Ways To Beat January Gloom

I’ve always hated January. To me, it’s the Monday morning of all the months. And that first Monday back to work and school in January has always been something I’ve dreaded. I love the festive period and it always seems to arrive just when we need it most. The Autumn has stretched into Winter, Summer seems like it never happened, and the days are short, dark and cold. We are all tired and grumpy and need a break and Christmas arrives just in time to provide just that. This Christmas was just how I wanted it. My eldest came back from University (the first time we have seen her since September!) and I had two weeks off from all my writing clubs. I made sure everything was ticked off my endless to-do-list just before school broke up, and that meant I could totally relax over the two week holiday. It was everything I hoped it would be. Slow, lazy, snuggly and warm. We shared lazy days lounging around, snuggling under blankets or drinking hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire. We had the most beautiful Christmas tree and by Christmas Eve, there was an exciting mountain of gifts piled up under it. It all went smoothly, including the dinner with my mum, and visiting various relatives. But at the back of my mind was always the grumbling dread that January was on its way.

It’s just such a bleak and depressing month. Spring feels a million miles away, Summer a distant dream. There is little to look forward to apart from dark mornings and worsening weather. I always get that intense ‘back-to-school’ feeling towards the end of December. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I am very fortunate to have a writing-related job and I come out of each of my writing clubs smiling, because it really is a joy. But life is pretty hectic and enjoying a break is something I am loathe to say goodbye to. Our normal lives consist of so much driving around in order to get everyone to their job, school or college, and then picked up again, not to mention other activities such as Beavers. Monday to Wednesday is crazy with no time to breathe, but I am lucky enough to have Thursdays and Fridays free. It gives me two days to catch up on all the admin and preparation that goes with my job and maybe fit in some gardening or writing if I am really organised!

This year, I decided to try and pre-empt my usual January depression. I don’t like wishing time away and I hate the feeling that everything is flat and bleak. I decided to rail against it and started thinking of ways I could enter January with a more positive mind-set. It’s not been easy but here is a list of the things I am trying to focus on to get through this Monday of a month!

Image by Moni Mckein from Pixabay
  • Plan my goals for 2022 – I do this every year and it really helps me feel a bit more excited about January. I write a list of ten writing and non-writing related goals and then at the end of the year I read them again and write another post about how the reality panned out. It’s quite exciting to get them written down and gives me a kick up the backside to get going!
  • Sort out my seed tin – Another little thing that just cheers me up once the Christmas tree has come down. I sort out my seed tin, add any new packets, label envelopes and so on. It reminds me that I can start planting a few things now and that always cheers me up!
  • Start planting what I can – so far I have planted garlic, leeks and onions. There is plenty more to do and I will try and get a bit done throughout the month. This always feels like quiet rebellion. Sod you, January, I am making plans for Summer! It gives me hope to plant new things. It makes me smile.
  • Tidy up the vegetable patch – It gets a bit neglected in the winter months, but I made myself go out there the other day and I was surprised that so much is still going. I picked some onions, leeks and spring onions and noticed kale, carrots and cabbages all still thriving! I was quite delighted to realise I had kept the patch going through the winter! I weeded a fair bit and tidied up, but there is plenty more to do and I aim to get out there as much as I can this month.
  • Embrace the beauty of Winter – I don’t hate Winter, I just hate January. So I try to remind myself how lucky I am to experience the change of seasons. I enjoy watching the same landscapes alter throughout the year and right now everything is cold, hard and coated in sparkling frost. The birds are singing though and daffodils are pushing up through the frozen ground. Even the bare trees have a certain stark beauty at this time of year. I just need to remind myself to appreciate it before it all changes and softens for Spring.
  • Embrace the slower rhythm of short, dark days – Everyone loves the summer with its long, hazy days and the added freedom this brings. Winter forces us all inside and its dark when we wake up and dark before dinner time. In the summer, we run around more, we pack more in, we go out more and have trips and activities. There is less of this in the Winter but that’s not a bad thing. I’m going to enjoy the slower pace, curl up under a blanket and read more books. I’ve devoured so many over Christmas, it’s been wonderful. Winter is a time for hunkering down, keeping warm and slowing down.
  • Book a holiday – We last had a family holiday in October 2020. It was a holiday postponed from April 2020 when we were in lockdown. We had hoped to book something else for the summer or even for the October of 2021, but prices were sky high! Instead, we filled our summer with free and cheap days out. However, prices for the kind of holidays we can afford (Haven caravan parks around the UK!) have gone down again and as we received some money for Christmas, we decided to book something for the summer holiday. The very last week in August, which feels like an eternity away, but it will soon be here. I booked it just a few days after Christmas and it really cheered me up.
  • Nature watching – me and my youngest are quite into bird watching lately. I’m glad he shares my joy when we spot something unusual or observe the playful habits of native birds. We also look out for deer, foxes, weasels, stoats and herons and are lucky enough to see most each week where we live. It reminds me that life goes on, and January is just a word I really shouldn’t give much power to!
  • Plan for next Christmas – This is something that cheers me up too. I normally start my Christmas shopping in January. I start a new list in my Christmas notepad and write down everyone’s names and start thinking about next year. I’ll pick up odd things or order something if I get a good idea and it keeps me smiling.

After all that, I really do feel better about facing January. There is lots to look forward to and before I know it, it will soon be February!

How do you feel about January? Is it a month you dread or welcome? What do you do to cheer yourself up when Christmas is over and Summer is so far away? Feel free to comment and share!

My 2022 Goals

It’s time to set my goals for the year ahead! This is a little tradition for me now, with me setting out goals in January of each year and then analysing the reality of them each December. I set myself ten goals last year and achieved eight, so that’s going to be tough to beat! But here we go, my goals for the year ahead.

  1. Publish my new short story and poetry collection: The Old Friend and Other Stories and Poems. This book is ready to go! I am just waiting for the front cover to be finalised and once that’s done I will choose a date and organise a two month launch plan. Totally doable!
  2. Do a rewrite of The Day The Earth Turned Series. All four books are finished and at the same fourth draft stage. I am now going back to the start to rewrite them all, one by one. I have new chapters to add, some characters to develop further and I am planning to try changing the tense to present. I think this will give it the extra kick it needs, but we will see! This will be a time consuming goal but one I really must prioritise.
  3. Finalise book one of the Fortune’s Well series I’ve co-written with Sim Sansford. By finalise I mean finish our final edits, send to the proofreader, contact designer for a front cover, make the final, final edits and plan a launch.
  4. Continue to write chapters for the spin-off book to The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series. The spin-off idea arrived a few years back and a year ago I couldn’t resist making notes for it, which soon evolved into chapters. I wrote these up a few months ago and continued writing up to chapter 22. I have to prioritise The Day The earth Turned and the Fortune’s Well series this year as they are both finished and ready to polish up and publish, but I always need to be writing something fresh and new too so this is the one I will work on when I can. It has a working title of At Night They Played In The Road.
  5. Continue to add to all my other book ideas. I need to add my zombie apocalypse idea to my upcoming books page. I have almost filled a notepad with longhand entries to this diary style book but I haven’t written any in a few weeks now. I will continue to carry it around and add to it when I feel the urge. There are two other writing projects I need to add to the upcoming books page. One is another YA series, this time with a supernatural theme and one is an adult family mystery. It will be many years before I get to either but I must continue to make notes when I get ideas!
  6. Be more active. During the lockdowns I was very active in my garden and just in general but whenever things went back to normal I fell back into the trap of being tired from work and not keeping up outdoor activities. I really want to get stronger and fitter again in 2022 so I aim to be outside as much as I can. I have even ordered a campfire tripod and dutch oven so we can try cooking outside more often. I just want to be as active and outdoorsy as I possibly can!
  7. Do better in the veg plot. I didn’t do too badly last year but every year I hope to improve so this has to go on the list again. I got a voucher for Xmas from my sister for plant plugs and have ordered a lovely selection to start me off on the right track. My mother-in-law also bought me a huge bag of vegetable and herb seeds, as well as wooden labels, bee bombs and bird food. I am so excited and can’t wait to get stuck into gardening again!
  8. Launch a second community writing project with Chasing Driftwood Writing Group. In 2021 we finally released our first anthology – Stay Home: A Year of Writing Through Lockdown. The anthology is a mixture of personal essays, short stories and poetry on the lockdown experience. Sales have been good and are helping to fund our next project – The World You Gave Us. We hope to collect essays, short stories and poetry from young writers only this time and eventually publish another anthology.
  9. Get better at marketing my books. Haha, this one is always up there! I will endeavour to try harder though! I have been getting better at blogging regularly and posting on social media. It’s my newsletter I need to get more consistent with and getting reviews!
  10. Be happy, don’t worry! I intend to be as happy as I can be. I aim to strive to always see the positive. I will try as hard as I can to leave the world better than I found it, be aware and informed, but not allow myself to become drenched in cynicism or dragged down by useless worrying. I must remind myself daily that I only have one short life and it’s up to me what I do with it. I must remind myself that worrying never achieves anything, that most people are good and the world is worth saving. I will continue to do whatever I can to give back to nature and do whatever I can to keep a smile on my face.

So, that’s it, my goals for the year ahead. Let’s hope it’s a good one. Let’s hope we see some positive changes, some hope, some kindness. Let’s hope things get better out there, not worse! Are you setting any goals for the year ahead? Feel free to comment and share! Thank you for following my blog and reading my posts. Its means a lot to me to know you are there. I wish all of you a very happy New Year!

My 2021 Goals Versus The Reality

It’s that time of year again!! It’s time to look back on my stated goals for 2021 and see how well I did with them. Every year in January I write down a list of goals for the year ahead and every year in December I reflect back and see how many I achieved. So, here goes!

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Goal 1: Do even better in the vegetable plot Improving how much food we grow ourselves was top of my list of goals last year and it is again for 2021. There are so many reasons why this is important to me but I think the main reason is mental health. Gardening absolutely saved my sanity during the first lockdown and home-schooling. It’s addictive. It burns more calories than just about any other exercise and getting dirty is good for you physically and mentally. I could go on and on about how amazing it makes me feel to spend time in the garden, but I think you probably get it. Towards the end of this season I extended the plot and I am still popping in there whenever I can to keep on top of weeds and to add mulch and manure. I cannot wait to start sowing again!

Reality: Achieved?? I did better in some areas and failed miserably in others! As usual I fell into the trap of forgetting to replant as much as I should have. I did really well with potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, lettuce, and curly kale, as well as onions, garlic and leeks! My raspberries and strawberries really let me down this year. Perhaps they were having a year off. My tomatoes were not great either and just like every other year, my cauliflower and broccoli got eaten by caterpillars. I had fun though. The plot provided me with many happy hours enjoying the outdoors and I can’t wait to get stuck into it again soon!

Goal 2: Publish the next two books in the Holds End Trilogy – This should happen. Emily’s Baby and The Search For Summer are both good and ready to go. They need formatting for ebook and paperback, they need their back cover blurbs finalised and they need front covers. All these things are in motion and I hope to release them early next year, possibly February and March.

Reality: Achieved! The whole trilogy is out now!

Goal 3: Revamp and re-release Bird People and Other Stories – This little short story collection needs a makeover. I have already contacted my designer about revamping the front cover and my proofreader is going to go over all the stories after I have. This shouldn’t take long and I hope to re-release it in April.

Reality: Achieved! Yes it has a brand new cover and has been professionally edited and proofread and is just much, much better. The only thing I haven’t yet got around to is sorting out the updated paperback version!

Goal 4: Finish and release my short story and poetry collection The Old Friend and Other Strange Tales and Poems (working title!!)– This collection just keeps growing and growing but at some point I need to call time on it and get it out there! I will get the same designer to do the cover so that it compliments Bird People and of course there will be several rounds of edits and proofreads before it is ready, so I hope to release it towards the end of the Summer, perhaps July or August.

Reality: Not achieved. I’m nearly there with this one. It is finished and it has been edited and proofread and I have contacted the designer about the front cover. It will be released in 2022 as soon as the cover is ready, so I was close!

Goal 5: Start the second draft to my current WIP The Day The Earth Turned- Book One – I am very close to finishing the first draft and really hope to have it done by the end of 2020…so the next step for this one would be a second draft. I was tempted to dive straight into writing book two, but as this is such a complex and challenging book to write (more on that another time!) I now feel going back over Book One would be beneficial before I start Book Two. There are already bits I want to change, for example.

Reality: Achieved! I’ve actually gone above and beyond the goal I set for myself with this one. Not only did I finish the second draft of book one, I wrote the second, third and fourth books too! The first three are now all at fourth draft status, and I’m currently on draft two of the final book four. I am then going to go back to the start for some major rewriting so I still don’t know when this series will be ready to release, but I am so pleased I got on so well and actually wrote the whole damn thing!

Goal 6: Move things forward with Chasing Driftwood Writing Group – now that I have a creative partner, I am really excited about the CIC changing and growing in 2021. We have some exciting plans in motion which we will talk about very soon. Lots and lots of things in the pipeline – so I really hope that after the disaster of 2020 where thanks to Covid I barely earned a thing, I can finally start to see the hard work pay off in 2021.

Reality: Achieved! 2021 kicked off with another lockdown and another stint of home schooling, which as you can imagine was a lot harder in the Winter months. But we got through it and second time around I had all my Zoom writing clubs ready to take over where we couldn’t meet physically. Things got better after that and I now have seven kids writing clubs on the go, most of which are full, and some of which have waiting lists! We also started a subscription service for adults and kids and got three online writing courses completed for children. On top of all of that we put together a pandemic themed anthology and published it under our brand new imprint, Chasing Driftwood Books! Stay Home – A Year of Writing Through Lockdown is a collection of personal essays, short stories and poems on the lockdown experience. We were lucky enough to have some amazing writers contribute to the anthology and it has done really well! The money raised from sales will go towards funding our next community writing project.

Goal 7: Carry on writing the screenplay version of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side – this is a project I recently started and it’s not a priority. It can’t be, with all the other things going on! But if I have a spare moment in the week, I do enjoy getting back to this. It’s really challenging and fun turning a book into a screenplay and of course, it would be my absolute dream come true to see the series turned into a TV series.

Reality: Not achieved. I didn’t touch this once! In fact I can’t even remember the name of the free scriptwriting software I was using to write it! There just isn’t time for this as well sadly, not when the list of books I want to write and publish keeps growing longer. Maybe one day.

Goal 8: Get better at promoting my books! – I have been shockingly bad at this in 2020. Sometimes I go weeks or even months without so much as tweeting a link. I really need to come up with a plan and stick to it. I think I will get a separate notebook just for promotional activities and ideas and make a load of lists to tick off. This should motivate me a bit more and keep me on track.

Reality: Somewhat achieved? Okay, I didn’t really put a plan together and I have still had moments of ignoring marketing BUT I have been far more consistent. I try to post a few book related things every day and never go more than a day without posting at all. I can’t afford to pay for any advertising so I have to stick to the free things such as blogging and using social media. I think I have definitely been better and my sales have been a tad better too, but there is still much room for improvement here!

Goal 9: Keep adding notes to other book ideas… – I was tempted to add ‘finishing some almost ready books’ to this goals list but I think I would be setting myself up to fail. I got over half way through a first draft of the sequel to The Mess Of Me recently but then decided The Day The Earth Turned had waited long enough and I wouldn’t let The Mess Of Us jump the queue….In 2019 I wrote the first draft of a YA novel with the working title We Hate The Cool Kids. I would also love to tackle a second draft of this but again, it will have to wait. And then there is the spin-off book from The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series…in the fifth book I introduced two characters called Alfie and Tom. They took on a life of their own and I started to plan a spin-off book for them. I’ve actually written fourteen chapters of it in a very small notebook and they are always in my head! But no, no, no, The Day The Earth Turned series and my two collections will take priority in 2021! I have to draw a line somewhere! I will, however, keep adding notes to these books whenever I think of something. They are all very much alive and crowding my head and their time will come.

Reality: Achieved! As I said above, The Day The Earth Turned really had to take priority in 2021 and I made sure that it did. I did not write anymore of The Mess Of Me sequel and I did not get to the second draft of We Hate The Cool Kids. I did however write up the hand-written chapters I’d started for The Boy With The Thorn In His Side spin-off book and then carried on writing it. I haven’t focused on it for a few months now because I really got going with The Day The Earth Turned, but I definitely kept adding to the notes for it. I also started a zombie apocalypse story in a notebook which I will get back to one day AND I co-wrote a trilogy of YA supernatural books with my business partner Sim Sansford! These need a lot more editing and work but we hope to release book one in 2022!

Goal 10: Continue to Practice Self-Care – it wasn’t until the perimenopause set in last year, followed by Covid 19, that I realised how bad I am at looking after myself. I’m talking about really small, simple things – the small pleasures that calm you down and make you smile, like long baths with a good book and a drink of wine! I started making more of an effort in 2020 and I will carry this on. I will insist on time for myself in this busy, hectic life and I will make sure I get it.

Reality: Achieved! I’ve definitely got better at self-care. It’s been quite a tough year in some ways, but for me personally, I feel stronger. In fact I have planned a future for me and my husband that is about as stress free as you can get and I intend to make sure we achieve it. More on that another time!

Guest Post #5 – Dreaming Of Another World

Dreaming of Another World is a new feature on my blog, inspired by a piece I wrote during lockdown. I wondered whether other writers and bloggers felt like me during this strange time – that another world was possible and could just be glimpsed thanks to the stillness the pandemic enforced on us. I’ve had a great response to my request and each week I will be welcoming a guest to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences on how lockdown affected their vision for the future. Did it change their views about anything? Did it change anything in their life? Did it make them long for a different kind of life or society? This week Toby Martin shares a story he wrote during lockdown. It expresses the frustrations and fears he experienced when trying to keep an appropriate distance from other people during his daily exercise. (This does include swearing in case that offends you.)

Walking Alone – by Toby Martin

At the last count, there were nearly 8 billion.

Somehow that didn’t seem right. Could it really be possible that after millennia of wars, famines, droughts, democides and genocides, hostile weather, predation, disease, murder and even self-inflicted death, there were still this many? Why did humans have to be so resilient anyway?

Dani found a growl in her throat emerging automatically at the sight of a woman with two loud kids in tow, their screeches and guffaws dirtying the still air. She was in half a mind to confront the woman and tell her exactly how much she had got wrong. Hadn’t she heard of protection, contraception, or even abortion? Where exactly did she get off, producing two more of these obnoxious specimens when the planet was already heaving under the weight of the overinflated ego of a bipedal ape that had gotten too technologically savvy for its own good?

And even if she insisted on ruining the rest of her life by producing time and money consuming crotch goblins, with a masochistic instinct Dani could never understand, why did they have to choose this exact path to be walking on? Dani had chosen this path, and she was almost certain she had been there first. In really ruined the serene image created before – a tiny strip of walkable gravel lined by trees and swaying grasses, tucked away from the hideous noises of humanity, all of that muffled and replaced with the twitter of birds or the occasional whine of an insect. That particular image had been fine as it was before, and Dani really felt that the narrowness of the path spoke volumes about how people should be on it at any given time. But no, apparently dragging your shrieking genetic splurges along it regardless of who else might be there as a giant fuck you to anyone who preferred the quiet life was a perfectly decent use of one’s time. Especially if the path was so narrow that should people be coming in opposite directions, collisions were inevitable. Realising this, Dani began to resent the person who had made the path. Fuck that thoughtless idiot.

Faced with the prospect of other people coming within her personal space, Dani considered her options. As it had been earlier with the blond loser in the hoodie, cheerfully chatting into his phone and not caring that his presence was so interfering, Dani felt she’d have to drastically change direction. The loser from earlier seemed not to have cared that Dani had had to leap across the road and risk being run over by a car, which raised the question of which cunt had thought it was a good idea to be driving in such a way that disturbed the peace, to say nothing of the amount of pollution they were causing. Still, the way out had at least been obvious to her, if risky. Now, however? Vegetation lined the entirety of her peripheral vision. She was funnelled in, doomed to be within the range and space of the disgusting entity that was OTHER PEOPLE. Damn it. The tranquil-looking path had lured her in like the proverbial gingerbread house – and a path with intent was not a welcome idea, because that would mean it was sentient, and then Dani would have to hate it too. As far as she was concerned, her only options were limited to diving into the surrounding plant matter, risking scratches and stings until the loathsome ones had passed, or else hoping that the life-threatening car from earlier would suddenly crash into the vicinity and put this smug, noisy family permanently out of her misery. Such serendipity was unlikely, as Dani knew too well, though she liked to entertain the image for just a couple of seconds before having to face the inevitable.

With minimum grace, Dani launched herself into what appeared to be a minute gap in the surrounding bushes, which, whilst certainly not ideal, did at least count as a gap. At least for this absolutely vital purpose. Now she just had to hope that these organisms would not seek her to bother her further.

“Thank you!” the mother said briefly as she passed. Dani simply scowled behind her back. Sure, it was better for her sacrifices to be acknowledged, but she wouldn’t have to make them if people did the sensible thing and kept out of her way. Surely this town was big enough for people to keep a distance? And if not, then they should all do what would have been advisable many hundred generations back and just stopped reproducing. Was it too much to ask that a voluntary, long overdue euthanasia for the human race be put into practice before any more damage was done? It would be the more palatable option for most, compared to the inevitable rush for humanity to cause its own violent destruction, though Dani considered the latter option to be the more cathartic. At the same time, the former would give Dani more peace in the years to come, when there’d be a beautiful absence of the usual screaming kids, who insisted on getting in your way in the most farcical ways. Though that wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of the clueless adults, or the teens on bikes. Well, shit.

Dani was about to continue her angry stroll along the now clear path, when she noticed something in her peripheral vision that she hadn’t noticed before. This was understandable – diving into bushes wasn’t her usual way of doing things. The rows of vegetation didn’t seem quite as solid as before, and, twisting around, she noticed that, beneath a low hanging branch, winded a smaller path, covered in earth and looking free of human influences. Hm.

Dani looked closer. The path led onto a field that she had known beforehand ran parallel to this particular path. She had deliberately avoided it because of the sight of all the fucking people there. However, this narrow view of the field showed this particular end of it to be mercifully free of people and leading to a wooded area she had barely spared any thought to before. The wood was bordered by extremely tall pine trees and looked to be completely unoccupied. How come she hadn’t noticed it before? She supposed raging at her species on a constant basis left little thought space for ways to get away from it all. But now, for once in her sorry life, she had struck lucky. Provided nobody else got there in the meantime…

It was the worth of a couple of seconds for Dani to firmly establish her trajectory along this new path and, chancing a revolted grimace at the bastard humans gathered a merciful distance away, briskly made her way past the trees and into the woods.

It was the worth of a couple of seconds for Dani to firmly establish her trajectory along this new path and, chancing a revolted grimace at the bastard humans gathered a merciful distance away, briskly made her way past the trees and into the woods.

Though the sound of the barely sapient sapiens wasn’t entirely muffled by the lines of trees now surrounding her, Dani felt that the ambience had shifted enough. No longer did she have those stupid fuckers in her lines of vision, just the trees, silently swaying or gently rustling, and masses of ferns growing without restriction, without dictat from consumers and horticulturalists. This was the vision of a post-human world. It was just a shame she wouldn’t be there to see it.

Taking a few slow steps along a makeshift path, away from the human noise, Dani began fantasizing about people finally taking notice of how much she avoided human contact, and, became moved by sympathy to put the voluntary human extinction into action. OK, so – it wouldn’t happen. Humans loved fucking and breeding like rabbits way too much to realise how much better it would be to stop. They couldn’t see beyond their next fuck, drink or consumption of natural resources. Their cares lay beyond the important things in life. Mindless breeders, the lot of them. Dani audibly sighed and briefly span around to get a panoramic view of her surroundings. Such a limited look gave the impression of the good life, but alas…

Another twirl showed her a dog and, sadly, its walker in her peripheral vision. Fuck. She couldn’t escape even in a temporary wilderness. She guessed it was time to change trajectory again.

Fortunately, this open woodland allowed for a much greater number of escape routes. The one she selected, over a low-growing holly tree, likely required much for agility than the wrinkly fogey and tiny terrier were capable of, and it led her further away from the breeders beyond the trees. It was ideal!

After the dog and its walker had passed, Dani realised that the particular area she had found herself in was not as ideal as it first appeared. The trees and ferns grew much closer together here, restricting her room for exercise whilst fantasizing about the end of her pathetic species. She began to step back in the direction of the more open area when something else caught her eye. This time, it was mercifully not a human being. It may have been the herald of one, however, long ago.

She crouched down and took a closer look at the small, mysterious shape nestled under a much shorter pine than the ones that towered around her. Shrouded in the permanent shade and covered in pale pine needles, it was very easy to miss. It took a real sophisticate and not a sheep, Dani reflected, a wide, involuntary smile making its way onto her face, to notice such a thing. The shape, as far as she could ascertain, was of a small rucksack, looking to be of a faded indigo colour. How long had it been there? Would it be safe to touch? Dani dismissed this concern and reached out for it, brushing some of the pine needles off. It certainly felt like a rucksack, with the rough, sturdy texture that might have been polyester, although…she ran her hand up and down it, occasionally coming into contact with the odd zip…it was slightly softer than a brand new one would have been.

Dani felt for the straps and yanked it into a clearer view. Though not heavy, it had some degree of weight resistance, and rattled slightly as she set it on a partially emerging tree root. It still contained what it had been abandoned with. What was it and why? This was a pertinent question for those with the intellectual capacity to consider it, not those clueless reprobates. Dani suddenly felt the made urge to yank the bag open and plunder its secrets. But she had to examine every inch of this bag, to find everything that might be within it. It had several separate sections, after all. She would build up.

The smaller pockets and pouches yielded nothing, so that only left the main body of the bag taking up the majority of its weight. A delicious shiver ran up Dani’s spine as she slowly unzipped the rucksack, half-closing her eyes to savour the sound that heralded her discovery.

She peered into the bag once it was fully open.

Tapes.

The abandoned rucksack was full of a pile of cassette tapes, each one its own plastic case. Blank? No – they were labelled with hand-written letters of the alphabet. Some of the cases were cracked, and, as she discovered when she lifted one out to examine it, they opened very easily, indicating a rather repeated use. All the spools of tape were also still intact.

So, it came to this – unbroken cassette tapes, with all almost certainly containing recordings, had been abandoned in the middle of the woods. Who had made the recordings, what was in them, and why had they wanted them hidden?

Dani wasn’t sure if she felt a rush of kinship for someone who had hidden something they had made from prying breeder eyes, or whether she should be wary that these tapes should yield criminal acts of such disgusting depravity that to declare kinship with such a person would be tantamount to being the worst.

Well, there was only one way to find out.

*

Following Dani’s not-so-blissful but interesting walk came the inevitable not-so-blissful and not that interesting either confrontation with her mother, who insisted that she should have let her know before she had set off because she wanted her to post a letter on her way and had had to do it herself. Dani gave her an insidious glower at her words, biting back the retort that she should stop leeching off of her to get her pathetic tasks done and that Dani wanted no part in her attempt to support the increased interaction of the human species or contribute to deforestation by use of her paper consumption and maybe she should take a long hard look at herself and realise how futile everything she did really was. She bit back that retort for a good four seconds before breaking. It felt rather pressing a matter. In response, her mother got defensive and proclaimed that Dani was closer to a leech than her given that she was still living under her roof and being financially supported by her, and maybe she could do more to support her? Well, at this, Dani, her face burning an awesome shade of crimson, hollered back that she’d rather be a leech than a human and that her mother had done a terrible, immoral thing by bringing her into the world in the first place and that she was simply reaping what she had sown. She added a ‘fuck the normies’ and ‘hail Satan’ in there for good measure.

Dani’s mother went off in a frantic distress, muttering about where she might have gone wrong. Dani managed to resist the urge to fire back that birth was the answer (both her birth and Dani’s), but declined, given that now the path to being alone in her room was clear.

She sprinted up the stairs, slid into her room and shut the door behind her. With a sweep of her arm, she cleared her desk of the trashy clutter than inhabited it, with the exception of the small goldfish bowl, containing her best friend, Jeremiah, happily swimming about, oblivious to how fucking awful everyone else was. Jeremiah was always content to have his bowl perched in the corner, so he could be a companion to Dani as she worked on various misanthropic projects without getting in the way.

Amidst a dusty pile of retro stuff under her bed that came in and out of fashion cyclically was a small cassette player with a pale stain on it. Dani had no idea what the stain was, had no desire to investigate, and in any case knew it was of no concern given that it still worked perfectly, about the only thing in the pile that did. Dani set the player on her desk, plugged it in and wiped the film of dust that had gathered atop it off in a flourish. The dust particles still dancing in the air, she selected the tape labelled ‘A’, slipped it in and pressed play.

It occurred to her just after she did this that it might have been advisable to rewind first, just to ensure she didn’t miss anything, but it soon became evident that that had already been taken care of for her. There was a crackle and an exhale on the speakers, and she leaned in closer.

“Hello.” The voice was male, sounded relatively young (though definitely post-puberty) and had a very nasal quality. It continued,

“This is a first of a series of recordings I’ve made where I really want to share…well, everything.”

Everything? Dani’s ears pricked up at these words. Was this recording something she was never supposed to stumble across? That made it even better. What horrific crime did he have to confess to? She held her breath as the recording continued,

“For starters, there are times where I wonder whether some dinosaurs would have been suitable pets.”

Dani frowned slightly. This was a disappointment. Confessing one’s idle thoughts were far from exciting, as she had often remarked to her mother when not raving about how humanity needed to go extinct. Still, this could easily give her an insight into what this person was like. From the pile of abandoned former desk clutter, she extracted a pencil and paper and began to note what this mysterious nasally stranger was saying about dinosaurs.

“I mean, some of the more famous ones would obviously been quite dangerous,” he continued, “Or else have very tricky upkeep. Take Argentinosaurus – the largest land animal that ever existed. Pretty awesome to show to your neighbours, but how are you supposed to house or feed an animal that may have weighed 100 tonnes? You’d have to go for a much smaller one, but that might look a lot less cool. You’d have to strike the right balance between cool to look at and easy to keep, and so…”

And so he went on. Dani began to find it a little tricky to keep up with his line of thought, her jottings becoming rougher and less distinct and wondering how the hell this shameless nerd had managed to talk for so long about an abstract hypothetical. After all, if there were no humans, keeping pets wouldn’t even be a thing! Though she did wonder whether humans vanishing suddenly or simply never having existed would have been the better option for enslaved animals at that point, distracting her so that she almost missed the nasally stranger wrapping up his stream of consciousness by concluding that Struthiosaurus (whatever that was) would make the ideal dinosaur pet, and moving on to another topic, which began,

“I have a little confession to take about when I was younger…”

Dani corrected her slouch so suddenly she jolted the desk and risked upsetting Jeremiah’s bowl. Onto the juicier topics, surely?

“It was back when I was maybe about seven or eight. There was a little wood less than five minutes from where I lived. And at this age, my parents were starting to get a little more relaxed about letting me go there alone, provided I went in the middle of the day, didn’t talk to strangers and promised I’d be back at the exact time they had specified.”

Dani gripped her pencil tighter. An anecdote of being an unsupervised child? Something scandalous was sure to come of this. She licked her lips in anticipation. Did it involve talking to stranger? Even going off with one and his parents never finding out? Maybe he found a whole stash of porn in the woods?

“There was a point in the usual walk in the woods where the canopy ahead was thickest,” the stranger said, his voice taking on a slower pace, squeezing any suspense out of the story he could manage, “and it always interested me, because to me it seemed like it was inevitably the wildest, most untouched part of the whole area. But there was a gate there.”

Dani scrawled, ‘A MOTHERFUCKING GATE???’ onto the paper, taking up the rest of the space and necessitating turning the page over. Now she had to know what was the on the other side of this gate.

“Now, obviously, in such a small wooded area, it’s not exactly wild and exotic. But to my child’s mind it was, and this gate always stuck out to me. A construct of old wood with flecks of green paint. Obviously, the paintwork had just faded with time, but I thought it was a deliberate pattern at the time, to signify something way more mysterious and other-worldly.”

“And what was it…?” Dani actually found herself muttering out loud.

“I was never brave enough to venture through the gate-”

‘FUCKING TEASE.’ Dani scribbled before leaning back and sighing with all the exaggeration she could muster. The voice of the stranger continued,

“Doubtless, on the other side was something hopelessly mundane, probably someone’s garden. But honestly, the possibilities I made up in my head were much more exciting. What if it was a portal to a world of dinosaurs? To a secret world of magic, sorcery, and villainy only I could find? The embarrassing thing is, I spent a lot of time near that gate as a child, completely on my own, wondering out loud what might be on the other side of the gate, and loudly battling the imaginary foes that came out of it.”

‘How sad,’ Dani jotted, sniffing in a supercilious way. What kind of sad person would spend that much time alone?

All the same, as soon as the stranger began to give more details on the kind of encounters he imagined getting from the mysterious gate, which included everything from ancient aliens to ridiculously tall witches, Dani found there was just a little more intrigue than before. Though it was disappointing that no cryptic crimes or mysterious pasts were being unveiled, this insight into a mind that refused to conform to the acceptable imaginations of the sheep that flocked everywhere she trod was a welcome, inviting break. A little lighthouse in a dark sea of depravity.

This delightfully bizarre imagination continued for a while, long enough that Dani had found herself more invested than she expected and was surprised when the tape suddenly stopped with a loud clunk. She frowned. It was possible that all these tapes – ten in total – displayed a continuous train of thought rather than separate accounts. If so, anything the stranger confessed would likely be buried deep within the winding thought stream, not set aside for any tape specifically. She couldn’t be 100% sure of that, but also had no way of finding out, other than to listen to all of them. One by one.

This realisation in her mind turned into a commitment, and for the next two and a bit days, she barely left her desk, listening and taking intense notes on everything intriguing the stranger said. It irritated her to no end when she had to get up to eat, sleep, use the toilet or help her mum out with something stupid and futile and listen to the whines that she was starting to smell and needed a shower. This proved beyond reasonable doubt, Dani decided, that it was infinitely preferable to spend time in the mind of another outsider than brave the horrifically boring and boringly horrific exploits of the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.

It was a good way into the second side of the ‘J’ tape, whilst the stranger was rambling about the kind of food combinations he’d enjoyed as a child, that Dani realised that, if there was some higher purpose for him making these recordings, with this being the last tape, it must be coming up any moment now. With ten whole cassettes dedicated to things like embarrassing childhood attempts at writing, the scariest advert he ever saw, habits he had picked up while shopping, a dream diary he had kept at thirteen that had coincided with puberty and much more, she concluded that such occasionally delightful non-conformist confessions must be culminating in some seriously important zenith. As such, she almost had a heart attack when the stranger began to say,

“OK, so, as this is the last tape, I think I should probably wrap all this up and get to the point about why I even did this.”

Almost involuntarily, Dani emitted a noise that sounded some degree of excited, but possibly also pained to ignorant eavesdroppers.

“I have no idea who will find these recordings,” the tape went on, “but given how much I’ve shared about myself, I feel we’re sort of friends now.”

‘This is a stretch’, Dani found herself writing, but continued listening.

“So…a while back, I heard that a childhood friend of mine was being investigated for…well, the bottom line is, they weren’t who I thought they were. And that severely shifted my perspective not just on the time we’d spent together, but also on basically everything. All of us. As a species.”

‘He had childhood friends?’ Dani queried to her paper but finished this observation quickly. Her excitement had peaked as soon as he had mentioned the human species. This had to be the point where their ideas converged! He was going to condemn the rest of humanity as trash and prove this whole long exploit worth it. Maybe he’d even share some ideas of how to persuade everyone to stop reproducing. Heart hammering and pencil poised, she turned up the volume and listened intently.

“I think, when we grow up and learn more about the intense harshness of some parts of the world, part of us feels betrayed. You know, we had this image of an ideal world where we could be anything we wanted, but actually, no, we have to go into a field that makes money or else we’ll never get a job or a house or a livelihood. Oh, and loads of people are homeless or elsewhere dying of war, disease, famine, oppression, ignored by many people in charge and we’re also completely screwing the natural world over. Suddenly, we feel a bit shafted, and fall into a resentment of almost everyone. Even those you trusted might not be as pure as you thought and it makes you wonder, is anything really worth it in the end? Are we, the dominant species, worth it?”

‘NOOOOOOOOOO!’ Dani triumphantly declared on paper.

“I would say – yes, absolutely.”

What.

“I mean, think about it this way – all this introspection, this species-wide self-deprecating. No other species on the planet does it, not even mosquitoes, who kill more of us every year than we do of each other. We can probably safely conclude that no species has ever done it, because they’ve never had the self-awareness we do. And whilst it can come with some depressing side effects, being self-aware is not a problem, it’s an opportunity. We have a wider scope of the problems we face than any other animal does, giving us both the desire and means to sort them. And sure, we mess up a lot, and we all choose to remember that, rather than the huge amounts of progress we’ve made – for example, I guarantee that nobody listening to this will be living in fear of smallpox, giving us the tiny window of possibility that this may eventually be true for all disease everywhere. Imagine a world like that.

“Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with all the other random stuff I’ve been talking about on all of these tapes. Well, not much, except that it gives you a little insight into me, hopefully to generate a bit of empathy, because sometimes that kind of perspective is all we need to realise we care enough about another individual that we are, even just slightly, invested in their continued happiness. Also, it shows the ridiculous capacity for imagination we have, again, unique among the animals, as vast as our potential. I hope that’s the case anyway – and I hope that whoever found these tapes, whatever you might be thinking of the world right now, I hope you at least bear what I said in mind. Thanks so much for listening to my weird little rambles, clearly a connection’s already been made!”

And the tape clunked to a stop.

Dani let the pencil fall from her fingers onto the desk, ignoring it as it rolled off onto the floor. The last words of the stranger reeled in her mind, echoing strangely as thoughts exploded in her head more intently than she had felt in a while. She had been left with a rather…unexpected message. She glanced down at her paper. Then she snorted and screwed it up.

No, he was completely wrong.

I mean, of course he was wrong. Dani knew better. Humans were depraved. All of them. Even her, probably. Humanity had never done anything good, it was obvious, when you looked at all the bad. God, this fucker was an idiot. And she had thought he had valuable insights? Ha! Clearly only she knew the truth.

Standing up and beginning to pace in frustration, she realised she’d almost definitely have to send him a reply. Write or even record an impassioned rebuttal, taken from a list of horrible human things she had been working on since the age of nine, then leave it in the rucksack when she returned to its former place. Then she’d see what his stupid mind made of that! Maybe he’d be persuaded to stop the breeding of everyone he knew!

Her relish at this was rather heavily distracted however, when she span back around to face her desk and noticed that she had forgotten to feed Jeremiah in the last two and a bit days.

Thank you so much Toby, for writing and sharing this lockdown themed story with us. If you would like to find out more about Toby, his bio and link to his blog are below! I still have spaces for the guest post slot – so if you have a piece in mind, do get in touch! Anything fictional or personal on the theme Dreaming of Another World will be considered.

Toby Martin

I’ve been writing since I was ridiculously young, although I’m happy to say I think I’ve improved a lot since those initial makeshift books in felt-tip pen and terrible spelling. I’m constantly looking to push the boundaries of what I write, and whilst my current preferred avenue is contemporary fiction, I’m looking to expand into some speculative fiction as well, should time allow.I was accepted into Bournemouth University in 2015 and have more recently started a postgraduate degree in Creative Writing & Publishing. Outside of writing, you can usually find me either with a performing arts group, with a humanist group, or doing way too deep analysis of any creative work I feel you might like. You can find out more about me here; https://tobythewastrel.wordpress.com/