Meeting in the Park

Here’s one of my mother’s pieces of flash fiction, first published by the American International Women’s Club in Geneva. I hope you enjoy it as much as others have.

Day after day, he came to the park and sat on the bench beside her, sometimes a little too close, but she pretended not to notice. After a while, she’d get up and move away. She wasn’t about to get involved, not after Ambrose. It was too painful.

She loved being out of doors, and she was lucky to live across the street from the park, where she could sit under a tree, in dappled shade, reading or writing another one of her short stories.

Her thoughts were adrift in the old Alexandria of her youth, so she wouldn’t hear him approach, but, when she turned her head, he’d be there. A little scruffy, a little thin, but proud nonetheless.

“FreeImages.com/Harry M

He sat very still, gazing straight ahead, though he often fixed her with his eyes, which is what got to her in the end.

“Look here,” she said to him one perfect spring day when the crocuses were out and she could stand it no longer. “You need a good meal.”

He sneezed.

“You’re not well.” She hesitated. “You can stay with me, if you wish.” She rose and stood looking at him for a moment, then gathered him in her arms. “You purr even louder than Ambrose.”

Does anyone else here write flash fiction? I’d love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, these posts may raise a smile:

How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

No Mother is Perfect

#TBT; Dating, 1940s Style

 

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How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

In her own words, this is how my mother came to write her first book.

Il a nationalisé le canal!” my father said again with disbelief. “Nasser read the decree right here in Alexandria, this evening. He told the USA to choke to death on its fury!”

We were staying with my parents in Alexandria, and, as it turned out, I was only allowed out of the house at certain hours of the day. It was a sort of house arrest (résidence forcée).

There was nothing much to do in autumn 1956. It was October, a lovely month in Egypt, when summer’s heat and humidity are over, and it is pleasant to be out of doors.

One morning, I sat down under the mimosa tree, with the sound of white doves cooing in the dovecote, and began to write my first book, Cocktails and Camels. I never thought of any other title.

Apart from school essays and letters, I had never written anything before. I wrote in pencil, painstakingly, while my young daughter Carol picked daisies on the lawn. As I searched for the right words, they popped up like magic. I was elated. 

Writing my first book had nothing to do with my wanting to be ‘a writer’. It just happened because the circumstances and my state of mind were attuned. Although the country was at war, Gamal Abdel Nasser was on a nationalization spree, and the future looked uncertain, I felt peaceful and content. Maybe that is what writing does for you.

The writing did not always come easily. Every line was written and rewritten a dozen times or more. I did not mind. Every time I corrected a sentence, I could see it getting better. Writing was a challenge, and I enjoyed it. I’d walk around the garden, mulling things over. Sometimes I’d laugh aloud at what I’d written.

“I’m going to write a book too!” Carol piped up.

Friends came to visit and have tea. I told them I was writing a book, and that it would be called Cocktails and Camels.

“You are writing a book?” Then, in French, “Mais pourquoi? Why don’t you learn to play bridge?”

Je déteste le bridge!” We always spoke like that in Alexandria, switching from one language to another all the time. Anyone who did not was not a true Alexandrian.

Annoyed that I always refused to play bridge, they were soon asking if I was planning to mention them in my book.

“Of course.” How could I not include them? They were such characters. But I would do it with humour, and make up names to disguise their identities.

“Will you say that I am the best dressed woman in Alexandria?” asked Yvette who wore a different outfit every day. We laughed.

“You’ll have to be patient and wait until the book is published.”

My father, who for more than thirty years had been the respected President of La Bourse de Contrats en Egypte, had published an excellent and much acclaimed book on the Bourse. I thought he would be pleased to hear that I too wanted to write a book.

One evening, with Carol asleep in her cot, I told my parents that I was working on a light-hearted autobiography called Cocktails and Camels. Their reaction was not what I had expected.

Quoi?” Father cried. “Un livre? Des cocktails?”

“Quelle idée! Nous finirons en prison!” Mother said. “Why can’t you be like everyone else, comme tout le monde?”

“I’ll take a pen name,” I cried, annoyed. “And all the names of the people will be changed. It won’t be published in Egypt, anyway.”

There had been censorship in Egypt for years, and one was careful what one wrote in letters and newspapers, let alone books. Sometimes, foreign magazines were sold with articles missing, cut out by the censors. To be on the safe side, I changed not only the names of friends and relatives, but, to be sure no one recognized the family, I wrote that I had two sisters instead of a sister and a brother. My brother Théo was never mentioned in Cocktails and Camels. As for a pen name, I would be Jacqueline Carol, using my own first name and my daughter’s first name as a surname.

“You can’t afford to publish a book,” Father then said.

“I am not planning to pay for its publication! The publisher will pay me.”

Mother’s blue eyes looked infinitely sad. “Please be careful, chérie. Nice girls don’t write books.”

“Who cares about nice girls?” I howled as I stormed out of the room.

Cocktails and Camels was published in New York in 1960. Now sadly out of print, it portrays Egypt in an earlier time – الزمن الجميل – and is still one of the funniest books I have ever read. Not that I’m at all biased.

Carol

 

Peeking Inside the Book Blogger’s Bag

This week, I take an exclusive peek inside one of the most creative and fun book blogs I’ve come across – Jessie Cahalin’s Books in My Handbag

Part of Jessie’s Handbag Gallery

By now, we’ve all heard of Books Are my Bag, but blogger and author Jessie Cahalin takes books and bags a step further with Books in My Handbag, including Handbag Adventures and a beautiful Handbag Gallery that now features over 130 books. Jessie, what first made you think of pairing books with handbags?

Jessie: Once upon a time, my shelves were groaning with the weight of a lifetime of purchases. We didn’t have the money to move, so I had to take the books to the charity shop. Several weeks later, after many car trips, I realised I was throwing away all the voices that had influenced me over the years – but then Mr Kindle came to the rescue. All the narrative voices are in my handbag – result! 

I decided to share the influential books, located on the Kindle in my handbag, via a blog and that is how Books in my Handbag was created.  I shared ten book reviews on my blog, and was overwhelmed with requests from authors wanting to put their books in my handbag. Authors tweeted me with comments about my handbag and their favourite handbags. 

I came up with the idea of authors showcasing their books in their handbags.  The Handbag Gallery was an instant success.  Every single composition sets the scene and tells a story, and each photo is linked to Amazon or the author’s website. 

Some of the guests on Books in My Handbag

Me: Your delightful settings and the entertaining stories you weave are as much a part of the interview as the questions you ask. I love the one in which you share a special tea with one author.

Jessie: In preparation for this interview with Annabel Fielding, I visited Bath Market to collect some tea.  I drank the tea at home and imagined a shortbread to compliment the tea.  I have written a blog post about selecting the various teas, but haven’t posted it yet. 

Me: How do you get your inspiration for the interview settings?

Jessie: Sometimes, I choose a setting based on what the author says in the interview. Jenn Bregman told me she is an adventurer, so it seemed obvious that we climb Pen Y Fan, in the Brecon Beacons. There are occasions when I get inspiration when I am visiting a place. For instance, I suggested we meet in Cardiff Bay, as I heard some medical students chatting on their graduation day thus it seemed serendipitous to discuss Hampstead Fever there.

Adrienne Vaughan quoted Churchill in her interview: ‘‘Never, never, never give up!’ I was due to visit Chartwell House, so took time to snap some appropriate shots and plan the meeting. 

Karl Holton, crime writer, mentioned Agatha Christie in his interview so we had to set the interview in the library. I set the interview searching for the body, but he enhanced the interview with a brilliant, dramatic opening.

Jessie in her own setting

Me: What is your favourite setting?

Jessie: As a Yorkshire lass, I have to say York is my favourite setting in the UK.  John Jackson, historical novelist, lives in York and it was a delight to visit.  John’s book is based on his ancestors, and I enjoyed teasing out the history of his scoundrel ancestors in the town. 

Me: What settings have caused you the most trouble?

Jessie: Collecting the photos for the interviews and the blog is an adventure, but it has got me into trouble. Recently, I was told in no uncertain terms not to place my handbag on the fireplace of a stately home.  I have been chased away from an antique shop for photographing but not buying. When preparing for Ally Bunbury’s interview, I had to find a photo of glamorous hotel for the interview.  Once I had found the hotel in Brighton, I persuaded the porters to help me to set up an original shot. 

I am mischievous by nature and get carried away in creative challenges. All the interviews are stories, and I must bring them to life with the flow of dialogue and original photos.

Me: How much research do you put into each of your interviews?

Jessie: The author’s comments are my starting point, but I always research the author’s books, website, Facebook pages and Twitter.  This helps me to get a sense of how the author represents themselves and their work; sometimes I grab a couple of additional pictures from their Facebook Page. I constantly research new settings online, and grab photos of places I visit.  I always have a notebook and phone in my handbag to capture any ideas.

Me: You often feature book extracts. Which type do you think works best, eg dialogue, first few paragraphs?  

Jessie: Extracts with tension, comedy or conflict seem to work the best.  It is better if the extract is original and not from the one on Amazon.  The 250-word limit challenges the author to be selective, and think of framing their book. It does not matter if the extract is dialogue or prose, but the extract must work in isolation.

Me: What are the ingredients of a really good author interview?

Jessie: The author is the key ingredient in all the interviews.  It is my role to host the author and find a way to let their personality shine through.  I suggest a setting for the interview, but the author decides on the dress code and the food and drink.  Once the author feels comfortable, we can develop the conversation and enjoy the interaction.

Me: How do you keep up the pace of blogging, reviewing and interviewing as well as writing books?

Jessie: I work from 7am until I go to sleep. I live, eat, and breathe the blog and writing. I try to dedicate most of my day to editing my book, but get distracted with interviews, extracts etc. Initially, I started blogging to share my reading and make connections with other readers and authors. I am very lucky that my husband looks after the IT side of the blog and is happy to translate my latest idea onto the blog.

My diary of events has become very full. I ordered a great big diary for Christmas, but have realised that it won’t fit in my handbag.  I am always looking for an opportunity to buy another handbag.

My day is punctuated with social media activity and supporting authors.  One of the indie authors I have worked with recommended an editor to me, and this process has opened my eyes.  I have been re-working my book during the last couple of months and a new edition will be out soon. 

Me: Can you please give us a flavour of your own book?

Jessie: You Can’t Go It Alone is contemporary women’s fiction.  The novel explores the impact secrets can have on relationships and pursuit of happiness.

Set in a Welsh village during the noughties, You Can’t Go It Alone reveals the contrast in attitudes and opportunities between different generations. Rosa, the leading lady of the Olive Tree Café, must face issues in her marriage. Sophie, a teacher, helps others to communicate but struggles to communicate with her husband, Jack, about their IVF journey. Olivia, who is coming of age, struggles with the pressures of fame. As they confront their secrets and fears, they discover surprising things about themselves and their relationships.

This feel-good book has many twists and turns in the plot, but it also deals with the harsh realities of life.  The reader is invited to laugh and cry with the characters, and consider how to find joy in the simple things in life.

Thanks, Jessie, for being the interviewee this time round.

You can find Jessie Cahalin on her blog, website, Facebook, and Twitter.

 

Good Luck in Your New Home

One of the great things about moving into your very own home is the potential for making it exactly as you’d like it to be.

My first property, a small Victorian house in Harrow, North London, suffered from damp and neglect. The fireplaces and kitchen were vintage 1950s, and so was everything else. The first job was to treat the rising damp, then do some rendering and plastering.

CPR ventilating with bag

I had not long qualified as a doctor when I bought the house. My pockets were empty, but I was full of optimism. Flushed with success at two recent cardiac arrests, where, against all odds, both patients lived to tell the tale, I decided to have a go at home restoration.

Armed with a couple of trowels, a large bag of Marley Mix, and a smaller one of plaster, I got stuck in. It didn’t take long to realise that (a) this was very thirsty work (b) it required considerable expertise. As the rendering kept falling off the wall, and my plastering looked like a relief map of the Himalayas, it was clear I didn’t have those skills.

Suffice to say that a large sofa can conceal a multitude of mishaps.

Number One son has now bought his first home. While his learning curve hasn’t been as steep as mine was, there have been important rites of passage, like buying his very own drill.

And then putting up the very first towel rail or mirror. I believe I’m the ideal person to teach this, as I’ve put up lots of towel rails (oh, all right – just the one towel rail, but lots of times).  

Unfortunately, my son had lent his hammer to a friend, but a meat tenderiser does much the same job and can also leave a pretty pattern on the wall.

The man in the shop had warned that, once you get your own combi drill, you use it all the time. And so it proved. Why not drill an extra hole under the sink, just in case? That eye protection looks pretty cool too.

It’s great getting to know your new neighbours, but sometimes that happens more quickly than intended. Curtains became a priority.

Carpeting may come soon because, basically, how long can one live with other people’s stains?  

Here the trouble may be too much choice. Exactly which shade of grey/beige/greige to pick? Even more confusing when the products have similar names.

And then which underlay – crumbed or sponge rubber?

It’s all a bit too much. I think this calls for a nice cup of a tea and a biscuit before someone picks up the drill again.

FreeImages.com/Thiago Felipe Festa

My Top Six Driving Tips

With the end of British Summer Time this weekend, the clocks went back, though some of them needed a little human intervention. Several friends found it hard to adjust the clock in their car, prompting visions of them trying to do this while on the move.

Now that I’ve had a licence for more decades than I care to admit, and have driven in every continent except South America and Antarctica, I might be almost qualified to pass on some tips to remember when behind the wheel.

Keep those eyes on the road. Don’t get distracted by the clock on the dashboard, your lovely CD collection, or your twin toddlers squabbling in the back. Just stop the car and sort it out.

But no pulling up on double yellow or double red lines. You’re not a London taxi now, are you?

Mini Cooper S

Being observant isn’t quite enough. A driver’s eyesight needs to be adequate. One relative of mine rarely bothered getting her eyes tested, as I learned when she made an emergency stop to let a pillar box cross the road.

A full bladder and an empty stomach are equally unsettling. It’s not wimpish to make a comfort stop.

No getting angry. It’s distracting. And it’s catching.

The key to parallel parking is in the word ‘parallel’. Start parallel to the car in front of the space before reversing into it. The space, not the car.

VW Golf wing mirror

Happy motoring!

***

PS The standards of vision for driving in the UK are set out by the DVLA and can be found here

Breaking Up with a Little Help from Oasis

Journalist Harriet and charity worker Sanjay are two characters from my novel Hampstead Fever. Here’s what happened one afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Sanjay.

Another bad sign. Harriet already knew something was wrong before he came up to the flat. He normally looked full-on at the camera in the entryphone and gave a cheery wave or said, ‘I’m here with a friend. Can we interest you in a copy of The Watchtower?’ 

Today he’d ducked. He never ducked.

She buzzed him in. Then he sat next to her on the sofa, had the cup of tea she’d made him, and told her he’d been thinking. All the while, Be Here Now was playing. It had been one of her favourite albums for over fifteen years, but from now on she would always hate the Gallagher brothers and their grating Mancunian accents.

“Why, Sanjay?” It was the only thing she could think of. FreeImages.com/Thiago Felipe Festa

At first he stared at his feet. “Look. When we met, I thought I was a goner. Now I’ve got my life back, and… Well, I guess I want to be single for a bit.”

“I knew it!”  She’d even told him so about two years ago, as she reminded him. “We should have talked.”

He had the decency to look upset. “Yes, we should have. But we can’t seem to talk the way we used to.”

“Have we even tried?”

“I don’t know.”

Until October 25, you can get the kindle version of Hampstead Fever for just 99p/$1.30 right here. Or even right now.

Did a break-up ever put you up a particular piece of music? I’d love to hear from you.

5 British Things You Can Always Count on

I’m aware that Britain is rather special, if not downright peculiar. Coupled with a weak pound, that’s an asset that may well contribute to its perennial attraction as a holiday destination. In 2016, over 37 million tourists visited Britain, some 4% more than in 2015.

Over the years, I’ve shown visiting friends from abroad some wonderful sights, and I’ve shared some enduring national traditions. These, in my view, are the top five things you can properly count on.

1 There’s always a downpour on a Bank Holiday weekend. If for some strange reason it turns out sunny, as it did last August, you can be sure we’ll talk about it for the next twenty years.

Aldeburgh just before the rains

2 There’s always a queue at a National Trust tea-shop. The National Trust is the custodian of over 350 historic buildings, along with acres of land and miles of coastline. The menu in their tea-rooms is rarely complex, and some delightful people work behind the counter. Why then is the self-service line so long that toddlers wet themselves and the elderly give up altogether long before they reach the till?

To a magnificent 17th C mansion and a working farm

3 English pubs are dying. Every year, about 900 more pubs close, though many find a new lease of life as an Indian or Chinese restaurant.

The Mill, Cambridge. Still a traditional pub, for now.

4 Snow makes everything grind to a halt. British trains and roads aren’t built to cope with anything more than three flakes of snow.

FreeImages.com/Margot H

Thanks to Margot H for the photo

5 The England football team consistently fails to impress. Yes, next year we might very well ‘go all the way’ and carry off the World Cup, but we’ve said that every four years since 1966. It would be lovely to think that Gareth Southgate is a national treasure, and that every England player is proud to step on the turf for his country. As I write, I’m watching England play Lithuania. It is apparently an artificial pitch, and the players are wooden.

FreeImages.com/Christopher Bruno

Photo courtesy of Christopher Bruno

Can you think of anything else that so reliably evokes Britain?