Saturday, December 04, 2010

Grace

Update: Download the collection of winning short stories in the e-book here or here



My ghost story, Grace, is a winner in the Daily Telegraph Ghost Story competition.



The painting slides out from between the folded yellowing sheets in my mother’s linen chest. I recognise it immediately – the house, I mean, not my father’s painting, which isn’t very good. He’s written the name and address on the back: Le Mas Fontblanche. Ventabren. Near Aix. But I would have known it anywhere.

Strange how I haven’t thought about it in all these years. Tracing the outline of the water-coloured stones, I try to remember. My finger comes to rest on a shutter, half-open and bleached to the colour of sun-dried lavender. My throat constricts with a long-forgotten panic. What’s this? A figure peering from the window: a pale wisp of a creature, hardly more than a smudge really.

It’s her - I know it’s her…


We went to France the summer I was twelve. My mother was French and the house belonged to her cousin, René. He was going to meet us at the station.

I stepped off the train in Aix-en-Provence, gasping at the heat. I remember the smell of dust and burnt earth and a sound like sandpaper rubbing together. “Cigales,” Mum said, smiling. Cicadas. My mother was happy - I think she had missed coming home. Dad picked up the cases and we walked through the brief coolness of the station building and I could tell he was happy for her too.

The car wound its way through narrow streets and out into the country. A stark, white mountain was etched into the brilliant sky. “Look, Angela, Sainte Victoire,” said my mother. I’d seen it in a painting by Cézanne - maybe Dad would try to paint it.

The car window was open and the air was thick with the smell of rosemary and thyme and so heavy with heat it was like breathing honey. My bare legs stuck to the leather seat and my hair was damp around my shoulders. It seemed to take an age to get there.


When my father died, I came home and then my mother fell ill, so I stayed to look after her. They have a new word for it now: carer. I didn’t mind. Caring is what I do best - after all, I used to be a nurse. Anyway, I always felt safer at home.

But in this empty, silent house, I feel bereft. Not lonely exactly: I have enough memories to keep me company and no great need for friends. I simply feel, as I have often felt, that life has eluded me.

I close the lid of the chest and take the painting downstairs, hugging it close.

I know exactly what I’m going to do.


There was a hand-painted sign pinned to a tree. It said: “Le Mas Fontblanche” and we turned up a rough, dry track through dusty fields. “The House of the White Fountain,” said my father, pleased to have understood something at last. Mum laughed and said there had been a spring there, years ago, but it had long since dried up. Looking around at the arid landscape, it seemed to me that everything had dried up.

Then the mas was there in front of us, a huge, L-shaped farmhouse of pale grey stone. We climbed out of the car and followed René into the dark, cool house. My bedroom was at the top of the stone staircase and down a small corridor. I could see the Sainte Victoire from the window, beyond the dry, rock-strewn fields.

I saw another door, in the far wall of the room. René said it led to a part of the house that wasn’t used anymore and that it had been locked for as long as he could remember. The short stroke of the “L”, I thought.


I hadn’t realised plane tickets were so cheap. The young man in the travel agency even found me this hotel right in the centre of Aix at a reasonable price. I managed to get here without mishap and I feel quite daring. Who would have thought it?

The Tourist Office is just around the corner so I get myself a guidebook then I sit at a café on the Cours Mirabeau, sipping Perrier-menthe and thinking about the painting. I’ve come to the conclusion that my father was merely recording a memory: a sort of morbid holiday souvenir. After all – and this much I do remember – the incident was responsible for the panic attacks that blighted the rest of my childhood.

My father could not possibly have seen her, could he?


One day, I opened the door. My parents had gone down to the village and I was alone. I don’t know what made me try, as I knew it was locked. Only it wasn’t: I turned the handle and it opened easily. I went in, and found myself in a bedroom. From somewhere came the sound of piano music, melancholy notes drifting through the house like strands of gossamer. The shutters were open, which puzzled me. Didn’t René tell us this part of the house wasn’t used anymore? The window was on the same side of the house as my own yet, moving towards it, I realised that the view was different. I could see rooftops where there should have been only fields. It was raining hard outside and the sky was the shade of a swollen bruise, but I knew that here, thunderstorms could take you by surprise.

I turned from the window, just as she came into the room.


I had a bad night. It may have been the heat or the noisy air-conditioning but I couldn’t sleep. And now I stand at the window looking up at the blue, blue sky and wondering why on earth I came. On a whim? That would be a first.

I don’t want to go to Ventabren. I don’t have to. I’m on holiday, I could go anywhere: Avignon, Marseille, Manosque…Besides, what could I hope to achieve by going back? The house might not even be standing and certainly, I have no idea where it is. I was only twelve.

The bus to Ventabren leaves at nine forty-five. As it winds towards the village I find myself scanning the countryside, just in case. The driver drops me outside a supermarket and, swinging my rucksack on to my back, I start to walk towards the village.

No. Not this way.

I turn around and head into the hills.


She was a girl of about my own age, tall and thin with long, black hair. It was her eyes that startled me: the palest of grey, like an icy lake in winter. She closed the door and leant against it, staring straight ahead.

“Hello,” I said.

She turned those beautiful, strange eyes to the window, looking straight through me. Then she started to cry.

“Are you all right?” I asked. I wanted to reach out to her but I felt awkward, being caught in her room like that. She didn’t answer, but ran past me as if I wasn’t there and fell sobbing on to the bed. I didn’t know what to do, so I stood and watched her for a moment and then slipped quietly out, back into my sunlit bedroom.

There was no sign that it had been raining at all.


The heat seems to have eased off, for which I’m thankful. I’ve been walking over half an hour with no clear idea of where I am. What does surprise me is the number of modern villas with swimming pools and landscaped gardens. Such a pity.

And then I spot it. Not the same sign, of course, but still pinned to the tree: “Le Mas Fontblanche”.

My heart is thudding. Oh for goodness’ sake, it’s just a house! I take a deep breath and begin to walk. They’ve put tarmac on the road and fenced off the fields on either side but wildness still lingers about the place.

The house looms up before me, against a darkening sky. I feel suddenly weak. A woman is in the garden, unpegging a line of billowing sheets. She stops when she sees me approaching.


Mum and Dad didn’t believe me, so I made them come upstairs and see for themselves. The door was locked and wouldn’t open, even when my father rammed it with his shoulder. My mother thought I must be suffering from the heat and insisted on taking my temperature. When I checked outside, later that afternoon, the shutters on that part of the house were indeed closed.

A few days later, I tried to open the door again, but it really was locked. I began to think I must have fallen asleep that afternoon and dreamt the whole thing. Yet that night, I couldn’t sleep at all. She troubled me, that sad girl with her ice-grey eyes. I wanted to be her friend, to help her maybe. I didn’t even know her name… I sat up and saw a strip of yellow light underneath the door, so I got out of bed and turned the handle.

It was open.


The woman is wondering who I am. I explain why I am here and it must sound to her as is does to me - sentimental nonsense. I tell her that my parents are both dead and that this house represented the last happy moments of my childhood. If only she knew.

“When we stayed here,” I say, “that part of the house was closed up.” I can see that the short stroke of the ‘L’ is lived in now. There are curtains at the windows.

“Ah,” she says, frowning, as the first drops of rain begin to fall, “let me finish this and I’ll show you around.”

She starts to fold the sheets.


I pushed the door gently, not wanting to startle her. She was lying on the bed, her black hair spread over the pillow. I moved closer and saw that her eyes were open, lifeless, frozen. One arm hung over the side of the bed, the thin, white hand dangling like a broken wing. I watched helplessly as the steady trickle of blood crept in scarlet rivulets across the floor.

Outside, the rain was lashing against the window. Was it already daylight? Surely I had only been in the room for a few minutes? I rushed out, shouting for help. As I flung open the door of my own room, my father was running down the corridor towards me.

Only then did I scream…


The house has been modernised and I can barely recognise it inside. It has a great deal of black ash furniture and an enormous television set in the sitting room. I have to be patient while the woman shows me her streamlined kitchen and the new patio door and then I ask her if I could see my old bedroom.

“Of course, madame,” she says, leading the way up the stone staircase. “It is empty now. My daughter Grace has the room next to it.”

I can’t understand why I am trembling so hard. The room is bare but familiar all the same. I look out of the window at the Sainte Victoire that rises beyond a new housing estate. A memory flickers: Rooftops where once there were only fields. The rain is lashing against the window now; the sky is the shade of a swollen bruise. And someone is playing Chopin.

I turn as a door opens. The young girl is standing there, watching me, pale as a ghost. She pushes back her long, black hair with a thin, white hand. She doesn’t smile and, of course, she can’t recognise me, but as I meet her gaze, I feel the blood rushing to my head. Because her eyes are like lakes of ice and fathoms deep with all hope drowned, and suddenly, I know. It isn’t too late. It never was too late. I know why I had to come back.

“Grace,” I say, as I reach out to her at last.






Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Measlyjet




I think my girls have inherited a faulty gene of mine, making them Transport Challenged.


My ability to get lost in my car, even on short journeys, is legendary. However, I also have a habit of getting on the wrong buses or trains through no fault of my own. I mean, how many of you have boarded a coach bound for a sleepy backwater of a town in the North and found yourself heading non-stop to London?


Or stood at the carriage door of a train, hand poised on the handle, only to see your destination flash by in a blur?


Or got on a train that took you, against your will, to a different country entirely?


Perhaps you too have missed the last bush taxi home to your isolated village in the depths of Africa and had to hitch a lift on an earth digger?


I have done all of the above, so it’s not surprising that my children have followed in my totally unreliable footsteps.


My three girls have all missed a plane – one of them has done it twice. Each time, it was an Easyjet plane and it was never their fault.


The latest episode, last Wednesday, is a classic. I shall reproduce the spirit of the situation here. Note that I said spirit…the conversation didn’t go exactly like this…


Gatwick Airport check-in


Nasty Easyjet Employee : Oh look, three French teenagers. I hate kids, I hate foreigners and I’ve got my period. I’m going enjoy this.


Daughter : I’m being nice to you, Easyjet lady, because last time you made me miss my plane. Look at my big smile.


Nasty Easyjet Employee : That’s annoying. Everything seems to be in order. Aha – your friend’s hand luggage looks too big.


Other Daughter : But she brought it over from France and there was no problem.


Nasty Easyjet Employee : I don’t like you, you revolting French adolescent. Give me that bag, I’m going to measure it.


Friend : Oh, OK.


Nasty Easyjet Employee : Well, it’s two centimetres too big so I’ll round that off to four centimetres and you’ll have to pay me eighteen pounds.


Daughter : Do you take euros? We haven’t got any pounds left. I’m still smiling nicely at you.


Nasty Easyjet Employee : No. And now your friend will have to go all the way to the bureau de change and change her euros into pounds so you’ll definitely miss the plane.


Fifteen minutes later, the girls are back with the money.


Nasty Easyjet Employee : Oh b**ger, there’s still time to catch the plane. Now what do I do?


Friend : I can’t carry all this stuff, that’s why I’ve put the twenty-pound note between my lips. Sorry – I’ll just put it down here…


Nasty Easyjet Employee : Perfect. I consider that to be an insult of the highest order so you three can stand to the side and wait while I deal with every single person in the queue behind you.


When the girls were finally able to dash off they found that they had, of course, missed their flight.


Now, they were angry. Very, very angry…


Daughter : It’s your fault we missed our plane ! I want to speak to the supervisor.


Supervisor : Oh, Dolly must be having her period again. What fun!


Daughter : I’m explaining everything to you but I’m afraid I can’t smile nicely anymore.


Supervisor : I don’t believe a word you say – well, I do, actually, but it’s not our policy to admit it.


Daughter : What’s the Nasty Easyjet Employee’s name ?


Supervisor : I’ve been working with her for five years and we play badminton together but I have absolutely no idea what her name is. Sorry.


Daughter : Well, is there a police station here ? We’re stuck – we don’t have any money because you won’t give us our eighteen pounds back. My little sister’s only seventeen…


Supervisor : I told you I’ve only been working here for five years. I have no idea if there’s a police station, you nauseating French teenager. I hope you like my evil, smug smile. Just push off and sleep on the streets. The next flight isn’t until Sunday and I’ll make sure you miss that one too.


At this point, my volatile daughter lost it and, drawing on her extensive knowledge of every single episode of Absolutely Fabulous, she tossed her head and snapped:


“You can drop the attitude, lady. You only work at Easyjet…”


…and stalked off.


I am so proud of her.


They finally made it home, via train, coach and plane. They were exhausted and so was I. And I was also completely broke…surely there must be a cheaper way to travel?





Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Slim



My blogging friend and writing colleague, Sarah, has just had her children’s book published, available from Amazon and the Bongo website. There is also a 'Story Builder' to accompany it. For details, check here



Slim, the Vegetarian Ogre is fun, educational and superbly illustrated so if you have children aged from 7-12, or nieces, or nephews or if you are just a Big Kid yourself, I urge you to take a look!



In the meantime, I’m sitting here biting my nails because my children are wandering around Gatwick without money, food or a plane…a frequent occurrence in the Baconnier family. It will, of course, be the subject of my next post providing I haven’t already dropped dead from apoplexy…






Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hot




Many of you may have read about the recent troubles in Grenoble – I’m talking about social disorder here, not my personal troubles. They didn’t make the headlines, funnily enough.

I live on a council housing estate, Teisseire, in an area euphemistically deemed sensitive. A couple of months ago, riots broke out on a neighbouring housing estate, Villeneuve, and these did make the headlines. Nicolas Sarkozy even paid a visit to tick off the Prefet – in fact, he removed him from office and put an ex-police chief in charge instead.

That night, I sat on the balcony and watched the search helicopter as it circled above Villeneuve. I felt pretty safe. Although I live on the Teisseire housing estate, nothing exciting ever happens in my neighbourhood.

I spoke too soon. A week or so ago, a young drug dealer (he was only 24) was gunned down…practically at the end of my road and at the time my daughter would have been walking home from one of her wild nights out (as I imagine them to be). Fortunately, she decided to stay with a friend at the last minute.




A few days later, a car was set alight a little closer to home but still not close enough to really worry me. Just as long as they kept their hands off my car…


Ah...my beautiful new car. It was a gift from somebody I love very much although I’m a bit confused as to why he bought it for me now – but I’m going off topic. Sorry.

My car hasn’t escaped completely unscathed. Not long after I had proudly driven it home for the first time, somebody keyed it. I was quite upset even though I’m not at all materialistic. A car’s a car and as long as it gets me from A to B (via F, M and Q – but that’s just my eccentric sense of direction), I’m happy. But I was very, very upset.

Then a few days ago, some drunken louts backed into it and drove off roaring with laughter. If I ever see them again, I shall beat them to a pulp.

Last night, I drove wearily home from an English lesson and looked for a parking space. At that time of the evening, there usually aren’t any left but I saw two, and I chose the first one I came to even though it was further from my flat. Actually, I often park in the other space, which was closer. I wasn’t thinking clearly, I suppose. I still had ’ow are you, I’m fine, and you ? echoing in my brain.

Now to this evening, when a series of explosions jolted me from my habitual reverie (I was fantasizing about Gérard Depardieu begging me for the lead role in the film version of my book). I ran to the window and saw that a car had been set alight and for one panic-stricken moment, I thought it was mine. It was right where I had nearly parked the previous evening – where I often park – where I shall never ever park again.




I called the pompiers and then hung out of the window, breathless with excitement, to watch.

Well – can you blame me ? Those pompiers are really, really hot...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Merci

I have a lot to be thankful for...

God - he never lets me down...



My mum and dad - the best Mum and Dad in the world...



My beautiful, courageous children...





(apparently it's cool to show your bra....)





My friends (I've got more than two, honest...I just haven't got any photos. Honest...)






Laughter - like when this waiter pretended to take a photo when in reality he was filming us - making us look like prats with lockjaw...



video


Nature...and sweet memories...



And of course...cheese!





And so I'm counting my blessings...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Batty

Image by Batdesignz



As if it wasn’t bad enough having to deal with the fact that my Wayward Spouse has just decided to leave me for good, last night I had a bat in the flat…



Not a baseball bat or a cricket bat, you understand – although those particular weapons – um, I mean articles of sports equipment - do play a large part in my current fantasies. No – I mean those flappy, mousey animals with wings. Bats.



I thought that moving to a third-floor flat would put an end to Sugar (Sugar by name, blood-crazed psychocat by nature), bringing in birds and mice and other delicacies. Well, it did. But now they come to Sugar.



What silly, silly creature flies into the arms –oops, I mean paws – of a predator ? What was the bat thinking as she lay there squeaking helplessly, allowing herself to be toyed with, tossed into the air, up and down, backwards and forwards ? Why didn’t she try to escape then ?



Eventually, Sugar got bored and left to curl up on the sofa and dream of birds. Birds are prettier and they sing. More fun than silly old bats.



Meanwhile, the bat lay gasping, battered, her bruised heart fluttering in pain…



But guess what ? She survived ! She crawled to a safe place between the wall and the cupboard where Sugar couldn’t reach her and waited quietly.



She’s not there this morning. I hope she felt the cool, sweet air coming in from the balcony and heard the rustling of the breeze in the honeysuckle.


I hope she took flight and glided gracefully into the night.


Safe.


Free.



Reader, I was blind. I was as blind as a bat…





Thursday, March 11, 2010

Souvenirs, souvenirs...


Photo courtesy of reddman


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Reading Colin Randall’s post about package tours over on Salut! reminded me of the time my mum and I went on a day trip to Boulogne.

Mum had spotted an advert for the trip in the local paper. The coach would be picking people up from various towns around North Shropshire, including ours. In an effort to rouse me from the depths of despair (it’s a long story), Mum offered to treat me.

So the following Sunday night, Dad dropped us off at the bus station. It was bitterly cold and the sound of our stamping feet echoed eerily around the deserted car park.

“Do you think we’re the only ones going?” asked Mum, peering into the window of the dark, empty and locked office building. “Perhaps they’ve forgotten us…”

“Don’t be daft,” I said. The manager was my ex-boyfriend and he definitely wouldn’t have forgotten…

We shuffled round the bus station for about half an hour until Mum decided to ring the said ex-boyfriend to see what had happened. It was getting late.

“Oh,” said Steve sleepily, when he finally answered. “Sorry. We must have forgotten you. Don’t worry – I’ll send someone to pick you up.”

This time at least, he was true to his word. Twenty minutes later, a coach rumbled into view and the driver – a mournful, short-sighted chap – climbed down a tad unsteadily and squinted at us.

“Forgot yer, did they? Lucky I was in when Steve called – I’d only just got back from the pub. C’mon then – off we go.”

Recklessly, we followed him on to the bus. It might have seemed rude to sit at the back of an empty coach, so we sat near the driver, to keep him company.

“Now then…” He fumbled with various knobs and levers, “um…yeah…that’s it…um…” and the coach lurched violently backwards towards the exit.

“Could yer just guide me out?” he shouted, above the grinding, squealing noise. “’aven’t driven one of these fer a while.”

“Oh…why’s that?” I shouted back, perhaps unwisely. “Have you…Left! Left! No, TURN LEFT!”

Now, I can’t swear to it, but that concrete gatepost might possibly have been breathing in as we reversed into the street. I could be wrong, of course, but the sensation was tangible…

When he had located first gear, the driver turned round to answer my question:

“Well, I used to be a driver, like, but I got the sack, see. Wrote one of their buses off… doing this as a favour, like.” He turned his eyes back to the road. “Is this the right way?”

Mum and I ought to have been desperately worried at this stage and there was still time to leap out and run for our lives. Instead, we had to duck behind the headrests of the seats in front so the poor man couldn’t see how hard we were laughing.

Once out of town, the coach gathered speed – the driver had got the hang of it now, and the Shropshire countryside was flashing past the window in a blur.

“’ave to put me foot down a bit,” he said, “if we wanna get to Hilton Park Services on time.”

Nodding, we clung to our arm rests. Getting there uninjured would be OK by us. Really it would.

A roundabout loomed. Hmm. Tricky one.

“M6, M6…can yer see the sign? ’ere?…no, that’s not it…er…ooh…yeah, why not?”

The coach veered off on to a dimly-lit country road and continued for about five minutes before screeching to a halt next to a mysterious row of lights on the verge.

“Eee – that was a bit close,” muttered the driver who had made us get out to have a look. The coach was teetering on the brink of a four-foot deep trench. As we giggled nervously, he frowned and scratched his head:

“This canna be the way to the M6. Dunno ’ow I’m gonna turn round, though.”

I can’t remember how we did turn around but somehow we made it to Hilton Park Services in time to catch the proper coach. Saying our goodbyes with tight, bright smiles, we watched with an indescribable sense of relief as the driver finally found his way out of the car park and disappeared into the night.

Boulogne was far less exciting. It was midday and it was raining. We sat in a café for quite a long time pretending to be French then tried to find something to eat that wasn’t Fish and Chips or Welsh Rarebit.

As the afternoon drizzled on, it dawned on us that the shops weren’t going to open at all because it was Monday and half-day closing. We had to be back on the coach by four so we made a mad dash around Monoprix, the only shop that was open, then another mad dash down to the port where the ferry was waiting to take us home.

As our fellow travellers congratulated themselves on having bought three zillion bottles of beer or whatever, we contemplated our own hasty purchases: two cans of Elnett hairspray and a giant jar of Dijon mustard.

And I do sometimes wonder, even now, if that poor bloke ever found his way home…

Monday, February 22, 2010

Living in an Acronym




Well, I’m slowly getting back to normal (relatively speaking, of course) and having finally retrieved my laptop from the depths of one of the many cardboard boxes that are still cluttering up my new flat, I have decided to catch up on my writing…


Yes! I am now the proud locataire of a council flat just fifteen minutes’ walk away from my place of work. And about time too: it took three years of filling in forms, writing begging letters and getting to know people who knew people who knew people…three years of sobbing hysterically into answer machines, pleading impoverishment/indigestion/insanity and threatening to plant a bomb in the housing offices (nah – made that one up) before they finally relented and gave me one.


Council housing is called HLM which stands for Habitation à Loyer Modéré – housing at a moderate rent. The first HLM were built for workers who came to the towns during the second industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. At first, these workers were housed in shoddy ‘rabbit cages’ built by unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Crime and disease were rife and of such concern to the philanthropists of the day that steps were rapidly taken to improve the state of worker housing.







The first of these was the creation of the Société des Cités Ouvrières (Society for Worker Cities), founded in Paris in 1849 by a group of such philanthropists. With financial help from the government of Louis Napoléon, they built the Cité Napoléon with the aim of housing ten thousand workers and their families in clean, affordable blocks of flats in every district of Paris. It was never finished and still stands on the rue Rochechouart, as one of Paris’ lesser-known historical monuments. One of the reasons for its failure was that it was hardly much better than the ‘rabbit cages’ it was supposed to replace and would, according to moral reformers, encourage the spread of sexual immorality and – horror of horrors - ‘socialism’. It did, however, pave the way for later cités ouvrières built during the Second Empire.




Since then, social housing has undergone numerous changes. In the nineteen-fifties, there were more white-collar workers living in HLMs than there were manual labourers, the majority of whom were living in inferior, insalubrious private housing. During the sixties, huge tower blocks, known as barres, were built and for the next decade, the percentage of ouvrier tenants increased. From the eighties, the occupants got poorer and poorer and today, they make up the majority of tenants.


Living in an acronym does have its advantages. My HLM is in a ZUS (as opposed to a ZAC or a ZUP) – that is, a Zone Urbaine Sensible which is a euphemism for a trouble spot. This means that local government spends a lot of money trying to make the place look nice. My sweet little flat has been renovated and now boasts a wooden balcony, with a view of the Vercors mountains (I also have a view of the Chartreuse mountains from my kitchen and the Belledonne mountains from my bedroom). I have double glazing, under floor heating and a brand new bath tub. I was also given wallpaper (which I could choose from a limited range), paste, paint and plaster which launched me into a frenzy of DIY. I’m rather proud of my efforts, I must admit – apart from the bit of paper I stuck on upside-down and the mysterious gaps near the ceiling.


Even the cat has lent a helping paw. Unfortunately, she doesn’t understand that the stripping had to be done before I put the new wallpaper on.



I can’t show you a photo of my newly-decorated flat as someone has nicked my camera but if any of you are in the area, please let me know and I’ll invite you for tea and show you around. Oh and bring your toolbox – I’ve still got a few shelves to put up…