WHOSE STORY IS IT ANYWAY?

Most of the time, this blog has a jovial slant. This week, I asked my friend and thriller writer JJ Marsh for a more reflective piece on aspects of control. Here’s what she has to say.

Arguments often explode on Twitter (#notnews) and some issues surface again and again. In the book world, the question of cultural appropriation sets author against author, publisher against reviewer, and generates hours of heated discussion. As I write, a debate rages about a writer’s use of clichéd terminology to refer to people of colour.

The problem comes down to an old adage: Write what you know.

The writer did indeed write what she knew, about real children, but applied her own cultural lens. This upset many people devoted to shining a light on intrinsic racism.

Write what you know.

That advice carries a whole host of issues. Do we police our imaginations and stick to our own lived experience? Or are we able to step into other worlds with ethics and empathy?

It’s a topic I brood over often.

Not ‘just’ the race or gender discussion, but the topic of mental health. I’ve written characters of various nationalities, ethnicities and sexuality, but the area I feared to broach was the characters’ inner world.

When choosing to create a protagonist with bipolar disorder, I knew I was on shaky ground. I researched, learnt about how the condition can vary and/or develop, checked chapters with psychologists and those with experience to ensure my representation was authentic. The greatest feedback was from readers who recognised and appreciated a sympathetic approach to a condition that touched their lives.

Then I embarked on Wolf Tones, a novel about coercive control from the perspective of a vulnerable male. Abusive relationships take many forms, as I know from my sister’s role as a support worker. Most victims are women, but some are men. So how to tackle such an issue without diminishing the female experience, acknowledging how it affects men and shining a light on how coercion works?

After two years of research, I came to a conclusion.

It’s all about the narrative.

Every relationship is a story, told by the players themselves. To outsiders, the reality of fraying tempers or bad behaviour might be polished, even exaggerated, for comic effect. Within the relationship, people make up their own journey as they go along – negotiating problems, harmonising habits, confronting obstacles and adjusting their own happy ending.

What about coercion? That’s when one party wrests control and becomes the director, casting a partner or family member in a role they may not want to play.

The first element of redefining roles is by eroding their confidence. Psychologists and therapists point to several techniques by which the director destabilises the victim and convinces them to give up independence. These include criticism, gas-lighting (making one believe something has/hasn’t happened) and micro-managing everything that person does.

Doubt and dependence are harder to introduce when a person has a network of friends, fulfilling job ,and supportive family. That’s why a coercive abuser begins to isolate the victim from any means of emotional outlet. Friends pushed away, families distanced or even rejected outright – the abuser paints them all as the bad guys.

This last is a common occurrence – the abuser claims the status of victim, reversing the roles in order to destabilise and gain sympathy from the person or persons they attempt to control.

Once the manipulator has command of the console, the victim is reduced to no more than an avatar; allowed no choice over money, clothes, activity, or behaviour.

This pattern of behaviour is at the heart of my psychological thriller Wolf Tones. It’s not a puppet show portraying the above because each character has a history (good and bad), ambitions, connections, a sense of loyalty and the issue of class to navigate in a professional environment.

The setting is a classical European orchestra, but the story could happen to any of us. It all depends on the narrator.

If any of the themes in this piece affects you, here are two places where you can find out more: Women’s Aid and ManKind.

Wolf Tones is a work of fiction. This story belongs to Rolf.

Fifteen years ago, Rolf was destined for the gutter.

His luck changed. Now a cellist with the Salzburg City Orchestra, he has his dream job and dizzying prospects. All because of her.

Smart, sexy, well-connected, and crazy about him, Leonor is his fantasy woman. She made him and he’ll never forget it.

Neither will she. 

Read the first chapter here.

A big thank you to JJ Marsh for her thought-provoking post. If you have any comments, I’d love to hear them.

Wolf Tones is out on August 19. You can pre-order it here.

IF CARLSBERG GAVE WRITING ADVICE…

They say writing is a solitary activity (no, not that one). After all, an author sits in isolation, ploughing a lonely furrow that meanders from page to page. But there’s a community of other writers out there and, when I got stuck with my manuscript, I turned to author friends for advice. Here are some of their very best tips.

First I consulted historical novelist Liza Perrat. ‘Write the first draft without editing,’ she says. ‘Just get the story down.’ Editor, author, and writing coach Lorna Fergusson is one of many who agree. ‘Keep going and don’t stop to check a fact or agonise over a wording. Insert XXX and go back to it later.’

As author Debbie Young explains, ‘Writing and editing use different parts of the brain, so do them in separate sessions.’ She adds that writing the first draft by hand helps connect with the creative brain more readily.

I too find that using a pencil helps the writing flow, but it doesn’t always help the quality. What if you find yourself, as I did, mired in reams of Proustian prose, only without his madeleine or his talent?

Jane Davis brought me back to reality. ‘Make sure there’s conflict on every page.’ If you don’t know Jane, she writes award-winning novels set mainly in London.

This conflict thing is easier said than done. I think I ended up boring my own cat.

I should have taken author Linda Gillard’s advice. Pretty sure she was reminding me not to bore readers when she said, ‘If you don’t want to write it, no one is going to want to read it.’ I must say I’ve never lost interest in Linda’s novels.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up the momentum. Prolific author Jean Gill has something to say. ‘My top tip is always to stop writing when you know what’s coming next. That way you start again with enthusiasm. There’s nothing worse than facing a blank page because you wrote all the scenes that were in your head.’

When it comes to editing, you have to be ruthless, just as Samuel Johnson put it.

But don’t throw those passages away, warns Liza Perrat. ‘I’ve learned the hard way never to delete anything. I wanted to use some characters and scenes left from my first novel that was never published. But stupid me had cleaned up the folder, and the stuff was gone for good.’

I have been known to rescue discarded papers from the wheelie bin, but it’s harder to retrieve files deleted from your computer.

Another gem comes from Amie McCracken, author, editor, designer, and all-round publishing guru. ‘My number one self-editing tip is to read out loud. There’s nothing like it to help you catch errors, but also to feel the cadence and flow of your words.’

My own writing tip? I have two. One, keep a notebook to make sure you don’t forget any good ideas. Someday, to paraphrase Mae West, it may keep you.

Two, keep reading good books.

If you have any favourite writing tips, I’d love to hear them.

***

In keeping with my recommendation to read good books, you may enjoy Pandora’s Boxed Set. It’s a collection of novels by ten award-winning women authors, to be published this year in two parts, first part No Woman is an Island and the second Not Little Women. The first is out on July 20 and the second in October. You can pre-order the first part today from your favourite bookseller (the second will soon be available for pre-order as well).

I’m thrilled to be included alongside authors like Jane Davis, Jean Gill, Liza Perrat, Linda Gillard, Clare Flynn, Lorna Fergusson, Jessica Bell, Amie McCracken, and Helena Halme. Here’s the foreword by Jean Gill.

Hope was left in Pandora’s Box, when all the evils were released into the world.

The Pandora’s Box series brings together award-winning and risk-taking international authors in an unforgettable showcase, with five books in each collection. Never has it been more important to collaborate across borders and to use the power of storytelling to express the rich variety of human experience. This has been the main principle underlying our selection and we also chose stories we couldn’t put down, characters we cared about, and writing that stopped us in our tracks to savour a phrase or an observation.

The novels in No Woman is an Island travel through time and space, from medieval and modern France through England in two world wars to present-day Scandinavia. Although very different, they all show the impact on women of events over which they have no control. No woman is an island.

Happy reading.

CHRISTMAS IN EGYPT

On this very different holiday season, I’ve been looking back on what I remember of celebrations past, when I was growing up in Alexandria.

Photo by Felix Schmitt

There were many Christian communities at the time, and Christmas trees were easy to find. Ours was always installed in the basement. You didn’t have to be a small child to think it was huge. The top reached the ceiling, leaving little room for a star. I was allowed to make paper chains, but wasn’t to fiddle with the ornaments as they were made of glass, or the lights as they were real candles.

At some point, someone fat turned up dressed as Father Christmas. I never discovered who it was, but the list of possibilities was quite long as practically every grownup man had a paunch.

My current crèche has lost most of its moss

A nativity scene always featured, complete with fake snow on the roof of the stable. I don’t know which bright spark thought there might have been snow in Bethlehem but, this being Egypt, there was ample cotton wool.

Unlike the nativity set I have today where everything is glued down, the figures could be moved around. I had fun rearranging every one while I pondered exactly why Jesus had been born in a stable. Arabs are among the most hospitable people in the world. Surely any self-respecting innkeeper would have made a bit more of an effort to find room for Mary and Joseph.

Ahlan wa sahlan’ means ‘welcome’

When my best friend (also called Carol) arrived, we’d move the figures around some more, so that each could get a good view of Baby Jesus. Carol would argue that the three wise men were entitled to the best places as they’d come such a long way. “AND they brought presents,” she added.

I couldn’t see the point of frankincense or myrrh, especially as I hadn’t a clue what they were, and I was pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t appreciate gold until he was a bit older. Anyway the sheep was missing a leg now so it had to lean against the manger to stop toppling over.

In the garden with my friend Carol, and Boogie the dog

Family was plentiful back then. As my grandmother was one of seven, there was no shortage of great-aunts and great-uncles to pinch my cheeks and tell me how much I had grown since the previous week. I can’t remember what we had for Christmas dinner as I’d be too excited to eat. One year, though, I was so high on anticipation that I threw up onto my plate.

As for many other children on Christmas Day, unwrapping presents was the main event. Sometimes the dog joined in. This was the same dog that had bitten me while I was sitting on my potty, but he’d been forgiven.

Trying to get the dog interested in playing with my new toys.

Going to the pictures was a Christmas tradition and we’d traipse out en masse to the Rialto or the Amir. Mother India was a wonderful film, though as a child I found 2 hours 52 mins on the long side. When I saw the film again years later, I stayed awake throughout and can say that Nargis played her role as Radha magnificently.

For a lucky few, Christmas meant a short break at a grand hotel in Luxor with days spent visiting the Valley of the Kings. These days, the luxury hotels are still there, but devoid of tourists.

It’s a very different world, especially this year. I hope each of you has a peaceful and restorative Christmas, even if it’s nothing like the one you’d planned. Here’s to a happier, healthier 2021.

***

My memories of growing up in Egypt inspired my new novel The Girls from Alexandria. It’ll be published April 1 by Agora Books and you can find out more here, including how to pre-order a copy if you feel so inclined.

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Hampstead

I didn’t know half of them myself till recently – and I live in Hampstead. This part of London is full of surprises.

1 Hampstead is chock full of delightful architecture, much of it Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian. Then there’s 2 Willow Road. Designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger in the 1930s, this modernist home was only made possible thanks to his wife’s great wealth.

2 Willow Road NW3

Goldfinger was a champagne socialist, which is why he concealed the servants’ bell. You could say that he wasn’t popular with everyone. Ian Fleming, you may recall, named the ultimate villain after him.

2 Nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in the UK. Her crime? Shooting dead her cheating lover David Blakely in 1955 outside the Magdala Tavern. If you wander up South Hill Park in Hampstead, you’ll still be able to see the bullet holes on the wall of the pub, mainly because they’ve been enlarged with a drill.

Magdala Tavern, NW3

For a thought-provoking novel set around the Ruth Ellis story, I can highly recommend Jane Davis’s brand-new book At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock

3 The Whitestone Pond at the top of Heath Street is the highest point in London. It’s a man-made pond with ramps to let horses wash in it. A bit later, it was used for floating model boats and for paddling, earning it the name Hampstead-on-Sea. Now fringed with rushes, nobody much goes into the pond at all, but they do wander up here, and probably tell each other it’s the highest point in London.

4 Hampstead Heath covers 790 hilly acres and has something for everyone, with magnificent views over London as well as woodlands and a string of ponds, three of them for swimming (if you don’t mind cold water). The Heath enchanted author C.S. Lewis, inspiring him to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Hampstead Heath

5 Fancy a bite to eat? Hampstead has not one Streatery, but two. The Belsize Village Streatery opened for summer 2020 on the paved area of the village to help keep a wide range of local restaurants and cafés running. It brings a continental vibe to this corner of London and is an excellent place to meet friends or celebrate a special occasion. The floor is clean enough to eat off, as the saying goes, but the socially distanced tables and chairs in the square are a better bet.

Belsize Village Streatery

Following on from the success in Belsize Village, there’s also a second Streatery at South End Green.

6 Hampstead is awash with celebs. Do you know Mrs Newbie? She and her cob lived together in bliss on the Heath, until Mr Newbie died in 2016. At some point, the grieving Mrs Newbie flew off and hurt herself on a nearby roof. While at the swan sanctuary for treatment, she met fellow patient Wallace who had come from Waltham Forest. Their relationship blossomed.

pair of swans

Once both of them were well enough, they were released to Hampstead Heath’s Number One Pond and have since raised seven cygnets. Mrs Newbie had to return to the swan sanctuary earlier this year after she was attacked by a dog, but is now back with Wallace and their cygnets. Vive l’amour! 

swan with one cygnet

7 Originally from Suffolk, painter John Constable relocated when his wife developed TB. At the time, the air in Hampstead was considered a lot healthier than elsewhere. Unfortunately there were no anti-TB drugs at the time and Mary didn’t improve. Most of the family is now buried in the family tomb at St John-at-Hampstead.

Constable family tomb

8 The Royal Free Hospital in Pond Street was founded in 1828 to give free treatment to those unable to afford it. To begin with, the Royal Free was in central London, and then moved near the site of the previous Hampstead Fever Hospital, a name which inspired the title of my novel Hampstead Fever.

For years, the Royal Free was the only London teaching hospital in London to train women doctors. The Royal Free’s pioneering heritage continues. It was the first UK hospital to have a high level isolation unit (HLIU) for infectious diseases like Ebola.

Royal Free Hospital

9 Hampstead has cats. Many, many cats. This busy fluffball knows exactly where she is going. You’re lucky the others moved too fast for me to photograph them all.

long-haired Siamese cat

10 You don’t have to go into the Freud Museum to see a fine statue of Sigmund Freud. Here he is outside the Tavistock Clinic in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, leaning forward in a pose suggesting period pain. I call it womb envy.

If you know Hampstead, please leave a comment with your favourite fact about the area. Meanwhile, until September 9, you can download a copy of Hampstead Fever for just 99p/99c. 

 

How to Plunder Your Memories to Write a Book

For some people, a life story emerges as an autobiography or memoir. My aim was more modest. I planned to use some of my oldest memories to write a novel set in Egypt. It was never intended to be all true. While a convent education taught me not to lie, I used to be pretty good at embroidery, if I say so myself.

To aid my recall of fading memories, there were all the old photos that my mother had left me. I therefore dived into the cupboard under the stairs for the afternoon, finally emerging not with leather photo albums from 1955 but a mountain of dust and a couple of old cat toys.

In my experience, recollections have a habit of surfacing on their own now and again, usually in the small hours. Experience also tells me that, if I don’t jot it down at the time, I won’t remember it in the morning, hence what I call my amnesia pad on the bedside table. It’s not that easy to find in the dark and I’m apt to send water glass flying as I scrabble about for paper and pencil. There! I need only scribble a couple of words to nudge me in the morning and I can go back to sleep.

When the alarm goes off a few hours later, I make out the words Magic Marker

Which make no sense. I don’t think we even had Magic Marker in Egypt back then. Over a strong coffee, I try to work it out. The two words I wrote evoke the heady smell of a pristine Magic Marker and the hot tears I cried when I accidentally hit my mummy on the forehead with it. We both thought I’d marked her indelibly. At the time, neither of us quite understood how skin works. I was seven years old. I don’t know what Mummy’s excuse was.

Neither of those reminiscences is quite what I’m after. I resort to Wikipedia as an aide mémoire but, although I learn the history of the Magic Marker and the reason it smelled as it did (early versions contained xylene and toluene), it doesn’t help. I may as well have scribbled wild goose chase on my amnesia pad.

When my own recall lets me down, I sometimes consult my beloved aunt with whom I have a close bond. She clearly recalls what happened years ago, even if her version of events often contradicts mine. “At Suez, your mother was desperate not to be evacuated,” she tells me. “And Papa pleaded with the authorities for her to be allowed to stay in Alex.”

Which is totally weird since I remember with crystal clarity that Mummy had packed our bags and we spent all day at the docks in Alexandria. While she begged to leave on the US Sixth Fleet, I clutched my teddy bear and kept whining to use the bathroom. My mother’s negotiations were partly successful. Our suitcases made the trip.

Timing goes AWOL too when delving into memories. “You never know your mother’s dog, did you? Boogie got run over before you were born.”

My aunt sounds very sure, but this time I can prove her wrong simply by rolling up my sleeve and displaying a scar that’s still there more than half a century later. I had got up too quickly from my potty and accidentally stepped on Boogie’s tail. No wonder he bit me on the elbow.

Aunt is unconvinced, but I have a trump card. It’s a photo of Boogie with me and my best friend (also called Carol).

My aunt studies the picture. “That doesn’t even look like Boogie.”

From this joyous collaboration come as many as three lines of writing, most of which I cross out.

So my book The Girls from Alexandria will have no dogs and no Sixth Fleet. Even so, it will still be redolent of the Alex I knew, with vendors selling charcoal-grilled ears of corn by the sea, the seafood restaurant at Abukir, next door’s cockerel with his random commentary on the day, trams laden down with human cargo both inside and out, handsome men wearing a fez even after President Nasser banned its use, and the eternal cries of “Roba bikyaah!” from the rag-and-bone man touring the neighbourhood with his donkey and cart.

The novel won’t be out till early next year, but here’s what my new publisher has to say so far.  Introducing: Carol Cooper

 

What’s the Best Way for an Author to Promote Their Books?

The reality is that there isn’t one ideal way to do it. Different authors have found that different methods work best for them.

Now Richard G Lowe aka The Writing King has put together a roundup of various things authors have found most effective in promoting their books.

Here’s a link to his insightful blog post What is the best thing you’ve done to promote your books? You’ll find great tips from historical novelist Clare Flynn, Roma Nova thriller writer Alison Morton, and other authors. So, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, there’s bound to be something you can use here.

While you’re there, check out some of the other useful posts on Richard’s website.

And good luck!

bookshop

PS You may also enjoy

Mistakes to Avoid at the London Book Fair

The Worst Books of All Time

 

Why Heatwaves and Novels Go Together

You don’t need to read the Lancet to know that heatwaves aren’t great for health. Even without the terror of fires, excess heat is linked with deaths, especially in the elderly.

On the bright side, however, when the thermometer soars and it’s too hot to move, few things are more delicious than settling in a shady spot to get lost in a book. Yes, I have heard of ice cream, but a novel occupies the mind for longer than a raspberry ripple, and that’s got to be a bonus in the current mess the world is in.

Writers are doubly blessed in a heatwave. For a start, they may be able to work at home with next to nothing on, which is so far removed from struggling on the Tube wearing office attire that it’s almost like not working.

As a plus, there are often cool places to sit with pencil or laptop.

I’m assuming that the nice cool place isn’t in full view of the neighbours. Then again, think of all the publicity, as a fellow writer reminds me.

Best of all, though, scorching weather presents excellent material for fiction.  Author Helena Halme mentions just this in her recent blog post Five Books for a Heatwave.

I’d like to unpick this a little more.

Summertime is in itself magical, with ice lollies, flip-flops, sandcastles, and grandparents moaning about the lack of rain. In school holidays gone by, every summer was long and hot, at least in the memory. With normal life suspended, there’s an illusion of freedom, Swallows and Amazons style.

The heat does things to people’s pheromones. Well, I’m assuming it does, though the only paper I’ve seen is based on research on insects. At any rate, the brain seems to fry at high temperatures.  Even the most impassive person can become, well, hot-headed and behave erratically, which is all good news for novelists.

The human mind isn’t the only thing to abandon normal function in a heatwave. By now, most people in the UK are familiar with buckled rails and cancelled trains. In the northeast last month, a man became trapped when tarmac melted and his leg literally sank into the road surface. This happened in Heaton (no, I’m not kidding) and firefighters were called to free him. 

But these phenomena are as nothing compared to the image of Jesus appearing on a ceramic drainpipe in Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This unusual manifestation of Christ brings out the neighbours and their deck chairs, and becomes a turning point in the story.

Every heatwave seems to leave its own particular memories. The legendary summer of 1976 featured beaches covered in ladybirds, exhortations to share a bath with a friend, and other references that can date-stamp a novel, as both Joanna Cannon and Maggie O’Farrell demonstrate.

While there’s no exact definition of a heatwave, meteorologists often consider it to be an increase of 5⁰C above the average maximum temperature for five days or more – with the average maximum temperature being between 1961 and 1990.

The great heatwave years of the UK include 1911, 1955, 1976, and 1983. Speaking for myself, I have a soft spot for 2013 which broke few records but did produce the hottest July for many years. This is the year in which I set my novel Hampstead Fever, and it also happens to be when I got married.

wedding

Whether you’re reading or writing, I hope you enjoy the rest of this scorching season. How will you most remember the heatwave of 2018 when it gives way to wind and rain?

***

PS You can find Hampstead Fever in all the usual places.

http://mybook.to/HF

A Family Doctor’s Casebook (part 1)

General practice partnerships are like marriage without the sex, muses Geoff as he installs himself at his consulting room desk.  He knows that kind of marriage. Shoving aside the piles of letters that need answering, he begins tending to the sick of North London.

Geoff is a GP from my novels One Night at the Jacaranda and Hampstead Fever.  Despite his problems and hang-ups, he’s everyone’s favourite. Geoff is a firm believer in the NHS, but the changes he’s seen in the 15 years since he qualified frustrate him immensely.

1 The first patient is a three-month old baby with the Lexus of pushchairs and a Yummy Mummy who reminds Geoff of his ex-wife.  She begins by complaining about the 20-minute wait, and the perennial parking problems within a mile of the health centre. All this is extremely inconvenient as she’ll now be late for her Pilates.

Geoff asks what he can do for her.

“It’s Alistair’s head,” she throws down like a gauntlet.

She’s right in thinking her baby’s skull is a tad asymmetrical. Plagiocephaly is common now that babies all sleep on their backs.  Geoff reassures her that it’ll right itself in time, once Alistair lifts his head and becomes more mobile.

FreeImages.com/Johan Graterol POSED BY MODEL

Yummy Mummy is sceptical. “Doesn’t he need one of those special helmets?”

Geoff explains that there’s no evidence they help.

The mother seems unconvinced. She’ll probably go and splash out thousands of pounds on a contraption that will only cause discomfort and inconvenient. Still, she’s now ready to move on to the next symptom. The practice has a new policy of one symptom per consultation, which Geoff routinely ignores. It’s demeaning to patients and wastes everyone’s time in the end.

The rash on Alistair’s buttocks looks like a common yeast infection which should soon respond to the cream Geoff recommends. This pleases the mother, until Geoff asks her not to leave Alistair’s dirty nappy in his consulting room bin.

“I don’t want to stink out the car,” says Yummy Mummy.

Geoff eventually persuades her to take the offending object away, even though he thinks she’s likely to dump it in the waiting room on her way out.

2 Next it’s Mr Legg in his nineties, with an aching left knee. Sometimes it’s his right knee, and sometimes it’s both, which is no wonder since both legs are badly deformed by arthritis. He attends the health centre every couple of weeks, yet refuses hospital treatment. As he puts it, “I don’t want to be a bother. There’s plenty of younger folks who need it more.” Mr Legg adds that he doubts it’s arthritis anyway.  “It’s probably just down to the shrapnel what got me during the war.”

Geoff asks where the shrapnel got him.

“In a little village near Germany, Doctor.”

doctor's bag

3 It’s a relief to see that young Mohammed’s eczema is improving. For a long while, his mother believed that a mild steroid was totally unsuitable for a three-year old, but the cream, along with emollients, has made a huge difference. Mohammed sleeps well now that he doesn’t scratch himself to ribbons. All in all, he’s a happy chappy, apart from a streaming cold that’s not a problem until he flings himself at Geoff and plonks a kiss on his cheek.

Geoff usually washes his hands between consultations. Today he washes his face as well.

FreeImages.com/Toni Mihailov

 

4 Now a young man sits before him. Unemployed, with a squat nose and tats up one arm. “Pain in me bollocks,” he says.

Might be a torsion. Uncommon in adults, Geoff knows, but, unless treated promptly, it can lead to gangrene of the testicle.

“Right. I need to take a look,” Geoff says, pulling the paper curtains across.

As he waits for the fellow to undress, he wipes the photo on his desk with a tissue. It’s Davey, aged four, at the beach in Norfolk. Happy days before the divorce.

“Ready yet?” Geoff calls out, increasingly aware of how late his clinic is running.

“Yeah. Course.”

Turns out the man is sitting fully clothed the other side of the drapes.

Patiently, Geoff explains what he needs to examine. Another three minutes pass while the man undresses.

On examination there’s nothing abnormal about the patient’s tackle, apart from the stink. Geoff peels off his gloves and flings them in the bin. “Hmm. All’s well there. When did you first get the pain?”

The man shrugs. “Maybe a week ago. But I ain’t got it no more, like. Not since I pulled that bird the other day.”

“Fair enough,” says Geoff, even though there’s nothing fair about it. The ugly, unemployed fucker gets laid just like that, while he, Geoff, has been celibate for ten months and counting.

***

Coming up soon, Geoff deals with a very personal problem. Meanwhile you may enjoy one of these posts:

How to Alienate Your Doctor in Ten Easy Steps

What Your Doctor is Really Saying

or, on a more serious note, an overview of sepsis in The Disease Nobody Knows About Until It’s Too Late.

#TBT Alexandria, 1956

I’ve blogged before about Suez, because it’s when my mother wrote her first book. This week, Nadia, a character from my next novel, gives her own take on 1956.

It began on July 26, when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to say, nearly eleven. The whole affair was about a canal and a dam.

Here’s the crucial thing: President Gamal Abdel Nasser was most interested in canals and dams.

Nasser was a very big man, with a strong jaw and huge teeth that he displayed whenever he smiled. That night in 1956 was the anniversary of the revolution, so the president celebrated by giving a long speech, right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square, where there’s a massive statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha, wearing a turban and brandishing his sword, sitting atop his horse.

As usual when anything interesting happened, I had been sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up. My parents told me about the speech the next day, which is hardly the same thing. I relished the idea of Nasser brandishing his words like a sword, and I was especially sorry to miss the firemen dispersing the crowds. FreeImages.com/AntonioJimenezAlonsoAlthough I had no real opinions on politics, I liked listening to the president on the radio. Unlike a lot of important men who like to make themselves sound clever by speaking in a formal version of Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could understand, even a child of nearly eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

The day after that big speech, my sister Simone and I sat in the upstairs living room right by the air conditioning, which was on at full blast as it was sweltering. Father and Mother explained to us that the Suez Canal was now going to belong to Egypt instead of France or Britain. As a result, it would raise lots of money for Egypt, and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

Mother actually put down her embroidery during this conversation, so it must have been significant. Quite how significant, I did not wholly grasp. The main thing was that the Suez Canal had been nationalized. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Unless you happened to be British or French, like some of my friends from school.

In October, a few countries turned out not to be so happy about Egypt having the Suez Canal. Our parents did not explain that very clearly. Meanwhile, our nanny Rashida lit more candles than ever to the Virgin Mary and to St Anthony.

Even when she wasn’t praying, Rashida went about muttering to herself. I thought I heard her say that things had been much better under King Farouk, but, when I asked her to repeat herself, she flatly refused.

It got a lot clearer when France, Britain, and Israel all ganged together to declare war on Egypt. Every night there were air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. Victor, my pain of a cousin, kept going on about it. With our schools shut, he was unfortunately at our house more often than ever. According to him, the guns were as close as Smouha, barely a few kilometres from us. I pretended to be unconcerned.

Every bedtime, Mother told Simone and me that things would turn out all right. We had blackout paper on all the windows now. It was all going to be fine, Mother said. 

It did however change things for many of my friends, and for my teddy bears, at least one of whom was British.

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Four Hours in the Eye Surgery Day Unit

On looking back, the signs had been there for years. First, Nadia had trouble at night from the glare. Then reading got harder, especially the day she picked up an Egyptian newspaper in Paddington. Arabic, with its tiny script and its proliferation of vital dots above and below the letters, is the least appropriate language for someone with poor vision.

She wonders why she’d got cataracts by the age of 55. Probably to do with a stupid game they used to play at the beach in Alexandria.  She, Zeinab, Chou-Chou, and of course her sister Simone all dared one another to look straight into the sun for as long as they could. Nadia still has the memory of the after-burn. How was she to know, until Simone told her, that her school friends all cheated by shutting their eyes when she wasn’t looking at them?

“The Nile has cataracts too,” says Chou-Chou. She is still stupid despite being middle-aged now.

“They’re not the same thing,” Nadia replies loftily, even though she is unsure of the difference.

Nobody gets a bed on this day surgery unit. They get an armchair, but only if there’s one free at the appointed time. There isn’t. Along with three other patients, Nadia sits in the corridor. Waiting in corridors is normal in the NHS. It was never like this in Egypt, if you could afford bakshish.

An Iranian nurse and two Irish nurses seem to run the place. Each of them asks Nadia if she is diabetic.

“I’m not diabetic.”

In a nearby office, a doctor sits with the door open. Nadia can hear her complain about the computer system. Doctors always do this.

Once Nadia is installed in her allocated chair, an Irish nurse comes in to put drops into her left eye. “Are you diabetic?”

“No.”

After two lots of eye drops, her vision is so blurred that she can no longer decipher the stream of bile about immigrants, shameless young people, and disgraced celebrities in the newspaper someone discarded.

A young doctor comes to explain the op, reeling off a long list of potential complications. “There’s a one in 1,000 chance of losing all the sight in that eye.”

Nadia recalls a handsome man at Montazah who wore tiny briefs and an eyepatch. He liked to say he’d lost an eye in a duel, though, as her sister told her later, it was really a cataract operation gone wrong. She signs the consent form, sure that things have moved on and that it won’t happen to her.

The surgery is under local while her surgeon hums snatches of an aria and asks about her family.

“There’s nobody left.” Still, Nadia cradles the hope that improved vision will help her find her lost sister.

Everything is bright with a watery blue light. A machine buzzes, and the lens fragments are washed out before a new lens is put into place. She feels nothing.

Soon he says, “All done,” and peels the plastic drape off.

“You can sit up now,” says someone else.

So many voices she doesn’t know, and her head swims when she sits up.

Once back on the ward, a nurse offers her tea and asks again if she is diabetic.

Nadia checks in the mirror that she always keeps in her handbag. There she is, a plastic shield over one eye, with two long strips of tape holding it down.

The nurse returns with tea and instructions: eye drops for the next four weeks, eye shield on at night for a week, sunglasses for a few days, and no hair-washing for five days.

Of course Nadia will wear sunglasses! If her hair is going to be filthy, she doesn’t want anyone recognizing her.

The next day, she removes the eye shield for the first time. Everything is so bright. She can see every leaf on the trees, every speck of dust on the windowsill, every wrinkle on her face. They don’t make mirrors like they used to, that’s for sure.

***

Nadia is a character from my next novel, which is set in Alexandria and London.

If you’d like to know more about cataracts, try this link from Moorfields Eye Hospital.

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