A Simple Plan

A rather poem I wrote a few years back about Burke and Hare……

 

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The idea seemed just too simple
A knowing glance, a nod, tankards raised.
With that, a bond was cemented;
A whispered pact; a macabre union made.

The first was a gift from the devil,
A wheezing lodger, drunken, asleep
Minutes later his body lay lifeless
Our mission was almost complete.

Through the dense night we carried the body
A shroud to cover our path
Dogs barked, rats scavenged, drunks wallowed
But no one lingered; no one stared; no one asked .

The fresh corpse was shiftily welcomed,
Snatched at; no questions asked
A silent transaction passed swiftly
Now Knox could deliver his class

The streets of Auld Reekie seemed crammed now
With cadavers coveted like gold,
Choose wisely, we thought, be cannae
Pluck unwanted, pathetic, poor souls.

So it seemed, thereon that they came to us,
A kinship we knew we how to hearten
We’d drink with them;
Laugh with them
Comfort, then murder them;
Sell them to Knox who would butcher them.
Their faces peeled back out of sight.

We delayed things one night
We were cocky; it was the ale that led us astray
Our body lay cold, undelivered
One drink; a simple delay.

A scream was all that was needed
And we knew through the drunken fug
That our scheme had now been uncovered
Its dissection, its judgements begun.

The idea now seemed just too simple
A whispered pact; my partner betrayed
With that his fate was cemented
And mine?
A deal of freedom made.

 

 

 

 

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Drop Dead – a story for Hallowe’en.

Arnold Smillie enters his turreted study, all ease and good-humour. It is his penultimate day as headmaster. Tomorrow he will bid farewell to the ‘rigors’ of education, easing himself instead into retirement: golfing and lunching and many other ‘ings’ at the New Club. ‘Relaxing’ he muses to himself. ‘Reading’ yes, one of the many crisp papers that lay spread on the leather coffee tables.
His send-off would be satisfyingly predictable; an assembly, triumphant and celebratory; then lunch with glasses raised rounding off this week of tributes. He thumbs through the pile of envelopes stacked on his desk and peels one open. A bunny lies in a hammock: ‘Goodbye tension……hello pension.’ He glances inside: ‘All the best Arnold, David.’ Ah yes, his snivelling depute. The next reveals a sketch of various gardening equipment: wellington boots, a trowel. He flicks it open. The writing is a blood red scrawl:
‘A career built on bullying, misogyny and misplaced power. How many lives did you ruin? Hope you DROP DEAD!’
He gasps.
Minutes pass. Still he stares. Then in one explosive movement, he tears the card into pieces and throws them into the bin.
He moves around the room shuffling papers. Glancing back at the bin he spots a shred of card, the words ‘drop dead’ still complete. He tips the pieces out onto the floor. The flimsy plastic liner is thrust aside, the torn fragments tossed back. He rakes through his drawer until he finds an old lighter. He hoists the window open and stands lighting one piece after another. Small puffs of smoke waft out into the crisp morning air.
The words are gone.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sleep for Smillie that night is a fractured affair. He arrives at work on this, his final morning, a little blurred. Forced smiles and frivolous comments drift over him as he paces to his study. He shuts the heavy door behind him, relieved at the silence.
Another pile of cards has been transported from pigeon-hole to desk. He fans the pile with one finger. Then snatches at one randomly and rips open the envelope. ‘On your Retirement’ a sparkly banner hangs over a fishing boat. He hesitates, then opens the card. ‘Wishing you a long and fulfilling retirement….thanks for everything you did for Jamie’. He smiles broadly. Of course! This is what it’s all about. Now the anticipation of the day’s events come flooding back. He reaches for his gown hanging on the back of the door and pauses for a second to brush off a fleck of something: a tiny piece of ash? He swings the gown around him like a toreador when there is a knock at the door. Smillie opens it. His secretary, Pearl stands behind a bouquet of flowers, lilies with their staining pollen fronds snipped off smothered in glistening cellophane. Her face juts out like a freakish grinning doll. Pearl likes to talk. Smillie reaches for the flowers and shuts the door. He scans the card.
‘In hopeful anticipation of your imminent funeral. May you have a brief retirement until you DROP DEAD.’
His jaw clicks.
He quickly repeats his method of burning the card and then, oozing charm, presents the flowers to Pearl. It is she who truly deserves them.
The hall is full. Smillie sits on the stage, above his expectant school. Children perform, class by class, songs, re enactments and tributes to their beloved headmaster. Smillie fixes a smile and forces laughter at the appropriate moments. But his mind is busy. Who? Who sent those poisonous words? They must be exposed. Punished. Suddenly he is interrupted – a child with a whining voice mentions his name. A poem is being recited. Smillie grins robotically, eyes glazed. A past member of staff is the only answer. No current member of staff would dare.
He tunes in again, graciously stepping forward to accept a large mound of portraits made by little ones. He returns to his seat and looks down at the bulky stack of cracked poster paint images of himself with a big moon face and thick red lips. Leaning down to put the pile under his seat he notices a large envelope already there. Reaching for it, he slips a trembling hand inside to pull out an oversized card. Instant relief washes over him – it’s from the staff. Multi-coloured, inky messages are scrawled everywhere: ‘Warmest wishes!’, ‘Enjoy those long lies!’. He’s just about to close it once more when he notices in the top right corner, gouged in scarlet:
‘Drop. Dead. Odious. Monster!’
Someone here? His eyes search. Who is watching him open that card? They stand to sing the school song. Smillie’s eyes race up and down the aisles.
And then he sees her.
In the middle of a row, towering between two pupils. She is emaciated, with clammy skin and dark ringed eyes. Her hair hangs, long, red and dank.
Her?
He rubs his forehead. It is damp. Memories deeply buried resurface. Everywhere mouths are opening and shutting, singing with gusto. He dares to look at her again. She is mouthing something too. Something different:
D-R-O-P…..D-E-A-D.
Sweat claws the back of his neck. Why was she here looking like death warmed up? He turns to whisper to his depute. He’ll remember that insufferable woman. He looks at Smillie blankly. Stupid fool. Smillie swings back, gesturing angrily to where she is standing. Adrenalin surges. She’s gone. He blinks. Then re-focuses. Someone is saying his name. The singing has stopped. Beady eyes are staring at him. Then staccato applause envelops his ears. It is sharp and offensive. He feels a hand press on his arm. He snatches it back glaring. A woman beside him is leaning in, saying something. Then everything comes back into sharp focus. It’s a presentation of course.
Of course.
He stands slowly and is met with more clapping – slower this time and a little stilted. Black spots spawn and spread in front of his eyes. He walks forward. Dazed, his fumbling fingers reach for another damn envelope and a cardboard tube. Whisky. He turns to give thanks. Words are uttered. Aloud or from some dark place inside. But not the right ones. It makes no sense.
She’s dead Arnold. Dead. You know that don’t you?
He pretends he’s overwhelmed. He is overwhelmed. He sits down. Drops of sweat begin to trickle down his face. The fixed smile aches.
Words flow and flash in his mind: Harassment. Intimidation. Bully! That damn word again! Always that word. Anger burns in his veins. It wasn’t as though he’d actually killed the girl! She’d chosen that route herself!
Weak, tiresome idiot! Unfit for purpose!
In blinkered bewilderment, Smillie staggers back to his office. He shuts the door and stands at his desk, steadying himself. His throbbing head weighs downward. There’s a knock. An envelope slides under the door. Pearl no doubt, not wanting to disturb. He moves awkwardly to the window to rest his head against the cold glass. Through the mist of his breath, pupils are running and squealing. Then all is quiet for a moment and a scant figure glides across the quad. A woman with long red hair. She stops and looks up at Smillie, a smirk slashed across her stony white face.
A sound from the door. More cards appear under the door. Smillie glances back. She has gone. Panic is replaced with fury as card after card appear pushing, shoving, ramming under the door. Hundreds of cards are now piling up. Smillie kicks them out of the way and heaves the door open. Nobody is there. He storms round the corner to Pearl’s desk. She stands up from her computer with doe eyes. She has no idea what he means. She hasn’t left her desk for the last half hour. Smillie snarls in his retreat. Pearl sits back down, a trace of a smile on her lips.
Slamming the door Smillie rips open card after card.
Odious!
Vile!
Loathsome!
Abhorrent!
Depraved!
Wicked!
Evil!
Bully!
Murderer!
Toxic, shouting, screaming words are scrawled everywhere.
Drop Dead Arnold Smillie!
Reaching for the lighter, he rips at the shiny cards, shoving them into the bin. He flicks the lighter repeatedly. The pieces singe and choke but the words remain. There’s too many! He reaches for the cardboard tube of whisky, pulls the cork and douses the bin. With a flash the cards begin to curl and burn. Into the smouldering fire, more and more pieces are tossed. Smillie staggers up to open the window, he trips on his gown. Its billowing folds sweep into the grasping blaze. He wriggles it off his shoulders and stamps furiously on the smoking fabric. But licking, thrusting flames leap out of the bin and catch on the net curtains. They shoot up the window, spreading fire to the dusty drapes. They ignite.
Smillie hauls at the window. Smoke alarms trigger fire alarms……
It’s too late.

This Bonny Baby

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I had such a lovely morning on Friday with three classes at Baby Sensory Dundee. I was launching ‘This Bonny Baby’, a boardbook with adorable illustrations once again from Kasia. With its chunky format it’s perfect for little fingers.

The babies were all absolutely gorgeous and enjoyed the Bonny Baby puppet which was lovely. They interacted, they cuddled, they giggled, it was really funny and heartwarming. Who knew that such little souls would understand the humour of a puppet? I joked that it was like looking in the mirror for them….!

 

Bonny Baby Success!

Well, two bits of exciting news to mention on my blog. The first is that The Fourth Bonniest Baby in Dundee has been shortlisted for the Bookbug Picture Book Prize 2018! What a thrill and an honour! Kasia and I had great fun making a wee film for the Scottish Book Trust and we’re both delighted that the book will be enjoyed by Primary 1 children across Scotland! Huge thanks to Scottish Book Trust and congrats to other shorlisted authors Chae Strathie and Debi Gliori.

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Secondly – I’m thrilled that This Bonny Baby has just been published. This is a board book for tiny fingers with simple text and adorable illustrations by Kasia Matyjaszek. I’m really looking forward to doing a few mum and baby groups later this month to introduce them to the book!

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Don’t Look Up

I don’t normally post really personal thoughts on my blog. But I wanted to share this with you as I felt it might resonate. I visited a branch of Waterstones yesterday and had a good wander round. Normally I love going to bookshops but somehow this particular visit had an unwelcome effect; I felt overwhelmed. And my two books were nowhere to be seen.

I came away feeling despondant. Here am I attempting to be a writer and yet there are literally hundreds, thousands of books being published every year, filling the bookshelves. How does one compete?

But this morning I woke up and remembered the dream I’d had. Bear with me – I know it’s tiresome when people start reeling off their dreams. I was setting off on a walk but the walk became a climb and the climb was a seemingly never ending sheer face of ice. As I climbed I looked up and was dizzied with vertigo. I didn’t consider going back as some in front of me were. I decided to just focus on what was directly in front of me. Step by step I found foot holes in the ice. I hauled myself up with all my strength, never peeling my eyes away from my immediate path. Until finally, with immense satisfaction, I made it to the top. To safety.

Profound eh?

Don’t look up guys, it’s too much. Too overwhelming. Tackle what’s directly in front of you. One step at a time.

Now, back to the writing………

 

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Mud, Rats and Fears Western Front, 1915

With the centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele – one of the bloodiest of World War One,  it reminded me of a piece of writing I did a few years back. I wrote a book (unpublished) about Dundee’s connection to WW1. Anyway, here’s a chapter….

‘Whit d’yeah think Mags and wee Robert are up tae the now?’ asked Alec. He was huddled up in a hole cut out of the wall of the trench that was currently home. He peered out and up to the dusky grey, sullen sky. It would soon be dark. Rain fell in great soaking swathes. Water rippled down the stacked up sand bags and corrugated iron sheets that lined the walls and gushed into the murky mud pool that was the trench floor. Days, weeks, months even had been passed in this way, day after day in the trenches. Waiting.
While Alec thought to himself, hopeful of a suggestion from Donald, crouched in his own hole on the opposite side of the trench, he stared intently at the curves and coils on the print of his thumb. Mud stained its fine lines and creases. He spat on his thumb and rubbed. But still the dirt remained. And still he rubbed. Like Lady Macbeth the mud was his blood, an ever present reminder of this hell. The mud was part of their life now. It was everywhere. They lived in it, tried to move in it, cooked, ate and slept in it. And as Alec was now experiencing, it was tattooed into their very flesh.
‘Dunno,’ said Donald quietly tracing his hand over the rough surface of a jute sandbag beside him. It could have been woven and made in Dundee. Maybe Maggie’s nimble hands had been responsible for this very piece.
‘Robert’ll be havin his tea, mi’be some porridge wi’ a bit of sugar,’ he sighed. ‘Maggie’ll just be back fae the mill,’ He paused. ‘Life’ll be jist the same fir them, except their rain’ll jist be soaking the streets o’ Dundee. They’ll be tucked up inside. At least she’ll hae no idea aboot aw this.’
He leant his head on the cold dampness of the dugout wall and let his mind wander back to home; to Maggie laughing and singing ‘Ally Bally, Ally Bally Bee,’ to wee Robert who would be chuckling; to the warmth of their room and the steady comfort of domestic life. A dull ache settled in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly that sandbag seemed too poignant a reminder of home.
‘That’s just it,’ said Charles who was attempting to smoke a cigarette in the pouring rain, standing ankle deep in water. ‘The chaps at home will never understand this life,’ he mused, smoke licking its way out of his lips. ‘The only ones who’ll ‘get it’ are other soldiers like us.’
‘And the Hun,’ chipped in Alec. He pointed in the direction of No Man’s Land with his muddy thumb. ‘They’re probably o’er there richt noo talkin’ aboot the same stuff. They’re probably sloppin’ around in the mud like us.’
‘Dreaming of warm beds, hot baths and home?’ added Charles smiling.
There was a long pause as they all considered this. The rain dripping on a corrugated iron sheet was rhythmical and soothing. But the constant reminder of battle, of impending doom was the distant boom of bombs somewhere further down the line.
Their sombre mood was quite suddenly interrupted by a boot flying out of Alec’s dugout. It came out with such force that Charles had to quickly dodge out of the way.
‘Hey!’ he yelled. ‘Watch out old chap!’ And then he realised what Alec was aiming for – a rat the size of a cat had been scurrying and swimming through the trench happy as you like. It had stopped to investigate an empty bully beef can that was nestled half floating in the swill. Alec had seized his chance. The boot knocked it square on the head and it keeled over with a small and yet satisfying splash! They cheered! Rat killing of this kind had become quite a sport.
‘Got yeh ya wee blighter!’ said Alec with bitter triumph. He then clambered out and spiked the poor devil on his bayonet. ‘I hope yer mates are watching. Let that be a warning tae the rest o’ yeah! I hate yous all!’ And he pulled his bayonet back like a catapult and flung the rat with some force over the side. Alec found this deeply satisfying.
‘Nice work Private,’ laughed Charles. ‘One down, only five million nine hundred thousand and ninety nine left!’ he shouted triumphantly. They all laughed. It was a moment of light relief.
‘Aye, them and the lice,’ remarked Donald who’d begun running lit matches up and down his coat hoping to scorch their tiny bodies. ‘They ‘Scots Greys’ are the bain o’ ma life.’
Billy appeared along the trench.
‘Captain Dixon’s on his way. Look lively lads,’ he said and gave Alec’s ear lobe a hearty flick. Alec threw him a frown and rubbed his ear. ‘He’s wanting us fir a working party the night,’ he continued. ‘And that’s jist the start. There’s talk o’a big offensive.’
Alec groaned.
‘Braw,’ muttered Donald bitterly. ‘Just in time fer w’our move tae the front trench. Means we’ll be goin’ o’er the top.’
He looked anxiously over to Alec who was now quiet and pensive once more. He was lost, deep in thought.
Charles seemed thrilled with the news. ‘At last!’ he cheered. ‘About time we got to get out there instead of being the part-timers. I’m fed up digging trenches. I want to fight! It’s our turn! Time to make Dundee proud! We’ll be welcomed home as heroes!’
Donald nodded. But fear overwhelmed him. And he worried for Alec. Every night he was awoken by Alec crying out in the depths of a nightmare. The terrors of war gripped him even in his sleep.
‘At least we’ll get oot of these blasted trenches,’ remarked Alec quietly, hunched in the bitter cold. Darkness was beginning to fall. Captain Dixon, their officer, arrived and the men quickly jumped up.
‘Gather your wits about you boys,’ he said with boyish enthusiasm, ‘We’re to head out into No Man’s Land tonight. Wiring party,’ he said cheerfully as if announcing a boy scout picnic. And with a quick nod of the head, he waded further down the trench.
Alec felt his stomach knot. He looked down and realised his hands were shaking. They all stared at one another with taught faces. A trip into No Man’s Land at night was deathly. And although they never said it out loud, they all wondered if this day would be their last.
‘Right,’ said Charles smartly, deftly flicking away his cigarette end. ‘Better get to it then.’ And with that, they began to make preparations to leave the safety of their trench.

 

 

 

Age is Just a Number!

When I set out to write The Revenge of Tirpitz I didn’t really analyse too closely my target age range. I set out to write a tense, gripping thriller and hoped it would have mass appeal. Mmmmm – there’s nothing like optimism. But there comes a point when you have to make a decision – particularly when you are pitching to publishers and agents. So I initially thought Young Adults: late teens perhaps?  Early feedback from a publisher who took a look at a draft suggested that perhaps a younger audience would be more appropriate….around 9- 12. So I focussed in and when Cranachan signed me, we mutually agreed that this market would be ideal for schools. The Revenge of Tirpitz tied in nicely with class projects on WW2.  But you know, when it comes to the bit, you just never know who might be drawn to your book…..

I’ve had several emails now from the over 50s, male market who have stumbled upon my book in libraries or online and have really enjoyed it! Whooopeee!!! How fantastic!  I’ve posted up a comment I received on my blog below and it’s really got me thinking. Perhaps I’ve been too narrow in limiting my marketing to youngsters?  It reminds me of the Maurice Sendak quote: “I don’t write for children. I write, and somebody says, ‘that’s for children.'”  Idealistic perhaps? But at the end of the day, a good read is a good read…..and I like to believe, we’re all young at heart.

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Bonnie Baby at Christmas!

“It’s Christmas Day!” the bairns all shriek.
Our Bonnie Baby takes a peek
To see his stocking filled with sweets and toys.

A teddy, a train, some coins, a cracker,
A Santa in a shiny wrapper –
He’s chocolate! Bonnie Baby has a lick.

He rips and bites, grips Santa tight.
The chocolate melts – we thought it might!

Och no! Our bonnie baby’s in a state!

He’s sticky, claggie, clarty too,
Head to toe in chocolatey goo!
The tastiest Christmas baby in Dundee.

 

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The night before….

It’s been a funny old week. I’ve just moved house. I am surrounded by boxes and chaos. I can’t find anything. I’ve had so many heated discussions with call centres organising gas/electricity you name it, my head is fit to burst. The dog has barely been walked and is pinging around like a loon. And in the midst of all this….my book is out tomorrow. I just want to tell you about it. Not the plot. Not the themes. Just about how I wrote it. It took me two years. It was my escape from domesticity, my secret focus to daydream about while I washed dishes, cleaned, in between my little boy’s nap times and doing the school run. I wrote it because I had just been rejected for the gazzilionth time; I had failed to be shortlisted for everything. I sobbed in my bedroom and told my husband I was utterly disappointed with myself. But I kept writing. And researching. And writing. It’s out tomorrow. I hope you like it. M xx

Gold!

Do you remember back in the day when you went to the library, you could explore back issues of newspapers with one of those microfiche readers?  And it made you feel as though you were an investigative journalist in a film….?  Or was that just me? Well anyway, recreate that moment by following this link. Go on. Indulge me.

https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1301&dat=19831011&id=lIZWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=0eYDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6871,4645498&hl=en

Find anything interesting?

Yes…..?

 

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The article about Nazi gold in a Norwegian cave is rather exciting isn’t it? I thought so too…. A good spy story needs some gold or treasure doesn’t it?  And perhaps,  Tirpitz herself would have been a good hiding place for Nazi loot. Until such time as she became a very real target. Then, the gold might have to be moved. To a cave perhaps?   And what if someone saw it being hidden. And knew, after all these years, that it existed…and was out there still, buried in a Norwegian fjord cave. Now that could be very exciting…..