Well, not really.


I put forward my name to support other women writers as part of the splendid Womentoring Project - but not without a certain amount of tummy-jiggling anxiety. As soon as I saw the call, I definitely wanted to help. I know how much a few kind and honest words can mean – yet I felt something of an imposter.

This is how my mind rumbled on:

OK, I am a woman. And I do have a smidge of experience. But I am one of The Great Unpublished [barring a few short stories and poems]. So far,  I’m an also-ran, a runner-up, a we-really-like-your-work-but-it’s-not-for-us writer. I bet they want someone better – a real, proper author.

It made me hesitate.


But then I remembered the whiteboards. You see, I was a primary school teacher way back when interactive whiteboards first came in. I didn’t have much idea – and in the way of these things, it was fitted at the end of of August as the class came in early September. I hadn’t the chance to get one toenail ahead of the children, never mind a step.

It worked out fine. Being pretty much ‘equal’ with the pupils really worked. They helped me, I helped them. There could be no ‘this is the only way to do it’ rigidity – we experimented together. I call that a good result.

Two young share hot drinks over a laptop. One is black, one wears a headscarf.

I wish I was as young as these two!

The same with my brief but oh-so-rewarding stint as a Graduate Editorial Assistant at West Dean College. I had just completed my MA IN Creative Writing – and I got the chance to work with the next ‘batch’, so-to-speak. There are few better ways of interrogating and consolidating your hard-won knowledge than explaining it to someone else. Especially if they are smart and motivated and questioning.


So I have offered my services. I’ve left it open-ended – I am happy to negotiate with any mentee I get to suit her needs. It turns out that I do have some things to share – I review books for two sites, I volunteer with British SCBWI,  and I am a writer, after all.

Please visit The Womentoring Project to learn more  about being a mentee – or a mentor.

Illustrations copyright Sally Jane Thompson

Of Books and Babies

Extrapolating a cliche till it makes sense to me.

After a fun full-on day at the GEA social organised by the hot-pant wearing eco-heroine that is Emma Greenwood, I took refuge with Tracey Mathias Potter an Arvon friend in Camden. In her calm and choral-music-filled kitchen, we discussed children. We both have had three in a row.

Inevitably, we got round to a shared truism – of books as our new babies. I’m going to develop that theme, courtesy of our discussion.

We all have story conceptions that come to nothing. A quick spurt of an idea but no gametes fuse. Some tales get further. We miscarry, abort – sometimes an almost full text ends in stillbirth. In an echo of the maternal reality, I doubt many are lost and not regretted. Perhaps that’s why some writers resist talking about their work until the first draft is done: like naming a baby in some cultures, it may bring ill luck.

So it’s not surprising that we celebrate our achievement when we put down the least full stop. Balloons and chocolates, flowers and partying are entirely reasonable for what may have been a similar nine months or so of gestation.

the end

Oh no it isn’t…

But just like a flesh-and-blood baby, the hard work comes after her first emergence in the world. Walking, talking, the potty-training of punctuation – we do our best to make them relate to the outside world.  Finding out who they really are. Each one has a different personality – parents and writers both experience that shock of recognition.

Then there’s the School of Editing. Handing over your darling to a professional or a group of critique pals to develop their particular strengths. Now that’s an important relationship we fret about – will they see what’s at her heart? Will she even get in?

Home Ed is possible – but with it comes the difficulty of being objective. Of course, your child is completely lovely, just as she is. Won’t she get hurt out there?

a toddler clambering

And what of the Agent, that marriage broker?

The analogy got in a bit of a muddle there – but the point is, we do our best on our own or with help, to bring our stories to maturity. When they are ready to go out in the world with their readership, we have to step back. We can never forget them, but what others think, how they get along together is not our problem – just like our grown-up children.

a model bride drags her groom  across the cake

After all, we have others to tend to. Well, that’s my theory, anyway. My printed offspring are still in the Nursery.


What do you think?

What! You too?

From the words of C.S.Lewis

‘Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”‘

This afternoon I had a visit I had been both looking forward to – and dreading. For some while I knew a fellow writer was going to call. Someone who set out about the same time as I did, who is talented and committed, and who wanted to talk about writing.


By Guaderel Guitarist Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial No Derivative Works 3.0-License.

The gap of time allowed my maungy, sad little twin demons of envy and fear to whisper at me. They blew sleet-cold worries down my neck.

I bet he’ll have been published already.

You’ll have to admit you’ve got nowhere yet.

How will you feel when he gets out a book with his name on?

What exactly have you got to show for over four years’ effort?

It didn’t help that it’s close to my least favourite time of year – Mothering Sunday – when I always feel insecure and vulnerable. Nor that I am waiting to hear if any agents are interested in my Selkie novel. It took some arm twisting from my Chi-SCBWI friends to put it out there again.

My unarmoured head feels so exposed above the ramparts.Close up a battered ancient helmet

He came. And over time and coffee, his honesty dissolved my mask, just as surely as his daughter’s marshmallows disappeared from her little cup in the cafe. I could see the same kind-ness of hard-won understanding in his face. The empathy of time served and mutual frustration.

No need for me to hide. We’re more siblings than rivals.

That broke me open, let the old warmth out and sent the two stony nasties back into their cave. And what rolled the boulder across their threshold was his absolute need to write. The imperative, regardless of sense and logic and all the will-it-make-a-living questions to get the stories down. How the breath of his ideas filled his canvas, blew him onwards.

I hope my friend reads this.

It’s not ‘you will get there‘ I want to engrave on maps of the future, surrounded by mermen and whales. There is no need when you have already left land and certainty.

But we already have successes to share – and there will be more.GoldLaurelWreath_CC

We are both writers.

Shake out those shelves

Of course you want more book suggestions to feed your habit…


You want a courageous heroine – here’s a baker’s dozen of them:

  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – get two for the price of one – Bonnie and Sylvia.
  • My Name is Mina – Mina is imaginative, fragile and full of creative courage.
  • Jane Eyre – “I am a free human being with an independent will.” Enough said.
  • Chantress – Lucy, who finds her own voice in the midst of upheaval. A remarkable story full of the truth of creativity.
  • Matilda -“I’m wondering what to read next.” Matilda said. “I’ve finished all the children’s books.” Roald Dahl at his best.
  • The Ransom of Dond – Darra shows the courage of love in a beautiful myth.
  • Coraline – for goodness’ sake, read the book. She did not need a male sidekick to face the Other Mother.
  • A Face like Glass – Neverfell,  with her honesty and her expressions take on Caverna. A marvellous fantasy, with depth – and cheese.
  • The Visitors – deafblind Adeliza Golding is no Victorian victim!
  • The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland - Once you’ve met September, it’s hard to forget her.
  • Charlotte’s Web – I never thought I could love a spider.
  • The Book Thief –  ah lovely Liesel, naughty and curious and so alive.


Escape to the country?

Each of these is so evocative of the place you will either want to dash there immediately – or avoid it like a sink-hole.

It’s my birthday and I’ll blog if I want to…

I hope you’re singing that – or at least humming along.

I though I’d use my birthday privileges to blather on about my Hundred Book Challenge – which is now well over the ton, by the way.

I was given Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound by an older girl on whom I had a crush at Wakefield Girls High School. I had never encountered that sort of Science Fiction before – erudite, serious and yet happy to play with previous literature. Rather mind expanding.

Frankenstein's monster stands in a moonlit graveyard

Artwork by Chris Priestley

As is its source – Mary Shelley’s astonishing Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Such huge ideas begun at 18 and published at 20 – inspiring stuff. It also led to the dark and rather moving Mister Creecher by Chris Priestley - I loved the way my sympathy was shifted from one character to another so deftly. I have to say this idea of messing about with Proper Books is a refreshing one to me – watch out the Brontes and Miss Austen.

I have a soft spot for the Gothick imagination – so I will give Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl the mention it could have had. Not only is it beautifully produced but it is fun.

A girl in a purple Regency dress holds up a ghost mouse.

Next on my list is The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. You can’t really use the word epic now because of the baggage labels dangling from it – but I loved the scale of it all, that similarity to saga on one hand and the baroque complexity on the other. I revel in books where the amazing intersects the everyday without one character blinking.

To be honest I don’t really know what the difference is between magical realism and fantasy. I am not sure that I care. I just know that I adore the books that nurture wonder in me. Which leads me like a Will-o’-the-wisp to David Almond and My Name is Mina.

It was dreadfully difficult to choose just one of his – but I settled on Mina for the playfulness and experimentation. It references and informs Skellig, of course – yet stands on its own. It’s a bit bonkers and I’m not at all sure about it – but that’s what’s good. I have learned to enjoy the challenging and the flawed and the downright weird.

Sir Gawain is confronted by a huge green knight - with an axe.

My final choice this time, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, surely comes under the weird category. I love its alliteration [this is the Tolkien translation, unsurprisingly] – and the language. It’s my dialect – near enough, and I will always have time for the honest, the earthy and the Northern. So Ted Hughes Remains of Elmet is in there and A Kestrel for a Knave [Kes] Barry Hines ought to be.

Fay Goodwin’s photographs in my edition of Ted Hughes’ poetry are soaked in the spirit of the Pennines, and the film Kes was shot close to where I used to live. I love all that grim-up-north brooding intensity – but I also love send-ups. How on earth could I have missed out Stanley Bagshaw and the Twenty Two Ton Whale? Glorious mickey-taking fun from Bob Wilson.

In Huddersgate, famed for its tramlines,

Up North where it’s boring and slow

Stanley Bagshaw resides with his grandma

At Number 4 Prince Albert Row…



Some more thoughts on The 100-book Challenge.

Don't panic They're only Vogons -by Bob Jonkman CC

Of course, I reserve the right to alter, update and generally mess around with my own list. Inevitably, I found dreadful omissions – and I have reconsidered putting other forms of writing in. Surely they deserve their own list?

The most interesting thing for me was seeing the connections and clusters of influences on my own writing – sparkling like dewdrops on a cobweb. None of that will make sense to you, Dear Reader, if I do not spell out what I see as the highlights. A heap of books is quite interesting in itself – but how much more so if someone enthuses with joy and detail.

So here goes.

The first book leads me to a facet I admire in other writers – but haven’t even attempted – humour. Douglas Adams’ Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had such unexpected comedy – it was a new and startling thing. Could you do that in Science Fiction? It appeared you could. The vigour of it all is something I aspire to – and the joyous use of words.  Such characters ! Who can forget Slartibartfast and the coast of Norway, Marvin the Paranoid Android – or Vogon Poetry?

In this batch, I’m going to include the anarchic and bitter Catch-22 by Joseph Heller , Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan, and The Radleys by Matt Haig. They all deal with dark and important things – without being po-faced. Any book that can make me laugh and cry has to be good.

Some where close by, I’d have to stack Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – replete with Starkadders, sukebind, and Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless the cows. There’d have to be The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – with the Jules Fieffer illustrations too. I love the ridiculous puns and have a very soft spot for the likes of Tock the Watch-dog Faintly Macabre, the not-so Wicked Which and The Mathemagician – and there’s a proper story .

Tock the Watch Dog

Richard Adams’ Watership Down comes next. I had to have this for three main reasons: it’s a saga, there’s a deep sense of landscape and there are animals that aren’t twee. I shall focus on the latter.

I am not a vegetarian – but I have thought hard about it. Generally, I don’t eat meat that I don’t know the provenance of – I buy organic or free range  or do without. Part of this is down to such reading. Almost anything by Dick King-Smith delights me – but The Sheep-Pig just tops the list.  I foolishly omitted Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty [guaranteed to make me weep buckets ] and Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three where we meet Hen Wen the Oracular Pig for the first time from my original list. Mea culpa.

Good animal writing is tricky to pull off – but I’d have to say I still get great pleasure from Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories [not to mention the wonderful, unpatronising language]. The valiant Reepicheep  made ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ just reach the top of my C.S.Lewis pile. [It has to have the original Pauline Baynes illustrations, of course.]

Reepicheep by Pauline Baynes

Third on the alphabetical list came Joan Aiken and I picked The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Two things I particularly cherish in it – alternate history (I read it late and had not known that you could do such a thing) and Winter. The use of a different ‘trouser leg of time’ [T. Pratchett, The Night Watch] leads to such wonders as much of Sir Terry’s work, and the haunting if flawed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell by Susanna Clarke.

Ah but Winter! How that speaks to my Yorkshire soul. Three books I left out feature glorious evocations of snow: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg and Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. All of these took me to crisply shown worlds and looked at them through strange and unsettling angles.

I’d have to have Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as part of this Venn diagram – Serafina Pekkala, Iorek Byrnison, and Svalbard all inhabit my Winter imagination. So indeed does the White Witch but I can’t have another Narnia – but I will garner both The Box of Delights by John Masefield and The Children of Green Knowe into this corner. Both of these very different yet imaginative works finish a conflict between good and evil on Christmas Eve. I find it hard to think of a much more appropriate time. I’d better include Dicken’s A Christmas Carol – I do love a redemption story and I can be shamelessly sentimental at times.

I can’t believe I left out Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen – how could I forget brave Gerda and the Little Robber Girl? A wonderful Scandinavian adventure – with heroines.

The Snow Queen By Milo Winter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Next time – from Frankenstein to Sir Gawain.

Do let me know any suggestions you might have – or comments.

The Hundred-Book Challenge

Exploring the books that make me.

a little girl reads a book

I am indebted to David Rain – you can find the article about his reasoning  and the original challenge here.

The Challenge

  • list 100 books that you love
  • only ONE per author
  • any form or genre of writing is allowed – so long as you LOVE it

WARNING: this can take hours of happy research.

Here’s mine, purely in alphabetical order:

Adams, Douglas The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Universe
Adams, Richard Watership Down
Aiken, Joan The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Aldiss, Bryan Frankenstein Unbound
Allende, Isabel The House of the Spirits
Almond, David My Name is Mina
Anon Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Atkinson, Kate Behind the scenes at the Museum
Barber, Antonia The Ghosts
Bathurst, Bella The Lighthouse Stevensons
Blake, Quentin Mrs Armitage on Wheels
Boston, L. M. The Children of Green Knowe
Briggs, K. M. Hobberdy Dick
Bronte, Charlotte Jane Eyre
Butler-Greenfield, Amy Chantress
Clarke, Susanna Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Connolly, John The Book of Lost Things
Cooper, Susan Greenwitch
Crane, Nicholas Two Degrees West
Dahl, Roald Matilda
Doherty, Berlie Daughter of the Sea
Dowd, Siobhan The Ransom of Dond
Dunmore, Helen The Greatcoat
Dunsany, Lord The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Fox, Essie Elijah’s Mermaid
Francis, Sarah Odd Fish and Englishmen
Gaiman, Neil Coraline
Gardner, Sally Tinder
Garner, Alan The Stone Book Quartet
Gavin, Jamila Coram Boy
Gibbons, Stella Cold Comfort Farm
Gutterson, David Snow falling on Cedars
Haddon, Mark The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
Haig, Matt The Radleys
Hardinge, Frances A Face like Glass
Hardy, Thomas Collected Poetry
Harris, Joanne The Lollipop Shoes
Heller,Joseph Catch 22
Hill, Susan In the Springtime of the Year
Hodgson Burnett, Francis The Secret Garden
Hughes, Ted Remains of Elmet
Ihimaera, Witi The Whale Rider
Jansson, Tove The Summer Book
Juster, Norton The Phantom Tollbooth
Kemp, Gene The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler
Kingsley, Charles The Waterbabies
King-Smith, Dick The Sheep-Pig
Kipling, Rudyard The Just-So Stories
Lanagan, Margot The Brides of Rollrock Island
Langrish, Katherine, West of the Moon
LeGuin, Ursula A Wizard of Earthsea
Lewis, C. S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Lively, Penelope Astercote
Macdonald, George The Princess and Curdie
MacFarlane, Robert The Old Ways
Mackay Brown, George Greenvoe
Manley-Hopkins, Gerald Major Poems
Mantel, Hilary Beyond Black
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia Love in the Time of Cholera
Mascull, Rebecca The Visitors
Masefield, John The Box of Delights
Mayne, William The Blue Book of Hob Stories
McCaughrean, Geraldine The  White Darkness
McGowan, Anthony Henry Tumour
Meade Faulkner, J. Moonfleet
Mieville, China Railsea
Monk Kidd, Susan The Secret Life of Bees
Morpurgo, Michael Grania O’Malley
Mosse, Kate The Mistletoe Bride
Murphy, Jill Five Minutes’ Peace
Newbery, Linda Lob
Nimmo, Jenny The Snow Spider
Norton, Trevor Reflections on a Summer Sea
Paver, Michelle Dark Matter
Pollock, Tom The City’s Son
Pratchett, Terry I shall wear Midnight
Price, Susan The Sterkarm Handshake
Priestley, Chris Mister Creecher
Proulx, Annie The Shipping News
Prue, Sally Cold Tom
Pullman, Philip The Northern Lights
Ruiz Zafon, Carlos The Name of the Wind
Seuss, Dr The Lorax
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein
Shreve, Anita Sea Glass
Sommer-Bodenburg, Angela The Little Vampire
Sutcliff, Rosemary Beowulf
Swift, Graham Waterland
Thomas, Edward Collected Poetry
Thompson, Kate The New Policeman
Thomson, David The People of the Sea
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings
Tremain, Rose Restoration
Valente, Catherynne M. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland
Vickers, Salley Miss Garnett’s Angel
Vipont, Elfrida The Elephant and the Bad Baby
Walsh, Pat The Crowfield Curse
Wells, Philip Horsewhispering in the Military-Industrial Complex
Westall, Robert The Kingdom by the Sea
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web
Zusak, Markus The Book Thief

So unsurprisingly, there are a fair few with more than a hint of fantasy or magical realism. There’s poetry and word-play in many, and definitely a sense of place pervading this selection. The sea and ghosts have a tendency to crop up – and heroines.

I am happy to put in links to The Hive ( which supports independent bookshops) for any title if you are interested – just let me know.

Now – go and do likewise. You might be surprised what you find out.

The Blind Seamstress III

completing my fairytale for creative people


‘Then let us begin,’ the Rose Lady said and she pulled the dress apart. The sound of each stitch ripping ran inside the Blind Seamstress’s ear like cold poison. Stitches unravelled and fabric rent. It seemed to her that she was servant-of-clay with its fired skin crazed and broken. Pain trod her gut like hunger.

Yet like hunger, it pushed her on. No detail of pleats or fastenings but her need made her swallow and chew the understanding of it.

‘You must be humble,’ said the Rose Lady, ‘and ask others to see the faults for you. There will be many – they will be as grit in your bread and as salt in your coffee.’

Together they unpicked, and made patterns so numerous that rocks had to hold down their flutterings. Toiles and trials, miniatures and mock-ups filled the house of the Blind Seamstress in a soft forest.

At last, the Rose Lady bade her lay her needle down.

‘This, she said, ‘this we will take to market.’

The Blind Seamstress felt the dress lying across her wrists. Not a bead nor a silk thread broke its smooth surface. Like the desert breeze with neither scent of water or palm tree.

‘But it is too plain, too simple. No-one will want so humble a thing. I only made it to please myself.’

Trust me – and most of all, trust your own soul.’

The Blind Seamstress made her way to the market and took her usual quiet corner. Strong fingers clasped her wrist and pulled her away. With a push and a leap, she stood on a high place, the base of an ancient column.

‘I must go and you must stay,’ the Rose Lady said.

‘Have faith.’


The Blind Seamstress held out her dress and waited. She smelled camels and donkeys passing, heard the tellers of tales and sellers of water call out in the distance – but close by, the breath of many  encircled her. The tinkling of gold coins, rustle of cloth and scent of flower oils told her they were mostly women.

Words of wonder and delight bubbled up to her ears. Fingers tugged gently at the dress and lips sighed wishes that they might have such a dream of loveliness.

Then by-and-by came a merchant. Rings banded his plump hands and satin trimmed his sleeves. Tiny sandalled feet followed him, their sound no heavier than summer rain.

‘I am Hassan of the Ostrich Feathers – and my beloved daughter desires a gown from you.’

She knew he was a rich merchant fallen on hard times when his ship was lost at sea. Of his only daughter, she had heard hushed-up whispers of misfortune and ill-favoured looks.

A merry voice spoke.

‘I am to be married to my heart’s blessing – it would be an honour to wear such raiment. But I fear it will not fit me – can you alter it to suit?’

The Blind Seamstress heard the hope threaded through her words and considered.

The Merchant pulled off his rings and laid them fat and warm and heavy in her hand.

‘I give you the last that I have. Make the joy of old age happy.’

‘I must know what size and shape she is.’

He helped her down and she measured the young woman. It would take hours of work to fit someone so slight. Could she do it? Could she clothe a papyrus reed and make it into a lotus?

‘I will do my best, Hassan of the Ostrich Feathers – for your daughter’s sake.’


It was weary, fiddling work but she completed the gown and sent it. More work came her way. It seemed every quiet girl and shy woman in the City wanted a dress to fit. Hopeful buyers flocked around her little home. She clothed women tall like egrets, or plump and full-breasted as pigeons, or  dainty as quail.

To her, they were a delight. Each curve she could flatter, each skin she could wrap in voluptuous cloth, each spirit she could grow was a pleasure.

The best were the twisted ones who came by night. They crept to her window and pleaded for help. She called upon the Rose Lady for counsel and thought often fractured her sleep The labour was hard and rarely paid . But then their footsteps walking boldly by daylight made a rhythm of deep contentment for her heart to dance to.

Weeks went past. The Merchant returned.

‘You have made my daughter more lovely than I believed possible,’ he said. ’There is nothing I could give you to repay that debt. But still – my ship came back unharmed and I would give you a token. Here is a pearl of great price – may you be blessed all the days of your life.’

She took the smooth and rounded treasure in her work-worn hand. She thought for a moment.


‘Indeed, I am.’

The Blind Seamstress II

More in the story begun last week.

The blind seamstress drifted away along the usual streets with the smell of charcoal behind and hammering of brass ahead to guide her. Her head drooped like a parched lily bloom. Her sandals pattered on palm fronds and sank in silence on carpets left outside coffee houses.

Two other feet did the same. Leather soles touched down behind her with a tread too light to raise the dust. A woman followed her, of that she was certain.

She let the night air bring her clues. This woman wore Attar of Roses and bangles tinkled on her wrists. Coins tapped against each other on her headscarf, and ankle chains jingled with the laughter of riches.

If she tilted her head, the swish of fine silks swept in, no noisier than the river whispered.

And what did it whisper to her? That she should settle for a life of hefting watermelons and slicing them for passers-by. That the scent of tangerines and lemon rind would be the perfume of forgetting. That contentment would be best found in letting some dreams drift away on the stream.

She went on towards the sweet damp of the riverside and her little home.

‘Stay,’ a voice called. A voice of refinement and calm. A voice used to its owner’s worth.

The blind seamstress clasped the friendly ragged trunk of a palm. Something so steady must give her courage.

That a Sighted One should speak to her on the mud banks!

‘Stay – and talk to me of this dress,’ the Rose Lady said.

The light breath of the river ruffled something in the Rose Lady’s arms. Something made of cotton and thread and dreams.

‘Come – sit with me and tell me of the hope still scorching a corner of your heart.’


And they sat and drank coffee in the reed-hushed night. And when the seamstress had spoken of the desires rooted deep in the warm earth of her heart, and had not been mocked, she dared ask the Rose Lady’s counsel.

‘I cannot weaken the truth – for what good can a medicine do if too much water be added into it? You have much still to learn if you would have your garments bought.’

She put a hem in the hand of the seamstress.

‘Feel how this is too uneven – like the back of a crocodile, it goes up and down.’

‘But I wanted a wave – like the riding of a dhow beside a jetty.’

‘That is not what I see.’

‘What can I do when I am not sighted like others? How can I ever get any better?’

Despair gushed up inside the blind seamstress, as viscous and stinking as asphalt. It dragged wretchedness and every memory of failing with it like grit. The seamstress wept.


The Rose Lady stopped her tears with sweetmeats and dates.  She made the fingertips of the seamstress feel the faults and knots, bunched cloth and puckered linings. The Rose Lady made her smell the dyes – nose-itching turmeric root for golden yellows, the pea stench of indigo blue, and the gingery tickle of red madder.

‘It is like making pilaff – too many tastes at once and your tongue is confused. So it is with colour. Too little and the gown is dull, too much and only a spangled acrobat could wear it.’

‘Teach me more – tell me what to do.’

The Rose Lady passed over a sugar-dusted cube of lakhoum but said nothing. The seamstress let it dissolve on her tongue but all its sweetness could not wash away the gall of fear.

It came out in a bitter whisper.

‘The others are better than me.’

The Rose Lady’s gold tinkled and did not agree.

‘Ah, but they have not your ways with the needle,’ she said.

‘They do not choose as you do – they have not fondled cotton on the bolt nor traced the patterns of damask with your fingers.  You hold each dream within your palms as the potter does the clay. It turns and has a thousand-and-one sides to it and all bear the imprint of your skin.’

She sipped her coffee. Swamp-hens called in the reeds. The seamstress considered.

Then she took off her headscarf with its scant trim of coins. She laid it across her open palms and knelt with her arms held out.

‘Take these and tell me what I should do, I beg of you.’

The Rose Lady made her fingers close around the thin linen and the single line of discs.

‘I would not hear of it, dear Child of Promise. I can only tell you what is wrong – I cannot right it for you.’

She placed her hand over the mouth of the seamstress before she could cry out.

‘I would not even if I could – I do not seek to deny you.’

A sigh disturbed the bared curls of the seamstress. The Rose Lady took her hand away from her lips.

‘Whatever you make from your own faults and fumblings, that is yours – it belongs to you. And that makes it precious. If I say ‘do this’ and ‘do that’, it will be as plaster for marble,  or painted wood for bronze – all semblance and no truth.’

The voice of the seamstress brightened. The richness of ‘promise’ and ‘precious’ fed her hopes.

‘Please help me make the best dress I can.’

The Rose Lady spoke and there was a chuckle in the depths of her throat. It sat there, smoky and subtle as the charred skin on the aubergine flavours babaganoush.

‘It will not be one dress, sweet child – but many. Your fingers will bleed and your sinews will ache, and Unease will always stalk you – yet will you follow my path?’


‘Whilst my heart beats I will try.’