Aliens and Wine: A short story

This short story was written for the WineTourismSpain short story contest, with the brief of ‘how might aliens discover earth through wine?’

 

Tempranillo Smile

It was another rainy day in Oxford, and Julie was leaning on the wine shop counter. Next to her was a chalk board – today’s offer, a nice Tempranillo – and she flicked it with her fingernail in time with the ticking of the clock.

No-one had been in for the last half hour. She was fairly sure she could have curled up and fallen asleep under the counter, and no-one would have been any the wiser.

Julie glanced out of the window. The sun was shining weakly through the clouds. An ordinary April day. She would have given anything to be somewhere else.

She looked at the bottles of Tempranillo. Like Spain. She hadn’t been there for ten years, not since she was a teenager, but she could remember. Seventeen, sitting on the beach, with a stolen bottle and a warm breeze. And a smile in a tanned face that she’d never forgotten.

A smile twitched the corners of Julie’s mouth. David hadn’t been her first crush, but he’d been the star that shone out of her teenage years. He’d been on holiday, like her – she guessed with his parents, although she’d never seen them. He’d been the one who’d stolen the bottle of red. She remembered how he’d laughed as he’d taken the first sip, holding the glass up to the setting sun and staring at the colours.

The bell on the door rang. Julie looked up, straightened up, then stopped.

David. But it couldn’t be. A young man had walked through the door, his face exactly the same as the one she’d just been remembering. Exactly the same. The ten years that had changed her had had no effect on this face.

So it couldn’t be David. But the boy was identical. A son? No. A younger brother, maybe.

“Hello.” The boy was already smiling, but as he saw her, the smile grew wider. “Julie?”

No. Julie realised her mouth was hanging open, and shook her head. “How do you-?”

“I remember you.” The David who couldn’t be David stepped forwards, leaning on the other side of the counter. “You remember me too, don’t you?”

“But – you can’t be-” Julie shook her head again. “You’re too young.”

David frowned. “How old should I be?”

“My age!”

“Oh.” He stepped back. “Excuse me.”

Walking back across the room, he pushed open the door and stepped outside. Julie stared after him as the bell rang once, and then again, as David stepped back in.

Julie grabbed the counter. Her legs nearly buckled. Now David was the way he should have been; ten years older, even more handsome.

“Hello, Julie,” he said, with that same familiar smile. “Is this better?”

“It’s…what…” Julie stared at him. “What are you? Why are you here?”

For a moment, the smile flickered. Then it was back, as strong as ever.

“I’m a visitor,” David said. “And…well, I’m here for the wine.”

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A Step Back: Visiting Chawton House

Some people spend their gap years trekking in Peru or Thailand, but not me. I’ve always been an enormous book geek, and so, instead of heading halfway round the world, I stayed a little closer to home, and did a volunteer stint at Chawton House.

Chawton used to be the home of Jane Austen’s brother (who was adopted by a very rich local family and became Edward Knight. Sounds dashing, but I think I’d rather be an Austen). Nowadays, it’s home to a research library and exhibitions, all focused around early women writers. Needless to say, like The Story Museum in Oxford, it’s one of those places where I immediately feel at home. Aged eighteen, I spent a chunk of my summer in the pre-opened Chawton House Library. I put together copy for the website, typed up photocopies of 18th century novels (many of which, I have to admit, weren’t quite up to Ms Austen’s standard), and generally wallowed in stories. (Metaphorically, of course. Most of the books were too old and delicate for literal wallowing).

Last weekend, I went back for a visit – my first since I was eighteen, unless you count a brief pop-in with a uni class when I was at Southampton, which I don’t, because the narrative works better that way. In many ways, it had changed beyond recognition – now open to the public, with a gift shop and a café, all the rooms restored – but it was still like going back in time; not to Austen’s era, but to my time as a volunteer. The place was just as friendly, homey and interesting as it was back then, and seeing all the books (especially the ones on Gothic literature) made me want to go back and study.

Not everything was familiar, though – I saw one new thing about Chawton that I’d had no idea was there, and which sent the story-writing part of my brain into overdrive:

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A CREEPY WELL. What old manor house is complete without a creepy well? While the head gardener (who fixed the mechanism himself, with a little help from Google) showed us how it worked, I was staring down into the depths and planning potential stories about imprisoning someone down there, and how you might break out…

If you get the chance to go to Chawton House, definitely give it a visit – as well as feeling like you’re in an Austen novel, you’ll get the chance to learn about other early women writers and see one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever visited. Just don’t fall down the well.

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Banal, Brutal and Bad: Stories of snobbery and children’s literature

There’s been a one-two punch in the news this week against children’s books. First, The Guardian posted an article from an author who thought children’s books were ’embarrassing’ until she tried to write one. She discussed how she’d banned her students from writing children’s fiction in order to give them ‘fresh and complex experiences’, which apparently you can’t get from writing or studying kidlit. The author did have a slight change of heart; she admitted that ‘Writing children’s fiction has made me understand how it can be worthy of study’, but still insisted that ‘good children’s fiction often does bad things’ – bad things that the super-serious field of adult literature, apparently, does not.

Then the second punch landed, this time from The Times, which featured a headteacher who had removed certain books – including the Alex Rider and Percy Jackson series – from his school’s reading list for being ‘simplistic, brutal [and] banal’. (Funnily enough, the simplicity of some of the replacement books, like the Just William series, wasn’t mentioned). He made a strange and baffling argument that reading “bad books” leads a person to develop less empathy than those who read “good books”, and claimed that he had chosen his replacements because they were ‘not just plot, plot, plot, but a slow opening-up of characters and their relationships, their arguments and how they resolve them. All the things that happen in real life, as opposed to decapitating zombies or staking vampires: those things do not happen’.

Well, no shit. But as anyone who’s read even a little bit of fantasy, sci-fi, or children’s literature knows, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The best made-up worlds have believable and relatable characters; a racing plot can push the protagonist to their limit and expose everything about their psyche; and zombies and vampires are a cultural barometer measuring the fears and concerns of whatever era spawned them.

I hate snobbery about children’s literature, to the point where I take it altogether too personally. I once left a conversation at a party without another word after the man I was speaking to told me that my PhD in kidlit was “literally a Noddy degree”. I write, read, study and teach children’s stories; they’ve become the way I process and interpret the world, and I can tell you for sure that while they certainly can be brutal, and sometimes simplistic, they’re anything but banal.

The children’s book I’m currently writing, Sigyn, has taken me three years to get right. In writing it, I’ve had to get my head around not only Norse myth and Viking history, but complex interpersonal relationships – there’s a toxic family situation, and a sister-sister bond that’s built on equal parts love and jealousy. I’ve read and listened to genderfluid people’s experiences, and attempted to learn how to (and how not to) represent trans people in fiction (something I am certain I will make mistakes on, and will always need to learn more about). I’ve considered and built up years of backstory and context for the fantasy world I’ve created. And I’ve also put in fart jokes, fighting, and a giant werewolf attacking a castle.

When I started writing Sigyn, I was also working on my PhD in children’s literature. I analysed representations (stereotypical and counter-stereotypical) of Native American characters in young adult fantasy. This led me to look at the Gothic, queer theory, postcolonialism, Native American literary criticism, feminist theory, and at various social and political movements. The books I was looking at? Teen romances featuring vampires and werewolves (and yes, that included Twilight).

Books contain worlds, and children’s books are no exception. A book may contain shorter words or less convoluted plots (and I say may, because there are many incredibly complex children’s books, and many incredibly simply-written adult ones). It may be about wizards or monsters instead of realistic people doing realistic things (but then again, realism is just as strong in kidlit as fantasy). It can still explore humanity, morality, politics, art, psychology and truth and freedom and justice and any number of Big Important Concepts. It can also just be a fun, entertaining read. It can even – brace yourselves for this, naysayers – be both.

The popular children’s books being targeted in these two stories aren’t “simplistic” or “banal”; they don’t do “bad things”, and they certainly don’t hamper a child reader’s ability to develop empathy. They’re loved, and it’s easy to see why. Firstly, they’re exciting; ‘plot, plot, plot’, when it’s done well, grips the reader and pulls them into a story that can become desperately important to them. And why is that a good thing? Oh, so many reasons. Look at the outpourings of fanfiction and fanart by young readers. Popular books spark so much creativity – and trust me when I tell you that a child who gets creative about someone else’s stories is almost certainly going to start scribbling their own.

By the age of eleven, most people have figured out that vampires and zombies don’t exist – at least, not literally. But there are other kinds of threats out there. The Spectre of Seriousness is a constant, looming presence when it comes to children’s books, sucking joy instead of blood, devouring curiosity in lieu of brains, and if we want to keep children reading, writing, creating and enjoying, we need to stake that monster good and hard.

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Colin Dexter

Yesterday, the author Colin Dexter, creator of the Morse series (and hundreds of thousands of crossword clues) died aged 86.

Hearing about his death hit me harder than I would have expected. I’m currently in the middle of a binge-rewatch of the TV series, so Colin Dexter’s work is at the forefront of my mind, but this isn’t the only reason.

As well as being a fantastic writer and responsible for some of my favourite books and TV, Colin Dexter was someone I saw now and then around Oxford, the city where I was born and where I’ve lived for seven years. You’d occasionally spot him from the bus, or around and about on the street. He would turn up at the Oxford Literary Festival and at concerts – on my eighteenth birthday, he was watching the same performance as me and my family, and had a bit of my birthday cake.

I was lucky enough to see two different talks by Colin Dexter – one on the filming of the Morse series, one on crime fiction in general. (That second talk got me reading Agatha Christie, which in turn has made me want to write detective stories – so, either yay or boo for Colin Dexter, depending on how good they turn out to be). Both times, he was engaging, interesting, and incredibly funny. He told brilliant anecdotes, including one from the days before Google about a woman who had written to him to ask him to settle an argument between her and her husband; she thought he was still alive, her husband was convinced that he was dead. Sadly, she didn’t include her return address, so the husband probably won that argument.

The thing I will remember best about Colin Dexter is how he treated people like me, who loved his books and were a little overwhelmed and scared of being gushy or embarrassing. Whenever you met him, he reacted as if you were the person in the world he was most looking forward to seeing. He was always kind, always interested, always ready to talk. And he wrote a damn good detective story.

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Giving Up: Part One

(Content note: Discussion of weight loss, dieting and calorie-counting)

The decision that prompted this post wasn’t actually meant to be seasonal, because, for some reason, Pancake Day and Lent always creep up on me. But, I thought today would be a fitting day to talk about something I’m giving up – not just for Lent, but for good.

Lots of people use Lent to make healthy choices, and my decision is no different, although on the surface, it might seem a little contradictory. Two days ago, I decided that I needed to give up trying to lose weight.

Like many people, I’ve been trying to lose weight for nearly all of my life. It’s been a long and ultimately thankless struggle (thanks to PCOS, my body hangs on to every last calorie like a dragon guarding its hoard). I’ve dieted, and taken those diets to unhealthy extremes at times; I’ve exercised; I’ve tracked calories and food and movement so thoroughly that historians of the future could reconstruct my daily life with unerring accuracy. Despite all this, I’ve rarely lost any weight at all.

A few days ago, I saw this image and read the accompanying tweet:

I can’t begin to overstate the impact that this awesome woman’s pictures and decision had on me. I had been feeling like a failure for failing to lose weight, when weight should never have been the goal in the first place. The time I’d spent on tracking calories and portions could have been spent writing, or reading, or talking to friends. The emotional energy I’d spent on feeling down about numbers on a scale and lumps and bumps on my body could have gone towards something positive, something that would have made me happy.

So, I’m giving up. I’m giving up the app I use to track everything I eat; I’m giving up the tape measure and the scales. I’m giving up treating myself like a bag of flour and using my weight to determine my worth.

I can already hear the concern trolls and body-shamers revving up, so, first of all, go and have a long hard look in the mirror, and second of all, realise that this is a positive decision, not a negative one. I’m giving up treating myself badly and focusing my health, happiness and self-image around a set of numbers.

In giving this up, I’m actually prioritising my health – both mental and physical. As the fantastic Melissa McEwan of Shakesville said, no-one is motivated to take care of a body they hate – so I’m giving myself the space and freedom to learn to love my body. I’m still going to exercise, but I’ve shifted my goals; I’m no longer going to the gym in order to drop a few pounds, but to learn how to do press-ups and get to the point where I can run a 5K, two things I’ve wanted to be able to do for a while now. I’m reframing my perception of my body to focus on what it can do for me, not what I need to do to make it an appropriate ornament. I’m still going to eat my fruits and veggies, because I like them and I enjoy the healthy feeling I get from a balanced diet – I’m just not going to beat myself up if I also fancy a croissant.

I do want to stress that I’m not saying that this new way I’m trying is the right way for everyone. We all need to work out our own requirements for healthiness (again, mental and physical) and happiness. These just happen to be mine.

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EEP 2020

eep

The latest book sent to me by The Phoenix Presents is the second installment in one of my favourite franchises, Evil Emperor Penguin. I reviewed the first edition of EEP a while back, when the world was a very different place. Now, of course, things have changed, and it seems that we’re living in the age of the Penguin. A ridiculous, over-the-top, caricaturish, hair-trigger villain fond of expensive and impractical evil schemes, even Donald Trump would admit that EEP would make a serious political rival.

In fact, this latest collection of EEP’s adventures suggests that this black-and-white bird would make a far better leader of the free world than certain orange clowns. Based on the evidence found in what I shall henceforth (or maybe just this once) refer to as The Rainbow Dossier, I shall put forward my argument as to why Evil Emperor Penguin should be the world’s Villain-in-Chief.

 

EEP surrounds himself with compassionate and competent advisers

EEP’s staff includes Mister 8, a hyperintelligent octopus, and Eugene, a tiny yeti with a heart of gold. Together, they keep the lair running efficiently despite EEP’s outbursts, and mitigate the fallout of any evil plans. No alternative facts or links with racist groups can be found in EEP’s cabinet – instead, his administration is far more concerned with spaghetti hoops and making the perfect cup of tea.

 

EEP’s plans are more fiscally and morally responsible

While he’s never considered building an incredibly expensive invisible wall, EEP is no stranger to a supervillainous scheme. In The Rainbow Dossier, we see evidence of plots to trap all of the world’s leaders inside paintings, candles that give off ‘essence of evil’, and plans for a Yugenator – I’m sorry, a Hugenator designed to blow a person (or penguin) up to giant proportions. (Let’s keep quiet about that last one).

These devices may seem unlikely, but EEP proves time and again that he has the resources and yetipower to deliver on his promises. What’s more, these particular evil schemes always have a (to be fair, unexpected) positive impact on the world, and they never target vulnerable and marginalised groups in a way highly reminiscent of genocidal dictators. Score two for EEP!

 

EEP is, when he’s forced to be, a pretty good boss

One of the major story arcs in EEP Volume 2 involves Eugene going missing. It takes quite a while for EEP to care, and he’s grumpy throughout the search – but he carries out said search personally, and doesn’t stop until he finds his favourite henchman. EEP shows a hands-on approach and a personal level of interest in the wellbeing of his staff that you don’t see in many real-world villains.

 

 

I think the evidence is clear – Evil Emperor Penguin may be an angry, ridiculous incompetent, but he’s the kind of angry ridiculous incompetent that the world actually needs. If he ever decides to gain power through (slightly) more traditional means, he’ll get my vote.

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Sticking Plasters

Beating – or at least, learning to manage – depression and anxiety is a long-haul thing. There are many good treatments, like medication or therapy, but because mental illness is different for everyone who experiences it, finding the right combination and levels can be difficult – and even then, these treatments can take a long time to work, and their effects aren’t always consistent.

Sometimes the long-term, permanent measures aren’t going to help in a given situation, and you need short-term measures instead. It’s easy to reach for short-term measures that, in the long run, aren’t helpful at all – drinking when you’re anxious, for example. I’m trying to put together some short-term measures for dealing with depression and anxiety that aren’t harmful – things that can act like sticking plasters over the scratches and grazes of bad mental health, that will protect you until you get to a point where you can treat them properly. Here are some of mine:

 

Rescue Music

I have a few songs that are my go-tos when my mood starts to dip. For depression, it’s Mr Blue Sky by ELO, because it’s one of the happiest damn things I’ve ever heard. For anxiety, it’s Uptown Funk, because that’s like an injection of 100%-proof confidence straight into your veins – you literally cannot feel shy or inadequate when that’s booming through your head.

 

Soothing Smells

It’s a pretty obvious remedy, but sometimes the old ones are the best. I always have a scented candle on the go (lavender, vanilla, and Christmas spice are amazingly calming), and I’ve also got some face washes that not only smell wonderful, but make my skin feel awesome too. Nice smells won’t fix a problem, but they’re incredibly comforting.

 

Cute Animals

Looking at pictures of tiny babby animals may not cure depression, but it can be a distraction, and bring up some positive feelings where you thought none would ever be again (just like a nice smell, or a soft blanket). Here are two of my favourite places to go – Hourly Kitten and We Rate Dogs.

 

Good Entertainment

And on the subject of distraction – never underestimate the power of a good TV or book binge. When my depression was really severe, I used to mainline comedy shows, because they gave me something to focus on outside the flat heaviness in my brain – and because even a half-hearted laugh felt like a step in the right direction. Sometimes you just aren’t up to doing anything besides sitting, and being alone at home with a box set or every single Harry Potter book isn’t going to damage your health in the long term.

 

All of these sound trite, but like I said, they’re not supposed to be cures – just little things that lift the gloom or the pressure slightly, because sometimes that slightly is enough. If any of you have sticking plasters of your own that you’d like to share, the comments are open.

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