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

 

No Mother is Perfect

This week, a friend of mine happened across a book while tidying her daughter’s bedroom.

“Did your mother write this, by any chance?” she asked me.

 

Now Le Crazy Cat Saloon, with a cast of cats and a sprinkling of French words, may be amusing, but it’s hardly literature.

Nor is it politically correct. For one thing, it features a cat who’s a stripper. As my sons pointed out, stories about strippers aren’t exactly suitable for readers of all ages, no matter what the cover blurb says.

All the same, whenever people talk about my mother’s many books, or her cat paintings, Le Crazy Cat Saloon always features in the conversation.

On Mother’s Day, I have a vested interest in thinking that mothers should be remembered in the best possible light.

If I were to choose one book to remember my mother, it would be Cocktails and Camels. Although she wrote it just after Suez, and her divorce, it’s upbeat and funny.  Here’s how it starts.

I used to live in Alexandria—Egypt, that is, and not, as some Americans think, the one in Virginia. I liked Alexandria. There was no place like it on Earth, I used to think, and now, on looking back, I am quite sure there wasn’t. It was a nice, friendly little town basking in the sunshine and cool Mediterranean breeze, and in summer its streets smelled of jasmine which little Arab boys sold threaded into necklaces. Alexandria had plenty of character—characters, rather—Italian, French, Maltese, Turkish, even White Russians, to say nothing of Copts, Pashas, Effendis, and bird-brained but devoted Sudanese servants. The grocers were Greek, the jewellers were Jews, the shoemakers were Armenians, and the Lebanese were everywhere. The British Army used to play polo and complain about the heat. How they came to be there at all when they had a most roomy Empire in which to exercise is a long, sad story. For the British, though they like to look like good-natured and paternal fools, are, as every Arab knows to his sorrow, very cunning indeed, especially when it comes to taking advantage of trusting Arabs.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Note: Mother’s Day may be on the second Sunday in May in most of the world, but in the UK ‘Mothering Sunday’ aka Mother’s Day is today.

***

You may also like to read an earlier post: Dating, 1940s Style.

A Parent Worries Forever

Seen that touching Lloyds Bank photo where the mother is hugging her ‘baby’ before he nonchalantly sets off for university? I can’t reproduce the image here, but you can check it out by clicking on Lloyds Bank.  I showed it to some of my friends, who variously remarked on the mother’s height relative to her son, the blissful smile on her face, and the flimsiness of rucksack on the son’s back. 

Those with children noticed none of these things. Their reaction was just terror.

When expecting your first child, there’s usually a golden moment during which you’re thrilled at the prospect of having a baby but haven’t yet realised you’re heading for a lifetime of worry. Well, savour it while you can.

FreeImages.com/S S

My twin boys arrived when I had one son already. In a flash, my anxiety levels trebled. The children seemed intent on working their way through the alphabet, with accidents, asthma, appendicitis, and (scariest of all) anaphylactic shock.

Some letters stand out more than others. D was for Duplo, a normally safe toy, except when you stumble face first into it. G was for golf club, as when eldest son was smacked in the face by a 5 iron at the school fete, necessitating yet another tip to A&E.

FreeImages.com/Aron Kremer

Occasional false alarms brought light relief. At eighteen months, one son was on the bus, sitting forward in his eagerness to miss nothing. When the driver braked suddenly, my son’s face collided with a metal handrail. He screamed, and bright red stuff poured copiously from his mouth. I laughed hysterically when I found he’d only been chewing on a red crayon.

FreeImages.com/Trisha Shears

In my novel Hampstead Fever, I couldn’t resist including a super-anxious new mum. It’s not just the prospect of mishaps that cranks up her worry levels. She has studied the parenting books, so she’s aware of potentially lethal conditions like sepsis, where symptoms can be minimal in the early stages yet take a child to death’s door within hours. Like many parents, Laure suspects it’s dangerous to let her guard down, because that’s when things are most likely to go wrong.

Worry can drive mums (and dads) to become over-protective, turning into helicopter parents and doing for their children things that they should be learning to do for themselves.

FreeImages.com/melodi2

For some parents, anxiety becomes hard-wired. I’ve seen them make idiots of themselves as they continue to stalk their kids on social media throughout their teens and even twenties, panicking if they haven’t posted anything in the last few hours.  

Not me, of course. I’ve finally learned to ditch unnecessary anxiety about my offspring. I’ll tell you how I did this. Not this minute, though, because first I need to text my sons to see how they’re doing without me.

Samsung mobile

#TBT: Dating 1940s Style

The past is indeed a different country, especially when it’s in a different country. On this Throwback Thursday, I’m reminded how tough, and expensive, it could be to date in the 1940s.

by Jacqueline Cooper

This was Alexandria after World War Two. My parents, who had just met, struggled to find time alone together to indulge in illicit pleasures like a cup of coffee or a chocolate éclair. Here are my mother’s reminiscences.

Sightless, armless, legless, moving around on small wooden boards with wheels, or accompanied by a child or a barefoot woman in a black robe with bangles round her ankles, beggars were part of my earliest memories. They were everywhere we went. We knew them, and they knew us.

Portly one-legged Ahmed had taken up domicile outside my grandparents’ house on rue Fouad in downtown Alexandria. He was outside other people’s homes too, but he liked my grandparents’ house best. He and Mohammed the porter would sit side by side on a bench on the pavement chatting about this and that.

Not only did Ahmed know by name everyone who went in and out of my grandparents’ home, he could get about more quickly on his one good leg than most people could by car. Having just seen me leave my grandparents’, he would be waiting outside Pastroudis, a favourite café of the English, before I had even had time to get out of my Fiat.

Pastroudis in Alexandria

That evening, at a cocktail party at the other end of town, Ahmed was there. He stood, a broad smile on his unshaven face, and a white carnation in the buttonhole of a coat that had been a hand-me-down from one of my uncles and was now grubby and frayed.

Holding a necklace of fresh jasmine, he hobbled over to greet me like a perfect host, as if he lived in the beautiful home where the lights shone and where Glenn Miller’s tunes filled the air.

“For you, oh Princess!” He offered the jasmine necklace in the manner of a grand seigneur.

“May Allah keep you,” I said to him, opening my purse to give him baksheesh.

In a stage whisper Ahmed said, “Where’s the handsome English captain I saw you with at Pastroudis this afternoon?” His eyes studied me as I blushed. “Ah, I swear on the Prophet that the English are very good people. Very generous!”

I doubled the baksheesh. I’d kept the rendez-vous a secret from my parents. It was going to be hardier and costlier to keep it from Ahmed.

by Jacqueline Cooper

A Self-Publishing Pioneer in the Family

Authors who began self-publishing in 2010 are often called ‘early adopters‘, but one Jacqueline Cooper was at it way back in 1994, when many of today’s indie authors were still at primary school. I make no apology for blogging again about my mother, because, at 5’1” and in her seventies, she was a feisty self-publishing pioneer.

Here’s her story, adapted from the Courier magazine, September 2000.

It’s simple. All you need is a little money you can afford to lose if your book doesn’t sell, and a lot of energy to do the marketing.

When I lived in the USA, well-known publishers produced two of my books. They took 18 months to appear in bookstores, and, although there were royalties and excellent reviews, they did not make me a fortune.

Angus and the Mona Lisa

I moved to Geneva in 1990 as a retraitée (retired person), only sending the occasional story to a magazine or to the BBC. But in 1994 my old school, the English Girls’ College in Alexandria, was having its first ever reunion of Old Girls in London. What with revolutions, wars, marriages, births, we had lost touch and were scattered across the globe. One Old Girl had found us all, even the Japanese sisters we thought had perished at Hiroshima.

Here was a ready market, filled with nostalgia.

I still had vivid memories not included in my first book Cocktails and Camels. I was galvanized into action. Cocktails & Camels, by Jacqueline Cooper

I approached a printer who had done work for the American International Women’s Club of Geneva (AIWC), and asked for an estimate. If I wanted 1,000 copies with a few black and white illustrations, how much would it cost? I bargained. I was sure this book, Tales from Alexandria, would sell. And I would have no commission to pay.

I kept track of what was going on. ‘Just passing by,’ I’d say, even though the printer was on the other side of town. I’m glad I did. Margins were uneven, illustrations either too dark, too light, or lopsided, and, when the books were finally delivered, page 66 was blank and the quotation at the top of Chapter Four was missing. I howled. The books were reprinted, the cost reduced, and the edition sold hand over fist. Tales from Alexandria by Jacqueline Cooper

At first I hadn’t planned to deal with bookstores. But why not sell Tales from Alexandria at Harrods? So I did. I then contacted two Geneva bookstores, Payot and ELM. Commission was high at 35-40%, except for ELM, our friendly bookstore.

In 1997, unable to find anything for children on Geneva’s famous Escalade of 1602, I decided to do my own book. I knew about children’s picture books, as I’d worked with the art director in New York on my Angus and the Mona Lisa. This time I went to the printer who produce the AIWC’s Courier magazine. He had no idea about picture books, but was keen to learn.

Toby and the Escalade by Jacqueline Cooper

Toby and the Escalade is a bilingual English-French book with pictures on every page. It was expensive to produce. Although I knew what a page should look like, I had little idea of page layout, so I asked a friend to help. The book sold well. We went into a second edition that still sold well many years later.

You have to wait to make a profit from self-publishing.

At first, I loved marketing. I contacted the managers of a dozen Geneva bookshops in person, and out-of-town retailers by phone and with cards I’d made of the book cover. I offered them a copy of my book. I spoke to pupils at the International School, and was interviewed on a couple of radio stations.

I made posters which I sent to bookstores along with their order.

When I walked into Payot one day, there was my Toby and the Escalade poster hanging at the top of the stairs with the phrase ‘Vient de paraître!(Just in!)

I made only two press contacts, but newspapers contacted me because the book was selling, as the Tribune de Genève put it, ‘comme des petits pains’ (hot cakes to you and me). Then Naville bookstores called me from Lausanne, asking me urgently for copies.

Two department stores, Globus and Placette, refused to stock Toby and the Escalade. Globus only took books through distributors. But Placette changed their mind two years later when the buyer changed.

The same printer produced my next two books, Cat Day and William Tell. All three books were bilingual, which probably helped sales.

William Tell by Jacqueline Cooper

But even with my good printer there were problems with the illustrations for William Tell. The pictures were anaemic and bore little resemblance to the originals.

In the end, though, it all worked out, by which time I was a nervous wreck.

When I injured my back and could no longer run all over town with books, I contacted a big distributor used by Globus. He liked Toby and the Escalade and wanted to sell it for CHF 25 instead of CHF 20. He would take 50% of sales. I agreed to a contract. But when I read it carefully, I did not like the clause that said he would distribute every book I would ever write. When I asked if that clause could be removed, he angrily broke off the contract.

Marketing is a lot of work, and so is distributing: keeping track of orders, enclosing an invoice with each consignment, packaging and mailing heavy parcels.

The post office can come and collect them, but it is very expensive. There are bills to make out, phone calls to reluctant payers, and dealing with orders that keep coming in. I got small orders for one, two, or three books, and I had to make another invoice, another parcel, another trip to the post office – and then keep an eye on everything. For me the novelty has worn off. A bookstore in Nyon has owed me the princely sum of CHF39 for over six months. The other day, Payot faxed me at 7.30am for one copy of Cat Day.

Self-publishing has been fun, and it worked for me at first. But now I’m sick of it and don’t plan to do another book.

Though, come to think of it, a brilliant idea just popped into my head…

Le Crazy Cat Saloon

Why Your Mother Was Right All Along

It’s been a while since I presented my mother with sticky home-made cards that shed macaroni and glitter. With three offspring of my own, these days Mother’s Day is more about me. From this great vantage point, I now realize my mother was right all along. What’s more, I’ll bet yours was, too.

Here are some things mothers say that are right on the money.

“Don’t sit out in the sun all day long.”

She may have droned on about getting heatstroke and prickly heat. But she was also protecting you against sunburn, skin cancer, cataracts, and premature wrinkles.

That’s what mothers do. They protect their young.

FreeImages.com/ryan shull

“Pick up your clothes.”

Your mum thought it was slovenly and untidy, but you had to learn for yourself, didn’t you? Maybe you couldn’t find your wallet, you tripped arse over tit on a pile of shirts, or the cat threw up on your best jeans. You get around to using hangers eventually. 

“You’re wearing far too much make-up.”

The stuff you applied with a trowel didn’t look nearly as good in real life as it did in your bedroom mirror. But it’s even less flattering when you’re 50. Your mum just wanted you to ditch the panda eyes before you looked totally ridiculous.

“Wash your hands.”

Hands look a lot better when they’re clean, but that’s not the real point. Washing your mitts often is the single best thing you can do to prevent common infections like colds and even flu. 

FreeImages.com/Deborah Krusemark

“Remember to say Please and Thank you.”

Kids who mind their manners reflect well on their parents, but that’s not the whole story. They also become adults that people like being around – whether it’s at work or socially – and like doing things for. 

“No TV till you finish your homework.”

That was so unfair, as no doubt you pointed out. But your mum wanted you to learn a few more important life skills, like concentration, perseverance, and becoming a completer-finisher. Polish TVMore on Belbin team roles here

“Sit up straight.”

You were determined to slouch like the archetypal sullen adolescent. But your mother hoped you’d reap the benefits of good posture:

  • Less stress on vertebrae and ligaments, so less back pain
  • Spine less likely to become fixed in the wrong position
  • Better breathing
  • Looking younger and slimmer.

There’s more info from BackCare

“Turn down that noise.”

Maybe she was just after a bit of peace and quiet, but it was the best advice for your ears too. Noise exposure is a major cause of permanent hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss is often gradual, and it’s cumulative. That ringing in your ears after a gig? It means the hair cells of your cochlea are already damaged. 

So go on. If you’ve got a mother, make a fuss of her on Mother’s Day, and, while you’re at it, throw in the rest of the year as well. She won’t be around forever.

mum and me

ooOoo

Note for US readers: In the UK, Mother’s Day is today, March 6, and its correct name is Mothering Sunday.  And falling arse over tit is a very common expression.

I’m taking a little break to edit my novel, so this blog will be back in a couple in a couple of weeks. See you then.