Kitty!

closeup photo of brown tabby cat
Image from Unsplash taken by Diana Parkhouse

“Come on, kitty, come for a cuddle,” Kane hoped he didn’t sound as helpless as he felt.

“Can you see him?” Adele called over his shoulder.

“He seems to be stuck behind the bookcase,” Kane said, “Come on, Kitler, come on.”

“I’ve never liked cats,” Adele said, trying to get a look. “But when my aunt died, well, I couldn’t let him go to a shelter. I mean, my aunt loved the evil creature.”

Kane stared helplessly at the ghost of the cat. The ghost stared back. Kane recognised the expression of bland assurance, the hint of secret wisdom and knowledge, and the pause of waiting for a thought to turn up between the furry ears. “Come on, Kitler, there’s a good kitty.”

“He was supposed to be called Sam, but after he terrorised next door’s rottweiler and dropped a live rat in front of the vicar, we thought Kitler was more appropriate.” Adele said. “He was a bit of a character.”

Kane reached out and tickled Kitler under his ghostly chin. The cat snuggled down onto the cuddle and edged forward. “He sounds a little difficult.” He could hear the phantasmal purr echoing.

“Do you know, the first week he was here, he chased a postman down the path,” Adele said with a hint of pride. “We had to collect all our post in the end, and we were blacklisted by Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

“Who’s a good kitty?” Kane said, as the spirit of the cat edged closer.

“I didn’t expect to miss him when he went, but I do,” Adele sighed. “I wonder if that held him back from crossing the Rainbow Bridge?”

“I think he was still happy here,” Kane said, watching the shade of Kitler push blissfully against his tickling fingers.

“I suppose so,” Adele said. “I mean, next door’s Alsatian still runs away from the post where Kitler used to sit. But he makes such a noise at night, racing around and knocking things over. It’s like he never left.”

Kane looked at the smug spirit in front of him. That’s why the ghost hadn’t moved on. He was having too much fun terrorising the household to want to see what happened next. “He is a strong character.” Any minute now, Kane thought. Any minute now the purr will turn to a hiss. I wonder if he can still scratch?

“But I’m not getting any sleep, and it’s unnerving having a ghost in the house.” Adele said. “So can you do something?”

“I’ve only really done people,” Kane said, pulling his hand back quickly as the cuddle turned instantly into an attack. Kitler glared at him. “I’m not sure how to get a ghost cat safely over.”

“Could you bribe him with ghost treats?” Adele asked. “He used to do anything for Dreamies.”

Kane stood up. “To be honest, I really don’t know what to do.” He looked around. “Aunt Brenda, do you have any ideas?”

The ghost of his foster mother tickled Kitler behind the ears. “What a sweetie. I wish I could take him home with me.”

“I’ll take it from here, my good woman!” A disembodied voice rang out before a spectral figure shimmered into view.

“Aunt Charlotte,” Adele whispered, holding on to the back of the chair.

“You can see her?” Kane asked.

“People always said I had a presence,” Aunt Charlotte said smugly. “And now I’ve come for my Sam before he gets exorcised or some such nonsense.” She grabbed Kitler firmly around the middle and hoisted him, unprotesting and stunned, into her arms. “He’s coming home with his mummy.” She turned to Adele. “You did your best for mummy’s little kitty. You should get that painting I left you valued, the one that you put in the spare bedroom.” She sniffed. “If you appreciated art, you would already know about it. The certificate of authenticity is tucked behind the frame at the back.”

Adele and Kane watched the ghost of Aunt Charlotte with her malevolent companion fade from view.

“Have they definitely gone?” Adele asked. “I mean, both of them?”

Kane smiled reassuringly. “I’m pretty sure that they won’t come back either.” He watched Adele sag with relief.

Auntie Brenda nodded in approval. “You’re going to find it very quiet around here now,” she said. “Perhaps you should get another cat.”

Kane decided that was one message he was not going to pass on.

Shadow in the Corner

brown and green house on green grass field under white clouds and blue sky during daytime
Image by David Stamm on Unsplash

Welcome to October. Once again I am planning on publishing something a little spooky or supernatural on every day of October 2020. Most of it will be reposts of flash fiction you have seen in the past, but there will be a few new tales in the mix, so keep an eye out! And of course I will be part of the October Frights run by the amazing Anita Steward and sharing the scary goodness on here during the run between 10th and 15th of October. I hope you enjoy!

It’s an old stone house with a tall stone tower

It’s bent and battered but it still holds power

And the priests keep blessing but the dark’s still calling

So the cattle’s brought in soon as night starts falling

We’re the edge of the kingdom so we don’t pay taxes

And the only human sounds are the woodcutter’s axes

So the lords don’t bother and we like it that way

Though few who come to work here have the heart to stay

There’s a new girl in the kitchens and we have to warn her

Of the stain that hides in the shadow in the corner.

Please Hold

My time management is spectacularly poor. This is not a secret. I fail at getting things done on time. I’m trying to break that habit, but it’s a work in progress.

You may have noticed that there isn’t a writing prompt this week. I enjoy writing prompts, but I noticed that I was the only one taking part. This is not necessarily helpful. I also now have an editor who has plans for my writing (hi Rebekah, you are awesome!).

At the same time, life in the real world is pressing down and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. So I’m shaking things up a little. I won’t be posting any more writing challenges. I don’t think that they’ll be missed. I will, however, aim to publish one piece of flash fiction every week after the end of October. I look at it as my gym. The little pieces of flash fiction, quite seperate from anything else, keep my writing in trim.

You may have noticed that this starts after the end of October. I have a few deadlines swinging over my head, some for the awesome Three Furies Press, some for other projects. I have also signed up for the amazing October Frights, organised by Anita Steward, which is a group of writers sharing scary stuff between 10th October and 15th October. And, in the past, I’ve tried to post something spooky every day for October. I thought it was important for me to keep up the tradition. So October is likely to be very busy (and fun!). This year there will be a post every day of October with a little supernatural fiction. Around two thirds of the posts are old favourites. I enjoyed reading through the back pages of my blog and dipping into past stories and I hope you will enjoy them as well. There will be a few new pieces, though, with a supernatural twist, and I hope you will enjoy them.

After October and the wonderfully spooky time of Halloween, look out for weekly flash fiction, news of what I have been up to and book reviews. I have a backlog of reviews I have promised to do. Did I mention I’m appalling at time management? I’m sorry if I owe you a review. And I’m sure that there will be bits and pieces that follow on to all the strange places that my writing visits.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free. I am always incredibly flattered to think that anyone has read this, and I would love to hear from you.

Book Review: The Crow Journal by Finn Cullen

The Crow Journal by Finn Cullen is a wonderfully evocative, meticulously researched, intricately woven tale that slots in impeccable references to mid Victorian London and joins them seamlessly to a chilling tale of faerie, enchantment, adventure and treachery.

The story is told in a style that would have been familiar to Dickens or Conan Doyle. Here’s an excerpt to give some flavour:

The carriage ride was not a long one, and my companion was not inclined to conversation. I was thoughtful myself after my encounter in the court of Green Jack. I had not gained the answers I sought, but I had taken a first step into the realm of Faerie. More importantly I hadn’t lost my life in the taking of that step. There in the safety of the cab’s compartment it began to dawn on me how perilous that encounter had been. Thorn’s ruthlessness had been clear, the memory of those cold killer’s eyes would not soon leave me, and the sense of power that came when I recalled the vast landscape face of Green Jack himself was daunting.

Barnaby Silver, having finished the first part of his magical training with his kindly mentor, Doctor Moran, journeys from a remote village in Yorkshire to London. He is searching for news of his father, who he never knew. His mother, a magus or magician, had fled London when he was a baby. Now he needed to find out about his father.

His quest takes him through the darkest streets of mid Victorian London and the dangerous lands of faerie. Interlaced with the search for his father is the intrigue and scheming of the magi, the magicians that are now based in London after moving from Glastonbury.

The story has plenty of great action scenes and lots of plot twists, although only a hint of romance. As a story, it stands alone but there are a few strands left that suggest further great stories may come.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Window

brown brick wall with green plants
Image from Unsplash, taken by Random Sky

“It’s easier to show you,” Kate said.

“We wouldn’t have believed it if we hadn’t seen it,” Kes chipped in.

Kane looked nervously at the couple. “I’ve never dealt with a haunted window before,” he said. “They’ve always been haunted by someone.”

Kes shrugged his broad shoulders. “We didn’t know where to turn until you were recommended.”

Kane sighed. “Show me the problem, please.”

Kate led them into the small back room in the tiny terrace. “We sunk a lot of money into this. We always came in the evenings, though, and when we look back, the old owner always rushed us out of this room.”

“We thought of suing the surveyor,” Kes said. “But how do you explain this in court?”

Kate went over to the far wall where thick curtains hung and pulled them back. Kane stared as Kes switched on the light. The window was completely bricked up. Kate saw his confusion. “We thought we could have it knocked through, but, well…”

Kane watched in disbelief as Kate’s hand passed through the apparently solid brick and rapped smartly on what sounded like a glass pane. “I think I see.”

“It looks normal from the outside,” Kes said. “You can even see the furniture in the room and everything.”

Kate nodded. “We asked the previous owner.” She sighed. “He had inherited the house from his aunt. Apparently the old lady had seen her fiancé kissing another woman through this window, and so she had it bricked up.”

“She never married, or even dated, as far as the nephew knew,” Kes said. “It’s a very sad story.”

“I’ve never done a window before,” Kane said carefully. “I’ve only done people.” He thought for a moment. “And dogs.” He walked slowly up to the window and pressed his fingers against what looked like dark brick. They passed through and rested against cool glass. “Could you give me a moment?”

Kane waited until the door had shut quietly behind him and then looked carefully around. It took a moment, but he saw her, a bent old lady huddled in the corner. “Hello, Miss. I’m Kane. Are you okay?”

“I’m so ashamed,” the frail figure said. “I’ve never forgave myself.”

“I knew it wasn’t just a window,” Kane said. “There is always someone there.”

“I found out later that it was his sister,” the shade of the old lady said. “It had just been a peck on the cheek anyway, but I was so jealous.” The ghost of a withered hand wiped away a translucent tear. “And afterwards, well, I just couldn’t look him in the face. I had said such dreadful things.”

“I’m sure he knew that you didn’t mean them.” Kane said sympathetically.

The old lady’s ghost shook her head. “I couldn’t live with myself. I wouldn’t see him. I couldn’t even bare to read his letters.” She gestured to the ghost of the brickwork. “I had to do this.”

Kane stared at the ghost of the brickwork and then back at the old lady. “Who took it down?”

“My nephew, Arthur, took it down.” The old lady slowly approached the window and stood next to Kane. “I should have done that years ago, and I was glad that he had.” Tears slid down the wrinkled cheeks. “I should have gone to him years ago, and now it’s too late.”

Kane thought for a moment. “But it isn’t really too late,” he said. “You could find him now.”

The old lady was suddenly still. “You mean, apologise? It’s too late for that. And I could never find him now.”

Kane shrugged. “People seem to manage once they’ve passed over. And perhaps you could just talk to him. You can explain.”

The old lady slowly shook her head. “I need to apologise. I need to go and find him.” She slowly faded into the dim light in the corner of the room. As her presence left, light flooded in as the ghosts of the bricks on the window followed her.

Kane sighed as he turned to call in Kate and Kes, his heart breaking a little for her sadness. He had dealt with enough ghosts to be unsurprised by her stubbornness.

Closing the White Hart

Don’t forget to read the IMPORTANT BIT below.

I have a few blogs which are spread across the internet. I have my personal blog, Sybil Witters On, my writing blog, this one, Always Another Chapter, and a series of stories on a blog set in a former pub in York called At the Sign of the White Hart.

I started the blog ‘At the Sign of the White Hart’ as an experiment to see if it would be possible to write a story on a blog, with each chapter being a separate blog post. Over time it grew and sprawled over a host of stories and characters. There are 71 separate posts and I don’t know how many people of various shapes and flavours. I became incredibly fond of all of them.

I came to the conclusion, in the end, that the blog format doesn’t really work unless you are reading it from the start. It’s always tricky to go back and read through in order. It was also distracting me from other projects. I hate to mention money, but I was writing the White Hart stories and making them freely available but those stories were taking time and attention away from writing which could pay. I had to say goodbye.

And speaking of money again, it’s a site that costs me some money to use and I can’t work out how to get adverts on it, and now that I’m no longer posting on there, it isn’t getting any traffic. It isn’t a huge amount of money, but I could do with not spending it. It’s coming up for renewal and I have decided to close the blog.

IMPORTANT BIT I have been supported and encouraged by some amazing people – seriously awesome, lovely people – and it’s important to me that those people who have been so wonderfully kind should still have free access to the stories that they helped me write. I am therefore going to be spending the next few days cutting, pasting, swearing, editing and trying to work out Canva and creating free books on Amazon. I’m using Amazon because I’ve finally worked out how to make a book free on there and you can download an app for PC, laptop and phone (and probably mac) for free to read things on there.

I’ve done some preliminary cut and paste work and we are looking at a tome that is four times the size of Out of the London Mist and that is before I add all the additional stories that have cropped up as flash fiction. It will be mighty and may be tricky to download on a phone. I will therefore probably (I’m still working this out) do one mighty collection and then a few different ones that are the collection but split for ease of reading, all free if I can manage it.

It may take a few days (or more) as I am also armpit deep in the sequel to Out of the London Mist and the editor has a cattle prod, but I am not going to let down those who have been so generous with their kind support.

I will keep you all informed. Thank you all again.

Writing about Writing

I got my first review for Out of the London Mist, and it was a good one. I felt so hugged, and so giddy and proud.

I feel I ought to print it out and frame it.

Writing Out of the London Mist was really the easy part. I then went through editing and the Three Furies, especially Rebekah, Julia and Emily, were so kind and supportive, even when I had made a complete mess of things. Once that was done, it’s time to work on publicity.

I’ve been steadily trying to contact book bloggers to ask for honest reviews over the last couple of weeks, along with working on the sequel. I’ve only asked for honest opinions and gone with people who are straightforward. I haven’t paid for any reviews. Anyone who has been contacted are willing to write bad reviews or not review and not just give good reports (which makes the good review above so sweet).

As I’ve gone through, I’ve found some lovely blogs with some lovely people. I’m starting to think less about the whole publicity stuff and more about the community. I feel like I need to raise my game after seeing all the awesome blogs out there.

I wrote Out of the London Mist as my first full steampunk novel and I grew as I learned about steampunk. I learned so much about English grammar and structure – and a lot about punctuation (thank you so much Julia and Emily) during editing. Now I’m learning a new appreciation about books and approaching them as I look around book blogs. Writing this book has been an absolute blessing.

I will certainly be following Lizanne Lost in a Good Book.

A Victorian Dinner

dessert food in tray
Image from Unsplash, taken by Richard Iwaki

Do you eat avocado toast? Because if you do, there will be people out there who will label you as soon as you confess. Do you eat ramen? How about swordfish steak? Do you eat tofu? How about truffle oil in your omelet aux fines herbes? Food can come with more labels than ‘best served hot’.

Throughout the ages the difference between the peasant’s pot and the lord’s table was always there. However, in Great Britain during the nineteenth century, there were new differences and complications.

As the events of ‘Out of the London Mist’ were unfolding, households were coming to grips with new foods and ideas. Curries had been popular in Great Britain for over a hundred years at this point, and were becoming more widely eaten as the men and their families returning from Colonial India brought back a nostalgia for the food they had enjoyed. Along with curries, fish and chip shops started opening, often credited to Eastern European immigrants. Markets now had such exotic stuff as bananas as well as the familiar onions and turnips, and the grocer now had stacks of meat in tins from far off Australia and South America.

Along with the new foods appearing on the tables, new social distinctions were causing confusion. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the Middle Classes of doctors, lawyers and business men expanded massively. Suddenly there were polite households, desperate to keep up to high standards but completely unaware of how to run a household with servants. Housewives in the new, brick-built villas of the expanding suburbs were faced with a swathe of social difficulties. How does one ‘leave a card’? How should one pack a picnic? What are the duties of the second housemaid?

Instruction manuals on cooking and housekeeping proliferated as women who once would have stayed at home and cooked the stews and puddings that fuelled the working class were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into a more supervisory role. The most famous of these was the weighty Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. It was originally published in 1861, and by the time of Out of the London Mist it had a huge following and had already gone to many editions. Along with clear, logical and precise instructions for how to clean a bedroom and how to lay a fire are cleaning tips (mirrors should be cleaned with gin and an old silk handkerchief), morality (‘Charity and Benevolence are duties that a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow creatures’), etiquette (‘in giving a letter of introduction, it should always be handed to your friend, unsealed’) and several hundred recipes.

I love reading recipe books. I don’t necessarily use them, and no-one should expect fine dining from me, but I love the social history behind the food. Along with such recipes for dishes such as a toast sandwich (yes, a piece of toast between two slices of bread), an Indian Dish of Fowl (cold, cooked chicken seasoned with curry powder and sautéed and served with fried onions) and Collared Calf’s Head (I always skip that one) are recipes for sumptuous desserts, elegant entrees and some very intriguing recipes for liqueurs.

Mrs Beeton was aware that most of her readership were middle class and quite content with plain cooking with a cook and a housemaid. Lady Clara grew up in such a household, and the meals that were served to John Farnley were very middle class in nature with mutton featuring heavily. However, housekeeping books always include the aspirational and Mrs Beeton included plans for formal dinners of the sort that John Farnley would have found familiar.

A suggested formal dinner for October, for six persons, starts with Hare Soup, Broiled Cod a la Maitre d’Hote, and Haddocks with Egg sauce. The entrees are Veal Cutlets garnished with Green Beans and Haricot Mutton. The second course is Roast Haunch of Mutton, Boiled Capon and Rice and Vegetables. Finally the third course would be wheeled in with Pheasants, Punch Jelly, Blancmange, Apples a la Portugaise, Charlotte a la Vanille and Marrow Pudding. After all that culinary splendour, there would be coffee, fruit and liqueurs before the ladies left the room and the gentlemen enjoyed their port and cigars. I have stomach ache just thinking about it.

Of course you would not have a full plate of each dish placed relentlessly in front of you. Instead you could take some of each or just have a portion of one of the offerings. Even so, it was a hefty amount of food laid on the table. Mrs Beeton was much more realistic with plain family dinners. One October menu starts with ‘the remains of a codfish flaked and warmed in a Maitre d’Hote sauce’, followed by cold mutton and salad, veal cutlets, rolled bacon, French beans and potatoes and followed by an arrowroot blancmange with stewed damsons. That would be much kinder to the household bills, though still extremely substantial.

Food was very different in the East End of London. In the overcrowded slums, it was rare to find a family with access to the basic means to cook. Houses often were crammed with a different family to each room. Cold and draughty attics and dank, dark cellars were all crammed in with the rest of the house and shared communal washhouses and toilets at the end of the street. Food was bought elsewhere, usually from the street vendors. A halfpenny could get you some hot eels in broth or some pea soup. You could buy baked potatoes, whelks, oysters (then very much a staple of the poor), pies and cold meat from hundreds of street vendors. If you had a few pennies there were stalls selling nuts, fruit, pastries, coffee, tea, cocoa and cakes, all of varying quality. There were no food inspectors checking whether the food was safe. One of the regular sights were a herdsman selling milk fresh from a cow. At least then you could be sure of what you were getting and its freshness.

And on every corner there was a pub, and cheap gin was always available.

Less well known than Mrs Beeton, Alexis Soyer produced a shilling cookbook aimed at the working class. Soyer was a Frenchman who had moved to England and was a celebrated chef at the Reform Club. He was not, however, merely a celebrity chef. He advised the British Army on food and supplies during the Crimean War and took an active part in organising soup kitchens during the Irish Famine. His aim was to help those poorer people who couldn’t afford the veal cutlets that Mrs Beeton described. Instead he described how to make a hasty pudding, how to cook a cow heel for a good soup or stew and how to buy meat that, while not of the first quality, is still fit for eating.

Many of the East End would be unable to read the book, and they would have had no access to any sort of stove or fire to use for cooking, but it was a useful resource for those struggling in less straitened circumstances. Soyer described his meals clearly and methodically, always aware of the meagre resources available to the poor. One of his recipes seems very thin. ‘Poor Man’s Potato Pie’ which is sliced potato, laid in a dish with some suet or dripping, seasoned with salt and pepper and covered with pastry. Soyer suggested that perhaps some smoked herring could be added for flavour. For many of the people huddled in the streets where John Farnley pursued his brother’s murderer, even if they could afford the potato and fat and the pastry to go over it, the access to any form of fire that could cook it was out of their reach.

This is a snippet pulled from my research for Out of the London Mist, a steampunk novel set in Victorian London where there is more than just food barrows hiding in the East End in the London fog. – available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and all good online booksellers as well as from the amazing Three Furies Press

A London Peculiar

grayscale photo of street post with smoke
Image by Rory Bjorkman on Unsplash

My novel, Out of the London Mist takes place during a prolonged period of smog, or a London Peculiar. Over the centuries, London became known for its noxious, choking fogs that were sometimes called ‘pea-soupers’ as they were as thick as pea soup. Other countries around the world have suffered from smog, but London became known for them at an early date due to an uncomfortable set of circumstances.

The London Peculiar formed when fog settled and absorbed the fumes and soot of the myriad of fires that fuelled England’s capital. When London, or Londinium, was first built by the legions on the low-lying Thames estuary, and so subject to sea fogs, the soft woodsmoke was not such a problem. However, by the twelfth century, London was the largest city in England, with around twenty thousand souls. Not only did the population use open fires and flame filled ovens for heating and cooking, but many of them were busy with the industry and commerce that was fuelling London’s growth, including large scale iron and glass works. At the same time, wood became expensive as the demands of Edward I’s military expansion and castle building made a diminishing resource even scarcer. London turned to coal.

Woodsmoke is not safe, and, when mixed with the fogs that rolled in through the estuary, would not have been pleasant in concentration, but coal has its own hazards. Like wood, burning coal produces carbon monoxide that, when trapped in the fog, would be far from healthy. Coal, unfortunately, also produces such nasties as sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide becomes sulphuric acid when mixed with water, and fog is, essentially, water vapour. In the still conditions that produce a fog, the fumes of carbon monoxide, sulphuric acid and irritating soot particles, are trapped at street level. There is no escape. By the time of Out of the London Mist, London was a vast, sprawling city filled with workshops and factories and stuffed with tenements with only coal for heat and cooking. Fogs could be so dense that moving around the city was nearly impossible. Only the London Underground was likely to keep running.

The regular winter smogs took a terrible toll on the people of London. Far too many died during these events, and the death toll kept rising. Finally, there was the Great Smog of 1952 which lasted five days and is generally thought to have caused 12,000 deaths, either immediately or in the following few months. This was such a striking event that it led to the passing of the Clean Air Act, which limited what sort of fuel could be used within urban areas and meant a massive reduction in London Peculiars.

As the air quality around the world improves during the lockdown due to Covid-19, perhaps it’s as well to remind ourselves that the air we breathe isn’t always as wholesome as we think, and we should never take it for granted.

And meanwhile, back in the world of Out of the London Mist, the smog rolls around the East End, shrouding the horrible deeds within.

Check out Out of the London Mist on Amazon and other great retailers

Perspective

I am a bad lass. I’m so slammed with other stuff that I haven’t written anything for this. However, I think this piece from February 2018 works. Hugs and good health to all.

I look around, my mind is filled

With pots and cloths and clothes and things

The clutter that comes in bags from school

The scattered stuff the postman brings

A sock hangs off the angled chair

A cup is perched right on the edge

Fingerprints on walls abound

Cat fur lines the window ledge

But if you walk across the park

And head towards the underpass

Ignore the coloured painted tags

Step round the routine broken glass

Look up, a square of pristine sky,

Windwashed leaves are dancing free,

Nothing besides, that’s all I want

The sky, the leaves and, down here, me.