Old habits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarianne had taken the least expensive room. The place was visibly dying, crumbling with a lack of genuine love. She’d passed it often enough, wondered who the hell would stay in such a cattle pen. Now here she was standing in one of its windows, gazing down at her Subaru in the parking lot. There were three other cars, none of them worthy of extended attention. It was almost dark.

She pulled the curtains tight together with a shudder. As she flopped back onto the bed, under the swaying ceiling fan with its faint metal-on-metal squeal, she thought about those habits that had stitched themselves into her, how hard they were to unpick. Even in a moment like this, in the whirlpool of it all, when it was so far from important, she’d still needed a bargain. She couldn’t simply forget the money, say “what the hell?”. She could almost hear Henry’s voice in her head, wanting to know what she was wasting their money on now. At least it made her smile, albeit bitterly.

The mattress was brutal – stony in some places, shredded in others, and never consistent, whichever way she arranged herself. Marianne was still in her uniform. There was blood on it. That old guy with the greaseproof-paper flesh – he’d bled like a gutted fish when she changed his dressings. Warfarin. She kicked off her shoes and felt pure physical pleasure for once. How long must it have been?

The suitcase she’d stuffed lay open next to her. She hoped to find comfortable underwear, and pyjamas, but in the few frantic minutes she’d had she’d just scooped things up randomly from anywhere. She’d needed to be out of there before Henry and whoever it was came out of the shower. It was another one from his office, she’d guessed, looking at the clothing strewn across the bedroom. That Linda bitch, probably, all big hair and tits. If she was braver, she reasoned, she’d have stuck around, confronted them, not fled. But she was too tired for that. She just wanted to curl up and sleep.

How that was going to be possible here she wasn’t sure. She mouthed quiet curses at herself. She hadn’t even looked in the bathroom, checked out who or what she might be sharing it with.

She upended the suitcase. She found the bottom half of a pair of pyjamas, but there didn’t seem to be a top, never mind a matching one. She had – unintentionally – grabbed Henry’s old college football shirt, the one she’d taken to wearing as a nightdress. She flung it across the room, though there wasn’t far for it to go. She picked out a sweater, then put it to one side, figuring it was going to be way too warm to sleep in without any air-conditioning in the room.

Then she found something she’d never seen before, something that certainly wasn’t hers. A small but very expensive-looking patent leather purse was nestling in the pile of clothing. It had silver trim reinforcing the corners, some kind of monogram design that didn’t mean anything to her.

She opened the clip. There must’ve been three, maybe four hundred in cash, easy. She slipped out a credit card and examined the name on it. Linda Franklin, it said, both in the raised lettering across the front, and a scrupulously tidy signature on the reverse strip.

Marianne lay back on the bed again. She tapped the edge of the card absent-mindedly against her nose. The whining of the fan seemed to be getting louder.

She leaned over and grabbed the phone, lifting the receiver.



Image by cygk



Nail clippings


We found nail clippings lying in the sink in the bathroom at his apartment. It looks like it was one of the final things he did before leaving, getting into his car and driving across town. Maybe he cut them too short – maybe that was what made him do it? They were serious clippings for a guy.

It’s irritating, frustrating, when you do that, leave them too short, expose the quick, even wound the nailbed. But easily done. A casual slip, a simple misjudgement. If you keep your nails relatively long, there’s plenty to play with, margin for error. But if they’re short anyway – it doesn’t take much in the way of carelessness and you’re in trouble.

Then you get that uncomfortable feeling. It’s not quite pain – unless you really do draw blood – but it’s impossible to ignore. And you can’t put them back on once they’ve been cut, can you?

There’s a Charlie Brown cartoon I recall from childhood, a line one of the characters says – maybe even Charlie himself. “Cutting your fingernails too short is like discovering your psychiatrist has gone away for the weekend.” Or perhaps it’s the other way round? Anyway, it always kills me thinking about it.

He drank a coffee at Nina’s, down by the riverfront. We know that because we have the footage. There’s a traffic camera on that corner, trying to catch drivers jumping the lights. He arrives at 10.25, alone, looking nervous. We can’t tell that from his face – the resolution’s not that good. But he’s doing a lot of looking around, guilty fidgeting, almost like he’s expecting to be watched, when all the time he is being watched, of course. Maybe he never noticed that camera?

He empties six of those little sachets of sugar into his coffee. Can you believe that? At first we thought the tape must be sticking on playback, except they don’t use tape these days of course. It’s all digital. And even though he’s already cut his nails to the quick – probably – he’s gnawing away at his finger-ends. Long enough and he’d be down to bone.

She arrives at 11. Classy. One of those who wears sunglasses all the time when she’s outside. I’m just guessing here, of course. Very unprofessional of me. I can’t prove it, and it’s probably not relevant. He gets up to kiss her. She must be in heels, because they’re almost the same height, and he’s no midget. Five eleven, easy. Maybe six.

And then they leave.

That’s all we have. Our guys are searching the river, but we’re not hopeful. After all the storms of the last few days, it’s fuller than it’s been for years. It’s conceivable anything of interest could’ve been washed out into the ocean by now.

Looking at it, it would be difficult to pinpoint a specific, solely-responsible catalyst for something like this – it usually is. Sometimes one thing simply leads to another. Maybe his fingernails had nothing to do with it. It’s just something we noticed. The forensics guys are running DNA tests on the clippings, naturally. But there’ll probably be nothing under his nails for them to look at if we ever do find him.


Nettle Soup

April 15th

These woods don’t offer exceptional scope for foraging, but it’s become one of my personal annual rituals to make nettle soup every spring using leaves harvested fresh from the undergrowth.

NettlesIf you’ve never tried or even heard of nettle soup, it might seem an unlikely dish. Nettles are more renowned for their stinging capabilities than their culinary value, but they do make a very nutritious and palatable broth. In fact, they are one of the most historically useful wild plants to be found in the British Isles, having been employed in the past to make herbal remedies, dyes, beer and even rope.

They are at their best just now. The new shoots and leaves which have emerged in the past few weeks are still tender, and relatively easy to digest. Later on, they become stringy, fibrous and a much chewier prospect. In the past, they would’ve been a precious source of vitamins at this time of year, which was traditionally known as “The Hungry Gap” – the period when the previous year’s stored harvest was all but depleted, and the new season’s crops were still far from ready. It was a time when foraging for wild sources of food would’ve been a matter of survival rather than just curiosity. Knowing which plants and fungi were edible and nutritious – as well as tasty – was essential.
Nettle soup
I choose nettles for harvest which are growing well away from any paths, and therefore – hopefully – where dogs have pissed. I wash them well before using them in any case, but I figure such selectivity increases the chances of them being uncontaminated! I’ve handled so many nettles over the years that the tips of my thumbs and forefingers appear to be immune to the stings now. I’ve heard it said that nettle stings used to be (and perhaps still are) reckoned to prevent arthritis, but I’d advise wearing gloves all the same! The sting is neutralised by cooking, so your mouth, gullet and stomach will be unaffected. It’s possible to add other vegetables to your soup – e.g. carrots, leeks – but I like to keep mine simple.

You’ll need:

1 onion;
2 or 3 medium sized all-purpose potatoes;
3 or 4 good handfuls of nettle leaves and/or tops, washed and roughly chopped;
2 pints of vegetable stock;
Butter or oil for frying;
Salt and pepper to taste.

  • Slice the onion finely, and fry gently in the butter or oil in a saucepan until softened.
  • Cut the potatoes into small cubes – I prefer not to peel them, just scrub them well.
  • Add the potatoes and stock to the pan and bring to the boil.
  • Reduce to simmer and cook until the potatoes are almost soft.
  • Add the nettles and cook for a further five minutes.
  • Season to taste. Liquidise if you prefer your soups this way. Adding a little cream or milk is also an option.
  • Nettle soup is particularly great served with homemade wholemeal bread.


Relatively painless

He warned me to expect what he described as a slight scratching sensation.

needleHis mouthwash blue eyes followed the business end of the Novocain-charged hypodermic, as he located its point on the soft felting under the roof of my mouth. He caught my own eyes for a half-second of human recognition, then drifted away to something behind and beyond my reclined head, fractionally off the map, lulled by the routine of it all. I almost expected a yawn. He looked exhausted enough.

Drifting clearly being the thing, I thought about the tableau I’d seen outside on my arrival. The trio of men in tangerine hi-vis jackets probing a hole opened up in the high street using the biggest toothpick I’d ever seen. I could still hear the impatient blaring of car horns caught in the backlog, despite the muffler effect of the buildings.

I pictured the three of them, knocking off soon or thinking about it anyway, their retreat to an unloved guesthouse somewhere or a pallet in a damp shipping container. Rinsing away another day with bottles of imported lager. Some perfunctory text messaging to a loved or lusted-after one. Small screen poker, pornography. Or maybe Sartre instead? Origami. All of it unfair, ridiculous.

I started to come back. But what to? Small, sensitive parts of me were beginning to go numb, to take on a feeling of not feeling, advancing down a track towards not really being there. On the ceiling overhead, out of the Hollywood glare of surgery lighting, he’d blu-tacked a troop of butterflies snipped out of stiff paper by his twin girls in kindergarten. Some were green, some yellow. One was orange.

I watched them swirl around, the beating of their huge, flimsy wings surely an impossibility when their bodies were so relatively tiny. I imagined my own arms in similar proportions, how long they would have to be, how ungainly and incapable of butterfly grace.

He raised the shaft of the drill, already whirring, up towards my mouth.

“Tap the arm of the chair,” he said, “if you need to take a break.”

Not the Night Owl


Great Horned OwlI’m a great believer that there’s no time like the present. This goes for writing just as much as any other activity. The best time to be doing it is now. And however much you want to analyse it, agonise about it or make excuses for it, there’s really only one way to do it, which is one word at a time. Write a word. Then write another one. And just keep going. Easy.

Now this is all very well, but if we’re being strictly honest, any of us who indulge in any kind of creative pursuit – be it painting, sculpture, music or scribbling down chains of words – do find certain conditions preferable to others. Maybe we need peace and quiet. A certain quality of light. Caffeine, or some other drug, might feel like it either loosens us up or energises us – or even both.

And there may be a certain time within our innate daily rhythms when we feel more able to connect with our creative selves. For some people, this is early in the morning when they’re still fresh – first thing, even. Before the brain has had chance to fill up and over-burden itself with trivia, reminders and other quotidian trash.

Not me. I love the idea of this, of springing out of bed and finding myself immediately faced by a blank page, ripe for filling up with whichever words come first. But if I were to tell you that it is currently – as I type out these thoughts – fourteen minutes to midnight, you’ll get an inkling as to the part of the day in which my juices tend to be at their runniest. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that this is the only time of day when I either can or do write. It’s just the time when it feels most natural. When I can even start to feel just a little unstoppable.

And it’s really bloody inconvenient.

clock at midnight

It wouldn’t be, of course, if I didn’t have a job to hold down that required me to be in certain places at certain times, some of them mornings. It also wouldn’t be if I wasn’t someone who really enjoyed daylight, and being outdoors in the fresh air. And preferred to be asleep when it’s dark, rather than wasting daylight hours in bed, especially those precious winter ones.

The fact is, I’m not a night owl at all – except when it comes to writing.

I remember how during my days as a student I would find the period between eight and eleven at night the most conducive to writing essays and assignments. Not conducive to having any kind of social life worth having though.

So if anything, my optimum writing time seems to be getting later as I get older.
I suppose an obvious solution to this – if one is really needed – is to write a bestseller and be able to make a living as a writer full-time. Quit the nine-to-five schedule and invent your own.

Leave it with me…

The Rookery

April 1st

Like people, some birds are territorial by nature, while others flock comfortably together. Sometimes there is safety to be had in numbers, in knowing your neighbours, even when you live cheek-by-jowl with them.

Every year, in the same south-eastern corner of the woods, dozens of rooks gather, and build their nests high up in a dense cluster of sycamore crowns. Seen just now from a distance in silhouette – before the trees’ leaves have fully unfurled themselves – each nest resembles a tangled bundle of cells in the complex map of a nervous system.


The rookery cannot be missed. Piles of sticks and twigs – having either fallen accidentally from the nest mid-construction, or been rejected as inferior, inadequate material for the project – litter the ground beneath. Rook-shit spatters the emerging leaves of understorey plants, and threatens the heads of joggers and dog-walkers using the footpath curling by below. The noise, the endless chatter, is hard to ignore.

2200746587_35eba45b4c_zIn flight, rooks and crows can be difficult to distinguish. On the ground, and at close quarters, rooks are identifiable by their greyish bills and spectacled appearance, their more upright, striding gait. I find them less sinister-looking than any of their corvid cousins, than crows in particular, who seem able only to scowl. In fact, I find there’s something almost professorial about rooks. Were they to have hands instead of wings, you could imagine them clasped together behind their backs as they strolled earnestly around some college quad, beaks bowed deep in thought. In reality, they’re more commonly seen loitering alongside the main road leaving town, looking for worms, or grain discarded by passing trucks, at the edge of the withered grass. They’ll eat carrion – roadkill – too.

But why that particular spot for a rookery, that cluster of trees? And nowhere else? They’ve presumably been nesting there for many, many years, well before the housing estates that now circle the woods were built. Since those trees reached maturity, perhaps, and became strong enough to support their hefty nests?

A theory I’ve come up with is that they’ve chosen the corner of the woods that gets the most sunlight without being over-exposed to the prevailing westerly winds. But it’s only a theory. Maybe it was the first spot they came to? Maybe they just like the view?

Whatever the reason for it, watching the skies overhead when the rooks return to their nests to roost in the evening is some spectacle. It may not be quite as breath-taking as the murmuration rituals performed by starlings before they roost (something I have been fortunate enough to witness before), but there is a peculiar music to the calls the rooks make to one another as they circle the canopy, especially on a still day when the noise echoes through the trees. Sometimes, they will all appear to have settled for the night, when a noise or other disturbance sends them airborne again, shrieking. They fly round and round en masse, until the message is communicated that all is well, and roosting – properly this time – can begin anew.