My Writing - prose

Here's a link to the interview about my memoir 
ARISE NEWS June 29th 2015

And a link to readings from the Book Launch at the Big Green Bookshop Sept 2015 Readings from A Hippopotamus at the Table

This is a true story of a journey to a new life in Cape Town, South Africa in 1975.

Excerpt from the book:   ‘Waiting at the reception desk to check in, I saw the toilet signs for the first time, in both Afrikaans and English – Blanke Dames (White Ladies), Nie Blanke Vrou (Non-White Females) … the first time I had to go, I stood outside, hesitating, feeling that by choosing one I was accepting their distinction.

A young woman, with her husband and baby travelled to South Africa in 1975 at a time when apartheid was at its height. Their journey took them from a high rise apartment in Johannesburg, to a chicken farm and then a thousand miles across the Karoo to Cape Town. There they lived for over two years at a time of growing social unrest against the rigid strictures of the apartheid system. Her husband’s work as an actor took him touring from Cape Town to the townships and into major roles in innovative theatre. Her journey became a spiritual quest to make sense of the world in which she found herself, a world where black and white mingled but were kept apart.

The government of the time was clamping down, enforcing rigid censorship and the separation of people. It was the children of the townships who fermented the riots of 1976, rebelling against the oppressive rules of a hateful system. The murders of these children resulted in a huge outcry across the world. Censorship kept that largely hidden from many of the people who lived there.

This is a story of a young family living in those times in South Africa.  The effects of apartheid crept up on them until two tragedies drove them to realise that continuing to live there had become untenable.


Short Story

This story was published in Greenacre Writers anthology 2013
Word count: 2246

This plaque is in Postman's Park, in the City of London. Postman'sPark is in the churchyards of St Leonards, Foster Lane, St Botolph, Aldersgate and the graveyard of Christchurch, Newgate Street, in the city of London near St Pauls’s Cathedral. Look at the address on the plaque, which is not too far from the park, on the other side of the river - Union Street is, between Borough High Street and London Bridge.

A shift in time

Jane always looked forward to training days at Campbell House.  She had a set routine. She’d walk through the turnstiles at Borough Station – straight ahead was the news-stand, then turn immediately right and right again into the entrance of the long narrow Italian cafe. She’d walk past the glass food displays to the counter and ask for her skinny latte.  She’d say'Grazi' to the girls there, they’d look mock surprised and say ‘Oh, you speak Italian?’ she’d laugh and say ‘Not really’, as she picked up her latte and walked back down to the exit.  She never bought her pastry there, not those big overblown fluffed-up things in the display cabinet.  She would leave the cafe, walk past the news stand and turn right across the dual carriageway, to cross the road.  Before going in to Campbell House, her first stop usually was the sell-everything grocer/newspaper shop next to it.  She would smile at the Indian man behind the counter to her right and head left towards the racks of pastries on the wooden shelves, carefully laid out on white greaseproof paper.  She’d pick up the big silver tweezers and take a pecan lattice pastry.  The thought of that fresh, straight-out-of-the-oven smell made her mouth water in anticipation.  She would slip it into the brown paper bag, pay her 60p and then head for the revolving-door entrance to the training building. Her fingers would be sticky as she pulled  a piece off and put it in her mouth. Then a sip of cappuccino to wash it down, the two tastes intermingling. 

Today though, as she came up in the crowded lift at Borough station, she knew she had to hurry.  She was not going for training at Campbell House (‘Thank God!’ she thought).  She was going for an Occupational Health check, in a building in Union St, near the corner of Southwark Bridge Rd.  She did not have to sit in small groups with people she barely knew, to ‘brainstorm’ ideas on a piece of flip chart paper on how to improve the service. (‘Thank bloody Christ!’ she thought again.) 

That morning, she had thought carefully about what to wear and put on her good black underwear(she might have to undress for an x-ray - you never knew) and pale grey, slim fit slacks, black slip-on mules.Then she'd decided on along canary-yellow top, and added her loose silver chain belt.  It was a warm summer's day, too hot for a coat. Her blonde hair was pulled back with a black velvet ribbon. She'd wanted to look casual, but fashionable and felt confident she had succeeded.

In Occupational Health, she would spend half an hour answering questions about her medical history, explain that nasty bout of flu she’d had in the winter and that would be it. Afterwards, she was going to meet a former boyfriend for lunch, in the oysters and champagne bar opposite Liverpool Street station. Then she’d return to her office and get on with the backlog of paperwork on her desk. She thought about him briefly and sighed.  He still wanted to rekindle the dying embers, but she had moved on, 'No way!', she thought to herself.  He could buy her a nice lunch and that would be that. 

HR would get the Occy Health results, so that her seven days of absence in the last six months would be verified.  It was all so ridiculous these days.... not as if she was taking months off sick!  Anyway, there was just time still to get her cappuccino and pecan lattice.  She had about ten minutes to spare!  No sense in being early, they’d only keep her sitting in some boring waiting room.  She’d already worked out the quickest route to the building, by Googling the post code and had printed off the map.

Walking down Marshalsea Rd a few minutes later, she speeded up as she glanced at her watch and realised she had about four minutes left to go.  She took a swig of her cappuccino and bit into the last chunk of pecan Danish, honey and sugar oozing onto her fingers.  Another swig of coffee and there was nothing left in the bag but a pile of flaky crumbs.  She sighed, those really were the best pastries she’d had anywhere and the cheapest.  At the next bin she dumped the evidence, didn’t want to walk in for a health check with those in her hands. Her fingertips were still sticky, she looked around, but no one was close by, so she licked her fingers and then wiped them on a tissue from her pocket.

At the end of Marshalsea, she turned right into Southwark Bridge Rd and walked down towards Union Street.  She thought she smelled smoke and lifted her nose to the air and sniffed, just a faint whiff – perhaps there was a bonfire somewhere.  Smelt like burning logs.  As she reached the corner, she stopped and looked up the road, glancing at the tall buildings on either side counting to herself, ‘three, five, seven.... must be that one’, she thought and stepped round a bollard towards the curb, waiting to cross.

As she turned however, her head felt light and she staggered slightly.  The air in front of her eyes seemed to shimmer and suddenly the burning smell became overwhelming. She could hear a roar of flames and blinking, looked over at the building on the other side. She realised that she could see the flames, licking through the wooden joists of that building..... ‘What!’ She shook her head in total shock.  This was not the same street she had looked down a moment ago, surely.  Her head turned left, then right, ‘What the hell.....’  She couldn’t make any sense of what she was seeing, something was odd about the people around her too, yes, they were all staring at the fire, but look, look at their clothes.  The men all had funny black bowler-type hats; the women all had bonnets and long dresses.  No one seemed to be noticing her at all.  Even the street was all wrong, it was muddy and rutted, carts pulled by horses were whizzing past her, she jumped back just in time, as the wheel of a fancy carriage just missed her. The nice well-kept wide pavement was gone. She moved back a bit more, letting go of a long breath and then looked again at the building that was on fire - it was an old fashioned house, rickety-looking, battered.  People were shouting and pointing up to a first floor window – a child, no more than seven, was leaning out, she was holding a toddler and was that another child behind her she could see?  They were all crying, crying for help, but the smoke and flames were billowing up.  Who could save them?

She shook her head again, she was either hallucinating or had wandered onto a film set.....she couldn’t see any cameras though, she thought anxiously, scanning the scene.  Was that man the director?  He seemed to be in charge, pointing and herding the gathering crowd of onlookers. Was anyone going to rescue those kids?  The flames looked real enough and so was the smell of burning. The smoke was making her eyes smart.

She looked around again to see if any of these bystanders were going to do something... they were shaking their heads, and tut-tutting, but none were lifting a finger.  She wanted to scream at them and then suddenly she saw the girl, ginger-headed, pulling her hair back into her ribbon, tucking her grey dress into her bloomers.  She was plump and freckly, big blue eyes, turned up nose, very Irish looking, she thought to herself.  The girl was now running forward and into the burning doorway. Jane wanted to scream ‘Be careful... as the girl ran through, but she wouldn’t have heard.  The girl had a set look on her face, determined.

 Jane took a step forward slowly, holding her breath. Everyone else seemed to be holding their breath too, waiting.  Then she heard the crowd gasp, as the girl appeared from the smoky atmosphere, holding one small child under her arm and dragging the other, slightly older, by its hand.  The two children stood bedraggled, tear-stained, black streaks on their faces and clothes – the girl thrust them into the arms of a woman standing there.

Now she was turning to go back into the building.  Jane shouted, tried to warn her not to go, but her voice came out as a croak.  She felt helpless, an observer of the scene, not a participant somehow.  A sudden gust of wind sent sparks and smoke flying out from the building into the crowd, who all jumped back, yelling.  The woman holding the children was shouting something, her face distraught.  Was she the mother?

Another glimpse of the ginger girl, behind the doorway, this time with an older child.  She was shouting something as she propelled the child forward, pushing it towards the now sobbing woman. Just as the child ran out of the doorway, a blackened beam dislodged itself and crashed down in a great shower of sparks and flame.  The view was obscured in the pandemonium and smoke, the crowd groaning.  Jane stood on tiptoes, straining to see.  Oh, she hoped the ginger girl got out, did she?   She found her cheeks were wet, but all she could see was the crowd backing away as the conflagration in front of them took further hold.

The girl's absence impinged loudly on the scene and the crowd were now subdued. The mother, if that’s who she was, clutched the three children, who were clinging to her long skirts.  All appeared to be wailing, their faces contorted, staring towards the burning building.  The mother’s hand was outstretched – were there more children inside? Or had the ginger girl been a relative?

The man she had thought might be the movie director, she now realised was wearing some kind of dark uniform and had a helmet in his hand. He was holding the mother-woman’s arm, pulling her and the children away from the scene.  The woman looked dazed as she turned away, her head drooped and her arms fell hopelessly, encircling the children.

Jane felt giddy again as the sadness of the scene overwhelmed her.  She shook her head to try and clear it, searching in her pocket for a tissue to wipe her wet face.  She felt a steadying hand on her arm and looked up.  A woman was smiling at her,
‘Are you alright?' she said.  The woman was dressed in a dark business suit, short skirt, green-glazed beads around her neck, pointed high heels.  Jane stared at her, as if she was an apparition.  Looking over the woman’s shoulder, she saw tall buildings, a wide street and a black London cab dropping off a fare.  She pulled the tissue out of her pocket and dabbed at her eyes...

‘Yes, yes, thank you.... I’m fine', she said. ‘No, really, I must have got something in my eye’.
The woman half-smiled uncertainly,
‘Are you sure?
‘Yes, yes! I’m sure’ she said, arranging her face into a smile, she just wanted the woman to go away and leave her to think.
‘Thank you!’ she said firmly.       

The woman shrugged and walked on and Jane looked carefully at the street.  She steadied herself, putting her hand out to a lamp post.  She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again.  No! The scene was still the same.  She sniffed the air – surely she could still smell a faint whiff of burning wood?  It must be her imagination.  The whole thing was her imagination.  Or was it a hallucination?  Perhaps one of those left over garlic mushrooms she’d had from the fridge that morning was dodgy?  She’d heard they sold ’magic’ mushrooms in Camden – could one have got into her bag of, no, ridiculous , she’d bought them in Tesco’s Metro in Liverpool Street?  Still there must be a reasonable explanation?  She’d better not mention it to anyone,they’d think she’d flipped.  Imagine what the doc in Occupational Health would say?  She shuddered at the thought. She glanced at her watch and was shocked to discover it said 10 o’clock. That meant….. no time had passed since the whole thing happened. She frowned, feeling confused.  She was on time for her appointment. It felt like hours had passed.  She sighed, then straightened and put her shoulders back, crossing the road.

Number Seven was a black-glazed building and as she pushed open the big glass door and stepped towards the semi-circular reception desk, her heart skipped a beat.  The receptionist, a plump, red-head, with her hair pulled back and freckles on her turned-up nose smiled. 

‘Yes, can I help you?’

Some websites about time shifting:

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