The Painter’s Apprentice nominated for RoNA

February 16, 2014

For the second year running, WordWatchers’ very own, Charlotte Betts, has been shortlisted for Historical Romantic Novel by the Romantic Novelists Association . Having seen Charlotte win last year’s award, with The Apothecary’s Daughter, we were absolutely thrilled to hear of this year’s nomination and have the collective fingers and toes firmly crossed and wish her all the best with The Painter’s Apprentice.

The Painter's Apprentice - RoNA Shortlisted 2014

The Painter’s Apprentice – RoNA Shortlisted 2014

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Before the Monsoons come

February 13, 2014

Way back in 2007, WordWatchers held one of its twice-a-year short story competitions. The theme was to write about a story set in Newbury. Although I was new to the group I was pretty confident about my abilities and wrote my story and submitted it to the rest of the group…

…I came precisely… nowhere…

The competition was won, quite rightly, by a beautiful story written by Charlotte Betts. It was, a distinctly Newbury story and yet with its Science-Fiction and Dystopian overtones it was such a different story for Charlotte’s normal style that everybody thought the story had been written by me… I wish… I wasn’t that good, then or indeed now.

It would seem that the recent flooding across the country (of course) but specifically in Newbury had several members of the group instantly thinking about the imagery that Charlotte’s futuristic tale created.

Although the story was going to feature in our 2nd Anthology (our first, Out of Time, is available here), we decided to share it with you here, instead.

(The photographs are by my friend Lindsay Ferris and copyright remains with her, used with kind permission).

Newbury Floods Feb'14

Newbury Floods Feb’14
Photo (C): Lindsay Ferris

 

BEFORE THE MONSOONS COME

Early morning mist drifted over the paddy fields of Marsh Benham as the Angelika slid through the canal at water buffalo pace. Pirate stood on the prow, his black muzzle twitching as he tasted the air, deliciously scented with the aroma of frying bacon. The other bargees were up early, too, in an attempt to beat the heat. I waved to Old Ibrahim as he lifted a lazy hand at me from his bedroll on the deck of the Star of Arabia as we chugged past.

I’ve always liked coming to Newbury. As far as I can call any town home, having spent my entire life on a barge, this is it. Great-grandfather Marek came over in the First Polish Wave in 2007 and was one of the workers who laid the Market Place cobbles. He saw the Profligates waste their children’s resources by overheating their shops and homes and poison the air with emissions from their cars. He endured as global warming took hold, even before the Chinese Influx or the Middle East Stranglehold, which meant an end to oil. Marek’s son, Jozef, who lived at West Fields until flooding destroyed the houses, was around to see the African Influx as refugees fled from the inferno that had been their country and then my father saw them find employment digging the new canal network.

By 8am the mercury had already hit 42°C when the Angelika nudged her way through the basin to the quayside. The Wharf was bustling. Porters shouted warnings as they hurried by with loaded handcarts. Bicycles zipped in and out of the milling crowd. Sweating, swearing stevedores offloaded the barges, heaving crates and sacks of rice to the ground. Carts rattled over the cobbles towards Market Place.

Pirate jumped onto the quay and provoked an argy-bargy with a couple of mangy town dogs and I had to drag him away and thrust him back onto the Angelika, teeth still bared and hackles raised, but nothing could spoil my happy mood. I was full of the joys of spring not only because it was a beautiful May morning but because I hoped that the day would bring me my heart’s desire. My old Polish grandmother would have muttered something about ‘the calm before the storm’ but, hey, she wasn’t around to spread gloom.

Faisal was waiting for me. Unsmiling, he watched me hook up the first of ten barrels of salted Cornish sardines and swing them over the side to thump down dangerously close to his feet. Several chests of first quality white tea from the Scottish Highland plantations followed, along with a couple of crates of dried chillies and fresh ginger root. He prized open one of the barrels of fish and sniffed suspiciously at the contents.

I smiled encouragingly.

He signed the paperwork and his driver started to load the goods onto a cart.

I waited.

Eventually, Faisal plunged his hand under his robes and extracted a roll of bank notes. “Seven million, five thousand Riyals, I believe?”

“Seven million, five thousand, two hundred and three Riyals, to be exact.”

“Ah, yes. So it was.”

Reluctantly, he counted the money into my outstretched palm and I watched him walk away, his djellaba flowing around his ankles. He’s okay really, a little buttoned-up perhaps but Faisal’s Fine Food Emporium is an important client, nonetheless.

The skipper of the Scheherazade bought me a mint tea and by the time we’d caught up on the gossip, the morning had slipped away. Time to go. I cast off and headed towards my usual mooring on the Kennet in the wetlands beyond Ham Bridge.

The midday call to prayer was echoing from the minaret of the Hambridge mosque by the time I’d tied up. Hurrying, I freed Beatrice from her yoke and staked her out in the marsh to forage with the other buffaloes before I washed and changed. Pirate pushed his nose at my hand and I filled his bowl with leftover rice.

“Okay, Pirate; you’re in charge while I’m out.”

He flopped down with a sigh in the shade of the canopy, watching me with reproachful eyes as I set off along the towpath towards the town.

The Thursday market was underway when I arrived at Market Place. A glance at the clock tower told me I was a few minutes early so I paused to buy a bag of cherries for Mei-Ling. Mei-Ling! My pulse quickened in anticipation of seeing her sweet face again after six weeks away. Weaving my way through the crowd, I saw her slender figure waiting in the shade of the Rice Exchange. Eyes demurely downcast, her shiny black hair hung in a thick plait to her waist. I crept up behind her and put my hands over her eyes. She spun round and I caught her in my arms.

Jed!”

Did you miss me?”

Not remotely,” she said, looking at me sideways out of her almond shaped eyes.

In that case you won’t want me to take you to the fair this afternoon.”

The fair! Oh Jed, you can’t know how I long for some fun!”

Is your grandfather playing up again?”

She bit her lip, loyalty warring with truth. “He is old and deserves respect.”

I shared the shade of Mei-Ling’s parasol as we strolled along the road towards the park, eating our cherries as we went. Bicycles and rickshaws sped past us, bells constantly ringing in a discordant symphony. I found myself singing that old folk tune, Nine Million Bicycles and made Mei-Ling laugh.

An excitedly chattering crowd was teeming across the bridge to Victoria Park, drawn by the sound of hurdy-gurdy music. Years ago, the park had been raised using the spoil from the new canals and now it was a moated island. The fair was a splendid sight. Steam puffed out of traction engines and the air was rich with the hot scent of oil and candyfloss. Little children laughed as they whipped around on the teacup roundabout and young men showed off to their girls at the shooting range.

Look at the carousel!” said Mei-Ling.

I lifted her up onto one of the gaudily painted wooden horses and she squealed as I jumped up behind her. The roundabout began to move up and down, faster and faster. I rested my chin on her shoulder and when she turned her cheek for me to kiss I thought I was in Paradise.

The afternoon passed in a flash and we left the park when the mournful sound of the muezzin calling the faithful rose above the fairground music.

I must go home,” said Mei-Ling. “Grandfather will be waiting.”

I’ll walk with you.”

Hand in hand, we walked back along the towpath until we came to the Angelika. Pirate’s tail thrashed with joy when he saw us coming.

Come aboard for a moment,” I said.

I mustn’t be late.”

Just for a moment? There’s something I want to ask you.” My heart began to thud.

I made us mint tea and she sat in my favourite old armchair in the shade of the canvas canopy, stroking Pirate’s ears while she listened to me. I talked about my travelling life, working my way from one end of the country to the other and all the places in between. I told her how I liked to lie on deck at night looking up at the stars and how I revelled in the freedom to make my life be whatever I wanted it to be.

Her eyes shone. “It all sounds so perfect.”

It is. Except for one thing.”

What is that?”

You. I’d like to have you by my side to be my travelling companion, to share my life and be my love. Could you do that?”

Her joyous smile was all the answer I needed. I took her face between my hands as carefully as if she was a piece of precious porcelain and kissed her rosebud mouth. But when I opened my eyes again there was a tear sliding down her cheek.

What is it?”

Grandfather… He won’t want to let me go.”

You’re a grown woman now!”

He has cared for me ever since I was a little girl. He took me in after my parents died …”

I stroked her cheek with my finger. “He can’t keep you for ever. I’ll speak to him tonight, man to man. Come, we’ll go now before he begins to worry about you.”

We took the footbridge over the wetlands towards where the Old Racecourse used to be. Now, as far as the eye could see, we were surrounded by the paddy fields owned by Mei-Ling’s grandfather. The fields were flooded in readiness for the June planting and the early evening sun touched the water with gold.

Mei-Ling’s family home was very fine. Built on sturdy piers to escape the floods, its roof had so many solar panels that I could only imagine the luxury inside. I doubted I could give Mei-Ling all the comforts she was used to. She had told me that she helped her grandfather but now I realised she could never have been a regular labourer in the paddy fields.

We walked up the house steps and as we reached the veranda the screen door creaked open and Mr Lee appeared. A drift of cool air followed him. Air conditioning. Here was a rich man, indeed!

Grandfather, I have brought a friend to meet you.”

He stood looking at us for a long moment, his narrow eyes inscrutable in his wizened yellow face. “Go inside, Mei-Ling. It is time to light the lamps.”

But I …”

I said, go inside!”

Mei-Ling sent me a pleading glance, her eyes full of tears. Then she slipped through the doorway and was gone.

Mr Lee, I have come to ask you …”

I know why you have come.” His voice was quiet but there was authority in it. “I make it my business to know what is happening in my beloved granddaughter’s life. And now you will go, before I ask my men to throw you back in the canal.”

Mr Lee, I love Mei-Ling and I want to look after her!”

Look after her? What can you offer her?”

Love. Freedom. And I have savings …”

Ha!” He smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “You are nothing, a newcomer!”

Comparatively speaking, of course, he was right. The Lee family had come from Hong Kong as far back as the 1970’s, long before Newbury became the rice bowl of southern England, before the Chinese Influx and years before great grandfather Marek arrived. I’d done well for myself and I enjoyed my travelling life but I could understand why he didn’t approve of me.

Mei-Ling wants to come with me.”

I need her here. When I decide the time is right I will find a suitable man for her. A man who will not take her away.”

But …”

Go!” The old man turned his back on me and went inside.

I stood there for a moment, at a loss. Then I slunk away, full of anger at him for not giving me a chance and at myself for not standing up to him. I walked for hours, eventually finding myself sitting in the dark among the ruins of Donnington Castle, listening to the swish, swish of the wind turbines all around me. The wind had changed and was coming from the west, lifting the tails of my bandana and flicking them fretfully against my cheek. Soon, it began to rain, great, heavy drops pelting my skin until it stung.

It rained all the next day and the day after that too. Summer rains are dangerous; the sun-baked ground is too hard to soak up the water. The Kennet burst its banks and the wetlands flooded. I had to take Beatrice to high ground and secure the barge with extra ropes, anxious that the fast running river would sweep us downstream. Thunder cracked all around and Pirate hid himself under the table while the rain hammered down on Angelika’s roof.

At the end of the night Pirate began to bark. I sat up in bed and peered out of the window into the grey dawn. Still raining. On deck, I scanned the rising waters all around. A movement caught my eye. A man was standing on the towpath, up to his thighs in water, cutting my mooring ropes.

Hey!” I jumped onto the flooded ground with a monumental splash. The man looked up and I recognised Mr Lee’s yellow face. “Stop that!”

He started, lost his footing and slipped below the surface of the river. Then his head bobbed up and the floodwaters snatched him away.

Boiling with antagonism, I waded along the treacherous bank until I saw him in the middle of the river, entangled in the overhanging branch of a willow tree. I scrambled up the trunk and out along the branch. The Kennet raced past a few centimetres below me. I stretched out my hand but I couldn’t reach him. Inching forward, my weight dipped the branch under the swirling water, along with Mr Lee’s head. I couldn’t get him! Picturing Mei-Ling’s grief if he drowned, I lunged forward and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.

The branch collapsed with a loud crack and we were swept away. Hurtling along in mid-stream, I clung to the branch with one hand and Mr Lee with the other. Suddenly the branch snagged against an underwater obstruction and spun sideways towards the bank where it lodged in a split tree trunk. Coughing up water, I dragged us along the branch until my feet found the bank. Still hanging onto Mr Lee’s collar I scrambled up and then, slowly, painfully, started to haul him out. Exhausted, I paused to catch my breath, thinking how easy it would be to let him go, leaving Mei-Ling free to come away with me. Mr Lee’s eyes locked with mine and I knew he knew what I was thinking.

An hour later we sat wrapped in towels silently drinking tea in the Angelika.

At last he spoke. “So, I suppose now you think I owe you?”

I blew on my tea. “I’ll be on my way as soon as the flood goes down. There’s business to be done, profitable business. Mr Lee, I love my travelling life. But I love Mei-Ling more. Maybe it’s time for me to settle down, make fewer trips away. I’ll never give up my boat but I’d make sure we were always in Newbury for the rice harvest, before the monsoons come.”

Outside the rain eased.

Mr Lee remained silent.

Perhaps you might like to come on a fishing trip on the Angelika with me? The pike are plentiful and very good baked in herbs.”

Mr Lee looked out of the window at the flooded land. He worked his mouth for a moment, chewing his words as if they tasted of something he couldn’t quite identify.

After a long time, he turned to look at me with a glimmer of a smile in his wizened old face. “When I was a boy,’ he said, ‘I used to like fishing.”

***

Newbury Flood Feb'14

Newbury Flood Feb’14
Photo: (C) Lindsay Ferris

May you all be safe and dry.

 

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And now we can tell you…

February 13, 2014

When I wrote my last blog about our weekend away at Symondsbury Manor, I said we had lots of fizz, but I couldn’t tell you why… Well, now I can!

The lovely Abbie Todd, our powerhouse Young Adult author wrote a fabulous novel (amazingly a couple of years ago now), that we, as a group, loved. After what has seemed an eternity of tweaking and rewrites, in collaboration with her agent, Jodie at United Artists, the novel has emerged all the stronger and has been picked up by Little, Brown and is going to published in March 2015.

When we read it we knew it was very special, but, even for something very special you still need at least a tiny bit of luck (alongside all that hard work) and Abbie has finally got her well deserved break.

You can read about it here in the wonderful press release from Little, Brown via The Bookseller.

The toast to Abbie’s success at Symondsbury Manor                       Photo: (C) John Potter 2014

 

Until next time.

John Hoggard

John Hoggard

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