Why I write

One Night at the Jacaranda

First cover of my novel

Not being George Orwell, I can only tell you why I wrote this book.

Every writer wants to produce the kind of thing they love to read themselves. I’ve read a lot of great authors, so I had in mind a contemporary novel with flawed characters, dialogue that rings true, a sense of place, and a terrific story-line to pull it all together.

That may well be how I wrote it, but it’s not why.

It began on a plane as my eldest son and I headed for Princeton and my father’s funeral.  The 7-hour journey to Newark gave us plenty of time to talk.

Most families are complicated.  My father moved out when I was about four.  Although my earliest memories go back to my second birthday, all I remembered of my Daddy was trailing around my mother in the too-large flat and asking where he was. “Heliopolis” she said.

Just recently I looked through an ancient photo album.  It was a jolt to see evidence of the three of us together, Mum and Dad and myself as a young child.

For years after he left, we had little to do with each other.  It was my grandfather I called Papa.

Then came occasional awkward meetings in Philadelphia or Washington, DC.   The most awkward was an outing to buy a Barbie doll, during which my knicker elastic snapped.

But I was lucky as a teenager and then an adult, because we gradually grew closer despite living on different continents most of the time.  Recently we were seeing each other once or twice a year.  I’d often go over with my children to spend some time in New Jersey with Dad and the wonderful American woman he’d married when I was about 9 (‘stepmother’ is too Grimm a word).

On flight CO19 Julian and I reminisced.  Dad was the archetypal Brit in the USA. Despite having settled there decades before, he was still sustained by Tommy Cooper videos and Harrogate toffees that played havoc with his dentures.

His death was hardly premature, but his last years had been tough, with serious lung disease, spinal stenosis, and a heart attack that made his heart stop twice.

Julian and I talked about the little oxygen cylinder that came with him everywhere.  His reluctance to use a disabled badge.  His marvel at the benefits of knee exercises (most of my patients hardly bother with them, but Dad was meticulous about his quads regime).  His impatience with politics both sides of the Atlantic, yet his infinite patience in his volunteer work for Centurion Ministries, which absorbed him after he retired from decades in life insurance.

At some point Julian slept and I got a gin and tonic.  That’s when I started jotting things down on the napkin.  Then I asked for another napkin.  Julian stirred and wanted to know what I was writing. “Notes for an article” I said, unsure what I had in mind.

The notes developed into a plot about a motley group of singletons (there’s more on the Books page). They are all, not surprisingly, trying to find someone special.  I know I was.

I scribbled some more, and a novel developed.   The story has nothing to do with my father. Except for this one thing: he’d always wanted to be a writer.  When he read my first (non-fiction) book, he never said he was proud of me, but he did say it was a bit like something he’d once written.

Is One Night at the Jacaranda the kind of book he’d have wanted me to write? Absolutely not.  I think he’d choke on a toffee if he read it.

dad and IPS For the curious, Centurion Ministries is an investigative agency with no religious affiliation. Its mission is to free from prison those innocent individuals who had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to either life or death.

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The Rise and Fall of the Selfie

selfie
Pronunciation: /ˈsɛlfi/.  Noun (plural selfies). Informal
a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

‘Selfie’ has been named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries Online. And no wonder. Anyone who’s anyone is taking selfies, and a whole lot of nobodies are too.

Originally ‘selfie’ came from Oz, the land that brought us barbies, tinnies, dunnies, and ‘dry as a dead dingo’s donger.’   But the point was, did I want to be left behind by the rest of the world?  By Rihanna, the Pope and the Obamas?  Too right I didn’t.  So here are my selfies.

Me getting ready to go out: getting ready to go out

OK, that wasn’t great.  I had another go.

getting ready

Maybe next time I’ll get my whole head in.  Me at the gym.

at the gym

You didn’t think I would actually go inside, did you?

Frankly the cat could have done better.  And promptly did.

kitty's selfie

See, my problem is that my phone doesn’t have a mirror.  Maybe I need one of those little makeup mirrors that you can stick up on surfaces like the kitchen cupboard.  Much loved in the 60s, they helped the suburban housewife remain perfectly coiffed at all times, even when slaving over a hot stove.

Before you ask, my phone doesn’t have a forward-facing camera.  It’s the kind of phone that makes my sons double up with laughter and give themselves hernias.

Perhaps what I need for the perfect selfie is a kind of stand in front of my face to position the phone.  Of course I wouldn’t be able to see where I was going, but at least I’d get some great selfies of tumbling arse over tit.

Luckily Oxford Dictionaries Online doesn’t just define ‘selfie’.  It tells us what to do

occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary.”

I think that’s my cue to bow out gracefully.  I’m middle-aged now, so even by my mother’s admission I’m practically an adult.

So long, selfie.  I’m going to use my phone for its original intention.  As an alarm clock.  And a torch so I can see my way to the loo in the night.

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A Week to Remember in the Surgery

“An alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor” thinks Geoff as he attacks the second bottle of red.  This isn’t going to help, but it’s Friday and, let’s face it, it’s been a bit of a week.  He waits for the microwave to do its thing with dinner.

Geoff is a family doctor in suburban London, or he would be if he were real.  As it is, he’s just a figment of my imagination.  At 38, he’s divorced and already worn out.

On Monday, Geoff had. expected a two-minute silence but nobody had read the memo.  “Was there a memo?” says the practice manager.  It was a mystery how the staff always take note of the senior partner’s memos though.

His colleagues in the practice think losing two minutes at 11am would be completely out of order.  Especially when Remembrance Day falls on a Monday.  Especially when there are targets to meet, hoops to jump through.

crumpled poppyThe practice nurse is wearing a poppy, now crumpled out of shape and dangling precariously from its pin.  One of the receptionists has one too. The rest don’t bother.

So at the precise moment when Geoff thought he might be standing shoulder to shoulder, if not with all those who serve, then at least with all those who work in the health centre, he’s peering at a patient with spots.

“What can I do for you today?” asks Geoff.  Every doctor knows you never ask what’s wrong today, because patients reply that’s what they came to find out. You don’t ask them what brought them, either. Not unless you want to hear about the 168 bus.

By way of reply, he unzips his flies and whips it out.  That’s where the spots are.  The patient wants antibiotics.  Geoff wants him to get checked out properly.  So he sends him to the Pox Palace, but he uses the correct name instead: sexual health clinic.

On Wednesday the computer database is down.  Turns out it’s a national outage.  “National outrage, more like” fumes Geoff.  Still, he likes idea of free-range consulting.  He can look people in the eye and do proper medicine instead of being fixated on the computer screen.  Funny how much easier it is to listen when you’re not at the mercy of stupid pop-up menus ordering you to ask if they’re depressed, check their medications, and offer a change of contraception.

But by the time the computer’s back on at 11.30am, he’s accumulated pages of illegible patient notes and 20 patients who really need to be seen again.

It’s late on Friday when Geoff finally leaves. He sees that the wall by the No Smoking sign outside the health centre has been used to stub out cigarettes. And he can guess which patients did it.  He goes and scrubs it, because nobody else will.

Now it looks like this.small dirty wall

Surely that entitles him to a bonus glass of wine or two.

 

Alcohol abuse is common in doctors but the expression ‘drunken sailor’ has a lot of truth in it.

Finding a Man: the Sure-Fire 5-Point Plan (part two)

“Get yourself out there” says Rose. “I’ll babysit.”

So far, Karen’s sure-fire dating plan has failed to produce a suitable man (or, as her friend Rose points out, any man at all).

Just to explain, Karen is a mum of four who normally lives between the pages of my novel.  Any mother who’s newly single knows her predicament: lack of time, money, and a decent man.

“You’ve got to leave your comfort zone.  Open some doors.  Go where the fellas are.” Rose hands out wisdom along with a cup of tea.open doorway

Karen hopes that won’t mean betting shops or football matches.  Car maintenance classes might work, especially given the state of her Toyota, but she isn’t sure how attractive she’d be wearing overalls and Castrol GTX.

The gym, of course!  Then she thinks of her shapeless boobs, wobbly thighs, and a bladder that might not stand up to 5 minutes on the cross-trainer.   She’s after male interest, not abject pity. 

“I heard about this mingle” says Rose.   It’s at a large London library, apparently.  Karen likes books though she’s not sure how many she’s finished since her kids arrived.

On the night, she puts on a Primark dress and tucks a paperback into her bag.  You’re meant to take a book to swap at the mingle.  The Women’s Room will do nicely. Karen doesn’t need reminding that shit and string beans take over your mind.

When she arrives, there seem to be about 60 people there already.  She’d have got there earlier, only four-year old Edward decided to pull his big sister’s phone to pieces to see how it worked.

Karen puts her Marilyn French on a table.  It joins Sartre, Sebastian Faulks, CJ Sansom, Stephen Hawking and Dickens.

Everyone is offered a piece of paper out of a hat. library hat

Seems there’s a different hat for men.   Karen unfolds her paper. Lady Hamilton.  There’s no guarantee she’ll get it on with Lord Nelson, but a free glass of wine is on offer for those who find their missing half.

That’s why people are circulating, talking books, music, folding bicycles and other singleton stuff.

“I got cheap tickets.  Great production.”

“Goes right past the dome of St Paul’s.”

“Yeah, but you feel miles better next day.”

Nobody seems to be fretting about their offspring.    A white-haired man bumps into Karen.  “Are you Heloise?”

She’s not, so off he goes.  She watches him as he weaves his way through the crowd, his desperation increasing as woman after woman shakes her head.

An incredibly tall man bends down double and starts talking to her.   He’s Tristan, not Lord Nelson.  He spends two minutes asking Karen about her job (none at the moment) then wanders off to track down Isolde.

Sometimes it’s tough to be optimistic without wine.   Karen buys a large glass of red but it doesn’t make her feel any better.

Romeo and Juliet have already found each other..  Now they’re comparing notes on their daily commutes.

The white-haired man comes back to check she’s not Heloise.   He looks crestfallen when Karen says she’s Lady Hamilton.   There’s no sign of Lord Nelson.   Posh is deep in conversation with Becks.   Fred is with Wilma, and Napoleon, who’s an Aussie, is describing his fitness regime to Josephine.

Nobody has talked to Karen since Abelard.  It’s all very well leaving your comfort zone, but intense discomfort is counter-productive.

She finishes her drink and leaves early, grabbing a book from the Swap Table on her way out.  What’s so wrong with The Women’s Room anyway?

***

‘When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too’, said Marilyn French in her debut novel The Women’s Room.  See Valli’s Book Den http://srivallip.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-women-room-by-marilyn-french.html

Finding a Man: the Sure-Fire 5-Point Plan

You’ve got to be organized, especially when you’re a single mum with four kids.  Karen’s good at lists.  Most of them look like this.

RSPCA memo pad

Karen is a character from my forthcoming novel, but if you have kids you probably know her. Her latest list is a plan.  A sure-fire 5-point plan to find herself a man.  Here goes:

1.  Be optimistic

2.  Look great at all times

3.  Network

4.  Go where the men are

5.  Leave comfort zone

OK, so she hasn’t met anyone since Tom moved out six months, but it shouldn’t be rocket science. After all, she used to be in HR.  She’ll get her man.

Point 1:  easy.  Karen’s always upbeat.  Her motto is ‘It’ll be fine’.  It’s simple, easy, and versatile.  It can be shouted when your 8-year old’s team is 7-0 down, as was the case last Sunday. Which sort of worked, because Damon didn’t let in any more goals after that.

All may not be fine, Karen admits, unless she implements 2 Look great at all times.  She learnt that lesson trying to flirt at the recycling centre when she looked like one of the totters.  Now she brushes her hair, applies lippy, and wears matching shoes even if she’s only doing the school run.  The other morning Charlotte watched critically from the doorway (she’s 10. Critical’s what she does).

“Mummy, why do you need mascara and blusher just to go to the bank?”

“You never know, sweetheart.  Suppose I run into Harry Potter in the high street?”

Karen has a new get-up too.  It’s for everyday wear, instead of the joggers that are only suitable for the garden, ideally on the compost heap.  She hadn’t been looking for new clothes, but she was in Sainsbury’s walking down the wrong aisle, which had a lot in common with her wedding.  Unlike her ex-husband, it was 25% off and came with double Nectar points.  

Sainsbury's signThe top isn’t quite the right size, but Karen fixes that in no time.  If she doesn’t raise her arms, nobody will even notice the staples.

On to point 3: Network.  Not so much using LinkedIn as mining existing contacts.  Surely somewhere there’s a friend of a friend who knows a single guy who isn’t an axe-murderer.  Karen doesn’t have the nerve to ask every mum at the school gates if they have a brother or a discarded husband/lover/toyboy, but she drops a few hints.

The outcome is the dinner party from hell, with single bachelordom represented by a monosyllabic quantity surveyor with personal hygiene issues.  Her hosts aren’t speaking to each other, which makes the evening as fun as a conference of Trappist monks.  The dinner is a roast and the meat wasn’t local.  Karen chews in dutiful silence, trying not to think of live lambs trapped for hours in an overcrowded container lorry.

Karen describes the evening to her best friend Rose.

“That’s no use” says Rose.  “You’ve got to go where the real men are.”

Karen recalls a teenage pastime.  “What, like hanging around the barracks and hoping to pick up a squaddie?”

“No, silly.   You’ve got a car.  And you like books, don’t you?”  Rose has a couple of suggestions.bookshelf

Coming soon: what happened when Karen left her comfort zone.

Meanwhile here’s one of dating blogs Karen has been reading http://www.nerve.com/advice

If her kids are still up, she looks at this site instead http://www.nectar.com