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CHEESE FOR THE KRIEGIES

canstockphoto5713653A true story for Remembrance

The following events happened near a Prisoner of War camp at Carpi, Northern Italy, in September 1943. After the Italian armistice the relatively easy-going, Italian guards were replaced by German regulars. In the days that followed, the ‘Tom’ and ‘Arthur’ of this story, and perhaps fifteen others, exploited the Germans’ inexperience of the camp and made it through the wire. This is what followed.

I have taken some slight liberties. In the interest of brevity I have condensed events spread over several days and locations into one day and one place. The scenic details and dialogue are largely, but not exclusively, mine. I have ascribed more emotions and motives to one German soldier than are supported by the original source material, but I’m an author, and weaving stories is what I do. However, I have not embellished the incidents in any material way. They were documented in ‘Tom’s’ meticulous diary, which against all  odds survived the war and several Gestapo raids. In later life Tom was also persuaded to record his wartime experiences on tapes, which were then transcribed by his elder son into a book-length record. I am hugely grateful for access to these materials.

Tom bore the burden of starvation and brutality for the rest of his life. He wrote of one prison camp ‘we marched in as soldiers. We crawled out as animals.’ Some incidents could never be discussed, but he needed no prompting to tell and retell the story of the cheese, and of the German soldier who kept his humanity.

This fictionalised retelling of real events is offered in homage to the prisoners of war, the kriegsgefangene, or kriegies, who continued the fight behind the wire.

 

CHEESE FOR THE KRIEGIES

TOM WATCHED A LOUSE crawl up a seam of Arthur’s battledress, and burrow into the shadows of his collar to escape the beam of sunlight moving across the threadbare cloth. Arthur lay prone in the straw, resting on his elbows. He was weaving his head from side to side so that he could see more through the narrow gaps in the loft’s plank wall. Two days’ beard turned Arthur’s face into the colour and texture of a seeded loaf, and he was staring down into the farmyard with all the focused attention of a gun dog. He hissed a quiet alert and Tom rolled over to put his own eye to a crack.

Opposite them an Italian farmer pushed a wheelbarrow along a line of brick outhouses, staggering a little its weight. He stopped at a padlocked door and fumbled for keys, revealing a huge, emperor of cheeses in the barrow, resting on a throne of straw, glorious in its creamy yellowness. Tom and Arthur sighed a sigh of deep appreciation and swallowed saliva in unison as it was locked within its sanctuary.

Tom rested his chin on his hands, thinking, as the farmer disappeared. Two days on the run with nothing but a packet of Red Cross biscuits between them, and a feast beyond imagining lay opposite. That door could not be breached without a key or a sledgehammer. But high in the wall was a window, blocked only by the kind of metal gauze that lets air flow in but keeps out insects.

“I reckon I could get through that window if you gave me a bunk up.”

“Wait for dark.”

Of course. They should sleep, but the hunger made it impossible. Its inescapable, physical ache gnawed at Tom’s belly. The best he could manage was a half-doze, eyes open, staring past the farm buildings towards the convoys of German trucks rumbling Southwards on the distant road. That was the way of it, hide during the day, move at night. Except that the countryside was criss-crossed with drainage channels that seemed always to push them back towards the road. Isolated farms like this one offered the only shelter in this flat landscape, and in such places there was always the possibility of food. A stray chicken, perhaps.

Or cheese.

 

GERMANS. TWO TRUCKS SWUNG OFF the road towards the farm, trailing dust as they left the metalled surface and hit the track. Tom groaned. There was no-where to run, no-where better to hide, just an awful, dry-mouthed, helpless inevitability.

He’d felt that inevitability once before, in a truck stalled in desert sand, with his driver turning the starter motor and swearing, swearing, as tracer flickered around them and the turret of a Panzer swung slowly to bring its main gun to bear. Thirty yards. Close enough to hear the whir of its motors. Close enough for the muzzle blast to punch the air out of Tom’s lungs, and close enough for the armour-piercing round to pass right through the truck without exploding.

This time it was small arms fire, almost as soon as the lorries disgorged their troops. A few scattered rifle shots close by, screams, then three short bursts from a machine pistol. Guttural, shouted orders sent boots hammering over the stones of the yard. Tom held his breath as they entered the barn. He and Arthur had pulled the ladder up after them, but that wouldn’t stop them for long.

“Kom, Engländer!”

Tom and Arthur held their breath.

The rip of a machine pistol filled the barn, the bullets smashing into the underside of the loft and sending a dancing line of splinters and dust racing towards them along its boards, ending a few feet from them. The sudden silence was broken only by the tinkle of cartridge cases bouncing on the flagstones, until more shouts and shots sounded nearby and the group beneath them left, running. Tom exhaled. Neither of them moved.

 

EVENING. STILL, UNBELIEVABLY, the Germans had not searched the loft. It was raining now, but Tom dared not risk moving out of the trickles of water coming through the roof. A German squad had taken shelter below and were dozing against the walls. One of them opened a writing pad against his knee and held a pencil poised above it.

“Welchen Tag haben wir heute?”

Banalities. A man writing a letter asks his comrade what day it is. Eight feet above his head his saturated enemy tries not to shiver, and needs to pee.

 

TOM JOLTED OUT OF NEAR-SLEEP as a ladder crashed against the side of the loft. A grey dawn seeped through the gaps in the walls and roof, and half a day and a night of hope ended as a German officer’s peaked cap climbed into sight. The face beneath it seemed too young to be in uniform, but the boy swore, aimed a pistol, and fired. The single, deafening, dust-shaking crack shattered roof tiles above Tom’s back. Tom rose to his knees, lifting his hands in surrender even as the officer took aim again, but the rotten boards gave way beneath Tom’s weight and he fell through into a thumping melee of boots and rifle butts on the floor below.

 

beatingJTHEY’D FOUND THREE MORE escapees by the time Tom and Arthur were dragged outside, kicked across the yard, and lined up against a brick wall. Tom didn’t recognise the others. They all showed signs of a beating.

It took a moment for realisation to sink in. In front of them a line of ten German soldiers faced them with their rifles held at the parade ‘at ease’ position. Two per prisoner. Beyond them, in an open field, perhaps twenty more Germans watched.

Tom’s first thought was disbelief. This can’t be real. They can’t execute prisoners of war. But the expression on a soldier’s face in front of him convinced him. He looked like the sort of kid you’d expect to find on a college campus; about nineteen, with round, wire-rimmed spectacles, and his pleasant, open face was twisted with the horror of what he was about to do. Some corner of Tom’s mind wondered if the kid was going to cry.

Tom closed his eyes, his mind scrambling for reality, any reality but this one, but opened them at the sound of a barked command, and the crunch of the firing squad coming to attention. The young officer stood at the end of the line, watching his prisoners’ faces. Tom shut his eyes again. He didn’t want to die staring at a Nazi.

Stupid bloody way to go. Tom wondered if his parents would ever know how their only son had died.

Another command. Shoulder arms, perhaps. Tom’s mind wouldn’t work.

What a futile bloody waste. The weight of sadness could crush him to the ground, if he let it.

“Laden!” Rifle bolts rattled in unison.

Tom was never more intensely alive than in the moment of his death. He could smell turned earth from the fields, stagnant water in the drainage ditches, hear traffic on the road and distant birdsong. All this would still be when he was not.

“Zielen!”

The short, panting breaths of five men merged into a single, continuous wind.

Silence.

Get on with it.

Tom opened his eyes. The squad’s rifles were safely at their shoulders, although he had not heard the command that spared his life. In front of him, it was the college kid’s turn to close his eyes and swallow. Tom stared beyond the firing squad at a landscape that was newly sharp and fresh after rain, vaguely aware that a German sergeant major was haranguing them from the other end of the line, punctuating his words by slapping a cudgel or a baseball bat against his leg. Tom’s knees seemed to have locked. How else was he still standing?

‘College’ turned his head sharply towards the sergeant major.

“Zu befehl!” He looked back at Tom. “The oberfeldwebel say, you escape again, we use bullet. Now we teach lesson.”

That wasn’t the lesson? The five were prodded out onto the field, where the sergeant major ordered the German platoon to form a circle around them, holding their rifles at the ‘high port’ across their bodies. He slapped his baseball bat into his palm.

“Jetzt werden wir spielen.” Now we will play.

Tom looked around him, seeing expressions that ranged from shame-faced reluctance to smiling anticipation. The numb shock of the firing squad was fading with the realisation that more brutality was planned. He lifted his arms towards the sergeant-major, palms-out in the universal sign of appeal.

“Wir Kriegsgefangene sind!” We are prisoners of war.

“Kriegsgefangene? Du bist schiesse.” You are shit.

The first rifle butt hit Tom in the base of his back.

 

mutliatedJLATER, THEY BROUGHT THEM FOOD, barely a cupful of thin, potato soup and a piece of coarse, dark bread, but it was nourishment and it left their bellies craving more. Other recaptured prisoners had been brought in during the morning, until twelve men sat huddled in a brick, windowless outbuilding, nursing bruises, breathing shallowly to save their aching ribs. Miraculously, there were no broken limbs.

All heads turned as the door was unbolted and a gefreiter, a corporal, entered.

“Vier Männer.” He pointed at Tom and three others. “Kommen Sie mit.”

Outside, three more Germans fell in behind them, rifles in one hand, shovels or entrenching tools in the other, herding them to the edge of a water-filled drainage canal perhaps twelve feet across.

“Gelangen in die Wasser.” The command to get in the water was emphasised with prods of their rifles. Tom waded out, pulse racing, wondering if they had only been spared the firing squad to be shot in a ditch. Ahead of them, at the far bank, scraps of British army battledress khaki floated on the weeds. By the time the water reached his waist, Tom’s fear had turned to sick horror. The battledress still clothed a dead soldier, face down in the water, with the bloom of a bullet wound staining his back. Tom turned to face his captors. This time, he’d look at them. Stare them down.

“Bringen die Körper.” Bring the bodies. Plural. Only then did Tom see the other two. He tugged at the nearest one, and as the body rolled over in the water Tom’s almost-empty guts heaved, dry-retching in disgust. The man’s head had been pulped, beaten into a shapeless mess.

“Schneller!” The command was screamed in fury. Was it shame that made them want such haste? To hide their crime from sight?

One by one, three dead soldiers were dragged from the water and carried to the edge of a field. Each of them had been shot, and each disfigured after death beyond all hope of recognition. Perhaps there had been another firing squad, and the final order had been given. Tom would never know. In the mad lottery of war it was him who swung an entrenching tool at the soil, breaking ground for a grave rather than lying mutilated beside it. He vented his anger on the earth, knowing with each hack of the blade that whether he lived for another sixty minutes or sixty years, the stain of this degradation would stay with him for the rest of his life.

They buried them in the late afternoon. With unexpected sensitivity, one of the German platoon hammered two pieces of wood together to make a rough cross, and painted an inscription.

Hier liegen drei unbekannten britischen Soldaten

Here lie three unknown British soldiers

 

cheeseJ“ENGLÄNDER?”

The voice on the far side of the door was gentle, almost diffident. Tom shifted to peer through a crack. Spectacles flashed briefly in the moonlight beneath a coal-scuttle helmet. The college kid was on guard.

“Ja?” Tom stood and wedged himself upright by the door. He didn’t feel conversational. Every movement hurt, and a greater pain lay across his mind like stale vomit.

“Today not good. Oberfeldwebel not kind man.”

“Oberfeldwebel bloody lunatic.”

“Bitte?”

“Nichts.”

“Not all German soldiers bad.”

“Tell that to those men’s families.”

“My English not good. Today was not, er, ehrenhaft.”

“Too bloody right it wasn’t honourable.”

“Aber ich bin ein Christ.” The German almost sobbed, as if being a Christian had become a burden beyond bearing. Sod that, Tom wasn’t going to give him absolution. They were quiet for a moment, two enemies leaning against opposite sides of a door, their faces a few inches apart.

“Wie heißen Sie, Englander?” What is your name?

“Ich heiß Thomas. Und Sie?”

“You are Tommy?” The German seemed to find this highly amusing. “Es tut mir leid, Tommy.” He stifled giggles. “My name is Fischer. You want cigarette?”

The college kid lit a cigarette and passed it over the door. The tobacco was coarse, snatched at Tom’s throat, and made his head swim, but God, it was good. Tom felt the eyes on him from within the impromptu gaol, a wall of craving. He took another drag and handed the cigarette to Arthur. Its glow passed from mouth to mouth into the gloom.

“Danke. You have food? We are hungry. Wir sind alle hungrig.”

“No food. Es tut mir leid.”

“There is cheese. Käse. Ein große Käse.”

“Wo?”

“Here. Fifty metres. Fünfzig Meter. We share?”

A pause.

“Nein. Zu riskant.” Too risky. “I sent to fight Russia.”

“Bitte? Please? It would be.. ehrenhaft.” Tom scrambled for the right words. He’d use every trick in the book to get that cheese. “Wir sind hungrig. Es wäre ein Segen sein.” It would be a blessing.

Another pause. The bolts slid gently backwards. College stood back from the door, his rifle ready.

“Nur Sie. Only you. You show. No tricks.” College slid the bolts home behind him.

This was bizarre. On a night when the moon blazed in a sky washed clean by rain, a German squaddie and a British sergeant dashed together from shadow to shadow until they crouched under the storeroom window.

“Here,” Tom whispered, and jerked his thumb at the metal gauze. “Ein große Käse.” When College stood, his face moved out of the shadow. The kid looked frightened, as if he was regretting his decision, but he shifted his rifle to his left hand, made two sharp stabs through the gauze with his bayonet, and unclipped a torch from his webbing.

“Lieber Gott!” College grinned. He seemed to have forgotten his fear. “You watch. I open window.”

Now here’s a first. An Englishman keeps guard for a German. At the corner of the building, Tom stared at an empty, monochrome landscape, a pattern of silver on charcoal, and winced at the sounds of wood being prised away from a frame behind him.

“Ready, Tommy.” College leant his rifle against the wall and made a step with his hands.

Getting in was easy, after that bunk-up. Tom found handholds in the rafters, and swung himself inside with little noise. There was a rip of pain across his injured ribs, but the prize was worth it.

Getting out with the cheese was going to be harder. No way could Tom lift it alone. In a moment of inspiration he managed to lever up one side until it rested on its edge so it could be rolled to the window. By the time he’d managed to roll it up the wall, using knees then shoulders as wedges, College was on the verge of panic. The whispers outside were too low to be understood clearly, but the word ‘Kriegsgericht’ – court martial – seemed to feature regularly.

“Catch!” Tom posted the cheese through the window, and heard it lowered to the ground, sliding down the wall.

“Komm.”

Tom had to rest. His ribs hurt like hell and he was swaying on his feet.

“Bitte, Tommy!” There was desperation in College’s voice.

“Ich kann nicht.” The window was at head height, and there was no helpful step on the inside. Tom made a futile jump which only poked his head outside before he fell back. He started to laugh, giggling like a schoolboy with stolen cider. Cheese on the outside. Him on the inside. Oh, dear, what would the sergeant-major say?

“Jetzt kommen.” A hand grabbed the back of Tom’s battledress and heaved. Tom kicked against the wall, struggling to keep the edge of the window off his injured ribs.

“Komm, Tommy.” College locked both arms around Tom’s back, stubbled cheek to stubbled cheek in the window, and heaved. It sounded as if he was on the verge of tears.

They fell together onto the yard, and for a moment Tom lay staring up at the stars, eyes wide at the pain in his chest. Such a beautiful night.

“Schnell.” College pulled him to his feet and swung his rifle onto his back. They lifted the cheese between them and scuttled, crab-like, back towards the impromptu gaol. No challenges interrupted their dash, and the tension drained away with each step. By the time Tom unbolted the door and backed inside, he and College were no longer guard and prisoner, they were like two naughty schoolboys scrumping apples.

“Half for you, half for us, ja?” College’s eyes were shining. Now they were back, fear had turned to euphoria. He drew his bayonet and pushed, then hacked ineffectually against a cheese thicker than the bayonet’s length.

“No good. Ich werde eine Axt bringen.”

He remembered to bolt the door on his way out, but no-one had any thoughts of escape. For perhaps two minutes, twelve men jostled for the chance to scrape their fingernails against the rind, with little effect. By the time College returned and handed Tom a small axe, they were dropping the cheese on the concrete floor in the hope that it would split.

They were meticulous in the division of the spoils. This for you, this for us, this for you. College had brought two large packs to carry away the German share. Only when the cheese was fully divided did the young German stand back, grinning, pleased with himself.

He looked around, and his smile faded as he realised the scale of his dereliction. Behind him was an open door. His rifle was propped against the wall. He was alone amidst twelve British soldiers, most already feasting. Tom and Arthur cradled their portion, staring at him. College straightened, grabbed his packs and the rifle, and left without a word.

“Herr Fischer!”

“Ja?” He was in a hurry to be outside.

“Das war sehr nett.” That was very kind. “Vielen Dank.”

College simply nodded, and shot the bolts.

 

THEY WERE NOT SEARCHED the following morning. Neither the officer nor the sergeant major could be seen when the twelve men were loaded onto a truck, and the guards turned a blind eye to pockets that still bulged with about three pounds of cheese per man. Tom grinned at College, but he looked away after the briefest flicker of eye contact.

In that moment, though, Tom saw the German’s shoulders lift, and a quiet smile cross his face that hinted at a deeper, hidden emotion.

Redemption, perhaps.

#

Tom and Arthur were imprisoned in Austria after they were recaptured, until liberated by advancing Allied troops. Neither succeeded in escaping again. They remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Tom died in 2010, aged 93.

 

 

What makes authors tick: J S Watts

Before I started writing, I imagined authors staring into space as they dreamed up the next best seller, spending a few creative hours scribbling, and then quaffing wine at book launches while they signed books for an adoring public. It was a good vision to hold in my mind as I crawled through the concrete canyons during the morning ‘rush’ hour, because one day, I thought, I’m going to write that book. Now I know the slog, the insecurity, the bruising rejections, and the small-change royalties, I ask myself ‘why do we do this?’ Perhaps even more, ‘why, when other careers are open to us, would we not do anything else?’

I persuaded Jacquie Watts to sit in the hot seat. Jacquie pinged me last month in the ‘meet my character’ blog hop, and I discovered that she read English at Somerville College, Oxford. She’s had poetry, short stories and book reviews published in Acumen, Envoi, Hand + Star, Mslexia and Orbis, and broadcast on BBC and independent Radio. Her novel, “A Darker Moon”, a dark literary fantasy, is published by Vagabondage Press. She was brave enough to answer some fairly hard questions:

GG: You’re an Oxford graduate. You could do lots of things. Why write? 

JSW: Oxford graduates don’t have all the fun, you know, but the very simple and direct answer is because I want to. I have actually done a lot of things since graduating from Oxford, including spending over 25 years in British education, but my passion has always been writing. I’ve written stories and poems for almost as long as I can remember. As a child, I even wrote plays that I forced friends and family to act out. Okay, as an eight year old I also coerced friends into a rather ridiculous pop group that fortunately came to nothing, but that’s just proof that the thing that really, really mattered to me, writing, was the thing that I pursued and persevered with. 

GG: In the literary field you’re a published poet, a published author, and a reviewer. How do you answer when someone asks ‘what do you do?’

JSW: I usually say I’m a writer and then, if the person’s interested, they can ask what I write. If I say poet, it seems to preclude writing anything other than poetry. If I say author, then people assume I only write novels. Sometimes if the situation demands it, I will say poet and author, but mostly I refer to myself as a writer as that seems to sum it up nicely and is how I see myself.

GG: I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) your short story in the June/July Plasma Frequency Magazine. Its main character is a woman whose memory has been erased. Your book ‘A Darker Moon’ has a protagonist who can’t remember his past. Why do you return to this theme?

JSW: Mmm… good question and I’m really pleased you enjoyed ‘e-razored’. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, I’ve written other stories where memory (or lack of it) plays a key role, for example the short story ‘Jenny’.

The theme of memory attracts me for a variety of reasons. On one level I like the dichotomy between the known and the unknown and when memory is involved it’s possible for me as a writer to keep everyone in the dark for longer, including the main character.

My fascination with memory goes beyond that, though. I think there is a fundamental question to be asked and it is an increasingly important one as more and more of us live into advanced old age and experience the impact of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. The primal question for me is, who are we? Are we more than the sum of our memories? If you take away memory, the recollection of where we have been, what we have done and how we have felt about it, what are you left with? I know that as an individual I have changed over the years because of what I have achieved (and failed to achieve), what I have experienced and felt. If my memory of that goes, what do I have left? I also pride myself on having a good memory. I would hate to lose it. It would be like losing a key part of me. Having said that, I recognise I do not remember everything in perfect detail, so my memories are selective rather than complete. Some people have memories they yearn to forget, that make their lives worse not better. Like everything in life, memory per se is neither good nor bad, but it’s what we humans have. Ultimately, I have no real answer to the question of memory and self, just my gut response, so I come back to it because it fascinates me.

GG: In the past few days I’ve come across an impressive variety works by you that include a psychological fantasy novel (A Darker Moon), a sci-fi short story (e-razored), some delightfully witty poetry (Songs of Steelyard Sue) and another, prize-winning, literary short story on Radio 4 (Jenny). You seem to be covering a lot of bases. Where’s your heart?

JSW: I think my heart is multi-faceted. I like classical music and heavy rock. I like literary fiction and genre fiction. I like poetry and prose. I like variety and I don’t have a problem with liking lots of contrasting things simultaneously.

Having said that, much of my writing does contain elements of what many would call speculative fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, magic-realism, the supernatural, myth and fairy story. My first full poetry collection, ‘Cats and Other Myths’ aimed to explore myth and legend through modern life and visa versa. I believe the stories we make up from scratch, the ones written on a totally blank page, contain a good deal of ourselves. We pour in our anxieties and interests, the questions we want answering or are pondering. It’s a way of exploring our humanity and, if I go delving after my elusive heart, I guess a fundamental fascination with what makes ‘us humans’ tick lies at the bottom of most things I have written. ‘Songs of Steelyard Sue’ is first and foremost a sequence of poems exploring the life and times of an everyman character (or, in Sue’s case, an everymechanoidfemale character) and the point of an everyman is that he’s supposed to stand for all of us. I can’t comment on whether Steelyard Sue achieves this, but I do know that amongst the humour (and the sadness) I have tried, in my own clumsy way, to explore the human condition and the myths that drive us.

GG: Like other poets I could mention, you write clean, evocative prose that’s better than many genre best-sellers. Does the lack of recognition frustrate you?

JSW: Thank you for the very kind words. It doesn’t frustrate me, as such. As a writer, and especially a writer of poetry, I’ve come to expect it. I’d love to be able to say I write only for the love of it and lack of recognition doesn’t matter at all, but that would be lying. I do write for the love of it, but I also want my stories and poems to connect with people. Writing is communication and the more people read my books, the more I am communicating. Finding someone who likes what I have written or is moved by it is tremendously rewarding. Also, I have a cat to feed and a mortgage to pay, so earning money from my writing doesn’t go amiss either. I should love my writing to earn praise and gold alike, but failing that I remain motivated by the writing itself. At least if I’m writing I can cling to the forlorn hope that one day recognition will catch up with me. My second novel, ‘Witchlight’ is due out sometime in the next twelve months (publication schedules permitting), I’m writing the third novel and am working on my next poetry collection, so at least there’s some hope that one day recognition might come calling, if not with the current book, then the next one.

GG: Jacquie, thank you so much for participating. I echo many of your thoughts, especially the need to engage with people, and the reward of finding that people like what you’ve written. I shall watch for ‘Witchlight’ with huge interest. Good luck.

“Meet my character!”

Jacqueline Watts, author, reviewer, and blogger (click here to read her blog) sent me some questions about characters and characterisation, which I’m delighted to post below. 6620930By way of introduction, Jacquie read English at Somerville College, Oxford, and has had poetry, short stories and book reviews published in Acumen, Envoi, Hand + Star, Mslexia and Orbis, and broadcast on BBC and independent Radio. Her novel, “A Darker Moon”, a dark literary fantasy, is published by Vagabondage Press.

Jacquie’s questions:

1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or historical?   There’s a guy called Fergus Sheppard in Saxon’s Bane, and as I wrote the book he became so real that I have to remind myself he’s just a figment of my imagination.

2. When and where is the story set?   Saxon’s Bane is set in the present day in a remote English village called Allingley, during the excavation of a Saxon grave. There are also flashbacks to Allingley’s Dark Ages origins as Aegl ingas leigh, the clearing of Aegl’s people.

3. What should we know about him?   In the first pages of the book Fergus is involved in a car crash near Allingley, when his friend and colleague Kate swerves to avoid a stag. Kate dies, and Fergus hears himself left for dead. Before that life-changing moment, he’d been a high-achieving, flash salesman, but in the book he’s on a journey towards physical and mental healing. He’s stubborn, vulnerable, and emotionally incontinent, but he’s a fighter. He’s had to fight his way back from a place mapped more by faiths than by science.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?   Fergus isn’t sure any more about the boundaries between reality and mystery, or past and present, and those boundaries become more blurred as the story progresses. There’s the tramp with the stag tattoo, for example, that appeared by the wreck just as archaeologists were uncovering a peat-preserved, Saxon body nearby with uncannily similar markings.

Fergus is a damaged innocent blundering through a rural community that hides some seriously nasty secrets. Tor.com summed it up as ‘Wicker Man by way of John Fowles’.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?   Fergus starts out needing to sort out his own mental turmoil. As can happen with people with Post-Traumatic Stress, his behaviour is not always appealing. His insecurity, for example, shows in a bit of a roving eye, but the young archaeologist who’s the object of his attentions is facing her own challenges; a preternatural understanding of the Saxon graves that she can’t reconcile with her academic discipline. The two of them become drawn into a very old, sinister conflict. Fergus stays to fight not because he’s particularly courageous, but because he’s too bloody-minded to run the other way. Plus, of course, there’s the girl…

6. How’s the book doing?   I’m eagerly awaiting the first royalty statement since just after the launch! The feedback is gratifyingly good, though, with an average of 4.4 ex 34 reviews on Amazon. I was over the moon when Ross Warren, reviewing for ‘This is Horror’, described it as ‘A supremely well-written novel… Saxon’s Bane is the book to thrust into the hands of any know-it-all who claims that genre fiction cannot be literary.’

7. Great! So what’s coming next?   I’ve just finished another time-slip historical with a supernatural twist and have posted an overview and extracts here. Now I’m sketching out two alternative scenarios for the third book. This summer I’ll finish my (part time) job and focus wholly on writing, which is wonderfully exciting.

…and the tour carries on   Watch this space for the next writers to introduce their characters.

“I never knew you were like that…”

Draumr KopaCindy Callens, on the Belgian book review site Draumr Kopa, kindly asked me to do a guest blog. I shared some of the more amusing comments people have made since Saxon’s Bane was launched. Click here for Draumr Kopa.

Here’s what I had to say:

People have said some strange things to me since Saxon’s Bane was published.

“I never knew you were like that,” an elderly lady from my local church said one Sunday.

“Like what?” I asked. The question made me stop in my tracks, and the departing congregation flowed around us.

She shuffled, making that eyes-lowered squirm with which Christian ladies of a certain age simultaneously mention and avoid mentioning delicate subjects. “Well, you know…”

“No, I don’t know. What’s the matter?” I sensed that the subject causing her such embarrassment was of a reprehensible and possibly sexual nature, and my mind raced in a frantic ‘Oh-God-what-have-I-got-to-be-guilty-about’ way. I drew a blank, but the worry remained.

“I read your book.”

Ah. Huge sigh of relief. Saxon’s Bane includes pagan practices and probably isn’t a book that the vicar would read from the pulpit.

“And?”

“Your character, he, err, notices women.”

Oh, that. Perhaps she had an innocent understanding of the male psyche. I explained that the main character was a single, heterosexual man in his thirties who has been cooped up in hospital for four months, when his only female company had arrived carrying a hypodermic needle. He may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, and is certainly a little insecure. He’s courageous but stubborn, emotionally incontinent, and flawed. Yes, he notices women. Is that a problem?

The elderly lady made a slight flutter with her hands, vaguely indicative of an area below the waist, before she repeated herself. “I never knew you were like that.”

It was an early lesson for me in being a published author. The autobiographical element is assumed, but assumed selectively. Female characters may be “well drawn” but the male protagonist can only be me. His strengths are my aspirations, and his weaknesses are mine. I wonder what reaction Sebastian Faulks had after writing his brilliant novel Engleby in the ‘voice’ of a man you’d want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Perhaps after you’ve written Birdsong and Charlotte Gray your readers take a more balanced view. For those of us still establishing our literary credibility, it’s worth remembering that although good stories match flawed good against complex evil, the trick is to make the flaws appealing.

The reality, of course, is that there is inevitably some autobiographical content. As I wrote Saxon’s Bane the characters became so well known to me that I was able to become the individual I had created, even the female ones, and as I set them loose they’d tell me how each scene must develop. The boundary between self and artifice became so blurry that I sometimes had to stand back and unpick myself from this world of my own creation.

I’ve found I can also write from a female point of view, with a little help and critiquing from my wife and from women at my writers’ group. Over half of my next book is written in a female ‘voice’, and I’m told it sounds totally authentic. I shall be fascinated to hear readers’ feedback, if and when it is published. Will the few, lyrically-crafted moments of female sexuality be dismissed as ‘pure male fantasy’? Will someone again say “I never knew…”?

It is a strange and delightful thing, this ability and willingness to craft a female persona from within a male brain. I think that by the time I finished Saxon’s Bane I may even have been a little in love with one of the female protagonists.

“Great character, that Eadlin,” a man said about her after Saxon’s Bane was book of the month at his book club. “Wonderfully fleshed out.”

“Excuse me?” I looked in vain for signs that the double-entendre was intentional. Eadlin’s character, I should explain, has an earthy, girl-next-door sexuality. She has curves.

“No, I mean she’s well rounded.”

It’s great to watch someone else dig themselves into a pit of their own making. I wish, eight months after the book was released, that I’d made notes of the best remarks that have come my way. Some have been amusing, like the ones I’ve shared. Some have been gloriously, ego-boostingly flattering, while some have been crushing, like the local independent bookseller who declined to stock because she was “inundated with local authors”.

But the prize for the funniest has to go to my wife’s mother, who held on for some time to the view that her son-in-law should be out earning a salary rather than indulging in all this writing stuff. My wife rang her up when Solaris bought the English language rights to Saxon’s Bane.

“Wonderful news, Mummy! Geoffrey’s got a publishing contract!”

“Oh.” A pause. “But has he got work?”

 

 

The WIP

Carol McGrathHistorical Novelist Carol McGrath kindly tagged me in her blog last week, and asked me what I’m working on. Carol, by way of reciprocal introduction, writes wonderful novels about the royal women of King Harold’s court in the years before and after the Norman conquest. Her book ‘The Handfasted Wife’ was a finalist for this year’s Romance Novelist Association’s historical award. Click the icon for more details.

Carol asked me several questions:

What am I working on?

I’m at the final draft and editing phase of a thriller with a supernatural twist. When newly affluent businessman Paul Devlin and his girlfriend Fiona buy a barn conversion near Halstead Hall, they think they’re buying a rural idyll. They are met by a wall of resentment, and are drawn into a conflict that has its roots in Dark Age, pagan times. There’s a fuller overview under ‘Current Projects’. I’ve also posted the first two chapters here and here.

What inspired you to write this?

Two years ago my wife and I visited the lovely Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which dates from the 12th to the 17th centuries. In the valley below there are traces of the ‘lost village’ of Nether Haddon, visible now only in ridge-and-furrow field patterns, tracks that are just patterns in pasture, and some exquisite wall paintings in Haddon Hall’s chapel. No-one knows for sure why the village disappeared, some time around the 14th century.

Wall Painting2Those wall paintings made the lost village seem more human. History is always written about the great families, the Vernons and the Manners of Haddon, but what about the peasant kneeling in the grass? What story might he tell?

So I had the idea of a rural dynasty that was born, over six hundred years ago, with a terrible oath that bound the Bonnevaux family to the soil and people of Halgestede, the ‘Holy Place’. In the present day, the Halstead estate is crumbling and the oath has been forgotten by the Bonnevaux but not, it seems, by the families that have served them for centuries. Families that might, perhaps, have inspired Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Land:

His dead are in the churchyard – thirty generations laid.

Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made.

And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line

Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

What’s your writing process?

I’m not sure I’ve defined it yet. It involves a lot of staring into space, inhabiting the world I’m trying to create. In the summer I write in an arbour I built in the garden, where I’m most productive. In the winter I replicate that as much as possible in my study by playing background ‘music’ of birdsong. As I come close to finishing a book I become very focused and tend to ignore all other tasks. Bills, jobs, even friends. At the beginning of a project it’s like wading out into a river, slow and sticky. Then the current takes you and nothing else matters.

Carol: Who would you like to introduce?

dave new pic mono copyDave Weaver‘s writing ranges from YA fantasy to literary fiction. He is married to a Japanese lady, and his fascination with Japan has produced some stunning work. He describes his love for the ‘beautiful colours of its landscapes and the subtlety of its culture, for its contradictions and certainties, intelligence and passion, spirit and diversity. Yet beneath all these things lies another Japan; one of ghosts and shadows, unspoken secrets, demons from the past and uncertain visions of the future. It’s what makes this intriguing country ultimately unknowable, unique, Nippon…

Dave will blog next week at http://daveweaver-unreal.blogspot.co.uk/

photo for WIP blogLibby McGugan and I share the same publisher, Solaris. Her fast-paced, intelligent novel ‘The Eidolon’ came out just after Saxon’s Bane. Libby grew up with an ambition to join the Rebel Alliance in a Galaxy Far, Far away, or get a job in film production (it was a tough choice). Instead she studied medicine and worked as an emergency physician. A travel junkie, she’s been trekking in the Himalaya of Bhutan, inter-railing round Europe and backpacking in Chile, USA and Borneo. She plays the fiddle and loves TED talks. Her biggest influence was probably Yoda. Libby will blog next week at http://libbymcgugan.com

toby_frostToby Frost always wanted to be an astronaut, but somehow reality got in the way. He trained to be a barrister, but decided to follow a career writing about spaceships instead. He is the author of four comedy novels, published by Myrmidon books, about the misadventures of British space captain Isambard Smith and his somewhat dysfunctional crew as they travel the galaxy conquering space and making tea. In 2013, his science fiction novel Straken was published by Black Library. The fifth Space Captain Smith novel, End of Empires, is due out in August 2014. Toby’s website, which contains details about the books along with other content, is at: www.toby.frost.com.”

A short story for Remembrance

Poppy DayMy father had excellent care in the final months of his life, but as I watched the nursing staff, I saw that their care was wrapped in the instinctive condescension of youth towards age; the louder tones that assumed deafness, and the same, mildly patronising manner that an adult might use with a petulant, dull-witted infant. One such interaction started me thinking about what my father had been doing when he was the age of his carers.

The ‘Arthur’ of this story is not my father. Dad’s war was in Africa rather than Korea, but as I watched the nurse leave the room that day, I thought ‘Dear God, if only you knew…’

SHORT BURSTS

“ART’AR?”

The legs standing beside Arthur were clad in blue, uniform slacks above a feminine pair of ankles.  They disrupted his thoughts the way the dawn chorus interrupts a nightmare.

“Wha’ are you doing down there, Art’ar?”  She spoke in a sing-song, Oriental accent, surprise lifting her voice.  Arthur twisted in his corner, trapped in a foetal crouch between sensible shoes and an unyielding wall.  The legs folded gracefully onto their knees, and a face peered into his.  Flat, Chinese features, almond eyes wide and questioning.  Arthur felt his fists unclench where his knuckles had pushed into his temples, but the pounding of a pneumatic drill outside the window made him flinch and squirm again.  She reached forward and rested her fingertips on the back of his hand in a cool, butterfly touch of calm.

“I will shu’ the window.”

The noise outside plummeted from close combat gunfire to an un-silenced motorbike.

“They are mending the road.  Shall I take you to the dayroom?  It is much quieter.”  She pushed his wheelchair in front of him.  Arthur began to feel foolish.  Thank God it was the Chink girl that found him, not that muscle-bound bastard Grice.

“Come on, Art’ar,” she squatted in front of him again, legs demurely together, reaching under his arms, “let me help you.”

The body inside the white, starched tunic seemed delicate, but the upwards pressure was strong.  The movement pushed a plastic name badge towards his face; Mei Li, Care Assistant, it reminded him, in white letters cut into clinical blue.  Arthur wondered how he could recover his dignity.  The hint of a breast behind the badge called to him like a forgotten melody, and he scrambled to find his feet.

“It will be lunchtime, soon.  Steak and kidney pie today.  Good?”  She tucked his feet onto the footrests.  Arthur liked this girl.  She showed respect, and at least she spoke English.  He wondered if he’d faced any of her ancestors in Korea.  They’d been plucky fighters, the Chinks.  Stopping a charge with a bolt action Lee Enfield was like trying to stop a swarm of ants with a pin.  Had Mei Li ever been taught about how seven hundred faced seven thousand on the Imjin?

“There.  A nice place by the window.”  Sunlight streamed into the dayroom.  Blossom the colour of Mei Li’s lipstick cascaded over the lawn, and Arthur struggled to remember the name of the shrub.  No matter.  They all had names like social diseases, anyway.

“I’ve got a nasty dose of wisteria down my left side.”  He chuckled until he saw the looks around him.  He hadn’t realised he’d spoken out loud.  In the sudden silence he heard Mei Li telling the dayroom nurse about how she’d found him.

“I’m not deaf,” he shouted over his shoulder, hearing the betrayal in his voice, then slumped back in his chair when he saw she was talking to Grice.  Arthur’s next words were muttered at the garden.  “And I’m not mad, neither.”

He’d just had a bad turn.  Strange how things came back to you, every ball-tightening moment, even after sixty years.  Nowadays he forgot most stuff in sixty seconds.

ARTHUR JOLTED OUT of a doze, arms flailing, as the lunchtime gong rumbled its summons to the deaf.  His hand connected with a cup and saucer, sending thick, institutional china rolling over the carpet at the end of a splashed parabola of tea.

Every attack started with gongs.  Gongs and bugles, to break your nerve, so that it was a relief when they broke cover and came at you, yelling and screaming in their quilted jackets.

“For fuck’s sake, Arthur.”  Grice knelt with a roll of paper towel, mopping the tea.  “If you’re gonna drop things, I’ll give you a plastic beaker.”  Arthur pulled a face at Grice’s back.  Grice was all mouth.  Dangerous.  Especially when he braced himself over you with one hand on each arm of the wheelchair, pushing his face intimidatingly close.

“How’dya like that, granddad?  Shall I give oo an ickle baby mug?  Wiv a nice ickle spout to drink froo?”

“Don’t talk to me like that.”  Arthur’s bombast sounded querulous, but the memory of youth was strong in his mind.  “You’re supposed to be a ‘Care Assistant’, but we get bugger all care and not much assistance.”

Arthur was proud of that.  He’d been practising those words in his head, but hadn’t been brave enough to say them.  Around him several residents cackled with delight, and for a moment Arthur felt a hero.  A drip of cold tea fell onto his forearm as Grice gripped the paper towel more tightly.

“I think you’d better cool off a bit before I take you into lunch.  If I’m feeling kind I might remember you.  But there again, I might not.”

Stupid bloody gesture.  He’d done something even sillier that day in Korea, and got away with it.  He’d heard a Bren gunner hosing his fire across the field, wasting ammunition, so he’d walked up behind him, in full view of the enemy, and kicked him in the arse.

“Short bursts, you wanker,” he’d shouted, then dropped into cover as bullets smacked the air past his head.  The man was pale and sweating like stale cheese, his fear almost disintegrating into panic.

“Move over, I’ll show you.  Magazine.”  The reassuring weight of the butt nestled into his shoulder, the wood hard against his cheek.  Oh, that glorious smell of hot, oiled metal and cordite.  “Target, aim off, squeeze.”  Tattap.  “Target, aim off, squeeze.”  Tattap.  Tattap.  Tattattap.  The gun chattered to him like a lover.  He counted twelve bursts out of a thirty round magazine, and eight of them knocked over a Chink.  “Now you do it.”  Smart Arse Sergeant Major.  God, if only they knew.  He’d grabbed that Bren to stave off his own funk.  Now he just remembered how the bodies lay, humped in the killing ground.

LUNCH WAS FINISHED.  Grice hadn’t come back for him.  Outside a blackbird started singing; liquid gold in the shrubbery.  A bird had sung that day, too, warbling peace over a hillside of huddled dead and bleating wounded.  He’d shut his eyes then, as now, to savour the sound, to isolate it.  If you concentrated, you could ignore the metallic scrape of magazines being reloaded, and the dry sound of boots on rock as their dead were lifted to the rear.  It had flown away when the gongs started again.  Sensible bird.

VISITING TIME.  Relatives were spending an awkward hour with the inconveniently old.  In the corner a middle-aged woman was holding the hand of, of…  Names.  He couldn’t remember them any more, not unless they were in your face like the badge on Mei Li’s tit.

“Wake up Arthur, Harry’s here.”  Grice spoke in the gentle, caring tones he put on for visitors.  “He’s been a bit strange today,” he added to the grey-haired man fetching an armchair.  “Didn’t want his lunch.”

The vaguely-familiar man stretched to squeeze Arthur’s hand, smiling, but his greeting froze on his lips as Arthur spoke.

“Harry’s dead.”

He’d never forget that name.  Harry Brooks.  Brooksie.  Best mates.  Harry died after the third wave.  Arthur had found him thrashing on the ground, mumbling like a spastic with half his face shot away and his brains trickling into his hair.  Arthur took one look at that wrecked head and slammed in the morphine, over and over again, then held his hand and forced himself to look into Harry’s remaining eye until the light went out.

“Harry’s dead,” he repeated, less confidently now because the man was staring at him as if he’d been struck.

“Dad, it’s Harry.  Your son, Harry.”

Arthur felt his face dissolve.

“Don’t cry, Dad.  It’s all right.”  A hand gripped his arm, squeezing reassurance.

“I killed him.”  The pressure to unburden rose like a balloon of gas in his gut.

“Dad, please.”

“With morphine.”  Shouting now.

“Calm down, Dad.  You’ll make yourself ill.”

“Getting a bit upset, are we?”  Grice appeared beside them, releasing the brakes on Arthur’s wheelchair.  “You’re disturbing everyone, Arthur.  I think you should go back to your room for a nice, quiet rest.  Gimme five to settle him, Harry, then come through.”  The words were spoken over Arthur’s head as the grey-haired, sad-eyed Harry rotated out of sight.

“Bloody hell, it stinks in here.”  Grice strode to Arthur’s window and opened it, just as the pneumatic drill opened up in a sustained judder of noise, shaking photo frames into motion along a shelf.  Even Grice changed his mind and shut the window before turning back into the room.

“What’s that, Granddad?  Short bursts?  Whadya mean, short bursts?  Oh, for fuck’s sake, you’ve pissed yourself.  That wasn’t a short burst, was it, you senile git?  You’ve fucking sprayed it everywhere.”

Mei Li cleaned him up.  Arthur gripped her hands as she helped him into clean trousers.

“Forgive me.”

“Art’ar, there is nothing to forgive.”

Arthur shut his eyes.  He didn’t have the words to explain.

**********

Short Bursts is available for free download within an ebook of my short stories, published by Solaris in both Kindle and iBook formats. Click the poppy below for more details.

Poppy Day