The Family – the thriller of the year, out now!

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My debut novel, The Family, is available now for Kindle, Kobo, Google Play Books, Apple Books and NOOK.

Becky Morgan is a survivor.

Her family were wiped out by a serial killer in France 20 years ago.

She was the girl who got away.

Now, she’s looking for the killer – but he has his own unfinished business to take care of…

Who will win this deadly game of cat and mouse?

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My Boris Johnson fantasy

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Boris Johnson ended up as prime minister of the United Kingdom. These things happen.

There’s an interesting angle to be explored there, on determinism vs existentialism vs individualism vs collectivism vs Godzilla or whatever.

Was it Boris’ destiny to end up in Number 10, or was this event the culmination of generations’ worth of hard work, compromise, hustle, deal-making, carefully selected brood mares and funny handshakes? Who knows?

This piece isn’t going to explore that angle, though (surely you measure an angle, anyway? Or calculate it, using a number with no end point? Start again, Pat).

Anyway – I have this fantasy about Boris Johnson. The one where everyone quite likes him. Even the people who see through him. Don’t worry, it still has a nasty ending.

I have a fantasy that he decided at some point to get out of politics. Roughly before he became mayor of London. He could have gone into broadcasting, the same way members of the royal family “go into” charitable endeavours. He’d have just strolled in the door. He’d have been a natural. Admit it. No lubrication needed. No cajoling. Straight in.

Because as well as having a distinctive look, Boris Johnson can read and write. This is well-known. He’s written plenty of articles in his career as a journalist. Lots of these were about the European Union, an issue which will define Boris Johnson’s life, unless he commits a major crime, which of course he wouldn’t.

Many of these articles are interesting because they provide examples of pre-internet, pre-mobile phone memes. Something spread in pubs and canteens and playgrounds. There was something he wrote about Italian condoms having to be scaled down in size. And that schtick he has – continued to the present day – about European Union officials rejecting bent bananas? It was absolute bollocks, of course, but the message seeped through. Readers and editors loved it. It was silly and got your attention. Lots of people have said that the young Boris Johnson was great fun in person, the life and soul of the party. And there were consequences to that.

I remember repeating that claim about bent bananas being rejected by EU bureaucrats on a school bus trip to Butlins. I said and did a lot of things as a teenager that I struggle to live down, and I suppose that’s one of them. Boris Johnson’s wee jest about how all this EU red tape is bad for us penetrated all the way through to an absolute punk from the Drum too poor to shave the bumfluff off his lip. Boris Johnson could only dream of having that kind of unquestioned, unchallenged influence through any sort of mass media today.

Something Boris Johnson started off as a joke in the early 1990s has become a deadly serious matter.

Dreams and the Drum. I dream about being back in the Drum a lot. I should stress that it isn’t a nightmare – I feel like I have come back home. I’m initially happy. And I am back at school. Except I know something’s wrong. I am in school but I don’t know anyone. I go back home, and the old family house is empty. I can still hear the wind whistle up the close.

I realise something has gone badly wrong. Round about this time, I wake up, and bang, I’m back in reality. I wake up and think, I’m not in the Drum, that’s over.

Every single day, Boris Johnson wakes up and thinks: I’m the prime minister… Ah god, I’m the prime minister! Imagine that. Like Superman wakes up and thinks: I’m Superman. No, wait, that’s an extremely bad analogy. Rather, it must be a long, drawn-out version of the heebie jeebies, an aggregate of everything you said and did over one drunken night when you lost control. And worse yet, the evidence for it is everywhere, in every newspaper, on every TV channel, on every social media platform there is, flowing from every mouth, hidden in every whisper.

I wonder what he dreams about? Maybe his dream is a little bit like my fantasy.

Boris Johnson would have been on BBC4 every other night, and he would have been great at it. You have to admit this. Better than Michael Portillo; he would have charged past his fellow Man Most Likely To Succeed in the Conservative Party as he chuffs away there on his trains. Boris Johnson would have been strapped to the front of a gleaming silver locomotive, rocketing past him, hallooing and yarooing in Doppler waves.

Toad of Toad Hall, with all the toys he could ever want. That would be one of his documentaries, in fact: Road Hogs – the first cars to appear on British roads. He would putter around on ancient Heath Robinson contraptions with knobs and levers and comedy poop-poop horns, and bantered with the collectors, and their wives. He might even have crashed one or two of them. It would have made fantastic television.

He would have taken his place in our affections as a BBC Voice In The Void. We need these, whether we can admit it or not. The familiar patter of long vowels, every consonant snapping neatly into place, good manners, and education worn on his sleeve. He would, as more than one colleague of mine used to say of him about 10 years ago, have been good “affair material” in the minds of lots of women. Bit like yon lad with the beard on the baking show. Isn’t that right, ladies?

Anyway – to my actual fantasy. Boris Johnson’s thing is the classics and literature, and he might have moved onto art, country houses, museums, history, that kind of thing.

So, he gets a co-presenting gig with Lucy Worsley.

They would have made a tour of country houses. They would dress up, of course – her in regal frocks, and him as Henry VIII. Admit it, he would make a great spoof portrait of Henry VIII. It would have been very funny. And they would have looked good together.

In my fantasy – should I share this? Why not, we’ve come this far.

In my fantasy, Boris Johnson and Lucy Worsley are in costume and they film a section where Boris chases Lucy around the grounds of a country house, Benny Hill style. They might even edit in that music later.

“Oh, Boris, stop it!” Lucy would giggle, hitching up her skirts, kicking off her shoes. “You’re terrible!”

“Terrible I may be, ma’am!” Boris Johnson would bellow, stripping his coat off down to a lace-front chemise. “But I am also determined!”

This goes on for far too long, like a play fight between school friends become serious. She runs into the grounds at the back of the house. They get lost in the woods. Lucy realises something is badly wrong when Boris doesn’t answer her back. He only breathes hard. And there’s no camera crew.

She hides from him. The sun goes down. And then she glimpses, through the trees, that Boris isn’t quite Boris any more. His lower teeth are long and sharp, jutting out in a canine overbite. His chemise is torn open to reveal a hairy blond chest. The same piss-yellow pelt covers his face and hands. He is a werewolf, and turning progressively wolfier as the full moon blinks open its great big eye above this bosky scene.

He’s drooling now, and growling, snuffling through the undergrowth, peering behind every tree, shredding the bark with his claws. He darts at, and catches, a fleeing squirrel; in an instant it’s a bloody pulp between his jaws. Gore streaks his face, stains the torn remnants of his shirt.

Lucy’s almost too frightened to breathe. Dare she run for it, or should she hide, and hope he goes away? He’s getting closer, closer…

Boris howls at the moon, terrifying every living thing in sight.

And that’s the end of my fantasy, basically. We shall go no further. Or dare I?

Boris Johnson could have taken a wee sidestep. Things would have been better for him, and for us. He would still have been making plenty of money, he’d have been a familiar face on television, and while he would still have been someone to make fun of, ask questions about or straight up hate on a visceral level, he’d have gotten away with it. He could have indulged his interests – and Boris Johnson can read and write, there’s no escaping that fact – and his passions, with little or no comeback.

I wonder if he dreams about that; of being the funny man on the telly with the daft hair and that strange, Wodehouse-esque manner. If you need a presenter for a documentary on duelling pistols, or the Victorian fashion for whiskers, or – better yet! – the ancient Greeks and the Romans (and Mary Beard is too busy), he’s your wolfman.

That could have been me, he might think, as he sees jolly old Michael Portillo having a nice packed lunch on a train at 7.30 on a Tuesday night. Portillo, who had his political career so memorably executed in public in 1997, dodged a bullet in spiritual terms. There would have been regret in this reflection for Boris Johnson, not a sense of triumph.

Perhaps he dreams of that life, every night he goes to bed as prime minister.

It is not entirely impossible that he only has a few days of this to go. We know we can’t rely on any polls at all – the polling firms and think tanks have gotten things badly wrong in the past four or five years, and they don’t know why – but I get this funny wee feeling that it is time to rekindle some light in this country, and elsewhere, and that some deluded voters are starting to wake up to this idea.

My funny feeling is that Boris Johnson will be out of Number 10 before he’s even had time to unpack all his stuff from the last move. That the orange slug across the Atlantic will meet a hedgehog with Nancy Pelosi’s face, and no route of escape, and be shoved out the door at the White House before he even gets a chance to inflict himself on the planet for another four years. That outcome, added to another five years of Boris Johnson starting on Friday morning, is a bill this planet cannot afford to pay.

What do I dream about? Well I try to fight cynicism, but it’s a losing battle. I think you have to imagine one worse than what you have. A minus one effect, in brackets.

I wrote a novel about a giant monster attacking London and a prime minister who was a racist, sexist, priapic dullard who had no grasp of the concept of consequences. I loved it, but no-one else did.

I started writing it when Tony Blair was the UK prime minister and George W Bush was US president. My inspiration was mainly Bush, not Blair, transplanted across the Atlantic. That book was very much about the war on terror. A couple of years later, it could have been about the financial crisis. Now it would be about austerity and Brexit.

That’s the great thing about monsters. They’re a good fit for any problem.

For my fictional prime minister – the true monster – I wondered: What if we got someone worse than George W Bush? George W Bush seemed like the sum of all fears back then. And the warmonger has a lot of blood on his hands – moreso than Trump. Those wee wars are a problem the world will be paying the price for long after we’re all dead.

And yet, in terms of personality and competence, we have ended up, incredibly, with someone worse than George W Bush as the US president. If the best thing you can say about someone is, “Well he hasn’t started a war yet”, then that isn’t really praise.

So I think – who could be worse than Trump? How could they be worse than him? Who could be worse than Boris Johnson? Are they out there right now? Are they on the playing fields of Eton as we speak, collecting money with menaces from the first years? Are they playing the frat boy in an American Ivy League college as we speak, with too much power and money from the very start?

Or should I dare have this new fantasy, my ultimate fantasy, of dawn breaking? Has Lucy Worsley defeated the beast and found the path out of the woods in bright sunshine? She has, she has. She’s in tears but she’s won. The goodie has won. Be reassured. Be emboldened.

I will hold on to this fantasy, for a few days yet. Five days, to be precise.

We need hope. We need change. We need the light. We need advent. Things can only get better – if only that was true.

Good luck.

Interview: Matthew Harffy

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Swords! Blood! Nobility! Let’s meet Matthew Harffy, author of The Bernicia Chronicles!

It’s all about you, what’s your name and what’s your story?

My name is Matthew Harffy and I have been a published writer of historical fiction since 2015 when my debut novel, The Serpent Sword, was released. It was the first in a series of novels called the Bernicia Chronicles set in seventh century Britain. So far six novels and one novella have been published in the series, but there are more planned.

Of course, the date of my first publication does not mark the date I started writing. I had dabbled in writing short stories and segments of stories all my life but had never taken it really seriously until I started The Serpent Sword back in 2001. It took me many years to complete and then to edit, partly because I had no idea of the amount of work needed, and partly because of the quantity of research required in writing a book set in a historical setting.

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Apart from the writing I have worked as an English teacher and translator in Spain, and as a technical author in the UK. I’ve also sung in several rock bands.

I live in Wiltshire with my wife, two daughters and our dog. And since last year I have been a full-time writer.

Tell us a bit about your latest book

My latest book to be published was the sixth in the Bernicia Chronicles, Storm of Steel. It tells the tale of the series protagonist, Beobrand, as he goes in search of a missing girl. His quest takes him over the sea to France where he is beset with many challenges and malevolent powerful enemies.

The latest book I have handed in to my editor is, Wolf of Wessex, due for publication in November. This is the first novel I have written that is not part of the Bernicia Chronicles series.

Wolf of Wessex is a taut, fast-paced thriller that hurtles through the narrative as quickly as the main characters rush through the wilderness towards a climactic confrontation with dark forces. I loved writing it!

After writing six novels in the same series, I was excited to bring some new characters to life. I hope that readers will, like me, fall in love with Dunston, the dour, world-weary woodsman, and Aedwen, the resourceful orphaned girl, whose plight forces him to leave his forest refuge.

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What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I am reading The Deaths and Afterlife of Aleister Crowley by Ian Thornton. It is published by Unbound which enables authors to crowdfund publication of their books. I have had an interest in Aleister Crowley for a long time, so I helped to crowdfund this novel. I am only a short way into the book at the moment and the jury is still out as to whether I am going to fully enjoy it or not. It’s an unusual book, that’s for certain. I just had a quick look on Goodreads and it definitely seems to have split reviewers. If you are interested in Crowley, the occult or the historical events of the first half of the twentieth century, you may well enjoy this book.

Movie Magic – what actors would you cast in the big screen movie of your book?

This is always a really difficult question to answer. Rather than give the names of any stars, I would just say that the actor who would play Beobrand would need to be physically imposing and able to carry off the fighting believably, but would also need to be able to portray the sensitivity of the troubled hero. And of course, it wouldn’t hurt ratings if he was extremely good-looking too!

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What writing projects are next for you?

I have just finished the first draft of book seven of the Bernicia Chronicles, Fortress of Fury. In it Beobrand is stretched to the limit as Bebbanburg is besieged, and he has to confront old enemies and struggle with a forbidden passion that threatens to destroy him and the kingdom.

Next up, who knows? There will be more Bernicia Chronicles, but I have recently had an idea for a novel that I might just have to investigate a bit more before making a decision on which book I should tackle next. Exciting times!

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Many thanks to Matthew for his time and an ace interview. Read the books, and connect with Matthew, right here: 

The Bernicia Chronicles

http://getbook.at/TheSerpentSword

http://getbook.at/CrossandCurse

http://getbook.at/BloodandBlade

http://getbook.at/KillerOfKings

http://getbook.at/WarriorOfWoden

http://getbook.at/StormOfSteel

https://getbook.at/FortressOfFury

 

Wolf of Wessex

https://getbook.at/WolfOfWessex

 

Novella – Kin of Cain

https://getbook.at/KinOfCain 

 

Website: www.matthewharffy.com

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MatthewHarffyAuthor

 

Interview: Ger Hogan

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It’s all about you, what’s your name and what’s your story?

I’m Geraldine Hogan, a writer, reader, dog walker and a bit of a hyphen-obsessive!

I’ve written four contemporary fiction novels – published by Aria under the name Faith Hogan. All feel good, Uplit books based in Ireland, The Girl I Used To Know is in bookshops now in paperback.

This year, under my own name, I’ve got two crime books hitting the ebook shelves. The first, called Silent Night is out on August 23rd with Bookouture.

I live in the west of Ireland with my husband, four children and a very happy Labrador called Penny.

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Tell us a bit about your latest book

Silent Night is described as a gripping, unputdownable start to a crime series…

It is the first in a series set in Corbally station in Limerick, with Iris Locke and Ben Slattery working in the south-eastern murder team. Iris’s first case throws her back in time to an unsolved case of her father’s and she finds herself catapulted into a no-mans land where soon it is very hard to figure out which way is home.

What do you love about your chosen genre?

I started off writing crime, but as luck would have it, I turned to contemporary fiction and managed to get picked up by a fantastic publisher. Still the crime bug wouldn’t go away and so I tinkered with old manuscripts until I had something I was really proud of.

I’ve always read crime – like most readers I started out on Secret Sevens, graduated to Miss Marples, discovered John Grisham as a teenager and there was no going back from there.

I have to say, that at the end of the writing journey, having dipped my toes in both puddles, I love writing in either genre and would find it difficult at this point to chose between the two.

The fact is that whether I’m writing crime or contemporary fiction, all of my novels are character driven, so for me, it’s all about those voices in my head and getting them on the page!

Author Faith Hogan

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment, it’s The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryzanda. I tend to read wide, unless I’m asked to read something in particular and while I’ve had this book a while, it’s only now I’m getting round to it and I must say, I’m really enjoying it!

Next up is Minna Howards new book That Long Lost Summer (Aria- Head of Zeus) and after that, I’m diving into Louise Candlish’s Our House (Simon & Schuster UK)– which I’m told is very smart and sharp, so I’m looking forward to it!

Movie Magic – what actors would you cast in the big screen movie of your book?

Oh, dear… obviously, if I had a choice, I’d cast Keanu Reeves – who wouldn’t? But he wouldn’t look anything like Ben Slattery, who’s a bit more… Ray Winstone!

As to Iris – well she starts off as a bit of a Cadbury’s Bunny girl, but ends up by book two being a lot more careworn – I certainly think Saoirse Ronan would be well able to carry this one off!

What writing projects are next for you?

At the moment, I’m knee deep in edits – I’ve spent the summer going from editing one book to the next! Currently, I’m working on the structural notes for Book 2 – the follow up to Silent Night. Then, after a few weeks for summer holidays, I’m looking forward to diving back into a book I wrote a few months ago which is going to be shipped into shape hopefully in the Autumn.

All this editing, is making me a little cabin crazy to get at something new though and there are a few ideas bubbling away waiting to get on that page….

Thanks so much!

Connect with Ger here:

Amazon: https://geni.us/B07S9XPT9TCover
Apple Books: https://apple.co/2EFNp00
Kobo: http://bit.ly/2JLt7qm
Googleplay: http://bit.ly/2IhXz8n

Interview: Lisa Hobman

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It’s all about you – what’s your and what’s your story?

I’m Lisa Hobman and I grew up in West Yorkshire. In 2012 my family and I relocated to Scotland after falling in love with place during holidays. It was after this that I began my writing career and have since published 14 books.

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Tell us a bit about your latest book.

A Summer of New Beginnings is set along the stunning north coast 500 route in the Scottish Highlands. It tells the story of broken hearted, luxury travel writer, Zara, who is suddenly catapulted front her comfort zone and asked to cover the route by bicycle! She expects to hate every second but along the way learns lots of new things about herself and human nature in general. It’s a romantic story with a few giggles and a wee bit of a The Proclaimers along the way.

What do you love about your chosen genre?

I’m a total romantic at heart, so I love to be the weaver of spells that sprinkle a little love into my characters’ lives.

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What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading the Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series and absolutely loving it. I like to read outside of the genre I write to expand my horizons. I’ve just finished binge reading all of Lisa Jewell’s suspense novels too.

Movie magic: what actors would you cast in the big-screen version of your book?

Ooooh now then… I think Richard Madden would have to play Lachy, dark and brooding but with a sense of humour. And I think Charlotte Ritchie would play a great Zara! Quite demure and very pretty but with an inner strength and great comedy timing!
What writing projects are next for you?

I’m currently working on the first of what I hope will be a series set on the Isle of Skye. Having visited a few times it feels like the perfect setting for a story. The scenery is breathtaking and I’m excited about bringing it the attention of my readers.

Many thanks to Lisa for dropping by The Ox. You can connect with her right here: 

Twitter: @LisaJHobmanAuth

Facebook: facebook.com/LisaJHobmanAuthor

Instagram: @Lisahobmanauthor

Interview: Karen Osman

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Another interview with a team-mate from Aria fiction – psychological thriller author Karen Osman!

It’s all about you – what’s your name and what’s your story?

My name is Karen Osman and I’m an author, writing psychological thriller books. I have always written in some form or another from a very young age. I loved it and it was, and continues to be, a daily part of my life – even on holidays! I started writing novels in 2016, when I won the Montegrappa Writing Prize for The Good Mother, which then led to a three-book deal.  Prior to that, I set up my own business, Travel Ink, offering content writing services to the travel and tourism industry which still runs today.

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Tell us more about your latest book, The Home.

My second novel, The Home, is a psychological thriller, set between the 1970s and 1980s, about successful career woman Angela whose memories of an abusive children’s home affect her adult life. The book delves into the darkness of living in a children’s home, casting a shadow over family ties and what it means to belong. Abandoned as a baby, Angela is desperate to escape her supposed refuge, yet despite being adopted and taken into the hearts of a wealthy couple, the scars of her childhood remain. When Angela discovers the identity of her birth mother Evelyn, their reunion is no fairy tale and as sinister events start to unfold, Evelyn fears she may not survive her daughter’s return.

It was motherhood that inspired the plot; As a mother of two young sons (aged 2 and 4) myself, I still remember that double-edged maelstrom of emotion of those new-born days – a mix of joy and worry – and it’s been a powerful influence in my writing for my new book, The Home. At the same time, I was researching about the horrors of children’s homes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, much of which only came to light many years later.

It’s incredibly disturbing that such events could have happened in places which are supposed to protect children. From here, I started to develop the outline of a plot and the character of Angela was born.

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What do you love about your chosen genre?

I love everything about psychological thrillers including the pace, the plot, and the whole premise that even the best of people can be driven to carry out chilling deeds. I also like the fact that this genre makes the reader think and try and work out the twists.

What are you reading at the moment?

Cecilia Ahern’s Roar – a fabulous book. I run an online show called Karen’s Bookshelf and it’s actually the book of the month for that.

Movie Magic – what actors would you cast in the big-screen version of your book?

Angela, one of the main protagonists, is 27 years old, ambitious and career driven and the 1980s, when the book was set, was an interesting time for women. On the one hand, Margaret Thatcher was a powerful example of what could be achieved by women, but on the other hand, sexism was very much present. I could imagine someone like Margot Robbie playing the role. The hardworking personality of Angela is the polar opposite of her birth mother Evelyn, the other main character, who is content to rely on government support and often plays the role of the victim, abstaining from as much responsibility as she can get away with.  Maybe Jessica Lange?

What are you working on next?

My third novel, The Perfect Lie, is about a lawyer who is representing a young woman who has been raped. As the case develops, the lawyer is reminded of a past she would rather forget and her perfect life starts to unravel. It’s out in September 2019.

For more info, visit www.karenosman.com

Interview: Anita Davison

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Here’s an interview with my Aria fiction team-mate Anita Davison – author of the Flora Maguire mystery series! 

It’s all about you – what’s your name and what’s your story?

Anita Davison and I’m long enough in the tooth for my story to take up far too much of this blog so I’ll just go with frustrated historian who took to writing when the kids left home. Not because I suffered from empty nest syndrome but, with them out the way I finally had some time to write.

Tell us a bit about your latest book.

My most recently published novel is The Bloomsbury Affair from Aria Fiction which is the fifth book in the Flora Maguire Mysteries, a series of Edwardian cosy mysteries set in London and Cheltenham.

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What do you love about your chosen genre?

Historical fiction has always been my preferred genre to read, but when I began to write, I was conscious of the fact that authors writing stories about real historical characters did a far better job than I could. I love murder mysteries so decided to use the historical aspect to create atmosphere, interest and flavour with an additional problem for the heroine to solve. My amateur sleuth has to wheedle out culprits without most of the modern methods of crime detection and forensic science, so the research aspect was great fun not to mention fascinating.

What are you reading at the moment?

A much-anticipated murder mysteries series written by an author friend of mine, Alison Stuart, the first of which is called Singapore Sapphire due for release this year.

Movie magic: what actors would you cast in the big-screen version of your book?

All the romantic looking ones who look good in period costume – Rupert Friend, Matthew McFadden, Aiden Turner, Tom Burke, Dan Stevens, Kit Harington, Daniel Day Lewis –  Ooh sorry did you want some girls too?  OK then here’s a few-

Saoirse Ronan, Jenna Coleman, Eleanor Tomlinson, and I would love Kelly Riley to play Flora’s mother. [She’ll need ageing a little though – sorry Kelly]

What writing projects are next for you?

I’m toying with a possible sixth book in the Flora Maguire Series but need to have a serious discussion with my publisher about that. Another project I have in mind is a murder mystery in London set in 1915. While my heroine’s husband is fighting on the Western Front, she discovers her best friend murdered and is determined to find out who killed her with the help of her suffragette aunt who persuades her to volunteer at the Women’s Military Hospital on Endell Street, staffed entirely by women to treat war wounded. Similar to the Flora Maguire stories but with more drama.

Many thanks for inviting me onto the blog!

No, thank you!

Connect with Anita right here: 

Website: www.anitadavison.co.uk

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/anita.davison

GOODREADS: http://www.goodreads.com/AnitaDavison

TWITTER: @AnitaSDavison

Listen to Iron Maiden baybee like me

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Iron Maiden, the O2 Arena, May 27th 2017

Someone appears to be buzzing a gigantic pot of glue at the very summit of Iron Maiden’s Aztec-era stage set. It isn’t yet clear that the person crouched over the steaming vat is Bruce Dickinson – it’s just a slight figure in a hooded cape. It could be someone from a Du Maurier story, or a wicked witch in a pantomime.

But when the figure starts to sing, you know exactly who is under the hood. No-one could accuse Bruce Dickinson, or the band, of a low-key entrance. Soon his cloak is thrown off, Steve, Dave and the rest bounce onto the stage, and the show begins.

The last time I saw Iron Maiden was in 1993. I had just finished my last exam and was preparing to leave school, destination unknown. The Real Live Tour arrived at the SECC in Glasgow, and getting to see Maiden fulfilled a teenage dream, but the crowd was nowhere near capacity. Great banks of empty seats could be seen at the back of the venue. Bruce Dickinson had already announced he was going to leave the band, and made his annoyance at participating in that final tour plain. This was before he qualified as a pilot, I think. He still had long hair and a leather jacket. He referred to a “shitty arena”, and was booed. He farted into the microphone.

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Anyone watching that show with a dash of maturity and a pinch of objectivity – tough in a room full of fanatics – would have recognised a distressed company in action. As a 40-year-old, I’d have said something like, “you can tell they’re in decline… next time they play here it’ll be at the Barras. They’ll be at King Tut’s in five years”.

Suede, Blur and Oasis were just around the corner, but Maiden had already been outmoded by bands from Seattle. In Utero and Vs would be released in a matter of weeks. Maiden’s brand of spectacle and, let’s face it, silliness, was very quickly the oldest of old hat. What seemed dangerous and subversive at one point began to look like a creaky old 50s creature feature. Iron Maiden were never cool, but in the spring of 1993 they were tragically uncool. It just felt disloyal to say so.

Something weird has happened to popular culture since then. Quarter of a century later, Iron Maiden aren’t a bunch of old men playing tours in working men’s clubs and village halls. They’re bigger than they ever were. They headline El Stadio Fuckoffico in Argentina or Brazil at a moment’s notice. In 2017, I sat there watching them in the O2 with about 20,000 other people in a sell-out crowd. You had to move fast to get tickets. Be quick or be dead. They’re the hot ticket once again. Iron Maiden have somehow demoded that which is new.

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Twenty-four years after the Real Live Tour, a fully reinstated Bruce cuts a much more committed, though no less impish figure. Viewed from my perch high up among the gods, or gargoyles, he’s wearing a pair of khaki combat trousers, and is singing in an incredible splay-legged rock god stance which must be hell on his groin muscles. Surely in no other context would a human being stand like that. Perhaps in weightlifting, in the moments before his knees pop and his spinal column collapses. Imagine it – meeting the Queen. Giving a best man’s speech. Scream for me, funeral!

He is such an unusual character. There must be a movie in Bruce Dickinson somewhere. University graduate, Olympic standard fencer, Iron Maiden singer, airline pilot. He’s unique on stage, too – a bizarre hybrid of Carry On camp and cockatoo-haired rock star, a cheeky chappy who has managed to age well, and not taking himself, or anything in the immediate vicinity, with any degree of seriousness. Possibly he’s stayed away from the drink, since his treatment for cancer. He seems to be enjoying himself tonight; he charges around the various platforms, roundabouts and slip-roads up and down the stage. Such a mischievous laddie, too – during The Trooper he flops his ragged battle flag over Adrian Smith’s face.

Oh yeah, Adrian Smith. He’s back in the band, and has been for a while. Iron Maiden now have three guitarists, all blond, sagging against each other, soloing. The show is a feast of electric guitar. In close-up on the big screens, Dave Murray still looks like a naughty schoolboy, but his fingers are still faster than just about anyone’s. Iron Maiden are all about sixty now. This still seems quite young compared to the Stones and Paul McCartney and The Who, who continue to tour as their ninth decades peep over the horizon.

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Adrian Smith looks the oldest, but that could just be the bandanna. Janick Gers – 27 years later, “the new boy”, like Ronnie Wood – is still doing his lovably daffy stage tics and twitches. Hurling the guitar around his shoulders by the strap, scissoring his skinny-jeaned legs like a foraging flamingo, and then kicking one of his amplifiers. This gesture is presumably meant to be a bit dangerous and punky, but comes across as the tantrum of a petulant child. This serves as a definition of sorts for most music scenes, but punk in particular.

Iron Maiden’s first album sounds a bit punk, actually. It’s worth a fresh listen. I did listen to it, having gone back to buy the old albums on CD, replacing the crumbling C90 tape copies from long ago.

We go back to what we knew. Someone said recently that even though we have an ocean of music out there, near-unlimited choice easily accessible through MP3 and YouTube, we have actually become more conservative. Or maybe, we just got old. Perhaps the memory banks are full and can’t take any more stuff.

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I can’t keep up with new music, new faces. Maybe you aren’t meant to. I would struggle to name a George Ezra song. (Shotgun? Was that him?) Drake could be sitting beside me on the bus and I wouldn’t know. I can barely remember any number one singles from the past year. I still think people like Kaiser Chiefs and the Arctic Monkeys are new bands. I see them treated as grizzled veterans with about half a dozen albums to their name and that’s a shock to the system, too. It’s no country for old men.

One of Maiden’s endearing on-stage habits: They are still wearing their own t-shirts. You wonder if it’s like football teams; if they’re given brand new ones to wear before every show, with names printed across the back, their own squad number, their own peg in the dressing room.

At some point you stop analysing Iron Maiden’s aesthetic. It simply is, you accept it. Alice Cooper’s name and make-up once meant something at one stage, but now it’s part of the furniture. Iron Maiden means songs about ancient gods and sacrifices as much as it is the Battle of Britain or classic syndicated TV shows.

There’s a strong horror theme. It’s rooted in the occult vibe of the 1970s, when Christopher Lee still played Dracula and people claimed they had seen vampires prowling Highgate Cemetery, but Iron Maiden only really got big in the video nasties era. In the minds of someone like Mary Whitehouse, there would have been considerable overlap in terms of content.

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That comic book horror atmosphere is still going strong in the 2017 version of Maiden. For their Book of Souls tour, there are loads of gumby stage effects. A giant inflatable Eddie bulges into life early on, with brains exposed, and hands or tentacles or tree branches spread across the stage. The devil pops up, literally, during Number of the Beast, another immense inflatable recalling the design of the Goat of Mendes in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, so much so that I wonder if someone should sue.

Death and terror stalks the stage. When the giant stiltwalker/animatronic Eddie mannequin lurches around to menace the band and the audience, he is “sacrificed” to the ancient gods by Dickinson, his heart seemingly cut out, spewing blood, before Bruce hurls it into the crowd. “Catch the heart” is a thing at these shows, I understand. A thing prized and clutched close to the chest for the rest of the show like a bridal bouquet. Someone will have it even now, perhaps on their mantelpiece.

This jolly blood and violence contrasts awkwardly with Dickinson’s speech near the end of the set, condemning a horrible tragedy which took place days beforehand in Manchester. “We don’t give a fuck about what colour you are, your sexual orientation… we don’t give a shit. We’re here to have a good time, and enjoy music and freedom,” he tells the overwhelmingly white, almost certainly majority-straight crowd. The applause is sustained. Iron Maiden, champions of freedom and the liberal society. You heard it here first, folks.

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It’s heart-warming in ways I might have sneered at as a 16-year-old; your heroes being heroic. I’m actually tearing up when Dickinson says those words.

As a series of unfamiliar songs are played, it strikes me that I haven’t listened to any new music from Iron Maiden since 1994. They’ve been putting albums out since then, and this set is admirably top-heavy with new material. The odd favourite comes out. I loved Wrathchild. A friend who was with me said it was like a glimpse of the teenage me, and he’s spot on. I made a point of photographing Steve Harris with his foot on the monitor at this point.

The jewel in the crown, though, is the full version of Powerslave. This is the song that drew me into Iron Maiden, drew me into music. I listened to it again and again on my brother’s bootleg tape on an ancient tape recorder borrowed from his girlfriend. He’d banned me from listening to it, for fear of the tape chewing up. I disobeyed.

The solo in the up-tempo middle section of this ludicrous song of ancient Egyptian pharaohs made me think; oh, I like that. That’s interesting. I imagined what it’d be like to play it. To be a rock star. (Zappa’s Man From Utopia was on the other side of that tape, but that’s another story.) So it was a lovely moment to see it as well as hear it performed, in all its glory. You high-five your nine-year-old self. Both of you know the same delight.

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The great songs still stack up, though. Bruce’s eardrum-molesting screams during Number of the Beast. Wasted Years, with its terrific hook. Another commentator said Iron Maiden are secretly a great pop band, heavily disguised, and I see the truth in that. I had a ball.

After it’s over, there’s a moment of comedy so perfect that it seems like it was choreographed. Poor Nicko McBrain had been stuck at the back of the stage, seemingly shoved into a cupboard, unseen apart from shimmering cymbals. Shimmer me cymbals!

He comes out, dead last, to take the applause of the crowd after the final encore. There’s a cable stretched across the stage, obvious even from my perch. Nicko trips on it and falls on his arse so spectacularly that he rolls across the scene, crashing into the Aztec ruins-themed stage backdrop, causing the entire image to ripple from floor to ceiling. A collapse so magnificent that it shook reality. A collision so hilarious that it broke the fourth wall.

He laughs as he gets back up. I wondered if it was deliberate, a well-rehearsed pratfall. It looked deliberate. Either it was a perfectly-timed piece of theatre, or one of the best accidents I’ve ever seen. A great big joke we all shared in.

We love these bands because they’re what we knew, what we were into, when the world was explosive and filled with new and exciting chemical reactions and experiments. They stay with us, through changing times and new experiences. They might fall out of favour occasionally, but you still love them, like a sibling.

At the merch stall, it’s twenty-five quid for a Killers T-shirt, possibly not of the same quality as the one I got for Christmas when I was 14. The price difference might well reflect the extra cloth required to cover my back and belly. So it goes.

One day there won’t be an Iron Maiden, but I can guarantee you that it won’t be anything to do with playing at working men’s clubs or village halls. Will they still be touring at seventy-five, or eighty? Will it be tough to distinguish between them and Eddie? They’ve gotta go some day, and so do we, but not yet, and hopefully not for a long time, either. I’d love to see them again.

Iron Maiden forever, is the take-home message. Until they’re not.

(c) Pat Black 2018

Scream 4: Don’t fear the reaper

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I’d managed to forget Scream 4 existed. It came out in 2011, when I was busy transplanting my life south of the border. Had I still been in Glasgow, I’d have gone to see it with my friends.

When I heard it referenced a couple of weeks ago, I got curious, and took the plunge on the DVD.

I tell you what, folks – the move to Blu-Ray hasn’t half driven down prices. I bought the DVD of Scream 4, brand new out the wrapper, for £3. Cost you more for a mocha.

I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but the Scream movies were entertaining, and – didn’t they just know it – they were a bit cleverer than your standard horror film.

True, they boiled down to a masked killer with a knife, tormenting people by telephone before filleting them. But there was something sly, even subversive, going on. The killer or killers in every Scream movie seemed to know they were in a movie. By the time the mask comes off, you wouldn’t be stunned if they winked at the camera. A lot of teenagers’ first experience of the term “post-modern” would have come from these films.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just saying that’s what probably happened.

Wes Craven was back in the director’s chair, with Kevin Williamson also returning on writing duties. Other familiar elements came into play.

First off, there were clever “shock” opening sequences and fake-outs using trailers for Stab, the fictional film-within-a-film which depicts the original Woodsboro murders. Anna Paquin follows in Drew Barrymore’s bloody footsteps as the best-known knife crime victim, and a few well-timed jumpy bits get you back in the Scream zone.

We soon meet tormented scream queen Sidney Prescott, played again by Neve Campbell. She’s returning to her hometown on the 15th anniversary of the original Woodsboro massacre for a book tour, promoting her memoirs.

The ghostface killer has returned along with her. This time it stalks her niece, played by Emma Roberts, real-life daughter of Eric, niece of Julia. My flatscreen telly has a problem with bright colours so there may be some distortion involved, but my god, that girl’s skin was so perfect that she seemed to be alabaster – almost too shiny-bright to look at. Luminous is the cliché that fits best.

Other returning characters are Gale Weathers, the ace reporter, looking for material for her own book. Gale is played, once again, by Courteney Cox. Seeing her in this role, we remember how long she’s been part of our lives. She had 10 years between Dancing In The Dark with Springsteen and Friends‘ first episode. There’s now nearly 25 years between now and the first Friends episode.

Then there’s Sheriff Dewey, played by Cox’s then-still-real-life-husband, David Arquette.

One of the new characters is played by a teenager who I recognised almost instantly as the wee boy from M Night Shyamalan’s Signs. “He’s too young to play that part, surely,” I scoffed. Then I remembered that Signs came out 14 years ago. He’s probably about 27 now, married with kids. Generous book deal for his memories of life in Hollywood.

I do this all the time. At a family funeral a couple of years ago, I was about to ask a younger cousin of mine about how he was getting on at school, before I remembered he was 30.

Anyway, bodies start falling, suspects are introduced then just as quickly bumped off, and the Giallo-ish whodunit element which made the original trilogy so compelling kicks in.

So, how up-to-date is the film? Well, in examining fresh ways of committing murder to find fame, Williamson’s script has an open goal, and he duly tucks the ball into the Net.

The world wide web and live video blogging is front and centre as a motive, but it’s never really followed up on. If these murders were really being streamed in real time, then the killer/killers would be pinpointed within moments. The idea is never properly explored.

To be fair, this was 2011 – most of a decade ago, although it feels like it was last week or something. Long before Periscope and Facebook live and Vlogging as an activity which actually makes people money. In six years’ time, god knows what our online lives will be like.

Another thing that struck me – in real-life America, police or no police, a guy running around in a mask with a knife would need to be pretty nimble to avoid getting Swiss-cheesed within moments of his first jump-scare out of the closet. “What’s your favourite scary-” BLAM. And credits.

Scream 4 is not great. Neve Campbell doesn’t get loads to do in this one; she doesn’t even punch Gale this time, or anyone playing her role. To say she’s phoning it in would be unkind, although it’d be ironic given the killer’s MO. But she has aged very well. I remember reading a news story about her father originally being from Glasgow, and her and her brother travelling to a family house party in a tenement somewhere in the city’s east end one night. The pictures were sold to a tabloid. It’s on a par with “Brad Pitt went to a party in Drumchapel in 1995”.

To look at Courteney Cox’s features in Scream 4 (I wrote something horrendously unkind about masks earlier, but have now deleted it out of shame) is to feel horribly old. Sad to report, the same is true with the “eye candy” – including one girl who strips down to her bra, Kevin Williamson’s cheeky wink at another scene in the film where viewers of Stab hope that the actresses will bare their breasts. (No dice, I’m afraid, but you probably knew that.)

It put years on me. God, they looked so young. “Be careful, girls,” I wanted to say, a concerned dad watching his daughter and her friends heading out into the unforgiving night. You wonder how an older guy like Wes Craven, old enough to be their grandfather, actually feels when he calls “action” and has to objectify beautiful young people to satisfy the lusts of the viewing public. My guess is, you’d get tired.

Sadly, Mr Craven is no longer around to ask.

Out of the four movies in the series, it’s perhaps third-best. It descends into a long chase through a conveniently remote, conveniently deserted house, with suspects and characters popping in and out of the story at convenient times.

The killings are horrible. It shows you how well-trained we are when it comes to camera tricks at the movies – how we come to expect certain edits. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List messed with this curious semiotic alchemy very well. When the hammer comes down on that guy’s head, you expect the camera to pull away, or the shot to change. But it doesn’t. You’ve got to sit there and watch. Through your fingers, if necessary.

Similarly, in Scream 4, you expect the camera to pull away at certain points to make it easier for you. Even allowing for retractable blades and other stage-prop trickery, those vicious stabs looked real.

I later discovered that the knife blades were pasted in by computer graphics – explaining how they achieved the seamless “plunges”. George A Romero once talked about how he wanted to go beyond the Hammer Horror aesthetic; how seeing the shadow of a knife rise and fall wasn’t enough. He wanted to show you the blade going all the way in, and not cutting away. Wes Craven does so, here.

I winced. I must be getting old.

Regarding the person behind the mask, you’ll have an inkling of who it is, but you’ll never know for sure until the end. It’s not a shocking reveal. As in some of the other sequels, Williamson plays with the idea of doing something truly shocking, and killing off one of his principals. This would have been a ballsy thing to do, and would have taken us out of our comfort zone, but he doesn’t quite go there. Nor does Wes Craven. And nor will he. It was the director who faced the final curtain quite recently, most likely bringing it down on the franchise along with him.

“Franchise”. I detest that term.

But you never know. Scream 4 doubled its money upon release. Add in another £3 from me to the cash pile. If there’s money to be made, they always come back.

I got a nice cosy feeling in watching Scream 4, which is a strange thing to write about a horror movie. I don’t quite feel nostalgic about the 1990s yet. I should do. They were my time. They took me from the age of 13 to 23. But I don’t get that cosy glow about those years. The reasons behind this might take a whole book to explain, and no-one would want to read it. Anything good that happened was tinged by alcohol. Ditto anything bad. I seemed so happy at the time, too. Now I know differently.

However, I do feel nostalgic about the days when I didn’t have to worry quite so much about things. When I could go to the movies with my mates on a Sunday night, scoff nachos drenched in rancid cheese and jalapenos, and jump out of my skin at a man in a mask going “boo!”

It was a good way to finish the weekend and see the hangover out the door. It was enough. Just a bunch of kids at the movies. Not necessarily better times; just simpler ones.

Lights, jump cuts, shrieking strings, corn syrup.

The deep blue sea

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Holidays! Remember them? Two weeks away in the sun, drinking, eating and swimming? Sex Again, Generally August, as my Aunt Nan calls her Saga breaks?

This is called “The Pearl Divers”, and you can find it, and like-minded souls, in Suckerpunch , my first short story collection.

The Pearl Divers

The pleasure boat began to fill up with very loud French people. One little man in the group turned their conversation into a performance, prancing about on deck in his bare feet and punctuating a series of hoots, growls, grunts and keenings with extravagant hand gestures. Although he was obviously a spanner of the first order – his three-quarter length trousers were the big giveaway – the people with him laughed uproariously at his antics.

Despite being initially snarky, Caitlin and Trevor couldn’t help joining in with the mirth.

“Marcel Marceau turns in his grave,” Trevor whispered.

“Silently,” Caitlin said, and they laughed some more.

They had bagged a terrific spot on the sun-deck. Caitlin flicked through her little guide book, sunglasses perched on top of her head. “Ooh, there’s stories connected to these islands.”

“What kind of stories?”

“Gods and monsters and things like that.”

“Excellent. Hopefully there’s a nudie statue too, by way of illustration. They were a naked bunch around these parts.”

“Hmm. It says we’re going to Spyros’ Reef first. There’s a story of love and tragedy connected to old Spyros, it says.”

“If it’s a tragedy that means they all die in the end, doesn’t it? Bum note, darlin’.”

“Hmm. Not necessarily. Tragedies can still be sort of romantic.”

“A tragi-rom-com? It could work.”

“Although… it does say there’s a bit of betrayal, too.”

“Wickeder and wickeder!”

It was day four of the holiday, and they had gotten blasé about all these perfect days. Zephyr breezes, the sun, the water; anything else would have been a shock to the system on the day they’d picked out for the boat trip.

No surprises, though; it was another cracker. The engines had been churning even as they both padded across the gangway onto the boat, grinning boat crewmembers clambering over each other to help Caitlin on board. After they’d taken their seats, the foaming, bubbling sea visible from the sun-deck had drawn their eyes so effectively that they did not notice the moorings being untied. Caitlin let out a little whoop of surprise as the land suddenly veered away from the sea.

The tannoy system on the sundeck whistled, and a gruff voice speaking heavily accented English said: “Good morning everyone – welcome to Cruise Mystique.”

Caitlin and Trev had been desperate to do it: “Whoooooh!” they said.

“You are seated aboard the good ship Perseus, it is a wonderful morning, and I hope you will enjoy our voyage. Can I get a whoop whoop?”

The English-speaking people – mostly confined in the lower decks and around the sides of the tour boat – responded lustily, as did Caitlin. This outburst confused the French group, even when the boat prompted them with two toots of its horn.

The ship passed through the smooth channel out of the harbour and into the gleaming sea. Caitlin tied her hair back while Trevor rested his chin on the railings and gazed at the unfurling waters. He was a bit older than her and had been getting a bit blobby, although of late he had been hitting the gym in anticipation of his first beach holiday since he was 12. He had on a straw sun-hat which she had loathed at first, but now found cute. “That hat’s growing on me,” she’d said, one time he had worn nothing else.

“I meant to say to you,” he said. “You freaked me out a bit last night.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You started giggling in your sleep. In a really odd, high voice, like you were a little kid. It woke me up. You wouldn’t stop. It was really weird.”

“I had a flying dream. It must have been that. I meant to tell you. I absolutely love those.”

“Yeah? Didn’t know you were a flier.”

“I was moving over a dark sea, just after the sun had gone down. There was still a bit of colour in the sky, just a shade of pink. It wasn’t cold and I wasn’t scared.”

“Freedom,” he said to her. “That’s what that dream means. You’re free.”

“It felt like it. I could have gone on forever. Chasing the sun. I woke up and felt like I’d been giggling. And I had. Do you ever have dreams like that?”

“Funny thing. I dream about swimming. I’m in the blue, just beneath the surface. And I see some light in the water above my head. Dappled, like you see on the ceiling of indoor pools, you know? There’s never any danger of me drowning. I can breathe perfectly well. And I’m going at an amazing speed.”

She lowered her sunglasses to peer at him. “Trev. Are you binned already?”

“Hey, you started it!” He grinned. With his stubble, his even white teeth and his straw hat, he looked – for the first and only time in his life – like Brad Pitt. “I’m just binned on you, honey.”

“Big flirt. So… swimming dreams. What do they mean?”

“Same thing, isn’t it? Freedom.”

“I would worry about sharks. I’d think one was chasing me, if I was in that situation. That’d be nothing to giggle about.”

“There’s nothing like that in my dreams. I’m never scared. I sometimes think I might be a shark. You know, in spirit.”

“More like a whale. I mean, a killer whale,” she added, catching his look.

Another whistle came from the tannoy, prompting a massed “Aaaah” from the French people. The captain talked them through what direction they were heading in, where to find the toilets and where to buy the beer and crisps.

“Beer,” Caitlin said. “Mmmm.”

“I know. I kind of want one. I’ve got the fever, darlin’.”

“It’s bad.”

He shrugged. “We’re on holiday.”

The captain said: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the story of Spyros’s Reef, which we will shortly be passing over. Please, keep your eyes peeled for rays, turtles and even… der-dun… der-dun… yes, sharks, boys and girls!”

The boat cut across a darker patch of water. Upon closer inspection, the gloom took the form of the surreal vegetation and bony exoskeletons of the reef. Fish darted away from the boat, and plant fronds waved as it approached.

“It is called Spyros’s Reef out of a very famous local legend,” the captain explained. “Once, on the mainland, there were two famous sponge divers, Spyros and Theo. This was in the days when they dived without oxygen tanks and masks and flippers, which we have nowadays. All they had to do was hold their breath… and dive. Then they used the knives and baskets to collect sponges.

“They grew up together and they were friends, but they were very… competitive.” The captain’s odd inflection gave this word an extra edge over the tannoy.

“Yes, ladies and gentlemen, they competed over who could dive the furthest, who could gather the most sponges. There were some who said it was Spyros, others who said it was Theo.”

“Sponges are funny,” Trev said. “You know that they can regenerate and they live longer than turtles?”

“Sh!”

The captain’s voice dropped – seductively, one imagined. “But there soon came another thing to compete for. Can you guess what it was? Yes, that’s right, a girl. Her name was Dania, and she was the most beautiful girl in the village. Soon, Spyros and Theo, they fell in love with this girl, and soon they began to compete for her attention, too. Is it not always the way, ladies and gentlemen? Only a woman can come between two friends, yes?

“Dania could not decide who to choose – Spyros or Theo. So she came up with a way of deciding; the first of them who could bring a pearl up from the ocean floor would have her hand in marriage.

“They both began to search for oyster shells and the pearls inside them, but there were none to be found. And then Theo had a very wicked idea.

“He took a pearl set in a gold necklace from his mother’s jewellery case, and tied it to a stone. During the night, he took a boat out to the deepest part of the reef, with only the stars to guide him. Then he did a wicked thing… he gently dropped the stone into the water.

“The next day the pearl caught the light on the ocean floor in the sunshine, and it soon became known among the sponge divers that there was a treasure on the ocean floor. Theo knew it was the deepest part of the reef, further than anyone had ever swum before, and he knew that it was in Spyros’ nature to try to get the pearl.

“To complete the deception, Theo dived first for the treasure, and of course it was too deep for him to reach. Then came Spyros’ turn. He plunged into the water and went down into the ocean… It was too deep for him, too, but he was determined to reach the treasure and win his heart’s desire.

“But poor Spyros went too deep. He drowned trying to reach the treasure and win the hand of his beloved.

“Theo had planned for this to happen, but even so he was full of guilt. And Dania, rather than being driven into his arms, as he had hoped, was heartbroken.

“Theo confessed to his crime, and was sent to jail. But there was a strange end to the tale for the lovely Dania. One night, she vanished. Her footprints led down to the beach, and the water’s edge. No-one ever saw her again.

“Perhaps she decided to be with Spyros, for evermore. Some sailors have reported seeing a mermaid in the waters around the reef; who can say? Perhaps this is what Dania became, searching the ocean for her love. Nobody knows, ladies and gentlemen, whatever happened to her.

“And they say that the pearl is still out there, too, ladies and gentlemen… Treasure waiting in the deep for someone to find. But perhaps it would not bring you luck?

“And so… That is the story of Spyros’ Reef, and the depths of true love.”

Some people groaned.

“In half an hour, we will have the swimming. Be sure to wear your sunblock, and be sure to wear your bathing suits.

“To your left side, the sea, to your right side, the sea, and up above – God! Can I get a whoop whoop?”

This time everyone was ready for the whoop whoop.

“Swimming! Coolio,” Trevor said. “Just as well I brought my shorts along. Might go and get changed. You want something from the shop?”

“Is it wrong to want an ice cream at this point?” She pulled off her loose, long-sleeved boho top. She was wearing a pure white bikini, her skin clear and brown. As she pulled the top over her head, the lovely tight little muscles at her tummy rippled. She closed her eyes as she pulled her long, frizzy blonde hair up tight and tied it back. Many of the men on the deck stared at her. Trev giggled.

“What?” she said, alarmed, checking herself out. “Do I have a tiger tan?”

“No,” he said, choking back laughter.

“What is it then?”

“I just realised, you’re way too hot for me. I’m so far ahead of the game it’s not even true.”

“You’ve just realised, have you? Huh!” She pouted.  “So anyway… ice cream? Too soon? Will we be alright eating stuff if we go in the sea?”

“It’s never too early for an ice cream. An ice cream isn’t too heavy.We’re on our holibags.” He gave her a kiss and took the bag. “Back in a minute.”

Downstairs, he took some time to look at the white wake surging past the starboard side before ducking into the gents. He had taken his khaki shorts and boxers off before some change in the light alerted him to the door at his back. The porthole, which had appeared dark from deck-side, was actually transparent. A middle-aged woman with hair the same consistency of candy floss did a double take, looked at Trevor’s winkle, met his eyes with a look approaching grief, then hurried on.

Trev was still sniggering about this by the time he appeared back on deck with two enormous cones with plastic sci-fi domes shielding the ice cream. Caitlin was gazing out at the sea, her big sunnies on. She had a strange half-smile on her face and Trev would remember this image for the rest of his life. They ate the cones, and Caitlin took a picture of Trev licking trails of chocolate off his hands as the cone melted in the sun.

The boat toured some rocks and caves, barnacle-encrusted, foamy places not far off the mainland. Trev and Caitlin stood by the railings while the captain spun tales of heroes, monsters and deities.

“And it was here that the goddess first appeared,” said the captain, with the practised intonation of five-year-old reciting his prayers. “And it was here that she blessed the water.”

“And it was here that I began to wish for a beer,” Caitlin said.

“And it was here that I agreed with you.” Trevor, running his fingers up and down the perfectly smooth skin along her spine, hadn’t been listening to the captain.

But they kept off the beer, knowing that swimming was on the way. The boat began to slow near a dark patch of water; in the background on the mainland there was a beach, a fine yellow band dusted with people. It was time to get wet.

“We’ve probably only travelled about 20 miles. They’ve just gone the long way,” she said, pulling off her linen trousers and sandals. Long brown legs, white bikini bottoms.

Trev shielded his eyes. “Look at the water. Look at that shade of blue. It must be the mineral content or something. It’s like a crayon a kiddie would use to colour in the sea.” Off came his stripy blue and white polo shirt. There was some definition in his stomach muscles and ribs, his arms. He slipped the beads she’d bought him from around his neck and folded them up carefully in a side pocket of her bag.

A set of steps were produced at the stern and lowered into the blue. The sea was so clear you could make out stones and gently waving plants at the bottom, though it had to be at least 20 feet deep. A few people edged their way down the steps, curiously reluctant to go in.

Trevor stood on the edge of the ladder, taking quick breaths. “See you in the pool,” he said, then executed a passable dive clear and straight into the blue. And he

 

didn’t hear the unprompted whoop whoop from the rest of the boat, the roar of the water swallowing him up as he plunged down, down, arrow-straight towards the bottom. He had a sudden moment of dissonance, realising the immensity and the blue of the space he had dived into as the pressure of the water squeezed his temples, his sinuses and his ribcage. He levelled out, hung there for a moment as the bubbles tickled the side of his face, then began to kick back towards the light. It took a worryingly long time for him to get there, and the blurred image of the surface deceived him. He reached out for the sparkles of light and expected to breach, but it was beyond him. Before he could panic the whine in his ears reached a pitch and he was through again,

 

gasping, the laughter and splashing of the other swimmers assaulting him. He treaded water, looking around for Caitlin.

One of the boat’s crew grinned as he helped her onto the ladder and she padded down, her back to the water. She took an uncertain little glance at the surface before immersing herself, then finally letting go of the ladder.

Her surface dive was a graceful, sinuous move, and her feet barely made a splash as her body undulated. She was a ghostly blur in the water for a moment, transformed in that curious absence of the third dimension.

He was seized with a strange and unaccountable dread.

The figure almost seemed to melt into the sand far below; then it shot upwards, rocket-propelled. He saw her face break the surface almost in slow motion, the water forming a smooth sheen over her features as it coursed off her skin, eyes closed, mouth opening to take a breath.

She breast-stroked towards him, face screwed up and her mouth pressed into a tight line like a grandmother in a public pool. “It’s warm,” she said, “warmer than the hotel pool.”

“Fantastic, isn’t it?” They linked arms, spinning each other around in the water.

“Feels weird… Usually I’m never comfortable about being out of my depth. But this feels fine.”

“You can’t beat it. It’s like being in a bath. Minus the pubes and stuff.”

“I can’t believe we’re here,” she said, “it’s like paradise or something. I can’t believe places like this exist. The last beach holiday I took I was at Skegness!” She laughed, and he felt her body shuddering against his.

“You’re just a child of the sun,” he said, nuzzling her neck.

“Don’t get too fresh here, mister. There’s children about. You’d better think of something nasty before you climb out.”

“I’ll think about sharks.” And then he flinched, something catching his eye in the water.

“What?”

“Look, fishies! There’s fishies in the water! Ha ha!”

A tiny school of purple fish were indeed passing by them, flickers of colour in the intense blue.

“Oh! I feel them! They tickle!” She disentangled herself from him and pushed herself away.

“They’re at my toes!” He giggled, squirming.

“Oh, make sure they’re not cannibal fish!”

“Cannibal fish?” He shrieked laughter.  “What in God’s name are they? A remote tribe? A death metal band from Sheffield?”

“Shut up!” She giggled and splashed water at him. Staring into the water, her feet blurred beneath the choppy surface, she said: “It’s deep. How deep, d’you reckon?”

“Not sure… more than 12 feet anyway. I’ve been down that far in a swimming pool before, it’s more than that. More than 20 feet, maybe.”

“Hey… what’s that?” She shielded her eyes from the sun.

“What?”

“That thing down there… d’you see it? There’s something shining down there.”

“No there’s not… oh.” There was something shining, far beneath them. A glint of light, almost too bright to look at directly.

“What d’you think it is?”

“Not sure… it looks like… Ah, I couldn’t really say.”

“I swear, I think it looks like a chain or something.”

“The treasure of the Sierra Madre?”

“It is a chain. Can’t you see it? A necklace. Something like that.” Her hand went to her throat.

He laughed. “Spyros’ pearl?”

“I’m serious. For all you know, it could be.”

“You know, I could try and get it. I’m not as good a swimmer as Spyros, though. Maybe it deserves to be down there. It’s his by rights, after all.”

“But he didn’t get it. He drowned, trying to get it.”

“Two kinds of men I guess, darlin’. Theos, and Spyros…es. What the hell? I can give it a try.”

“Don’t be daft.”

“Seriously, I don’t think it’s too far down. I think I can get it.”

She shook her head. “This isn’t the town pool, darlin’. You can’t.”

“I can.” He began to build up oxygen in his lungs with quick, sharp breaths.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Ah come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?” Then, after one great breath, with greater speed than she would ever have credited him with, he upended in the water. His legs pincered awkwardly in the air and she turned away from the splash, suddenly unsure of herself in the deep water without him keeping her anchored. Then his legs disappeared under. He became a blurred ghost, a wavering white smudge in the blue as he went

 

Down, down, the water squeezing him. He felt the fear grip his guts as he pushed himself through, shoulders and chest aching, that terrible pressure in his head and sinuses. The blue more brilliant as the water stung his eyes, nothing in the foreground to soak it up. Beneath him the sand was fine and dotted with rocks. In the middle of it all, as he kicked lower and lower and lower, muscles on his chest tight, was that single sparkle, that shard of light.

                                  He had that same illusion of space as when he’d reached for the surface earlier; it seemed that the more he pushed himself towards it, the further away the sliver of light got. The glow was prismatic, as if shone through a crystal or a diamond; he fancied he could see a whole spectrum of colours in the centre of the ray of light.

            He stretched, his very fingers strained, and then there was sand beneath his fingertips. He scooped it up and felt the weight of the object. It  sparkled one more time before he made a fist over it. He spun around and let the momentum take him right to the bottom, feet sinking into the gungy surface, cold gluey fingers in between his toes. He had expected to find solid ground down there; the suction took away some of the forward motion he had expected to gain by using his legs to propel him upwards. When he launched himself, he did not rise nearly far enough.

            Collecting his nerve, he exhaled slowly and reached out, arm over arm, his chest aching, heart thundering. He saw scissoring legs and neon bathing suits as he got closer. But not close enough.

           He gurgled, his chest aflame; lights arced across his field of vision like lightning and he had plenty of time to panic now, knowing that he had taken it too deep, that he must soon breathe in, that this time maybe-

 

He surfaced in a burst of foam, a primal, guttural noise accompanying his first breath. He had breached between a mother and daughter, close enough to kiss them both. They flinched and screamed, causing momentary panic among everyone.

“Terribly sorry,” he said, coughing and doggie-paddling over to Caitlin as the other bathers laughed.

She looked panicky. “What are you doing? I thought you had drowned! You must have been down about a minute, there.”

“Felt like an hour.”

“What a silly thing to try and do. I could have lost you!”

“I got it,” he said.

“You what?”

“I got it.” He raised his fist. There were still traces of grime around his fingers from where he’d gripped the seabed. He opened his hand.

She snorted, then burst out laughing. In his palm, glittering in the light, was a beer bottle top.

 

Back on deck, with all the heads counted and the sunblock applied, everyone dried quickly in the sun. They had a game of reverse bingo, except the captain called it bella bingo. It involved numbers being called out and the players sitting down if their ticket stub matched it. Caitlin ended up winning the contest at the expense of a crestfallen nine-year-old girl in the final two. Sensing a diplomatic incident as the girl’s lip trembled, the captain decided to award them both a prize. The girl left with a Dinky The Dolphin colouring-in pad and some felt tips; Caitlin got a bangle made out of either coral or milk teeth stolen from the Tooth Fairy. Honour was satisfied.

Trev was shivering when Caitlin made her way back to the seat, the applause of the passengers and crew following her. He’d put his long shirt back on but couldn’t seem to shift a chill that had settled on him since he’d dived for the treasure.

“Look what I got!” She waved her wrist at him.

“All that, and a slap on the backside from the captain. Hmph.”

“Ah, it’s just the continental way, honey.”

“Hmph.”

The crew returned to their stations, and Trev and Caitlin enjoyed, at last, a bottle of beer. They sat back, both still tired from their swim, legs entwined as they guzzled the cool brew.

She admired her bracelet. It went well with her boho top, oddly enough. “Hey, spooky. I got some treasure after all.”

“Hey! Don’t forget your bottle top. Took a lot of effort, that!”

“What a shame for poor old Spyros. I can’t stop thinking about him. You wonder if his pearl’s down there, somewhere.”

“Maybe he’s still trying to find it. Swimming around, looking under crustaceans and stuff.”

“Don’t say that! Poor bloke.”

They turned back to the sea, to the receding reef that had given way to almost electric blue water. A sudden flicker on the surface caught their attention.

“Hey, did you see that? A flying fish!” Trev leapt to his feet, following the creature as it skittered across the glassy-smooth surface, parallel to the boat.

While he was there, Caitlin did something that she could never fully explain to anyone, or to herself, ever afterward. She slipped the bracelet off her wrist in a single, supple movement, as if it was a garter, and hurled it into the white wake by the side of the boat.

(c) Pat Black 2016