Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Nonsense Verse

In view of the weather - and the season - I've decided to go Lewis Carrolling.


'Tis brillig. Even turvid geese
Scrab and skibble on the ice.
All plegged in frost, the mangleferns
Now stand like branklets in a vice.

Beware the Blizzapest, my friend;
Never let it griff your prawl;
Flink before your crastanates
Become entrundled in its grawl.

But now, too late! The Blizzapest
Dispaculates the wintled ground,
Plittering the undergroan
And cratting rocks that dring besound.

Glinterblades skiddance on ice;
Grundling stones zoom round the shpeel.
While the brattering Blizzapest
Friddens all within its greel.

Enjoy your weather, wherever you are; and enjoy, as best you can,
the dreaded Frantic Season.

Monday, 21 November 2016


Since it's still November, you can have a last blast from my wartime past.

Most people in Britain now would recognise the aerial photograph I saw in a magazine. The outline of the Isle of Dogs and the meanders of Bow Creek have become an iconic television opening sequence. But this pilot’s eye view gave me a shudder that had nothing to do with the start of “Eastenders”.
     The photograph was dated 24.5.39; the notes beside it were in German; two target circles marked A and B were uncomfortably close to my grandparents’ house at 107 St Paul’s Road in Bow.
     On September 7th 1940, the house was full. It was a farewell party for my two uncles before they went back to active service with the RAF.
     Air raid sirens began to wail just after teatime. There were too many of us to go into the Anderson shelter dug into the back garden, shored up with timber and corrugated iron and covered with a thick layer of earth. We tried to make ourselves comfortable in the cellar. It would turn out to be a long night. As in many houses, it had been prepared for an emergency with beds and chairs.
     There had been light raids by the Luftwaffe in the preceding weeks but no one was prepared for this onslaught. By the end of the night, nearly a thousand bombers had attacked the central area of London and the East End. It went on for hours. We could hear the bombs falling and the explosions when they landed. I can’t remember being frightened; I’d heard bombs before. Some of the children managed to sleep. My brother Brian was under three; two of our cousins were even younger.
     At some time in the night, one particular sound grew louder, coming nearer . – the sound of a falling bomb. One of my uncles shouted, ‘This one’s close! Get down!’ Every adult grabbed the nearest child and held it. This is my clearest memory of that day, because nobody grabbed me.
     There was an ear-splitting crash, a concussion that shook the walls and the cellar filled with dust.
     The cellar walls were cracked but still standing. My uncles went to investigate. They climbed from the cellar up to my parents’ bedroom on the first floor, looked up and saw stars and searchlight beams, even the planes overhead. There was another huge hole in the bedroom wall. They climbed through and followed the diagonal trail of destruction down into next door’s cellar.
     During their service, they had seen many a bomb before but there in the concrete floor, in a crater of its own making, was one of the biggest. Mercifully, the neighbours were in their shelter in the back garden.
     ‘My God, Ernie, the bloody thing’s ticking!’
     They rushed back to us. ‘We’ve got to get out. There’s a bomb next door – delayed-action. Everyone, quick as you can! No, no time to stop for anything. Go as you are. The whole house could blow up any minute!’
     We crowded into a large public shelter in Robeson Street. Someone found the ARP wardens and they evacuated the area. At three o’clock in the morning we heard the massive detonation as “our” bomb exploded. It took half the terrace with it - six substantial Victorian houses.
     Only one thing worth salvaging was picked out of the rubble. My brother still has it: a heavy cut-glass vase about fourteen inches tall.  It was found on a sofa, covered by the cushions that had fallen on it. It is perfect, except for one little chip on the base.

Friday, 11 November 2016

My personal contribution to Remembrance Day:

Edward Wells (1897 -1917)
My uncle's first name has become my second.
It shares the fate of many middle names -
half a dozen boxes of identity,
never used except for routine forms.

He was my father's hero, elder brother,
leading, laughing, bold, a shooter's eye.
'Give Ted two stones, he'd knock a robin's egg
right off that five-bar gate across the road.'
He volunteered as sniper in the War,
Exposed and isolated, drawing fire,
Never laughing now but leading still,
And at the last – a German sniper's kill.

They buried him at Arras. Soldiers home
told young Johnny how his brother fell.
At fourteen years, he held his grief within,
until the telegram of death arrived.

I'm holding Edward's prayer-book, sprayed with blood.
Inside, his simple, pencil-written will,
neatly signed as “Private Edward Wells” -
my boxes of identity come home.        
Donald Edward Wells            

Thursday, 15 September 2016

If I have any followers, other than drop-in thrill-seekers whose random googling may have trawled up the word "concupiscence" from my May 3rd 2013 entry (don't rush to look it up; it's not that exciting), I apologise for the extended hibernation of this blog. From now on, I will get back to blogging once a week.

This is a special one. Well, it's special to me.

 I Was a Vestival Virgin

It was the best of times; it was my first time. It was the Festival of Writing at York, squeezed between an early September break in Dumfries and a late September holiday in Spain.
     The good people at Writers' Workshop had gathered some three hundred writers, give or take a pseudonym. Many were published, most were aspirant, all eager to mingle, laugh with and learn from other writers. There was also a healthy sprinkling of publishers, agents, editors, and “book doctors” as well as an indispensable army of willing helpers to guide and encourage us. The mix was heady. The chat was non-stop.
     We went from discussion to workshop, from pitching to self-pub (not a free bar, sorry). We took the hundred word challenge, plotted, re-wrote and climaxed, learned the secret of stealth sentences and stuck post-it notes all over the furniture.
     Then came the “one-to-one” sessions with book doctors, editors and agents, approached nervously by some, welcomed by others. Contrary to old writers' tales about editors, they do not all subscribe to the mantra of Sir Lancelot Spratt – 'Cut it out, man. Cut it out!'. They were willing to guide and encourage us, suggest new approaches and, yes, cut where necessary.
     At the workshops, though the presenters might be speaking to forty or fifty people, I found many direct connections to my own work-in-progress. 'Yes, I see now, that's what I was doing when I brought in the woman who distracted my hero from his quest.' and then, 'I'll have to change that bit – or possibly move it to later in the story'.  I was scribbling reminders to myself as fast as I could and trying to listen to the next piece of good advice.
     Now it's bragging time.
     At my one-to-one with an agent whom I shall not name, in case he later changes his mind, he had nice things to say about my novel, ' Minder meets Lovejoy '; 'I like Gregor – touch of the Flashman about him'; 'Dennis Price in “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, acid turns of phrase, well-written, understated'; 'the wit is a bit out of time but refreshingly not modish'; and beside a short passage in the first chapter: 'Ha, ha! Brilliant!'
     He did sound a note a note of caution. 'It won't be easy to place.'
     This agent represents such literary lights as James Follett (not Ken) with 20 novels, translated into 11 languages and radio and TV plays including the cult series “Blake's 7”; RD Wingfield, author of the “Frost” novels and TV series; George Markstein, creator of “The Prisoner”; oh, and Aberdeen's own Stuart McBride.
     Before you tell me Markstein and Wingfield are dead, he was their agent while they lived and continues to represent their estate.
     I cannot say I have an agent but I can say I have an agent interested. He wants to see the manuscript as soon as it's finished.
     Now it's bum-on-chair and nose-to-keyboard time.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Usual warning to those seeking my memories of late friend and former colleague Kyril Bonfiglioli, novelist, wit, raconteur and knife-thrower: only the first nine posts of this blog are concerned wholly or in part with his exploits (posts from 31st March to 23rd July 2013) plus a "Mentioned in Despatches" on 9th January 2014. 

Parting the Veils – Part 6

     Once the little girl’s eyes had closed in sleep, Virren feel it was safe to move. They slipped cautiously between the veils once more. Aestrid was becoming used to the unusual sensation. Although she could feel her feet touching the ground, her body seemed to have no weight. Sometimes they moved so fast that the veils were a whirling mass of changing colour.
     Virren told her, ‘When we next come out from the veils, we shall be more than a day’s journey from Merdegar’s palace. Don’t ask me how it happens, No matter what men say, Virren Lightstepper does not know everything. There is one thing that is the same here as it is in our world: North is North and South is South. I can navigate here just as your father navigates the seas of our world.’
     In a deserted spot they emerged beside another well to drink and Aestrid was able to wash her face. It was almost recovered from its earlier puffiness. The memory of that and their flight from the palace brought back the thought of the brave boys who had died for her.
     Virren saw her grief. ‘Do not weep, child. You still think of them as your playmates but I tell you, when your father asked for help, they knocked full-grown men over in their eagerness to offer their swords.
     ‘Now, no more tears. The next journey between the veils will be our last. When we next step through into our own world, we will be close to your father’s hall. For the last time, Aestrid and Virren passed between the veils where time and space and distance worked in a different way.
     When they emerged, it was into a dark street in the port of Oran where her father’s ships still rode at anchor. Aestrid recognised the large building where her father’s crews lodged.
     ‘Is my father . . ?’ she began, but Virren paid no heed. He took her arm in a firm grip and led her towards the entrance. The doors opened immediately.
     The hall, smaller than the Great Hall at home, was bright with the light of a hundred torches. Somehow all of her father’s men had crowded inside. The massed ranks stood, in full armour, at each side, leaving only a narrow passage the length of the hall. At the far end sat the imposing figure of the Sea-Wolf, Leif Gustavsson.
     ‘Father!’ Aestrid cried and started to run towards him.
     ‘Stand still!’ bellowed her father in the voice that could be heard above a North Sea storm.
     Aestrid stopped, bewildered. ‘Father, please,’ she begged.
     In a second, Virren was beside her. ‘Listen,’ he said. As I have told you so many times – stop thinking only of yourself and listen!’
     Leif Gustavsson addressed the assembled warriors.
     ‘This girl, this girl who is not yet a woman, disobeyed me. This girl, who has been allowed to run wild since her mother died ten years ago, has kept us sweating in this stinking port of the desert people for days. She has caused the death of two of our finest young men. They became warriors for one day, then heroes in Valhalla the next. Remember forever the names of Ragnar and Ulf, sons of Svein Redbeard!’
     A great shout went up and the hall rang with the sound of swords on shields and stamping feet and over all, the names of Ragnar and Ulf Sveinsson.
     He turned his gaze on his daughter. ‘What do you say to this – you who bear my name?’
     Aestrid’s body shook and her tears flowed.
     ‘I cannot find words for my grief. Ragnar and Ulf were like my brothers. Now they have given their lives for me. I ask their forgivemess. I ask your forgiveness, Father. I cannot bear to lose your love.’ She sank to her knees.
     Leif Gustavsson could sit no longer. Hecame striding down the hall and took his daughter up into his massive arms.
     ‘Aestrid, my daughter, my lode-star of the heavens. You have come back. That is enough.’ Tears were running down his cheeks into his fierce red beard.
     Quickly he composed himself.
     ‘Virren Lightstepper, stand by me.
     ‘Hear me, my warriors, my Wolves of the Sea. This man has guided me, as he guided my father, for many years. Now he has rendered a service that I can never repay. He has brought my beloved daughter back across the empty miles of desert, back from the grip of an evil tyrant who would have despoiled her and kept her from me. All honour to Virren Lightstepper!’
     Again the hall erupted with the clash of weapons and voices roaring the name of Virren Lightstepper. Leif Gustavsson the Sea-Wolf raised his hand as the clamour died away.
     ‘Tonight we feast and drink and sing the praises of the heroes of old and the heroes of today. Tomorrow we ride the seas again!’

                                                        THE END

(835 words)                                                                 

(Total: 5,650 words – too long for a short story, too short for any other known format. I’ll have to call it a mini-saga.)

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Parting the Veils – part 5

Virren Lightstepper pulled Aestrid away from the gate and ran towards the nearest dune. Aestrid’s feet slipped on the shifting sand as she stumbled after him, sobbing.
     By the time they reached the top of the slope, she was gasping for breath. There was no sign of pursuit but from behind the heavy gates she could hear the clash of weapons and cries of anger and pain. Above them all, she heard the war-song of the Northland.
     Virren dragged her over the crest and they rolled down the far slope. Aestrid lay panting, turning her face away from him, tears drying in streaks across her face.
     ‘Come!’ he shouted. There is no time to rest.’ He raised her head and spoke more gently. ‘Just a little further and we will be safe.’
     At the bottom of the slope, she saw the remains of a circular stone-built wall.
     ‘Keep to the right of the old well. We can move between the veils there.’
     The Lightstepper slowed to a walk and looked about him. He moved on a few paces more, then grasped Aestrid’s hand.
     ‘Remember how we moved through the veils? This time it will be a little easier for you.’
     As Aestrid felt her feet start to slide sideways, she heard a great shout in the distance and the clatter of iron bolts as the great gates were opened. She closed her eyes to blot out the bloody vision of the Sveinsson boys lying dead.
     When she opened her eyes, she could see the movement of the veils shimmering in the sunlight and through them, dim figures rushing down the slope towards them. More veils seemed to crowd in, thicker and faster, and she heard the pursuers’ triumphant shouts change to fear-stricken cries as their quarry vanished from sight.
     Aestrid’s body slumped with exhaustion and grief. Virren’s grip on her hand tightened.
     ‘We must stay within the veils a little longer, to get further away from the well. You will see why.’
     The ground beneath her feet was changing, becoming softer and cooler than the desert sand. She looked down but could see nothing in the misty half-dark. Virren was quiet. He seemed to be listening.
     Soon he said, ‘We can come out from the veils now, and take rest. But make no sound nor any sudden movement. As long as you hold my hand and stay still, we cannot be seen.’
     Gradually the veils slipped aside. Despite Virren’s warning, Aestrid barely managed to stifle a gasp of astonishment.
     They were sitting on grass as green and lush as the meadows of her homeland. About fifty paces away, gathered beside the well in the shade of tall trees a dozen men sat round a campfire, eating and talking. A few women sat apart, some with children close by. There were horses tethered under the trees.
     Aestrid, wide-eyed, whispered,’Where is this place.? How did we get here?’
     ‘I do not know, but it must be connected to our world in some way. You see the well there?  When we saw it in our world it had been dry for many years. Here in the otherworld, it is new-built or possibly re-built, filled with fresh water, enough to grow these trees.’
     ‘But how . . ?’
     ‘I cannot pretend to understand it,’ said Virren, ‘but I know how to get into it through the veils and I know how to make use of it. I can do things here that neither I nor any other man can do in our world. Here is an example before your eyes. We are here but we are not part of this world. We can see them but they cannot see us.’
     Aestrid turned to look at the people by the well. The youngest of the children, a little girl, was looking in their direction.
     ‘Be still,’ whispered Virren urgently.
     The little girl was smiling. She took two hesitant steps towards them and called out, pointing towards where they were sitting. Two of the women turned to look, then laughed and went back to their chatting.
     Aestrid and Virren sat silent, unmoving. The little girl ran back to the group and settled into her mother’s arms. But her eyes were still on the spot where Virren and Aestrid sat, not daring to move.

 (720 words)                                         (This is a six-part story, to be concluded next week)


Sunday, 24 April 2016

This story, my first venture into the world of fantasy, was intended to run to three parts. "Run" was a good choice of word because it has grown legs. There will be at least two more parts needed to wrap it up.

Parting the Veils – 4

Aestrid felt she had hardly slept, turning one way then the other, the whole night through.
     The shriek that woke her seemed to come right through the wall from the next bedroom. It was followed by other cries of shock and sounds of weeping.
     ‘What’s going on out there?’ shouted Marelja, then, ‘Help me. I can’t see!’
     Aestrid sat up. She found it difficult to open her eyes. When she put her fingers to her eyelids, they were puffed up as she had never felt before, even in childhood illnesses. She couldn’t feel her cheekbones or the line of her jaw because her face was so swollen. Her whole head felt hot.
     The third girl in their room cried out, ‘What’s wrong with you two? Your faces are like the full moon.’ Aestrid could open her eyes just enough to see Marelja stumbling towards the door. As she opened it, the noise increased and she could see other girls with the same strange affliction running about, wailing and crying.
     Into this chaos strode the three senior wives, shouting to calm the girls down. Quickly they separated the swollen-faced ones from those who didn’t seem to be affected and shepherded them into the largest of the bedrooms.
     ‘Stay there! Do not come out. We will bring cold water and towels. Bathe your faces; see if that will take down the swelling. We will send for doctors. Do not open that door!’
     Aestrid counted seven other girls, as well as Marelja and herself, all with swollen faces and weeping eyes. Now she could appreciate the cleverness of Virren’s plan. They were cut off not only from others in the harem, but from the rest of the palace, the king, guards, servants – no one would come near them. But when, when would Virren put his plan into action?
     The weeping had eased now as some of the women seemed to accept their condition. Hours later, they were ordered to move away from the door. An old man, standing as far back as he could, peered in and quickly looked round at the swollen faces and puffy eyes before the door closed again. Another man did the same a few minutes later. Voices outside, men’s voices, were raised in argument.
     Marelja and others were at the door, listening. She came back to Aestrid and said, ‘They don’t know what it is. One says it is the blindness fever; others say it is from bad food; the Imam says it is a curse from Allah. I will pray it is not the blindness. My mother went blind.’ She began to sob.
     Aestrid could not bear to see her grief. She whispered, ‘Don’t be frightened, Marelja. It will not last. You will be well again in a few days.’
     Marelja pressed her palms to her streaming eyes. ‘How can you know this?’ she said.
     ‘I cannot say, but it will happen. And one more thing, Marelja. I will soon be taken away from here.’
     Marelja sat up. ‘But the guards will not dare to . . ‘
    ‘Not the guards. Someone will come for me. When he does, stay away from me. I cannot be sure, but it may be dangerous for you to be too close.’
     She could sense that Marelja was full of questions but she asked no more.
     The afternoon passed slowly. The girls had calmed down. Aestrid found she could now open her eyes a little. Lamps were lit as the shadows of evening came. Surely Virren would be here soon. Most of the girls were asleep by the time she heard him.
     ‘Aestrid, listen. We are ready. Get up now and go slowly to the wall, where the two black girls are sleeping. Turn so that your back is to the wall. I will take your right hand and slowly lead you sideways towards the corner. We will be moving between the veils. It will feel strange to you. You must trust me and never let go of my hand. You will come to no harm. You may see me; you may not, but I will be there guiding your steps.’
     Aestrid’s heart was thumping in her chest as she moved across the room and stood with her back to the wall. Marelja got up and came towards her.
     ‘No, stay away!’ Aestrid hissed. ‘Go back!’
     She felt a firm grip on her wrist and heard Virren say, ‘Keep close and follow me.’
     Marelja shrieked, ‘Don’t go, Aestrid! It is a djinn. I can see him. He is in the wall.’ Her eyes were wide and staring. She grabbed at Aestrid’s hand.  Virren’s fist came crashing down on Marelja’s elbow. She howled in pain and sank to her knees.
     In seconds, everything in the room faded, moving sideways out of Aestrid’s sight. The women’s frightened cries died away. She was moving her feet but it did not feel like walking. It was more like sliding on ice. She could see shapes of walls and corridors but faintly, as if in a mist.
     ‘Turn now,’ Virren ordered . She found herself moving in the opposite direction, still holding the Lightstepper’s hand. Her mouth was dry and her head ached.
     ‘Are we . . is this between the veils?’
     ‘Yes. One more turn, then there will be friends to help us. Hurry!’
     Aestrid peered through the haze as they turned . Two figures came towards her, helmeted, carrying shields and swords.
     ‘That’s Ulf Sveinsson! And his brother Ragnar.’ The boys she used to wrestle and race and fish with were like elder brothers to her. They took her hands and kissed them. Neither smiled.
     ‘Go safe home, Aestrid.’
     ‘Why do you say . . ‘
     Virren broke in. ‘Time is short. We must go now. There is one more veil to part and that will be the time of greatest danger.’
     The haze dispersed as they appeared out of the final veil. Aestrid gasped. They were in the dimly lit courtyard of the palace.  She remembered being carried through it after that exhausting ride through the desert.
     At the arched entrance, two guards stood chatting. They looked up in alarm as the Sveinsson brothers rushed in and cut them down before they could draw their swords. Blood spattered the white silk of Aestrid’s robe as Virren hurried her through the arch. She turned her head and saw the heavy wooden gates close behind them.
     ‘Ragnar and Ulf are still in there.’ she cried. ‘We cannot leave them.’
     ‘We must,’ said Virren. ‘They know their fate. They are ready to do this for you.’
     ‘But they are just boys,’ she wailed.
     ‘They are men today,’ said Virren Lightstepper.
(1,128 words)

Monday, 18 April 2016

Parting the Veils - Part 3

 Aestrid walked back to her room, careful to show no sign of the hope she now felt. She had obeyed the Lightstepper’s instructions and faced that fierce Guard Commander without a tremor in her speech or a tremble in her body. She wanted to shout aloud.
      Instead she forced herself to walk with her head down and her shoulders slumped. She hoped the two women escorting her could not sense her exultation. She was sure now that Virren Lightstepper somehow had the power to arrange her escape and bring her back to the arms of her father.
     As she was shown into her room and the door closed behind her, she heard the two women whispering. She stayed close to the door and held her breath to hear better.
   ‘Perhaps she will be ready sooner than we thought.’
    ‘I’m not sure,’ said the other. ‘She may be more clever than we think. She has a strong mind. I’ve seen others burst into tears if they had to face the Guard Commander. We must consult Eneida. She will know what to do.’
     Aestrid did not understand every word but one thing was clear: she should not have been so bold when she faced the officer’s questions. They would watch her more closely now. She needed Virren’s advice.
     As if in answer to her unspoken wish, the Lightstepper’s voice came into her head.
     ‘Aestrid. I have listened to their talk with the First Wife. They believe you are almost ready to accept your situation. You must keep them thinking that. They will soon take you to be with the other women. There I have found a place where I can part the veils. It will be easier to take you from there. But I need more help. I must go back and bring . . .’
     ‘Virren, I don’t understand. What do you mean, “Part the veils”?’
     ‘I cannot explain now.’ His voice was sharper. ‘Just listen. I can bring only two of your father’s warriors to help.’
     ‘But how …?’
     ‘Hush, child. Listen. There is something else I must tell you. The king has demanded that you be prepared and brought to his bed tomorrow.’
     Aestrid cried out in alarm, ‘No, never! I will dig out his eyes before . . .’
     ‘Will you be quiet!’ That was a shout inside her head that made her wince.
     Virren went on, ‘You will be eating with the other women tonight. Make sure you eat from every dish. I will find a way to add something to one dish. I promise you it will not harm you, but you will not be acceptable to the king for a few days. That gives me the time I need. I will return within two days. Do you understand?’
     'No,’ she answered, ‘I don’t understand how you can . . .’
     Virren Lightstepper was losing patience. ‘You will find out in time. Do you understand what I want you to do?’
     ‘Yes, Virren. I’m sorry.’
     ‘Then do it!’
      Virren was gone. She felt him slip away, just as a dream would disappear as soon as she awoke from sleep. But unlike a dream, she could remember every word of his instructions. As she recited them over to herself, she felt more and more certain that this strange and unpredictable man would be able to help her. But still she puzzled herself with questions.
    The help he had promised to bring was at least three days away, yet he had said confidently that he would be back within two days. And what were the veils he spoke of?
     Wearied by these problems and worried about what Virren was planning to add to the meal that would make her “unacceptable”, she finally dozed off into a troubled sleep.
     She didn’t hear the key in the lock or the tapping on the door. She had to be shaken awake by the women who came to fetch her. These two were different, younger. One of them had light brown hair and spoke in a language very like her own.
     Aestrid was beginning to realise the value of accepting or appearing to accept her fate. It should be easy to make a friend of this woman whose speech she could understand. But it was also clear that it was the older women, the senior wives, she needed to convince. Once again she was led to a bathroom and this time she was helped, much more gently, to bathe herself. There were oils and     perfumes softer and richer than she had ever experienced.
      As Aestrid and the two women began to talk, hesitantly at first and then with increasing confidence, a more pleasant atmosphere began to develop. A smile , a playful splash, a laugh at a misunderstanding. Despite her fears , Aestrid relaxed a little and that helped her to keep up this essential fa├žade of acceptance.
      When they led her into the main hall of the harem, dressed in colourful robes like the ones that had tempted her in the market-place, the younger women gathered round, eager to meet this new and exotic newcomer. Aestrid guessed that they would not have seen many with her colouring. She noticed that the older women and even some of the younger ones, held back, as if they had a status that set them apart.
     They were in time for the evening meal. A tempting and colourful array of dishes were set forth and everyone helped themselves. There seemed to be a very clear order of precedence here and Aestrid was not motioned forward to eat till the others had helped themselves.
     As Virren Lightstepper had ordered, Aestrid made sure to eat a little from each dish, though she was unsure of the taste or the ingredients. She was surprised that there was hardly any meat, certainly not the great joints of sheep and cattle she had been used to in her father’s feasting-hall. No knives were needed, only fingers.
     There was no way of knowing which dish Virren had added to. She tried to judge by the taste but each one was different from what she was used to. It was impossible to guess.
     Her two new friends, as she had reluctantly begun to think of them, took her now to a larger, well-lit room, luxuriously furnished with colourful hangings and carpets, and beds for the three of them. There was no lock on the door.
     As the girls chatted and prepared for sleep, Aestrid brought up the subject she had hardly dared think about. She spoke to Marelja, the one who understood her language.
     ‘Have you?’ she began. Her voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. The girls looked at her, waiting for the question. ‘Have you sometimes been with the king, you know, in his bed?’
     ‘Oh, yes,’ said Marelja, then spoke to the other girl. ‘Don’t worry, Aestrid. It’s not that bad. Will it be your first time?’
     She nodded, not able to speak.
     Marelja came over and put an arm round her. ‘You have to tell yourself it’s just something you have to do. If you can relax, it won’t hurt much. The worst thing is, he’s so fat and sweaty – and sometimes he takes so long about it, I nearly fall asleep.’
      The two girls laughed.
      Aestrid turned over in her bed and shut her eyes tight to stop the tears. Had Virren managed to do something to the food she’d eaten? Had she tried every dish? She didn’t feel different in any way.

It seems I was optimistic about finishing this story in three episodes. There will have to be at least one more to bring it to a satisfactory ending.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Usual warning to those seeking my memories of late friend and former colleague Kyril Bonfiglioli, novelist, wit, raconteur and knife-thrower: only the first nine posts of this blog are concerned wholly or in part with his exploits (posts from 31st March to 23rd July 2013) plus a "Mentioned in Despatches" on 9th January 2014. 

Parting the Veils - Part 2

'Aestrid! Listen to me.' The voice was quiet but she could sense an urgency now. 'The guards will be back to search for me. If anyone questions you, say you have heard no one but the guard.'
     'But who are you? You speak in our tongue.'
     'I am Virren Lightstepper. Your father calls me "the Wise". I will be able to take you away from here, but it will take time. Remember, Aestrid, you have heard only the guard. He has heard me but did not see me. They will think him drunk or mad.'
     'I will do as you say, Virren Lightstepper. You have given me hope.' In the distance she could hear other voices and feet approaching cautiously. 
     The footsteps paused. Then someone stepped out stronger, louder, as if he had turned a corner. 
     'You ------ fool!' Aestrid didn't recognise the word but she knew a curse when she heard one.
     'There's nothing here but your broken sword. You'll be flogged for this. What were you doing? Trying to cut through a ------- stone wall?'
     'But there was someone here, sir. I heard him, right beside me.'
     'But you didn't see him. Are you ------- mad?'
     'Sir, perhaps, perhaps it was a djinn, sir.'
     There was silence for a moment. The officer's voice was quiet but menacing. 'There are no djinns here, do you understand? If you say a word to anyone about this, I will ram this broken blade down your ------- throat. I'll put Achmed on guard here. He's too stupid to hear voices when no one's there.
     'Now turn about and get your ------- body out of here!'
     Aestrid heard the stamp of their boots. The sound faded as they marched away. The commander's curses still echoed down the corridor.
     She lay back on the soft cushions of the bed.
     Lightstepper. She remembered the name and some of the stories told about him. They said he could run faster than a deer and no one ever heard him coming or saw him leave.
     Stories, she'd thought - then.
     Someone had pointed him out to her as he entered her father's council chamber. Only his most senior warriors were allowed in there. She called to mind a tall, spare figure with gentle eyes and clean-shaven cheeks, unlike her father's moustached and muscled warrior-carls. She could never imagine Lightstepper swinging a war-axe or handling a heavy spear higher than the tallest man.
     How could such a man get her out of this prison in the middle of these never ending sands, where the sun burned you and drained the life from your body, where you didn't see a tree in a whole day's journey? How could he get her back to her father's ships, three days' camel-ride away? What powers did he possess? What if the stories she had heard were true?
     Light flooded her room as the heavy door was flung open. Her eyes closed against the sudden glare and she cried out in alarm. Not fear. No child of the Northlands was allowed to show fear.
     The same three women who had bathed her so thoroughly came and took her, again without a word, along a passage and through three rooms (she counted them; if there was to be a chance of escape she needed to know where she had started from, where she would need to go).
     Virren's whisper startled her. Now it seemed to be inside her head, not coming through a grille in the wall.
     'Aestrid. someone is waiting to question you. Remember what I said. No word of anything, except the guard cursing and swinging his sword. Do not be afraid.'
     She straightened herself and held her head up. The women who were holding her glanced at her, then at each other. Their grip on her arms loosened.
     The fourth room they entered was a small hallway or ante-room. One of the women picked up a hood of white silk, placed it carefully over Aestrid's head and arranged it till it covered her face except for her eyes. They took her forward to what appeared to be a small opening covered by silk curtains. They stood, one at each side, with one hand on the curtain, the other at Aestrid's elbow.
     One said, 'The Commander of the Guard is here. You must answer his questions.'
     They drew the curtains apart. A man stood there, a sword-length away. He was short, thickset with piercing black eyes, which narrowed as he looked into hers. His black robe was like those of the guards who had dragged her into the harem, but lined with gold.
     The commander stared at Aestrid, unblinking.
     Finally he spoke. 'What did you hear a little time before, when you were in your room?' It was the officer she had heard in the corridor.
     Aestrid tried to assemble the few words she knew.
     'I hear man walk outside, then he run, then he shout and bang, like sword, then he run, run fast.'
     'Did you hear anyone else, anything else?'
     Aestrid said clearly, 'Yes, sir.'
     'What?' Sharp and urgent.
     'I hear you. You come back with guard .You shout at guard. Then all go away. Then quiet.'
     'Did you hear anything else?'
     No, sir.'
     He stood, saying nothing. His eyes had never left hers.
     He spoke to the two senior wives, though they were standing out of his sight. 'Enough. I have finished,' then turned on his heel and walked away.

My apologies to both my readers for not posting this on Sunday, as I promised. Blame my weekend thousand-mile  four-leg journey to see my brother in Slough, attend a stimulating philosophy weekend in Oxford, visit an old friend in Birmingham and fly home late on Sunday night.

Part 3 WILL be posted on the 10th, unless I am abducted by aliens. (I feel another story coming on.)

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Explaining the blog title

The man of the title, Kyril Emanuel Georg Bonfiglioli, friend, novelist, wit and knife-thrower, was the subject of the first nine posts of this blog, from 31st March till 20th May 2013. Read those to share my memories of his exploits: spirited, scandalous, comic or dangerous.
     The rest is self-indulgent "stuff", which you may find entertaining.

Here, for example, is the first episode of a tale inspired by DBJ's story posted on the Open University ""Fiction Writing" course I've just completed. It's my second attempt at fantasy.

Parting the Veils

The palace of the Desert King was the only stone-built dwelling for more than a hundred miles in any direction.
     In the centre of its Great Hall, a girl was kneeling, her wrists and elbows bound tight behind her. Through her matted, sweat-soaked hair, she fixed her eyes on the swollen figure sprawled on the onyx throne.
     ‘Who are you,’ he roared, ‘ to threaten the King of the Ten Tribes, Ruler of the Desert Lands?
     She spat the dust from her throat. ‘I am Aestrid Liefsdottir, Princess of the Northern Lands, daughter of the Sea-Wolf, who is Ruler of the Waves!’
     ‘What is the wildcat saying?’ The Desert King turned to his Chief Counsellor.’
     ‘I do not know the tongue well, Lord King, but it seems her father is a wolf of the sea and the Ruler of the Waves.’
     ‘Ha, she mocks me, does she? Then she will learn that there are no waves here except the shifting waves of sand, of which the sea-rovers know nothing. They call themselves wolves but they are bound captive to the seas they sail upon. They trade in the ports of our lands but they cannot trouble us in the heat and solitude of the desert.’
     Merdec'ah the Magnificent, King of the Ten Tribes, heaved himself to his feet and looked down at his latest prize, still struggling in the grip of two palace guards. She glared back at him.
     ‘Take her to the rooms of my women and give her to my first wives. They will know what to do.’ As they turned to go he added,’and see that there is no mark on her body. I will have her perfect when I take her.’ His voice dropped to a menacing growl. ‘If they find a purple bruise from your grip or one scratch from your fingernails on her skin, you will lose that hand!’
     The guards left the Hall at a run, giving the raging girl no chance to struggle and mark her own body. She knew enough of their language to grasp the king’s intent; they knew enough of the King’s temper to dread the reality of his threat.
     At the gate of the women’s quarters the guards gratefully released their burden. They handed her over to the king’s three senior wives, no longer wanted for his bed but now charged with the discipline of the whole seraglio. They would look forward to the preparation of this new and younger girl to sate the king’s waning lust.
     Without a word, they marched Aestrid into a room where a bath was already being prepared. They paid no attention to her curses as they stripped off her tunic and sandals and plunged her into the hot water, pushing her head under again and again till her cries of vengeance tailed off in spluttering exhaustion. It was as if in their eyes, she was no more than an object to be cleaned.
     She had still heard no word from any one of the three. She was dried, clothed in a simple white robe and locked into a small room, furnished with only a bed and a chair. A small grille high on the rear wall allowed air and a little light into the room. From the other side of the wall she could hear footsteps and recognised the sound of a guard’s iron-tipped boots as he patrolled the outside walls of the harem.
     Only when all was quiet did she let herself fall full-length on the bed, sobbing. Why had she not heeded her father’s words in the market-place? ‘Stay close to Torsten and no harm will come to you,’ he’d said as she hurried off to see the fine silks and brocades displayed on the crowded stalls.    
     She had no need of bodyguards, this girl with the glowing skin and flaxen hair. She could wrestle any boy of her age in their village, spear more fish and even outrun most of the warriors.
     Now she was held in a desert fortress, miles from the coast, beyond rescue, beyond even the reach of her father, Leif Gustafsson the Sea-Wolf, the most feared raider on the seas.
     In this tiny room, in the half-dark, the whisper seemed loud. She looked up at the air-grille.
     In her own language, a man’s soft voice said, ‘Aestrid, listen. Do not be afraid. I can help you.’
     She heard the guard’s approaching footsteps as he broke into a run, coming nearer. An angry shout, a challenge, in the barbarians’ tongue. The hiss of a sword-slash and the sound of metal on stone. Two more whistling cuts that met nothing but air. The guard shouted again. This time there was fear in his voice.
     Aestrid heard him run off, running as if for his life.

(This is a three-part story, to be continued next Sunday)

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Two posts in a day! A first on this blog.

The Dreaded Chamber of Dr McGunnigle 

I have been under a great deal of pressure recently. Can you imagine being cooped up in something like a space capsule for hours on end, with five other people, all crammed into a 20 ft by 6 ft space? 
     Space, did I say? They have more space in a spaceship, for goodness' sake! Not only that but we were forced to change into drab cotton garments and plastic shoes. I am reminded of my time in Her Majesty's Prison at Craiginches – but that's another story. 
     Once in this cramped environment, we had to wear the most unbecoming headgear you've ever seen, a clear plastic dome which fits on to a large rigid ring that encircles your neck like a slave collar. We looked like a troop of the latest ridiculous creatures to invade children's television – the Minions. 
     The final indignity was being hooked up to flexible tubes which pumped gas into the hoods to infiltrate our lungs. For a moment I panicked, dreading the spidery fingers and tentacled probes of alien scientists exploring our bodies.  
     There was no escape. The heavy metal door clanged shut, sealed tight by the relentlessly increasing air pressure. The pressure built and our ears were popping like corn on a red-hot griddle.  The torture didn't stop until we were at a virtual forty feet of pressure below the sea – or “full fathom six point six recurring” as Shakespeare might have put it. 
     We settled down, some reclining, some sitting. The ear-popping stopped; the gas we breathed was oxygen - 100% compared with the 20% of normal atmosphere. Most people brought a book to read. Some tried to chat but it wasn't easy from inside a clear plastic upside-down dustbin. A nurse was there with us to deal with any problems. 
     The final task was to
     To be serious, which never comes easy, I was there for four weeks of daily treatment simply to revive and rejuvenate my radiotherapy-raddled jaw, so that I could undergo a little surgical procedure, the extraction of a couple of teeth. The oxygen-under-pressure experience would help the healing. 
     I wasn't reading like the others; I was writing.  
     I've been on an online course run by the Open University. It's called “Start Writing Fiction” and it's free. They have hundreds of fascinating courses covering a huge range of subjects. Now I'm looking hungrily at one called  “Screen Writing”. 
     Two and a half hours of writing time, with minimal interruption. What more could a scribbler ask? One day I made notes for a story to post on the OU course website and even got the story started. The next day I finished it, then typed it up at home. No laptops, phones or any other techy stuff is allowed into the chamber.  In the last week I finished chapter 13 of my novel, wrote 14 and started on 15.
     "Working under pressure" is not usually seen as a positive phrase but this experience will help me improve my novel, get it finished and get it published. 
     Guess what? One of my problem teeth fell out this morning!
     How's that for a result?