Friday, 26 October 2012


 Excerpts from The Colourist

Carefully I arranged the paper-wrapped cones of spices on the scuffed dressing table and poured some tepid water from a jug to try and remove the red stain. It was stubborn and would require more scrubbing. I had cinnamon and turmeric, paprika, rose petals and a bag of cloves. Mixed with a little water they’d make intense but transient pigments. This is how I spent every spare minute; unearthing new colours, coaxing them out of the mysterious substances from the souk. Cinnamon and the turmeric; yes, there was a honeyed orange that I hadn’t quite mastered but could see in my mind’s eye. Yesterday I’d created a quite beautiful dusty yellow, like powdered sunshine. Nutmeg gave a rich melancholic brown, paprika brought a drumroll of coral red. 

For a few blissful moments of every day, I was able to let go of the fetid room and the braying aunt and lose myself completely in their bright magic.

 I thought, as I sat on a low divan plump with cushions in the rooftop garden of Mustafa Kamut’s perfumed house, that I had never been anywhere so lovely in my life. Above my head fluttered a rectangle of orange silk, strung across four pillars that marked the edges of the roof. Narrow steps led down to the third floor, up and down which trotted an endless succession of people bringing intricately carved silver trays laden with delicacies, deftly placing each upon the round central table and removing others so that the table was always full. They poured mint tea from swan-necked copper teapots from high up, so the liquid caught the sun and became a waterfall of gold. Spiced pastries, almond biscuits and little rosewater cakes appeared, a procession of gazelles’ horns and sugar plums borne high on ornate platters; far too much for three people, and I didn’t dare eat until the men had. Two women sat in the background for a little while before disappearing in a swirl of white down the stone steps and I didn’t see them again. They were not introduced, although Xavier inclined his head toward them in a similar fashion as M Kamut had done to me.
 As the hours rolled by and the endless stream of food did not abate, I had to keep myself from slumping back on the divan and staring at the beautiful orange silk as it billowed in the breeze that had sprung up as the afternoon drew on. The light of the sun moved slowly across the canopy, intensifying the orange to white, so bright it was impossible to regard. Its penumbra radiated out and deepened to a more saturated effect near the edges. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

It’s such a jubilant dance of a colour, orange. Give it time and you’ll see how rewarding it can be. Said to stimulate appetite and activity, it lacks the aggression of red and the hard stare of yellow. It reminds me of a welcome houseguest, the sort that always brings a small gift and remembers to send a thank you card afterwards. I felt full of health and cake and happy plans as I sat there on the roof and let the inside of my mind be painted with a warm orange glow.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Astonishing Adventures of Malcolm Flood

“….and when I ran out of razors I had to use sharpened toothbrushes to kill my prey.’

Sid didn’t entirely believe Great Uncle Malcolm’s tales of when he was the sole mutineer on a cargo ship headed for Malacca, and was put ashore on the unmapped island of Krakapu somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

‘How come you had so many toothbrushes?’ he asked.

Great Uncle Malcolm looked at Sid with an ‘isn’t-that-obvious’ expression on his face. ‘Well, of course I had an inkling that I’d be marooned, so I stole all my fellow’s toothbrushes the night before. Knew they’d come in handy for something.’

‘But…but, aren’t toothbrushes made of plastic? How could you sharpen one?’

‘Made of wood in those days, my boy, ‘ said Great Uncle Malcolm dismissively. ‘All made of wood. Even the bristles.’

Something was still not right. Aha! ‘How did you sharpen them if you’d run out of razors?’ That, thought Sid, was the clincher. There could be no return for Great Uncle Malcolm now.

‘Clever boy. You see, laid out my last dead rat’s intestines to dry in the sun – like catgut they were – then used the thread to whittle the toothbrush handle. Got to have your wits about you when you’re marooned on a desert island, you know.’

Hmm. ‘What year did you say this was, Uncle?’

‘Well, yes, it would be 19…er..let’s see now, 1924, I reckon. Or thereabouts.’

Sid slid away and googled Krakapu. Great Uncle Malcolm didn’t know what Google was and only used the family laptop to rest his mug of coffee on. ‘Krakapu, uninhabited island discovered and mapped in 1750 by the great explorer of the Indian Ocean Lord Sir Captain Stanley Blitherington-Smethers.’

Just as I thought, muttered Sid. But he could hear Great Uncle Malcolm chuckling to himself in the room next door and didn’t have the heart to tell him. Instead, he googled ‘wooden toothbrush’. Just in case.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


Excerpts from The Colourist
…I continued my journey around the garden. Ah, here I was on firmer territory with red, crimson, carmine and scarlet; colours known and named, loved and hated in equal measure. What other could encompass so many extremes? Love and blood, lust and murder, wealth and whores, magic and anarchy. What a maelstrom of meanings! On sad days, I can think of nothing more comforting than the glove-like grip of a red rose, velvet warm.

Colour-savvy warmongers used red to stimulate feelings of anger before a battle, so soldiers literally ‘see red’ before they charge, swords held aloft, screaming their lungs dry. My mother told me that the Maoris of New Zealand are able to separate red into over one hundred different shades. Red and war are important, and variations of both must be distinguished.

1952, it was. A telephone ringing. My telephone, in the hallway of the house in Clapham. ‘Hello?’
‘Rosa? Rosa Carmichael? It’s Francis Balmain.’
My heart missed a beat. ‘Is it Nathan?’ Why else would Francis want to contact me?
‘No, no. It’s not about Nathan. I just…just wondered if you and your daughter would do me the honour of accompanying me to tea next week? It has been a long time I know. I’d like to see you again.’
It seemed I was never to be rid of Francis. He would always find me.
We arranged to meet at the Ritz the following Tuesday. I spent an uncharacteristically long time getting ready that day, and fussed over Anna’s dress and hair.
‘I can do it, mummy.’ She waved me away with one hand. ‘Why are you nervous?’
‘I’m not nervous, darling. I simply don’t know why he wants to see us, after all this time. Why now? And the Ritz, for goodness sake. He always was something of a showman.’
‘Perhaps he just wants us to have a nice time,’ suggested Anna. ‘Please don’t make me wear my hair up like that, it makes me look like a little girl. And why are you wearing all red?’
‘It’s battledress today, darling. One never knows, with Francis. Come along, or we’ll be late.’

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Perils of Static

A circle of chairs stood in the middle of the attic. On the chairs, or rather, hovering uncomfortably in the space where the chairs were, sat a group of small, unhappy-looking ghosts. In their centre drifted a taller ghost, its head tucked neatly under one arm, visibly cross.

‘So, what happened last night? I hear it was a very poor haunting. Anyone want to explain that to me?’

The ghosts shuffled miserably and looked at one another.

‘Come on, one of you. I’m waiting.’

‘It wasn’t our fault,’ mumbled a ghost who was wearing, curiously, a Viking helmet.

‘Wasn’t our fault? Wasn’t our fault? You are the Elite Haunting Corps! Trained in all types of Spectral Appearances and Mysterious Happenings! You are in control AT ALL TIMES!’ The small ghosts cowered beneath the terrifying prospect of their Squadron Leader actually exploding with rage.

The small ghost, on the verge of tears, spluttered ‘But there was a crowd of children there and they were having a sleepover and no one told us that and they laughed at us and caught us in a big net then they rubbed us on their pyjamas until we went static and then they stuck us on the ceiling and we couldn’t move til morning until the static wore off and we had to get out under the door and it all went wrong and…and…’ The small ghost wailed and was comforted by his friends.

‘Oh dear oh dear oh dear. How very embarrassing. Static cling, eh? Well, I have to say, that’s a new one on me. Static cling…’

And then a strange thing happened. The Squadron Leader, who had never been seen to smile before, let alone laugh, placed his head back on his shoulders, gave a little twist to secure it and began making a very strange noise that sounded like ‘Huhuhuh.’

One ghost nudged another: ‘He’s laughing.’

‘He’s laughing!’ shouted all the little ghosts together. And down below, in the house, the people looked up from their dinner and said, ‘What is that noise? Funny, never heard it before. Must be the water pipes.’

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Missed boat

 I lost track of how many times we almost met. Eight, perhaps. Or nine.

My life was going through what we’ll call a difficult patch. My long-term love had left, my career hadn’t shown any signs of movement for some years now, my ailing father lived too far away from me, too near the sister who was determined to look the other way. That was when I first heard about her.

‘You’ll love her. She’s completely your type. She’s really funny – you’d get on like a house on fire.’

‘Well, introduce me then,’ I said, smiling benevolently. I held no faith in matchmaking but I admired Annie’s optimism in the face of indifference so I humoured her.

‘She’s travelling at the moment. But when she gets back, I’ll arrange a dinner or something.’

Dinner never happened. I forgot, Annie forgot.  Then Dave, at a party in somebody’s garden with a band playing and jugs of beer, said above the noise; ‘Hey, have you met Rebecca yet? She’s supposed to be coming. Just your type. She’ll cheer you up. I’ll keep an eye out for her, send her your way.’

But she didn’t turn up that day. Must have been ill or something.

At the pub: ‘You must meet Rebecca. She’s lovely. Stop you moping around like a lost sheep.’

At the football: ‘Rebecca came last week, she’s such a laugh. A girl who likes football, what more could you ask for? Gotta get you two together.’

At Annie’s baby’s christening: Well she was there, apparently. But I wasn’t. Flu.

Finally, a year and a half later, I did meet her. And she was funny, like everyone said. And lovely – beautiful - in fact. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. We even had a brief chat about football.  It was her wedding day. I was there, a last-minute addition to the guest list as a substitute plus one, awkward in an ill-advised suit. And she was there, smiling and waving and clutching her waterfall of flowers.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

An excerpt from The Colourist (a big book of a story!)

Gifted with an extraordinary perception of colour, Rosa Carmichael looks back upon the events of her unusual life as assistant to a colourblind scientist, lover of a French soldier in Marrakech and mother to their daughter when he disappears. Now, at 88 years old, she feels the urgency of making sense of her past for her daughter's sake, unaware that it is about to catch up with her.


Am I dead yet?

I open my eyes slowly. Bright light fills the room. God or sun? I’m not sure.

And some early morning traffic noise, a thin yellow streak of birdsong. I wiggle an exploratory toe, feeling the rub of warm cotton. I doubt the afterlife affords such tangible sensations, so I must be lying in bed, my body barely disturbing the heavy white bed linen purchased from a Sicilian market trader many years ago. I remember his smoky breath as he leant too close and told me that these sheets would last a lifetime. Of course, this could have been a matter of days or months had I met with an unfortunate accident, but half a century later, here I am and here are the sheets. My room is pale: white walls; a white bed. Here and there are little collections of the colours I like together. It is a reassuring room; ordered, complete.

A prolonged struggle to kick my way out from under the covers leaves me rather out of puff. I consider calling my daughter to tell her that I’m still alive, but she’s in such a state of denial about death that she’ll look at me in that way she has, then I'll be sad for making her sad. Instead, I pour a restorative nip of brandy for breakfast from the secret bottle that I keep badly hidden behind the tissues in my bedside table and, in dressing gown and slippers, ease myself into the armchair at the writing desk by the front window. The rays of a pale sun squint through the curtains, warming my skin as the brandy clears a path to my stomach. Its fumes send little pin-like shivers to my nose so I close my eyes and think of the task at hand. Perhaps I’ll begin today.

At eight o’clock my daughter gives her three tentative taps at the bedroom door, wary of what might lie within. ‘Hello!’ I call hoarsely and can sense the relief in her tread as she crosses the room with the bitter herbal concoction she makes me drink. I realise I’ve left the brandy bottle out, but she graciously fails to see it. She’s an old woman herself now and sometimes I selfishly worry that I’ll outlive her. This thought fills me with horror; surely, after all this preparation, I'll be released to meet my maker first?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, of late. There’s nothing like impending death to necessitate the sorting out of one’s beliefs. I prefer to imagine we’re thrown together by cataclysm, a little big bang. Even simply pieced together by chance is better than being deliberated over, perhaps even recycled.

We chat for a while about this and that and I try to avoid the tea, which is the colour of pondwater and has things floating in it. It’s Chinese and made from some ground-up vegetable matter, and I’ve long forgotten what benefits I might gain from it. Then Anna gets up from the foot of the bed where she has perched her spindly frame and leaves me the newspaper, neatly folded, the crossword already completed but still dusted with the smattering of rubbings-out.

‘Mum?’ she hovers in the doorway.

‘Yes darling?’ Although I know what she’s going to ask.

‘Are you going to start today?’

‘Perhaps,’ I smile, childishly wanting to keep my plans to myself, for now. She nods and closes the door behind her. I pour the tea down the sink and settle myself at my dressing table, shuffling my bony behind into the cushion. I reach for the letter, tucked away in the drawer, with its three sparsely-worded lines that have provoked the mind’s imaginings. No, I won’t read it again; instead I bring out a faded photo of a girl in huge trousers and a ghost of a white scarf, taken in a long-ago desert. I nod to her, as if to signal resolve. I haven’t a lot of time to waste.