Thursday, 17 April 2014

"Stalker"

          I ask you,  why, WHY do we do this? For eight hours solid my feet have been crammed and nipped into a pair of stiletto’s so high they’d give Minnie Mouse  vertigo. I bought them to celebrate my first day in the new job. When I got this position mum and dad were thrilled, I took advantage and asked for a car, sports car would be nice. They didn’t take it as a joke - the most penny-pinching people you could ever meet, my parents.
            Anyway, feeling stylish and elegant, I entered the bank and was ushered to my personal desk. You know the type of place - swivel-glass doors, marble sink basins and cute rich bankers in Armani suits. I was charming and professional; my boss cracked a terrible joke and I laughed, and his Uncle is in the same golf club as my Dad’s friend’s son. We have so much in common! Honestly though, it’s satisfying to feel you have made a good impression meeting people for the first time. Unfortunately I now need plastic surgery on my feet. I had to count my toes to check they were all present when prising off the evil contraptions which encased them.
I’ve since settled down quite well in “the dream job”. Apart from the discomfort of having an overweight bloke who obviously never wears deodorant sitting adjacent to me, things are good. I'm dreading the summer, though.
Before you ask, yes, there is a romantic prospect, working in accounts; tall, dark and very shy. He lurks behind the coffee machine sometimes. Today, I caught his eye and gave him my best smile, realising later that lipstick was smeared across my front teeth. That’s life.
Looking out of my window into the street, London looks so pretty, all the lights and people. I can watch people all day, guessing who they are, where they’re dashing off to, whether they have children. My friends often laugh at my huge imagination, and I used to get lectured at school for staring out of windows when I should have been staring at algebra. I think it’s a gift, personally. Imagination.
That guy down in the street has been standing there for hours now, he must be freezing. Here’s Lou, the newsagent owner, locking up his shop for the night. I never encountered anyone with such an awe-inspiringly large belly as Lou. If you sneak into his store you catch him with a mouth full of Mars bar, every time. He must eat a box a day.

I feel slightly uneasy here actually. Never thought that people could see in, as well as myself being able to stare out. Well I best get to bed, another big day at the office tomorrow.

I don’t think, I mean, I'm NOT strange. People just get me wrong, I’m a nice guy, really nice, I don’t mind children and sometimes, sometimes I even feed pigeons. Just stupid people, all the idiots, say I'm not normal. They, THEY need to be locked up, not me, yeah, I should lock them up. I put a dead rat through the letterbox of the last one, just for fun, it was funny. She screamed. And I don’t understand, it’s all the people I love, all the beautiful women, they all hate me. Most of them are just shy though, just, only playing hard to get because they are all bitches, but I could get them, if I wanted them. This one though, this one is different. She smiled at me once. A smile that transcends heavenly, she looked like an amazing angel. I have never been in love like this before. This is necessary. I’m protecting her. What would happen if a thief broke into her flat and I didn’t know? What if they robbed her, what then? Then you would blame me for not protecting her wouldn’t you? This way is best. She’ll thank me, I know her. I know her so well, we’ll be perfect together. I’ve booked the church for our marriage. Our children… I think one girl, two girls. Yes, she will look after them and me. She’ll cook my tea when I come home from work. Just perfect. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, I know. I know all of it, everything. Phone number, colour of the bathroom walls, time she leaves the flat in the morning. I was so, so very proud when I was fitting it into the wall of her flat, she would just love me if she knew what a skilful, competent electrician I am, how clever I am. My own hands made it, discreet and small - yet perfectly efficient. I spent hours searching the Internet, it’s perfect. Tapes everything, just everything, and I bugged her phone. I listen to her voice, so sweet and melodious.
Now don’t you judge me, I’m a nice guy. Caring.

I’ve decided the outfits I wear for work are just a tiny bit revealing. I feel a bit uncomfortable at work, to be honest - which is not like me. Usually I love to show a bit of leg, you know. Lord, I hope I’m not turning into my mother, I must remember not to buy anything floral. It’s probably just another excuse to spend more cash on clothes.
Shouldn’t have let my friend Alice persuade me to watch that scary movie last night. I had goose bumps at home, feeling as if I was being watched by a two-headed monster. In fact I feel….but no, I’m being daft. But he is there again, that man. Standing outside my flat.

I started sweating when I lost her, couldn’t find her in that crowd. I don’t understand, we were walking home the way we always do, when she turned off, and I couldn’t see her, and I panicked, couldn’t breathe, because I need her, can’t live without her, I need to see her all the time. But I am calm now, I am thinking of a way to get her, marry her, so I can always see her, know where she is, and she will be safe. You want to know what she is doing now? Right this moment? She is in the kitchen, singing to Elvis Presley. Singing like an angel, unearthly. Now she is using a wooden spoon as a microphone. Resplendent beauty. I wish I were that wooden spoon.
I have to follow her everywhere now. I missed Neighbours because I had to follow her to Alice’s house, where they played cards, they played cards for 23 and a half minutes. I don’t know what game, I should know this, I should have watched more closely, but... Nevertheless I am calm now and everyone makes mistakes-everyone, everyone but her.

I’m paranoid. I need help. I feel as though there is someone lurking in the shadows, in every shadow. A man, I think, who wears a grey hoodie and a black long coat.Weird.  I always see him out of the corner of my eye, and it’s not just when I let myself think about it, it’s all the time. My nerves are being yanked to the limit, a simple sound like the telephone ringing and I start to shake. I confided n that guy at work today - the tall, dark, shy one and he gave me his mobile number - just in case. So nice so him. Can you conceive how horrible it is to be aware of something watching you, real or imagined. I don’t feel secure in my own flat. Last night I cried for hours, under the quilt, because I’m so scared. I told my mother and she wanted me to come home. I can’t do that. It must be stress or nerves, or maybe I’m a lunatic. I can’t stop thinking about it; this atmosphere of intimidation follows me around all the time. At the cinema today, half way through this film starring my favourite actress, Julia Roberts, I felt the back of my neck prickle. I stood it for as long as I could but I had to run out, and I mean run, with everyone turning around to stare, I felt like an idiot. But I’m so scared, really scared. My hands shake.

I can tell she is afraid, I scare her, I do. Well, I'm a big, strong, man. I intimidate a lot of people. It’s good, Listen, I understand women, if you scare them they love you, they’ll marry you. Not that I would ever hurt her, I love her, I’d do everything for her. Yesterday, I left her a cup of coffee on her desk, just the way she likes it, no sugar. She didn’t even say thank-you. I hate ungrateful people – they’re nasty; nasty and evil. However, I’m not unreasonable. No, I forgive her because I love her, but she will have to make me coffee every day when we’re married. When we’re married, she’ll stay at home and make me cups of coffee. Women who work are stupid; men should work but not women because they’re clumsy and stupid and I hate them, my wife will know this. I can forgive her now, though. She doesn’t have me to tell her, not yet. So I tidied her desk for her, threw the rubbish away. Found a photo of her with a dog, nice dog. Stole the photo, she can have it back as a wedding gift. I’m going to ask her tomorrow. To marry me, I mean. Yes, tomorrow, after her gym class, but I need a ring - no, don’t be stupid. She won’t want a ring, she’ll just be glad I asked her to spend eternity with me. Making me cups of coffee. Yes, I’ll write that down, I need paper.  List of things for my wife to do. Make coffee.

Thank God. Thank everybody. I 'm not mad. For a while, you know, I thought I was dangerously near the edge. I thought someone was following me, and they are. It’s official, I have a stalker. I plucked up courage to tell Alice, hoping she wouldn’t call the psychologists to come and lock me in a padded cell, and she actually concurred that a man has been hovering around. Relief flooded over me etcetera, etcetera. However, the problem now lies in how to get rid of this freak, I wouldn’t mind so much, but he has started messing with my stuff, stealing pictures from my desk and generally being a nuisance. I suppose he is not that dangerous, but it makes me uneasy.  

       There, that’s nice, just, only just in time, going to follow her I am, follow her home, then make her marry me, quick, quick, she’s moving off, I can see you, you know you want to talk to me. Just shy, she’s shy. I love this, I will miss this. Chasing them, the women, especially when they are scared, they look so beautiful scared, and I scare them because they are shy. Ha, did you see that, she looked back, she knows I’m here, but I dodged, did you see that? I’m skilled and she didn’t quite get me. No, not that way, she’s going the wrong way, no, don’t, don’t run away, don’t. Because I can run faster and I will get you. She’s running across the road, but I am right behind you lady…mind that car!

      It'll take me a long time to get over this. The trauma of realising he'd bugged my flat. Knew everything. I sat there as the police told me what  had happened. They spared no detail. He had pictures of me on his walls, pinned to his mirror. Cameras in my flat. Disgusting. He got ran over, chasing me. In hospital he recovered enough to start talking. talking about me, and the nurses called the police. He's in prison now, and I'm back at home with mum and dad. He's in prison for previous offences against other women. I was lucky.  His prison sentence is so short, disgraceful. that he'll be let out in a few months. I've got bolts on my bedroom door, but what will they do? I just go to church sometimes and pray that he'll not want me any more. Dare say I'll find out if it has worked soon enough. 
       And to think, I thought he was so cute, that tall, dark, very shy guy from work. 

"Reflections" A short story by Jacy Brean

In loving memory of Jean Morris, a kind and gracious lady
She could tell something was wrong from the moment she opened the door of the small, neat bungalow. Having popped in every day since the heart scare, Susan had become attuned to her mother’s moods, aware of every nuance, every chill in the atmosphere. But this was different.  
“Hi Mum!“ she called breezily then waited in vain for a reply. “I couldn’t get your usual honey”, she confessed, “but there was a special offer on their own brand  - two for the price of one. That should keep you sweet for a while!”  Still no answer. Mum was usually so particular about her honey. Of course, she was getting rather deaf these days, thought Susan and made a mental note to speak to the doctor about it.
“Mum?!” she popped her head round the sitting room door.  Annie Turnbull was sitting in her usual chair, smartly dressed as always and with her hair brushed to a silvery sheen; but  Susan could sense her Mum just wasn’t herself today. Her head was bowed and her whole upper body seemed to slump forward, as though winded by a kick to the stomach. At first, she didn’t react to Susan’s voice, but simply gazed blankly into space. It was only when Susan approached and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, that she even seemed aware of her daughter’s presence. “Are you all right, Mum?”
“Of course I’m all right!” Annie replied, but her reply was vague and distracted. Normally, the least suggestion she might not be the active, independent woman
she once was would be quickly and unceremoniously squashed. As it was, she did seem to rally at her daughter’s touch and gave herself a little shake.
 “But I’ll be all the better for a nice cup of tea!” she added, rather too cheerfully, Susan thought, and then she noticed the large brown envelope in her mother’s lap.
“What have you got there?” she asked, “Can I see?” Annie flinched and grasped the envelope tightly, unwilling to surrender it.
“None of your business!” she snapped, but almost immediately relented. “Oh, very well! I suppose it’s time you found out anyway! Not that it matters in this day and age!“ Susan noticed a certain moistness in the older woman’s eyes and that her other hand was clutching the linen handkerchief young  Gemma had embroidered specially for the grandma she adored. Strange how well they got on, those two, thought Susan, and, not for the first time, wondered how her mother could show so much affection to Gemma when so little had been available for her.
Not that she had a thing to complain about. After their father died as a result of injuries sustained in the war, Susan and her three brothers were brought up with a iron rod and a wonderful example. Like so many women of her generation,  Annie had no time for grief and nothing but contempt for ‘hand-outs‘. Choosing instead hard graft with ten-hour shifts and never a day off sick, she ensured her children had hot meals on the table every night and a clean, pressed shirt or blouse each morning.  Worn and patched their weekday clothes may have been,
yet they always had their Sunday “best”, in which they looked immaculate.
Now, as a mature mother herself, Susan realised the efforts her mother had made on her behalf, the sacrifices, the sheer exhausting determination to provide for her family -  but oh, how the child  Susan had yearned  for an occasional embrace.
Once, when Susan tackled her mother on this very subject, the reply was typically down to earth. “When you’ve four mouths to feed, you don’t have time for all that nonsense!” This was a woman, good, honest, plain-speaking, who took pride in her total lack of sentiment; a woman who, in 50 years of widowhood,  had never been known to cry.
Now, Annie pulled herself upright on her chair, stiff-necked and ramrod-straight as she usually was,  yet there was a tell-tale glistening in her eyes and a chin that quivered rebelliously as her daughter carefully teased out the contents of the hard-backed envelope. It was the type used for photographs and,  as expected, it contained a large black and white print, a picture of several children, similar in features but of different ages, posed formally in front of a large building, wearing smart Edwardian clothes.
“Who are they?” Susan asked.
“There’s a letter there.”  came the reply.
On a single sheet of paper, typed in bold, the writer introduced himself as Alan Bamford of Miles Chapping, a small village just a few miles out from the centre of Nethersby where Annie had lived for most of her 87 years. He was an amateur
historian, he explained, researching for a book about the local area, in the course of which he’d found  this photograph along with some very interesting details about the Naden family, and would she, Annie, the only surviving member, be prepared to meet him to talk about her past? In the meantime, he hoped she’d accept a copy of the photograph, taken outside the  Sailors’ Refuge for Children’ where she and her siblings had been raised.
There were six of them, Tom, the eldest, who was 12 years old at the time, to Clarissa, who was only 3. All the children wore solemn expressions but one little girl, a pretty waif with long dark ringlets, had particularly large, sad eyes.
“Is that you?!” exclaimed Susan, genuinely excited. She’d never seen a picture of her mother as a child before. “You were so beautiful! How old were you then?”
“Four. I was four years old” said her mother, pronouncing the words slowly as if to convince herself she even existed that long ago.
Susan hesitated, unwilling to probe and sensitive to the obvious pain the memory caused her mother, but finally curiosity got the better of her. “What were you going to tell me, Mum?” she urged gently.
But Annie wasn’t listening. In her mind, for one brief second, she was the subject of another snapshot. ‘Pretty’ Annie, Annie Naden, just 15, sitting on a park bench on a shimmering summer’s day in her best blue frock, waiting for Edward to appear. Maybe this time he might even say ‘hello’ to her, but he needn’t think she’d deign to notice if he didn’t….
“Mum?” Annie returned with a start to her small, chintzy sitting room with the old brown clock ticking loudly on the mantelpiece and her daughter gazing anxiously into her eyes.
“It’s all right dear,” she said, secretly touched by Susan’s concern, “I’m not about to pop my clogs just yet. Must have drifted off for a  moment.” Then added, “You’re not the only one who daydreams, you know!”
Susan smiled. Her mother and daydreams simply didn’t go together.
 “You’ve never talked about your childhood.” ventured Susan, expecting the usual short shrift. But, to her great surprise, her mother leaned forward and took her daughter’s hand in hers.
“That’s because there was a lot of pain in it, my girl. A lot of pain. But  then, things have changed nowadays, it’s no shame now to be…..” She stopped briefly and bit her lip. “Local gossip had it we were ’by-blows’ - you know, illegitimate - but we weren’t! That much I do know. Let’s face it, one child out of wedlock might be careless, but nine…..”. Annie shook her head, puzzled. “No-one with any sense has six of them, especially when…when….”
“When what, Mum?” whispered Susan gently.
Ashamed of her momentary lapse, Annie braced herself again, lifted her chin and took a  sharp, deep breath. “My mother didn’t want us!” she exclaimed, “She didn’t want us, so she brought us on a train to the orphanage and left us there, without a ‘by your leave‘!”
Susan’s mouth yawned open. “But why?!” she gasped.
“I’ve just said, haven’t I?!” her mother replied tartly, “She just didn’t want us and that’s the truth of the matter!” “No!” said Susan, shaking her head, “I don’t believe that. No mother gives up her children without a very good reason.”
“Well, Susan, if you ever find out what it was, then don’t bother telling me! And anyway,” she added with a shrug, “We were well looked after, so I’ve no complaints.” And, as far as Annie was concerned, that was the end of the matter.  In case there was any doubt of that, she settled back into her high-backed armchair, picked up her knitting and began clicking furiously.
“I wouldn’t mind that cup of tea if you’re making one!”
“Mum! You can’t just drop that bombshell on me and leave it at that! I mean….there are so many things I want to know…. For instance, did you ever see her again? I mean…what happened to her? Where did she go?  What about your father?”  She paused, waiting in vain for a reply, then, realising her Mum was not prepared to answer, growled with frustration, “Aren’t you even curious?”
Annie paused from her knitting to flash her daughter a warning glare. “Now this is exactly why I didn’t say anything! I knew you wouldn’t leave it alone - so full of questions, questions - nosying, busybodying, everlasting questions!”
“But….!”
“That’s enough, Susan!” Mrs Turnbull could be as formidable in her eighties as she ever was in her prime. “I’ll hear no more about it!” and picked up her knitting. “Now, you can either make us both a nice cup of tea and stay and watch Countdown, or take yourself off. And don’t bother coming back until you’ve learnt to mind your own business!”
Susan’s shoulders shrugged with defeat as she made her way back to the kitchen and the unpacked shopping, her  mother staring after her, still angry yet proud too of the fine,  principled woman she’d brought into the world and taught to be hard-working and dependable; a woman who never lied or gossiped or let anybody down. 
“You’ll find some scones in the larder” ordered Annie, briskly. “We’ll have a couple with our tea.“
Listening to the reassuring sound of crockery being laid, Annie smiled to herself, recalling the many fierce battles she’d fought with the adolescent Susan - which, of course, the matriarch had always won, and yet in which the child had proved her mettle. In a rare flash of emotion,  She called out:
“I’ve been hard on you, haven’t I, lass?” 
Susan appeared briefly in the doorway, surprised at the comment and the almost apologetic expression on her mother’s face, then she too smiled at  the memories.
 “You certainly have, Mum! You certainly have!”
Her mother nodded approvingly, her eyes twinkling. “Aye, and it’s paid off, hasn‘t it?!” 
Touched by this unexpected commendation, Susan mumbled something about the floor needing a mop and disappeared again, leaving her mother to count her blessings along with the stitches that she’d dropped.
It was hard to concentrate on her knitting, however, as her eyes kept darting towards the photograph, and snatches of a long forgotten youth came flooding through her brain. Never one to indulge in the past and other such fancies, Annie tried to shake herself free of them, to remain in the present where she’d always been, where she felt safe; but, despite her efforts, the photograph had triggered something deep inside that wouldn’t go away.
Suddenly, she was catapulted back through  the decades and again found herself sitting on the same park bench, reading a book and nibbling daintily on an apple. The memory was so vivid, she could smell the lilac wafting on the breeze,  feel the fabric of her blue dress burning hot beneath the afternoon sun, and hear the buzzing of an irritable fly trying to share her snack. She was tempted to remove her hat, a rather fetching straw, and allow the sun to kiss her face, but knew if she did there’d be a price to pay. Oh, so what if Sally Hallam said brown skin was the rage these days - Sally Hallam didn’t have freckles. Besides, she did look well in hats.
“Think of the devil!” Annie muttered to herself and sure enough, Sally was sashaying towards her, hair bobbed into the latest style, her white, pleated skirt barely skimming the knees.
“So here you are, Miss Hoity Toity!” cried Sally, “Posing so carefully in case a certain gentleman should happen by.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean” Annie replied, sniffily. She was not in the habit of discussing boys with Sally who was not above flirting with any young man who happened to be in another girl’s sights. Sally could be very competitive like that, not that it bothered Annie, who was by far the prettier.  Even so, she was hugely relieved when Sally leaned over, smirking, and whispered, “Harold?” The poor girl had no taste whatsoever. True, Harold was handsome all right and always had plenty to say for himself, but she, Annie, preferred character in a man, and there was something steady and dependable about Edward she found reassuring.
“Silly!” she tutted, deliberately allowing Sally to think she’d hit a nerve, The other girl crowed with triumph. “There! I knew it was him! And guess what? He’s down by the Odeon with the others! Coming?”
“Honestly!” sighed Annie. “It’s far too hot to be going to the flicks. You go if you want, but I’m staying here to read my book!”
“Annie Naden, if you don’t come with me right now, I’ll tell Harold you’re a total hussy and no-one will ever want to be your sweetheart - ever!”
Giggling, Sally set off across the green lawn of the park, with Annie following reluctantly. Sally could be awfully keen at times. Approaching the main gates, Annie became aware of a shadow in the corner of her eye, but so fleeting, she couldn’t be sure whether she’d imagined it.. On turning her head, all she saw were the rhododendrons which lined the winding path to the road beyond, yet she shivered slightly, like a wild deer aware of sudden danger.
“What’s up, Annie?” yelled Sally from the gate.
“Oh  - someone’s walked over my grave” she replied and, as quickly as it
came, the feeling was gone, and two excited young girls raced along the road towards Town End. 
“Harold, here we come!”
“Sally, please, they’ll hear you!” begged Annie, hanging back as they turned the corner and caught the first glimpse of their goal.
Everyone in Nethersby was fiercely proud of the Odeon Cinema, the only picture house for miles. People would travel by train from all over to visit this monument to pleasure,  a house of dreams offering all the glamour and romance so lacking in their everyday lives.
It was also convenient meeting point for local youths, who, dressed in their ’going out’ clothes, would saunter nonchalantly in front of it, in the hope of impressing one or more members of the opposite gender.
Shrieking wildly, Sally positively skipped towards the crowd, determined to be noticed and, as Annie expected, made a beeline for Harold.
Glancing from under her thick lashes, Annie noted with great annoyance that Edward wasn’t there. This meant she’d have to find an excuse to remove herself so that if and when he did turn up, he would then be forced to wait for her, rather than the other way round!
To give herself time to think, she gazed into a nearby shop window, at the same time admiring the trim figure reflected in the glass; the heart-shaped face with its delicate nose and almost perfect rosebud of a mouth; the auburn hair set off by the straw which cast just the right amount of shadow on her cheeks. “I am
pretty,” she thought; surely, a girl of her distinction hardly needed to play games with anyone. “I’ll just be myself!” she decided and was about to join the gang when she noticed another face  in the window.
The same feeling she’d had in the park crept over her again. Afraid to confront the reality, Annie continued  to stare at its image, the hairs on the back of her neck beginning to tingle - with excitement or fear, she couldn’t tell, but there was a feeling she couldn’t explain, a sort of cold, painful emptiness, as though the woman was silently pleading from the depths of a pit.
Slowly, fearfully, Annie turned round.
The distance between herself and the woman staring intently at her from the other side of the street was a matter of yards, yet there seemed to be a chasm between them. The woman was tall and rather elegant despite the shabbiness of her faded costume and the flecks of grey in the russet coloured hair. But the eyes! Those chestnut brown eyes bored into Annie’s, searching her soul, seeking to glean her very essence, and there was a question in those eyes that Annie knew she couldn’t answer.
She held her breath, transfixed, her mind racing, wanting to run across the street, to speak to the woman, to ask a question of her own.
Why? Why?
“Hello Annie!”  Edward Turnbull loomed in front of her, grinning shyly, and her view of the woman was blocked. “Are you coming to the pictures?”
“I…er…I…” confused, Annie turned her head away, trying to understand the
strange feelings which had nearly overwhelmed her.
“Of course, she is!” cried Sally, leaping to Annie’s side and grabbing her arm. “Wouldn’t miss it for anything, would you, Annie? And, guess what?” she lowered her voice conspiratorially, “He’s coming as well!”
“Good!” said Edward, “See you inside, then”. As he moved away, a shaft of sunlight shone directly into Annie’s eyes and she squinted to regain her focus, only to see the woman striding away from her down the street. Sally followed her gaze.
“Who was that?” she asked casually.
Annie didn’t say anything at first. She waited until Sally’s attention returned to Harold and the important business of flicking her hair for him to see how shiny it was.
 When, finally, Annie did speak, it was in a barely audible whisper as she continued gazing after the rapidly shrinking figure in the distance.
“My mother.”
                                    ………………………………............
“What’s that you said, Mum?”
It took a moment to readjust. After all, seventy-two years was a long way to travel.
“Oh, nothing, love.” Annie replied. “It’s just that…I’ve remembered something!”
In the time it had taken Edward to move across the sun in front of her, the
face in the window had been eclipsed until now; crowded out by the joyfulness of youth, the promise of the future, and the first time Edward held her hand. Yet, in one brief instant, the past had stood still, the image frozen in time, allowing Annie another chance to gauge her feelings, to understand.
She mused silently to herself, keen to recapture other images. Her wedding,  picnics, warmth, laughter, friendships, small gifts and simple pleasures - and, of course, her children. For the first time in her life, she wanted to remember, and the sad, cruel  image of her own mother’s face had handed her the key.
Eventually, Susan‘s voice broke the silence. “Do you want jam on your scone, Mum?”
Annie smiled and patted her daughter’s hand.
“That would be nice, love!” replied Annie. “Then afterwards we’ll have a nice, long talk.”







Sunday, 13 April 2014

Supernanny - where were you when I needed you?

        Jo Frost, where were you when my two-year old was throwing tantrums in Tesco, screaming her head off in Sainsbury’s, crawling over tables in our local MacDonald’s, or darting traffic-wards from my grasp?
       Yes, I know I’ve got competition but I’m convinced that, had there been a prize for the most horrendous toddler West of the Pennines, my daughter would have won it hands down. In fact, two years after her appearance, there was a significant dip in birth rates in the area – no doubt due to otherwise fertile people having travelled on the same train with me and my hyper-active, utterly uncontrollable, ear-piercingly noisy little girl.
       And then, 2 decades too late, along comes Jo Frost who, with firmness and gentle persuasion is able to comfort, reassure and discipline the most headstrong 2- to 20-year old. Does she hypnotise them? Threaten them behind the scenes, resort to bribery? Or is she simply a miracle worker, sent from heaven to show mere mortals the way? 
       Sorry Jo, it’s all very impressive, but here’s the million dollar question – would you be as effective if the child you had to tame was your own? The reason I ask is that one of the most desperate mums I knew from our local toddler group had, in the distant past BC (Before Cate), been an excellent primary school teacher who never had cause to raise her voice, despite having a class of 30 very small people. Yet, just two years into motherhood, she was a broken woman.
       Another case in point is my own sweet child who was an absolute angel for anyone else. Like a miniature Jekyll and Hyde, her personality changed dramatically once I’d dropped her off at play-school or the home of a friend, only to revert to the growling, snarling monster which I had to cope with every day. Please don’t think I didn’t love her – she was (and always will be) the light of my life and genuinely adorable for most of the time – and after twenty-odd years she’s learnt to communicate without the blood-curdling shrieks. In fact, she was actually getting to be really good company before disappearing down to London, leaving me bereft. But that’s another story.
     

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Are kids hungry for violence?

       After the première of Hunger Games, the Daily Mail reported that many children found it so horrific they were forced to leave the cinema halfway through. Over two hours, the movie, which met with much acclaim, depicts  several disturbing scenes, such as the mauling of a boy by a pack of vicious dogs, a girl of 12 being skewered through the stomach, and another child’s skull being “smashed with a rock as she tries to slash the heroine’s throat.”
       Family viewing? The Hunger Games was originally rated as a 15 by the British Board of Film Classification, yet this was lowered to 12A on condition certain cuts were made. This means children even younger than 12 can watch the film if accompanied by an adult, despite one mother saying that: “To actually see kids killing other kids is something I would not want a 12-year old to watch.”
       Even the author, on whose book the film was based, has expressed concern about the frightening and gory scenes depicted in the film. Meg Meeker, who is also a paediatrician, states: “Kids process images they construct in their minds from written words differently than they process large hyper-real images on a screen.” Meg goes on to explain that during adolescence youngsters are mentally pliable and their minds are being ‘hard-wired’. “When an image comes into a teen’s brain it melds into the wiring and sticks.”
       Such concerns are unlikely to affect the movie’s box-office success, however. In its first weekend, The Hunger Games has already out-sold The Twilight Saga by 100 percent, grossing £5 million in the UK alone. Some people feel violent entertainment is harmless, allowing children to work out their fears in a controlled way. But is that true? Let’s look at another aspect of entertainment, which is particularly geared towards teens.
      Some time ago, a series of five experiments involving 500 college students from Iowa and Texas was conducted to assess the effects of violent songs. After listening to various songs by the same vocalist - some violent others non-violent - the students were tested for levels of aggression. The results published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that violent songs may increase hostile feelings and aggressive thoughts without provocation. Lead researcher Craig Anderson concluded that, when it comes to violent entertainment from any media: “Content matters.” He continued:   “This message is important for all consumers, but especially for parents of children and adolescents.”  
       If this is true for music, which affects the hearing only, how much more so when images are involved as well? But does it matter?
       Sadly, we see the evidence all around us that it most definitely does. In these unsettling times, human life is viewed as cheap, expendable and even worthless. TV shows, computer games and movies often reflect the casual way in which “goodies” afflict wholesale slaughter upon “baddies” – and vice versa, sometimes for no obvious reason. In the news, terrorism, murder, riots, abduction, piracy and wholesale slaughter of men, women and children abound. No wonder youths are becoming hardened to violence at increasingly younger ages.  
       Another factor is loneliness. Parents who are rarely at home, parents who are too wrapped up in their own pursuits, or parents who just can’t be bothered are depriving their children of much needed emotional support, thus contributing towards the subculture of death that exists among youths today. One source claims that many modern youngsters spend up to 3.5 hours alone each day and 11 hours less with their parents every week than their 1960s counterparts. 
       Wise parents appreciate their children’s need for wholesome entertainment and, more importantly for ongoing personal support. No matter how moody or uncommunicative teenagers may appear, many are desperate for guidance and affection from parents who are prepared to give straight answers to their questions. A wise mum or dad will realise how hard it is for children in a frighteningly complex world with its callous attitudes and increasingly violent entertainment. 
       Firm limits, consistent standards and loving attention are essential safeguards for kids of any age.






Monday, 31 March 2014

Hunger on the rise. Why?

“925 million people went hungry in 2010”-WORLD HUNGER ORGANISATION

“The estimated number of childhood deaths in 2010 was 7.6 million”-WORLD HUNGER ORGANISATION

“One third of all deaths of children under 5 in developing countries linked to undernutrition” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 2014

“842 million people do not eat enough to be healthy” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 2014

“One in every 8 people goes to bed hungry each night” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 2014
       
       A lot of people are going hungry right now - and it’s not just developing lands which are suffering.  As well as parts of Africa and Asia where droughts, famines, despots and wars have always caused problems, food shortages now seem to be spreading to the West and once thriving economies such as Japan.
Recently, a British couple committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with unemployment and the lack of money. To supplement their meagre income, they’d  been walking for  42 miles a day to collect rations from a charity centre  and, whether from shame or sheer despair, reached the point when they simply gave up - just two more victims from an increasingly desperate generation. Greece, Italy, even America, all are having to cope with a sluggish economy, joblessness and rising food prices.
       In the UK, food inflation is currently outpacing the average wage increase, spiking last year to a 5% increase in what was once perceived to be, if not recession-proof, then certainly a recession- resistant industry.  Delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference a couple of years ago were asked to consider just who has power over food prices. According to the experts, it’s certainly not consumers. Nor is it farmers, who are currently being squeezed by dwindling suppliers on the one hand and the decrease in retail customers on the other.
       But how much power do governments wield? On the surface, very little, they would argue, citing  two reasons: For one thing, agriculture now operates in a global context, and secondly (at least as far as the United Kingdom is concerned), the government is keen to reduce farm subsidies in the belief that increasing world demand along with higher prices will compensate growers for these lost revenues. The demand will always be there, of course. But where is the supply? And  how can people on low incomes afford it?
       As well as the unwarranted increase in costs, another worrying factor is coming into play – the monopoly of food by huge transnational (TNCs) who are investing billions in agriculture and supplies.
Has anyone noticed the speed with which small farms and food outlets are going out of business? How global conglomerates are buying up land for intensive farming and how supermarket chains are getting bigger and more powerful?
       Speaking to the OFC, Dr Alan Renwick – SAC Head of the Land Economy & Environmental Research Group, identified a few of these TNCs with genuine clout. Cargill, Syngenta, Monsanto, Wal-Mart and, to a certain extent, Tesco, are far more influential than the state whose intervention in agriculture and trade has been diminishing.  To date, three TNCs control almost 50% of the proprietary seed market.
       Personally, I wouldn’t discount the role which governments are playing - or are likely to play in the future. No doubt it suits them to maintain a helpless and therefore blameless  profile in the face of rising food scarcity. However, they must surely appreciate the power such a monopoly can wield. Control the world’s food supplies and you control the world.
       We can also count on genetic engineering to create further demand, thanks to the proliferation of GM cereals. At one time, farmers could depend on the generosity of nature to provide – with one seed purchase providing healthy crops for several years. Yet there is nothing natural about some seeds produced by scientists in labs. They may be resistant to certain pests or climates, but many GM seeds are not self-propagating. Instead of having plenty of fertile new seed for the following crop, the farmer is forced to buy fresh seed from the supplier every time.
       Sadly, starvation and malnutrition are nothing new.  Back in the 1980s, an article in The Boston Globe stated: “A world with nearly a billion persons living close to starvation has to find ways to help the poorest nations to enjoy something approaching the bounty reaped by the richest nations, “The most disheartening  aspect of undernourishment . . . is that the world has a clear-cut capacity to feed everyone.” 
       Surely it’s time that capacity was realised.







Thursday, 27 March 2014

Getting to grips with Social Media

        It’s over 2 years now since I posted my very first Tweet on Twitter and, following the advice of a best-selling online novelist, managed to get myself suspended on the very first day (must be a record!). The Twitter team thought I was a spammer; me, I put it down to enthusiasm. There was a whole new world out there, almost 500 million potential new friends whom I’d set out to make, only to end up red-faced and grovelling to be reinstated. Yes I know I shouldn’t have DM'd the first 100 people on the relevant trend's list, but that’s what I was told to do!
       Since then, I’ve become a little more circumspect (although some of my Twitter friends may disagree!) and, on the whole, it’s been a positive experience. It has also been time-consuming and highly compulsive which, given my slight leanings towards OCD was always going to be an issue. However, with a little self-discipline, I now feel a little more comfortable with Twitter and what started as a confusing medium has become a useful and often enjoyable tool. Here are a few tips I've found helpful: 

Practical tips
      
       1) Be careful with trending hashtag - always check the subject matter first. Nothing more shaming than affixing, say, a celebrity hashtag to promote a humorous post only to find out (too late!) that the person in question has just died! Tragically. 
       2) Do retweet generously but make sure you only RT subjects that are interesting, informative and entertaining. As a personal rule, I avoid potential links to porn and erotica sites and try to stay politically neutral.
       3) Many experienced Twits spend a lot of time RT-ing and replying to new followers (always nice to get a 'welcome') but, if you want them to RT YOU be sure to intersperse RTs with links to your own blog or website. Otherwise, you just get a lot of 'Thanks you for following' and smiley faces! When I RT fellow writers, for instance, I look for tweets that will help them to market their book/play/copy or editing services in the best way possible. Same goes for other art forms, products and campaigns.
       
Proceed with caution
       Like any modern invention, there’s an upside and a downside. The ups are obvious – social networks are brilliant marketing tools, a great way to meet people from hugely diverse backgrounds, to keep in touch with friends, and to find out what’s happening around the world. Linking up can be exciting, refreshing and educational. 
       The downside? Well, one problem has already been mentioned; once logged into the site, it’s extremely hard to log out again, especially if you work from home as I do. When on Twitter, the hours just fly, the next chapter lies unfinished, and the dinner plates are still in the sink. How children with homework get on, I shudder to think. But there are more worrying factors which can affect all of us – and which can apply to virtually any use of the internet.
Loss of privacy
       Twitter has around 500 million followers, while Facebook subscribers total almost 1 billion. Every message sent has the potential to go viral within seconds and we have no control over who has access to personal information. Fraudsters, burglars, cynical marketers and even abusers can exploit such information to our detriment. On a local scale, many a teenager has posted details of a forthcoming party only to be swamped by unwanted guests looking to cause trouble.
       In her book, CyberSafe, Gwenn Schurgin O’Keefe points out that “large websites back up their databases. What we put on cyberspace never truly goes away. We have to consider it permanent because there is likely to be a copy somewhere; to think otherwise is foolish.”
Bad associates
       Young people are particularly vulnerable to online bullying, from schoolmates with a grievance to total strangers, sometimes with tragic consequences; reports of children being driven to despair, self-harm, anorexia and even suicide bear witness to the damage caused by haters and trolls.  Some children have arranged to meet ‘friends’ their own age, only to find the person waiting for them is neither a friend nor a day under 40! And every time they go online, there’s always the danger of inadvertently accessing websites featuring porn or violence. 
       These issues are – at least should be – obvious. But what about more subtle factors, such as:
Loss of reputation
       A recent article compared a person’s reputation with a shiny new car. Suppose you own the latest model with flawless paintwork; you take it for a spin but, due to a momentary lapse in concentration, you crash into a ditch, leaving the vehicle a total write-off? 
       That’s what can happen to your reputation. A momentary lapse in discretion, a compromising photograph or a careless remark can quickly dent other people’s opinion of you. Families will forgive, true friends will understand, but what about potential employers? Often, the first thing they do on receiving an application is check out your Facebook account – would  that picture of you mooning or leering drunkenly into the camera mark you out as a suitable candidate? According to Dr B J Fogg, author of Facebook for Parents, the answer would be ‘No’. He’s just one of millions who checks Facebook pages as “part of my due diligence. If I can access an applicant’s Profile and see junky things, then I’m not impressed. I won’t hire that person.” Why? “Because people who work with me need excellent judgment.” 
       Certainly, people tend to be less inhibited on social networks, and that applies to your comments too. What may seem innocuous or hilarious to you may be a big turn-off for others. Bad language, off-colour jokes and insulting remarks may trip easily from your fingers as you type, but are they really impressing anybody? Are they as witty as you think, or simply sad? And if they’re suggestive, you may attract the wrong kind of followers. Remember too that others can post comments on your page. As one 19-year old says: “Sometimes people post comments with bad words or double meanings. Even though you’re not the one who said it, it reflects poorly on you because it’s your page.”
How to avoid the pitfalls

       Before signing up for a social network, it’s good to set a few boundaries. Look at the potential dangers, decide how best to avoid them and create rules that will protect you from any fallout. Here are a few suggestions which I try to apply myself: 
       Be careful what you post and only do so when sober! If you wouldn’t like your parents to see those photographs or comments, why make them available to total strangers? Or worse – prospective employers! When texting, remember your manners. Try to ensure that every remark is gracious, ‘seasoned with salt’.       
       Check your privacy settings, as the default settings on the network site may let more people view your page than you imagine. It’s a good idea to customise your settings so only close friends can access your posts. Even then, you need to watch that you don’t give out more information than intended. 
       Should you receive a critical or negative response, don’t retaliate. If the criticism is well-meant, thank the sender for his/her interest. Ignore abusive comments and block them from your page along with any that make you feel uncomfortable. The same goes for dubious would-be followers or ‘friends’. Be selective and never open links from anyone you feel unsure of. Some may be pornographic or violent. 
       Social websites are constantly buzzing with gossip, rumours and opinions about people in the public eye. Be determined never to write derogatory personal remarks about anyone, famous or not, even if they seem to deserve it – after all, who are we to judge? Failing to observe this rule may, at best make you seem spiteful, and at worst get you sued for libel! 
       Remember your details are accessible to millions of people, including some who know you, so guard your privacy. Don’t give out too much personal information such as home address, email address, where you attend school, work or college, when you’re at home, when and where you’re going, when you’re at home, when nobody is at home, your photos, opinions, likes, dislikes and hobbies and innermost thoughts. 
       Set limits for the time you spend on social networks and stick to them. Doing this will help you control your online activities instead of letting them control you. And if social networks start to take you over, and you find yourself thinking constantly about your tweets, blogs and profiles, then switch them off. Or simply take a break from them, like these teenagers: 
       “I deactivated my account, and I had heaps of time. I felt free! Recently, I reactivated my account, but I have complete control. I don’t check it for days at a time. Occasionally I even forget about it. If my social networking account becomes a problem again, I’ll just deactivate my account.” 
       “I have taken ‘networking breaks,’ where I deactivate my account for a couple of months and then reactivate it later. I do that whenever I realize that I’ve been spending too much time with it. Now I don’t feel as attached to it as I used to. I’ll use it for a purpose, but then I’m done.”  
       This seems to be the secret; by taking sensible precautions and rationing the time we spend on social network, we can use it with confidence -without filching too much attention from more important activities.

Summary

       I feel quite an old hand now - in fact, it's a source of satisfaction to see some of my (very techie) website designer friends are only just getting started! And, of course, with time, I've become more atuned to potential problems and more careful about whom I follow. 
       Here are some of my 'no nos': profiles with no tweets; tweets containing sexual references or bad language of any kind; profiles with no pictures or other personal touches; Tweets which appear in one's timeline with no message -just a link; people with zillions of followers; direct messages (except for confidential info from a trusted contact); and anyone famous (doubt if Justin Bieber or the Pope write their own tweets!) 
       And here's an apology to anyone who has kindly retweeted me but to whom I haven't yet returned the compliment. Some of you are obviously lovely people and I'll always try to RT if I possibly can, especially if you're a writer. However, there are certain things I will not promote, such as Erotica or the Occult. I also try to remain neutral with regard to race, nationalism, party politics, gender, sexual orientation, religion and other potentially divisive issues.  
       Finally, I honestly believe the key to successful tweeting is KINDNESS. Be considerate, try to avoid RT-ing harsh personal comments and treat everyone in the way you'd like them to treat you. If you do, you'll have loads of friends, interesting comvos and, if applicable, a very powerful marketing tool. 
      ENJOY!