Sneak peak of my third novel: The Mountain Hotel


Chapter 1

Laura concentrated hard on the road in front of her. The light was beginning to fade as she drove along the single-track thoroughfare bending through the West Highlands of Scotland.
‘Can’t be far now,’ she said out loud.
She expertly guided the black Range Rover through the twists and turns of the mountain highway. She enjoyed the challenge of the unfamiliar journey. Laura drove just at the right speed for the conditions, changing up and down the gears with precision. There had been nobody coming in the opposite direction for miles now. The road took her attention away from the scenery; she passed green fields full of scraggy sheep, grassy hills, conifer plantations, bare, dark mountains in the distance threaded in mist, occasional glimpses of grey sea. The satnav had seemed to lose her position at the last settlement so now she was relying on instinct to get to her destination. She travelled by a grand house set back a short distance from the road, almost hidden behind thick trees, and then a village sign came into view: Cragganford. This was it. Laura’s pulse began to throb faster with excitement. She whizzed by a small development of modern houses on the left hand side. They were white with newness but built in the traditional Highland style with two windows poking out of the roof. Then there was a little shop and café with a bright green sign on the right bearing the legend: The Quiach. Laura knew from her research into the traditions of the area that this meant ‘drinking cup’ in Gaelic.
‘How quaint!’ she said to herself.
Laura had been talking to herself throughout the trip to stave off the loneliness of her long journey. She drove on a few hundred yards and found what she was looking for on the left. She had arrived at last at the Cragganford Hotel. It was a large, straggling, stone-built Victorian building set straight on to the road.
Laura guided the 4 by 4 into the empty car park at the back and got out. She opened the boot and retrieved her pull along suitcase and dragged it along the tarmac and then back round to the front. She appraised the hotel façade critically. It didn’t look like the photos. In the images she had viewed online it had been high summer and the building had been covered in the rich red of Virginia Creeper. Now it was late October and there were no leaves on the branches stretching over the stonework. Laura suddenly became aware of the chill in the air and she hurried inside the imposing front door.
There was a little lobby where several people had left walking boots to dry off and then another door led to the bar. Laura strode purposefully through. There were no customers whatsoever and no sign of anyone working there. The room had an air of gloom. The bar stools in front of her looked like they were upholstered with actual offcuts of patterned carpet. Laura perched on one of these precariously and waited. Nobody came. Laura noticed a bell on the bar and she dinged it twice. A gaunt man appeared from the back and shuffled unsteadily towards her. He was middle aged with light brown wispy hair starting to bald on the top. Laura had the distinct impression he was slightly drunk from his wandering gait.
‘Hello. I’m Laura, the new owner. Pleased to meet you,’ she said and put out her hand towards him.
He eyed her hand with its perfectly manicured fingernails as if he wasn’t quite sure what it was for some moments and then shook it surprisingly firmly. Then he lowered his hand and stood surveying the room with an air of someone who was surprised to find himself there.
‘And you are?’ Laura enquired feeling shocked at his odd behaviour.
‘I’m Angus. Barman. At your service madam,’ he said in a singsong soft accent that Laura had never heard the like of before.
He continued just to stare, not smiling, not scowling and he didn’t offer her anything more. Laura could feel frustration rising within her but she pushed it down, determined to remain professional.
‘Look, I’ve been driving for a long time. Would it be possible to have some coffee?’
Without a word he disappeared into the back. Laura took the opportunity to appraise the bar. The gantry was filled with all kinds of whisky, too many to count. There were a couple of hand pumps for beers she hadn’t heard of and then an assortment of wine bottles on the back shelf. Multitudes of glass and metal beer tankards were hanging over the bar. The room was divided into two with a dining area at one end furthest away from the bar with little wooden tables and chairs and then the odd stools in a row on this side. The walls were decorated with old prints of grouse moorland scenes and portraits of spaniels. The paint was starting to peel away in the corners and cobwebs were lurking in the hard to reach places. There was a huge stone fireplace at one end but no fire was lit in it even though there was a pile of split logs at the side in a woven willow basket. Laura hadn’t realised that pubs like this still existed. Her heart began to sink but she told herself sternly that she wasn’t in London now. This was a lesson in how not to buy property. Laura had purchased the hotel on a whim without seeing it. This was risky but it had looked so perfect in the estate agent details and it had certainly been cheap. She hadn’t really been thinking straight at the time of the sale. Her thoughts had only been of escape. Things were going to be different up here from what she was accustomed to. She would just have to get used to it. Anyway, there was plenty of room for improvement.
She started making plans in her head for all the changes she could make. Laura was thinking rustic but modern. She imagined wooden benches at long oak tables with the kitchen on view from the dining area. The bar could be remodelled and offer a range of reasonably priced wines from all over the world and carefully chosen craft beers. She would keep the wide selection of whiskies, as this was Scotland after all. The fireplace looked historic so that could stay as well but with a welcoming fire roaring at all times of the winter months. The walls could be repainted with a simple classic off-white paint with oil paintings of seascapes to break up the expanse. Laura was roused from her thoughts by a young woman heading towards her from the kitchen area. The girl plonked the coffee rather too heavily on the bar in front of Laura and smiled widely.
‘Hi. I’m Amy. I’m kind of the chef and barmaid. Really I do a bit of everything,’ she said in an Australian accent.
Amy had long blonde hair she wore loose and a smile that radiated sunshine out of her young, pretty face.
‘Laura,’ said Laura and put out her hand towards Amy.
Amy looked surprised at the offer of a handshake as if people didn’t normally do this to her but she took Laura’s hand and shook it firmly, rather too firmly as if she were in a cartoon.
‘I’m the new owner. I’m glad you’re here. I’m sure you’ll be a great help to me in finding my feet. Angus seems a little bemused,’ said Laura.
‘Er, yeah, you could say that. He’s all right really. You’ll get used to us all I’m sure,’ said Amy. Then, she laughed nervously.
Laura drank her coffee with relief. It was just what she needed to perk herself up.
‘Is it possible to have any food?’ she asked Amy.
‘Sure thing. I’ll get you a menu,’ Amy said and disappeared again.
While waiting for her return Laura became aware of footsteps behind her. She turned around to see a tall, bulky man heading towards the bar. He was dressed head to foot in navy waterproofs and had a leather cowboy hat on his head that was dripping raindrops onto the floor. He was wearing black wellington boots that were caked in mud. He removed his hat as he approached to reveal blonde curly hair that was starting to thin and grey. His face was tanned brown and his eyes were watery blue. He had a wide nose that looked like it may have been broken at some time in the past. He was craggy, not quite good looking, and his face showed he was running to more fat than was good for him. He ignored Laura completely and banged his hand down heavily on the bar several times.
‘What do you need to do to get a drink round here? Amy!’ he shouted.
Amy returned looking unconcerned and gave Laura the menu. Then she poured the man a large whisky and a half beer and placed them on the bar in front of him.
‘Calm down Alban,’ she said, ‘you mad dog you.’
He grunted and took a swig of the whisky. He turned slightly and looked sideways at Laura with an expression of complete disgust and then headed off to the furthest part of the room where he sat down with his drinks and a newspaper he had fished from somewhere inside his coat. It was The Guardian, which seemed out of place with the rural ambience.
Laura was unsure if she should introduce herself to him or not. She decided against it and perused the menu. It was as basic as she had feared. You could have fish and chips, pie and chips, gammon and chips, steak and chips or a sandwich and chips. Laura sighed.
‘I’ll have steak and chips please, Amy. Medium rare,’ she said.
‘Coming right up,’ Amy said flashing her smile and then waggling off into the back.
Laura sipped her coffee and deliberately did not look at Alban in the corner. She bristled with irritation that he was so rude. People said Londoners were rude but this place was something else.
Thank goodness for Amy, the only human being in the place, she thought.
Laura placed changing the menu on her mental to do list. She had heard the west coast of Scotland had some amazing seafood: langoustines, lobster, crab and mussels. That should all be on offer here.
Angus appeared once again and stood dolefully in front of her, swaying back and forwards on his toes and heels. Laura ordered a glass of red wine from him. He didn’t give her a choice but brought back a large glass of what she guessed was Rioja. Actually, it wasn’t half bad and she felt relieved that at least this was something they had got right. She enjoyed the warm feeling it gave her as it slipped down her throat and started to relax a little.
The food arrived and looked better than Laura had expected. She picked up her plate and took it to one of the tables. Unfortunately, this was nearer to the glowering Alban but she didn’t want to eat at the bar. The tables had cutlery wrapped in red serviettes, red plastic place mats and little wooden crates with condiments in. The steak was cooked just how Laura liked it and the chips were thick and crispy. This was simple but good. Amy could cook at least. Laura felt sure she could persuade her into more adventurous dishes. While she was eating another customer appeared. He was another lone man but with a more amenable expression than Alban. In spite of his youth he was dressed in traditional tweedy country clothes and he had a collie dog with him. He nodded briefly towards Laura and Alban and then stood at the bar and nursing a pint. A little while later a group of tourists walked in and sat down to eat. They spoke to each other in German and smiled kindly at Laura. They drank beer and joked with each other, laughing loudly. Laura surmised they were the owners of the walking boots in the lobby. They were two couples approaching retirement. Laura envied them their easy friendship. After she had finished her meal she walked up to the bar and asked Amy to show her to her living quarters.
‘One minute,’ said Amy and disappeared into the back. She returned with a large bunch of keys and walked back out to the lobby, beckoning Laura to follow. They went out of another door and up some narrow stairs covered in threadbare tartan carpet. They walked down a long corridor lined with unremarkable country prints and then up a short flight of stairs. Amy struggled with the key in the lock of a cream coloured door and then managed to open it.
‘Here we go,’ she said, ‘This is yours. I’m just downstairs, the first door. Nobody else lives in. We only have four guests at the moment and they are downstairs as well, just along from me. You have this floor all to yourself.’
‘Thanks Amy. For everything,’ Laura said and squeezed Amy’s shoulder in friendship.
‘No worries. I’ll leave you to it. We shut the bar at eleven so I’ll lock up then. Just get some rest,’ she said and vanished.
Laura wandered around her new living space. She was right up in the eaves of the hotel in the attic rooms. They had sloping roofs and little windows looking out onto the road at the front. Opposite there was a field of sheep. Laura had never had a view of sheep before. It was strangely uplifting. There was a small sitting room and then a bedroom with an en-suite shower room and a tiny kitchen. The furnishings were ancient and couldn’t have been expensive even when they were new. Laura was determined to remain optimistic. She had some money over from the sale of her terrace in Dulwich which, in spite of its modest proportions, had shot up in value in recent years due to its location. She could buy a few things to brighten up her apartment. Everything would be fine. She managed to make herself a cup of tea in the kitchen. Everything had been just left as if somebody had walked out one day and not given a backward glance. Laura sat on the lumpy sofa and hugged her knees. In spite of the disappointment of the dilapidated surroundings she was still excited. There was potential here and Amy looked capable and might even be a potential friend and ally. There was an age difference between them but they could probably get on well together. She noticed it was pitch dark outside and drew the thin curtains together. It was eerily silent. She needed to distract herself from thoughts of the past so she unpacked and hung her few clothes in the post war utility wardrobe. More of her things were arriving by van probably tomorrow but she had left most of her possessions in London as this place had come fully furnished. Then she showered and rubbed herself vigorously. Laura found her laptop in the suitcase and fired it into life. There was no Wi-Fi signal. Damn. Another thing to sort out. She still needed to keep her mind of things so she flipped on the TV. The news came on. It was the very news programme she had worked on herself. She had been a highflying television journalist, top of her profession until her disgrace. There they all were, carrying on without her. She imagined the activity behind the scenes, the after work drinks, the friendships, the laughs. No, she refused to think about that time. She refused to think about Jacob. She switched over to a chat show. It was cosy and entertaining. She paused the show to ring Harry on her mobile. He answered quickly for once.
‘Hi mum, how’s it all going up there?’
‘Great. I’ve not been here long. The hotel’s a bit old-fashioned but there’s so much potential,’ said Laura.
‘Brilliant. I’m so pleased for you mum,’ said Harry.
‘You must come and visit soon. Promise you will,’ said Laura.
‘Of course. I’ll bring all my mates. We can surf. Do they do surfing in Scotland?’
‘I assume there’s surfing. There’s plenty of sea anyway. I think this hotel’s only ten minutes walk to a beach.’
‘Really. Wow. We’ll definitely come then. Can’t wait,’ said Harry.
‘Oh, I’m missing you such a lot. Remember to come soon,’ said Laura.
Anyway, I’ve got to go. There’s a party,’ said Jacob.
‘Oh that sounds fun. I’m glad you’re settled in so well. Speak soon. Love you,’ said Laura, trying to keep her disappointment at the cut short conversation out of her voice.
‘Love you mum,’ said Harry.
At least she still had Harry to love. Their relationship was still strong. It had become stronger during the supposed difficult teenage years rather than weaker. He was a good kid. Laura hoped they would be able to keep their bond now she was so far away up here.
She went back to watching TV. As time went on Laura felt her lids getting heavy. It was time for bed. She crawled under the duvet in the little bedroom. The bed was a small double and surprisingly soft. Grateful for this small mercy she nestled down for the night. She could hear owls hooting and then a strange sound in the distance almost like crying. It made her slightly nervous but she told herself firmly it was probably just animals or the wind. There was no sound of cars and Laura realised how much she had become used to the continual hum of traffic back in London.
Laura had arrived in Scotland.
Things could only get better.

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Interview about Gateway into the Dark

Q: Why did you write Gateway into the Dark?

A: I became very interested in and of course appalled by the Syrian War. I wanted to write a novel that featured it somewhere. I was also interested in how Islam is perceived. I wanted to show the good side, how it can help someone on a personal level to live a good life but also the extremist side with the behaviour of ISIS.

 

Q: Tell me about the main character.

The story is seen through the eyes of Molly. She is a working class girl from Manchester who gets into university and then marries a Muslim man. I wanted to tell a story about someone who starts out poor. Marginalised people are almost never written about and I wanted to tell a story through one of them. I lived in Manchester for years when I was a teacher so I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the centre of the city.

Q: How did you research the novel?

The Manchester scenes were easy because I could write them from memory and mix in my own imagination. Syria was much harder as I’ve never been there. I did a lot of research on the internet and looked at videos and pictures to get a sense of the place. It is a very restricted view as Molly is a Muslim woman in a very controlled society so she does not see everything that happens.

Q: What genre is your novel?

I always find genre difficult as I don’t really write in genre. I just write about life and things that interest me. I have called it a romance as love does feature but then so does war and loss and religion. It has a lot of themes just like life itself. It’s definitely not a thriller. There is no daring do and not much action. I don’t write books like that. It is quite contemplative, particularly about spirituality and what it is to be a woman in modern society.  I wanted to make people think about the different facets of Islam and the experience of faith itself.945265338

Gateway into the Dark – New Novel

Buy it here

945265338

 

Molly is just an ordinary woman living in Manchester, England with her Muslim husband Taj. She wakes up one morning to find him gone. The horrible truth dawns on her. He has left for Syria to join the Islamic State. What is she to do? Should she follow him to try to bring him back?

This is a novel about eternal themes: love, loss and love discovered once again against the brutal backdrop of war. It is also a quiet contemplation on a woman’s growing Islamic faith. Not the usual romance.

New Year’s Resolutions

I know we are all tired of resolutions and I have failed to keep many in the past but I still need goals so here are mine.

 

1 Read the Bible every day

2 Pray every day in English and in tongues.

3 Meditate every day

4 Find out all I can about different mental health therapies  by reading and having therapy. Choose one that works for me

5 Diligently work on my hypnotherapy training and become qualified in it.

6 Diligently work on my MSc Psychology and complete the first module.

7 Do not drink alcohol

8 Do not eat meat

9 Attend the Alive Church every week and decide if it is the right Church for me.

10 Find paid employment.

11 Do voluntary work.

12 Find out all I can about Christianity by reading and talking to other Christians.

13 Rework my second book and self publish it.

14 Start and complete a third novel.

15 Increase my social circle.

Coming soon – new novel – Syria-A Woman’s Tale

BOOK BLURB

 

Will the girl who left England for ISIS ever escape their grip and find her way out?

 

This is Molly’s tale. She’s an ordinary student from Manchester who falls in love with the impossible good looking and wealthy Taj, a British born Pakistani. Things take a turn for the worse after their marriage and Molly finds out Taj has fled to Syria to fight for ISIS. Desperately worried she sets out on a journey to find him. Trapped in Syria things don’t turn out as Molly expects. She must try to escape with the help of the mysterious Kahil…

 

This is a story of love, of loss, of war, of spirituality found, lost and regained. It is a story of life itself.

Book Review: Flashman’s Lady George MacDonald Frazer

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I have read several of the Flashman books and always find them great fun. Flashman is an old boy of Rugby School, ex Horseguards officer and general scoundrel and cad in the Victorian era. The books purport to be escerpts from Flashman’s diary which was found abandoned in an attic. In reality they were written in the 1970’s by a journalist turned novelist but they are very convincing. This is the hey dey of the Empire and Flashman’s political incorrectness is hysterical and a refreshing change from the current rather dull snowflake era. In this particular adventure Flashy has to rescue his pretty but empty headed wife from the clutches of a pirate turned gentleman from the mysterious East. We are taken by ship to faraway places with exotic characters. Flashman is for a time imprisoned on the island of Madagascar by its evil Queen and forced to be her lover. We are treated to tales of head hunters, boiling pits, poison and generally swashbuckling derring do. All smashing fun.

Ch3 Syria My new novel Edited version

So a week had passed since my embarrassment with Taj. I had put it out of my head and concentrated on my work. I was so bored with coding, but I had to do it. Some days I enjoyed it: the challenge of solving the problem, of figuring it all out. There was a kind of beauty in it. But not today. Today I just wasn’t in the mood. I had been working in the computer lab all day and there was a dull thud in my forehead. I exited to the coffee bar. It wasn’t actually raining for once but the wind was bitter. I felt like it was trying to blow me over deliberately. I sat down at one of the tables with my usual hot chocolate. So good. There was no one I knew today. I played on my phone to avoid feeling awkward. I flipped through Twitter without interest. Someone had left a boy band or something. Everyone was tweeting about it. Big deal. I couldn’t get interested. Why were people so lame? So involved with rubbish. My mind wandered back to the program I had been trying to write all day. I dismissed it. I hadn’t seen Abbie since last Friday. She was lying low, not even responding to my texts. I had let her be. It was probably some guy as usual. I closed my eyes and tried to visualise a better future where I was rich and successful and lived in an apartment overlooking the Thames with long windows that let in natural light. Yes that would be wonderful.

‘Penny for them,’ a voice said.

I snapped open my eyes and there he was. Taj. Taj from last week whom I had deliberately not being thinking about.

‘I was just resting my eyes. I’m tired,’ I said.

‘Shame. I was going to invite you out,’ he said.

I eyed him nervously.

‘I’m afraid I’m not available,’ I said with as much coldness as I could manage.

Taj laughed. He seemed amused, unconcerned. It irritated me.

Then all of a sudden he grabbed my hand and dragged me upright.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘You only live once.’

Somehow we were outside in the street and then we were in his car again.

‘This car is so pretentious,’ I said.

‘You are so spikey. Don’t you like money?’ he said.

I considered the question. Did I like money? I wasn’t sure.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, looking at him with a sense of helplessness.

‘You are a funny girl Molly,’ he said.

I sighed. I had been told this before. I had no idea in what way I was funny. I glared and hunched deeper into the collar of my jacket.

His grin broadened, annoying me even more. He was laughing at me.

We pulled up in Rusholme outside one of the many Indian restaurants. This was a little, unprepossessing one I hadn’t noticed before. It didn’t have a neon sign or a waiter outside trying to entice you in. I had been for curries many times in Rusholme. They were cheap and it wasn’t far from my home. Usually I came with Miles or very occasionally my Dad. I hadn’t been to this one before.

We went in and the waiter rushed up to Taj. He behaved like Taj was some visiting foreign prince. I was surprised. We sat in a booth. It felt private. The waiter fussed with some menus but Taj waved them away. He spoke in a language I didn’t understand and the waiter disappeared smiling obsequiously.

Taj smiled at me broadly across the table.

‘Have you just ordered for me?’ I said.

His smile managed to widen even further and he sat further back in his chair and poured us both some water.

‘You have. That’s so rude. How do you know what I like?’

‘You’ll love it. Believe me,’ he said.

I pouted and took a sip of water.

‘Do you want a drink?’ he said.

‘Do you?’ I said.

‘I don’t really drink. So I’ll just stick to the water. We are having lassi as well. Do you know what that is?’ he said.

‘I know what it is. I have been for curries before. I only live down the road. And yes. I do want a drink. Beer. Indian beer,’ I said.

Taj’s smile slipped slightly and he gestured to the waiter.

’Why aren’t you having a drink?’ I asked.

‘I don’t really drink. Not that I don’t weaken occasionally. It’s because I’m a Muslim,’ he said.

The perma-smile faded again and he leaned towards me, looking intently into my eyes, as if trying to figure out what I was thinking.

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘how interesting.’

Taj smiled again with relief.

The food and beer appeared preventing conversation for the moment. There was an awful lot of food. I knew some of the dishes but not all. As I served myself Taj talked me through the dishes, explaining the ingredients and spices used. I was yet again surprised, this time that he knew so much about the food. The beer numbed my nerves and I started to relax and enjoy myself.

‘So tell me about Islam. What else do you do apart from not drink?’ I asked.

I thought of my own alcoholic father and all the trouble and pain it had caused. Not drinking seemed like a pretty sensible lifestyle choice to me though I was amazed anyone could keep it up.

‘Are you really interested?’ Taj said.

‘Yes of course.’

‘Well, it’s hard to explain. My mum is a lot better at this stuff than me. You should talk to her. We go to the mosque, learn the Koran, we pray a lot, we give to the poor. We are supposed to go to Mecca once in our lifetime. We try to live a good life. That’s all.’

‘Sounds good,’ I said, genuinely taken with how good it did sound. Pure. So unlike my life and the life of all my friends. Were we living a good life? Weren’t we just lost in hedonism and dreams of riches. It occurred to me then that Taj seemed quite rich.

‘But you seem well off. I mean the car and everything. So how does that square with the whole good life thing?’

Taj looked down as if he didn’t know how to answer. Then he managed.

‘Well it’s not incompatible. I mean you can do more good as a rich man than a poor one. You can help people. My Dad helps loads of people in the community and back in Pakistan.

Having money doesn’t make you a bad person.’

I took in this novel information with interest. All my life I had been taught to despise rich people, to think of them as the enemy. Class War. Yet what Taj said made sense to me. How could you help anyone if you couldn’t even help yourself? I thought of my schoolmates of old, my father, my neighbours. None of them had really done any good to any one. They just struggled to look after themselves and mostly failed. There was something wrong somewhere.

‘So what does your Dad do? How has he made all this money?’ I said.

Taj’s eyes twinkled with delight.

‘He owns restaurants. He owns this one. Lots of others. He came to this country with nothing and started work as a waiter. He saved and worked his way up. He bought his first restaurant and built from there. He worked very hard. He still does.’

My eyes widened. I didn’t know any successful people. It was a humbling story. My family had lived here for generations and achieved precisely nothing. Why were we so feckless?

It explained the behaviour of the waiter. The staff were still nervously looking over at us, checking we were all right every few minutes, refilling my glass and generally fussing. I wasn’t used to it. I was used to being ignored.

Taj leaned across the table and took my hands in his. He stared intently into my eyes.

‘So you seem genuinely interested Molly. I’m so pleased. You should meet my mother. She can talk about the joys of Islam for hours. But she’s not serious. She’s great fun. You’ll like her.’

‘Yes I’d like that,’ I heard myself saying.

So the beer did its work and the rest of the evening became blurry to me. We talked and talked and ate and ate. There were so many flavours, sweetness and spiciness, heat and comforting naan. I loved it all. I felt wonderfully sated and happy. I remember leaving the restaurant. I remember being driven back to my house. Outside the door Taj took my face in his hand and kissed me gently. Then he was gone. I sat on the doorstep for a while in a daze, just thinking about what a good evening it had been and how serene I felt. I managed eventually to unlock the door, climb the stairs and collapse into bed without washing my face.

Taj.

He had been the perfect gentleman, not forcing himself upon me. So different to how I had imagined. I had thought him arrogant and shallow and yet there seemed so much more in there than I knew. I hadn’t known anyone like him. My mind was trying to resist but my heart was singing. Wake up Molly. My brain said he was too good to be true. Street savvy Molly don’t be taken in by this. What’s his game? What does he want? What’s he up to? Cynicism came easily to me. It was the streets I had grew up in, the school I had gone to, the whole environment bred mistrust. We were used to being treated as nothing. We were nothing. Surely Taj was too good to be true.

Sleep came quickly and I dreamed of Taj. I was falling…

 

CH 2 OF MY NEW NOVEL : SYRIA

It was Friday evening. I was home, getting ready to go out. Dad was out as usual so I was playing music loudly, streaming it from Spotify for free. It wasn’t the sort of thing I normally listened to but I needed to get in a happy, energetic mood for tonight. So it was a playlist of club anthems, repetitive beats and strong bass lines. It was seeping inside me and filling me with excitement. I needed a good laugh, to dance and forget everything, to lose myself in music. What to wear? I chose my tight black jeans and Converse boots, matched with a vintage Ramones T-shirt. I didn’t really have any jewellery except two plain gold studs in my ears and an ankh on a bootlace round my neck. I was retro. I layered on some make-up, worrying about the effect as I didn’t wear it during the day. Was it too thick? Was the foundation the right colour? Well it would just have to do. I finished with bright red lipstick and dark kohl round my eyes. I brushed out my long unruly red hair as much as I could though it still went it’s own way, curling in waves everywhere like spare corkscrews at a party. My look was deliberately from the past. It was what I liked. I kind of wished I had been young in the 1970s. Punk would have suited me just fine. I liked to think I looked like Chrissy Hynde, pretty but androgynous. I didn’t.

‘Damn this bloody hair,’ I said out loud.

I looked at myself in the wall mirror. Well I supposed I looked striking if nothing else. I liked the way the foundation smoothed out my skin so you couldn’t see the freckles. I liked the way the kohl made my eyes look mysterious and maybe even sexy. Yes, I would do.

I grabbed my phone and stuck the buds of my i-pod in my ears and then descended the stairs two at a time. I crawled in to my beloved leather jacket and headed out, slamming the door with abandon behind me. I headed up the road and across the arched bridge, aiming for the student area. I always walked. Buses cost money and I hated them anyway. I liked the feeling of freedom walking gave me. On your own feet you were in charge of your destiny, no-one else. It reminded me of the lyrics of that Marley song: ‘My feet are my only carriage.’ Yes, I could relate to that.

I passed the pub and there were two guys outside, loafing about without aim as usual.

‘Hey darling, come and have a drink with me,’ one said.

The other one flashed his white teeth in a big smile.

I didn’t actually know them but I had seen them around many times. This pub was a magnet for the layabouts of the neighbourhood. They came to talk and to buy and sell grass, mostly just to talk and watch sport on the pub TV.

I half smiled and said, ‘No thanks, I’m going somewhere urgently,’ I said.

Usually this worked. Today it didn’t.

He glared after me as I passed.

‘What’s the matter with me? Too posh to have a drink with a black man? Are you racist?’

I sighed and walked on faster. Me posh? That will be the day? It was just so irritating. Why did they have to bring race into everything? I didn’t want to have a drink with any man, whatever colour he was.

I reached the main road and crossed it, going into the student Indian take away. It was safer here in the student area here than in Hulme where I lived. Nobody would bother me inside. I ordered a vegetable curry and rice and sat in the corner on the plastic chairs. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, just £2.30 so a bargain. It would fill me up before the drinking began. The curry was mild, adjusted for the students’ taste but it was still good. I started to relax. There was hardly anyone in the place, just two male students in the opposite corner, deep in conversation. I scraped the remains of the curry from the plastic box making sure I got every last bit. The rice was sticky, just how I liked it. My phone rang. I checked the name. It was Abbie.

‘Hi Abbie, whats up?’ I said.

‘Everything’s great. Where ARE you?’ Abbie said.

‘I’m in the take away. Eating,’ I said.

‘Well stop eating and get yourself over here. Bring booze,’ Abbie said.

I laughed, too loudly so the guys in the corner looked over.

‘Ok, ok. See you in five,’ I said and ended the call.

The students were still looking at me so I gave them my best frown, got up and walked out. I checked instinctively that my wallet was still in my pocket and strode down the street, turning left past the Irish pub. I stopped in the corner shop and bought a bottle of vodka. The owner was an Asian woman who always looked grumpy. I waited in the queue. The woman in front was asking advice about painkillers. She was covered head to foot in black. Only her eyes showed.

The shop owner answered in her usual style.

‘How should I know? I am not a doctor,’ she said.

The black clad woman hurriedly paid for some paracetamol and left.

I plonked the vodka on the counter and put the money beside it. Shop owner woman looked at me like I was spawn of the devil and took the money, turning from me towards the till. I swiped up the bottle and exited the shop rapidly. Two minutes walk and I was at Abbie’s hall of residence. I pressed the buzzer and waited. Someone buzzed me in without asking who it was. I took the stairs and after one storey arrived at the door of Abbie’s flat. I rapped as hard as I could and after a minute the door was opened by a Malaysian student. Abbie shared with five other Malaysians, none of which she knew. They kept themselves to themselves and spent a long time cooking in the shared kitchen and talking in each other’s rooms. I realised with a jolt of guilt I didn’t actually know any of their names. The girl smiled at me and opened the door wide to let me through.

‘Thanks,’ I said smiling back and stepped inside. I wondered if I had known her too long now to ask her name. Probably. I decided against asking and walked past her to the kitchen. Abbie was sitting at the table deep in concentration painting her nails a metallic blue. This made me realise I had omitted to paint mine any colour at all. Damn! I had failed again in the glamour stakes. I banged the bottle on the table.

‘Beware of Molly bearing gifts,’ I said.

Abbie laughed.

‘Get that bottle open girl. I could murder a drink. In fact I could stab it in a park and bury it,’ she said.

I took two glasses from the draining board and decided on wiping them out with the cloth first. Cleaning wasn’t Abbie’s strong point. I sat back down and poured two generous shots into the glasses. I didn’t bother with a mixer and glugged down the liquid enjoying the searing sensation in my throat.

Abbie regarded me as if I was a specimen in a petri dish she had just found.

‘Molly, you are an animal,’ she said, getting up and retrieving some orange juice from the fridge.

She poured a glug into her glass and offered some to me. I demurred and took my second swig. I felt more relaxed and looked around the kitchen. I had been here a thousand times. It was about as basic as it was possible to get with the cheapest units round the walls and a big plastic table in the middle. It was always grimy feeling in spite of the fact that the university sent a cleaner in every day. The surfaces were littered with the detritus of someone’s meal and there were two rice cookers belonging to the Malaysians with half their contents spilling out.

‘ I am an animal. I like that. Look at the state of this dump. You are all animals,’ I said.

‘Yeah, right, whatever. So are you up for manhunting tonight?’ Abbie said.

‘No. I am up for getting drunk, dancing and having a good time. No men,’ I said.

‘Cool. That will do for me,’ Abbie said.

After several more drinks we wandered out down the street. I felt pleasantly serene from the effect of the alcohol. Everything was good. I took Abbie’s hand and we waltzed down the road together laughing and tripping over each other’s feet.

The next thing I knew we had arrived at the Student Union building, another monstrosity from the sixties with no architectural merit. The door guy leered at us. He was a student but puffed up with his important role of being able to decide who did and didn’t get in. Local boys were often chancing their arm trying to get some university totty.

‘ID ladies,’ he said.

I showed him my card. He actually laughed at my photo which I was rather proud of as I thought I looked mean, moody and magnificent in black and white.

‘That’s never you,’ he said, ‘Far too pretty.’

I couldn’t actually decide if this was some clumsy attempt at a chat up line or if he was just a total asshole. I snapped the ID back in my wallet, glowered, and hurried into the room ahead of me. Abbie propelled me to the bar and ordered two vodka and cokes.

‘What a fucking jerk!’ said Abbie in my ear, having to shout above the din.

I shrugged and downed the vodka in one and then dragged Abbie to the dance floor. It was wonderful to dance, to let go. I felt my cares disappear as my body moved. Nothing mattered except the music and me. I was lost in a trance, in a dream. I felt totally free. I didn’t care what people thought of me or how I looked. I danced and danced with no sense of time. After who knows how long I suddenly felt tired so looked for somewhere to sit. There was a corner of a sofa free so I perched on it, catching my breath. Abbie was nowhere to be seen. I became aware of someone looking at me and turned my head towards the feeling. It was the Asian student from the other day staring at me intently, the one from the coffee bar. He smiled when he saw me look back. I snapped my head away from his direction as fast as I could and scanned the room for Abbie. I STILL couldn’t see her. I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes, feeling suddenly nauseous. I would just have to go home. I had had way too much vodka. I opened my eyes again but the room began to spin. It was better to close them again. I became aware of someone holding onto my hands. I flicked my eyes open again in shock and saw it was him, the guy from the coffee bar. He smiled and leaned in to speak to me.

‘Hi I’m Taj. Are you ok? You seem a bit drunk,’ he said.

I felt myself stiffen in shock.

‘Yes I am fine. Absolutely fine. I’ve lost my friend,’ I said.

My mind registered the fact he was called Taj.

Taj.

It suited him.

‘Come dance with me. It’ll make you feel better. I promise,’ he said.

He didn’t wait for an answer and I felt myself being dragged to the dance floor. Taj was holding me up and I was very close to him. As he was taller than me I could just see his shirt and my face was pressed against the hairs coming out of the top of it. I could smell his aftershave, something spicy and expensive smelling, subtle. We were swaying around together as if there was old-fashioned music playing when really it was fast, thumping dance grooves. Normally, I would have pulled away by now but I suddenly felt safe and warm and I had no need to free myself. Everything was okay. I had no idea how long the dancing went on but as he gripped me ever tighter I realised I had never been this close to a man before apart from Miles. He felt completely different to Miles though. I could feel myself attracted to him in spite of inner resistance as if something animal was rising within me, something I had never allowed myself to let free rein to before.

The next thing I remember we were outside in the street and Taj was making me drink a bottle of water. I could feel myself swaying and I had to concentrate on not falling over.

‘Oh no. How did this happen? You must think I am really stupid,’ I said.

‘No, not at all. You just had too much to drink. It happens. I don’t really drink myself,’ Taj said.

‘I need to go home,’ I said.

‘I can drive you. My car is around the corner,’ he said.

‘No, no. Please don’t bother. I am fine. I can get a taxi,’ I said realising that I had no money for a taxi but I wasn’t going to tell him that.

He didn’t reply but just steered me along the road until we reached a black jeep Cherokee. It was huge and very shiny and clean. It looked like something a rap star would drive, a little over the top for a student in Manchester.

Taj pressed a key fob and opened the door.

‘Isn’t this a bit pretentious? Is it really your car?’ I said and then instantly regretted it, realising I shouldn’t be antagonising my rescuer. A little voice somewhere deep inside of me was telling me I shouldn’t be getting in the car of a complete stranger but another voice was also telling me I didn’t have much option given the state I was in.

‘Do you think so?’ Taj said. ‘I think you might be right. My Dad bought it for me as a birthday present. I was kind of hoping it would be a babe magnet,’ he said.

‘I don’t mean to be rude. It’s very nice,’ I said.

I was bundled into the front passenger seat and started to feel a little more human. Everything inside was pristine. The dashboard was black and so were the seats. Taj turned to me as he started the car and the dash lit up.

‘Where do you live?’ he said.

I felt the usual stab of embarrassment that I was going to have to tell him that I lived in Hulme.

I took a deep breath.

‘Hulme. Rolls Crescent.’ I said, staring straight ahead.

‘Really. How cool,’ he said and started to punch the information into the satnav. I had never been in a car with one of these before. As we started down the road I was startled by the strident voice of satnav woman giving directions.

It didn’t take long until we arrived at my front door.

‘It’s a nice house,’ said Taj looking at our red front door and sounding as if he meant it. I was taken aback by his lack of snobbishness. Usually, people would make some disparaging comment about my area unless they were gay and then they would think it trendy. I had got used to it.

I sat with my hands in my lap and looked down. I was unsure of what to do. I still felt drunk but not quite as bad as I had been in the club. Normal consciousness was seeping back in.

The silence seemed to go on forever. I had to break it.

‘Thanks. For bringing me home I mean. It’s so sweet of you. You didn’t have to. And thanks for not slagging off my house.’

He laughed.

‘Why would I do that? I hear the parties in Hulme are the best in town. What are they called? Shebeens. Yes, shebeens the police daren’t raid,’ he said.

I smiled.

‘Yes, good parties,’ I said. ‘We know how to enjoy ourselves.’

I wondered if I should invite him in. I decided against it. I was off men remember and anyway Dad might still be up.

‘Thanks again,’ I said and got out of the car rapidly. I swayed up the path and fumbled in my jacket pocket for the key. Thankfully it was still there and I managed to open the door. I turned before I shut it behind me and waved at Taj. He waved back, smiling broadly.

I shut the door, relief flooding over me that I had finally got home safe.

Without knowing why I sank to my knees and started to cry. The tears ran down my face causing my eyeliner to run. I brushed my hand across my cheeks and saw the black come off onto my palm. There was no sound in the house. Dad must be in bed. That was a relief.

I crawled up the stairs using my hands to stabilise myself as I went. I crashed on top of the bed with relief and fell asleep almost immediately, not even bothering to take my boots off.

My dreams were vivid, more so than usual.

I dreamed I was going up winding stairs to a club door entrance. Taj was walking behind me, pushing me from behind, sometimes putting his hands on my butt to get me along. In the dream I was irritated that he was doing this. He shouldn’t be touching me. It seemed like the rickety stairs went on forever. I awoke abruptly from this dream and my throat was sore with dehydration. I stumbled to the bathroom for a glass of water. I downed the glass quickly, feeling much better and greedily poured myself another one.

My head was thumping with a regular beat. I scrabbled in the cabinet for some painkillers and quickly found them and swallowed two. I walked back to bed and undressed myself properly this time. I dived under the covers and felt better. Taj came into my mind. How weird that he had been at the club after I had just noticed him a few days before. He had been so unexpectedly nice. He hadn’t taken advantage of me or been mean at all. Was it fate that I had met him? No, Molly I said to myself firmly. You are not getting interested in a man. You don’t need a man. You need a job. You need to concentrate on your studies. You are going places.

But Taj stayed in my mind as I fell aback to sleep. This time I slept more soundly and I didn’t remember my dreams when I woke up the next morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street Natasha Pulley

I really enjoyed this book. It is a kind of steampunk Victoriana with a magical atmosphere. We are introduced to a clerk who works away on the telegraph in the bowels of Whitehall living a spartan life in a tiny flat. Strange things start to happen as a mysterious watch is left in his flat. The plot twists and turns and leads us to the mysterious watchmaker of Filigree Street who is of Japanese origin and makes some amazing clockwork toys. Various characters are introduced and their strange stories collide in a dramatic finale.

There were points where I virtually lost the thread and I couldn’t quite work out what exactly had happened or why. It would probably repay a re-reading.

Buddhism for Dummies Jonathan Landaw: Book Review

This is an excellent introduction to Buddhism. It is written in a simple style making some complex ideas very accessible. It is packed with information about the life of the Buddha, different styles of Buddhism, basic tenets and historical information. I found it fascinating and enjoyable. It has made me want to delve deeper into the subject and to start to practise more seriously. I feel incorporating Buddhist practices with my pre-existing shaky Christian beliefs could solve a lot of my problems. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in spirituality.51id0U2rgDL._SX394_BO1,204,203,200_