Thursday, 12 February 2015

This Is The One

I don't write too many love stories, but here's one that got published a few years back...

I  fell  in  love  with  Amanda  Reece  on  the  first  day  of  secondary  school.  I  was  twelve. Do  not  misunderstand  this  declaration  of  Love,  this  was  not  some  haphazard  decision  arrived  upon  while  queing  for  sweets,  some  awkard  teenage  crush;  this  was  It.
It  was  in  Art  I  believe,  second  period.  I  sat,  listening  to  the  register,  attempting  to  put  names  to  so  many  new  faces...Julie  Lemon,  Martin  Locke,  Andrew  Parker  and  then...Amanda  Reece.
Teacher  stopped.  No  reply.
Suzanne  Dixon  stepped  in.
"She's  not  coming  to  this  school  sir.  She's  moved."
"Oh.  Right.  Thanks."  said  teacher,  and  scratched  her  away  forever  with  his  biro.
As  soon  as  I  heard  her  name  I  knew,  I  knew  this  was  the  girl  I  was  going  to  be  with.
Her  not  even  being  at  my  school  simply  made  her  all  the  more  attractive, she  maintained  a  mystique  and  allure  that  most  of  the  other  girls  very  quickly  lost.  She  alone  remained  aloof,  distant,  unattainable.
So  unattainable  in  fact,  that  she  wasn't  even  there.
Erased  from  our  register,  she  quickly  faded  from  the  minds  of  my  classmates,  but  her  name  was  already  burned  across  my  heart.  And  I  knew,  as  you  do,  that  we  would  be  together.  Eventually.  I  could  wait.

And  while  I  waited, I  passed  the  time  with  a  very  short  list  of  girlfriends.  An  average  of  just under one  partner  per  year.  We'd  be  ecstatically  happy  for  a  period  of  no  less  than  two  weeks  and  no  more  than  three months.  The  time  difference  between  each  of  my  secondary  school  girlfriends  ensured  that  every  time  I  returned  to  the  dating  game,  the  definition  of  what  was  considered  acceptable  behaviour  had  always  changed. Thus  I  progressed  across  the  sexual  arena  in  a  series  of  well  timed  skirmishes,  always  surprised  to  find  that  so  much  ground  had  been  gained  in  previous  campaigns.  To  me  therefore,  sex  seemed  to  occur  more  quickly  than  it  actually  did.  Like  time  lapse  pornography.  Hand  holding  to  bashful  embraces.  Bashful  embraces to  french  kissing.  French  kissing  to  ineffectual  groping.  Groping  to  more  prolonged  fumbling.  And  then  on  to  capture  the  flag.  My  lack  of  any  physical  prowess  seemed  to  ensure  that  I  was  never  the first  team  to  capture  the  flag,  but  I  was  always  just  grateful  for  being  given  the  chance  to  compete.

I  left  school and  began  the  lengthy  process  of  avoiding  going  to  university,  punctuating  the  desolation  of  my  early  twenties  with  a  number  of  dead  end  relationships. 
And  then  when  I  was  twenty  three,  I  got  engaged. 
It  was  very  fashionable  at  the  time,  and  I  had  reached a  stage  in  my  life  where  the  aching  reproductive  panic  of  those  around  me  had  begun  to  take  it's  toll. 
My  fiance  was  Suzanne  Dixon,  the  girl  who  had  first  placed  Amanda  tantalisingly  out  of  reach.
She  had  gone  to  university  and  gotten  herself  a  degree  in  something  which  allowed  her  to  earn  professional money.  I  couldn't  honestly  tell  you  what  her  job  was.  But  she  was  A  Professional  at  it.
The  engagement  crept  up  on  me,  and  took  me  a  little  by  surprise.  The  proposal  seemed  to  fall  out  of  my  mouth  like  rogue  chewing  gum,  as  if  I  hadn't  quite  finished with  it,  or  I'd  been  storing  it  in  there  for  later  use.  I  think  to  be  fair,  we  were  both  of  us  a  little  taken  aback,  but  as  neither  of  us  could  think  of  a  good  enough  reason  not  to get  engaged,  we  pushed  on  with  all  the  bloody  mindedness  of  the  young  and stupid.   
The  wedding  preparations  went  on  around  me,  a  lace  tornado,  with  me  the  eye  of  the  storm.
What  struck  me  as  time  went  on  was how  little  I  had  to  do  with  it  all.  Getting  ready  for  the  happiest  day  of  my  life  was  a  very  isolatory  experience.  Gradually,  the  wedding  eclipsed  our  actual  relationship,  and  we  happily  latched  onto  it  as  something  to  talk  about  during  the  increasingly  regular  silences.   We  would  talk  about  our  wedding,  other  weddings  and  people  we  thought  would  probably  have  weddings  soon.
Each  Saturday,  religiously,  Suzanne  would  purchase  the local  paper  and  examine  the  wedding  photos  of  the  recently  hitched.  I  would  smile  and  nod,  or  shake  my  head  disapprovingly  as  the  situation  demanded.  One  Saturday  she  said
"Look!  It's  Amanda  Reece!  I  haven't  seen  her  for  years."
For  well  over  a  decade  I  had  loved  Amanda  from  a  distance  which  had  precluded  any  visual  contact.  Here,  now, I  was  about  to  see  the  love  of  my  life  for  the  first  time.  But  I  had  to  be  careful  not  to  make  it  too obvious.
"Amanda  Reece?"  I  said  "She  was  supposed  to come  to our  school  wasn't  she?"
"Yeah  that's  right.  She  was  my  best  friend  in  primary.  I  can't  remember  when  I  last  saw  her."
Suzanne  was  still  holding  the  paper,  and  so  I  could  not  yet  see.
"She's  married Andrew  McIntyre!  Remember  him?"
"No."  I  said  "Was  he  at  our  school?"
"For  about  a  month.  He  got  suspended  for  stealing  craft  knives.  And  then  just  never  came  back."
"Well  he  sounds  charming.  Let's  see."
Mercifully,  Suzanne  just  turned  the  newspaper  around  to  let  me  see  it,  had  she  handed  me  it, she  would  have  doubtless  noted  the  incessant  shaking  of  my  hands.  There  followed  a  brief  period  of  tunnel  vision;  Suzanne,  my  room,  the  rest  of  the  world  all  blurred  and  swirled  away,  until  only  she  remained,  the  light at  the  end  of  this  tunnel.  Finally  visible.
I  had  long  prepared  myself  for  the  day  when  I  finally  saw  her,  knowing  that  she could  never  be  the  idealised  beauty  I  had  allowed  her  to become.  And  sure  enough,  she  wasn't.
Her  hair  was  a  little  shorter  than  I  had  imagined,  and  more  blonde  than  brown.  Her  lips  looked  more  or  less  right  and  she  was  maybe  a  little  taller  than  me.  But  it  was  her.  Amanda.
She  was  smiling,  just.  But  it  was  an  empty  smile,  a  drawn  on  smile.  A  smile  for  the  cameras.  Full of  teeth  and  lipgloss,  signifying  nothing.  She  wasn't  happy.  And  how  could  she  be  happy?  We  were  not  together.  And  now  how  could  we  be?
It  was  over.  And  it  never  really  began.
Following  this  abysmal  revelation,  even  the  lacklustre  soda  stream  sparkle  fizzled  out  of   Suzanne  and  I's  relationship,  and  we broke  off  our  engagement  just  in  time for  Christmas. It was cheaper that way. I  spent  New  Year  attempting  to  reach  her  on  the  phone  in  order  that  we  could  get  together  and  have  bad  idea  sex.  Afterwards  we  would  both  feel  guilty  and  ridiculous,  but  in  the  short  term  New Year  wouldn't  be  so  cold  and  lonely.  She never  returned my  calls.

All  through  the  bitter  January,  I  consoled  myself  that  everything  that  had  happened  actually  made  a  twisted  kind  of  sense;  I  had  been  with  the  wrong  partner,  and  now  I  was  free,  someday,  Amanda  would  be  free  too.  I  would  wait.

Two  years  later,  Amanda  Reece  died.
She  was  hit  by  a  car  coming  out  of  Tesco's.  She  was  six  months  pregnant.
It  was  a  taxi  that  hit  her,  the  driver  was  Martin  Locke,  another  classmate  Amanda  never  met.
He  killed  himself  about  a  fortnight  later.
I  attended  her  funeral  of  course,  I  stood  right  at  the  back,  but  I  could  still  hear  Andrew  sobbing.
I  didn't  go  to  the  cemetery,  instead  I  spent  the  day  walking  around  the  streets  where  I  so  dilligently  misspent  my  youth,  eventually  coming  to  rest  outside  my  old  school. I  sat  for  awhile  by  the  bins  and  had  a  brief  but  cathartic  cry.
Afterwards,  lost  and  confused,  I  wandered  into  a  pub,  firmly  intending  to  accentuate  my  misery  by  getting  bitterly  drunk.  Across  the  years  of  my  unrequited  love,  I  had  become  an  adept  in  the  art  of  wallowing. The pub  was  busy  and  grey,  but  as  I  returned  from  the  bar,  two  girls  were  just  leaving  their  table  and  I  grabbed  it  immediately.
The  table  presented  me  with  a  decent  vantage  point  with  which  to  dip  into  the  lives  of  those  scattered  around  the  room.  And  they  all  seemed  to  be  happy  but  me.  Groups  of  friends,  couples,  simply  enjoying  themselves  without  having  to  concentrate.  For  the  first  time  in  my  life,  I  felt I had  no  agenda, or worse, no excuse.  The  girl  I  was  meant  to  be  with  had  lived  and  died, before  I'd  even  had  the  chance  to  meet  her.  I  sulked  into  my  vodka  and  settled  down  for  a  life  alone.
This  was  when  one  of  the  tables  previous  tenants  reappeared. 
"Excuse  me."  she  said.
"Did  I  leave  my  purse  here  a  minute  ago?"
"I  don't...I'll  see..."
Sure enough,  there  it  was,  on  the  chair  next  to  mine.
"There  you  go."  I  said,  attempting a winning smile,  but  instead  managing  a  kind  of  tortured  grimace.
"Thanks."  she  said,  and  turned  to  leave.  But  then,  for  some  reason,  she  turned  back  around.
"You  work  in  that  art  store  don't  you?"  she  said.
"Yes."  I  said.
"I've  seen  you  down  there.  Nice  shop."
"Yeah  it's  a  great  place  to  work.  Terrible  hours,  shit  pay,  good  pictures."
She  laughed.
"Hey  listen,"  I  said  "D'you  want  a  drink  or  something?  Or  is  your  friend  waiting..."
"No.  No  she's  gone  home."  she  smiled  "A  drink  would be  nice."  
"Great."  I  said.  "Oh...I'm  Steven  by  the  way." 
"Hello  Steven."  she  said.  "I'm  Amanda.  Amanda  Reece."
Her  hair  was  a  little  longer  than  the  late  Amanda's,  and  more  brown  than  blonde.  Her  lips  were  perfect  and  she  was  about  as  short  as me.  It  was  definetly, suddenly her. Amanda.
I'm not the only person to accidently spend some  of  my  life  in  love  with  the  wrong  person,  but  now,  my  course  was  clear. We  moved  in  together  within  the  month,  entirely  assured  that  we  should  be  together. Love,  not  at  first  sight,  but  sound,  the  resonance  of  this  moment  echoing  fifteen  years  back  in  time  to  my  art  class.  Where  I  would  promptly  put  a  name  to  the  wrong  face.

I  saw it  all,  a  mirror  reflecting  endlessly  upon  itself  stretching  back  across  my  life,  showing  me  how  things  would be. My  past,  our  future,  forever  orbitting  the  burning  brilliance  of  this  moment. 

Fate does not wait for you. Fate is busy and has a lot on right now. So you  must  seek  Fate  out,  stand  in  a  million  wrong  places  at  the  incorrect  time,  battle  through  the  dark  days  which  erode  your  vision  of  how  things  will  be.  And  when  you  find  Fate,  as  you  will,  hold  it,  shape  it,  make  it  your  own. Let  there  be  no  doubt  in  the  resolution  of  your  future, let  there  be  no  escape  from  this  wonderous  self  fulfilling  prophecy.
And  most  of  all,  let  there  be  love.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Christmas Spiders

Christmas Spider from The Spider Lady

Not so long ago, and not so far from here, there was a little cottage right at the edge of a forest. In the cottage lived a widow and her two young children. The widow had lost her husband some years back – he went off to the war and never returned, but before he left, he and the children planted a pine cone from the forest in a pot by the door, and he told them he would be back to help them decorate it when it had grown into a tree. The tree grew sure enough, and the children grew, and Christmas drew near, but the widow knew her husband would not be returning home.

It had been a hard winter, and there was little money, but as she watched the children skip off to bed talking excitedly about how they would decorate the tree the next day, the widow thought of a way to try and make the sad little tree a little more special for them. Taking her old yellow dress, which had faded these last few years, she cut out a cloth star, and put it at the top of the tree. Then she went to bed, hoping that the children would be happy to see it in the morning. All three of them huddled in together against the cold.

And as they slept, the spiders crept out from all the dark places in the house. The little family were always kind to spiders, never chasing them out of the house, or brushing away their webs before they had eaten. The spiders saw the little tree, and the cloth star, and they decided to help decorate the tree too. They worked all through the night, spinning and weaving their webs across the tree. Then they scuttled back into the rafters and corners to sleep until morning.

It so happened that St Nicholas passed by the cottage in the forest. He saw the little tree with the tattered cloth star, and he saw how the spiders had tried to help by covering the branches in their dusty grey webs, and he decided to help the family and their spiders out too.

St Nicholas took an old leather pouch from the pocket of his greatcoat, and from it, took out gold and silver sand which he sprinkled all across the tree. And the webs turned to strands of silver and glittered like a morning frost and the cloth star turned to gold.

The little family and the spiders woke that Christmas morning to a tree that sparkled bright enough to light the room. And with all the silver and gold, the little family never wanted for anything again, though they always took care to leave a window open for spiders in the autumn, and let them stay all through the winter.

This is my take on a traditional Ukranian folktale. There are lots of different versions, sometimes it's Jesus who visits, not St Nicholas, sometimes, no one visits at all, they are just magic spiders who spin gold. You will be delighted to know, that you can indeed purchase that now “must have” item for your Christmas Tree, a Christmas Spider, from a variety of Etsy shops.

To be clear though, here is a real Christmas Spider below, if you see one of these in your house, don't annoy it. They bite.

Read more of my Winter Folktales here

Monday, 13 October 2014

Best Laid Cunning Plans

my gran's typewriter

I think everyone who writes, has a trigger thing...a reason they started writing, a memory of the first time it made sense to take the voices of out of their head and put them on paper. And for me, it was because my Gran wrote stories and poems (and Very Angry Letters) on her typewriter and I just wanted to try that too. She would let me borrow her typewriter for a week each month, until gradually, it spent more time in my house than her house. I still have it now. It wasn't until I was a wee bit older that I understood writing was a thing you could "do".

In 1989 we were studying the First World War in school, and we were asked to write a letter home style essay from a soldier on the frontline. When I went home that night, instead of doing my homework, I scribbled and then typed up a script for my favourite TV programme, Blackadder, set during the First World War. This was actually before Blackadder Goes Forth had been on telly, but it just seemed like a very likely place for the character to end up. And then, instead of handing it in for homework, I sent it off to the BBC and got a punishment exercise for my troubles.

I had never written a script before, or even really shared my writing with too many people, so I was a bit taken aback, when a month or so later, Richard Curtis, the co-writer of Blackadder (and many more things since then of course) phoned me at my house to talk about the script I'd sent. He phoned a couple more times over that year to give me polite and helpful pointers and suggestions for how to script things. In retrospect, I realise I never really understood or made enough of those opportunities; I certainly did get to be a paid teenage scriptwriter for a few brief years, and that was nice - got to spend a lot of money on gigs and Smiths teeshirts thank-you very much. But I didn't pursue it with enough belief I don't think. So ultimately, I stopped doing it.

This year though, for the first time in ages, I found myself thinking about 1989, trying to remember what I had written in that script, mostly because of the irritating things Michael Gove was saying about Blackadder's take on the First World War, that there was some sort of distasteful unpatriotic agenda there, and that we should all be more proud of the wholesale slaughter of generations of young men.

So I went up the loft at my mums, to try and find my scribblings from 25 years ago. I found lots of old secondary school essays and some school reports which broadly suggested the ways in which I required to try harder. But no script. It could never have been as good as the one I still have typed up in my head though. In reality, I imagine the script hasn't aged well, a bit frayed around the edges, its maybe not actually all that funny and...I think you see where I was going with that punchline. That's why my career in stand-up comedy was short lived.

I Am Forty this week, and I remember sixteen year old scriptwriting me thinking about how awful that would be, but in imagining whatever dark middle aged future I thought I would be trapped in, I always still saw myself writing. I was wrong about many things, when I was 16, from haircuts to how bras unhooked, but I was thankfully spot on about that. I write more now than I ever did then, and not in pursuit of anything other than telling and sharing stories. It's not about the gigs and teeshirts for me anymore. What I gradually came to realise, over the last few years in particular, is that for me, rather than writing being a thing you can "do" it might more accurately be "a thing you can't not do". I'm less happy when I'm not doing it. Who wants to be less happy?

Even now, most of those stories still involve history in some way or another. I'm involved in writing a comic about the First World War at the moment, and I'm lucky enough to be getting a children's book published by the wonderful Kelpies next year, which is chock full of old buildings and places.

Grandparents are great obviously. And we were really lucky with ours. I was always closest to my Gran though. She laughed a LOT, treated us to the Panto at Christmas, always had lots of sweets and comics...but of all the gifts, across all the years, writing was the best.

Sadie and Wilf

Friday, 18 July 2014

Kelpies Prize 2014

I'm delighted to be able to say that a children's book I finished writing earlier this year has been shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize.

This year's shortlisted books are:
  • The Superpower Project by Paul J. Bristow
  • The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean by Lindsay Littleson
  • My Fake Brother by Joan Pratt
The winner of the Kelpies Prize 2014 will be announced on 14th August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. For more information on the books and authors you can read the shortlist information sheet. If you haven't come across Kelpies books before, check out their Discover Kelpies website, for info, games and even free trial ebooks of some of their publications.

I have shared a few original draft chapters from The Superpower Project on this blog over the last year. Those are still available to read here.

And, if you are interested, I've written other books with heritage group Magic Torch, which also explore the myths, urban legends and folklore of the Inverclyde area.

Wee Nasties (illustrated by Mhairi M Robertson)
There's all sorts of Wee Nasties hiding around Inverclyde, a bogle with smelly feet, a grumpy old wizard casting cheeky spells, and even a (mostly) friendly monster in the river.

Tales of the Oak comic (illustrated by Andy Lee)
Within, are cursed treasure maps, serpent worshipping cultists, trolls, ghosts, undead pirates and graverobbers in tales told by some of our most infamous horrors - Captain Kidd, Granny Kempock and Auld Dunrod. Dare you shine a flickering candle on the darker corners of our local folklore?

Both of these publications can be read online or downloaded for free, as they were created with the kind support of Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland. You can find out more about Magic Torch, our current projects and other publications on our blog Tales of the Oak.

UPDATE - The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean by Linday Littleson was the winner of the prize, and will be published in 2015. The lovely people at Kelpies will also publish The Superpower Project in Spring 2016.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Guest House of Usher Comic

art Andy Lee, script me

Not been around on this blog for a bit, having too much fun with Magic Torch's Commonwealth Storytelling project.

However, here's a sneaky wee page from a project the mighty Andy Lee and myself have been working on in between Torch stuff. (Andy is currently knee deep in Wendigo's, giant spiders and Tokoloshe's for the new Sir Glen Douglas Rhodes comic Uncommon Tales, out in October)

And if you are a reader lucky enough to live near The Dutch Gable House, we'd love to see you along at this day in July...

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Tall Tales for Sale

Just a wee reminder that myself and the Magic Torch team are available to work with you or your community group / organisation on producing comics.

We offer a flexible programme which can be tailored to suit the time and resources you have available. Our workshops include everything from working on scripts and illustration through to actually publishing a completed comic, you simply choose from our menu of options.
- Graphic Storytelling : introductory session exploring comics
- Finding the story / researching : shaped by your project outcomes
- Character design
- Script and page layout
- Creation

The 1 or 2 hour sessions are delivered over one or two months, with the end product being an 8 page pdf copy which can be shared online and printed. Additional options resource permitting, include producing presentation display boards of your comic, or short runs of physical copies.

If you are interested in finding out about costs etc, contact

Also, you may be interested in helping us with a new venture based on my Community Fables coping mechanism / creative problem solving. Check out more details here...

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Tin Jimmy - Seagull

Calloo callay! I have almost for realises finished the first draft of my "magnificent octopus" or "first book" Tin Jimmy, some of which includes the research and exploration of the mysterious steam powered gentleman.

This is a page from 1950s Greenock "boys comic", Seagull featuring some of his local adventures from back in the day. Both the Seagull comic and a more shiny steampunk Tin Jimmy feature in the strip Mr Cube Strikes, which looks at the history of the Greenock Sugar Sheds.

Props as ever to Andy Lee.