White Oaks, the story develops

The “White Oaks” project has gone through a number of iterations over the last year or so. The format that originated the idea was good but limited, and I actually started again from scratch, not once, but twice! I’ve also been sidetracked by other projects and often the book would just be a nagging idea sitting at the back of my brain.

It is set on the North Norfolk (UK) coast, a part of the world that I fell in love with the first time I experienced it. Although the actual places mentioned are fictitious, they are amalgams of places around the King’s Lynn area, and the many villages that nestle along the coastline there.

Moving forward I have set myself a goal to work consistently on this writing project only, and as an encouragement to me to do that, I’ve decided to publish the chapters as they are finished, before knitting it all together into the novel it will eventually become. The first two chapters have been published, and they introduce four of the main characters, whose lives we will learn more about as the project continues.

start of the story

Incidentally, the book/chapter covers are my own pictures, most of them from the North Norfolk coast itself.

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A long way to travel

This morning at 9:30 am, with temperatures well below freezing, the third Loop Trolley was delivered to the Trolley Shed.

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Trolley 003 is 20 feet longer than the two already operating on The Loop and can carry 100 passengers (50 seated, 50 standing). This third Delmar Loop trolley car was built in the 1920s in Melbourne, Australia, and was delivered by the Gomaco Trolley Company of Iowa.

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It was an impressive site to watch the workers carefully unhook the trolley from its moorings, and put down runners to allow it to move from the trailer onto the tracks. One truck hooked up to the front of the trolly, and one to the rear, and then without any particular fanfiar, the trolley was pulled onto the tracks.

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There will be a period of safety testing before it goes into service alongside its sister trolleys, so look out for the new addition around Delmar, DeBaliviere and the History Museum.

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Them

I had an interesting conversation recently with someone who came to the US some 50 years ago. They came from Europe, and they were telling me about the abuse they had received because they were a “European”, an immigrant, not from here. They were treated daily as outcasts, and subjected to racial slurs. One particularly insightful thing I heard was that it was them then, and now it’s Mexicans, but it’s the same thing.

Of course, the defenders of the perpetrators might well say that it was only jokes, that the person was just being over sensitive. But history shows us that there is always a “Them,” and that “We” seek to belittle and undermine those not the same as us.

Living as I currently do in the American mid west, I look like an “us”; I’m a white male in a society dominated by white males. But I’m also a “them”; someone who talks differently, who has different points of reference, life expectancies and beliefs. In fact, I’ve been a number of different “them” in my time: a Man of Kent (not one of those Kentish Men); a South London kid, then an East Ender; a southerner in Scotland; a Londoner in Norfolk; an immigrant in the US.

People have different skin colors, different accents, come from different belief systems and cultures. A lot of us, however, seem to have in common a kind of distrust for anything or anyone not exactly like us. And yet we are all Them to someone.

Often I find myself despairing that there will ever be a coming together, particularly as I witness the retreat into isolationism in much of the world around me. What is there to hope for, when everyone is Them.

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American American

Language matters, and sometimes you only notice when when it a particular usage is brought into focus. Recently I was asked if there were many African Americans in the UK.

An interesting question. Yes I’m sure there are Americans living in the UK, and I’m equally sure that some of them able to trace their linage back to the African continent; but I suspect that is not what the question really meant.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with your use of the term “African Americans”, so long as we also talk about European Americans, Asian Americans, Australasian Americans, and South American Americans. This would show that the group we are talking about is American, and that we just wish to distinguish which continent the people came from before their ancestors came to this country.

But to use just the term African American and none of the others, implies that there are real Americans, presumably the white, European variety, and then lessor citizens.

Words are important, and we need to think more about how we use them so that people are not marginalized.

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Reviews

Not too long ago we all went by word of mouth when it came to judging if a company was going to be any good or not. In a sense we still do, but nowadays the internet is the word of mouth we rely on. When we listen to a friend talk about their experience in a restaurant or at a store, we can mix their words with our previous experience of this person; do we like the same sort of food? Do we think their fashion sense is similar to ours? Do we, in essence, trust their judgment in this matter?

With internet reviews it is different, we don’t know who is reviewing the business, or if there is a hidden agenda, either in favor of or against the company. Even if there is no “agenda,” there is a natural negative bias in review writing. Those that had a particularly bad experience are more likely to review something that those that had an entirely pleasant experience; that is just human nature. Over time, however, this tends to balance itself out, as more and more people leave honest reviews.

This musing was brought about by my recent experience when I wanted to look for a local business. I did a Google map search and found one firm just a couple of miles away, so I looked at the reviews. There were interesting, to say the least. Most recently, they had nothing but 5-star reviews, although if you went back just a couple of months, the reports were all 1 or 2 stars. Looking closer, it was notable that all the reviewers giving the maximum mark had only ever done that one review. The less favorable comments were left by people who had a long list of reviews, and when you looked at them, they were a mixture of good and not so good.

Digging deeper into this, it seemed that all the negative comments were turned aside by the owner, who consistently said things like “you should have done this instead” or “that is not true.” In one comment, the owner said that they assumed the bad reviews were done by competitors!

Now, I’m not saying that the positive reviewers were lying, but it did make me question their authenticity. Not that negative review would always put me off. If I am not concerned about the things complained of, or if it seems worthwhile anyway, then I’d happily try something despite them. Indeed, a lot of negative comments are seemingly irrelevant and complain about things that are outside of the control of the company. I remember reading a review of a product that I was about to buy, that said it was hard to identify the top part of the product from the bottom, but if you put them in incorrectly, they were hard to remove. I bought the product anyway just thinking that I’d be careful, but when it arrived I noticed the word “upper” on one part, and “lower” on the other, and I never had any problem with working out which was which.

But in this case, the negative reviews all had a consistent theme, and the positives from new reviewers did not give me enough confidence to try this company. Another company got consistently 3 and 4-star reviews, which seemed to me to be much more realistic.

Nowadays, it seems, you not only have to read reviews but review them.

 

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Leo

I have a character, Leo, who interacts with a lot of the other characters in my Work In Progress “White Oaks”, but, so far, we really don’t know much about him. *I* didn’t know much about him, just that he was one of the pivotal players in the piece.

Earlier this week I was unwell, and laying in bed I started to think about Leo; what did I know about him, and what would help me know more about him? Then I started writing. I wasn’t sure where in the structure of the book this would fit, just that it was important that it be written. As I started, more and more of the back history of Leo came into focus, and it became clearer to me what his motivations and desires were.

This part of writing is so exciting! I get to find out about the people and learn about them. I also get to do the technical bit of working out how to integrate this into the plot line that I’d already developed, but hey-ho, I’m just the writer, it’s the characters who are in charge!!

I guess that is why I liked this meme I shared earlier in the week:

scene

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White Oaks: Jackie

The last chapter saw Jackie left alone in the cottage. Now the story continues and connects with the lives of others.

 

Leo looked up as Jackie came into the office. He smiled “I hope you had a great stay with us” he said. He tried hard to keep on top of all the comings and goings in the grounds, and had noticed that one of the cars next to cabin 22 had not been there this morning.
“I just,“ Jackie started, then paused as she tried to retain her composure. “I know I’m due to leave today, but I wondered if I could stay on for a few days or so.”
Leo smiled again, and started checking the bookings list.
“Well, we do have a booking for Cabin 22 from tonight,” he checked through the other available cabins, “but I could probably move a few people around, how long would you like to extend your stay?”
“Well actually,” she realized that not going home had been the only thing she was sure about, “I don’t know really, maybe another week?”
Leo actually relished events like this, they brought out his creative side and he looked at it as if he were doing a puzzle, moving one person here, another there. “Well I can fit you in for the next five days,” he said after just a few minutes. “After that I’m afraid we are fully booked. Of course if we get any cancellations I’ll let you know, but would that be OK? And I can certainly keep you in Cabin 22 until then.”
Jackie agreed, turned, and slowly walked away. Getting back to the cabin she just sat, unsure what was going to happen next.

Maggie was feeling surprisingly optimistic as she came in to White Oaks that morning. The flat was working out well, and she was content with the way her life was going. She was surprised, but not worried, when she saw a note on the signing-in sheet asking her to see Leo before she started work.
She went to the front desk, and Leo invited her into the inner office and offered her a seat.
Leo seemed unusually jumpy as he spoke, and didn’t himself sit down. “Maggie, I had a phone call last week, asking for your address. I took it upon myself to say that I would not give it out, but I did offer to accept a letter here for you, and I’d pass it on. Well, it arrived today, and I wanted to give you some space to yourself – here is the letter.” He handed over the letter to a puzzled Maggie, but as soon as she saw the handwriting and the return address her heart sank. “It’s from Hamish” Leo went on, “and he said it was an amends, so…” His voice trailed off, and there was silence for a moment.
“Anyway, I’ll leave you alone, take as long as you need.” He left the office, shutting the door behind himself, and Maggie continued to stare at the envelope in her hand. Slowly, she turned it over, opened it and took out the letter. Shaking slightly, she unfolded the page and started to read.
“Dear Maggie” the letter started “I needed to write to you to try to make amends for all the hurt I caused with my drinking. I was not sure how to contact you, but I phoned the Oaks place, and the manager there said he could get this letter to you.
“How I treated you was wrong, and I want to take full responsibility for all the bad things that I did. I did steal money from your shop, and I will repay all that money. I am not sure how much it all comes to, but I will send you what I can on a weekly basis from the job I now have. Please let me know if I should send it to you at the Oaks address or a different one. You will find my first payment enclosed with this letter.”
Maggie checked the envelop, and saw a smaller envelope inside. Opening this she counted out £25 in £5 notes. She turned back to the letter.
“I know that money along cannot make up for what happened between us, and for my bad actions, I sincerely apologize. If you wish to press any charges against me, I will not challenge them. I have told my solicitor to wait to hear from yours on the divorce papers. I would hope we could try to make a go of it again, but I will completely accept your decision on what happens next. You should also know that I have not found it necessary to have a drink for the last 41 days, and, one day at a time, I am not drinking today.
Hamish”
Maggie turned the paper over, but there was no more. She reread the letter. If she had not recognized the handwriting, she would have thought that it was a forgery, the tone was so different from the last message she had received from Hamish. Something about the tone of the letter was off, somehow, it sounded both real and fake the same time.
There was a tap at the door, and Leo came in, holding a cup in his hand. “Here, I brought some tea for you,” he said. “Not to hurry you or anything, just wanted to make sure you were OK.”
“Leo, you are the most considerate man I’ve ever known.” She smiled at him. It was sometimes hard for her to remember that it had been just a few months since she’d turned up in this tiny corner of the world, sometimes it seemed like she had been here forever, and Leo and Dorothy were the mainstays of her world. “You are so kind, and I don’t want to impose on your kindness. Thank you so much for taking the letter in, and giving me space to read it. Now,” she gulped down the tea, put the letter in her purse, and stood up. “Now I’ll get to work and let you have your office back!”

 

Maggie picked up her schedule for the morning’s work, and briefly scanned it. Cabin 22 was supposed to be empty today, so she decided to start there. As was her habit with cabins she expected to be unoccupied, she knocked, called out “housekeeping,” but unlocked the door and went in without waiting for an answer. She was halfway through the door before she noticed the women sitting on the bed. “Oh my apologies!” she said, “I thought this cabin was empty.”
“Yes I was due to be leaving, but there was a change of plan, and,” Jackie started, but before she could say any more the tears came again.
Maggie forgot about her busy schedule, sat down next to the sobbing woman, and put her arm around her.
“I’m so sorry,” Jackie sobbed, “It’s my husband, it was our anniversary, and he, he… “ She couldn’t finish, but Maggie had heard enough
“We’re better off without those bastards.” Maggie said it in a matter-of-fact way, thinking about the letter and the money in it. “Did he hurt you?”
Jackie was taken aback by the question. “He, he told me he was, he said he was gay.” She blurted out. “He told me he had fallen in love with a man at his office, and – oh, I just can’t think of it without feeling sick inside.”
Jackie wiped her eyes. “I couldn’t face going back home. I don’t even know if it is home anymore, it all seems like a sham somehow. I keep wondering what I did wrong, how I missed the signs, what I could have done to stop it before it was too late.” She trailed off, unsure why she had even said as much as she had. But somehow, it seemed better to have been able to talk about it to someone.
They sat in silence for a long moment, Maggie re-living her flight from Hamish. “It is tough, going it along,” she at last said. “But we are strong women, we can survive. More than that, we can thrive. Do you have money? Has he taken that as well?”
“What?” Again Jackie was confused by the question. “No I’m OK I have my own business and,” she paused, suddenly realizing that her office would be expecting her back the next day. “Actually, I need to call in, you have been so kind to listen to me, I can’t thank you enough.”
“You are very welcome!” Maggie replied, “and I should be getting on too, I’m behind as it is. But here,” she scribbled down her phone number and handed it over to Jackie. “Call me if you want to talk or anything, either now, or when you get back home.”
Jackie took the number, thanked Maggie, folded the paper carefully and put it in her purse. She doubted she would use it, but was touched by the thought.

A couple of hours later Jackie had called her assistant and all her appointments for the next week were being rearranged. She then called her lawyer, and outlined the situation. She didn’t want a divorce, and hoped more than anything that they could be reconciled, but at the same time, the businesswoman part of her makeup wanted to make sure that all her bases were covered.
With all the practical matters dealt with for the moment, Jackie decided on getting some fresh air, and so she set off for the beach. It was a perfect day, the sun high and bright, and just the occasional white cloud to bring the blue of the sky into perfect focus. As she reached the beach there was a slight breeze coming off of the sea, just enough to cool her skin. She walked, trying to enjoy the sea and sand, but her thoughts kept coming back to David, the future, and what would happen next.
There were a lot of people on the beach, family groups mainly, with the occasional couple walking hand in hand. Each time she saw a happy couple she grieved a little more. That should be her and David, it ought to be them walking along the beach together, not her alone and him off doing whatever it was he was doing.
Suddenly her train of thought was interrupted, as the smell of freshly cooked bacon wafted past. Looking for where the aroma had come from, she saw Fisherman’s Cafe and realized that she’d not eaten since the evening before. Just the thought of that meal, the drive and the aftermath made her feel sick inside, and she almost walked on, but then decided that eating was the appropriate thing to do, so she headed into the cafe.
“Good Morning m’dear! Sit anywhere, I’ll be with you in just a second.”
Jackie found herself smiling from the welcome, and she sat at a table looking out over the dunes. As she looked a seagull flying against the wind hovered for a moment, appearing to be stationary in the blue sly, before swooping down out of sight behind the dunes.
“Now m’dear, here’s our menu, we’re still serving breakfast if you want something hot, or we have a nice selection of pastries and pies. I used to make my own pastries here in the cafe, but there’s a new place in town that opened a couple of months ago, and I’m getting them fresh from there every day. I said I’d try them out, and my customers seem to like them, so I’m all for saving my old bones from work.”
Jackie ordered a hot breakfast, accepted a pot of tea while she waited for it to be cooked, and once more stared out of the window. What was she to do, she asked herself for the thousandth time that morning. She wanted David back so much it was a like a physical hurt. She thought about their home, their possessions, their dreams and plans. Nothing, she thought, nothing was hers, everything was theirs.

 

Maggie mulled over what the letter had said as she worked. When her shift was done at White Oaks, she drove out to the sand-dunes and reread the letter over and over. She realized she was only a mile or so from Fisherman’s Cafe, so she went there, even though she knew that Dorothy would soon be closing up.
Dorothy greeted her warmly, and gave her tea and toast without being asked, and they sat and talked for a while, before Maggie brought up the subject she had been thinking about.
“Dorothy,” she started, “I was wondering if you could tell me more about that amends thing you talk about some times.”
If Dorothy was taken aback by the question she didn’t show it. “Of course m’dear” She said. “Well, first we make a list of people we have harmed, then become willing to make amends to them, and then make direct amends to them, unless it would hurt them or other people.” She looked quizzically at Maggie. “Why do you ask?”
Instead of replying, she gave the letter from Hamish to Dorothy.
Dorothy took the letter, read it and sighed. “Ah yes, I see.” She said, handing the letter back. “Yes, that could have been a step 9 amends, and he’s certainly using some AA speak there, how do you feel about it m’dear?”
“I’m not sure.” Maggie hesitated, and then continued. “Until I read this I was just angry at Hamish, at my Mother, at the whole situation. But since reading that letter I’m starting to wonder. I mean, if Hamish was an alcoholic, maybe I could have helped him get over it. Maybe I should have been more supportive of him. I mean I always let him have booze in the house, maybe if I’d stopped him earlier…”
“Oh no, m’dear, don’t start down that road.” Dorothy interrupted, “you didn’t cause it, you couldn’t have controlled it, and you couldn’t have cured it. All that is his responsibility, not yours. If that Hamish is an alcoholic, and it certainly sounds like he might be, then there would be nothing you could have done, he had to want to get better before he could do so. Do you want some free advice?”
“Of course” Maggie replied quickly.
“Put the money in a safe place, but don’t rely on any more. If more comes, put it that in your piggy-bank too. If you feel up to it, drop him a line just thanking him for the money, and acknowledging his apology. You don’t have to accept his apology if you don’t want to, and you certainly don’t need to take any responsibility for his actions.
“When you’re ready, maybe you can talk to people who have been through what you have; maybe you’re ready now, maybe later, maybe never, it’s up to you. But for right now,” Dorothy held out her arms, “What about a hug?”

 

Later that night Maggie sat in her room for a long time staring at a blank sheet of paper. Eventually she picked up her pen and started writing
“Hamish
“I have received the letter and money you sent.
“The White Oaks address is a good one for me.”
Maggie stared at the two sentences she had written. There was so much she wanted to express, so much hurt and disappointment, but somehow, none of it would form into words. She just didn’t have any way of expressing the feelings inside her, or any way to let out the tension she felt.
Suddenly her phone rang. It was not a number she recognized, and she was about to ignore the call, when something made her answer it.
“Hello, who is it?”
A womans voice spoke
“Oh God I’m so sorry, I didn’t think what the time was, this is a mistake, I’m sorry, I just,” with that the woman started sobbing, and it jogged Maggie’s memory from earlier in the day.
“Are you the lady from Cabin 22? I sorry, I don’t think I remember your name.”
“Yes, it is, it’s Jackie” She replied. “I’ve been wondering around all day not knowing what to do, and then I found your number, and remembered how kind you’d been, and, I don’t know, I just wanted someone friendly to talk to.”
Maggie started to cry too, and although the two women said very little, somehow both of them felt the closeness of the other, and a feeling of having a common bond.
Eventually, tiredness overcame Maggie, and she suggested that they both try to sleep.
“And I’m working at White Oaks tomorrow again, maybe I can call for you and we could go out to lunch or something?” She said. Jackie agreed and the call ended with both women feeling somehow better.

 

Dorothy had a set routine each evening. She would get into bed with her notebook and pencil and write about her day. She thought back to her conversation with Maggie. She had talked to many drunks about making amends to their spouses, but this was the first time that she recalled hearing the “other side of the story” so to speak, and she hoped she had done well. She thought about her customers, and the young woman who seemed so distracted. Dorothy had noticed an expensive looking ring on her wedding finger, and a look of deep sadness in her eyes.
Then she picked up her prayer list, added the distracted lady at the bottom, and then, as an afterthought, Hamish as well, and started to go through the list, praying for each one in turn. Her list always started with Misty, that she was happy and well, and that she was following her hearts desire. In recent years she had added Misty’s father to the list too, because it seemed a good thing to remember the person who had given her such a wonderful gift. The list was long, and she sometimes fell asleep before the last name, but tonight she got to the end without trouble.
With a sigh, Dorothy turned off the light and laid down. Something was troubling her, but she didn’t know quite what. Sleep came slowly to her, and when it came it was full of dreams of her child, now a grown woman, reaching out to Dorothy. But somehow, try as she might, Dorothy could not move her hands and could not grab hold of her child. It was a dream that had come often in recent months.

 

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