Sunday, 1 December 2013

[Northspell 5] the princess goes outside

She ducked into the shade of the arches that ran along one side of the courtyard, and slid her feet gloriously along the tiles in a way that was strictly forbidden. Most things were forbidden. She yawned, stretching her mouth as wide as it would go, and didn't even raise a hand to cover it. Close by the inner wall there was a muddle of thin-slatted wooden boxes, and a pile of dried grasses spilling out of a sack. She sank down onto the sweet-smelling grass and pillowed her head on her arms. Drifting in and out of sleep, she heard small noises next to her head: soft chirrups and rustlings and a tap tap scratch that seemed to be coming from the boxes. Propping herself up on one elbow, she pushed the lid off the nearest box.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

[Northspell 4] the princess makes a decision

Gagging, she took the foul-tasting cloth from her mouth, and dropped it to the floor. Her fumbling hands told her there was no way to open the door from the inside. She stamped her foot and called out in a shrill little voice that the woman would be sorry for daring to lay hands on her in such a manner, but no one replied. She hammered on the rough inside of the door with her hands until her wrists ached, and she slumped to the stone floor, angry at herself for the sobs that she was choking back. Princesses did not cry. Nurse had been very strict about that. Excess emotion was unbecoming in young ladies, and unforgivable in royalty. What nurse would think about her behaviour this morning didn't bear thinking about. She gave a whimper. Her stomach hurt and her head felt funny. She wished she had some food. She'd give anything to have her breakfast in front of her right now. Even cold porridge seemed appealing, although given the way she was feeling now, her manners might not be all that nurse would wish of a princess.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

childhood redraft

Once summers stretched long and hot
became deserts.
Woods were wild
dangerous places.

We sat barefoot
on branches.
Trees were there for climbing,
caves to be explored.
Our dens were everywhere

Time hung
high and distant
above our heads.
Our imaginary spaces
leaving only echoes
in the trees and empty caves.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Hester Bliss

At first they said I was in shock, and made much of me, and our honoured benefactress pinched my cheek and gave me sugared almonds. After a while they thought I was simply shy, and ceased to teaze me with questions that I could not answer. But after a month had passed and still I had not spoken, they called me Simple, and left me alone.

I liked that best of all, better even than the sugared almonds, which Mrs Grimble took away anyway, saying it was not good to favour one child so much over the others. The others were not like me. They had lived all their lives in the Foundling Hospital, growing from wriggling babies to sturdy-legged toddling things, and thence to ruddy-cheeked scholars frowning over their horn-books (although not for long - the Hospital guardians prided themselves on turning out Able Bodied Young Persons of Neat and Clean Habits...not over-burdened with knowledge.)

Thursday, 13 June 2013

glory brats: the girl

[This is just a snippet I wrote trying to get a feel for the world that the Glory Brats came from. It won't occur in the actual story, but something like it might.]

The girl held her satchel upside down and shook it. Pencil stubs and coloured beads added to the mess on the rug. A penny rolled away in a slow curve on the uneven floor. Her last reading book, caught by the shoulder strap, landed open, pages flapping in the breeze from the broken window. The girl thought of birds taking off from a rooftop at the end of summer. She had never been so aware of noise before.

Holding her breath, she tiptoed past the room where her parents lay. The door was half open, and she could just see her little sister's hand peeking out from under the covers. Mim slept on a mattress on the floor of their parents' room, beneath the window, so she could see the stars at night; the stars that were brighter than ever since the street lamps stopped working.

But Mim didn't move, and the girl went into the kitchen. She took the last three apples from the bowl on the table, the tin of apricots from the shelf, and found a bag of rice that pulled her shoulder down with the weight of it in the satchel. She took the rice out and sat it on the table.

'Where's a knife...'

A knife was found at the back of a drawer. She slit the bag open, and a few grains spilled out through the sides. Cupping her hand, she scooped the contents out and into the satchel. She did this until half the bag was gone, enjoying the feel of her fingers against the silky-slippery rice.

An alarm clock made her jump, and the last handful scattered across the table and the tiles. She looked over her shoulder into the hall. Still ringing. A few grains of rice were stuck to her hand but she brushed them away against her jumper.

The ringing was louder in the hall. She put all her weight against the bedroom door to push it open, and caught her foot on Mim's mattress.


She could barely hear her own voice over the noise of the alarm clock. It was coming from the corner of the room. Picking her way through the mess, she clambered awkwardly onto the edge of the bed and swung her legs over to the other side.

'Sorry...' she whispered to her parents, 'So sorry...'

She shuffled over to the corner and picked the alarm clock up, knocking the lever with her finger. It stopped. Her breathing was the loudest thing in the house. She dropped the clock. It whirred briefly and then stopped with a metallic clunk. The girl stood in the middle of it all, listening to the sound of her breath going in and out and in. The birds outside began to sing as the light crept slowly over the sky.

On her way out through the kitchen she paused. The knife lay on the table where she'd left it. She picked it up, feeling the weight of it as if for the first time. It felt odd. She gripped the handle, and her wrist shook.

She put it in the bag and shut the door behind her.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

the birdscarer

Like David
I found my weapons on the battlefield,
repelling the invaders of our golden hoard.
They swarmed, and clamouring,
massed for the attack.

Out of nowhere appeared a single form:
swift and true my lonely stone did fly
and fall to the golden field
where the vanquished lay.

And in that instant
I felt feathers brush my fingers
and the beat of a tiny heart in my hands,
 the wind against my face
and my spirit soared,

but then I was just standing in a field of corn,
black with crows
and in my hands
a bundle of black feathers and a broken heart.

This is an old one. We had a school reading book about lives of Victorian children, and one of the stories was about a boy who was a sort of human scarecrow. The idea stuck with me for a long time, and eventually resulted in this.

Friday, 12 April 2013

[Northspell 3] the princess visits the kitchen

There was an open door just past the cabinet. She darted into the room and took a deep breath. On the table just in front of her was a plate piled high with little bread rolls, shiny with glaze. She could smell them - warm and sugary. She reached out a hand to take the top one. As she lifted it off, a figure emerged from an alcove in the corner. Startled, the princess dropped the roll, causing half the pile to tumble off the plate and onto the floor.

'What the...'

The princess ducked underneath the table. Footsteps came nearer.

'Pot boy, if that's you, I'll have your hide...'

Monday, 18 March 2013


Fierlen aesces forbyrnath
bremels byrst
bearn blithe

Distant ash trees burn
brambles bristle
glad child

Horrendous anglo-saxon grammar here, but I thought any writing was better than nothing, and this idea appealed to me. I've been trying to teach myself anglo-saxon in my spare time, and the words have a fierceness that makes them come alive. Basically I took the words from my vocab list and shuffled them about until things clicked. I tried to nod to anglo-saxon verse conventions by having alliteration.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


It was winter. 
Your eyes were closed each time I came.
I'd sit and talk 
not knowing if you heard.
It felt like the same things
over and over again.
I stepped out in the rain with relief 
and guilt and sadness 
scrunched up tight inside me. 
Later, new black dress, new tights, 
new shoes that didn't fit. 
You looked out at me from photos: 
black and white, growing older 
as I cut and pasted. 
You went to war, got married,
had kids. Colour slipped in 
somewhere in the 60s, orange tinted.
You held a smaller, younger me 
as I graduated from frilly bonnets
 to dungarees. 
Sitting by your chair, 
we practiced Morse code by torchlight: 
dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot, 
over and over again.
After the funeral, traditional 
tea and sandwiches, talking.
I looked past the chrysanthemums, 
gold and orange
to see snow, softly falling just outside the window.


Sea-bound, land-locked,
ringed by high cathedral wall.
Journey's end and pilgrims' rest:
Saint Andrew's bones make travellers of us all.
I am a tourist in its streets,
no longer a participant in its daily rites.
That book is closed;
I cannot read its pages.

I have no more substance than the ghosts,
lingering layers of past and present.
A photograph that fades: soft-edged shadows
with a keener sense of loss.
I am a whisper
of conversations, laughter, tears;
essays unwritten, blank pages and troubled sighs.

Other people walk the same lanes home,
drink tea where once I sat and whiled away the hours
with a pile of books.

Its joys and cares do not concern me now:
I don't belong here.

From harbour-head to river-mouth,
I am a stranger to the place I knew so well,
and know it still, but others now, they know it too,
and it is theirs, not mine. For now.

the archaeological rag

(with apologies to Cole Porter)

Times have changed
and we've often rewound the clock
since historians got a shock
when Belzoni smashed some old Egyptian rock.
If today,
any regulations he should try to trim,
'stead of digging up old rocks,
we'd all be digging up him.
In olden days there was more funding,
archaeology was a fun thing,
but now: application denied, case closed-
anything goes!
Good authors who once knew their history,
to them - the past? It's just a mystery.
When money flows...
anything goes!
When gap-year student, age of twenty
wants to dig, there's places plenty
-anything goes!
Those academics with books in hand,
mess up your plans and step on toes
-anything goes!
When the site director is getting richer
-get in the picture!
It doesn't matter if your budget's low
-anything goes!
If sleeping in tents you like
with no gents you like
if cheap food you like
and bad moods you like
if getting sued you like
for taking some goods you liked
-why nobody will oppose!
And though it may sound awful cynical,
as though archaeologists have no principles,
when that deadline's getting close
-anything goes!

(Written at uni for a friend in Classics who was rather sniffy about archaeologists)


Once summers stretched
long and hot. Beaches
became deserts. Woods
were wild,
dangerous places.

We sat barefoot
on branches.
Trees were to be climbed,
caves explored. Our dens
were everywhere.

Time hung
high and distant
above our heads.
Our imaginary spaces
leaving only echoes
in the trees and hollow caves.


You always were the first: born before me
(three years, seven months and sixteen days).
You got a head start
and kept on running.
It wasn't fair that I could never catch
this stolen march.
You were the first in every game,
the leader of our pack of two.
Early morning expeditions:
out our bedroom window, down the drainpipe to the grass
(our feet trailed silver in the damp)
A beech hedge framed our little world;
the woods beyond were dark and deep.
You'd wait until I cleared the trees
so we could run together
-splendid in our isolation.
Sea at our feet, wind at our backs,
it felt like we were flying,
crying with the gulls.
It felt like we could live forever
but that was long ago
and where you have gone 
I can no longer follow.


Quiet is the town and the town clock-tower,
And quiet rock the boats on the sea.
The trees on the hill are standing as still
And as straight as Cathy and me.

‘Keep warm in your beds, don’t worry your heads,
always let sleeping dogs lie.
Cover your eyes and don’t say a word
While the Gentlemen go by.’

But Cathy and me
Are fearless and brave
And we followed the smugglers
Right down to their cave.

Stacked high were the boxes and casks
Of fine lace, French wine and Spanish gold.
The smuggler band they are wonderful grand:
Oh, I wish to be one when I’m old!

‘The smuggler’s life is one full of strife
whatever the songs that they sing.
Shot at and hounded by Preventive men,
And surely, my boy, you shall swing.’

But Cathy and me
Are bold and strong.
Surely the smugglers
Will take us along?

Quiet is the boat with the blue light burning
And quiet are the waves on the sand.
The Revenue men they are hid in the glen
To catch them when the boat comes in to land.

‘Cathy stay put with the smuggler loot,
and here is a candle for light.
I’ll warn the smugglers of the Revenue men:
They’ll not be taken tonight!’

Quick and quiet
And nimble am I.
And tell the smugglers
Where the Posse lie.

Quiet is the town and the town clock-tower,
And quiet rock the boats on the sea.
The gentlemen have gone home again
And so have Cathy and me!

seagull weather

is a good day
for the seagulls.
Hat, coat, gloves, scarf;
rough fingers snag on wool.
Cold, smooth buttons.

The sky is fractured:
twelve panes of fragile, milky glass.
Etched fingertips that fade,
developing slowly, as I breathe.

Today is a good day for the seagulls.
by frames and panes of glass,
they fall,
and soar: now hovering motionless;
now spiralling

The wind: a whisper,
then a roar, tugs at my skirt and coat,
whirling me along the cobbled streets
and leaving me breathless.
Sunlight splinters on the waves;
the sky dances.
is a good day.


Sunday morning
Blue-rimmed bowl.
Cold milk.
Ten o clock call
from home:
weather and the week that's past.
Sleepy Sunday morning
silence. Breathing in
fingers of life-giving, frosty air.
Blue sky.
Sunday. Church bells, steady
beat, and patter, clatter:
children's feet running for the goal.
Leaves on the hedge rustle and chatter.
Snowdrops; white and green.
Flat blades piercing soil
by warm grey stones. Glass
kaleidoscoped against the light. Blue sky


Bags at my feet, scarf loose around my neck,
I lean against the railing,
waiting for the bus.
Darkness grows; the streets are slick with rain.
People stop, form straggly queues
then turn to talk or say goodbye.

Some perch on benches with no backs

legs hanging or feet planted on the floor.
Some stand or shift from spot to spot
look at their watch or station clock,
waiting for the bus. Then,

'After you'

'No, you were first'
'Your bag will need to go below'
'One return,' and 'here's your change' - find a seat and off we go.

The sweet, stale smell of crisps, dry air, damp clothes.

Raindrops on the windowpane leave shadows on my book.
People are hair and coats, cuffs and collars.
A rustle of crisp packets, flick of pages. 
A hum of half-heard conversations; the muffled drone of music.

Some travellers do the crossword on their journey home,

solve puzzles with a pen and furrowed brow.
Kids play games or text their mates,
listen to music with a syncopated beat.
The long-haul travellers take a book, but mine lies idle in my lap.
I watch the cars, their lights and shadows,
put my forehead to the windowpane, and think.

Towns are lights and noise and people shuffling past.

Time passes swiftly: that house pulled down, 
a shopping centre built.
Scaffolding that ebbs and flows and disappears,
leaving new buildings in its wake.

The fields are fallow, dark and ribbed with tractor scars.

But I, who travel this way often, know them in every season:
patched with scatterings of snow, the soil churned rich brown,
green with crops, 
cracked and barren beneath an East Coast sky.

Towns are smaller now, cobbled streets beneath the tarmac,

Old stone houses, twisting wynds. 
A boy who waits by the chippy door for a hand of warmth:
vinegar and salt in a squeaky polystyrene box.

More dark fields, with stubbled corn.

Houses, single-storey, a patch of garden by the road.
Distant lights flick in and out of darkness,
we are little bits of light in a sea of dark.


The year gave another shake, a shrug
that slipped into September's sharp-edged sun,
ripened plums to drunken mouthfuls
and fattened brambles on the bush.
Each year we'd take a basket, woven wicker
(darkened twists of long dead trees),
pick with greedy fingers berries
that would stain our hands with their heart's blood.
(Later, this would leach through sugar
in a copper crucible like alchemists of old) but for now,
summer's distillation left a sweetness on our lips, and this bitter pall:
the berries that are best are always out of reach.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

[Northspell 2] the princess dresses herself

The doors of the chest swung open easily. A bewildering row of garments hung at eye-level, with a shelf for boots and shoes below. There was a soft, warm scent like lavender and honey, mixed with a sharper scent that the princess did not recognise. She grabbed at the first pair of boots and the sharp scent grew stronger. Wrinkling her nose, she sniffed the shiny leather, leaving a tiny smudge, which she tried to rub off with her finger.

Sitting on the floor, she held one boot in both hands and tried to put it on. After several tries, she threw the stupid boot under the stupid bed, and threw the other one after it for good measure. When Etta put her boots on for her she made it look easy.