Friday, 14 December 2012

Margaret Jones and the Weedy Dealer

Ages ago, all the way back in first year, I came up with the idea of Margaret Jones, an eccentric botanist who uncovers a Drug Lord's giant stash. Her story has been building slowly in my head and this term I finally got around to writing some of it. If you can't remember Margaret Jones here is a story of her as a child: Margaret Jones' Childhood Adventure, or a tale of Hilary Bishop in: Margaret Jones' Rival. What I've written here is the beginning of Margaret Jones' and the Weedy Dealer. I had quite a few tutorials about this piece and one of my lecturers, who is a professional editor, said she could see it working quite well in the publishing world as it is a unique and quirky idea. Let's hope that comes through in the marking. Also, after reading through this I just remembered how I was going to end it, but I had so many other assignments that I forgot. Damn. Anyway it's still good so give it a read!

Margaret Jones and the Weedy Dealer 

Margaret’s knee twinged. The sharp pain shot straight down her leg. Her ankle buckled and she fell into the damp undergrowth. Glasses askew, Margaret desperately tried to recall if she had taken her arthritis medicine that morning. She straightened, wary of her knee. Putting most of her weight on her right leg, she massaged her left. Once the pain had subsided Margaret checked in her pack. She eventually found the Advil box crushed at the bottom, underneath some dirty underwear and loose teabags.

‘Damn it.’

She remembered then, she hadn’t taken them that morning, or the morning before, or even the morning before that. She briefly wondered whether taking three at the same time was safe before popping all three pills. Out of her many-pocketed satchel she pulled out her Dictaphone, a present from her son. She rarely used technology (Andrew had been trying to explain the World Wide Web to her for the past five years) but the Dictaphone did have its advantages over a notepad and pen. Mainly because Margaret was forever losing her pen, then finding it later knotted in her frizzy hair.

She pressed the record button and a little red light blinked.

‘Must take arthritis medication,’ she said clearly into the small mike. She rewound it and played it back to herself a couple of times just to make sure she really would remember. Satisfied, she swung the pack onto her shoulders and continued trekking into the jungle.

‘Day thirty eight in the Vietnamese jungle. So far no sight of the Aquilaria Crassna,’ she spoke into the Dictaphone. ‘I’ve not lost hope yet, though. I’ve been on far longer expeditions before. After all, it took me months in Russia to find the Silene stenophylla frozen in the ice, and then those Russian botanists took all the credit for reviving it. Bloody commies. And did they even mention my name? No. Probably that witch, Hilary Bishop’s idea…Oh, now, what was I talking about again?’ It was at this point that Margaret realised that the confounded gadget hadn’t even been recording.

‘Just as well, I suppose.’ She readjusted her pack and satchel, cleared her throat and made sure she pressed record this time. The red light was on.

‘Day thirty eight in the Vietnamese jungle. Still no sighting of the Aquilaria Crassna, but I’m not overly concerned. I know it’s out here and I will find it eventually. In the mean time I have seen some very interesting specimens of the Paphiopedilum genus. My particular favourite is the delenatii, its fragrance was beautiful, sweet and delicate.’

She had tried to take a photograph with her digital camera (another present Andrew had bought her for the trip) but she couldn’t get the damned thing to work properly. She couldn’t figure out how to turn off the flash and it just wouldn’t focus. In the end she had thrown the camera into her pack and drawn a diagram of the flower instead.

‘I will endeavour to find the Aquilaria Crassna. Its threatened status grows more severe by the day, and for all I know it could be extinct already. Finding this plant is one of my last chances of resurrecting my career.’ She sighed and pressed the stop button. The red light went out.

Margaret was putting the Dictaphone back in her satchel when she saw a neat piece of paper poking out of the left pocket. She plucked it out and unfolded it. Across the top was the University of Cambridge insignia and underneath The Department of Plant Sciences. Margaret ran a hand through her hair. She read the stowaway note, her eyebrows rising higher and higher up her forehead. Phrases like ‘keep your valuables safe’, ‘watch out for strangers’ and ‘don’t forget to use bug repellent’ made Margaret wonder whether the writer realised that she was not a child, and in fact hadn’t been in a very long time. Only when she looked at the neat Andrew Bennet-Jones signature at the bottom did her indignation fade. It was in her son’s nature to fret over everything, especially her. And, she supposed, she did give him good reason to. She folded the letter carefully and placed it in between the pages of a notebook. Andrew would be glad to see her back home soon, though probably disappointed that she hadn’t found the Aquilaria Crassna. It had, after all, been his idea to search for it.

Through the treetops Margaret could see the beginnings of an orange sky and set up her small tent, forgetting to spray herself with bug repellent. Inside the tent she took off her glasses, folded them, and laid them carefully on the floor beside her. Once settled into her sleeping bag she hummed simply to herself. She twiddled her thumbs and tapped her toes. But still that niggling feeling did not go away. Being an explorer could be quite lonely at times and Margaret was finding herself wishing she had someone to talk to. She had tried travelling with people before but she had found that no one had really shared her passion for plants and they ended up frustrated, as they had to stop for every new flower Margaret saw. Likewise, Margaret would get annoyed at them for not wanting to stop and look at the new flowers. In the end, it was just Margaret on her own again but she found she liked it that way.

That was until tonight.

The jungle was eerily silent; no nocturnal bird calls, no whispering of trees, nothing – never a good sign. Her mouth grew dry. Andrew’s words circled in her mind. Watch out for strangers. Any man she’d meet out here would be strange. Even stranger if they wanted an old woman like herself. Though she had never really considered herself old - Snap! A branch cracked like a gunshot. Margaret was not scared of much. She’d once kept spiders and snakes as pets, she loved climbing tall trees, and the darkness had proven to hold some very remarkable plant life. Yet this noise sent her heart racing. She fumbled for her glasses, having already forgotten where she had put them, then eased herself out of her sleeping bag. She paused every time the slippery fabric rustled, waiting to see if she’d been heard. Even the creaking of her gammy knee joint set her on edge. She made it to the tent entrance just as more twigs crunched. This time much closer. Margaret reached for her pack and pulled out her trusty machete. She held it in one hand as she leant forward and tugged at the fastening of the tent’s entrance with the other. Although she pulled as slowly as she could, the buzz of the zip seemed as loud as a nest of angry Vespa Crabro. She stopped. The minutes ticked away before she heard another noise. A scuffle to the right, only feet away. Before she could lose her nerve Margaret tore open the tent, machete raised, and leapt outside to face her attacker.

She came face to face with nothing.

She looked around her. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the fine light of the half-moon that filtered through the trees. At her feet was a large scaly ball. Her racing heart began to relax and she lowered her machete. She waited, careful not to make any noise, and soon enough the scaly ball uncurled. A large creature, nearly a metre long, lay before her. It lifted its pointed head towards her and blinked both its beady black eyes. It turned, each of its diamond-shaped keratin scales moving together as it continued its night-time scavenging. The creature’s long nose sniffed around her tent before it plodded off into the jungle undergrowth.

‘Watch out for poachers, little fella,’ she whispered after it.

As soon as she was back in her tent, Margaret reached for her Dictaphone. ‘A Sunda Pangolin,’ she whispered. ‘A member of the Pholidota order, not to be confused with the Pholidota orchid. Simply put: a scaled anteater.’

Margaret tutted to herself as she climbed back into her sleeping bag; fancy being scared of a Pangolin. She was losing her touch. Andrew would be disappointed.
‘Day fifty-four. I was sure I would have found the Aquilaria Crassna by now, or at least been close. But nothing.’ Margaret stormed through the jungle, shoving vines and branches aside - she had a machete but she hated to use it on living plants. ‘I’m starting to think any plant would be good, not necessarily the Aquilaria Crassna. Just something to take back to England. Something to show those snobs at Kew Gardens.’

The jungle was alive with noise; birds sung across the trees, insects buzzed as they flew from anther to stigma. There was a rustling as a group of Cat Ba Langur monkeys, their orange fur burning intensely in the afternoon sun, scurried through the treetops. Margaret smiled as the monkeys chatted to one another and didn’t feel so alone. With a wave to the Cat Ba Langurs, she continued her trek. Bursting through a thick clump of trees, she found herself on the edge of a gaping trench. She wobbled for a moment before regaining her balance.

‘Thank goodness,’ she breathed, wiping at her sweaty brow that had attracted many annoying midges.

She turned to walk alongside the canyon. Only her knee twinged.

As she tumbled down through mud and roots she remembered she hadn’t taken her arthritis pills for a while. In fact, it had probably been nearly a week. She tumbled head over heels for what felt like hours. When she finally came to a stop at the bottom Margaret thought she was going to be sick. She lay in a muddy heap, leaves clinging to her hair, and took a few deep breaths. Eventually the world stopped spinning and she sat up, realising the Dictaphone still in her hand. Somehow, Margaret had managed to keep hold of it through the entire tumble.

She popped it in her pocket before checking her body. Her arms were okay if not a little bashed. Her satchel had flown from her shoulder but her pack had wrenched her arms backwards as it was torn from her. Her head and back were all intact. She ran her hands over her hips, they were good too. Margaret couldn’t believe her luck. Her friend, Joyce had fallen out of bed and needed an iron pin in her hip. She had just rolled down a hundred-foot hill and come out dandy.

It was only when she looked around and everything was blurry did she realise something very important was missing. Her hands flew to her face. ‘Blast.’

She crawled around in the musty ground, her fingers sinking into the sodden dirt, desperately trying to find her glasses.

‘Bloody nuisance. Maybe Andrew was right, should’ve gone for that laser eye surgery after all.’

Panic was rising within her when she touched the long arm of her glasses. She quickly shoved them on and was disheartened to see a large crack down the left lens distorting her vision.

‘Double blast.’ She took them off again but could barely differentiate between petal and leaf. ‘It will have to do,’ she sighed as she placed them back on her nose.

The contents of each bag was scattered around her. Grumbling, she crawled around collecting all her possessions.

Once everything was back in their correct pockets and pouches Margaret got her bearings. By the way the plants were growing she could tell she had taken a tumble to the East. She was off course; she had been making her way down South. She looked back up the hill. There was no chance of her ever being able to make it back up there again, even if she was a spry, young woman. She pulled out her Dictaphone.

‘An ill-footed mishap has caused a change in route. I will continue my course and hope to be back on track by nightfall. I will…’ Margaret trailed off.

While talking she had been scouring the surrounding trees. There were plenty of Renanthera citrina, whose flowers looked like tiny men jumping for joy, and a very striking Cycas condaoensis, which many people would laugh at but she never found phalluses humorous; it was, after all, a very common shape in nature. But tucked behind some fallen leaves of the Asian Koki Mosau (a species of tree that she’d always felt sorry for after it was badly decimated during war time) was an unusually shaped plantlet. Slowly, she crept towards it as if it were a Large-Antlered Muntjac that would easily scare. When she was inches away she spoke into the Dictaphone.

‘It’s not the Aquilaria Crassna,’ she whispered, ‘but I have come across the most curious plant. It is only a foot tall, it should be struggling to survive in this jungle yet it has an erect Caulescent stem. It has five minuscule digitata leaves sprouting at the top of said stem. Each leaf is a deep shade of minty green. It has no flowers, buds, or nodes.’ She leant forward and rubbed between her finger and thumb. ‘It is puberulent, with fine hairs on each leaf.’ She breathed deeply. ‘No overwhelming smell.’ She looked around her for any other plantlets, or even a fully grown specimen. Nothing.

Margaret rummaged in her pack and pulled out the digital camera. She spent a couple of minutes working out how to turn it on before remembering to take the lens cap off. Leaning in close, as she still hadn’t worked out how to use the zoom, she snapped a dozen or so photographs. Satisfied, she put the digital camera away and pulled out her knife. Tenderly, she cut one of the leaves and part of the adjoining stem from the plant. She would have it preserved as a herbarium and sent off to Kew. She could already hear their cries of excitement at this new plant. ‘Who found this wonderful new specimen?’ they would ask. ‘Why, the brilliant Margaret Jones, of course.’ Finally, she would be a renowned botanist once more. That would knock Hilary Bishop off her pedestal.

Humming off-key to herself, Margaret placed the plant sample safely in her satchel. She searched the undergrowth and found a long, smooth branch, perfect for a makeshift walking stick. Walking a couple of steps she was pleased that her knee was no longer as stiff as it had been before. Everything was beginning to look up.

‘I may not have found the Aquilaria Crassna but sometimes you have to count your losses. This unknown plant could be more important to my career than Aquilaria Crassna ever could be. Andrew, I’m coming home.’

To celebrate Margaret brought out a box of tea bags and a battered tin cup from her pack. It was only once the water had stopped boiling that she realised the jungle was silent.

Suddenly, a gunshot split the air. Margaret jumped, nearly dropping her Dictaphone. Another blast sounded, and tree bark shattered only feet away from her. Without hesitating, she instinctively ran deeper into the jungle, away from danger.

‘Bloody poachers,’ she cursed, as she half ran, half hobbled past looming trees and a number of colourful flowers, that would have normally caught her attention.

Soon the gunshots were far behind her and she allowed herself to breathe. If there was one type of person Margaret didn’t want to meet while on her expeditions, it was poachers. The scourge of the natural world. They were greedy and vicious. Just because she was a human being wouldn’t stop them from doing God knows what. Her hands were shaking, and it had nothing to do with her arthritis.

He could feel the withering pain in his arm again. Absently he rubbed at it while he paced the room. It had been nearly an hour since he had sent the men out and still nothing. They’d better have good news, he thought. He glanced over at the monitors that lined the walls. There were cameras hidden all over the plantation and some in the surrounding jungle, too. The fields were clear, each guard manning his post, submachine gun poised. That woman, that strange, old woman, who had appeared out of nowhere, had gotten close. Too close. If she had walked only a few steps further she would have been right in the middle of his crops. He gripped his arm tightly. She had to be seen to.

There was a knock on the door.

‘Enter,’ he said quickly. Even he could hear the pain in his voice.

Two guards walked in, AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. He could tell from their sullen expressions that they had not been as successful as he would’ve liked.

‘What happened?’

The first one looked to the other before speaking, ‘We scared her off, Boss.’


‘But, she’d seen this,’ the other guard said as he pulled one of their crops from behind his back. ‘Looks like she took some of the leaves, too.’ The roots dropped dirt onto the floor. He looked at it, his lip curling.

‘And you just let her get away?’ The pain in his arm was growing. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

‘We didn’t let her, Boss.’

‘She was quicker than she looked.’

‘She’s an old woman. She was using a branch as a walking stick and you couldn’t keep up with her?’ he exploded. The pain reached new heights, and not for the first time, he wanted to tear the crippled thing from his body. He collapsed into his chair.


‘Get out,’ he hissed. ‘Get out there and find her.’

‘Then what?’

‘Finish her.’

The two men nodded. One guard left but the other turned and placed the hybrid coca plant on the desk in front of him. He stared down at it.

He might have been a pushover once. A pansy. A wimp. But not any more. Dirt went flying as he swept the plant off the table.

That woman was going to be sorry she ever messed with him.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Toil and Trouble

Phew! I managed to complete my Writing History Fiction assignment just in time.
This was one of the most stressful assignments I've had to do since being at university; the third year is really getting to me. Luckily, I'm ahead of the game with my ECP so that's not something I have to worry about right now.
Anyway, this piece was so stressful because writing historical fiction is surprisingly difficult (and probably not helped by the poor organisation of the module). I had never thought about it before, but there is so much research involved, and then the fact that it is in the past is very restricting - there are so many things you have to be wary of, like how people talk, what they use, what they wear, you know, everything! It didn't help that I set mine so far in the past; the 17th Century was definitely a bad idea. I had a work-shopping session with my friends and they picked out a lot things, like bad sentences, spelling errors, boring parts, lack of setting. It just sounded like my whole piece was rubbish. It was helpful, but also a little disheartening. I felt like nothing I had written was very good.
I was ready to throw in the towel and give up.
I didn't though, and I worked very hard on it. Now it's done. I can breathe again. And in the end, after all that, I actually kind of like my piece. It's the beginning of a longer novel about witchcraft and superstitions in the 1600's. And I've just realised how fitting the title is, I did have a lot of toil and trouble of this piece. I am so unintentionally clever!

So give it a read. (it's not as bad as I've made it out to be!)

Toil and Trouble

‘That if any pson or persons after the saide Feaste of Saint Michaell the Archangell next comeing, shall use practise or exercsise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and spirit, or shall consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or pupose ; or take any dead man woman or child out of his her or theire grave or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone or any other parte of any dead person, to be imployed or used in any manner of Witchecrafte, Sorcerie, Charme or Inchantment ; or shall use practise or exercise any Witchcrafte Sorcerie, Charme or Incantment wherebie any pson shall be killed destroyed wasted consumed pined or lamed in his or her bodie, or any parte therof.’
An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits, 1604

Lancaster, England
20th August 1612
The wind blew violently through the trees as Isabel caught her first glimpse of the gallows. She stood as straight as her bonds would allow her. It did not matter what they said. She knew she was innocent.
December 1608
Fire crackled in the hearth. Inviting light licked the sides of the stone walls and chased shadows away. The rabbit roasting on the hot broach filled the room with delicious scents that even the fullest belly would not be able to resist. Isabel savoured the smell of freshly cooked food and the warmth on her legs. That winter had been unforgiving and she had no money for food, or any of the herbs for her remedies. Despite wearing her thickest woollen petticoat and shift, the cold air bit at her limbs. Rubbing her legs with stiff arms, she sighed with pleasure as Mary fretted around her.
‘You know you should not be here, Isabel,’ she said, her voice rising high with panic.
                Isabel looked over to her goddaughter. Mary’s slight figure and silken hair were reason for her many admirers in Windel. But to Isabel it was the beauty of her face that made her so lovely. Mary had inherited her mother’s dark eyes and rosy lips, a pairing that never ceased to trap men of all ages under her spell. Now, however, Mary’s brows met in the middle and her eyes darted to the door. She sat in her chair, stood, paced around the room, and then sat again. She repeated this motion four times until Isabel finally spoke.
                 ‘My dear, he won’t be back until nightfall. Cease your worry.’ Isabel rose and rested her hands on Mary’s tense shoulders. Her body was rigid for a moment before she curled into Isabel’s comforting arms.
                ‘He’ll be back soon, and then it will start once more.’
Isabel smoothed her goddaughter’s hair and sang softly to her:

‘And I was lost and
In her spell
I floated high
Before I fell
Into love
We lay
In the shade
Of the trees
Entranced by her I
Gave my all
Entranced by her I gave.’

Once Isabel had finished singing Mary looked up at her. She opened her mouth to speak but Isabel would never find out what she was going to say. The door flew open suddenly. Isabel and Mary turned as one to face the man in the door-place.  Cold air rushed in and the fire flickered dangerously in the hearth.
‘Peter,’ Mary began, but he did not look at her. His bleary eyes focused slowly on Isabel and she knew what was going to happen. The dark, sour stains down the front of his linen shirt that could be seen through his unbuttoned coat, the shaking hands, and bloodshot eyes made Isabel’s stomach turn. He was drunk.
‘It is true then, the devil woman has been visiting my own home whilst I have been away,’ he said, each word slurred into the next.
‘No, Peter, it’s not –’ Mary started, as she hurried to take his snow covered hat and coat.
‘Out!’ he interrupted her, pointing one fat finger at Isabel. ‘Get out of my house.’
His face was reddened with rage and too many days of drinking ale. Mary faltered, one hand holding limply onto his hat. The smell of burning rabbit filled the air as Peter stared down at Isabel. Rearranging her skirts, Isabel climbed to her feet and faced him, taking care not to breathe in the sour stench of sweat and alcohol. Peter swayed on his feet.
‘You should rest, you drunken lout, or you will be ill tomorrow,’ Isabel snapped.
‘What? Are you threatening me?’
‘No, I’m – ’
‘Get out,’ he interrupted again. ‘Get out, you witch.’
Mary gasped but Isabel was prepared for the slander. She straightened as much as her aching bones would allow, refusing to show any pain.
‘I was just leaving, Chaddock.’ They faced each other, eye to eye, barely breathing, before Peter spat at her. The thick, brown drop landed on her shoe. Isabel pulled back her lips in distaste. Sneering, Peter stumbled over to a chair by the fire and started poking at the ruined rabbit. Mary stared down at Isabel’s feet; the hat now lay forgotten on the floor. With a pained look she motioned towards the door.
‘I am sorry,’ she mouthed.  Grabbing her cloak, Isabel gave her a silent nod in reply. There was no ill feeling between them; Isabel knew that her goddaughter was trapped. Opening the door, Isabel let another blast of cold air rush around the room. This time the fire went out.
‘You blew out my fire. Witch! Witch!’ Peter screamed, leaping from his chair. Mary let out a breath of surprise. Hurriedly, she grabbed at Peter, trying to pull him back down into his chair, to hush him. Isabel threw Mary a grateful look before sweeping out the door, her skirts and cape swirling around her. The door closed with a bang. Out in the street many people had gathered.  They whispered behind their hands, their eyes wide.
‘I heard witch,’ one man said.
‘Who’s the witch?’ asked another.
As they saw Isabel their faces paled. Margaret Lyon crossed herself. Jane Wilkinson grabbed her children’s hands and dragged them away, their feet slipping in the snow. Isabel walked boldly down the cobbled street. The villagers of Windel may whisper about witches and black magic but all were too frightened to face Isabel Robey and accuse her so brazenly. They would bide their time. They would condemn her in the end.


The following weeks were bitter cold and terrible storms overwhelmed the village. Trees were stripped naked and torn from their roots, the rivers had frozen over, becoming slick and perilous, and houses were buried deep under mounds of snow. This disastrous weather caused Isabel difficulties in finding the herbs she needed. She could no longer sell her remedies to the villagers, though most were now wary of her cures.  The pains in her bones were growing worse. Her back was stooped and she limped heavily on her left leg. She yearned for a fire and a tender piece of meat to cook. But she could not collect the fire wood herself, and her riches were too few – she could not afford any pigeon or fish. Stale bread and water, melted from the snow, were all she could have. Starving and pained her heart grew weary. Isabel pined for the comfort of her goddaughter. Ever since the brute, Chaddock, had accused her of witchcraft she had steered clear of him and Mary but she could bare it no longer. On good days, when the wind wasn’t so cold and snow fell lightly, she would walk the streets of Windel desperate to catch a glimpse of her.
One morning, when the sun had only just risen, she wandered down to Saint Helen’s chapel, the frost biting at her toes. Her grey hair whipped around her face refusing to stay in place under her coif. Few villagers were out and Isabel was grateful. Their whispers and stares affected her more than she cared to admit. She had reached the iron gates of the chapel when Mary appeared before her.
‘Oh, Mary, dear, I have been so worried.’
Isabel made to hug her, but she moved quickly out of her reach. A piercing pain struck Isabel’s chest, and she found it hard to breathe. She looked upon her goddaughter with confusion. Mary was drawn and her skin a sickly pallor. Her eyes were downcast and even though she tried to hide them with her sleeves, Isabel saw the marks that covered her pale arms.
‘It is nothing,’ Mary hastily said, noticing Isabel’s gaze.
‘Nothing?’ Isabel started, reaching out for her once more.
‘Yes, nothing. Isabel, I’ve come to warn you. If Peter ever sees you near me again he will not be pleased. He will be dangerous.’
Isabel wanted to argue but seeing the fear in her goddaughter’s eyes stopped her.
‘But I can help you,’ Isabel said and she finally grabbed Mary’s hand in her own.
‘I do not need help. I am his wife and it is my duty.’ She said it strongly, but Isabel saw her lips tremble. Pulling her hand out of Isabel’s grasp broke the bond that they had shared. With a sad smile Mary turned and walked down the road, away from Isabel. She did not look back. Isabel watched as she disappeared into the swirling snow.


Returning home, Mary met with Peter pacing in the kitchen. He stopped and turned on her, eyes flashing. The strong smell of ale burned at her nostrils. He grabbed her shoulders fiercely.
‘Did you tell her?’ he asked, spittle flying from his mouth. His fingertips pressed into the soft flesh of her arms and Mary knew she would have more marks tomorrow.
‘I told her,’ she cried out. ‘I told her!’
This seemed to satisfy Peter and he let her go. She collapsed onto the dirty tiled floor. Tears prickled at her eyes. She had just warned off her closest friend and ally. She was alone.
‘Pour me some ale,’ her husband ordered as he lowered himself into a chair by the fire. Brushing down her skirts Mary clambered to her feet. Her hands shook as she reached for the cask of ale and tankard. Tears slipped down her cheeks and she could not help the small sob escape from her lips. Across the room, Peter’s head turned.
‘Is there a problem?’ he spoke slowly. Mary shook her head, eyes on the floor. ‘Are you crying because of that crone?’
She shook her head again. Peter was up and next to her. Strong hands forced her chin up. His large, heavily-lined face loomed in front of hers, eyes narrowed. A dirty nailed finger wiped away a tear as it rolled down her cheek, a gesture of mock kindness. His hands caressed her cheek and along her jaw, then down her throat. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. Suddenly, his hands tightened around her neck. The tankard dropped to the floor with a crash.
‘Do you love her more than me?’ he growled. The blood pounded in her head and she fought for breath. ‘Do you?’ He gripped her neck further.
‘N-no,’ she choked out. Her vision was fading when he finally released her. She fell to her knees. Before she could catch her breath, Peter yanked her to her feet again and dragged her to their bedchamber. She clawed at his hands pathetically. If he wanted her there was nothing she could do to stop him. With cruel strength he threw her onto their bed. He was on her in moments, pulling at the ties of her apron. She struggled beneath him, becoming tangled in the folds of their bed-clothes. Pinning her down with his legs, he lifted her petticoats and shift. With one hand he held her arms above her head as he reached down between their bodies to untie his breeches. Mary lay limp, looking past Peter, staring at the ceiling, willing herself to be somewhere else. She closed her eyes and waited for the moment.
And waited.
Slowly she opened her eyes. Peter was still above her, body frozen, his head bent to one side. His lips pulled back into a feral snarl, his eyes filled with hate.
‘My neck,’ he groaned, ‘it has gone stark. I cannot move it.’ He crawled off her, his neck stuck at an odd angle. Mary looked down upon her husband lying on the floor groping at his neck, relief washing over her.
‘This is that witch’s doing! She’s worked her sorcery upon me,’ Peter cried out. ‘I’ll kill her.’

A quick rap at the door surprised Isabel. No one ever visited her house. Her heart skipped a beat. Perhaps it was Mary. Hurriedly, she put away her mortar and pestle, careful not to spill any of the Herb Bennet. She straightened her dress and opened the door. Snowflakes drifted in on the breeze. Isabel’s heart dropped. It was not Mary. It was a strange man she had seen before in the village; he claimed to be a wise-man. He had oily grey hair with a long beard. His body was hidden beneath a thick, black travelling cloak. A yellow-toothed grin stretched across his narrow face.
‘Isabel Robey, my name is James Glover,’ he said politely. He made to enter the house but Isabel blocked him. His smile faltered but he continued. ‘Mister Chaddock has asked for my aid, he says you have bewitched him.’
Isabel snorted. ‘That oaf deserves everything he gets, but his grievances are not by my doing.’ She made to close the door, but Glover stuck his boot in.
‘Isabel, the village calls upon me as the wise-man to sort out their problems.’
‘I know what you say you are,’ she said, but he ignored her.
‘They understand my ways, the use of my charms to help their families and livestock against any ills. But they do not understand you.’
‘I am not a witch, Glover. I have my remedies and that is all.’
‘That is not what they say in the village. Many are wary of you, some frightened. But soon they will grow angry and reckless, especially if Chaddock has his way.’
Isabel was not scared of Chaddock, or of anything he may do to her. It was Mary that she was fearful for. She nodded to Glover.
‘I am not a witch, and I did not harm Chaddock, but I shall watch myself.’
‘I am glad,’ he said as he gave her a hard stare. ‘Be careful Isabel Robey, our magic is a treacherous gift.’ He added, before walking down the hill to Windel.
                Isabel closed the door and leant against it, her chest tight.
Peter Chaddock would not rest until she was dead.


                 Mary visited her five days later.
                 Isabel’s aches had become too sore for her to leave her one-roomed house; she huddled beneath heavy woollen blankets by a meagre fire, desperate for warmth. Her stomach growled loudly and she wondered when she had last had anything other than mouldy bread. There was a knock at the door but Isabel did not move. If it was a villager asking for help she would be of no use, and she did not want to see James Glover again. She had given up hope on seeing Mary. There was creaking as the door handle was twisted. Eyes wide, Isabel watched as the door opened. The miserable fire flickered in the wind. Mary stood in the door-place, a frown marring her beautiful features. She saw Isabel lying on the floor and gasped.
                ‘Isabel, oh, Isabel. Please be well,’ she cried as she ran to her. Isabel welcomed her goddaughter’s embrace. Tears ran down her gaunt face.
                ‘Mary dear, I am fine, if not a little chilled.’
                ‘Oh, sorry,’ Mary said and quickly closed the door. Together they sat on the floor by the fire and Isabel felt warmer than she had in many days. She cried more when she saw Mary had brought slices of salted meat with freshly baked bread, and a flask of ale. Eating greedily she listened as Mary told her of Chaddock’s pained neck and how they called upon the wise-man, Glover. He had said Isabel was no witch and if Chaddock were to pray he would be better within the week. He had awoken that morning with full health.
                ‘He was in such a fine mood, he did not mind my leaving. Though I did not say it was to meet you,’ she said with a sly wink.
                Isabel finished off the bread and took a swig of ale. While Mary had been talking Isabel had been looking for the marks on her goddaughter’s arms. They were there, but faded. What scared her were the angry purple ones on Mary’s slender neck. Isabel smiled at Mary but could only think of how she was going to punish Peter Chaddock.
A pained neck would be the least of his grievances when she was done.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Scary Book Cover

I have a lot of essays due (in fact, one's due tomorrow) so I think now is the best time to start learning how to use Photoshop. I've been experimenting with posters for the upcoming tournament my Ultimate Frisbee team is holding in March (the team's called Fly Hard, after Die Hard. That was all my idea!). But posters weren't enough, I've decided to add or redo my book covers. I think I've come up the creepiest one yet.

Check it out.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Witch Trials of 1612 - Writing History Fiction

The reason why I haven't been posting a lot lately is because I have so much work on right now. I have four deadlines in the next two weeks. And boy, am I panicking. My biggest reason for stress right now is the bloody Writing History Fiction module. I have two assignments due within a week of each other; one creative piece (2500 words) and an essay on why the Tudors are so popular in literature (2000 words). All together I have about 300 words written so's going slow. My lecturer is so picky, and it makes me scared to write anything because she is going to analyse every single word. I really want to get another first this year but it doesn't seem likely. Every time I get back an assignment I'm with someone who does get a first and it makes me sad.
Anyway. No time for being sad, I'm being stressed right now! So here's what I have on my creative piece at the moment, which is about the witch trials of 1612.

20th August 1612

     The wind blew violently through the trees as Isabel caught her first glimpse of the gallows. She stood as straight as her bonds would allow her. It did not matter what they said. She knew she was innocent.


    Fire crackled in the hearth. Warm light licked the sides of the stone walls and chased the shadows away. Isabel savoured the warmth on her legs; the weather had been particularly harsh that winter and the cold aggravated her aching bones. Even her herbal remedies had not been able to help. She relaxed onto the wooden chair as Mary fretted around her.
      ‘You know you should not be here, Isabel.’ Her voice was high with panic.
      Isabel looked over her shoulder at her goddaughter. Her slight figure and silken hair were reason for the many admirers in Wendel. But to Isabel it was the beauty of her face that made her so alluring. Dark eyes and full lips never ceased to trap men of all ages under her spell. Now, however, her brows met in the middle and her eyes darted to and from the door. She sat down in her chair, then stood, paced around the room, and then sat down again. She repeated this motion four times when Isabel finally spoke.
      ‘My dear, he won’t be back until nightfall. Cease your worry.’ Isabel rose and rested her hands on   Mary’s tense shoulders. Mary held her body rigid for a moment before letting herself to curl into her godmother’s comforting arms.
     ‘He’ll be back soon, and then it shall start once more.’ 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Because I haven't posted anything in a while and because everyone loves Batman, here's my essay on The Dark Knight Rises. I could have done a parody of Batman for my Comic Books & Graphic Novels assignment but I figured I hadn't done an essay in a while, so what the heck? It got 66% which isn't too bad for an essay, let's hope my comic book creative piece is better. What I've gathered, though, is that I need to work more on my conclusions. I have another essay due in a couple of weeks and I'm going to try really hard on that one, although I'm already feeling frustrated by it and I haven't even started!

Is Batman: The Dark Knight Returns a successful novel?
With the release of the final instalment of Christopher Nolen’s Batman trilogy it is clear to see that Batman has never been so popular. It has been over 20 years since Frank Miller wrote Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and yet a highly respected animated version has recently been released. Before Miller, dark and gritty protagonists fighting in a violent world were the exception not the norm. So does this shadowy way of storytelling make the Dark Knight Returns a successful novel?
Bruce Wayne has been retired from the superhero business for ten years but with the arrival of the Mutants he dons the cape once more. Gone is the campness and humour of the sixties and instead there is a dark anti-hero in a despairing city. Batman has always been a crime fighter ever since his creation in 1939 but The Dark Knight Returns involves more extreme violence, as well as plenty of blood and gore. The Dark Knight Returns made the New York Times bestseller list, and the Times critic called it ‘jazzy, offbeat, grim, shocking, nonlinear.’[1] It also received praise in reviews from Rolling Stone and Atlantic Monthly. However, not everyone was ready to accept this new style of comic book. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, was puzzled many things in the comic, including the masculine woman Bruno who has swastikas on her breasts and buttocks; ‘I don’t understand it fully,’ he says. ‘It’s beyond my early naïve Batman drawings, I guess.’ [2] The Village Voice, a New York paper, attacked the comic saying that it was ‘neoconservative propaganda’[3] based on the fact that the Dark Knight Returns did not offer a ‘didactic left-wing perspective’[4]. Miller found these comments ‘pretty silly’[5] and states that he ‘couldn’t have done Batman and have been politically correct at the same time, because the politically correct contingent won’t allow for any character with a larger-than-life status’[6] and that ‘violence was out’[7].  This however did not stop comics of a similar art form being produced. Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Maus were two comic books, as well as The Dark Knight Returns, that would usher in the ‘modern age of mainstream comics’.[8] This genre is characterised by darker, more psychologically driven stories and by anti-hero protagonists that blur the line between hero and villain.

Miller’s use of the literary device ‘internal monologue’[9] captures Bruce’s every thought and with this the reader can understand the choices he makes. The reader understands why Bruce wants to go back to crime fighting; they know that Batman misses Dick Grayson, the original Robin; and  they know why he will never stop.  Not only that, it helps to describe what is going on in what might be otherwise unclear artwork. For example, the scene in which Batman fights the Mutant leader, this device lets the reader know what is happening specifically. ‘I make him eat some garbage. Then I help him swallow it…Then his claws dig into my back. His filed teeth like razors in my trapezius.’[10] This is especially unclear in the book, and the reader certainly would not know that Batman’s trapezius was hurt from the drawings alone. Batman is not the only character with this interior monologue; most of the main characters have them too.

The colourist, Lynn Varley, cleverly distinguishes between these many thoughts by using different colours that represent the character. Batman’s is grey, which matches Gotham’s dull and gloomy atmosphere as well as his psychological state. Robin’s is a bright yellow, conveying her optimistic innocence, a brightness that contrasts completely with Batman. Superman’s is a bright blue that pales when he is in a weakened state during the nuclear attack. The Joker’s is a toxic green, signifying his evil personality.
However, not everyone appreciated the artistic talents. Mordecai Richler, writer for the New York Times, was not enthralled by Miller’s work, saying that ‘the drawings offer a grotesquely muscle-bound Batman and Superman, not the lovable champions of old.’[11] He added that ‘the stories are convoluted, difficult to follow and crammed with far too much text.’[12] While it could be argued that there is a lot of text and many smaller panels, there are no official conventions for comic books. The Art of Comics discusses the ‘Image-Text Complex in Comics’[13] and says that there are sometimes cases in which there are no words in panels and that, although more rarely, there are instances in which the panel is not filled with any image at all.[14] Miller and Klaus Janson were in their right to use as much image and text as they wanted.

Miller uses many characters to highlight Batman’s own character. There are scores of people who think he is a villain, like the civilians of Gotham city and Police Commissioner Yindel. Not only that, Miller uses Batman’s worst enemies, Two-Face and the Joker, against him, as well as his superhero friend, Superman.
Harvey Dent and Batman have essentially the same ideal – to make Gotham a better place. Unfortunately that changed for Dent when his face was disfigured by acid. Two-Face has spent the last 12 years in Arkham Asylum but has been released with a clean bill of health and a plastic surgery repaired face. He is however still Two-Face and he terrorises Gotham city swathed in bandages. Two-Face is a representation of what Bruce Wayne could become if he lets his crime fighting obsession overwhelm him. Miller stated that ‘Two-Face is identical to Batman in that he’s controlled by savage urges…he’s very much like Batman’[15]. At the end of their struggles Batman admits that looking at Dent is like looking at a mirror; ‘I see him. I see… “I see…a reflection, Harvey. A reflection”’[16]

Miller uses Two-Face like the warm up for the main event - the Joker. He is Batman’s most prolific enemy. The same Doctor who releases Two-Face allows the Joker to be free and claims that Batman is the menace who would harass him. When the Joker appears on the David Endochrine Show he is striking a powerful pose, almost resembling Superman’s a few pages earlier. He has strong, broad shoulders, and the way the curtain is positioned around him is similar to the movement of a cape. This is not the clownish Joker of the Batman TV series. This is Batman’s serious rival. Miller says that Joker is ‘a force of chaos’[17] and that he represents the ‘chaos Batman despises, the chaos that killed his parents.’[18]  In using the Joker Miller is also appealing to the many Batman fans. It would not be a true Batman comic without him.
The Dark Knight Returns is not necessarily canonical and statements have been issued regarding the continuity: ‘BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is also NOT considered to be part of the normal continuity. It is a POSSIBLE future for Batman, and one which may or may not happen…it would be a shame to limit the Batman’s future to this one story.’[19] So while Batman and the Joker have their final showdown, it is not necessarily how the Joker truly dies. Yet it is a fitting way to end it, with the Joker laughing to his death beside an aged Batman. This refined handling of such an important death is what makes The Dark Knight successful, as readers would not be satisfied with an ‘easy’ death. As the Joker was such a notorious villain he needed a fitting death. Even after he is dead he is still able to hurt Batman as the madness the Joker causes at the fairground is blamed on Batman: ‘By attacking Gotham’s police, Batman has revealed himself as an unqualified menace…the Joker’s body found mutilated and burned…murder is added to the charges against the Batman.’[20] None the less, the Joker is not the toughest challenge. Batman still has to face Superman. This again refers back to the modern age comics and how the lines between hero and villain are blurred.
Superman and Batman are polar opposites. Superman uses Clark Kent as his secret identity, he is not from this world, has super powers and cannot die. Bruce Wayne, a billionaire playboy, uses Batman as his secret identity. He has no super powers, only gadgets and strength, and he can die. Although the biggest difference is that Superman is a well-liked and respected superhero whereas Batman is seen as a menace and vigilante. Having Superman in this comic only proves how different the two are. While Bruce Wayne has been retired, Superman is now a pawn for the US government, who have asked him to stop Batman’s violent ways. The battle between Superman and Batman at the end of the novel is a satisfying climax; Batman may have beaten his enemies but now he must face his friend. Despite the fact that Miller uses internal monologue throughout this final showdown the audience does not know what the outcome will be, Batman never gives away his plan, even to Robin. Then, it seems like Batman has been killed. Yet the reader finds out that Bruce Wayne has left Gotham to create an army that will finally ‘bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers’.[21] This is more rewarding for a reader than if he had just died, as they know that Batman can never truly be stopped.

The Dark Knight Returns may not have been received well by everyone at the time of its release but for die-hard fans it was a hit. Like with any beloved character some people do not like it when they are changed or reimagined. But this was a much needed change for Batman. Miller’s gritty style has outlived the fun of the sixties and the fandom has been growing ever since. The Dark Knight Returns was inspiration for both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. It has been ranked number two on IGN’s list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels, second only to Batman: Year One.[22] It appears that while fans of the comic are torn, it cannot be denied that Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was definitely a success.

[1] Bob Kane, Batman and Me (USA: Eclipse Books, 1989) p. 155
[2] Bob Kane, Batman and Me p. 155
[3] C. Carr, ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’, Village Voice, June 1986
[4] The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio (New York: Routledge, 1991) p. 38
[5] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 38
[6] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 38
[7] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 38
[8] The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach ed. by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook (UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2012) p.xxiv
[9] Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon (London: Continuum, 2000) p. 267
[10] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (London: Titan Books, 1997) p. 78
[11] Mordecia Richler, ‘Paperbacks: Batman at Midlife: Or the Funnies Grow Up’, New York Times, May 03 1987. [accessed 22 Oct. 12]
[12] Mordecia Richler, ‘Paperbacks: Batman at Midlife: Or the Funnies Grow Up’, New York Times, May 03 1987. [accessed 22 Oct. 12]
[13] The Art of Comics ed. by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook p.93
[14] The Art of Comics ed. by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook p.96
[15] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 36
[16] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns p. 55
[17] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 36
[18] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 36
[19] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 192
[20] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns pp. 157-158
[21] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns p. 199
[22] Goldstein, Hilary, ‘The 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels’, IGN, October 25 2011 [accessed 23 Oct. 12]