January 13th 2011

What a great start! I managed to lock myself out of the blog for months. Just found a techie friend to unlock it so I can keep going. Since my first post, I have collected some real gems of rejections, including one which first took me aback but then made me laugh.

“From the hundreds of people of all kinds who write to me each year, I probably take on 2-4 new clients. (For most major publishers, broadcast and film companies the figures for unsolicited manuscripts are even worse: between zero and two out of literally thousands. Indeed, increasing numbers of them will only look at submissions made through established agents.)

However, the overwhelming majority (over 95%) of submissions are so hopelessly bad that one shouldn’t really include them in any ‘significant’ statistics.

Last year getting on to 130,000 new titles (fiction and non-fiction and including new editions of previously published works) were published.

That there is a vast amount of undiscovered talent out there is a delusion.”

So I am left to conclude that either my stuff is so hopelessly bad that I am no threat to anyone, or my hopes that I have talent are a delusion of gargantuan proportions as I certainly remain entirely undiscovered.

Not entirely true as I did come fourth out of seventy three in a short story competition judged by Barbara Erskine and have used that short story as the epilogue of my favourite novel so far. But the tickets I won to meet the Poet Laureate (and couldn’t use as I was abroad at the time) won’t pay any bills.

Here’s the story anyway.

A PRESENT FROM BOURNEMOUTH

I hated Bournemouth when we first arrived. We moved there shortly after my fifth birthday, leaving behind everything I had ever known. Our cottage in Shropshire had a stream tumbling through the garden, full of fat rainbow trout. A group of minnows nestled under the far bank, splitting and flashing silver like a drop of mercury every time I poked at them with a stick but stupidly regrouping almost at once. The orchard was full of damson trees, a particular favourite of my Grandfather’s. The perfect oval fruit lay among the acid green leaves like ripe amethysts and each year my mother made pots of glowing purple jam.

And then, without warning, my father came home from a business trip and told us we were moving to Bournemouth, an exciting and far-off town by the sea. This in itself was enough to damn the place in my eyes. My only previous visit to the seaside had been North Wales. After ten idyllic minutes floating in a warm rock pool I was stung by a jellyfish and conceived a deep hatred of the sea and its treachery. But my father, flushed with the triumph of a new and better job, produced fat sticks of bright pink rock, miraculously shot through with ‘A present from B’mth’ in shaky green letters. I was only four and had no real conception of the future or ‘forever’ so I stood and listened to the excited talk as the sugar slowly dissolved on my tongue. Even today the name Bournemouth fills my senses with the aroma of peppermint.

That first winter, I was lonely. We walked by the sea every weekend because we were still strangers. Initially I kept a wary distance but gradually came to love the huge, grey waves that crashed against the promenade, foam gleaming under a watery British sun. But I missed the sea I had known before, where the bright green heads of wheat, shining after the light spring rain, would bend their heads to the warm breeze.

Our first summer was less lonely than the winter as I made new friends and grew familiar with the maze of roads, of which our house was the centre. I looked forward eagerly to my first birthday in our new house. We had an apple tree in our garden, the fruit no real substitute for the tart headiness of the damson, but satisfyingly streaked with red and holding the promise of blackberry and apple pies. The tree had another merit beside the fruit and the curtains of white blossom with which it had nonchalantly draped itself earlier in the spring. One lopsided branch was growing at such a peculiar angle from the trunk that it twisted away behind the back of the garage and was concealed from the house. I spent many hours that spring and summer riding that branch, its head always turned toward Shropshire. But no matter how many hours we galloped through the counties of England, we never reached home, and hunger always drew us back through the woods and fields to Bournemouth.

My birthday arrived, as clear and hot as only the birthday of a five-year-old can be. We ate strawberries in the garden and I fired my new bow and arrow at my brother, who pretended to collapse, mortally wounded, onto the hot grass. Any other day he would have pressed my face into the cracked earth until I apologised. However there was an unwritten rule for birthdays and he honoured the code. And later, as the dusk settled and the mosquitoes drifted slowly down through the cooling air, my father told me to fetch my cardigan and come with him. We set off together up the road, my hand held tightly in his. As we reached the top of the hill, music drifted through the warm darkness, and bright lights danced among the trees.

I had never been to a circus. The huge tent was already very hot and the lights hurt my tired eyes so that for a while I had to squint though my fingers. I remember trapezes swinging higher even than the length of their ropes, and people flying and never coming down. There were shining white horses, their vivid red saddles studded with real jewels. Skipping lightly across their backs was a slight figure, shimmering in pink. A pack of glossy poodles formed a pyramid and barked the notes of the national anthem so perfectly that I wondered why no-one stood. And through the brightness of my memories, one figure stands out more vividly than any other. His name was Rocco. Drums rolled and trumpets blasted as he made his entrance. He swung into the ring on the end of a rope and dropped neatly into the elephants’ bucket of water. His drooping mouth grew more mournful with each new catastrophe. One moment he was piling cans of paint far, far too high and I was shrieking at him to be careful. The next, the pyramid crashed down upon him and I was screaming at him to build it again.

I know my father carried me home that night but I have no memory either of that or of my mother wiping the candy floss off my grimy hands with a damp flannel. Not even a birthday was excuse enough to stay dirty. I was deeply puzzled when I woke the next morning in my pyjamas. At breakfast I tried to convey the wonders of the night before but my incoherence annoyed my brother and he told me to shut it. His amiable mood of the day before seemed to have vanished with the sunset. I would have been uncomfortable had it been otherwise.

My sixth birthday came more quickly than I had bargained for. In Bournemouth I learned to measure the passing of winter through the changes in the sea. The water, so soft and blue all summer, became brighter and livelier as the sun sank lower in the sky with the approach of autumn. By Christmas, the sea turned the same grey-green as the lead sheets on our church roof and deep swells surged menacingly around the pier. I would run to the end and briefly lean over to terrify myself before retreating from the ominous suck of the undertow. The days I liked best came in the coldest part of the year when the water was a pale emerald under the cold, wintry sky and the waves slapped playfully at the pier’s iron struts. Within weeks it would be spring and I could start counting the days until my birthday.

That day was hot and still again and the only change, aside from my new awareness of the passing of a year, was the lop-eared rabbit I had longed for since January.  Last year’s bow had long since snapped, much to my mother’s relief, and I had lost my desire for destructive toys. As evening drew near, I hung around my father in silence. After tea he smiled at me and raised an eyebrow and I raced off to get my cardigan.

This year the circus was, if anything, better than the last. I was a year older and able to stay awake longer. The horses were still light as drifting snowflakes, the acrobats as thrilling, the lady in pink as entrancing. And Rocco, as I had anticipated, was perfection, from the sounding of his fanfare to his final arrest by the ringmaster. I laughed even harder as he again tipped the paint cans down himself and regarded us ruefully. When he stretched high to replace them and his trousers slipped right down to reveal tattered, scarlet-spotted shorts, my father threatened to take me out unless I stopped screaming.

The circus became a fixture in my yearly calendar, made all the more special because it was the one event in the year not shared with my brother and sister. Each birthday, I would climb the hill with my father. My legs grew longer and the colour of my cardigans varied from year to year but the circus, and more importantly Rocco, stayed gloriously the same. The summer I entered double figures, my father suggested it might be time to expand my birthday repertoire and visit somewhere different and I agreed, although not without a mild feeling of regret. I had always created my own private structures and calendars and it was hard for me to move on. That summer we visited my first restaurant and the following year the ice rink. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement that the rest of the family would join us.

By the time I reached the end of my teens, I scarcely remembered the circus birthdays. I was ready to leave home for a new life at University, not far from Shropshire, and I planned to re-visit our old home when I got my first car; although, when I mentioned this to my father, he arched an eyebrow and looked thoughtful.

I spent my final summer at home, serving ice creams to the endless stream of tourists that invade Bournemouth each July. I worked until late afternoon on my birthday and walked home, exhausted and vaguely depressed. My father was waiting for me in the garden, a smile lurking behind his eyes but his face bland, as ever. I think I already knew what he had planned before he spoke, and I was unenthusiastic, but such was the force of his personality that I found myself walking up the hill with him after tea, swinging my jacket in silence and carefully limiting my strides to his. Even the spirit of occasion couldn’t persuade me to wear a cardigan. Amazingly, a faint shadow of the old excitement resurfaced as we spied the lights behind the trees, and we walked more quickly.

The tent was as hot as ever that year and still smelled of sawdust and candyfloss. The first act was a new one, a family of contortionists who appeared to be innocent of bones. I knew the second act though. A blast of music ripped through the tent and my beautiful white horses galloped in. A stout lady in a tight, netted dress jumped breathlessly from one to another. The saddles were festooned with chunks of coloured plastic and looked as though they could use a clean. I looked across at my father. He was staring intently at the ring, his lips moving as though in prayer as the horses galloped out to loud applause. I knew who must come next. His fanfare sounded but I jumped from the bench and fled. My father threaded his way carefully between the seats and followed me outside, where he laid a hand on my shoulder, though neither of us spoke. We stood for a moment together, listening to the muffled cheers and laughter inside the tent before he turned and strode away across the field. We walked home through the darkened streets, both of us alternately swallowed by the shadows and illuminated by the shining patches beneath the street lamps.

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