughter, mouthing ‘Cheeky’.

Hirst was white van man. It felt different. Encouragingly different. He pondered his new persona. As white van man he could be builder, plumber, or delivery man. No job too small, deliverer of budget solutions. Or none of these or all.

He stopped at a Spar shop and bought supplies. Sandwiches, biscuits, bread, ham, cheese, bottles of water, a pack of toilet rolls. Opening the glove compartment he found a dog-eared Screwfix catalogue, a sunned copy of a redtop newspaper, and a lunchbox containing a shrivelled tomato, a Snickers wrapper, and a crust.

He stuffed the copy of the redtop on the shelf below the windscreen and headed on into the west. Why the west? It seemed right.

After four or more hours the van stuttered, lurched, and came to a screeching halt, the fuel exhausted. He just managed to turn it into a muddy track leading to a field gate.

He reckoned he’d covered a hundred miles. So, this was his destination. It felt right. It was growing dark. When he opened the rear doors to examine his new sleeping quarters it looked like the empty hold of a Wellington bomber, all spartan ribbed metal. He picked a dead mouse up by its tail and tossed it out, then settled down on the bare floor, drawing the rugs over himself.

Sometime in the night he woke to a torch flashing. Police were tapping on the window. Muzzy headed, he climbed out.

‘Can’t stop here overnight, sir.’

‘I’d no choice, I ran out of petrol.’

‘I think you’ll find this vehicle runs on diesel, sir.’


‘You’ll have to move on. First thing latest. There’s a garage a couple of miles down the road. We’ll be back in the morning to check you’ve gone. What’s that?’

Hirst heard the radio in the police car crackling. ‘Got to go. By morning, remember. Goodnight, sir.’

Curling up in the front seat he waited for dawn.

A grey morning of heavy cloud. Bleary, he clambered out of the van. Where was he? He thought Wales, but couldn’t be sure. He thought of abandoning the van  ̶  buying more diesel meant a trudge of four miles. Yet he’d found being stopped by the police curiously exhilarating. Risk was something he’d rarely experienced. It felt more than adequate.

After he’d eaten breakfast he walked round the van and took a closer look. Even he could see he’d been sold a pup. Rust on the wheel arches had been painted over, and one of the tyres was as bald as the car dealer’s head. It was lucky the police had been called away before they checked it over, he’d had a narrow escape.

But an escape was an escape.

The van had been given a crude paint job. Hirst noticed that the side panel revealed a trace of the previous owner. Faintly embossed behind the white paint he could just pick out ‘Kevin Sparkes, Plumber and Heating Engineer, MCS, Oftec and Hetas registered’. It reminded him of the palimpsests he’d seen at an exhibition at the Tate, hidden ghost traces of former paintings where the artist had reused a canvas. Here he could pick out the van’s former existence, confirming that the past can never be completely erased, there’s always something hinting at history. Slightly ruffled, he would have preferred a clean slate.

What to do now with a wreck of a van? One thing was certain. This indeterminate point in the countryside was his destination, whether he liked it or not. Something stubborn made him determined not to move, regardless of the risk of prosecution by the police. He decided to drive down the lane and find somewhere to hide the van out of sight. He’d stay a couple of days, which would satisfy his aim.

He locked the van and walked towards the garage, peering at road signs for clues. He guessed he was in Wales, probably just over the border. Borderland appealed to him, it was neither one place nor the other. Until he knew exactly where it was, it was elsewhere. Where did he wish to end up? In a flat? A place to rent with another probing landlady?  Somewhere he’d be saddled with a lease or mortgage?  None of these appealed. The van would do for the moment. But the word ‘cabin’ appealed more. Could he find a remote cabin in the fields somewhere?

Back from the garage, he poured diesel down the fuel pipe using the red top as a funnel, listening to it slosh and gurgle deep into the innards. Then he drove slowly along the lane, watching for tracks. After a couple of miles he found a space among trees at the edge of a field where the van couldn’t be seen. He gathered branches and covered the back so the white paint wouldn’t shine in the sunlight.

Then he settled down to experience the destination.

He sat in the back of the van with the doors open, legs dangling, and picked up the Screwfix catalogue. It was an inch thick, and Kevin Sparkes had turned down the corners of a good number of the pages. What was all this stuff for? His cottage had been full of books and paintings, but if this catalogue was anything to go by it was fuller still with invisible devices that somehow made a house work. He flicked through the pages: pipe covers, ducting, cable reels, combination plates, RCD sockets and spurs, voltage detector pens, multi function testers. He hadn’t the faintest idea how or what any of them achieved, or the miracle they managed to achieve together. He assumed that when he turned a tap on a score or more of bits of brass and plastic somehow jumped to attention and caused the water to flow. He remembered the plumber he’d called in to install a boiler when he first moved into the cottage. The man had sniffed, poked about for a minute or two, then straightaway came up with a price. How on earth could he see what was behind the plasterwork and floorboards and know exactly what was needed? Hirst recoiled from even thinking about it, simply grateful that the pipework, pumps and valves had delivered him a hot shower and washing up water, as well as disposing of his waste and shit.

But now Hirst himself was white van man. It struck him that though the van made him look like one he was a million miles away from thinking like one. He was as remote from being Kevin Sparkes as he was from being a nuclear physicist.

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Beach Trauma (a story)

Photo courtesy of Reading Tom

He’s renting from the friend of a friend. Shading his eyes he peers along the long string of chalets facing Dunster beach. But which one? Christ, they’re identical Wendy houses, and set so tight they could touch shoulders.

When he tracks it down it’s not identical at all – the others have been given a fresh spring coat of paint, but the lapped boards are bleached and peeling. The window’s cracked, there are gaps in the picket fence, and a dog has tunnelled through a hole in the hedge.

He forces the door with a vigorous shove. Inside it’s musty, the furnishings jaded and worn. Even he can see it needs what estate agents term updating. The kitchen area’s primitive, the cooker rings encrusted with grease, the formica top scrubbed, its gingham pattern almost invisible. And no cleaner has been near the place with dustpan and brush – leaves litter the vinyl floor which has bubbled with damp. When he clambers up the ladder to the mezzanine to investigate the bed he slips on a loose tread and wrenches his ankle.

The ideal bolt-hole for a writer? So it claimed on the website. For a moment he feels cheated, then remembers it was cheap, very cheap. He laughs. Would Henry Miller have expected pristine styling at Big Sur? Of course not, for a writer working on a novel it’s perfect. A plain, unfussy space allowing the imagination to roam and, all importantly, giving a breathtaking view of the Bristol Channel outside the door.

He takes out his pad, opens it at the first page, lines up his pens, pencils and rubber, and props the photo of Miller alongside him on the table. Time to begin the novel? Maybe. He heaves a chair across to the open door and sits for a while, peering down at the empty beach. The tide’s out, so maybe a swift stroll along the sand first? No, he’s too exhausted to think, let alone write. Dazed, he crawls up the ladder and falls on to the bed.

He wakes much later with a buzzing in his ears. Disoriented, he stumbles back down the ladder and throws the door open. There’s still no sea, just pitted sand and mud stretching far into the distance. His eye flickers across scattered pools of brackish water, and when he searches for the tide it’s a good mile out, a glistening mirage, faint, indeterminate.

Sparrows bicker in the ragged hedge of the next-door chalet. It’s shut tight till Easter, the door cloaked with a metal roller blind. But on the other side the door’s open, so he has a neighbour. He prays there’ll be no boisterous children to disturb the peace.

Scrambling down the slope to the beach in bare feet, he picks a path across the stones. The sand is hard, and when he looks back over his shoulder his steps have left no trace. The good news is no one knows he’s here, only the rabble of crows picking energetically at the mud, and a line of white gulls like distant flotsam. He can get on, make progress.

Back inside the chalet he collects his pad and pencil. It’s turning chill so he wraps himself in a blanket and sits on a camp chair in the tiny garden, eyes half-shut against the hazy sunlight, ignoring the envious glances from walkers. Pencil poised, he empties his mind and starts to write.

Twenty minutes later he has a paragraph, not Shakespeare, but at least a beginning. He’s writing about the breakup, the trauma his character suffers from being misunderstood by a girl he’d given everything to. It’s autobiography, of course, but he’s doing what’s always advised in the manuals: write about what you know. It’s still painful to recall, but he’s hoping that the writing will deaden the misery.

When he looks up a girl’s walking by. She’s pretty, tall and dark haired, a yellow scarf thrown round her neck. Twenty-five, twenty-six? Intrigued, he hurries to the window. She must have gone into the chalet next door. Is she on her own? Or is her boyfriend or husband inside? What does it matter, he’s here to write. He begins a second paragraph.

When he looks up she’s wandering the sands below, bending to pick up the odd pebble, turning it over in her fingers before tossing it away. He’s planning to do the same, find the perfect one, place it by his writing pad as a talisman, a tangible link with the beach’s spirit of place. Maybe she’s a kindred spirit. Curious, he follows her down on to the sands.

‘Found one yet?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘The perfect pebble. Have you found one?’

She looks puzzled.

‘I always search for exactly the right one,’ he tells her. ‘You know it when it speaks to you. I’ve a drawer full of them at home but I always forget where they came from. Coffee?’

She’s thinking hard, and answers reluctantly. ‘Okay, a quick one.’

They head back up the beach to his chalet. Inside she peers around. ‘I can’t stay long.’

He boils a kettle and spoons instant into two mugs, making covert glances at her while she inspects  the small space. She’s certainly a beauty, clear skinned, with stunning legs.

‘Not much of a place, is it,’ he says. ‘Needs updating. Rented it from a friend. But at least it was cheap.’

She doesn’t respond.

He plays his trump card. ‘I’m a writer.’

Still no response. He thinks she hasn’t heard so tries again. ‘I’m here to write my novel.’

Just a polite nod while she runs a finger around a stain on the coffee table. He’s boring her.

He chatters mindlessly on about the weather, the beach, and the importance of getting away, but it’s more monologue than dialogue.

Minutes later she gets up to leave. ‘Thank you, I really have to go.’

And that’s it.

‘Maybe we could have another coffee tomorrow,’ he calls after her.

That didn’t go as he intended. Most girls perk up when he tells them he writes. He’s no Brad Pitt but it usually does the job. Women go for writers, but not this one. Must be a bit shallow and stupid. Shrugging it off he settles down to work on paragraph number three – writing about the miserable night he suffered after the break, shivering in a stinking pill box by the canal. He wields his rubber. No, he’ll make it two nights and add in a storm to heighten the drama.

Late evening. The beach is dark and silent, the moon masked in cloud, with only the distant lights of Wales glimmering. Deciding on an early night he lies on the narrow bed thinking about the girl, then finally sleeps.

He wakes in the night to weeping from close by. Is it her? Probably on the rebound from some airhead boyfriend.

At eleven the next morning he stands at the gate and sees her reading a Hello magazine. He leans over the fence and she looks up.

‘Oh, it’s you. I suppose you’d like a coffee. You’d better come in.’

Her chalet couldn’t be more different from his own. Spotless and immaculate, it’s as if an entire Ikea room set has been transported down the M5 and squeezed in. A coffee table’s littered with more magazines – Okay, Celebrity Gossip, Fate & Fortune. Has he made a massive mistake? Is she even shallower than he thought? But there’s still the chance of sex – she may not be a thinker but she’s a hell of a looker.

‘I’ve been working on my novel since six,’ he tells her. ‘Or trying to. It’s painful to write but I think it’s going okay.’ Again, no response.

‘So, what do you do?’ he asks. Inside he blenches, waiting for her to tell him she’s studying accountancy or working in the cosmetics department at Debenham’s.

She fills the kettle. ‘Go and sit down,’ she calls, ‘I’ll bring the coffee out.’

In the garden he flips through the Hello magazine in disgust – who are all these bloody people with their fake tans and perfect homes? – then guiltily drops it as she comes out with two mugs.

He watches her stare into space, vacantly sipping her coffee. Probably pondering the unresolved death of Princess Di, he thinks.

‘Sorry, she says, turning to look at him, ‘I’m being rude. I’m elsewhere. Not your fault, occupational hazard. What do I do, you asked? You really won’t want to know.’

‘No, please, tell me.’

‘Honestly, I’d prefer not, I’m not at my best.’

‘Look, I heard you in the night. Come on, I’m a good listener.’ He leans forward.

‘I’m a trauma nurse.’ Then in a whisper: ‘A two-year old died in my arms the other night.’ Then dropping her mug heavily on the table she says ‘ I love my job. Sometimes, though …’

She sighs. ‘I thought getting away, coming here, reading these shit magazines would help, but … I’m sorry, I’m no company, better if  you go, my sister’s arriving at twelve. This is her chalet.’

‘Look,’ he says,  ‘maybe I can help, comfort you.’ He reaches out and touches her knee.

‘Don’t, please, just don’t.’ She shudders and turns away.

Miserably he stumbles back next door and slumps down in his writing chair. The fourth paragraph of his novel refuses to come. He hurls his pencil across the room and heads off down to the beach and stands, wretched and ashamed, in the shallows.

He’ll go home early.

Brent geese land in the mud close by, jabbering inanely.

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