Pulling down the blinds – a true story

We are mid-way through a big house build project. As part of the build, we had the windows changed. The new ones really do make a difference to the noise from the road, but when they were fitted, the blinds in our bedroom were removed. The fitters put them up again, but inexpertly. So for the last few months, we’ve mainly just left them shut. It’s a bedroom. We’re generally asleep in there. The blinds are going anyway when the whole room gets redecorated.

Yesterday, the decorators wanted to check how much paint they’d need for the bedroom. So I opened the main blind. It’s not the first time I’ve done it, but the cord was so tangled I’ve tried to avoid doing it too often. Every previous time, I’ve carefully shut it again afterwards. Yesterday, I forgot.

Fast forward to the evening. Normally I’m the first adult upstairs, putting the kids to bed. Yesterday I was out at a community meeting, so it was my husband’s turn. Guess what? Annoyed that the blind was a) open, and b) not working perfectly, he yanked the cord and the whole thing came down.

By the time I came home, he was seething. It was the decorators’ fault, for wanting to look in the bedroom. It was my fault for permitting it to be opened rather than just switching a light on, and my fault for leaving the blind open when it was bedtime. He was ridiculously angry. I realised in part it was frustration with the build overall, and also that he hadn’t succeeded in fixing it back up and had broken our children’s reach-the-sink stool when standing on it to try. “I’m fed up with all this,” he complained. “Stupid blinds that fall off on me and I’ve had to throw a stool away because this room hasn’t been decorated yet.”

I picked up the blind, stood on a suitable-for-adults tough plastic stool and eventually managed to balance it on the top of the clips that hold it up – one had cracked when he pulled the blind down. It wasn’t perfect, there was maybe a centimetre of gap at the bottom where the cords had stuck and I could not get it flat, but it was maybe 99% acceptable given the imperfect situation.
“Don’t touch it again,” I told him. “It’s carefully balanced. We’ll need to get an expert in to set up the new ones when the room’s redone.”
“Don’t tell me not to do things I wasn’t going to do anyway,” he sulked.

About half an hour later, I was loading the dishwasher when I heard a shout. I ran upstairs. My husband had again pulled down the blinds.
“It was all wrong!” he said. “There was a chink and I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with all the light it would have let in.”
I was a bit cross. “Well now there’s no blind at all,” I said. “You’ve pulled two of the clips out of the wall and I’m not even sure if it can be put up again.”

It took me nearly 20 minutes – during which I heard again how it was all someone else’s fault except the actual blind-destroyer – but eventually, at nearly midnight, I managed to loop the cord over the remaining wall clips and suspend the blind. There was now a fifteen centimetre gap at the top of the blind. This was considerably worse than the balanced blind – perhaps 80% acceptable due to my hard work, but the best we were going to be able to make it. After all, neither of us are window blind fitters.
Until we actually went to sleep, my husband maintained that it would be easier to get sleep with the light coming in through a big gap at top of the blind than to suffer a tiny gap at the bottom.
Of course what we really need is to push on with the redecoration, and get new, tailor-made blinds on all three bedroom windows, that blend in perfectly with the rest of the room’s new colour scheme, but – even though we both know that – it all seemed to fly out the window when we got obsessed with a narrow focus on the short-term window covering.

What did we learn?:
* due to circumstances beyond our control, the state of the blind overall was not what we would want in an ideal world. But for the purpose we had – sleeping in a darkened room – it was sufficient;
* having the blind up was better than trying to cope without the blind all together which would have resulted in street and car lights visible all night and – when the bedroom light was on – greater exposure of us to the street outside while in our nightclothes or getting dressed;
* the option to purchase alternative window coverings was open to us, and always had been. We were not precluded from getting amazing curtains, it was just that having blinds made sense for those windows;
* in any case, we had already had the blinds fully operational for some time, and were going to purchase new ones when the room was redecorated in a few week’s time;
* besides, it was bedtime, you can only purchase window coverings if the shops are open or if you have the time to wait for internet purchases to be deliveries which tend not to be instantaneous (we’d still have been curtainless last nigh and probably a few nights more, even if the end product turn out to be great longer term);
* resolving the room’s need for redecoration soon would alleviate the whole window covering issue. Impatience with a bigger process was not only unhelpful but downright damaging to our interests;
* when something goes wrong unexpectedly, the people that caused the situation to occur may be multiple, but it is not helpful to blame others and refuse accept your own role in the process may not always be entirely positive, because that damages relationships;
* experts in something unrelated to the issue at hand – such as window fitters and decorators – can cause more problems when they wade into a similar but unrelated field – such as blind fitting – but non-experts will regard the two fields as indistinguishable and not understand why they got it so wrong;
* sometimes valuing what you have when it is 99% acceptable is better than demanding 100%, and risking bringing a whole structure down on top of you and ending up with something less good or no blind at all;
* there are people in life that – when something doesn’t work out as they wish – scream, shout, look to blame, look to say I told you so and that the whole disaster is not what they thought would happen. There are others that find an alternative stool to stand on and make the damned blind workable.

BFF wanted

“You and me
We used to be together
Everyday together always
I really feel
That I’m losing my best friend
I can’t believe
This could be the end…”

The song, Don’t Speak by No Doubt, is about the breakup of a relationship. It’s about the end of love. When we think of love, we always think of sex, romantic love, or possibly family love. But the loss of friendship hurts too.

Do you have a BFF? Most people do, if you believe what you see in TV and read about in magazines.

I love my friends. I don’t see enough of my friends. Distance, and time due to childcare are mainly to blame. But I realised that, with the exception of my husband, no one would – if asked – name me as their best friend.
Those competitions? Win one for you and one for your best friend? Most of my friends would be surprised if I won the second one for them. They’d be touched but also embarrassed.
Oh.
Do I have that role in her life? She doesn’t in mine.

I have a good friend I see every day. She’s probably the best friend I have at the moment, although I know that the BFF spot is already taken in her life. We have much in common but enough difference to be interesting. She’s fun to talk with, hugely intelligent, entertaining, caring, endlessly kind. Now her  job has moved and within three months, they will have moved across the country.

I feel like I’m in mourning.
Oh, we’ll stay in touch, I have no doubt about that.
But it won’t be the same as the immediacy, the interweaving in each other’s lives that we have right now. I’ll help and support my friend through everything she needs over the next few months and beyond as best I can, just as we have done for each other over the last months and years.

But I think everyone needs friends close to them.
The internet is amazing, it keeps friendships alive, but you also need people close by that love you and care for you. You need to be able to help each other out in practical and not just emotional ways.

Part of me just wants to curl into a ball and cry. I need to shake myself out of it, go out and be me just as well as I can and hope that I’m lucky enough to find another friendship that feels as happy and easy as this one.
Part of the trouble is that by your 30s, finding friends is so often about breaking into long established friendship circles. NCT and school gates can help, but you have to want to do it and for others to be responsive to your overtures.

So, good friend wanted.
BFF wanted.
I can promise laughs, support, intellectual conversation and a fascination with the world. And cakes. And wine. And a need to exercise.
WLTM similar.

Haiku Wizard… My Poem published!

Are you a bit of a book fan? Are you randomly on Facebook at teatime one day, scrolling through…

That was me. And I don’t know about you, but when I see “writing competition”, “free” “about your favourite books” and “haiku” all together, I automatically think I Can Do That. And my brain switched to Harry Potter…

Why Harry Potter? Well, my latest writing project is middle grade fiction, and my son’s bedtime story has taken us right through Percy Jackson and the Olympians, all through Harry Potter and back to Rick Riordan’s world, this time with Heroes of Olympus. Harry Potter takes three times as long and includes linguistic fun (look at the character names) as well as great storytelling.

It was wizard fun.

So today my ten minute’s work haikus were published in The Story, Amazon Kindle’s new reading/writing themed magazine published via tumblr.

I am a bit excited- seeing my name there as the reader responsible, with a potentially worldwide readership, and for something fun is fabulous.

No, it’s not an agent, a contract, publication (and international acclaim for) my novels etc. but it shows me that out there, people to whom I am not related believe I can be creative.

So you have to celebrate the small things as well as the big.

Please go and enjoy my haikus here. You can read it without joining Tumblr (at least I could) but just in case, you can also read it below:

Harry goes to school, 
Learns spells, makes friends, finds the stone.
How did he survive?

Kids get petrified, 
Harry talks to snakes, and fights
Heir of Slytherin.

Prisoner on the run,
Time travel saves the day – Oh!
Harry’s Godfather?!

Boy wizard competes
In dangerous magic games
The Dark Lord rises.

Ministry take school,
Order fights the Death Eaters: 
Sirius Black dies!

Who is Half blood prince?
Dumbledore self-sacrifice?
This one makes least sense!

Deathly Hallows Three,
Voldemort or Harry dies
Which one do you think?

Twinkle twinkle

Jake Goodman here again. I know you’re used to my usual stuff on sex, life and why I don’t have a toolshed (and if you are not, buy tickets for my shows!) but I’ve been watching the news and spending time babysitting my kids over half term.
I keep hearing that the EU stuff is all too complicated.  Really? Ok. So let’s have a sing song instead…

Twinkle, twinkle European stars,
We Brits don’t get just what you are.
We’ve been told that you’re a superstate,
Now we might make a big mistake.
Twinkle, twinkle little stars,
let’s talk about just what you are.

In the 1970s we were told,
About this project, big and bold.
Both YES and NO told us a Common Market,
Was not the end but just a start to it.
Heads of State and Prime Mini-stars
Working together as partners.

The laws that come from “Brussels” are
Made by lots of British stars.
Not laws made by “faceless bureaucrats”:
The people that say that are – not very well informed…
Council, Parliament, Commission,
The people there are from each member nation.

We elect 73 UK MEPs,
That is direct democracy.
We ask them to speak for us there.
Some will be wise and some won’t care.
They make the laws and are elected by you,
They sit with other parties of a similar view.

The Council’s filled with Ministers,
The brightest, shiniest little stars.
Ministers come from our government,
That you’ve elected so they can represent.
For each subject the expert one attends,
Debates, argues, drafts and then amends.

What about the European Commission?
Surely a democratic perversion?
It’s a civil service: makes it all work;
Collects evidence; runs programmes; gets people to talk.
Proposes drafts laws for the elected ones
To change and shape until they’re done.

If you don’t like it, you have a choice,
You’ve got a vote, you’ve got a voice.
But you should know what you have got
Before you throw away the lot.
You can live, work, set up in any Member State;
Criminals can’t hide when we cooperate.

You think there is too much “red tape”?
Health and safety, working hours? (Did we “gold-plate”?)
Foreign policy; some share a currency;
Agriculture; fair competition; fish in the sea.
Clean environment; a single market:
If you trade, holiday or buy: you’re a part of it!

We take for granted the benefit
That we get from our membership.
It’s easy to say it’d be ok,
They need us, it won’t get taken away.
But there is no guarantee
And that’s not good enough for me.

In these days of globalisation
It’s tough to be an isolated nation.
The EU exists, it won’t go away,
So it’s with these structures that you’d have to play,
To work out an alternative
Less say on rules, but more “sovereign”.

People say that what you are
Is an EU-USSR.
Or a capitalist conspiracy,
Or always voting against me.
But facts do not support that view
The question is what WILL you do?

You can’t be a superstate:
Refugees came, countries closed their gates.
The euro’s not a great success,
Southern Member States are in a mess.
But you are by far our biggest market,
We’d be mad to up and scarper.

There’s no other countries calling: “Leave them be!
We’ll offer better trade!” It’s a fantasy.
And there is no one clear view
Of what exactly we would do.
Those that promise Utopia
Seem to think its based in Westminster.

And being In matters to me.
Don’t diminish my identity.
Don’t blame problems within my nation
Just on EU immigration.
Twinkle, twinkle, little stars
Reach for them, hold on, they are ours.

Under Starter’s Orders

At the end of the day, having a single document setting out Britain’s special position with the EU is a massive achievement.
Very shortly, we in the UK will be involved in a referendum on whether to remain in or leave the EU.
It is not a waste of time. It’s not insignificant, not worth bothering about, a load of old rubbish.
It’s about Britain’s future standing in the world and whether we stand in isolation, looking across far oceans, or stand with our neighbours as well as doing the looking across oceans thing.
While the changes negotiated tonight might be the defining aspect of a REMAIN/ LEAVE thing for some, others are basing their views on other things.

Were facts the major driver, then the result should be an absolute trouncing of LEAVE, because REMAIN has the evidence of over 40 years of life in the EC/EEC/EU and the establishment on its side, and LEAVE has speculation and anti-establishment figures.
The “debate” between then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage a couple of years ago showed that facts alone don’t win – Clegg explained with facts but Farage “won” in the eyes of the media and the public because his version of reality had been given so much airtime by the media and he spoke about it with passion.
So at present everything is 50/50 because REMAIN don’t have the media or the public’s hearts won at the moment.

REMAIN have to explain why all the rights and benefits we have now as EU citizens are not guaranteed if we vote to be no longer part of the EU club. They have to sell the good things about membership, which have been ours since before I was born, to a public that has been told little about these things as coming from our membership and only really told about the EU as a faceless bureaucracy to fight against.
They have to sell membership of an outer rim of the EU (not Eurozone, not Schengen) for the privileged position it really is (after all, keeping currency and border controls have been two of the main issues under debate so far in the media during this renegotiation).
They do need to talk about business and prosperity, and the fact that if trade with non-EU countries is going up while we ARE a part of the EU, then the idea that it is somehow being held back is nonsense (trade not being a zero sum game). It is also true that the EU helps us guarantee that our working hours and wages are not something that we should be giving away to give businesses an edge against each other – it is therefore in the interests of those that work as well as those that employ for us to remain in the EU and ensure that competitiveness is not at the expense of the workforce.
They need to talk about democracy – there’s a false belief that laws are foisted on us by foreign faceless bureaucrats and “quisling” Brits. In fact, the EU has the Member States’ Ministers/ Prime Ministers or Heads of State as the Council, and the directly elected Members of the European Parliament as the two bodies making most decisions, plus the European Commission (Commissioners appointed by the Council and endorsed or not by the European Parliament, staffed by civil servants who compete for jobs there in open competition from right across the EU Member States) which produces the draft laws which are then negotiated by the Council and Parliament. It’s not identical to Westminster – both chambers at EU level are filled with individuals that have been elected! – but that doesn’t make it less legitimate in democratic terms. What it does mean is that the public of the EU ought to be taking the European Parliament elections seriously and not using them as referenda on the performance of their own national governments…
But there’s a heart issue too and it is something that REMAIN must articulate properly.
It is patriotic to believe that being British is a great thing. Being privileged enough to be born in the British isles or of British parents is great, and it is one facet of who we are and confers some rights and privileges as well as responsibilities.
We are also European (and I’m using that word correctly to refer to citizens of the EU, not just residents of a continent) with the rights and privileges that come from that, as well as responsibilities, and I don’t want to lose out on that aspect of my identity. I’m happy with the responsibilities that go with that too. The idea that my children and grandchildren would be more hemmed in, and be less able to consider Europe as a whole their continent to live, work and travel in, is terrifying.
The Germans are not less German by being European, nor the French less French nor the Dutch less Dutch – are we really to think that being British is such a weak thing that we are less British for being European too? How can that really be a patriotic stance?

LEAVE will try to say that all the things we have as a Member State are still possible if we vote to leave, that we can be given all the good things without being part of the club.
The EU bureaucrats that our politicians and civil servants cannot at the moment best as a member of the club will roll over and grant us privileged access if we leave, apparently. We have 44.6% of our exports of goods and services trade going to the EU (2014, source ONS), 48% of Foreign Direct Investment to the UK coming from the EU (source HoC Library paper 06091). The UK receives 3% of goods exports from the EU (I don’t have a figure for the services side, and the source for the 3% is NIESR), so the UK would not automatically have the upper hand in any negotiations and it certainly does   not equate to ‘them needing us more than we need them’. Indeed, even with the generous parameters used for the Open Europe simulation of Brexit negotiations (which included retaining Freedom of Movement for EU citizens which those supporting LEAVE don’t generally like), the sheer cutthroat nature of the process shone through – each Member State’s representatives have to get a deal that their voters at home would tolerate.
LEAVE will try to say that there’s a shining bright world out there that we are being denied, and that we can both shut it out and be part of it.
Some admit that we’d need migration, even retaining Freedom of Movement in return for single market access (as Switzerland and Norway do and as the Open Europe Brexit exercise simulated), others talk of the UK  being “full” – but that’s two different visions of life outside the EU that cannot coexist.

No one’s quite sure what would happen in terms of our economy either.
We’re told that the rest of the world will want to trade with us if we are outside the EU. No doubt it is partially true as we’d still be a market of 70 million. And yet America wants the UK to remain in the EU. 32 of 50 Commonwealth states already have free trade arrangements in force or agreed with the EU, they’re not a British Empire and Australia (which considers itself an Asian economy these days and said they saw no advantage to the UK leaving the EEC back in 1975) had one of their former DPMs has explained why Australia also wants the UK to remain in now… In fact, there’s not really a clamour of countries saying please leave the EU and trade with us.
I think people who clamour for free trade deals only might not know what a trade deal really is these days… Iceland might have a trade deal with China while there is no UK or EU deal at present, but it is the TERMS of a trade deal that matter – the Iceland deal is hardly equal terms between the two parties. It is ludicrous to believe that the UK representing a market of 70 million would obtain better terms than a bloc negotiation of half a billion people. Of course it is not just the free trade aspect that matters in trade deals – the major elements are about standard harmonisation – exactly the “red tape” element of the EU that those supporting LEAVE most dislike!
LEAVE say that decisions need to be made at Westminster, and yet are the same people calling for this denounced Westminster as corrupt only a couple of years ago. The same thrill of being anti-establishment that was prevalent n bringing down politicians then is being harnessed now. When its people within Westminster feeling it, that’s practically zen… But being anti-establishment is both a blessing and a curse: the public’s innate conservatism carried the anti-AV referendum result last time there was a nationwide referendum vote so there is normally a bias in favour of the status quo from voters.
No one is willing to talk about what role xenophobia is playing in all this. From the assumption that the whole of Romania and Bulgaria would “flood” here when freedom of movement was allowed to those new Member States to refugee crisis from Syria, the idea that we are somehow special and should be able to lock ourselves away from the world is based in fear, not outward looking openness to the world.  The coordinated attacks on women in Cologne have led to an unpleasant attitude among some politicians here that that EU membership equates to ‘lock up “our” women because the Muslims are coming disguised as Syrian refugees’. Never mind that only three of those arrested are recent arrivals in Germany, nor that refugees are excluded from Freedom of Movement, nor that refugees don’t get German passports for ten years…
We need to learn from history – and yet a quick look back shows that LEAVE are using  the same accusations (higher prices, lower wages, NATO not the EU stops wars between its members, we’d be better trading with the Commonwealth) as NO did in 1975. LEAVE are doing without much challenge being made against them, partly because it seems that journalists themselves don’t seem to know enough to challenge it.
But then, when they are challenged publicly, those doing the challenging are accused of being in the pay of the EU. It cannot be the case that exposure to something and learning how it works automatically means that person is biased in its favour. If that were the case, no one arguing that Westminster should be supreme should be allowed to do so if they’ve ever worked there, and if that sounds ludicrous, then that’s because it is.
They also say that there would be a second referendum, with a fantasy story that a vote for LEAVE now would somehow result in a “better” renegotiation down the line after which they could then vote REMAIN. Nonsense on toast. The only way to get change in the EU – as Margaret Thatcher knew – is to be firmly committed to being in and then fighting for change for the good of all, not just your little corner. With so much change in the world right now, we should be keeping our friends close not alienating our nearest neighbours.
Basically, LEAVE is trying to sell a utopia without being able to agree even between themselves what that looks like.
And worse, the generation that already got the chance to vote on this is the one most likely to vote LEAVE and to actually turn out to do so. Young people 18- 29 are 63% in favour of REMAIN, versus 37% LEAVE, but are much less likely to turn out.

There’s one referendum, just one, and we’re under starter’s orders. If you are lucky enough to get to vote (and loads of people affected don’t, from Brits living in other EU countries to EU citizens settled here, and 16-17 year olds who were enfranchised for the Scottish Independence Referendum), please use that vote wisely.

 

EU politics 101: what is the EU?

Guys, we need to talk. There’s this referendum on Britain’s EU membership coming and there’s a lot of people out there who basically don’t feel they know enough about what it is they’re being asked to vote on when they’re being asked to REMAIN or LEAVE. Some people are dead certain one way or another, but why? What is it they know?

I used to teach politics to adults who needed to know how government really  works. So, here’s the basics. I’ll probably add to this as we go on…

Is the UK actually in the EU?
Yes. The European Union is the current name for the political and trade bloc that dominates the European continent.

There are 28 countries in the EU:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

But we’re not in the Euro?
No. Not everyone does everything: 19 of the countries have a common currency, the Euro, and so are more closely integrated on monetary policy.
Also, some of the countries have a common border control area called Schengen… more of that later.

Why did we join in the first place?
Let’s step into history for a moment…
From about 1950, European countries started to work together to pool resources that they had previously used against each other to wage war, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community, then establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957.
The UK joined the EEC in 1973, referred to as the Common Market (a mistranslation of the French term march common which is better translated as single market).
A Conservative government took the UK into the EEC, but negotiations for this started in the 1960s. UK membership was vetoed twice (by the French!) in 1963 and 1967 because General De Gaulle did not believe Britain was sufficiently committed to the project, having established the alternative European Free Trade Area (EFTA). When he resigned in 1969, the way was clear for the UK to join the EEC.
The UK joined because:
– it was losing its empire (India, Burma and Ceylon all became independent in the 1940s) and the Commonwealth was less economically important to the UK than the continent on its doorstep;
– in the Cold War world, as clearly demonstrated by the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain had lost its great power status and could not rely upon its “special relationship” with the USA to assert its power internationally;
– the EEC’s economy was growing faster and more successfully than the UK had previously believed would happen.
Basically, it is not the case that the UK was doing fine before membership and was suckered in.
There was a referendum (a commitment by a Labour government) in 1975 – the UK voted to stay in. The electorate voted ‘Yes’ by 67.2% to 32.8% to stay in. The actual wording of the official pamphlet used by the government can be seen here. The EEC was described as having the following aims (from the Treaty of Rome):

  • To bring together the peoples of Europe.
  • To raise living standards and improve working conditions.
  • To promote growth and boost world trade.
  • To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.
  • To help maintain peace and freedom.

So we joined an Economic Union, not a political one?
I’d say it was pretty clearly political. Commitments to bringing together the peoples of Europe and maintaining peace and freedom were pretty political as aims…
After the 1975 referendum, successive British governments – using their legitimate position though representative democracy – signed Treaties that changed the name and exact nature of the EEC.
Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act in 1987, introducing majority voting in the Council (ending the veto-all-areas).
Conservative Prime Minister John Major agreed the Maastricht Treaty which in 1992 introduced three policy “pillars” – Justice and Home Affairs, Common Foreign and Security policy and the single market bolstered by Economic and Monetary Union; as well as the name change to the European Union.
Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed the Amsterdam Treaty which sorted out a lot of the procedural difficulties that arose from Maastricht Treaty including identifying just one high representative for foreign and security policy, introduced EU-level labour market policy, integrated the Social Chapter, attached a range of fundamental rights for citizens and widened the role of the European Parliament as a co-decider of legislation (with the Council which represents the governments of Member States, not the Commission).
There was a lot of fuss in 2002-2004 about a second Treaty of Rome, a European Constitution, but although negotiated, it was never ratified, as several Member States voted No. Instead, the Reform Treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009. It gave more leadership of the EU to the Council, with a named President chosen by the Heads of State and Government, and to the European Parliament.
Although the Treaties govern EU law making across the Member States, there are various opt-outs and opt-ins for different countries, and the UK is the major beneficiary of this flexibility.

Next… What everyone knows about the EU…

Frozen Freedom (part 3)

Meanwhile, beyond Arendelle…

Chapter 5

“Three of them pretended I was invisible, for two years…” muttered Hans, shovelling horse dung into a cart. He wiped his brow with the back of a hand, leaving a streak of brown. “Yeah, well, I’m not so easy to ignore now, am I? You can smell me three rooms before you see me.”

“Hey! Horse boy!” Franz approached his little brother. “Hay – get it, hey’s like hay.”
“I appreciate your wit so much that you see me rolling on the floor with laughter,” said Hans, scooping up another spadeful of manure and flinging it onto the cart.
“But you’re not rolling on the floor,” said Franz, puzzled.
Hans smiled his most dazzling smile. “That should tell you all you need to know.”
There was a pause, and then Franz shoved his brother-face first towards the cart.
Hans caught the edge with his hands, avoiding a mud mask. “You’ll have to be faster that that.”
“Whatever. The King wants to see you.”
“It’s about time.” Hans pulled himself upright. “Ok, let’s go. Oh, and Franz? No hard feelings?”
His brother automatically took the proffered hand and shook it. A moment later, he recognised the squidge of manure but by then Hans had slipped his grip and was off and away towards his apartments for a bath.

In the throne room, King Uwe waited impatiently, avoiding the eyes of his courtiers in case he accidentally ordered an execution. That tended to happen when he got irritated. It was thirty minutes since he had sent for Hans. Was there anything that his youngest brother would ever be able to do competently?
The ornate white and gold doors were opened at last.
“You sent for me, big bro?” There was Hans, handsome and insolent as always. The punishments were not working to humiliate him as intended, it seemed he only had to bathe to return to his apparently charming self.
It was time, Uwe decided, for a different approach. “Everyone out. I need to talk to my brother alone.”

When the room had emptied, Hans closed the double doors, strode across the floor and trotted up the dais steps. He hissed at the cat that dozed on the queen’s throne – which fled – then leapt into its place, swinging his legs over the arms of the throne. “What’s up?”
“I am the King, you know,” Uwe reproached him.
“What’s up, your maj?”
Uwe smiled, or at least showed a lot of his teeth. “You’re getting nothing at all from all that shovelling?”
Hans mirrored his brother’s expression. “Biceps like tree trunks and the ability to cut through cr-”
“Exactly,” said Uwe. “So you do get it. I had to do something with you. International protocol demands it. You confessed to plotting to murder a Head of State, Hans. If you had only kept your mouth shut, if you’d kept that ego in check for just a few months longer, you could have been a king yourself.”
Hans opened his mouth, but Uwe waved a finger.
“No. No second chances in Arendelle for you. I heard today that your Princess is now a mother.”
Hans raised an eyebrow. “She married the ice cutter oaf?”
“She did. There seemed no point telling you, it’s not like you really cared, is it?”
Hans frowned for a moment, but shook his head.
“But now I have a mission for you,” said Uwe. “You should understand that I should be executing you and that this is your last chance. As you right royally screwed up in Arendelle, I really ought to get your brother, any one of them, to do this instead. But I hate to say it, you’re the one with the looks.”
Hans smoothed back a wing of his hair. Uwe grimaced – seeing his brother was like looking in a distortion mirror that stripped away the years, the extra pounds and restored a full head of hair. It was painful.
“Another marriage plan?” asked Hans.
“You wrecked my plans to ally with Arendelle, but you know that the Southern Isles is nothing without trade,” his brother continued. “We must have a partnership and our only choice is Weselton.”
“He’s not my type.”
“Not the Duke, you fool, his daughter. Jane.”
“I see.” Hans paused for a moment. “Is she beautiful?”
“Certainly.” Uwe crossed his fingers behind his back. “Her maternal grandmother was even known as Beauty.”
“Let’s hope she takes after her and not her ratty little father,” said Hans. “But it won’t matter for long.” He stretched lazily like a cat.
“As King, I cannot possibly condone any plans you may have beyond making a strategically important marriage,” said Uwe, standing. He paused for a moment, until Hans remembered himself and stood too.
“That’s why I’m not telling you my plan. I’ve learned my lesson on that at least,” said Hans. Without a further word, he strode across the throne room and flung open the doors at the end for a dramatic exit. If he had been in Arendelle, he would definitely have sung a song about it.

Chapter 6

Olaf bustled around, delivering burp cloths, new diapers and food for Anna. He danced as he went, singing jazzy little lullabies. There was no doubt that he was an inspired if unusual nursery nurse.
Anna opened one eye. She barely felt like the same woman who had once slept so deeply that she had nearly missed her sister’s coronation. Now, four weeks after the birth, she slept more lightly the her children and had a kind of sixth sense for danger.
“Olaf! Please, we can’t use your nose as a pacifier.”
Olaf removed the carrot from baby Sven’s mouth and popped it back into his own face with a thocking sound. “Sorry Anna, he just loves it so much. Who’s an itty bitty baby then, yes you are, yes you are!”
“He loves it and he loves you, Olaf, but please, it could choke him.”
Olaf drooped. “Oh, ok. I guess he’s just taking after Sven. Baby Sven takes after Old Sven, huh?”
For a moment, it was as if a grey cloud had settled over the nursery.
“I miss him too,” said Anna, getting up of the bed and giving Olaf a hug.
“Me too,” said Olaf. “It won’t be the same at the christening without him.”
“The christening!” said Anna. “It’s Christening Day!”
This simple fact lightened her mood so much that she and Olaf skipped around singing while they got the babies ready, and when Kristoff joined them he found he automatically knew how to harmonise the chorus. (This sort of thing seemed to happen a lot in Arendelle. Whether it was an extension of Elsa’s powers, no one knew.)

Elsa paced the floor of the chapel. She had to admit, the Prime Minister had done an excellent job. The decorations were brightly coloured but tasteful, stars, snowflakes, diamonds and triangles forming tiny crowns and sceptres. She had herself had added tiny mirrored ice jewels that floated in the air and created an ice sculpture, formed of the names Sven and Iduna, which stood in the courtyard outside. The guests from the neighbouring kingdoms were yet again converging on Arendelle for a royal occasion. Anna loved a party, but for Elsa they were always a source of stress, everything needed to be perfect and not just because it was important to be a good host.
The truth was that Elsa did listen to her Prime Minister’s briefing meetings. She knew what Anna would never understand, defeating Hans’ coup had cost Arendelle dearly, both in terms economic and reputational. Sending a royal Prince back to his home as a convicted criminal had ended Arendelle’s diplomatic relations with the Southern Isles.
Equally, the Duke of Weselton might have been odious, but losing the major trading partner for Arendelle’s wood, kitch Nordic knitted blankets and glogg was a major blow.
She very much needed to charm everyone today, but she couldn’t help but notice at Anna and Kristoff’s wedding that, even though the Arendelleans cheered for her, many visitors seemed afraid of her. That wicked sorceress rumour started by the Duke of Welseton had hurt, and that so many seemed to be able to believe it hurt more.

Elsa slipped out of the chapel and climbed into the carriage that awaited her. As Anna had hoped, Elsa used her powers to transform the outside of the carriages into iced swans. The crowds waved and cheered, they seemed happy with their ice queen and ecstatic about the next generation of Arendelle’s royal family. Would they be so happy if they knew that Iduna would also be continuing the family tradition of magical powers? She didn’t dare think about it.

All seemed to go well until the moment that the Officiant attempted to scoop water over the head of the babies. Iduna, as royal heir, was first. As the water poured over her, the Officiant named her Iduna after her grandmother and Viola for the flowers that Elsa had conjured up in honour of her birth. She giggled and cooed. Her proud mother took her into her arms for a cuddle, then passed her over to her aunt. Elsa pressed her cheek against her baby niece’s soft cheek. Iduna turned her head and planted an open wet mouth against Elsa,which made her aunt feel both proud and sad at the same moment.

Then it was Sven’s turn. Named for a reindeer and given the middle name Agnarr after his grandfather, Sven was a lot less at ease with the water than his sister. His scream of fear as the water touched him startled his sister. she jumped in her aunt’s arms and Elsa watched with horror as her niece shot a bolt of ice into the air. As if in slow motion, she watched the blue-white missile fly towards her nephew. Just as she realised that there was no way that this bolt would hit her nephew, it ricocheted off one of Elsa’s floating ice jewels and headed straight for her nephew’s face.
Anna and Kristoff both dived forward, but to no avail. Everyone watched in open mouthed horror as the bolt of ice entered Sven’s eye and the baby boy’s scream of fear became one of pain.

Frozen Freedom (Part 1)

As my toddler watches Frozen for about the 120th time, I present a fanfic sequel, tying up some of the loose ends… as with all fanfic, the characters are not my property…

Chapter 1
A tiny reindeer calf nudged its way through the market place, crossed the bridge and pushed through the crowd at the palace gate. The guards uncrossed their halberds to let it through, then crossed them again as the crowds surged forward.
As it emerged in the palace hallway, the reindeer munched a bunch of flowers that a lady at the gate would soon discover was now missing.
It clattered up the stairs, took a right along a red carpeted hallway and stopped at a door. A short snowman with a crooked carrot nose was bobbing up and down, attempting to peek through the keyhole.
“Did you find Elsa?” asked Olaf.
The reindeer shrugged.
“Oh, that’s ok, Bernd. I could really have used an icicle, they make great spy glasses. I guess it won’t be long now.”
He leaned forward to peek again, and nearly toppled over as the door swung open and Kristoff ran out.
“It’s twins!” he yelled, pushing his sweaty blond fringe out of his face. As Olaf tried to shove past him, Kristoff slammed the door and wiped his face and then high-fived a surprised Olaf so hard that his middle section separated and he dropped to pieces. As Olaf’s middle tried to catch his escaping legs, Kristoff caught up the reindeer calf in his arms for a hug. He was rewarded with a big slurpy lick on the cheek.
“She did it! We did it! I mean – woah.” His legs gave out and he slumped to the floor, leaning his head back against the blue and white painted door. “What am I going to do now?”
Bernd looked at him with tender concern.
“You’re going back into there to be a father,” it said, using Kristoff’s voice. (Everyone always thought that Kristoff was a poor ventriloquist talking to himself. They didn’t realise that his reindeers used him as a conduit for communication.)
“I know little buddy, I know. I wish I could have done more for your daddy. He was my best friend.”
The reindeer licked him again.”Don’t live in the past. You have to look after the Queen.”
“The Queen?” said Kristoff. “The Queen! I have to go tell her!”
He dashed away.
After a moment or two, Olaf tried the door handle, found it would open and slipped inside to visit the royal babies.

Chapter 2
“So, your Majesty, what I mean to say is…” The Prime Minister paused, and adjusted his collar.
Elsa had her elbow on the tabletop, gloved hand under her chin. Her other glove lay discarded on the floor. She flicked her flingers and little translucent, blue-white skaters appeared in a spray of snow flakes and skated about on the polished table surface. Eventually she noticed that the Prime Minister had stopped talking. “I’m sorry. I am listening, really.”
The little figures pirouetted. The female figure bent and, with a graceful swooping motion, lifted the male figure above her head.
“Your Majesty, this is most unorthodox.”
“I know,” sighed Elsa. “Of course you would expect the male dancer to be stronger and to perform the lift, but with my tiny dancers the skirts seem to lend the females added oomph.”
“Not your ‘tiny dancers’, your Majesty. This briefing.”
“We have to do it. I’m the Queen.”
“You are indeed, your Majesty. And I need not remind you that Arendelle is a representative democracy with you as the Head of State.”
“You didn’t need to, but you did it anyway.” Elsa pointed and the dancers executed a perfect figure of eight.
“Indeed. We kept the show on the road after your father’s death, until you came of age, and now we have reverted to his method of government. What I am suggesting, your Majesty, is that we might try something a little more in keeping with your modern approach to monarchy?”
Elsa looked the Prime Minister in the eye. She saw nothing but honesty radiating off the man. “Are you suggesting that you take control?”
“Only of the small, day-to-day matters, your Majesty. I would of course revert to you for big decisions, matters of state, that sort of thing…”
A tinkly whooshing blizzard like ten thousand tiny arrows cut across his words. The table top was now surrounded by a jagged ice perimeter wall and the tiny dancers were saved from plummeting to the carpet.
“Prime Minister,” said the Queen, “how long have you been working for the Duke of Weselton?”
“I don’t know what you mean, your – ”
Elsa stood. She reached forward and snapped off one point of the table’s ice wall. She turned the flat icicle over in her hands.
It was definitely not a dagger, thought the Prime Minister, and the Queen was not threatening him. And yet, something unspoken hung between them. This fragile-looking, wide-eyed woman could create weaponry from thin air.
This was not the only peculiar thing. The royal tailor was going crazy trying to discover the maker of the clothes and shoes that the Queen and the Princess Royal were now sporting. The Prime Minister had his suspicions. He remembered a pair of ice skates that appeared on his feet out of nowhere at the end of what was now only referred to as the Hansean Attempted Coup. But he couldn’t prove anything. That was what was most frustrating thing.
He bowed low. “With your permission, your Majesty, I shall retire-”
“Well that is good news, I didn’t expect you to agree so easily-” Elsa began, but the Prime Minister raised his hand and continued.
“Your Majesty, I shall retire to my offices and permit my aides to draw up a constitutional settlement to allow best use to be made of Arendelle’s assets, which of course includes the person of your Majesty.”
“My – my person?” said Elsa, uncertainly.
“Yes, your Majesty. As an unmarried monarch without issue, you are of course an asset of the State of Arendelle. It may be that it is imperative that you marry.”
His exit wasn’t exactly undignified haste, but if he had tried to leave any faster, he wouldn’t have had time to get the door open.
Elsa gathered herself up to her full height, prepared to deliver the perfect retort, but sagged realising the moment had gone. “I should’ve just frozen the lock shut,” she muttered.
The door was flung open, and there was her brother in law, Duke Kristoff of the North Mountain. He hadn’t wanted the title and didn’t like it, but protocol demanded that the Princess should marry a man with a title and Royal Ice Master and Deliverer didn’t cut it. She smiled to herself. Cut it. Ice.
“What’s happened to Anna?”  One look at Kristoff’s red cheeks and generally panicked demeanour convinced her that she should have been in the room with her sister. Something must have gone wrong.
“You’re a father!” he blurted out. “Wait. What? No, I’m a father, you’re an aunt!”
“And Anna?” asked Elsa, an icy hand of fear clutching at her heart.
“She’s good, really good,” Kristoff reassured her. “Tired, you know, but Bulda says that’s normal for human females…” He trailed off in the face of Elsa’s ice cold stare.
Human females?” she asked.
“Yeah, uh, Elsa? There’s something I should probably tell you about my family. They’re -”
“Trolls,” said Elsa. “I should’ve guess when they all showed up like that for your wedding. I thought they were just being friendly to me, y’know, one magical creature to another…” She stopped. “Oh my. So you knew, you knew about what happened when Anna and I were little?”
Kristoff nodded. “I watched. That was the night they adopted me. And Sven.”  A small black thundercloud seemed to hover over his head. Elsa waved a hand and it vanished.
“Let’s not dwell on the past, brother of mine. Let’s go and celebrate your baby, give the royal seal of approval.”
They stepped out into the corridor and walked briskly towards Anna’s chambers. Elsa sent a spray of ice magic over herself, creating a vibrant purple dress, decorated with sprays of pansies and violets.
Kristoff smiled. He was not big on fashion, but he appreciated the way Elsa’s magic incorporated living flowers into the clothes that she and Anna often wore. Pink flowered clematis wove itself into her plait.
“So what have I got, niece or nephew?”
“Um, both, actually.”
In the State Room, the tiny ice dancers climbed down a table leg and ran to the window. Scaling the sill, they reached a latch, and opened the window. Then they were out, outside, leaping and drifting down to the ground where they skated off at high speed to the lake on the north mountain which would be their home. They were born knowing this, just like all the tiny dancers before them, created by the Queen during her meetings with the Prime Minister.

 

#pitmad for Jake’s Ghost

The quest for an agent continues…

 I’m trying #pitmad, a Twitter pitching event. Three tweets allowed over 12 hours. I’m trying three variants: one that focuses on plot, one citing comparator books and one that will be styled after whatever tweets I see get hearted after the first six hours…

A comedian dies- the women who loved him find out about each other. Saffron – Jake’s secret daughter – sets out to find out who he really was and what happened, in a tale that swoops from student’s Union bars to Parisian garrets, from tropical islands and a lot of kitchens… 

Basically, Jake’s Ghost is what happens if you mix Jilly Cooper wealth and sexiness with Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, sprinkle with diverse characters (in the broadest sense) and a feminist twist.

Somewhere out there is an agent who will love 120k of mystery with strong female protagonists and an antihero who the book club that read Jake’s a Ghost described themselves as falling in love with, even though Kake Goodman is a bad man… Could it be you?

Putting it out there: book group

Last night was an amazing experience. Hair raising, heart pounding at times, but invaluable to me…

One of my friends had set up a book group ago. When I joined last year, we met a couple of times, but with new babies, back to work and general life all getting in the way, School for Scandal needed a reboot… So my friend – who is herself a published author – asked if the group could read my unpublished novel, Jake’s Ghost.

I feel like I should say it was a difficult decision, that I hesitated. Could I subject my baby to criticism, see it ripped apart? Whether it was ego on my part (I think it’s well written), stupidity, or simply that I recognise that criticism is part of putting a work that you have created out there, I agreed.

So last night, over a Chinese takeaway, I met with ten women (most of whom I didn’t know) who had read some or all of a book I had written.

Oh my goodness.

They liked it, they enjoyed it, they called it “a real page turner”. They found it uplifting, empathised with my characters, fell for the bad boy. They though the sex scenes were spot on, and that was a relief.

The book covers many themes including identity, trust, domestic violence and abuse. The group identified the key ones as misconception, sexuality, bad boys and pick up artists, self esteem, religion, forgiveness, mortality and life. 

There was much debate over whether Jake redeems himself or whether his actions are too little too late. There was disagreement over whether Saffron should get together with someone, and whether it should be Tom or Miles. Some felt elements should be drawn out longer – how Jake dies, whether Saffron slept with Jake. Should Jake narrate his own moment of revelation? I have to admit I took notes.

No one thought it was too long (amazing at 130,000 words) and everyone said it was easy to read.

The best reviews of the night?

“It’s like Jilly Cooper without horses.”

“It’s like Cecelia Ahern, but better!”

I’ll take those.

It was an amazing privilege to have my story read and treated as a proper book by a group of its target audience, and to find they really did want to read it and loved it was a fantastic gift. Thank you Tara, and School for Scandal Deluxe. Now to find an agent and get published…