The Hungry Ghosts

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I wrote this last night in a little under a hour. It was the first time in ages I had written something fresh and new each sentence building on the other, the words pouring out almost too fast to type. I’d forgotten how lovely it is to write without a destination. I have no idea who this character is and what will happen to her. But it was such a fun diversion from my interminable work-in-progress subtitled the novel will not die.

I’ve never done this before but I thought I would post it here. I’d be really grateful for any feedback but please be kind and constructive. Anyway here it is unedited.

The hungry ghosts

When dawn comes, I will die. The sound of the celebration drifts across the river through the bars of my cell window. All the tribes united, as they have never been before, with the single desire to see my blood soak into the sand. The only matter for dissent is how the deed shall be accomplished. The K’are would like to stake me out in the desert for the ants to eat me, inside out. The Rezir would prefer I was hung drawn and quartered my steaming guts shown to me as my eyes dim. They have been tutored well in the ways of civilisation. The Ferang just want me to die quickly in the name of the old gods. And so the arguments continue.

The only thing that stops the terror clogging my throat and prevents my heart from pounding so fast it would break my ribs is to categorise them as my father would have done, coolly weighing up the pro and the cons. But its harder when its your body they are arguing over, when the wave of hatred is so intense it almost suffocates you.

He, who valued intellect above all else, would be disappointed. I can see him now leaning forward, a sardonic smile playing on his lips as he coolly lists my mistakes as if talking about a historical figure in one of his scrolls. Not a living breathing girl, his daughter. A man of few words, my father. Even fewer since I cut his throat.

I can almost see him in the corner of the cell a hungry ghost waiting with the others for me to join them.

The thought makes me shudder, the metal jangling. Instead of necklaces strung with pearls as big as a nightingale’s egg, my body is strung with chains of iron the links larger than my fingers. The chains are too tight, scabs braceletting my wrists where they rub. The too sweet smell tells me my flesh has already begun to fester.

You’re too early, I tell my body. Wait a couple of hours and you can rot to your hearts content.

There’s a soft pad of sandals slapping against the sandy flagstones.

I brush my matted hair away from my face. Licking my crusty lips wasting moisture I can barely afford to loose. Will my husband come to me now? I don’t know if it’s dread or excitement I feel. Do I want to spit in his face or kiss him goodbye?

As I see the guard through the bars my heart skitters. Have they come to get me early? To do the deed under the cover of darkness and avoid a riot as the crowds jostle each other for the best position to watch the traitorous witch die.

But he’s alone, his frightened bony face painted silver in the moonlight that floods through the narrow bars of the window. His energy a distant hum tickling the edge of my consciousness. The others must have left him to join the celebrations. The town full to bursting with people come to watch me die. The guards will crawl in with the dawn reeking of hashish and sweat.

‘Get back.’ He squeaks his pubescent voice as thin and reedy as a flute. I scuttle back pressing myself against the stone wall, still warm from the suns kiss. 

With shaking hands he unlocks the hatch and pushes the jug and plate of dates through.

It closes with a slam and I scurry forward picking up the jug with both hands my arm muscles protesting. Carefully, very carefully, I take a sip. It’s barely enough to wet the inside of my mouth, and my parched throat screams for more. But this has to last me –

The thought strikes me with a hammer blow. No need to savour the water, measuring out the mouthfuls by the passage of the baking sun across the floor. There won’t be a tomorrow, not for me. I take a gulp, letting the water trickle down my dry throat, pleasure curling through my body.

‘You’re thirsty.’

The guard hovers in the doorway, curiousity overrides his fear. Talking to me is forbidden. But this may be his last chance.

I straighten placing the jug on the floor. It’s heavy enough to be used as weapon if only he would step nearer to the bars.

‘Yes.’ My voice is cracked, unrecognisable from disuse. It has been so long since I have talked to anybody but the ghosts.

I drag myself to my feet swaying slightly, keeping an eye on the guard. He stays planted in the corridor torn between coming closer and fleeing back to the guard station. I take pity on him.

‘What do you want?’

I can only imagine picture I present. My hair a snarled mess covering the pink blisters that dot my face. The coarsely woven stained dress rubbing the sand fly bites that dot my body. So he can’t be after that unless…

‘Did you kill them?’ He lowers his voice stepping closer to the bars his macabre need for information overriding his sense, ‘Did you kill your children?’

The old pain strikes and I wonder how I can breathe through it. There is a special hell reserved for mothers that kill their children. This is what he wants to bathe in their blood so he could say he talked to the witch. Earning himself a spot by the fire and a warm body or two for the celebrations tomorrow.

‘Do you really want to know boy? Aren’t you afraid.’

I step forward dropping my voice.

‘N-oo’

He leans in his eyes glittering with repulsed fascination, his spear forgotten by his side. But all I can see is the knife at his belt. It would sink into his side as easily as into butter, the blood running warm over my hands. Easy. Even easier to distract with the truth whispered in his ear as I fastened my fingers around the back of his neck. I am so weak I can hardly remember the sensation of stolen lifeforce coursing through my body like fine wine. But the guard shines with it like a candle in the dark. It would be enough to escape the prison and if I ran into the other guards on route so be it.

‘I held them down’ I whisper in his ear. My hand weaving its way through the bars, slow and careful as a snake. My gaze falls on his neck, his adams apple moving up and down.

‘Get out of here.’ I shove him, forcing myself back shuddering with need. I am ravenous, consumed with a deep hunger that will never be fully sated. I knew that if I looked in a mirror my eyes would be black, my hair swirling around me like ink in water.

With a horrified glance he runs his sandals slipping on the flagstones, and I am alone again. Good, maybe it will teach him a lesson I think sinking back down against the wall.

I can almost see my father shaking his head at me in the corner. Mercy, Anna, is a luxury you can scarce afford. Did the Castelli show the cowering tribes mercy? Where the K’are merciful to the Ferang?

With effort I tune him out. There will be time enough for lectures in the afterlife. Carefully I wrap the knife in the folds of my dress. By the time the guard notices it will be too late. And the feel of the steel at my side comforts me more than any doll ever has.

I don’t know if I have bought them enough time but these extra hours could make all of the difference. All I have to do is sit here running through my mistakes like memory beads.

What else can I do?

Don’t settle.

I learnt a lot of things at University the first time around, but not the things they wanted me to learn: about postmodernism, Spain in the twenthieth century and epistolary novel. Nope at University I learnt far more valuable lessons like: never drink in the club, 102 pasta recipes, that baggy purple jumpers are not my friend, nothing good happens after 4am and, most importantly, why you should never settle.

I’ve talked before about my personal happiness mantras but I thought that ‘don’t settle’ was interesting enough to deserve its own post. It was a phrase coined by me and my awesome flatmate Sam at University. There was a certain type of girl at Uni: gorgeous, smart, kind. Basically the type of person who only exists to make the rest of us feel bad about ourselves. This perfect girl would introduce you to her boyfriend and Sam and I would like at each other like ‘Him, really? She’s totally settling’*

*Except not out loud we weren’t that bitchy and judgemental. Yet.

Because despite all the aforementioned amazing qualities that girl was terrified of being alone. We were younger then and I don’t think either of us knew about the particular kind of loneliness that comes when you are all alone in a relationship. But we knew then that relationships were tough enough when you loved that person. And you were settling, not willing to invest everything you had? You were so screwed.

So ‘Don’t settle’ was a mantra we whispered to each when either of us was tempted to give up on our dreams and aim for something for more comfortable. Settling was one of the worst things you can do. It meant aiming for mediocrity wasting you potential on people and opportunities you didn’t care for. ‘Don’t settle’ we whispered as we kissed frog after frog and jumped from crappy job to crappier job.

And I listened and I waited and I never settled for anything else but love. But in my career? Guilty…

In Steve Jobs Stanford commencement speech, which you should watch, he says:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

But I did settle. True confession: I’m almost 30 and I have never had a job I loved. Growing up, I never wanted to be one of those people living for the weekend. But until this October, I was. I’ve had a lot of jobs: good, bad jobs and jobs so horrifically awful its almost funny. I was the klutziness waitress ever for a short-lived period where I thankfully avoided scalding anybody. I was a crappy PA, double-booking meetings like there was no tomorrow. I worked in supermarkets and libraries, with the police and beauticians. Until I finally got a job, in my dream field, publishing.

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer. However, until I made it I needed to find a way to buy quills and other writing accoutrements. So I settled for the next best thing editing other people words by aiming for a job in publishing. It took me two years but when I finally got that dream job, albeit at a non fiction publishing house, I was ecstatic.

It took me two years to realise I was settling, 23 months longer than it should have done. I wanted to work in publishing so much I ignored that the commute exhausted me, the work bored /infuriated me, the pay was a pittance. In fact I hated everything except my colleagues who were lovely and saying I worked in publishing. Saying I worked in publishing made me feel like somebody and that brief blush of joy at achieving a lifelong goal almost made everything better. But then there was that other sensation like I was constantly holding a balloon after water, pushing myself to be something unnatural.  I ignored the signs and if it wasn’t for one thing I’d probably still be there: the boss from hell.

He still is the worst boss I’ve ever had: mercurial, selfish and mean and I thank him everyday. Because if he hadn’t been such a horrific example of a human being I would have settled. I would have sacrificed a large part of myself just so I could say I worked in publishing,  while everyday I died slowly inside. Instead I left for a better job where I stayed for years, colouring inside the lines not risking everything for another career as a  counsellor because I could not bear it if I hated that too.

Yes, I was an idiot and finally I faced my fears and took the plunge. Best decision ever. Thankfully, I love being a counsellor and I don’t have to cut off or ignore parts of myself to do it. I’m no longer settling. Best.feeling.ever. But here’s the thing I still feel guilty admitting. Much as I love working as a counsellor I don’t just want to do that. Saying that one job is not enough, it makes me feel greedy as if the world is a cake and I’m demanding the largest slice. I’m almost ashamed to admit how ambitious I am. But I want so much for myself and I’m not going to tear myself apart pretending that is not true. I won’t settle not anymore.

So I’m putting it out there. I want to be a counsellor.  I want write books. I want to blog. I want to be a good friend, wife, daughter and eventually mother. And I want to live a full life.  And I’m not going to apologise for wanting all those things and so much more. Here’s to having ambitions goals and never settling. What do you want?

Scheduling some fun: curry night, date night and me

Cake = joy

Over the last year, I’ve worked really hard to try to be happier. At the best of times, it’s easy to feel out of control of your own life. To place your locus of control, (the extent to which you believe your direct your destiny) externally; viewing yourself as a puppet of cruel fates. Or to blame other people for the emotions they incite within you.

Yes, sometimes life sucks. Tragedy falls out of the sky and there is nothing you can do to evade it. However, what we can control is how we react, how we process events and how we recover. From examining my life I know that focussing on simple things – like getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising, and spending time with those I love (for me the single most influential contribution towards my mood) – makes a big difference to my overall resilience. But what larger changes could I take to make my life happier?

Scheduling some fun

As part of my ongoing happiness project, I’ve been thinking this week about scheduling some fun. I’ll let Gretchen Rubin explain:

The idea of scheduling fun seems paradoxical. By definition fun is a spontaneous pleasure, why do you need to build in time to have some fun?

So much of our lives are already scheduled.  I work 9-5. I have to sleep eight hours a night otherwise I become the grouch muppet from hell. I need to make time to see my family, HWSNBN, friends and me time. With all these commitments, if I don’t schedule something it will not happen.

An example of how scheduling fun works in my life is my love of writing. I find it enriching to spend my time making up imaginary world’s populated by characters with whom I get to torture (all writers are sadists, I’m looking at you George R R Martin). But if I don’t commit to that from 19.00 every evening I will sit at my computer until I have written 1,000 words, no matter what (if I have a headache/it’s sunny outside/or all I really want to do is watch Jersey Shore, damn you Snooki and your addictive antics!) a month can lapse without me writing a word. Us fancy writer types like to call this the Butt in the Chair method.

There is another example of schedule some fun in action. Dearest reader, let me induct you into the archaic rituals of curry night.

Curry Night

Yeah it is!

I was not there at the beginning but the principal of Curry Night has remained broadly the same. Every Thursday a group of friends meet at each others houses to celebrate the (almost) end to the week with a takeaway and copious cans of beer.

When I started dating HWSNBN I became initiated into the ranks of the curry night faithful. The first Curry Night I attended: there were cocktails, chinese food, party games and more girls than boys. What fun, thought I! It wasn’t until I attended the next Curry Night that I realised I had been tricked. There was only curry (my least favourite food), beer (bleurgh), no party games instead an episode of a strange TV show called Space Ghost (which was sort of amusing (until we watched it again, and again, and again…), I was the only girl and I knew nothing about Windows operating systems.

Despite this less than auspicious start, for the last seven years I’ve become a semi regular attendee of Curry Night. Ruling out brainwashing, (maybe the enervating discussions of Windows operating systems had a sinister undertone?) there can only be one answer. Curry Night is the brilliant example of scheduling some fun in action.  It’s changed slightly over the years. There’s less Space Ghost and more talk of the Budget. In honour of the Dude sometimes beer is replaced with white Russians. Cheapskates like myself eat beforehand or bring their own grub while the faithful stick to their weekly diet of madras. Cats, dogs, and babies have entered the equation. Sometimes Curry Night is so packed people eat on the floor, sometimes it’s just a couple of hardcore members. But at its core Curry Night hasn’t changed from its abiding principle: a weekly commitment to meet up with friends.

Date night: the return

When HWSNBN and I started dating, he was studying at University in Brighton and I was working back home in Surrey. Even though we saw each other every weekend, in the first flush of love that wasn’t enough. So every Wednesday we would take the hour and half journey to visit each other. I’d take the train down, or he would drive up. Our Wednesday date night became the highlight of my week.

We didn’t do anything elaborate (he was a student and I had a crippling book addiction so we were always strapped for cash :)). But I really valued the time we spent together doing silly little things like cooking for each other, going for walks or watching crappy films. After we moved in together two years later we still kept our date night tradition, moving it to Tuesday nights.

However, in recent months date night has begun to lapse. I injured my foot and our date night default activity, walking on the downs and the beach (free, outdoorsy and good for you) was off the menu. Although me and HWSNBN saw each other every day, and drove to and from work together something was missing. We didn’t have each others attention, there was no (ugh, how I hate this word) quality time.

Then we started the weekly pilgrimages to Pevensey to visit the one ring of power. After our visits to the jewellers, and to avoid the rush hour traffic, we’ve do something else afterwards. Whether it was skim stones on the beach, or guard our chips from the feral seagulls, or clambering all over the ruins of Pevensey castle,  it was great to spend time together. I hate the term quality time but I can’t think of anything else to describe it.

So, we’re bringing back date night. Because I have the working memory of a gnat and I’m a bit of a list addict (sometimes I even add items to the list just for the thrill of ticking them off!) I’ve created a list of date night activities of things to do in Brighton when you’re a) broke b) outside of the flat:

Walk
Cinema
Dinner out (even if it’s just fish and chips)
Ice cream and a walk, possible paddle by the sea
Swim in the sea (haha, as I write this there is torrential rain pouring down outside)
Fun rides on the Pier
Play on the swings in the park (but with small children we don’t know because that would be odd)
Geocaching (if only I can get over my disappointment at not finding a ring every time)

I’m going to edit this post to add other ideas and tick them off. By making this public commitment here’s hoping I stick to it.

Coordinating diaries

I’ve also been thinking about how to extend the schedule some fun resolution into other areas of my life. I see my Mum regularly. It’s partly because HWSNBN parent’s and my parent’s handily live in the same town now. But I think it’s mainly because before we say goodbye my Mum always asks when am I going to see her next. Before I leave we always put at least one date, sometimes many dates in the diary. Even with my abysmal habit of double-booking people, (sorry mum), having a date in the diary means that I get to see my family regularly. I have the best friends in the world. But as time goes on and people get busier sometimes months can sometimes pass before I see really good friends who live in the same city as me.  So what I’m going to try to do when I meet up with people, is coordinate diaries and schedule a date for next time. Because, for me, spending time with the people I love, better than a million cupcakes and less likely to make me look like the side of a bus!

So any tips about how you schedule some fun, or do you prefer to be more spontaneous?

Website of the week: Pinterest

Definition of pinterest

Exactly, if I wanted to feel inferior about my life I’d start reading glossy magazines again. All jokes aside, I’m fast becoming a Pinterest convert.

For the uninitiated, Pinterest is a social networking site where you can pin any image you find (or steal other people’s, much more fun and positively encouraged) organising them according to your interests into boards. My boards for example range from DIY and style tips to food and writing inspiration. For example, here is my craft projects pinboard:

My Craft projects pinboard

See those comic book pumps in the top left hand corner, we wants them precious.

Pinterest is a great way to organise your visual interests, cut down on the your bookmarks, and see with a glance what you rate and what you hate! I’m finding it particularly useful to create wedding and writing boards to give me an overview of what inspires me.

For me the best part of Pinterest connecting with people I’ve never met over a mutual love of glitter, peacock feathers and Joan Collins 🙂 You can even browse what everybody is pinning which gives you a glimpse into the zeitgeist of the pin themes emerging mainly: gooey deserts, crafting and nail polish.

Yes, my craft project board would probably be more usefully titled projects I aspire to but am unlikely to ever have the time, money or talent to complete. I’m a realist, I can take photo’s of my friends gurning on a night out but I’ll never be a great photography. But I work with amazing images everyday and it’s so nice to have a place to collect all those visuals that spark something within me.

So join Pinterest, follow me and get pinning!

Revision neurosis

Was browsing the interwebs when I came across this on Libba Bray’s livejournal

‘I’m convinced that self-loathing is just a huge part of the writing process. The first draft is like getting dressed in a dark room, and revision is like being in the cruel, fluorescent glare of the dressing rooms in Macy’s with its three-way mirrors. Necessary and painful.’

Word. Except my inner critic is Trinny and Susannah combined and has a big pokey stick to draw attention to all the wobbly bits (back, inner critic, back). Thank god I’m not the only one who feels like this.

Anyway back to, yanno, work.

Half full, half empty?

I’ve been musing about whether my views of life, the universe, everything are reflected in the fiction I write. In real life I’m a optimistic person. I try my hardest to make the best out of things, to try, to have fun, and treasure those I love. I know that bad things happen to good people, that there is little correlation between virtue and a happy life. Sometimes tragedy comes out the sky, it strikes and there is very little you can do to prevent. So why worry? Instead focus on the good things in life, the things that you as an individual have control over.

As a writer I take great pleasure in being a god in my own self created universe. As such I want my good characters to have nice things happen to them and evil doers to be punished. Simple, non? Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, they live happily ever after. Great for the characters as people, less interesting in narrative terms. Conflict drives the story. So I do horrible, horrendous things to my characters. I punish them. I give them what they want only to take it away or have it turn out that it wasn’t what they wanted after all. I am an old testament smotey god.

But the problems/conflicts are often, inevitably of the characters own making. Because although I do believe that sometimes bad situations happen to good people, it deepens the drama for me if the characters partially create and are responsible for their own downfall (think Macbeth whose cycle of violence springs relentlessly back on himself ‘I am so steeped in blood that, should I wade no more/ Returning is as difficult as going over to the other side’).

I like HEA (happy ever afters) but I need my characters to earn them. To grow and to change throughout the process of the books only then do they get their HEA.

Procrastination thy name is Rowan

So you set yourself a firm, not to be moved deadline, that you will send your novel out for beta reading at the end of March. And you know that by then you have to work day and night to complete the revisions needed so the novel is in as good as state as it possibly can be. Knowing this would you:
a)revise in lunchtimes, after work, before work, forgoing sleep, food and all others things but the WORK.
b)practise your guitar hero skills until the 29th of March then panic and spend a frantic day shifting commas like deckchairs on the Titanic
c) Write 1,500 words of a new project completely unrelated to WIP, and excitably start drawing up outlines for the birthing process of your new baby.

If the answer is c then you are an eejit just like me. So I am firmly going to back away from the keyboard until all thoughts of my fabulous new project fade from my mind. If only if it was that easy …