A Complete Mash Up #carrotranch #flashfiction #loganandmorgan

‘What the…? Logan…’

‘Wassup?’

‘You said you’d left me dinner.’

‘Yeah. Sausage and mash.’

‘Why poison me?’

‘I don’t… oh.’

‘Yes. Oh. What gives?’

‘I was making a you.’

‘A me?’

‘Yes a you? A papier-mache Morgan. See.’

‘That’s… amazing. For me?’

‘Yep. Thought you’d like it.’

‘I do. But the dinner…?’

‘You used the mix in the blue bowl?’

‘The mash and the sausages, yes.’

‘That bowl contained the remaining paper pulp. You’ve had sausage and pulp.’

‘But it doesn’t smell of pulp?’

‘I wanted an authentic you so I softened the paper in a can of Bud.’

This week’s prompt from the Carrot Ranch is 

November 8, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that pairs mashed potatoes with a superpower. It can be in any circumstance, funny or poignant. Go where the prompt leads.

Posted in carrot ranch, creative writing, flash fiction, logan and morgan, prompt | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

How Joan Of Arc Ensured My Existence #WW1 #family


Artefact - Joan of Arc

In a display cabinet, a few feet from where I am sitting is a small porcelain statue of Joan of Arc. Whilst it is over one hundred years old, it is of no particular value, especially as the head has, at some time, been knocked off and crudely stuck back on. But it has been treasured in our family for many years – and this is her story.

Percy Francis Officer - perhaps before graduation

Percy Francis was fascinated by flying. Today it would not be unusual, but this was 1911. Powered flight was only a few years old and the primitive machines that clawed their way into the sky were incredibly dangerous. But Percy loved it. By 1911 he was by his own account ‘involved in aeronautical research’, and in 1912 he was an official of the London Aero Club helping to run the first London Air Show.

Forward two years and when war was declared he naturally wanted to join the embryonic Royal Flying Corps. However hardly anybody had any idea of what aircraft could do in war and he was told to wait. But all his friends were joining up so he decided to join the army anyway. When one friend bet him he would never wear a kilt, he joined the Seaforth Highlanders – one of the ‘Ladies from hell’ as the Germans were to call them.

Percy Francis Seaforth Highlander 1

By November 1914 he was in France and, during the cold winter of 1914-15 he turned his ingenuity to making underwear – as the uniform didn’t include any to wear under the kilt. This was perhaps his only failure. More successful was the film projector he found, and for many month he ran the ‘Only Cinema at the Front’, as it was called on the posters. French films could easily be played as, in the days of silent film, all you needed was someone to translate the titles when they appeared.

Cinema poster

In the spring of 1915 the Seaforth’s were one of the regiments involved in the battle of Neuve Chapelle, one of the first big trench battles of the war. The regiment played a particularly gallant part, so they commissioned a war artist, Joseph Gray, to depict the scene when the Seaforth’s advanced. Percy was chosen to be the model for all the soldiers depicted, walking, shooting, shouting encouragement. We still possess a sketch of Percy, the highland soldier, that Joseph Gray gave him, and he is recognisable at least four times in the finished paintings!

(c) The Highlanders' Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Joseph Gray

Towards the end of that year he took part in intelligence gathering, creeping out after dark into no man’s land to map German positions, the compass he used lives in my study.

Artefacts - Compass and Binoculars 2

For one particularly hazardous expedition he was offered the choice between a military medal or immediate commission, he chose the latter and became Lieutenant Percy Francis. He didn’t remain long as an officer in the trenches but rapidly managed to get transferred to where he had long wanted to be – the Royal Flying Corps.

It was while he was back in England, doing his pilot training (he didn’t need to learn to fly, but rather become acquainted with the military aircraft of the day), that he was arrested as a spy. Officers didn’t need to wear uniform when not on duty and he was sitting in a London park reading a magazine. He had fair hair, close cropped to fit under his flying helmet, and someone thought he looked German. A crowd gathered and a policeman had to take him into protective custody.Leave - Fishing party Brendon

Back in France he joined his squadron, whose job was mapping enemy positions. Flying low and slow over the trenches, whilst the observer took photographs. The average life span of a pilot in those days was thirteen weeks; he did it for over eighteen months. He was never shot down – he seemed to have regarded the enemy as a minor irritation and the aircraft he was flying were much more dangerous.

He was right, in early 1918 he was going home on leave and was offered the choice between taking the troop ship home or flying a plane back to England. He naturally chose the latter and set off across the Channel. Then the fog came down.

For three days there was no news, it was assumed that his aircraft had been lost at sea, then a gamekeeper walking on the cliffs near Dover found the crashed aircraft. Though he was badly injured, Percy made a full recovery.

Convalescing - Larking around

Much to his irritation the Army wouldn’t pass him fit for flying, but gave him another promotion and a desk job, and so he survived the war. He went on to race at Brooklands,

Percy in 3 Wheeler

and fly with his friend Geoffrey De Havilland and design a Flying Bicycle!

Artefact - RAF Badge

But what, you will be asking yourself if you remember the beginning of this tale, has Joan of Arc got to do with it all. Shortly after arriving in France, Percy found the statue of St. Joan in a shelled church. He repaired it and took it with him wherever he went as a good luck charm. As you may have realised his career in the war, from ordinary soldier at the front – to officer at the front – to officer in the Royal Flying Corps, took him into more and more dangerous situations.

Artefact - Flying helmet 1

In protecting our grandfather, Percy Francis, St. Joan worked overtime.

My brother, the Archaeologist write this piece for my blog back in 1914 when we were thinking about the 100th anniversary of the start of that god-awful conflict. This piece deserves a repeat, the story of a little statue that, in part, I like to think, means I am here today, writing these posts. 

Thank you, Bruv for this post and thank you Joan

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To End All Wars? A Personal View

My father was born on the eleventh November. As a child that was Dad’s birthday; it contained nothing more resonant than that.

At some point however, and I wouldn’t have been very old, I realised it was also Remembrance Day when there was a minute’s silence, poppies and that bugle. Oh that bloody bugle. Was that the first musical instrument that played havoc with my heart? Perhaps, as a child it was the adult’s reactions to it that meant so much to me. They were sad, men dabbed at eyes and blew noses in ways men were not expected to do and yet it was ok.

Later I came to understand that the Remembrance of the Fallen covered more than the war that had both defined and scarred so many of my parent’s generation’s lives. It was born out of Armistice Day when the First World War, the oddly named Great War ended at 11 am on the Eleventh of the Eleventh 1918. My grandfathers, both of whom had fought in that conflict, were dead by the time I was aware of anything meaningful. My grandmothers told stories of them, of the japes and the fun and hinted at some of the bad things that happened to them individually. But I had to wait till school before the true awfulness of that war began to seep into my consciousness.

I lost relations in that war. Two great uncles went. My maternal grandfather flew his plane into the cliffs at Dover in the fog, lay there injured for three days before being found and spent nine months recovering. My paternal grandfather trained in Ireland through 1914 into 1915 as a member of the cavalry and took part in one of the last charges of the British Army. He became a foot soldier and slogged his way around France until 1918, coming home with less than complete lungs that eventually cost him his life.

Some stories one can piece together, at least to an extent.

Mr Great Uncle Willie Dyson was  a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, a pacifist and stretcher bearer. He would have worked at a field bearer station like this one.

I wrote a piece back in 1914, on his life and his death. This is it (updated for today)

William Dyson 1

William (Willie) Dyson

William Harding Dyson, Willie to his family, was born on 16th August 1895 into a reasonably comfortable family in Melford, in Cambridgeshire. He had two brothers, Allen and Edward  (who died young) and three sisters Mabel (Mabs), Gladys (Glad) and Vera. He was a mechanic working at Sucklings Engineering in Long Melford when he joined up on 29th August 1914.

Of his pre war life I know little. Neither his brother Allen. His sisters have painted a bigger canvas. Glad married her sweetheart (my grandfather) and moved to Northamptonshire when he set up a tailoring business while Mabs was postmistress and, with Vee, stayed in Linton. He doted on them as this card to Gladys in 1910 shows.

Entry in Nana's scrapbook (date1916)

Willie to Gladys

His army record shows he left for Le Havre on 12 July 1915 having covered his training. Where he went then I haven’t found out but he survived two years until, in May 1917 he was involved in some action that lead to him being awarded a Military Medal fro conspicuous bravery. The next day he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, probably from wounds inflicted on him the previous day.

My grandmother always spoke of him with affection.

Here she is, as a nurse.

Nana as VAD Nurse

Glad the Vad!

We still have a letter he sent to my Great Aunt Vera, the youngest of the family.

William Dyson letter undated page 1

William Dyson letter undated page 2We also have the award of his Military Medal.

William Dyson medal certificate

His award

His parents never had the chance to tell him how proud they were of him.

What must his death have felt like to them, him having survived so long?

2014-07-17 17.12.40

Willie’s parents

The story is told that his parents received news of both is death and his bravery in the same post. I can’t begin to imagine the impact that might have had. A young life, snuffed out like so many.

He is buried here, in St Pol

War grave 1918

Private William Dyson’s grave

The war graves commission still tends the grave to this day.

War grave today

and today… with smart new headstone

A recent visit produced this image, with his medals.

The village, like so many, raised the funds for a memorial and his name was inscribed with two other Dysons, relatives I surmise.

My grandmother often wore a sweetheart broach he gave her.

Sweetheart broach

Glad’s broach

Recently I had the opportunity to buy back Willie’s medals (from James Baker, who photographed them at St Pol cemetery – James read my previous post about Willie and kindly offered them to me), including the Military Medal. I was delighted to do so His name is engraved on the side, except in the case of the 1914/15 Star where it is on the back. These four medals are, from left to right, The Military Medal, the 14/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, awarded posthumously.

On the 27th September 1914, as part of the remembrance of that ghastly war, William Harding Dyson’s  name was read out in the moat of the Tower of London where a ceramic poppy was being planted for every commonwealth victim of that conflict; the ceremony took place each evening at sunset and continued until 11th November 2014 when the moat was be filled with the poppies. It was a moving tribute to all who died during that war.

2014-09-27 18.59.45

just before the ceremony

2014-09-27 19.24.45

the names being read

2014-09-27 19.49.20

like blood flowing out of the veins of the castle

2014-09-27 19.50.59

it is so moving

And when the last post played it was difficult to keep  in check emotions I didn’t realise I had for someone I never knew and only heard about while  playing games with my grandma, Gladys Le Pard, nee Dyson. Willie Dyson was my great uncle and I’m proud he was. Maybe, too, it was that bloody bugle.

The original post, and so naturally this one owes a lot to the work done by my brother, the Archaeologist of these pages. I thank him and James Baker, for additional research he shared with me.

My father, who set the temperature in our house felt nothing but a well of anger towards the whole of the Great War. It caused him grief in his childhood from a father whose emotions had been driven so deep during that conflict he could barely express much other than anger while dad was growing up. And he saw, as did I eventually that so many of the major geopolitical conflicts and disasters of the 20th and this century could be traced back to effects of that awful conflict. Those who suffered through it wanted it to be the war that ended all wars but if you take any conflict, be it large ones involving Nato and Russia or narrower ones in the Middle East, you can see the tentacles stretching out from the decisions made in 1914-18.

It didn’t end war – far from it – but if there is one lesson to take from it, it is that history echoes and repeats and we should never lose sight of that as we go forward. To do so makes the sacrifices of one small section of my family (and millions of others since) both in vain and, frankly, idiotic.

Posted in family, memories, miscellany, WW1 | Tagged , , , , , , , | 67 Comments

Moving West #capitalring #walking

I left off the other day, in Eltham Park North. We lunched in Eltham, an odd place that mixes large 1920s housing aimed at the newly affluent city middle class with a residue of the footpads and gangsters of the 19th century. It feels fifty percent laundered. There’s this picture I took

juxtaposing expensive horse flesh with the distant central London towers and some shitty pebble-dashed tick-tacky boxes in the near background. Sort of sums up the contradictions.

In the midst of all this is Eltham Palace, country home of Kings up to Henry VIII’s time. It’s grand as are the houses around. This one

built in the 1500s was occasional home to Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and other greats-and-goods. The moated palace is modest in scale but given its setting rather splendid.

part of the water system – also 16th century

We wandered away, along King John’s Walk deciding the irony came in the idea of that particularly egocentric King walking anywhere. Beyond and across the thundering A20 heading the the Channel Tunnel we entered Downham.

Downham will never be gentrified in the same way Tony Blair will never be believed about Iraq and Germany will never lose to us on penalties. It comprises an array of houses that simply defy prettification.

However and as odd as it seems, running through the middle of this urban equivalent of acne scarring is a strip of woodland – the Downham woodland walk – which if you ignore the artfully placed shopping baskets and focus on the shrubbery is all rather jolly.

At the end are more shops and offices in a sub Breaking Bad kind of kitsch before you somersault through a wormhole in the space-time continuum and enter Beckenham Place Park. This is fine in anyone’s book and living, as it does, cheek by butt-crack with Downham only adds to its unexpected splendour.

There’s the Ravensbourne river, gorgeous woodland dappled in late afternoon sunshine and an, albeit tired stately home once residence of the Cator family at the entrance. Many thousands are being spent on restoring the lakes that used to grace this park. When that work is finished – I guess next year – it will be quiet an attraction.

Beyond Beckenham the streets rather crowded in for a while (the odd lovely church notwithstanding) before, with the sun beginning to set we reached our destination.

And Dog?

Dog was still bouncing – we weren’t – though later, after a long snooze his arthritic from paw did put in an unwelcome appearance and I was accused of breaking him. As if. I wouldn’t dare…

crystal palace… natch

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Song Sung Blue #writephoto #flashfiction

‘There you go. Have you ever seen a river like it?’

‘It’s so…’

‘Blue?’

‘Unnatural.’

‘Taste it.’

‘You’re kidding. What’s done that? Copper sulphate? Cobalt?’

‘Have a sip. It won’t kill you’

‘Have you?’

‘Course.’

‘Oh god it’s disgusting.’

‘Your kids wouldn’t agree.’

‘Yeah so? When have teenagers been the arbiters of good taste… any taste come to that. It is familiar, mind you. Bubble gum?’

‘Nearly. Think ice cold drinks.’

‘Bloody hell. Not…?’

‘Exactly.’

‘So where’s this come from?’

‘Upstream.’

‘Get away.’

‘About a mile. Not a pretty sight. The SOC people have cordoned it off and forensics are there.’

‘What happened?’

‘We’ve already had a call. The Anti Hy-Co League have claimed responsibility.’

‘I hate those sugar terrorists.’

‘Yeah, it’s one thing to release a field GM sugar beet to roam free – at least they can fend for themselves – but mass slaughter on this scale is beyond sick.’ 

‘Can you imagine the Daily Mail’s reaction? Their sugar-dog loving fraternity’s knickers will be in one heck of a twist.’

‘How do you tell the kids, though? I mean who in their right mind mass murders slush puppies by dissolving them in a steam?’

‘And that’s before we have to cope with an outbreak of diabetic trout.’

‘World’s gone mad.’

Sue Vincent’s #writephoto prompt this week is

And in case you don’t know what a slush puppy is…

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Where The East Begins #capitalring #walking

A week or so ago, I wrote about a wander with the APE when we did a section of the Capital Ring, a circular walk around London that aims to take in as many of the green spaces as possible as the route snakes from east to west and then crosses the river Thames to go back west to east.

A group of friends and I decided we’d do another walk, this one comprising three sections, from the official start of the Capital Ring, on the river at Woolwich to near my home at Crystal Palace. It’s a fair way – officially 17 miles but with the bit at the start from the station, and at the end nearer 18. It’s November (who knew?), the clocks have done their falling back thing and so the evenings are ‘closing in’ as my gran used to have it (is it me but does the concept of ‘closing in’ seem a little sinister, like the siege is about to be mounted by winter’s monstrous forces of darkness or some such) so, any way, we didn’t want to be out in the dark, because, well, mostly because they shut the parks and we could be trapped.

Getting to Woolwich necessitates a two stage train journey that lasts about 50 minutes. On part one, into the City (London Bridge station to be precise) I knew I would be sharing with commuters. As would Dog. Now readers will know Dog is

  • well behaved
  • as cute as a chocolate fancy
  • curious

He sniffs. He’s also predominantly white haired and people who work in London are often clad in black or blue. A combination of his ineffable attractiveness, his need to sniff shoes and legs and people’s willingness to stroke him means… let’s just say that a couple of commuters left the train smiling but with an asymmetric herringbone pattern on the back of their legs.

My fellow walkers have known me for many years, all former work colleagues. Yep a group of ex lawyers, collectively an Invoice. The one way you know someone is a lawyer is his or her inability to (a) be punctual (b) use time wisely and (c) do as they are told. Consequently if we were to make the mileage I had to be ruthless, get them underway, hold them to a strict three mile an hour pace.

They settled into the cafe and began to reminisce. Buggers, the lot of them.

Eventually, twenty minutes and a rather decent cappuccino later we headed for the river through the former Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. This was the place where the British army made its weaponry and, when it was going abroad to some far off land to try and bring the benefits of civilisation to some dusty speck of the planet in the name of all that was good (the aggrandisement of the British exchequer mostly) the place where the troops would muster before collecting said tokens of peace (muskets, rifles, artillery and all things whiz-bangery) and boarding ships to set off wherever.

The buildings are rather splendid, now that they have been converted into museums and residential palaces; the sculptures, no doubt put up by the developer to show his cultured credentials, frankly bonkers; but the good thing about the walk is it takes you to the River.

The Thames here, just down stream from the barrier is murky, fast moving and pretty unappetising. The banks either side still have signs of the previously industrial past, mingling with the increasing amount of expensive penthouse accommodation. But for all the acne scars of pollution and uncaring commerce, I love it.

The walk officially begins at the Victorian foot tunnel – there is another at Greenwich,which I wrote about a while back with a short story here  – which is accessed by a set of stairs from the red brick rotundas on either side. If you do ever try it out then prepared to be spooked. It’s long, clad in those white glazed tiles that make you wonder if you haven’t stumbled into the longest urinal in Europe and poorly lit. Brilliant.

After the entrance you hug the riverside, looking at the troll-like shapes of the Thames flood barrier supports – if there is a tide that might cause damage upstream, huge hydraulic gates can rise and protect the expensive real estate of London. It’s an impressive piece of engineering, you can visit and see how it is meant to work and ponder, as I often do, whether  these things that have been built against a problem that has yet to happen (well, London has flooded, natch – in 1953 badly with the loss of many lives, for instance) will they actually work?

Our path cur across the access ramp to the Woolwich car ferry, the only ferry of its kind across the Thames. Only it isn’t just now, because both of the ferry boats are out of action. Shame. If you don’t mind a little queuing I used to like that crossing. Something oddly un-metropolitan about it. Like going to a Scottish island.

Onwards we trudged and after a mile headed inland for Maryon Wilson park. This is the first of several parks this one including a petting zoo and the first of many autumnal trees, the leaves, finally after weeks of waiting, turning to the yellows and golds we had been anticipating.

I was teased pretty constantly whenever the landscape turned especially urban and derelict or the parks were bland and scrappy. This is East London. South East London. It’s always been tatty. East of a city = poor because the prevailing winds blow the shit that way so the posh live to the north and west. London is no exception to that truism.

But I like grubby; it’s human, humane. The moneyed classes have always sanitized and sanctified their environments whereas the horny handed sons (and daughters) of toil have made do. They recycled and up-cycled long before it was trendy or planet-critical because they couldn’t afford to toss things away. So of course the landscape, including the areas that provided leisure, relaxation and a smidgen of fresh air would retain similar characteristics.

We plodded towards Woolwich Common, the spot where the musters of the armed forces took place during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ahead was Shooters Hill, home of ne’er do wells, highway persons and footpads, but now part of Oxleas Wood and Common and a rather glorious mix of deciduous trees burnishing the horizon even on a gloomy morning such as this.

And as we sucked in air for what, my book told me, was the highest point of the whole of the Capital Ring at 410 feet above sea level we came on this splendid monument to an English Captain, a triangular folly named after a fort in India which the said captain captured and folly which was erected to mourn his passing. You can climb it nowadays (weekends when it’s open, sadly) and, weather permitting see across to the hills on the north side of the river basin and to the North Downs in the South (which isn’t as nonsensical as it sounds).

This folly thingy is Severndroog Castle. Such a splendid, Gothic horror of a name. It’s nothing like a horror, but still. We walked around the base. The dogs – there were two, Dog and faithful Lolly, who seemed to get on with each other with a studied indifference that meant we didn’t have to worry about them. Dog can be a bit precious with other dogs in attendance; Lolly is a Labrador so congenitally incapable of concentrating on anything except food. We stopped at a cafe for cake and a pretty crap coffee (shame, and I had so looked forward….) stared South to those North Downs on a murky ridge some thirty miles distant and headed off through the remnants of some ornamental gardens for a stately home long since pulled down.

There is something rather sad about the outlines left by such garden in the carefully crafted brickwork. Ladies carrying parasols are much missed.

Our paths wended south as we headed across the busy carriageway of the A2 and the Old Rochester Road and on into Eltham Park North followed by the same but suffixed ‘South’ Neat, grassy with good views back to the city but rather formless and lacking in character.

Good for routine dog walks and airing pent up children. We had more fascinating things to see and we needed to make progress….

So Onwards, Hand-Picked Elite!

Until next time…

Posted in capital ring, Friends, London, miscellany, walking | Tagged , , , , , | 28 Comments

Nano – What To Do About That Urge: Six Lessons #nanowrimo #writing

(the images are from my garden; I cannot believe the colour that has extended into November)

National Novel Writing Month is an exercise in many things: patience, persistence, imagination, robust typing skills. To arrive at November 30th with 50,000 words tucked away is a task many feel is beyond them. It is the marathon of writing prompts and as with the real marathon many are put off by the bogmindling enormity of the undertaking. Some start and grind to a halt after a few days especially if they fall behind in achieving the 1667 average words needed to succeed in this self imposed task.

This year will be the fourth time I have entered.  One year when I was feeling particularly crazy I modified the challenge to my own version: 50,000 words spread across 30 separate short stories, each based on a  prompt given to me by someone else and each story written on each day of November. No story could be started before the day in question, save I allowed myself to have two stories with no more than 200 words written at any one time and I also allowed myself to have thought out the title. I didn’t even permit myself to sketch out an idea beyond those two exceptions. If I knew what the story was going to be I carried it in my head until I was ready to go. Those 30 stories are now the subject of an anthology I published. I nearly expired when, after fifteen days I realised the story I had just started writing was the wrong one. I needed a significant cheese inhaler for that one.

But the other three occasions, including this year, when I have entered I’ve followed the usual challenge route. One story, start to (well near the) end over 30 days. And I’ve learnt a bit. Here are my top 6 lessons:

  1. You can plot and you can pants, either can work. What you can’t do is spend time overthinking what you are going to write.
  2. You will not have any time to edit. You will not have any time to revise.  And that’s good. Like the metaphorical marathon you have to keep going forward and no looking back.
  3. But, and this is critical don’t try and look too far ahead. In a real running marathon the idea you still have many miles to go has put off many people. Break it down into chunks. Here there is the fear that the daily chunk of 1667 words MUST be achieved. No. You can catch up.
  4. It does not matter in the slightest if you realise you have made a mistake. This weekend I realised I had suddenly written a chapter in the first person rather than the third person point of view I had been adopting up to that point. It really pissed me off and, admission time, I checked back to see how long I had been off on a tangential frolic. About 1500 words. I made a  note and left it at that. IN the past I’ve changed names, forgotten a main character was already introduced, moved the action between two cities mid chapter… oh you name it. Just carry on. Make a note if you must but carry on.
  5. If I’m falling behind I write dialogue. I get my characters talking. It eats up words, it is real, it even gives me ideas while I’m doing it. The thing is, the edit will kill off the crap but only you can stifle the whole thing at birth.
  6. It matters not if you finish, as in reach The End of the book. One year I did. Another I kept writing in December and reached The End at 76,000 words. A third time I ended at about three quarters of the way in and that book remains at that point. It’s a thriller set to the back drop of the London Olympics in 2012. It will be a good book. One day. But without Nano, it would never have got beyond a nugget of an idea.

This year, I’ve used a short story I wrote two years ago as the prompt. The characters have changed, as has the setting but the kernel of the idea is at the heart of my book.

This is the short story..

The Art Of Spirit Capture

Extraordinary things happen in ordinary places.

If you take the B2402 out of Maplecroft on the old Dover road and follow it for nearly a mile you’ll see a battered sign. ‘Hoskins’ it says, still readable through the rust and stippling from some rogue shotgun pellets. If you turn onto the track, avoiding the biggest potholes and drive another mile, you leave the stony fields and scrubby trees behind to reach a set of old Nissan huts. You may wonder, on arrival, if there is anyone there but look carefully before you shrug and leave.

There are always a few cars, parked in the field to the right and, these days, a smoker or two hanging around the largest hut, puffing anxiously while they await their moment with Arnold Hoskins.

Few know Arnold but those who do recognise a genius. Some call him magician. Arnold has many social limitations: he barely speaks these days; he’ll not make eye contact; and please don’t try and shake his hand or touch his arm in a casual friendly way. He has spent most of his 87 years, sitting at a variety of work benches crafting beautiful Christmas tree decorations. That in and of itself is not what makes Arnold special.

What sets Arnold apart is a discovery that he made, in the depths of the frozen winter of 1962/63: the art of spirit-capture. By means of a simple series of transmissions, while regulating the temperature of the glass at super low levels, Arnold can extract a person’s essence, his or his essential core spirit and capture it inside a decoration. This is done in the moment of dying and enables the deceased’s fundamental presence to continue, despite the inevitable entropy of the flesh.

For ten years Arnold experimented. He learnt hard lessons. For one thing, on capture the essence is strong. It will soon fill the room, where the vessel is present, which causes, over time, numerous neurological disturbances amongst the spirit’s living relatives and close friends. Short term exposure is recommended – no more than ten to twelve days, ideally, at a time and then an absence of exposure for at least six months. This allows for the released essence to settle

It is Arnold’s genius in creating Christmas decorations for the captured spirits that has led to this small stable business. Exposure for those  twevle days is enough, certainly in the first post-capture decade.

Those calling, locals mostly, who hear of Arnold’s skills, and who desire, often with a typically understated passion common in this part of Kent, to retain something of a departing loved one, know Arnold does not capture every essence.

The selfish, the mean-spirited, the callous and the small-minded bitter folk who’ve lost their love of life are allowed to dissipate to the hereafter. But the bonny, the jolly and the hail and well met are embraced.

For it is their essences which will enhance Christmas. In the houses, where spirit-captures hang, there is something powerfully good and peaceful that saturates the mood of everyone who steps across the threshold, dusts off the frost and breathes in deeply. Often times they’ll look for a fresh pine branch or cinnamon candle or mulling wine, sure they have smelt some delight. And when they go they will massage their cheeks from all the smiling, wondering at the joy of simple hospitality.

Grateful customers have been known to invite Arnold to join them. He manages what passes for a smile and declines. No, when Arnold shuts for Christmas, he goes to his simple cottage, dresses the tree and imbibes the simple residues of his parents and grandparents. These days the essences are almost gone but Arnold, himself, is nearing his time. There’s enough left of his childhood memories for an old man to enjoy his remaining few Christmas alone but far from lonely.

 

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