30 January 2011

#SampleSunday 8: Torc of Moonlight SE - Chapter 3 (Pt 2)

#SampleSunday is still going a ball on Twitter. Torc of Moonlight SE started on 19 December, so if you are catching this for the first time you might consider rolling back a bit to catch the nuances. I'll be dropping by if you want to leave a comment or ask a question, and if you enjoy what you read please ReTweet. That's the #SampleSunday way.
Bernie Colwyn was striding towards him. Bernie Colwyn, rugby prop-forward. He smacked both hands against Nick’s shoulders and Nick shuddered beneath the onslaught.
‘Good t’see ya, mate!’ he enthused. ‘Ready for the off? If you’ve come looking for a cancellation you’ve forgotten Hodgson’s little quirks.’
Nick watched Bernie’s smile dissolve into a frown, and then erupt again into an eye-twinkling grin.
‘Whatever you’re on, mucker, save some for me. I’ll have it later.’ An arm waltzed him around. ‘C’mon now. Let’s go kick the shit outta these freshers.’

With the pick of the crop before him, Hodgson was strutting back and forth revelling in the choices it afforded. Already he’d had the company divide by experience. As expected, the freshers made up the largest group, those who had played rugby at their schools standing slightly apart from those who hadn’t but fancied their chances — or a laugh.
Nick looked them over. He’d stood in that group the previous October, wondering what he was letting himself in for. Those hoping for a laugh were in for a rude awakening. Laughs were saved for the bar, after a game. On the field it was to the death.
‘There’s a lot of meat across there,’ Murray whispered over his shoulder.
‘Don’t start fretting until you’ve seen them run.’
‘Running is for fly-halfs, and there’s not a fly-half across there. Your place is assured.’
‘Nothing in this life is assured,’ Nick told him. He thought that his own place on the first team might be, though, considering the look of the opposition.
An hour had passed before Hodgson had completed his form filling and team talks. Nick had worried that the warmth of the Sports Centre might have started another wave of dizziness, or whatever it had been, but he felt okay. The meal, or half the meal he’d eaten, had worked its charm. When Hodgson finally led them out under the floodlights he was looking forward to the exercise, even to the rain, though not everyone felt the same. There was a general chorus of groaning as heads were bowed into hunched shoulders.
The group broke into a jog. Nick stood apart to raise his face to the ink-black sky. The rain was cold. Iced. It stung as it hit him and he had to squint to protect his eyes, but he stayed there, breathing slow and deep to enlarge his lung capacity, feeling the rain gather at his throat to run under his shirt and down his chest.
He shuddered and blinked, pushing back his slick hair. The group were along the edge of the field now, a ghostly bobbing mass at the furthest reaches of the pooled floodlights. Nick felt energized, better than he had the entire day. He would catch them before they were two-thirds round the circuit, he decided, jog at Hodgson’s shoulder and ask him how his holiday had been.

Hodgson blew his whistle after the second lap. He had cones set out and the trialists running in relays around them. Some of the beefier participants came croppers on the corners, churning the mud as they slid full length, adding vital seconds to Hodgson’s stopwatch. Nick saw it as he took the last corner on his run: the red and blue panelled golfing umbrella.
Murray welcomed his return to the fold, slapping him on the back. ‘Good time! No problem!’
Cocking his head towards the Sports Centre doorway, he said, ‘Have you seen who’s here? You can’t say that she’s not keen.’
Nick turned his shoulder to the rain and looked through the blaze of the floodlights. Her head was lost in the over-shadowing umbrella, her body a silhouette against the lighted doorway, showing the long, tightly-clad legs and waist-hugging jacket to best effect. He wondered if the suntan was as bright as Murray maintained, and if it stopped at the bikini line or covered every inch of her. The thought brought a bitter taste to his mouth and he spat a string of phlegm across the squelching grass as he shifted his stance to watch the last of the runners come in.
Hodgson blew his whistle. ‘Okay! Okay! Three groups of two, now. Keep jogging so your muscles don’t chill. Three groups of two. Leader takes a ball. Run and pass along the line, now. Run and pass!’
They ran and passed, the ball zig-zagging down the line as the players drew out across the field.
‘What is this?’ Hodgson demanded as the leaders returned to him. ‘If you want to play xxx girlie-ball get the xxx off my pitch! Spread yourselves out and throw the bastard thing!’
And so the two lines spread further apart and the ball was arced across the space between them, its slippery surface glinting white under the floodlights.
Nick noticed the dropouts on the return run. Heads bowed, some had their hands resting on their hips, others resting on their thighs. One limped. Another was on his knees throwing up an ill-advised late meal. Nick chuckled. He was feeling good; a little winded, but good. His gaze followed a couple of stragglers walking towards the sanctuary of the Sports Centre. She was still standing in the doorway, waiting for him, the red and blue umbrella hiding her face.
Hodgson split the field again, this time into mixed ability groups facing each other across the width of the pitch. Nick placed his feet purposefully on the line. Murray sidled up to him.
‘About time, too. A little hand-to-hand never did anyone any harm.’ He clenched his fists and muscle tensed all along the soaked arms of his shirt to bunch around his shoulders. He growled at the opposing line.
‘And who have you got in your sights?’ Nick asked.
‘Anybody who dares touch the ball.’
Nick chuckled.
‘You watch yourself,’ Murray warned. ‘There’s always some bastard wants to score points by tearing the ears off a little ’un. Remember last year.’
Nick glanced across at him. That was how he and Murray had forged their alliance. Some house-side had deliberately put the boot in and then crushed him beneath a belly-flop. Murray had dragged off the offending carcass and had been intent on making a corpse of him until he, too, was dragged clear.
‘I can take care of myself,’ Nick murmured. ‘It’s brains that count, not brawn.’
He watched Murray study him out of the corner of his eye, expecting something to be said, but nothing was.
Hodgson threw the ball to the player at the end and blew his whistle. They ran forwards as an untidy line, each watching play to his left. The fool with the ball was going to try a solo up to the skirmish line. Nick gritted his teeth in annoyance, his protective plastic shield biting into his gums. That wasn’t the objective. The objective was to practise passing at a run. Then the fool slipped in the mud, taking more care in his landing than in the safety of the ball. The opposition was on him, but too fast, carving furrows in the grass and fumbling the interception. Nick heard Murray bellowing to his right, and one of their team scooped up the ball and threw himself horizontally in the air, the ball flying through the sheeting rain to be caught and dropped. It bounced, once, twice, before falling dead in open ground. Murray roared in but Bernie Colwyn was the closer, smothering the ball and whipping it from Murray’s reach in a shower of water and mud, to be buried himself the moment he skidded to a halt.
Arms and legs were disentangled and the ball was fed out along the opposing line. Nick held back, watching the play develop. A throw, a throw, a missed tackle, a call, a feint, and a mudman was through their line and running for touch. Nick felt his boot-studs slide then grip in the liquefying surface as he drove to narrow the angle between them. He powered on, aware of others around him, uncertain of their allegiance, dragging air into his lungs, forcing weakening muscle taut, until the familiar pain barrier was met and passed.
His pulse thudded loudly in his ears now, his arms pumping in a rhythm that seemed peculiarly slow. His field of vision narrowed to take in no one but the target. A fire burned in his chest, moving in a solid mass to his belly as the heels of his opponent grew larger. He clenched his teeth, telegraphing a signal to each ligament and sinew. Then he leaped, and reached, and sodden clothing and sticky flesh were sliding along his palms. The world revolved in alternating spokes of light and dark. The ground rushed up at him. He grunted as he bounced, his limbs as floppy as a rag-doll’s, and real time burst upon him with the triumph of his victory.
It came out of the darkness, the sole of the boot, its gleaming studs multi-eyed talons winking in the searing white of the floodlights, the surrounding tangle of mud and grass tiny festering beards. He wrenched muscles trying to move aside, to turn away his head, but he was pinned somehow, an arm beneath his back, and the boot was filling his vision so he couldn’t even shut his eyes against it. Then the night burst in upon itself, purple and yellow. Pain followed, searing through his head. Something was in his eyes, hot and stinging, and he was rolling on to his stomach, spitting mud from his mouth. Blood was mixed with it, blood running from his nose, blood on his hands, and on the cuffs of his shirt... the bastard, the dirty bastard, the dirty xxx bastard...
The ball stood white and unmarked a metre from the bastard’s head. Nick felt his fingers dig into the soft ground as he propelled himself forward, the matted vegetation pressuring beneath his nails, the roar in his throat echoing in his mind. The bastard was on all fours. Nick tried to bring his leg round, to time the kick before the bastard raised himself, but his thrust was too wild and his heel skidded on the water-logged surface. The face lifted, the mouth opening, eyes wide and white as Nick’s forearm smashed into him, catching him askew across the chin and chest, sending him back in a flail of arms and raised legs. Nick fisted with a left, feeling the knuckles strain against the skin; it slid along the ribs not under them. But the bastard was down now, and Nick drew back his foot for a kick that would finish it.
His field of vision whipped sideways. Caught on one leg he didn’t stand a chance, in his temper hadn’t seen his attacker coming on his blind side. Swinging his fist at the massive shoulders was as much out of frustration at his own shortcomings as in anger at the intervention. And then he was caught between the ground and this new opponent, and the ground was solid beneath him and his opponent as heavy as a side of beef. Nick’s breath left him in an audible whoosh, but his right fist was in there, jabbing, jabbing, trying to get round the bulk of the body to the kidneys.
There was a discomfort at his throat that was building to pain. He tried to ignore it, to keep jabbing and reaching and clawing, and then he realised that he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t cry out. His windpipe was being crushed. He stared at the moon-face above him, brought his sight into focus, centring his gaze onto the slitted eyes and taut-lipped grimace. Murray.
‘...God’s sake, Blaketon, quit it, I tell you. Quit it, you stupid sod, you screaming bastard. It was an accident. What the xxx are you trying to do? It was an accident for Christ’s sake.’
Murray’s words streamed away into the dark hole of the night as the skin around his eyes relaxed. The pinning arm moved to the top of Nick’s chest, and Nick drank in air like a drowning man returning from the dead.
‘Are you with us now?’ Murray hissed. ‘Speak to me, you prat.’
Nick couldn’t get the words to form and instead shut his eyes. Exhaustion was cascading through him. Every limb ached. A pain was returning to his head, throbbing behind his eyes.
‘Stupid sod!’ Murray spat at him. ‘It was an accident, you bastard. What the hell were you trying to do to him?’


A long excerpt this week. Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment and ReTweet. There will be more next week, probably the final excerpt.

28 January 2011

Ebooks: Royalty Rates and Sales Figures

Last May I took my first tentative steps in the ebook market, indie authoring one of my rights-reverted historical romances Hostage of the Heart. From scanning the body text into a digital file that could be edited to ease the flow of prose, to formatting and adding in the external links, to - shock-horror! - creating a cover that was no more appalling than the one with which the mainstream publisher had blessed it, I did it all. And uploaded it, and sold copies.

And guess what? The sky did not fall in. So I did it again, and again, and again. Why? Because readers bought them. And guess what? The sky still hasn't fallen in. 

So today I read two snippets of reported news:

--- that publishers and agents differ over ebook royalties - publishers consider 25% is good, agents consider 50% is better.

I have news for them both. Up to 70% (Amazon kdp for Kindle) or 85% (Smashwords for Nook, Ipad, Sony) direct to the indie author is better still.

--- during 2010, for every 100 paperbacks sold by Amazon 115 Kindle books were sold (as opposed to freebies given away). 

And this surprises who, exactly? Pity we don't know how many of those were by indie authors. Now that would make both publishers and agents take notice.

Amazon announcement 27 Jan 11

23 January 2011

#SampleSunday 7: Torc of Moonlight SE - Chapter 3 (Pt 1)

I'm sure you know the system by now. If you enjoy the story, or have any point to raise or question to ask about the techniques used in the writing, feel free to leave a comment. And do Re-Tweet. Thanks.

This is the opening of Chapter 3 and starts where the last excerpt closed. Of course, the weight and nuances of the previous chapters are coming to bear, but something is always lost when sampling. The book was not written to be serialised, LOL.

The rain started as a soft drizzle around three. By four-thirty it was hammering against the windows, and by six any self-respecting boat-builder was looking to make a start on an Ark.
Nick lay on top of his rumpled bedclothes wondering if it was worth making a move. Surely Hodgson wasn’t so obsessed as to have them tearing about the field in this? Then again, he probably was. He would rationalise it, wouldn’t he? Professionalism, he would call it.
‘If a little rain puts you off a mere training session, how can you expect to be picked for the big matches?’
Nick could hear the man’s voice as clearly as if he were standing in the doorway, see him in his mind’s eye, hands on hips, the muscle of his youth fighting hard not to turn to flab.
‘When I had my trial for the England Under 21s...’
No doubt they would have to endure all that crap again, too.
He dragged himself up, crossing to the basin to rub the damp flannel over his face. It felt as if it had been dipped in iced water, not simply laid across the basin’s side, and it brought him round faster than he had anticipated. Had he a temperature? He tested his forehead and neck with the palm of one hand. Could be. The glands below his ears were a bit spongy.
His kit still sat in its bag by the door, and he glanced across to it, wondering which way to jump. He didn’t feel sick, did he? No, he didn’t feel sick. Oh, what the hell. He’d risk it; do as Murray suggested and drop a whining line in Hodgson’s ear to cover himself.

His supposedly rainproof jacket was seeping across the shoulders before he had turned the corner of the Law building. Why didn’t this university have covered walkways? Yorkshire was hardly abutting the South of France.
Head down, he plodded along the deserted pavement, the rain thudding into his back and against his hood, blunt needles determined to reach his skin. And then something solid hit him just above the kidneys and he spun round, an arm automatically rising in defence. Murray was gesticulating from a doorway.
‘Nick, you plonker! Didn’t you hear me calling you? Where the hell are you going?’
Leaving the wide pathway, he crossed the sodden grass to stand just outside the shelter of the open porch. Murray was wearing a sweater over a white-collared rugby shirt, but it wasn’t the sort worn to play a game. By his feet was a training bag, but it was full of books, Nick could tell by the regular shape of the bulges carved in the blue nylon.
Rugby? First training tonight? Ring any bells?’
‘You’ve got to be kidding. It’ll be off.’
‘Is it?’
He watched Murray look into the rain. It didn’t feel as cold as it had. Quite refreshing, in fact. Lifting his head slightly, Nick let a squall pass the edge of his hood to dance on his face. If he were honest, it felt quite invigorating.
‘Bastard!’ Murray spat. ‘It won’t be, will it? Hodgson will use the weather for one of his separating-the-men-from-the-boys routines.’
He pointed to the bag at his feet. ‘I’ve got to dump these and grab my gear. Do us both a favour, eh? You’re passing the Union. Look in to see if a cancellation has been posted. If it has, pull a couple of beers in the Sanctuary. I’ll look in on my way by. If you aren’t there... Nick, are you okay?’
Nick blinked the rain from his eyelashes. ‘Yeah. Sure.’
‘Thrown up again?’
‘Oh, for xxxx's sake. Just get your arse in gear. The session will be on, I’m telling you.’
Turning to cut across the grass, he pushed back the hood of his jacket to let the full force of the rain pour over his head.

He hardly passed anyone on his way to University House, but it was the normal crush inside. He found it amusing how the other students gave him room as he mounted the stairs. There was a lot to be said for leaving a puddle as he walked.
There was no room to give on the floor above. The walls of the narrow corridor ran with society and club notice boards. The sports boards were on the wall in the wi-fi lounge beyond, and he was pushed and sworn at for drenching those he passed.
He drew alongside the section designated for the Union teams, and although he turned to face the ochre board he made no attempt to focus on the notices displayed. The short hairs on the back of his neck were horripilating, a frisson skittering down his spine. Something had caught in his peripheral vision back along the corridor. Six steps and he was standing before her, the individual locks of her hair rising around her head, defying gravity.
Sounds rushed at him down a long echoing tube, and he broke into the real world, his eyes close to the poster, his fingers resting on the stylised pen-and-ink drawing. He glanced left and right, feeling awkward, checking where he was, checking who was with him. No one seemed surprised that he was standing so close to the wall. One of the employed admin staff passed, reading papers from a folder. A group of young women spoke breathlessly, their voices cutting one across another in their exuberance. Shrill laughter erupted from an open office door.
He returned his attention to the notice board, to the drawing beneath his fingers. It wasn’t of Alice, not truly of Alice. It was a head and shoulders depiction of a young woman with tendrils of shoulder-length hair rising like leafy branches around her head, her neck extended, the picture giving the impression of a slender tree. His fingertips traced each undulating lock. Not Alice, no. Not anyone. Just a female. Any female.
The background colour of the notice seeped into his perception. A pale leaf-green. Black lines focused into crisp lettering.

Mother Earth Society
Next Meeting: 18 October M/Room 3
Samhain Celebrations - Preliminary Discussion

A name inked out. Hankins? Hawkins? His gaze rose to the subject heading the section of board: Environmental/Conservation. There was a smaller notice, something about bats, another giving details of clearing a canal.
‘Hey, Blaketon!’
Nick looked down the narrow corridor, now empty and strangely tunnel-like. Someone stood in the open doorway of the wi-fi lounge, the bright lighting of the area casting his mass into silhouette. Nick could see others crossing behind him, but they were oddly muted, curiously out of time.
Behind Nick a door opened, and a woman came hurrying along the corridor fighting her way into a bulky coat. She passed Nick almost at a run, the draught she created sweeping over him, bringing the clack of her heels and the smell of her perfume sharply to his senses. Noise rose around him — the rhythmic wheeze of a photocopier, the drone of distant conversation, the ringing of a telephone — filling the corridor with a normality he had not realised was missing.
‘Blakey! It is you, y’bastard.’
Bernie Colwyn was striding towards him. Bernie Colwyn, prop-forward. He smacked both hands against Nick’s shoulders and Nick shuddered beneath the onslaught.
‘Good t’see ya, mate!’ he enthused. ‘Ready for the off? If you’ve come looking for a cancellation you’ve forgotten Hodgson’s little quirks.’
Nick watched Bernie’s smile dissolve into a frown, and then erupt again into an eye-twinkling grin.
‘Whatever you’re on, mucker, save some for me. I’ll have it later.’ An arm waltzed him around. ‘C’mon now. Let’s go kick the shit outta these freshers.’

  Blokes' talk to blokes begins to take off at this point so bear in mind that a couple of the euphemisms used don't read as limp in the novel, but this is an open blog and such things have to be taken into consideration.

If you've been following you'll realise that Nick's character is beginning to change; if you've been following from the start you'll be realising why, and how. I'd be interested in hearing how other authors handle gentle transitions like these, and how readers react when coming to realise that a seemingly innocuous backdrop carries sinister undertones. Do you read back to discern the how and the when... or is that just something writers do?

I'll be back next Sunday to take you into the heart of a rugby training session. Thanks for calling by. Feel free to leave a comment and Re-Tweet.

20 January 2011

Hardback, Paperback, Ebook.... handbag...??

At a talk I gave recently I was heckled - well, more of a good-natured, low-growled "boo" from the back seats - for suggesting that ebooks were the future. I'm sure the same hiss was heard in the 1930s when Penguin suggested that paperbacks were the future, but that's by the by.

The other day I read that books were being made into handbags for the rich & famous. I didn't quite believe I'd caught it right, thinking more in terms of a handbag being manufactured to look like a book. I was right. French designer Olympia Le-Tan had hand-stitched a clutch bag to look like Nabokov's Lolita.

So what caught my eye today? A link to a video podcast showing how to make a handbag from a book. And I'm the one being heckled.

16 January 2011

#SampleSunday 6: Torc of Moonlight SE - Chapter 2 (Pt 2)

#SampleSunday is becoming a great success, with new writers joining each week. I just wish I had time to call in and read more than I do, so I'm particularly glad that you managed to call in on mine. If you enjoy the excerpt, do leave a comment and Tweet the blogpost.

For those who are just joining me, #SampleSunday started on 12 December with an excerpt from my collection of short ghost/horror fiction Contribution to Mankind and other stories of the Dark. Torc of Moonlight SE began on 19th December, so you might want to thread back to read from the Prologue, as the history and the contemporary are beginning to mesh.

The second part of Chapter 2 is where the storyline starts to take on more sinister undertones as a new main character is introduced but not, at this point, named. Enjoy. If that's the right word.


‘You’re sure about this?’
‘Yes. Yes, I am.’
‘The crucifixion is not exactly original, you know.’
He raised his gaze from the paper, ostensibly to stare into the middle distance while he considered alternatives. Instead, he let it flicker down her profile. Her nose was too prominent, but the line and height of her cheekbones compensated. She turned to face him, her brow creasing in a frown, and he shifted his gaze to the shelving beyond her head crowded with boxes and paint canisters and artists’ utensils.
‘Will that influence the marking?’
Drawing his gaze back to her face, he offered a protective smile. ‘Not necessarily. The nuances of interpretation count for much.’
He watched her expression relax, her dark eyes return to the sketch on the bench. She was perspiring slightly, the coffee’d silk of her skin sheening on her throat. Choutelan, she’d said her name was, though he was not certain that he’d heard correctly. But Choutelan weighed well on the tongue, a whisper of the erotic that suited her natural grace.
‘And you feel that the subject matter would not arouse censure?’
‘This is Britain,’ he said.
He wondered how she would feel about becoming the subject of a painting. It was far too long since he’d held a brush. The rangy limbs, the beguiling elegance of movement, he could capture in oils, tie down on canvas. Not in that absurd Shetland sweater, though. Maybe she was feeling the chill of the English damp; not acclimatised yet. He mused on her likely background. Her colouring, and the texture of her skin, didn’t sit too well with the impeccable Surrey accent.
‘You said you had reservations about the materials.’
She was uncomfortable, didn’t like the silences. He relished that.
‘I think the concept is unbalanced.’
He took the pencil from her hand, brushing the length of her fingers with his own. She was very, very warm.
‘You have everything made from natural materials: the wood of the cross, the crown of thorned twigs, the Christ figure himself... And the scale is all wrong for the statement you wish to make. You should consider life-size—’
‘It wouldn’t be much more work.’
‘I was not thinking of the work involved, but the storage.’
He lifted his eyes from the sketch to let his gaze, and his smile, wash over her. So young. The physical maturity of womanhood. The naïvety of the child.
‘You could store it here, build it here, in the studio. Where better?’
‘But... if all the students—’
‘Not all,’ he countered. ‘Only those with vision.’
He watched her smile down at the sketch. He could envisage that smile transferred to a brush stroke, to the touch of his fingertips. To him.
‘And the materials?’
‘To return to the unadorned basics, Christ was God’s only son. God made the land, the flora and fauna.’
‘So, the materials for the Christ figure should be pure and natural.’
‘Exactly.’ The urge to touch her was building.
‘And the instruments of his torture, his death, were all man-made.’
He wondered how she would react if he placed his hand on hers, how she would react if he reached across and drew his tongue along her throat.
‘Nature subjugated by technology!’
‘The vision,’ he murmured. ‘I could see it straight away. It doesn’t come often, but it makes teaching so worthwhile.’
He angled his body closer to hers. For a moment they touched, clothing to clothing, then she moved away. He smiled. Games of cat and mouse made these entanglements so much more fulfilling, and it was far too long since he’d indulged himself.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this #SampleSunday excerpt please leave a comment and Tweet the posting. Chapter 2 continues next Sunday. If you want to find out how this progresses, check out:
US Kindle     UK Kindle     I-Pad, Sony, Kobo, pdf, mobi 

13 January 2011

Titles to make one wistful

The other day I clicked on a link which led me to Biblio Quest International which, alongside its main business of searching for rare and collectable books, has a list of New York bestsellers searchable by date. They call it their Birthday Best Sellers.

So I had to, didn't I? Insert my birth date to discover which books popped up.

1 - From Here To Eternity by James Jones
2 - Joy Street by Frances Parkinson Keyes
3 - The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg
4 - The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
5 - The Age of Longing by Arthur Koestler

Surprisingly, considering I am on the other side of the Atlantic, I recognised some of the authors and titles, which just goes to show that good writing lasts. Or does it? Would I have recognised the titles if the books in question hadn't been made into movies? Which is a point for us modern writers to ponder.

Pity I can't find a similar list for the UK. Anybody know of one?

9 January 2011

#SampleSunday 5: Torc of Moonlight SE - Chapter 2 (Pt 1)

Hello and welcome back for a Sunday shot of fiction. If this is your first time, writers are posting samples of their work each Sunday and Tweeting the new upload. If you like what you read, please leave a comment and ReTweet. Many thanks. 

Everyone was standing. Nick rested back in his seat feeling witless. Had the class come to an end? It must have done. The students were leaving. Duval was sorting papers in her open briefcase.
Her hair had lifted.
It couldn’t have done. What was he thinking? His eyes had been playing tricks on him. He wasn’t well. He’d thrown up, hadn’t he? Nearly passed out. Of course he had. He’d frightened Murray to death.
The girl with the auburn hair had left her seat. Nick looked to the crush at the doorway, but could not pick her out, not the auburn hair, not the green sweater. Most probably she had already gone. He felt oddly relieved.
Sunshine poured through the skylight, its intensity pressing on his head. Squinting into the light source, he could clearly see a flaring round the edge of the passing cloud. Stupid sod! That was what he’d seen around her head — an after-image of the sun’s corona.
In the quad the breeze gusted about him, kicking up dried leaves and pieces of litter. Cornered by the buildings they chased round and round upon themselves, chattering on the paving slabs as if animated. It was cooler outside, much cooler. The clouds weren’t wispy as they had been earlier in the day, but ominously thicker. He’d give odds that they would be training in a downpour. Slick grass and standing water. His kit would have to be scrubbed of its mud.
The memory of Louise’s touch came unbidden. He tried to banish it, but it was insistent. She liked the rainy games the best, standing on the touchline with that huge red and blue panelled umbrella. She would rush on to the field to meet him when the final whistle blew, to lay a hand on his heaving chest, to draw her nails down the shirt that had become his second skin. She could pout when she didn’t get her own way, and her way was for him to be unshowered, unshaven and still sweating after a game. And he’d gone for it like a dog with its tongue hanging out. Not any more.
He toyed with the idea of going back to the house, but he knew that he would drop on his bed and sleep if he went there. He needed food and he needed something substantial. If he ate later he would be liable to throw up again, and if he did so all over Hodgson’s boots there would definitely be no place for him in the team. He checked his pockets for cash and made his way to the main refectory.
The noise in the high-ceilinged hall reverberated with a need and an excitement as if everyone was speaking in tongues. Nick couldn’t see a free table anywhere and the queue to the counter was twenty deep. He groaned and considered his options. He could go to the shops on Cottingham Road, but he didn’t want a takeaway. There were the campus’ cafes, but he wanted more than a snack, and the queues were liable to be the same. A couple ahead pulled out and he stepped forward, and it was then that he saw her, leaning over to pick up a tray. Five up the queue was the auburn hair and green sweater.
He didn’t think about it. He slipped his position in the line and pushed in behind her, raised his hand to touch her arm, hesitated, then let it fall on her shoulder.
She spun round more startled than he had expected, the tray held vertically, a shield between them, but he met her gaze with bright eyes and a face wreathed in smiles.
‘I missed you at the end of the seminar,’ he said. ‘I’m so pleased I managed to catch you. Sara didn’t say where I could get hold of you and I was afraid that I might not see you again until Duval’s next session.’
It came out in a rush as he’d meant it to, giving her no time to voice automatic defences, and Sara was such a fantastic name to use. There had to be over 200 Saras on campus. If she didn’t know one, she knew someone who did. He could see the confusion standing in her face. She was puzzling the name, trying to locate the connection. Sara was his foot in the slamming door.
‘I’ll be up front,’ he told her. ‘I’m here because I need help, and Sara said that you were red hot on the subject and— Hey, I’m sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself. I’m Nick, Nicholas Blaketon.’
He offered his hand, half expecting her not to take it, but she did, even in the confined space of the queue. She had a light grip, a cool and damp hand, very small in his. He released it at once, wanting her to read nothing untoward in his manner. She was shaking her head, not a good sign.
‘I’m sorry, I—’
‘We met at a party last year—’
‘A party?’
‘Well, a gathering, anyway. I suppose it didn’t quite get out of hand enough to be called a party.’
Didn’t she go to parties? He reached across to collect a tray from the stack, hoping he could sever that thread of conversation.
‘I’m sorry, I think you’ve got the wrong person.’
He was losing it. He watched her lift a prawn salad from the chilled shelves and turn her back on him to move a little further up the queue. Fibres of her sweater wavered iridescent under the intense lighting, her hair a shower of red-gold leaves.
‘Alison,’ he said. ‘Your name is Alison.’
She half turned, one eyebrow raised. ‘Alice,’ she murmured.
Alice..? He had never been that close in his life.
Snapping his fingers, Nick tried to look contrite. ‘Alice. I’m sorry. Alice, of course it is. This just underlines my problem. I don’t have a retentive memory. You could answer Duval’s questions just like that. I was floundering, believe me.’
The assistant behind the counter inclined her head towards him and he looked down the regimented line of stainless steel tins set into the heated work surface. ‘Meat pie and everything. As big as you like. Thanks.’
The queue was moving. Alice was following it, leaving him. She paused to take a glass of orange.
‘Can you get me one of those?’ Nick called. She looked back at him, perturbed he thought, but she reached for a second orange and stood it on her tray. He caught up with her at the till. She had her purse open, ready.
‘Let me pay for these,’ he said.
‘No, I’m fine, thank you.’
‘Hey, it’s the least I can do. Excuse me, these two trays together, please.’
‘No, honestly.’
But the cashier’s fingers were moving faster than the eye could follow and the bill was for two meals. Nick slapped a note in the woman’s hand. Alice put away her purse and picked up her tray.
‘Thank you, but it wasn’t necessary.’
‘It’s the least I can do as I’m imposing on you like this. Now where are we going to sit?’
Stunned surprise crossed her face, but he made out that he hadn’t seen it. Thankfully the occupants of a table stood to leave and he shepherded her towards it.
He had expected them to sit opposite each other across the table, but as he was making himself comfortable she began moving along the bench to leave them sitting diagonally. He thought of moving up, too, but decided against it. Was it leg or eye contact she was avoiding? Either way, she was looking distinctly uncomfortable. He used the most obvious opening gambit.
‘Thanks for picking up the orange,’ he said, retrieving the glass from her tray.
A weak smile was sent in his general direction, but her flitting gaze didn’t come closer than his elbow before returning to her lunch. He was going to have to work here, he could tell.
Lifting his meal to remove the tray from the table, the gravy slopped across his fingers, dripping from the edge of the plate to create a thickening pool on the Formica. Alice had collected a serviette for herself, but he hadn't thought to do the same. Casting covetous eyes on it as he licked his fingers, he caught her studying the meal before him. He looked at the decorous salad in front of her and at his own meat pie, two veg and chips. He gave a Gallic shrug.
‘She likes me. I remind her of her son.’ He looked pointedly at Alice, hoping to elicit a response. ‘I suppose I remind you of your brother. It’s always the same.’
Her gaze flicked over him, never landing for more than a moment, direct eye contact not on the menu. ‘I don’t have a brother.’
Filing the information, Nick cut into his pie. ‘I’ve got sisters, two, both younger. They can be a right pain. I suppose it’s different if you’re female yourself.’
There was no answer, and Nick read it that she was an only child. That might account for her reticence. University could be overwhelming when you were used to dealing with people singly. He decided to eat for a while and not say anything to see how she’d react. The silence was tangibly unnatural, but he persisted, wanting her to be the one to break it.
‘You’re not a History student, are you?’ she said at last.
Thank you, God.
‘No, I’m a joint American Studies and English.’ Nick took a gamble on an almost certainty. ‘I believe you’re majoring in History.’
‘Yes, I am. That’s why I can’t understand why you think I can help you.’
It stumped him, too. He was going to have to think fast and speak hesitantly.
‘Basically... because you aren’t from my main groups.’ He pushed at the vegetables on his plate. Yes, this would do. He lowered his voice.
‘I’m on a warning. I don’t want the others to know.’
‘How bad a warning?’
Nick shifted in his chair. ‘How bad does it get? I’m here. I might not be next year if I can’t pull it together by Christmas.’
This wasn’t coming out the way he wanted. It was sounding too close to the real thing.
‘I still don’t understand. What do you want me to do? Write your essays for you?’
She was looking at him, directly at him, and for the first time he could see her properly, could sink into her clear grey eyes and pale skin. She wasn’t wearing any make-up. None at all. Her eyebrows and lips were the only flashes of colour in her face, apart from her hair. Her auburn hair made her live. It was an effort to draw his gaze away.
‘Is that what you think of me? That I could baldly ask you to write my essays? Of course I don’t want you to do that. I just—’ he opened his hands, trying to think on his feet ‘—I read the books, I do the studying, but I can’t retain it. I miss things out, obvious things. All I ask is that you give me fifteen minutes, just to look over an essay before I hand it in. That’s all. A few pointers, no more. I’d ask one of the group, but it’s embarrassing. And I feel I can trust you.’
It was the biggest load of bullshit he’d uttered for weeks, but she was swallowing it. He could see her unbending.
‘We’re not due to hand any in for a while.’
‘I realise that, but I had to ask, y’know. I mean, fifteen minutes doesn’t sound much, but you are busy, everyone’s busy...’
‘No, it’s all right.’ Her fingers were touching unseen points in the air as she tried to placate him, to keep him at arm’s length. ‘We’ve a lot of reading now. It’s the notes you take that make the difference. Do you use headings?’
He tried to look suitably fazed.
‘You should put them under headings, each heading on a separate sheet, or digital file. And make sure that each note you make is marked with the title of the book and the name of the author. It’s easier if you have a source sheet and...’ She trailed off to pick at her salad. ‘I’m sorry. You’ll do this already.’
She was shy, that was what it was. Nick smiled. After Louise he could do with a bit of shyness.
‘You seem to have it taped. It’s the basics I seem to have missing.’
Her gaze rose to meet his. ‘It feels like I’ve been doing research all my life. I guess it comes naturally.’
‘Do you do anything else? Clubs, sports or anything?’
The locks of her hair danced around her face as she shook her head. Nick drew breath as he watched them lift, suddenly uncertain of what he’d seen during Duval’s seminar.
‘No, nothing. When I’m not studying I’m studying. I’m very boring.’
‘I don’t think you could ever be boring.’
He slammed his teeth down on the words, but they had already escaped. There was no change in her expression, but her grey eyes were open to the world and he could see that the barriers were going up again.
‘I think you would bring a vitality to anything you put your mind to. I think you could lecture Duval off the park. Is that what you want to do, teach?’
She smiled at him, but it was all polite courtesy. The fragile rapport was broken. He felt a physical pain when she placed her knife and fork together on the remains of her meal and rose to leave.
‘I have to go,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you at the next seminar. We’ll know what we are supposed to be doing then.’
‘Thanks for agreeing to help me.’
‘That’s okay, just as long as you don’t land your assignment on me five minutes before it has to be handed in. I can’t work miracles.’
‘However you want to play it.’
She wanted to play it away from him, he told himself; let her go.
‘Bye,’ he said. She nodded and left. It took him all his time to keep his eyes on his plate and not turn to watch her weave between the tables. And he hadn’t even got her phone number, dammit.
The babble of voices crowded in on him, the clatter of plates and cutlery sounding as sharp as cymbals to his ears. He tried to continue with his meal, but it had no taste. When three freshers came to ask if they could share his table, he let them have it to themselves.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this #SampleSunday excerpt please leave a comment and Tweet the posting. Chapter 2 continues next Sunday. If you are desperate to find out what happens, check out:
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7 January 2011

The Night of the Laptop

The last of the Christmas presents arrived yesterday. Well, not exactly a Christmas present, more a necessity after the monitor on the six year old desktop Husband uses breathed its last over the festive season. How much for a new monitor?! The CPU was coughing with age and refusing its updates so we opted for a new product... and moved him to a laptop.

Last night, after a very good home-made Chinese and a bottle of Undurraga Brut, armed with the clear set-up instructions, I fired it up. No sooner did it flicker into life than I realised that the instructions bore no resemblance to what was coming up on the screen. Son was called down. Husband hid in the lounge under the pretense of catching up on the cricket.

It really is not a good idea to attempt a first-boot of a new laptop after a good bottle of sparkling Pinot Noir. Hilarity rang from the rafters. Which company doesn't warn new users that the service tag needs to be handy before it's requested on-screen? And where is it situated? On the bottom of the laptop in the smallest letters imaginable. Where had we plugged it into the mains? In the dining room with only mood lighting. Torch anyone?

Service tag entered, the company's update system refused to update. Our laptop did not exist. The hilarity faded. We checked we'd got the correct string of letters & numbers. Yep. Tried again: da nada. It became apparent that the delivery had outstripped the company's internal record-keeping. What can you do when you are halfway through a BIOS and driver update? We had no idea, because the simple instructions didn't allow for any hiccups. Could we just switch off the laptop and try again in another day, trusting that the company would have updated our laptop service tag into its system? I looked at Son, Son looked at me. Husband remained resolutely fixed on his cricket.

Pulling the power didn't seem like a good idea, so Son opted for a manual update. It was then that the company's update system started asking for maker's names we couldn't give because they weren't listed on our paperwork. It was as if the Pinot Noir had never passed our lips.

Son got there in the end, but I would never have managed it. In the cool light of the following day I am not an altogether happy bunny. And there's still Windows7 to learn, because this laptop isn't destined for my use but Husband's, and he's a technophobe.

2 January 2011

#SampleSunday 4: Torc of Moonlight SE - Chapter 1 (part 2)

Time goes so fast. Already we are into the 4th week of #SampleSunday. If this is your first time, writers are posting samples of their work each Sunday and Tweeting the new upload. If you like what you read, please leave a comment and ReTweet. Many thanks. 
Torc of Moonlight Special Edition started 19 December, so slip down this page for a read or recap then sit back and enjoy.


 The clothes he’d discarded the night before still lay at the foot of the bed and he dragged them on, regardless of how they looked. His socks were stiff, but he had no idea of where a clean pair was and no time to search one out. The orange wallet file shrieked at him from across the room like a well wound alarm clock. There wasn’t much in it: some paper and a pen, a few notices he’d picked up, a copy of his timetable, but it looked good, looked as if he’d got his act together. He laid a hand on it, grabbed his keys and slammed the door behind him.

‘So nice of you to join us, number 28. I hope we haven’t dragged you away from anything interesting.’
Nick stood in the doorway looking across the heads of the students to the lecturer, one hand on her hip, the other knuckles down on the table beside her. It didn’t seem like a good idea to answer, especially as he couldn’t remember her name. The door behind him opened with a groan of its spring and the lecturer’s gaze realigned on a point beyond his shoulder.
‘Number 29! Well, hello there.’
Jesus, was she really counting them in? Nick took the opportunity to reach one of the vacant seats in the centre of the group. Almost immediately he realised his mistake. Sunshine was pouring through the skylight with the efficiency of greenhouse glass. He looked around for a seat in the shadows, but they had all been taken.
‘For those of you who have forgotten, or for those who simply never bothered to find out, my name is Janet Duval. I am on an exchange from Lancaster, and it is my dubious pleasure to be acquainted with you for the entire academic year. I am reliably informed that my bark is worse than my bite, but I feel it only fair to warn you, especially the late-comers, that a full series of rabies shots may be considered beneficial.
‘I expect full sittings at my seminars and my tutorials. Those who feel their eyesight too precious to waste upon the set texts will also find themselves at a distinct disadvantage as questions will be asked during meetings, including this one.
‘You are now free, for fifteen seconds, to gasp, groan or wince, whichever is your desire, and then we shall make a start.’
There was a distinct lack of gasps or groans, Nick noticed, but a marked amount of shifting about in seats. And then the door opened and Janet Duval raised an overly benign smile and diverted her attention from the group.

Nick recognised most of the people within his line of vision, though there seemed to be a higher than usual proportion of mature students in this class. He had expected Myth & Reality of the American West to be one of the less daunting options, but Janet Duval was making it perfectly clear that she had written scripts for Billy the Kid.
Perhaps her attitude would prove to be a mixed blessing. On secondment for a year, it seemed she was determined to make her mark. If she made it on him hopefully he would forgo a repeat of the interview he had endured the previous semester, and he would have something cheery to email home.
The seminar room dimmed and Nick let out a slow stream of breath, angling his head to glance at the skylight. A cloud was drifting across the sun, an orange corona sparkling round the edge of the grey mass. He hoped that it would be a big cloud, twenty minutes’ worth at least. His brains felt as if they were being fried.
Luxuriating in the drop in temperature, he took time out from listening to Duval to review the jottings he had made. He hadn’t read the books, of course — Damn! He had a lot of reading to do — but it was probable that few on the course had, either. He felt reasonably safe in that area.
The questions began without any preamble, and bore no relevance to what had gone before. Duval was testing the general climate, and no one was offering a reply. Each silence was met with a hardening of her expression, a stiffening of her angular frame. Nick sagged into his chair. She was going to point to someone and demand an answer, he could tell. It wasn’t going to be him.
‘Does this mean that not one of you, not one of you, has the guts to chance an answer? Not even to get the rest off the hook?’
The silence seemed interminable.
‘The consensus of opinion, then, is for extra assignments?’
There was a general shuffling and clearing of throats, and then Duval’s attention focused near the front and the disquiet subsided. Some stupid sod had offered themselves as a sacrificial lamb. Nick breathed a sigh of relief.
The voice was female. Nick had no idea what she said. All he caught was an aural impression, a richness in the timbre. He eased himself to one side, trying to locate her through the line of shoulders and heads. What he noticed was Duval’s reaction, her surprise and the softening of her features. Dear God, had their sacrificial lamb turned into a saviour?
‘Very good,’ Duval was murmuring. ‘I trust everyone heard that?’
There was a hum of agreement around Nick. It threw him for a moment. He hadn’t heard the answer; how could those behind him? And then he realised that standing so close to the abyss the group would have agreed with anything the lecturer offered.
Duval was partway through another question. Nick had missed the beginning — something about fur trading companies. No one was going to answer again.
But Duval hardly waited. Her gaze drifted across the group to return to the oracle before her. Nick made a concerted effort to see who it was, and caught a glimpse of shoulder-length auburn hair and part of a green sweater. The sound of her voice swirled around him, its peaks and troughs enticing in their clarity. It brought to mind the rim of a crystal glass being smoothed by a damp fingertip; more than a note, but not quite a tune.
Duval was nodding and smiling, smiling not only at the girl but at the entire group. Who was this wonder? She had Duval eating out of her hand.
 Nick pulled his chair to the left, its rubber feet squealing across the glossy tiles. The student beside him frowned, but Duval didn’t seem to notice. She was into a new phase of her lecture and heads bowed as notes were scribbled. Nick gained an uninterrupted view of the auburn hair and green sweater.
He tried to match a face to the outline, but no memory would stir itself. His gaze followed the gentle ripples of her hair from crown to shoulder blade and he wondered if it was naturally wavy or if she spent each breakfast clutching a hot brush the way his younger sister did. Her hand reached out to tuck a lock behind her ear, but her action gave him no more sight of her face. She touched her pens, the books and papers beside her. The hand withdrew.
Last year’s English options? He didn’t think so. One of the rugby groupies? Definitely not. With hair that colour he would have remembered. It was very likely that he didn’t know her at all — yet he felt there was something familiar. He caught himself with a snort. Perhaps he just wished there was. Sporting a redhead on his arm would certainly put Louise’s nose out of joint.
The cloud broke and sunshine poured unrestrained through the skylight. There was general unrest as the sudden brightness bounced off white paper and polished tiles. Nick blinked, squinting to bring his vision back into focus. The girl’s hair was alight, sparkling through shades of autumn with each slight movement of her head. Duval was speaking to her.
‘Can you give me three out of three?’
The girl was wriggling in her chair, small agitated movements. Duval had caught her unawares. Nick hadn’t heard the question, either. He looked to Duval, hoping that she would repeat it. She didn’t. She let the girl squirm.
‘Er, Catlin. Er, Notes and Manners on... er... It’s a two volume set.’
Hearing her properly took Nick by surprise. Her voice held none of the authority or rhythm he had anticipated. It didn’t seem to fit with what had registered before.
Duval seemed only marginally disappointed in the answer. ‘At least you know to which books I’m referring.’ She turned her attention to the group. ‘Which is more than can be said for the rest of you.’
There was a crash. Eyes turned, including Duval’s. The girl with the auburn hair slid off her seat to retrieve her dropped file. Duval’s voice demanded attention, but it became a drone to Nick as he watched the girl reach under her chair to reclaim an errant pen. Her outstretched fingers curled around the ballpoint and hesitated. Nick lifted his gaze up the sleeve of her sweater. Half hidden behind the chair she was looking at him, her expression full of doubt, her pale features framed by the corona of flaming hair which undulated through shades of amber and gold, russet and hazel, individual locks lifting from her shoulders.
They were lifting.
Nick stared in disbelief. Tendrils were lifting and swaying away from her head, fanning out as if caught in a shifting field of static, weaving and twisting, mesmerizing in its intricate pattern.
She moved, turned away, sitting in her seat with her back to him. Her hair fell in ripples from her crown in a palette of autumn colours, but not a tendril stirred against the pull of gravity. Another cloud passed across the sun plunging the room into a dull opacity. Nick fought to refocus his vision. When colours became clear again her hair had been leached of its fire.


This ends Chapter 1. If you enjoyed this #SampleSunday excerpt please leave a comment and Tweet the posting. Chapter 2 begins next Sunday. If you are desperate to find out what happens, you’ll need to make a small investment $2.99/£2.20:
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1 January 2011

Happy New Year!!

Hi everyone.  I hope you've been having a great festive season. Don't let the droop set in yet. This goes on until 5th January when we take down the tree, the trimmings & cards and slot away that odd knitted gift from Aunt Agatha until we can figure out what to do with it. Well, send her a 'thank you' anyway; she put a lot of effort into making that gift just for you, so make her feel appreciated.

Best gift? To have everyone safe and sound. No, honest. I'm not talking schmaltz here. My Mum was rushed into hospital just before Christmas, and if the paramedics hadn't arrived so fast... But she's holding her own, and like Aunt Agatha's odd knitted gift, I do not think of the petrol cost or time involved in a near 50 mile round trip each afternoon. So we should be grateful for what we have, and like the appreciative note to Aunt Agatha, there's an appreciative note to the paramedics snail-mailing as I key in. People who 'serve' need to feel appreciated, too.

Best piece of tech? My Kindle [do you see the glitter in my eyes?] even if I haven't had time to understand its idiosyncrasies, or to read a word beyond the instruction manual.

Best moment? Speaking on the phone today to my... hang on while I work this out... cousin once removed (twice removed?) ten year old Milly who I have never met, who prior to Christmas had taken my promotional postcard for Torc of Moonlight into school but the teacher wouldn't believe that she was related to a writer. Bah humbug that teacher! I told Milly that I started writing at age eleven when I moved into secondary education just as she is about to this coming year. So what I can do, she can do, and then there'll be two writers in the family. The quiet glow emanating from the other end of the phone was precious indeed. And we'll both go visit the bah humbug teacher.

Happy New Year!