An interview with John Swain

First of all, a huge thank you for rising to the Double Espresso challenge, John. We’ve worked together as part of the Writers in the Peak monthly critiquing group for a while now — and as a group we always have great fun together — and learn a huge amount from each other in the process. But I don’t know much about your background in writing. When did you start writing and why?

I began writing fiction in retirement — as therapy whilst undergoing intensive treatment for cancer. My first novel, A Surprising Legacy is basically a love story that is interwoven in local myth, legend and folk-lore. I had carried that story in my head for about seven years before it was written, and once completed, that led to The Lightning Tree and others.

Our critiquing group is focused on novels at the moment — a world away from Flash Fiction, in terms of word count, at least! Do you think the two disciplines have anything in common? How did you find the experience of writing a flash fiction? Indeed, have you written one before?

I’ve never attempted Flash Fiction before but in trying this I found that my mind was focused to write condensed prose that isn’t so vital in a novel. I can see that Flash Fiction is beneficial to a novelist because agents, editors and publishers do not want extraneous waffle.

I understand, John that you have also worked in partnership with other writers around the world. I know you have linked with one writer in New Zealand, for example. Can you tell us a little bit about the partnerships — how they were set up, and what you get out of them? A.

I’d hardly call it a partnership. In the case of Dr. Trisha Nicholson (an ex-pat living in New Zealand) she found me by the internet as a result of my book A Surprising Legacy, and that was the beginning of our friendship which has endured for some years. Trish has a doctorate in anthropology and she’s a brilliant writer with lots of books to her name. That theme of anthropology runs through her book From Apes to Apps. She first assisted me in things I was writing, then later she sent me her work-in-progress to gain my views, and that’s how it’s developed. Her most exciting book has yet to reach the publication stage. It’s an account of her time working in Papua New Guinea and she describes treks through jungles, nerve tingling mountain ledges, and negotiating primitive bridges over raging torrents. There she became desperately ill with malaria. I was fortunate to be able to review this book for her. Trish recently completed a tour of some countries of the European continent and the UK providing workshops for writers and for the first time we met face to face in Nottingham.
My author friend in California, USA, is Jill Schaefer (another ex-pat) who has several books to her credit. Our friendship began in much the same way as with Trish Nicholson. Jill’s most recent book is The Red Cloak which is a story of a heroine’s effort in smuggling a relative’s child out of communist East Germany through Checkpoint Charlie and the notorious Berlin wall, under the noses of the border guards. In reviewing her story I became convinced that this was a true life story and that Jill herself was the story’s heroine. That, for me, is the finest tribute to her writing I can make to have convinced me so when she assures me it is complete fiction. Jill, now widowed, was married to a German national, and her account of life in Germany in the build up to WW11 opened my eyes to the fear and intimidation ordinary people were exposed to from the Nazis.

You chose Adam’s Cross from a long list of (Peak District OS map) names. Why did you opt for Adam’s Cross in the end?

Adam’s Cross resonated with me simply because I was aware of another landmark of that name in Cumbria, above Raven’s Cragg, S/E of Keswick.

Your Adam’s Cross is very visual. Did the setting come to you first? Or was it the character or narrative? And how did you bring them altogether for this piece?

I pondered long on what to write. I was on the isle of Anglesea, visiting the now defunct copper-rich quarry above Almwich, when the weather suddenly closed in – that gave me the spark of an idea of setting, but I still wanted a spectacle to happen at the summit. Then I happened to catch part of a radio program which gave me the inspiration for Jane’s dance. So, the setting came first and characters second.

And finally John, I know you are working on a novel at the moment. What’s next? Another novel? Something different?

The novel I’m working on, is almost Dickensian fiction but it has content that I hardly think Dickens would have contemplated. Some bits are rather naughty – hardly Fifty Shades of Grey, but certainly with a touch of Ooooh-la-la about it. I’ve also got several short stories sitting in the computer, gathering dust, that I’d like to attack. They’re childrens’ stories that all come under a banner heading of Tales from Gramp’s Mountain. My home is high in the peaks and part of my land is a huge hill behind the house which the grand-children used to call ‘Gramp’s Mountain’ thereby lending itself to the silly stories I used to tell them.
As for something new, as you know I’ve just entered a literary competition for the very first time, and you were kind enough to help with your expert knowledge of the German language which was crucial. I don’t have any great expectations of my chances in the competition, but I just wanted to try – just as I wanted to try your Flash Fiction.
I’ve just completed an Open University course on writing fiction that I found very useful.
Time is my problem – there’s never enough of it to everything I need to do. Apart from my novel writing, I also write music to accompany a large U3A singing group and I play keyboard for them. In addition, together with my family, I’m a member of a hand-bell concert group for which I also write the music. Life is rather hectic.

Thanks again for taking part. It’s been a pleasure to have you on board.

Thank you, Helen, for giving me this opportunity.

Grains in the Water by Helen Moat


The sea took the summer house first – with its brass candelabras, fine bone china figurines and crystal glass. The flying ducks, frozen in ascension up the timber wall, found wing and soared over the cliff edge to land in the North Sea.

In the morning when the storm abated, Maureen waded into the sea and plucked out the fragments of her Golden Wheat tea-set, floating like grains in the water.

“Sell up, Mother,” Vicky said.
“What for? The house is still 12 feet from the cliff edge.”
“And if there’s another storm?”
“In what’s left of my lifetime? More chance of flying pigs. ”
“Or ducks,” Vicky said dryly.
Maureen pulled down the shutters on her sea-grey eyes, closing her daughter out.

But the next freak storm came just two months later.
The council came to help Maureen evacuate the bungalow, but the old woman locked the door and barricaded herself in. Vicky shouted at her mother through the letter box.
“Clear off,” Maureen shouted back. “My house, my life.”
At 3am on Boxing Day, the house snapped in two like a Christmas cracker. The bathroom, kitchen, and dining room slid into the sea. Maureen sat in her bedroom, exposed to the elements, her tangled seaweed hair flying in the spume.
At 3.20 the rest of the house followed suit. Maureen smiled, her wrinkles rippling out across her face as she started falling, falling, falling…

She’d always wanted to be buried at sea.

Grains in the Water by Jean Ashbury

The Cape of Good Hope. Raging, implacable sea on a dark night. Watery demons rear up and batter a ghost-white sailing ship that dares to trespass into the sea devil’s lair. A lone figure, a pencil strip of a man, staggers on deck. An icy colossus washes him to the edge, but he finds a rail, twines his arms around it and whimpers to the gods to spare his life.

A shout drives in on a snarling wind—“You there man, get below at once.”

But the man cannot bear another night amid the stink of bodies packed in the ship’s belly. Cannot bear another night listening to his pregnant wife keening for the loss of home.

Lightning blinds him, thunder deafens. The ship’s masts shiver and threaten to shatter into driftwood. The man vomits. He knows the gods are punishing him for making this voyage across the kala pani, the taboo black water, to an island far from India.

The ocean defiles, my son. Cross it and you will lose yourself, your caste. It is written in the holy book, the priest had said. The man was tempted, though, by riches— food every day, and a scrap of earth to call his own.

As his grip on the rail loosens, he hears the jingle of his bride’s bangles on their wedding day, sees her hennaed hands tossing pearls of rice over their heads. He remembers the fire in her eyes when he described the house he would build for her, and the garden. In a pocket in his tunic, next to his heart, he carries brown husks ready for new life. He sees them sprouting, greening. Imagines a harvest of spikes arching and swaying, heavy with rice.

The ship heels. The man slides into the sea, body gone but dreams remaining with the woman whispering to their new-born infant.

An interview with guest writer, Jean Ashbury

Jean, writing is no stranger to you, with a background in academia at Kingston College, but for a number of years now you’ve been writing travel pieces. Where did the travel writing come from?

Travel has influenced my life greatly and I’ve been fortunate enough to have wandered around a few parts of the world before they became well-trodden. I’ve always kept diaries and taken photographs but never thought that people would be interested in reading about my travels until I joined Wanderlust magazine’s travel community. I put up a few pieces on myWanderlust and they were received well so I was encouraged to write up some more of my past and present experiences. As well as enter a few competitions. Being highly commended in the Bradt Independent travel writing competition was a surprise in 2012, but spurred me on to get more involved in writing travelogues. Having the same result this year was a nice surprise and good for my morale.

I feel your travel writing is going from strength to strength at the moment. You are good at taking the reader to another place and you’re particularly strong in portraying character with humour, humanity and empathy; the qualities of good fiction as well as travel writing. Have you written fictional pieces before? (assuming this is a fictional piece.) And how did you find the exercise of writing a flash fiction in comparison to longer travel pieces?

I’m essentially a fiction writer and I write short stories. I’ve also written a novel which is sitting on a shelf with a rejection slip. I prefer writing fiction as there is more scope for imagination and description. Travel narratives are restricting as they need to be honest, though I know that writers like Bruce Chatwin were a bit flexible with truth. For me, the best narratives are ones that show character as a product of setting and I try to do that in my travel accounts. I don’t write much flash fiction because I like the freedom of the long form. For longer pieces, I write the guts of the story first then make the introduction and conclusion fit. For this piece which is fiction but based on an actual voyage, I had to write a beginning and an end before I could create the scenes in the middle. That was a bit of a headache because it took several versions before I was satisfied.

I gave you Grains in the Water as your writing prompt -not the easiest title to work with. How did you arrive at the Cape of Good Hope from the prompt?

Grains in the Water — an intriguing title. I know it is part of a walk in your Peak District, but I was reminded of rice being planted and I wanted to use that imagery. The Cape of Good Hope came up because I was working on an essay about the voyage of the sailing clipper that brought the first indentured labourers from Calcutta to Trinidad in 1845. The Suez Canal hadn’t been built yet so their journey took three awful months and a few died on the way. In Hindu mythology, the sea is a nasty place full of rabid monsters so when the ship hit the Cape and its legendary storms, its passengers would have thought they were being blasted by the gods. The Cape of Good Hope, originally called the Cape of Storms and later changed to express excitement about the route from Europe to India, seemed an ironic but apt place to start a story about people chasing dreams of a better life, but in reverse direction. I was born in Trinidad so the story has poignancy for me as my ancestors came that way too.

In your version of GRAINS in the WATER, you capture the gauntlet of emotions the immigrant must feel in leaving his or her country to travel to a strange and alien place: fear and courage; anxiety and determination; confusion and hope. How easy, or difficult, was it to pack the emotional and physical journey of the immigrant into a few hundred words?

Easy to imagine the emotions because I’ve experienced them myself, but not the physical journey. For that I had to rely on the idea of the powerful sea vs the weak human trying to defy it and losing. Stylistic devices—headline phrases, short and long sentences and strong verbs—helped to create the message, though I had to take a scalpel to a few thousand words in order to get there. Good exercise though because it showed me what you can achieve with micro-fiction.

I’m curious that you have chosen the male as your protagonist in the story, Jean – knowing that you’re particularly interested in women and their role in various societies across the world, often writing about women in your travel pieces. Why did you choose to tell his story in the flash – not the story of his pregnant wife (although by the end of the piece, ironically, the story must become hers.)

I thought you’d pick up on that, Helen. I feel happier telling women’s stories, since I believe I can empathise better. On my travels, I’ve usually had more contact with women so am able to gain insight into their lives, and I’m always humbled by their resilience in the face of great odds. In the case of this story, the man chooses to chase a dream and his wife has to follow, as is the case in many Eastern cultures. His death has immense repercussions for her since she remains with the dream, the child and the decisions. I think this makes a more powerful story than if I had started with her point of view.

Jean, you’ve just been highly commended in the Bradt Independent Travel Writing Competition, for the second time, and you’ve been a competition winner with Wanderlust Magazine. What’s next? I know that your life is rich in experience – and you have plenty of material for future projects. Any plans for something longer? A novel, a travel book or a memoir perhaps?

You may well ask, Helen. I’m editing a second draft of a memoir about growing up in Trinidad and leaving home as I’ve promised to let an editor loose on it before the end of the year.

Thank you for taking part, Jean. It’s been an honour to have you on Double Espresso. I’m looking forward to future writings from you.

Thanking you for asking me to take part, Helen. It’s been a pleasure.

Flash by Helen Moat

bare feet in mud

Hannah hums as she lays her clothes out on the bed: floral blouse, white flounced skirt and ankle socks, red patent shoes. Outside she hears the run-off from last night’s rainstorm dripping off the drainpipe: larghissimo.

She breathes in the fabric of her top: sweet, perfumed, clean. She holds her white skirt to the light: spotless. She dresses and straps on her shoes, the patent leather reflecting back her solemn face.

Outdoors the hot air wraps itself around her. She feels her skin prickle, the moisture spreading across her back. She sighs. Still she walks on along Back Lane, nowhere to go, nothing to do; no one she knows here. Ahead she sees the boy she recognises from next door. She follows him.

He jumps a stile and Hannah climbs after him, picking her way along the fern-lined path. The wet fronds slap at her legs and large droplets of rain begin to tap on the hillside rhododendrons: lento.

She frowns at the mud splattering her new shoes.The boy turns and sees her.
“Hi. You stalking me?”
She blushes.
“You’re the girl who’s moved in next door, right? I’m Steve.”
The rain’s falling steadily now: andante moderato.

Hannah pushes tails of wet hair from her face. She stares at Steve’s bare feet caked in mud.
“There’s been a landslide down on Lake Road. Want to see?” he says.
“Um, no, I’d best go back. I’ve not got the right shoes.”
“Take them off. You’ll be fine.”
Hannah thinks no, but slips her shoes and socks off anyway. The mud oozes between her toes and on up over the sides of her feet as she walks.

As they arrive at the landslip, the rain thrashes down, bouncing of the asphalt: allegro.

Within minutes the road’s a river. Steve rolls his trouser legs up and splashes through the water. Hannah flings her red shoes down and joins him. They whoop and laugh as they kick through the deluge. Hannah’s blouse and skirt cling to her skin, stained with grubby rainwater. She doesn’t care – nor about the roll of thunder or the first flash of lightning.

Hannah’s dancing: vivace.

Published in Blue Five Notebook, February 2015 as ‘Dancing’ here:

Flash by Robert Wilton


As when the sun exploded silver off Windermere, freed of clouds and pushing you towards me. Blinded by your beauty, I said; lightning bolt.

But this has come from the corner of the laboratory, which means what we joked and feared has happened. And this is how the affair ends.

Nice, that the last image burned into my eyes should be you. Not Sheila, at home by sink or cupboard, a back, a duty.

Or perhaps not Windermere, not you as revelation. You as inspiration: beside me at the bench here, good old Serial 94 when I got the temperature and the pressure under control and the bloody thing worked at last. The world will remember 1932, you said. Well, I said, we will anyway; and I kissed you. God, your face in that moment; your eyes. Exultation.

I’ve started it now, I said. What if I can’t stop it?

Two fail-safe mechanisms mean this blinding instant should have remained joke and fear. So in this instant I know the apparatus was sabotaged.

But that could only mean Blanchard, or Adler. Blanchard, so worried about my research, so worried the Board would kick him upstairs and put me in as Director. Old Blanchard, who didn’t understand, but feared.

He’d think he could just jinx the apparatus; he wouldn’t know the fatal consequences. Is this a crime of ignorance?

You diagnosed Blanchard’s jealousy, and inferred a threat. (Just as when you presented my potential divorce as the logical conclusion of our little experiment in passion.) His ignorance plus the Board’s new criteria plus the new house equals he’ll do anything to stop you, you said.

Ah, the heat in your eyes when you spoke like that. The clarity, the ruthlessness of your thinking.

Too fast, too certain for me, I said. And too fast and too certain for good scientific practice.

Passion isn’t susceptible of scientific proof, you said. We know it before we understand it.

Like the speed of light versus the speed of sound, we said. You see before you hear.

I was always so fond of your efforts – your beautiful frown, tucking the hair behind your ear, businesslike – to understand something of my world. Quite the most wonderful scientist’s secretary there ever was.

But in this instant I’m being slow. Blanchard wouldn’t know to switch on the current and somehow overcome the safety.

Adler then. My assistant’s Teutonic mind straining with all that ambition and anger. Was this a crime of emotion?

Ignorance and emotion, you said: the secrets to love, and its weaknesses. Analysing love, again. Trying to get me to deduce divorce, again.

Not so fast, I said. Doesn’t work that way. Sheila’s got me.

She will never truly have you, you said.

Can’t be Adler. Not been in since Thursday, and you and I have both been at the apparatus since then.


Speed of light versus speed of sound. Passion beats science. We know it before we understand it.


An interview with Robert Wilton

Robert, on your homepage you advise skipping your website and heading straight for one of Prishtina’s cafés in Kosovo for a chat and a couple of drinks – or Port Gaverne in Cornwall (where you divide your time). Oh, so very tempting, but for the moment a virtual chat will have to do!
First of all, welcome, and thank you for writing a story for Double Espresso. I was thrilled when you emailed to ask if you could write a piece for the website. You’ve published three books to great literary acclaim: Treason’s Tide, Traitor’s Field, and most recently, The Spider of Sarajevo. The reviews for Traitor’s Field are impressive: ‘sets a new benchmark for the literary historical thriller,’ ‘an utterly absorbing edge-of-the-seat thriller’ and ‘a panache unmatched in modern writing.’, The Daily Telegraph describes Treason’s Tide as ‘literary gold’ while Time Out calls it ‘sensational,…. great, intelligent, fun ‘. The Times describes your latest book as ‘a learned, beautifully written, elegant spy thriller’. For your first novel you were awarded ‘Best historical Debut Novel’ by the Historical Writers Association with Goldsboro Crown. Quite a string of accolades.
So how did writing a flash fiction in just over 500 words compare to writing a full-length historical thriller with all its intricacies? Was it an enjoyable or frustrating experience for you?

An enjoyable challenge, certainly – and like going back to my roots. After a first attempt at a novel in my twenties, I switched to short stories for ten years or so. I didn’t want to invest the time and emotional engagement in a novel again until I had something I really wanted to write. I only realized with hindsight that those short stories were the most brilliant training for the novels that are now being published. The short form is a fierce discipline: you learn economy with words, you learn to capture mood and character quickly, and you learn to think creatively about how to focus a scene. I guess it’s not an accident that the structure of my novels tends to be a patchwork of impactful scenes, rather than more protracted episodes. There are a handful of standout action and tension sequences in The Spider of Sarajevo, which in first draft my editor said he liked but thought needed pruning: cutting a 2,000 word vignette in half felt like reworking short stories for competition again.

I gave you a number of writing prompts to choose from – taken from the Peak District OS map: Cliff Edge, Flash, Law, Tin Wood and Little Flats. Why Flash?

Panic. When, with Old Testament ominousness, I got your reminder that our deadline was approaching, I think my spur-of-the-moment instincts were that Cliff Edge and Law might tempt me into too obvious allegories and metaphors, while Tin Wood and Little Flats might require more subtlety than I was feeling up to that morning. And then I thought of flash-to-bang, and had something to build on. Plus – SPOILER ALERT – I liked the idea of responding to your bid for flash fiction with a story that happened in a fraction of a second, actually faster than it could be told or read.

Your version of ‘Flash’, despite the word limitation, is multi-layered and complex, yet the narrative that unfolds is controlled and clean, all the while building up tension and leading the reader to an unexpected revelation. How did you manage this little bit of magic – fitting so much into so few words? Talk us through the writing process.

Perhaps that’s a bit of novel-writing coming back into the micro-fiction – thinking of the structure and trajectory of a narrative. I had the first word and the last word, and that meant only 498 left to go… I then worked out the necessary steps in the structure: the thought process that the narrator needed to go through between those two words; the aspects of the characters that we needed to understand to give weight to the outcome; some sense of when the reader would start to realize what was happening. Again, it’s the bracing discipline of the short form: ‘what is the minimum essential information and characterization here?’ I fleshed out each element of the structure with a sentence or two, and that was already 700 words, and so it was time for the secateurs and indeed the amputation saw.

It’s difficult to single out a particular strength in this piece. There’s much to admire: use of metaphor, the layering of ideas, narrative structure and the depth of characterisation. But it was the way you managed to convey so much in so few words that made a particular impression. One example: ‘at home by sink or cupboard, a back, a duty.’ In ten little words you sum up the state of the protagonist’s marital relationship. Which aspects of writing fiction do you find easiest – the most difficult?

Dialogue can be great fun, especially when you’ve characters you like and really understand: you just set them going and take dictation; there are a couple of scenes in The Spider of Sarajevo between the heroic but rather stolid Major Valentine Knox and the intrepid and rather anti-establishment Flora Hathaway which I’d expected to be a formulaic exchange between very different characters, and instead the differences made for real spark and strength in the dialogue, and at one point I realized they were almost flirting. Lovely. That’s when you realize that a character works. (By contrast, trying to write for characters you’ve not properly formed and understood constantly grates: there are a pair of threat characters in Treason’s Tide, one of whom’s a seductive villain and a constant pleasure to write, while the other’s a kind of radical prophet whose head I only got into very late in the writing, and I still think it shows in the uncertainty of the handling.)

Scene-setting I usually find harder – judging how much straight description the reader needs to experience the scene, and then checking fiddly technical details: I can do you off the top of my head a splendid paragraph on the great sweep of pre-war European mentalities or 17th Century radicalism, but for Traitor’s Field I spent half a day working out from the internet and my green-fingered parents-in-law which particular flower might have been blooming in a particular season during the Civil Wars, just for a single phrase of scene-setting.

As for the economy of words: having said a lot of the discipline comes from short stories, I should add that I think translating poetry is a similar lesson – it teaches you to seek the precise word that captures, with the right register and rhythm and impact, what you want to offer the reader. The example you quote also shows my habit – which wasn’t deliberate or expected; I didn’t set out to prove a point – of playing fast and loose with the conventions of grammar. The English language isn’t a rulebook or a framework: it’s a dressing-up box, a playground, the most astonishingly rich vehicle for communication and creation that has ever existed. I want readers to see, to think, to feel what’s happening in the story, and I’ll break any convention of language to give them that experience.

In your other life, you’ve advised the Kosovo government and run an international mission in Albania, as well as helping to run The Ideas Partnership charity. You’ve also written numerous academic papers on the region. How does fiction compare to the factual writing of politics, history and economics? Do they have any common ground – or are they completely different disciplines?

There’s possibly more overlap than I think – especially given that my novels include documents from a mysterious archive, which occasionally blurs the line between absolute fiction and researched fact. When I write analytical pieces I want readers to think about the human experience rather than just the theories of, say, international interventions in south-eastern Europe or the outbreak of the First World War. And – though I don’t pretend to be writing anything more than entertainment – I want the readers of my novels to be reading something that’s historically absolutely valid and credible; something that could be history.

Your partner, Elizabeth Gowing, is also an accomplished writer. Her books are very different in content and style from yours: part memoir, part travel, part commentary. Do you advise each other, or edit one another’s work? How does one household support two writers?

With one and sometimes two paying day-jobs. We often read to each other what we’ve written, and we know each other well enough – and know each other’s writing potential well enough – to give supportive and honest feedback. Though the main books we’ve done are different in style, we each move around genres quite a bit. (Indeed, among the passing literary references that are in my novels if you want to find them, Elizabeth and her Edith & I managed to sneak into The Spider of Sarajevo.) Also, we just know what it’s like for each other: the good days, the bad days, the self-doubt, the frustration, the grumpiness, and just occasionally the satisfaction. The trick is to try to avoid too many joint bad days.

And finally, what’s next for Robert Wilton? Is there another historical thriller in the pipeline?

There’s a lot of activity around The Spider of Sarajevo at the moment: talks and festivals and so on – there’s been some amazing reaction from reviewers and audiences, and there’s some strong momentum during the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be writing a chapter of a book of essays on the international role in Kosovo, and the fourth of the Comptrollerate-General novels: Treason’s Spring will focus on the French Revolution, and introduce some of the characters who appear in Treason’s Tide.

Once again, Robert, thank you for more than rising to the challenge of writing a ‘Flash’ flash fiction for Double Espresso. It’s been a pleasure to read your piece and publish it on the website.

Robert Wilton’s The Spider of Sarajevo, the third novel drawing on the secret archive of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, is published on the centenary of the events it illuminates, in the weeks leading to the First World War. Robert also writes analytical pieces on south-eastern Europe and international intervention, and translates a little poetry. There’s more at and you can follow @ComptrollerGen.



While you’re afraid of the dark, I embrace the night. Don’t you see, there’ll always be some sort of light out there: a glimpse of moon, a fistful of stars, glow-worms in hedges, and if nothing else, the smear of streetlamps or cats’ eyes on the road.

And while you take refuge beneath the blankets, I hold the black satin of night to my cheek, letting it soothe my mind; knowing it will return me to the cradle and the womb beyond.
And when your nightmares begin to hold you prisoner, I curl up foetal-like and float away. Free of that other life, my dreams lead me where they will.

At first light you quieten, just as I feel the comfort of darkness slip from between my fingers. The dawning is cold. You lie there so still and grey, I lean over your face and listen for your breath. You stir. “Just sleep, won’t you.” Then sigh before turning your back to me.

You sleep. I lie awake. Outside the world has become monochrome, shapeless and featureless. There are no guiding stars. At six am, I think, “just one more hour and I can rise.” I’ll make your tea, soak your porridge; light the fire. At eight o’clock you’ll leave for work. At four in the afternoon I’ll marinade the stew and lay the table. At five-twenty you’ll walk back through the door.

But this time when darkness falls, I’ll walk out: following the line of cat-eyes, the town lights, the glow-worms in the hedges and into the fistful of stars, where I’ll capture the moon. I’ll shape my own world then. My dreams will lead me where I take them.

Lightens by guest writer, Jenny Knowles

Blue is the first colour … and the last.
I dream the unfamiliar chill of faraway England, ‘home’, and stir on the horsehair mattress of my bed, familiar in its lumps and hollows that mismatch my shape even at the end of the longest term at school.
Thin curtains filter the pre-dawn light, their pattern of leaves and flowers grey, like the place I am going to, distant from the colour and scents of my homeland. No birds stir yet, no frog croaks in the dell, no school bell, no calling voices as girls get up and wash in clanking tin basins, no World Service news in the library, no toe-nail porridge – too early yet.
The day pulls slowly, my pillow is hard.
I focus on the curtain, press out thoughts of change to come. Slowly the day lightens. The first colour to seep through the curtain’s grey is blue; then faintly, green, pale yellow, and last the faded red of poppies.
This is the final day. Tonight I’ll be home in our bungalow on the plains, among crates and trunks, packed up, ready to go.

Years later, on a cool May evening, I watch the reverse. As the sinking sun draws its rosy warmth from our faces, we walk through a wood with our Romany friend. He bends to point at the green fronds that sprout from the litter like baby carrot tops. Digging under them he pulls out an earthy nugget, which he rolls between his fingers to reveal a nut of gold.
“Pignut,” he says. “Try it, it’s good.”
We hide behind a clump of last year’s bramble and peer upwind, waiting for the badgers to come. All around, the wood is muted grey, except the bluebells, iridescent in the gloom.

Interview with guest writer, Jenny Knowles

Jenny, I am always excited when I finally open that email from my guest writer with their attached flash fiction. It feels like Christmas – knowing I’m about to open a gift of words. But you have given me two gifts of writing and asked me to choose – and choose I must, even though I would like to publish both stories. At first I thought I would choose the story of Anand and the elephant because I felt it had the stronger narrative, but then I reread the ‘Colours’ story and I was pulled right into that world of colonial India and a more muted England. And I saw that the narrative was beautifully structured as well.
So here’s my question to you: Did I choose the right story?

It depends how strict you want to be about it being flash fiction. The story about Anand and his elephant is fiction, although based on fact and experience of an elephant in musth, when the animal becomes unpredictable and potentially dangerous. The relationship between a trained elephant and his charge is a lifetime bond – both living to a good age, and this is I guess what gives the story its narrative strength.
The chosen story is really memoir, using colours to tie together two scenes from different times and countries. It is more open-ended and could be the start of a longer narrative.
I enjoyed writing both and am completely happy for the choice to be yours.

You trained as an occupational therapist, but now you run a small, independent publishing company, Little Knoll Press. How did the transition from occupational therapist to publisher come about?

Working as an occupational therapist was a long time ago, but I believe any training or life experience builds into the next . I’ve had the freedom (through having a very tolerant husband) to work as a ceramic artist while the children were babies, then as scriptwriter, writing ‘patient education’ and medical scripts, moving quickly to also working as the producer for video productions. Since 1992 my speciality has been oilfield construction project documentary work and this has involved a lot of travel to unexpected places.
Independent video work can be patchy and I’ve filled quieter periods with teaching adult education sessions (courses for people with physical disabilities and others for people with dementia), at a later time running a Gateway Club (for adults with learning difficulties) and working as an activities organiser in a nursing home. Rich on life experience, if not in riches!
I’ve always enjoyed writing and reading, and when my mother could not get about so well I encouraged her to write her life story, which I published, thus starting my company ‘Little Knoll Press’. It’s expanded from just ‘life story’ to local art books and some fiction, including children’s – not ideal because people get confused about what I do, but doing modestly well where I can target the marketing to special interest groups. I’ve learnt a lot and am still learning, hopefully avoiding earlier mistakes. Publishing is hugely challenging, but what better way to share other people’s experiences and stories?

Our paths connected, Jenny, as members of the online writing group, the Itinerant Writers Club run by Liz Cleere. Your writing has always pulled me right into your world –usually India. Although you haven’t lived there for quite some time, it seems to me that India is still very much part of you – across the years and a continent. To what degree has India been your ‘muse’?

I met Liz when she came to the Southampton Boat Show to choose innovative items to test on her yacht ‘Esper’ and then review in ‘Sailing Today’. She chose a Mr D’s thermal cooker from our stand and after trying it gave it a glowing (and deserved) review. But I was more interested in her website and the then fledgling Itinerant Writers’ Club. IWC has been/is a wonderful way to meet other writers online and to learn how to take and give constructive feedback.
Of course I love nothing better than to return to India, where I lived as a child, and writing gives the opportunity to do this whenever I like, in mind if not in body. India is undoubtedly my ‘muse’, although I must admit on the occasions when I’ve been back there, I spend the first couple of days feeling profoundly depressed at its burgeoning population, especially the vast numbers of desperately poor people and the oft repeated plea from the better off, “But what can we do, there are too many of them.” I wish people would realise that if every person did a little it can make a difference.

There are very few writers that transport me to the places and people that inhabit them as you do. They are a feast for the senses, yet have a lovely simplicity in their specific detail. But more than that, your travel pieces tell a story. I’m hoping that emerging from the short pieces you have written for the IWC there is a full-length book coming to fruition? Please tell me it’s true – because I would love to read a memoir of your upbringing in post-war India.

A place like India gets into your blood stream – and you only need to spend a short time there for this to happen.
I’ve always loved Kipling’s stories, having been brought up on them; told by the barber when he came to cut our hair on the veranda, read out loud by my mother on hot season afternoons, and acted out in our games. Only recently I discovered that Kipling actually spent very little of his childhood in India, having been sent home to England at a tender age to board with a miserable couple who were not even relations. Yet his stories, albeit sometimes Colonial in tone, are India.
Wherever you live as a child is ‘normal’. It was only after coming home to England that I realised my childhood was extraordinary – where else could I have gone to nursery school in a palace, drawn around the feet of leprosy patients in the cobbler’s workshop, or gone into the jungle with a tiger hunter (shikari)?
Yes, I’ll write that memoir one day, and the bits and pieces that I’ve done as a member of Liz’s Itinerant Writers’ Club will be in there, making the memoir all the better for the practising of writing craft.

I love the structure of your version of ‘Lightens’, Jenny. You start with the blue of India and the faded grey curtains reminiscent of England; and end with the intense colour of the bluebell wood in an otherwise grey England: watching ‘in reverse.’ Do you write the structure around the story, or is the story written round the structure? What comes first?

If I have an obscure title, as in the one you chose – lightens – I start by playing with the title word. It is an enjoyable game, but one that needs thinking time – usually when I should be going to sleep or if I’m driving somewhere on my own. Oops, drat, missed that turning again!
My experience of life is quite visual, making colour and shape important. Writing is a great chance to play with that. Usually I’m short on ‘story’, being so tied up with setting the scene and getting the mood, so perhaps paying attention to structure compensates for the lack of story. As to which comes first, it’s hard to say. The one thing that I do find is that it’s best to start writing after the thinking time and to edit after leaving the piece for twenty-four hours so that you can re-read objectively.

Writing a story in 300 words or so is tight. You managed it very well. How did you find the experience?

Having the discipline of 300 words is good – it stops me rambling on forever. There are tricks to trimming the sentences and to reshaping them to lose unnecessary words. Some of these tricks are commonly used in poetry.
The other craft is learning to happily discard what doesn’t work. Hopefully you then end up with a piece that is easy on the reader and will be read to its end. If you’ve vastly overwritten it’s easy to keep the first draft on a computer or memory stick and this does mean that you can revisit it sometime and use sections for another story.

And finally, what’s happening in your writing life at the moment?

My writing muscle only gets the occasional chance to exercise these days, because since I started publishing books I am so tied up in the editing and promoting of other people’s work. The up side of that is that when asked to write something, as for Double Espresso, it is sheer fun. So Helen and all the Double Espresso readers, thanks for the chance.

Thank you, Jenny for writing your version of Lightens for Double Espresso. It’s an honour to have one of your pieces on the website.

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