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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Stories in Food

On a trip to Bologna in Northern Italy, like many visitors, I was bowled over by the wonderful food, from the delicious fresh pasta served dozens of ways to the tasty cold meats and cheeses. Photographing the appetising displays in shop windows was irresistible!

They also set me thinking about the tradition of genre paintings that showed everyday scenes involving the sale and preparation of food; many of them included biblical scenes in the background. For example the 16th century Flemish artist, Joachim Beuckelaer's, painting of a kitchen scene with Christ at the Supper at Emmaus in the background.

A more famous work by the late Renaissance painter, Annibale Carracci, is The Butcher's Shop. Here, the painter abandons religious themes for a comment on the society of his day. Some of the Carracci family were involved in the butchery trade which was extremely important in Bologna where the family originated and the painter shows the butchers as dignified men absorbed in their work. The pose of the man in the foreground, who is in the act of slaughtering a sheep, is even taken from a painting by Raphael of the biblical subject of Noah. Some art historians have interpreted the representation of the guard on the left of the picture, with his exaggerated codpiece and fancy clothes, as a satire on the city authorities, comparing them unfavourably with the hard-working merchant guilds. The man looks on greedily as the butcher weighs out his meat. The old woman in the background may symbolise avarice and suspicion. She obviously doesn't trust the butcher who in in the act of preparing her chop!
Whatever the messages the painting contains, it's a fascinating example of a turn away from the tight, precise and highly polished style of Mannerism to a looser, more free use of paint that heralds the Baroque era. The painting came to England in 1630 when it was purchased by Charles I. It's now in Christ Church College Oxford's picture gallery and was donated to the college in the late 18th century. It hung in the kitchens gathering dirt and grease until its importance was recognised in the 1950s. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

A Magic Castle

In 1840, James Dawson, a retired surgeon, and his wife left Liverpool to live in the Lake District. They must have been of a romantic disposition for they wanted to live in a castle and luckily for them, Mrs Dawson's fortune enabled them to buy land and build one with breathtaking views over Lake Windermere.
After the Dawsons died, the estate and castle were inherited by their nephew, Edward Rawnsley. Rawnsley was a cousin of the famous Canon Rawnsley who was one of the people instrumental in setting up the National Trust. The castle eventually ended up in the Trust's care and today it's a wonderful place to take a family. Even though no furniture was left behind by the previous owners, the Trust have used a connection with Beatrix Potter, who sometimes holidayed there, and the castle's  medieval architecture to create an inspiring environment, particularly for children, while their parents can enjoy the charming eccentricity of the place.


Saturday, 12 August 2017

A Dorset Walk

This month I walked part of  the Wessex Ridgeway in Dorset ending up in Lyme Regis. Of course, Dorset's main literary claim to fame is that it was the home county of Thomas Hardy (his study is preserved in the museum in Dorchester).
However the county also has associations with Jane Austen who visited Lyme and set some of her novel, Persuasion, there. The town retains its Regency charm and also has a garden dedicated to her memory.
On the same trip, avoiding the rain (a lot of it!) had the advantage of making me take shelter in the county museum in Dorchester. Dorset is rich in archeology and the museum has many finds from Roman times and earlier. The famous Jurassic coast has, over the years, yielded up a remarkable number of fossils including the skull of a pliosaur, a type of plesiosaurus with a massive head and particularly powerful jaws. Found in 2007 by an amateur fossil collector, it is now on display in the museum. The skull is well over two metres long and experts believe the whole dinosaur would have been at least 15 metres long. They estimate that its jaws would have been powerful enough to snap a small car in two. 
The wonderful Victorian hall in the Dorchester museum

Monday, 17 July 2017

Looking Back

Coming to the end of the first draft of my WIP, the third instalment of The Inspector de Silva Mysteries, I've been looking back at some of my photographs of Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, the island that inspired the series, and I'd like to share some of them with you.
The book will be out this autumn.

Elephant and friend

Flower offerings at a roadside shrine
Statues at a Hindu temple

Working in the rice fields

Royal palms at the botanic gardens in Peradeniya.


Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Magic Castle

I recently visited the delightful Victorian castle at Chiddingstone in Kent and was introduced to the extraordinary world of Denys Eyre Bower, eccentric and obsessive collector of antique artefacts.
Born in Derbyshire in 1905, Denys started his career in a bank but by the age of 38, he had had enough of this sober environment. He left and made his hobby into his life's work, amassing a remarkable collection that ranged from Jacobite memorabilia to world-class collections of Japanese and Egyptian art. (Denys had a habit of claiming he was the reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie.) In 1955, he bought Chiddingstone Castle to house the collection and show it to visitors.

Japanese Samurai helmet

When peace left Japanese armourers without work, they used their skills to make articulated insects for collectors and the emerging tourist trade.
A rare Japanese casket
Denys' private life was even more colourful.
Twice married, neither of the marriages lasted long possibly because his wives couldn't compete with his passion for collecting. His next relationship was with a young lady who claimed to be a member of the Grimaldi family of Monaco; she was in fact the daughter of a delivery man from Peckham in south London! The relationship was stormy and when Denys thought his beloved's affection was waning, he went to visit her taking an antique gun with him. The gun went off and she was wounded. Fearing she was dead, he turned it on himself. The next years were spent in Wormwood Scrubs prison for attempted murder and suicide, until the efforts of his solicitor, Ruth Eldridge, who thought there had been a miscarriage of justice, got him freed.
He spent his remaining years at the castle where he lived frugally, often going to market late in the day to buy food cheaply, however he still found the money to buy himself a yellow Rolls Royce.
He died in 1977 but his collection lives on.


Friday, 19 May 2017

Ten Golden Rules

I've just put the finishing touches to the second instalment of my Inspector de Silva Mysteries, Dark Clouds Over Nuala, so, with the hard work done, I'm taking a moment to reflect on what I've learnt over my years of writing.
1 Don't worry about finding gaps in the market, write what you like to read. That way you'll write with interest and passion and it will communicate to your readers.
2 Have a great opening. You have about 15 seconds to sell your book to the potential reader browsing in a bookshop or on Amazon. Give them a great cover, a captivating blurb, a killer first sentence that compels them to read on.
3 Be clear about point of view. Writing in the first person is tempting but remember, your protagonist must be interesting, quirky or both, for the story will be filtered through the prism of their thoughts and words. Also , they will have to be in every scene. Third person is not, of course, a problem in this way, but remember not to "head hop" within a scene or a chapter. If you want to use  multiple POVs, take care not to overdo them.
4 Write in the way that suits you. Some people like to plan in great detail; you may not. The thriller writer, Mark Billingham, advocates the "headlight" approach, just plan as far ahead as you can see in the headlights. Personally, I like a plan but I'm always ready to depart from it if I get a better idea. 
5  Keep going! I don't advocate a set word limit every day, it can be so stressful that you no longer enjoy your writing, but try and do something, even if it's only a few paragraphs. Writing, like most things, improves with practice.
6 When you've finished your first draft, edit ruthlessly. Your manuscript will probably be too long and much improved by cutting out long descriptions, too many adverbs and adjectives, unnecessary or banal dialogue etc. Don't agonise over detail too much though. I don't advise becoming like Oscar Wilde who claimed to spend a morning deciding to put in in a comma and then the afternoon deciding to take it out! When you're ready ask a trusted friend (or three) to read and comment. If you can afford it, a professional copy edit is a very good idea. 
7 Work on dialogue. Good dialogue is so important; your characters will come alive if you know how they speak. Use speech tags as sparingly as possible, really only where the reader would otherwise be confused about who's speaking.
8  Less is more. Don't hammer points home, let your readers use their intelligence and imagination and work some things out for themselves.
9  Don't get hung up on research. Leave it until you know what you'll need to know. Take care though: readers who like historical novels usually have a good grasp of history and crime fans tend to be savvy about their facts, whether it's police procedure or poisons.
10 Above all, show, don't tell. Take the reader with you into the world you're writing about. Make them feel they're involved and waiting breathless to see how things will turn out.
Dark Clouds Over Nuala - An Inspector de Silva Mystery is out on Monday 22nd May 2017 in Kindle (available now to pre-order at

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Silver and Us

This week I spent a fascinating day in the company of an expert from the BBC's popular Antiques Roadshow. I was learning about antique silver and the part it has played in social custom. I'm sure that much of what I learnt is going to add greatly to my enjoyment of works of art.
It would take too long to mention everything here so I'll just touch on a few aspects of the study day.
We began with a painting of a medieval banquet. How pretty, I thought. I'm sure I received an Xmas card that looked very like it last year. But our expert made us look deeper into the picture. He pointed out that the windows would have been unglazed in medieval times. Birds and insects would have been able to come into the banqueting hall very easily. I wasn't sure that his suggestion that the reason why the lords and ladies would sit under a canopy was to protect them from bird droppings, but the idea that covered cups were used to keep the drink clean and fresh was far more plausible. You can see one on the left in the painting below.

Contrary to popular belief, hygiene was not neglected in medieval days. When you were the guest of  a wealthy household, you were expected to bring your own knife and would be offered water to wash it and your hands. Plates (trenchers) were usually provided as well as spoons (no forks were in general use until much later on). Incidentally trenchers were mainly square, giving rise to the expression "a square meal". 
It was in Tudor times that hygiene became less scrupulous, perhaps because of the growth in population. The Tudors also loved their bling. Something akin to this extraordinary silver ship, known as a nef, would have graced the tables of the rich.

 Several hundreds of years later, in the Edwardian era, a beautiful silver teapot like this one would have been an essential ornament to the tea table if you wanted to be fashionable. However it wasn't considered necessary that all the pieces of the tea service should match. It was acceptable for them to have been purchased at different times, or handed down as family heirlooms.  
Service at table also changed from "service a la francaise" where many dishes were placed in the centre of the table and people helped themselves, to "service a la russe" shown below where there would be many courses, all served individually by staff. This left more room in the centre of a table for elaborate centrepieces - silver being highly prized. Interesting that the popularity of sharing plates in modern restaurants is, in effect, a return to the idea of "service a la francaise".


Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Strange Case of the Spanish Buns

Now that we are in the month of Easter and hot cross buns are in the shops, I was interested to come across this little story about the railway from Zurich to Baden,  Switzerland, built in 1847. The story goes that the citizens of Zurich were particularly fond of a delicacy made in Baden, called Spanisch Brötli , or Spanish buns. Wealthy people paid for these to be brought to them in time for breakfast which entailed suppliers making the 45 minute journey from Zurich to Baden very early in the morning. The city fathers decided that something must be done.

The subsequent building of the railway meant that suppliers were able to dispense with the need for such an early start and their wealthy patrons could still have their daily treat.

 The railway became known as the Spanisch-Brötli-Bahn and is credited with fuelling Zurich's prosperity. Today, the city is famous for its banking industry, spearheaded by the gnomes of Zurich. It's also a byword for good organisation and cleanliness. James Joyce, who greatly admired the place and is buried there, said you could eat your meals of the pavements. We don't know whether that was how he liked his Spanish buns served.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A London Palace

Built in 1756 by John, First Earl Spencer, Spencer House is London's only surviving great 18th century townhouse. The Earl spared no expense to create a magnificent house that, on a small scale, rivals many a royal palace. His wealth was vast. As an example, on his honeymoon, the diamond buckles on his shoes alone were valued at £30,000
At twenty-one, he secretly married his childhood sweetheart, Georgiana Pointz, an acknowledged beauty. It was a love match and the house celebrates this. Classical motifs are everywhere. The Earl did the obligatory Grand Tour and came back full of enthusiasm for the art and architecture he had seen in Italy and Greece.
The Spencers were among a small group of families who were at the top of the society of the day and the house became a venue for political and social gatherings of the highest order.
Visitors were led through a series of impressive rooms, culminating in the extraordinary Palm Room, where the fronds of palm leaning towards each other over the arches symbolise married love.

After the Second World War, the house was in a state of disrepair and was used as offices, the gorgeous palm room demoted to being the typing pool with holiday postcards and office notices pinned or taped to the walls. However, under the care of the present owners, the Rothschilds, it has been restored to its former glory and limited viewing is possible with guided tours.  

The grand staircase lit by a lantern salvaged from a Venetian gondola

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Meet Alex Martin

I'm delighted to welcome historical novelist,  Alex Martin, to the blog today. Alex, thank you so much for accepting the invitation. Would you like to start by telling readers a bit about yourself and your family? Where are you from? Do you have a day job or do you write full-time?
I live in South Wales, on the Gower peninsula but was born in Greater London, more years ago than I care to remember.  I grew up in Wiltshire and most of my stories to date are set in that rural county. I work from home as an aromatherapist but increasingly my time is now spent writing.

Do you have a special place where you like to write?  
Yes, I do! I adore my shed. My husband and I built my den from a kit - unlabelled parts and in howling autumn gales - a few years ago and it made a real difference to my writing output. Within its insulated wooden walls I can delve deep into my subconscious and draw out images and ideas that have been cooking on the back burner. It smells good in there, with the resinous wood, and I can hear the birds tweeting away outside. Through the window the Welsh hills march across the horizon, the shifting clouds creating different moods according to the season. I can pin research papers and documents all over the walls and leave it in a delightful mess of creativity, knowing it will lay there, undisturbed, until I return. I am very fortunate.
 Have there been any particularly memorable moments in your writing life?
I often get ideas with a frisson of 'otherness'. For instance the idea for The Rose Trail came a long time ago when I stared through the window of an empty cottage. The place was ancient, with a flagstone floor and huge inglenook fireplace and I could see right across the main room into the walled garden beyond. I had a shiver down my spine as I sensed the people who had lived there hundreds of years ago during the English Civil war, perhaps witnessing some tragedy. The memory returned in full technicolour, years later, and I knew I had to follow its trail.
 What parts of the writing process do you enjoy the most and the least?
Good question! I had a major epiphany a few years ago when I realised standing back and writing objectively didn't work; I had to be there, as part of the action and 'live' the story in character. It's a bit like meditation - blissful when you are in it, quite hard to reach.
What was the first thing you wrote? Was it any good?
Haha! No! I first started writing when I was about 8 or 9. Stories of schoolgirls in a boarding school, based on some Mallory Towers type book I was reading. I had an old black and gold typewriter - probably from the twenties or earlier, that I treasured and, when I wasn't climbing trees and skinning my knees, plonked away at it with two fingers and fierce concentration.

You’ve chosen the timeslip form for your latest novel, The Rose Trail. What attracted you to that?
I'm a fan of Barbara Erskine and also loved Thorne Moore's 'A Time for Silence'. The Rose Trail resembles neither author's work but the time slip format was inspired by their work. I'm fascinated by history and wanted to play around with the possibility that time runs in parallel. After my experience with the cottage when I had such a strong sense of the people who had lived there hundreds of years ago, I decided to weave between the present and that turbulent time when families were driven apart by their beliefs. How can any of us know if time is linear or many layered?
 Tell us a bit about the story. What conflicts shape it and where did the inspiration for it come from?
The characters of Fay and Persephone came about from a little skit I'd written based on an awkward encounter in my own life. On a day when I was feeling frumpy, I bumped into a glamorous acquaintance who provided a charming, but stark, contrast. From these characters a modern story started to build and I wove it into the spooky memory about that cottage in Wiltshire all those years ago. Sometimes, when I've been giving treatments to clients, I've 'seen' images or received messages which I've relayed to them and they have found them very relevant to their lives, even though they meant nothing to me. Intrigued by these, I wanted to explore other possible realities.
How do you do your research?
We used to live near Devizes, where The Rose Trail is set and I'd always been interested in the battle that took place on Roundway Hill, above the town, in the English Civil War. Last January I walked up there again and pictured the battle scenes. I went to the library and the book shop, just as Fay and Persephone do in the story, and researched the civil war on-line. Other books have needed other research trips - Daffodils involved a trip to the Imperial War Museum in London, Speedwell meant visiting Brooklands Racing Circuit and the Motor Museum at Beaulieu. For Peace Lily, I had to pore over maps of Boston in 1919, discovering the molasses disaster along the way from old newspaper cuttings. It's much easier with on-line research these days. In fact, when I first wrote Daffodils, years and years ago, there was little information about WW1 on-line, but with its centenary, attention has focussed on the details of that war. I have revised the whole book a couple of times as a result, as new information came to light.
Who would you cast to play your leading characters if your book was to be made into a film?
It would have to be someone gorgeous for Persephone. Perhaps Cameron Diaz might be good, as she manages to portray that delightful ambiguity that perhaps she's not a bimbo. Or Julia Roberts, with her flowing locks. I think Renee Zellweger might be good for Fay, as she's prepared to put on weight for a part!
 Have any particular writers influenced your work?
I think everything we read influences our work on some level. My favourite authors include Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, Barbara Erskine, Joanna Trollope, Winston Grahame and loads more. I'm enjoying The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr at the moment.
 It’s been said that you can’t teach creative writing, you can only recognise what is good and say ‘keep doing that’. Do you agree?
Not entirely, I think you can learn about good dialogue, how to formulate a plot, how to make characters come alive. I learned a lot from peer reviews on where pieces of writing are anonymously critiqued by other writers. Some of the writing I read there was excellent; some not so good but I learned to recognise what worked and what didn't.

 Khaled Hosseini says that he feels he is discovering a story rather than creating it. Are you an avid plotter or do you start with a single idea and let the novel develop organically?
I started out writing Daffodils as a journey of discovery but it took a very long time - about ten years - before I could wrestle it into some sort of story. Now I definitely plot a story arc from the original idea before embarking on a first draft. Mind you, sometimes the characters have other ideas and I have to adapt!
What will you be working on next?
The fourth and final book in The Katherine Wheel Series is my next project. It concerns the children of the characters in the other three books and takes them all into the global arena of the second World War. It will be called Woodbine and Ivy because everyone smoked Woodbines in WW2 and Cheadle Manor will be covered in ivy, due to Cassandra's inability to maintain its grand facade after the Great Depression. I have the story arc outlined but the writing - and the mountain of research it's going to need - has yet to begin.

Alex, thank you so much for coming, it's been a great pleasure talking to you.
The Rose Trail is available on Amazon in Kindle or paperback. Universal link:

For details of her other books see her Amazon Author page:

Alex blogs at (where readers can get a free copy of her short story collection Trio)

Facebook: Alex Martin
Twitter: @Alexxx8586











Friday, 20 January 2017

Food Glorious Food!

We can all think of books where food plays an important part, from the famous little cake that triggered Proust's memories to Ratty's wonderful description of the picnic in Wind in the Willows.

Food is a very useful tool for the novelist. It helps to create atmosphere and round out characters. Their attitude to food might show them to be mean-spirited and miserly, or they might be convivial and appealing people who like their food.

Inspector de Silva, the hero of my new series, is definitely in the latter category. As it's a chilly January day, at least here in the UK,  I 'd like to share the recipe for his favourite Cashew Nut and Pea Curry with you.

The  Inspector de Silva series is set in the fictitious town of Nuala in the tea country of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and the dish is  still a very popular one there. Cashew nuts can be bought fresh in Sri Lanka and, unlike our dried ones, they are tender and creamy, but the texture can be restored by soaking them in cold water for two hours then simmering.

Preparation time - 20 minutes plus 2 hours soaking

Cooking time - 55 minutes

Serves 4


1 tablespoon roasted curry powder
(You should be able to get this in Asian supermarkets or from the Internet but if it's too much bother, just use ordinary curry powder.)
300g cashew nuts
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 stalk lemongrass (or a squeeze of lazy lemongrass from a tube)
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 onions, halved
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cinnamon stick or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 bay leaves (optional)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
300ml coconut milk
150g frozen peas
Coriander to garnish


Drain the soaked cashew nuts then simmer with the turmeric in lightly salted water for about 30 minutes until soft and creamy. Drain and discard the cooking liquid.

Meanwhile trim the lemongrass stem to about 8cms and crush with a wooden spoon. Heat oil in a saucepan or wok add the onion and fry for about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, cinnamon and bay leaves; fry for another 3 minutes until the onion is tender. Sprinkle over the remaining spices and fry for a final 30 seconds before adding the coconut milk, lemongrass and a little salt. Bring to the boil and add cashews. Simmer for 5 minutes then add the peas and simmer for another 2 - 3 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with coriander and serve with rice. Delicious! 

Cashew Nut Tree


Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The dull, dark days of January seem a good time to look back as well as forward. After all, the Romans saw Janus, after whom the month is named, as a god with two faces. He was considered to be the god of endings and beginnings and the god of doorways and gates. (Presumably that's how the word "janitor" came about.)

Mostly, I look forward to getting down to my new projects for the year, but I also find it useful to look over a few of my reviews from the previous year from time to time.

It's encouraging when readers write that they have really enjoyed my stories, but salutary to take into account criticism too. I'm glad to say that over the years I've been writing, most of my reviews have been favourable but like most writers, I get a few horrors. One hopes these are undeserved but when I get the occasional knock-back, I console myself with the fact that even the most famous writers sometimes suffered a rough ride at the hands of their reviewers.

Here are just a few examples.

The Great Gatsby, one of my particular favourites, was slated  by a reviewer who observed that 'Mr Scott Fitzgerald deserves to be shot.' Wuthering Heights  was described as, 'A compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.' While Madame Bovary drew the opinion from one critic that 'Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.'

Let's face it, not many people would have the self-confidence to claim their writing rivals the classics, but when even Shakespeare was denigrated by his fellow playwright, Robert Green, we should all be able to withstand a bit of criticism. If it helps us to improve our work, it's an excellent thing. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

A New Year's Gift

It's that time of year when many of us take stock and make good resolutions about how we will improve our lives. Having a healthier lifestyle with more exercise is a popular choice, but beware, there are pitfalls. In Motivation, Maureen's lifestyle change should have come with a serious health warning.

So everything in moderation. Just sit down with a cup of tea, or something stronger, and allow yourself a few minutes of relaxation and fun with this short story.

A happy, healthy and prosperous 2017 to you all.

‘Maureen! I’m home!’
No answer. I closed the front door behind me and tried again. ‘Maureen! Where are you, love?’
An ominous din came from the kitchen. Inside, I found my wife, Maureen, with her head in the fridge, tossing out jars and bottles with the gusto of an excited Jack Russell unearthing a bone. I dodged as she lobbed a jar of chocolate and hazelnut spread into the bin. Broken glass tinkled.
‘What on earth are you doing? You know I like that stuff on my toast in the mornings.’
Maureen emerged from the chilly depths, lips pursed and brow furrowed.
‘Forty per cent fat and a hundred and fifty calories a teaspoon, Frank; I’m not having that kind of thing in my house. If that’s what you buy, it’s the last time I let you go shopping on your own.’
‘What am I supposed to have for breakfast then?’
‘Low fat, high fibre cereal.’
She gestured to the kitchen table and I saw a stack of boxes. The topmost one had a garish picture of a beaming woman with her spoon poised over a sunflower-yellow bowl. The bowl seemed to be full of shredded up coconut matting. ‘But I don’t like that kind of cereal,’ I protested.
‘Nonsense, it’s just a matter of re-educating your taste buds.’
I swallowed the retort that my taste buds were fine just as they were. I doubt she’d have noticed anyway. Her head had already disappeared into the fridge again. I guessed there was no way that she would miss the bottle of tomato ketchup I’d bought at the supermarket yesterday. That was probably full of forbidden ingredients too.
‘What’s for dinner?’ I asked with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Maureen’s face emerged once more. She put her hands on her hips. ‘I’d have thought it was obvious I’ve been far too busy to cook; you’ll have to wait. I’ll put a salad together when I’ve finished here.’
‘I’ll go and watch television for a bit then, shall I?’
‘You do that.’
In the sitting room, I dug the remote out from under Maureen’s pile of slimming magazines. Flicking through the channels, I found an old film, North by Northwest. It had already got to the bit where the crop spraying plane chases Cary Grant across the fields. When we were first married, Maureen used to say I reminded her of Cary Grant.
I sighed. Somehow, I didn’t have the heart to watch to the end.
I stabbed the channel button again and found a programme about a middle-aged couple converting a derelict barn into a dream home. They were what I call comfortably built, rather like me and Maureen, or at least me and the old Maureen.
There didn’t seem to be a lot left of the barn except for crumbling walls with black holes like empty eye sockets where windows should have been. The roof had caved in and there were bats nesting in the rafters. I didn’t give much for the couple’s chances, but they looked to be enjoying themselves. The wife was a jolly woman, rushing about with mugs of tea and plates of chocolate biscuits for the builders. I was willing to bet she wouldn’t expect her husband to eat diet cereal if he didn’t want to.
Supper, when it finally arrived, consisted of clear soup and a carrot salad with a vinegary dressing. Afterwards, with my stomach griping, I sat down to watch Match of the Day. Maureen changed into pink Lycra shorts and pounded away on her exercise bike in the corner of the room. It was hard to hear the commentary over the whir of pedals, but I didn’t say anything.
The following evening, I needed a drink before I faced any more carrot salad so I dropped in at the Dog and Duck on the way home. In the bay window, two women in business suits sipped white wine. The only other customers were a noisy gang of youngsters whose loud conversation made it impossible to be unaware that they worked for the local computer company and were celebrating a birthday. Dora, the barmaid, finished serving them their drinks then came down to my end of the bar. She smiled. ‘Evening, Frank: pint of your usual?’
I nodded.
A burst of laughter came from the group at the end of the bar.  She swivelled her eyes in their direction.
‘I dread to think what they’ll be like after another round. Heathen concoctions these cocktails they like to drink; give me a pint of bitter any day.’
I grinned. ‘Each to their own.’
She reached for a glass from under the counter and started to pull my pint. I had just paid her for it when half a dozen more of the loud crowd arrived and she had to go off to serve them.
Left alone, I ran my finger glumly along the groove of a scratch on the wooden counter. The laughter from the other end of the bar only added to my melancholy. I thought of Maureen. If I was honest, she’d always been bossy, but I’d grown used to that. No, this was something else: in the last few months, with this new health kick, she had become impossible.
Dora returned and looked down at my empty glass.
‘Do you want the other half, Frank?’
I glanced at my watch and shook my head.
‘Better not, Maureen will be wondering where I’ve got to.’
‘All right.’
She swept my glass off the bar with a practised hand. I noticed how soft and plump it looked, the nails painted candyfloss pink. Our eyes met and she smiled. ‘Not too late to change your mind, y’know.’
I smiled back. ‘Maybe I could be persuaded.’
‘That’s better. I was hoping for to some civilised conversation.’
‘No good looking at me then.’
She laughed. ‘Don’t do yourself down, Frank.’
After the second pint, I set off home. A thin, icy rain was falling and a gust of wind buffeted me as I turned into my street. As I walked into the hall, Maureen came out of the sitting room. She had an odd, secretive smile on her face.
‘Hello, Frank.’
I gave her a peck on the cheek. ‘Had a good day, love?’
‘Mmm.’ The funny smile was still there. A strange foreboding started in my head and travelled down to my stomach.
‘I’ve got a surprise for you,’ Maureen went on.
‘Hope it’s a nice one.’
She giggled. A sound I hadn’t heard in a long time. ‘Come and see.’
Walking into the sitting room, I recoiled. ‘What on Earth. . .?’
‘You remember that competition I entered; the one where you had to complete the sentence, “I love Mr Motivator’s low fat, organic spread because . . .?” Well, this is my prize – Mr Motivator himself. Isn’t he gorgeous?’
Gorgeous was not how I would have described him. Mr Motivator was a six foot tall, inflatable man. In his black Lycra shorts and singlet, his perma-tanned body rippled with muscles. The smug smile on his chiselled, PVC features revealed white teeth so dazzling that I felt in danger of snow blindness. Worse still, he was propped up in my favourite chair.
‘He can’t stay,’ I said abruptly.
Maureen put her hands on her hips, the giggle gone. Her brows knitted and her voice would have cut granite.
‘I’ve waited years for a man like him. He’s staying and that’s the end of it.’
I opened my mouth to speak but she had already flounced out of the room, leaving me to stare in dismay at the plastic interloper.
Weeks went by.
Maureen and Mr Motivator were inseparable. She named him Max and wherever she was, he was too. She even took him out on drives to the coast or into the country. When I protested, she ignored me. My nails were bitten to the quick and I couldn’t sleep.
There was hardly a scrap of food in the house now. If it hadn’t been for the burgers and chips at the Dog and Duck, I’d have starved. Maureen had lost so much weight, I feared that a puff of wind would blow her away. I could have circled her waist with one hand – except there was none of that kind of thing between us now. ‘Max needs me,’ she’d frown if I went too close, then she’d brush me off like stray cake crumbs.
‘What’s going on, Frank?’ Dora asked as I wolfed down the plate of food she served me one rainy evening. ‘It’s always nice to see you, but don’t you ever eat at home these days?’
I finished the last lovely, greasy morsel and wiped my mouth on the paper napkin. For a moment, I was on the point of confiding in her, but then my pride took over. The truth was just too humiliating; so instead, I mumbled something about decorating the kitchen and Maureen not being able to use it. Dora just gave me a quizzical look.
A few days later, I’d left the house to escape from my enemy when I met Dora coming out of the newsagent’s with a huge, shiny, blue balloon. Emblazoned on it in a circle of gold stars was the name “Max.”
I nearly passed out.
She gave me a concerned smile. ‘You all right, Frank?’
‘Yes,’ I said weakly.
She pointed to the balloon. It’s one of those helium ones that stay up on their own. It’s for my sister’s kid. I thought it would make him laugh. He’s a dear little thing. They’re having him christened today. It’s a nice name, Max, isn’t it?’
‘Er… I suppose so.’
She looked surprised.
‘Of course it is,’ I said quickly. ‘Very nice.’
An awkward silence fell.
‘Well, better be getting along,’ she said at last. ‘Have a good weekend, Frank.’ I watched her walk away, those curvaceous hips of hers swaying.
It was then that the idea came to me. It took some research on the Internet but eventually, I found what I wanted. All I had to do then was bide my time until Maureen went out on one of her few trips without Max.
The opportunity presented itself on her next weekly visit to the beauty parlour. She’d taken to going there regularly because: ‘Max likes me to look my best.’ As I heard the car start up, I rubbed my hands. She was usually gone for at least an hour and a half. Perfect.
In the sitting room, I imagined I saw a flash of panic in Max’s plastic eyes as I bore down on him and wrenched him out of my chair. Wrestling him to the ground, I fumbled for the stopper at the back of his neck then pulled off the top. With a triumphant grin, I watched him deflate until he was just a puddle of black and orange plastic on the beige carpet. ‘Ha!’ I shouted. ‘Not such a hunk now, are you!’
I fetched the helium canister from its hiding place in the garage and attached the nozzle to the open tube in Max’s neck. The valve on the canister hissed as I turned it. Gradually, Max expanded until he reached his former size. I glowered at him, restored as he was to his cheesy good looks. ‘Say your prayers, sucker,’ I snarled. ‘Don’t think you’re going to be let off as easily as that.’
Finding a black felt-tip pen, I inked in his teeth then I started to drag him out into the garden. He bumped over the terrace and onto the lawn. The afternoon was drawing to a close and the grass was damp with early dew. He made a squeaking sound as I pulled him over it, almost like a pathetic plea for help, but I was past pity. We were out in the open now, away from the trees that fringed the lawn. I took a deep breathe: this was it, the moment when I took my revenge. I swung my right foot back and took aim. Any moment now, Max would be up with the angels.
‘Max? Frank? What’s going on?’
I froze. On this day of all days, Maureen had returned early from the beauty parlour. She screamed; her bracelets jangling, she seized Max around the waist and tried to pull him away from me. ‘Let him go!’ she shouted. ‘Have you gone crazy?’
I staggered as she ground one of her stiletto heels into my foot. With a howl of pain, I released Max. He shot upwards, taking Maureen with him as if she were no more than a feather. Too horrified to move, I watched as they soared up and away towards the setting sun. Then the adrenaline kicked in. Dashing into the house, I grabbed the phone, but soon I hesitated. Who would believe me? The story was too crazy for words. My head reeled: where would Maureen and Max land and when they did, would she be OK? What would I say to her? Even more alarmingly, what would she have to say to me?
I stood in the rapidly gathering darkness for a few moments before I reached for the light switch. Nothing happened. I frowned as I noticed that the clock on the DVD player had gone dead. It must be a power cut. I went to the front door and opened it; outside, the other houses in the street seemed to be in darkness too. The wail of sirens grew louder; two police motorcyclists roared by, followed by four patrol cars.
‘What’s going on, Frank?’ My neighbour poked his head out of his front door.
‘No idea,’ I said but even as I uttered the words, I was very afraid that I did have one.
In what seemed like no time at all, the town was full of news teams – reporters from the TV, the radio and the papers, all madly asking questions and spouting theories. It seemed everyone had seen something in the sky; stories of UFOs, Martians, fairies, even Harry Potter and his quidditch team spread like wildfire. ‘We’ll probably never know the truth,’ a solemn man from the BBC intoned into his microphone. ‘One thing is certain though: whatever the phenomenon was, it was blown to smithereens when it struck the local electricity sub-station.’
Racked with guilt, I crept back home and huddled in my favourite chair. Never again would Max displace me from it. Elation coursed through my veins, hotly followed by grief. Maureen too was gone forever and there had been happy times. I bowed my head and wept.
In the days that followed, I kept my secret to myself, but being alone was soon unbearable. Like a homing pigeon, I headed for the Dog and Duck; I reckoned no one would take much notice of me there and Dora was glad of my help. Poor old Maureen had certainly boosted trade. We were rushed off our feet as psychics, astrologists, science fiction fans and hairy members of strange cults made their pilgrimage to the now famous substation. It took two weeks for all the fuss to die down and the whole crazy road show to lumber off on its way. After life had returned to normal, I let a few months pass before I moved house. The neighbours waved me a sympathetic goodbye; they had swallowed the story that Maureen had left me for a personal trainer. Well, in a way she had, hadn’t she?
I didn’t move far. I still see Dora. We go salsa dancing every Tuesday night. It keeps us both fit.