The Rain Catcher, snippet 3

Well, here’s another nugget from my on-going Young Adult novel in progress, The Rain Catcher. I’m taking it slowly, as you can tell — whenever I rush things, I realize I’m getting away from the characters and the story. So, for now, I’m backtracking and am concentrating on making sure each chapter stays in the same style and voice, instead of rushing off to nowhere fast!

A quick recap: Katy has arrived in Edinburgh from North Carolina to stay with her mother for the summer. Her parents split up when she was three. But her mother didn’t show up at the airport; now, she’s at her Aunt Claire’s apartment (“flat”) and is about to be introduced to her aunt’s creepy boyfriend, Ewan.

Snippet Three

The man sat with his legs propped on the coffee table, eyes glued to the TV. He licked his lips like a lizard. I waited for Aunt Claire to yell at him to get his dirty boots off her table, but she just stared at him.

Finally, she said, “Erm… Katy, this is Ewan. Ewan, this is Katy.”

Ewan slithered his eyes to mine; they were the color of empty Coke bottles.

“American, eh?” He sneered as though being American was something only idiots did.

“Yeah, from Mebane, North Carolina.” Why had I said that? He didn’t know where Mebane was and didn’t care. When on earth was Mom going to get there?

“Do ye watch American football?”

“No.”

“Basketball?”

“Not really.” Dad and I were more into star gazing with the telescope Granddad had gotten him for his 40th birthday. We’d set it up on the back porch and look for meteors.

“Hmmph.” Ewan went back to watching cricket on T.V.

I followed Aunt Claire into a kitchen the size of Dad’s walk-in closet. She switched on an electric kettle (like the one Dad and I take camping if the campsite has electricity) and opened a tin box with a picture of Prince William and Princess Kate on it. I smiled.

Do you like the Royal Family?”

Aunt Claire snorted. “It was a present from Auntie Fiona. She loves them!”

She took out two tea bags and stuck them into mugs on the counter. We stood awkwardly, waiting for the kettle to boil. I studied her kitchen. On the refrigerator (which was shorter than me!) were postcards of beaches. One said, “Florida’s Calling!”

“Have you ever been to Florida?”

“No, but your mum went last Christmas…” her voice faded as she saw my face. “She wanted to fly up to North Carolina to see you, but it was a super cheap flight. Half price London to Miami.”

The kettle started to whistle and switched itself off. My aunt quickly poured hot water into our mugs, not looking at me. My face burned. Mom had been in the States and hadn’t even phoned to let us know? Dad could’ve gotten us cheap tickets to fly down to Miami, or we could have driven. Even if it took all night, it would have been worth it to see Mom again.

“Milk? Sugar?”

“Umm…” I’d never had hot tea, only iced and soaked in sugar, but right then I didn’t feel like drinking. I just wanted to talk to Dad.

“I bet you like it milky and sweet, like me,” my aunt said, stirring three teaspoons of sugar into each mug. “They don’t drink tea in America, do they? Heathens!” She smiled, trying to cheer me up.

“Can I use your phone. I need to call Dad to let him know I’m here. I have a phone card,” I added, figuring Aunt Claire probably didn’t have a long-distance phone plan.

“Oh, right. Follow me.” She darted through the living room, as though hoping Ewan wouldn’t notice us, and led me to a bedroom with a full-sized bed and orange knitted curtains.

“Don’t ask,” Aunt Claire said, waving at the curtains. “Your mum’s idea.”

She reached under the bed and pulled out a cordless phone. I didn’t have the energy to ask why she kept the telephone hidden under the bed.

“When you’re finished, come and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. You must be famished.”

“Um…yeah.” What on earth did “famished” mean?

I dialed the number on my phone card. After one ring, Dad picked up.

“Hey!” Dad was at work; the coffee maker gurgled comfortingly in the background, reminding me of mornings at home, and his co-workers laughed at something funny. “I was starting to get worried. Everything okay? You’re at your mom’s place?”

“I’m at Aunt Claire’s apartment.” I swallowed and tried to keep the tears out of my voice. “Mom’s not here. She’s teaching a yoga class.” Keep it together, Katy.

“Oh.” Dad didn’t speak for a couple of seconds. “I’m sorry, Katie. Your mom has a habit of getting her times mixed up. She’s got a brain like a bag of tennis balls, you know?”

That was his favorite expression, “a brain like a bag of tennis balls”; I had no idea where he got it from.

“Mom can’t wait to see you.”

“Sure.” My voice trembled and I sucked in a breath, trying to stop my hands from shaking. “Did you know Mom was in Miami last Christmas?”

“Miami? What was she doing there?”

“Vacation, I guess.” I breathed slowly and wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

“Huh,” he said again. “Well, don’t worry about it, Kiddo. Just have a good time and get me some of that great Scottish shortbread!”

Really? Mom had been in the U.S. and hadn’t even called us? And Dad was okay with it? Maybe Mom had been embarrassed because she couldn’t afford to visit us. Maybe she’d worried that Dad would offer her money, and she was too proud to take it.

“And call me if you need anything.”

“Okay.”

“Anything at all.”

“I WILL!” Jeez!

When I got back to the living room, Aunt Claire was sitting on the couch with a photo album open on her lap. She beckoned me to sit beside her. Ewan sat at the other end of the couch drinking a beer.

“Do you remember Auntie Fiona’s flat, where you and your mum and dad used to live?”

I shook my head, hoping she didn’t notice my puffy eyes. I’d been three when my parents split up, and Dad had taken me to live with him in North Carolina. He said he wanted me to grow up with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Mom and Aunt Claire’s parents were dead, and they didn’t keep in touch with any other family members, except Auntie Fiona, who’d taken care of them when they were kids.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake! Look at my hair!” Aunt Claire pointed to a photo of herself with blue hair. “Liz dyed it for me. Can you tell?”

I smiled and pointed to another photo, one of Mom with half straight and half frizzy hair. “What happened in that one?”

“I tried to perm your mum’s hair but ran out of the chemicals halfway!”

Just then the living room door opened, and in walked a big woman in a brown coat. I just about jumped out of my skin, thinking she was going to rob the place!

“Mavis! Since when do you have a key?” Aunt Claire shot up off the couch.

Mavis ignored her and stomped past us. “Ewan, I brought ye some lamb for dinner,” she yelled from the kitchen.

Ewan dragged himself off the couch. “Aye, Mum.”

So, Mavis was his mother!

Aunt Claire stormed over to the kitchen. I followed behind, peeking over her shoulder. Mavis stood by the refrigerator, clutching a packet of frozen peas to her chest.

“Put down those peas!” Aunt Claire shrieked. “Those are my bloody peas. I bought them at Morrisons!”

“Aye, it’s all you bought!” Mavis snarled. “You’ve been starving my only child!”

Aunt Claire picked up a phone book waved it in the air. “If you don’t leave right now, I’ll drag you out by your hair!” I grinned. The fiery Aunt Claire was back!

The doorbell rang, and my stomach did a flip. Aunt Claire didn’t take her eyes off Mavis. The doorbell rang again. Nobody moved. Come on! I squeezed my hands together. What if it was Mom?

Someone called out behind us, “Hellooo! Anybody ho-oome?”

“Mom!” I dashed into the living room.

“Katy!” Mom wrapped me up in a hug. She smelled like dried flowers and wore her hair in a ponytail tied with purple ribbon. She looked like a birthday present. Her hair tickled my nose as she rocked me. I held on tight, afraid to let go in case she disappeared.

Mavis barged past us. “Cow!” she hissed before slamming the living room door. Ewan dashed after her. “Mum! Come back!”

“Och, what a woman!” Mom bustled over to the couch and sank onto the cushions.

“She’s not a woman; she’s a monster!” Aunt Claire came into the living room carrying a tray of cookies and a pot of hot tea. As we sat, “blethering,” I watched the way Mom moved her lips around words and tucked the hair behind her ears. She had my long forehead and thin lips. I touched her denim jacket to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

“I don’t know how you put up with that man,” Mom said, finally.

“You should change the locks, now that he’s gone, Aunt Claire. Is there a hardware store around here?”

They both looked at me for a second and then burst out laughing.

“You’re not as meek and shy as you make out!” Mom said. My cheeks burned.

“Katy, that’s the best idea I’ve heard all year,” Aunt Claire said, and I felt a lot better.

“The world from two feet off the floor…”

Okay, so the Proclaimers’ song “Lulu Selling Tea” actually says, “The world from FOUR feet off the floor.” But my two year old is only about 2 feet tall, so I’m adapting the line! For a while now, I’ve wanted to post the photos he takes with my phone — they are so wacky, and yet there is often something about them that catches you off guard. It’s as if he sees light and color in a way that I don’t — until I look at his photos.

Then again, every mother thinks her children are geniuses, right? So, just for fun, here are a few of his photos…

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The Rain Catcher, Snippet Two!

Kind words from my writer friends have inspired me to keep on working on my Young Adult/middle grade novel, The Rain Catcher! I feel really lucky to have such great support! Here is the next snippet…. If you didn’t read the first section, please check it out here.

Snippet Two

We stepped outside the airport, and the wind hit me like a blast of refrigerator air. Aunt Claire dove into her purse and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, which surprised me, since no one in our family back home smokes. Well, Granddad sometimes chews tobacco, but that’s just for show, Dad says. Whenever his “Yankee” neighbors jog past the front porch in their yoga pants, Granddad throws a wad of tobacco into his mouth, gnaws on it for a few seconds, and spits out the juice into an old brass spittoon he got at a yard sale. After the neighbors have passed, he rushes in and brushes his teeth, Dad says.

“Where’s my mom?” When I didn’t see her at Arrivals, I’d thought she must be waiting outside, perhaps circling the airport instead of paying for a parking space, like my Aunt Marsha does up in New York City.

“Em… She has to teach a yoga class.” Aunt Claire tugged my sleeve, leading me toward a yellow sedan with dents in the sides, as though someone had rammed a shopping cart into it many times. She wiggled the key in the lock and banged on the trunk until it creaked open. Then she threw my suitcase in; I was glad the only breakable thing in there was my sunglasses, which I probably wouldn’t need, judging from the blanket of gray clouds above our heads.

“She couldn’t take off a few hours?”

“Well… she’s already missed three!”

“Why did she miss them?”

“Hmmph! She’s a bit of a free spirit, your mum.”

“What does that mean?”

But my aunt didn’t answer, just put both hands on the roof, planted her feet, and began rocking the car back and forth. I stood watching her.

“What on earth are you doing?”

“It helps to get the car started; on the way over here, it conked out. Had to coast into the parking space.”

“But why does rocking it work?”

“No idea. I saw Ewan doing it before, and it seemed to do the trick.”

She got back in, and sure enough, the car started.

“Who’s Ewan?”

Aunt Claire ignored my question.

We drove past fields of brilliant yellow flowers and then cottages with brown roofs and little gravel front yards and tiny cars parked on the street; they looked like Lego houses. Behind them, low green hills lay like piles of cabbage in the distance. One cliff stuck out like a book lying on its side.

“That’s Arthur’s Seat,” Aunt Claire said, seeing me staring.

“Who’s Arthur?”

“No idea.”

Storefronts began popping up as we got closer to the city. A man in a black turban stood in front of a fruit stand, perhaps waiting for someone to buy a bag of oranges or apples. (I think there are maybe three Indian people in the whole of Graham.) Girls in navy school uniforms trotted down the sidewalk. Summer vacation hadn’t started here yet, obviously. My school had finished at the beginning of June, and here it was nearly July. Thank God I didn’t live here!

We drove for what was probably only a couple of miles but got stuck behind the red “double decker” buses, and so we didn’t get to Aunt Claire’s place for another 40 minutes. By that time, I had dozed off and didn’t wake up until Aunt Claire jerked up the handbrake, nearly sending me into the windshield.

“Here we are!” She jumped out of the car and began assaulting the trunk again until it finally opened. Then she pulled out my suitcase and began marching up the street.

“Wait!” I called, struggling to unfasten the seatbelt which suddenly did not want to let me go. I pulled on the strap until I had enough to slide under it, then pushed open the door and dashed after my aunt. We passed a Scot Bets and a bar called The Malevolent Crow (weird name for a bar, surely?) and another fruit stand. The green apples looked kind of bruised, and the oranges looked more green than orange.

“Wait here.” Aunt Claire disappeared into the shop, leaving me standing beside my suitcase, the wind whipping my hair above my head. I stared at my shoes, hoping nobody would notice the strange teenager standing by herself. I wondered if people could tell I was American; I just had on jeans and a green sweatshirt (my usual outfit), but suddenly my sneakers seemed unusually bright in the grimy street.

“Back again!” My aunt stuffed two unopened packs of cigarettes into her purse, and we were off again. Three more blocks (why had we parked so far away?), and we reached a grungy-looking black door. Brown scuff marks spotted the lower half, making me wonder if someone wearing big work boots had tried to kick it open more than once.

We stepped into a stairway as damp and dark as a dungeon, the only light trickling from a skylight high above.

“I’m on the top floor,” Aunt Claire said, lugging my suitcase behind her. Why wasn’t I surprised?

Once inside Aunt Claire’s “flat,” I followed her down a shadowy hallway, the walls lined with hooks of scarves and coats and umbrellas. A holey rug covered the floorboards, which creaked horribly as we walked over them. I felt a breeze from somewhere and shivered. The T.V. or radio chattered from down the hall, and I wondered who was there, waiting for us.

Suddenly, I had a thought. Maybe it was Mom! Maybe she wanted to surprise me; it had been so long, the only contact we’d had was through letters and a yearly phone call (maybe not even that often). I held my breath, a smile creeping across my face, not wanting to give the game away. I’d act surprised, so as not to spoil their game. My heart sped up, like the wheels on the old-fashioned steam trains Granddad had taken me to see at the Transportation Museum in Spencer. It had been Easter — I was six — and we’d ridden a train with the Easter Bunny. Had I remembered to bring the photograph album to show Mom?

Aunt Claire pushed open the door at the end of the hall, and I poked my head in, unable to wait any longer. My eyes stung with anticipation and then, dread, as on the couch sat not my mother but the creepiest man I’d ever seen.

Is it better to be right, or true?

This morning on the news, a cartoon that many people will find disturbing flashed onto my television screen at least two times. Wednesday’s front page of the Paris newspaper Charlie Hebdo, attacked by terrorists last week, will show the very kind of cartoon that purportedly spurred the attacks.

Many will say the newspaper is irresponsible, adding fuel to the fire and could lead to more attacks. Others will say (as London’s mayor Boris Johnson did) that the only way to demonstrate that open societies will not bow down to terrorism is to print the cartoon. This debate got me thinking about the power of an image.

The controversial cartoon undoubtedly has power. The thought of adding a link to it on this blog fills me with dread, I’m ashamed to admit. But where did that power come from? And can that power be transferred into something that could heal instead of create more hate?

From what I can gather (these are my own views, obviously), the attacks highlight two conflicting beliefs:

  • Religion is the “truth” and must be held sacred above all else. To deny this is to deny existence.
  • Religions are not “truth” but are the creation of different cultures and societies; therefore, they are not sacred but are open to criticism and debate, just like everything else.

The aforementioned cartoon has become the mouthpiece for the second message — there is no one “true” religion. Printing it on the front page of a newspaper and then republishing that image over hundreds of news outlets across the world is basically blasting out that message loud and clear. Should Charlie Hebdo do this? As a newspaper, especially a political and satirical one, it’s obligated to shout out its editorial viewpoint. It has every right to do this.

On a moral level? Personally, I would have preferred to see photographs of the people who lost their lives in the attacks last week. I think making the victims “human,” rather than political mouthpieces would do more to stem violence than continuing the argument about fundamental beliefs. We’re not going to change terrorists’ minds my shouting back, “You’re wrong! And we’re right!” But connecting their actions to real people who have sons and daughters and mothers and fathers, showing how all people are fundamentally the same, THAT might make a few extremists pause for thought.

The power of one cartoon comes from all we attribute to it — freedom of speech, blasphemy, East versus West, right versus wrong, religious society versus sectarian society … Right now, that cartoon is being used to send a message, a message I personally agree with, but not the most important one at the moment. How can the media (and governments!) convey a broader, more crucial ideology — that all lives are valuable? I think that’s what the media should be working on.

George Bush and Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama

George Bush and Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Taken on 23 May 2001. Source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/05/images/20010523-3.html

Create space for something else…

Editor’s note: The police officers who were shot trying to protect the public should not be forgotten. I didn’t mean to exclude them by focusing on the journalists who were also murdered.

The attack on the Paris newspaper office Charlie Hebdo this week left me with conflicted feelings. The first, of course, was outrage at the murder of editors and journalists, who’s primary job is to communicate. As a former reporter and current writer, I felt the horrific sting of bullying — “Don’t write what we don’t want you to, or else you’ll die!” Can there be any more extreme form of bullying than threatening someone’s life if he/she doesn’t act the way you want them to?

And murdering journalists, for crying out loud! Yes, they often write what you don’t want to hear, but they don’t use bombs or Kalashnikovs to get their points across. And, yes, words are powerful. Words can hurt deeply, in ways that weapons can’t. But we have a choice in how we respond to those words. We can ignore them, refute them, or even agree with them. Bombs and guns leave no room for argument. That’s why they are the weapon of choice for terrorists, who have no true words to back themselves up.

My second thought was that if people respond to these attacks with more hatred, the attackers will have succeeded. I’ve noticed that when you are up against someone filled with hate and disgust, sometimes the only way to “deflate” them is to do the complete opposite of what they’d expect.

I’m not saying we don’t condemn these horrible attacks or not defend ourselves. I’m saying rather than let terrorists infect us with their abominable ideas, we respond with the antidote. What’s the antidote to hate? Loving each other. What’s the antidote to malicious violence? Defending ourselves wisely and with purpose, rather than responding in fear and vengeance. Opposite of disgust? Pride — at how far we’ve come in spreading rights like freedom of speech and equal rights for all people, regardless of their beliefs and backgrounds.

Maybe we can all do something to counter-attack terrorism. If you’re in a country where you are able to speak freely, spread the word about what you’re grateful for in an open society. If you’re not able to speak freely, perhaps you can share what brings people you know closer together — love? Telling stories? Good food? Nature? Beautiful art?

Instead of newspapers and news websites republishing the controversial cartoons — an understandable reaction to being threatened – I believe they should fill their pages with the opposite of terror. The ideals that the terrorists are fighting against — community, love, and freedom from oppression.

It’s easy to strike back against something hard and sharp. It’s a lot harder to fight something that’s moving and fluid and filled with an energy that can’t be harnessed.

Would you, or wouldn’t you?

Happy New Year! I hope 2015 is off to a good start for you, with lots of creativity flowing in all your ventures!

A writer friend and I were talking this morning about how easy it is to create a pseudonym if you are publishing via Amazon. Anyone who has ever signed up for Amazon to review a product or book can pick a Pen Name, or the name they want the public to see, just by going to his/her public profile page. (Here’s mine as an example.) To add a pen name or alter your public name, just click on  “Edit Activity Settings,” and a box will pop up. Your real name will still be used for anonymous settings like bank accounts and payment information.

I haven’t tried it, personally, with my books because I want my name to be associated with them! But my friend has contemplated using a pen name with a romance novel she’s working on. Having the option of a pseudonym does seem to open up possibilities if you’ve ever felt awkward about working on something “risqué” like a romance or erotic novel. Perhaps you have young children and don’t want them reading it one day because you’d feel embarrassed. Or maybe you’re a public figure in the church or in politics, and it would cause a scandal! Or maybe you’re writing a self-help book about how to deal with the in-laws but don’t want your in-laws associating it with you. Who knows?

There are plenty of self assured writers who use their real names and feel perfectly comfortable writing whatever comes naturally to them. But for those writers who feel the need to be anonymous, a pen name is a great option. Look at George Eliot, who ditched her female name to be taken more seriously as an author. And there are writers who, alternatively, go by just their initials to avoid being assigned a gender (or even ethnicity!). What do you think? Would you ever use a pseudonym?

Getting back to writing…

Sorry I have been gone for so long! Have taken a break from fiction writing for the past few months because I found myself obsessively revising my novel and older short stories. I became stuck in a kind of “judgment whirlpool” in which nothing I had written seemed good enough. I had about 15 versions of just about everything — the literary form of hoarding. Realized that I needed to STOP!

So, I did some painting — am still doing some drawing and painting for fun — and recently started a kind of freewriting-poetry-thing. Basically, I just write down whatever I’m thinking in poetic form, rather than worrying about whole sentences, grammar, etc… I don’t edit. And I don’t censor myself. If I feel like deleting these “poems” at any point, I give myself permission to do that, rather than numbering them and saving 50 different versions on my hard drive.

So far, it’s been fun to see what images pop up from my subconscious, sort of like writing down your dreams! Later, I analyze my poem to see if anything resonates. If not, that’s okay, no pressure. That’s the whole point of this break — to take the pressure off myself to write for a specific genre (mystery? YA? literary?) and to a specific audience (12 year olds? adults? women?). I was so busy focusing on getting published, whether independently or “traditionally,” and trying to “brand” myself and my writing that I lost track of what I wanted to say in the first place!

Have you ever felt like throwing in the towel and quitting writing? It’s a scary prospect, but at the same time kind of freeing. I realized that I don’t have to identify myself solely as a “writer.” I can just be someone who likes to write!