Infectious confession

(This piece was originally written for the Challenge – Topic:bug – but I missed the deadline. It is dedicated to the Newland Concert Brass and its Musical Director Paul McKelvie)

Hi, my name is Steven and I have a contagious disease: a serious, long-term infection for which there is no known cure. I can’t be certain when I caught it because the manifestations have changed over time. My first memories of the bug go back to early childhood, and I have not been free of it since then.

I can recognise an outbreak by the onset of noises in my head, which often translate into humming aloud, a rhythmic bobbing of the head and random smiling. A prolonged episode may also include waving of the hands, and in extreme cases jigging or even dancing. In public spaces such as restaurants, the physical displays may be surpressed, but a discrete peek under the table will reveal rhythmic jerking or tapping of the foot.

Thankfully, I have discovered therapy groups that enable me to “let it out”. My current group consists of around 25, most of whom find release through blowing raspberries into metal tubes, whilst a few strange individuals enjoy hitting animal skins with wooden sticks or clashing metal disks together.

In order that no one is overpowered, an expert therapist coordinates the weekly sessions, providing scripts of exercises and synchronising the results by means of a short white wand that he waves in front of us. From time to time members leave the group, perhaps due to moving house or to seek another group more suited to the degree of their infection. Hence we are always seeking new members to ensure a good mix of expressions and to maximise mutual support.

If blowing raspberries is not your thing, there are groups that make noises by plucking or scraping various kinds of wires or cords, blowing through plant stems or even squeezing a bag under their arm. Some groups focus on ordering their noise whilst others are more spontaneous. Whatever form your infection takes, there is a self-help group for you.

We have discovered that some people will pay to listen to our noise making, and will even cheer us when we finish. I’m convinced they are fellow sufferers who have not yet overcome the denial stage. There are even contests in which the sufferers who manifest the greatest control over their symptoms receive a prize. The worst sufferers may even compete at national or international level.

I used to feel embarrassed by my symptoms. But since I embraced my affliction it has been turned into something beautiful that inspires others, which gives me a real buzz. I would urge you not to be afraid, but to admit to your infection and find a new freedom in life as I have done.

Thank you for listening.

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Twelve not so good and true.

In The Verdict of Twelve, Raymond Postgate lays bare the awful truth that our precious judicial system is based on a myth. As the bored Clerk of Assize begins to swear in the jury for a murder trial, we are given a glimpse into the past and present of “twelve good men and true” who will decide the fate of Rosalie van Beer, widow, who stands accused of murder. Hidden behind the seemingly innocuous faces lie violence, intrigue, obsession, anxiety, fear and doubt. 

To add to the confusion, Postgate relates the tale of the death from the points of view of the various characters, who all possess quirks of personality that call into question their motivation if not their sanity. Add in the narrow, purposeful focus of the counsel for the defence and the reader soon begins to wonder if anything approaching the truth can ever be reached with such ill assorted players.

Raymond Postgate, father of Oliver Postgate who wrote several successful children’s books and TV series, was a successful journalist, and later launched The Good Food Guide. Of his three attempts at crime fiction, only The Verdict of Twelve enjoyed any success. His shrewd observations on human nature and interactions, constructed in a manner to lead the reader to a particular conclusion, made this volume  a recognised classic in the field. As the Clerk swears in each juror, we learn something of their story and glimpse their fears and prejudices. Counsel for the Prosecution rises and we are teated to a retelling of the accused’s story that is just short of tabloid in presentation. Yet the defense has another interpretation, for which they frantically seek justification  (evidence would be too strong a word). Witnesses flip-flop in their opinions under examination and cross – examination and the jurors retire,  mostly baffled by the whole process. It falls to the foreman to guide them through the process of making an “impartial” juudgement.

Postgate, a staunch Marxist and one-time member of the Communist Party does not hide his anti-establishment views, yet it is in the frailties of the people that these are made manifest, as though the ordinary man will bring down the system almost by default. This is never clearer than in the Postscript, when Postgate reveals information that calls into question the whole process.

I spotted this book in a shelf of British Library Classics, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I would have been fascinated to read more of Postagate’s cleverly expressed observations on our great institutions. 

Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate is published by The British Library, with an introduction by Martin Edwards. ISBN 978-0-7123-5674-9

(Edited to correct minor errors)

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​Children should not be for sale challenge entry – 16-Mar-17 – Intermediate – Topic: Childhood
Childhood is big business. Programmes on children’s television channels are interspersed with high pressure advertisements for the latest toys, clothes or even holiday destinations. Commercial caterers vie for contracts to feed schoolchildren, with vending machines for those snacks between meals. Educational priorities are determined by the need to provide workers to improve the economy. Even health is montised; obesity in Western countries is a problem because of the future cost to the health service. It seems that our children are only as important as the money they can earn, spend or save. As a consequence,  some people consider that if they provide for the material needs of their children, they have done well.

This is  not the attitude we find in then Bible. When his disciples tried to prevent children interrupting a sermon, Jesus said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ (Matthew 19:14 NIVUK) Jesus blessed the children for their own sake, not because of any economic worth they might bring. 

An English local newspaper recently reported that parents were moving to the area to enter their children in the best schools,  then moving away again. Yet a recent study found no evidence that attending a school with higher grades necessarily improved the long term outcomes for the majority of children. More important factors included the level of parental support for the child and involvement in the life of the school. The Daily Mile is being introduced to many UK schools not only because it will reduce the costs of remedying obesity in the future, but because healthy children are more alert and engaged with their lessons. And families that eat and play together are demonstrably happier and less likely to break up.

None of these models of behaviour costs money but they do require a change of attitude. The Bible teaches that children are a gift from God to be treasured and nurtured for their own sakes. Perhaps if we adopted the same view and invested time and energy in the children we encounter, we would reduce some of the problems of our society. Who knows, we may even find that we enjoy ourselves more.

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Why should I do it? Challenge – 9th March 2017 – Intermediate – Topic: Onerous – 2nd Place

Six months ago I left behind congregational leadership to take on a new role within my denomination. I had asked for I change, but did not bargain on the dramatic impact it would have on me. At times I feel overwhelmed by the plethora of demands, though my predecessors tell me it takes at least 12 months to adjust to the role, so there is some hope of relief.

In the meantime, there has been an unpleasant side effect to this tsunami of new experiences: activities that used to be a pleasure have become tiresome. My weekly writing challenge feels like a chore, language learning demands too much brain power and when preparing to preach I feel tired and weary; even my music making only lifts my spirits for a short time.

I feel a little bit like the Israelites who hung up their harps and cried “how can we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4). The harvest for doing good (Galatians 6:9) seems too distant to be a realistic motivation to keep going.

Yet into this dry and barren space come the refreshing words of Eddie Askew, missionary director, writer, painter and perhaps the voice of God to me. He comments on Psalm 137 that the Israelites assumed God was only present in Jerusalem. Have I inadvertently made the same mistake in an organisational sense? Am I looking at my situation as a job I chose or a calling from God? If the former, I had better shape up or ship out. But if God has called me, then my guiding principle should be “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ ” (Isaiah 30:21).

Perhaps then the myriad things I have committed myself too in work or leisure will cease to be onerous tasks and become stepping stones a greater purpose for me, for my church and for God’s Kingdom.

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In a bit of a jam. Challenge – 16th February 2017 – Topic: Jam – Intermediate: 2nd Place

blackcurrant_jamMaria found her Mummy kneeling on the kitchen floor surrounded by rubbish. “Mummy, what are you doing?” she asked.

“I’ve lost my wedding ring,” Mummy replied. “I put it on the window sill when I was baking yesterday, and now I can’t find it. I’ve looked all over the house.”

“But why are you looking in the rubbish if it was on the window sill?”

When Mummy looked up Maria thought she looked sad. “I thought I might have knocked it on the floor and swept it up with the rubbish.” Mummy started to put the rubbish back in the bin. Maria knelt down to help.

That night, Maria heard crying from Mummy’s bedroom. She got out of bed and made her way to the other bedroom. Quietly opening the other bedroom door she peeped inside.

“Why are you crying Mummy?” she asked.

“Because I miss Daddy.”

Maria sat on the bed and took hold of Mummy’s hand. “I miss Daddy too, but he’s up in Heaven and he wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

“I know.” Mummy snuffled. “But he gave me that ring when we got married and it reminds me of him.”

“Never mind, Mummy. We can ask God to help us find it.”

At breakfast a few days later, whilst Mummy was making coffee, Maria called out, “Mummy, Mummy!”

“What is it, Maria?” Mummy asked.

Maria held up a sticky red lump

“It landed on my toast when I was putting jam on it,” Maria replied.

When Mummy washed off the jam under the tap, in her hand was a bright gold circle.

“I think your ring got in a bit of a jam, Mummy,” said Maria. And they both laughed.

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Busy enough challenge entry – 9th February 2017 – Intermediate: 2nd Place– Topic: Busy (fiction)

I soon got tired of hearing “I don’t know how I found time to work; I’m always so busy”. Retirement hadn’t worked out quite how I expected. We’d done all the usual things: meeting up with old friends, cruising the Caribbean, visiting our daughter in America to see the grandchildren, and finally fixing the door that didn’t shut properly.

But after a lifetime of travelling for my work, I had no hobbies, no social life and no family nearby. When I’d been hanging around the house for six weeks, my wife said (rather rudely, I thought), “Why don’t you get yourself out of here and find something to do?” So I put on my coat and hat and set off for the High Street.

There was nothing I wanted to buy, and drinking coffee alone didn’t appeal, so I went into the library to read the newspaper in a quiet corner. On the Community Notice board by the door a small flyer caught my eye. “Volunteer drivers needed. Flexible hours, expenses paid. Please phone if interested.”

Three months and twenty passengers later I’m loving my new “job”. My shyness isn’t an issue because the elderly passengers often just chatter away, appreciative of rare company. I get all the details of their aches and pains as I take them to hospital, and a verbatim report of the diagnosis on the way home. For the younger ones with cancer, singing along to the radio sometimes helps. I had to walk one lady into the day care centre and ended up staying one day a week. Some of the people have amazing stories to tell, but you have to watch them or they cheat at the board games.

I haven’t quite started reciting the awful phrase; my wife does like me to be home for tea and we’ve joined the local bowls club together. So I’m happy to say that in my retirement I’m neither bored nor exhausted; just busy enough!

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An unintended outcome challenge entry 19th January 2017 – Intermediate – Topic: Brand – 1st Place

Their arrival passed unnoticed; the rustle of the bamboo blind no different to any other breezy night. A tap on my shoulder just like my little brother. “Go away Raheed,” I mumbled, shrugging the hand away, my eyes firmly closed. But the touch came again, more insistent. I rolled over, a curse forming on my lips. A firm hand, not Raheed’s, clamped over my mouth, pressing my head into the lumpy mattress.

My eyes flew open searching for a face, but finding only a shadow among shadows. A badly wound turban completely obscured the head, apart from two eyes almost as dark as the midnight sky. I squirmed like a chicken in the butcher’s hands, and sought a finger with my teeth until a tiny glint of light revealed a knife which quickly moved to my throat.

Raheed was not so easy to subdue. Young, agile and full of life (except when sleeping) he almost escaped from a second figure leaning over his bed. But his small size was his downfall; the attacker scooped him up with one hand and clamped the other over his mouth, though not before Raheed sank his teeth into the man’s thumb.

Moments later, outside our two room hut, we found our parents in a similar plight. My father must have put up a fight; he was lying on the ground, the worn black boot of his assailant pressing firmly on his chest. Father’s face was as set as stone, but to me his eyes betrayed his pain. In contrast, my mother stood to one side, straight as a spear, back to her guard and head held high.

For the first time, my attacker spoke. “You will come with us and give us no trouble or we will kill you, starting with the boy.” He waved his knife at Raheed, still wriggling in the arms of his captor and grunting uselessly into the hand that gagged him.

Father was hauled to his feet and we set off towards a path through the trees. In the darkness we tripped on roots and stumbled over rocks until we reached a clearing with a fire in the centre, shining on more captives guarded by black-clad figures.

Perched on a tree stump sat an old man in a white robe with grey hair escaping his turban. “You have left the true faith and are blasphemers,” he growled, “and will be marked as such.”

One of the men near the fire brought over a metal rod that glowed red at one end. Father stood still as the hot metal burned into his forehead. When the rod was removed, a letter was seared into his flesh. “With this brand, everyone will know that you have left the faith. Your life will be over!”

One by one, each person received the mark. Some cried out and pleaded to be spared; others received it silently, though it must have been painful. When my turn came, I bit my lip and fought back tears; Raheed let out a yell. Afterwards we were taken back home, but our small house had been destroyed in our absence.

Next day, mother went to market to buy food, but no one would serve her. Father went to the fields to work, but he was turned away. Children laughed at me and Raheed and threw stones at us in the streets. We had to leave our village and look for a new home.

We spent that day and the next going from village to village, looking for food, water, shelter. But in each place we were sent away.

We thought the next village was abandoned. But a voice called out, “Brothers, welcome.” A tall skinny man stepped out of the shadowy doorway into the sunshine. I gasped as I saw the brand on his forehead. Gradually people emerged from every house, each with the same letter marked on his forehead.

We made our home in an empty house and ate our first proper meal for three days. The people were so friendly; soon we felt part of the community. Everyone in the village worked together and shared what they produced. It became a much happier place than our old village.

I wondered what the man who branded us for being blasphemers would think if he discovered that, instead of ending our lives, the mark had helped to give us a new life that was better than the old one.

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Raison d’être challenge – 12th January 2017 – Topic: Fresh start – 2nd Place

The room gradually filled with a hubbub of conversation, old ties being renewed and new connections made. A couple of hundred representatives of charitable organisations had gathered at parliament to celebrate achievements and receive inspiration for the coming year. I met people I’d never normally encounter: the information technologist for a small medical charity, the CEO of an overseas aid organisation and a tax accountant working mainly with religious groups. Each talked of mundane matters yet with passionate ambition to grow the mission of their organisations.

We were called to order by the host politician, who spoke warmly and briefly of the positive impact of charities on his community, before giving way to the main speakers.

We sipped fruit juice and nibbled tiny snacks as the chief executive of the national umbrella body for voluntary organisations spoke enthusiastically of the strong public support of charitable bodies within the country and warned of the need for fresh thinking as the purse strings were ever more firmly tightened. We listened politely but with little surprise to a message that simply echoed our own experiences.

As the next speaker began to describe the horrors with which her charity contended, the room fell silent. The litany of abuse directed at women from ethnic minority groups, and the numbers involved shocked everyone present. The level of support to help women rebuild their lives, offered in upwards of 14 national languages and dialects, conducted in secret to protect the women from their families and communities by workers who were themselves threatened drew some tears and warm sustained applause.

But the best reception was for the last speaker, a nervous young man in his twenties. Unused to public speaking, he talked simply and plainly about a life of family tragedy, abuse, addictions, lost education and time in prison. Yet he stood before us, a representative of the hundreds assisted by a charity who had now offered him a job helping others overcome the same obstacles. His testimony of transformation was greeted with hooting, hollering and rousing applause.

For this is why we wrestle with funding issues, struggle to develop passionate, well-equipped teams, and work long hours in unforgiving or risky circumstances: to walk alongside tired, frightened, weary people who have lost hope, until they are ready to make a fresh start. It’s why we do what we do, and we love it.

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Dream cruise?

Faithwriters Challenge entry 15 December 2016 – Intermediate – Topic: Daydream (15/12/16) 

I decided to drink my diet cola in the sunshine, so I settled on a bench facing the river. As I sipped my drink, I heard voices approaching from behind, one Cockney, the other from Essex. Their conversation stopped while they arranged themselves at the picnic table behind me.

“So go on,” said the Essex voice.

“So he said to me, ‘I don’t hire daydreamers in my company.’ Then he pointed at me with his left forefinger and said, ‘Darren, you’re fired!’”

“That’s a bit harsh isn’t it? Surely everyone daydreams now and then?”

A bit quieter, “It wasn’t the first time.”

“How often then?”

A pause while we all sipped our drinks in unison. “Every day, around 10 am. That’s when Sophie starts her training. I picture her firm body in that close-fitting swimsuit, poised on the block. A few seconds’ of deep breathing, and she pushes off, slicing into the water like a Gannet with hardly a ripple. Then up and down the pool, shoulder muscles rippling as her arms pull her body through the water.”

Essex boy whistled. “Wow, what a picture. I can see why you dream about her.”

“Believe me, Dave, there’s no better sight. Anyway, the boss said I failed at every task he set.”

“I’m not surprised. I suppose you had to leave immediately?”

They sipped their beers before Darren continued, “There was taxi waiting outside so I got in and off we went. After a few minutes, the driver turned into a side street and stopped. Before I could ask what he was doing, two blokes in suits got in, one either side of me.”

I leaned back a little to hear more. Darren mimicked a South London accent.“The one on the left said, ‘The boss wants to see you.’”

Then in his normal voice, “So I told him, ’He just fired me,’”

South London again: “’Never mind that, just come with us.’ And then he whipped out a blindfold. I tried to push him away, but the other bloke held me back in the seat.”

“Blimey, that must have been scary!”

“It was, but by then the taxi was moving. And the doors lock automatically, so there’s no way out.”

“Where did they take you?”

“I wasn’t sure at first. But then I started to hear gulls calling and water sloshing.”

A grunt from Dave. “Mmm. The marina”

They supped again, then Darren took up the story. “They pulled me out of the taxi and marched me up a ramp. The floor was swaying, so I knew we was on a boat. Then they pushed me down some stairs, opened a door and shoved me in.”

“A bit rough with you, weren’t they?”

“Not half. Anyway, I fell onto a bed, and before I had time to stand up the engine fired and we began to move. Then arms grabbed me and a voice said, ‘Darren, are you alright?”

Dave sounded startled. “Don’t tell me they took Sophie and all?”

Darren grunted assent. “She pulled off my blindfold, and there she was in nothing but her swimsuit.” He whistled. “A real sight for sore eyes.”

“Never mind that, get on with the story!” Dave was as eager as I was to hear the rest.”

Darren dropped his voice, and I had to strain to hear. “We decided to find a way off the boat. So we emptied a heavy fruit bowl for a weapon. As we reached the door, it . She raised the bowl ready to strke, then dropped it in amazement. There was a bloke in white uniform with gold braid and a tray with champagne bottle and flutes.”

“Never!” I managed to sneak a look at Dave’s face, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

“God’s truth. In the plummiest voice you’ve ever heard, he said” – here Darren tried to sound terribly posh – “he said, ‘Compliments of the boss, he would like to offer you the use of his personal yacht for the weekend.  If madam requires some clothes, she may select from the wardrobe in the master cabin. And if you need anything, just ask.”

“Gordon Bennett!” Dave seemed to be speechless.

I had to move before it became obvious I was listening. As I turned to walk past their table, Darren said, “Best weekend of my life. I proposed to her out at sea, and the boss gave me my job back.” He looked at his watch, then drained his glass. “Anyway, better get back or he’ll think I’ve been daydreamin again.”


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Just a cheery smile… Challenge – 8th December 2016 – Intermediate – As easy as Pie – 3rd Place

For as long as I can remember, I have been involved in Christmas carolling with The Salvation Army around the United Kingdom. As the breeze carries the sound of familiar carols performed by brass band and singers, a small group of collectors receives donations from passers-by. The money collected will help to provide food and toys for struggling families, shelter to homeless people and meals for the lonely.

You’d think collecting would be as easy as pie. Put on a uniform or wear a badge to identify your organisation, hold out a box and take the money. But there is both an art and a science to the process. The science is in the knowledge of regulations which abound, some local and others national. For example, permission must be obtained to sing, play and collect in the desired location, although this could range from a direct personal invitation from the local store to a formal application form via head office. Do you also require permission from the local authority? How many collectors are you allowed? Must you report the proceeds to the council? Can you give out literature? All these questions must be answered before you turn up to play and collect.

And then there is the question of where to position your collectors. Too far from the musicians and you may not be recognised; too close together and they will be competing for the same customers. Does the footfall change during the day, for example at lunchtime? I’ve often changed positions part way through my stint as I noticed people taking different routes through the precinct. All of these considerations are important, as we want to maximise the income to provide the best service to our beneficiaries. This is the art of collecting.

But once all these factors are taken into consideration, only one thing really matters: to make eye contact with at as many people as possible, give a cheery smile and wish them “Happy Christmas”. It takes some perseverance in the UK, where acknowledging strangers is frowned upon. But many people respond cheerfully, and some donate. If someone’s spirits have been lifted, you’ve done some good. And that’s as easy as pie.

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