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Posts Tagged ‘free fiction’

Winter on Brinscall Moor

It feels good when a novel comes together. If the reader agrees with my closing lines or not is another matter, but “Winter on the Hill” is finished. It has served its purpose, being, by and large, a quirky romance, but also a way of coming to terms with the rout of Leftist politics in the 2019 General Election.

From about 2016 onwards, I’d been certain the Left was building a momentum for positive change, as a reaction to years of austerity economics, but it turns out we weren’t, and all the country really wanted was to get BREXIT done. It all seems such a long time ago now, but those of us still on the Left must answer the questions: what happened, and what comes next? In the writing of “Winter on the Hill”, I have meditated on it all year, and found, if not answers exactly, then at least a peaceful rapprochement that allows me to move forward, personally. The story is now live on Smashwords. My thanks to those who read the first draft on Wattpad, and who commented (you know who you are).


As for this morning, I find myself in the hamlet where one of the protagonists of “Winter on the Hill” lives: Big Al. This is White Coppice, a gem of a place on the edge of the Western Pennines. It’s a greyed out morning, and I’m crack-of-dawn early, to beat the Covid crowds. But the place is already busy, and the bumpy track to the cricket field is churned to something dire. There are only a couple of parking places left, and all of this on a bleak winter’s morning, one of those in which the dawn begins to break, then changes its mind.


My main protagonist, Rick, lives on the other side of the moor. That’s where I’m heading, to Piccadilly on the Belmont road. Then it’s through the Roddlesworth plantations and a return over Brinscsall moor, a circuit of about ten miles, and fourteen hundred feet of ascent. This is something of a challenge, especially since I’ve not done more than five miles on the flat all year, and the weather’s not exactly looking kind, but we’ll see how we go.

The track to Great Hill


The forecast is optimistic, but wrong, the moor impressively bleak and cold, the climb up to Great Hill being in the teeth of a sapping wind and rain. The trail’s a waste of mud, too many boots on the ground now – runners, walkers, bikers, all trampling and slewing a dark, wide path. In the summer I saw bikers slicing fresh trails across the moor up to Spitler’s Edge. The land is still bleeding from the cuts they left in their wake. This is such a delicate environment, I wonder if it can survive the stress. No doubt, come spring, there will be fires again.

The trails through Roddleworth are busy – bikes, horses, hikers. Large groups straddle the route, chatting, seemingly unaware of you, forcing you into the ditch as they come at you. By contrast Brinscall moor is empty, granting the first real sense of solitude I’ve had all day. I’m hitting it late in the walk though, when I’m tired, and not sure of my way. I’ve been carrying the Lumix, but not used it much yet, preferring to keep it out of the rain. Its fast lens always makes the best of bleak winter conditions, finding colour where my eyes see only grey. Only now is the unfamiliar piquing my interest and I try a half dozen shots of bare trees and gaunt ruins against a glowering sky. The header picture, is the only one that makes the cut. The rest are burred. My fault, and no surprise.

For weeks my head has been elsewhere, pondering the conundrum of occupational pension options, to be posted off ASAP, in order to fund my early retirement at the year’s end. Then it’s planning my last week of work, and how best to leave behind a tidy ship, this after forty years as a professional engineer. I stand on the cusp of becoming a full time writer now – either that or just another grey old man pushing a trolley round Tescos. It’s what I wanted to do in my twenties – defining myself as a writer – and better late than never. At least now I won’t starve following my dreams.

Perhaps that’s also why I get lost in Brinscall woods, find myself dead-ended in a darkening vale. Suddenly, above me is the sound of water and, through the mist and gloom, comes the awesome spectacle of a gargantuan waterfall. Okay, I know where I am, now. This is the elusive Hatch Brook Falls, and there seems no way around it. I’m so surprised I forget to take a photograph, but the light’s so poor now, I doubt even Ansel Adams would have made much sense of it.


I have a flask of soup, so settle amid the moss and the mud and the multifarious fungi for lunch, and some much-needed restoration. But I’ve forgotten to microwave the soup – just poured the tin into the Thermos. Its unexpected coldness turns an empty stomach. The only other thing I have is an apple, so I munch on that instead. It’s surprising how much energy there is in an apple. It restores the spirits sufficient to get me on my feet and scrambling out of the gorge, onto a path I recognize. Then it’s a couple of miles on empty legs, back to White Coppice, and the car. There’s more rain along the way, more cold, more grey, and mud. And there are processions of slow moving people with dogs running free. They’re all slobber and muddy paws – the dogs I mean – and I could really do without the attention.


Mid-afternoon now, and at a time when I would never dream of visiting White Coppice on a Covid weekend, I find the car-park’s empty. There’s no rhyme nor reason to these strange days. I drive home on the edge of light, the dawn having skipped the day and moved straight on to dusk. I’m haunted by those shots I fluffed on Brinscall moor, the crisp shapes, and the poetry of bare trees against a deepening grey of sky.


I finish the day soaking my bones in a hot bath, and with a glass of drowned whiskey on my chest. I listen to My Bloody Valentine on the player, then Slowdive, and finally Mazzy Star. Then it’s off to bed where I dream of an evening at Wigan and District Mining and Technical College, in the summer of 1985. I’m twenty-four and I’ve won the AUEW prize for my final year’s HND in Mechanical and Production Engineering – in the dream version I cannot find my car afterwards, and have to walk home in the dark. There are bare winter trees against a moonlit sky. They look a lot like those I saw on Brinscall Moor.

I don’t know what the dream is telling me – you did okay as an engineer, perhaps; you kept it together, kept going, but you can make your own way from here without all that now. Things change their names, move on, become irrelevant in terms of our own identity – Wigan Tech, the AUEW, an HND and BS 308, all gone now or transmuted into some other form, neither of us recognising the other any more. But some things retain their potency – things like a lone tree silhouetted against a grey sky, and like Winter on the hill.

Thanks for listening

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The concluding part of my story The Man Who Could Not Forget:

In the end, I was disappointed. Lanchester’s prose was convoluted and ultimately banal. Speed reading, I devoured the entire text, looking for just one jewel of home-spun wisdom, but there were none. These were the memoirs of an ordinary, and poorly educated man, the record of an unremarkable life, bloated with pedantic minutiae. Brady and I were of the same mind: fifty pence was about its worth, and I regretted wasting my memory on it.

After finishing the book I dozed a little, only to be roused by a loud rapping on the door. I looked at Clarissa, but she was still sleeping. Thinking it might be an anxious relative, I hastened downstairs to open it.

It was Brady. “I should have guessed you’d be in it together,” he said.

“What? You followed us here? For fifty lousy pence! You’re crazy.”

“It’s the principle,” he replied. “Now, where is it?”

I still had the book in my hands and there was no point now trying to hide it. Brady reached out and took it. I felt powerless to stop him. It was his, after all.

“I don’t expect to see either of you in my shop again,” he said.

Clarissa woke after dawn, looking brighter and fresher. I knew her recovery would be short lived, though. She gave me a tender look when she saw me waiting at her bedside, but became gloomy when I told her what had happened.

I tried my best to reassure her. “He won’t come back,” I said. But she was less concerned about Brady’s visit than the book he had taken.

“I’ll never find another copy,” she said.

I tried to make light of it. “Well, from what I read – it’s not much of a loss.”

“You read it?”

“Cover to cover, while you slept.”

“So you could recite it to me?”

I didn’t like the sound of that. “It would take days.”

“You could do it, though? Word for word?”

“Of course. But it’s dross. Why waste your mind on it?”

She looked at me then, a steely determination coming over her. “I must have that book,” she said.

“Why should I help you to commit suicide?”

“Is that what you think?”

“What else am I to suppose, when you seem bent on burning yourself out? You’re almost there now. Another book will kill you.”

She looked at me curiously. “I don’t keep this knowledge, you know? I pass it on.”

“What do you mean, you pass it on?”

“I mean, literally. To students, mostly,… I’m a tutor at the college. I also do other,… freelance memory work. But you don’t understand, I pass it on directly,… from my memory to theirs – not that they’re aware of it of course. They just think I’m a good tutor.”

She could see I was struggling with this concept, so she enlightened me further. “That time we met, at college, remember? I gave you some saucy images of me, so you’d want to go out with me. They were Polaroids I’d taken of myself. I thought of them, then projected them into your mind. It was cheap, I know, but I was younger then and not so sensitive. Funny, it had always worked on men before.”

I felt myself go pale. Could it be true? Was it possible? Had she really done that?

“I’m surprised you don’t know the technique.” She grew serious then, and drew herself closer. “You don’t do you? You really don’t. You’re still carrying it all with you! Your whole life! But,…. how can you bear it?”

“What choice do people like us have?”

“But surely, you know that in passing it on, you’re relieved of the knowledge yourself? That’s why people like us live the way we do,… so we can put other stuff in there as well – like,.. like,… those bus numbers from last night and any other trifles that keep accumulating. We,…we,… excrete them.”

I shook my head in disbelief at this. “You mean you dump the garbage into other people’s heads? But don’t they know?”

“You jumble it up,” she said. “It’s just background noise to them – and quite harmless,… but to us,… to us, such a relief!”

“But, how is it done? How do choose your subjects? And what do you mean, you project it? You mean like ESP or something?”

“I don’t know about ESP,” she said. “I only know that it’s easy. You can do it to anyone – even a passer by.”

It was a revelation! Such a technique, if true, would extend my useful life to the norm. SO, the obvious question now was: “Can you teach me, Clarissa?”

She gave me a sly look. “Of course,” she said. “Just as soon as you’ve given me Lanchester’s essays.”

“But if you teach me now, I could give you the essays directly, and rid myself of them in the process.”

“It might take months to teach you,” she said, “And those essays are urgent. My client must have them, and soon.”

So we began – me typing out the essays word for word, comma for comma. It was not a difficult task, only tedious, like copying out the pages of a dictionary. Every hour or so, I would produce a sheaf of printouts, which she would then settle down to read. The task took two long days to complete, the last full stop being punched in around midnight. After that I slept on a futon Clarissa had prepared for me in her spare bedroom. I woke the following morning to find her sitting cross-legged on the floor regarding me strangely. Something was troubling her.

“You will teach me?” I reminded her. “You promised.”

“Yes, I’ll teach you. Have you realised though, the price will be your memories? Which ones and how many, only you can decide. Once gone, they are gone forever. I’m worried you’ll be reckless, destroying half your life in an attempt to preserve it.”

“Surely I’m the best judge of that.”

But already I had begun sifting my memories in an attempt to label them for execution. It had been harder than I’d thought. Was it only the good memories that sustained us? The successes? The times of deep satisfaction? Could I safely dispose of the failures? the cringing embarrassments? the heartaches, the insults? or were they as important in defining us? Was Clarissa right? Was there a danger I would destroy my person in an attempt only to preserve its mortal vessel?

She reached out and squeezed my hand. “Of course I’ll teach you.” “Besides you still have pictures of me I’d like returning.”

“Ah no, Clarissa,” I replied, teasing her. “Those pictures have kept me warm for years. Some things I will never be persuaded to part with.”

By now she was almost too weak to leave the house. It was as if Lanchester’s infernal essays had proven too much for her. In the end, I had to drive her across town to her appointment with the mysterious client. I was curious about him – even more so when she directed me through the gates of a geriatric home.

We were greeted at the door by a senior nurse. Clarissa’s client?

“Clarissa, darling. We were worried.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“You have them?”

Clarissa tapped her head. “All in here,” she said. “Safe and sound.”

We were shown along a corridor, the air heavy with a soporific heat, and finally to a lounge whose walls were lined by the vacant expressions of many ancient souls, each one looking up in expectation as we passed. The nurse led us to a frail old guy in a wheelchair, and knelt beside him. He was in a bad way, his skin almost transparent over his bones. I offered him my hand, a gesture he returned by some long embedded reflex.

The nurse smoothed back the thinning remains of his hair. “Poor love,” she said. “Stone deaf,… Can’t even remember his own name any more.”

But I knew it of course. “Mr Lanchester, I presume.”

Now I understood the value of memory. What to me had been worthless, to him was a spotlight, cutting clean through the fog of his decrepitude to the finest of his days, days that had leaked away from him to be gathered into two temporarily stronger minds.

I tightened my grip on his hand, and Clarissa lowered her head, as if to concentrate. Then she sighed and I swear, as I looked into his eyes, I saw a glimmer of light, not much but enough perhaps to sustain him.

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the sea view cafe - smallSo,… what do we have so far?

Man leaves wife, flees his life and his dope-smoking offspring, wife has affair with her boss. Man meets woman, the woman meets a woman, the man discovers feelings for a woman-friend from way back. He loves all these women, even the woman who loves his woman, but he can only actually be with one woman because,.. well, he’s an old fashioned kind of guy. So who, among all these women will he choose? Or, more to the point, who will have him? Or,… actually,… does a man need a woman at all? Is he not better living on his own, sorting himself out instead of running round changing light-bulbs for women, arguing over the washing machine, and who makes lunch?

Given all the upheavals in the world and the stuff I could be writing about, this seems a bit trite, a bit “domestic”, and I don’t know what these characters are trying to tell me, if they’re trying to be funny, profound, or if they’re trying to tell me anything at all and I’m not just making stuff up as I go along, heading nowhere that means anything. It’s the usual creative impasse. To be original you have to write what you’re given by the voices in your head, not simply copy something else you’ve read. But to be original, doesn’t automatically mean you’re creating something worthwhile. I mean, after all, anyone can make stuff up.

But let’s think about it. No, I’m sure my characters are talking to me in the context of more weighty world affairs, and what they’re saying is this: our love triangles and love squares and love scares might seem trivial on the surface, but at least we’re seeking love in both its broad and narrow senses, rather than power. We’re also seeking a modest means of surviving these coming decades, rather than scoring grand fortunes at the expense of others less fortunate. And you know, it doesn’t matter to us, they tell me, what race or gender our friends and lovers are, or even if they’re like they say in the popular media: damned foreigners comin’ over ere and takin’ our jobs, because really that kind of language belongs to the stone age, and we’ve moved on, even if you haven’t.

My characters see through the machinations and the manipulations now; they laugh at the purveyors of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as at the antics of a newly discovered species which, although now the dominant predator on the planet, is actually of only passing interest because they (my characters) accept they cannot alter the way things are, that in order to survive they must make alternative arrangements than the ones apparently on offer which would otherwise do them harm. They are all refugees, economic migrants, waifs and strays, some native, some not, all washed up just the same on the shores of economic ruin, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations gone. They are all stateless, in that the state on which they formerly stood is disappearing so rapidly beneath their feet it might as well not exist at all, and in any case will not be there for their children.

Yet, they do not turn to drugs, or violence – I mean not like they would in the movies. Nor do they tumble into a twisted aspiration of an Endtimes, where we shall all be saved by “The Rapture”, nor a post apocalyptic future where we shall be saved by nothing. They reject the language of hate and despair, they do not conform to the media stereotypes of the ruined middle class, nor the workless working man, nor any of the million vain conspiracy theories. Nor are they racist, bigoted misogynists, so whatever the world throws at them (and it’s thrown a lot) the Sea View Cafe dares to tell a positive tale of plucky survival against the odds, of cleanliness and dignity maintained against an oppressively murky background.

They take stock, they brush themselves down, they bind their wounds, paint on a smile. Lacking kin they gather into improvised families, seek survival for themselves and the ones they choose to love. They remain steadfastly human in a dehumanising world, a world that sees people not as people, but as economic units of varying viability, to be switched on and off as the market demands, even if half of them starve to death in the process. They are Romantic figures, also pragmatic, but most of all they are Romantic. And I’m talking Samuel Taylor Coleridge here, not Mills and Boon.

Put it like that, the Sea View might sound like one of those worthy but laboured literary texts that’s trying to change the world, but it’s not. It accepts the world as its stage, even if it might not be the world you recognise, and it says: okay, so how do we work with this? And the characters do what they must in all stories, they start out in one place and end up in another, and in the process they either grow or they die, and the only weapons I’ve given them are compassion and a stubbornly infinite capacity for love. I know, I know, Helena Aynslea has just kneed Squinty Mulligan in the balls for being a lecherous misogynist, but no one’s perfect. And I’m sorry but he deserved it. And I rather like Helena’s fiery spirit.

We’re a hundred and fifty thousand words in, and there are doubts about direction as there always are at this point with so many threads running this way and that and all wanting their resolution before the novel can be steered safe into harbour and a new story begun. So I talk to myself, and I talk to my characters, like I’m doing here, and the way becomes a little clearer.

Hermione looks up from the counter as I walk in: “So, what can I get you darlin’?”

“Um,… Americano, please.”

She turns to the coffee machine, bangs the scoop works the levers, makes steam.

Whoosh!

Did she just call me darlin’?

Thanks for listening.

*The Sea View Cafe,… a work in progress. To be completed,… well,… sometime,… possibly.

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It’s a bit of a mouthful for the title of a story, but it’s stuck with me pretty much from the beginning, so I was reluctant to interfere with it. I’ve been nurturing La Maison since early 2010. I’m not sure how other writer’s work but I go through a period where I’ll have a lot of projects on the go, each of them inching towards something as I hop randomly from one to the next. Eventually though one of them will catch fire and then occupy my time more or less solidly until its completion, at the expense of all other work. That was the case with La Maison. It’s been something of an obsession, yet frustratingly difficult to navigate towards any sort of conclusion. I gave the characters a lot of leeway here, made a muse or a daemon out of each of them and tried to listen to what they were telling me. Needless to say, it’s a strange story, having more in common with the Lavender and the Rose than my more conventional work.

Anyway I put it up on Feedbooks last night and you can download it here.

It’s a full length novel, complete and free to read – not a teaser or a taster. There’s about 11 hours worth of reading.

I briefly considered making it exclusive to the Kindle bookstore and charging a small fee for download, but speaking as a UK hobby writer I’m finding the tax system to be incomprehensible and didn’t want to find myself on the wrong side of it for what might not amount to much in terms of actual income anyway. As usual then I decided to keep it free. As an independent writer, using online media,  I’m in it for the readership and once again the media of choice was Feedbooks. It started getting hits immediately, and after only twelve hours had achieved 30 downloads. On the other hand, my experience of pay for download sites is they just don’t get the hits. I’ve had a copy of “The Man Who Could Not Forget” on iTunes for about a year now (for free) and it’s not been downloaded once, while the Feedbooks version is managing between fifty and sixty downloads a day

I feel a bit lost now, having said my goodbyes to these characters, but if past form is anything to go by, I’ll be leaving it to settle for a few months, then I’ll read it, but this time as a reader, rather than a writer, and then I’ll be making changes to it, even if it’s only sweeping up the typos that have eluded me. I’m my own editor unfortunately, and for the typos that remain, I apologise.

Best wishes to all my readers

Michael Graeme

***Update – never mind the typos, there was a whole chapter missing. Apologies.***

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