‘Fiction Focus’ taught online virtual retreat – 2 and 3 December

This virtual weekend retreat is for all fiction writers, regardless of form or genre.
Includes five zoom sessions which will focus on:
Telling the tale – story and structure;
Creating characters that readers will either love or love to hate;
About time – handling tense and timelines in your story;
When the going gets tough – tips for dealing with the writing life;
Final thoughts – Q & A on anything else.
In between the Zoom sessions there will be free writing sessions, led by prompts and exercises in the form of handouts. Price also includes a critique of a piece of work up to 2,500 words.
Only £30.

Please get in touch using the details on the contact page if you’d like to more details and a booking form.

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Evening Zoom Workshop on Experimenting With Narrative Techniques – 8 June

Thursday 8 June – on Zoom from 7-8.30pm

We’ll be looking at how you take your short stories to another level by experimenting with narrative techniques. We’ll look at unusual forms of narration including second person and ‘fly on the wall’, and various sorts of unreliable narrator.

There will be a chance to chat, to discuss some short stories with unusual narrative techniques, ask questions and do some writing of your own. The workshop will look at some ways of taking your short story writing to the next level, with writing exercises, Q&A, and handouts.

Handouts provided before the session will give reading suggestions for suitable short stories to have a look at.

The cost of the workshop will be £10. If you would like a booking form, please contact me using the email address on the contact page.

This is the second in a series of evening workshops we’ll be running over the next few weeks. Each session will stand alone so you can do as many as you choose.

‘Make Your Short Stories Shine’

These workshops will be on Zoom from 7pm-8.30pm, fortnightly on the following dates:

Symbolism, theme and other clever stuff – Thursday 22 June
Experimenting with genre – Thursday 6 July

The sessions will cost £10 each.

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Evening Zoom workshop on Using Unusual Structures in short stories – 25 May!

Thursday 25 May – on Zoom from 7pm-8.30pm

We’ll be looking at how you take your short stories to another level by experimenting with unusual structures – playing with timelines, using epistolary techniques and even dressing your short story up as something else.

There will be a chance to chat, to discuss some short stories with unusual structures, ask questions and do some writing of your own.

The cost of the workshop will be £10. If you’d like to book a place, please get in touch via the contact page and I will send you a booking form.

This is the first in a series of evening workshops we’ll be running over the next few weeks.

‘Make Your Short Stories Shine’

This series of evening workshops will look at some ways of taking your short story writing to the next level. The workshops will include writing exercises, a chance to ask questions and handouts. Each session will stand alone so you can do all four or just pick the ones you think will be most helpful.

These workshops will be on Zoom from 7pm-8.30pm, fortnightly on the following dates:
Using Unusual Structures – Thursday 25 May
Experimenting with narrative techniques – Thursday 8 June
Symbolism, theme and other clever stuff – Thursday 22 June
Experimenting with genre – Thursday 6 July
The sessions will cost £10 each and if you book all four you can get them for the bargain overall price of £30.

For more information about Solus Or virtual events, see our Face book page https://www.facebook.com/solusorwritingretreat

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Join us for our ‘Fiction Finesse’ taught virtual retreat! 17-18 June

This weekend retreat coming up in June will be suitable for all fiction writers, regardless of form or genre. It will consist of zoom sessions, handouts and a critique of a piece of work up to 2,500 words.

Spread over the weekend of 17-18 June, the zoom sessions will focus in turn on these different aspects of fiction writing:
Characters and dialogue;
Plotting and not plotting;
Theme, emotion and meaning.

In between the Zoom sessions there will be free writing sessions, led by prompts and exercises in the form of handouts.

The cost of the retreat will be £30. If you’d like to book a place, please get in touch via the contact page and I will send you a booking form.

To find out more about Solus Or virtual events, see our Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/solusorwritingretreat

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Write A Short Story In A Day Webinar with Writing Magazine

I will be doing some more webinars with Writing Magazine over the summer. The first, ‘Write A Short Story In A Day’, is set to take place on Sunday 4 June and details are available at the link.


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The Late, Late Christmas Club

The Late, Late Christmas Club by Helen Walters

People in the cul-de-sac kept themselves to themselves. And considering how closely their houses were huddled together, they knew remarkably little about each other’s lives.


Hannah pottered around her house. Slowly. Since she’d been on crutches everything took about four times as long. That’s why she hadn’t bothered putting any Christmas decorations up this year. In fact, she wasn’t intending to do anything for Christmas at all.
Usually, this time of year was a whirl of social activities. Parties, dinners in nice restaurants, and visits to friends over the Christmas period, followed by a skiing trip at New Year. And although various friends had said she was still very welcome to join them for their celebrations, she hadn’t wanted to be a burden on anyone. And what was the point of a skiing trip if you couldn’t ski?
No. This Christmas was just going to be ready meals from the freezer and endless telly. It wouldn’t be very exciting, but she had been told to rest by the doctor after all. Apparently, her leg would heal better if she rested it and didn’t try to do too much.
As she pottered, she heard the doorbell ring.
‘You couldn’t take this in for Number 14, could you?’ said a cheery looking delivery guy with a Santa hat on.
‘Yes, of course,’ said Hannah. ‘But you’ll have to bring it in.’ She indicated her crutches.
‘Sure thing,’ he said and brought in a very large box which he deposited in Hannah’s hallway.
Hannah had never been asked to take anything in for 14 before. In fact, she didn’t even know who lived there. She spent so much time out and about that she’d never had a chance to get to know the neighbours. She often took things in for Number 11, because the woman who lived there was a nurse and often out working long shifts. Hannah had never actually met her either, but she knew she was a nurse because she’d seen her in uniform. But Number 14 was a totally unknown quantity.
‘I’ll just put a card through Mrs Fletcher’s door,’ said cheery delivery guy. And, with a wave, he was gone.


Alice Fletcher was a woman on a mission. She had a shopping list as long as her arm of everything she could possibly want for the perfect Christmas, apart from the stuff she’d ordered from the online delicatessen. She checked her watch as her groceries went through the checkout in the supermarket. As long as the courier didn’t come early, she’d be in plenty of time to get home and accept the delivery.
Then she really would have everything she needed for an amazing Christmas with her son, daughter-in-law and young granddaughter. She smiled a smile of deep satisfaction as she paid for her goods.
It was as she was sitting in her car preparing to head home that her phone rang.
‘Hi Sean,’ she said. ‘I’ve just done the last of the shopping and I’m heading home. I can’t wait to see you all.’
‘Oh, mum,’ he said. ‘I’m so sorry. But we’re not going to be able to come.’
Alice felt a cold feeling in her stomach.
‘It’s Ruby. She’s got chicken pox, I’m afraid. We think she caught it from one of the children next door. I’m so sorry, but we really can’t risk it. We’ll come to see you as soon as she’s better, I promise.’
Alice struggled to put on a brave voice. ‘Yes, of course. Please give her a hug from me and tell her I hope she feels better really soon. And we’ll all have a late Christmas as soon as she’s well enough.’
It was a while before her tears cleared enough for her to drive home, and as she came in through her front door, she didn’t even notice the card on her doormat.


It had been a tough day on the wards and Paula was exhausted. Christmas was always a difficult time, because as well as all the usual medical tasks, staff tried their hardest to make sure there was at least some sort of Christmassy feel to proceedings. As many patients as possible would be sent home for Christmas day, but those that remained would feel the emotional impact of missing out on time spent with their families as well as being ill.
Paula had agreed to work over Christmas because, unlike a lot of her colleagues, she didn’t have a young family at home. In fact, she didn’t have anyone at home.
She had thought about getting some slightly nicer than usual food in as a bit of a treat over the festive period, but so far she’d been so run ragged at work, and so tired in the evenings, that she hadn’t managed to do any such thing. She was just going to have to rely on whatever she could dig out of the fridge or the freezer.
Pulling into the cul-de-sac, Paula wondered whether she was the only one who would be going out to work tomorrow while everyone else enjoyed the day with their families. She didn’t really know any of her neighbours that well, but she guessed they would all likely be having a much merrier Christmas than she would be.


Hannah woke up on Christmas morning feeling a bit deflated. For all her bravery in deciding to spend Christmas alone so that she wouldn’t be a burden on other people, she now felt a bit daunted with the day looming ahead like a mountain to be climbed.
Breakfast of cereal and orange juice consumed, she headed to the living room to see what the television might have on offer. And that was when she saw the parcel from the day before and remembered that no one had come to pick it up. The delivery guy had definitely said he’d put a card through the door and there was a car on the drive now, so someone was obviously in.
Hannah hesitated. She wasn’t sure what to do. In normal circumstances, she would have just taken the parcel next door. But she didn’t fancy trying to juggle crutches and the parcel, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to risk the ground outside which was looking rather icy.
Surely if next door needed the parcel, they’d come and get it?


Alice wasn’t even sure if she could be bothered to get up at all. If the family had been here, she’d have been up at the crack of dawn getting the turkey ready for the oven, peeling potatoes, chopping carrots and making the batter for the Yorkshire puddings that Ruby loved so much.
But there was no point doing that now. She’d have to find room in the chest freezer for the turkey, she decided. Then it would be there waiting when Sean and his wife and daughter were able to make their belated visit.
There was no rush though, so she stayed in bed reading a book for a while and then finally got up and dressed before heading downstairs for a decidedly non-festive late breakfast.
It was after she’d cleared the breakfast things that she finally noticed the note from the delivery driver just inside the door. She picked it up and read the message. Ah, yes. The delicatessen order. She’d totally forgotten about it in the upset of the previous day.
Would it be all right to go and get the parcel now, she wondered. She didn’t like to disturb the neighbours on Christmas day. But on the other hand, she needed to unpack the parcel and see what she could use now and what might need to go in the freezer with the turkey. Yes, she’d better go round.
‘Hi, I’m Alice from next door,’ she said as a young woman opened the door, balancing on crutches.
‘Ah, yes. I’m Hannah and you must be Mrs Fletcher from Number 14.’
‘That’s right, but please call me Alice. I think you have my parcel? I’m so sorry I didn’t come round to get it yesterday. I didn’t see the card.’
‘That’s okay,’ said Hannah. ‘I’d have brought it round, only I’m a bit incapacitated at the moment as you can see.’
‘Yes, of course. And I’m so sorry to disturb you on Christmas day. You must have loads to be getting on with.’
‘I haven’t actually,’ said Hannah. ‘Christmas is sort of cancelled this year because of the whole crutches thing. I usually spend it with a bunch of friends but I couldn’t bear the thought of spoiling their fun, so I decided to stay here on my own.’
And that was when Alice had an idea. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like to come round to mine, would you? The thing is, my son and his family were supposed to be coming but my granddaughter is ill. I’ve got all this food,’ she indicated the deli box, ‘plus a huge turkey and all sorts of other stuff in the fridge. I wasn’t going to bother just for me, but if you’re on your own as well?’
So that was how Hannah and Alice found themselves sitting in Alice’s living room watching television and chatting while the turkey belatedly cooked in the oven.
‘You know,’ said Alice. ‘That turkey’s going to take hours to cook. I hope you don’t mind eating quite late.’
‘Of course not,’ said Hannah. ‘It’ll be a lot nicer than whatever I could have sorted out for myself.’
‘There’s still going to be way too much food even for two of us,’ Alice said thoughtfully. ‘I wonder if there is anyone else on the cul-de-sac who might want to join us. I know Number 13 always go away to stay away with family at this time of year, but I don’t really know anything about Number 11, do you?’
‘I think she’s a nurse,’ Hannah said. ‘Her car isn’t on the drive, so maybe she’s gone somewhere for the day. But I suppose it’s equally likely she’s working.’
‘Right then,’ said Alice, standing up to go and find pen and paper. ‘I’ve got an idea.’


As Paula drove home after another difficult day of hard work and even harder attempts to keep people’s spirits up, she suddenly realised she was hungry. They’d been serving Christmas meals all day in the hospital canteen, but she just hadn’t found the time to get down there. She tried to remember what she’d noticed in her fridge the previous evening. Was there anything that would make a decent meal? If her memory served correctly, there was some yoghurt, a couple of eggs, some wilted celery and a lump of rather suspect cheese.
She vaguely thought about trying to do some shopping, but she suspected that not much beyond the odd garage shop would be open. And she was too exhausted anyway. No, she was going to have to rely on whatever she could dig out of her freezer.
As she entered the hallway of her house, she flung her jacket over the newel post and braced herself to forage for food.
Then she looked down, and there it was. A neatly folded square of paper.
Hello. I’m Alice from Number 14 and I’m having a belated Christmas dinner with Hannah (No 12). If you haven’t got anything planned, please feel free to come and join us.
Paula smiled to herself. Then she put her jacket back on and headed for Number 14.


And so, Christmas on the cul-de-sac was saved, albeit a bit late in the day. But more than that, the cul-de-sac stopped being the sort of place where people had no idea about anyone else, and became the sort of place where people started to look out for each other. And you can’t get a better Christmas gift than that.

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A story for Christmas Eve …

A Very Sherry Christmas by Helen M Walters

‘I did tell you I’m vegetarian now, didn’t I Mum?’ Joe said.
Marion nearly dropped the phone at that point. ‘No, Joe, you did not. I’ve got a huge turkey for tomorrow and beef for Boxing Day. I don’t know what you’re going to eat.’
She sighed as she ended the call. It wasn’t exactly the first time Joe had thrown a spanner in the works when it came to food. There was the time when he was six and, for over a month, he’d refused to eat anything other than baked beans on toast.
Andy had told her not to worry then. ‘After all,’ he’d said. ‘They do say beans on toast is a perfect balanced meal.’
Marion had complained that wasn’t the point, but Andy as usual had been right. Eventually the phase had passed and Joe had gone from being a picky eater to a child who’d hoover up anything in sight. Until now.
Marion turned to her husband. ‘Did Joe tell you he was turning veggie?’
‘Nope. It’ll be something he’s picked up from those students he lives with. Like real ale and all those grungy clothes he wears these days. It’ll only be a phase.’
That was all very well, but Marion hadn’t planned for this at all. The thought of all the gorgeous, but very non-vegetarian food she’d stocked up on for Christmas made her want to cry. She and Andy, and Isobel who was only four, would never eat all that food. And what on earth was Joe going to eat. Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce?
‘That boy can be very thoughtless sometimes,’ she said. ‘What am I going to give him to eat?’
‘He’ll just have to eat vegetables if he likes them so much,’ Andy said mildly.
He was right of course, yet again, but sometimes Marion wished her husband wasn’t so very laid back about everything. She’d spent weeks now planning the perfect Christmas. She’d made lists, selected recipes, and read articles about how to have the best Christmas ever. She’d slaved over Christmas puddings, Christmas cakes and mince pies. She’d decorated the house from top to bottom including dressing a tree taller than herself with tinsel and baubles.
And, most frustratingly of all, she’d cleared freezer space for the gigantic turkey she’d been assured she’d need if she wanted to make turkey risotto, turkey curry and turkey soup from the leftovers. She’d done so much, and frankly she was exhausted.
Now that Joe was eighteen, he was too old to be entranced by a lot of the Christmas stuff. But Isobel was only four and she still believed in Santa and the whole caboodle. Marion wondered for the umpteenth time how wise it had been to have two children so far apart. It was so difficult to get things right for both of them.
She was delighted to have Isobel of course. She’d always wanted a daughter. And after a difficult birth with Joe, she’d thought she might not have any more children. Years of waiting and hoping and false alarms had led to disappointment after disappointment. Until, when she’d thought it was too late and her chances of a sibling for Joe were over, she’d found herself pregnant with Isobel. At first, she’d though it was the start of menopause, but eventually she’d realised it was the start of a miracle.
There was no way she was ever going to forget that. But being a mum for the second time around later in life had been tiring, she couldn’t deny it. It felt like she’d been mum above everything else for a very long time now and the end wasn’t even in sight. Trying to please too many people, too much of the time, for too long had taken its toll.
To be fair, Joe was mostly great with Isobel, indulging her in whatever she wanted to do and going along with the fun of leaving a mince pie and a glass of sherry out for Santa. But how was it going to be this year if he didn’t even want to eat the same dinner as the rest of them?
‘I’d better get Isobel to bed,’ Marion said checking her watch.
That was another problem. She had hoped Joe would be back in time to see his little sister at least briefly before she went to bed. Now she was going to have battle the excitement of Joe’s arrival as well as Santa’s much anticipated visit if she was going to have any chance of getting her daughter to go to sleep at a reasonable time.
‘Isobel,’ she said. ‘Do you want to help me get Santa’s sherry and mince pie ready before you go to bed?’
‘What about Joe?’ Isobel asked.
Marion stifled another sigh. ‘Joe won’t be here until later,’ she said. ‘But don’t worry, when you wake up in the morning Santa will have been with your presents and Joe will be here.’
‘I want Joe now,’ Isobel said, her lower lip starting to wobble.
‘I know,’ said Andy, stepping in. ‘Why don’t we leave a mince pie and a glass of sherry for Joe as well? Then he’ll know you were thinking of him just before you went to bed.’
Isobel smiled and nodded.
‘Come on then.’ Andy led the way into the kitchen.
Marion sighed again, this time with relief. Tears before bedtime was the last thing they needed.
Andy set Isobel the task of putting two mince pies on a plate with a doily and selecting a carrot for Rudolph, while Marion went to the pantry for the bottle of sherry.
‘Oh, no,’ she whispered as she surveyed the shelf where she’d stored the Christmas booze stash. There was the nice wine she’d bought to go with the Christmas meal, the Prosecco, the gin and the vodka for cocktails. But no sherry.
‘What’s the matter?’ Andy appeared at her shoulder.
‘I can’t believe it. There’s no sherry. All that planning and all those shopping lists, and I forgot the sherry for Santa. Isobel will be so disappointed.’
Andy looked over his shoulder to check Isobel was still absorbed in her task, then put a finger to his lips. Quickly he crossed to the fridge, took out a litre of apple juice and poured a tot into two sherry glasses. He had the bottle back in the fridge before Isobel had even looked up.
Between them they finally managed to get Isobel into bed and settled down.
‘Go to sleep now or Santa won’t come,’ they whispered as they left the room.
Back downstairs, Marion collapsed on the sofa.
‘I can’t help thinking Christmas is going to be a bit of a disaster this year. What with no sherry, and Christmas dinner ruined because I didn’t know Joe didn’t want to eat meat. And the worst thing is it’s all my fault.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Andy said as he sat down beside her and held her hand. ‘Nothing’s ruined. Isobel had no idea the sherry wasn’t real. And why would she care? She’s four. And it’s not like Santa’s going to complain is it?’
Marion managed a wry smile at that. ‘It’s just that I feel like however hard I try nothing ever goes the way it should. I shouldn’t have got cross with Joe on the phone earlier either. I just wanted everything to be perfect, that’s all.’
‘And it will be. It’ll be fine.’
‘I didn’t want it to be fine. I wanted it to be perfect. And I wanted them both to enjoy it even though they are so far apart in age. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.’ Marion still felt like tears weren’t that far away.
Andy stroked her hand. ‘Do you remember when Joe was little? He really threw himself into Christmas. He wrote his letter to Santa in September. He wanted a stocking hanging in his bedroom, as well as a big sack of presents under the tree and he loved going to the pantomime. Then he got older and he didn’t really want all those things any more. He stopped believing in Santa and was more excited when people gave him money than presents. Then Isobel came along.’
‘Yes,’ said Marion. ‘And we did it all over again.’
‘Except, we didn’t. Not quite. We did things differently. Isobel has her sack of presents in the bedroom, because she likes to wake up and see them first thing, and she wants her stocking to be under the tree. She has yet to write a letter to Santa, and when we took her to the pantomime last year, she cried because she was scared of the ugly sisters. Kids are not the same. Things change. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.’
‘I suppose so,’ Marion said, managing a smile.
‘And they’ll continue to change. Isobel will grow up and become interested in different things as she gets older. Joe might be bringing a partner and children of his own home for Christmas before we know it. We’ll have to find new ways of doing things again then. And that’s fine.’
‘I know you’re right. I’m just exhausted, that’s all. And still a bit cross with myself for forgetting the sherry,’ Marion said.
‘Actually, I’ve just remembered something.’ With that Andy went and started to rummage around among the presents under the tree.
‘Here you are,’ he said holding out a present with wrapping but no label. ‘The neighbours dropped it round earlier. Open it.’
Marion started to peel the paper away and as she did, she couldn’t help giggling. It was a bottle of dry sherry.
‘How did you know?’
Andy shrugged. ‘Just something about the shape of the bottle. Lucky guess. Let’s not waste it on Santa though.’
Marion went into the kitchen for fresh glasses and poured them both a measure. It was as they were taking their first sips that the front door opened and Joe came in.
‘Hey, Mum. Got room in the fridge for this?’ he said, handing her a supermarket bag. Inside was a box marked ‘Festive Nut Roast’.
‘Oh, you brought your own lunch,’ she gasped. ‘I was so worried about what we were going to give you to eat.’
‘Sorry Mum,’ he said, enveloping her in a huge hug. ‘I should have told you about the vegetarian thing. My bad.’
Tears prickled behind her eyes. Her son wasn’t as thoughtless as she’d feared. ‘I just want us all to have a lovely Christmas meal together,’ she sniffed.
‘We will, Mum. I can still eat your famous roasties can’t I? And the sprouts and parsnips. Can’t wait.’
Marion felt some of her stress slipping away.
‘And, this was on special offer,’ he said reaching down into the huge bag at his feet.
Marion and Andy both laughed when they saw what it was. A bottle of sherry.
‘What’s funny?’ Joe asked.
‘Snap!’ said Andy, holding up the bottle they had already opened.
‘We’re definitely not going to go short of sherry this year,’ Marion said as she went into the kitchen for an extra glass.
As she came back into the living room to the sight of Andy relaxing on the sofa and Joe unpacking a huge pile of presents, which judging by the wrapping were mostly intended to go upstairs for his sister, Marion finally relaxed properly.
Christmas wasn’t ruined at all. In fact, it might be the best one ever. And as long as they were all together she was sure they’d manage a very merry time indeed.
‘Sherry Christmas,’ Andy said with a wink and a grin as he raised his glass to her.

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Virtual retreats for early 2023

We’ve got a couple of virtual retreats lined up for early 2023. These will take place on the Solus Or Writing Retreat FaceBook page.

‘The Late, Late New Year Virtual Retreat!’ – from Friday 27 January (early evening) to Sunday 29 January (mid afternoon).

Let’s check up on how we’re all getting on with our writing resolutions so far.

Writing prompts! Ideas generation! Tips for getting organised and motivated.

Be inspired by a weekend of inspiration and writing exercises for all writers regardless of genre and form. It doesn’t matter what you are writing – from romance novels to ghost stories, from poetry to memoir – we’ll have plenty for you.

The emphasis will be on having fun and enjoying your writing.

The cost will be £25, and this will include all handouts, feedback on exercises throughout the weekend and a critique of up to 2,500 words of your writing. Please PM your email address if you are interested in booking a place on this virtual retreat.

‘The Short Story Expertise Virtual Retreat!’ – from Friday 24 February (early evening) to Sunday 26 February (mid afternoon).

In this virtual retreat we’ll look at all aspects of short story writing and how we can improve our expertise and chances of publication. This retreat is for you no matter what sort of short story your write: womag, genres such as ghost and crime, and anything and everything no matter how unusual.

The cost will be £30, and this will include all handouts, feedback on exercises throughout the weekend and a critique of up to 2,500 words of your writing. There will also be interactive zoom sessions. Please PM your email address if you are interested in booking a place on this virtual retreat. Places will be limited to 10 people.

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Two short stories …

Here are some of my stories for you to enjoy.

This story first appeared in Woman’s Weekly magazine in April 2009.

Dandelion Clocks

I hadn’t wanted to go to Claire and Greg’s engagement party in the first place. Claire has never been my favourite person. What is it about being in a couple that makes some people impossibly smug, and somehow oblivious to everyone else’s feelings?

Yes, I was jealous. Of course I was. But she didn’t have to look at me in that coy way and say, ‘It’ll be your turn some day, Manda.’

They’d all ganged up on me though – just like the old days. Everyone at college had called us ‘the gang of five’, but sometimes I felt like it was ‘the gang of four’ and me. Claire, Greg, Julie and Buzz. Long before Claire and Greg became a couple, it seemed like the rest of them were the four corners of a square and I was floating somewhere in the middle.

‘You have to come, Manda,’ Buzz had said. ‘We all promised we’d meet at Sydney Harbour and celebrate five years since we left college. The film festival will be on as well. Everyone will be there, you have to come. Please.’

‘Why did she have to commandeer it and turn it into her engagement party?’ I’d asked. ‘Why does everything have to be about Claire … and Greg?’

‘Because they’re in love and they want us all to be there to celebrate their engagement,’ Julie had said gently.

‘And,’ said Buzz, ‘It’s a party and it’s in Sydney. How bad can it be?’


So, I endured the long flight and the puffy ankles. I ate the vile tasting airline food and watched the dumb movie. And I thought about the old days. Specifically, I thought about Greg.

He’d been the beating heart of the group. Somehow, we’d all gravitated to him like wasps to beer and been left just as intoxicated.

On the first lonely night in the halls of residence he’d been the one who knocked on everyone’s door and gathered us in the kitchen for coffee that tasted like tea and tea that tasted like old socks.

‘Isn’t it great to be here?’ he’d asked, with his baseball boots up on the kitchen table and his chair leaning back against the wall. I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off the slogan on his sweatshirt, ‘When I grow up I want to be a computer programmer’. It took me ages to realise he didn’t know how to turn a computer on.

That was Greg all over. Misdirection, smoke and mirrors and a feeling that you never quite knew what he’d do next.

‘I wanted to go to Oxford really …’ Claire had said and we’d all looked at her as if she’d just landed from Saturn.

I think I was the only one who noticed the way Greg flashed his grey eyes at her and thumped the legs of his chair back on to the floor.

Buzz had broken the silence with a joke, Julie had put the kettle on and made another round of drinks and I’d just sat there taking it all in and hoping I wouldn’t spill my coffee.

Years had passed, essays had been written and finally we’d all graduated. Claire got a First, of course. The rest of were happy with our slightly less flashy degrees and we all went off into the world. The four corners of the square stretched and relocated, and my place in the middle became a vacuum.


Sydney isn’t the obvious place for five graduates from Wales to end up. But, maybe it was that magnetic pull that Greg had over us again. He’d gone off backpacking as soon as he graduated.

‘Life’s too short to get a job,’ he told us.

Claire had sniffed disapprovingly and went to Keele to take up her MA place. She didn’t finish it though. For some reason, she decided that travel would broaden her mind far more than her professors could. She was the first to get on a plane and cross the world for him.

Then I’d had a phone call from Buzz. ‘Manda. How do you fancy a year in Australia? I’m going out there to work and Julie said she might come too. You should come. We’ll all be together again.’

Of course I considered it, but I was making good money by then. I’d settled into my job as a lab technician and my little square of the world felt like it had stopped rocking on its hinges. I just thought it would be irresponsible to give it all up and go halfway across the planet. I was wrong. Without them I felt like I was just counting time.


Of course, they had all come back eventually. Full of tall tales and photos of the harbour, they’d settled back into rainy real life and things had returned to normal. The square hadn’t lost its strength and I’d been happy to shelter back inside it.

Then Greg had got itchy feet again and decided to go back to Australia. And that’s where this crazy idea came from in the first place. A party at Sydney Harbour for all of us, five years to the day since we’d graduated.

‘It’ll be awesome. A country-warming party for me with all my favourite people,’ Greg had said.

‘And don’t worry Manda, we won’t throw you in the water,’ Buzz had promised.

I’d laughed and punched Buzz on the arm, all the while trying to convince myself that Greg wouldn’t be lost to us for ever when he got on that plane. A square with only three corners wasn’t going to protect me from much.

Then, out of nowhere, Greg and Claire had got engaged. I did not see that one coming. Suddenly the square, and my world with it, was lurching at a strange angle.

Thank God for Julie. She’d been staying with me that week and had taken me out every night in a bid to cheer me up. I hadn’t needed to tell her why I was so upset, she’d just kept making pancakes for breakfast and soup for lunch without either of us needing to say a word.


The whole of Australia was throwing a party as I walked into the restaurant in the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Claire was the first person I saw, standing and fiddling with the napkins on a beautifully laid table. Just for a moment she didn’t see me and I just stood and looked at her.

She’d put her coal-coloured hair up in a twist and loose strands fell delicately on her cheeks. Her black dress made her look impossibly slim and for the hundredth time I wondered where she got her calm and poise from. In all the years I’d known her, she’d never looked so beautiful, and I’d never felt so distant from her.

Looking up and noticing me for the first time, she smiled. A lump rose in my throat as I went to say hello to her. I knew that I had to be nice to her. This was no time to be jealous.

I couldn’t scream, ‘It should have been me he proposed to. I’ve wanted to be his wife since the first day I met him.’

Even I could see that would be totally inappropriate. So I kept my thoughts to myself and chatted politely to Claire while we waited for the others to arrive.

Buzz came tumbling in first, looking strangely unfamiliar in a suit. It was almost as if someone had hidden his trademark jeans and green sweater, so he’d had to wear something else instead. Smiling and joking with the waiters, he made his way over to our table.

‘Where’s Jules?’ he asked.

‘Here she is now,’ I said as she walked in, wearing a purple dress which made her look less like a little girl than usual.

Julie came and sat down between Buzz and Claire, and took Buzz’s hand. He looked at her the way he always does, with an expression I suddenly realised was love. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? I’d been so caught up in Claire and Greg that I hadn’t even noticed the most obvious and perfect thing in the world.

Before I had a chance to say anything, Claire picked up her glass. Candlelight from the table arrangement was playing on her cheeks and her eyes had a feverish shine.

‘Now we’re all here …’ she began and couldn’t go any further.

I looked at Julie, who wasn’t even trying to hold back her tears.

Buzz stood up and took the glass out of Claire’s hand.

‘Greg wouldn’t have wanted us to cry. He’d have told us to cheer up and get on with it. We all came here to help him celebrate his engagement. But, I guess he got the last laugh this time.’

‘When’s the funeral?’ Julie asked Claire, in a choked whisper.

‘Not for a couple of weeks. They have to have an inquest as it was a car accident, and then I can arrange to take his … his body, home. You’re all going to stay aren’t you?’ she asked, her voice cracking with despair.

‘Yes. Of course we are. How could you think we’d leave you here alone?’ I managed to say.

As fireworks made dandelion clocks in the sky above Sydney Harbour, I held Claire in my arms as we both cried. Through my tears I was aware of Buzz and Julie linking hands as they stood over us. Imperceptibly, the square slid back into shape and found a new strength.

This story was originally published in the Momaya Press Annual Review 2007.

Shredding The Label

Looking at Cathy always was like looking in a mirror. I watch as she strokes her finger across her lips. She leaves a trail like snail slime. It always irritates me when she does that, clagging up the rim of the glass. I’ll have to wash that up later ….

She’s pouring me another glass of wine. As my nose hovers over the top of the glass, I breathe in the alcohol fumes. I just need her to be a little more tipsy than I am. Then I can talk to her.

I wonder where to start. I slosh my wine gently and a thousand rainbows dance around my glass. Why do they call it red wine I wonder, when really it’s purple? Like red grapes are really purple and white grapes are really green.

‘You know – the thing that happened ….’

‘Oh Maggie – don’t get started on that again, please. I’ve told you before. It’s best not to think about it. We can’t just backtrack on all of those years. ’

‘Why not? She backtracked on the first six years of our lives.’ My glass shakes and dark droplets slip onto the tablecloth.

‘I don’t think she did it on purpose.’ She brushes the drops away with her fingers, staining the ends with boozy stigmata.

‘You don’t know that do you?’

‘Does it really matter?’

‘It does to me.’ I must keep hold of my temper. Especially today.

‘But how can we tell her? How can we tell anyone? I don’t see why it matters anyway.’

‘Of course it matters. Don’t you care how I’ve felt all these years?’ Now she’s sprinkling salt on the blotches of wine on the tablecloth. The salt sucks up the liquid and slowly turns pink. The stain is still there though – underneath.

And I wonder if she knows how much I resent her. She thinks I’m jealous of her – but I’m not. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

‘Of course I care,’ she’s half way down her second glass of Merlot. ‘But I didn’t feel any different.’

‘You must have.’

‘No – we were so close. We shared everything.’

‘Not quite everything.’

‘But that was afterwards … a long time after.’

I refill her glass. The red wine splashes and gurgles from the bottle. The bottle zings against the glass, but this time I don’t spill any.

‘But if I’d still been you it wouldn’t have happened to me. It would have happened to you.’ Does that sound selfish I wonder?

‘No it wouldn’t. That’s ridiculous. How can that be true?’

‘It is true.’ It isn’t, of course, I just wish it was. It’s funny how some people’s lives just seem to be programmed to go a certain way.

‘Maggie – don’t.’ The wine has stained her lips now; all mixed in with that horrible stuff she slaps on them.

‘They always say that the mother can tell the difference even if no one else can. It’s meant to be almost a psychic thing. So why did she get it wrong? It shouldn’t be possible. She should have known! And if she had known it wouldn’t have happened would it?’

‘Well according to you, it would. It just would have happened to me instead. I suppose that would be all right?’

And that’s the kind of thing that really makes me want to slap her. Why should I pay the price for having my destiny stolen and replaced with a nightmare?

‘Did you ever think about asking her?’

‘No. I think the problem was that we both just accepted it. We were six … it’s just that at that age … well, you think your parents are always right don’t you?’

‘Maybe if we’d had a father, things would have been different.’

‘You mean he might have been able to tell us apart?’

‘No, I just mean different generally.’

Oh yes. A father would have made things different. A father and not just a succession of ‘uncles’, each worse than the last. Well maybe not quite that … one was definitely worse than the others. But I can’t even remember where he came in the long procession.

‘Sometimes I thought I’d got it wrong … and I just imagined that it happened ….’

Well, it’s all very well for you to say that isn’t it my smug sister? You didn’t imagine it. Not any of it.

‘More wine?’

She puts her hand over the top of the glass, but I playfully slap it away. I top up my glass as well and hope she won’t notice I’m not actually drinking that much of it.

‘The thing is,’ she says … ‘now I’ve met Gavin. None of that … stuff … matters any more.’

I clench my fists against the chair. How can she say that? How can my sister be so self-satisfied and predictable? Easier for her than for me of course.

When you watch films where people have swapped identities, it’s always supposed to be funny, or clever or a big adventure. No one ever mentions what it’s like when you’re the one that … well, loses out. What if I don’t want to be Maggie? What if I want to go back to being Cathy. Cathy – the happy one, the well balanced one, the one that’s never been any trouble.

I am Cathy. But no one will believe me. After all, how could a mother make a mistake like that? Mothers always know don’t they? But what if just a moment’s absent-mindedness results in a twist in fortunes that rollercoasters out of control?

I get a corkscrew and open another bottle.

‘So, how are the wedding plans going, Cathy?’ I say. In my head I say Maggie but I won’t say that aloud.

‘I’ve got to get my birth certificate from Mum so that Gav can go and get the marriage licence.’

You see there’s another conundrum. If my birth certificate says I’m Cathy does that make me Cathy? Or Maggie? It’s not like your birth certificate’s actually part of you is it? It’s not stapled to your head or anything. It’s not tattooed on your leg or welded to your DNA.

Apparently it happened a lot in the blitz. People would just walk out of a bombed building with someone else’s identity. It’s like all those Agatha Christie stories where everyone turns out to be someone else …

Of course no one ever believed what I said anyway. I tried to tell people I was Cathy. And everyone just said ‘Oh, what funny tricks you girls play. Now do be sensible Maggie.’

And I tried to tell people about the other thing as well, but I couldn’t get the words out. Maggie knows though … we used to share a room.

Even when I was sent to the school counsellor all those times, for being naughty, I didn’t say anything. Well, it didn’t help when they always started by saying ‘Of course – you’re Cathy’s sister.’ And then they’d look at me as if they couldn’t believe that Cathy’s sister could be naughty. Well, if only they’d known the truth.

And no one listens to me now. ‘It’s the drink talking,’ they say.

She hasn’t noticed how many times I’ve topped up her glass. It’s amazing how easily distracted she is. You just have to mention the wedding.

Gav’s nice you know. And I can’t help wondering why he wants her and not me … not when we look so alike. I’ve never had a boyfriend though. You should see the bridesmaid’s dress she wants me to wear! I haven’t told her yet that I’m not going to wear it … she won’t like it when she finds out.

‘I’ll get another bottle from upstairs, Mags,’ she says. ‘That one’s nearly dead.’

Yes it is. I’ve waited a long time for this talk though, so a break while she goes upstairs is nothing. Not compared to the other breaks. Cathy went to university, then had a gap year. She sent me lots of postcards of India – nice of her really. All those white hot beaches. She might have been trying to rub it in … but I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

I pour the dregs of the last bottle into her glass. Little bits of red residue from the bottom of the bottle mix in with the wine already in there and slowly float to the bottom. I walk over to the sink and tip the rest of my glass away. I run the taps to get rid of the smell of the alcohol. If only everything could be swilled away that easily.


‘Yes, fine,’ I say. I don’t care – I’m not going to drink it.

She pours it like a waitress. Or a barmaid. Like everything she does, it is professional and crisp. She isn’t drunk enough yet.

She tucks her hair behind her ears, hair that’s brown like chocolate, Gav says – apparently. They make a lovely couple. He’s just the right height to make her look petite and fragile. And his white chocolate hair makes him look much younger than he is.

I sip the Valpolicella. Not as good as the Merlot. But maybe she won’t notice. And maybe she won’t notice the ground up powder mixed with the sediment in her glass. That should just give her a bit of a nudge in the right direction.

‘Don’t you think Gavin ought to know about all this?’ I ask, as I run my finger around the top of my glass, dipping it first in the wine so that it squeaks and resonates.

‘No secrets when you’re in love are there ….’ Not that I’d know. Not that I’ve ever had the chance to find out. Not about real love anyway – just that other thing. That thing that wasn’t love; and that was forced on me when I was too young to say no.

I pick half the label off the wine bottle and shred it with my fingers.

I’m not bitter. What is it they say? Don’t get mad, get even. OK then.

‘Another glass of wine?’ I say, and she holds her hand out to me. The diamond twinkles and refracts light across the table. Globes of light settle on the piles of pink salt and illuminate them.

‘Thanks, Sis.’ I wish she wouldn’t say that.

I tip the bottle so that wine pours freely into her glass. Right to the top so she can hardly lift it.

‘Sip a bit first,’ I say.

She slurps and we both laugh. ‘Thanks Sis,’ she says again.

‘You know I love you Mags. I’m sorry about all the other stuff. Sorry, y’know?’ she says.

As her voice begins to slur, I wait patiently for my moment to come.

‘Have another glass, Maggie,’ I say. I hold my breath.

‘Yeah …’ she says, ‘thanks.’

My heart stops beating. I don’t want to push my luck, so I slosh more wine into her glass and sit back in my chair. I resist the temptation to bite my nails. Cathy doesn’t bite her nails. They’ll need to be beautifully manicured for the wedding.

Cathy’s growing her hair for the wedding as well. I unclip mine from the top of my head and let it fall on to my shoulders.


When we were really little – and I was Cathy – we laughed all the time. At the park, on the swings, going round and round on the roundabout – our pigtails touching the floor in a daredevil dance. I loved Maggie then. We didn’t need anyone else – not even our mother. Maybe she resented that.

Then for some reason, I was Maggie. I knew I was Maggie because Mummy called me Maggie – so I had to be. It’s not the kind of thing you argue with. And it’s not like anyone else could tell us apart. And then – it didn’t really matter. Maggie and Cathy. Cathy and Maggie. Interchangeable – almost.

Even then, it would have been OK. If the other thing hadn’t happened. Or if it hadn’t happened to me. I gasp a mouthful of wine down to stop the angry tears from coming.

She is slumped across the table now. Three bottles down – yes that should do it. I look at her face. My face. She sighs slightly through the alcoholic fug.

Slowly, so slowly and gently, I ease the ring off her finger and on to mine.

I pick up her mobile phone from the table where she has put it down.

‘Mum, it’s Cathy. I’m just coming over to get my birth certificate for the marriage thing. Maggie? Oh yes, Maggie’s fine. I’m going to take her home first. She’s had a bit too much to drink again… but I’m sure she’ll be all right.’



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Solus Or Writing Retreat – Scotland

Since autumn of 2017 I’ve been running a writing retreat in the highlands of Scotland with my husband, Mike Walters. Mike is the author of many crime books written as both Michael Walters and Alex Walters.

Sadly, Covid meant we had to temporarily close our doors, although happily that did give us an opportunity to start up a successful series of virtual retreats.

All being well, we are hoping to re-open the retreat in Spring 2023. Watch this space for more news!

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