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Book Extracts

Below are some extracts of my current work.

To find out more, please visit me at: www.ianashley.co.uk



The last thing you need is a celebrity medium with an ego problem

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Mon, August 18, 2014 08:00PM

As
usual, unless it’s raining or Beattie has forced her feet into a pair of court
shoes, we took the route home along the sea front. I thought the walk would do
me good and if you hit the promenade at the right angle Biddermouth On Sea is
actually quite attractive. If you hit it at the wrong angle you’ll probably get
mugged. Like all seaside towns and most of the inhabitants it has seen better
days. But then that was what drew me there in the first place; that and my old
friend Olive Mannering.

Olive had discovered that it was the sort of
place where a woman with a secret could disappear. Granted I didn’t have as
many secrets as her but I had enough. Then again perhaps Olive didn’t have as
many as she thought either. Getting herself on the covers of most of the Sunday
papers had seen to that. Not that they charged the archbishop in the end but
the damage was done. I think he got off quite lightly considering she claimed he’d
been wearing his mitre at the time. Still, after all those years of running and
hiding, living in grubby little bedsits under assumed names and over fish and
chip shops and Indian takeaways Biddermouth On Sea was a place we both felt
that we could finally call home.

But
for how much longer, I wondered? This business with Jean was stirring up old
memories. The Dead and I had been uneasy bedfellows and I had no wish to be
dragged back into that world.

‘It’s
probably indigestion’ said Beattie.

‘What
is?’ I asked wondering if I’d missed something important.

‘You’
she replied,’ you’ve been in a funny mood since you ate that soup. What was it?
Carrot and lentil? Whatever next? If the Lord had meant us to eat pulses we’d
have been born in Africa. What you need Maureen is a good dose of Andrews Liver
salts when we get home. ‘

‘Probably,’
I said although by now my head was beginning to throb and I knew carrot and
lentil soup was the least of my problems. A martyr to trapped wind and
indigestion herself Beattie saw no reason why anybody else should be any
different. The fact that all her problems stemmed from eating large quantities
of chutney and wearing pre-decimalisation foundation garments never seemed to
enter her head.

The
further we walked along the seafront the colder the wind became although according
to matron freezing to death would do me the power of good. I wasn’t so sure now.
It didn’t feel right. And it had nothing to do with excess stomach acid. Out of
the corner of my eye I saw something or somebody flit from the cover of one
shelter to another. What we needed was to hide, and hide quickly.

I
thought that feigning an interest in stately homes was a stroke of genius as I
pushed Beattie into the local tourist information office. If it was Jean Shank’s
ghost that was following us we should have been pretty safe in there. The words
‘Jean’ and ‘culture’ had never sat well together in my opinion. Politically she
may have been as bigoted as Beattie but even I had to admit that my neighbour’s
Maria Callas was one up on Jean’s collection of James Last albums. Beattie may
have called them ‘arias’ and I may have called them ‘noise’ but there was a
Maria Callas wig in my catalogue for £65.00 so she must have had something
going for her despite sounding like a cat in mangle.

As
it happened I should have just kept walking. Despite being numbed by the cold
wind, my jaw almost hit the floor. There, right in front of us was an enormous poster
advertising the forthcoming coming attraction at the Town Hall Theatre.

‘Doris
Morris, Celebrity Medium and Clairvoyant to the Stars presents ‘The Above and
Beyond’ tour.’

‘Beyond the Pale if you ask me’ snorted
Beattie. ‘I mean how can she call herself a celebrity medium? For a start it’s
all hogwash. As I always say ‘once you’re gone you are gone.’ Full stop. End of
story. But I mean to say Maureen one interview with Lorraine Kelly and a
picture with a weather girl is not my idea of celebrity anything. And just look
at the size of her. She makes Peggy look positively svelte!’

Whilst
it’s true that Doris Morris was what my ex-husband Archie would have called a
‘hefty piece’ it is also true to say that Beattie wasn’t exactly on the small
side herself. Despite only being five foot two inches tall and rigorously
corseted she still manages to make most reasonable sized rooms feel small. Beattie
Hathaway was not so much a fine figure of a woman as a monolith in gabardine. In
fact she was a standing stone dedicated to the art of the all in one foundation
garment.

It
was also true, as they say in America, that Doris Morris and I had history. At
one point, after I’d left the fun fair, after Archie had been exposed as a
bigamist and before I ended up doing three years at Her Majesties Pleasure and
the twins were taken into care, Doris, Olive and I had all been highly
successful mediums on the Spiritualist circuit. But some things were best kept
hidden and I was determined to keep it that way. The less I saw of Doris Morris
the better. Fortunately for once Beattie was on my side, but as usual for very
different reasons.

‘Well
one thing’s certain we won’t be paying good money to see that load of old tosh,’
she said, ‘Of course what can you expect when people vote for a LibDem council?
Now when the Tories were in power the Town Hall Theatre used to put on some
lovely musicals. Even you would have understood them. But look what we got last
Christmas; some girl who played a corpse in ‘Casualty’ trying to be Cinderella.’
She blushed a bit and well she might! According to Beattie she never watches
programmes like that.

‘I
tell you Maureen it’s all bare thighs and more rubbish like this! No wonder this
town has become a haven of illegal immigrants. You mark my words Maureen by the
time we get to the next election we’ll all be smoking guano!’

’Ganja’,
I said, but she shot me one of those
famous ‘I happen to know’ looks and I thought ‘well you can smoke bird
droppings if you want and tried to deflect her with a leaflet about coach trips
to the Cotswolds.

‘Yes
all very nice’ she said then looked nervously at her watch. ‘You know I don’t
like being out after dark since than man was caught exposing himself in the
shopping arcade.’

She
tried to tighten her scarf around her neck but then that’s another curious
thing about Beattie. Not only doesn’t she have a waist she doesn’t have a neck
either. Her head sits straight on her shoulders. Had she possessed a more
amenable expression she would be a dead ringer for one of those Russian dolls. But
as it is with no neck and everything subjugated by Playtex she often just looks
like an angry skittle on the run from a bowling alley.

As
soon as we ventured outside I could tell all was not well. Whatever it was that
had been following us was still there and that could only mean one thing. The
psychic powers that had got me into so much trouble in the past had to be
coming back. Maybe they had never really gone? Perhaps the shock of Archie’s
bigamy, losing the twins and three years in prison for fraudulent clairvoyance
had simply pushed them to one side. Either way I suddenly found myself having
to think about a lot of things I didn’t want to think about for the rest of the
way home.

Hardly
surprising then that I was quiet was it? Not that silence ever stops Beattie
having a conversation. She is like nature. She abhors a vacuum. When she is talking
to you and you don’t reply she is quite happy to imagine your answers and use
them against you later. So by the time we’d reached the hut where the deckchair
attendant was arrested for interfering with young boys she had ticked off
everything that was right about that afternoon’s funeral. Then she worked systematically
backwards to refute each point with something unpleasant.

Yes
it had been a lovely spread but Peggy’s children had obviously been brought up
not knowing that gluttony was one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The tea had been refreshing
but whatever possessed people like that to think they could drink Earl Grey? It
was very touching when the grandchildren sang ‘Lord of the Dance’ but a pity
they hadn’t bothered to learn all the words. And finally it was nice to see all
the men in suits but had nobody told them white socks belonged in a
gymnasium?

‘But
a eulogy Maureen, I ask you! When did people like Peggy Braithwaite start
warranting eulogies? All she ever did was get herself banned from Weight
Watchers and spawn that God forsaken brood! Still’ she added momentarily coming
to berth alongside the promenade railings,’ at least they tried which is more
than can be said for that Shanks rabble.’

Then
she let out a shriek and felt the back of her head.

‘Who
threw that stone?’



Funeral Tea

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Mon, August 18, 2014 07:55PM

On to Peggy Braithwaite’s Funeral Tea

‘I said are you alright Maureen?’

Foolishly I muttered something about it being
too hot in the restaurant. I should have known better. Instead of sympathy I
got another salvo of unwelcome advice on the perils of wearing unseemly amounts
of other people’s hair on top of your own.

‘Anyway it’s time we were off,’ she said
swinging her handbag over her arm. ‘It’s at St Luke’s and if we don’t get there
in good time all the best seats will have gone. Remember Eileen Murchison’s? Jammed
at the back with all those Boy Scouts? Then get a move on. I’ve no idea why Peggy’s
family chose that place. The acoustics are dreadful and the walls are covered
in graffiti. They say it’s the play group but where do the under-fives learn
words like that unless it’s from their parents? Still have you seen those
mothers? How you can expect to bring up a child when you live in a tracksuit I
don’t know. Then again I suppose it’s
got a wide aisle.’

That was one thing Beattie was right about. She
also shot me a triumphant smile when they wheeled Peggy’s coffin in on a
trolley, which I will admit was the size of a double wardrobe with very sturdy
handles. But she was wrong about the lack of seating. Apart from the immediate
family there was only us there. Sadly Peggy’s only close friends in life were
Jean Shanks and Frieda Waverley. One of them was dead and the other was in St
Mary’s Hospital having had her spleen removed. We didn’t really count either,
only being there for the cakes. Still we knew that a small turnout always boded
well in terms of catering largesse. Plus judging from the combined tonnage of Peggy’s
brood they definitely seemed like a family that enjoyed their food so it looked
like we were in for a treat.

‘As soon as that last clod of earth gets
thrown in’, sang Beattie to the tune of ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’,’ we’ll
be round that church hall double quick as I don’t fancy being trampled to death
under that lot when they whip the tea towels off the sandwiches. Look at that
grandchild. You can’t tell me it’s natural for twelve year olds to be that
size! And what is that Karen wearing? She looks like a bungalow under an
awning!’

Our plan worked. Dust to dust and we were right
at the head of the queue. Beattie was over the moon and all over the food.
Despite her girdle she managed to eat four chocolate éclairs, three Fondant
Fancies and a slice of pork pie. She was so overcome by the size and magnificence
of the spread before us that she even risked her immortal soul by telling all
Peggy’s children what a wonderful woman their mother had been and how greatly
she’d be missed by everyone. All poor Jean’s family had got was a tactless request
for more Rennies.

‘Decent milk,’ she hissed using the excuse of
a cup of tea to get a good feel of the table cloth. ‘Real linen too! Has to be
borrowed surely?’

As far as I was concerned they could have
been serving fresh caviar on gold plates stolen from Buckingham Palace for all
the difference it made. Without trying to sound dramatic I knew that we were
NOT ALONE. Ever since we’d left the restaurant I’d had a feeling that we were
being followed. Even in the church I kept turning round, convinced that somebody
was watching us. And it wasn’t the Almighty either. By the time we got to the
eulogy the feeling was so strong I could feel the hairs on my head standing up,
which was no mean feat considering they were buried under £40.00 worth of ‘Hey
Big Spender’.

What I needed more than anything was fresh air.
Unfortunately my attempt at a speedy exit was thwarted when Peggy’s daughter
Karen lumbered over and begged us to take some of the leftover food with us. I
think she said something about it only going to waste if we didn’t but it was
hard to tell because her mouth was full of Cheesy Wotsits.

‘I doubt that very much!’ Beattie muttered but
she did her bit to help and crammed most of a ham and egg pie and a jar of
pickle into her handbag. Then she rammed half a dozen scones into mine. Only
when our pockets were bulging with mini chocolate rolls were we allowed to
leave….



Seeing ghosts

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Mon, August 18, 2014 07:50PM

…and so it began

Usually
my neighbour Beattie’s wrath is reserved for immigrants, unmarried mothers, and
people with food allergies. Sometimes even a nature programme can set her off
especially if it shows animals mating. Mind you ever since she found herself
forced to drink tea made with sterilized milk at Jean Shank’s funeral Beattie
had talked about nothing else for the past week.

“£15.00
that wreath cost us Maureen’ she said for the umpteenth time and blowing hard
on her lunchtime soup,’ and for what? An organist who managed to make ‘Abide
with Me’ sound like ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside’, that awful tea and
half a Danish pastry you wouldn’t have fed to the birds!’

Now
experience has taught me that it’s never a good idea to go about speaking ill
of dead and I do tell her but will she listen? No she will not. As far as she is
concerned they are gone ‘up there’ and that is that. I know different. Still
it’s no good trying to tell Beattie these things. When a person genuinely
believes Romanian immigrants eat babies it would be an uphill struggle trying
to convince her that the dead do walk amongst us. ‘Speak loudly speak clearly
speak now’, and to hell with the consequences is her motto.

It’s
all very well her believing that ‘The truth will out’ but I do feel that there
are times when true or not things are best left unsaid. Still because Beattie
always insists on speaking her mind she’s not what you could call popular. As
you can imagine when allowed to roam free across open border policies and into
the vast hinterland of a welfare state full of underage teenage pregnancies it
is not always a very nice mind to have to listen to.

‘For
heaven’s sake Maureen there was even a woman at that funeral in tights and a
Lurex cape!’

Although
I have learned over the last ten years that it’s never wise to try and argue
with Beattie unless you like losing I’d always had a soft spot for Jean’s niece
Wanda so I found myself sticking up for her.

‘A
Human Cannon Ball’ I said, ‘stops for nothing, not even the death of a Loved
One.’

‘Well
she could have washed!’ snapped Beattie. She blew so hard on her soup that I
felt a splash of Oxtail hit my cheek. ‘That woman reeked of gunpowder.’

Now
when you consider that with her limp Wanda could have easily settled for a life
on disability benefit instead of carving out a nice little career for herself
twice daily on the promenade you’d think Beattie would have admired her
enterprise. But no. Wanda Clithold was half Shanks and therefore genetically
bound to the sterilized milk fiasco. No amount of limping in Lurex was ever
going to change that even if Wanda landed herself on Mars.

Still
leaving aside the catering arrangements Beattie did have a point. With or
without the added glamour of a local celebrity as funerals went Jean’s was not
one of the best. For a start it was at St Jude’s and try as they might no
amount of incense will ever get the smell of that burst drain out of the
hassocks. Still that’s no excuse to skimp on the wake. Quite the reverse I
would have thought. Of course I can think of better ways of spending an
afternoon especially as Jean was more Beattie’s friend than mine. However being
as Beattie had made me pay good money for a black wool and cashmere coat it
seemed a shame not to get the wear out of it.
Apparently fake ocelot isn’t suitable as funeral attire, or so I was
told. Shame really as I’d always thought it brought a hint of show biz to what
can often be a joyless occasion. But what did I know? After all I wasn’t the
widow of the late Chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. I was just plain
old Maureen Truscott, ex wife, ex clairvoyant and ex con. But I keep all that
to myself.

‘By
the way your hair’s twisted’. Beattie waggled her soup spoon at my head.
‘Honestly Maureen if you have to wear a wig to a funeral couldn’t you at least choose
one that doesn’t make you look like an out of work magicians assistant?’

Occasionally,
on days when even Beattie can see through some of the headlines in the Daily
Mail, she keeps her hand in by having a go at me. Sometimes it’s my lack of
devotion to housework, sometimes it’s my love of bright coloured emulsion. Quite
often it’s the fact that I shop at Top Shop and wear high heels despite being a
pensioner. But when all else fails her favourite topic is my collection of ‘diva’
wigs. Now that even she was fed up recounting the failings of Jean’s wake over lunch
in the BHS restaurant I could tell she was looking for another victim. And
there I was, right in front of her, my own hair hidden under Shirley Bassey.

‘I
mean why not wear Thora Hird?’ she said, ‘Far more suitable for a funeral. She
did ‘Praise Be’ for a start and there is no way she would make you look like
you should be dancing round a pole at a business man’s lunch.’

Now
whilst I can often manage to turn a deaf ear to what she calls my ‘slovenly
ways’, my ‘hallucinogenic colour schemes’ and ‘my dressing like a teenager’ I
won’t hear a word said against any of my wigs. Beattie once accused my ‘Dusty
Springfield’ of having nits and we didn’t speak for a week. But I am equally
fond of ‘Shirley’. For one thing she’s made of real human hair that has been faithfully
styled on a cultural icon and for another I lived on beans on toast for three weeks
to pay for her. ‘Thora’ on the other hand was a free gift with ‘Alma Cogan’. But
then that was precisely the sort of thing that appealed to Beattie’s
parsimonious nature. Anyone who recycles teabags would feel a natural affinity
to free nylon fibres.

‘I
mean you don’t exactly help yourself Maureen’, she sighed, ‘and even you have
to admit that most of the outfits you wear are more suited to women at least
half your age and then only Lithuanians hoping to be employed as lap dancers.’

In
a way that is true. I never fit the identi-kit granny look favoured by Beattie.
She prefers what she calls her ‘heather shades. I call it ‘World at War’ myself
but I never say anything. Still, now on funeral days I always make a conscious
attempt to tone it down and today had been no different. I thought I looked
quite sombre in my black dress and matching coat and gloves. I was thinking Jackie
Kennedy, only with more polyester. Beattie was just thinking black thoughts; as
usual.

‘If
you’d looked after your hair Maureen, like I have, you wouldn’t feel the need
to cover up.Still I suppose it was all that peroxide that ruined yours when you
worked as a prostitute.’

I
swallowed the last mouthful of my carrot and lentil and said nothing. When
she’s in this mood I know she is best ignored.

It
has to be said that although we have been neighbours in Palmerston Terrace for
the last ten years, and as dear to me as she is, if Fate hadn’t pitched us either
side of an adjoining wall we would never have even been acquaintances. Outspoken,
opinionated and very often downright rude Beattie might be but she is also the
nearest thing I have to a friend these days. So very often it’s a case of
biting your lip and just letting her vitriol wash over you; like now.

Besides she knew as well as I did that I’d only
worked on a fun fair. I’d once let that slip in a moment of weakness during a
conversation about short hand typing. Beattie showed me her Pitman’s certificate
and I showed her a picture of me in skin-tight Capri pants with a towering
blond bee-hive hairdo. I’ll admit that I might have looked a bit flighty when I
was ‘Maureen the Waltzer Queen’ but I can honestly say I was never on the game.
That was just one of her little fictions. The late Arthur Hathaway having been
such a perfect husband was another one. And you didn’t need a magnifying glass
to read between those lines! If you listened to Beattie’s tales of marital
bliss her Arthur sounded a nasty little piece of work indeed. And if I’m honest
I’m not over sure she was exactly sorry to see him go. All that sighing and eye
dabbing is just an act if you ask me.

‘Of
course when I buried my Arthur….,’ she paused just long enough in the middle
of dismembering her bread roll long to assume what she thought was an
expression of grief and despair. It always looked more like trapped wind to me.
Now usually I hold my tongue. However because I wasn’t about to sit through
that particular bench mark of funereal excellence for the umpteenth time I
seized the moment.

‘Well
I’m sure the catering at Peggy Braithwaite’s wake will be something to look
forward to’, I said, adding that we all knew how much Peggy loved her cream
cakes.

‘It’ll
be more interesting Maureen to see how many pall bearers they needed to carry
the coffin’.

Well
she did have a point there. Peggy wasn’t exactly what you could call small
framed.

‘Most
of Paxton’s men are over 60 and wear trusses. You can’t expect them to be
heaving that weight about at their age. I wouldn’t be at all surprised they didn’t
insisted on wheeling her in, the compensation culture being what it is these
days. If you ask me that’s the only
reason she’s being buried and not cremated. Imagine all that wood going up, it
would probably set light to the chimney.’ She leaned in close enough for me to
see where her lipstick had missed her mouth adding in a low voice that she just
happened to know that they had to have the casket especially made.

It
was a well known fact that Beattie, ‘just happened to know’ a great deal about
everything that went on in Biddermouth on Sea. Not that she gossiped. She
didn’t need to. Her niece Pauline worked on the switchboard at the local
council offices. Unfortunately this meant that everything Beattie ‘just
happened to know’ she believed to be placed beyond the reach of rational
argument by the rubber stamp of officialdom. Even so I had never believed that one
about the mayor having a nuclear fall-out shelter built under the wool shop.
Anybody with an ounce of sense only had to look at those road works to see it
was gas mains. But Beattie stuck to her guns. Even today she circumnavigates
the manhole cover that marks the spot out of respect for the mayoral regalia.

‘Apparently
none of the off the shelf models were big enough,’ she whispered before
launching back on to her favourite topic, namely her husband’s death.

‘Of
course I know I had to have Arthur’s custom made but then a civic funeral is an
entirely different occasion. You can’t expect the whole of the Chamber of Commerce
to walk bareheaded behind veneered chipboard can you Maureen?’

I
obviously said nothing because I heard Beattie repeat herself.

‘…..Can
you?’ she said. ‘Are you alright Maureen? You look like you’ve just seen a
ghost.’

And
in a way Beattie was right. I had just seen, or at least thought I’d just seen
Jean Shanks standing outside the supermarket.