Dining out on prawns (the Japanese way!)

th-2.jpegTwenty years ago I went to live in a small village in rural Japan, ostensibly to teach English, although my real reason was to learn Japanese. As I was working for the Japanese government, my first few weeks were crammed with rather formal parties known as ‘enkai‘ which were mainly attended by middle aged Japanese men and the odd token woman, whose primary purpose was to flutter around serving the men food and beer. As the foreigner (with long blonde hair and blue eyes to boot!) I was the star guest – a lovely position to be in as everything was free and I was treated like a princess. However, the difficulty of these events was that no one could speak a word of English, and at that time I could say little more than konnichiwa!

On one particularly stuffy occasion, after having been subjected to a multitude of tediously long speeches, I noticed a tiny, kimono-clad woman shuffling across the room towards me. As the star guest I was the first to be served. ‘Dozo,’ she said, bowing very low. ‘Please help yourself.’ And she proffered a large basket filled to the brim with shellfish. The speeches stopped and everyone turned to look at me. Still not au-fait with chopsticks, I tentatively leaned in and attempted to pick out one of the prawns. With relief I succeeded in extracting it from the basket and dropping it onto my plate. But no sooner had I done that, did it jump off and scuttle to the end of the room. I shrieked out in shock and the whole room erupted in laughter. I later discovered that once the prawn is on your plate, you’re supposed to take off the shell, dip the poor creature in soy sauce then stuff it quickly into your mouth, breaking its back with your teeth. After that you swallow it. My friend tried it once. ‘Never again,’ he said afterwards as he couldn’t forget the sensation of the wriggling legs as the prawn disappeared down his throat. Having said that, you can’t beat live prawns for freshness, cruel though the manner of death might seem by western standards.

This post is part of SoCS


Finally a bit of success :-)


One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to take part in a few weekly writing competitions, and so far I’ve managed to stick to it. It’s great fun and even if you don’t win, can provide you with ideas or even drafts for future stories. One which I’d particularly recommend and I’ve had a little success in is Write Invite. It runs from 17:30 GMT every Saturday and costs £4.00 to enter. You’re given three different prompts from which you have to choose one and you then have half an hour to write a story. The top three are shortlisted and from the following Wednesday to Saturday all entrants vote for their favourite with the result announced just before the next competition. I was shortlisted last week and ended up coming third. You can read my story here –  Warm hands mean what?

Finishing what you started


I’ve always had a problem with finishing things – books, relationships (!) and now writing. Particularly writing. I  have a whole mass of unfinished short stories, flash fiction and now even a novel thrown into the mix, and when I say ‘unfinished,’ I mean written, but not edited to a suitable standard, a saleable standard, I guess.

I really want to understand the mentality that lies behind not completing something you’ve set out to do. In my case I would say it’s down to self-belief, as the things I truly believed I could do, I persevered with – piano playing, becoming fluent in Japanese and running two marathons.

Writing, however, is a different thing altogether. With the activities mentioned above, there is constant proof you’re improving (passing exams, being able to communicate well and completing races), but with writing, when you’re not winning or getting shortlisted in competitions, you only have your self-belief to tell you that you’re on the right track. Of course you can always depend on your nearest and dearest to tell you how talented you are (my mum is my biggest fan), but they’re probably slightly biased! With a creative pursuit such as writing, you have to dig deep and ignore the little voices that tell you can’t do it.  In my case, it’s getting easier. The more I do it, the more I feel I’m able to do it, so I’ve now reached the stage where it’s easier and more enjoyable to do it than not and that’s a great feeling.

I’m now in the process of revisiting my stories and editing them to the standard where I feel they have a realistic chance of publication, whereas in the past I would have just given up on them and started something new. This not only a sign that my self belief is increasing but also that I’m starting to take my writing more seriously.

Writing in dialect


On Wednesday I was lucky enough to see Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation at the Royal Festival Hall, London. They covered many writing-related topics and one which particularly interested me was the use of the vernacular when writing. Ishiguro commented that he thought Mitchell very bold in the way he totally embraced the language and dialects of his characters, something that he seemed more reticent to do.

I must admit that this is something I’ve always shied away from when writing, I’m not sure why, possibly due to a worry that I’ll get it wrong. However, in the recent NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, one beta reader suggested that I give my characters different voices as it helps keep them separate and adds interest. I read this woman’s story which was excellent, partly due to her ability to use dialect, although I noticed that a few other readers didn’t like this aspect of it, I think because they felt it slowed down the story as they didn’t understand some of the words. I’d love to know what others think.



The peaks and troughs of writing


Yesterday I was feeling a bit flat as I’d received three (writing comp) rejections in a matter of days. It’s so easy at times like this to get demoralised and allow the familiar feelings of doubt to creep in until you quickly end up thinking you have no ability at all (there’s such a fine line between jubilant self confidence and depressive inertia, isn’t there?) I’ve only recently committed to writing, partly because it feels right but also because I believe deep down that it’s something I can do, but sometimes I can’t help wondering whether I’m fooling myself?

What bothers me is that even though these competitions are relatively insignificant, when I get nowhere in them, (especially if I’ve won before), I feel as if I’m going backwards rather than forwards. It’s then that my mind begins to spiral out of control and I end up feeling as if I’m totally and utterly incapable of writing.

What is the answer? I suppose it’s a matter of ignoring the negative little demons and moving on by doing so many little challenges and competitions that when you’re unsuccessful, it doesn’t matter all that much. This is something I’m learning. It’s really helped reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, as she points out that the whole rejection thing is just something you have to deal with. It’s all part of the writing process.

Yesterday when I received my third rejection, I had this horrible knot of disappointment, somewhere around the level of my heart, but instead of instantly blocking the feeling out as I normally would, I absorbed it for a few seconds, really felt the feeling and that helped a lot. Then I forgot about it, opened a bottle of wine and consequently felt a whole lot better.

I don’t think rejection is ever something I’ll really come to terms with, but what I’ve discovered is that it helps to have lots of balls in the air at once. I’m now getting ready for my regular Friday competition, and if I don’t get placed in that, I’ll try to find other places to submit the story. If nothing else, the whole practice of writing to a deadline helps to generate ideas, and having a number of things out there keeps the hope of success alive.

Creative Magic


I’ve just finished reading ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ some time ago and kind of liked it, identified with it I suppose, probably because I’ve travelled a lot, as has Gilbert & we’re around the same age.

Big Magic (subtitled, ‘Creative Living Beyond Fear’) received mixed reviews (on Goodreads). Some reviewers mocked her notion of ideas floating around waiting to connect with the right people, but I found this concept not only believable but also exciting and almost magical, as if an idea is like a soulmate that you need to write into being.

The points I’ve made below are the ones that stood out for me. Gilbert’s advice is simple yet practical and it makes sense to me. After receiving a rejection on Friday, reading her book installed a breath of positivity into my weekend which ended quite nicely when I was long listed in a competition.

She suggests you should:

1/ ‘Reveal what you know’ – it’s not about the qualifications you have, it’s more to do with what you’ve experienced, and that provides you with the fodder you need to be creative.

2/ ‘Start whenever you decide to start.’ There’s no age limit when it comes to creativity. (Gilbert cites the example of a woman who started to study the history of ancient Mesopotamia at the age of 80 and was a world expert by 90!)

3/ ‘Stay with the process,’ as by doing so and not panicking, you’ll ‘pass safely through each stage of anxiety and onto the next level.’ She says that these fears are natural human reactions to interactions with the unknown.

4/ Not aim for perfectionism as it stops you from completing their work and sometimes even beginning it.

5/ Say yes to clues of curiosity (If you’re stuck about what to write, you should consider developing every minuscule idea that has ever remotely piqued your interest).

One of my spring objectives is to get back to my NaNo novel. I managed to write 50 thousand words in November but have since been wondering whether it’s worth completing, but (as a result of reading Big Magic), I now realise that even if it isn’t, that’s not really the point. The point is that I need to finish it for me regardless of whether it gets published or not. Nothing we do creatively is ever a waste of time.

The joys of being single


Continuing on from my previous post, Writing and Solitude, today I came across an article in The Independent newspaper, entitled Illustrator captures the simple joys of being single, about the work of Idalia Candelas, A Mexico-based illustrator who has drawn a series of sketches of women (‘Postmodern Loneliness’) who very much enjoy being alone.

This whole solitude thing is somewhat preoccupying me at the moment as I know that in order to commit to writing, a substantial amount of my time must be spent alone. This is something that bothers me slightly as I’m single and therefore feel I should be out and about meeting new people, rather than holing myself up inside. However, I have to say that even though I’ve always resisted solitude, it is something that I now actually relish and I feel that these beautiful sketches express the idea that singledom and the natural solitude that comes with it can actually be a lovely thing.

Writing and solitude


I’ve been fighting it for ages – this whole commitment to writing thing. Up until recently I was merely dabbling in it, sitting on the fence if you like, and the reason why has only just become obvious to me; namely that by taking my writing seriously I would in effect be signing up to a life of solitude and that scared the hell out of me.

It’s weird really as I’ve always been a quiet introvert at heart, yet many people who know me probably don’t realise that. Quiet maybe; introvert, definitely not. This is mainly because I’ve spent the vast majority of my life doing extroverted type things. I’ve travelled extensively and have lived in five different countries. I’ve had numerous hobbies and adventures and am lucky enough to have a wide circle of friends. However, whereas I’d not too long ago be out most nights, what I actually prefer to do now is relax on my sofa with my kitten and write. I don’t want to go out when I could be working on my craft and as a result, I’m starting to see the benefits.

I feel immensely satisfied when I produce something of worth. Of course it doesn’t always happen but it’s becoming more common than it once was and that I believe, is down to the time I spend writing in solitude.  I don’t want to become a reclusive hermit but I can also see the necessity of spending time alone in order to achieve. Although it’s terrified me in the past, I believe I’m ready for it now. I don’t think I’ll be happy unless I pursue my dream of becoming a successful writer and spending time alone is essential for  that.

I was once almost ashamed to admit I was an introvert who often much preferred staying in alone than going out with friends as it seemed a very uncool thing to do, but I feel different now. Is that to do with age or is it more to do with knowing yourself better (and consequently what makes you happy)? It could be that the two go hand in hand.

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

Last week I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I discussed it in my blog post, Trust your imagination, but the brief was to write a short story of 2500 words or less and the prerequisites were as follows:

Genre – suspense                         Subject – PTSD                    Character – X-Ray technician

One of the attractions of the competition is that we can receive beta reader feedback afterwards provided that we post our stories on a blog or social media platform. So here goes …

Title: Ten days later

Synopsis: The story is set in a hospital where a young woman, Megan has gone in for an X-Ray. It is clear from the outset that something is very wrong and as the story develops, things take on a somewhat sinister tone …

         When I can stand the pain no longer, I get my mum to drive me to hospital.

         ‘I’m worried about you, Meg,’ she says in the car. ‘You’ve been so subdued lately. Won’t you tell me what’s wrong, love?’

        I see her anguish and want to tell her, long to in fact, but instead I mumble that I’m fine and wander off inside. I’m not fine though, I know that.

        The hospital building consists of a maze of corridors with signs emblazoning every wall. After inquiring at reception, I go left then right, then left again and I’m in a huge waiting room with rows of yellow plastic seats and noise. Banging intrusive noise. I put my good hand over one of my ears and try to block it out, but my head’s pounding. I took two sleeping pills last night but still couldn’t sleep. I’m desperate for a drink too so I plonk myself down near the water chiller and pour some of the freezing liquid into a cup. I close my eyes and focus on the shooting pains screeching like sirens through my wrist. It’s weird but I’m almost grateful for them as at least they stop me from thinking.

        I don’t look at anyone and hope no one speaks to me. The sooner I’m out of here the better. The hard plastic is rubbing against me and I can’t get comfortable. I try to ignore the mishmash of noise. Children screaming, the TV blaring and annoying announcements every five seconds. I wish to God I’d brought my iPod. Anything to protect me from this.

        There are tons of seats free but an old lady sits down in the one next to me and pulls some knitting out of her bag.

        ‘Dreadful weather, isn’t it dear? I’m making a jumper for my granddaughter. Almost finished now.’ She proudly holds up what she’s done and I attempt to smile but smiling feels weird. The jumper has brown and orange stripes. I want to tell her that it’ll make the girl look like a bee, plus the wool is that awful scratchy stuff that brings you out in a rash. I think of my rash. On both sides of my thighs. I’ve scratched the skin so much that it’s red, itchy and bleeding now.

        The old lady waffles on and on until I can’t listen any more, but she doesn’t seem to notice. An hour passes. I go to the information desk.

        ‘We’re running late,’ says the chap without looking up. ‘Shouldn’t be long now. There’s a coffee machine at the end of the corridor. You could probably do with a hot drink on a day like today. It’s only going to get colder you know.’

        So I buy a cappuccino, and by the time I get back to my seat, the old lady has gone and I’m alone again. The waiting room is emptying out – it’s 5 o’clock, almost closing time.

         There’s a stack of old magazines on the table in front of me – I lean forward and pick one out. The date on it is January 2013 and the celebrity on the front is dead now. Of cancer last year, and inside is an article on a famous couple who got married that summer. Three years on and they’re divorced. She’s with someone else I think. Dunno about him. I flick listlessly through the mag, all glossy faces and fake smiles. Dunno why people read such crap. Suddenly one of the features catches my eye. I remember that story. It was all over the news several years ago. The woman, a pop star was sexually assaulted after a concert. She disappeared into obscurity but according to the feature, she’s back. To absolute normal too. Completely fine in her showroom house with her hot model boyfriend, everything hunky dory again. Like nothing ever happened. I devour every word of the article and anger sweeps through me like a tornado.

           ‘Back to the Fairytale,’ it’s called.

           What fucking fairytale? How can anyone go back to anything after experiencing something like that?

            I scour the airbrushed photos and read and re-read all the glib words, searching for any signs of trauma. There are none. Then I chuck the magazine back on the table, put my head between my hands and stare at the shiny laminate floor, the last ten days disappearing before me like a chain of dominos.

            ‘Miss Jenkins, Miss Jenkins. Are you all right?’ A large black woman pats my arm. ‘I’ve called your name a dozen times.’

            I jump, the woman’s sharp voice striking my nerves like an electric shock. I nod and draw a breath, raising my head to look at the woman. ‘Yes.’ I feel myself trembling.

            ‘Are you sure you’re okay, love? It’s your turn next. You’re with Mr Simpson in Room 6.’

            I nod again. Everything around me is blurry and I can’t think straight. I sling my bag over my shoulder and move in the direction of the door.

            Back to the Fairytale. I can’t get my head around it.

            ‘Miss Jenkins, is it?’ says the X-Ray technician. ‘Come in. Awful weather, isn’t it? They say it will snow tonight.’ He’s staring at me, completely impassive.

            I look around the room. It’s small and box shaped with a table in the centre, a clock on the wall and a large X-Ray machine hanging from the ceiling. There’s a small adjoining room from where the machine is operated, and once I’m inside, I know I shouldn’t have come. When the technician shuts the door, all noise from the outside is eliminated and the only thing I can hear now is the huge clock with its long, slow thud of a tick. I bite my lip. It’s just me and him now. Me and him.

           He’s still staring at me so I smile, trying to hide how I’m feeling. ‘Yes it’s cold,’ I say and shiver.

           ‘Please, take a seat.’ He pulls out a chair. His English is good but he has a slight accent – Middle Eastern or Italian. Something like that. It’s vaguely familiar. And his smell. It’s heady, intoxicating, too much. A musk-like aroma that drowns my nostrils and makes feel dizzy. It reminds me of something, someone.

           ‘It’s your right wrist, isn’t it. Is that correct?’ he says abruptly, flipping through the papers in front of him.

           ‘Yes,’ I say, watching the spidery writing streaming out of his pen. He’s wearing a ring. On the middle finger of his left hand. It’s silver with an Indian design, and when his cuff slips down his arm I spot a small Chinese character.

           ‘It means love,’ he says, when he catches me looking. ‘I hoped it might bring me some.’ He chuckles and carries on with the form. I start counting, down from twenty then up again. It’ll soon be over. I’ll soon be out of here. Never need to come back. Ever. In front of me on the wall is a picture. It’s a mass of bright colours, kind of like a kaleidoscope, and the colours seem to be changing – from pinks, to blues, to reds, like something out of a dream. I try to focus on it. Forget that I’m here. Forget that I ever came.

           ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ says the technician. ‘It helps my patients relax. Oh, could you possibly remove your watch? Here, I’ll help.’

           I feel his fleshy fingers under the strap. He pulls it through the buckle and slips it off, placing it behind him on the desk.

           ‘Just place your forearm here. Palm down first please. Spread your fingers slightly. That’s the ticket.’

           I feel the cold metal against my skin and wince slightly, then I realise that the bruises I’ve been covering up are even bluer under the harsh lighting. I try to pull my sleeve down but I’m too late. I feel exposed. Bare. Naked.

         ‘Gosh, they’re rather nasty,’ says the technician, slowly running his thumbs over them. ‘How on earth did you get them?’

         ‘I fell,’ I say and look away.

         ‘I see.’ He glances at me for a second then repeats the procedure again, palm side up this time. I squeeze my eyes shut, obliterating the fluorescent lights boring into me from above.

        ‘There are people you can talk to,’ he says. ‘People who can help.’ He’s close to me now, his breath on me. Warm. Heavy. It smells of coffee and cigarettes.

          I shake my head, tears running down my cheeks. ‘No,’ I say. ‘No.’

          He passes me a handkerchief then smiles slightly and disappears into the adjoining room to switch off the machine. ‘Well that’s it. Nothing broken. You’re a very lucky girl.’

          His voice is quiet, sinister, a ghostlike whisper. He lifts my wrist away from the machine and holds onto it for a moment, his grip a little tighter than before. I flinch and pull away.

          ‘I meant what I said, you know. You don’t need to suffer alone.’

           I slowly raise my eyes. The way he’s looking at me. That smile. Those perfect white teeth. And the eyes; amber with a flicker of yellow. I’d never seen eyes like that. Not till that night. It’s him. I know it is. I look away, a feeling of nausea enveloping me. The smell of him is suddenly everywhere; in my lungs, my brain, my consciousness. I have to get out of there.

         ‘You look awfully pale, Miss Jenkins. Are you okay?’

        The room is closing in on me. I gasp for air. The X-Ray technician is standing in front of the door. I scream, shove him out of the way and jam my sore hand down on the handle. It opens and I’m free. The waiting room is empty now and even the receptionists have gone. I pull my hood over my head and search frantically for the exit. A green rectangular sign appears out of nowhere and I stagger towards it. An old lady with her hair in a bun is mopping the floor nearby.

        ‘Careful, love,’ she says as I bump into her.

        In the car park, the icy air is cold and fresh. It’s dark now and flurries of snow have started to fall. I take a deep breath and begin to walk. Faster and faster. Faster and faster. I rush through the gate and turn left, darting down a side street. The main road is five minutes away. The bus stop isn’t far. I can make it. I know I can. But suddenly I hear him.

        ‘Miss Jenkins. Megan!’

        ‘No!’ I close my eyes and run, the pain in my wrist forgotten.

        His footsteps are getting nearer. He’s almost upon me. ‘Miss Jenkins, wait!’

        I run faster. Like a gazelle, a sprinter, an athlete; my heartbeat in my ears. ‘No,’ I scream again. Over and over. Over and over. I can’t breathe. Flashes from that night are coming back, then vanishing. Coming back, then vanishing. Like a fucked up fairground ride. His smell. His voice. His body. Pushing onto me. Into me. His laugh. Nasty. Sneering. Evil. His hands mauling and grabbing at my body.

       Lurid neon and chicken shops leap out at me from the high street. I run the last few yards and reach the bus stop, breathless. The 159 pulls up beside me. I jump on and sink into a seat.

        The X-Ray technician is close behind. He stops just as the doors of the bus shut but I hear what he says. ‘You forgot your watch, Miss Jenkins. That was all.’ And as he begins to walk back to the hospital, I see him slip my watch into his pocket and smile to himself.

The importance of a relationship with place

This morning I started reading the most recent edition of Granta, entitled ‘What have we done?’ and the first piece (‘The Invitation’) really made me think. In it Barry Lopez discusses his experiences of travelling with indigenous people and how they much they value ‘the importance of intimacy with a place.’ He comments that

Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place.

I’ve recently started following several bloggers who live in the countryside and I’ve noticed that much of what they blog about is closely connected with the place in which they live. Mark Anderson, for example, in his blog, Down Many Roads often talks about his home in rural Illinois, and aspects of the changing seasons. (e.g.  Is spring on the way or are the robins confused? ) and this is the kind of thing I love to read.

Also, one of the writers I particularly like is Tim Winton as he blends many of his stories (e.g. those in The Turning), seamlessly into the Australian landscape.

After reading the piece by Barry Lopez, I thought about how difficult it can be to truly appreciate and feel a part of your environment, particularly when you live in a city as I do. Having said that, there are parts of London where there is a great deal of nature. I’m surrounded by three vast commons and I live near Richmond Park, where deer roam freely, so it’s not impossible.


Barry Lopez comments that

Every natural place, to my mind, is open to being known

so what I feel I need to do now (as do many city dwellers), is follow his suggestions.

1/ Pay attention (something all writers should do in any case!)

2/ Be patient

3/ Be attentive to what the body knows

In so doing, I hope to gain a sense of truly belonging to South London, the place I have chosen to call my home.