The Blue Cuckoo

In honour of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary, I am posting my Time Lord fan fiction The Blue Cuckoo in five installments.   This story does not feature any particular Doctor or Companion or in fact any characters from the series.  But it does feature a Time Lord and is heavily inspired by  Family of Blood and Human Nature.  Here is the final story in its entirety.

The Blue Cuckoo

by Katharine Elmer

100d‘Juliet Annah, stop talking rubbish!’

‘It’s not rubbish because you don’t understand it, Mr Barker.’

‘The mathematics of relativity can’t be applied to quantum mechanics.  Everyone knows that—‘

‘It can.  You just carry the infinity and divide it by—‘

‘Ridiculous nonsense!’

‘Your limited understanding of Higg’s boson is ridiculous nonsense!  Honestly, Sir.  Do you know nothing of Unified Theory?’

The classroom gasps in fascinated horror.  Mr Barker’s face looks like a nuclear detonation as I punctuate my statement with a derisive chuckle.  Possibly it’s the chuckle which motivates him to remove me from his classroom.  He isolates me in the hallway outside Lab 4 then rounds on me.

‘Who do you think you are?’

‘I’m not sure I—‘

‘How could you presume—‘

‘Not my fault you can’t cross multiply Einstein by Newton!’

‘How dare you speak to me like that?’

I’ve done it now.  I made a teacher lose control.  This is not affected fury meant to frighten me.  Mr B’s bollocking is heartfelt.

‘I am your teacher!  you will show respect!’  Barker stutters more half-formed warnings before winding down. ‘I never thought you of all people,’ he sighs bewildered.

Me eitherI never thought me either.  Mr Barker glares then pronounces sentence.

‘Juliet, report to Room 17.’  I try not to panic.

‘I don’t know where Room 17 is.’

This is a lie.  Everyone knows where it is.  They just hope they never need to.

‘Now!’  Mr Barker jabs his finger along my appointed route.

‘But sir, I only told the truth!’ I protest.

Barker inhales and clenches before repeating my instructions.  ‘Room 17.  Now.’

Fine.  I will go to Room 17.  But I will not go quietly.

‘Mr Barker, sir.’  I make my voice polite and contrite.  ‘I apologise for my inappropriate behaviour.  I’m sorry you do not understand physics as well as I do.  I am sorry you find it difficult to be challenged by a student—and a girl,’ I add with minimal snarl.  ‘And I am truly sorry you are so disappointed in me.  Believe me when I say, sir, that I don’t know, as you say, who I think I am because who I think I am is not who I thought I was and I think who I am might be someone who you don’t want to know.  But I shall take myself—whoever I think I am—to Room 17 as per your request.  Sir.’

I drop a curtsey then spin on my heel to flounce down the hallway.  Only I turn so sharply my neat plaits smack me across the face. Epic dramatic exit fail.

If a piece of interior architecture can harbour homicidal intentions then Room 17, with its expressionless grey walls and precise geometry, is a stone-cold killer.  I have known of Room 17’s existence for some time and I’ve seen the faces of those who’ve endured its tortures: cadaver grey to match the walls.

‘Sit,’ instructs Miss Pemberg, 17’s bullish warden.  I sit.

Rumour claims Pemberg was a West Yorkshire Police Officer.  Now she is the Detention Supervisor for Wellsthorpe Grammar where her Northern accent terrifies everyone (assuming they can understand her).  She receives the most severe classroom offenders, those who violate the rules of academic behaviour to the nth degree.

Like me.  And Alistair Jordan.  Judging by his gormless expression Jordan has been quarantined here for some time, possibly since his first term at Wellsthorpe.  He’s a short, pug-faced tosser who compensates for his stupidity with violence.

I choose a grey plastic chair far from Tosser Jordan and deposit my bag on a square grey desk.  At a glare from Miss Pemberg I reposition my bag under my chair.

‘How long will I—

‘SHUT IT!’ bellows Pemberg with vowels which betray her origins.

Right.  Fantastic.  Visual and verbal silence.  How did I get here?  How did this happen?

It happened because I opened my stupid gob.  I ignored my own strict rules for survival.  Now everyone knows what my teachers in primary school knew.

The first day of Reception I arrived fresh-faced, eager.  I knew my times tables to twelve and clutched an abridged Oliver Twist.  I wanted to impress my teachers.  My teachers wanted to test me for Autism.

‘Just because she’s clever doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her’, my father protested.

He was wrong, of course.  No four-year-old should be that clever.  No twelve-year-old should be either.  So I hide it.

Academically, this is easy.  Teachers are predators: only bright objects and sudden movements attract their attention.  Visually muted and motionless, I fall under their radar.  Ask any teacher who Juliet Annah is and they will look blank, blink then refer to the photos on their electronic register.

‘Oh yes.  Round girl, brown plaits, third row.  She’s lovely.’

“Lovely” means I don’t misbehave and perform precisely as my test results indicate.  Final year of Primary School, I faked my exams to make certain I achieved a moderate standard.  Nothing too high or too low—both would draw unwanted attention.

Socially hiding is harder.  Teenagers gravitate to anyone remarkably marvellous or ridiculously odd.  Since I am potentially both, I force myself to remain blandly ordinary.  I orbit the fringes of a modest circle of girlfriends.  These average creatures gossip and giggle so energetically I can easily drift in their magnetic pull.  The girls assume I am giggling and gossiping with them.

Survival.  That’s all I ask for until I am old enough for this much clever to make sense.  Today killed that.  I’m on the radar now.  I may as well paint my face purple then dance on this desk while serenading Miss Pemberg and Tosser Jordan with an aria from Faust.

It’s that damned clue cuckoo clock!  The cuckoo clock in Granddad’s attic.  His cuckoo clock changed everything last week-end.

Alfred Annah, legendary Wellsthorpe Grammar Physics teacher and my Granddad, died three years ago.  My parents have tried persuading Granny Joyce to move from the massive family home into a manageable flat.  Last week she agreed.  Last weekend we agreed to help.

I did not want to be there, but I love my Granny.  I loved Granddad too.  Or I tried.  So, brandishing a roll of bin liners alongside Mum and Dad, I charged in.  We excavated ordinance survey maps, various scientific instruments in various states of disrepair, and many, many clocks.  Pocket watches, wrist watches, digital, wind-up, carriage clocks, clock radios: anything anyone had ever used to tell the time anywhere ever.

I had just filled my third bag of clock parts and watches when I found a wooden crate slightly larger than a shoe box.  Dust and neglect frosted its surface.  When I picked it up the box lid flapped at me like an irritated bird.  When I opened it a bird’s face greeted me.

It was an extraordinary, ancient blue cuckoo clock shaped like a house or a barn.  An owl spread its wings across the top, like a real bird might perch on a roof.  I wiped grime from the enamelled face with my thumb and concluded it had originally been pearl white.  Tiny wheel-shaped indigo flowers ran along the edges like faded forget-me-nots.

These metal flowers had tarnished into pale blue stains, though etched details showed the true blue of its original paintwork.  Above the clock face two dusky blue doors stood sentinel.  The cuckoo must come through there to chime the hours.  I tried to pry open the doors.  Fail.

‘Does this still work?’ I asked no one in particular.

‘That clock’s never worked.” Granny had climbed the attic stairs to supervise.

‘Not even when it was new?’

‘That clock’s not been new for a long time,’ chuckled Granny.

I stroked the clock’s face. ‘Too pretty to throw out,’

Granny squeezed my shoulder.  ‘It should be yours, love.  You’re clever.  Maybe you can get it to work.’

I replaced the clock in its wooden crate.  I closed the lid.  With a strange weight of prophecy my forefinger embossed three words in the layer of dust: Save for Juliet. 

That night I examined the blue clock in my bedroom.  It was so pretty: blue flowers, blue door, pearl enamel, intricate carvings and metal work.  Even the chains and weights were exquisite: blue-stained rings linked in an endless swirl resolving into pearl drops like the eyes of the guardian owl.  Pretty.  I turned it over.

A faded blue door on the back mirrored the ones concealing the cuckoo on the front.  A design unfurled across the metal door: swirls, circles and stranger shapes.  Time had stained the door but these slender etchings burned a true indigo under layers of rust and dirt.  A tiny knob on the back door begged to be opened.  I opened it.

I expected messy, broken springs pouring out like intestines.  But inside the clock wheeled cogs and impregnating pinions bloomed in beautifully ordered perfection.  I squinted further into the blue belly of the clock.  Buried beneath the pendulum’s end flickered something like candlelight.  I leaned closer.

The light exploded.  My eyes flashed gold.  The world went out.

Hiking with Granddad across the moors.  We see a farm.  A blue watermill straddles an energetic river. 

‘Once there were many, now watermills are rare.  See it scoop handfuls of river and fling it around that great wheel,’ marvels Granddad.   

‘It makes the river dizzy,’ I observe. 

‘Aye,’ says Granddad.  ‘The great wheel takes it, shapes it, uses the river for grinding matter into dust to bake your bread.’ 

I approach the river’s edge.  The shoreline crumbles and I slip into the swift current.  The river rushes me to the vortex of the great wheel.  I am scooped up by blue fingers at the end of a mighty rotating arm sprouting from a giant churning heart. 

‘Stop!  Please make it stop!’  But nothing can stop my hydro-powered momentum. 

‘Change the rules,’ shouts Granddad from the safe shore.  ‘Your mind is stronger than the mill.  You are the head of the wheel.  Just tell it to stop.’

  I am the head of the wheel and the river cannot move me if I refuse to budge. 

At the crest of the watermill I stand: one foot on the topmost paddle, one rooted firmly on the axel heart.  I press my heel into the centre of the wheel and it stops.  All stops.  The wheel, the water, the wind.  Everything but me.

Granddad applauds.  He smiles and I grin back.  He presses holy palms together.  A tiny blue bird bursts from his hands and flutters toward me.  The bird trills a sharp series of staccato chirps.  I swear it’s telling me off. 

‘Where have you been?  What took you so long?  Why did you leave me waiting?’  Hovering feather to face, the blue bird squawks a final two note reprimand: ‘cuc-koo’. 

The blue cuckoo snaps its curved beak, tucks indigo wings against its narrow body, dips its shining head.  I flinch and wince expecting it to my peck my eyes or jump down my throat. 

A brief prick of the flesh below my collar bone like an inoculation.  Strange fluttering settles around my over-stimulated heart.  The bird burrows inside.  When its wings spread they break through my shoulder blades.  They flap experimentally once. 

Then I fly.

 

Next morning I woke to a repeating sound I thought might be Granddad clapping.  But it wasn’t clapping, it was ticking.  My searching hands landed on the blue cuckoo clock face down on my bed.  The door I had opened last night flapped uselessly, revealing mechanical innards.  I slammed the doors and turned the clock over.  Three hands ticked happily in a steady rhythm.

‘Granny was right!  I fixed it!’

I ruffled my hands through my hair in a congratulatory gesture.  Dark strands teased out as if electrocuted.  My body felt unusually heavy, but my brain buzzed with activity.  I stood up then slammed dizzily back onto my bed.  I tried standing again, slowly, digging my fingers into the bed’s edge.

The world did not feel stable.  It kept shifting.  Slowly but discernibly shifting.  Releasing the bed, I adjusted my centre of gravity.  I stood and this time kept my feet.  The ground still shifted but I let it shift around me.  I walked down the hall to the bathroom then collapsed on the tiled floor.

Anticipating vomit I crawled for the toilet.  Dizziness, disorientation, buzzing—I must be ill.  I laid my hot cheek against the loo’s cool white rim.  Nothing happened.  I tried to make it happen.  I would feel better if I expelled whatever alien invader my body wanted gone.  Nothing happened.

When I decided nothing would continue to not happen, I corrected my double negative and went back to bed.  While my parents continued clearing Granddad’s attic, I embraced my duvet and tried to ignore the turning earth.

‘What you listening to, Julie?’  Lucie was the music enthusiast in the circle of bland friends I orbited.

Fermat’s Last Theorem.’

‘Never heard of it.’

‘Not too surprising.’

‘More of your miserable emo shite?’ Nikki was our arbiter of taste.

‘No, Nikki.  It is not more miserable emo shite.’

‘Is that Dawson’s homework?’  Jenny peeked over my shoulder at the book.  She was our regular informant.

‘As if Dawson could make sense of this.”.

‘Why you reading it then?’ demanded Jenny.

‘Because I can.  Because it’s interesting.  Because  Fermat’s original proof that no three integers can satisfy the equation for the higher order powers of a Pythagorean triple was ssooo much more simple and elegant than that Andrew Wiles.’

Thus ended my conversation with Jenny, Nikki and Lucie, harbingers of Monday horror.

Why had I said it?  I knew better than to say things like that.  How did I dare?

‘What have I done?’

I spilled my cleverness all over them.  And I liked it.  What will they do now they know about me?  Where has this new fearlessness come from?  Where was I going?  Oh right, Mr Barker—first period science.

Which brings me to where I am now: Room 17 with Pemberg and Jordan, bored stupid.  I look at the clock.  Pointless since I have no idea how long I will be here.  In the absence of a window I stare at a grey wall.

Good paint job.  No cracks, bruises, scrapes, paint bubbles, visible brush strokes.  Wait.  There is one ripple in the paint.  Moisture should accumulate in a room with no obvious ventilation.  At last I have evidence people actually exhale in Room 17.  I fixate on the bubble beneath the vinyl layer of Cadaver Grey paint.  The bubble becomes an eye.

At first I think it’s a peephole allowing teachers to spy on Room 17’s miscreants.  But the eye in the wall is round, bulbous, nocturnal.  I blink.  The wall blinks back.  I look again and the eye is gone.  A flicker of movement from the opposite wall of Room 17 catches my attention.  Two more nocturnal eyes bubble out.  They blink once, twice then fade to grey.

My white knuckles grip the edges of the grey plastic desk.  I ignore the walls and concentrate on the perfectly square desk top.  Minutes into this meditation my mind goes numb as anaesthetic death.

I shake my head to dislodge the sensation.  The tingling becomes a burning.  The twitching becomes an uncontrollable need to move.  I leap from my chair.  Everything from my shoulders to my neck to my hair spasms writhes and jerks in an effort to stop my deadening head.  I am vaguely aware of Miss Pemberg shouting and Alistair Jordan laughing; then of Pemberg shouting at Jordan for laughing.

Eventually my head feels like my own again.  I am dizzy, nauseous and nursing a minor spinal injury.  Miss Pemberg gives me water and asks if I need to see Matron.  I drink and croak out a breathless ‘No’.  Then Jordan begins his own spasmodic dance.

I watch him gyrate wondering if I looked as pathetic.  But I can’t laugh.  It’s disturbing to see anyone’s body move so uncontrollably.  Miss Pemberg grips Alistair Jordan in a wrestling hold and manoeuvres him deftly out of the room.

‘Stay here!’ she instructs me over Jordan’s shoulder.

I have no intention of leaving.  Room 17 has a lot to answer for and I plan to make it talk.  Alistair Jordan may be a tosser but no one deserves a dead head seizure dance.  These eyeballs best learn who’s boss.  I march up to the wall, choose a spot in the random greyness and smack my palms against it.

‘Attention all bulby eyeballs of Room 17!’  I rake my nails down the wall in case slapping didn’t do the trick.  ‘You get out of that boy’s stupid head.  He’s got nothing interesting in it anyway,’ I command.  ‘Deal’, smack, ‘with’ smack, ‘ME!’

My hands hit the wall one last time.  I can’t pull them back.  I tug harder.  Stuck.  A thin layer of grey ripples from the wall and creeps across my flesh.  A normal person would probably panic at the prospect of being swallowed by a wall but I am fascinated.  The greyness slithering up my arms feels fuzzy, like patchy, uneven peach skin.

Panic starts when the grey fuzz reaches my shoulders.  I knew Room 17 would be the death of me.  Now I’m about to be suffocated by a wall and there’s nothing I can do about it.  The dead-head tingling sensation reverberates through my entire body with prickling, burning, unstoppable irritation.  I close my eyes as the grey fuzz consumes me.

‘Greetings, Time Lord,’ says the wall.

Time Who? 

I inhale tentatively.  Breathable.  I peel my eyes open.  I am face to eyeballs with The Lemur Beast of Room 17.  Its bulbous orbs nudge my forehead.  What big eyes you have, Room 17.  Beneath them a wide, flat nose bumps against my chin in a rhythmic pattern I recognise as breathing.  What a big nose you have, Room 17.  A generous, lipless mouth splits around pointy grey teeth.  They look sharp but have a slight fluffy quality.  Indeed, the entire creature wears a thin, patchy fur coat.  What big teeth you have, Room 17.  I really hope Room 17 doesn’t know the rest of this dialogue.

‘You are not who I expected.  You are a child.  Where is Time Lord Annah?’

‘I am Juliet Annah.  Who are you?’

‘I am The Mould, Time Child Annah.’

If Mould thought this was going to be enough, Mould was gravely mistaken.  I have no idea what a Time Child is or why it thinks I am one.  I decide it doesn’t matter.  I decide to rely on bravado.

‘Speak up when you address a Time Child!’  I thrust balled fists against indignant hips in a universal gesture predicating a “right good bollocking.”

‘Explain yourself!’

‘I am The Mould of Polemis Five.  Lord Annah brought me to his Time Station.   He said he would arrange a destination for me but I have waited so long and he has not come.’

Lord Annah’s Station?  Had Room 17 been Granddad’s classroom once upon a time?  Of course it had.  I roll my eyes internally maintaining a fierce facade for The Mould.  Time Station?  The Mould made Room 17 sound like a bus stop.

‘What does The Mould want from Lord Annah’s Station?’

‘A new life.’

‘And what happened to your old one?’ I demand as if chiding Mould for losing its mittens.

‘I lived with the warlords of Polemis 5.  They never knew I existed.  Polemi Warriors do not tolerate life outside their own.  I hid.  I consumed their waste: machine oil, soot, dust, unwanted chemicals—the run-off of Polemis’ brutal world.  But the warriors were slaughtered and Polemis destroyed.’

‘Right.  Well.  Sorry.’  Bollocks.  I am losing authority points here but I understood only about half all that.  ‘Do you know how Grand— Time Lord Annah intended to help?’

A symbiotic creature that survives on filth.  I imagine the feast pubescent students could offer Mould: sweat, oily skin, unwashed uniforms, eraser flakes.  Perhaps I could find it a nice home in the Boy’s PE Changing Room.

‘I have what I need already, Time Child.  The Mould thanks you.’

‘Oh, good.  Glad I could help then.’  First job sorted and I don’t even know what a Time Lord does.  Fantastic!

‘The raw power I have consumed from you will regurgitate Polemis’ warrior race through the vortex of Lord Annah’s Station.  Polemi warriors will crush humanity to create a new Polemis on Earth.  I will have a home and a purpose again.’

Err…  Oh, dear.  Well, that’s not what I meant to do at all. 

Though the Mould has no obvious hands, a solid force shoves me back into Room 17.  I land hard, hands and knees slamming against dull grey carpeting.  I run my fingers gratefully across its tight weave.  Same carpet.  I take further inventory.  Same walls, same angles, same desks.  No eyeballs, no time station, no warriors.

I imagined it.  I had a seizure.  I passed out and…  CRACK! 

A thin gap rips across the base of one wall, separating carpet from plasterboard.  The crack glows gold like the light from Granddad’s clock.   Spidery patterns crawl out of the golden gap, turning blue as they spread across the walls and ceiling of Room 17.  Blue like the clock, blue like the cuckoo.  Blue like veins.

I am still on my hands and knees when Miss Pemberg bursts in.  ‘What the—’  She braces against the doorframe as a tremor rocks Room 17.  ‘Oh nicely done, Annah!’

‘What?’ I shout over the roomquake.  ‘You think I did this?’

‘Stop being so arrogant and get off the bloody floor before it swallows you whole!’

Miss Pemberg doesn’t wait.  She grabs me under both arm pits and drags me through the door, down the hallway.  Pulling me to my unsteady feet, she thrusts her furious face into mine.  I’m a bit sick of people’s faces having no respect for my personal space.

‘Let me know, will you, if you’re planning more daftness so I can assume minimum safe distance,’ barks Miss Pemberg.

‘It wasn’t me, Miss.  I was—  It—  I—‘

Pemberg lets me sputter half-formed excuses.  We both know my efforts are pointless but I am too angry to stop.  Who does this silly teacher think she is calling me daft?  She’s not even a teacher—she’s a…  Fine, I don’t know what she is but she is nothing!

‘How stupid are you, pet?’ Pemberg snaps.  Stupid?  First daft then arrogant now stupid!

‘You dare call me stupid?  You are nothing!  I can think you into a pile of dust in a corner of your pathetic little life.  You have no idea what I am capable of!’

‘Oh, I know what you’re capable of.  Better than you do, flower.  You play with the universe like some master juggler.  Only you dropped a ball, didn’t you?  How amateur.’

Amateur!  How DARE she?  Miss Pemberg needs to learn some respect.

‘Room 17 has a gas leak,’ I explain in slow, deliberate tones.  ‘You should evacuate the building.’  I look Pemberg dead in the eye, my confident assurance scorching her retinas.  The world bends to me.  Truth is what I say it is.  Truth is what I say, I mantra in my head.

‘That right?  How interesting.’  Pemberg’s voice flatlines and her retinas look remarkably cool beneath her slim spectacles.  Bloody hell she’s tough.

‘Most likely you are suffering from methane poisoning, Miss Pemberg.  Perhaps you should, you know, see Matron?’  I’m not convincing her—not even making an impression.

‘Nice try, only it weren’t a gas leak.  Room 17’s a galactic alarm clock and you set it off.  Any idea what that means, petal?’

Galactic alarm?  Set for me?  I set off an alarm set for me which was set up to set me up?  Set to go off.  Setting the stage.  Setting me up.  Set it off!  All set. 

My brain tangles in a yarn ball of synapses.  There are too many things in my head and I cannot find an end to it.  If I can locate the tail of one string I can pull it and unravel the whole mess.  But there is no ending, only masses of interconnected wool.

Woolly-headed.  Wool gathering.  Pull the wool over my eyes.

I clutch the sides of my skull and scream.  My body contracts into a recovery position.  My head between my knees pushes my ears to shut out the universal cacophony.  Seconds or possibly centuries later, I uncurl my body.  I stand erect, alert and focused

‘Miss Pemberg,’ my voice crisps civility.  ‘I have many ideas of what it means to set off a galactic alarm clock.  If you would be so kind, please assist me in figuring out which one I should use.’  I blink guilelessly and smile.

Pemberg retreats a step.  She regards me speculatively, trying to decide if I am mad or contagious or potentially flammable.  I hold my smile and blink a few more times.

‘You don’t know what you are, do you?’

‘I’m the blue cuckoo!’  I flap my arms for her.

A blue cuckoo hidden for so long I forgot myself.  Now I’m stuck under a clueless kid who pulled the pin from a bomb she didn’t know existed.  But there’s a spark in me.  A blue pilot light struggling.

‘I’m new,’ I confess.  ‘I hid because I didn’t want to be me.  Only I wasn’t really hiding I was waiting to be found.  It was a long game of hide and seek.  I’m still trying to figure out if I won.’

‘I know who you are, Juliet Annah.  You’re Alfie’s girl.’

‘Granddaughter.’

‘Granddaughter.  Do you know what that means?’

‘Brown eyes and a prominent chin?’

‘Don’t be stupid!  We’ve no time for stupid, you know.  You made a problem.  Fix it!’

‘Can I do that?’ I wonder.

‘You’re the only one who can,’ snaps Pemberg impatiently.

‘Because I’m a Time Child?’

‘Aye!’ she bellows.  ‘So, get on with it, then.  How dramatic a finish you going for?’

‘A big one?’ I venture.  Pemberg slaps my back as if performing aggressive first aid on a choking victim.

‘I have to stop The Mould from using the vortex of Room 17’s Station to pull the warriors of Polemis 5 through space time so they can colonise Earth,’ I regurgitate.

‘I left you alone for three minutes!’ Pemberg scolds.

‘I was bored!’ I snap.

‘Your Granddad made Room 17 a galactic station for shuttling folk about or keeping them waiting—for ages if he needed to.  Looks like he left a passenger in’t queue holding a ticket.  Over to you then, Time Girl.  How you going to sort it?’

  I am the head of the wheel.  The river cannot move me if I refuse to budge.

I’m going to change the rules,’ I announce, leaping to my feet.  ‘But first, I’m going to need some vinegar.’

I race through the halls of Wellsthorpe Grammar, pausing only to slam my fist through the nearest fire alarm.  Ouch.  I didn’t expect that to hurt.

‘Gas leak!  Gas leak in the Science Labs!’  I scream through the tangled school geography.

Despite the galactic menace and the probability I will be expelled for setting off the fire alarm, I am having fun.  I haven’t felt this free since my first day of school!  This is fantastic!

I skid around a corner, burst through the dinner hall and shove my way through the double doors of the school kitchen.  My entrance does not have the dramatic impact I had hoped for.  The dinner ladies ignore the fire alarm and continue preparing to feed the multitudes.

‘Gas leak in the Science Labs!’ I shout.  No one moves. I’m not sure they can hear me over the mechanical noises of mass food production.

Pemberg shoves past me to the back corner of the kitchen where a large red switch begs to be flicked.  She flicks it.  All light and sound in the kitchen dies.

‘Right, you lot.  This ain’t a drill, you know,’ lectures Miss Pemberg.  ‘You need to go now!’  The dinner ladies look at each other.  There is little point in carrying on with no power.  They shrug and file out through the double doors.

‘Nice one, Miss P!  Now vinegar, vinegar…  Where on earth do they keep the vinegar?’

Pemberg lowers an enormous plastic jug in front of my face labelled: Malt Vinegar.  I take it, turning it over and examining every side.

‘I was looking for something smaller.’

‘Industry kitchens buy in bulk.’

‘Good thing too.’  I shimmy the jug like an unwieldy maraca.  ‘We’ll need all of this.’  I race back toward Room 17.

‘Why vinegar anyroad?’ pants Pemberg keeping pace with me.

‘Grey, mottled, slightly fuzzy, growing at an uneven pace and feeding off rot and refuse—I don’t think Mould is a random title.  More like a species description.’

‘So The Mould is just mould?’

‘Maybe.  Concentrated hydrofluoric acid would be more effective but I doubt they’ll be keeping that in a school.  Granddad was always complaining about health and safety rules in the lab.  Bleach would do, but it makes me sneeze.  So, voila: vinegar!’

I brandish the vinegar jug like a holy sword preparing to kick open the door of Room 17, but it has already fallen off its hinges.  Epic dramatic entrance fail.  There is now a good three inch gap around the circumference of the room.  Blue veins have spread across every surface, pulsing happily with the golden light of energy.

‘That’s my blood, thank you very much!’  I open the jug and dribble vinegar into the widening crack of the vortex.  ‘Come out wherever you are, Old Moldy Woldy!’

I splash vinegar against the walls like a possessed painter.  The acid hisses and steams on contact while muffled screams shake the grey walls crawling with blue and gold blood vessels.   More vinegar, more screams.  Gradually the distinctive Cadaver Grey of Room 17’s décor fades to a livelier white glow.  Even the carpet retreats into smooth white tile.

But the blue veins, gold light and cracked foundations have gone nowhere.  I disinfected The Mould but had neglected to close the vortex.  Room 17 is a very clean Station, but a Station still with an active vortex waiting for passengers.

‘Hmph.  I rather thought that would work.’

I glare at the pulsing, blue-veined walls.  Their wilful disobedience annoys me.   How dare they not react appropriately!  Where did I go wrong?

Your raw power will regurgitate through the vortex.  But how did it take my raw power?  How do I get it back?  I am at the summit of the universe, one foot over its heart and one hand on its strong arm. 

‘Ah!’

Rooting my feet into the white tile, I reach across the narrow abyss to place my palms against the pulsing blue walls.  Strange sounds echo in the crack between wall and floor: an alien language I can almost understand; a vibratory hum of some great engine; a deafening chorus of ticking time.  I look down.  It’s like the inside of the cuckoo clock.  Layers upon layers of wheels, cogs, gears all spinning in different directions.  All held together by a single pinion.  Me.

‘Apologies Room 17 passengers,’ I grunt with effort.  ‘But this Station is closed.  Ticket holders best disembark now!’

My open palms vacuum up the web of blue veins.  They glow briefly against my flesh then sink into me.  A rush of energy makes my heart race and my centre of gravity falter.   The ground rotates beneath, the planets revolve above and the cuckoo’s wings flutter inside as the power of Room 17’s Station streams into my blood.

I am the blue cuckoo flying through endless skies.  I am the pinion binding together a universal clock.  I am Atlas shifting the plates of the earth, finding a better way to hold it all up.  After a series of monumental scrapings the walls and floor of Room 17 reunite.

I release the wall, stand straight and square my shoulders.  They were made to carry the weight of the world—of many worlds.  And I was made for moments like this.

I didn’t need a cuckoo clock to tell me who I am; I just needed a wake-up call.  I am a Time Child with a head strong enough to turn the wheel and hands wide enough to pull the walls and eyes hard enough to stare down a beast or gaze though the burning belly of time.  I am a twelve-year-old girl with too much clever for this world, but the right amount of clever for the universe.  And I am not hiding anymore.

Thanks for the memories, Granddad. 

I turn to Miss Pemberg lurking in the doorway.  ‘You think I could take GCSE exams next week?  College might be a safer place for me.’

‘Reckon the Post-16-year-olds would invite you to their hot parties?’  She’s grinning in relief.  It doesn’t look natural on her face.

‘You reckon?’

‘No,’ she scowls in her normal expression.  We wait silently.

‘So,’ I open, ‘you knew Granddad?’

‘Aye.’

‘And he was a Time Lord?’

‘Aye.  But he gave it up.’

‘Gave it up?’  I’m new to being a Time Lord but already it doesn’t seem like something I can give up like a bad habit.

‘He left the Time Lords and he left me for her,’ Pemberg voice bleeds with the pain of it.

‘Her?’

‘Juliet Joyce.  We met in Dublin, 1947.  Alfie gave up everything for your Granny.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Alfie were me friend once.  He changed me life.’

‘Why haven’t I met you before?’

‘Your granddad weren’t the same man.  Alfie I knew died.  Didn’t want to know the bloke wearing his corpse.’

‘But you’re here.  You and Granddad in same place.’  Miss Pemberg doesn’t answer and her face gives nothing away.  ‘Maybe you’ve been hiding too?’

‘Aye.  Maybe I’ve been waiting for you.’

She knew I would find Granddad’s clock.  The blue cuckoo knew it, Pemberg knew it, Granny knew it.  Now everyone’s waiting to see what I might do.

‘It’s not just me waiting, you know.’  Miss Pemberg’s warning echoes my own thoughts.  Now you’ve woken up they’ll be coming for you.’

‘Who?’

‘Everyone.  Everything.  From everywhere and everywhen.  Some will want your help.  Some will want your power.  Some will just be curious to see what you are, petal.’

‘But I’m not anything really.  I mean, I know I’m a bit clever.’

‘Bit?’

‘Very clever,’ I amend.  ‘But I’m just a kid and I’ve no clue what I’m doing.’

‘You’re a fast learner.’  She indicates Room 17.

‘I need a teacher,’ I mutter dismissively.

‘Aye.  But you’ll have to settle for a detention officer.’

Pemberg places her meaty paw on my soft shoulder.  She’s offering to help.  I need help.  Someone like her could toughen me up as well as teach me who I am.  Who I might be.

‘I reckon a detention officer will fit the bill.’

I hold out my hand formally.  After the smallest pause she takes it.  It must be the second time in her life she has made an agreement with an Annah.

‘Now then,’ Pemberg says briskly.  ‘You reckon there’s any tea about?’

We take advantage of the school’s empty industrial kitchen.  It won’t be empty once the threat of my false fire alarm passes.  While waiting for the kettle to boil I let my mind roll around recent events.

‘Hang on.’  My hand freezes around the sugar bowl.  ‘Dublin, 1947?  You’re not that old.’

‘Oh, flower,’ Pemberg grins wickedly.  ‘Just you wait.’

Miss Pemberg tells me all she knows about the Room 17 Station.  In time she will teach me how to use Granddad’s clock—really use it.  We will encounter many curious, greedy and helpless beings.  She says I shall change one day, but hopefully that day will be far in the future.  Til then, I’ll show Miss P how the blue cuckoo flies.

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The Blue Cuckoo: Episode Two

100d

In honour of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary, I am posting my Time Lord fan fiction The Blue Cuckoo in five installments.   This story does not feature any particular Doctor or Companion or in fact any characters from the series.  But it does feature a Time Lord and is heavily inspired by  Family of Blood and Human Nature.

The Blue Cuckoo

by Katharine Elmer

That night I examined the blue clock in my bedroom. It was so pretty: blue flowers, blue door, pearl enamel, intricate carvings and metal work. Even the chains and weights were exquisite: blue-stained rings linked in an endless swirl resolving into pearl drops like the eyes of the guardian owl. Pretty. I turned it over.
A faded blue door on the back mirrored the ones concealing the cuckoo on the front. A design unfurled across the metal door: swirls, circles and stranger shapes. Time had stained the door but these slender etchings burned a true indigo under layers of rust and dirt. A tiny knob on the back door begged to be opened. I opened it.
I expected messy, broken springs pouring out like intestines. But inside the clock wheeled cogs and impregnating pinions bloomed in beautifully ordered perfection. I squinted further into the blue belly of the clock. Buried beneath the pendulum’s end flickered something like candlelight. I leaned closer.
The light exploded. My eyes flashed gold. The world went out.

Hiking with Granddad across the moors. We see a farm. A blue watermill straddles an energetic river.
‘Once there were many, now watermills are rare. See it scoop handfuls of river and fling it around that great wheel,’ marvels Granddad.
‘It makes the river dizzy,’ I observe.
‘Aye,’ says Granddad. ‘The great wheel takes it, shapes it, uses the river for grinding matter into dust to bake your bread.’
I approach the river’s edge. The shoreline crumbles and I slip into the swift current. The river rushes me to the vortex of the great wheel. I am scooped up by blue fingers at the end of a mighty rotating arm sprouting from a giant churning heart.
‘Stop! Please make it stop!’ But nothing can stop my hydro-powered momentum.
‘Change the rules,’ shouts Granddad from the safe shore. ‘Your mind is stronger than the mill. You are the head of the wheel. Just tell it to stop.’
I am the head of the wheel and the river cannot move me if I refuse to budge.
At the crest of the watermill I stand: one foot on the topmost paddle, one rooted firmly on the axel heart. I press my heel into the centre of the wheel and it stops. All stops. The wheel, the water, the wind. Everything but me.
Granddad applauds. He smiles and I grin back. He presses holy palms together. A tiny blue bird bursts from his hands and flutters toward me. The bird trills a sharp series of staccato chirps. I swear it’s telling me off.
‘Where have you been? What took you so long? Why did you leave me waiting?’ Hovering feather to face, the blue bird squawks a final two note reprimand: ‘cuc-koo’.
The blue cuckoo snaps its curved beak, tucks indigo wings against its narrow body, dips its shining head. I flinch and wince expecting it to my peck my eyes or jump down my throat.
A brief prick of the flesh below my collar bone like an inoculation. Strange fluttering settles around my over-stimulated heart. The bird burrows inside. When its wings spread they break through my shoulder blades. They flap experimentally once.
Then I fly.

Next morning I woke to a repeating sound I thought might be Granddad clapping. But it wasn’t clapping, it was ticking. My searching hands landed on the blue cuckoo clock face down on my bed. The door I had opened last night flapped uselessly, revealing mechanical innards. I slammed the doors and turned the clock over. Three hands ticked happily in a steady rhythm.
‘Granny was right! I fixed it!’
I ruffled my hands through my hair in a congratulatory gesture. Dark strands teased out as if electrocuted. My body felt unusually heavy, but my brain buzzed with activity. I stood up then slammed dizzily back onto my bed. I tried standing again, slowly, digging my fingers into the bed’s edge.
The world did not feel stable. It kept shifting. Slowly but discernibly shifting. Releasing the bed, I adjusted my centre of gravity. I stood and this time kept my feet. The ground still shifted but I let it shift around me. I walked down the hall to the bathroom then collapsed on the tiled floor.
Anticipating vomit I crawled for the toilet. Dizziness, disorientation, buzzing—I must be ill. I laid my hot cheek against the loo’s cool white rim. Nothing happened. I tried to make it happen. I would feel better if I expelled whatever alien invader my body wanted gone. Nothing happened.
When I decided nothing would continue to not happen, I corrected my double negative and went back to bed. While my parents continued clearing Granddad’s attic, I embraced my duvet and tried to ignore the turning earth.

‘What you listening to, Julie?’ Lucie was the music enthusiast in the circle of bland friends I orbited.
‘Fermat’s Last Theorem.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘Not too surprising.’
‘More of your miserable emo shite?’ Nikki was our arbiter of taste.
‘No, Nikki. It is not more miserable emo shite.’
‘Is that Dawson’s homework?’ Jenny peeked over my shoulder at the book. She was our regular informant.
‘As if Dawson could make sense of this.”.
‘Why you reading it then?’ demanded Jenny.
‘Because I can. Because it’s interesting. Because Fermat’s original proof that no three integers can satisfy the equation for the higher order powers of a Pythagorean triple was ssooo much more simple and elegant than that Andrew Wiles.’
Thus ended my conversation with Jenny, Nikki and Lucie, harbingers of Monday horror.
Why had I said it? I knew better than to say things like that. How did I dare?
‘What have I done?’
I spilled my cleverness all over them. And I liked it. What will they do now they know about me? Where has this new fearlessness come from? Where was I going? Oh right, Mr Barker—first period science.

Which brings me to where I am now: Room 17 with Pemberg and Jordan, bored stupid.

The Blue Cuckoo: Episode Four

100dThough the Mould has no obvious hands, a solid force shoves me back into Room 17.  I land hard, hands and knees slamming against dull grey carpeting.  I run my fingers gratefully across its tight weave.  Same carpet.  I take further inventory.  Same walls, same angles, same desks.  No eyeballs, no time station, no warriors.

I imagined it.  I had a seizure.  I passed out and…  CRACK! 

A thin gap rips across the base of one wall, separating carpet from plasterboard.  The crack glows gold like the light from Granddad’s clock.   Spidery patterns crawl out of the golden gap, turning blue as they spread across the walls and ceiling of Room 17.  Blue like the clock, blue like the cuckoo.  Blue like veins.

I am still on my hands and knees when Miss Pemberg bursts in.  ‘What the—’  She braces against the doorframe as a tremor rocks Room 17.  ‘Oh nicely done, Annah!’

‘What?’ I shout over the roomquake.  ‘You think I did this?’

‘Stop being so arrogant and get off the bloody floor before it swallows you whole!’

Miss Pemberg doesn’t wait.  She grabs me under both arm pits and drags me through the door, down the hallway.  Pulling me to my unsteady feet, she thrusts her furious face into mine.  I’m a bit sick of people’s faces having no respect for my personal space.

‘Let me know, will you, if you’re planning more daftness so I can assume minimum safe distance,’ barks Miss Pemberg.

‘It wasn’t me, Miss.  I was—  It—  I—‘

Pemberg lets me sputter half-formed excuses.  We both know my efforts are pointless but I am too angry to stop.  Who does this silly teacher think she is calling me daft?  She’s not even a teacher—she’s a…  Fine, I don’t know what she is but she is nothing!

‘How stupid are you, pet?’ Pemberg snaps.  Stupid?  First daft then arrogant now stupid!

‘You dare call me stupid?  You are nothing!  I can think you into a pile of dust in a corner of your pathetic little life.  You have no idea what I am capable of!’

‘Oh, I know what you’re capable of.  Better than you do, flower.  You play with the universe like some master juggler.  Only you dropped a ball, didn’t you?  How amateur.’

Amateur!  How DARE she?  Miss Pemberg needs to learn some respect.

‘Room 17 has a gas leak,’ I explain in slow, deliberate tones.  ‘You should evacuate the building.’  I look Pemberg dead in the eye, my confident assurance scorching her retinas.  The world bends to me.  Truth is what I say it is.  Truth is what I say, I mantra in my head.

‘That right?  How interesting.’  Pemberg’s voice flatlines and her retinas look remarkably cool beneath her slim spectacles.  Bloody hell she’s tough.

‘Most likely you are suffering from methane poisoning, Miss Pemberg.  Perhaps you should, you know, see Matron?’  I’m not convincing her—not even making an impression.

‘Nice try, only it weren’t a gas leak.  Room 17’s a galactic alarm clock and you set it off.  Any idea what that means, petal?’

Galactic alarm?  Set for me?  I set off an alarm set for me which was set up to set me up?  Set to go off.  Setting the stage.  Setting me up.  Set it off!  All set. 

My brain tangles in a yarn ball of synapses.  There are too many things in my head and I cannot find an end to it.  If I can locate the tail of one string I can pull it and unravel the whole mess.  But there is no ending, only masses of interconnected wool.

Woolly-headed.  Wool gathering.  Pull the wool over my eyes.

I clutch the sides of my skull and scream.  My body contracts into a recovery position.  My head between my knees pushes my ears to shut out the universal cacophony.  Seconds or possibly centuries later, I uncurl my body.  I stand erect, alert and focused

‘Miss Pemberg,’ my voice crisps civility.  ‘I have many ideas of what it means to set off a galactic alarm clock.  If you would be so kind, please assist me in figuring out which one I should use.’  I blink guilelessly and smile.

Pemberg retreats a step.  She regards me speculatively, trying to decide if I am mad or contagious or potentially flammable.  I hold my smile and blink a few more times.

‘You don’t know what you are, do you?’

‘I’m the blue cuckoo!’  I flap my arms for her.

A blue cuckoo hidden for so long I forgot myself.  Now I’m stuck under a clueless kid who pulled the pin from a bomb she didn’t know existed.  But there’s a spark in me.  A blue pilot light struggling.

‘I’m new,’ I confess.  ‘I hid because I didn’t want to be me.  Only I wasn’t really hiding I was waiting to be found.  It was a long game of hide and seek.  I’m still trying to figure out if I won.’

‘I know who you are, Juliet Annah.  You’re Alfie’s girl.’

‘Granddaughter.’

‘Granddaughter.  Do you know what that means?’

‘Brown eyes and a prominent chin?’

‘Don’t be stupid!  We’ve no time for stupid, you know.  You made a problem.  Fix it!’

‘Can I do that?’ I wonder.

‘You’re the only one who can,’ snaps Pemberg impatiently.

‘Because I’m a Time Child?’

‘Aye!’ she bellows.  ‘So, get on with it, then.  How dramatic a finish you going for?’

‘A big one?’ I venture.  Pemberg slaps my back as if performing aggressive first aid on a choking victim.

‘I have to stop The Mould from using the vortex of Room 17’s Station to pull the warriors of Polemis 5 through space time so they can colonise Earth,’ I regurgitate.

‘I left you alone for three minutes!’ Pemberg scolds.

‘I was bored!’ I snap.

‘Your Granddad made Room 17 a galactic station for shuttling folk about or keeping them waiting—for ages if he needed to.  Looks like he left a passenger in’t queue holding a ticket.  Over to you then, Time Girl.  How you going to sort it?’

  I am the head of the wheel.  The river cannot move me if I refuse to budge.

I’m going to change the rules,’ I announce, leaping to my feet.  ‘But first, I’m going to need some vinegar.’

She is Not for You: Sex Positive YA

I have many reasons for becoming a Young Adult Fantasy writer.  1) I love to write (duh).  2) I always have and still do mostly read fantasy novels (11-18 readership).  3) I find teenagers vastly interesting both individually and collectively (but not in a perverse way, let’s be clear).

imagesI also suspect I have a bit of an axe to grind.  An axe forged by Phillip Pullman, sharpened by Stephenie Meyer and then, more recently, sharpened again by Miley Cyrus.  Or, more accurately, sharpened by public response to Stephenie Meyer and Miley Cyrus and by my friend and fellow writer Janine Ashbless’ recent blog post about the film Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.  (Younger readers be aware Ms Ashbless is a writer of erotica and that her blog is aimed at adult readers, but following this link should take you just to the blog post in question which contains nothing too “adult” in content.)

Phillip Pullman is one of my favourite young adult writers.  His Dark Materials is thought-provoking, heartbreaking and full of pathos with an honestly-presented hero and heroine who, as a reader,  I’d kill or die for at the heart of it.  Plus, Pullman deserves props for making marzipan sexy.  Honesty about the sex lives and desires of young women is a bit of a theme for Pullman which he explores not only through Lyra and Will but also through his Sally Lockhart character and Jenny in The Butterfly Tattoo/The White Mercedes.  Pullman’s women, as we feminists like to say, have agency.  They accept and celebrate their desire for sex and love.

But is this attitude appropriate really, for young readers?  Should YA authors be presenting sex positive characters and themes in our books?  Yes it is and yes we should.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!

Besides being an author, I am also a teacher.  In many direct and indirect ways, I encounter attitudes toward teen sex on a regular basis.  Empowering young women to have the confidence to say no and take control of their bodies is, and should be, a priority in schools, in homes and in clinics.  Because, as a wise person once told me, young women will never feel the power to truly say no and mean it if they cannot also lay claim to saying yes and mean it.

And mean it.

That means admitting girls desire, want, fancy boys, get horny and feel the urge to act on it.  That means giving our girls role models in fiction who experience sex as an expression of their own love and passion and not merely as objects of someone else’s.  Their own bodies, their own desires and their own experiences which they can initiate, negotiate and celebrate.

Young readers of both sexes cannot get enough of this message and Pullman is far from the only YA author preaching a sex positive message for young people.  Stephenie Meyer has come under massive criticism for her representation of Bella Swan as a role model for young women.  It bugs me to no end that, living with her adult father, Bella acts the housewife.  However, no one can say that Bella does not know who and what she wants.  She fights fang and claw to get it.  In deference to conventional morality, Bella and Edward marry first but they have pretty explicit, glorious sex which she initiates, negotiates and celebrates.

As Ms Ashbless points out in her blog post, Clary Fray similarly pursues a physical and emotional relationship with Jace in The Mortal Instruments.  I have mixed feelings about the books for other reasons, but in terms of giving a positive message to young women about sexual desire, I can’t fault Cassandra Clare for the role model she gives her readers.

Respecting the sexuality of young women and teaching them to respect their own sexuality is crucial for the physical and psychological development of both sexes.  A girl who learns that she exists only to fulfill the desires of men and not herself grows up accepting a rape model of relationships.  A boy who grows up with the idea that men are the initiators of sex and that girls and women need to be persuaded or convinced to have sex will likely grow up a rapist.  And it colours our entire attitude about women about men and about sex.

Equus-Pictures-daniel-radcliffe-85023_350_506The recent trend toward depicting the sexual fantasies of young women in fiction and the extreme backlash which has accompanied it shows just how much we need sex positive YA heroines.  How many blogs, reviews and memes have  crucified the Twilight series?  The sheer volume and vehemence of the criticism reeks of misogyny, which is ironic when so much of the criticism claims to be feminist in nature.

Compare this to the outrage over Miley Cyrus’s sexy song and dance routine on the MTV Video Music Awards 2013.  People are incensed about her performance.  Little Hannah Montana twerking her perky butt all over the place and pleasuring herself with a giant foam finger.  Shocking!  Yet when Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe got his wand out on stage for Equus, he was widely praised for bravely challenging his child actor image (and for his rock-hard sexy abs).  And no one turned ex-Disney poster boy Justin Timberlake into a pariah for ripping off Janet Jackson’s top.

These out-dated double-standards belong in the bottom drawer with the knee-high argyle socks.

I hope that YA heroines continue to be the agents of their own desires.  I hope YA writers continue to publish books which explore the fantasies of young women.  And when I come across young men who scowl at “that sodding twinkly vampire bollocks”, I simply remind them: “these books are not meant for you.  These are the fictional fantasies of young women, and if you’re smart you’ll learn something from them, mate.”

Mahala’s School Project

One of my biggest fans has used her favourite characters from A Circle of Lost Sisters in a project for English class.  I particularly like Holly’s award.  I have paired up her project work here with quotations from the novel.  My first bit of fan work!

***

Ingrid award‘Ingrid!  What did you do?’ 

‘Nothing, it was just a silly—’.  Ingrid looked at her hand.  She gasped and swore. 

When it first happened, when she had been certain hospital was imminent, there had been nothing to see.  Now, cradled in Leighton’s palm, Rowan Syng’s nail marks had changed.  They screamed out from her clammy skin: crimson, violent and swollen, the original scrapes swallowed by rising tides of shining pink like drowned salmon.

 ‘Oh!’ Ingrid mumbled, horrified at the angry welts.  As she and Leighton looked on, a trickle of yellow pus oozed from the middle graze.  She was going to be sick.  She was going to pass out and vomit all over the lovely Leighton Jacobs.  

***

Holly awardHolly sat up and shoved Rowan so hard she fell against the neighbouring stone with a satisfying thud.  ‘Sod off nosy cow!’  Holly walked away to the far side of the circle.  But Rowan recovered quickly, hopped back on her feet and grabbed Holly’s upper arm as she passed.  Damned hard arsed werewolf!

‘Don’t tell me you wouldn’t love revenge,’ Rowan hissed. 

‘Freya gave you a chance to get back at me.’  Holly wrenched her arm from Rowan’s grasp and tried again to move away. 

 ‘I don’t want to get back at you,’ Rowan pursued.  ‘Look what I did to Ingrid.  I don’t have the right to hold it against you.  I hold it against him.’

 ‘That what you’re looking for, Goth Girl?  You want to hit out at someone so bad you’re off to hunt down a werewolf bogey man—you’re so bloody mental!’

***

Rowan award

Mother.’  Rowan inhaled.  Faded Eeyore curtains, chosen when Rowan was a little girl, quivered around the open window as the weregirls anticipated the arrival of another relic from Rowan’s childhood. 

‘Mother?’  The sharp stench of death wafted in with the winter air.  No face appeared.  No objects shaped themselves into an image.  No voice broke the heavy silence. 

‘Mother!’ Rowan struggled against the terrified embraces of her pack sisters.  One bony arm wriggled free.  Rowan pushed it into Freya’s ribs weakening the werewolf body knot. 

 Rowan scrambled to the window.  Her trembling fingers clutched the frame and she howled, heartfelt and wolfish.  From outside her bedroom something answered.  

***

Finn awardDarkness had fallen properly now on the unlit country road.  Finn grunted with the effort of resisting.  Becky screamed in triumph.  The sun set and the full moon rose. 

From just below the surface of Heather Lane, a male wolf howled so fiercely it shook the ground.  Freya and Holly collapsed as waves of moonlight ripped through them, pulled at them with tidal force, turned them inside out.  Changed them into monsters. 

The grey and ginger flecked wolf that was Finn leapt over what was left of the hedge to stand beside the russet-furred Holly and the gold-coated Freya.  The trio roared a challenge at the gaping hole in the earth.  Behind them, from the distant River Munn, three more wolves howled a response.  

***

Demon DogsSix luminescent eyes flashed in the darkness.  Three creatures emerged from the bank of fog.  They were not wolves.  They were wolfhounds.  Taller even than Freya’s wolf form and very lean with long, finely muscled legs.  Layers of pure white fur covered their bodies in ruffled waves, except for their ears which were red.  Deeply red.  So red even the wolves could see it… 

Red!  Through her fear and panic Tyra could not help a vibration of pleasure in her chest.  She had not seen red in so long.  Her subtle whine in the silence suddenly made her the focus of attention.   Three sharp snouts turned to her, three muzzles pulled back from sharply pointed teeth and three moon-white bodies crouched to spring.  

*****

Fantastic work, Mahala!  So glad you love my weregirls too.  Keep howling on.

Investigating Teen Angst and the Success Criteria for a YA Fictional Hunk

Today marked the final morning of lessons for another school year.  While many teachers let their students play games or put on a DVD , I interrogated my classes in the name of literary research.  The theme: what questions do you regularly ask yourself?

According to the gathering of experts at this past weekend’s Harrogate Crime Writer’s Festival, a good book should start with an interesting question to explore.  This, apparently, is the first step in creating a novel.  My previous creative strategy was to think up some really cool characters, get readers to care about them, then hurl endless mud pies of trauma in their faces to see what happens.  But questions sound like the basis of something more substantial.  I can work with questions.

merenoWhat kind of questions though?  I mean, I know the sorts of questions I obsessed about when I was a teenager but that was almost thirty years ago.  Do today’s teenagers think about the same sorts of things?  Turns out, they do.

Where do I fit into the world?  What’s going to happen to me?  Who should I look like?  Am I good enough?  What do others think of me?  How do I measure up to other people?  Am I liked?  What do I have to do to get where I want to be in life?  Do all good things have to end?  Why don’t I just go kill myself?  Will I ever find anyone to like me?  Should I really do this thing that so and so wants me to do?  Will they like me if I don’t?  What right do these people have to tell me what to do anyway?  Does all this crap really mean anything?   

I found it rather comforting to learn that teenagers have not changed significantly since the eighties.  In fact, I suspect they have remained fairly consistent since their invention in the mid-twentieth century.  I found it less comforting when I learned that thirteen-year-old girls still feel the need to “act dumb” to entice boys.  Grim.

These same thirteen-year-old girls had very definite ideas about the kind of boy their stupidity should attract.  While there are no real surprises on this list, I did learn a new term or two.  Again, as an adult writer of YA fiction I found it interesting to realise that teens never change.

Success Criteria for a Fictional YA Romantic Hero

(as decided by the girls of 8H1D1)

1) Tall.  Tall?  Apparently yes.  This was unanimous.  Thirteen-year-old girls in the 21st century still like to “feel protected”.  So, you still got some work to do there, Buffy.

2) Funny.  That’s better.  This was also unanimous and is backed up by Caitlin Moran who firmly believes that “if, after fifty years of sitcoms on television, you have not learned at least a few good jokes then you are fairly useless as a bloke.”

frankie-cocozza-feat bw copy3) Nice hair.  Naturally I asked them to qualify what they meant by “nice hair”.  Very short, neat hair is not acceptable.  It should be wavy, a bit long and slightly floppy.  But only if that suits the boy.  These girls then proceeded to point out three boys in their class with long hair who were not suitable.

4) A bit naughty.  Smartly uniformed boys who never get told off in lessons, always turn in homework and open doors for their mums are absolutely off the menu.   One young lady described her dream boy as “rough and ready”.  Aside from the amount of time these boys spend standing outside the Head Teacher’s Office, a drool worthy hottie should push the boundaries of school uniform: black jeans instead of trousers, tie worn off to the side, blazer always bundled into a bag.

tumblr_m7jh31lsy51rzrh78o1_5005) Cheekbones.  This surprised me, as it seems like such a subtle detail of appearance for teenage girls to focus on.  They were in universal agreement however.  A nicely sculpted pair of cheekbones is essential.

6) Not too hairy.  This is a bit of a wasted criteria element because, as I pointed out to them, there is little danger of too much hairy on a teenage boy.

7) A good “V-line”.  A what?  Apparently the “V-Line” is a side-effect of a well-formed six-pack.  The handy visual aid to the right shows in vivid detail what the v-line points to.  Who knew thirteen-year-old girls were so saucy?

*

So now, thanks to my Breaktime Lads and the Ladies of 8H1D1 I have questions to consider for my latest novel and a blueprint for Lewis Breeze, my fanciable anti-hero.  In terms of Floretta Deliverance Hughes, I am left with three interesting questions to explore.  What happens when a girl who believes she’d be better off dead accidentally succeeds then returns to haunt the world she hated?  Another character Rosie Lightowler, knows exactly where life is taking her, but what happens when tragic circumstances force her to completely re-think her place in the world?  For Lewis Breeze, a boy who has made not giving a toss his entire persona, can he find meaning and purpose to his life?

All of these characters, in different ways, will ask: “Why don’t I just kill myself?”  Ultimately this question is about finding something to live for–someone or something to live for and fight for and die for.  Maybe the real question then is: “What would you die for?”  Or possibly even: “How do you know you’ve found something worth living for?”

From the diary of Floretta Deliverance Hughes. 21st May, 1875

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My dearest friend,

I shall not be attending school today because a beautiful death takes time to arrange. No doubt Reverend Hughes will have something to say about this, but I shall not be lectured.  I shall be dead.  The Reverend Daddy’s views on truancy do not trouble me.  Neither do his views on anything else.  Only death holds power over me now.  May the angels judge justly those whom I leave behind.  May their hearts weep as the heavens open for the dying soft voice of this lost daughter.  May God have mercy upon me in death as he never did in life.  

Remember me as your faithful,

Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot

*

Flora’s death was not going the way she had hoped.  To begin with, the cherry blossoms refused to co-operate.  She wanted them to fall gracefully across the surface of the river like pink petal teardrops.  They should surround her corpse as it drifted toward the village where her tragic drowning could create maximum impact when discovered by a charming shepherd boy with golden curls who would wade into the water and press her be-flowered body to his lean, muscular chest and mourn the cruel passing of so lovely a maiden.

That was the plan at least, but it was simply not working. The pretty and perfectly pink blossoms clung stubbornly to the tree over-hanging the east bank of Burrs Water, not even releasing their grip after Flora vigorously shook several branches.  Only a handful of browning, half-rotted petals fell to the rain-soaked ground, after which they were far too foul to be useful.

Undaunted, Flora fingered the daisy and rosemary chain crowning her coppery locks.  Ideally they would be woven through, but her hair grew stubbornly straight and the tiny flowers kept sliding out.  She lifted her full skirts admiring the beaded pattern of violets on the layers of white silk fabric then fanned them out on either side until she was certain she resembled some variety of lace-trimmed water lily.  Slowly, so as not to disturb the careful arrangement of dress and hair and without dropping the posy of bluebells, rue and more rosemary clutched in one clenched fist or the pair of significant books in her other, Flora waded into the water.

Instantly she flinched.  Sharp stones punctured the tender flesh of her bare feet.  Courage, Lady Ophelia.  After a few moments the icy temperature of the river numbed her vulnerable skin.  Then all she could think about was the cold.  Did you believe this wouldn’t be painful?  It’s death.  Death hurts.  She grasped the next tier of her dress, lifting it higher.  Doubtlessly the amount of leg revealed would scandalise any lesser (or normal) young lady.  Flora revelled in the rebellion of it—a final rebellion.  She sucked in the chilly spring dawn through chattering teeth before shuffling further out into the very cold indeed river.

‘My death cannot possibly offer more pain than my life,’ Flora intoned.

For several moments, Floretta Deliverance Hughes stood frozen in the middle of Burrs Water eyes tightly closed, face lifted to heaven.  Nothing happened.  Her brows knitted.  Still nothing happened.  Her eyes blinked open to the pale green undersides of willow leaves, the bobbing pink cherry blossoms and the hazy purple dawn.  It would be another clear and glorious spring day.  Another day with 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 wasn’t deep enough.  Not deep enough to carry her gracefully along its current—not even deep enough to drown her.  Perhaps, if she plunged in face-down she might be able to—  No!  Drowning face down was artistically unacceptable.  Sigh.

How very disappointing.  First the cherry blossoms ruined her aesthetics and now the river mocked her with its drought. Even the weather seemed opposed to aiding her death.  Despite an atmospheric mist blanketing the Vale of Burr, dawn promised a morning of clear, blue sunshine.  Sunshine!  What simple person would commit suicide on such a beautifully blue spring morning?  Not this one.

Quite, quite disappointing.  No use going through all the business of drowning if Flora could not do it beautifully.  Were there any golden-haired shepherd boys living in Burly-the-Wath anyway?  None came to mind.

Flora sighed again.  It was not to be.  Not like this.  Hiking up her heavy skirts, she waddled with difficulty out of the river and up the steep grassy river bank after discarding her small bouquet into the river.  With disgust she noted how perfectly the shallow current carried along the little indigo flowers and woody green spikes of rosemary.  She laid a leather-bound copy of Hamlet and a cloth-covered Poems of Tennyson on a woollen cloak spread out along the grass.  Flora had not been able to decide which volume should be discovered clutched against her lifeless bosom so she brought both.  After wiping her legs and feet dry on the cloak, she gathered a sheaf of papers tied with a skinny length of crimson ribbon and made notes on her latest experiment in “Les Beaux Arts Macabre”.

Post Script.  The death waiting at my door shall have to wait a while longer.  It shall not happen today, my dearest friend.  Your Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot lives to despair another morrow.  Attempt the fifth at a beautiful death foiled by drought, sunshine, floral awkwardness and lack of handsome shepherd. Aesthetic note: bluebells more accommodating than cherry blossoms.

Flora sulked and shivered at the foot of the unobliging cherry tree along the bank of the corpseless river.  A wasted morning, but lessons had been learned.  Perhaps she should wait for autumn to make another attempt.  Burrs Water would be bursting its banks in October.  Beneath the Post Script, Flora scribbled:

“Autumn is the time for death when the waters freely flow, the leaves all lose their will to survive and all the earth braces itself for winter’s death…”   She scratched out her second use of the word “death” and replaced it with “chill”.  Then, after a moment added “which all shall kill”.  Flora grimaced at her terrible use of meter and forced rhyme.  Quite, quite disappointing. Anyone styling herself as “Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot” should have better mastery of literary forms really.  Not that it mattered.  There was no “dearest friend” regardless.  No one would ever read these.  No would care what she wrote or how she died or even if she even lived at all.

Pointless.  Disappointing.  Futile.  That is the true story of my life.  Those are the only words I truly need.  Flora thought but did not document these final musings.  They were far too bleak even for Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot.

Floretta Deliverance Hughes 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 lacy dappled patterns on the grassy banks, the bubbling river and the lacy layers of Flora’s voluminous dress.  She sighed a third time.  All the forces of God and man and nature are against me.

Ah, well.  The day was early still.  If she hurried she might be able to get to school on time thus avoiding a tiresome tirade from The Reverend Daddy.  First she would need to deconstruct her non-crime scene.  She removed the daisy-rosemary crown and wrapped it around her bound papers, her Tennyson and her copy of Hamlet    Gertrude should have been specific in her description of Ophelia’s suicide.  Less poetic, more instructive.

Attire was going to prove difficult.  Flora had not anticipated the need to return from the scene of her suicide.  She crept out of the house just before dawn, wool cloak firmly wrapped about her so the white gown would not attract unwanted attention, though she did admire the effect of the full moonlight which made the silk glow silver beneath its violet bead pattern.   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 padded puffed 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.  This included most everyone in Burly-the-Wath.  “Plebeian breeders of stench and stupidity,” according to The Reverend Daddy.  “Odd words coming from a Shepherd of Men,” Flora’s eldest sister Rose Prudence once retorted, and not out of his hearing.  Rosie was like that.  Middle sister Lillian Chaste would sooner go mute than criticise father.  And Flora…what Flora said never mattered to anyone.

Fortunately, the vicar’s youngest daughter knew many secret paths and so managed to avoid detection, though the return journey took her twice as long.  By the time Flora approached the imposing iron gates and close-planted sheltering trees of the vicarage, her fingers had cramped with cold and the effort of holding up the hefty layers of skirt.  She hadn’t bothered with petticoat or under things or even shoes—only a nightdress and mother’s gown.  En route from the river, Flora’s legs and feet 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.

Shoving open the front door, Flora deposited her cloak on the threshold ignoring the obvious pegs then flung her collection of books and papers, diary included, through the open doorway of The Reverend Daddy’s library.  If he should pick it up and read it, so much the better.  But she knew he would not.  He’d step around it as if it didn’t exist until Priss tidied it all.  By the end of the day each discarded item would magically appear neatly arranged in Flora’s room.

Mother’s wedding dress might be harder to ignore.  Flora pulled it off over her head—no need to fuss with multitudinous buttons, the frock was three sizes too large.  Though she was taller than Mother had been—taller than most fifteen-year-old girls, a misfortune her sisters never hesitated to remark upon.  And skinny.  “You’re so lucky to never need corsets, Flora,’ Lilli often insulted, “Gowns hang off you as if you aren’t even there.”  She would always say this whilst smugly admiring her own plump figure.  Cow.

Flora draped mother’s dress across the main staircase where no one could fail to miss it.  She considered removing her shift as well—perhaps knotting it about the banister and walking her tall, skinny naked self down the hall to her room, but she thought better of it.  The Reverend Daddy might ignore obvious attempts at suicide but blatant impropriety was sure to catch his attention.  Flora was already depressed enough.

Wet and muddy footprints traced a clear route from the front door to the sisters’ shared bedroom.  She made no attempt to conceal her presence from the waking house.  Why bother?  Flora learned long ago the pointlessness of caution.  No one noticed her efforts at stealth.  No one confronted her violations of normal conduct.  No one noticed her at all.  No one ever did.  She was no one to everyone.

Floretta Deliverance Hughes lived her life as a ghost.  The tall and skinny and perpetually ignored spectre at every feast.  This was only appropriate really.  “I entered the world on a wave of death,” she had once written in her diary.  “Last nail in the coffin of my parent’s dream.”  Their “dream” being a male heir to inherit the family name and wealth.  One daughter was acceptable, two were regrettable, but three daughters and no son…  That was tragic.  The Hughes family had failed.

According to The Reverend Daddy, failures are best forgotten.  “If we fail, we move on.   We do not look back, but keep our eyes firmly fixed on the future.”  But there would never be a future son for Reverend Hughes.  Mother died one month after giving birth to her third, final daughter.  Thus Flora was the failure her family tried to forget.

“I live a haunted life.”

In an effort to transcend this grim existence Flora filled pages of her diary with mournful poems, most of which were plagiarised from Tennyson, Shelley or Rossetti.  Days spent loitering in fields of wildflowers hoping some wild artist might find her and paint her proved to be days wasted.  Hopeful wanderings through the high and private wheat fields of the Vale of Burr on the off-chance a rakish stable boy might feel the urge to ruin her reputation came to naught.  The closest thing to handsome stable boy in Burly-the-Wath was the blacksmith’s son Otto.  Unfortunately, whilst he was large and lovely, Otto was no rake.  “Though he may have farm equipment for brains,” Flora witticised.

In light of all this, death seemed the best option.  She could wait for child birth to kill her as it had her mother, but there was no guarantee of this and it seemed like a very painful and lengthy process.  So Floretta took matters into her own hands.  Regrettably, Flora’s hands, though sensitive to the artistry of tableau, were far from expert in the ways of death.

In the vicarage cellar, a close approximation to the Capulet family crypt, Flora attempted to thrust a dagger though her breast in the manner of Juliet, only to be interrupted by Priss who needed the best kitchen knife to carve Sunday roast.  At harvest time, she hung herself in the barn rafters by her own christening gown, which only tore the fabric and had not been long enough regardless.  Death by starvation had been foiled by Tilly’s Christmas cake.  Attempts to contract consumption by stalking anyone with a cough, drinking large quantities of milk then avoiding sunlight simply did not work at all.  And now Ophelia’s drowning scene…  Sigh.

Flora brooded on these failures as she dressed numbly for school. She ignored the giggling banter between her sisters who laced each other’s stays in preparation for their day of utter uselessness.  “If we fail, we move on.   We do not look back, but keep our eyes firmly fixed on the future.”  Poison would be the next experiment.  Apple stones allegedly contained cyanide.  How many would she need to consume?  Visions of her limp body dressed in a school pinafore discovered beneath the orchard behind St Becket’s brought a rare smile to Flora’s gaunt face.

From the shared bedroom window she could see St Becket’s school, its stark black and white wattle and daub contrasted with most of the grey stone buildings in of the village.  Beyond it, the high peaks of Grimsrigg Fell protectively embraced the Vale of Burr.

Such high peaks…so very, very high

Flora grinned.  A dramatic leap off the rocky edge of a mist-shrouded moor seemed an attractive way to die.  Difficult to botch as well. All she would have to do is fall. 

“A truly beautiful death.  Beaux Arts Macabre!  I’ll need to find something red for the occasion.  A red girl flying through the air.  How could anyone possibly ignore that?”