Monday, 20 February 2012

Extract from Fleeting Shadows by Lisamarie Lamb

Emma carefully put her head out of the small gap in the door of the Hansom cab. “Are we there?” Knowing full well that they were not, knowing that they were a walk away from the Victoria Club yet, Emma’s heart jumped a little – what arduous issue was rearing up now? Why was nothing ever simple anymore? She wondered if it ever had been.
“Not exactly, Miss.” The driver, John McDonald, shuffled from one foot to the other, turning his cap in his hands. “It’s just… There’s a bit of a commotion up ahead, and the horse won’t like waiting. I know it’s a liberty, Miss, but if the horse gets afeared and bolts I could lose my carriage. And there’s ever such a long line of cabs ahead of us.”
“A commotion?” Emma was curious, so much so that she forgot to be annoyed at the delay. She could hear, now that she had been informed of it, a strange kind of chanting coming from further up the road. “What is it? What is everyone waiting for?” Chanting reminded her of her time in Africa, among the tribes in the wilderness, but this was not the same. This was not the comforting charm of old traditions. This was angry. This was scared.
“Oh, nothing much, I wouldn’t have thought. But whatever it is is in the road.” The man clearly wanted to say something more; his mouth was opening slightly and then clicking closed before any words that he might regret could escape.
Emma chose not to watch his discomfort any longer, even though it did amuse her. And she thought she knew what he was trying to say. “If you cannot take your animal any further, then perhaps you might escort me to the door of the club? I would appreciate it very much.”  
  The smile that broke across the scruffy man’s face told Emma that yes, she had guessed correctly. She stepped from the carriage, being careful not to tread on the freshly stitched hem of her newly made dress, and took the driver’s arm, linking it with hers. “Shall we?” she said, indicating the Victoria Club, the red brick work and creamy corner stones that Emma could see a little way ahead of them. She could also see a gathering of people standing outside, and was that… could she see placards waving in the air?
“If you would rather, Miss, I could take you home again.”
Emma shook her head before she had considered the driver’s offer. She shook her head again, more slowly, when she had had time to digest it. “No, no, I shan’t do that.” She looked at the man and smiled. “I have been looking forward to this ball for some time.” She winked, and, flustered, John McDonald stepped forward, taking Emma with him, almost making her stumble with the sudden force of the movement.
As the pair drew closer to the Victoria Club they could make out the building bedecked with lanterns and baubles, fluttering flags and streaming ribbon decorations in various shades of gold and black. It looked as expensive as the invitation had. It looked rich. It looked, in other words, like Cedric Greet.
But the crowd gathered outside was not the usual group of curious spectators, wanting to see who was attending, wanting to stare in awe at the dresses, at the glamour, at those luckier than they were. Emma knew those people. She had, in her youth, been one of them. Before she realised that it was better to be watched than to be watching.
This crowd was loud. It was moving. It was stamping its feet and waving large wooden signs. It was not happy.
Emma squeezed the driver’s arm, stopping him before they were noticed. “I should put my mask on,” she explained. “The invitation states that it must be worn upon arrival, worn until Sir Cedric makes his speech and we are told that it can be removed.” She slipped the mask over her face, instantly feeling strangely anonymous, even though half of her face was still on show, and most likely recognisable. To some, at least. To a number, she imagined. To everyone if they could see her scar.
 As they approached the crowd they could see now that it was marching, in a circle, out across the Broadway, the road in front of the Victoria Club, thus preventing traffic from passing in either direction. Impatient carriage drivers shook their heads, shouted, cursed, as even more impatient horses stamped their hooves on the cobbles, snorting exhalations of furious breath.
But more impatient than all of these were the men and woman within the carriages. Dressed up, masked, excited, invitations clutched in expectation – and hope – of showing them to someone, anyone. Emma craned her neck as she passed the ones on her side of the blockade and discovered that she knew the names of some of the people within. “Mrs Jones!” she called out, “Miss Baker! Pay your drivers and follow me! Take to the streets, the walk is not far and whatever these people are protesting against surely won’t affect us!”
But no one exited their carriages. No one dared.
And as Emma and her driver drew up to the circling protesters she could see why she was the only one. The anti–masquerade brigade had found Sheerness, preaching about the evils of a masked ball, and handing out crudely printed pamphlets, detailing exactly what they knew to happen at these wicked celebrations, with illustrations, to anyone who happened to pass by. Their placards, raised high in the air and bobbing up and down were brief and damning; Ban this Foreign Influence! Masks are Immoral! We are Civilised in England!

Marie by James Apps

When we heard the news there was silence.
                Marie was dead!
                I felt a cold grip on my heart and tears came easily.  The whole village stopped for a moment, shocked, people whispered.
                Marie’s dead!
                The bright girl behind the Co-op counter.  The lively voice in the gaslit shop with its stacked goods and filled shelves. The smell of her scent was a honeysuckle bloom in a kerosene heated room with clean sawdust on the floor adding to the musk magic aroma.
                I saw her laying pale on the road.
                She was surrounded by young men, frightened young faces and two sobbing girls. I saw her from the bus seat and I knew. Death has a way of saying ‘I am here mortal’.  Death and funerals bring rain. It was raining, a fine rain that drenched with its persistence, wetting everything under lowering clouds. The bus eased past moving down the hill on the wrong side of the road and there was not an eye that didn’t look at the sadness on the wet road.  We looked at each other before the bus pulled in to the last stop. Daft Colin was at the terminal waiting to direct the bus.  He wore a slickered raincoat and Al Jolson gloves and as soon as the bus moved from the stop to turn around he began his hand waving. 
                The driver stopped the bus and spoke quietly to him. Colin visibly slumped and with his hand folded across his chest he walked slowly off. I watched him go and walked quietly with my mother across the road and on up the hill.
                Marie was dead.
                Later we found out what happened. She was riding with a bunch of cyclists down Brake’s hill and her front wheel hit something, they said, and she wobbled across the centre line at high speed. She bounced off the unforgiving side of a car crawling up the hill and flipped over the top to smash against the tarmac. Her friends tried to help her but it was too late.
                Marie was dead.
                She was going to be married to one of the young cyclists. Had all her life before her. What a lovely girl! Such a shame that one so young should.... The whole village talked about her, said how they had last spoken to her. So unexpected, tragic, a loss.  The village mourned and so did I.
                But I didn’t know her.
                And yet I will never forget that pale face on the wet road.
                Marie was dead.  

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Extract from Groene Vitriool by Jo Eden

When I first came to live on Sheppey in October 2008, I started to research the Island’s ecology and history.  One of the many things I discovered was that a substance called copperas was processed here on quite a large scale in the 16th C and even up to the 19th Century. Copperas was a very important commodity, with many commercial uses, bringing wealth to England and in particular to Queenborough.  I found a very short reference to a man named Mathias Falconer, by historian William Lambard in his “Perambulations of Kent”, written in 1570.  Falconer was a Dutch immigrant who started processing copperas at Queenborough.  It is thought to be the earliest known reference to a chemical factory in Britain. This is my imagining of his story.

A Reading from a Letter locked in a small iron box, which was dug from a trench, during the archaeological excavation of Queenborough Castle in 2005.   It was addressed to Anna Falconer, closed with the seal of Mathias Falconer.

My Dear Anna,

Before I am laid in my grave, I am compelled to write this letter to you as my dear wife.  It has come to you sealed with instructions “To be opened by you alone after my death”.   There’s a dreadful ache in the sinews in my old hands, which makes this all the harder to write, but I must try to set things right by you, before it is too late.

I know that you have always shared with me a deep love of the flat heath-lands around the home we built together back in Brabant, in our Dutch motherland in the year 1545.

You were my companion and help through the years I spent learning my trade as an alchemical engineer, working with what to you was the accursed copperas.   In truth, I wished only to give the best support I could to our little family.   But you know it became impossible for us to worship as our consciences saw fit, because the Spaniards still ruled North Brabant.

Oh Anna, I remember you fondly as a young woman of 20, dressed all in white and pink for our wedding day, what a joyous day that was!  And do you remember that Christmas-time when we visited your cousins in Antwerp?  The goose was so fat we thought it would not be cooked in time for the festive meal.  The trees were all dressed in white and the bells were ringing out when we took our little Pieter tobogganing for the first time after morning church.  How he loved it!  Reluctant as you were, but brave woman that you are, you took a turn on the sled, and how you laughed when you fell into that snowdrift and came out looking like a snow-woman, with your bright red nose!

Ah yes, we had some happiness in our years together and I was reluctant to take you and our beloved Pieter, who was then but seven years old, to England, against your wishes, but I felt it was for the best.  I believed it would give us freedom from religious persecution, and give us the chance to build a better quality of life.   And it did give us those things, did it not, Anna?
Think what a guileful Act the Pope decreed, to make Antwerp the only place where copperas could be bought!  Hah, those Papists sowed up the market as tight as a duck’s arse!  So, in the year of ‘65, when the Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth of England offered up monopolies to “certain Dutch Mynerall men”, I had to take the chance to come to England.  I am proud to be one of those few men charged by the English Crown with the task of seeking places which yielded the stones to make copperas.  Aye, that was the same year that the Spaniards sent their Armada against the English fleet, and were defeated by the clever strategies of Drake and our Queen.

I won’t forget what a time of unease and triumph that was!  Stalwart fishermen from Queenborough, Leysdown, and Minster were called to sail with Drake for their country in 11 small ships, such a time!

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  So it was that, in ‘73, I fetched up with you and Pieter at Queenborough on the Isles of Sheppey, and we were furnished with very serviceable quarters, at the Castle.   I had found that copperas stones were indeed plentiful on the Minster and Warden shores.

Those heavy, knobbly, dull grey pebbles, full of iron.  Only when they are broken open and exposed to the air and sea-water, do you see their true essence.   Pale green globules like fish eggs lie on the cut grey-green surface which shines like metal.  Your nostrils pick up the faint but unwholesome bad-egg smell of brimstone.  Peuch - and it has a nauseous taste! You didn’t know what copperas was at that time, and God knows you always hated it after! But I still think it is almost a magical substance!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Flora A. Wisdom by Geof Reed

(Flora in the kitchen 1917)

Come in, come in stop mauldin at the door.  That’ll do.  Keep off that damp floor you lot I’ve just washed it and I haven’t time or patience to do it again.

Come for the job, have you?  My job?  Well, you’re welcome to it.  Been upstairs?  Spoken with Mr Woolmer?  What’s up, cat got your tongues?  Well I suppose you ‘ave.  So I’ve got to tell you what it entails?  Hmm.  (Looks at the audience dissatisfied)  I know there’s a war on and every able-bodied person and some that ain’t have either volunteered by now or else they’re doing the jobs that were left, but you lot?  Are you sure?  I mean there’s a lot of graft in this job.  Up before six because that bloody thing (pointing at the stove) never stays in over-night, cooking , cleaning, washing - yes cleaning and washing as well as the cooking –I know there used to be two or three of us a couple of years back but them days are long gone so you’ll be on your own now.  Are you sure you’re up to it?  I don’t want to be rude but some of you looks a bit long in the tooth.  No offence.  Oh well, you knows what’s what, I suppose.

Well I’ve got ten minutes to give you but I’ll have to carry on with this (indicates the chicken she is stuffing) while I talk to you otherwise I won’t get finished ‘til mid-night.

I suppose you must need the money. What are you offered? Twenty eight?  Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.  That’s three quid a year more than I’m getting! (sniffs)  Oh well, domestics aren’t so easy to come by what with one thing and another.  Twenty eight?  When I first started, 1901, the old Queen had just died, seven pound  ten I got.  Seventeen and just up from Dover and as green as grass.  First time away from home.  Mind you what with three brothers a step Da and no room of my own I was pleased to go, know what I mean? 

Oh but I did love my little room upstairs as soon as I saw it.  Plain it was but clean and over the kitchen so it was warm - and only sharing with one other girl.  I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  Sarah, the one in with me, was jolly enough, she’d been to India, you know, father in the army. She’d tell such stories I didn’t know what was true and what was fibs but I didn’t care: India, Australia, Canada, Africa well a lot of it anyway, they were all ours and the furthest I’d ever gone was from Dover to Sheerness!   That’s not right – I knew I was going to see some of these places myself before I got too old. But there was another one, a nurse see, older and snooty, thought she was better than us.  Emma Paine were her name – Paine by name and pain by nature – and you know where! Must have her own room and wouldn’t speak to us except to find fault and always running to the master with tales about something or other until even he got fed up with it - you’d have thought she was the mistress.  Me and Sarah were always giggling  – well you got to, haven’t you? - but I never saw Madam Muck crack her face once.  Mind you she didn’t last long.  Looking back I can see she was lonely.  Didn’t fit in, see?   Neither fish nor fowl.  Talking of which if I don’t get this in that oven there’ll be no lunch and then there’d be trouble.

Don’t look so worried they’re alright (nodding upstairs)  You’ve met Mr Woolmer.  Good as gold. Like most of ‘em along here officer in the navy. In charge of the stores or something.  They come and go see.  Mostly two or three years before the Navy hoiks ’em off somewhere else and then somebody new moves in.  Well the married ones like to live a step away from the docks where they work and Blue Town of course what with all the pubs and the music hall and the...well you know what I mean.  And full of Tommies and Blue Jacks – rough as rough some of ‘em especially when they’d had a few.  They’re not always respectful to the officers when they go by especially if they’d got the missus with ‘em.  Well it’s a funny thing that when  they’re single Blue Town’s  “got a bit of life to it” and they’re happy to stay but as soon as they’re married they’re after somewhere respectable so as to not offend the missus.  Mind you some of this lot along here, her up at 69 for example well...(pulls face) The new tenants don’t always keep us on but they usually do – well it depends if they brought a domestic with them or not.  The thing is we know the ropes and they don’t  (taps her nose).  Best to always try and keep it like that.  (Lowers her voice) When the new master  moved in a I remember him saying (adopts posh voice)  “I see that there’s a new provisions store opened in the High Street.  I would like to offer them our trade”.  Well, I had to knock that on the ‘ead straight away.  I mean Dudley Grout’s has always given me good service and very particular at Christmas (pause) about dropping off a consideration, (pause, audience hasn’t understood) for me  (pause and then with further emphasis) what chinks. Oh don’t worry – you’ll pick it up.

I miss Sarah.  Been gone three, no four years.  Married.  So that’s the end of her.  Her husband wont let her see me.  Says I’m a bad influence!  Me!  That’s a laugh. We used to go out together though it was difficult to get the same day off we could manage the evenings quite regular.  Just walking up and down the prom was good enough, what with the docks it was so exciting.  And Sarah!  She told me to take her arm and to hold on no matter what.  And then we’d go into Blue Town.  She was so brazen. She’d give the Tommies as good as she got.  I’d thought I’d die of embarrassment at first so I just tuck my head in to her armpit.  But I soon got the hang of it.  It was all just messing about.  And if the blokes got too, insistent, we’d just walk away.  I mean there were a lot of other girls ready to oblige.  To be honest we could take or leave the blokes but we loved the music hall. What’s his name? The manager of the Hippodrome?  Fred Leighton. Used to live down at 67, would slip us a couple of tickets (adopting a theatrical voice) “always room for a couple of “respectable” girls in my palace of varieties”.  And the way he’d say “respectable” would make us laugh.  Well, he’s gone so no more free tickets and no Sarah to go with but I still goes, on me own if I have too.  (Excited)  Oh I went to see Marie Lloyd a month ago, Marie Lloyd, and it weren’t the stalls neither.  Sixpence I paid, in the plush seats.  I’ve never done that before but it was worth every penny. She was brilliant.  The way everybody looked at her.  Usually there’s a lot of backchat and calling out to the acts, that’s why some of the fellas go, to show off how clever they are.  But not that night, not when Marie’s on stage.  Not only were they not talking I’d swear some of the men weren’t even breathing – red-faced and sweating they were.  And when some bloke did say something, something about her getting too old and fat to show her legs off like that, a Blue Jack in front turned round and laid him out there and then.  There was general cheering and then she said, quick as a flash, “it’s always gratifying to see at least one gentleman in the house”.  The place went mad.  I know what those suffragetes want, a fair deal for women, and I agree with ‘em, of course I do, but when I saw the power that Marie Lloyd had, especially over the men, I thought, there’s more than one way of skinning a cat.

Talking of women, what about the tram eh?  Talking of being knocked down by a feather! There I was, up by the Clock Tower, when along it comes regular as Beechams Pills on the quarter of an hour and there she was with curly hair and lipstick taking the fares.  Well. And she helped me off with the shopping outside.  I don’t know why I was surprised. Is there a job we’re not doing? Working in the docks, in the factories I hear they’ve even got women in the mines: the only job that is too much for us is scrawling an x on a piece of paper – now that’s man’s work! (sniffs)

Daft Colin by James Apps

The trouble with Colin was that nobody took him seriously.  Not that taking him seriously was easy, you had to look deeper than the surface. In the days when he walked the lanes of our village the pace of life was slower the hill was steeper and not many vehicles made it further than half way up. Those that did make it most of the way zig-zagged and turned where the coalman’s horse and cart finished his round.

The day the bakers van tipped over and spilled its load we ate free cakes and buns. Colin a man sized child with a simple face stuffed them down his face joyfully and took those he couldn’t eat home to his Aunt. Everybody knew Colin was daft but he wasn’t stupid.

He wore a brown button up jacket over his shirt and tie and neat grey slacks creased down to a proper pair of socks that filled his sturdy brogues. He was always polite and doffed his hat to all the ladies. Manners, said his maiden aunt, maketh man.  He was a big man and not very active, simple in his ways and although we children could have made fun of him we didn't; we realised that upsetting him hurt him more than it did others.  Colin's happy smile was a reward for kind words, and besides, if we upset him we risked a whacking from our Dad and another from his Aunt.  He wasn't the village idiot, but more the village pet; a poor unfortunate to be cared for.
In the summer and on kinder winter days Colin stood at the bottom of the hill directing traffic. The half hourly bus was his special joy and mostly the drivers would let him direct them as they turned around for the journey back to town.  Sometimes other drivers abused him or made to run him down and Colin would stand on the sidewalk tearful and scared. Not understanding. Often’ as if making up for their fellow's human failings the bus drivers or conductors would give him lollies. And then Colin and the world was happy blessed by his sunny child like smile.

Now Colin is long dead and where he used to stand and wave his arms there is a traffic island.  Black rubber tyre marks smear its smooth surface and litter dances on the asphalt covering. Yellow and white lines divide the road and where there was once a house and a pond with a Bullace plum tree hanging dreamily over the water there is a neon lit tavern.

I stood on the island waiting for a gap in the traffic intending to cross the road and have a drink in the new plastic fantastic pub. And then Colin was there stopping the local bus on it way up the hill with one purposeful hand raised, and a smile on his face.

Thank you Colin, I said, thank you, officer.

Thank you, driver, he said.

I smiled and walked easily across the road knowing I was in safe hands.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Being A 'Roofer' by James Apps

I suppose now that the project, A Roof Over Their Heads, is well under way; the stories finished and the post production process started we who could be termed as “Roofers” need to look at what is next.  For me the project has opened up new ways of expressing myself, offered a clearer focus for stories about the place I live.

I remember some years back as a mature student at Auckland University being asked to write a short piece about my home projected from today back through memories of my childhood. It was a strange experience to suddenly recall a story that popped out of my memory complete with the images that impinged on my mind of the time.  There was a girl, a popular and pretty girl the local lads swarmed around who, as far as I can remember worked at the local Co-op shop and taught at Sunday school.  She was part of a local cycling club and was one of those girls whose personality and presence in the village turned heads; young men admired her, parents thought much of her and she was one who all, in their way loved. She was always a happy, friendly face behind the counter when we went to spend our pocket money and always seemed patient and kind to us scruffy herberts.  Marie was a much loved personality. 

The day that all ended as far as I remember when my Mother and I were coming home on the bus from Chatham to Walderslade, our village.  We had to stop at the top of Brakes Hill and move slowly past a stopped car and cyclists standing around with another of their number laying, pale and still on the road.  I cannot remember what age I was but I was very young but I knew who it was and I remember the shock of seeing her so still and knew I would never see her again.  I think I was about six, a little while before we trudged off to Canada. 

I was right, we did not see her again and I remember how shocked and grieved was the whole village at Marie's loss.  No more would her pleasant smile grace the shop counter, adding to the magic of the gas heaters and the smell of foods and spices, the rattle of the sweet jars, the sawdust on the wooden floor and the mystery of the ration book coupons.

Writing as a “Roofer” has unlocked the memory of the University exercise taken during a demanding Creative Writing course and shown me a different way of presenting those memories.  In that little tale I had to put myself in the scene and although I was tempted to fictionalise the tale I kept to what I truly felt of the time.  In all such stories the mind has time to sort out the chronological sequence and although it is a vignette of what may have been written it does have a beginning, an end and a middle although it is circular.   In effect it is a mind and memory re-visited. Which, I believe is what we have done in the Roof Over Their Heads project, excepting that we have taken historical memories and created stories around them.

Also, as part of the same exercise we were asked to write about the same place re-visited as an adult.  I had made a journey back to the UK to visit my father and family and had a chance to use the bus from Chatham to Walderslade and then to walk up to Lordswood where my Sister and my Father lived.  The village had changed; the dreaded steep hill, the first section of Robin Hood Lane, was no longer the killer slope it used to be for the modern vehicle.  The memory of the baker's van, a three wheeled Trojan that had to zig-zag to reach the cottages above our house, or the cars that could only manage halfway came back to me as I watched vehicles drive up and down easily.  The wide turning space the busses used when I was a child was gone, and the house that used to be there was now a pub all plastic and anonymous d├ęcor, and the village was a small shopping centre.  The old church hall was gone, the post office and store with its fine Silver Birches was no more yet some of the older houses remained. I saw the house where the man I will call Colin lived with his Aunt; the man who at forty or more was still a child.  In those days when I was a child he would direct the traffic and nobody minded. He used to guide the busses as they turned although most drivers didn't need his help. In a less politically correct time we would describe him as “retarded” but I never knew what it was that was wrong with him, we just accepted him.

Now, I have two short tales; one about Marie and the other about Colin.  

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Our BRFM Radio Interview!

On Monday 30th January, our group made its way to the Isle of Sheppey's own community radio station, BRFM (95.6FM or listen through the internet at, to chat with Daniel Nash on his Monday night community programme.

The radio station, as with most of Sheppey's gems, is hidden, high up in Minster, at the top of a farm track. Broadcasting from its vantage point on 'Windy Ridge' above the island, it plays music, details traffic and news reports, and interviews local residents about what they've been doing in the community.

Which is where we came in.

I think all of us (Geof, James, Bob, Jo and me) were a little nervous at the prospect of speaking live to the whole of Sheppey, and beyond, into Swale, since we are so passionate about our project, and were keen to let others know what we'd been doing, and what we planned to do.


But it went all right. In fact, it went better than that. It went perfectly!

Daniel Nash, the presenter, had some interesting questions for us, and we were able to speak about why we love writing, how we became involved in the project, and what we expected to do next. We could get our points across about enjoying the community, and about finding out more about not only the area in which we live, but more about ourselves as writers (and researchers!).


And then came the really exciting part; we were given the opportunity to read a short extract of our stories from the A Roof Over Their Heads anthology. This was a chance to show the community the result of all our hard work, and to get them interested in our stories.

I hope it did. I'm sure it did. If you heard it, and would like to let us know what you thought, please leave a comment on the blog!

If you missed it, you can listen at any time through the BRFM podcast, or on YouTube so why not download it and get in touch to tell us what you thought of it?

The details are also on Daniel's Facebook page and his own blog. There's a wealth of other local information on these sites as well, so it's worth clicking through.