Final blog of the year

Hope you all had a good Christmas and Santa was kind.  Ours was nice and quiet.  We went away for a couple of days, only local-ish though, to the Hilton Hotel in Bromsgrove.  The weather was very cold, though bright, and we enjoyed a rural, frosty walk through beautiful Chaddesley Woods and the nearby villages.

I am now turning my attention to my second OU assignment, the dreaded eTMA 02.  We are required to write a 1,500-word story, which must be submitted by 23rd January at the very latest.

Despite promises to myself, I did no work on it over the festive period.  I today forced myself to sit down and brainstorm a few ideas, since I still lack inspiration.  It will have to strike me at some point.  This assignment is the biggie, the one which counts for 70% of the final mark.  I really want to achieve a higher mark than the 76% I got for eTMA 01, in order to bring my overall mark up.

It’s just a shame that I find watching YouTube clips from The Chart Show (remember that?) infinitely more entertaining.  I am loving reliving those teenage memories, of the Indie Charts and Rock Charts and what seemed at the time like innovative TV graphics.

I adored The Chart Show when I was 14 and 15, even more than Top of the Pops actually.  I never used to get out of bed until it finished, which was about 1:00pm!

I may not be the biggest fan of Christmas per se, but I admit I do love having this time off work and spending my days doing things I wouldn’t normally do during the day, such as poring over YouTube clips or reading books.

Happy New Year to everyone.  L xx

Vote Tom and Camilla!!

Woo-hoo – the Strictly final is tonight!!  And yes, I shall be voting for the delightful Tom and Camilla.

I have completed my OU coursework!  Yes, I know I have got ahead of myself but I wanted to finish working through the exercises on the course website by Christmas, so I can thereafter concentrate purely on the big and scary second eTMA, which counts for 70% of the overall mark and has to be submitted by 23rd January.

I still have no clue what to write for eTMA 02.  Our task is to do a 1,500-word story which contains time-shift and dialogue – and one or more of the following subjects: honour, passion, hair, shame, music, abandonment, prison, a letter, a musical instrument or a knife!!

I need to sit down over Christmas and have a serious brainstorm of ideas that these random topics suggest to me.  I am still half hoping inspiration will strike me in my sleep.

It has been a brilliant course.  I have learned a lot.  I just hope I will now have the confidence to continue writing once I’m out on my own, as it were, free of the limitations and discipline of the course exercises.

Nathan and I are actually going to be having some time away over the Christmas period, which is a first for us.  We are having a couple of nights at a hotel not a million miles from home but we just wanted to escape from said home for a couple of days.  This looks set to be our quietest Christmas for about ten years (which is fine by me), hence we can afford to get away for a while.

By the way, I have received my membership renewal form from the malicious biddy society who gave me that hate-filled critique of my Gap Year novel earlier this year.

Er no, don’t think I’ll be filling that one in somehow.  I can’t afford, especially in these lean times, to fork out nearly £100 a year to have my work spewed over with their vitriol.

The feedback from my OU tutor has shown me how constructive and encouraging critiques can be.  I agreed with everything my tutor said (and not just the praise), and was so appreciative that she never resorted to spite or inaccuracies.

By way of example of the latter, the Gap Year reviewer informed me that I ‘do not understand punctuation’ – when the previous year the same organisation described my spelling, punctuation and grammar as ‘flawless!’  Work that one out.

The Key

This was our second tutorial.  We were asked to write a short story of between 500 and 750 words containing three characters and using two time frames.

To make things doubly fun(!) we were required to open the piece with the line ‘Did you see that?’ and pick one of the following as title and stimuli: The Cup, The Key or The Door!

I must admit I seriously struggled with this exercise and actually contemplated chickening out.  Being a chicken, though, is not my style!  After brainstorming ideas about cups, doors and keys for several days, I finally came up with this.  It is far from the best piece I have ever written, but I at least feel much better about myself for having had a go.

 

‘Did you see that?’

‘What’s that, Sean?’  I was playing for time, having just spotted what he had, winking by the gearbox in the tapering afternoon light .  Oh bugger.

‘Think someone’s dropped something here.’  Sean carefully picked up the tiny silver key and twizzled it between two fingers.  ‘Chloe’s got one like this on her charm bracelet.’  He smiled involuntarily soppily, the way he did at any mention of his new wife.

‘Oh that,’ I said inanely, flicking my eyes from the road for a split-second.

‘Didn’t think jewellery was your thing, Daz.  Bet I can guess what’s going on here.’

‘What, mate?’  I was actually holding my breath.  When I changed gear I left telltale clammy handprints on the steering wheel, which I swiftly covered.

******

Lucid scenes from last night zipped through my mind.  Chloe and me on the levered-back passenger seat.  She was on top of me; collectively we were on top of Barr Beacon, a hilly beauty spot always dotted with cars that have similarly steamed-up windows and sticky-bodied occupants.  The silver charm bracelet she always wore jangled throughout, in synch with her every bounce.

Chlo is a truly filthy cow, still my favourite, despite all the competition she’s had.  I had to admit I was stunned when my shy friend introduced her as his new girlfriend two years ago.  Seanie was flattered by her affection, and rapidly proposed.  He is her Mr Reliable, she told me the first time we were together, shortly after their engagement announcement, but she has needs he hasn’t it in him to satisfy.  I am hardly in a position to moralise.

 ‘I thought you were going to give me up once you and Seanie-babes were married,’ I panted, after we’d done the business.

‘You’re my addiction, Darryl.’  She looked bloody magnificent in the winter starlight, with those astonishing breasts half in, half out, and her platinum curls naughtily tousled.  ‘I lasted four months of monotonous monogamy with him.’

‘Must be a record for you.’

‘You can talk.’

‘The way I see it, darling,’ I grinned, ‘I have a special skill.  I, like you, am an absolute belter when it comes to the old horizontal poker game.  And I just consider it my duty to share this skill with as many members of the human race as possible.  We’re both providing a service really.’

She took my cigarette packet from the dashboard and pretended to slap me with it as we chuckled.  ‘How many women has it been this year?’

‘Seventeen.’

‘I’m sooo jealous,’ she mock simpered, popping a ciggie into my mouth and lighting one for herself.  Sean was unaware of that addiction too, so she always brought mints to our trysts.  She swivelled the fogged window down a small way.  We both shivered and pulled our errant clothes up around us.

‘Sean’s a lucky bastard, though, if he gets this every night.’

‘If only he wanted it every night.’  She expelled a furious spout of smoke.  ‘That’s the trouble.’

‘He still thinks you go to aerobics on a Thursday?’

‘Yup,’ she smirked, ‘so I’ve got an alibi when I go home all sweaty.’

******

The key charm must have broken off her bracelet without us noticing.  We usually try to be more careful.  Then again, I had no idea Sean’s car was going to break down and I’d be fetching him from the garage today.  He actually told me I was ‘a top mate for doing this.’

‘It’s a present for someone, isn’t it?’ he said now, squinting at the miniature key like the detective who has finally cracked the case.

I almost guffawed with relief.  Why had I even worried?  ‘Got it in one.  This is Chlo’s actually.  She lent it me because I want to get something similar for my mum.  I thought rather than try to remember and describe it in H Samuel, it would easier to take it along.  As you say, I must have dropped it.  You can give it her back now, if you like.’

‘Cheers Daz, I will.  I’m sure your mum’ll love it.’  He smiled and consigned the key to his pocket.  His little face was as trusting as a baby’s.  ‘Chlo’s so sweet, helping you out like that.’

My eyes in the rear-view mirror betrayed the briefest mirth.  Good old Seanie.  Only he would be duped by an excuse like that.

I suppose 76% isn’t bad

I have decided I feel a bit better about my OU result.  I got 30 out of 33 for Flying Like Superman, which I am well chuffed with, and 23 out of 33 and 34 respectively for the Ellery Crisp piece and the Croatian one.

My tutor told me I ‘write with clarity and skill’ and ‘understand the connection between character and atmosphere.’  She said Bruno in my Croatian story was such a vivid character, she wondered whether he is one I had been previously developing.  He actually isn’t, I created him purely for that assignment, so I was flattered by her assumption.

Her main criticism was that I ought to keep things a bit simpler when writing to restrictive word counts, and cut down on excessive backstory.  I agree with her – I do tend to over-complicate storylines.  I am so paranoid about my work coming across as ‘boring’ that I try to cram in too much story.

So really I can’t complain about my result.  I have chatted with fellow OU students on the course forum, and quite a few achieved similar marks.  At least the criticisms were just, unlike certain reviews I’ve received this year which were simply rude and vitriolic.

Sretan Božić Bruno

Part 3 of the tutor marked assignment asked us to, in 500 words, write a story or part of a story that fictionalised something mentioned on the radio.

We were asked to choose a setting, which needed to be described vividly, and tell this mini-story from the narrative point of view of a man or woman (a character) whom the story directly affects.  We could not use any dialogue.

The news item I chose was about the Croatian Prime Minister banning office Christmas parties and the exchanging of interoffice Christmas cards in the public sector due to the credit crunch and a need to balance the Croatian economy for the the first time since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.  I must say I never thought I would ever have need to incorporate a Croatian phrase into a story!!

I am usually grateful my working hours afford me sunset walks home in winter.  This evening, though, I slogged along uninspired by our famously flame and indigo dusk vista.

I was sapped by today’s news from the boss and, more gallingly, the repercussions of my own woeful shyness last year.

Mr Dominikovich had called us in just after lunch to relay an announcement by our Prime Minister.  Ivo Sanader was this Christmas, due to the global credit crisis, banning all civil servants in Croatia from holding office parties or exchanging interoffice cards.

The other suits solemnly concurred that, with the Government freezing public sector wages, festivities were a reckless expense.  I nodded along with them, yet my heart was plunging.  I resented that to none of my colleagues was the regional Christmas get-together the highlight of a dreary year.  That this time around I planned boosting myself with Maraschino, our punchy native liqueur, and asking out Adelina from the Zagreb office.

Now I was thwarted from even sending a card wishing her ‘Sretan Božić’ – Merry Christmas.  The internal postal system was too tightly monitored, and I was not privy to her home address.

I rammed my hands in my raincoat pockets – it was a typically soggy Croatian winter – and masochistically recalled meeting the beaming blonde Adelina at the last do.  We were among the few unattached young people there, and together we blossomed.  That night I felt like so much more than timid Bruno Poljak from the Zadar office – yet I baulked at asking for her number.

Since then we have been in frequent e-mail correspondence – on a frustratingly official footing.  Civil Service communications are so regulated, I would never dare sneak in anything more personal.

As the flamboyant sky dimmed behind the ancient town, I jabbed my key into the apartment block door.  I noticed more sharply tonight the paint flaking around the doorframe; the communal bin erupting with eight bedsits’ rubbish.  As I trudged upstairs, the flickering strip light cast an eerie strobe effect on the dust-sugared banisters.

Fat lot I had to offer Adelina.  By the time Prime Minister Sanader lifted the party embargo, she would probably attend with a husband in tow.

My place was an icebox as usual, economising on heating bills being a universal exercise in these times.  I pelted my shoes under the bed and sagged on to its unmade sheets.  I eased off my glasses and lay rubbing my eyes, wondering whether I should change careers.

Then I spotted the answerphone winking.  I flopped a finger on to the play button, and heard Adelina’s vivacious tones.  She was disappointed not to be seeing me this Christmas but hoped we could meet meanwhile, in a non-work setting.

I knocked my alarm clock and several books off the bedside table in my joyous scramble for a pen.  I had no idea how she acquired my home number but, as I scrawled hers on a bookmark, knew I would find out soon.

Reverend Ellery Crisp

This was part 2 of the tutor marked assignment.  We were asked to, in 500 words, write a mini portrait of a character, in either past or present tense.

I chose to revisit a character I developed a couple of years ago for my novel Gap Year and to whom I warmed hugely.

The old speedboat on St Matthew’s vicarage driveway was an oft commented-upon curiosity among Lower Bratchley residents who visited to book weddings or Christenings.

When they learned it had seen no water since the Reverend Ellery Crisp won it on the game show Bullseye twenty years ago, they wondered why he had never sold the rusting craft.

‘It’s sort of emblematic,’ he would explain, his eyes sprightly behind his giant spectacles, ‘that I’m living proof of the cliché about the Bullseye speedboat, the top prize, always being won by West Midlands contestants.  I can’t exactly race it up the canal, but I just love the idea of having an exhibit from TV history in the village.  It’s such a talking point.’

In his snug lounge to which he ushered parishioners, framed shots of Ellery with the likes of Bruce Forsyth and Dale Winton nestled amid the more holy paraphernalia and imagery.

‘Yes, I won a fortnight in St Lucia on The Price is Right ten years ago,’ he liked to regale, unprompted.

This Black Country village, known colloquially as ‘Lower B,’ had been Ellery’s parish for the majority of his long ministry.  The thousand residents, who all knew each other, be it by heart, sight or reputation, were the family he never had.  A great many had known Ellery Crisp right from when he put a Last Supper dot-to-dot in front of them at Sunday school, and were protectively proud of their ‘celebrity’ cleric.

He in turn embraced their idiosyncrasies and warmth.  When Gertrude the goose was stolen from old Mr Shorthouse’s garden, Ellery offered a hefty reward for the beloved poultry pet’s return.  He adored the fact not an eyelid batted when the neighbourhood transvestite ‘Gracie’ – previously Graham – attended every evensong in Ethel Austin pastels and full make-up.

While ubiquitous on quiz programmes and in the press, Ellery remained solidly a community figure.  Thus, besides being dear to his congregation, he was warmed to by even the more secular of Lower B’s population.  He walked everywhere, though his distinctive gliding gait made some question whether there were actually castors beneath his cassock rather than feet.  He possessed no evident neck either, so his perfectly ball-shaped face, which was invariably covered in a hearty smile, appeared to be dolloped on top of his dog collar.

His glides to the newsagents in quest of Sudoku Monthly or Test Your Knowledge frequently took all day.
‘Still trying for Millionaire,’ he would tap his quiz book cover while pausing to natter in the shop, outside a retirement bungalow or on the canal bridge, ‘that’s the big goal.  Just have to keep phoning, and swotting.  Been ten years now.  By the law of averages, I have to make it on there someday.’

Ellery had already earmarked his fantasy Who Wants to be a Millionaire winnings to the St Matthew’s Primary School fund, a holiday, Christian Aid and that perennial favourite, the church roof appeal.

The speedboat, meanwhile, would be staying put.

Flying Like Superman

This was part 1 of our tutor marked assignment.  We were asked to, in 500 words, write a complete mini-story where the central character is a child.  Write it from the child’s narrative point of view (using ‘I’), and in the past tense.  Pay attention to the kind of language a child might use; and to the observations particular to a child.

Use as your setting: a busy city street, where something has just happened, before the story actually begins.

Use some dialogue.

‘Was that boy trying to fly like Superman, Mummy?  Is that why he jumped off the top of that car park?  Is he magic?  Why isn’t he moving anymore?  Mummy?’

The big boy was lying still on the pavement.  I couldn’t see all of him because there were tons of people crowding round him who seemed to rush out of nowhere.  There were cars everywhere, the drivers were slowing right down to have a look as well.  I thought they wanted to see if he was going to fly off again.  I wanted to see that too, but Mummy grabbed my hand very tightly and pulled me away.

‘Come on Katy.’

I kept trying to look back at the boy.  He seemed to be really peaceful, but some of the people were screaming.  To my horror, Mummy’s hand was shaking.  Suddenly I felt frightened and didn’t want to be there in the town anymore.  I wanted to get home and play with my new Bratz doll.

Mummy stopped in a doorway and fished in her big bag for her mobile phone.

‘Police please,’ I heard her say.  She sounded different, her voice was so squeaky and scared.  I couldn’t hear everything she said over all the screaming and traffic, although I made out a word I hadn’t heard before. 

‘Suicide.’  It sounded a bit like Superman.

As Mummy finished on the phone, a load of big boys and girls came running out of the multi-storey car park.  One of them was our neighbour Billie.  She smoked a lot, and my daddy once said her face was like a pincushion because of all the gold stuff she wore, but she was always nice to me and once gave me a packet of Gummi Frogs.  Today she was crying so hard the black stuff she wore round her eyes had leaked all down her face.

‘Wendy,’ she saw Mummy and threw herself at her, ‘that’s Aaron!’

‘Oh no!’  Mummy’s face turned the colour of sponge cake mix.

Aaron was a boy I’d seen Billie with sometimes.  I’d heard my mummy and Billie’s mummy talk about him once, when they thought I couldn’t hear.  It sounded like Aaron was poorly.  Mummy said something about him ‘going off the rails,’ though he didn’t look old enough to be a train driver.

‘He’d said he was gonna jump.  Most of us were begging him not to do it, but those bloody bullies were egging him on, shouting things like “How hard d’you reckon you’ll bounce?”  It was their fault the poor lad was so unhappy in the first place.  All your fault!’  Billie screeched the last bit at some of the boys as they came out.  ‘Aaron’s dead because of you.’

Mummy clasped Billie’s arms to stop her hitting the nasty boys, who carried on laughing and texting on their mobiles as they ran off.

Dead?  I finally understood that our Superman would never be able to fly again, and I started to cry too.

76%

The results are in for the first OU assignment.  Not surprisingly I was shaking when I opened the marked piece this morning.  I got 76%, which apparently counts as a ‘good pass.’  I am really not sure whether to be happy with that.

I am sitting here at the kitchen table feeling pretty dazed, letting it sink in and not sure whether to cry or not!  Deep down, I know I would have liked to do better.  I guess mediocre marks are the story of my life.  I never scored streams of straight As at school – I used to pass, but always with Bs and Cs.

The tutor gave me good comments overall, especially for Flying Like Superman, though said my vicar piece and the Croatian Christmas one were ‘too big for the word count’ and needed simplifying.

I won’t be doing any more courses, that’s for sure – way too stressful.

Dawn Raid on Lidl

In 250 words, write a mini-story that a shopping list might tell, including character(s) and place.

Example: Baked beans, bread, soya milk, chocolate, coffee, lettuce, cigarettes, hand cream.

You might begin: ‘It was 10am on a hot Tuesday in late August, and Jake was running across the park towards the corner shop …’


Dawn Raid on Lidl

‘Batten down those hatches,’ urged the excitable breakfast show DJ, ‘we’re in for a seriously chilly one.  And this snow that’s on its way looks set to stick for the weekend, so get your shopping done early folks.’

Dawn had a habit of acting too literally upon advice, and the onset of extreme weather constituted an emergency on her scale.

It was eight on a Saturday, and she was enjoying the first coffee of the day with the kitchen radio for company.  Within five minutes of the weather warning, though, she was in her woollies and waterproofs, coffee abandoned, car keys primed and a spontaneous shopping list squiggled on the envelope which had contained her latest gas bill.

The morning sky was a malevolent foil-grey, and by the time Dawn parked outside Lidl the promised snow was pelting down.

‘Can’t hang about,’ she said to herself as she shakily steered a trolley into the store.  She hurtled around the aisles, shopping for a blizzard, reciting her supplies list.  ‘Loo roll multipack, de-icer, bread, milk, two tins of soup, no best make that four, better stock up on Lemsips, in case I come down with something, tissues – ditto.’

When Dawn drove home, boot stocked with bulging bags, the snow had already ceased.  The radio warnings proved unfounded, no blizzard materialised, and Dawn bought no more soup or loo rolls for two months.