Friday, 20 November 2015
I doubt if there’s a writer anywhere who hasn’t at one time or another been confronted with the question, Do I continue to write or do I call it a day? Many give up on their dreams, knocked either by seemingly endless polite rejections or because their submissions have been met by silence. For others, it's not just a matter of becoming published. For others, like myself, writing is a passion that we can't live without.
I keep writing because I simply must. There's always an unwritten story in my head, some fragment of a sentence urging me to set it down on paper or a character nagging me until I type his/her point of view on my computer screen. I love creating fiction and I'm drawn to my computer almost as if I'm under a spell. Like all writers, I've had darker moments of self-doubt and wonder if I'm good enough. But despite the fear persisting, I'm occasionally reminded by others, that I am a good writer. I've won writing competitions, had stories published in magazines and last month was shortlisted for Love Stories 15, New Talent award.
On Wednesday 18th November, I travelled to London to attend the ceremony. It was held at Jewell Piccadilly, a chandelier-strewn cocktail bar in the centre of the city. It was lovely to meet fellow Romantic Novelist Association's New Writers' Scheme members and hear about their works in progress. Prosecco flowed and cupcakes decorated the tables. I met authors I'd read about online and was proud to be part of such an encouraging and positive event. I didn't win my category, but still feel extremely proud to have been chosen nationally as one of a handful of nominees.
The first chapter of my shortlisted novel, All Is Fair. (Unfortunately Blogger.com doesn't allow for correct layout).
All Is Fair
The air was thick and still, with nothing moving in the valley except the flow of the river. A chalk-smudge moon sat in the early morning sky and somewhere in the valley a dog barked, its sound travelling far in the stillness. Arlette Blaise was leading a caramel-coloured beast through the farmyard, scattering a cluster of chickens as she guided the cow by a rope at arm’s length in order to avoid its horns. Its bulk swayed and slewed with each step and its hooves made a rhythmical choff-choff sound as they disturbed the parched ground.
Arlette lifted her head and listened. Someone was calling her name.
She shouted back. ‘Par ici!’
Her best friend, Francine, was running up the hill, her clogs scuffing the dust and her long hair swinging from side to side.
‘Qu’est-ce qui se passe?’ asked Arlette.
Francine reached the summit and hung onto Arlette’s shoulders. She leant forwards trying to catch her breath, her face maroon as the beet that grew in their vegetable garden. ‘C’est Pétain!’
Arlette felt a chill run down her back. The French leader had been a topic of conversation as recently as yesterday’s birthday gathering. Neither of their fathers had hidden their disparagement of the premier of their country.
‘What about him?’
‘He’s abandoned Paris to the Germans.’
Arlette gave a high-pitched laugh. ‘Don’t be silly.’
‘It’s true. Maman heard it on the wireless.’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Surely he wouldn’t give in? No one gives away part of their country as if it were a basket of surplus apples.’ Arlette looked across the valley. Her eyes scanned the landscape, half expecting to see a line of German soldiers marching across its fields. The war. That vague far off entity that was spoken of in hushed tones. That destructive predator roaring in the north was stealthily creeping closer.
‘Surely they won’t come to Montverre?’
‘I hope not. Can you imagine?’
‘I need to speak with father,’ she said, gripping Francine’s hand and pulling her towards the farmyard.
The girls hurried towards the huge stone barn. They ran through the yard, dispersing the reassembled chickens. Arlette heard her father curse. Inside the vast structure, the interior was striped with sunlight that streamed in through gaps in the wooden boards in the eaves. It smelt of pungent manure that stung the back of her nose. Her father, Henri, raked his hands through his thick greying hair and noticed the girls standing in the entrance.
‘Ma pêche!’ he said quietly, beckoning to Arlette.
He’d called her his peach since she was a baby, on account of the velvety cheeks she had been born with. She leant into his chest and nestled just below his shoulder, his shirt infused with laundry soap, tobacco and fresh sweat. She looked up at him.
‘What does it mean, father?’
‘I’m not sure, but we’ll carry on as normal and work hard to bring in the harvest. We’re a long way from Paris and hopefully we won’t be too affected by the armistice. I’m sure we’ll be left alone to get on with our work.’
He tried to sound matter-of-fact but Arlette sensed a change in his voice. She heard a faltering that hadn’t been present before.
‘Where’s Gilbert?’ asked Francine, trying to sound nonchalant.
It was unspoken knowledge that Francine had become sweet on Arlette’s younger brother this past year.
‘He went inside for bread and goats’ cheese,’ said Henri, loosening his embrace on his daughter. ‘Go and tell him to hurry up. We won’t let the Germans disrupt our lives.’
She nodded. If her father wanted to pretend that everything was fine, then she would reciprocate. She walked out of the barn in step with Francine and heard the hushed baritone voices of their fathers’ conversation resume.
Gilbert didn’t move when Arlette walked into the kitchen. He was leaning back in their father’s armchair with his feet resting on a stool, chewing the remnants of his sandwich. He was tall and broad, with muscles developed through hard graft after years working on the farm. As soon as Francine entered, he sat up and straightened his hair.
So, thought Arlette. Francine’s infatuation wasn’t one-sided.
‘Hi Francine,’ muttered Gilbert. He wiped crumbs from his lips.
She smiled and lifted a hand in greeting, then stared at her feet in embarrassment.
Arlette found this unaccustomed shyness between her brother and her best friend very confusing. How was it possible that despite spending sultry summers and bitter winters together since they were children, they suddenly found it more difficult to communicate despite growing fonder of each other?
‘Father says to hurry up,’ said Arlette.
She looked at her brother’s dishevelled hair, scattered whiskers and large questioning fern-green eyes, a colour that they’d both inherited from their late mother. No, she couldn’t tell him of Pétain’s cowardice. Her own bravery had escaped her for the moment. She’d leave it to her father.
The first Sunday in September arrived, with the countryside adorned with pearls of dew and a low mist. The late summer heat and ripened fruit mingled together to fill the air with a honeyed fragrance. Arlette and her brother cycled into the yard having returned from Grande Masse at Saint Pierre’s church. Their father hadn’t been to a service since the death of their mother but had never tried to dissuade his children from attending.
Having leant their bikes against the barn, Arlette waved to her father who was walking towards them through the wheat field behind the farmhouse. His eyes were shadowed beneath his hat but he smiled and strode out of the golden field, cupping his right hand in front of him.
‘We’re all set for tomorrow,’ said Henri, rubbing the wheat heads between his palms and blowing the chaff away. He offered his children a kernel each.
‘It’s ready,’ said Gilbert, tasting it. ‘Very dry.’
Arlette bit into hers, cracking it between her teeth. She knew that if it wasn’t bone dry the harvest was likely to rot.
‘We start harvesting first thing tomorrow and this year is more important than ever due to the shortages,’ said Henri. ‘I’ve spoken to Thierry and Bruno and they’re both willing to help. Monique and Francine are coming too. I want you to sharpen the scythes today, Gilbert, because we have no choice but to harvest the old way.’
Due to fuel shortages, the tractor was out of use along with their mechanised conveyor belt that had been used in previous years for transferring the wheat stoops onto their largest cart. Their neighbour, Thierry, owned a small pig farm at the bottom of the hill. Twice a year they would swap a carcass of beef for a carcass of pork and were always willing to lend a hand if one was needed.
‘Choose two chickens for the pot today, ma pêche. We’ll eat a large dinner to prepare for the cutting and we’ll make extra to feed everyone tomorrow. Let’s pray for good weather.’
Monday morning dawned above the drooping golden heads of wheat. The swaying field sounded as if it was whispering in anticipation of the harvest. The air held humid warmth and butterflies and bees flitted indecisively from flower to flower in the garden.
Inside the farmhouse, the small group of neighbours huddled around the oven that Arlette had lit before dawn to take the early morning chill out of the kitchen. The logs crackled and the friends hugged their cups of coffee, discussing plans for the day.
Henri removed his cap and scratched his head. ‘Gilbert and I will be cutting the wheat starting at the top end of the field closest to the brook. I want everyone to stay well back from the scythes. Bruno and Thierry, you’ll be gathering the wheat into bundles. Ladies, your job is to tie them and stand them into stoops to dry. It looks as if it’s going to be another hot day, so Arlette and Francine, can you bring jugs of water and apples with you?’
Henri shuffled and rubbed his stubbled chin. ‘I just want to say thank you. We couldn’t have managed this without your help now that the tractor and binder can’t be used this year. We have a tough couple of days ahead of us, but just think of Marshal Pétain and Hitler when you’re chopping and binding, and we’ll soon get it finished!’
Everyone laughed as they left the kitchen and crossed the farmyard. They pushed their way through the metre-high wheat field, their thighs shushing against the stalks with each step they took. The sun was now above the horizon, already warming their skin and dampening their backs. The growing heat had also stirred insects that flew and jumped, causing the friends to blow, bat and spit as they made their way to the far corner of the field. Once there, the men peeled off layers of clothing. The refreshments were placed in the shade of a tree and covered with rectangles of muslin cloth weighted at each corner by glass beads. Arlette noticed Francine watching Gilbert as he hoisted his jacket above his head, momentarily revealing his taut stomach. Her brother glanced back at Francine, making her blush. He threw his jacket beneath the tree.
Then the harvesting began. Henri and Gilbert started the process, walking steadily six feet apart while swinging their scythes rhythmically from left to right. The stalks collapsed, falling to the ground to be walked over by father and son as they continued forwards. Bruno and Thierry followed a short distance behind. They crouched to collect the fallen wheat and assemble them into untidy piles. The girls and Francine’s mother fell into step at the rear, scooping the bundles into huggable diameters and tying them with loose stray stalks. These were then stood up in bunches of ten, leant against each other resembling tepees and left to dry in the sun.
This continued for over an hour until the group had walked down the length of the field and back up again, returning close to their starting point. They stopped to stretch, groan and reach for a drink of water. Arlette sat beside Francine and Gilbert, their three noses hidden inside their cups. They emptied every drop before Gilbert laid back, his chest rising and falling with each breath. He studied his hands.
‘I’ve got blisters already,’ he said.
‘You have girl’s hands,’ laughed Thierry, examining his own hard calloused palms. ‘These are what you call working hands, lad.’ He lifted them to show the group, causing Henri and Bruno to mock and compare areas of hardened skin.
‘Can I see?’ Francine asked Gilbert.
Arlette watched her friend take Gilbert’s hand, running her forefinger gently over his blisters. She saw her brother swallow, his throat constricting. His gaze fell on Francine’s hands holding his own. Arlette felt like she was intruding on an intimate moment, so reached for an apple and knife. A spiral of apple skin looped and fell like a pink ribbon onto her knees. She turned to speak to Francine’s mother.
‘I put a chicken casserole in the oven. The heat of this morning’s embers should keep it warm.’
‘Ooh, we’ll be ready for that my dear,’ said Monique. ‘I’m sure your mother is looking down from heaven and feeling very proud of you.’
After five minutes Henri stood up and batted the dust from his trousers. He spat on one palm before rubbing his hands together and reaching for his scythe. Everyone took this as an unspoken sign their break was over. Arlette noted that Gilbert stood up first and offered his hand to help Francine. How wonderful it would be if her best friend were to become her sister-in-law.
Two days later, the wheat field was cut and an exhausted and dishevelled group left the field. They trudged back to the kitchen where Arlette had spent the last hour preparing a meal of rabbit, potatoes and the last of the runner beans. Dinner was to be followed by plump blackberries that she had hand picked and which had left her fingertips stained indigo. She could hear their voices getting louder and crossed the yard to greet them, hugging her father and walking beside him towards the well.
‘Food’s nearly ready.’
‘You’re a good girl,’ said Henri, kissing her forehead. ‘First we need to wash the dust off our hands.’
Arlette heard her brother curse under his breath. She turned to see what he was looking at. Soldiers. The melice had returned.
An open-topped truck had turned into the farmyard and stopped in front of the assembled group. Two uniformed men wearing blue berets climbed out, their buttons catching the sunlight. They moved to the front of their vehicle.
‘Whose farm is this?’ the older of the two demanded.
Henri lifted an arm.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Papers.’ The melice officer clicked his fingers impatiently.
‘They were checked recently.’
‘I’m checking them again.’
‘They’re inside,’ answered Henri.
‘Fetch them,’ he barked. ‘Your papers should be on you at all times.’ He scanned the gathered group of neighbours, his lips curled in distaste.
Arlette watched the younger soldier write something down on his clipboard. Her father returned from the kitchen carrying his paperwork. It was snatched from his hands when he offered them. The French policeman barely looked at them.
‘We’re taking your wheat. German soldiers in the north are short of food and we’re starting a process of redistribution.’
Arlette noticed her father’s distraught face. This harvest would have sustained the family throughout the coming winter and also earned them a little money. Now it was to be taken from them to feed the enemy. The future suddenly seemed like a darker place.