Archive for July, 2011

Martin left me a lovely comment the other day, and if there is a way of saying ‘thank you’ apart from in a new post, I have not learned it yet. This is still a nursery slope for me. So thanks, Martin from Frances.

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We are running, the note and I.

The note is not written down, although she can write, my mother Vera, and read too, because she has to learn scripts for acting plays. The note is in my head because there was no time to write. I had to get out of the boarding house quick.

‘Fetch the doctor, Charley, fast as you can.’

On the bare floorboards – no carpet in these digs – our two bags, still unpacked – with our few clothes – mine and my sister’s, our mother’s, and our Dad’s, who is working down at the theatre, getting in the show. No time to fetch him back, nor any phone in the house to call for an ambulance. It’s all down to me. So I start running.

I think I was here before, was it one or two years ago? So many towns, black chimneys, sooty streets, fog, ships. This one is called Liverpool. I am eight. I can read the street names, but how do I find a doctor? Our landlady was out when my sister took bad. My eyes keep the picture flashing up before me as I run – Vi’s little face blue as cold milk, eyelids purple like plums, hair all tangled, with green velvet ribbon from yesterday drooping by her ear. My ma can nurse, doctor, dose, wrap us up warm, make a sugar butty, sing a lullaby, make the pain go away. Only not this time.

A shop, a corner shop! One light still on. Please be open. I push the door and a bell jangles. A fierce man bars my way,

‘We’re closed.’

I blurt out my note. He changes. His face a mirror of the fear in mine. He talks fast, stroking his chin.

‘Lerrus think… there’s Doctor Phillips, but he’s a fair step from here – the hospital, you could take the tram, no, still too far – the baby clinic on Sefton Park Road. Are you a good runner, laddy?

None of us had cars then. Nor phones. In my pocket, a farthing and a trouser button, not enough even to get a tram. The light is fading, but the street lamps are still unlit. I am out the door while his pointing finger is still fresh in my head, first right, second left, left again – no, right, no – oh God! I’ve forgotten! The sound of Vi’s choking cough is deafening me, I can’t get my thoughts straight in my head.

‘Why, here’s a little lad crying, what’s up?’ Two ladies, late going home, laden with oilcloth shopping bags, one smoking a Woodbine. I weep out my note, wiping my nose on my sleeve, and they come with me to the corner and point again –  that way, run, it’s not far, they could still be open, you can do it…

The baby clinic is cold and the walls are painted shiny green. There are no babies there. A nurse is sitting on a metal chair writing in a big book.

‘Please…my sister… a doctor… now…’

She pulls a wooden box towards her and begins looking through hundreds of little cards, frowning.

‘Name? Your sister’s name? ‘

‘Vi – Violet Edwards.’

‘When was she registered with us?’

‘No, please, Miss, just let the doctor come now, my mother will explain, we’re theatre people, we don’t live here – ‘

The nurse makes a sour face with her lips.

‘Even theatre people have to obey the rules – ‘

I am desperate, like a hunted cat in a circus. I see a door and I bang on it, shouting my note and she gets up and pins my arms behind my back, pinching them to the bone.

‘The doctor is busy – ‘

‘Nurse, I’ll take care of this.’

Thank Jesus, he is kind! Whiskers,, grey hair, older than my Dad, with a white coat and a metal thing to listen to Vi’s chest already round his neck. He gets his bag. He needs a stick to walk. All the time asking me questions, but gentle. He puts on a black coat and a muffler scarf.

‘Is it raining?’

‘Yes –no – I don’t know – please, Mister, can we go –

‘Well, you look wet enough – ‘

He finds his brown trilby hat. I know it is a trilby because there was a play called Trilby my mother was in and she explained about the hat.

He has a car. He makes a sign to me to get in. The car starts.

‘Now, what’s your address?’

Black darkness spills into my head like a blot of ink, spreading, drowning my wits. The address. Think, Charley, look lively, remember it!

We’d only just arrived from Manchester toLime Street station. We’d walked to the digs as it grew dark.A street like hundreds of others, a house in a terrace, jammed tight as accordion keys,  like as peas in a pod. The digs. Address.  Did Ma say it? Did she tell me? Her face like an angry bird, eyes staring, wishing me gone, and Vi letting go holding my finger, eyes drooping… I’m biting my lip not to cry. I have to say something now, it all depends on me. Anything is better than staying here outside the baby clinic, sitting  in the car with the doctor who could be saving Vi’s life.

‘You go down here, then there by the street lamp, now down this road, and that road – and the house is  – I think it has a blue door with a bush in the garden…’

And by some miracle we are there and the door isn’t blue, it is green, but it is our digs. The doctor takes up his little black leather bag and goes inside. His leather soles and the walking stick sound like an old pony clopping up the wooden stairs. I don’t go with him. I think I want to, but my mother might be angry. I wait outside and now it is raining hard. I think about my Dad, who won’t be home until the show is got into the theatre and all the staff are paid off.

The green front door opens. The doctor comes out. He is looking down at the path. He sees me. He is trying to find some words. He puts out his hand. I put out mine,  He shakes my hand, as if I was my Dad, or as if we were already at a funeral.

He opens his mouth. Nothing comes out. Nods to me. Gets in his car and drives away.

I go upstairs. The gas lamps are lit in the room. My mother is sitting in the one armchair, a red plush chair, holding Vi in her arms. Everything is dead quiet. I don’t know what to do. I look at my ma, but she is not looking at me, she is looking down at Vi, who is wrapped in a yellow shawl. I can see a bit of her ringlets showing, that is all. On the floor are her new shoes, her pretty shoes,. She only wore them the once. We bought them inWidnes market and she chose the colour. They were too big, but Ma said she would soon grow into them. Now I think of it, they were her birthday present. She was two last week.

My mother looks up and sees me. I am too small for her sadness. I want to go to her but she holds the baby between us like a shield. I have done something wrong. I haven’t saved Vi’s life.

‘I ran as fast as I could – ‘

She waves my words away as if they were flies. She is shaking her head. Does she not believe me?

I drop down on the floor and pick up one of Vi’s shoes.

‘Don’t!  don’t you touch those!’ she whispers, but it is enough to make me freeze, with a choking in my throat like the one that killed my sister, a hotness and hardness I cannot cough away.

‘Ma, I did my best.’

She looks at me then, really looks at me.

‘You did your best.’

But she says it without love, cold like a stone.

‘I tried, I ran as fast as I could.’

‘You tried.’

‘I didn’t know the way. ‘

‘Not fast enough, son. You didn’t try hard enough. Here she is.’ And she opens the shawl and I see Vi’s little head flopping on her arm, her eyes closed, not choking or blue any more, but peaceful.

‘Now take those shoes and wrap them in paper and put them in my bag. They were her best shoes. Pitty shoes, she called them. Vi’s pitty shoes.’


©Frances Kay


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I’ve just found out that ‘MICKA’ is now available on Kindle.


A year since it was published, and I only know how well it’s doing from checking my Amazon uk sales rankings – and from this news, which surely represents a leap of faith from Picador. As a way of getting the book read by more people in more places around the world, this is brilliant, and I can’t help feeling excited.

But – and this is part of a bigger but – the fact that Kindle books now outsell ‘real’ ones is not something I am comfortable with. I don’t even own a Kindle myself. I love the feel, smell and look of books in rows and rows on bookshelves all over my house. I couldn’t happily read a bedtime story to a child from a Kindle. Children need to handle and sniff books!

The other issue, which I have deep conflicts over, is Amazon itself. I use it nearly every day. I buy at least fifty books a year online. I live in a remote area where bookshops are at least an hour away by car. And I love the speed of delivery and the vast choice.

But I feel guilty. Recently, that fine author and ethical man Carlo Gébler reminded me about the Net Book Agreement, a contract that gave publishers and booksellers an agreed minimum retail price for books. So, when a publisher signed an author, they knew, and the retailer knew, exactly what return they would get on each copy sold. With the abolition of the NBA, the field was open for supermarkets and online sellers to go ‘three for two’ and cut the RRP to a fraction of its original.

Yes, years of work goes into writing a book. Publishers work as editors to make it even better. Shouldn’t the price reflect this? I feel bad saying this, but although part of me mourns the passing of that chivalric age of NBA, I NEVER EXPECTED to make a living as a novelist. I write from an obsession and a passion to write, and when something I write is published, all I want [and maybe this is ignoble] is for as many people to read it as possible, and for it to be available to everyone – not just those who can afford to pay. As a student, I couldn’t afford to buy all the books I wanted. It is a wonderful thing to be able to buy a book you really want for under a tenner.

And, since Amazon, I buy many more books.

Who’s right? Is this the slippery slope?

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Public life and private morals took an Ibsenesque turn on Wednesday, when Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach of Ireland, made a passionate and unprecedented speech in the Dáil, attacking the Vatican’s culture, even as recently as 2005, of defending its priests and obstructing Irish justice when confronted with instances of clerical child abuse. He spoke as a lifelong Catholic, and his decision to do so must have taken some soul searching and courage. His speech was greeted with a collective sigh of relief; a mighty boil had been lanced and now we can all talk about the poison.

The Irish state has committed itself to making the reporting of child abuse mandatory, instead of the voluntary guidelines enshrined in the ‘Children First’ child protection document.

I am not a Catholic, but I know what it is like to be an abused child, and what it is like to be a well-behaved, polite and good little girl. I always did what I was told. I did not make a fuss or cry when I was upset. I didn’t tell tales.

My abuser was older, stronger and had more power in our family than me, and he managed to implant the idea in my head that what was happening to me happened to everyone, but it was never to be talked about. When you’re five, as I was when it began, you have a belief that your parents know everything that happens to you, and if they accept it, it has to be okay – or that maybe you have somehow made it happen and are partly to blame. And when abuse happens in your home, and in your bedroom, there is nowhere in your life that is safe.

The little boys and girls locked away in institutions for no crime except poverty, being orphaned or finding school difficult, had nowhere to go where they could be safe. And they were, like the Artane Industrial School children when they appeared in public, clean, tidy, polite and well-behaved. Even today, decades later, they are going against their own natures by speaking out, risking their present security and happiness and reliving the pain of their childhood experiences – traumas that should never have happened to any child.

If only we had listened to children then. If only those children had had some heavyweights on their side. If only someone had said, there is a law that says what you are suffering is illegal.

If only, when people today know of children who are being abused, they would screw up their courage and speak out.

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first words

Heard on RTE radio today:

In Sligo, some travellers [Irish gypsies] have been taking part in a research project on prejudice. Older travellers describe being made to clean up other children’s rubbish in playgrounds, and were hauled off to be forcibly washed by teachers. Nowadays it’s more subtle; settled children  are told by their parents not to play with travellers. Teachers make assumptions about traveller kids’ honesty and intelligence. All travellers said that prejudice starts with the adults, not the other children.

My novel ‘Micka’ owes a great deal to my own experience of working with and meeting travellers in Scotland, Ireland and England. I hope that what I say in this work of fiction will get people thinking about gypsies as members of a complex and many layered society, not just a few stereotypes.

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