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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Jasmine and the new year

I’m sure there have been plenty of occasions when people have feared a new year but in all my sixty-six years this is the first time that I have been scared by the prospects for a year.  There are things that I am looking forward to: making use of the amenities of our new home; holidays; getting on with the various writing projects I have given myself. Nevertheless, it is the uncertainty about what is about to happen that is scary. Will the politicians see sense on Brexit? What will really happen if Brexit goes ahead at the end of March with or without a deal? With so many authoritarian, actual and would-be dictators in power around the world, what will happen when they all fail to get their way in making their countries “great again”? That’s before I worry about the worsening situation caused by climate change and environmental degradation. I don’t want to be a pessimist but it’s difficult to look on the bright side at the moment.

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WP_20181129_14_20_54_ProI’m taking a rest from writing Jasmine Frame stories for a while.  The fifth (and last?) novel is on my list of projects and I’m slowly developing the plot. The aim is to complete it in 2020, almost twenty years since I started writing about Jasmine. There will be prequel stories in the meantime. I hope.

Just a reminder that the three sequels –  Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder and Molly’s Boudoir are available in paperback form for £9.99 inc post and packing and a free copy of Painted Ladies. The complete collection costs £25 inc post & packing.  Write here with your order. All four novels are available on Kindle along with the novellas, Discovering Jasmine, Murder In Doubt and Trained By Murder.

What I am going to give you each week are the drafts of short stories and bits of story that I write alongside the novels and the articles. Here’s one written for one of my writing groups on the topic “Out of the comfort zone.” The idea isn’t totally original but I hope you enjoy it. Comments, as ever, are welcome.

Out of the Zone

Winston awoke to a jangling in his head. Only when he raised his hand to his temple to touch his headband did it stop. The movement convinced his wake-up alert that he actually was awake. He threw off the duvet and stood up. Sunlight streamed through the picture window. Winston smiled. It was a lovely day to go to work and he was happy. He notified his net friends that today was this month’s work day and he received numerous replies, some hoping he’d enjoy the day and many others bemoaning their lack of similar employment.
While he stood under the shower, the room reconfigured itself, stowing away the bed and opening the kitchen/diner unit. Ads cleaning products for himself and the bathroom circled round his head as he washed and then towelled himself. Feeling clean and fresh he pulled on his work clothes, the bright colours augmented by ads for his employer.
After a satisfying breakfast, with programmed taste enhancements provided by his headband, Winston left the pod to self-lock and self-clean. He descended in the lift to road level and stepped outside into the warm fresh air. Well, it was warm and fresh according to the perceptions provided by his headband. A travel pod drew up and the door opened.
“Good morning, Mr Smith,” the pod said, “Please get in and make yourself comfortable. Our journey to your first destination will take thirteen point two minutes.” The seat wrapped itself around Winston; a precaution against the vanishingly small possibility of a collision. They set off. The roads were quiet and Winston viewed the familiar streets augmented by ads, news and info-bits provided by his headband.
A brief message played in his head as he passed through the wall of the dome. “You are now leaving Zone 5.” Winston didn’t leave his Zone often, in fact this was the first time since his last day’s work, so he watched with delight the passing scene of green fields, woodlands, and a blue sky broken by small white fluffy clouds. In a few minutes the great white dome of his destination loomed ahead.
“Welcome to zone 4, Winston Smith,” he heard in his head. Zone 4 was very similar to his home zone with block after block of living pods, each building embellished with the same ads, and news but slightly different info-bits.
The travel pod slowed to a halt outside a smart neon-coloured block. The door slid open.
“I will remain here until you return,” the travel pod announced as Winston was released from his seat. His headband told him that his first task was in the vestibule of the block. The door opened for him as he expected. He stepped into the brightly lit, colourful foyer.
A small maintenance bot waited beneath a faulty light bulb. That was his job, replacing bulbs. There weren’t many jobs left for humans to do, not physical ones. Winston was grateful that the AIs managing the zone hadn’t decided that this job could be automated. Apparently, it was cheaper to get a human to stretch his hand up to the ceiling and replace a faulty bulb rather than design a machine to do the job. Winston guessed that it was because such a machine would have to be taller and bulkier than the typical ground hugging cleaning and repair bots. Winston quickly replaced the bulb and then the bot lead him up several floors to an unoccupied hab-pod which also had an inoperative ceiling light.
Winston returned to the ground floor with a sense of having successfully completed his task. The travel pod would take him to the next job. He left the block and crossed the pavement taking the opportunity to catch up on the activities of his net friends. Perhaps his headband was a little slow to alert him to the danger, perhaps he didn’t notice the warning. Whatever the reason, he tripped over a scuttling street-cleaner-bot.
Winston fell, arms spread out to break his fall, but he failed to stop his head cracking against the bumper of the waiting travel-pod. He lay on the pavement for a moment then sat up. Something wasn’t right. He wasn’t hurt. There was no feeling of pain in his arms, legs, body or head. He was grateful for that but that wasn’t what was wrong. Something was missing. The chatter of the news, the ads and of his net-friends had stopped. He raised a hand to his head and touched his headband. Two pieces of thin curved plastic fell into his lap. He looked at them with horror. There shouldn’t be two pieces, just one and it should be fixed to his head. He tried pushing the two parts together and holding them against his temples, but they fell off again.
Winston stood up, the pieces of his headband dangling from his hand. He looked around him. The street looked different. The pavement, the road, the building blocks were various shades of grey. There was no augmentation, no cheerful colours, no ads, no info-notes. There was nothing happening in his head. He was cut off from the net. Winston felt lost and adrift but a feeling bubbled up inside him. He must get back home to zone 5 quickly and get his link restored.
He stepped towards the travel pod. The door didn’t open. Winston tapped on it. The door stayed securely shut. Winston hammered on it with his fist but all that happened was that the travel-pod moved. An alarm sounded and the travel pod screamed “I am being attacked”. It drove away at speed with Winston staring after it.
He turned to go back inside the block. Perhaps the maintenance bot would help him. The doors were closed and remained closed despite him hollering and thumping on them.
It was no use. He guessed the problem. Without his headband he was not recognised by the machines or buildings of this zone. It wasn’t his zone. He had to get back home. There was only one way to do it – walk.
Winston had no recollection of the route the travel pod had taken from the entrance to the zone but he told himself that if he walked down the straight roads he would reach the edge of the dome and then could follow it around to the entrance.
It took him an hour to reach an entrance, an hour of walking the grey streets deserted except for a few passing travel pods. He wasn’t even sure that he was at the correct entrance. Nevertheless, the next time the doors opened to allow a travel-pod to exit he skipped through and started walking along the interzone road.
It didn’t take him long to start wondering if he was going in the right direction. The scenery looked different. Instead of charming farmland and woodland, the ground was a bare, dusty and brown with not a living plant to be seen. The sky was overcast with an orange tinge to the grey. Although he could not see the Sun, the air was hot and it stank.
Winston coughed, feeling the air burning his throat but he continued walking. Travel-pods passed from time to time, moving at high speed but totally ignoring him. Ahead he could see the dome of the adjacent zone. Was it his home? He couldn’t tell but it didn’t seem to be getting much closer as he plodded along. He noted that his brightly coloured uniform was in reality a light grey, gradually becoming khaki as it collected dust blown from the land alongside the road.
Without his headband he had no indication of the time, but Winston’s stomach told him it must be long after lunchtime when he finally reached the dome. The doors that admitted the travel pods were closed but displayed the number five. He was home. Well, not quite. He had to get in and find his way to his block before he could really say he was home, but this was as far as he could go for now. He crumpled to the ground by the doors, his feet sore, his legs aching and his throat raw. He wheezed as he drew the filthy air into his lungs.
Minutes passed before he saw a travel pod approaching. He got slowly to his feet, every muscle in his body complaining. The doors slid apart and he crawled inside as the travel-pod passed through. Now he just had to find his block, but how? The streets all looked identical, as did the grey blocks, although he was surprised to see that some had cracks and worn patches of concrete in their walls. Didn’t the maintenance-bots look after the homes of the millions of residents of the Zones? Perhaps they didn’t bother quite as much as he had taken for granted. Augmentation hid the wear and tear, but he didn’t have that distraction any longer.
He crept along the streets hoping he might recognise his home block. He saw no other pedestrians. Who bothered to leave their hab-pod when they had all home comforts to hand – food, water, entertainment, even friendship across the net.
His tiredness grew as the futile search for his home continued. At least breathing had become easier as the air was less dusty but there was an odour of decay. The streets became dark and the windowless blocks displayed no lights. Exhausted and despondent he lay on the pavement with his back resting against a doorway. Winston fell into a deep sleep.

A passing cleaner-bot encountered his sleeping form. Winston was bigger than the usual street litter such as dead rats. It put a call out for a worker to move the offending object. An hour later a travel pod drew up and opened its door. For Selwyn it was his first work shift for weeks. It wasn’t often that the zone 5 AI called on a member of its small workforce of human street cleaners. Disposing of waste larger than the bots could handle was a rare task but one that humans could accomplish. This wasn’t, however, the usual lump of masonry fallen from the decaying blocks.
Selwyn knelt beside Winston. “Hey, mate, what you doing? Isn’t the bed in your pod comfortable enough for you?” As he spoke Selwyn realised that his headband wasn’t giving him any information but about the recumbent person. Mystified Selwyn brushed his hand through the man’s hair. There wasn’t a headband. Mysterious.
Winston stirred. He opened his eyes and saw the face of the man looking down at him. He flinched and sat up. It was a long time that he’d been this close to an actual person.
“What’s up? Where’s your headband,” Selwyn said.
“It broke,” Winston croaked, his mouth dry and his throat sore, “I’ve been cut off from the net for hours. I don’t know where my hab-pod is.”
Selwyn frowned, then his face broke into a smile. “Well, we’d better get you to Central and have your DNA checked. Once you’re recognised, the AI will give you a new headband. Then you can get back to your lovely comfortable life.”

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Jasmine at year’s end

Well, we made it through Christmas. Actually at the time of writing (27th Dec.) I’m having a pleasant time with nothing to grumble about. It feels as if the world has stopped, although it hasn’t and probably there are things happening that we should be worried about. The big worries come with the new year. I really have no idea what 2019 will bring. If the UK falls off the Brexit cliff, it’s anyone’s guess. Similarly if Trump fires off in one direction or another, or Putin is emboldened to exert his power somewhere or other. It really is a dangerous time.

WP_20180927_16_21_24_ProPersonally, having moved to a new town we’re looking forward to continuing to develop our new lives and I hope to provide support to trans and gender-questioning folk in the surrounding area. Having published the fourth Jasmine Frame novel at my own expense to join the other three novels and three novellas/collections, I have to consider where to go next. There is one more novel in the pipeline but do I continue trying to think up plots for novellas to put on this blog – I’m not sure.

In the meantime I wish all my readers, family and friends a healthy, happy and worry-free 2019 and offer the following seasonal offering for your entertainment.

 

Christmas plc

Santa Claus was feeling fresh and eager as he walked across the ice. It was the 1st December and the start of preparations for Christmas. At the entrance to the North Pole operations centre he paused.  There was a new sign. In big letters it read “Christmas Delivery Systems plc” and underneath, in smaller letters, “A subsidiary of Festive Holdings Ltd.” Beneath that in a friendly italic font Santa read, “Helping you get the Christmas you deserve.”  It all meant nothing to Santa. He shrugged and made his way to his office.
That’s where he had a surprise.  The room had been given a new coat of paint, a thick carpet and contained a huge desk. In an executive chair sat a bald gnome with skin the colour of fresh grass.  He looked up as Santa entered and greeted him.
“Ah, there you are Claus. I was wondering when you’d turn up.”
“Who are you and what are you doing in my room?” Santa asked.
“Pippin Green’s the name. I’m CEO of Christmas Delivery Systems plc. I’ve decided this will be my office.”
Santa was bemused. ‘I don’t understand,” he said.
“Of course not, Claus. You’ve been on vacation haven’t you. For quite a while it seems.  Well, while you were absent, the government of Gnomeland decided to privatise the Christmas present delivery service. Festive Holdings won the bid for the franchise and we have entered into a public-private-partnership, hence the formation of Christmas Delivery Systems plc.”
Santa Claus muttered words privatise, partnership, and franchise not really understanding what it all meant.  “But it’s my job to deliver presents to the children at Christmas.”
“Yes, of course, Claus, but we must move with the times. There must be some changes. Modernisation, cost savings, that sort of thing.”
“What sort of changes?” Santa said feeling the hint of a worry.
“Well, for a start, look at you,” the Gnome said.
Santa looked down at his red coat and black boots. “What do you mean?”
“Time for a new uniform.  Corporate branding, you know.” The gnome pointed to a sequinned blue and gold leotard hanging from a coat hanger on the wall. “That’s your new suit.”
Santa gulped. He’d put a bit of weight on during his annual rest. “I’m not sure that will quite suit my shape,” he said
“Ah, that reminds me,” the gnome said, searching for a sheet of paper on his desk. “I have your occupational health report here. It tells me that you are obese. You’ll have to lose weight otherwise we cannot take the risk of keeping you in employment. Perhaps early retirement. . .”
“Definitely not,” Santa huffed, “You’ll be asking me to remove my beard next.”
Green shook his head. “No, no. Beards are in at the moment. It gives you quite a hipster look.”
Santa decided he’d heard enough. “Well, I’d better get on. I’d like to see the reindeer.”
“Ah, I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” The gnome said.
“Why not?”
“They’ve been sold to a wildlife park.”
“What on earth for?” Santa exclaimed.
“Well, the SPCR, that’s the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Reindeer, said that making the creatures fly throughout the night and haul that heavy load was cruel treatment, and as they are an endangered species they have to be protected.”
“Endangered species!” Santa blurted.
“Yes. How many flying reindeer do you see these days?”
Santa shook his head. “Well, what is going to pull the sled then?”
“Ah, that’s been condemned.”
“Condemned?”
“Health and safety. No seatbelts or air bags and being open-top it needed a roll-bar which it didn’t have.”
“How can we deliver the presents without a sled?” Santa roared.
Green waved his hands. “Now, Claus calm down. We’re leasing a fleet of drones to deliver presents to each individual home.”
Santa didn’t understand. “Well, how am I to get around to put the presents in the children’s rooms?”
The gnome sucked his teeth. “Ah yes. That was your modus operandi wasn’t, Claus. It has to stop.”
“Stop!”
“Yes, it’s a safeguarding issue. The Children’s Department weren’t happy about a man, with no personal connection to the family, entering children’s bedrooms in the middle of night without an escort.”
“But it’s always been me that delivered the presents to the children.”
The Gnome got out of his chair and went to the door.
“That’s another matter of concern. Come with me Claus.”
Santa followed wondering what the gnome was on about.  In the office next door there were three characters dressed in the sparkly blue and gold leotards.
“Who are these people?” Santa asked.
“These are your fellow Christmas Persons,” Pippin Green said. The two gnomes and the troll greeted Santa warmly. Green went on, “We thought that just having one white, male Christmas Person could be construed as discriminatory.  To improve the diversity of the service we have appointed a female gnome, that’s Gertrude here.”  A slim gnome with long green hair curtsied. “Then there’s Jerome. You can see why he’s in the team,” a blue-skinned gnome greeted Santa. Green turned to the troll who was bursting out of the leotard. “And this is Gerald.”
“But he’s a troll,” Santa said.
Green sucked in a breath. “Oh, you can’t say that. Gerald believes he’s a gnome trapped in a troll’s body and we respect that.”
“So, this lot are helping deliver the presents,” Santa said with a sigh.
“All of you together. It’s equality,” Pippin Green replied.
Santa shrugged. “If you say so. Well, let’s go and see how the elves are getting on with the packing.”
Green shivered. “Actually, there is a slight hiatus in that department.”
“What do you mean?” Santa said beginning to fear the worst.
“No elves.”
“What do you mean no elves.”
“Well, we discovered that some of the elves in your employment were actually migrant leprechauns and piskies. Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement. . .”
“Withdrawal agreement?” Santa exclaimed.
“Gnexit,” Green said. “While you were away, Gnomeland negotiated its withdrawal from the Union of Fairy-tale Kingdoms and closed its borders to migrant workers.”
Santa sighed and wished he hadn’t woken up this morning. “What about the rest of the elves, the ones born in Gnomeland.”
“They went on strike,” Green said.
“On strike at Christmas?” Santa roared, “Why?”
“They say they object to the zero hours contract.”
“What zero hours contract?”
“The one I introduced when Christmas Delivery Systems plc took over the franchise,” the gnome explained. “The elves said that meant they wouldn’t get paid for eleven months in the year.”
“But they work 48 hours a day in December,” Santa said.
“Not any longer. The working-time directive says shifts, must be no longer than eight hours in one day,” Green said.
Santa slumped. “It can’t be done. Christmas is a disaster.”
“Oh, no. Disaster is a word we don’t have in our dictionary,” Green said. “We have amended the target to delivery of 50% of the presents by 24th December next year. That way we can manage with fewer elves. With more Christmas Persons we will be able to make Christmas great again.”
Santa Claus heard the theme from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg and wondered where it was coming from.  Pippin Green pulled a smart phone from his pocket and held it to his ear. He rapidly turned a pale green, almost yellow. He lowered the phone and stared blankly.
“What now?” Santa asked.
“I’ve just been told that Christmas Delivery Systems plc has been declared bankrupt because the business is loss-making. Festive Holdings have pulled out of the partnership.”
“Who’s going to deliver the Christmas parcels now?” Santa said.
“Amazon of course,” Green said, “They can get into every home.”
“I’m not having that,” said Santa with a sudden feeling of determination. “Children expect a visit from Santa at Christmas and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“You’re going self-employed?” Green said.
“If that what it takes,” Santa replied, “Now I need to reclaim that sled and rescue my reindeer from the zoo. And I’ll need some helpers. How about you lot?” The three Christmas Persons nodded eagerly.
“Good. Go and round up some elves to help.”
“It won’t work,” Green complained.
“We’ll see about that,” Santa Claus said stomping off. “Christmas will come to every house and I’ll be there.”

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