Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Confessions of a Mumbler

When I was a kid, my Dad nicknamed me 'Mumbles' thanks to my habit of muttering things under my breath. Now that he's gone, I feel a little sad that there's no-one left to call me by that name.

Some nicknames have a limited shelf-life. You just grow out of them and what once seemed cool and clever, in time sounds crap and stupid.

When I was at school my little gang of mates called me 'JAM' (a play on my initials) or 'Baggot' (which applied equally to us all). And that was fine, while it lasted. But by the time we went our separate ways after the trials and tribulations of the O levels, they had reached their expiry date. Today, I cringe almost as much at those names as I do at the haircut I had at the time, and I'd be hard-pressed to even tell you what a Baggot is.

But with 'Mumbles', I have actually grown even further into the name as I've got older. Dad obviously knew me well.

What started off as the habit of chatting to myself has developed into a perverse sort of communication tool. Whilst I can still occasionally be caught rehearsing one of those conversations going on in my mind, I now consciously mumble as a way of making people think I know what I'm talking about when I don't.

The idea is that if you talk quickly, clearly and enthusiastically enough, and with the right air of authority or confidence, you can skim over the bits you don't know by half-swallowing the words.

You'd be surprised how effective it can be. It even works in a second language (especially in a second language?).

No matter how long I have been here and no matter how good my Greek gets, there are certain words that I never seem to be able to get my mouth around properly. So, when I know I'm going to have to say one of those dreaded words, I work up to it by building what I am going to say into the context of the conversation and then just mumble an approximation of it when the time comes. Ta-ta!

If I wave my hands around enough (someone once said all you have to do to shut me up is to handcuff me!), the meaning is understood and it doesn't occur to anyone to ask what on earth I am waffling on about.

So, the lesson of the day is: When in doubt, mumble!

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Aloysius Lark and the Case of the Missing Madrigal

“Up the stairs, first on the left” said the helpful stranger with the face of a Persian prince and the voice of a Cockney barrel boy. 

The carefully constructed blonde in Prada heels smiled thanks and sashayed up the narrow staircase, fully aware of the impact on those watching.

In the gloom behind unwashed windows obscured by towers of box files, an equally unwashed man took a furtive swig from the coke bottle in the nearest one and summoned his best Sussex Downs accent to bid the shadow at the door enter. 

In walked a vision of statuesque but studied femininity. Arched brows, a slash of red lipstick, eyes that kept you guessing - and the merest hint of an Adam’s apple.

(‘When’s a dame not a dame?’ the PI thought in his best Raymond Chandler inner narrative.)

“Aloysius Lark at your service, dear lady. You can call me Al. How may I help you?”

“I’ve come up from Brighton,” came the husky reply.


“My name’s Bambi Fancipants and I manage The Wayward Strumpets burlesque troupe. Maybe you know them?”

The PI grunted and shifted uncomfortably is his swivel seat.

The cool blonde’s composure suddenly melted as she gushed: “Help me, Mr Lark. You’re my only hope! Madrigal’s being held to ransom.”

Madrigal was her ancient one-eyed tomcat. Sounded like a thoroughly vile creature to Lark, but Fancipants seemed distraught at the thought of anything hurting a hair on his scabby tabby head. Days after Madrigal stopped turning up at her seafront villa for his morning kedgeree, she’d received a ransom note from Hamish McFarb, her silent partner in the Wayward Strumpets business and owner of Bundlewood Fun Fur Factory. His demand? Complete control of the Strumpets’ assets – or the cat would become mittens.

“I’m a wealthy woman and there’s nothing I won’t do to have Madrigal safely back where he belongs – except surrender the Strumpets to that beast McFarb! He’s gone to ground and I need someone local to ferret the weasel out."

She paused, before continuing coyly: "And let’s face it, no-one’s going to believe I’m a simple check-out girl at the Tesco superstore, are they?”

After giving Lark her details, a description of the mangy Madrigal and the last known whereabouts of McFarb, Fancipants turned on her exquisite heels and left, leaving the PI intrigued, but faintly miffed.

Final demands spilling onto the floor witnessed the fact that he needed the cash. But this was no run-of-the-mill ‘Toy Boy does a runner’ or ‘Mrs Goggins loses her dentures’ case. It would take real leg work – and that meant he’d have to leave his second-storey office, venture downstairs and hit the mean streets of Sussex.

First, though, there was no harm in a little Googling to gird his loins for the task ahead. Nothing could have prepared him for what the results revealed…

The Sussex Sentinel – 27 July 2010:

Freak ice boulder kills movie star and spinster

Hollywood and a Sussex village are reeling after a freak accident claimed the lives of one of Tinsel Town’s hottest properties and the local librarian.
     Rick Rivers and Bambi Fancipants died instantly when a 500lb block of ice and frozen waste plummeted onto the stage at the Holthorne-by-Sea fete, where Rivers was presenting prizes in the cooking competition. Investigators believe it had formed as a result of a faulty valve on the toilet of a plane that took off from Gatwick Airport 20 minutes earlier. The frozen sphere is thought to have fallen off just before the aircraft crossed the English coast.

Double tragedy
Rivers is best remembered for his impromptu performance of “The Lumberjack Song” when accepting the Oscar for his supporting role in “Mounting Miss Maisy” this year. Born Dickie Pond in Holthorne-on-Sea, he had returned to the village to conduct research for a documentary about his rise to fame – and to open the annual fete.
     His agent Barbra Heinschleck said: “Since Rick arrived in LA, he had turned our world upside-down with his cute English accent and penchant for playing bad guys. The tragedy is that he was poised for greatness – both professionally and personally. Not only had he been on the verge of signing for a major new movie deal, we were about to announce our engagement.”
    From Holthorne-by-Sea the Rev. Obidiah Digby, vicar of parish church St. Mary’s-On-The-Side, said the community was struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.
     “Naturally, we’re deeply saddened by the death of little Dickie Pond – I mean, Mr. Rivers,” he said. “But the greatest blow is the loss of Miss Fancipants - she represented everything great about rural English life. The very soul of discretion, she was always eager to serve in any way she could.”

Neither Rivers nor Fancipants left any family. However, a Last Will and Testament found in the spinster’s cottage bequeaths her collection of Anne Summers memorabilia to the Brighton Home for Wayward Strumpets and expressed the desire that her cottage be converted into a new 20th Century Erotica wing of the county library.

Well! The dame in his office a while ago sure hadn’t seemed dead, but it seems she’d wanted it to look that way five years ago. Al couldn’t help thinking that a simple name change might have made the ruse rather more effective.

He sighed heavily, laced up his boots and lumbered down the dingy staircase to street level. That’s where he had to be to track down the fiendish McFarb – he was sure his contacts wouldn’t let him down.

He was wrong. 

Neither the knots of teenage gangstas defacing the town’s walls, the friendly landlords, the not-so-friendly betting shop managers, or the philosopher tramp who held court in the bandstand knew a thing. 
Or if they did, they weren’t talking. 

He even approached the sweet-faced lady in a pink hijab greeting indifferent Waitrose shoppers with a hopeful smile and “Wiggy Shoe?” as she tried to sell them copies of ‘The Big Issue’. Nothing.

Then, inspiration stuck. He shuffled into the saloon bar of ‘The Poisoned Pig Pen’ where he found old Harry, business correspondent of the local rag, propping up the bar like one of the historic pub’s ancient beams.

“McFarb, old chap?” chirruped the hack after Lark told him who he was trying to find. “Piece of cake! I was at a junket at his place just last week. Launched a new line of pet warmers - dreadful idea. Probably make him a fortune. Quite an arse really, but the man knows his single malt.”

In vino veritas, indeed...

...Two hours later, buoyed with renewed hope and a skinful of Dewars, Lark hailed a taxi and headed for Clayfield Flats, the not-so-secret hide-out of the plush goods magnate.

An eerie silence descended over the damp landscape as the cab sped away and the PI started tramping up the muddy private lane towards the sprawling mock-Tudor monstrosity. Rooks cawed a creaky welcome and something rustled in the hedgerow.

The house seemed deserted. No hum of TV or radio betrayed a presence within, nor did any lights brighten the inner gloom. But a sound from the rear alerted Lark’s attention. An insistent, mechanical tak, tak, tak, tak accompanied by a scent of scorched metal that grew stronger as he skirted the sodden lawn and headed for the back door. Unlocked, it opened easily to reveal an artfully reconstructed ‘olde worlde’ kitchen packed with 21st century stainless steel and halogen hobs. An old-fashioned kettle was rocking on the hotplate as the heat warped its faux copper base.

A flight of worn steps led down to the basement scullery, from where what sounded like a miniature pneumatic drill could be heard. Lark descended the stairs and peered into the darkness at the bottom. The steady, defiant gaze of a single gold-green eye staring out of the face of the biggest cat he’d ever seen floated out to greet him.

Of course. The famous Madrigal.

“Well, that was easier than I expected,” said Lark out loud as he bent down to scoop up the feline.

He jumped back abruptly as a sharp-clawed paw swiped at him, threatening to sever something vital. Only then did he spot what the animal was sitting on. The lifeless chest of a moon-faced man with a 1970s porn star moustache and a tartan tie. There was a sticky pool of half-dried fluid on the far side of his face that was turned away from the dim light.

Madrigal was idly playing pat-a-cake with a round glutinous object. A small trail of slime and blood showed the progress of the cat’s plaything from its original owner’s eye socket.

Aloysius Lark screamed like a little girl. 
When the shock of realisation passed, he took out his last century cellphone and dialed his client’s number. 

“Miss Fancipants, I don’t think McFarb is going to be troubling you anymore.”

Sunday, 7 February 2016


I sit on the bed, pillows hugging my back and my book in front of my face.

To the casual observer it’s a peaceful scene. A bookish but balanced nine-year-old reading in her room on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

But there’s more to it. The book is not just a way to escape my hum-drum suburban life into a technicolour world of adventures and heroic deeds. It’s not just food for the mind of an over-imaginative pre-teen. It’s my shield, my protection. The barrier between me and the voices.

Raindrops blatter the window, and I can hear Mum clattering saucepans in the kitchen against the low audible drone of some forgotten black & white movie to fill the empty slot on Saturday afternoon’s TV. My sister’s in her room with her friend Becky, playing some dumb game with their Barbie dolls.

Here, in my room, there’s just me. And Them.

I can’t remember when I first heard Them. It’s like they’ve always been there, lurking in the space between the top of grandpa’s old dark-wood wardrobe and the ceiling. A gap of a couple of feet high, enough for a child to sit reasonably comfortably amid the dustballs and dessicated spiders. And more than enough room for Them.

They’re always the same two. The man is stern and scolding, immediately making the hairs at the back of my neck stand up in anticipation of some dire punishment that never comes. But it’s the woman I hate. She’s wheedling, sly, sarcastic. Her words are soothing, supportive even, but her tone tells me everything I need to know. She’s the one who can hurt me the most. She’s the one I feel could drag me back to wherever they go where they’re not here, pulling me by the ankle one night when I’m lost in my dreams.

I haven’t told anyone about Them. Of course I haven’t. At best, they’d dismiss it as the product of an over-active imagination and send me out outdoors to get some fresh air and exercise. At worst, there’d be worried looks and whispered conversations about child psychiatrists.

So, I say nothing. Not to Mum and Dad. Not even to the voices, no matter how much they demand, plead or challenge me. “Ignore them and they’ll go away,” my Nan told me once when I confided to her about some boys picking on me. It worked with the school bullies, eventually, once they’d got bored with tormenting me and moved on to their next victim.

The voices seem to be taking longer. Much longer.

“Pay attention!” demands the man’s voice, not shouting, but cutting through the muffled air like an ice pick. “Put that stupid book down and listen.”

I hold my paperback even closer to my face, the tip of my nose almost touching the page. Words swim before my eyes and I have to blink to re-focus and re-arrange them into my shield.

“Oh, you don’t want to, do you?” I knew she would soon pipe up. With her soft, almost serpentine voice, hissing down at me from the top of the wardrobe. I hate her with a white heat that could melt entire galaxies. I sneak a peek over the top of the book, almost expecting to see tentacles curling down from the wardrobe, reaching out to touch me, grab me, take me. But there is nothing, just the old wooden door topped by a jumble of shadows.

“We know she can’t put her book down, don’t we?” continued the bitch, taunting me, daring me to answer. “She can’t do without her words, can she now?”

I grit my teeth and return my gaze to the page, concentrating hard and willing myself back into the world of elves and dwarves and dragon gold. Other times it’s to a girls’ boarding school, or a mystery adventure on an island in Cornwall, or a Victorian tale of time travel. Anywhere but here, with Them.

The voices continue like a pair of snakes slithering over one another in a glass tank. I hear their dry rasping, but I shut out the words, refusing to assign meaning to the sounds coming from them. Until…

“Put that book down. Put it down now – or we’ll make sure you never read again,” the man’s voice again, harsh, menacing, slicing through my silent shield with a threat that feels as real as knife to my throat.

“Don’t frighten her.” The wheedling bitch, pretending to care whilst preparing some new instrument to torture me with. “She knows we won’t hurt her, we just want her attention. You can give us that, can’t you?”

That’s it. Enough. If they want my attention, they can have it. Furious, I throw my book down, leap to my feet and take two steps over to the small desk wedged between the wardrobe and the corner of the room. I put one foot on the old kitchen chair in front of it and hoist myself off the ground to place my other foot on the desk.

The air is filled with a panicked slithering and low grumbles as I consider the bookshelves on the wall, wondering if they’ll take my weight to climb up to the top of the wardrobe to confront my tormentors. I try my luck. If the shelves don’t support me, the crash of collapsing furniture and falling child would soon rouse Dad from his crossword. And if they don’t, I’ll make it to the top of the wardrobe.

I stop, hesitating for a moment. Maybe that’s exactly what the voices want? Perhaps it’s all a trick to draw me into whatever dark realm they came from and to keep me there forever? Am I playing into their hands?

I dismiss the thought and with a push against my Children’s Encyclopedia sitting neglected on the lower shelf, hoist myself upwards and slide belly down onto the thick velvety layer of dust on the top of the wardrobe. It tickles my nostrils and my closed eyelids, making me sneeze. All sound ceases and I wonder if I’ve been struck deaf by my own sneeze.

Half expecting to stare into the mouth of a bottomless pit or dark swirling maelstrom, I open my eyes. I’m met by the sight of the wall, slightly speckled with damp from the attic and with a patch of magnolia paint in the corner, missed by the brush bearing the mint green I’d insisted I wanted for my room when we moved in. The wardrobe top is empty, except for cobwebs and a dead moth at the far end. No demons, no gateway to hell, and no more voices.

Somewhere between me taking the decision to trust my weight to the bookshelf and scrambling up with all the grace of a baby hippo, the noises have stopped. No dry slithers, no indecipherable whispers. Just the somber tick of the clock in the hall, the distant murmur or the TV and the tap of rain against my window.

I laugh out loud. They’re gone. For good. All it took was me to face them, challenge them to do their worst. Their worst, it turns out, is what they were already doing. Dragging my legs around I sit up, my feet dangling over the edge of the wardrobe I look down at my bed. I feel free like never before. I can do anything – even fly.

What if I really could fly? Emboldened by the banishment of my demons, I push myself off and outward towards the bed, flapping my arms frantically as I plummet downwards.

I land with a thud and a sickening snap from the bedframe beneath me. Probably broke the bed but I won’t tell Mum. She’ll ask too many questions I just can’t answer. She’ll see when she changes the sheets, but I’ll just blame it on my little sister. Til then, I can handle sleeping in a broken bed for a few days – now that I’m free of the voices.

And anyway, I swear that for a split second before crashing into the counterpane, I did fly, just a little bit.

Friday, 5 February 2016

News from the writer’s desk: De-hibernation?

Do not disturb. I'm disturbed enough as it is.
I know, I know. 

Things have been very quiet from the Writer’s Desk since I bombarded you with ten episodes of 'Cruel Yule’ and the Pathetic Poet's offering 'Wilbur The Ancient' just before Christmas, but even the Queen of Burble needs to take time out now and again.

Let’s just say I went into hibernation for a bit.

We’ll say that, but it’s not true. 
I’ve actually been pretty darned busy – with other stuff. So maybe we should say that 'She means well but…' enjoyed a slap-up meal, retreated into its cave, covered up with dry leaves and excused itself from the world for a little while.

But, time and guilt wait for no woman, so I thought I’d better shake off my winter snooze and remind you that I’m still breathing with an update from the writer’s desk.

So, what’s new?

Well, I decided to change my pen name from Mandi Millen to AJ Millen. Mandi sounded a little frivolous and - well - girlie for the kind of fiction that seems to flow from my fingertips (apparently direct from my Dark Side). I was also curious to see if the non-gender specific AJ would make any difference to the way people viewed my words.
Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, in addition to the my stories being published in the 'Grim Keepers' and 'Festive Frights' anthologies I told you about last time, I’ve had some of my tales included in another two collections:

'Stories In Green Ink' is now out in a new edition which features not one, but two, of my tales. I'm not telling you which ones - you can get your copy here:

Next, just in time for the annual love fest, comes ‘Hearts Asunder', a collection of stories from the dark side of romance, as an antidote for all those sappy hearts and flowers. One's called 'Black Rose' and it's from Yours Truly. Now available for you to order for your Kindle or your nightstand at

There’s more to come.

I’m currently working on a piece for anthology of Easter stories, and I’m waiting to hear if my submissions for two more collections have made the grade. And, because sleep really is for wimps, I signed up for a collaborative sci-fi novel in progress and have tried my tentative hand at some song lyrics.

More of all of the above as and when (if?) they come to fruition.

Then there’s the day job. You know, the writing I get a pay cheque for. Busy, busy, busy, with all the ‘back to work’ ethos of the New Year and the debut of a formerly print in-house magazine in digital form.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my job. I really do. And I know how lucky I am to still be in gainful employment right now in Greece. But there are times when I feel like I’m drowning in other people’s words. It’s like they're bleeding out of my ears and my nostrils instead of traveling through my fingers to the keyboard.

That’s when I have to simply switch off at the end of the nine-to-five and veg out in front of the TV. But it's hard to switch off and I usually find myself analysing the good stuff to death to get to the bottom of its success, or shouting at the screen in protest at the crap pouring out of it.

So there you go, dear readers. My excuse for the dearth of new stories or burblings at She Means Well But… Central lately. It’s not the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

But you don’t get rid of me that easily. 
The Word Nerd will return. With a vengeance. Or perhaps an eagerly-awaited but increasingly delayed new coffee cup.