Publication Day.

It’s a day all writers hope to see; a day to dream about, sitting at a desk, staring into space. A day which often seems impossible, unlikely, unobtainable. A day to confirm the belief in yourself which you don’t always possess.

First Publication Day.

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Not for me the Fourth of July.
Et ce n’est pas le14 juillet. Non.

I haven’t been hoping year after year, month after month, day after long day, for independence; I’ve been waiting for publication. To see my name in print; in a book.

And so, the 17th July will henceforth be referred to chez flyingscribbler as ‘Publication Day’.

Ok, so it’s not my book per se. I’ve yet to publish anything bearing my name on the cover, ( something, naturally, I hope to put right in days, months, years to come), but I’m more than happy to settle for two of my stories to appear in a short story collection.

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So I won’t be earning a penny from sales. This is not important. If I’d wanted to earn a living from writing, I would have given up ages ago….a report last week said your average published writer earns £11,000 a year from their toil. This is so far below the minimum wage as to make it practically worthless.
Sales of the anthology of winning stories in the Words with Jam ‘Bigger’ short story competition instead go to that publication (check it out, do), and to amazon.

But I don’t care. I’m currently on cloud nine, basking in my small degree of success; intending to celebrate in rather bigger style, almost certainly out of proportion to my achievement.
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned since picking up my pencil, it’s that even the tiniest success must be celebrated.

Is that a cork I hear popping?

Incidentally, if you wish to add to Amazon’s groaning sack of cash, oh, and read my two stories, the book is “An Earthless Melting Pot”, published by Words with Jam,  (www.wordswithjam.co.uk).

Justin N Davies. Writer.

The Ship That Never Sailed.

Having joined Historic Scotland recently, (they can be very persuasive; and they made it seem like such a good deal), it was decided, late in the day, that a visit to Blackness Castle was in order. It makes sense to use the membership after all, and I’m a sucker for anything historic. Apart from which, it’s a year since we moved to Scotland; I ought to know more about the country’s past.

Blackness Castle is also known as ‘The Ship That Never Sailed’. I find this a touch melancholic: ships are designed to sail; if they fail to, they haven’t reached their potential. 
It’s also more than a little melodramatic; especially if you project the words with theatrical flair: with added theatricals: “THE SHIP THAT NEVER SAILED!”. Same phrase, different interpretation.

It is all a question of angles; of point of view. The castle gets its tag from the fact that, seen from the sea or from the air, it really does look much like a ship, with its bow attempting to plough on through the water. Unfortunately, the stern is very much stuck fast to solid rock.

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All aboard to Nowhere!

Seen from another perspective, it is (I won’t say “just” because Blackness isn’t just a castle..it’s a really good one), simply a castle. A castle as castles are…built solidly on land.
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Viewing things from different angles is what writers do. Finding stories when you least expect it; seeing stories where others might not: these are the rocks on which our output exists.

Walking, (stumbling, actually), over the rocky enclosures of Blackness, apart from asking myself how they managed to get around in the 1600s without twisting an ankle, I saw potential everywhere. Who, for example, could walk past an original seventeenth century castle latrine without imagining some poor soul baring his all to the gulls outside the walls, willing the job to be done before freezing his unspeakables to the seat? (it’s cold up here in the winter, especially when an easterly blows in down the river from Siberia).
What tales of wo and hardship could the prisoners thrown into the prison pit tell?
And the guards? How did they pass those long northern nights?

But then, forget a reconstruction of what could have been….tilt your head to the side, squint your eyes and……imagine….. . Things look different when you dare to dream a bit.
From a castle wall…
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appears a coiled snake, ready to attack:
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That hole in the wall…..could it really be a porthole?
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Has the ship that never sailed actually departed?

And that stepped gable end….Where does it lead? What dimension could you reach if only you dared to climb
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It’s no coincidence that Blackness Castle has been used for location shoots over the years; places like this conjure up images and ideas at the drop of a royal crown. The trick is in first spotting, then seizing the potential (oh, and then going home and turning the idea into a best-selling work of children’s fiction), before the ship sets sail and the moment is lost to the encroaching mist.

‘Roots to Love’ A new flash fiction

I woke up this morning thinking that root vegetables would be an interesting starting point for some flash fiction. It seemed like a good idea at the time anyway…..

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Roots to Love

George was halfway through the hourly sweep of his section, surprised, as always, at how much produce ended up on the floor.

‘Excuse me. Are those yam or cassava? I’m never quite sure.’

George was on his knees, reaching under the display for an escaped turnip, but he could still tell that the woman was taller than him; and she was solid, in the way that well-nourished women were.

‘The ones on the left are the yams. Beautiful thinly sliced and fried.’

‘That sounds delicious.’

George stood up. She was about an inch taller.

‘But not as good as plantain.’

The woman scanned the shelves.

‘I don’t see any here.’

‘That,’ said George, ‘is because I bought the last of them yesterday.’

‘Shame. I’d like to have tried them.’

George replaced the turnip, checking the pile for stability.

‘I could make some for us, if you like.’

It took three months to work their way through the whole root vegetable section. Patricia insisted on their taking turns, although George preferred to be in charge of the hot oil.

‘It’s dangerous,’ he said, ‘for a beginner.’

The carrot was the surprise success, and they agreed that parsnip was both reliable and tasty; but the sweet potato was disappointing.

‘Pappy,’ said Patricia, ‘like cheap bread.’

They had just finished a second bowl of ‘Yukon Gold’ one evening, (“crispy yet predictable”), when Patricia suggested they lay off the fried food for a while. George wiped the bowl with his finger.

‘But what will we do instead?’

It was a sensible question to which neither George or Patricia had an answer.

George continued experimenting alone, tweaking his technique. Each vegetable, he found, had its particular thickness for the optimum fry. Only the oil was a constant; the temperature and brand never varied. The oil, he understood, acted as a conduit for the vegetables, transporting each to a higher plane of enjoyment.

Patricia hadn’t been back to the supermarket for a while, but appeared one Tuesday morning at George’s check out.

‘You’ve progressed from fruit and veg then?’

George glanced at the mountain of carrots making their way along the conveyor.

‘My manager said I’d be more comfortable here, sitting,’ said George. His swivel seat creaked in protest as he shifted position.

‘Good for you,’ said Patricia.

‘They’ll make you a lot of carrot chips,’ said George, ‘you’ll never get through all them on your own.’

‘These?’ said Patricia, laughing, ‘oh, we’re juicing them. You wouldn’t believe how many carrots it takes to make two glasses.’

‘We?’

‘Yes. Peter, that’s my partner; he just loves carrot juice.’

George pushed the carrots into the bagging area.

‘You said a relationship couldn’t be based on a mutual love of root vegetables.’

‘Did I?’

‘Yes. I wrote it down. On a ‘post-it’.’

‘I don’t remember.’ Patricia looked at the counter. ‘Don’t forget our celery. They taste great together; the celery gives the juice an edge.’

‘But celery isn’t a root vegetable.’

‘No George, it isn’t. But a varied diet is healthier.’ Patricia bagged her vegetables. ‘How much will that be please?’

© flyingscribbler 2013

Please comment on my writing, if you have the time. It’s really very useful. Other flash fiction writers can be found at #fridayflash on twitter and at fridayflash.org.

Did you catch my post about historical accuracy in weights and measures? Vital advice indeed for budding historical fiction writers.

 

 

 

The measure (and weight) of historical accuracy in fiction.

Until yesterday I hadn’t been considering writing a piece of historical fiction; it isn’t the sort of thing which I would automatically think about. This has always struck me as odd though because I enjoy reading historical novels: give me anything by Tracy Chevalier or M.R. Lovric and I’m a very contended reader indeed. I love losing myself in their settings; these writers have the knack of effortlessly placing the reader bang in the middle of eighteenth century London or Renaissance Venice. Their skill is such as to leave you unaware of the work they have put in to make the details both accurate and natural, (although, as we know, there will always be those pedants who make a sport out of spotting anachronisms in historic fiction or dramas). The trick is to make the props: the clothes, food, books, music etc, so realistic to the time in question, that they disappear, chameleon-like, into the background. In effect, these writers work doubly hard to make their efforts invisible.

It is this level of brilliance that has, so far, put me off attempting even a piece of flash fiction set in the past. And then I discovered this little gem lurking on my bookshelf.The Young Man's Companion

I had completely forgotten about it until last night, and then promptly lost an hour or so leafing through and marveling at its contents. (To those of you who are shouting ‘procrastinator’, I shout back ‘research!’).

‘The Young Man’s Companion’ was published in the sixties, but is based on the sort of thing a gentleman of Victorian times might have kept in his pocket. It claims to be a ‘friendly adviser to educational knowledge, worldly council and gentlemanly deportment.’ Within its pages one can learn how, amongst other things, best to behave in female society; how to dress appropriately on any number of occasions; and even which accomplishments a gentleman ought to consider acquiring.

However, it is the list of useful facts and figures at the back of the handbook which really caught my interest. Here is a wonderful collection of archaic (and, for those of us living in countries which stubbornly refuse to let go of the imperial system, not so archaic) words for assorted weights and measures which would stick out like sore thumbs in a piece of contemporary writing, but which, if used correctly, could add authenticity to a piece of fiction set a couple of hundred years ago.

Quite how your average victualler managed to remember this lot I don’t know; I have enough trouble working out how many grams of flour equal a pound. Here’s just a taste of what the Companion has to offer:

Imagine you are organising a gathering; a wedding party for example, or a New Year celebration. You visit your local wine and beer merchant and place an order for five pints of wine, assuming (or hoping) that your guests will limit themselves to about 2 gills each (4 gills making a pint). Unfortunately, this merchant is of an old-fashioned bent, and insists on dishing out the drink in runlets, tierces, hogsheads, puncheons, pipes and tuns (a tun being 252 old gallons, a pipe half of that, a puncheon being a third of a tun, reducing in capacity down to the diminutive runlet at eighteen gallons). You opt for pipes (the expected numbers have suddenly gone up and they drink a lot round here) and decide on a pipe each of Fayal, Madeira, Sicilian and Tenerife, not realising that whereas a pipe of Fayal equals 89 gallons, a pipe of Tenerife is 100, that of Maderia is 92 gallons and Sicilian pipes measure 93.Wine Measures

 Come on, keep up!

Then you remember your Great Aunt Wilhelmina and her predilection for German wine, so you place an order for some Rhenish, which, confusingly is sold by the aulm, which is 30 gallons, (it’s rather a lot, but she normally starts drinking at breakfast. There’s one in every family).

Before you leave, you place a last minute order for some beer; best to cover all bases after all. But should you buy a firkin or a kilderkin? The kilderkin would go further (it’s 18 gallons or 2 firkins, don’t you know?), but you mustn’t forget to leave some cash for a firkin of butter as well (which is 56lb….that’s a lot of puff pastry). In your pocket you have a half-crown (which, if you remember correctly, is two shillings and sixpence) and a sovereign, which is a pound in old money.

By the time you’ve finished, you have also purchased another firkin, this time of soap, weighing in at 64lbs of cleaning power, rather than the 56lb firkin of butter. In addition, you couldn’t resist a puncheon of prunes (it’s only later that you realise this is over a thousand lbs of dried fruit), and a truss each of New Hay (60 lb) and Old Hay (56lb) for the horses. Finally, you ask your deliriously happy merchant to deliver three bushels of coal, otherwise known as a sack, but increase your request to a chaldron (12 sacks or 36 bushels) when you remember it’s the middle of winter and the event is being held in a marquee forty poles (a furlong, where 8 of these equals a mile) from the house and those braziers will need continual stoking.

Phew.

I don’t know about you, but armed with that array of historic terminology, I feel more prepared than ever to tackle a story set in the 1800s; as long as it takes place either in a grocer’s or the kitchens of a country house.

© flyingscribbler 2013

‘The Whale Crier’s Last Post’. A new flash fiction.

It’s been a while, but I’ve finally written a new story for #fridayflash. This one was inspired by a trip to Hermanus, South Africa. If you haven’t heard of it, Hermanus is the world’s top place for whale watching from the coast. Between April and October, Southern Right Whales head to the coast to mate, calve and generally roll around in the kelp. They do amazing things like ‘sail’ with their tail fins sticking out of the water, and ‘spyhop’, which is when they poke their heads out to have look. All this can be seen at close quarters from the cliff tops. This clip (which is a tourist info video) gives you some idea.

Hermanus is also home to the world’s only whale crier. I heard him blowing his kelp horn, which he does to let everyone know that whales are in the bay. It’s an amazing place. I hope this does it justice. (My whale crier is, of course, entirely fictitious).

 

The Whale Crier’s Last Post

Albert wasn’t used to competition. As the town’s, no, the world’s sole whale crier, he enjoyed the fame and celebrity which his unique situation attracted; it was an unexpected, but welcome joy at his time of life.

So, on the bright spring morning when the unmistakable sound of a horn drifted across from the other side of the bay, he was understandably concerned.

Until that moment, Albert’s professional worries extended to the small number of tourists who were concerned that the sound of his kelp horn represented a danger to the health of the whales; his explanation that it was outside of the animals’ sonic range appeared, somehow, to satisfy them.

But this was a new and altogether more worrying development. He listened carefully for a minute: it was definitely another horn, but not kelp. He listened again, recalling the days he spent playing in the brass section of his school orchestra (he had the perfect lip formation apparently). If he wasn’t mistaken, the horn that was now causing so much interest, at least amongst the whale watchers currently assembled along the cliff top, wasn’t orchestral at all, but a traditional hunting horn; the type so beloved of generations of English aristocrats.

Albert was not given to expletive utterances. He was, after all, a public figure; one of not insignificant importance to the town’s economy. However, he made an exception on this occasion. Not that it mattered: the tourists were already migrating towards the new, vibrant sound, scampering like hounds around the cliff edge.

‘Shit.’

This wasn’t good.

He peered over the edge. The whales he’d spotted, and whose presence he’d announced so ably not half an hour ago, were gone. He looked out into the bay.

‘Oh hell.’

They were lumbering steadily through the swell towards the new horn, whose brass rim Albert could see twinkling in the sun.

Sensing a threat to his future prospects, Albert tucked his kelp horn under his arm and joined the throng in their progress through the strengthening breeze.

‘Excuse me,’ said Albert, during a break in the young pretender’s trumpeting, ‘the town has only one license for a whale crier; I am its holder.’

‘Perhaps, old-timer, the town should reconsider its selection.’

‘But I’ve been the crier for years.’

‘Indeed, and look how you rush about with your seaweed horn, trying to catch up with the whales like the fat kid in the back row of a marching band. I however, have studied the hydrophonic qualities of their sonic vibrations.’ The young pretender now blew his horn to demonstrate his theory. ‘I can dictate where the whales will appear. I am the maestro, old-timer; I conduct the whales.’

And he did. With astonishing precision. Before the week was out, the young pretender had become the de facto whale crier, revelling in the glory, not to mention generous tips, which his new status afforded him.

But still Albert blew his old kelp horn, standing alone on the cliff top. He blew it all day, in the gaps when the young pretender took a breath or posed for photos. He blew it not to announce the presence of whales in the bay; rather his own. But far from being a rallying cry, the town’s people assumed he was playing his Last Post.

Yet still he blew. And as he blew, his horn’s resonations surfed the air’s waves across the bay to the narrow headland upon which the young pretender performed his baleen symphony. He blew until the rocks began to crumble and the headland disappeared into the ocean; swallowing both horn and much-surprised maestro.

There were many explanations for the unfortunate accident. One which was given little credence by the local investigators was based on an old paper buried in a defunct scientific journal. It centred on the stability of certain coastal rock types and the possibility of sudden and destructive erosion caused by unusual sonic resonance.

None of which mattered now to the town’s reinstated whale crier, Albert van der Berg, Professor (retired) of Geology.

 

© flyingscribbler 2012

By the way, this isn’t my first story inspired by whales and Hermanus. I wrote this one last year after my first visit to the town.

Head over to fridayflash.org to see what other #fridayflash writers are up to.

 

 

 

How I took inspiration home from my holiday.

I’ve returned from the warm, blue waters of the Ionian Sea in Greece. My two weeks there were fantastic: sailing around the glorious islands and mainland coast, swimming at every opportunity and getting particularly excited when a huge group of dolphins decided to play along with our boat for a while. (I’m trying to remember the collective noun for dolphins, but can’t for life of me recall it. On the subject of collective nouns, whilst in Greece we had a conversation with our fellow sailors about the correct one for jellyfish; I suggested a ‘wobble’, which struck me as perfect.)

Before I left on my holiday, I made some rash statement about my trip doubling up as an opportunity for research. The writer in me knows that I should take every chance to note things down, to dig a little deeper and take stock of my surroundings and impressions, all in the name of inspiration. Writers do this, and every day. They make a habit of it and I would imagine consider it an essential part of their art. It is something I try to do as much as possible when I’m not on holiday, but I’m afraid I lapsed terribly in Greece.

Sailing all day does not lend itself immediately to jotting things down; if I wasn’t pulling ropes (I believe some are called ‘sheets’, the ones that control the sails) I was putting out fenders, attaching lines, dropping anchors or reacting to commands from the ‘skipper’. I hasten to point out that my annual sailing holiday is the only time I react to commands from him with such a degree of urgency. Being thrown from port to starboard when ‘tacking’ is also not conducive to the use of pen and paper; anything not actually attached to the boat itself has a tendency to go in the same direction as the bodies on board. Bottles of water, sun cream, charts, flip-flops, lunch: they’re all at risk from going over the side; not something I would care to see happen to my notebook.

Of course, I could have used my ‘down’ time in the evenings to write up some notes, and I did a little of this; but to be honest, I was having too much fun in the tavernas sampling the surprisingly good wines of Lefkas; which in turn led to surprisingly good sleeps back on the boat (given the restricted leg/head/arm room and the gentle and not so gentle tossing of the seas).

Now that I am home, I intend to scribble down as many points of interest as I can remember, which,  even given my appalling lack of recall, should still amount to something.

And then there are always the photos, which can serve equally well as prompts for details of all things Greek or sailing; and I tried to snap anything and everything given half a chance, much to the irritation of said skipper, whose masterful jurisdiction over me thankfully did not extend to shore-based activities.

There are the ‘location’ shots, which could serve as inspiration for a story set in a Mediterranean location:

and the ‘local colour’ shots, which lend themselves to providing details for authenticity. Fishing boats, for example:

and how about the ‘atmospheric’ pictures which will remain useful for any type of story where a description of the sky seems appropriate:

finally, there are the oddball photos which I took because I had to:

If that last one doesn’t find a home in one of my stories then please feel free to pilfer it for yourself, (and it was taken in Greece, despite the spelling of ‘El Negrito’).

In fact, thinking about the usefulness of photos as aides for story writing, they could be even more interesting to the writer than mere notes jotted down in haste. A photo can be viewed at leisure, at any time, maybe years after the event. Multiple descriptions and impressions could be wrought from a single snap and with the benefit of time, these can be more considered. Naturally, what a photo can’t give you is the immediate ‘feel’ of a place; nor can they provide the smells and noises which are so different to those at home. For these, there is no real substitute for the notebook and pen; however, I hope that at least some of my photos will act as prompts in the months and years to come.

The other thing I found little time for whilst sailing was reading. I am normally a voracious reader and took, as I do every year, an unrealistic amount of literature with me (thankfully, given the miserly baggage restrictions of airlines these days, most of this was on my kindle). The book remained unread and slowly dampening in my berth. I did though make inroads into a free e-book on the Greek myths and the siege of Troy. Now, if that lot can’t provide inspiration for story telling, nothing can. The names alone are wonderfully suggestive: Patroclus, Antilochus, Diomede, Orythaon. As are the suits of impenetrable armour, the daring deeds and deceptions, the Goddesses for mothers. Not to mention the mythological creatures which pepper the tales of Odysseus’ return from Troy. In fact, come to think of it, I wrote a flash fiction for this blog about a taverna run by Odysseus and Penelope. The cook was, as I recall, a Cyclops.

So, as a means for finding inspiration, perhaps my sailing holiday wasn’t  completely wasted after all. Only time will tell I suppose.

And at least I have those photos.

‘Black Widow’ A new flash fiction

Third, and I think last, in my series of stories inspired by my recent trip to Andalucia is ‘Black Widow’. The idea for this one originated in a visit to one of the region’s famous ‘white towns’.

Casares, Andalucia

An Andalucian ‘white’ village.

These beautiful places, seemingly clinging to the rock itself, are scattered across the steep hillsides, shining like beacons in the sunlight. Definately worth the effort if you are ever in the area. Please feel free to comment at the end.

Black Widow

The first crack appeared in Señora Alvirez’s monochrome existence during her daily visit to the village mini-market. Entering innocently under cover of her black umbrella during an unseasonable downpour, she caught the tail end of a conversation about the recently- deceased Señora Fernandez.

‘Of course,’ said the girl behind the counter, ‘you know she was Señor Alvirez’s lover for years.’

So engrossed in their gossiping were the women that Señora Alvirez managed to steal away from the shop unnoticed.

‘That Puta,’ she muttered, making her way carefully down the rain-soaked cobbles towards the Iglesia, ‘and to think I lit a votive for her salvation just this morning.’

Señora Alvirez entered the church quietly, but found herself alone with Santa Maria who was perched, as always, above the altar, surveying her peaceful domain.

‘You’d better look away,’ whispered the widow to the icon, before approaching the votive stand and blowing out her recently-lit candle. ‘That’s one soul who’s getting no more help from me.’

Stepping out of the church, Señora Alvirez shielded her eyes against the searing whitewash of the village, now pulsating again with the sun’s full force. She gave her retinas a moment to readjust before making her way back up through the winding streets to her house, where she was greeted by her neighbour, Señora Montero, sitting, as usual, in her doorway.

‘You haven’t bleached your step Señora,’ said the widow, ‘have you forgotten it’s Wednesday today?’

Later, as she heated some soup for lunch, Señora Alvirez studied her reflection in the side of the pan; a distorted image loomed back like a ghastly dark spectre draped in widow’s garments, bulging obscenely as if in a fairground mirror.

‘Ugly clothes for an ugly philanderer,’ she told herself, ‘surely a little colour wouldn’t hurt.’

The revolution began placidly enough: her pink petticoat that Sunday visible only to God and the spider which had spun a web underneath her regular pew. The following week however, she added some pink lipstick purchased brazenly from the village pharmacy.

‘I expect this is for your daughter-in-law,’ suggested the assistant hopefully, desperate for gossip to nourish the local grape vine, ‘I don’t suppose they get colours like this in Malaga these days.’

Señora Alvirez remained silent, angry to have been reminded of the angular girl with the sharp tongue who had turned her son’s eye. Even so, the lipstick felt good, luxurious and soft like thick chocolate.

The following week, Señora Alvirez availed herself of the bus service to a nearby town where she experienced her first manicure ‘with colour polish’. She marvelled at how even her step-scrubbing nails could be transformed so boldly, holding them up to the light like ten glorious stigmata.

Alighting from the bus in the village square, Señora Alvirez felt every eye watching her from shrouded windows. In any other place her smart outfit – a sensible skirt and jacket in deep burgundy – would be unremarkable, but she could sense the ripple of condemnation spreading upwards through the narrow streets. A quick visit to the Iglesia confirmed that the Virgin Mary at least remained unmoved by her daring; but she lit a hasty votive, just in case.

The kaleidoscopic changes in Señora Alvirez’s life gathered pace as she raided her widow’s pension to fill the house with vivid colours; curtains, rugs and a joyous bedspread all found a home inside number six, Calle San Pedro. The outraged gasps and muttered disapprovals drifting in through the open window brought a guilty smile to the listening owner’s lips.

When she placed an order for fifty litres of blue paint at the local iron mongers, the town’s committee was, as she anticipated, quick to react.

‘It’s the tourists, you see Señora Alvirez,’ said the deputation sent to plead their case, ‘they only come here because we’re a white village. It’s our unique selling point.’

Señora Alvirez had a limited understanding of modern business terminology; her insight into human nature, on the other hand, had increased considerably of late. After a timely pause she acceded to their wishes; nevertheless she took delivery of the paint the following Wednesday.

‘In case I ever feel the need for colour,’ she explained to her neighbour, who had observed the paint’s arrival with pursed lips from behind her freshly-bleached step, ‘it’s the same blue as our Holy Mother’s eyes in the Iglesia. Imagine that!’

© flyingscribbler 2012