Giant Girl Made of Hair

The following extract is from my work in progress: a YA novel entitled Some Kind of Something which is inspired by my best friend’s first love.   Chapter Three reminds me a lot of how said best friend and I first met.  Happy Birthday to my Len-spiration!

Chapter Three: Giant Girl Made of Hair

Bench near the parking lot of Pioneer Hall. March 25th, 1986

If someone wears headphones—big headphones, proper headphones, the ones that look like cybernetic earmuffs slurping at your skull with spongy musical love, and an insulated cord so long it reaches all the way back to the womb.  If someone sits on their own in the middle of a bench wearing headphones like that, it’s a clear signal that someone wants to be left alone.  Most people understand this.

Althea Ray does not understand.

I have temporarily escaped from the Illinois Youth Orchestra.  The last straw was watching my brother flirt with First Chair Violist Megan who, I think, was flirting with Glowing Jordan of the Flutes.  I’m not sure if Glowing Jordan was flirting with anyone, but it didn’t seem like he was going to be ascending or transforming anytime soon either.

Hate to miss that.   

But I need fresh air and I don’t care if it’s allowed or not.  I’m sitting on a bench outside Pioneer Hall, watching the security lights in the parking lot tremble to life as the sun sinks below the horizon.  I’ve got my headphones on, there’s no one else around and there’s a fresh, crisp spring breeze blowing through my hair.  If anyone asks, I’m waiting to meet my parents before the concert.

The idea of the concert and my parents spoils the peaceful moment.  My pulse starts to race and my everything clenches in anticipation.  I’m not sure which looming crisis scares me more: performing as one of the youngest members of the Illinois Youth Orchestra or performing with my brother for our parents as one of the youngest members of the Illinois Youth Orchestra.

The security lights in the parking lot flick on and off like they can’t decide whether they’re meant to be up yet.  Or they’ve woken up ready to party.  A disco strobe parking lot.

Their indecision is not helpful.  My breathing becomes quick and shallow, my throat constricts and I’m about to launch myself off this bench and onto the disco parking lot, when the sound of heavy panting followed by a solid thump makes me jump.  Huge quantities of black hair greet me from an impossible height.

‘Hi.’

Talking black hair.  Flickering security lights silhouette the sleek head in lightening bursts like something out of a horror film.  I shrink into the collar of my black turtleneck. One hand emerges from the shadow and gives a little wave.  A second hand rests on the shoulder of an enormous purple case which contains either a giant guitar or a small child.

The giant’s hair is everywhere.  Black sheets of it slide from a neatly parted scalp, down the sides of a heart-shaped face, over narrow shoulders, across the purple case/coffin.  She—I assume it’s a she beneath all that hair—realises it’s in her way because one hand pushes it back, revealing a person.  In the dark, with the flashing light behind her, I can’t make out her features, but I think they’re mostly female and human.

‘Hi,’ she repeats.

She smiles tightly down at the part of the bench occupied by Chordelia then raises her black eyebrows as if asking my viola for permission to sit down.  Her full lips widen into a manic, sunbeam smile, all white teeth and infectious cheer.  The sort of smile beauty queens and talk show hosts practice in the mirror.   It’s a: “You’re going to like me and I won’t give up until you do so you might as well face it and make room for me because I can charm you under the table with my teeth tied behind my back” smile.

Fingers still trembling, I pull Chordelia, safe in her case, onto my lap, making room for the hairy giant with the monstrous purple coffin to sit down next to me.

‘Thanks,’ she mouths.  Her long legs vanish beneath the bench.  ‘I felt a bit stupid just standing out here by myself,’ she shouts into my ear.  ‘With this thing,’ she slaps the side of the purple case, possibly as a signal to silence the poor creature trapped inside it.

Why is she out here at all?  And why is she shouting?

‘What are your listening to?’ the giant girl of hair bellows.

Oh.  That’s why.

I forgot about my headphones.  Easy to forget because they aren’t plugged into anything.  The jack is stuffed into the back pocket of my pants.  I don’t wear headphones for entertainment, I wear them for protection. Like armour.  When I wear my headphones, no one tries to talk to me.  (Usually.)  I can pretend not to hear the nasty things people say behind my back and to my face.  My headphones defend me.

Beside me, the girl made of black hair stretches caramel-coloured hands and shakes out long, slim fingers.  Pianist hands, I think, though it’s probably not a piano inside that purple beast.  Now that my head isn’t picturing horror films, I recognise it as a cello case.  Like Hector’s.  Only purple.

Great.  She’s a giant hairy cellist. 

‘What are you listening to?’ she repeats, louder, closer and slower, tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears.   That hair has a mind of its own.  It wants to be free.

‘What?’ I ask breathlessly.  I slide half a headphone to one side, pretend I haven’t heard her, try desperately to think of how to answer, wish she hadn’t asked and wonder if she can tell I’m breathing like a marathon runner on mile twenty.

‘What are you listening to?’ she asks for a third time.

‘Umm…’  My face heats.  I suck at lying.

‘Is it shocking?’ she grins in a voice borrowed from some English Victorian parlour drama.  ‘Or just embarrassing and ridiculous?’  She rolls her the “r” of ridiculous.

‘Both,’ I puff, kind of truthfully.

‘I think I’ve seen you around the practise rooms at school.’

‘Probably,’ I nod, grateful to move on from the topic of what I’m not listening to on my headphones.  ‘I spend a lot of time there.’

‘I’m Althea.’

A caramel hand stretches out from behind the ebony curtain of hair and takes mine. Despite the early spring chill, her hand feels warm.  My cold, shaking fingers hold her too tightly for too long.

Althea doesn’t seem to mind.  She smiles.  Not the beaming beauty queen smile she flashed because she wanted something, but a real smile.  An awkward smile that doesn’t look forced exactly, just off.  Like her smile is still trying to figure out its purpose in the world.

‘Len,’ I mumble.

I try to take my hand back, but she holds onto it for another minute before letting go.  A familiar routine plays out on Althea’s face.  One I’m used to.  If she has noticed me before, hanging around the practise rooms, it’s probably not the first time she’s played this game.

I can almost hear her brain wonder: What are you?

Her eyebrows, black and thick as her hair, knit together.  Her eyes, big, black and almond-shaped, with almost no fold at the lids, study my face.  I wonder if she’s Asian or Indian.  I wonder if it’s OK to ask.  Her eyes drop from my face down to my chest then up to my neck.

Smart girlToo bad.  I’m wearing a turtleneck.

I wait for her to make up her mind.  To take in my square jaw and peachy skin; my long lashes and chiselled cheek bones; my short hair and gentle curls.  I wait for her to put this together with my alto/tenor voice, my long, lanky body, softened by puppy fat but still unformed, and my unhelpful name.  I wait for her to ask.  Like everyone else.

She never does.

‘What you listening to, Lenny?’  Althea doesn’t change her body language one bit.  Not to slide in closer or shift to make room.  Not that she could have.  Most of the available space belongs to her.  ‘Before I interrupted you,’ she adds apologetically.

‘Nothing,’ I confess, but she talks over me.

‘The Vivaldi piece?  That’s a tough one for the violists.’

‘Yeah,’ I respond, answering the second question, avoiding the first.

‘The third movement is kicking my ass,’ she sighs.

‘The embellishments on the first are a bitch,’ I agree, matching her swearing.

‘Don’t you think Vivaldi’s like the angry gym teacher of the string section?’

‘The one who makes us run in place and calls it a rest period?’

‘Yeah,’ laughs Althea.  ‘That one.’  I made her laugh.  Encouraged, I stretch the joke even further.

‘He’s like the bitter coach who thinks he’s pushing us to make us stronger.’

‘Totally,’ she giggles.

‘I hate that guy.’

‘Vivaldi’s a bully.’

‘He was a violinist,’ I shrug.

‘The diva sopranos of the string section,’ she replies.

‘Totally,’ I chuckle.

‘Maybe he wanted revenge for all the hours spent practicing.’

‘Probably,’ I agree.

A dark cloud settles over the conversation.  I wonder how many years she has sacrificed to the gods of music.  As many as I have?  I wonder how good she is.  Better than me?  Better than Hector?

If she turns out to be better than Hector, that would be awesome!

‘Sounds like we have a lot in common, Lenny.’  She places one hand on her purple case and one hand on Chordelia’s, patting them with a grim kind of fondness.

‘Len,’ I correct her.

Then, before I can stop myself, I give away the punchline to my favourite joke.  Just blurt it out.  Like it means nothing.  Like it isn’t my weapon and shield.

‘It’s short for Helen.’

I wait, breath held, for her reaction.  She shrugs.  Like it doesn’t matter.  Boy?  Girl? Vegetable?  Mineral?  It’s almost always the first thing people want to know about me.  But Althea doesn’t seem to care.

Well, this is different…

‘J Althea Ray,’ she proclaims formally, holding her hand out again, this time waiting for me to take it.

I worry my hand will be too clammy or slightly shaky but, to my surprise, it feels steady.  The pulsing terror at my throat is gone.  Like magic.

‘Helen R Timothy.’   Her hand feels deliciously warm.

‘Timothy?’ she repeats, incredulous.  ‘As in Hector Timothy?’

‘Yeah.’  I take my hand away and pull Chordelia to my chest.  The spell is broken.  She’s going to be another Hector fan, I just—

‘But he’s such an asshole.’

The world stops spinning for a moment.  Did she really just call my brother an asshole?  Wonderful Hector?  Genius Hector?  Hector that everyone loves?

‘Umm…’ I mumble, completely wrong-footed in the best way.  Like stepping off a high dive and falling into a pool of cotton candy rainbow clouds.

‘Sorry,’ she backtracks, ‘no offense, but your brother is kind of a—

‘Dick,’ I finish for her enthusiastically.  ‘Yeah.  He totally is.’

And in that moment, I know.  The instant she calls my golden brother an asshole, I know this is someone special and magical and important.

‘What’s the J stand for?’ I ask, struggling to tone down my sense of wonder.

‘If we’re still friends a year from now,’ she grins mischievously, ‘I’ll tell you.’

One year later, she will.

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Some Kind of Something

Today would have been Alan’s 48th birthday.  Even now, more than twelve years after his death, I find it hard to clearly articulate what he meant to me.  The phrase “force of nature” may be over-used, but it is not inaccurate.  If anything, it feels like an understatement.  Alan wasn’t a force of nature for me, he was a source of magic.  Kind, funny, brilliant, talented, adventurous with a touch of mad scientist and a pinch of jack ass.

He introduced real joy into my life.  Later, he introduced love into the life of my best friend.  It was not a storybook romance, but it is a love story that deserves to be told.

My latest novel in progress is based on the true love story of Alan and Brian.  I have changed not only their names, but also the sexes of two characters (I prefer to write about the experiences of women and girls).  What follows is the first chapter of this novel in which Alan appears as he was in life, not just in his fictional guise of Althea.

Happy Birthday, Alan.

Chapter One: Some Kind of Something

Iowa Youth Orchestra Invitational. March 25th, 1985

The boy in the flute section keeps glowing at me.  I should be concentrating on the second viola line of Copland but there he is: just beyond the conductor’s wildly gesticulating arms, directly in my line of sight, glowing.  Boys playing flute are rare, but glowing, flute playing boys?  Unreal.  Very distracting.

His golden blonde hair, styled in that asymmetrical way that makes even the most boring person look instantly cool and rebellious, falls across the right side of his angular face in a perfectly imperfect wave.  His eyes could be any colour.  I decide on golden brown.  It fits his colour scheme.  So does his cream-coloured dress shirt and bow tie worn with, of all things, stonewashed, tight-rolled jeans.

Supernatural and a snappy dresser, I remark to myself, awed on so many levels.

The glow begins at the back of his head, like a saint’s halo.  From there, it trickles in a waterfall of light over the rest of him—even casting a faint shimmer over the people around him.  It’s not quite golden sunshine and not quite silvery moonlight.  Soonslight?  Munline? I need better words.

Long, slender fingers dance across his flute.  I wonder if he’s any good.  Everyone here is at least a little bit good if not brilliant.  I decide he is a prodigy; born with otherworldly musical talent.  He’s definitely some kind of something.  A child of Orpheus.  Or Apollo.  A godlike parent might explain his glow.

Am I really the only one who can see this?  I peel my eyes away from him to peek at the people around me.  No one else stares, goggled-eyed or open-mouthed at this boy.  It makes no sense.  There’s an angel glowing in the flute section, people.  Get your eyes off your music stands and just look!

No one looks.  Except me.  I look plenty.  I try not to stare.  I try to stop the strange thoughts and images galloping through my brain, which include swapping his dress shirt for a toga and his flute for a lyre.  I turn my attention back to Copland (where it belongs), but The Boy in the Flute Section keeps on glowing.

Sometimes, my imagination doesn’t so much run away with me as gallop wildly ahead while I cling desperately to the saddle of sense.  This is one of those times.  I decide not to fight it—to just bask in his glow and imagine the possibilities.  Elf?  Druid?  They were good at music.  Angel?  Nymph?   Were there male nymphs?

The girl on my right kicks me.

‘Lenny,’ First Chair Viola Megan growls under her breath.  ‘What is your problem?’

‘Huh?’ I grunt, disoriented; the glow from the boy in the flute section still pulsing at the corner of my eye.

‘You missed the embellishments on the bridge,’ hisses Megan.

‘I did?’

‘What is up with you?’ she whispers through her teeth.

‘I can’t help it,’ I protest, flustered into honesty.  ‘That guy in the flute section keep glowing at me.’

Megan’s eyebrows crumple under her streaked hair of indeterminate colour, bangs backcombed to the ceiling.  She looks from me to the glowing flutist and back again with a confused expression.

‘He’s not glaring at you, Lenny,’ she snaps.  ‘Get over yourself.’

‘Not glaring, glo—’ I begin to correct her, then give up.  ‘Whatever,’ I sigh.

I wipe sweaty hands on my wide-whale corduroy pants; dig my nails into the grooves of the fabric to root myself back into the real world.  Back to Copland.  Thank goodness this is only a rehearsal.  I turn my body toward Megan, away from the woodwinds, positioning Chordelia carefully to block my view of the glowing boy.

Megan gives a superior sniff, straightens her spine and tosses her hair, which might have been an impressive gesture if her hair wasn’t sprayed into immobility.  I’m sure I hear her mumble ‘children,’ under her breath.

Not a children, Megan, I want to retort.  I’m thirteen.  Almost.

Since Megan is seventeen, this would not impress her.  And she isn’t totally wrong.  I am one of the youngest people here at The Iowa Youth Orchestra Invitational.  Youth Orchestra is usually reserved for older kids—the sixteen to eighteen crowd.  This isn’t a rule, more like a tradition and a practicality.  No one younger than sixteen has the skills or experience to earn a place.

But there were a few of us who do.  I am one of three middle school kids here with the big, scary high schoolers, performing in the not exactly famous but not totally unknown Pioneer Music Hall of Griffin College in my hometown of Stella, Iowa.  Woodwinds to the right of me.  Cellos to the left.  Chordelia on my shoulder.  Somewhere in the cello section, my older brother Hector bows like he’s declaring war on music and pretends I don’t exist.

Chordelia is the reason I’m here.  I named my first viola Chord-elia when I was nine.  I thought it was the coolest, smartest name in the world.  Lots of kids play cello, lots of kids play violin, but not many play viola.  We are a rare breed.  A string between.  There simply aren’t enough of us to fill the Youth Orchestra viola section, which is why I am here, standing out like a sore, sticky with childishness, thumb.

How old is glowing flute boy?  I wonder idly as I wait for my part to come up in the Copland piece.  He looks tall (though it is impossible to tell since he’s sitting down), but his face looks boyish.  My eyes flick back to him, peering down Chordelia’s fingerboard.

Yep.  Still glowing.

Maybe he’s a changeling.  Part fairy, part human.  Changelings are meant to be beautiful and talented and—

‘His name’s Jordan,’ interrupts a sharp voice from my left.  I freeze—embarrassed that someone has not only caught me staring but correctly identified who I am staring at.  ‘He’s kind of a dickhead,’ the voice adds.

What?  Impossible!  He’s not a dickhead, he’s an angel.

I want to turn and confront the voice, but don’t dare.  It belongs to a cellist.  Not my brother (thank goodness), but I tend to lump all cellists with him under the title of “Evil Forces in the World.”

I shake my shoulders, casting off the evil cellist’s irritating remarks, and concentrate on the music.  When morning rehearsal breaks for lunch, I pack up Chordelia and march from Pioneer Hall to the adjoining greenroom without meeting anyone’s eyes.  The bags and jackets belonging to the members of the Iowa Youth Orchestra hang in a series of huge closets which stretch across the back of the greenroom.  I open the one labelled with a laminated rectangle of white cardboard reading: “String Section”.

The next thing I do isn’t planned.  It’s automatic.  Unconscious.  Old habit.  My free hand reaches though the layers of coats and bags to probe the back of the closet.  I knock. Wait.  Press my palm against the solid wood surface.  Wait again.

‘Looking for lampposts?’ chuckles a sharp voice over my shoulder.  It’s the evil cellist who’s not my brother again.

‘Superstitious,’ I murmur, embarrassed at getting caught.

Still not looking the cellist in the eye, I deposit Chordelia on the top shelf, grab my brown paper lunch bag, bury my face in my turtleneck and find a quiet place in corner of the greenroom to eat.  I would rather go outside for lunch, even if the weather is a bit chilly.  I know just where I would go too: The Faulconer Garden.  It’s just around the corner from Pioneer Hall, small and secret.  No one else in the Iowa Youth Orchestra would know about it since most of them are from out of town.

But I don’t think we’re allowed to leave, so I slide down the wall to the floor for a practise room picnic.  The peanut butter and honey sandwich I made that morning has somehow bent in half.  I smooth it out and try to keep my eye contact focused on my lunch.  If I look up, someone might take it as an invitation and I am in no mood to invite.  Hector sits in the centre of a circle of older kids who all know each other from previous Youth Orchestra events.  I hear him holding court in the middle of the room; impressing everyone.  They just love him.

Until Glowing Jordan of the Flutes walks through the door.  Half the room, even Hector, turns to stare at him the same way I did.  He doesn’t shine like he did in the hall, but the fluorescent lighting in the greenroom make everyone look washed out.  I was right about him being tall.

He is something for sure. 

Tonight, I decide, thoughtfully chewing my sandwich, I will find my diary and make a note of him.  Glowing Flute Boy Jordan will be my Exhibit: C or possibly Exhibit E.  I’m not sure which letter I’m on anymore in my quest to prove that magic still exists.

Magic isn’t drawn very often to Stella, Iowa.  Why would it be?  It’s a nothing little town in the middle of a cornfield.  Hardly a place for elves or ogres or dragons.  I make my observations and my notes, but I know that if I really want to explore the magic traces that remain, I’ll have to go further afield someday.

But that boy in the flute section.  I think, mind drifting back into the present.  He’s some kind of something. 

I’m so absorbed in my lunch and my theory, I don’t notice the girl staring at me.  She’ll remind me of this later and I will pay for it.  I don’t know it yet, but she will be my Exhibit: F, G, H…  Exhibit: Rest of the Alphabet.

She is Althea Ray.  And she is definitely some kind of something.

Join The Mockingjay Fellowship Army: A YA Geek’s Survival Guide for the Wars to Come

Fiction-all art in fact-holds a mirror up to reality.  That mirror may be painfully accurate or distorted by fantasy, but either way that mirror reflects truths of humanity.  It is where we find comfort and discomfort, the world as it is or as we wish it to be, a place of refuge and a place of strength. 

Like billions of people across the world, I am struggling to come to terms with the events which played out in America this week.  Before you turn away in boredom or disgust (though I assure you I would have the greatest sympathy if you did, for the internet is dark and full of terrors at this time), I urge you to place the results of the election into a wider context.  This is not just about Trump’s election.  It’s more about what his election says about our world.

We are entering into a period of “Interesting Times” and must brace ourselves for what is to come.  You have studied the events of the twentieth century I am sure, though it is unlikely that your high school history teacher was anywhere near as brilliant as mine (thank you, Mr Walters).  A clear grasp of the events which led to first World War I and then World War II is essential knowledge for us all at this time, so if you were not paying attention in class, go back and look over your notes again.  Better yet, photocopy the notes your Hermione Granger-type friend took and study those.

Taken in isolation at the time, not one of the key moments looked as if it could lead to the global horrors that followed.  Together they did.  It happened.  And if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are slow learners.  Every clock has a pendulum swinging back and forth-that is the nature of time. So, get ready.  The pendulum is about to go about as far to the right as it is able.

Read the news.  Look around you.  Pay attention.  Open your eyes, ears and mind to the new reality.  It ain’t pretty.  We are only days into the New Trump Order and already race hate, misogyny and homophobia are running rampant.  The Death Eaters are gearing up for a march toward Mordor.

Fortunately, we keen readers of YA Genre Fiction are uniquely prepared for just such a state of affairs.  All those delightful hours losing ourselves in the dystopian world of Panem, cheering on Dumbledore’s Army and following the terrifying journeys of The Fellowship are about to pay off.  These brilliant authors, these beloved characters and these rich tales of heroism were preparing us all along for difficult days.

The following is a survival guide for the wars to come.  I wish you good fortune.  I wish us all wisdom and fortitude to make it through.

thai-protesters-with-three-finger-salute-imitate-katnissRule Number One: Know the Real Enemy

When Katniss was in her second Arena, she did not know who to trust.  Haymitch’s words echoed in her head: “Remember who the real enemy is.”  The real enemy is probably not the person next to you who voted for Trump or whose parents voted for Trump.  The real enemy at the moment is the same enemy who always rears is ugly head at times like these: that three-headed hydra of Fear, Ignorance and Greed.

Ask yourself why did the middle of America vote for Trump in large numbers?   Why did working class voters in Britain vote for Brexit?  It’s too easy to say because they were stupid.  Ignorance is not the same as Stupidity.  Ignorance is a lack of knowledge and understanding, not a lack of brain power.  And it is easy to be ignorant when the popular press is all you read and it is telling you that immigrants took your jobs (sound familiar?  Daily Prophet anyone?).  The Greed and Ignorance heads of the hydra working together.

The greatest con being pulled right now is that immigrants are to blame for the economic and employment difficulties happening in the UK and the US.  But the real enemy is the greed of the wealthy business owners who moved their manufacturing to cheaper countries, bleeding the working class of their own countries dry.  These same greedy, wealthy business tycoons are also influencing or, in the case of Trump, running the governments which are convincing the people that immigrants are to blame.

Know the enemy.

 

Rule Number Two: Keep Your Friends Close.8cclhly

Frodo would not have made it to Mt Doom without Sam by his side.  Harry Potter needed Hermione and Ron.  Buffy needed her Scooby Gang. We won’t make it through this alone.

Make sure, however, that these friends are true friends.  Like-minded individuals who see the truth as you do and are determined to fight against it rather than give in to the popular opinion.  Prepare to be in the minority to start with.  You and your friends may be targeted.  Stick together.  Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Neville had Harry’s back when everyone thought he was lying about You Know Who.

Be that army.  

 

 

Rule Number Three: Stay True to Yourself

Lucy Pevensie, hero of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, is one of my favourite characters because she stuck by her truth even when her entire family thought she was a deluded liar.  She knew that she had gone through a wardrobe into a magical land to have tea with a talking fawn and no one could tell her otherwise.  She didn’t back down and question herself.  Popular opinion did not sway her.

If you can see the hate and lies swarming around you and you know it is wrong, stick by your truth.  Don’t compromise your principles just because everyone else thinks you’re crazy or stupid.  Bigotry is wrong no matter what.  Persecuting someone based on race or religion, gender or sexual orientation is just plain wrong and you know it is.

Even Katniss risks losing herself first to the Capitol’s blackmailing demands that she quell the rebellion by becoming their pawn, then by her own demons which threaten her sanity. “To thy ownself be true.”  See, your English teacher is right.  Shakespeare is relevant.

Know your truth. 

 

dumbledores_armyRule Number Four: Don’t Give in to The Dark Side

They may have cookies, but those cookies are poison.  Another of my favourite childhood books (which you should read if you haven’t yet) is Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Trilogy.  In the second book, The Kestrel, hero Theo joins a rebellion for all the right reasons, but soon becomes a monster who nearly kills the woman he loves.  Seriously.  Go read these books.

The Dark Side is a bit of theme with YA Genre Fiction.  Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Buffy Summers, Frodo, Katniss-they all face the choice of becoming the very thing they despise.  In the end, they all choose the light.

By all means join the resistance.  Go to rallies.  Organise walk outs.  Protest to the rooftops.  But keep a clear set of guiding principles in mind.  When in doubt, think on this: do you really want your good cause to be won through bad actions?

Don’t give in. 

 

Rule Number Five: Take Time for Joy

I believe, as do many others, that we are in for some hard times head.  The way might be dark and difficult, full of hard choices and ugly events.  But even in the midst of all this, take time to be happy.  Dance  at a wedding with your little sister.  Fall in love with your best friend’s little sister.  Celebrate birthdays even when the vampires are assembling a doomsday monster.  Play sports, eat great food, take lots of selfies to mark these precious moments spent with those you love.  Otherwise, what are you fighting for?

Live for joy. 

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.

 

 

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?’

A Question of Comic Art

Emma_Frost_(Earth-811)I have recently become a fan of comic books.  Sorry, graphic novels.  Mostly because of my husband.  That’s what happens when you marry a geek.  You learn stuff.

While I don’t pretend to be fully versed in the comic canon, thanks to my other half and the great people at Destination Venus, I am pretty well up on the good stuff.  Fables Legends in Exile, Kill Shakespeare, Lucifer, Runaways, Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Joss Wheedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy Season Eight, Alan Moore’s everything.  Seriously, Watchmen is up there with Catcher in the Rye.

As a result of this recent interest and as a feminist, my attention was quickly caught by a conversation on Facebook about comic book art.  Predictably, it was about boobs.  To his credit, I think my artist friend started the conversation with a creative gripe.  It was his intention to draw attention to the poor quality of mainstream comic book art in comparison with the artwork of many of the above-mentioned graphic novels.  Realism and proportion were at issue.  The conversation soon evolved into something more.

It’s probably not possible to discuss comic book art without talking about objectification. The aesthetic of comic art is a throwback to ancient Greece in its emphasis on perfection.  Female figures have exaggerated bums and boobs.  Men have muscles which border on the ridiculous.  I take that back, they don’t border on—they embrace and snog the ridiculous.

This was the first point made by a few people in this discussion.  You cannot complain about the representation of women because the representation of men is just as heightened, just as unattainable, just as psychologically and politically questionable.  My response is: yes I can and no it isn’t.

I most certainly can complain about visual representations of women in mainstream comic books because it’s pretty ridiculous.  The only good thing which might be said is that the target audience for comic books means fewer girls have access to the images and therefore they have a limited impact on their self-esteem and self-image.  But that is a minor point.  My main issue with the argument is one of equality.  Cause there ain’t none.

ThorWCAnytime anyone says “it’s the same for men” they are wrong.  Sorry to deflate your righteous indignation, men, but you got no leg to stand on.  Domestic violence is not the same for men as for women.  Unrealistic images of male perfection do not have the same impact.  You cannot claim any sexual equality because there is none.  There never has been.  We live in a patriarchal world.  Until that changes, no argument can exist about the equal impact on the sexes of anything.

If this still confuses you, let me break it down.  A superhero in a comic book might have a detrimental impact on the self-esteem of some imperfect teenaged boy who reads it.  But within a wider, cultural context, that boy’s worth is not based on his looks.  That boy will be judged by what he does not how he looks doing it.  Money, power, intelligence and influence matter far more in the patriarchy.  Furthermore, even without comic book art, women are valued first and foremost as sexual objects.  Every institution from marriage to procreation to the division of labour and property, access to education and healthcare—all of them in some way maintain patriarchal inequality.  There are rules and norms and life or death consequences behind those boobs and bums which do not exist for the muscles.

But the far more disturbing argument I heard today is that the comic books are being made for teenage boys.  Boobs and bums are what teenage boys want.  What they have always wanted.  What they are hardwired through nature to want.  And that cannot change.  Ever.

Bullshit.

Not bullshit that men desire women sexually.  Lust away.  It’s the idea, this hard to shake idea that men are creatures of desire alone when it comes to women and the expression of that desire which I totally, absolutely take issue with.  Even more the idea that men can’t change.  Of course they can.  We can.  Humans are adatable.  We’ve been changing and evolving since day one.  You think we’re going to stop now just because we can hold a spanner properly, walk a bit taller and get our dinner from Tesco?

And yet, despite all that—when it comes to sexual equality and who does the washing-up, people—men and women—resort to a caveman argument.  Boys will be boys.  That’s men for you.  Fire-gazers and boar-hunters who have not moved past the base instincts of homo habilis.  I hear stuff like this from intelligent, progressive women all the time.  I don’t know if we’ve given up or if we actually believe this crap but I’m here to say its bullshit.

sandman1_deathCulture shapes the brains, libidos and even bodies of men and women.  Culture can change it.  Trouble is, culture doesn’t really want to.  Patriarchy benefits men.  If you’re sitting pretty in the driver’s seat, why on earth would you willingly take your place at the back of the bus?  Slowly, gradually, men are starting to learn why.  Because it’s the right thing to do in the name of equality and social justice.  And because patriarchy has plans for men as well as women.  Plans that do not always benefit all men.

Lots of men get this.  They truly do.  I know many men who identify themselves as feminist.  One of those men said something once I will never forget.  He first acknowledged that when women challenge men on issues of gender inequality, people are quick to label those women male bashers or man haters.  “I have never believed this to be true,” he said.  “If a woman challenges me on my beliefs or behaviours, it means she realises I have the power to change.  It is an act of respect not hate.  It’s an act of love.”

Patriarchal objectification won’t stop me enjoying comic books.  Some wonderfully complex female characters have been created in word and image by these men (and they are mostly men).  But my enjoyment of comics won’t stop me calling a spade a shovel.  The male-dominated genre community should really know by now that it has some serious soul searching to do.  I’ll help you do it.  I’d like that.  With respectful anger and love.