Thursday, 30 May 2013


Mattie had been a curious child and a voracious reader; she devoured all sorts of books: fictitious ones, historical novels and real life stories. When she visited the library at weekends, she was the first in and the last to leave. She whizzed around the shelves removing all the books she wanted to read until the weight and height of them nearly toppled her over. In a quiet corner she stacked them in alphabetical order, using them as a seat while the pile grew steadily smaller. Back then she'd been known as Matilda, a thin, pale girl who was quietly inquisitive, but as Mattie, although her health was frail, she was headstrong and bookish. Brown hair coiled in a loose bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose; often she read over the top rather than through them. She liked the bookish look because her family and physician said she couldn't be a librarian. They declared she could touch and read books, but not professionally, and the piles she had once read had been reduced to one or two weekly volumes. Further more, she was not to exert herself with excessive trips to the library; there was a world waiting for her outside!
With each attack, Mattie had grown used to such restrictions, relying on her librarian friend to conceal and bring her new editions. These she hid under her bed and read in the bath or after midnight, but at the breakfast table, her constant yawning was beginning to be noticed. Her sisters said her eyes were red and she looked sickly. Their Papa peered over his newspaper at her and told his eldest girl to call the doctor. Mattie was too tired to raise her head or earnestly protest. She wondered what treatment Dr. Morgan would advise when he arrived and began to dread it.
Later that morning, Dr. Morgan was shown to her room with his examination kit to put her through what she called his 'dog tricks.' She begged, walked to heel and sat, but it was no good. It was said her compliance was weak and her nerves had been temporarily afflicted. She was put under strict orders to rest her brain, and her eldest sister was told. 'She will get worse before she gets better.' Dr. Morgan now forbade her to read or touch books. Her thirst for knowledge was to be denied; there was to be no hint of learning. In a condescending tone, he told the household she could knit! If she improved, she could occasionally visit the library or study hall to stare at books or students revising, but this she would have to do accompanied by a chaperone.
On hearing his prescription, Mattie was inconsolable. For days she wept and then sank into a deep depression. Exiled from her only solace, she took to gazing longingly at the titles of books and their covers. Her hands clutching at her skirts or knitting needles to prevent her from tracing the spine or reading the back cover, and everywhere she went, she left a trail of coloured wool. Most of the time she took to her room and knitted scarves, booties and armless jumpers. Her needles clicking along to the animated tones from Cook in the kitchen. In the evenings, she made Papa or her sisters sit with her and read aloud a piece of news or a book's passage. Despite these anomalies, she was discontented. Being read to was not the same as reading with your own eyes, absorbing the printed word, and turning the pages.
Mattie increasingly flew into rages or was sullen, and her knitting became erratic. Scarves were unfinished, booties were made singly, and jumpers had gaping holes. Her hands shook if she was passed a book and she couldn't abide listening to the spoken word. As her health further deteriorated, Dr. Morgan conceded that the invalid needed more and not less books. In all his years as a physician, he had never before been defeated by a patient's wilful opposition.

*Inspired by 'A Suppressed Cry – The Short Life of a Victorian Daughter' by Victoria Glendinning.

Thursday, 23 May 2013


I'd be happy to meet you for a glass of wine.” There was a pause at the other end of the line, which I knew I was expected to fill, but didn't.
Does The Controversial Veggie drink wine?” Again a pause, “Well?”
A simple enough question, but my head was reeling. Think, quick! Does The Controversial Veggie drink wine? Do I drink wine? It would be easy to please, but should I be truthful?
Actually,” I blurt, “I'm teetotal!” I waited for the inevitable...
Why?!” Spluttered the voice on the line.
I held my breath and let this first exclamation mark hang in the air... yep, here it comes: coercion. The taunts, the reasons: 'You're no fun!' 'Party-pooper!' 'You don't know what you're missing!' 'Go on, have a proper drink with me, you know you want to!'
I listened silently and when it ended politely said, “Invitation not accepted.” And hung up.
I've been down that road before, given in when I really didn't want to, or dug in my heels and been made to feel I've spoilt the evening. The constant ribbing, the guilt trip, and the worry that whoever buys the next round may disrespect my wishes. 'Loosen up, just have a sip.' A stand-off ensues where I stubbornly refuse or reluctantly cave in. My defences are up, my enjoyment's curtailed. The joke's on me: No alcohol and veggie food, oh what an evening!
Am I a teetotal veggie or a veggie teetotaller? Did one influence the other? Neither. Although it's true alcohol does use animal derived products to clarify: egg; gelatine; milk protein; chitin, the shell from crabs or lobster; and isinglass, fish swim bladder, are all used as fining agents. In theory, these should not remain in the final product, but there's no guarantee, and therefore some veggies choose alcohol that uses non-animal derivatives. Spirits are more acceptable as they don't involve the use of animal substances, but having explained that, this is not why I'm teetotal.
Temperance does not exist in my family history, far from it! From an early age, I was taught to appreciate beer, wine and spirits: sips of Dad's low-alcoholic beer, or a small glass of Pop's cider; wines were matched to dinners, a full-bodied red to accompany a rich bolognese, or a delicate white with fish or chicken. In our households it was standard to ask: 'Are you wining?' I even went on to study wine tasting, though at the time I preferred sickly sweet Peach Schnapps or Vodka, and I always adhered to that sage advice: Never drink on an empty stomach. I was a classic 'lightweight', who could be tipsy and giggly, but never drunk. I stuck well within my limits, stopped before it made me feel powerless. I kept my head as being out of control didn't look 'hilarious'. The change in people's personalities was unnerving: glazed eyes, slurred speech, giddiness or aggression. I was a sensible drinker, but even then the much talked about relaxed, pleasurable sensation evaded me. The slightest drop made me feel I could lose my grip on myself and my reality, becoming an 'Alice' that didn't shrink, enlarge, or walk through a mirror, but spiralled down a tunnel. Alcohol gave me heightened sensitivity but with a curiously muffled effect. In short, I disliked this slight blurring of the edges, so my last 'proper' drink was over four years ago. As usual I preach non-conformity, but why should my refusal to wine make others uncomfortable?

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Sara gripped the pen and tried again to write her name in joined-up writing. It had been years since she'd written with ink on paper. Handwriting had gone out of fashion not long after the invention of Apps and the iphone. She had forgotten what her own used to look like. Words now were typed and abbreviated, although some people preferred voice-activated systems, a “Look No Hands!” form of writing. Nobody could read inked words if you asked them, unless they were printed in neat capitals. Sara too had succumbed for a while, forced to keep up with technology, but that was before the accident. A minor incident had weakened her dominant arm significantly and now after months of exercises her physio had prescribed handwriting as therapy. She was dubious about this as a healing technique, it seemed so controversial, but she was tired of doing everyday tasks back-to-front; she wanted her left hand back.
Tracking down writing materials hadn't been easy. Pens, pencils and writing pads had become obsolete since most communication was tapped on touch screens. Her physio had said this wouldn't be enough and that forming letters with a pen would yield a vaster improvement. After exhausting the Internet, Sara had stumbled across an Indian shop tucked away in the High Street, which specialised in ink pots, parchment note paper, and manuscripts about Hindu Gods. The elderly man behind the counter had been very efficient and she had returned home to begin immediately. This was where she was now: sitting at her desk holding a pen and pressing its nib onto paper. The side of her left hand ached from the light pressure as she tried to follow the curves of the S with an 'a'. She winced as pain shot up her arm.“Ow, ow, cramp!” She moaned, releasing the pen and massaging her wrist, thumb and fingers. Her grip had been too tight. She rested her head on the table and sobbed, “Why can't I write? Words used to flow across the page!” Frustrated, she gave up for the evening. It must be the writing tools she thought.
The next day, she went back to the Indian shop where the elderly man greeted her, “Missy Sahib, what can I do for you today?”
The writing tools I purchased are faulty.” She complained, “The pen won't be held, the ink won't flow, and the note paper won't be written on.”
That cannot be Missy Sahib. You must allow your consciousness to stream differently. You need to invoke Saraswati.” The elderly man replied calmly walking towards a corner of his shop devoted to manuscripts and carved statues. With his hands held together finger to finger, he bowed to a waxed deity. “Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of all learning; the ruler of pen and ink; the muse of every Indian artist, she will help you.”
Sara stared in awe at the statue; a seated female figurine in a spotless white sari, her gifts symbolised around her: an ink pot, a pen, a book, and a string instrument. “She's beau-ti-ful, but, but I'm not a Hindu.” She stuttered.
Believe in her ability to help you write and she will do so.” The elderly man paused to study Sara's expression before he continued, “But you must make regular offerings and speak aloud her hymn. I will give you the English translation.” He took a statue of Saraswati and a rolled up scroll off the shelf, “There's no charge.” He said ushering her to the door and closing it behind her.
Sara practised what she'd been told and her handwriting was much improved by Saraswati.

*Inspired by the works of Rumer Godden

Thursday, 9 May 2013


Soon we're going to do a little exercise, but I'll introduce myself first.” The Presenter said into his microscopic head mic, his nasal twang reverberating off the walls and the ceiling. I wouldn't have come if I knew it was going to be a 'Stand up, jump around, and wave your arms around' American-style of coaching; an audience shouting “Yeahs!!” and punching their arms in the air. I was slap-bang in the middle of a row, there was no escaping. I inwardly groaned and slumped in my chair.
What was he saying? Blah, blah, blah... My focus became fixed on the mic which looked like an irritating fly about to be swallowed. It moved with his jaw; up, down, up, down, oops he nearly bit it! I suppressed a giggle and continued to flinch from the squeaky feedback. What was he going on about anyway? I studied the leaflet, which had been left on my seat. I was attending on behalf of my boss and I hadn't bothered to check the details, apart from confirming the date, time, and location. It was so last-minute, I hadn't even had time to alter the reservation, so a name badge was now pinned to my chest which said: Dean Roberts, MD of All But A Few Limited, written in squiggly marker.
On the flyer, the Presenter winked smugly back at me; his finger pointed at himself as he speech-bubbled, 'Let me help you! You won't regret it!” His strike-a-pose looked forced and unnatural, like he needed the toilet. When men need to go, do they stand differently? I wondered. Women wrap their legs over, under and around, or stoop lower to the ground. Whatever, it certainly wasn't doing him any favours. I read the blurb alongside it:
Meet Connor Manning, (Con-Man to his clients), an aspiring author and small online business leadership coach. Gifted in helping fledgling businesses test the market and achieve their goals. See his famous 'Pigeon Technique TM' for yourself and use it to target your customers. Join us for this one-day event and learn from the Pigeon Master!
*Coffee and refreshments are not included.
Just another ridiculously expensive and useless seminar, where you join a pyramid scheme and pay more; sign up to their mailing list, buy their motivational books, and reserve your place on their next course.
Everybody up on your feet!” The Presenter commanded.
What!? There was a rustle of coats and bags being thrown on the floor and legs brushed against chairs. I hastily got to my feet. I didn't want to be the last in the room not standing.
Now turn to the neighbour on your left and state your name and tag.”
Eh, tag? What have I missed? The person to my left grabbed my hand and shook it.
Hello Dean.” He said peering at my badge, “I'm Matt and I have Conduct Disorder.” I stared at him flummoxed. “It's my tag. I'm a misbehaver.” He explained helpfully, “What's yours?”
I don't have one.” I replied nervously. My thoughts swirling, drowned out by the sound of voices excitedly chattering like monkeys.
Oh, sure you do. Everyone has a tag.” Matt reassured me. “See that man over there, he has ADHD and the woman next to him has OCD, I got pally with them earlier.”
As we resumed our seats, Matt whispered conspiratorially, “Everything's easier with a tag. They explain who you are in so many ways and allow you to people filter. They're awesome!”
The Presenter was talking, “Ladies and gentleman, you have just learnt the first step in the Pigeon Technique. Tagging people and products is an essential form of business currency.”
A thought just occurred to me. I tugged on Matt's shirt sleeve, “ I'm a Vegetarian.” I stated proudly in a hushed tone. “Does that count?”
There you go!” Matt said congratulating me on the back, “You've just tagged yourself!”

Thursday, 2 May 2013


I'm a Troll fol-de-rol, I'm a Troll fol-de-rol, I'm a Troll fol-de-rol, and I'll eat you for supper.
Trip-trap, trip-trap; Hop and skip, hop and skip; Hippety-hop, hippety-hop;
Over the rickety bridge!”
The Troll's rich voice sang out as three Billy Goats nimbly followed him. They couldn't understand his language and of what he was singing, so they playfully skipped with the 'Trip-trap' bit as he led them in a procession down narrow, overgrown alleyways. In Goat earlier, the Troll had conveyed he would help them find their way; said he knew a lush green meadow where they could graze. Fooled by his benevolence, the trio chose to go with him.
As the Billy Goats hopped and skipped, the Troll thought of supper. It had been a long time since he had lured three goats across, and what fine, healthy specimens they were! They weren't like the Billy Goats Gruff he had tried to trick all those years ago; each was medium-sized with a white fur coat and two tiny pointed horns. 'Innocent triplet kids', the Troll thought smacking his lips, 'I won't end up in the deep, fast flowing river.'
Three mouthfuls for supper!” He boomed as his protruding belly let out a stream of loud gurgles, “Not long now my friend.” He whispered to it, patting it through his thin cotton shirt.
Meanwhile, the three Billy Goats chased butterflies or munched on the leaves of alleyway plants, which they chewed with squinted eyes and distasteful expressions, and then spat out. They play-fought one another, cursed in Goat and begged for water, but the Troll paid no heed and continued to lead them on. They exited one alleyway and entered another; they followed the Troll's steady plod, until all three skidded into him, one after the other.
Why have we stopped?” The middle triplet kid said to his brothers.
The Troll overheard, directed his gaze straight ahead and said, “That there is the rickety bridge, over which lies lush green grass and clover.”
Two feet away, a ancient wooden bridge swung over a fast flowing river, which the Billy Goats noticed as they approached was rotten in places; some planks were missing, some were eaten away. The youngest triplet kid shivered all over, while the eldest only yelled “Water!”, and hippety-hopped to the river's edge to quench his thirst.
Pah! Pah! Tastes like scum! Dirty pond water!” He rasped, clearing his throat repeatedly.
The Troll seemed unimpressed with his behaviour. He clenched his fists, “You want over, I'm the toll-keeper.” He said as he stepped onto the bridge. It creaked and swung under his weight and only steadied itself when he planted his feet in its centre.
Pooh! Pooh! We're not scared of an ugly, fat Troll!” The eldest kid taunted, pushing his younger brother forward.
The youngest triplet kid shakily trip-trapped across the first half of the bridge. He met the Troll with his head down and quietly said into his chest, “You're not a very nice Troll.”
The Troll laughed, clutching his belly, which allowed the youngest kid to skitter passed him.
Who's next?” He rumbled.
The middle kid with a more certain trip-trap approached him, gently head-butted his stomach and addressed it with a string of unflattering words: “Fat, pudgy, pot-bellied, roly-poly, tubby...” The Troll was surprised so the middle kid managed to easily slip past him.
Now the eldest triplet kid trip-trapped firmly towards him,“You're pathetic!” He sneered. “You live alone. You have no friends. Nobody cares about you.”
The Troll burst into a flood of tears, and as he cried the eldest kid roughly shoved passed his legs and crossed the rest of the bridge. Reunited with his brothers, he shouted, “No supper for you! We're Billy Goats Grunt and the Gruffs taught us Trolling!” And with a united bleat, they skipped into the lush green meadow.
The Troll was so upset by this verbal attack that he never tricked another billy goat again.