Short story: Notations

This is a semi-autobiographical piece, shared as part of my daily blogging project.


The first time I saw a ghost I was six years old. Whether it was sparked off by my great uncle dying after a year of oxygen tanks (when I had a verruca), or my mum always playing Elvis on a Sunday (and all I knew about Elvis is that he was newly dead), I couldn’t say.

My ghost came at night, around 9 o’clock, when I was supposed to be in bed but instead spent time sitting on the bedroom windowsill looking out at the garages. My ghost rode a motorbike with a windshield, and goggles, and didn’t speak or anything, just used to ride around the walls of the bedroom, which were covered with rabbit wallpaper and pin ups of the Man From Atlantis and the Six Million Dollar Man.

I first found out I could speak to my ghost (in mute) during a night of an electric storm when my parents stayed up beyond News at Ten and the garage outside our back gate burned down. He seemed friendly and I thought he must be a nice ghost to have around in a crisis. He didn’t take his goggles off but he was a good looking biker, rather like the ones we saw around going past the Manor House to church on Sunday evenings.

There’s a story in this, somewhere, the bikers and the church and my ghost, but first I want to tell you about the church. It’s knocked down now, but when it was standing and we used to go there, it was a big old place, a small Methodist chapel with a choir gallery thought to be unsafe, but which we used to climb up to using the blue jumping mats from the gym class. Up there was lots of clutter, Nativity stuff, costumes, dried flowers, broken chairs, and you could look down to the pulpit where Mr Dew used to captivate us in Sunday School.

Behind was the old church schoolrooms, with their thick wood benches and tilted desks with yawning inkwells stained with years of black writing. The windows looked out onto the quarry and the Roman road which is now recognised and protected – then it was overgrown and a dumping ground for old burnt-out cars, washing-up bottles from the landfill site for the new comprehensive, and free newspapers the boys didn’t want to deliver. Sunday School was mainly for boys, so we did war heroes and tales of combat.

Into this quiet existence came my ghost. He first appeared outside the house the second time I had to catch the Blackpool coach with my parents, outside the Welcome Pub. Near here was the Clough, where a girl had been strangled once and people were warned against. The Moors Murders were still in people’s minds as fairly fresh and little children had to be safe from strangers. My ghost wasn’t a stranger. I found he had died in a war in his twenties and was doomed to ride his bike from coast to coast for the rest of the natural life of the world. That seemed unthinkable to a six year old who couldn’t imagine being ten, never mind life eternal.

I thought my ghost would come on the coach, but he just rode alongside, now and then swerving gracefully over the middle lines of the motorway lane, dipping like a star into the drying puddles of rain. When we got to the coach station at Central, he disappeared, but I saw him again after we’d seen Russ Abbot’s show on the North Pier, just watching from the steps leading to the flooded beach, his arms folded.

The connection with the other world came when we got our first cat, when I was nine. Twinkle was an exceptionally stupid cat – when you put him in the yard he’d stay in the same spot, rain or shine; he fell out of our attic, and off the windowsill, and he liked salmon sandwiches and bacon and egg at weekends. I had a bond with Twinkle and with my ghost, because I think he saw him too, and they could talk to each other. Then Twinkle spread the word to other cats that a higher being was around, and they came to watch and listen. I always thought that was why our kitchen was a popular meeting place for strange cats.

An electric storm lost me my cat and my ghost. Neither ever came back.

Approaching puberty I started to be aware of events before they happened. My other great uncle’s death, the night before the phone rang to tell us. My best friend’s suicide, ten years before it happened. A good friend from next door dying from his only illness two months after I dreamed it. And getting the gift to write from within and without, from special spiritual friends about.

My great-aunt’s ability to contact everyone from my grandad and his faithful dog, Blackie, to a lost great-grandfather dead by drowning in the Mill Lodge at sixty, to a mad aunt who gave birth under the bed like a cat hides away to bring her kittens forth, to the cousin blown up in the Second World War due to government incompetence hiding a minefield (and his wife who had a broken heart). Telling me I had a gift for seeing past and future, and the burden of losing the gift of being surprised.

Is this a story? I wanted to tell you about the bikers and the church but all there is to say is that they rode through and got lost in the hills. Three of them froze and the rest fell. I watched all this from the Hawthorn window, where our class went sketching the countryside once, chalk paintings and charcoal sketches. I couldn’t tell anyone because it never happened in our time – I was seeing shadows of the past, and my ghost riding full pelt to join his comrades once again.

Three months later I changed from child to woman, that first painful stage. So there is a metaphor there, the riders and the visions, the growth and the storm. In Blackpool again I watched the illuminations snap and crash through thunder and lightning and the biggest storm I ever saw. And I never saw anyone riding round my bedroom walls again.

(c) Louise Penn

NaBloPoMo November 2013


Publishing a book – a cautionary tale

I have one book out there which was published by a commercial publisher, back in 2000. I won’t name the book or the publisher although those of you who are able to make the connections, you may do so.

I’d like to share my story of how this book, a collection of poetry, was first started, developed, and ended up in bookshops and on the likes of Amazon.

I was interviewed for and accepted on a writers’ project run by Yorkshire Arts Circus (RIP), which was called ‘The Opening Line’. As part of this project we attended regular workshops and were mentored, in groups, by a professional writer who would guide us towards putting together a full-length manuscript ready for publication. And so it was with my book, which I worked hard on, and developed with care over a two year period, through many workshops, shared conversations, one to ones with my mentor. There was a linear storyline to which the poems would cling as you progressed through the book. The finished manuscript would have been a volume of over 100 pages, and over many drafts I came to care about my book and to feel it was very much ‘the finished article’, as did my mentor.

Things started to decline when we were allocated publishers. My publisher was Yorkshire-based and yet was not interested in the aims of the YAC project, or in the views of my mentor and the manuscript we had worked on together. The editor – I pause here rather than calling him ‘my’ editor – jettisoned half of my book and butchered some of the other poems in the volume (now a third of the size) to such a degree that now, with a distance of thirteen years, I would not accept them as my creations or allow them to be reproduced in any other volume. I was told in no uncertain terms that unless I accepted all his changes there would be no book.

So my mutiliated opus made its way into the world, with a fairly small print run. It has turned up in places as far flung as Hawaii, Greece, and Sydney. It was remaindered in Borders Books and Video when they were still active in the UK (I bought one of the remainder copies). It has reached the dizzy heights of ten times its price on ABE Books. We launched it with a reading and book signing at the end of 2000 – the only time I have been bothered by any level of attention for my creative writing; and eighteen months later I was invited to the Poetry Cafe to promote it and my second book-in-planning, by doing a reading. After this, and positive reviews in Poetry London, Orbis, and Stride Magazine, it all went quiet. I think one reviewer suggested I was a name to watch in the future and that readers should ‘write my name on a bus ticket’ in case they come across it in future years. Come to think of it, he’s the one who made the invitation to the Poetry Cafe, and then offered to mentor me through the next book. Strangely, he didn’t deliver on that after we met, perhaps because I was not a willowy fragile blonde who could be manipulated!

My second book was taken up by a publisher who later went bankrupt – I eventually published it myself via Amazon Kindle, where it hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. But – this second book is all my work, and all my editing. I’m not saying you should never take suggestions or criticism, but the heavy-handed and mean-spirited attitude of my first book’s publisher has rankled so much in the intervening decade that – one or two pieces apart – I am actually ashamed of the way the book turned out, of the dismissive attitude of the editor, and the lack of discussion of the meaning of the book in the first place.

One major theme which was completely removed on the grounds that it was ‘rubbish’ was the theme of angels watching over us. This had a special resonance because the book of poems was written for a friend who had died ten years before, someone who I had promised a book to many years prior to writing it. I even dedicated it to her – to ‘Corky’ – but even that dedication was not allowed by my publisher, perhaps because he thought I was addressing my words to a cat or a dog?

So my words of advice at the end of this. By all means, as a writer, murder your own darlings. But DO NOT allow anyone else to do so. If it means you miss out on an opportunity, so be it. I never made money from my book, and I would rather have kept my artistic integrity.

Oh, and my mentor disappeared as soon as all this happened. It seemed that his interest only lasted as long as YAC’s pay cheques. I have never bought a volume of his poems since.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Short story: Making My Moves

A story I wrote a very long time ago (before Microsoft Word was thought of!). I forget what inspired it, but am sharing it here as part of my daily blogging project.


Mama, tell me that story again, the one where you first started to walk.

Did you put one foot in front of the other, or did you stand on one spot, willing yourself to move forward?

I always loved your hair, the way you pulled it back from your face, inky black, with a scent of chives and garlic. The lipstick which bled in the dimpled smile you kept for best.

Does anyone remember how they learned to walk?

“Shirley, stop daydreaming!”

A voice snaps me back again and away from the contemplation of whether you walked like the rest of us, or waited to glide to your destination.

Daydreaming is my major job, when my copywriting for the ad agency is over. I spend lots of time meetings doodling on a notepad, playing scenes in my head, surprising myself with what I could be.

“OK, I’m there in a sec!”

My dad, a bulldog of a man, likes the women in his life to wear furs and put on lipstick (that bleeds in the dimpled smiles they keep for best). Wears glasses but would rather squint out at the world in confused vanity.

Something I wanted to hear about, that story about Mama starting to walk.

I daydream about gliding and dancing.

There are flowers at every other pace, in front of my feet, there is jasmine in the air as I spin with my dress covered in sequins.

I walk into my dad’s room, fix the coffee, break open the shades. Light floods.

“What’re you doin’, Shirley?”

One, two.

“Opening up the world, dad.”

Did Mama skate? I remember the ice rink where the white hours blinded us as we kept things moving, the music pulsating in its quick beat, we had such fun.

When my brother and I sped round the ice, was Mama watching?


She brought me into these crazy times, my Mama.

Left me here, kept me counting days until something happened. There were some days when I really didn’t want to be there. I stepped outside of my life and into daydreams.

My dad is a realist.

“Shirley, close the god damn window shades.”

I leave him in the dark, sipping the coffee. Black, three sugars, cinnamon stick.

Where are the nutcrackers we used to swap at childhood parties?

My brother is fun, a mad backgammon player who takes bikes to pieces and then abandons them for something else.

The three years before he came along were incomplete.

Take another daydream, in confused vanity thinking something could be made of me. I started to fill book after book with words, just words, none making sense, but at last it turned around when I got the ad agency job.

I could sell …

 Eggs (because eggs is eggs)
 Cars (with or without reference to sex, chocolate or disco whores)
 Cereal bars for the ultra healthy (scanties and panties)
 Toy boats for children (and little plastic ducks)
 Shower gel (with or without water and oil)

I could not sell …

 Charity cases or requests for donations (vomit-inducing)
 Badly knitted garments (the ‘bobbled’ look)
 Celebrity perfume ranges (unspeakable)
 Middle-class morality (undefined)
 Paint (the possibilities …)

Our garden, Mama. Look how it thrives in cornflower blue, crushed berry red, oregano green.

Tell me the story of how you started to walk.


One foot first, Shirley, one foot first. You feel the ground under you, close to you. The weight shifts from one leg to another. Something makes you keep moving, at a steady speed, keeping a steady stride.

Then, you realise that you are beginning to run, you are racing with the moon, you are letting the stars trace each movement.

I’m talking to you, and I’m telling you why it was different for me.

I had the most superb legs in those days, fabulous pins.

My shoe heels a cool three inches and knitting needle thin.

My daughter, I was a walker, a strider, a dancer.

I was something else, a span of life, an incredible piece of lightning.

You won’t remember but I was a wonder on two feet, a web of sadness, silence, suspense.

Shirley, there were notices about my movement that would make you wild with jealousy. You and your dreams of fame, and your office job giving the words that make people buy.

I was more than you could ever imagine.


In the office, I look at the account manager’s notes. She wants me to work with our art director on a poster campaign.

Flowers. That’s the first thing I think about. When women go to shop, they want fruit and flowers to be visible, to put colour in, so even if they’re buying a tin of soup or a bunch of bananas, they’ve had that brightness. So we need bright words, words of joy, hope, colour.

There is nothing in this office that I would take off home.

Home is my dad in his dark room with the shades pulled tight. Home is my brother visiting with oil on his hands. Home is pictures of Mama, the garden flower. Home is the smell of my old cat, as she purrs into a seventh hour of daytime sleep.


The woman in my daydreams doing wonderful things is Mama, young, alive, vital again. Someone dead who once existed. Someone doing everything I could never do.

Daydreams come to me on the bus, when the muted clicks of personal stereos mingle with weekend gossip. Daydreams come to me in making love when I want to be someone else. Daydreams come to me in the morning tea and toast. Daydreams irk me and torment me.

I am an icicle.

She has told me the story of how she started to walk.

I thrive in my inferiority.

I never need to open or close the shades in my dad’s room again.

My last jingle has faded from the radio.

Is this something that is news to you?

Can you guess what I have to tell you, yet?


Seven days, Shirley, seven days to count.

I dress in white satin and brush my hair back, the way she did, inky black, with a tortoiseshell comb in electric blue. My clothes fit well and flatter me. I wear lipstick, bleeding into the smile I keep for rainy days.

It starts to rain.

I know all the traffic, every bend and bump in the road.

I’ve decided how to walk.

This will be the best day of all the best days of my life.

(c) Louise Penn

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Poem – The Blues for Wally Reid

This isn’t the final version of this poem, which appears in my second book, Glitteral (buy it on Amazon as a Kindle edition), but it’s the first version I was really happy with. Wallace Reid (1891-1923) was a massive star in the Hollywood silent cinema, an Everyman, an attractive and talented actor who sadly became the first film casualty of drug addiction.

The Blues for Wally Reid – draft 1

Kick back the twenties – scandalous rumours dance,
Because he died in’23 before the world started living,
Before the screen’s silver gloom illuminated life,
And actors began to talk in simulated hallways.

Seeing Wally in a movie is like watching history,
Or a butterfly’s first flutter, a raging sunset
Of oranges, purples, golds, and pinks.
Those huge pale eyes in light grey air.

The boy-next-door, before Valentino made sheiks
A maiden’s choice, when Keystone Kops were
Still playing their out-of-sync games
In quick motion, mindless silent mayhem.

In ‘16 there was the photoplay of Joan of Arc,
An opera star portrayed her in luminous clarity
While Wally watched from the wings
Daydreaming his last few soldier’s moments.

He’s courting Gloria in ‘21, while she plays
The child-vamp, a cutie with flashing eyes and pout,
And Bebe buzzes like the fireflies on Beverly Hills.
No one is sure when the morphine got him,

Fixing its evil insinuations into his mind,
But shut away I’m sure he heard music,
Recitals of laughter and despair, clarinets
Draining the last notes of love, heartless,

And that’s why I write the blues
For the tragic boy the world forgot,
The celluloid giant of all those summers
Those who followed never knew.

(c) Louise Penn

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Short story – Bus Stop

I wrote this quite a few years ago now, and wanted to share it as part of this daily blogging exercise.  It’s dedicated to Elizabeth and Glyn, who inspired it.



             I don’t know if I can trust him, even after forty years.  It seems like one memory after another tumble and crumble and leave every little thing reminding me:

We’re listening to “Hey, Baby” by Bruce Channel.  His favourite.  It was a big hit that year, ’62.  The first man in space from the great country over the pond, John Glen.  The first Telstar broadcast.  The Cuban missile crisis.  Lawrence of Arabia.

And the first time I met him.  His name was Barry then, a tall and baby-faced, blue-eyed blonde with clumsy hands and a sweet smile.  A trainee engineer from Salford with a baby sister and a brother in textiles.  He wanted to have hit records and be a pop star.

No matter these were ten-a-penny in 1962.  Every group of streets had its Adam Faith or its Billy Fury or its Dickie Pride.  Cute kids with reasonable voices and snappy suits, production-line, indistinguishable.

We went ice-skating, a group of us from work.  That’s how it started.  Us typists and clerks and filing staff, fifteen, sixteen years old, in our first jobs fresh from school.  A bus to Manchester, a 7-Up, a look in the shop windows at all the things we couldn’t afford to buy.

Here’s Victoria Station.  Only now its 1996, after the bomb fell slap bang on City Centre.  I’m wearing a necklace I’ve had since I was a child, mock gold and stones.  The music fumes out from HMV, “I can’t get no satisfaction“, the old stuff trendy again and its even older performers looking, if not the part, close to some decayed dream.

My sister, Margaret:

“Are you really going out looking like that?”

My new coat, pedal-pushers, long white socks, shiny shoes.  A handbag which clasps shut with a satisfying click.  I have sellotape on my hair ends while I’m in the house to get that ‘straight hair round the face’ look.  I’ve got kinky red hair, no chance of a beehive like Dusty.  My friend Bren has hair just like that, blonde, piled up, scratches her head with a knitting needle.  Lacquer bugs on her collar.

Margaret was married, with a child, but still went to the Savoy Ballroom of a Saturday to jive and drink iced tea.  Girls can’t drink beer in respectable dance halls.  Can’t even get a pass out like the boys.  Anyway, she’d met Paddy in the Savoy, an Irish bus driver who told tall tales and had a romantic heart.  She didn’t marry him.  Instead she got Tim, thin and wiry and not at all like Elvis, except to me.

Barry liked Elvis.  Cynthia told me this after she’d asked him at the jukebox.

“D’ya like Elvis then?”

I liked Elvis too.  “Don’t be cruel,” and “Heartbreak hotel“.  A true artist.  When I’d been at school we had to get foreign news items for a project from the papers.  I brought ‘Elvis joins the army.’  I couldn’t see why they were laughing.

Speed-skating, that’s all the boys were good for, at the ice-rink.  Cynthia and Jenny and I used to watch, sometimes wandering close enough to feel the air as they sped by.


I’d wandered too far and Barry and I were in a heap on the floor.  My leg was bleeding from where he’d crashed into me, ripping my shin with his skate.  I swayed a bit and felt faint but thought of the attention he’d give me now.  Clumsy kid, carried me off the ice, nearly fell again twice, bought me a hamburger and a coffee, too many sugars, tomato sauce all over the place.

Margaret’s daughter soaks everything in ketchup.  Its nauseating, and makes me remember.  That and the small white patch on my leg where the hole used to be.  Katie sees me watching her, glowers in that childish way.

Maybe we were dating after that?  “My guy” by Mary Wells.  Seventeen and from Salford.  He’d got a band by now, name lifted from West Side Story. Called me Maria, for Mary.  Or Bloodnut, for my red hair.  I don’t remember calling him anything.  He was cute, though, funny, complicated, talented.  The band was a fun one, Elvis pastiche, strumming guitar, with the stance and everything.

Dad quizzed me down at the allotment, in his cap, thick pants, two jackets, cigarette,  He always carried his false teeth in his pocket along with the usual string, nails and matches.  Talked about honourable intentions.  Not like all those love songs.  “In dreams.”  “I think of you.”  “All I have to do is dream.”

We went to see ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ at the Royale and every girl saw Atticus Finch as the perfect dad, the perfect husband.  Home and hearth, none of the other stuff crossed our minds. I doubt we even knew about babies, not really.  The moon bloomed velvet as we walked back home.  Cynthia’s shoes were too tight, completely impractical.  Saw Tim and his best mate Frank coming out of the Swan.   Frank always reminded me of Bilko, grin and glasses.

I heard one of Barry’s songs on the radio the other day.  The one he wrote after we split, the first of a batch of lost love songs which didn’t sell too well, in that plaintive voice he still has, out on the nostalgia circuit.  I decide between turning up the radio or clicking off.  The silence is sweet.

Life at the office didn’t vary much.  I filed and tidied for a company who produced bathroom suites.  Quite high-class stuff, bidets and all.  We didn’t have a bathroom at home, only a tin bath and an outside loo in the shared courtyard.  I learnt to type at the college across the town.  Proud of myself, shorthand and all.

It was raining and the clouds bowed grey and full with their cargo of tears.  And it was July, and Barry kissed me for the first time.  Picked up on his heartbeat, his breathing.

We are in love, and we’ll keep it that way.”

It’s 1992.  Ambition is a cruel thing.  We’re probably both better off than if we’d stayed together.  Margaret and Tim have split. Katie and her husband have split, my daughter and her husband have split and she tells me she thinks Barry is good-looking.  What goes around, comes around.  All sorts of memories.

I want to grow old with you.”

One cliché after another, the same old stories.  I was getting bored with the hesistating, the writing, the crying at night for what – a foolish thing called love?

I liked Roy Rogers, and Bonanza, and Hopalong Cassidy.  I rated Marlon Brando above anyone, but didn’t understand all that honourable men stuff in ‘Julius Caesar’.  What was it all about?  Doesn’t reach me now.  Not even Romeo and Juliet.

My own blonde Romeo, with the sweet smile he still has after all these years.  Saw him play live a few years ago, caught his eye.  Remember me?  Maybe.  After all this time?  Maybe not.

There’s something I’ve gotta tell you.”

You’re not the only one.”

Silly girl, at the bus stop in Stephenson Square at 10pm.  I’m shivering, I’m feeling alone.  I have to wait for the 18B and the other girls are off to Bolton.  Jenny and John are going steady, they’ll marry in a year or so.  Cynthia is a regular Scarlett O’Hara, with a bevy of beaux.  “Little town flirt.”

You’re my world, you are my night and day.”

I change jobs; I go to dance halls.  Barry plays there with a new band and a new name.  They’re quite good.  They have a number one hit in the States.  We share an orange juice and a few kisses outside, go for a walk over the bridge, to Central Station.

In 1969 I married someone else.  I hadn’t heard of Barry for a couple of years.  He’d had the odd hit record, he’d gone solo, he’d got married, he’d gone to the States.  Then I’d forgotten him.

Devlin is my regular beau after thirty years.  I’m his second wife, he’s a quiet square who keeps me happy.  I’m a good wife, the odd memory bringing a smile to these old eyes of mine.

The ice rink has gone, an Argos superstore stands there now.  The dance hall has changed its name – its second was after Shakespeare – but the building is the same.

I don’t dance anymore, don’t go bowling, don’t skate.  It’s a different world.

Barry’s back in England.  He’s had more problems than all our family put together.  I wonder what would have happened if we’d married.  Would it have been enough?  Was I wrong to think I was holding him back?

So won’t you stay, just a little bit longer?”

I click off the radio.  They do the 60s to death these days, all those compilations, student discos, theme nights, adverts.  He’s even done a couple of advert themes, old songs, re-jigged.  I recognise the voice.  A bit late to be trendy.

In 1999 they’re filling in Piccadilly Gardens.  And the trams glide along rickety rails as you walk across to St Ann’s Square.  Time goes on.  I feed the pigeons right under a sign saying ‘Don’t feed the pigeons.’

Always something there to remind me.”

Words of love you whisper soft and true.”

You know sloopy girl, I’m in love with you.”

I don’t know if I can trust him, even after forty years.  It seems like one memory after another is tumbling, chasing, chafing the time away.

For who knows where the time goes?”

I couldn’t trust him after forty minutes.  I never could.  But I buy a ticket anyway.  It’s a laugh, its only a laugh, after all.   And whatever has happened then and now, I used to love him, and he used to be mine.

(c) Louise Penn

NaBloPoMo November 2013