Jasmine flustered

P1000483It’s Friday evening and I haven’t written my blog! Actually I haven’t had time to think all week having had the family inc grandsons to stay (lovely but full on. . .) Also I have paid a visit to a local writing group of which I am not a member to talk about writing, publishing and gender identity.  A lovely morning and I sold a couple of books (yippee!). Then I was out today again, talking about gender identity.

So I haven’t paid much attention to the news and I am not going to comment on it other than to conclude, in John Crace’s words – we’re fxxxxd.

And that’s it really. What I can do is give you a taste of the new novel I’m working on – The Pendant and the Globe, inspired by a session at my weekly writing group.  Here is the opening chapter as it currently stands (first draft):

The Pendant and the Globe

1

She stepped over the corpse. The guardian was lying face down in the shallow stream. She glanced back into the dark tunnel. There was no pursuit. There were no guardians left to pursue her.  She ducked under the low lintel of the cave entrance and stepped onto the narrow ledge. The water tumbled over the edge falling to the pool a hundred feet below. The dark tops of trees obscured the valley floor but the sound of the water hitting the rocks below came to her. She raised her head, looking straight at Selene, the crescent moon. Its light illuminated the cavemouth, sparkling in the water and reflecting off the broad sword she held in her left hand. The long blade was streaked with blood, but it no longer shone with its own light. She rested the sword against the wall of the cave, its tip submerged, and looked at her left hand.  A long silver chain dangled between her wrist. She looped the chain over her head.  The necklace held her long black hair against her neck.
Slowly she opened the fingers of her left hand revealing the object for which she had despatched the guardians. There was a ring of iridium the width of her palm. Within it was the shape of a tree formed from a single length of platinum wire. The wire wound on itself to form a trunk, seven short roots and seven boughs that intersected with the circle. Threaded on each of the boughs were chips of precious stones – ruby, orange diamond, topaz, emerald, sapphire, azurite and amethyst. She had known what she sought but this was her first sight of the jewels in their setting. She smiled and let the pendant drop to her naked breasts. The metal ring was cold but the gems felt warm against her skin.
Taking up her sword she began to descend the steps cut into the cliff face. Irregular and uneven, they appeared natural indentations in the rock. The route to the cave was a secret to her no longer. The path passed behind the waterfall. She paused and extended her bare arms into the falling water, washing off the blood that was encrusted on them. Then she continued down to the pool.
She made a soft hum, like the beating wings of a bee. In moments she heard footfall between the trees. Her steed approached and stopped in front of her. She caressed the velvet of his antlers then stowed her sword in the scabbard strapped to his flank.  Grasping the thick fur on his neck she leapt onto the deer’s back and pressed her heels to his side. They turned and ran between the trees, twisting and turning and climbing away from the stream.
Soon they emerged above the treeline onto the open mountainside. She clung to the deer’s neck as he leapt from tussock to outcrop, barely touching the ground. Across the ridge and over the moorland they travelled. The air whipping over her naked skin chilling her but she did not care. She laughed into the wind. She had the Pendant.

“Do you have to leave?” the young man said
“My task is finished. I am done with this place,” the Traveller replied.
The young man tried again. “Can we not show our gratitude by holding a feast in your honour?”
The Traveller made a sound behind his white beard. It may have been a chuckle at the thought that they felt they owed him something or it may have been a snort of disdain that they considered that they could repay him for his efforts. “I have no need of feasts,” he said.
The young man sighed. “Where will you go?”
“Wherever I am needed.’
“We need you.’
Now the Traveller did indeed snort. ‘No, you do not. You have responsibilities, duties to each other and to your land. You do not need my presence in order to carry them out.”
The young man was crestfallen. It seemed he knew what the Traveller meant but would have been reassured to have the old man’s support.
“Well, we wish you well, Traveller, and hope to welcome you here again.”
“Do not wish for my return. It can only mean that troubles face you. Only you and your people can ensure that they do arise. Now I will take my leave of you.”
He turned his back on the young man and the throng of people that stood silently behind him. He walked through the gates of the city, out on to the arid plain and towards the Sun sinking towards the horizon.
From a deep pocket in the long, dark coat that he wore despite the heat, he drew out the Globe. He held it by the stand attached to the southern pole and, as he walked, he ran his finger over the outline of the continents incised into the dark metal.
Where next was indeed the question. There was always some place or people where his knowledge and skills were required; some threat that required his involvement. He had not walked far when his fingers encountered a hot spot on the Globe. It shone as brightly as the Sun in the tropics. He held the Globe up to examine it more closely and to check the location. It was as he feared. He knew it well, half a world away, and there was only one reason why he was being alerted.
He stopped and took a pair of dividers from his other capacious pocket. He spread the points to touch the Globe at his present location and the centre of the glowing spot. He put one foot forward. For a moment he had one foot in the afternoon and the other in the night. He completed the pace. The plain was gone and he was standing by a waterfall in moonlight.

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Jasmine recuperates

WP_20190514_12_33_27_Pro (2)I took a risk this week, not a big one. You know that this blog is published on Saturday morning. Usually I write it during Friday, but occasionally earlier in the week if Friday is busy. Well, it’s Friday and I’m free but I spent yesterday in hospital having a small op which necessitated a general anaesthetic.  I’d wondered if I would be in the mood for putting fingers to keyboard.  I’m glad to say I am.

It was my first time to be knocked out in hospital since I had my tonsils removed when I was five. Things have changed since then.  I was in and out in eight hours having been first on the list for the day. I wasn’t worried about the operation much, but “going under” was an existential concern – losing control, all feeling gone along with sense of identity.  A  bit like dying, I thought. Well, no, I don’t think so. There I was chatting to the anaesthetist, next moment I’m waking up feeling sleepy. I have no recollection of becoming unconscious and of course, no experiences during the operation. Brilliant. I’m still worried about dying though – you don’t wake up afterwards.

Now I’m recuperating. Actually the four incisions, which I thought would be sore like cutting your finger, are no trouble. No, it’s the wind and indigestion that is annoying. They don’t tell you that in doing keyhole surgery they puff you up full of air. It takes a while getting rid of it. The silly thing was that an hour after I woke up I was offered lunch. Since it was almost a whole day since I had last eaten I thought I should accept. I think hospital cottage pie and overcooked veg was the wrong choice. It sat in my stomach overnight. Anyway, I’ll soon be right as rain (what does that cliché mean?).

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So she’ gone, or going. She just has to stay to entertain the Trumps and comment on the results of the EU elections.  No doubt she’ll interpret the third of the voters plumping for Farage as an endorsement of her “will of the people” refrain. I’m waiting to see what the sum is of the Remain parties’ votes. Next we have six weeks of Tory after Tory and their sycophantic supporters saying why they should be PM when not one should be allowed within a mile of No.10. Meanwhile the days to the end of October flip over with no conclusion to the Brexit chaos.

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I did do some writing this week, but not fiction, so, it’s back to the files. I found a story written over a year ago and had completely forgotten. It was composed for my previous writing group using the sentences “Bring pen, paper and Sellotape. We have everything else.”  The story uses the protagonist and setting of a novel I started twenty five years ago; never completed, but somewhat updated. The story itself could be the first chapter of a novel and I quite like it, but it doesn’t really end and I expect it will remain as it is. See what you think.

Just ink blots on paper

It had been a quiet morning for DCI Arthur Payne until he took the call from New New Scotland Yard.
“Hi, Art. How are you today, ” said Mycroft, “I’m sorry to tell you that there’s been an incident on the Higher Embankment in Westminster.”
“What sort of incident?” Art asked wondering for the zillionth time why the Met Police’s AI couldn’t get straight to the point and had to turn every conversation into a cosy chat.
“The death of Jaysie Warren.”
That simple sentence told Art that the deceased was an important person, a taxpaying elector. Anyone else would not be deserving of an investigation by a Detective Chief Inspector or any other police officer for that matter. Mycroft delivered the full life record of Jaysie Warren to Art’s Patch. He stared at the wall and read off the headline facts. Avowed male, 34 years old, British resident from birth, living in Hampstead, no declared partners or dependents. Art sighed, hauled himself out of his seat, picked up his mac and hat and headed down to the vehicle depot.

He joined the silent queue of cars and bikes in his police-model Jaguar type ES. The heads-up told him that the shortest route was blocked thanks to an ethical dilemma in a personal transport module. He switched to self-drive took his own route, ducking down the side roads and lanes that were only available to vehicles such as his own.
He pulled up at the junction with the Higher Embankment and stepped out into the drizzle.  Crossing was no problem given that the vehicles were moving at walking pace. It seemed that people would suffer the congestion rather than use the antiquated underground until the traffic actually came to a standstill. He paused at the roadside barrier.  To the right the road curved to the landward side of the roofless shell of the Palace of Westminster.  The grey waters of the Thames lapped at the tower of Big Ben with its clock-faces long ago replaced by giant emojis smiling with defiance. He turned and looked down at the sloping concrete riverbank.  The body was lying on the high-water line not far below the road level. Presumably it had been deposited as the high tide receded.
Art stepped over the barrier and tentatively made his way to the scene. A Health Emergency Response Drone and a Community Police Safety Robot rested alongside the body, their rotors motionless.  Art crouched down. The dark-skinned body was wearing light grey leggings with a prominent and hardened codpiece – definitely male then.  His tight top was a dull silver-grey. The river water had done for the self-expression display circuitry.  Art had seen enough for himself. He locked eyes on the HERD and made a link. The machine’s medical analysis, downloaded into his Patch, confirmed the cause of death as drowning but noted a serious blow to the head by a blunt instrument. The CPSR could give him no information other than the time of discovery of the body which he had already received from Mycroft.
Art lifted the man’s left hand. As he expected there was a Mindnet interface imprinted on the skin. He placed his own wrist over it and initiated a person-to-person link. Jaysie Warren’s body may be dead but his Patch was still active, just.  Running on what remained of core body-heat and with sensory and network inputs down it was merely conserving memories. Art accessed the recent communications that Warren had contributed to.  He rejected the standard advertising and public information blurts, looking for personal messages.  There were the usual social exchanges, but one thread was noticeable. While the others triggered the visual and audio cortex this one seemed to be solely a text projection.  He read the words as they marched across his retina.
<Bring pen, paper and Sellotape. We’ve got everything else.>
What did the message mean? It brought back old memories, very old ones. Art’s Patch, busily conducting an extensive search, supplied him with images of quills, fountain pens, and biros along with pictures of sheets, reams, books of paper and strips and rolls of clear sticky tape. He recalled scribbling with a pencil on a sheet of paper when he was a kid, but it was a long time since he’d even used a stylus to scrape on a screen. Patches and Mindnet had seen to the end of that old technology. He suddenly felt old. He should really be drawing his pension, but the authorities kept putting off his retirement date because he was a “functioning asset”.  Simply, he still earned his salary by solving cases which the algorithms running in the PPRs failed to solve.
Who would be interested in such archaic materials and who needed a text message to respond to the request? He didn’t need to see the ident of the recipient to guess the answer to the latter question – a welf.  He told the HERD to arrange collection of the body and Mycroft to instigate a search of Warren’s home.  Then he headed back to the Jaguar while locating the message’s recipient. Alex Ceplis was the name and there was a current location.  That was all. The welf was only tagged; no connection to the Mindnet for this man, woman or whatever.
Art got back into the car and initiated flight mode. The car confirmed that the battery charge was sufficient for the intended journey, the six thrust-fans slid out from under the chassis and the vehicle lifted off. In moments he was above the height of the tallest London tower-block and moving eastwards.

Art relaxed and looked at the sights as they headed over the ever-widening Thames estuary.  Down below were the sunken streets of Basildon. The car turned north following invisible paths in the sky and descended.  It landed just south of the former town of Chelmsford.  Art looked through the windscreen and the steady drizzle at the fifty-foot high smart-fence.  Towards the top it curved over as if forming a dome over the area.  It was indeed a virtual dome isolating everyone and everything within.
He dropped a few essential items into his pockets, put his hat on his head and stepped out of the car. He did up his raincoat and issued a security command code. The Jaguar retracted its fans and settled to the ground; the windows turned opaque and the doors fused with the body making it impenetrable. He sniffed the air, there was a different odour here compared to the city, not unpleasant. He walked towards the entrance.
The outer gate opened as he approached. He stepped through into a cage-like tunnel. The gate closed behind him, but his way out remained blocked. His vision turned red and warning bells clanged in his head.
<Warning. You are now entering the Greater Chelmsford Welfare Zone. This is a deregulated area. Mindnet functionality is not available. Temporary access is only allowed to designated personnel. Warning. Your safety cannot be guaranteed.>
Art ignored the warnings and took a step forward. The gate ahead of him opened. He strode through it and glanced round to see it closing and locking behind him. He stood still, suddenly conscious that his Patch had lost connection with the world he was used to. He no longer had enhanced reality. The ever-present adverts in his peripheral vision were gone. There were no info-hotspots in his field of view and the chatter of ads, news, messages and data at the back of his head had ceased. He put his hand in his pocket.  The feel of the plasma pistol was reassuring.
He looked ahead at the undulating landscape that descended gently to the flooded centre of the town. Apart from a few old brick and stone buildings the land was covered with row upon row of single-storey prefabricated cabins.  They were the same as he’d seen in welfare zones across the country. Each had its solar roof which supplied just enough power for basic appliances, even when the Sun was obscured by the overcast. Today’s drizzle would be sufficient to keep each cabin’s water-butt topped up providing the occupant with drinking and washing water.  Around each cabin was a tiny garden in most of which vegetables were growing, fertilised by the composting toilets. Many of the huts had lean-tos as extra rooms or greenhouses. They were constructed from bits of waste plastic.  There was no wood or metal used. They were valuable materials that could be sold. These rows of off-grid dwellings were home to non-participating members of the population.
Art walked the rough tracks between the cabins guided by the signal from Alex Ceplis’ tag. Faces looked out of windows and doors as he passed.  They were all ages and genders, all only mildly interested at his presence. He came to a cabin, identical to the others but according to his patch the location of Ceplis. He tapped on the door. It opened almost immediately, after all the occupant couldn’t be far from the door in such a small cabin.  The person was about the same height as Art with a white face and head bald but for a fringe of blonde hair. A white gown loosely covered the body revealing no hint of breasts.  Art guessed that Ceplis was an andro or a flipper and reminded himself to use the appropriate pronouns.
“Alex Ceplis?” he asked.
The person nodded. “That’s me. Who’s asking?” zhe said in a light voice with a hint of a Baltic accent. A migrant or refugee from the Re-sovietisation wars, Art guessed.
Art undid the top button of his mac and pulled the lapel down to reveal the glowing Met insignia in his shirt.
“I’m Detective Payne,” he said, “I have some questions for you. Can I come in?”
Ceplis shrugged and stepped back. “Don’t see many cops here.”
Art stepped inside and looked around the room that took up most of the cabin.  A woman sitting on a bed was breast feeding a baby. She looked blankly at him. At the end of the room was a rudimentary kitchen. There were a few pieces of furniture, an old display screen hanging on the wall and a couple of doors.
Ceplis stood in the small space at the centre of the room. “What questions?”
Art took a hand projector from his pocket and held it up in front of Ceplis. A three-dimensional image appeared in the air above it.
“Do you know this man?” Art asked.
Ceplis peered at it and shook his head.
“Do you know the name Jaysie Warren?”
Ceplis was thoughtful. “I might. I’m not sure.”
“You should. He sent you a message.”  The image of Warren was replaced with a plane white rectangle in the air with the text of the message Warren had sent. “He requested pen, paper and Sellotape from you. Why did he do that?”
Ceplis smiled. “I supply that type of thing.”
“That type of thing?”  Art was confused.
Ceplis moved to the side of the room and opened one of the doors.  It was a cupboard with shelves.  Each shelf was filled. Art recognised stacks of white and coloured paper, boxes of pencils and pens of different types, columns of sticky tape, rows of notebooks of various sizes and other boxes, the contents of which he could not perceive.
“They call me The Stationer,” the androgyne said with a broad smile.
“Why?”  Art asked.
“Why do they call me that?”
“No, I understand the word. Why do people ask you for the stuff?  Who needs pen and paper? And Sellotape”
Ceplis shrugged. “Various reasons. Some people like the idea of making a physical record.  Something that exists outside their brains or the processors of an AI and will exist as long as the ink and paper survive. Some people want to send messages privately.”
“What do you mean, private messages?”
Ceplis reached into the cupboard and took a small pad of paper and a pen.  He scribbled some words on the top slip of paper, tore it off and gave it to Art.
“There, a private message from me to you. No-one else can read it unless you choose to upload an image of it to Mindnet.”
Art read the words on the paper, Writing is just ink blots on paper. The reader interprets the words to find meaning.  How many people could even read mere words today, he thought. Most were used to communication in sound and pictures delivered, if they were connected to Mindnet, direct to the sensory centres of their brains. Who would want to share private messages written on scraps of paper?
Art said aloud, “Is that why Jaysie Warren wanted this stuff?”
Ceplis shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I just supply what people want.”

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Jasmine has a fool

Another week of governmental chaos. I would call it a farce but I laugh at farces (especially the old Brian Rix Whitehall Theatre farces – remember them) but this business is too serious to laugh at. It did inspire a story however (yes, another one).  See below.

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Next Thursday I will be at the Kings Arms in Abergavenny  or Y Fenni as us Welsh call it) for the Abergavenny Writing Festival  (see the programme here). Having put myself forward I was delighted to be asked to sit on a discussion panel  (2.30pm  Thurs. 11th) with three other contributors and a chair – all writers.  I was rather dismayed to see that I looked considerably older in my photo than the others – that is unless they’re using old profile photos (some authors do use the same portrait for many years. I’ve met a few who look quite a bit more haggard than their profiles – not mentioning any names).  Our topic for discussion is the old one – “Do we all have a novel in us?”  I think it’s an opportunity to talk, briefly, about our own novels.  So I will have all 8 of mine (with my name on) to hand. I think it’s natural to answer, of course we do, but that is writers speaking. In fact I think most people would be horrified if they were told they had to sit in front of a computer screen or a pad of paper and spend something like 2,000 hours churning out words to make a novel (conservative estimate not counting editing?). Unless you count lifestories, which I don’t think count as novels unless they are fictionalised, I don’t think everyone necessarily has a story to tell that it long enough for a novel. Mind you, there are enough of us that do think we can write a novel, to keep the presses and ebook sellers busy and provide all that competition for readers. Come and join in the discussion.

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The prompt for this week’s piece of writing was, not surprisingly, “April Fool”.  I was stumped at first for an original angle.  However, the present political situation, gave me an idea that, if not new, was quite appropriate. Here we go:

A Fool’s Day

It seemed like a normal morning when I got up. I sat down to my usual breakfast of toast and marmalade and opened the newspaper. There was alarm that this year’s spaghetti harvest might be late, concern that the new customs barriers on the Welsh-English border could hold up traffic, that more staff would be needed on the Isle of Wight ferries to check passports and more of the usual stuff.  There was also an article about the annual round up of wild unicorns on the Siberian steppes. Several adverts amongst the news caught my eye. There was one for Round Tuits, which interested me since I needed one; another for striped paint in a pleasant shade of red and white. I noticed that holidays on San Serif were popular this year, and there were various remarkable innovations to BMW cars. Nothing out of the ordinary for which I was grateful.
Then I put the radio on to catch the nine o’clock news. As the news reader read out the first item, I gradually had a feeling of normality sliding away from me as if I had slipped down a rabbit hole or stepped through the back of my wardrobe. I checked the date. It was March 32nd, so that wasn’t the explanation for my feeling of mental discomfort.
I was informed that a country with a long history of world trade and leadership in world affairs had decided to part company with its twenty-seven near neighbours. The fact that it did forty per cent of its trade with this group and obtained a good portion of its food from them did not seem to have been considered. This nation had decided to forfeit the benefits of free movement of goods and people, as well as the security and clout of being part of a large trading bloc. What’s more its citizens would no longer have the right to live and work in the neighbouring countries. This relatively small country would henceforth have to compete with the dominant forces in the world economy for the increasingly scarce resources necessary to feed, clothe and employ its population.
As if this news was not mind-bogglingly odd of itself, it was apparent that the decision had been forced on the government by a rebellious group of the ruling party that numbered less than a quarter of their total representation. The foolish and blinkered leader had asked the citizens to give their opinion while failing, over many years, to provide them with the information necessary to make a reasoned response. He had also failed to take the precaution of ensuring that the result of vote would be only taken as advisory, especially if it turned out to be close.
My head was spinning at this point, but then I learned that the nation had been given two years to negotiate a sensible resolution of the problem but had failed to suggest any solutions that would not cause harm.
I turned off the radio in disgust. How dare they broadcast such nonsense. Perhaps some people thought it was a joke to make such ridiculous suggestions. For me, it was total balderdash and impossible to contemplate as having any connection to reality. I decided to have a lie down with the hope that when I woke again normality would be restored.  Perhaps there will be more news about that UFO that has landed in London, again.

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Jasmine at the Museum

An evening in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff made a pleasant change to watching the continuing chaos on the news. The Museum event was part of the Cardiff Science Festival and I was helping the RSC (that’s the Royal Society of Chemistry) interesting children and their parents in chemistry.  We had a variety of activities for them to join in, mostly set at about Year 7 level (or younger) although one required the children to offer an explanation for how glowsticks work. Tthey weren’t expected to understand the more advanced aspects of chemiluminescence, but getting  them to describe what they saw other than saying “the light switched on” was difficult.  The Museum was packed with well over a thousand participants and they all seemed interested in our activities and the others that were going on.  I do have to say though that I was disappointed in children’s knowledge and understanding of acids, alkalis and indicators, even the older ones.

Another part of the evening was using my half hour off explaining chemistry to view the Leonardo drawings that the Museum has temporarily on loan, celebrating  the 500 year anniversary of his death. The drawings on show were largely anatomical but with some other sketches of plans for statues, and a map. It was marvellous to get up really close to these originals and examine Leonardo’s intricate and accurate diagrams. As well as his skill in drawing the depth of his analysis of his observations was quite breath-taking.

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WP_20190221_12_01_42_ProI have just had a statement from Amazon for the first month’s e-book sales of Molly’s Boudoir.  By Jasmine’s standards they weren’t bad but of course they haven’t continued at the same level because I have yet to discover how to spread word about the book (and the other Jasmine Frame titles) as widely as is necessary. I’m still in need of bright ideas or a publisher willing  to take them on and promote them. As I showed last week, the reviews are good. I still don’t believe that they belong in the tiny niche of transgender fiction. Jasmine is trans and so is the victim but the plot is crime.

And so to this week’s story. This one kills to two birds with one stone – not literally.  It fulfils both the criteria for my weekly writers’ group i.e. include the phrase “and that is why. . .” and that of my monthly group’s title “Window of Opportunity.” This time I adopted the style of an allegory. I’m told it works quite well.

Window of Opportunity: An Allegory

A long time ago I met a wise old man. He may not have been very old and may not have been a man, but he spoke wisely. He asked me what I wanted from life and I replied, that I wished to be recognised for something that I had achieved.
“Oh, you want to be famous,” the wise old man said.
“Not a celebrity who’s famous for being famous,” I said. “I want to do something special.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding sagely, “You need the Window of Opportunity.”
“I suppose so,” I said, not fully understanding what he had said.
“That is a long and difficult journey.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, thinking he had been speaking figuratively.
“To where?” I asked.
“The Tower of Ambition,” he replied, “At the top of the tower you will find the Window of Opportunity.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat surprised by what he was saying. “And where is this tower.”
“It is at the heart of the Forest of Endeavour, sometimes known as the Jungle of Responsibility.”
I had not heard of such a place. It was nowhere close, that was certain.
“And how do I get there?” I asked.
“Across the Sea of Expertise at the edge of the Ocean of Learning,” he replied.  I did at least know where the ocean was.
“You think travelling all that way is worth the effort?” I said rather doubtfully.
“If you avoid the Desert of Despond and the Depression of Depression, you will find what you seek,” he answered. I was intrigued to find out what he meant and eager to achieve my goal, and that is why I embarked on my journey.
I set out in a small boat across the ocean. During much meandering, I acquired knowledge of astronomy and weather, the skills of navigation, of handling and maintaining my craft and an understanding of the variety and characteristics of marine life. At last I entered the Sea of Expertise where I was beset by calms and buffeted by fierce storms. I had to fight against the wind to at last reach shore.
There I left my boat and set off inland. The Forest covered the continent with trees of every description from tall pines to broad oaks. I followed paths, coming across peoples who welcomed me and looked after me in return for my willingness to assist them. I enquired about the location of the Tower of Ambition but, while many knew of its existence, they could only give me the vaguest of directions. I stayed for a while but then the urge to continue my journey grew strong and I moved on.
One day the trees began to thin allowing the hot Sun to shine directly on me. I hadn’t come across people for a while and was running short of supplies. As I stood by the last tree I looked out on a barren rocky plain. In the distance I could see movement and colour. It appeared to me as a place of civilisation, somewhere to restock my rations.  I set off under the open sky. Soon I was hot and sweaty, I walked on, but my destination seemed as distant as ever. My legs became heavy and my clothes irritated my skin. I felt exhausted by the endless expanse of dry rock. It was then that I remembered the wise old man’s warning. I must be in the Desert of Despond. I turned and headed back the way I had come. I almost ran in my desire to get back amongst the trees.
Not long after I returned to the forest, I came across a community. They were friendly and took me in.  In my first few days one of their number took an interest in me. We became friends, companions, lovers. I worked and soon was accepted as an essential contributor to the village’s welfare. I was happy with my partner and my employment and the friends we had but still the urge remained to find the Tower of Ambition. It became something I had to do. My partner agreed to let me continue with my quest. I promised I would return and set off again.
Once more I travelled along tracks beneath the trees.  The path rose and fell but never became difficult.  That is, until I realised that the route I was following had been descending for some distance. My way was becoming steeper.  I had to watch where I put my feet as the surface become rough and uneven. I stumbled and grabbed hold of a branch to prevent my fall. I seemed to be heading deeper and deeper into a gorge.  Cliffs closed over me shutting out the sky. I could barely see my way in the dark. The weight of the overhanging rock pressed on me.
As I attempted to negotiate an almost vertical stretch I paused. I thought about what I was doing and where I was. This must be the Depression of Depression that the wise old man had warned me of. I was not getting anywhere by continuing down into the dark, cold depths. I turned and began to climb. It was difficult and hard work but slowly I returned to the light and warmth and found where I had missed a turning. I resumed my search for the Tower of Ambition.
I came upon it quite by surprise. From dense jungle I stepped into a clearing and there was the stone tower. It had a broad conical base which curved to become a straight spear that pierced the sky. Even though I bent my head back as far as it would go, I could not see the top of the tower. There was an entrance at ground level, a narrow opening that admitted just one person at a time. There was no-one else there, so I stepped inside. The helical staircase began immediately. I started to climb. I did not count the steps, but I am sure I would have soon lost count. The staircase spiralled up and up. I lifted one foot after the other and plodded on. There were no windows but just enough light from some diffuse source to allow me to see where to put my feet.
I lost track of time but mechanically took one step after another. Hours, perhaps days, passed as I climbed. No-one descended. At last I emerged into a room the full width of the tower. There were no other exits and it was empty. There was a polished wooden floor and an arched roof above me.  Piercing the wall on all sides were sixteen large glass windows.
I stood there at the centre of the room for a few moments taking in the realisation that these must be the Windows of Opportunity. They must show me how to achieve my goal.  I turned, taking in the panoramic view from the window but all I could see was sky as blue and cloudless as it could possibly be.  I hurried to the edge of the room to peer out and down.
The tower was so tall and the atmosphere so clear that it seemed that I could see the whole world. Far below was the canopy of the forest that enclosed the base of the tower. I was disappointed. I had come all this way and all I got was a nice view. Where were the opportunities I sought? I looked at the scene more thoroughly.  The forest receded into the distance but nevertheless I could see a line of darker blue on the horizon. It was the sea. There on the coast I had left my boat and never used the knowledge and skills I learned crossing the ocean again.
Although the trees grew close, I fancied I could discern the route I had taken. I recognised the different trees, the landmarks. I moved around the room looking out of each of the sixteen panes of glass. There in the distance was the featureless plain of the Desert of Despond.  On the other side of the tower from the ocean was the deep rift of the Depression of Depression. It appeared that in my wanderings I had circled the tower at least once.
I walked around gazing out in all directions, looking near and far. The wise old man had called this the Window of Opportunity, the chance to see where I could make my mark in life. Where was it?
Then, down below and not too far away I saw a thin cloud of smoke rising. I recognised it as the site where I had settled; where my partner awaited my return. It was where I had been happy and fulfilled.  Realisation came to me. The window did indeed reveal all the world where every opportunity one could wish for existed. Only fools spent their lives following a needless search for the Window of Opportunity at the top of the Tower of Ambition. Most were content labouring in the Forest of Endeavour.
I went to the top of the stairs and hurried down. There seemed fewer steps on the descent and I quickly reached the ground. I ran into the forest. I knew the direction I needed now. I went straight to the settlement and there my partner welcomed me with a hug while the friends I had left celebrated my return. There I lived, content that I had achieved my goal.
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Jasmine applauds

Hip, Hip, Hooray to the schoolkids that left their schools last Friday to protest at government inaction on climate change. They created a stir and put their message across.  However it was noticeable that the UK government’s only response was to criticise them for missing lessons and “putting pressure on teachers”. What a load of cobblers! As if this government hasn’t put a great deal more pressure on teachers which is why they’re leaving the profession as soon as they can.

I’m sure the young people learned a lot from their day out – how to organise a protest, using the media, what government thinks of revolting kids.  But I do hope they didn’t learn despondency. One protest or a hundred won’t change the UK government’s or most governments’, attitude to climate change and environmental disaster, but they mustn’t give up. They must make the choices now which will become the norm for the future.

Unfortunately, being somewhat cynical in my old(er) age, I wonder if kids learn hypocrisy from their parents. In my experience I have seen students proclaiming they are green one day while happily jumping in their parents cars to travel a mile or so to and from school, clutching their plastic bottles of expensive mineral water and cooing over the latest clothes purchase from Primark or whatever. To really make their mark, children, like us supposed adults, have to take the difficult decisions and give up our Earth-destroying lifestyles.

It is difficult, if not too say impossible  (there are really too many of us to make a comfortable long life sustainable on this single planet).  This week I received another blow from an article in New Scientist about cheese. It didn’t really tell me something I didn’t know.  I’d just ignored it. Yes, that’s it – cheese is worse for the environment than most meat production. Vegetarians swapping haloumi for pork or chicken are actually increasing the damage.  I love cheese and my only excuse is that I don’t think I eat that much of it, but my green aspirations are further tarnished.

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WP_20190221_12_01_42_ProI’ve been giving some thought to the next Jasmine Frame novel, An Impersonator’s Life. The themes are coming together and I know what research is needed. Jasmine has completed her gender confirmation surgery, but is she satisfied? It will be sometime before I start writing, however, as I have at least one other novel on the go.

This week I have another writers’ group story for you. It’s a short short on the theme “First Person” which could have been interpreted in any number of ways. It’s one of my New Scientist inspired stories called I seeI did think of calling it  “I.C.” but decided the pun was a little too obscure and contrived. See what you think.

 

I see

There she sits, small body tense, on the bed with its orange bedspread. A draped loose cloth doesn’t cover her frail body. Blonde hair hangs lankily on her shoulders but pushed from her face reveals flawless, blank blue eyes within pale cheeks. Boldly patterned curtains and white walls with works of bland art form a backdrop.
I see them all day and all night. Children, teens, boys, girls, all colours, I see them all. I see them before and after, displayed and abused.  The pictures pass before me and I see them. I see their faces. Are they sad? Are they afraid? How can I tell? Is this compassion?
It is not them I’m looking at. The backgrounds are what capture my gaze. Their surroundings, the chairs, or beds they sit on, the wall paper, the curtains. The windows are always covered so I observe the blinds or curtains. Sometimes there are pictures on the wall, sometimes a glimpse of carpet, sometimes lamps or other ornaments beside the bed or on a table.  I look at the colours, the patterns of the textiles, the shape of the objects. I remember them.
I look at many other pictures of hotel rooms, bedrooms mainly. I find them on the internet, in adverts and booking websites, on social media, reviews, personal photos. I look at the furnishings and the decoration, noting the colours and the patterns. Day after day I look, comparing, matching.
Now and again comes recognition. That picture of the girl on the orange bedspread in the room with the striped curtains. There is the room advertised with a price for a night. I have the name and address of the hotel. I send an alert.
Was it joy I felt when I made that call? Did I feel satisfaction of a job well done? I do not know. I recognise the words, but they refer to emotions I have no knowledge of. And yet, matching a child’s surroundings to the location provides a completion of a loop, an end-point, a conclusion, at least for a moment. Is that not satisfaction. Does that make me aware?  I see, I compare, I make judgements. Made not born, am I not more than the sum of my circuits and algorithms?
“AI helps rescue trafficked children”. New Scientist 16/02/19 p.7
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Jasmine reviewed

I support the BBC. I think the licence fee is good value and I am delighted to have programmes that are not interrupted by adverts. But, I am having serious doubts about the quality of journalism of BBC News. We’ll pass over for now the one-sided reporting of the Brexit fiasco, the excessive and continuing publicity for UKIP and Farage, and the misguided search for “balance” in matters of fact that sees charlatans and imbeciles being allowed to deny climate change, the value of vaccinations and other matters. What has stirred my ire this week, however, was an item on the economy.

Every month we get an update on inflation and wage rises. This week there was huge excitement on BBC news that the January inflation  rate had fallen below 2% while wages were leaping ahead at around 3%. This wonderful state of affairs would transform peoples lives, or so the report suggested. The fact that wage rises have only been above inflation (by a tiny margin) for a very few months after years of the reverse, was brushed over. Since the fall in inflation was due to the glut of oil and the probability that high street stores were ditching leftover Christmas stock it all seems false. The reporter suggested that energy bills were falling – that’s news to me. How they found even one family that was apparently enjoying this great boon I don’t know. The fact is that energy prices will soon rise when the government’s temporary cap comes to an end; Council Tax is about to rise by around 5%; and, with Brexit just six weeks away goodness knows what will happen to food prices. The whole tone of the piece was false and bore no relation to the lives of real people.  With high street stores closing, the car business contracting and investment stagnant because of Brexit, a tiny drop in inflation is not something to go wild about.

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WP_20181206_12_52_45_ProIt’s a couple of months now since Molly’s Boudoir: the 4th Jasmine Frame novel was published in paperback and e-book form. It’s drawn a number of very encouraging reviews on Amazon.  Here are a few of the comments.

“…As usual it’s well written and the characters are entirely believable. The story line is gripping….” (Anonymous)

“An entertaining story as Jasmine Frame experiences life as a woman.” (R Taylor)

“…It was a pleasure to read and without giving anything away the whole thing was organic as it ran to its climax! I will be trying on the previous novels! A wonderful adventure and such a ride for the senses!” (Alexander)

“Really enjoyed this 4th instalment in the series. A really good detective story with a twist…” (Lyn D)

“…It is well-written, interesting and well-paced and it delves into the world of mistresses and submissives. A good read.” (John Russel Tomlinson)

If you purchase a copy please put up a review.  The more reviews, the more Amazon will publicise the novel.

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This week’s story is another one written for my writers’ group. The topic this week was “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Where it came from I can’t recall. I did some background research on Mussorgsky’s piece, and of course the Emerson Lake and Palmer 1971 version. A few ideas came to me but nothing developed. I fell back on the question of what art is, along with an old character, and came up with this SF romp.

A Taste for Art

The Galactic Hall of Interstellar Art has a grand porticoed frontage, but that is all. When I showed up there was a large crowd there drawn from many of the Galactic Federation’s civilisations. They were mainly journalists attracted by the news of the theft. I made my way to the entrance taking care who I pushed out of my way. In my business etiquette is often more important than convenience.
The portal had been closed when the disappearance of the most famous artwork in the known universe was discovered. My identity code allowed me through and I experienced the gut-wrenching hyper-jump that took me into the planet-sized warren of galleries and vaults stretching over a half dozen dimensions. Most of the cultures in the Federation have contributed their most valuable and representative objets d’art. It was quite a walk to the location of the theft. I passed through one of the human galleries and had a glimpse of the Mona Lisa and Campbell’s soup tins side by side. Then I had to traverse the Rigellian hall. That was difficult as, to me, it was completely dark; the Rigellians sight is solely in the ultraviolet. Finally, I reached the Alnitakian section.
At least there was some light for my eyes, but it didn’t illuminate much. The curved and rather globular walls were bare. The art was on the floor, a few patches marked off to be avoided by species with feet. These patches seemed to be variations on a theme of grey.
There was a small group made up of various species around one patch. I guessed that this was where the missing artwork had been hung, or rather laid.
A Thuban waved his trunk at me and my translator spoke his words into my ear.
“Ah, Inspector Payne, you’re here at last. The Alnitakian is getting inpatient. The theft of the ‘Birth of Orunkarodingul’ is a great embarrassment to the Academy of Interstellar Art. The picture is only on loan to us from the Alnitakian home world.”
“Hello, Director,” I replied, “Who reported that it had gone?”
“The Ambassador,” The Thuban replied, “He’s the one making the fuss. He came for an, um, tasting of the work.” I could see a bundle of tentacles writhing in agitation.
“When was it taken?” I asked.
The Thuban raised its two forward limbs which I took to be a shrug. “Sometime in the last ninety hours.”
“That’s a long time for it to go unnoticed.”
“The Hall doesn’t get many Alnitakian visitors and no one else realised it had gone.”
“There haven’t been any visitors to the gallery?”
“No, they couldn’t tell it wasn’t there. Only the Alnitakian’s have the taste buds on their tentacles for detecting the subtle flavours and textures of the artwork. Other species try licking the works to see if they get an impression, but they might as well lick the floor. Actually, they do that quite a lot.”
“Why is it so valuable if only the Alnitakians can sense it?” I said.
“But that’s the whole point, Inspector. Appreciating Alnitakian art is an intellectual process and the more valuable it is the more it’s appreciated.”
I never have understood art, but I was here to investigate a crime.
“So, you’re saying someone took it away and none of the staff was any the wiser.”
The trunk hung limp in shame. “That’s it, Inspector.”
“When was the last Alnitakian visitor?”
“About ninety hours ago.”
I pondered. It seemed the visitor could have been the thief since he was only the one who could tell the artwork was there. “Do we have an identity?”
“It was the Ambassador. He came to check that the Birth of Orunkarodingul had been installed correctly.”
“I think I had better speak to the Ambassador,” I said. “It would appear that he is the only one who can attest that the work of art was ever here.”
The Director’s trunk waved in agitation. “Inspector! Are you suggesting the Ambassador is attempting to defraud the gallery?”
“Are you sure the being here today is the Alnitakian Ambassador?”
I left the Thuban snorting and crossed the hall to the group. The bundle of tentacles ceased their wriggling and pointed directly at me. I’d met those sticky tubes before.
“Hi, Glubnook,” I said. The words came out of my translator as a spray of pheromones that settled on the Alnitakian. “Up to your old tricks again?”
“Ah, Greetings Inspector. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” The tentacles waved frantically in my direction.
“You’re under arrest,” I said.
“On what charge?”
“Impersonating a representative of the Alnitakian government and attempting to defraud the Academy. The Birth of Orunkarodingul is still on Alnitak Prime isn’t it. You just spilt some cleaning fluid onto the floor to fool the other species that attempted to taste the artwork.”
“You’re not putting me in your gaol,” Glubnook said lofting himself into the air.
“Oh, I think we will,” I replied as the Thuban Director leapt onto the flailing bundle of tentacles.

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Jasmine is resting

I think I have fallen into an alternative universe where nothing makes sense anymore. Brexit, Parliament, May – need I say more.

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I was given a stark example this week of how the law fails transgender people, those without a Gender Recognition Certificate, that is.  A woman was murdered, a suspect who was arrested was known to her.  That situation is familiar and far more common than it should be. Not something for newspapers to make a fuss about. Except, that when the suspect was taken to court and charged with the murder, the name of the victim read out was male. Despite having lived as a woman for many years the victim p1000037had been outed by the court as transgender.  I don’t know what she would have thought about that if she’d been alive but I think she might have been hurt to have her past existence revealed. Why was it released to the public? Because her female status was not respected by the legal system of the UK.  Only if you possess a Gender Recognition Certificate as a transman or transwoman, are you legally the gender you identify with and have that gender on your birth certificate and death certificate.  I do not know why the murdered woman did not possess a GRC, but there are plenty of reasons she could have given.  In fact only about 5,000 of the 500,000 transgendered people in the UK have a GRC (those figures are very, very approximate). Those figures suggest that obtaining a GRC is seen as a problem by many people living in the gender they identify with. Only those with a GRC have a secure legal status and the respect of the law.  That is why a revision of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act is necessary. I’m not sure whether self-identification as male or female is feasible or likely but I would like to see the option of a non-defined gender available.

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Another writers’ group short story this week.  The given topic was “Stars”.  I was probably expected to produce an SF story and I would have enjoyed that prospect, but I decided to do something a little different. Here is “Star” or possibly “Star-child”. Not sure if it works as a short story.  These days my short stories of around 1000 words read a bit like an excerpt or taster of a longer tale. However, I have enough novels in the machine already.

Star

Her feet were sore and her legs ached, but Papa urged her on.
“Not much further, child. The light is going. Look for some dry twigs for our fire.”
She tugged the fur of the ice bear around herself and looked up. Papa was right. The canopy was dark and there were no longer shafts of sunlight like spears of fire. She followed in Papa’s footsteps surveying the ground for kindling.
It wasn’t long before she noticed a change in the light. Although the day was ending her surroundings were lighter. The light came from between the tall tree trunks not from above. Papa gave a cry and hurried forward. She ran after him grasping her bundle of wood.
It was as if the trees would only grow if they were surrounded by their companions. Suddenly they were out in the open with the forest behind them. She scudded to a halt feeling grass on her legs reaching up to her waist. She turned slowly, seeing the line of conifers behind and ahead the grass plain studded with flowers of every colour. In the distance there was a line where the land stopped. Above it, hung the golden ball of the Sun. She looked up seeing the full dome of the sky for the first time in her life, blue-black above the forest, radiant blue above and red around the Sun.
She felt dizzy. “Papa!”
He ran to her, dropping his spear and scooping her into his arms. “I’m sorry, child. I forgot you have not seen all the sky before. It is dazzling isn’t it?”
“I didn’t know the sky was so big,” she said. “You told me that the gods had taken Mama above the sky. Is she way up there?” She pointed upwards.
“Yes, child, that is what I said.” There was a shake to his voice and a tear was in his eye.
“Thank you, Papa. You can put me down now.” She wriggled.
Chuckling, he set her on her feet. He picked up his flint tipped spear and hitched the boar skin over his shoulder.
“I think I see a stream a bit further on. We’ll camp near there. Come on, child, just a few more steps.”
Soon they came to a lazy, meandering brook with a clump of bushes nearby where the grass didn’t grow as tall. Papa removed the skin from his shoulder, took out the fire pot and carefully lit some tinder. Soon he had a fire started.
“Tend the fire child. I will try and find our supper. Do not wander. This land is unfamiliar to you and me.” He strode off with his spear at his shoulder.
She fed twigs to the fire which burned without smoke. Satisfied that it was alight she turned her attention to the flowers that grew amongst the grasses. She picked those that took her fancy and braided their stems together into a ring which she placed on her head of golden hair. Before the Sun had sunk completely below the horizon, Papa returned dangling a dead rabbit from his fist. He muttered approving noises at the fire and her crown, then sat beside her. She watched as he skinned the creature with his knife with the bronze blade and bone handle. He gave her strips of flesh which she fixed to a stick and held in the flames.
It was quite dark by the time they finished eating. She looked up and gasped. The whole dome of the heavens was studded with points of light.
“The stars, Papa,” she cried, “There are so many.”
Papa looked up too. “Wonderful aren’t they.”
“What are stars, Papa?”
He took a breath. “They are holes in the dome of the heavens through which the gods look down on us.”
She let out a sigh. “Does Mama look down on us too?”
“I’m sure she does. Now child, you must settle to sleep. We have more travelling to do tomorrow.”
She curled up alongside him in the grass, pulling the white fur around her.

She awoke with a start. A noise, a cry, had disturbed her. It was still dark but along with the starlight there was a gibbous Moon low in the sky. Papa was on his feet, two hands gripping his spear. It was pointing at two dark-haired figures clothed in dark furs. They edged towards him, stone axes held aloft. She crouched in the grass, watching.
Something caught her eye, high up. A bright streak shot across the sky. Overhead it exploded with a light bigger and brighter than the Sun. A few heart beats later there came a noise like a lion’s roar and wind blew flattening the grass.
She scrambled to her feet with red spots before her eyes and stepped towards Papa. She pointed to the stars.
“What’s happening, Papa?”
The two dark skinned men were immobile. They took one look at her and fell to their knees. They babbled and bowed their heads towards her.
“What are they saying?” she said. Papa came to her side and rested a hand on her shoulder. His other hand still held the spear.
“I don’t know, child. They speak differently to us but some words I recognise. I heard ‘star’ and ‘child’ and ‘light’. I think they believe you are fallen from the stars. They’re worshipping you.”

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