One: White Rabbits And A Haunted Postbox
In which an unfortunate retainer’s brush with death leads to an unlikely revelation and a routine meeting hints at various shenanigans. We also hear of a ghostly apparition and witness a bid for freedom.
It’s summer. To be precise: August, 1998. White wings flash as a seabird climbs into the sky. Sunlight glints off rooftops still wet from the most recent shower. Down in the harbour, a loose sail flaps and cracks in the wind.
The gull turns, a jarring cry coming from its beak. It drops towards the town then swoops up again, heading for the crenellated façade of the big house that looms over King’s Port.
As the gull vanishes from view, a beige explosion obliterates a large portion of the view from the first floor of Tower House.
‘Hawkins. Clean that window.’
‘Right away, sir.’ Scurrying towards the window, Ned Hawkins pulls a cloth from his pocket and starts wiping at the glass.
‘Not this side, you fool. Clean the outside.’
‘Just wipe that muck off.’
‘Just do it, man.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Fumbling awkwardly, Ned opens the low door set into the wall next to the window. He looks through timidly. The narrow balcony outside is barely two foot wide: the waist-high railings almost eaten away by decades of rust.
‘Close the door after you, Hawkins. You’re letting in a cold breeze.’
‘Right, sir. Yes, sir.’
As Ned reluctantly exits, Clarence Wherry turns away. He dismisses his unfortunate assistant from his mind. Instead, he directs his attention to the matter at hand. His agitation shows in a small tic in the corner of his left eye. The problem is the accounts. The details are as muddled and unhelpful as possible but he can’t fake them completely. Certain information still has to be there: such as a profit and loss summary for the whole company.
Clarence knows the accounts are accurate; he prepared them. Which is why he’s worried. It’s not the future of the company that concerns him. More disturbing is the jeopardy facing his own position. If help doesn’t arrive, it’s hard to see how he can prevent the whole house of cards from tumbling.
After arranging his papers, Clarence sits down. His joint roles as company general manager and family steward mean there’s no one to challenge him for the seat at the head of the table. It’s a large table too. A solid chunk of age-blackened oak that could comfortably seat twenty people: even though it’s rare to see more than seven or eight around it these days.
The table is the largest piece of furniture. But it’s the portraits that dominate the boardroom. Six generations of the Black Family stare down their oil-painted noses at anyone with the temerity to come before their gaze.
In pride of place, behind the head of the table, hangs Lord Augustus Black: slaver, part-time pirate, prison governor and founder of the dynasty that has controlled the island for almost three centuries. To either side, various descendants represent the generations that followed.
Against the left-hand wall stands the imposing figure of General Sir Jeremiah Black, painted in full military regalia. By the age of twenty-eight, he was already a full colonel, a veteran of both the Boer and First World Wars. Promoted at the outbreak of the Second World War, the general died rather ingloriously in 1942. Back in London following the British retreat from Burma, Sir Jeremiah was enjoying a spot of leave when he crashed his staff car. Gossip said he’d been driving himself to a striptease show at the Windmill Theatre. The official report also made no mention of the empty brandy bottle found between his legs.
Next to Sir Jeremiah’s painting is that of his son: the last of the line. Captain Joseph Black’s portrait looks semi-opaque. It’s appropriate; he was killed barely two years after inheriting the Black family fortunes and the painting never finished.
Clarence pays no attention to the pictures. They’ve been there all his life and the dead members of the Black Family no longer intimidate him. He likes them in their place: as paintings on the wall and names on ledgers and letterheads. The rigmarole of company meetings still irks him. It’s bad enough having to present the members with his report; having to inform them of his actions and seek approval seems almost demeaning.
To be continued…
I hope you enjoyed the above. This is the opening of my new novel, Church of the White Rabbits.
I’m going to serialise the book by posting it in short(ish) sections. I’ll aim for daily posts but there might be odd gaps depending on whether other events that conspire against me… like paid work, holidays, or absent mindedness!
Comments and observations are welcome. I hope to publish the full novel later in the spring.
Continuing on from yesterday…
Ned Hawkins shuffles a step to his left, getting another couple of inches closer to the window. His face is pressed against the granite wall and his breathing comes in jagged bursts. He closes his eyes, focussing on just how much he hates Clarence Wherry.
Ned has worked for the Wherrys all his life. First father, now son: both as bad as each other: arrogant, pompous and downright unpleasant to all those they think beneath them. Which is anyone except the Wherrys and the Black Family.
Another herring gull screeches overhead and Ned curses. Why he has to wipe the window he does not understand. This is Black Island. It’s a big rock stuck way out in the Atlantic Ocean. There are seabirds everywhere and they shit on everything. To Ned’s mind there’s about as much point to cleaning windows as polishing coal.
A damp spot hits Ned on the back of the neck. For a moment, he thinks it’s the gull back to add to his torment. Then another wet spot falls on his ear and another on his left hand. Soon a regular pitter-patter is smacking on Ned’s head and shoulders.
That’s another thing about living on a rock in the Atlantic. It rains a lot. Most days it rains at least two or three times. And that’s the summer. Winter can be different: sometimes it rains continuously for months. This is the fourth or fifth shower of the day and it’s a heavy one. Which is another reason Ned doesn’t see the point in wiping bird shit off windows.
For five minutes, Ned stands there, pressed to the wall with water pouring down on him. At first it’s just cold drops stinging where they hit bare skin. But the rain rapidly soaks through the back of his jacket and trousers. As it gets heavier, he also becomes aware that water is running down the wall and over his hands, which are still pressed against the granite. Moments later, it’s flowing along his fingers and on down into his sleeves. Soon, Ned’s clothes are saturated, clinging to his bony limbs in a clammy embrace that just makes him feel even more depressed with life and his thankless existence.
* * *
It’s still a little before midday when the first board member arrives. Clarence watches the old lady glance around suspiciously as she makes her entrance. Keziah Black is Joseph’s younger sister. Now almost seventy, she still seems spry but Clarence has long harboured doubts about her sanity. As a young woman, she was incarcerated in the family home for nearly twenty years. That must have had some effect on her mental state. Although judging by the scandal that led to her being locked up, Clarence thinks she can’t have been the most intelligent of women in the first place.
He smiles to himself as he looks at her now. It’s hard to imagine this wrinkly creature with the staring eyes and the mass of white hair piled on top of her head ever inspiring men to acts of devotion.
Unfortunately, he does not mask his thoughts quickly enough and Keziah spots his expression. ‘Pah! What’s happened to you, Clarence Wherry? Not often anything makes you smile.’
‘Just pleased to see you, Miss Black.’
‘I doubt that.’
But thankfully she doesn’t say anything else and a couple of minutes later the next one arrives: Margaret McAllister, granddaughter of one of Jeremiah’s sisters and the biggest thorn in Clarence’s side. He’s never liked Margaret and over the years has come to loathe her. Partly for her sanctimonious manner. More particularly, though, for the impertinent way she tries to grill him about his plans for the company: as if she knew something about how to run a business.
Margaret is the same age as Clarence, both of them born in 1951. But her starchy manner and frilly, old lady collars make her seem at least ten years his senior. ‘Hello, Keziah. Good morning, Mr Wherry.’
Keziah grunts in response and, although Margaret looks in Clarence’s direction, he turns away before meeting her eye. Shuffling his papers, he makes them rustle and pretends not to hear. Margaret gives a little sniff but nothing more. Clarence smiles to himself and looks forward to when the meeting is over and the surviving members of the Black Family out of his hair for another six months.
He’s also in no mood to make meaningless conversation today. Clarence is waiting: praying for his reprieve. He knows today’s boat has arrived; any post will be ashore. What he doesn’t know is whether the letter he’s been waiting for will have come. Or, if it’ll contain the reply he so desperately needs. Or whether it’ll get to Tower House before he has to give the wrong set of accounts to the board.
* * *
Arthur Judd ducks his head as he enters the little terraced house in Goat Street. The old family home stands in a line of hunched up cottages in the lower part of King’s Port. Until now, Arthur’s not been back to Black Island since he ran away fifteen years earlier. Inside, the house is even smaller than he remembers. It looks gloomy and a slightly shabby too.
He smiles at his younger brother. ‘Nice to see you taking care of the old place.’
To be continued…
As yesterday, I really hope you enjoyed the above. This is the second part of the opening chapter of my new novel, Church of the White Rabbits.
Next section due tomorrow – comments, questions and thoughts welcome.
To read Part 1, click here.
Years ago, I had a peculiar dream in which I was with my wife and while I knew we should be married she didn’t know who I was.
That dream became the inspiration for a short story – called Fractured Lives – about a man who wakes up in the ‘wrong life’ following an accident.
At first, the object of his affections is as wary as anyone would be when a complete stranger announces they’re the love of your life. The problem is, Danny knows secrets about Rebecca Shah she’s never told anyone else in her life.
After writing the short story, I later started wondering about other possible implications: what other knowledge might Danny Harper bring from one life to another?
In the novel that followed, Danny has woken in a parallel world that’s similar but with some fundamental changes. Things also haven’t happened at the same times. In Danny’s original life, the police have just caught a serial killer who was targeting women – in his alternative world the killer’s still operating freely.
Thin Ice was published in 2012 – and got some 5* reviews. However, a number of readers contacted me saying they had enjoyed my paranormal thriller but were confused by the ending.
Last autumn, I took another look at the book — and decided some changes were in order.
I haven’t changed the ending but it’s been extended with a new chapter that removes any ambiguity and explains exactly what happened to all involved. I’ve also given the book an extensive re-edit, trimming out some superfluous words and phrases to keep it all nice and taut.
As it’s no longer quite the same book, it’s also got a new title – Waking Broken.
And — thanks to the wonderful Teija Härmäaho of Moodphoto — I’ve got a striking new cover to go with the new title and ending.
Waking Broken is free on Kindle for the next five days. Get your copy here.
It seems to me that a writer’s life is full of dilemmas. At the moment, my main one is whether to try going back to the traditional publishing route.
Apart from winning a £10,000 publishing prize some years ago, this is not an area where I’ve had a huge amount of success.
That prize came after years of trying – and failing – to get myself published, mostly back in the day when ebooks were still the realm of sci-fi imaginings.
I’d collected quite a number of the standard rejection letters. Many along the lines of: “Dear (insert name here), Your submission (insert title here) was read with interest but we do not feel we are the right agent/publisher for you.”
Then – in 2005 – I entered and won a national UK contest for new authors with The Tale of Findo Gask. As well as getting that very substantial prize, even more marvellous was the publishing contract that came with it.
Sadly, the company involved did next to nothing to promote my book and went out of business within a year or so. I never did understand their thinking. I was very glad to have the money but would have been equally delighted with a £100 prize and a few national newspaper ads to promote my book. That way we might both have ended up better off.
Findo made it onto Amazon but I’m not sure many copies were ever printed. I only ever got one royalty cheque and that certainly wasn’t huge.
So it was back to trying – and failing – to find a new publisher/agent. Over the following years my enthusiasm waxed and waned. Other things distracted me, like moving to Portugal to teach, setting off on a 10,000-mile tandem ride… but that’s another story.
In 2011, my wife bought me a Kindle for my birthday. I wasn’t sure I wanted one but we were still living in Portugal at the time and it was really hard getting English language books to keep up with my reading rate.
Later that year, having got used to my Kindle, I discovered Amazon’s self-publishing arm KDP. A revelation!
I must admit: I rather rushed in at the beginning, publishing a collection of my short stories and re-issuing Findo on Kindle. I didn’t take as much care as I should have done over anything: covers or content. I was just so happy to have people choosing to read my stories.
Since then, I’ve tried to get more professional about the whole process: proper editing, proofreading, decent covers etc. I’m selling books – and gathering some decent reviews – but sales are low. I’m a very long way off my ultimate ambition of becoming a fulltime writer.
The trouble is that so many other people have discovered self-publishing. Amazon is full of independent authors. Some of their books are superb, some are terrible. Many would be good if they were properly edited.
When I first turned to KDP, their five-day free book promotions were quite effective. Even without doing anything to promote your book, you could give away thousands of copies and then see actual sales in the following weeks as other readers clicked on those “people who bought this have also bought this” links.
Now, though, there are just so many free books out there – and so many websites vying for your money as they offer to promote your free days. When I put my novels on a promotion, they’re not just one among hundreds, they’re one among tens of thousands.
The reason for my current dilemma is that I don’t have the clout/know-how/money to effectively market my books on my own as an independent author.
Which is why, having just completed my latest novel, I’m seriously thinking of going back to the search for an agent/traditional publisher. (I’ll try not to get too depressed when my unsolicited manuscript disappears off into that horrible black hole!)
Any advice or comments on the whole indy versus traditional dilemma are very welcome.
By the way. If anyone’s noticed that I haven’t been posting regularly on this site for a while, that’s because other things have taken over my life. Partly completing my latest book. Also a major revision for the novel now known as Waking Broken - more about this next Friday. Plus I’ve been spending a lot of time on my website on cycling in Portugal.
That’s the trouble with being an author. There are so many possible projects out there. Which one to choose?
Here’s a New Year puzzler. Nothing to do with space exploration but on the vagaries of the English language.
I’ve been teaching a Polish student recently and was doing some work on the use of articles – a, an and the - when talking about ‘things’.
Some rules are easy to explain – we put a or an in front of singular nouns when talking about something that we’re introducing for the first time, when the thing is one of many etc. The goes in front of plural nouns or when the individual thing is unique or we know specifically what we’re talking about.
We also don’t use an article (often confusing referred to as the zero article) when referring to certain things, including countries, people, concepts, types of things and some geographical features.
Agreen-skinned man from _ Mars was discussing _ politics as he had _ lunch with thePope on _ Thursday, while sailing a boat across _ Lake Chad in preparation for his crossing of theAtlantic Ocean.
It seems obvious when it’s your own language but believe me it’s not that simple for people learning English for the first time. A lot of my students would probably put the in front of Mars, politics, lunch and Thursday.
(I got confused when trying to learn Portuguese as they put the in front of proper names!)
But what’s got me really puzzled is NASA (and FIFA). Normally, with acronyms for organisations we follow the same pattern as if we spelt the name out in full, e.g. the BBC and the FBI but _ IBM.
So far so good. But can anyone explain why we talk about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) but not the NASA? I thought for a while it was to do with collective nouns but how does that work with the CIA and the RAF.
Answers on a postcard please…
The old man pauses at the window. The girl sits on the pavement opposite. No expression: just a pair of dark glasses and the handwritten sign beside her.
The maitre d’ hovers. It’s lunchtime. The restaurant’s full and he’s juggling diners and tables. He needs to keep the customers flowing, which means no time for indecision.
‘Do you need to see a menu, sir?’
It looks as if the girl is staring back. Not that she could be. The windows are tinted and it’s too dark inside anyway. It’s just what she does. Sits on the pavement with her sign and stares into space.
The maitre d’ blinks. It’s the only sign of his impatience. Some people he can bully along; a gentle cough and a supercilious expression all that’s needed to remind them who’s in control here. This man, though, needs treating with much more care. Partly due to his age but mostly because of the influence he wields.
The old man frowns. ‘Strange message, eh?’
‘Yes, sir.’ The maitre d’ bobs his head in agreement. ‘She’s an odd girl.’
‘Know her, do you?’
‘I wouldn’t say that, sir, but she’s become a bit of a fixture.’
‘Often there is she?’
‘Come rain or shine, sir. Always there, same coat, same sign. I think she’s been sitting there since last autumn.’
‘All through the winter?’
‘Every day, sir. Not really normal behaviour.’
The old man looks thoughtful. ‘And always the same sign?’
‘Hmm.’ The old man nods. ‘Call my driver, will you. Tell him to come back and pick me up.’
The maitre d’ blinks. ‘But… your table?’
‘I’m not hungry any more.’
She’s watched for several days. On Friday morning, the Rolls pulls up beside her while she’s still a couple of streets away from her usual spot. She looks at the car: wary but unsurprised. The grip on her piece of cardboard is light and she’s already half on the balls of her feet, poised to sprint.
When the window rolls down and she sees the patrician features inside, the girl relaxes. A fraction.
‘Good morning.’ The old man nods. ‘I think you’ve been looking for me.’
Her head tilts to one side. ‘Really? How do you work that out?’
He waves a hand at the sign. It’s a different piece of cardboard but the message is the same: My father was killed by ninjas. Need money for karate lessons.
‘This?’ She laughs. ‘It’s just a joke. Get a smile out of people and they’re more likely to give money.’
‘Hmm. Is that really why you sit at that same spot every day?’
‘I’m a creature of habit.’
‘But why there?’
‘Rich people go to the restaurant across the road.’
‘But rich people aren’t generous to beggars. That’s how they get to be rich.’
‘Only takes one rich person to change your life.’
He smiles. He appreciates the verbal sparring but that’s not why he’s here. ‘It’s not because you’re just around the corner from the stock exchange? You’re not looking for anyone in particular?’
‘If they give me money, I don’t care who they are.’
‘Who were the ninjas?’
She shakes her head. ‘I told you it was just a joke.’
‘Fine.’ He sighs. ‘What if I told you that I knew your father?’
The dark glasses hide her eyes but a subtle change in her posture tells him he’s got her attention.
‘Do you want to get in the car. We can talk somewhere comfortable.’
She recoils slightly.
‘It’s also probably safer than out on the pavement. There could be people watching. You probably don’t want to be seen talking to me.’
The girl looks hesitant. ‘Why would anyone be watching me?’
The old man smiles. ‘They probably aren’t. But it’s best to be safe. The ninjas wouldn’t want anyone coming looking for revenge. If you’re looking for them, they might hear about it.’
She shakes her head. ‘But if they don’t even know there was a daughter then they’re not going to be worried.’
She’s already on the run before he can complete the sentence. The old man curses once. He thinks about ordering his driver to set off in pursuit but she’s already ducked into an alley. There’s little chance of catching her now.
Her heart rate is still slowing as she walks out of the alleyway and stroll back up the street towards the Rolls. The cardboard, sunglasses and the old coat are gone. As is the wig. Dressed in a flouncy skirt and designer jacket, she swings a Gucci handbag from one shoulder.
Getting closer to the old man’s car, she pulls out her mobile and pretends to answer a call. She pouts at the phone, twists a piece of hair and gives a twirl: preening herself for the unseen imaginary caller.
As she does so, she takes several photos of the luxury car and its licence plate. The window of the Rolls is still lowered, the old man looking straight at her. She snaps his picture too. He’s too busy looking at her legs; it’s not her face he will remember.
She waltzes on up the street. It’s taken almost six months but she’s finally smoked out one of them. They called themselves the ninjas. A group of sharks who destroy other people’s businesses for the sake of a quick profit. What they do in public is legal but that’s only a fraction of it. The other side of their business is much, much darker. Which is why they live in the shadows.
To them, her father was nothing. She doubted if they even remember taking his business away. Or what they did afterwards. Getting him so into debt he had no choice but to obey; getting victims to help with the dirty work was just how they keep in control.
They probably never predicted that he wouldn’t be able to live with some of the things they had him do. Or cared about the fact he couldn’t handle the loss of everything he’d ever worked towards: business and reputation. Guilt was an emotion they wouldn’t understand.
But she’s determined. One day she’s going to make them face the consequences of their actions. The ninjas had killed her father. Their end will be even messier and equally brutal.
I saw the picture above on The Mirror Obscura and felt it needed a story to go with it. Hope you like it.
There have been so many tributes to Nelson Mandela but this has got to be one of the most touching.
The Soweto Gospel Choir teamed up with the Woolworths supermarket in Johannesburg for a flash mob-style performance of Asimbonga - a song written while Mandela was in prison.
Asimbonanga [we have not seen him]
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina [we have not seen Mandela]
Laph’ekhona [in the place where he is]
Laph’ehleli khona [in the place where he is kept]
Asimbonang ‘umfowethu thina [we have not seen our brother]
Laph’ekhona [in the place where he is]
Laph’wafela khona [in the place where he died]
Sithi: Hey, wena [We say: hey, you]
Hey, wena nawe [Hey, you and you]
Siyofika nini la’ siyakhona [when will we arrive at our destination]
Just listen… and remember what the man achieved and stood for:
Want to support a great charity AND win Amazon gift cards, books and other prizes? If so, you’ve got five days left!
My ‘Unlock The Vault’ competition has been running for several months now but I’m declaring a deadline of Friday 13th December for final entries.
To enter, all you need to do is donate a minimum of £1/$1 etc to the disaster relief charity ShelterBox and answer three easy questions – I’ve been put clues on the competition page to make life easier for you!
I’ve actually had an embarrassingly low level of entries so far so anyone who enters over the next five days probably stands a very good chance of winning a prize!
ShelterBox is aiming to rehouse 4,000 families left homeless by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines – as well as continuing to help victims of the ongoing conflict in Syria, people made homeless by flooding in the Sudan etc, etc.
Go on enter the competition… it’s the season of goodwill and giving. You know you want to.
You’ve missed the chance to snap up my award-winning debut novel for £0.99/$0.99 but The Tale of Findo Gask is available on Kindle for $1.99 or £1.99 up until Thursday. (Normal price $4.90 or £3.99.)
This is the book that won the UK’s 2005 Undiscovered Authors contest and is – basically – a book about whether we should expect people to obey our rules if they don’t have a stake in society.
It’s also a roller coaster adventure, a book about young love and the story of a boy who becomes a thief because he doesn’t have many other options.
It’s got 4.2* on Amazon.com and 4.5* on Amazon.co.uk – if it sounds like your kind of thing, please click here.
Life certainly moves on. I was recently admiring some images on someone else’s blog – and now it looks like I might be working with the photographer on a couple of book covers!
Bizarre thing is that Teija lives in Finland. Makes you wonder how we ever lived before the internet. I’ve pinched one of her pictures (above) – if you want to see more of her work, take a look at Moodphoto.
Hmm. Now, I just need to come up with a title and finish editing the novel…
In the meantime, I’ve also got another Kindle Countdown Deal for you:
The Tale of Findo Gask is available on Kindle for $0.99 or £0.99 for the next three days, after which the price goes up to 1.99. (Normal price is $4.90 or £3.99.)
This is the book that won the UK’s 2005 Undiscovered Authors contest, got me a publishing contract and made me think that maybe one day I would be a real writer not just a dreamer sitting in an attic.
It’s a book about whether we should expect people to obey our rules if they don’t have a stake in society.
It’s also a roller coaster adventure that goes from pinching cigarettes at the corner shop to saving drowning dogs and from an armed heist at a security firm to snatching the diamonds from an opera diva’s head.
It’s also a book about young love and a boy who doesn’t want to be ignored.
It’s got 4.2* on Amazon.com and 4.5* on Amazon.co.uk – if it sounds like your kind of thing, please click here.