At last! After months of virtual meetings we have met up again as a group. What a turn-out as nearly everyone was there. It had been over a year since we had last seen each other and thrown ideas around for writing.
The meeting was led by Jenny and Sarah and they looked at ‘a sense of place’. We looked at how places can effect the narrative and how we look at characters. Firstly, we read how some of our greatest writers had used description to help us understand their mood or circumstances. The detail of the red room in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ was particularly evocative. We were then given pictures of places and from our personal selection we had to write a paragraph of description making full use of the senses. This was followed by a paragraph, using the same picture, where something different happens. The writing which follows is based on this exercise where we took them home to develop them further.
I wake. Another night when I slept so brilliantly. My body is adjusting to the rhythm of water; the ebb and flow of this protected cove, caresses the trunks of fallen trees – the very foundation of my floating home. How my new abode is held together beneath the surface remains a mystery to me. Not all questions require immediate answers. Not anymore. One day at a time. Life leans against me more easily now.
So; I stand and stretch and luxuriate in the moment. I am drawn to the window by the rustle and rattle from my new neighbours’ boat, moored across from me. They are preparing a meal; they will be eager to make landfall with an early breakfast in their bellies. I wonder what is in those pots which catch the gentle morning light as it strays in their direction. I see a quartet of brown bodies as, with the practised routine of a family, they set about their tasks. Each has a part in what I suppose is their daily ritual. Words, in an unfamiliar language, escape across the water and I wonder what nationality has now joined our small community.
I hear heavy footsteps and a deep voice from the outside.
Peter is here. Today is his day. His small dingy bobs at the stern. He looks strangely out of place in that boat. It probably did him proud as a fifteen-year-old, but he is easily twice that age now and he has never been one to be moderate in anything. Hard labour has bulked him out and as he will willingly share with you, food is just one of many appetites he has.
I can hear Peter pouring water into our old kettle. He has taken a lead from the new neighbours across the water. I’ll go out to him when I hear the liquid begin to bubble.
Maybe a bedroom door was considered unnecessary ornamentation when my home was built; no doubt designed for families comfortable with each other and their surroundings. I had tried sleeping like that – open to the elements – but my former suburban life had clung to me and I felt vulnerable at night. I had gone ashore to look for wood and had returned with a roll of cloth which smelt deliciously of unknown spices from which I made a curtain for the opening. The material I had hung was neither a sturdy barrier nor was it lockable yet it was sufficient to dispel my fears. Nowadays, more often than not, I don’t even bother closing the curtain. With the swell of the tide, the fabric nestles the frame of the door and I simply breathe in its scent and relax. Given the chance, people can change.
I pull on my get-out-of-bed shorts and the crumpled tee-shirt from yesterday. The kettle is about to sing and I am desperate for a cup of coffee.
Peter is used to my just-up face; he will cover it with one of his smiles and all will be well with the world. He is in charge of my medication. He wants to stretch out the time we have left together. He came with the rent of the houseboat. Part and parcel of my bucket list. I will fill this day with an interesting trip around the island. Peter has planned it for me and he says there will be surprises. As I go to greet him, I smile too. Life is an adventure, isn’t it?
A DAY AT THE SEASIDE
The fresh sea air hit me as soon as I got out of the car. I inhaled deeply.
A watching herring gull, perched on the top of a flagpole, threw back its head and laughed at me, cackling like an old sea witch!
I looked up at it, made a comment, and walked into the dunes. The sand had been waiting to slip between my toes, and evoked images of me as a happy little boy running towards the sea with my bucket and spade.
Before long the vista in front of me opened out and the cove came into view, proudly showing off its golden crescent of soft sand, which the sea often crossed in order to kiss the land.
The smell of seaweed wafted up my nostrils, and the hypnotic sound of the waves, gently laying their waters down on the beach, came to my ears.
Further out, the sea was making white horses, and the billowing wind, and foaming surf, was playing the opening bars of Benjamin Britten’s Sea interludes.
The joyful shouting of carefree children soon broke this spell. They were running hither and thither in their colourful costumes, playing with balls, buckets and spades; digging pits intended for a lucky parent; or directing sea water through the tiny channels they’d dug in the sand.
Other folk were swimming or boating close to the shore, as well as crabbing in the rock pools, all having the most enjoyable time.
It was then that I remembered the fear and panic I had witnessed on this beach back in 1980.
As I approached the foreshore on that unforgettable day, I could see that people were running away from the water, blind terror etched onto their faces, with hysteria and bewilderment driving their actions as they put as much distance between themselves and the sea as they possibly could.
I didn’t understand what was happening at first, but the cries of ‘Shark! Shark!’ soon made everything clear.
I raised my head and looked further out into the bay, and sure enough, there was that triangular dorsal fin moving through the water.
I ran to the sea and started helping people onto the beach.
I ventured further out, and dragged a young boy and an elderly woman to safety.
It couldn’t have taken long to get these people out, but it seemed like an age.
Soon there was no-one left in the water, and we could see the dorsal fin getting smaller as the predator swam away.
There were no casualties that day, thank goodness, but as I took a breather, I surveyed the bodies of the wet, exhausted, weeping, and frightened holidaymakers, randomly strewn across the beach, recovering from their ordeal, and that scene stirred yet more memories within me.
All this panic, uncertainty, disorganisation, and raw angst, brought back vivid recollections of my own evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940.
On the patio
The patio seemed like a haven of peace after the bustle of the street. Somewhere nearby a bird was calling. Palm fronds whispered in the breeze. Above us Chinese lanterns created darting shadows in the twilight. After so much sightseeing it was bliss to sink into soft cushions on the rattan bench. Without any prompting, a waiter served us rice wine, sweet and bitter all at once.
Spicy scents were wafting towards us from the open kitchen door. All day on the minibus had made me hungry.
‘Let’s order satay,’ I suggested. ‘It’s a speciality.’
Then a door slammed. I was suddenly alert, staring towards the dark interior of the stairs we had ascended minutes earlier. Two men appeared, one pale-faced in a black baseball cap, the other in a baggy suit.
‘Don’t move,’ said the guy in the suit, laying a grimy hand on my arm. I recoiled in disgust.
We knew them of course – our guide and his driver. At this range, they smelt of bad cooking. I could almost taste the stale sweat and yesterday’s garlic.
The driver produced a gun from his pocket and I felt ready to burst into tears.
I stagger from the wreckage and look back. One wing had smashed into a tree as I touched down, swinging the aircraft round, and wrecking the undercarriage. It’s impossible to make a safe emergency landing in the rainforest, but I’m alive and the precious package is undamaged. I fetch the flare pistol from the cockpit, but would anyone see a distress signal? Anyway, the plantation’s nearby and it’s beside the Amazon, so if I find the river, I can follow it upstream and get there on foot. I drop the pistol into my backpack beside the package and set out down the hillside.
Struggling through the rainforest without a machete, I arrive scratched, bruised and exhausted at the river’s edge. Vegetation encloses the river on both sides, with dense foliage overhanging the water. No riverbank. No path. What now? I sit on a fallen tree trunk, head in hands. All around me, birds screech, monkeys chatter, unseen creatures shake and rustle the vegetation. Eventually, a movement on the river catches my eye. A boat appears and as it approaches, I see it’s a crude log raft, punted along by a man with a bamboo pole. I give a shout of joy at the sight of a human face. He steers towards me and I jump aboard.
My rescuer is small, dark-skinned, and dressed only in a pair of shorts. I thank him profusely and he indicates in an unknown language, that I should sit, so I settle down and place my backpack, with its precious contents, on the logs in front of me. I notice he looks at it with curiosity. He turns to face forward and his muscular arms are soon propelling us along at a rapid pace. We must be very close to the plantation and at this rate, we should be there within the hour.
But what’s happening? He looks over his shoulder and says something, but I don’t understand. He’s pulling into a small inlet. There’s a clearing with several huts, made of mud and thatched with palm fronds. Small dark women and children stand staring at me. My boatman shouts and several men emerge from the huts and come running. Two of them leap onto the raft and pull me to my feet. I reach for my backpack, but someone snatches it away. They drag me up the bank and into the largest hut, where a man in a feathered headdress sits on a low dais. They throw me down and pin me to the dirt floor in front of their chief. I protest, as one of them hands him my backpack, but he ignores me. He struggles to open the buckles, then gives up, pulls out a knife and slits the straps.
As he tips the contents onto the floor, the flare pistol catches his eye and he plucks it up. He waves it around, pointing it at each man in turn.
‘Don’t do that!’ I yell. ‘You could kill somebody.’ But of course, he doesn’t understand. Eventually, he points it upwards and I see his finger tighten on the trigger.
BANG! The flare goes straight through the roof, bringing down a shower of thatch and setting the palm fronds ablaze. Everyone stares through the gaping hole, as a trail of smoke climbs into the sky, followed by another explosion and a blinding flash. Then a burning red star begins to descend towards us. There are shrieks of terror all around me. Men panic, stumbling over each other in the rush to escape, and first out of the door is the chief.
I’m left alone, with the contents of my backpack scattered across the floor. I pull myself up, retrieve the crucial package and tuck it inside my shirt. I peep outside. No-one in sight. Must have run off into the forest. At the inlet, the raft floats alone and unguarded. I hurry down to it, jump aboard and grab the bamboo pole. I push away from the bank and out into the mighty Amazon. Punting a raft is not easy and it swings wildly from side to side as I urge it upstream, constantly checking behind for pursuers.
Eventually, I hear a welcome sound; an engine approaching round a bend. A man in a motor launch appears. But who is he? Friends or foe? He hails me in English and I recognise him. It’s the man I’ve come to see; Miguel. I clamber into the launch and he turns it around, heading back upstream.
‘I saw your flare,’ he says. ‘I thought you might be here.’
I pull out the package and hand it to him. He smiles and the company logo smiles back. He rips it open and pulls out a book.
‘You can always count on Amazon,’ he says.
Peter 800 words
A Time to Reflect
Man and dog. They stood gazing across the water in a respectful silence which was ultimately broken by him saying, “Just look at that view Ebony. It is so beautiful. It really was worth our driving all the way over to Grasmere early today just to see this. Those mauve coloured hills and mountains look mystical in this early morning haze. The sound of the water gently lapping against the shore reminds me of holidays by the sea in earlier years before I had you. That course green marrow grass beneath my feet acts as a contrast to the still calm water. Let’s stand still here for a while and listen to the sounds around us. I can hear an occasional bird calling out as it passes overhead and the rustle of the grass as the wind gently catches it. What a glorious start to this Sunday morning.”
A moment later his mood changed abruptly and he felt very annoyed as his peace was shattered by about a dozen hikers, judging from their back-packs, who almost came up to him before their leader stopped and asked them to do so too. They were of mixed ages and mixed race.
A girl of about twelve spotted his dog and slowly approached them both. “Can I stroke your dog?” she asked politely.
“Alright then,” he replied somewhat taken aback, “He is very friendly.”
“My Grandma’s got a dog that she found in the street but I haven’t seen it since I’ve been living in England.”
“Oh, where did you used to live then?” he enquired as casually as he could.
“I’ve come here with my Mum and Dad and my little brother from Syria. We’re refugees and we have been here for nearly two years. All of us out walking here this morning are refugees except for our two leaders. We’ve come from Bolton in a mini-bus. I belong to a youth group there and this is the first time that we have come on a little holiday together just for the weekend. I’ve never had a holiday before and I didn’t really know what it meant, but I do now and I’m having a great time. We are all staying in a place called a Quaker Guest House in Grasmere. We’re going to walk down to the village soon and Peter our leader has said that he is going to buy us something called Gingerbread from a shop there so that we can all have a taste of it. None of us know what it is.”
A few moments later one of the leaders called the whole group together and was heard asking them all to stand still, be very quiet and just look at their surroundings, to listen to what they could hear and to enjoy the beauty of that Sunday morning.
It was a pleasure for the man and his dog to share in that moment with those refugees.
U3A Creative Writing produces a newsletter of interesting tasks and information regarding the nationwide groups. In this month’s newsletter, a fascinating challenge sparked the imagination of some of Beeston’s members. The task comes from a member in Porthcawl:
The 14 to 1 Exercise
This is a great exercise to do, as it really focuses the mind on the words being used. It’s
micro fiction (105 words) but in a very structured way. It helps to focus on syntax &
weeding out all or any superfluous words. Really good editing exercise.
Write a story on any subject you choose.
The 1st line of the story must be 14 words, the 2nd 13, the 3rd 12 & so on until you reach
the last line denouement of one word.
Some of our members gave it a go – pieces follow:
14 The patio seemed like a haven of peace after the bustle of the street.
13 Somewhere nearby a bird was calling and palm fronds whispered in the breeze.
12 After so much sightseeing it was bliss to sink into soft cushions.
11 A waiter served rice wine, sweet and bitter all at once.
10 Spicy scents wafted towards us from the open kitchen door.
9 Chinese lanterns created darting shadows of light and shade.
8 ‘Let’s order satay – it’s a speciality,’ I suggested.
7 Then a door slammed, making us jump.
6 Two Indonesian men stood before us.
5 Our guide and his driver.
4 A gun was cocked.
3 ‘What the hell …’
2 He fired.
14 We lived in Terrell Street, a long ago demolished terrace of uninhabitable Georgian slums.
13 The kitchen fanlight was jammed open and let in the rain and snow.
12 In winter, ice had to be broken in the outside toilet bowl.
11 Frost grew on the inside of the windows as we slept.
10 Dad’s army greatcoat, laid across the bed, kept us warm.
9 Washing in ice cold water soon wakes one up!
8 Mum dispensed cereal and hot milk for breakfast.
7 Four children devoured it all in seconds.
6 Getting ready for school came next.
5 We trudged up the hill.
4 Mum had some peace!
3 We reached school.
2 Same again.
© Bob Reader September 2021 – 105 words
14. The Summer has passed, dark evenings are here. It was time, time to
13. Time to pack the suitcase, lock the door, drop the keys next door.
12. We sat comfortably in our car, driving the long, quiet, scenic route.
11. The winding roads, then a country lane led to a hotel.
10. A favourite destination, with past memories. We entered and waited.
9. A pot of tea, buttered scones with strawberry jam.
8. Familiar sounds, loud footsteps, a door slowly opens.
7. A small head appears, then three more.
6. They’ve arrived, the family are here.
5. A long awaited weekend away.
4. We are all together.
3. Birthday, anniversary, celebrations.
2. Big smiles.