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March 31
The Last Chapter!

And so, Creativity Month comes to an end. I’ve had a great month, visiting various libraries across the North and meeting readers and writers alike, all of whom have contributed to the success of the month’s events.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Elizabeth, Paula and Jane in Libraries NI who organised and facilitated the programme for the month, Victoria and Joe who had updated this blog throughout March, and to the staff of all the libraries visited for their hospitality and support. Most importantly, thanks to everyone who turned up at events, asked questions, submitted manuscripts and helped create The Next Chapter. I hope they had as much fun at the various events as I had.

Finally, here is the completed Next Chapter story. The plan for this was that the process rather than the product would be the important element, giving all those involved an insight into the planning and plotting involved in a crime story. I’m delighted, though, that the product is super too. Each group had around 4 hours to read the previous instalments, plot and plan the next chapter, and get it written and redrafted! Thank you and well done to all those who helped write this story:

Banbridge:

Martin McAlinden, Judith Morgan, Anne Mullan, Marion Clarke, Laura Hackett, Ashley Peel, Geraldine Foley, Andrew Watson, Linda Parkinson-Kelly, Briony Widdis, Una Lynch, Richard O’Leary.

Ballymena:

Rob Pelley, Colette Dunton, Mark Allen, Josephine Barr, Adrian Steele, Michael Kelly, Amy McDowell, Rosa Stevenson, Rita Doherty, Brigid Black, Mary Waldron, Michael Bell, Maureen Donaghy

Derry:

Niamh Shields, Niamh Nesbit, Dessie McGilloway, Philippa Robinson, Mary Bonner, Hilary McClean, Kathleen McMonagle, Sean Moloney, Nina Mukherji, Leanne Toye

Omagh:

Annie King, Kathy O’Donnell, Pheme Glass, Alexander Groves, Lorna Martin, Irene Lowry, Fiona McLaughlin, John Baxter, Moyra Brown.

 

The Next Chapter – The Whole Story

Prologue

The rain set in early, leaving the streets slick by the time the crowd poured out of the cinema. As he emerged out into the night air, John felt a momentary disorientation. When they had gone in to watch the movie it had been dry and bright. Now a fine miasma draped itself on the city, haloing the streetlights that stretched the length of the Strand Road.

‘Will we go for a drink?’ Kate asked.

John felt her small hand manoeuvre around his forearm, linking his arm and pulling him closer to her. She leant her head briefly against his shoulder, the fresh scent of her shampoo still detectable over the smell of stale popcorn lingering on their clothes.

He heard the sudden thud of feet, the splashing as someone behind them ran through a puddle towards them. John turned, his shoulders already rounding as he crouched slightly, his hands balling into fists.

A jogger, the white cord of his iPod earphones dangling in front of him, swung in a wide berth past them, nodding his head in acknowledgement of their presence, his eyes always on Kate. He smiled lightly at her as he passed. Winked.

‘Tosser,’ John spat in the man’s wake.

‘It’s alright, John,’ Kate said.

‘He was eyeing you up.’

‘He was just some guy,’ she said, taking his arm again, feeling the muscles still tensed.

They moved on, towards the pub. They heard more splashing now, the scuffle of feet on the ground. Presumably more joggers, John thought. He was slower this time in turning, reluctant to appear too jumpy.

As a result, he did not see the figure coming towards him until it was too late to arrest the approaching man’s movement. He ran into John, full force, the two of them tumbling to the wet ground in a tangle of limbs.

‘John!’ Kate shouted, pulling at the man to move him from where he lay on top of her boyfriend.

The man, apologising to Kate, managed to make it to his feet. He looked down at where John lay curled with his hands clasped around his stomach, as if winded.

‘Keith says hello,’ the man said viciously, kicking at John.

‘Get off him,’ Kate shouted, lunging at the man, but he had regained his balance now and shifted quickly away from her, leaving her flailing against the night air. Then he was off again, pulling his hood over his head, sprinting towards the corner of Clarendon Street, disappearing from view.

‘John, are you aright?’ Kate said, stooping to help him up from the ground.

John rolled onto his back, lifting his hands towards the light. The blood on his fingers was tar-black under the orange street-lamp’s glow. It was spreading on his shirt now, already blooming vividly against the white cotton he wore and in which, Kate could now see a jagged tear where the knife had pierced him.

‘John,’ Kate cried. ‘John? What happened?’

 

 

For the complete story see attached PDF

The Last Chapter!.pdfThe Last Chapter!.pdf

March 28
The Next Chapter – Derry

Thanks to the wonderful group who met in Derry last weekend, we have our penultimate section of the story. The authors of this chapter are: Niamh Shields, Niamh Nesbit, Dessie McGilloway, Philippa Robinson, Mary Bonner, Hilary McClean, Kathleen McMonagle, Sean Moloney, Nina Mukherji and Leanne Toye. They had the difficult task of trying to continue the threads from Banbridge and Ballymena, while having to set up the story for the final chapter. I think they’ve done a great job with it. Hope you enjoy Chapter 4! All that remains now is for the Omagh group on Saturday to wrap the story up for us…

The Next Chapter

Chapter Four

‘Shit John, we’re in trouble. Is it the cops?’ Kate spoke through gritted teeth. A queue of cars sat ahead of them.  She could see a figure in a high visibility jacket standing at the foremost, leaning down, speaking to the driver.

John swore. ‘Just drive on, Kate, for God’s sake. The bloody rhino horn, never mind all the money in my bag. We’re done for sure.’

Kate twisted, as if planning to reverse. Headlights behind them flashed. ‘Damn! There’s a car behind us. We’re hemmed in,’ Kate said. ‘There’s nowhere to go.’

As they inched forwards, towards the flashing blue lights, panic was setting in. Watching anxiously through the blinding rain, Kate suddenly realised that the cars ahead seemed to be simply turning and coming back the way they had come. No one was being searched.

John had released his seat belt, ready to make a run for it, when Kate snapped, ‘Sit still. I don’t think it’s the police.’

As they rolled forward they saw clearly now. A rain soaked figure, waving a bright lamp, approached their car. Kate wound the window down.

‘Good evening madam. I’m with the Water Service. There’s been a major burst ahead so I’m afraid there’s no access this way. Go back and take the first left.’

‘Is that way okay for Ballymena?’ Kate interrupted.

The man nodded as he stepped back to allow them to turn.

John sank back in his seat with a sigh of relief. As their car sped through the night neither spoke. Then a quick glance at each other and they both began to laugh.

‘Jeez! That was a close one,’ John whistled.  He thought a moment, then spoke. ‘It’s a pity we just couldn’t keep going Kate. To hell with Keith. There’s over a hundred grand in my bag. We could just keep going.’

He glanced across at her, trying to read her expression by the passing lights of the street lamps.

‘He’d find us,’ Kate said, grimly. ‘The way he found you.’

‘I’ve been thinking about that, “ mused John. ‘How do I know it even was Steve’s finger? We all have those rings. Keith has one too. It’s like a brotherhood, a sign, how we recognise each other.’

‘Well, it was someone’s finger!’ exclaimed Kate

‘Yeah, some random dead guy. Keith runs an undertakers. Not hard to sever a finger or an ear from the corpse before you close the coffin. Make it look like Steve’s with the ring.’

Kate cringed at the thought. ‘Regardless. He has my licence.’

John considered again her ‘lost’ purse. ‘You’ve really kept your cool in all this,’ he said.

Kate smiled, but said nothing. As they drove down the now empty road, she thought about her brother, Bruce, who had been the one who taught her to drive. Kate remembered Bruce’s smile, his black hair, his dark skin and how patiently he had waited, without comment, through lessons as she ground the gears. She remembered the coffin, the tears.

‘Where’s the turn-off for the church?’ she asked, keen to dismiss the thoughts. Failing.

 ‘About a mile further up the road,” said John.

They were slowing now, on a bendy, narrow, downhill road, the tarmac slick with rainwater. Suddenly the inside of the car was lit up with the blue flashing lights from two emergency vehicles coming fast from around the bend.

‘Not again!’ John said, twisting sharply to see the car behind them.

Kate said, ‘Easy John! No panic.’

The cars stayed behind them, the bending road providing no opportunity for them to pass.

‘Do you think they’re looking for us?’ John asked.

‘If they were after us, we’d already be off the road,’ Kate muttered.

As they rounded the final bend, a mile from the Church, the road straightened out and the two police cars roared past them.  No sirens just flashing lights. In a hurry to get somewhere, but not wanting to alert anyone that they were on their way.

Kate slowed down as they both realised that the police cars were turning into the church grounds ahead of them. The road ahead was blocked. They would have to turn back, or turn in towards the Church where Keith had been waiting.  Where three Police carns now sat, their occupants spilling out into the church grounds. 

‘Turn back!’ shouted John as they suddenly saw two figures running across the car park towards their car. Neither could tell if one of them was Keith.    

Kate braked hard, twisting the steering wheel, bringing the car round, slamming into reverse to correct their angle, then shunting into first, speeding off back the way they had come once more.

She saw, in the rearview mirror, as one of the police cars peeled away from the others and set off in pursuit.

‘They’re-’ John began.

‘I see it,’ Kate said quietly and accelerated the BMW fast. The squad car kept pace with them and its blue dashboard lights flashing, indicating them to pull over, the siren blaring now.

The pair sat in silence, but where Kate’s eyes were on the road, John’s were on the rear view mirror, watching the police behind them, trying to pull past them as they headed back up the winding road they had just travelled.

The driving rain pelted down on the windscreen, but Kate continued to pick up speed. At each twist in the road, John’s stomach turned, hoping that they would pull away, but the blue lights were ever-present.  It seemed as though there was no escape.

As they rounded another bend the car began to slide. The wheels screeched as Kate steered in to the skid. John slowly turned his head to find blinding lights hurtling towards him, faster and faster. The police weren’t trying to overtake now. They were trying to hit them.

The collision itself was brief.

The force shunted the rear of the car out to the left, setting the BMW in a spin. It took only seconds for it to breach the wooden posts at the road’s edge and drop forwards, though the treeline, before coming to rest in a ditch.

John started suddenly with the overpowering smell of petrol. It took him a few seconds to realise that he was still in the car. He could see steam rising from the buckled bonnet. He gingerly turned his head, expecting to see Kate still in the driver’s seat; instead he found fragments of the shattered windscreen strewn across the seat.

John then looked to his own side door and reached out for the handle, but the door would not open. He furiously pounded on the door but despite his efforts, it would not budge.

He was startled by a sudden movement at the passenger door and turned to find Kate trying to lever the door open. Working together, the door creaked and groaned as they managed to pry it open.

He climbed out and fell to the ground. Looking up, he found Kate staring down at him. ‘Thank God you’re alright.’ John gasped.

Kate nodded, ‘We need to get out of here, before they make their way down to us.’ She grabbed his arm and helped him to his feet.

‘What about the rhino horn?’

She shook her head, ‘There’s no time. Leave it.  We have to go.’

They’d been on the run for fifteen minutes when John finally realised something. ‘My money!’ he cried. ‘It was in the boot, too.’

Kate flashed him a smile, reaching into her jacket pockets and pulling out a wad of notes. She smiled, breathlessly, then tucked the money away again.

‘Keep moving,’ she said. ‘I’ve an idea where we can go.’

March 20
​The Next Chapter Continues…

We had a hugely productive day in Ballymena on Tuesday working on The Next Chapter. So much so, in fact, that we managed to produce two chapters! It will now be up to our group in Derry this Saturday to decide where the story goes next…

Thanks to Rob Pelley, Colette Dunton, Mark Allen, Josephine Barr, Adrian Steele, Michael Kelly, Amy McDowell, Rosa Stevenson, Rita Doherty, Brigid Black, Mary Waldron, Michael Bell and Maureen Donaghy, who all worked on the chapters, and to the staff of Ballymena Library for the hospitality on the day.

 

Chapter Two

John gasped. ‘Keith. What are you doing here? How did you find my car?’

            ‘Never you mind. Just get in!’

            Kate stepped back. ‘I think I’ll leave you two to it.’

            Keith raised his eyebrows. ‘No you won’t, lovely. Get in– you’re driving.’

He raised a gun from  his lap and trained it on them as he stepped out of the car.  ‘You’re in the passenger seat, John. Now!’

So saying, he slid into the back, his gun against Kate’s head. ‘Now start the car. We’re heading North. Get on the M1.’

            ‘Look, Keith,’ John protested. ‘Let her go. She’s just someone I picked up-‘

            ‘I’ll not tell you again,’ Keith warned. ‘Shut up!’

            Kate gripped the steering wheel. Using the mirror, she examined the man sitting behind her. Unlike John, he was dark-haired, with hard blue eyes. She could see tattoos creeping above his shirt collar, but couldn’t make out what they were in the dim light of the car.

            ‘How did you find me?’ John asked.

            Keith laughed. With a flourish he tossed a Ziploc bag into John’s lap. ‘Present for you,’ he said.

            John jumped and the bag fell to the floor. Bending down, he picked it up and went pale with shock. He saw the finger, then the ring encircling it, the insignia immediately recognisable.

‘Steve!’ he snarled.

‘I’ll tell you,’ Keith said. ‘He was slow to get started, but once that finger came off, we couldn’t shut him up. Told me everything. I’m sure you thought you were very clever, coming back in through Dublin.’

John said nothing, staring silently at the bag he held. Kate realised that the ring on the finger was the same as the one which John himself wore.

‘Where’s my stuff?’ Keith asked suddenly, striking John a glancing blow to the side of his head with the gun he held.

‘I don’t have it,’ John said, barely reacting to the blow he’d taken. ‘I got rid of it.’

‘Well that’s not good,’ Keith said. ‘You need to get it back.’

‘I can’t,’ John said. ‘It’s sold. You can have the money I got for it. It’s in my bag.’

Kate understood now why John had been so nervous when the Guards had stopped the bus on the way up from the airport.

‘I’ll take the money all right,’ Keith said. ‘But that’s no good to me. I need what you took.’

‘It’s gone!’ John protested.

‘Then you’ll have to get me another one instead, won’t you?’

‘What? Where?’

‘You’ll see.’

They had pulled onto the M1 now, the road fairly deserted. ‘We’re heading to Ballymena, sweetheart. Just you keep driving!’

*

Just over an hour later, Keith directed Kate to pull over to the side of the road. To their left they could see a roadway, at the entrance of which sat a gate lodge.

            ‘What’s this?’ John asked.

            ‘Braid House,’ Keith said. ‘Stately home, venue for weddings. And housing the object you’re going to steal to replace the one you took.’

            ‘But, I don’t even know the place,’ John protested. I need to check it out first.’

            ‘That’s why we’re here,’ Keith said. ‘You have fifteen minutes to get your bearings. Don’t mess me about; you know how sorry it turned out for your mate. I imagine this lovely young thing won’t last as long as he did.’

            ‘She’s nothing to do with this,’ John said, twisting to face Keith. ‘I only met her.’

            ‘Then worse luck for her. Anything happens to her, it’s on you. And don’t bother running. I found you once, I’ll find you again.’

            John looked across at Kate apologetically. She undid her seat belt, as if to leave. Keith tapped the back of her head with the gun. ‘You stay with me until he comes back,’ he said. ‘What you’re looking for is in the farthest room to the right on the first floor. It’s there for the lifting. It’s up to you how you get it.’ 

The car sped off, spraying grit in its wake as John made his way stealthily through the trees and along the gravel driveway to a point where he could observe the house.  The two storeys of the mansion seemed to overpower him at first but as he gazed at the building in front of him something in his psyche kicked in and he felt that familiar rush of adrenaline.  The car park ahead of him was full of cars, some of which were festooned with ribbons. A wedding party. The front of the Georgian house was too open for his liking, and he could see several figures gathered thereabouts; presumably smokers coming outside for a quick puff. It was too dangerous for him to try to bluff his way in there, considering he clearly wasn’t dressed like someone at a wedding party.  

Instead, he made his way to the back of the building.  The rear was covered in steel bars, the scaffolding although weathered appeared sturdy enough. Lights shone from a few rooms on the ground floor; toilets and a kitchen perhaps. But the first floor rooms were in darkness. He knew immediately that scaling the scaffolding was his way in.

Satisfied with what he had found he made his way past the front of the house, and back the way he came to wait under the cover of the trees on Keith and Kate’s return.

            ‘It’s doable,’ John said, climbing back into the car when it pulled back onto the side of the road moments later. He glanced across at Kate. She appeared unharmed. ‘But I’ll need equipment.’

            ‘It’s already in the boot,’ Keith said. ‘I’ve thought of everything.’

‘It’s a two man job. I’ll need a driver. I’ll not be able to carry it all the way back here.’

            Kate resisted the urge to ask what ‘it’ was.

            ‘Don’t you have a driver,’ Keith said. ‘And a very good one she is too. Got us all the way here safely, didn’t you?’ He nudged her shoulder with the gun. ‘Hand me in your bag there, love.’

            Kate lifted her hand bag and passed it back. She could hear sounds at Keith rummaged through her belongings. ‘Kate Doherty,’ he said, opening her purse and producing her driving licence. ‘Now I know where you live too. So no tricks.’

            ‘I thought you lost your purse,’ John said, staring at her now.

            Kate shrugged. ‘I… I lied.’

*

John and Kate drove up the avenue to the Braid House with headlights off, wipers on to deal with the late evening drizzle.  They had left Keith standing in the porch of All Souls Church, where they were to meet him within the hour to hand over the object John had been tasked with stealing.

As Kate parked in the shade of an ancient oak, John pulled on his balaclava and gloves. Turning to Kate he said, “Remember don’t move the car until I ring.  If I hang up after four rings, I’m in trouble”.   

‘Okay. John!’ she added quickly as he opened the door. ‘What exactly are we stealing?’

John smiled at her grimly, before rolling the balaclava down over his chin. ‘A rhino horn,’ he said. With that he deftly alighted from the car.

Quickly, noiselessly and low to the ground John manoeuvred closer and closer to the side of the house.   As he moved from grass to gravel his pace dropped off as the sound of the stones shifting rose in the night air. His breathing became more rapid, perspiration broke on his brow, as he surveyed the house for any lights or cameras.  The camera at the back appeared to be obscured by the scaffolding reaching up towards the upper floor. 

John quickly jumped onto the ground floor window sill and stood up to reach for the underside of the wooden planks.  He deftly pulled himself on to the horizontal board.  At the next level he turned and tried the window, attempting to force the sash framework open.  No luck.  His choices were to climb higher or smash the window. He was too close to the ground floors to risk the sound of breaking glass.  The fear of getting caught and the consequences further raised his heart rate.  

Upwards he noticed the gargoyle face leering out into the night sky.  Shimmying further up the scaffolding pole he eventually pulled himself within reach of the ugly figure, through sheer brute strength John manipulated his body from hanging to eventually standing on the gargoyle with some assistance from the scaffolding to his back; he took time to gather his breath.  The sandstone gargoyle crumbled beneath his feet as he emitted an involuntary scream.

He grasped the scaffolding board with one arm as his feet scrambled mid-air.  The face of terror that looked back from the window in front of him was his own reflection.

 

Chapter Three

John gripped the scaffolding with all his strength, and cursed the rain that had made the piping cold and wet.   He could feel himself slipping down the dangling tube. His swinging feet touched a corner of the structure, and he clamped onto it with both legs. With a huge heft he pulled himself to the solid structure.  Taking a breath he started climbing again.

Over the parapet he crept carefully, stealthily to the skylight over the room Keith had indicated, and carefully levered the top window.  It was a drop of some fifteen feet to the floor, but he knew he had do it.  He hoped that, with the wedding party ongoing, the alarms in the building would be turned off. If not, there would be nothing he could do about it now.

He hit the floor and rolled away.  Getting to his feet he surveyed the room.  Tall shelves of leather-backed books lined the shelves from floor to ceiling.  At the end of the room hung portraits of ancestral images, glowering down at him.   The rhino head took pride of place above the marble fireplace.  Dust covers draped over the unused chairs and the tables.  Having a quick peek under a tall human-shaped figure he saw the fur and claws of some kind of stuffed bear.

He ripped a cover off a chair and positioned it on the ground before the rhino head. Standing on the chair he was just able to reach the horn on the rhino head with the small saw Keith had provided in the bag of equipment. He fired it to life and with a gentle whir it circumscribed the horn.

As he worked, the image of Steve’s severed finger flashed sharply in his mind’s eye. And a new unexpected factor:  the image of Kate’s blanched face, eyes wide in horror, her lovely mouth open in a silent ‘O’ at the prospect of what Keith might do.  She was nothing to him, yet something about her triggered in him the feeling which had been haunting  him in recent months:  that he was getting too old for this job.

Suddenly he heard the crack as the saw cut through the final section and the horn broke off the nose.  The weight of it unbalanced him and he fell clumsily off the chair.  He waited, holding his breath, listening for any reactions in the rooms beyond.

Inching the heavy horn into the equipment bag, he realized he was sweating, his hands trembling with the exertion. He grunted as he finally succeeded, when all of a sudden he heard faint human whistling. Someone was coming.

His mobile vibrated silently in his breast pocket.

Kate’s text read: SECURITY GUARD…2 ROOMS LEFT…HIDE’

Grabbing the dust sheet he trailed the chair to a table, then in two paces he crossed to the stuffed bear and threw the dust sheet over himself and it.

Kate thought she’d be relieved with Keith out of the car. Instead her nerves were starting to get the better of her. She’d been sitting in the car for twenty minutes since John disappeared into the window of the manor, sure that any second they’d get caught.

The nearby wedding gave them a good place to park in plain sight, blending in with others cars from the guests. Still, she felt exposed sitting in the open with people passing by. Everything depended on John successfully stealing the rhino horn. Now that Keith knew her home address, the risks were even higher. Could she even trust John now that he knew she’d lied about losing her purse?

Just then the lights came on in one of the manor windows on the first floor, catching her eye. Was it John? It couldn’t be John when they’d planned so carefully he’d come back down the scaffolding to avoid the CCTV cameras by the front door. She could hardly breathe, seeing the lights come on in the windows one by one, getting closer and closer to John. They were going to get caught if she didn’t do something but what?

She clutched her phone in her hand, willing John to call her. Nothing. She texted him a quick warning. There was no time to lose. She jumped out of the car and, running across the lawn, she lifted a brick from the flower bed. Retracing her steps she ran by car after car of the wedding guests. Finally, one with an alarm light blinking. She stood back, shielded her eyes, and hurled the brick through the front window. She turned and looked up to where the red light of the active security camera on the post above her shone. She stared at the camera a moment the turned as the squealing alarm drew a stream of shouting guests streamed from the reception out through the front door.

As she made her way back to John’s car, Kate hoped the alarm would be enough of a distraction to let John escape. Kate breathed a sigh of relief as she saw John drop from the scaffolding and make his way to her.

John sprinted towards her, wrenched open the car door, throwing the rucksack on the back seat. Kate already had the car moving as he struggled to fasten his belt.

‘Did you get it?’

‘Only just!  I thought I was done for ‘til someone’ alarm went off and the guard went back downstairs.’

‘Wasn’t that lucky!’ laughed Kate.

‘Was that you?’ John asked, the tone of admiration clear.

Kate shrugged. The car sped along the wooded driveway.  ‘These bloody bends,’ she said.   

John checked the rear view mirror. No sign of pursuit. He heaved a sigh of relief.

Maybe he had got away with it. No, they had got away with it together. He looked at Kate

‘Are you sure this is your first job?’

Kate didn’t answer for a moment. She looked at him directly. ‘It was beginners’ luck,’ she said.

The end of the driveway was in sight.

‘Turn left and we will head right through Cullybackey and up that way,’ said John.

Kate shook her head as she turns the car back towards Ballymena.

            ‘No, no, we’ll turn right and get back into town. We can head for the bypass. That will be quicker.’ Kate drove quickly, controlling the car like a seasoned driver. John wondered again was there more to this woman than he had realised.

 It was Kate who was the first to see the white cars blocking the road ahead, illuminated by their strobing blue lights.

March 18
Where Do Your Ideas Come From?

One of the most commonly asked questions at readings and workshops is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

Getting ideas is easy – we’re bombarded with them every time we watch TV or read the paper or chat with friends. The difficult bit is working out which ideas have legs enough to sustain a novel. It’s not unusual to start plotting to novel based on a great idea only to find out it runs out of steam very quickly.

Normally, with a book, you have one strong idea that forms the central spine. For example, with The Nameless Dead, I wanted to write about the wording in the legislation relating to the Disappeared that means any crime uncovered in a dig for the Disappeared – even if completely unrelated to the Disappeared case- cannot be investigated or prosecuted. I was interested in how a detective would react being told that, by law, he could not investigate a crime.

Then I read about cillins – grave suites for unbaptised babies who were refused burial in sanctified ground. That connected with the idea of the Disappeared – the issue of the denial of burial and the impact this would have on those left behind to mourn. Those two different issues overlapped to such an extent that I could see a fictional narrative weaving them together.

The refusal of burial and absence of a marker over a grave also raised issues of identity and the loss of identity, which developed itself into a third plot strand in the book. And the loss of a child and the impact of that developed into the fourth plot line involving a woman who hears someone else’s baby crying in her baby monitor.

These plot strands allowed me to examine ideas and issues that I felt needed to be examined.

As for all the other ideas that aren’t used? Perhaps I’ll come back to them at some stage when I’ve managed to find a way to fully develop a narrative that explores them satisfactorily for me.

 

March 13
​The Next Chapter – The Story So Far

We had a great day in Banbridge last week where a group of twelve writers produced the first chapter proper of our story, having decided to use the opening section as a prologue. It will now be up to our next group, in Ballymena, to decide how our story develops.

Thanks to all who took part in the Banbridge chapter and produced such a good opening chapter: Martin McAlinden, Judith Morgan, Anne Mullan, Marion Clarke, Laura Hackett, Ashley Peel, Geraldine Foley, Andrew Watson, Linda Parkinson-Kelly, Briony Widdis, Una Lynch and Richard O’Leary.

Here’s the story so far…



Prologue

The rain set in early, leaving the streets slick by the time the crowd poured out of the cinema. As he emerged out into the night air, John felt a momentary disorientation. When they had gone in to watch the movie it had been dry and bright. Now a fine miasma draped itself on the city, haloing the streetlights that stretched the length of the Strand Road.

“Will we go for a drink?” Kate asked.

John felt her small hand manoeuvre around his forearm, linking his arm and pulling him closer to her. She leant her head briefly against his shoulder, the fresh scent of her shampoo still detectable over the smell of stale popcorn lingering on their clothes.

He heard the sudden thud of feet, the splashing as someone behind them ran through a puddle towards them. John turned, his shoulders already rounding as he crouched slightly, his hands balling into fists.

A jogger, the white cord of his iPod earphones dangling in front of him, swung in a wide berth past them, nodding his head in acknowledgement of their presence, his eyes always on Kate. He smiled lightly at her as he passed. Winked.

“Tosser,” John spat in the man’s wake.

“It’s alright, John,” Kate said.

“He was eyeing you up.”

“He was just some guy,” she said, taking his arm again, feeling the muscles still tensed.

They moved on, towards the pub. They heard more splashing now, the scuffle of feet on the ground. Presumably more joggers, John thought. He was slower this time in turning, reluctant to appear too jumpy.

As a result, he did not see the figure coming towards him until it was too late to arrest the approaching man’s movement. He ran into John, full force, the two of them tumbling to the wet ground in a tangle of limbs.

“John!” Kate shouted, pulling at the man to move him from where he lay on top of her boyfriend.

The man, apologising to Kate, managed to make it to his feet. He looked down at where John lay curled with his hands clasped around his stomach, as if winded.

“Keith says hello,” the man said viciously, kicking at John.

“Get off him,” Kate shouted, lunging at the man, but he had regained his balance now and shifted quickly away from her, leaving her flailing against the night air. Then he was off again, pulling his hood over his head, sprinting towards the corner of Clarendon Street, disappearing from view.

“John, are you aright?” Kate said, stooping to help him up from the ground.

John rolled onto his back, lifting his hands towards the light. The blood on his fingers was tar-black under the orange street-lamp’s glow. It was spreading on his shirt now, already blooming vividly against the white cotton he wore and in which, Kate could now see a jagged tear where the knife had pierced him.

“John,” Kate cried. “John? What happened?”

She knelt, screaming for someone to help. Others who had left the cinema at the same time as them were still nearby. An older couple came running to Kate.

“Is he alright?” the woman asked.

“I think he’s been stabbed,” Kate cried.

“What’s his name?”

The older man knelt now, taking control while his wife fumbled with her phone to call for help.

“John,” Kate managed.

“John? Can you hear me, John?”

The man leaned over him, turning his cheek, bringing it close to John’s mouth as if to feel for his breath.

John’s fingers felt cold now, the stickiness of the blood almost alien, as if belonging to someone else. He could see Kate, the curls of her blond hair spilling onto her face.

“John? Are you okay?” the man repeated. “Can you hear me, John?”

“My…” John started to say, but his mouth was suddenly dry. He swallowed. The streetlights above him seemed to be dulling now, the rain on his face suddenly cool on his skin.

“My name’s not John,” he whispered to the growing darkness.

 


Chapter One

Three Months Earlier

The woman hesitated, taking a last deep breath of fresh air, before entering the plane.

“Good afternoon,” said the stewardess. The woman smiled in return, but made no reply as she slowly moved down the aeroplane.

She looked around her for a free seat, her eyes falling on a man, sitting alone, engrossed in his own thoughts. She sat down beside him, and breathed deeply and contentedly. Almost home.

As the plane began to move, the man must have noticed her becoming more and more distressed. Her breathing quickened. She fidgeted with the book she had taken from her bag, opening and closing it indecisively. Then, as the plane accelerated, the pressure forcing them both back in their seats as the nose began to lift, she grabbed his hand with a sudden ferocity.

He stifled a cry as her long nails dug into his skin and looked round in shock. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her mouth moving silently in muttered prayer.

Her fellow traveller endured her grip for several moments, before it gradually loosened and she finally let go.

Immediately, she looked at him, clearly embarrassed.

“I’m so sorry, I’m really not great with flying.”

“Not a problem,” he replied, trying inconspicuously to massage the back of his hand.

“My name’s Kate” she offered.

He smiled. “Mine’s John.”

 

*

 

As the wheels whirred in preparation for descent, some fifty minutes later, Kate was scrabbling in her oversized handbag. She repeatedly unzipped compartments, rummaging for something. Checking her jacket pockets, she became increasingly flustered.

John looked up from his tabloid. “Can I help?”

“It’s so stupid... I think I’ve lost my purse. Again! This happens all the time. I usually find it in the bottom of my bag but this time it’s really not there!”

“Please take your seats and fasten all seat belts. Fifteen minutes to landing.”

As the tannoy sounded, Kate became increasingly frantic. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

As she reached up to the overhead locker, he noticed, at eye level, the dimple of a belly button ring showing beneath her crisp white cotton shirt where it rode up slightly. He tried, without success, to concentrate on looking out the window at the jumble of airport buildings below.

“God! It’s definitely not there. I must have dropped it as I was running for the plane.”

“Was there much in it?”

“It’s not so much that as I had my bus ticket in there. I’ve not enough to buy a new ticket.”

“Is there someone you can call?”

She shook her head.

“That’s a Northern accent?” John smiled. “Right? Are you headed North?”

“Yes”, she said, frowning.

‘Look, I’ll give you the cash for your ticket,” John said.

“I couldn’t accept that.”

“It’ll be a loan. You can pay me back.

“It won’t be a loan if I can’t find my purse” she asserted.

“It’s no bother. You can tell me all about the highlights of Banbridge while we’re on the bus.”

She fixed her hair. “Well, if you’re sure, that’d be great.”

 

*

 

And so she found herself perched snugly beside him on the Aircoach speeding north on the only two free seats, at the back. She took a deep breath, glad to be off the plane. She was trying not too appear too comfortable, but the heat of the bus and the warmth of his body next to her was just too tempting.

“I really appreciate your help. I will square you up for this,” she said, not for the first time.

“No problem. It’s a pleasure, honestly” he smiled and she felt he meant it. They were both easing a little.

“You’ll have to give me your address and I’ll send you on the money – or I could pay you back when I get home, in Banbridge, if you like.” She tailed off. It did sound like an invitation.

“Aye well we’ll see” John answered.

The new motorway made for smooth travelling. It was raining now, pulsing down the glass in meandering streams that distorted the scenery flashing past. A blur of green in the dullness of early evening.  It was a fitting scene for her return to Ireland, she thought.

“So, what is Banbridge like?” John asked

“Oh, not terribly exciting, but it’s home.” She replied.

“To be honest I thought you were Spanish at first,” he smiled. “Probably the brown eyes.”

He was a charmer, she thought. But nice.

The man in the seat in front of them popped open a bag of crisps and the smell of cheese and onion drifted back.

“I could go a bag of those,” said John. “Doesn’t it always remind you of home - that smell?”

John suddenly stiffened in the seat, just as Kate realised that the bus was slowing. She assumed it was the Boyne Toll Bridge, but then she saw the blue lights flashing and realised that it was a Gardai checkpoint. Glancing sideways, she saw sudden fear in John’s eyes and the hint of sweat on his brow. He swallowed as the coach slowed to a complete stop.

“Are you okay?’ she asked.

The lights came on inside the coach, the droning of the radio stopped mid sentence. The doors opened and the freshening evening air rushed in, dispersing the smell of Tayto crisps.

Ear phones were unplugged and the passengers shrugged to consciousness. Two uniformed figures entered, filling the front of the bus. Their presence silencing the last scraps of conversation.

The younger of two, a man with a Dublin accent spoke. “Sorry for interrupting your journey ladies and gentleman.” 

A loud American woman complained bitterly from the front seat. “I had been warned not to come to this place, but the embassy assured me that it would be safe.”

Putting a calming hand on her shoulder the older officer said, “Madam, we appreciate your co-operation.”

Continuing he spoke to the gathering group “We need those of you who have luggage in the hold to retrieve immediately and have ready for inspection.”

Kate muttered “Oh, how I have missed this. I thought those days were long gone.”

John, however, appeared distracted and seemed to not hear what she said. Looking at him in the florescent half- light of the bus, she knew she was not imagining a look of fear pass across his face.

A tumble of cases, rucksacks and holdalls, poured out of the hold. The world reflected in the various badges of travel from Newark, LHR/London and SHP/Amsterdam as their owners lined up along the side of the bus.  The smell of freshly spread slurry nourishing the fertile fields of Banbridge lingered on the evening air.

John and Kate stood next to their bags; Kate’s well-worn rucksack and John’s black holdhall, with the now tattered labels from Amsterdam. John concentrated on his breathing drawing deeply inside to slow his racing pulse. The older policeman was coming towards them, drawing level with John now, looking directly at him. Suddenly he leaned forward and, reaching in and pulled out a piece of luggage from the hold. He unzipped it, producing a plastic bag of pills.

“Whose luggage is this?” he asked.

The gathered travellers stared at each other, waiting.

“The name is on the label,” the guard said.

At that, a younger man, hair tied back in a ponytail, stepped out of the line.

“Can you come with us, please?” the guard asked. ‘The rest of you are free to go.”

Back on the bus, laughing nervously, John joked with Kate “I was worried there for a moment, that they were looking for you. I thought there was something that you weren’t telling me back there?”

Kate smiled  “Poor kid; he probably thought he could play the big time. Me? I am an open book.”

John could quite believe this was happening, perhaps the fortune teller had been right and his luck was about to turn. Life was looking good.

 

*

 

It was growing dark when the bus rumbled into Banbridge bus station. The brakes’ release of air wakened Kate. She was disorientated and suddenly embarrassed when she lifted her head from John’s shoulder.

“Sorry, I didn’t realise I was asleep, I hope I wasn’t snoring.”

John smiled. “I didn’t hear a thing...think I dozed off myself. This is our stop. ”

Sleepy passengers started to shake themselves awake and gather their belongings. Kate waited as John stood up and reached up to the luggage rack. She couldn’t help noticing a long, silver scar dissecting his exposed midriff.

He rummaged around above her head. “Isn’t your bag up here?”

“No, I have it at my feet,” Kate said, deftly inserting her purse into a side pocket.

The lights of the town beckoned through the rain-streaked pane. Kate felt weary and looked forward to arriving home and sinking into a hot scented bath. She rose stiffly from her seat and John stood back to allow her to go ahead.

“Thanks. It’s been a long day.”

John asked. “Are you being collected? Otherwise I can give you a lift.”

“No, I was going to order a cab, but...that’s kind of you.”

As they stepped off the bus, Kate shivered and pulled up the collar of her coat.

“Where are you parked?” she asked.

“I’m round at the back of the station. Sorry, it’s a bit of walk but I didn’t have to pay. Here, let me take your bag.”

“No, that’s okay, I can handle it,” she said.

They started heading towards dimly lit wasteground. Kate cursed when she stepped into a water-filled pothole.

John grabbed her by the arm to steady her. “Watch out; it’s a bit rough. Are you okay?” He did not release her arm as he guided her further from the lights of the station towards a black BMW. He fumbled for keys in his pocket, but froze when the car window slid down. They both gasped as a man leaned forward from the driver’s seat.

“Get in,” Keith said.

 

March 11
Claire McGowan



Guest Author – Claire McGowan

One element of this month’s activities that I’m enjoying very much is the On Home Ground conversations with fellow Northern Irish authors about the influence growing up here has had on their writing. Today, one of those authors, Claire McGowan, blogs on growing up in the North. Claire is the author of three novels to date – The Fall, The Lost and The Dead Ground. The latter two are set on the Irish border and feature Forensic Psychologist, Paula Maguire. The Maguire series is currently in development for television with BBC.

Claire McGowan – On Home Ground

I feel very lucky to have been born in Northern Ireland. The sources of inspiration here are limitless – not just the Troubles, which continue to rumble on in some quarters, but also the impact of religion and history, plus the nature of small towns, which fascinates me. My only regret is, having been born in 1981, I can’t remember some of the most interesting (read: troubled) times.

I’ve lived in England for nearly 14 years now, but I do love to get back as often as I can to soak up inspiration from the news, and also absorb the unique Northern Ireland speech patterns. It’s so easy to forget these when you’ve lived away and been forced to ‘go English’ after many years of blank nods when you’ve asked a question (they are too polite to say when they can’t understand your accent). I’m constantly amazed by how I can make up quite extreme events, only to find that the truth was much worse than I could ever write. And of course, I try to strike a balance between telling our stories, and using real-life pain in fiction. This can be hard sometimes.

I grew up in Rostrevor, near Newry in South Down. It’s very rural and not much ever happened there, so we felt to an extent sheltered by the Troubles. But I remember being extremely aware of politics from a very young age, and anxiously watching the news every night just hoping the adults would find some way to sort it all out. I remember the ceasefires of the early nineties, then that hope crumbling as the shootings started up again. So when I came to write, it seemed natural to use crime fiction as a way to explore issues of politics, the painful past, and the ongoing difficulties. I made my main character, Paula Maguire, roughly the same age as me, and someone who like me left to go to university. However, she has come back to work on a particular case, and then finds Northern Ireland somehow won’t let her go.

If I could give advice to any aspiring writer, I would say – try to be born somewhere interesting, if you possibly can…

March 07
The Next Chapter

The idea of the Next Chapter is to write a collaborative story across one month and four towns. I will write the opening chapter of a story. Each week, I’ll work with a writing group to complete a subsequent chapter. The following week’s group will have to build on the chapters which the previous group have produced so that, across the course of the month, we will have a five part story, written by a collective of all those who participate in the project. In order to allow our writers some thinking time, I’ll post the previous chapter on this blog each week. At the end of the month, I’ll compile the whole story and make it available here. Therefore, to give our first group in Banbridge Library tomorrow a chance to start thinking of their part of the story, here is my contribution: the opening chapter.

 

Chapter One

The rain set in early, leaving the streets slick by the time the crowd poured out of the cinema. As he emerged out into the night air, John felt a momentary disorientation. When they had gone in to watch the movie it had been dry and bright. Now a fine miasma draped itself on the city, haloing the streetlights that stretched the length of the Strand Road.

 Will we go for a drink?’ Kate asked.

 John felt her small hand manoeuvre around his forearm, linking his arm and pulling him closer to her. She leant her head briefly against his shoulder, the fresh scent of her shampoo still detectable over the smell of stale popcorn lingering on their clothes.

 He heard the sudden thud of feet, the splashing as someone behind them ran through a puddle towards them. John turned, his shoulders already rounding as he crouched slightly, his hands balling into fists.

 A jogger, the white cord of his iPod earphones dangling in front of him, swung in a wide berth past them, nodding his head in acknowledgement of their presence, his eyes always on Kate. He smiled lightly at her as he passed. Winked.

 ‘Tosser,’ John spat in the man’s wake.

 ‘It’s alright, John,’ Kate said.

 ‘He was eyeing you up.’

 ‘He was just some guy,’ she said, taking his arm again, feeling the muscles still tensed.

 They moved on, towards the pub. They heard more splashing now, the scuffle of feet on the ground. Presumably more joggers, John thought. He was slower this time in turning, reluctant to appear too jumpy.

 As a result, he did not see the figure coming towards him until it was too late to arrest the approaching man’s movement. He ran into John, full force, the two of them tumbling to the wet ground in a tangle of limbs.

 ‘John’ Kate shouted, pulling at the man to move him from where he lay on top of her boyfriend.

 The man, apologising to Kate, managed to make it to his feet. He looked down at where John lay curled with his hands clasped around his stomach, as if winded.

 ‘Keith says hello,’ the man said viciously, kicking at John.

 ‘Get off him,’ Kate shouted, lunging at the man, but he had regained his balance now and shifted quickly away from her, leaving her flailing against the night air. Then he was off again, pulling his hood over his head, sprinting towards the corner of Clarendon Street, disappearing from view.

 ‘John, are you aright?’ Kate said, stooping to help him up from the ground.

 John rolled onto his back, lifting his hands towards the light. The blood on his fingers was tar-black under the orange street-lamp’s glow. It was spreading on his shirt now, already blooming vividly against the white cotton he wore and in which, Kate could now see a jagged tear where the knife had pierced him.

 ‘John,’ Kate cried. ‘John? What happened?’

 She knelt, screaming for someone to help. Others who had left the cinema at the same time as them were still nearby. An older couple came running to Kate.

 ‘Is he alright?’ the woman asked.

 ‘I think he’s been stabbed,’ Kate cried.

 ‘What’s his name?’

The older man knelt now, taking control while his wife fumbled with her phone to call for help.

 ‘John,’ Kate managed.

 ‘John? Can you hear me, John?’

The man leaned over him, turning his cheek, bringing it close to John’s mouth as if to feel for his breath.

 John’s fingers felt cold now, the stickiness of the blood almost alien, as if belonging to someone else. He could see Kate, the curls of her blond hair spilling onto her face.

 ‘John? Are you okay?’ the man repeated. ‘Can you hear me, John?’

 ‘My…’ John started to say, but his mouth was suddenly dry. He swallowed. The streetlights above him seemed to be dulling now, the rain on his face suddenly cool on his skin.

‘My name’s not John,’ he whispered to the growing darkness.

Ó Brian McGilloway 2014

March 07
On Creative Writing Workshops…



​I had a lovely evening in Strabane Library last night running the first writing workshop with a group of over 20 very enthusiastic and talented writers. The focus of the workshop was on creating a sense of place in writing. What struck me most was the range of people who had come along and the need to write that each of them had. I firmly believe that writing is a compulsion, something that you have to do if you are a writer. As a teacher, it was easy to see the kids who would go on to write as adults, because they were the ones who were already writing stories as children. No one can teach you to be a writer; you already are one if you have that compulsion. Workshops and clinics are more focused on the craft of writing; rewriting and re-reading work to ensure that it has the maximum impact.

One of the things people are uneasy about in workshops is reading out their work. When I ask people to read aloud, it’s not to flatter egos, or so everyone can say ‘That’s nice!’ I do believe that an important part of that craft of writing is reading your own writing aloud – though not necessarily to an audience beyond yourself. Often, when you start reading a piece aloud for the first time, you realise that the syntax is a little off, or words clash. Sometimes you realise that the sounds of words would complement one another better if they were rearranged.

Robert Frost said that ‘the ear is the best reader’ and reading out loud can certainly help grasp that words don’t just signify meaning, but also have an aural impact that is integral to their effect. So if you coming along to the next workshop, don’t be shy!

March 03
On Home Ground talks and Crime Writer interviews

 Peace Bridge in Derry-Londonderry.jpg 

So, Creativity Month is up and running and I had my first event on Saturday in Belfast Central Library. Thanks to the staff of Belfast Central and to all who came along and stayed for tea and biscuits afterwards, too!

Tonight and tomorrow night, I’ll be interviewing two of our best crime authors from the North: Claire McGowan in Newry tonight at 7pm and Eoin McNamee in Kilkeel on Tuesday at 7pm.

The talks are called On Home Ground and will be concerned with finding out the extent to which my guests feel their childhood home ground has influenced their writing now.

It’s a topic I feel quite strongly about, so I’m interested to hear Claire and Eoin’s thoughts (and Stuart Neville’s later in the month, when I interview him in Armagh).

Although I do not agree with the creative writing course mantra that you should only write what you know – how would any crime writer or science fiction, or fantasy writer manage that? – there is a degree of veracity in  it. I believe that what you know, what you experience, does feed into everything you write. Writers are magpies, collecting together all the shiny bits and scraps of our own lives and those of others and reusing them.

I grew up in Derry/Londonderry, a city of two names, bisected by the River Foyle with geographical populations on the East and West Bank determined generally along religious and political affiliations. I had the sense, when I was young, that it was a city divided. In the more recent past, I think that has changed significantly and the city now feels whole, the river connecting the two banks rather than dividing them. Perhaps that’s only my perception and it was ever thus.

I do think, though, that it’s no surprise that I started writing books set in areas of boundaries and divisions. And, considering my home city’s experiences during the worst years of the Troubles, it’s no coincidence that my books are concerned primarily with issues of justice and the impact events of the past have on the present.

I have noticed, though, in my most recent work, the past is less significant and the events of here and now are all that really matter.

I’ll be interested to learn if our guest authors will feel the same way.

 
February 27
Hello!

 

Brian McGilloway 

My name is Brian McGilloway and I’m thrilled to introduce myself as Libraries NI Writer-in-Residence for Creativity Month 2014. Over the course of March, I’ll be involved in events at a number of libraries across Northern Ireland and, as the month progresses, I’ll be blogging about some of those events as well as using this space to post examples of some of the work being produced at workshops and clinics by those who come along.

I’m the author of seven crime novels to date, five featuring Garda Inspector Ben Devlin and two about DS Lucy Black of the PSNI’s Public Protection Unit. All of my novels are set in or around the North and the border areas and the focus of many of the events this month is going to be encouraging others to develop their own writing skills.

The next week is going to be a busy one. On Saturday, I’ll be doing a reading in Belfast Central Library at 2pm to launch the month’s events. Then on Monday I’ll be in Newry at 7pm with Claire McGowan, a native of the area and a wonderful crime novelist. I’ll be interviewing Claire about how growing up in that area influenced her own writing as well as talking about her forthcoming book The Dead Ground.

The following morning I’ll be meeting with a reading group in Cregagh library at 11.30am to answer their questions and discuss some of the themes raised in my own books. That evening Eoin McNamee will be answering my questions in Kilkeel, at 7pm, about the influence his childhood exerts on his writing. We’ll also be talking about his superb new novel, Blue is the Night, which is published next week. 

On Thursday evening I’ll be taking a workshop in Strabane Library between 6 and 8pm looking at the use of setting in fiction, and how best to create a sense of location in your writing.

Finally, on Saturday, I’ll be in Banbridge, starting at 11am for the first instalment of the Next Chapter. The idea of this is simple. I’ll write the opening chapter of a story. Each week I’ll work with a group in a city in the North who will be tasked with writing ‘the next chapter’ to the story. Each subsequent group will have to ensure that their chapter links to those that have gone before and moves the story forwards.  I’ll edit the chapters to ensure some continuity in style and voice and will post them to this blog as we go along.

All of these events are free and open to the public, although booking is required where numbers are limited. The aim of Creativity Month is to encourage us all to be more creative, which is why so many of these events are aiming at encouraging fledging writers to maybe take their first steps and to give readers the chance to hear some of the North’s established authors talking about their craft. If an event is happening close to you, please do come along.

I hope to meet you at some stage over the coming weeks!

 

 About this blog

 
 
We welcome author Brian McGilloway as Writer in Residence. Brian will be blogging about his experience during Creativity Month (March)