Leonardo Dead Vinci

I am presently hard at work on my latest novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, which has been a far more difficult challenge than my first novel.  The draft I am building now is actually my third attempt to tell this character’s story without becoming sidetracked by secondary characters or peripheral, historical weirdness.  I am also hoping this time it will have some sort of actual plot.  The struggle is real people.  
The following is an extract from the chapter I am working on at this very moment which, for now, I have titled Bone Fires. It is a conversation between Floretta and Sergeant Fury, a cat-stodian of the dead.  It’s a nice teaser and fairly indicative of the book’s style.
The accompanying illustration is by Elizabeth Snider aka The Sewing Artist

 

flora‘Is this what you imagined your afterlife to be?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘Explain.’

‘Well,’ Floretta hesitated to compose a thoughtful and (mostly) truthful answer to the Sergeant’s question.  ‘I suppose I imagined more black.’

‘More black?’  The black cat arched an amused and inquisitive, whiskered eyebrow.

‘I certainly didn’t imagine you,’ she blurted out rudely.

‘Really?’  Fury pitched a tone of mock indignation.  ‘A girl with a death wish and a passion for Egyptology never expected her afterlife to include a cat?’

‘Death wish?’ shrieked Floretta with genuine indignation.  ‘Why, I never—

‘In the cellar of the vicarage with a knife,’ declared the cat, as if presenting evidence for the prosecution.

‘Dagger!’ countered Floretta.

‘A dagger with crumbs on the blade from slicing the morning’s bread.’

‘My resources were limited.’

‘You efforts to catch consumption by drinking nothing but milk for a month were rather entertaining,’ the cat continued.

‘I researched the topic thoroughly, I’ll have you—

‘But not nearly as amusing as your attempt to hang yourself with a dress.’

‘Christening gown!’ argued Floretta.

‘Death wish!’ accused Fury.

If he could have, she was certain the cat would have dramatically pointed a finger at her.  She tossed her head to show him in no certain terms how offended she was by the case he had presented against her.  In truth, she felt more than a little disconcerted as she realised this cat caretaker of the dead had clearly been watching her for some time.

‘Do you deny it?’ he demanded through narrowed feline eyes.

‘Categorically,’ Floretta declared.  ‘I had no wish to die.’

‘No wish to—

‘I simply wished to make certain that, were I to die, my death would be neither messy nor ugly nor accidental.’

‘So, your suicide attempts were rehearsals?’

‘I like to think of them as…’ she paused again, trying to form just the right words to describe her forays into Beaux Arts Macabre.  ‘Preliminary sketches of the sort which The Old Masters used when building their grand, artistic visions.’

‘Leonardo Dead Vinci,’ suggested the cat wryly.

‘Exactly,’ Floretta punctuated, deliberately ignoring his obvious overtone of sarcasm.

 

 

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Tea with Cecily

The following excerpt from my Young Adult horror novel in progress, The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, is accompanied by the artwork of illustrator Elizabeth Snider.

Recently deceased Mia Walsh makes her way to The Church of All Hallowed Souls in an attempt to confront her father (the vicar) over his accusations against her (sort of) ex-boyfriend.  She is accompanied by long-time ghostly resident and would-be post-mortem mentor, the Victorian poltergeist Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  Whilst hiding from her mother behind a gravestone, Mia comes face to face with a nightmare named Cecily.

CecilywebLater, Mia would not remember if she had screamed or not.  Perhaps she had been too terrified even to rely on what had rapidly become her post-mortem, knee-jerk reaction to most things.  The face of the girl in the churchyard with the sing-song voice definitely made her want to scream.  Once the girl might have been pretty with her long golden curls, creamy skin, ripe, peachy mouth.  But something terrible must have happened to that lovely girl.  Some tragedy had drained her former beauty.  And her eyes.

Where are her eyes?

They looked as if they had been gouged out with a pair of forceful thumbs or plucked out with hot pincers or—  Mia didn’t’ care to consider any more horrific alternatives.  No evidence of past trauma there now—no marks or scars or weeping blood at all.  But no eyes.

Wait.  Mia looked more closely.  There were eyes down there somewhere.  Very deeply set and very small.  Like tiny jet beads on a black dress.  Maybe the horrible thing that happened to this nightmare girl had been too much for her eyes to cope with and they shrank, retreated as far back into her skull as they could.   All around the pin-prick, bead-black eyes were rough charcoal smudges of flesh, indigo, purple and black, which swept between the curves of her blonde eyebrows and the apple blush of her cheeks.  Twin bruises swirling toward two, twinkling dark stars in a vortex of horror.

Mother: a excerpt from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes

229038_10150232086718659_724701_nIn honour of Mothering Sunday, here’s a totally appropriate and not at all creep-tastic excerpt from my work in progress YA Horror Novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  And happy Mother’s Day to my own dear Mama. xox

 

From the archives of St Becket’s Church of England School, 1963

Priscilla Reid never heard anyone actually say: “The Old Cloakroom is haunted.”  Neither did anyone enter it, unless they were being dared to.  It was difficult to put a finger on why.  The room just felt wrong.  Dark, cold, vacant and solitary but somehow crowded and exposed.  Perhaps it was the spectre of time which made the room eerie.  All the things that had happened here, all the people who had passed through.  Six hundred years of joy and misery and fear and laughter captured in stone. Yet no other place in the original wing of St Becket’s School had the same feeling of wrongness, though they were all just as ancient.

Priscilla began to feel the effects of the room from halfway down the corridor.  It pulled goose pimples from the flesh on her arms and back and neck.  She’d left her cardigan at her desk back in the library.  The light dimmed.  Priscilla’s pulse quickened.

Don’t be daft.  It’s just an empty room. Nothing here but a frightened girl’s satchel with an overdue book in it.

Swallowing her fear she carried on into the cloakroom.  Whoever took Delia Jackson’s bag did a proper job of it.  The little canvas satchel lay crumpled in the far corner at the very end of a long row of those eerily empty coat pegs.  The thief must have thrown it from around the corner—hard enough to crush a plum Delia must have been saving to eat on her way home from school.  Dark, purple liquid seeped through the light beige fabric of the bag, staining it like blood.

Priscilla felt a strange, swooping sensation in her stomach.  As if the floor had just dropped from under her and she was falling from a great height, the wind pulling at her hair and her dress, making the bow of her collar flap against her chin.  Against the dizzying wave of nausea, Priscilla squeezed her eyes shut.  Little lights bloomed behind her eye lids: black then white then red. Bright, glowing, blazing red.  She forced her eyes open and all was still again—only the corridor and the cloakroom beyond.

Run.  Just run and grab it and run back out and hope no one is waiting at the opposite end of the hall to see you looking stupid. Her feet refused to obey.  Right, on the count of three then: one, two, three!

Priscilla pushed off from the stone wall, pelted into the freezing cold air past the empty coat pegs to the far end of the darkened cloakroom.  She gathered Delia’s satchel into her arms.  Spinning on her heel she launched herself back to the safety of the corridor.  Then, in the middle of the very wrong, very old cloakroom, she froze.

The bag moved.

Priscilla held her breath and waited.  Perhaps she had only imagined it.  The bag twitched again.  Then a third time before it began to squirm.

The bag thrashed wildly in her arms as if it didn’t want to be held.  Had Delia brought a cat to school?  Hidden in her bag?  Is that why she was too frightened to collect it?  She looked down at the canvas satchel.  Its light beige fabric blended with the skin on her arms.  The same colour, the same texture, the same—flesh!

The bag cried out.  A high, insistent, piercing wail instantly recognisable to any parent.  Priscilla opened her trembling arms and an infant’s face stared back at her, red mouth opened wide in an angry howl.  Its tiny fists and feet flailed.  Its spine stiffened and curled, stiffened and curled in a writhing motion.  The stain on the fabric of the bag was not from a squashed plum. It was a layer of blood which coated the new-born skin of the crying baby.

A sharp pain took root deep inside her, awakening a memory she had hoped would stay forever dormant.  It rose up from the secret place where Priscilla had hidden that horrible, wonderful, painful moment pulled from her at last by a high, insistent, infant cry.  The cry of her son.

That was all we had, wasn’t it?  One moment of wailing together before they took you from me, my darling boy. 

Maternal instinct moved her to stroke the infant’s fine blonde hair, damp and slightly pink with natal blood.  Tears streamed down Priscilla’s face for several moments, until a though occurred to her and she jerked back to look properly at the baby in her arms.

Blonde?  No.  Not blonde.  Her boy had most certainly not been blonde.  His hair and eyes and skin had been dark.  Like his father’s.

In response to her touch and her thoughts, the baby began to change.  Its flesh darkened, staining baby peach skin to a rich teak.  Fair and fluffy hair thickened, coarsened and blackened around her pale fingers until the babe in her arms became the son she’d known all too briefly.

My boy.  My darling, forbidden Indian boy.   

Unable to stop herself, she leaned down to plant a kiss on the dusky forehead of the squalling, bloody infant. The secret, thrice-cursed son she’d given away because he’d been born to the wrong parents in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But here he was in her arms at last.

‘Have you been here all this time, my son?  Is this where they brought you?  Were you waiting for me?  Were you, lad?’

In between questions she peppered him with kisses.  Gurgling happily, the flailing baby’s hands playfully they knocked aside the librarian’s tortoiseshell, cats-eye glasses.  Then tiny brown fingers grabbed fistfuls of Priscilla’s smooth, blonde locks and pulled with fierce tenacity.  The infant screams grew louder, wilder, sounding less like a baby and more like some enraged predator.  Priscilla tried to pull away but the baby’s grip was strong.  The sensible thing would be to release her hold on it, to let it drop to the floor.  But she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

‘This time I will never let you go.’

She held tightly to the baby and the baby held onto her, then Priscilla looked once more into her infant’s eyes.  The features changed again.  Dark eyes warm and cocoa soft hardened into something black, dilated, pupiless.  The mouth was no toothless, squalling maw either.  As the baby screamed one last time, Priscilla saw rows of razor sharp teeth.  The jaws of the baby opened wider and wider, impossibly wide. It seemed as if it would consume her head-first like a python.

That’s when she finally dropped the baby.  Priscilla staggered, blind with terror, determined to get out of the Old Cloakroom.  Her heart raced and she struggled to breath.  Something constricted her windpipe.  She moved her hand up to her neck and ten tiny fingers wrapped themselves around her.  The baby—or the thing that looked like a baby—clung to Priscilla’s back its arms and fingers clutching tightly about her neck in macabre imitation of a piggy back ride.

Don’t leave me, Mother.’  The baby whispered in Priscilla’s ear.  ‘Not again.’  Phantom tears dripped from its dilated pupils and fell icy hard on the librarian’s shoulders.  ‘Mother.  Please.  Help me.’

The infant’s tiny arms wrapped desperately about Priscilla’s neck in a ferocious embrace.  She stumbled to the stone floor at the edge for the Old Cloakroom.  The world began to spin.  Her heart began to slow.  Still the phantom bag baby held her, its terrified cries deafening as they echoed in the empty cloakroom.  Priscilla Reid clawed feebly at her neck and back hoping to pull the creature off.  Her fingers found a rope wrapped tight as a noose around her throat.  The baby was gone now.  Or she was the baby?  Priscilla wasn’t sure.  She only knew that she was being strangled.

Everything went dark and cold.  For several long moments, a silence fell around The Old Cloakroom, like a soundless shroud smothering the corpse of Priscilla Reid, school librarian.

In a far corner of the cloakroom sparked a red light, like a match being lit.  The flame burst and bloomed like a scarlet rose bud.  The glowing ember rose bloomed and stretched, its petals curling upwards, billowing in a ghostly breeze.  Its leaves puffed up then out ballooning in a fiery expanse of flowery embroidery.  The rose of red curls and billowing floral silk wafted over toward the fallen woman and the squalling, phantom infant.

‘You.’  The glowing rose scowled at the infant phantom cuddled beside the dead librarian.  ‘You swore to me you weren’t going to do that anymore.’  The red light of the rose burned hot.  ‘What shall I do with you, infant?’

At Mid-summer Shall I Rise

The following is an extract from the first chapter of my second novel Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs in which ghosts of the past haunt the Yorkshire town of Burly-the-Wath while a coven of witches rise to try and put things right.

Illustration by Elizabeth Snider.

From A Tudor Maiden’s Book of Psalms archived by St Becket’s Church of England Grammar School. 

Burly-the-Wath. 22nd June, 1563

Each morn I do offre up to Him above my soul.  At Mid night will I rise for mine deare Lord pryserving me from below.  At noon I cry out sweete lamments to heaven do I pray. Morning, evening and at non His hand showeth me the wey.

 

936064_10204460520659337_6242712851193932157_nA needle cannot thread itself.  Cecilia knew this.  Thread was a length of wool; needle was made of bone.  Both needed a hand to work them.  She tried without success to thread her needle with tender fingers which had not yet lost the plumpness of childhood.

The needle drew first blood.  It pricked Cecilia’s palm.  Disgusted she threw needle and thread to the floor where both became lost in the rushes.  She sucked the blood welling in her hand.  If I cannot school my fingers to be dextrous,she thought, my whole life shall be spent licking wounds.

At that moment the needle chose to obey.  Acting of its own power, needle surrendered to thread like a maiden to her lord.  They rose from the rushes as one and lay meekly in Cecilia’s lap ready to sew.

She looked about to make certain no one had seen.  Fortune was with her, the small brown mouse she fed on kitchen scraps.  Happily no one else was.

‘Fortune be always with me,’ she chanted to the brown mouse.

It was hardly her first experience with unnatural phenomenon.  Objects flew, water jug refilled themselves, candles lit without benefit of flame.  Cecilia wondered if these things were only in her head.  She prayed they were.

Throughout the normal course of her days, Cecilia Norvyle tried not to draw attention.  A thorny challenge considering all of Burly-the-Wath watched her, wary for signs of devilry or witchcraft.  The townsfolk thought her a changeling the fairies might reclaim any moment.  Because Cecilia was the daughter of a priest.

The king and his reformed religion allowed its leaders to marry and have children.  But kings, religions and reforms were fleeting things nowadays.  Under the old queen, Cecilia’s family had been forced into temporary exile in Flanders, but the new queen’s tolerance brought them home again.  Legitimate daughter of a new faith father.  Folk of Burrdale parish knew this.  But knowing a thing and believing a thing are not the same thing.

‘Give me to the church,’ Cecilia often begged.  ‘Let me devote myself to God.’

Less than a day’s journey was the Abbey of St Margaret.  There Cecilia might spend her days in sheltered seclusion.  Perhaps God would cure her of the strange and wondrous things she did and saw and dreamt.  But her parents had already buried three sons and Cecilia’s infant twin sister.  They would not be parted from their last surviving child.

Thus condemned, Cecilia strove not to bother anyone; to appear and behave as a pious and modest maid.  She dressed in simple clothes, kept close to hearth and home and never revealed she could read or write.  She kept her unusually deep blue eyes lowered—a singular violet in a field of green-brown and blue-grey.

Her only companion besides Fortune the Mouse was a nomadic cat.  Full black he was but for the hind legs which were pure white and of a slightly shaggier fur; his body large, lean and strangely muscular.  A true brute of a beast to anyone save Cecilia.  The cat growled defensively at every parishioner who made a sign against the evil eye behind the back of the priest’s daughter.

‘You wear saint’s greaves ‘neath your dark armour, sir,’ Cecilia told him, tickling the white ruff of fur at the cat’s heels.  ‘You are my Archangel,’ she whispered as he rubbed his ebony head against her.  ‘My Michael.’

It was a sad truth of Cecilia’s lie that her sole companions, Fortune the Mouse and Michael the Cat, could never meet for fear one might consume the other.

The summer of her fifteenth year broke out in pansies and primroses.  Cecilia began work on a gown for the Midsummer festival.  She looked forward every year to the Feast of St John, where so many curiosities abounded no one would notice her.  People dressed in fantastical costumes: sometimes as mythical creatures, sometimes garbed only in floral garlands.  Churchman, ploughman, trader, shepherd and pauper would parade the streets with torches and tankards of ale playing music as they went.

For one day she put modest dress aside.  With Mistress Norvyle’s guidance Cecilia altered her mother’s old silk and linen gown of willow green, shaping it to her younger body, embroidering it with violets, ivy and musk roses.  On the morning of the festival she wove fresh versions of these flowers in her waist-length honey-coloured hair.

Is this wise?  Shall I draw attention to myself?  What if something unnatural should occur?  Yet everyone will be laughing and feasting.  None will give me a second glance. 

One did.

He was an Unfortunate from the church school.  That’s what folk in town called them: The Unfortunates.  Some of the boys, Cecilia knew, turned the slander into a title.

He looked to be of a similar age as she, fifteen or sixteen years.  Beneath full white linen breeches his legs and feet were bare.  His ruddy chest was bare as well.  Ropes of ivy draped about him like some savage warrior.  His thick, brown curls were flecked with daisies and meadow sweet.

Cecilia couldn’t help admiring the young man.  When he caught her looking at him, his radiant smile nearly made her weep with longing.   Laughing, he took her by the hand and led her along the parade route.  Cecilia laughed with him as they followed the river, crossed the Bridge of Souls and finished in the churchyard.  The whole of Burly-the-Wath seemed to laugh with them.

‘They call me Tom.’  He did not let go of her hand.  ‘Tom o’ the Streets.  Or some call me Tommy Street.’

Cecilia couldn’t speak.  He held her hand and his sun-baked chest was bare.  He had flowers in his hair.  She couldn’t say a word.   She could only smile.

‘You’re Father Norvyle’s girl,’ said Tom.  Cecilia nodded.  ‘I seen you before.’  Cecilia blushed.  ‘But you never see me.’  Cecilia frowned.

‘I see you,’ she protested.

‘Aye,’ grinned Tom.  ‘Your Mam sees me too.’

Tom nodded over her shoulder.  Catherine Norvyle glared at the two of them across the churchyard of All Hallowed Souls.  Before Cecilia could turn to look, Tom pulled her behind a yew tree growing beside an ancient tomb dark with age.

‘Tell me your name,’ he begged.  ‘No one will tell me.  Maybe nobody knows.  Please.  Just tell me your name.’

Cecilia fought to remember how to form words, struggled to find her breath to make the sound he wanted.  She felt faint and leaned back against the lichen stained tomb closing her violet eyes.  Deep inside a voice unlike her own stuttered a version of her name.

‘C-C-Celia.’  Her body exhaled to him in hesitant gusts.

‘Celia.’  He inhaled the sound deeply, as if her name were a rare fragrance he remembered from long ago.

Against the hard stone tomb the boy variously called Tom pressed his hands into those of the girl he knew as Celia.  Beneath their twined fingers the tomb’s wall pulsed hard once, then again in a softer echo.  Like a heartbeat.  Awake and alive.

Elsewhere in the churchyard the black ears of a cat called Michael flickered to attention and a white-breasted bird took flight.


 

The Final Death of Floretta Deliverance Hughes

The Following is an excerpt from my second YA fantasy novel, a work in progress titled A Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs.  In this passage one of the chief characters Floretta Deliverance Hughes falls to her death in a planned, staged suicide attempt that goes wrong.

floraFlora fought her way up the side of the moor.  She couldn’t breathe.  Throwing herself off the knife edge arête of Oswald’s Edge might not prove necessary.  Her corset would suffocate her long before she reached it.  She paused for breath and leaned against an outcropping of rock beside the pig track—the easiest method for ascending Grimsrigg Fell.

Ball gowns weren’t for hill trekking.  The bulky cage skirt and petticoat lay in a pale heap on the valley floor, far below.  Beneath the silken skirts of her fantastically red gown Flora shivered with cold in lacy pantalettes and struggled for breath under the confines of tight stays.

Atmospheric conditions were perfect.  Wisps of indigo cloud fell across the full moon, shifting and swirling like the curling tendrils of dancing girls.  An autumnal sort of fog settled along the heathery moorland, sneaking its fingers into crevices and wrapping its arms around the world in a hazy embrace.  It had been such a fine day she should have known the night would be bitter.  But Flora revelled in the artistry of it all.  This was weather to die for.

Pulling a cloak more tightly around her with one hand and gathering her skirts in the other, Flora pressed on.  In a rare moment of practicality, she had taken Priss’s sturdy hobnailed boots, the ones she wore to muck out the chickens.  Hopefully the family would not assume their devoted maidservant had stolen the embroidered scarlet slippers Flora left in their place.  How ridiculous I must look in my wool cloak, mud-spattered work boots and fashionably frilly ball gown.

Flora experienced a moment of doubt.  Would the questionable and arguably comical aesthetic of her attire ruin the overall effect?  Beaux Arts Macabre demanded Beaux de Mode.  I shall remove the cloak before I fall and perhaps the shoes as well.  Yes!  Barefoot beneath my gown adds a salacious touch of scandal.

Distracted by thoughts of a fashionable exit, Flora trod on the front hem of her gown and fell hard against the rocky path.  Not a particularly painful fall, but the poppy silk sustained a mortal injury.  A tear like a bloody wound rent the bottom-most ruffled tier.  With a defeated sigh, Flora ripped away the entire layer.  She grinned down at the effect of exposed lace pantaloons and grubby work boots beneath the silk scarlet frills then trudged on.

She turned out to be grateful for the rugged footwear.  The pig track was not as easy a route as she remembered from climbing it as an adventurous ten-year-old.  Flora stumbled often but Priss’s boots made the rocky path easier to bear.  It would be no good at all if she should fall at the wrong moment or even worse sustain an injury which might mar a graceful leap from the dramatic precipice.

By the time she reached the top of Oswald’s Edge the full moon was at its zenith beneath a veil of cloud and the entire Vale of Burr was blanketed in fog.  Perfect.  Flora shrugged off her woollen cloak.  A violent tremor shuddered through her brought on by the chill of the fell wind and her own fear.

Flora adjusted the neckline of her gown as if proper bodice arrangement might ease her terror.  She stepped closer to the rocky edge and looked down.  Not across the lovely valley vista but down.  Straight down.  Down the steeply sloping drop-off, over the jagged shards of rock, through the sheer distance from top to bottom of Oswald’s Edge.

‘Oh!’

This was too much.  This was too real.  This wasn’t some charming watery grave or a woozy poisoned fainting spell.  This was hard, brutal, painful death.  There would be no turning back once she began.  No possible way to change her mind.  And what if Hercules Bogg really did want to teach her about archery?  What if he wanted to learn more about roses and blossoming red flowers?  Who would feed Lord Byron?

There was no beauty here.  This was an ugly end.  Mals Arts Macabre. Mal!  Mal!

‘I can’t do this.’

Flora hastily retreated from the edge of Oswald’s Edge. She had to find the pig track. The pig track would take her home.  She wheeled on sturdy heels and walked straight into a pair of silvery blue eyes.

‘Wha—who—ha,’ stuttered Flora, backing away from the mysterious would-be priest whose face was a breath from hers.  His body swathed in black robes, made his face appear disembodied.  His eyes like twin moons, bathed her in a merciless glow.

‘Find her for me, little vicar’s daughter.  Find her.  Bring her back.’

Flora didn’t even have time to ask who he meant before Priss’s hobnailed boots stepped back into nothingness.

Floretta Deliverance Hughes fell gracefully from the knife edge arête of Oswald’s Edge.  Her red dress billowed, her red plaits rippled and her fair skin shone beautifully in the moonlight all the way down.  And she could see every moment of it.  Her beautiful death reflected in his pale, disembodied eyes.

Illustration by Elizabeth Snider

From The Undecided Transcredible Jaffers Rescue & Nerd Support Society webpage. Sam Streeter, administrator. 23rd July, 2010.

“Another sighting of Truman Becket’s ghost in the Hallowed Soul’s Churchyard. The iron bars of his sarcophagus were heard rattling even up at Burnt Tree pub Saturday night.  This morning no less than five people saw a man in a black cloak walking across Soul’s Bridge as if on his way to church.  Totally real, people.  Burly-the-Wath is haunted!”

Alistair Jacques says: Are you stupid, Streeter or just high?

Tommy Grace says: Show us a photo or shut up.

Sam Streeter says: I’m not stupid or high and I don’t have a camera.

Dave Bogg says: Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form and once Streeter gets on a topic it will only die when he does.

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Ethan Unwin says: Tell me when you see Agnes Wymark’s ghost.  Bet she’s hot.

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Dave Bogg says: Perv

 Sam Streeter says: Knob.

Tommy Grace says: Doesn’t he do this every year?

Dave Bogg says: St Becket’s Day.

Ethan Unwin says: Ancient history, mate. 

Sam Streeter says: WHICH OF YOU ARSEWIPES JUST FRAPED MY STATUS?

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Graveyard All SaintswebCat Woodhouse didn’t like loose ends.  She stared down the loose ends as if, by sheer force of will, she could make them no longer be loose.  But the ends rattled and, against her common sense understanding of physics, flapped in the chilly wind of the summer daybreak.  That really should not be happening.

‘You shouldn’t be doing that,’ she lectured through tense lips to the loose ends who, in response, flapped defiantly back at her.  She shook a warning finger causing her armful of bracelets to rattle indignantly.

‘Reckon that’s going to work, do you?’  Jenny Rowntree leaned resignedly against one of the yew trees lining the All Soul’s churchyard.  ‘Shouting at iron chains?’

The two women gazed down at the crumbling arrangement of ancient stone.  Dark moss and silvery lichen crawled across the surface, marring the most important grave in the Burly cemetery with a weathered rash.   Iron bars surrounded the grave marker like rusted sentinels.  Heavy linked chains connected the seven posts, their guardian arms forming a formidable barrier about the occupant’s final resting place.

Or, at least, they were meant to form a formidable barrier.  Two of the chains now hung limply, arms broken, barrier compromised.  Phantom fingers of dawn mist drifted in and out of the gap in the chains as if to further prove the point: anything could freely pass through.  Mrs Woodhouse swiped and batted ineffectually at the mist with her unbraceleted arm then sighed.

The mist sighed back.

No, not a sigh.  An exhalation of relief, as if the something or someone was able to breathe freely for the first time in ages.  Mrs Woodhouse backed away, joining Miss Rowntree by the twisted yew trunk twined with tendrils of long-dead ivy.

It might have been the wind.  It might have been her imagination.  If so, Cat was not alone in imagining it.  Jenny Rowntree’s sturdy, weathered fingers trembled as they scrabbled backward to grip the even sturdier, more weathered and wrinkled yew.  The iron chains flapped more vigorously, almost cheerfully.  Like ribbons in a girl’s hair or party streamers or banners—symbolic standards warning of an approaching storm or army.

Or both, thought Cat Woodhouse.

‘Never really believed, you know.’  Jenny Rowntree’s forced whisper so close to her ear made Eliza jump in surprise.  ‘I were only doing it for me Mam.  Carrying on’t family tradition.  Thought it were all codswollop.’  Her Northern accent thickened with fear.

‘My mother would have agreed with you,’ Cat whispered back, clinging like a lifeline to her own refined, carefully learned, vowels.  ‘But I believed.  Eliza did too.’

‘Codswollop,’ repeated Jenny, voice rising.  ‘If you really believed our silly trio made a difference you’d have gone to the girl night before last to tell her what’s what.’

‘You really believe I could have done that so soon after—

Another, deeper sigh punctuated by a wide beam of morning sunlight.  It encircled the violated grave like a halo.  Inside these hard shards of pale light, dissipating dawn mist congealed and swirled, almost tangible, rustling like swathes of fabric before rising up the shaft of light toward the sun.  The sight terrified the two women, whose nerves were already stretched to breaking.

‘I thought we would have more time,’ confessed Mrs Woodhouse.  ‘And I didn’t know how to tell her.’

‘Aye,’ agreed Miss Rowntree.  ‘Be an awkward chat.’  She looked nervous, uncertain—two expressions seldom seen on the caretaker’s careworn face.  She surveyed the grave with suspicious disbelief.  It took less time than Cat thought.  Jenny hadn’t thought it would happen at all.  Yet here they were.

‘This complicates things, Miss Rowntree.

‘Aye, Mrs Woodhouse, I reckon it does.’

‘Eliza never did tell her about us.’

‘Not a sausage.’

‘Unfortunate.’

‘Didn’t have time, did she?’

‘She had nineteen years.  Long enough if you ask me.  But it’s up to us now.’  Cat Woodhouse emitted a sigh heavy with burden.

‘Aye,’ puffed Jenny Rowntree.

‘We best be quick about it.  The situation seems…’  Volatile.  Complicated.  Potentially catastrophic.  ‘…vulnerable.  Yes, that too.  ‘Sooner is better.’

‘Aye,’ agreed Miss Rowntree.

‘She’s not going to like what this means for her.’

‘No.  I reckon she won’t.’  Miss Rowntree exploded with laughter and Mrs Woodhouse glared.  ‘Nowt we can do about it though.  There’s rules.’ 

‘And we have no time to be diplomatic,’ Mrs Woodhouse concluded.  She pushed back the bracelets lining her left arm in a gesture reminiscent of a woman rolling up her sleeves.  It was all about to get serious.


Extract from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, a work in progress by Katharine Elmer

 

Burnsall on the River Wharfe: A setting for Burrs Water in Burly-the-Wath

Not for nothing do the proud inhabitants of Yorkshire call their county “God’s Own Country”.  Where I grew up in central Illinois, landscape variation meant swapping cornfields for soybean, so I never grow tired of the beautiful countryside of my adopted homeland.  I find it particularly inspiring as a writer.

For my first novel A Circle of Lost Sisters, I gave my pack of werewolf girls a vast moorland to run around in, based mostly on the North York Moors.  The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes is also based in Yorkshire, but I have placed my fictional community of Burly-the-Wath in more of a Dales type setting.  In particular the village of Burnsall on the River Wharfe.

In the first chapter of the book, Flora attempts to re-create an Ophelia-esque suicide, only to be defeated by poor aesthetics.

wharfeFor several moments, Floretta Deliverance Hughes froze in the midst of Burrs Water eyes tightly closed, face lifted beatifically to heaven.  Nothing happened.  Her brows knitted.  Still nothing.  Her eyes blinked open on the pale green undersides of willow leaves, bobbing pink cherry blossoms and hazy purple dawn.  It would be another clear and glorious spring day; another day of no rain.  No rain for some time now.

Flora looked down.  Burrs Water rippled jovially over her ankles, bubbled up to tickle the gooseflesh on her legs, but rose no further.  The river was not deep enough.  Not deep enough to carry her gracefully along its current—certainly not deep enough to drown her.  Perhaps, if she submerged face-down she might—  No!  Drowning in such a manner was artistically unacceptable.  Sigh.

*

burnsall2

‘Oh, honestly!  Why do I bother at all?’  She slammed the uncooperative book closed on her inadequate prose.  A nearby sheep bleated its protest to this sudden noise so early in the morning.  ‘Even you think I’m a nuisance,’ sighed Flora at the sheep.

Flora lay back on the woollen cloak and let despair engulf her as the river would not.  In this she was once again thwarted by charming weather.  The morning sun shone brightly through the branches of the flowering cherry tree making dappled patterns on the grassy banks, the bubbling river and the lacy layers of her voluminous dress.  Again she sighed. 

‘All the forces of God and man and nature are against me.’

*

wharfe2 Flora gave attention to every aesthetic aspect of death.  Her deceased mother’s wedding dress seemed perfect from a symbolic point of view.   Practical as well—the sleeves alone would have soaked up the entire river and dragged her swiftly into Burrs Water’s deathly depths.  If only Burrs Water had any depths.

Practical for drowning perhaps but not practical for walking through the surrounding grove of trees, over several fields and across bordering hedgerows.  Even trickier would be making her way home without being spotted by someone tending flocks or fields.  Fortunately, the vicar’s youngest daughter knew many secret paths.  By the time she reached the vicarage,  Flora’s legs and feet had collected grasses and flowers and all manner of countryside detritus.  The wedding dress survived mostly unscathed, though Flora had at one point nearly pulled it all the way over her head to protect the fine fabric.  She would hate to ruin her most precious death accessory. 

selected extracts from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, a work in progress by Katharine Elmer