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Inky Fingers

I hammered another nail into the coffin this week. Dealt another savage blow to the nation’s high street. 

I bought some pens. Yes, from you-know-where. In a previous life I’d have gone into Rymans. Then bought a sandwich. 

Maybe some socks from Mountain Warehouse. ‘Might as well do my clothes shopping for the year while I’m in town…’

But I didn’t. Fourteen gel pens. Nine quid. 

And here they are falling through the letterbox the next day. Even generously donating two to my lovely wife – wisely, I don’t say ‘here’s something for Valentine’s Day’ – I’ve enough to last me until the first snowfall of 2022. 

But you know what? I feel ashamed of myself. I’m a man who thinks we should measure in rods, poles and perches. Go back to pounds, shillings and pence. ‘Fourteen bob for a Mars Bar? Has t’world gone mad?’ 

So how can I possibly use a gel pen? 

Do you remember the excitement at school? The day Mrs Flood announced that you were big children now? That it was time to start writing in ink. The trembling fingers as you slid back the brass cover on your ink well… 

The Sorting Hat choosing the ink monitors…

Hmmm… Did junior school know something about my future path through life? I never made it to the dizzy heights of ink monitor. Not sure I was ever a milk monitor either. A bullet dodged there – the days when school milk was left in the playground to curdle. Then Mr Nicholson the caretaker hauled it in and Frostie the Sadist forced you to drink it. 

The years passed, you made it to big school. Geometry set, pencil case – and your own fountain pen! Parker or Platignum? Almost as fiercely debated as red sauce or brown sauce with your bacon buttie…

The old memory’s getting a bit hazy now, but I’m fairly certain I started off with a cartridge pen. Or was it the one with the strange lever on the outside? A tiny rubber sac inside the pen. 

I have a vague recollection of dipping my nib in the ink (Stop sniggering at the back…) and pumping away like some demented medic performing cardiac massage. Fervently hoping my pen would gasp and suck in ink – like the heroine gasps and sucks in air before she gazes into his eyes…  

I’m in the fourth form now. And my pen has a plunger. Into the bottle of Quink Ink and draw the plunger slowly upwards. Even I understand the physics, and I’m good to go for Hist and Geog. 

Damn it. Serious exams are approaching. Three hour endurance tests in those days. 

And you’d stagger out of the school hall. The middle finger of your right hand stained blue. A dent in it so deep that it had to be permanent.

What did you just whisper? Biro? 

‘Is that a biro in your hand, boy?’ 

Writing with a biro was a capital offence. A couple of days in the stocks at least. The line between writing with a biro and moral degeneracy was thin, if it existed at all. 

‘Serial killer you say? Can’t say I’m surprised. Wrote with a biro when he was a teenager, you know.’ 

Black ink was another sign. ‘The wretch wrote his essay in black ink? Thank you, Mr Foulkes. Let me know if he speaks to any of the Biro Boys.’

You can understand what a shock it was to my generation when official forms suddenly demanded black ink on pain of death. 

Anyway, time to reach for the gel pen. Work calls. 

And where’s the hammer and the nails? I need some new Pukka Pads…

“A good, pacy read, excellent follow-up to Salt in the Wounds. Subject matter a little harrowing but written in a sensitive way. Can’t wait for the next book in the series. I love Brady!” 

The River Runs Deep is out now on the Kindle. 

The Books Behind You

I’m sorry, Minister, isn’t that the ‘Kama Sutra’ on your bookshelf?’

I can only repeat. Our response to the pandemic has been measured, responsible and at all times – What? I’m talking about the pandemic. The Government’s outstanding – ’

And just next to it, Minister. ‘Politics for Dummies’ if I’m not mistaken…’

Like millions of others, I gave up listening to what they had to say months ago. All I do is look at the bookcase behind them. I can’t be the only one who tilts my head sideways. Or says, “Just rewind it will you, love? I’m sure that was the Roy of the Rovers annual.”

And then there are the pictures. I’m sorry, mate, you want us to trust your judgement? When you paid good money to hang what looks like a defecating rhino on your wall?

I’ve forgotten the name – BookBluff or something – but there’s a company down in cider country that supplies books for films and TV. Yards of books to stock the Downton Abbey library.

But in lockdown they’ve found new customers. Scientists, supposed academics and even – you will be rocked to your foundations – yes, even politicians. People whose bookcases may have previously revealed rather more than their owners wanted revealed on the six o’clock news – and which are now collapsing under the weight of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.

I know, you’re reaching for the smelling salts.

No-one, surely, could possibly think that a politician – someone guiding us through this crisis – isn’t really that intelligent? That he has to buy books in an attempt to deceive us…

If you could just move your head to the left, Minister. Ah ha! ‘The Bluffer’s Guide to Economics…’’

Alright, you say, that’s 300 words of sarcasm. Easy to poke fun at other people. What’s on your bookshelf, mate? Go on, clever clogs, if you were on TV – an unlikely prospect – what would the nation see behind you?

My answer is a matter of public record. Every Wednesday I do a Facebook Live session. And there I sit. Not in front of Pride and Prejudice or Shakespeare. Or earnest biographies of the great and good.

I’m going to read Theresa May’s biography, dear.’

Should I phone the Samaritans, darling?’

Nope, I’m not afraid to admit it. I sit in front of my wife’s gin shelf. Front and centre are the two new – so far untouched: curse you, Dry January – bottles she got for Christmas.

Award-winning Shortcross Gin from Northern Ireland. By the time you read this I sincerely hope I’m on first name terms with a wee glass…

Below the gin shelf? A vase. An empty bottle containing some botanicals. Waiting for my wife to make more… Well, I don’t need to spell it out.

And then we come to my books. And it has to be said that my books have taken a rather sombre turn since I started writing crime novels.

So here we go, time to ’fess up so the BBC can warn viewers in advance. Val McDermid on Forensics. The Dark Side of the Mind. Witsec – inside the federal witness protection program. And yes! Yes! I admit it. Forensic Psychology for Dummies…

But at least I’ve come clean. I haven’t rung a book company in panic. I haven’t hastily tidied up. I most certainly haven’t yelled for my wife. ‘Quick. I’m on the news in five minutes. Help me move these books on erectile dysfunction!’

Hey up, lass. Look at this bloke on t’telly. Haven’t seen him before. Oh aye (bends down, tilts head to one side). Looks like he drinks too much and fancies new ways o’ killing folk…’

I read a lot of detective stories but none have sucked me into another world like this one did. Love the witty, believable, natural dialogue.”

The River Runs Deep, the follow up to Salt in the Wounds, is now available on your Kindle

The Yorkshire Grunts

Many husbands – you may have noticed this yourself – can be irritating.

I’d like to say that I’m the exception. But you know me of old.

And my wife proof-reads these columns…

She’s long found me… ‘Challenging’ is a good word to use.

This week it was the turn of our old friend, the kitchen cupboard door.

“The cupboard door has come off again.”

“OK, I’m just finishing my book. I’m at 86,000 words.”

“The [word deleted] cupboard door has been hanging off since you were at 20,000 [oops, deleted again] words.”

In the old days I used to reason with her. Point out that Shakespeare never broke off from Hamlet to reach for his Phillips screwdriver. Surprisingly, that never went well…

Still, we’re getting a new kitchen as soon as you-know-what ends. I expect the cupboard doors will fix themselves.

But what really has her reaching for the nearest sharp/heavy/pointed (preferably all three) object is when I start speaking in tongues. Specifically Welsh, Scottish or the dialect she cheerfully refers to as ‘Yorkshire idiot.’

I think the children could be to blame. Alternatively it could be demonic possession.

We trundled off in the car on holiday. A cottage in the Borders. What could be more lovely? We’d stop for something to eat, we’d stop for someone to vomit and eventually we’d see a sign that said Scotland.

At which point I morphed into the lovechild of William Wallace and Rab C Nesbitt.

“Aye, we’ll soon be at the wee cottage. Aye, I’ll chase a haggis roond the garden the noo…”

The children loved it. My beloved was less impressed – especially if we’d been through the Tyne Tunnel and she’d spent half an hour sitting next to a deranged member of the Toon Army…

Wales? “I’m sorry, children, your father thinks he’s Ivor the Engine.”

Cornwall? No. There are certain parts of the country we never visited. Come to think of it I’ve never been to Liverpool or Brum with my wife either…

But there you are. No-one is going anywhere at the moment, so the accents round on Whose Line is it Anyway is a thing of the past.

If only…

The merest mention of West Yorkshire and I’m off. “Does tha’ want a cup o’ tea, our lass? ’Appen tha’ll be wanting t’biscuits for a spot o’ dunkin…”

This would be bad enough – but it’s combined with my advancing years. I can’t now get off the sofa/bend down/go upstairs without making a noise.

Beverley was knitting. “I need something to help me relax.” Something that involved teeny-tiny knitting needles. “Don’t worry, they’ll still go up your nose,” she said encouragingly.

But what you don’t want when your trying to relax is a Yorkshire idiot giving a running commentary as he turns the fire on…

“Tha’ wants t’fire on? By gum n’ it’s a long way down, tha’ knows.”

“Would you just – ” [go away is a loose translation] “ – with your Yorkshire grunts.”

“What did you just say?”

“I don’t know. I told you to be quiet.”

“No, the exact words.”

“Go away with your Yorkshire grunts.”

Well, not quite the exact phrase, but close enough.

And what a magnificent phrase as well. The Yorkshire Grunts.

It is – very obviously – a euphemism. Halfway through January and it is already Euphemism of the Year.

“Don’t eat too many eggs,” my Gran was fond of saying. “They’ll bind you. You don’t want to be costive.”

And that’s clearly what ‘the Yorkshire Grunts’ is a euphemism for. My wife – unwittingly – has launched a new phrase into the English language.

“Where’s Dad? Haven’t seen him for a while.”

“Aye well. ’Appen he’s locked away in t’privvy. Not enough fruit and veg. Bad case o’ t’Yorkshire Grunts…’

Fabulous! Had me gripped from start to finish. Reminded me of Mark Billingham’s detective, Tom Thorne. Excellent, can’t wait to read the second book.”

Salt in the Wounds is available on Amazon. The follow up, The River Runs Deep, can be pre-ordered now and will be published on January 31st

Gin, Pale Ale and Mushy Peas

“I need to go to Whitby,” I said to my lovely wife. “Do some research for the book.”

“And would you be having mushy peas with that research, dear?”

“As it happens, yes. There’s a scene in the book where the hero eats fish and chips. By the harbour. I need to get it right.”

My wife consulted her laptop. She checked her phone. “Astonishing,” she said. “They’re both faulty. They’re both saying it’s December. When obviously – if you want to stand by Whitby harbour and eat fish and chips – it must be July.”

“We all have to suffer for our art, dear.”

You’d better imagine her reply. It’s best I don’t quote it word-for-word.

But a few days later here we were, trundling across the Moors. And with the car full to bursting as well.

Alex back from university – and with Lizzie. I’d explained the plan. They’d looked doubtful. But they’d dutifully climbed into the back of the car. “Not long,” I said. “Ten more minutes and we’ll be there.”

No-one whooped with joy…

I parked the car and we walked the deserted streets of Whitby. No room at the inn? Not a light on in any of the inns.

I pulled my coat round me. The wind did seem a touch sharp…

“What do you want to do?” my wife said.

“Stand by the harbour. Eat fish and chips. Make sure I get the scene right.”

“You realise it won’t do a lot for Alex’s relationship if his girlfriend dies of hypothermia?”

“I’ll just take some photos,” I said. “Then I’ll get the fish and chips.” I left them huddled on the swing bridge and walked down to the edge of the water. Checked what my hero could see. Did exciting researchy things like pace out the distance to the rubbish bin.

I walked back up the steps. “We’ve taken a vote,” my wife said.

“What do you mean you’ve taken a vote?”

“What I say. We’ve voted that you’re taking us to the Magpie. I booked a table while you were staring at the harbour. And I’ve got to tell you…” she added.

“What?”

“…I’m fairly certain Hemingway never photographed a rubbish bin.”

“So three to one?” I said.

“Yes. And no time for a recount. We’re due there in five minutes.”

So it was that I found myself face to face – or face to mask – with a waitress.

“Can I get you a drink while you’re looking at the menu?” she said.

What else do you drink with fish and chips? “Pot of tea for four,” I said confidently.

My wife coughed. Alex said, “Hang on, Dad…”

Another tradition was carelessly tossed out of the window. My beloved had seen the word ‘botanical’ on the menu. You know what that means.

And my youngest son had spotted his favourite initials – IPA.

“It comes in a pint bottle. Is that alright?” the waitress said.

“More than alright,” the boy replied.

Two craft gins were added to the order.

“And for you, sir?”

“I’m driving,” I said glumly. “Mineral water, please. And we’ll need bread and butter for four.”

Nope, we wouldn’t. The younger generation didn’t even have fish and chips.

But the meal was delicious – once we’d got the plates the right way round.

“Are the mushy peas for you, madam?” My wife swiftly reached for her crucifix. “That’ll be a ‘no’ then…”

“Have you got all your research done? Can we go back to the car?” Beverley said half an hour later. After another round of gins and another pint of IPA.

I stared at the bill.

What was that about suffering for your art…

An engaging plot, interesting characters and a real sense of place. I usually keep a book on the go to dip into when I want some distraction – but not this one. I read it over the weekend – I really needed to know how it finished!”

Salt in the Wounds is available now on Amazon.

The follow up – The River Runs Deep – will be published in January

The Ten Minute Warning

When I were nowt but a nipper we ’ad t’four minute warning.

The Cold War. Four minutes. The time you had before a Russian missile landed on your head. “Only four minutes left. What would you do?” we cheerfully asked each other as teenagers.

“Ask Angela Miller out again,” I dolefully replied. “Couldn’t say she was washing her hair, could she…”

Anyway I’m married now. Whoops, insert ‘happily…’

And the Cold War is long gone.

Except…

I still need a four minute warning. A ten minute warning if I’m honest. And if I don’t get it then you can forget the Cold War. It’s the Cold Tongue War…

The ten minute warning is integral to married life. It’s the glue that binds man and wife. If I remember correctly, part of the service…

Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and protect him and phone him ten minutes before thou art due to come home?

I will…

‘I’m going out,’ your lovely wife declares.

‘OK, when will you be back?’

‘Well, it’s Saturday afternoon, so it’s going to be busy. A couple of hours?’

‘OK, give me a ring when you’re on the way back.’

‘While I’m out… Can you tidy the kitchen? And put the rubbish out?’

‘Of course, sweetheart.’

But not now. Football’s on the telly and the big race is off in half an hour. Two hours of peace. Is it too early to have a beer? I don’t think so…

Not quite two hours, of course.

‘I’m just leaving town, darling. I’ll be home in ten minutes.’

Ker-pow! as old Batman used to say. Ten minutes to tidy the kitchen, get rid of the rubbish – and as she’s walking through the door the kettle’s boiling.

‘I knew you’d want a cup of tea, darling.’

‘Oh, darling. You are wonderful. I’m so lucky.’

Well, so much for the theory. Last Sunday was the practice. The mother-in-law’s birthday. She was coming round for lunch.

“I’ll be about an hour. Make sure you set the table and get a bottle of white wine.”

“No problem.”

“Don’t – DON’T – still be sitting there writing when I come back.”

As if I would be. Twenty-seven years of married bliss? Ten minutes is all I need.

Assuming I get a ten minute warning.

I didn’t.

You can imagine the rest…

Then there’s this other thing your wife does. She asks you to peel the potatoes. Now, if you’re newly married you’ll just think, ‘Oh, she wants me to peel the potatoes.’

Older, wiser heads recognise a hand grenade lobbed casually into the lounge.

‘Can you give me a hand? Come and peel the potatoes?’

‘Yep, sure. I’ll be there in a minute.’

Now, not for one second do you mean you’ll be there in sixty seconds. No, sir. What you mean is, ‘Yes, I’ll come and peel the spuds but I know you don’t need it doing right now, so I’ll just watch the end of the footy.’

There’s absolutely no intention NOT to do the spuds. Just a calm, rational ordering of priorities.

And there you are. You’ve finished – regrettably – your craft IPA, the ref’s blown the final whistle, and now it’s time to peel the potatoes. You walk through to the kitchen.

‘Right, I’m here. Ready to peel the spuds.’

‘I’ve done them.’

‘What do you mean you’ve done them?’

‘I got fed up of waiting.’

‘But you don’t need them now.’

‘No, but I needed the space.’

So you slink away feeling guilty. You were definitely going to help. Definitely. No question.

But it’s too late. Your wife’s placed another tick. No, not in the ‘peeled potato’ column.

Couch potato…

Well plotted. Great characters. Set in a place I love. What’s not to love about Salt in the Wounds? Looking forward to hearing more about Michael Brady.”

The River Runs Deep – the next book in the Michael Brady series – is now available to pre-order on Amazon.

The Soggy Middle

Last Friday. Three conversations with my wife.

8:30 “I got on the scales this morning. Must lose weight before Christmas.”

11:30 “I’m just having one of these new chocolate biscuits with my coffee.”

3:30 “It must be five o’clock by now. Shall I open a bottle of wine?”

I’m currently half way through my second novel. The euphoria of the opening chapters has worn off. I’m a long way from the end. I’m in what writers refer to as ‘the soggy middle.’

I said as much to my beloved.

She gazed lovingly at me – in my sagging track suit bottoms.

Yes, her reply featured ‘soggy middle’ – or words to that effect.

So – how many times have I written this in my life? – something has to be done.

I am not fit. The words ‘me’ and ‘fitness’ are not so much in different postcodes as at opposite ends of the country.

Last year I walked round County Kerry with my youngest son. I was 3kg heavier than I wanted to be when I sent off. And now I’m 4kg heavier than that.

What has caused this sad state of affairs? Simple folk would say, ‘your pathetic lack of will power.’

No, no. The answer is much more complicated.

There are two culprits.

Writing – and my wife.

Ladies first. She bought some ‘luxury chocolate biscuits’ – which she then left in the kitchen. Well what’s a chap to do when he has a coffee? How did I know they were for Christmas?

Seriously, the box has ‘luxury chocolate biscuits’ written on it. She buys it in the middle of November. And expects me to look at it for six weeks?

And writing. According to the research thinking uses a lot of calories – 320 a day just for the basics like remembering to put your socks on. So it follows that planning a murder – is the answer in Gina’s past? – must use about 1,000.

Sadly my waist hasn’t realised. Possibly because I find thinking a lot easier with a luxury chocolate biscuit for company.

Here’s an interesting question. I’m a stickler for imperial measures. I’ll have no truck with that kilometres malarkey. I know how many chains there are in a furlong and I know how many furlongs make a mile. I like talking about rods, poles and perches – and if something is less than a quid I’ll cheerfully convert it back to pounds, shillings and pence.

Long division of pounds, shillings and pence… There’s a phrase to make the teaching unions tremble…

So why do I express my weight in kilogrammes? Easy. If I express it in old money I’m a fat pig. Or ‘pat fig’ as I said after my extra glass of wine.

Kilogrammes? Bah, it’s just a number. A big number, but not one that conjures an image of the stones and pounds monster.

What I need is some retail therapy. I don’t mean I need to buy something. No thanks. My black track suit bottoms are fine. And when they’re in the wash I’ve got a navy blue pair.

No, I need to go and try something on in Next. See myself in those surround mirrors the changing rooms have. When my football team scores a goal I like watching it from ‘every angle.’ Seeing myself from ‘every angle’ is truly terrifying. But last time I tried something on in Next it shocked me into losing half a stone.

Anyway, time for some more creative thinking. Don’t tell her – helped by the new packet of LCBs that’s arrived in the kitchen.

Look at this. She’s written me a romantic love message on the packet.

Oh! A two word romantic love message…

So is the answer in Gina’s past? ‘The River Runs Deep’ – the follow-up to ‘Salt in the Wounds’ – is now available to pre-order on Amazon. It will be published in mid-January.

Salt in the Wounds is a brilliant book. Couldn’t put it down. Would highly recommend. Can’t wait for book 2 to come out from this great author…”

King Alfred’s Heir

As regular readers know, I have long considered myself to be the rightful King of Northumberland, descended – on my mother’s side – from King AElla.

Once I’d heard the story from Auntie Marjorie I needed no further convincing – despite the fact that she lived in a semi in Wakefield, rather than a hill fort commanding the Cheviots.

Then my lovely wife took a swab and researched my DNA. “Good God,” she said, “I thought you were from a long line of Yorkshire peasants. You’re Swedish.”

That was enough for me. AElla was dismissed. “So I’m a direct descendant of Eric Bloodaxe?”

“He was Norwegian.”

“Close enough.”

Sadly neither may be correct – especially if behaviour has any bearing on genetics.

If any royal blood pulses in my veins then AElla and Eric are out. And King Alfred is in.

Yes, that one. King of the Anglo-Saxons. And famously associated with cakes…

You know the story. Alfred is on the run from the Vikings. He takes refuge in the hut of a peasant woman. She asks him to watch her cakes – small loaves of bread – baking by the fire. But poor old Alfred is more worried about the Vikings. He lets the cakes burn and ‘is roundly scolded by the peasant woman.’

There you are. Cold tongue pie was alive and well in 871…

“I’m going round to my mother’s,” the peasant woman – whoops, beloved wife – said on Friday morning. “Can I leave you in charge of the bread?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. “How many times have I done it before?”

Despite my City and Guilds as a master baker my wife insisted that I write it all down.

15 minutes, bread out of the basket, put it in the Le Creuset dish to bake. Twenty minutes for the rolls, 30 minutes for the bread.

“No problem,” I said. “What could possibly go wrong?”

My wife left. I spoke to Siri. “Hey, Siri, set a timer for…”

Sadly there was a problem. I’d been distracted. Writing the latest chapter. Easily done.

In the time it takes to think, ‘I’ll just finish this sentence and then I’ll set the timer…’ I forgot to set the timer.

So technically I didn’t say, ‘Hey, Siri.’ I said, “£$%& Siri, we’ve forgotten the timer.”

Give AI a couple of years and Siri will say, ‘What do you mean we?’

I took a stab at it. “Hey, Siri, set a timer for … ten minutes.”

Ten minutes passed. A very old car sounded its horn. I walked into the kitchen.

‘Hmmm…’ I thought. ‘That hasn’t risen very much.’

And then – for some unaccountable reason – I pressed the top of the bread. Which meant it had risen even less.

A vague feeling of unease crept over me. “Two minutes, mate,” I said to the bread. “I’ll give you another two minutes to rise. Or prove. Or whatever you’re supposed to do.”

It didn’t do anything. Sat there like a lump of dough. So I stuck it in the oven, already turned on for me because – obviously – finding gas mark 6 is a tricky business.

You know that saying? Lighting never strikes twice? It does…

Somehow between thinking, ‘Now I need to set the timer’ and walking back to my laptop, I forgot.

See above. Writing, distracted, easily done.

I took another wild guess. Let’s just say the bread was well baked. Well baked and squashed.

“Hmmm…” my wife said. “What’s happened here?”

I shrugged. “I did exactly as you told me, darling.”

I don’t think she suspects. So keep it to yourselves, will you?

Being chased by the Vikings is one thing. Being chased by my wife is quite another…

Have not enjoyed a book so much for years. If you enjoy a good detective story I cannot recommend highly enough, this one is a real 5 star page turner.

My new novel ‘Salt in the Wounds’ is now available on your Kindle and in paperback.