Little Inspirations: a cave painting

Mermaids on the walls of a cave near Oudtshoorn
from ‘Myths and Legends of Southern Africa‘ by Penny Miller

It seems strange to find an ancient rock-art painting, depicting what look like mermaids, in a cave near a town in an arid area of the Western Cape, some 60kms (40 miles) from the ocean. However, 250 million years ago, the stark, beautiful landscape of the Klein Karoo was submerged underwater. When the oceans receded, they left behind a fertile valley and these paintings of ‘fish-tailed humans’ have been linked to stories and legends about the ‘water-meisies’ who inhabit springs and rock pools, and who are associated with bringing both rains and droughts.

Some say that the ‘fish people’ in the San rock painting depict a ritual held by their shamans involving swallows, which are also associated with rain. However, many other people point out that the San people were known for drawing what they actually saw. Look again and you can see that the images have arms, not wings. Does this mean that these were creatures encountered and recorded by the San Bushmen?

There are modern-day accounts of people seeing creatures such as these too. One might suggest that the consumption of a few too many glasses of brandy and coke might have been involved, but I’m prepared to keep an open mind. In any case, I’m fond of writing in that space where myth and reality collide…

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Excerpt from Song of the Sea Goddess

A mermaid? Sam can barely believe his eyes. His mouth starts to open and close like that of the fish which, imprisoned in the creature’s grasp, stares up at him blankly. Astonished as he is, Sam keeps hold of the line. The hook pulls at the fish’s mouth.

‘Stop,’ he says to her. ‘Wait. Let me take the hook out.’ Sam leans forward over the back of his little boat and extends his left hand towards the fish. He slackens the line and his hand closes over hers. It’s quite a big fish, enough for two. Sam looks into the creature’s blue-green eyes. ‘Can’t we share it?’

Her eyes narrow. ‘You’re not trying to trick me are you, fisherman?’

‘No,’ Sam shakes his head. ‘I’m not going anywhere, am I?’ He stares down at her, still not believing what he is seeing. ‘Now hold steady.’ He slides his left hand forward to grip the fish’s head and with the other he deftly slips the hook out of the fish’s mouth.

The fish is free of Sam’s line. ‘All right, you hold the fish and I’ll get my fishing bucket. We can keep it in there for now. I’ll make a fire later.’

She puts her head on one side.

‘Don’t you move.’ Sam turns and leans across the deck to retrieve his bucket. The moment his back turned, he hears a splash. He jumps up and spins around to see a large silvery fish-tail disappearing below the surface of the murky river. Another flash of silver further on and she’s gone, taking the big, beautiful fish with her.

Sam beats his fist on the rail of his little boat and curses loudly. He grips the rail in both hands and stares after her. Has he really just seen a mermaid?

His stomach growls again and he pulls the line with its empty hook back onto the boat. He threads the last of his bait onto the hook and casts the line back over the rail. No sooner has he finished securing it to the rail, he feels a tug on the other end.

As he reaches to pick it up, the mermaid breaks the surface holding a plump fish in each hand. ‘She smiles up at him. ‘You thought I’d gone, didn’t you?’

Sam shrugs. ‘S’pose so.’ He grabs his fishing bucket and holds it over the side. ‘Put them in here.’

The mermaid drops one fish into the bucket and takes the other in both hands. She opens her mouth revealing a row of little pointy teeth. Sam is reminded of a shark’s mouth. He can’t help himself grimacing as she sinks those sharp teeth into the still wriggling fish.

‘What’s wrong?’ She bites off the fish’s head and starts to crunch the bones.

Sam averts his eyes and looks down at the other fish, which is floating happily in the bucket at his feet. He visualizes it cooked; he’s too hungry to be put off. Sam looks at her again, the long dark hair clinging to her shoulders and flowing over her upper body, and the glint of her silver tail shining through the muddy river water. ‘I’ve never met a mermaid before.’

‘Well, you still haven’t,’ snaps the creature indignantly. She devours the last of the fish, bones and all.

He leans on the rail and stares at her. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Come closer and I’ll whisper.’ She gazes up at him with her big blue-green eyes and beckons with an elegant finger. He notices that the nail is narrow and curved, like a claw.

Sam is repelled and yet captivated by the creature. He crouches down and leans forward over the back of the boat. She reaches up to him and he puts his hands on her shoulders. Her hands close around his wrists, drawing him closer. Sam can feel her breath on his chest. Then, arching her back she flips her tail. Sam, caught off balance, is tipped off the boat and into the river beside her.

He flails in the water, unable to find purchase on the slippery river bottom. Although the river isn’t deep, Sam can’t swim and he panics momentarily.

‘Ha! Can’t swim, fisherman?’

He hears the creature taunting him as he splashes around. His hand finds the anchor rope and he steadies himself. Muddy water streams down his face as he finally stands up in the waist-high channel. He retrieves his sodden cap and jams it on his head. Rubbing the water from his eyes, he glares at the creature who is floating in a seated position a little way away from him.

‘What did you do that for?’ says Sam crossly, spitting out water.

‘Don’t you like to play, fisherman?’ she flicks her tail at him teasingly and an arc of water sprays over him.

‘I don’t know who you are, or what you are, but I don’t appreciate being soaked.’ Sam turns his back on her and is about to climb back onto his boat.

‘Oh, don’t be like that.’ She flips forward and swims towards him. She bobs up between where he’s standing and Porcupine’s stumpy stern. ‘I’m sorry,’ she looks up at him coyly with her big blue-green eyes.

Sam frowns.

‘No, really I am.’ She blinks her eyes at him and a fat tear rolls down her cheek. ‘I’m all alone, you see. No friends. No-one to play with.’

Sam relents. He reaches out and touches her face, wiping away the tear. ‘Look, would you mind if I sat over there on the island? I’d like to dry off a bit.’ She nods and he takes her hand and guides her to the edge of the sandbank.

Sam sits down on the grassy bank while she lounges on her front at the water’s edge, her glorious silver tail sparkling in the shallow slow-moving water behind her.

‘You were going to explain who you are before you tried to drown me.’

‘I didn’t try to drown you.’ Her eyes become even larger, the pupils black like saucers.

‘I’m joking with you, don’t you see? Playing. Like you said you were when you pulled me into the river.’ Sam grins at her.

‘All right, but I’m sorry for that.’ She smiles weakly.

‘All right,’ Sam says gently, stretching out on the grassy bank and resting his head on his elbow. ‘Tell me about yourself.’

‘My name is Shasa. I belong to the tribe of the Water People. You might know me as a water-meisie’.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Song of the Sea Goddess in paperback, ebook and audiobook. Audio available on kobo, Scribd, Chirp, Google Play and Audible.

Order on Amazon: USA ~ UK ~ IND ~ AUS ~ CAN ~ ESP ~ South Africa and the Rest of the World

Listen here!

Spirit of the Shell Man cover and a pic of a women listening to an audiobook with a cat on her lap and a smile on her face.

I’m super-excited to say that the audiobook version of my latest novel, Spirit of the Shell Man, is out. Currently available on Amazon, Audible and Kobo, you’re likely to find it in most online audiobook retailers within the next week or two.

Just like its prequel, Song of the Sea Goddess, the story is beautifully narrated by talented voice artist, Terry Lloyd-Roberts, and recorded and produced by Devon Martindale, founder of audiobook producers and distributors, Audioshelf, in his studio in Cape Town.

I shared my first experience of publishing an audiobook last year. Once again, the recording process went really smoothly and just as before, I loved the way Terry’s interpretation of the characters really made them come alive.

Creating audiobooks is still quite new for indie authors and for authors in Africa in general. I’ve by no means made my money back (so far) on the three audiobooks I’ve released, but it has given access to my books to another set of readers, including language learners.

Perfect for language enthusiasts
“…If you’re looking to hone your language skills, buy the book along with the audio and use it to practice like me. Wonderful experience. I am very grateful to the author! Loved it.” ~ Audible Customer

If you’re interested in the full process from production through to distribution, you can listen to this interview with Devon who now has clients around the world, and because he’s based in Cape Town, overseas authors can take advantage of the relative weakness of the SA Rand.

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Happy listening!

Location, Location, Location #27

Location No. 27 – Entering Lwandle Township (photo: stayza.com)

Welcome back to our literary tour through the pages of my novels. Today we’re returning to South Africa where we’re just about to enter a place called Lwandle. It’s not a usual stop on the tourist trail, although it boasts an important little museum – we’ll take a little contextual detour to it in a moment – but as far as our literary tour is concerned, it is here (or in an invented place very like it) that my character, Albertina first steps into the pages of ‘Song of the Sea Goddess‘.

Lwandle is an informal settlement (also known as a ‘location’) about 15 minutes drive from where I stay in Somerset West. It was originally established in the late 1950s to house workers who were brought in from rural areas to work in the farming and fruit canning businesses which had been established in the area. Let’s find out a little more about what conditions were like back then by visiting the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum which is just around the corner on our left.

Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum video

With the onset of democracy in South Africa in 1994, the ANC-led government turned the hostels of Lwandle into family-type accommodation. At the same time, with the relaxation of the restriction of movement throughout the country, more people arrived from the rural areas of the Eastern Cape. As a result, the area became increasingly overcrowded.

Even now, although some residents live in brick and block-built buildings, many still live in shacks, awaiting government-approved housing projects to be put in place. Those who are working mainly have jobs in the surrounding towns of Somerset West, Strand and Gordon’s Bay, and the roundabout in the picture above, is the place where I pick up Rayno, my gardener/handyman and Primrose, my housekeeper. Primrose came from the Eastern Cape about 20 years ago, but Rayno was born here, his grandparents and great-grandparents having worked on one of the fruit farms years ago. Although their family homes are modest, they have proper sanitation and the security of an enclosed yard. Other residents live in very humble circumstances, much as I imagined Albertina’s shack – no more than a small timber shed, like you might have at the bottom of your garden. But Albertina, with her proud and positive attitude, decides to up-sticks and seek a new place to stay.

Back in February, I wrote a guest post for da-AL’s ‘Happiness Between Tails‘, in which I talked about why I wanted to ‘uplift’ my characters, some of whom, like Albertina, are based on an amalgam of people I’ve met since I moved to South Africa. I explained how the characters that I’d created deserved something more and better, and that’s why Albertina starts her journey standing by the exit to a service station with a twenty rand note in her hand.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I discovered from da-AL that she’d converted and added that post, ‘Imagining a New Place’ to her growing list of podcasts. Note to self: this really is something I should try. You can listen to Imagining a New Place here, the actual post starts three minutes in.

Now, let’s join Albertina as, fed up with the noise and the dust, and the general mayhem in the ‘location’, she packs up her belongings and makes for the N2 highway to hitch a ride in search that new and better place.

Excerpt from Song of the Sea Goddess

Albertina throws the remains of her coffee onto the dust outside the door and stuffs her little tin mug into the top of the bulging holdall which stands by a similarly stuffed canvas bag next to the open door. As she finishes chewing the crust of bread she’d saved for her breakfast, she adjusts her second best wig and looks around the shack which has been her home for the best part of a year: Time to move on.

Albertina snatches up the two heavy bags containing all her worldly goods and strides out into the early morning. She holds her head up and sticks her nose in the air as she walks past the people busy with their cooking fires and washing bowls. She will not miss them and she will not miss the location, with its noise and dust, and people fighting and drinking long into the night. Her son is settled in a farm school and he has a roof over his head. He’s with people who’ll take better care of him that she can, far away from the temptations of drugs and alcohol, underage sex and communicable diseases which seem to be all that life has to offer for young people here.

Service station on the N2 freeway (photo: sasol.com)

Fifteen minutes of steady walking bring Albertina to the edge of the freeway. She is aware of the weight of the bags that she’s carrying, but she’s used to it. Used to carrying all her belongings with her; you can’t leave anything in your shack. The traffic is heavy, and the hot dirty wind from the road tugs at her long skirt. Albertina trudges on as far as the service station where she stops near the exit to the parking area. Here she will get her first lift. She takes out a tightly folded twenty rand note from where is has been tucked inside her clothing, unfolds it and carefully smooths out the creases. She holds it up to each vehicle that passes.

It’s not long before a large blue truck pulls up beside her, its airbrakes hissing loudly. The driver leans over and extends a thick brown arm to open the passenger door for her. Albertina looks up at him. For a moment they scrutinise each other. He looks okay, she thinks, but she’s still wary. She tries to read his face. The driver breaks into a gap-toothed grin and asks her where she’s going.

Albertina shrugs. ‘Just onwards,’ she smiles cautiously.

‘I’m going up the coast,’ he replies.

Albertina nods. One direction is as good as another. The coast sounds nice; fresh. Why not? Something will turn up. She hefts her bags into the foot-well and, gathering up her skirt, climbs nimbly into the cab. The driver indicates the seat belt and reaches over to help her. His hand brushes briefly against her left breast. She looks at him sharply but his attention is already focused on the road as he pulls away.

He eases the heavy vehicle out onto the busy highway, turning the radio up loudly. Albertina is grateful for the music; she doesn’t like to chat to strangers. She looks out of the window watching the sprawl of scruffy buildings give way to a patch of open land, then more buildings, this time huge, bland industrial buildings. She briefly wonders what goes on inside them. The truck driver taps on the steering wheel along with the music, apart from when he jabs at the horn or mutters an obscenity at some other road user. She winces inwardly at the words.

The truck turns off the freeway and onto the West Coast highway. The traffic is calmer and there is only bush and scrub beyond the edge of the tarmac. Albertina gazes out across the open country; the ocean is faintly discernible, a clear azure strip below the wide African sky. She winds down her window a little. The driver turns to her – they haven’t so much as exchanged names – and suggests they stop for a break. He needs to stretch his legs. Albertina nods and leans forward to reach inside the pocket of her holdall.

Roadside Rest Stop on the West Coast Highway (my photo)

There is a rest stop a kilometre ahead: three sets of concrete tables with concrete stools surrounding them, set back from the road under a stand of shady trees. There is nobody else there. The driver parks up and jumps out of the cab. He strides round the front of the truck and opens the passenger door for Albertina. Although she is perfectly capable of dismounting by herself, he offers her a hand to help her down. Albertina’s bright pink pumps hit the ground lightly; the driver keeps hold of her hand and pulls her gently sideways, away from the door. Their eyes meet as he takes a step towards her. She takes a step back. He smiles pleasantly. ‘Come now,’ he says, ‘a little something for my trouble.’ He closes in and Albertina is caught between him and the side of the truck.

Quick as a flash, she whips out her little steel knife and holds the point against the side of his neck. The man’s eyes widen. He steps back, holding up his hands up in surprise. It is now Albertina’s turn to advance. She sets her face in a steely glare and, although inside her heart is fluttering with fear, she takes a step forward, knife raised. A long minute passes. A couple of cars go by; a bird shrieks in the tree above them. Then all is quiet.

Loud music breaks the silence heralding the arrival of a bright red sports car. It draws up sharply behind the truck, raising a cloud of dust. The driver looks around. Albertina’s gaze remains fixed on him. Car doors open and the music blares out more loudly. High female voices call out to each other. Paying no attention to the truck or the two people beside it they unload a cooler box from the car and dump it on the nearest table.

The driver holds out his hands, palms upward. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ he says quickly. Albertina glances towards the noisy group of girls. She lowers the knife.

‘I’m getting your bags,’ the man says firmly. Albertina nods. Moments later her bags are on the ground and the truck is starting up. Albertina watches calmly as he drives away. She picks up her bags and goes to sit at the nearest table, looking across at the four long-limbed blonde-headed girls who are sipping from cans of cool drink.

‘Hey!’ One of the girls gets up and walks over to Albertina. ‘Ag, no! Did that guy just leave you here?’ She looks round at her friends and back at Albertina. ‘Shame, man!’ Another girl approaches and asks where she’s going. Albertina gestures vaguely up the road.

‘Lesley,’ the first girl calls out. ‘We can fit another one in the back, hey?’

Albertina now becomes the centre of attention. The skimpily-clad young women gather round, and one of them fetches a cool drink for her; they all mutter darkly about the ‘skelm’ driver. Albertina is a little overwhelmed, but happily accepts the offer of a lift. They can’t take her to where they’re staying, of course, but the nearest town will surely be fine. Albertina nods. It will surely be fine.

And so, after a whirlwind of a drive in the noisy little sports car, with its loud music and louder girls, and the howling wind which forced her to remove her second-best wig, so as not to lose it out of the open window, Albertina finds herself back on foot, carrying her two bulging bags into a busy little coastal town. By late afternoon, she’s found her way down to the harbour. She sets her bags down and stares out across the ocean. She breathes in the sharp, salty air and looks around. She has a good feeling about this place. Something will turn up, she thinks.

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Audiobook available from all popular audio retailers – listen to a sample here

Little Inspirations: Translocation from Greece

Pyrgi, on the island of Chios, Greece c. 1996

Let me introduce you to these two fine gentlemen: on your right is my husband, Cliff (he had hair then!) and on the left is Andreas, the man who made the best chips we’d ever tasted! It’s because of him that the fictional little town in my novel, Song of the Sea Goddess, has a café owned by a Greek, who makes the ‘best chips on the whole of the west coast’.

Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, we spent almost every holiday island hopping around Greece. I was counting them up, and we’ve visited twenty islands over the years (several more than once) and adding all those visits up, we spent at more than a year altogether in that beautiful country. We’d go at the start and end of the holiday season, two weeks in both May and September, taking any cheap flight we could find. Then, armed with a laden rucksack, a few guide books and book of ferry timetables, off we’d go.

We became increasing adventurous over the years and would try to seek out the less well-known islands and the more off-the-beaten track locations. We avoided the popular places plagued by package tourists, seeking a more authentic Greece (and escaping the Brits on holiday). I’d do my research in the local library, poring over Greek guide books on a Saturday morning after the unavoidable weekend shopping. One year, a photograph of some unusually decorated buildings caught my eye. My reaction? We have to go there!

Pyrgi, the ‘painted village’ in southern Chios

And so we did! Here are a couple of photos from our visit. You can just make out the shaded roof garden at the top of the picture on the left. ‘Captured’ by Dmitri off the afternoon bus from the port of Chios, he offered us his rooftop room for rent. Accessed by a rather precarious metal stairway, it had all we needed, including a wonderful view.

On the right is an example of the xysta, the intricate wall decorations that first caught my eye. These adorn many of Pyrgi’s houses and are unique to this medieval village. These patterns aren’t painted, they are scratched into the surface plaster. They are everywhere!

The centre of the village is dominated by a large square, filled with chairs and tables belonging to a handful of tiny bars and restaurants which ring the square itself. In the evening, we found the square was filled with people eating, drinking and chatting while their children played on the periphery. It was here we came across Andreas, who owned the tiniest of restaurants in one corner of the square. His menu was simple, but fresh and delicious – and he made these wonderful chips, served with a generous dollop of tzatziki (thick Greek yoghurt mixed with salted and drained cucumber, garlic, mint and olive oil). Over several evening visits we came to know a little bit about his past, particularly about his time in the merchant navy, an occupation he shared with Cliff’s younger brother.

Spool on to November 2019, when I started writing Song of the Sea Goddess and although I’d not thought about him for years, Andreas suddenly stepped out from the doorway of a building by the harbour in my fictional little town on the west coast of South Africa. He seemed to be very at home and he hadn’t aged a bit!

You can take a little tour of Pyrgi on this clip I found on You Tube:

I hope you enjoyed that. Now, let’s see what my version of Andreas is up to in his little harbourside café.

Excerpt from Song of the Sea Goddess

Later that morning when Porcupine returns to the harbour, Andreas is picking up the battered tin bowl that has been licked clean by the scruffy little dog, which he’s taken to feeding with scraps from his kitchen. He raises a hand in greeting to Sam and Jannie.

‘There’s coffee still in the pot,’ shouts Andreas.

‘Should we tell him about the gold?’ Sam asks as they across the yard.

‘Could be he knows something about treasure like that. He was at sea far longer than I was and he sailed in different waters,’ says Jannie. ‘But I’m not so sure. You know he gossips like no tomorrow.’

Sam shrugs. ‘We don’t have to tell him the whole story.’

‘You mean say it’s something we just heard…’

‘…from a friend of a friend.’

The two men grin at each other.

The two conspirators enter through the back door of Andreas’s little café. Moments later they’re sitting at the counter while Andreas fills two tiny cups with thick, sweet Greek coffee and sets them down on the counter in front them.

‘So what’s new?’ asks the café owner as he resumes his slicing and chopping in preparation for lunchtime. Andreas serves up a simple menu from his native Greece: fried fish, kebabs, chips and salad. He makes the best chips on the whole of the west coast and if you can’t afford meat or fish, you can always dip your chips in his thick, garlicky tzatziki. It is this that he’s busy making.

Andreas frowns as Sam explains about the friend of a friend and the strange pot of gold coins which no-one can touch with their bare hands. The wiry old Greek listens until Sam has finished, then throws his head back and laughs.

‘Well, you must know what that is,’ he exclaims.

‘What d’you mean?’ Jannie asks. ‘I sailed around the South China seas and in the cold waters of the far north, but I’ve never heard of such a thing.’

‘Really? And you’ve never heard of the ‘treasure that can’t be touched’?’

Jannie shakes his head.

‘They say it’s the old gold of Atlantis.’

‘Atlantis?’

‘Yes, you know, the lost city…’

Jannie shakes his head. ‘That’s just a legend. It doesn’t exist.’

Andreas chuckles. ‘Well, gold coins that burn your fingers don’t exist either.” He shakes his head. ‘Come on guys, I’m having a joke with you.’ He pours them a second cup of coffee. Then he notices the coin shaped scar on Sam’s right hand. He points to the scar and raises his bushy grey eyebrows. ‘Don’t tell me. That’s how you got that scar?’ Andreas’s eyes widen. ‘That’s what you were off-loading earlier, is it?’

‘What do you mean?’ asks Jannie. He cocks his head sideways feigning innocence.

‘Well,’ Andreas leans forward on the counter, his chin resting on his hand, ‘when Porcupine first entered the harbour this morning, she was sitting very low in the water. I thought Sam here had made it big. A net full of snoek maybe. But after he tied up the boat, rather than landing his catch, he called you over, Jannie. Then a few minutes later, deep in conversation and looking a little shifty by the way, you were both on the boat and heading out of the harbour.’

Andreas pauses, looking from one friend to the other. He grins. ‘I figured it wasn’t an illegal haul of perlemoen, since that wouldn’t have weighed so heavy. Nor crayfish.’ He wags his finger slowly from side to side. ‘And in any case, neither of you would do such a thing, would you?’

Sam and Jannie remain silent for a moment.

‘Okay then, Sam,’ Andreas says. ‘Where did you find this treasure you can’t touch? And what have you done with it?’

Sam and Jannie exchange glances.

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Download from Kobo: ebook ~ audiobook
The audiobook is available on most popular audiobook stores – listen to a sample here

I’ve published an audiobook!

Photo by Findaway Voices on Unsplash

I’m delighted to tell you that I’ve made my latest novel, Song of the Sea Goddess, into an audiobook. It’s been such a pleasurable experience too. Of course, I didn’t do it all by myself. Nobody would want to listen to me stumbling over my own words, and I have neither the expertise or the equipment to create a professional recording.

By great good fortune my husband, when he was teaching at the International School of Cape Town, worked with the wonderful Terry Lloyd Roberts who, aside from being a teacher, is an accomplished voice artist. She in turn introduced me to Devon Martindale, Director at Audioshelf, a South African company dedicated to the production of audiobooks. All I had to do was send a pdf version of the manuscript and they did the rest.

It wasn’t as costly as I might have imagined – the price of a nice overseas holiday – and we haven’t done and won’t be doing that for a while.

It took a little while to record, as the book runs to over 7 hours listening time, but over a period of about 3 weeks, I received the audio files to check, ten or so chapters at a time. What a pleasure it was to hear Terry read the words I had written! Her voice is perfect for the book and she really made my characters come alive.

She also managed to sail over a number of typos and missed words. I thought that between me and my beta-reading team we’d caught all those. Not so. Apologies to everyone who’s had to suffer those! I’ve since corrected them and reloaded the paperback and ebook onto Amazon. That was the only downside of curling up under the covers on a succession of winter weekends with my paperback copy and read along with Terry. But it’s a great way to proof-read a book! I was slightly placated by Devon, who said: “…with every single book we’ve produced into audio, we have picked up at least a few errors in the text, so don’t feel too bad.”

Once I’d received and read over all of the audio files, all that remained for me to do was to find a platform from which to publish the audiobook. I took Devon’s advice and went to Authors Republic who offer audiobook publishing and distribution worldwide. I emphasise the worldwide, since outside of North America, a range of restrictions can make it quite tricky for indie authors.

After signing up, completing a US tax form, and adding my paypal account details, all that remained was to fill in the book details, load up a square version of the cover and upload the audio files, which had been perfectly prepared by Audioshelf. Much less stressful than Amazon/KDP. Now, just a week or two later, my audiobook is available in all sorts of places – even ones not available to people in South Africa!

You can listen to the short (5 min) sample below and see how beautifully it’s narrated. Would it be wrong of me to say that I loved my own book when I listened to it?

Available on Audible, Amazon, Google Play, Kobo, Chirp and probably your own favourite audiobook store too!

Little Inspirations: a tribute

The ‘Team’ on a Christmas trip to see the movie, Long Walk to Freedom. (My photo)

It’s been a sad week. I lost someone who was important in my life. One of the first people whom I met when I arrived to live here on South Africa’s shores. A man I met at the clinic here in Somerset West, where I was part of a volunteer group providing help and support to people living with chronic diseases like HIV and TB, which I talked about a few weeks ago. His name was Johannes and he was part of our team (pictured above).

He had already been living with HIV for some 12 years when we first met, although you wouldn’t have thought he was sick. He was our greatest advocate in the campaign we were running to dispel the myths and the stigma attached to HIV. Within our group was a safe place to speak, a place where people could share their stories without judgment. It was through sharing these stories that I started to get to know Johannes.

In my guest post ‘From the Writer’s Desk’ on da-AL’s blog, Happiness Between the Tails, back in January this year, I talked about how some of the main characters in Song of the Sea Goddess came to be. Johannes was one of them.

“A few of my key characters are based on people I met when I first came to live in South Africa. …people who come from what are euphemistically called ‘formerly disadvantaged communities’…

I could have written about some of their struggles, about the conditions in which they live, about the poverty and lack of opportunity… but as I got to them better, I realised that none of them wants to dwell on any of that.

So I decided I could give them better lives, locate them in a much more pleasant place and put a positive spin on this beautiful country.”

You can read the full version here.

Our support group folded after a couple of years, but by that time Johannes was working for me as a gardener, painter and general handy man. In fact, there was little that he couldn’t turn his hand to. His stories continued through our coffee breaks – of how he ran away to sea at the age of twelve and worked on the deep-sea trawlers for years, how he came home, got into a fight and was jailed and then, after he was released, how he turned his life around.

There’s a lovely little pen portrait of ‘Jannie’ by Robbie Cheadle in her recent review of Song of the Sea Goddess on her blog, Roberta Writes. I was delighted the way she ‘got’ all of my characters, and these few lines sum up the character Johannes inspired (and a little part of Johannes himself) perfectly.

“Jannie is an ex-convict who has discovered the errors of his ways and allowed his better nature to reassert itself. He is a lover of animals and the stray dog featured in the story, and Toti, the monkey, both love him.”

The fictional Jannie gets his long brown-black dreadlocks, his watchfulness and his willingness to help from Johannes. He gets his understanding, his gentle ways and his kindness too, as well as his ability to fight in the defence of his friends.

It’s ironic that the da-AL’s post was prefaced by her and her husband’s Covid experience. Fortunately, they came through. Johannes wasn’t so lucky and it was he that I was thinking of when I wrote my poem, Last Gasp on Monday. He lost that particular fight late on Tuesday evening.

Johannes wasn’t just a gardener and handyman, he wasn’t just a source of stories, he was my friend and I shall miss him very much. But just as he will live on in the hearts and memories of those who knew him, part of him will live on in the pages of Song of the Sea Goddess, and the so far unfinished sequel, as well.

Sunset over the Berg River ©Cliff Davies 2019

Johannes Williams, 10.03.64 – 10.08.21
May the sun never set on your memory.

Location, Location, Location #24

Location No 24 – From Somerset West to the West Coast of South Africa

Welcome to the latest stop on our literary tour through the pages of my novels. This week we’ll taking a pleasant drive from my home town to the little fictional town on the West Coast of South Africa to meet the characters from Song of the Sea Goddess who were so much fun to write about. The ladies are loosely based on some of the people whom I met when I arrived in Somerset West, not so long ago as the postcard above might suggest, I hasten to add.

The reason I’m showing you the postcard is that it gives you an idea of the style of house in which my two little aunties live, although their cottage stands alone on a dusty road just a stone-throw from the sea. Several similar ‘Cape Dutch’ style houses still remain in Somerset West, the best examples being in Church Street, which has an interesting history and which is a place that became an important part of my life when I arrived here.

Auntie Grace and Auntie Rose provide a comedic element to the novel, and the group of ladies their characters are based upon had the same wry outlook on life.

We were all part of a small volunteer group which sought to provide support to clients of the public clinic who were being treated for HIV, TB and other chronic conditions. It sounds a bit grim, but we did in fact have a lot of fun, as we engaged in various uplifting activities including sewing, knitting and beadwork, all of which was accompanied by singing and chatting over cups of tea and coffee, and the plates of sandwiches which were my contribution.

Somerset West Clinic, Church Street

Most of my fellow volunteers lived in Church Street in houses which were built on a plot of land originally owned by Lady Phillips, wife of Cape Governor, Lord Charles Phillips around the turn of the 20th century. A Methodist church and a school were also established here. My involvement in the support group was as a result of a connection to that school via an international art competition and exchange programme with my husband’s school in the UK back in 2008. It was through the friends we made at Somerset West Primary School that led to us moving Somerset West, two years later.

During our two mornings a week in our room at the back of the clinic, our conversations tended to centre on matters like ‘soapies’ (soap operas), clothes, kids and cooking. Sharing recipes and talking about food was what really cemented my connection with members of the group and this is how I came upon some of ‘Auntie Rose’s recipes‘ and my character’s cooking became part of her story.

And now to the story. The following excerpt is taken from an early part of the book where Albertina, new to the little West Coast town, first comes across the aunties.

Excerpt from Song of the Sea Goddess

A commotion at the front of the little house catches Albertina’s attention. Two little old aunties are marching up and down their stoep, noisily pulling the chairs from under the table, bending over and searching the floor. They both straighten up so much as they can; one holds up her hands in the air, the other plants her hands on her broad hips and shakes her head.

She walks over and stands looking at them, her head on one side and a smile on her bright red lips.

‘Come,’ Auntie Rose beckons her onto the stoep. ‘She can help us look, can’t she, Auntie Grace?’

Auntie Grace nods and hurries over to open the little gate for Albertina. She takes hold of Albertina’s sleeve. ‘Come,’ she tugs at the sleeve, propelling Albertina towards the table. ‘Put your bag down here and help us look.’

‘She doesn’t know what we’re looking for,’ says Auntie Rose.

‘I’m coming to that.’

Auntie Rose rolls her eyes and squints up at Albertina. ‘She’s lost her glasses,’ she points to her sister, ‘and I’ve lost my teeth,’ she explains gurning at Albertina. ‘My false teeth,’ she adds, in case Albertina misunderstands.

Albertina places her bag on the table and looks from one little auntie to the other. Immediately she notices the pair of glasses perched on Grace’s head. She points to her own head. Auntie Grace reaches up with one hand, pulls her glasses off her tightly cropped grey hair and holds them out to her sister, her eyebrows raised.

It’s Auntie Rose’s turn to put her hands on her hips. ‘I wasn’t looking there,’ she said indignantly. ‘You said they must have fallen on the floor, and anyway,’ she continued, ‘that’s where I was looking for my teeth.’ Albertina bends down to look under the table. As she does so, she notices a crescent-shaped bulge halfway down Auntie Rose’s rather tightly stretched pants’ leg. She stands up and points at the bulge. Auntie Rose looks down. Her hand goes to her thigh feeling the trapped object. She starts to giggle. She sits on the nearest chair and eases the object down past her knee. Still giggling she scoops the object up as it drops out of her pants’ leg and brandishes a set of teeth aloft. Both aunties burst into peals of laughter. Such is their merriment that Albertina joins in too, her eyes darting about the stoep.

As the laughter dies down, Albertina seizes the brush which is leaning by the wall and starts to sweep the stoep. Albertina is a demon sweeper. The aunties watch as she whisks up the dust and crumbs and bits of fabric and thread which have accumulated under the table. She makes a neat pile and looks around. She grabs the little shovel that stands in the corner and deftly sweeps the pile onto it. She spies the dirt bin the other side of the wall and swiftly deposits the rubbish inside, before replacing the brush and shovel. She goes to pick up her bag, but Auntie Grace puts her hand on hers and points towards a chair. ‘Sit a moment.’

The sisters look at each other and something unspoken passes between them.

‘We could do with some help,’ says Auntie Grace. ‘We can’t pay a lot mind. There’s not so much to do but, you know, some of the heavier work…’

A smile spreads across Albertina’s face.

‘Where do you stay?’ asks Auntie Rose.

Albertina gestures vaguely at the road behind them.

The two aunties nod at each other and stand up. ‘Come and see,’ Auntie Grace says to Albertina as she heads into the house. Albertina picks up her handbag and follows her through the little kitchen to the back yard. Auntie Rose follows, her left leg swings awkwardly as she walks.

Out in the yard is a little wendy house. Auntie Grace pulls the door open. ‘It needs a good clean but would you like to…’

Albertina throws her arms around Auntie Grace, who totters, slightly off balance. Auntie Grace laughs, disentangling herself.

‘There’s a little bathroom too,’ says Auntie Rose, pointing to a small lean-to next to the kitchen. ‘It only has cold water though…’

‘Albertina only washes in cold water,’ she says proudly.

The two aunties look at each other. ‘That’s settled then,’ says Auntie Grace. ‘Why don’t you make us some tea?’ Auntie Rose beckons to Albertina and leads the way to the kitchen.


Song of the Sea Goddess 
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Image credits: Wikipedia (unknown author), Somerset West Clinic

Location, Location, Location #19

Location No 19 – Bokkomlaan, Velddrift

Today on our literary journey through the pages of my novels we’re returning to the beautiful Berg River where it meets the wonderful West Coast of South Africa, one of my favourite places. This time we’re going a little way inland from our previous visit to Laaiplek where the story of ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’ first seeped into my imagination.

The Berg River rises in the mountains almost 200 miles to the south east, flowing north then west, disappearing and reappearing from a second mountain range, having joined up with a handful of seasonal streams from where it meanders towards the Atlantic Ocean through mudflats, reed beds and sandy scrub. In the summer at low tide careful navigation through the riverine channels is required.

Just a mile or two before the estuary at Laaiplek, the Berg River flows through Velddrift, where we find numerous little jetties reaching out into the river to which the local fishermen moor their little boats. One small section, Bokkomlaan, is particularly delightful. Bokkomlaan (Bokkom Lane) is named for ‘bokkoms’, small whole dried and salted fish (mullet) which are caught in this area. There are lots of little eateries to choose from, river trips and even an art gallery, all packed into one little lane by the banks of the Berg River. Let’s drop in for a spot of seafood and a lot of birdlife!

Come and have a look!

Bokkoms are something of an acquired taste in my opinion, but the fresh mullet, called ‘harders’ here, are delicious sprinkled with coarse salt and cooked over the braai (barbeque). Bought from the local fish shop, they are incredibly cheap and absolutely delicious, especially if helped down with a chilled bottle of one of our local wines.

Harders on the braai at our favourite haunt, River Tides, February 2021

Now, if you’ve finished licking the salt off your fingers, let’s join fisherman Sam as he takes his little boat up the river – a man on a mission with something to hide and a rumbling belly.

.

Excerpt from ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’

Sam slows Porcupine’s engine. This part of the river can be tricky to navigate, especially when the water’s low. It is now well into the dry summer season when all the upland waters have already flowed down from the mountains. There is no more left to replenish the river until the rains come again. Sandbanks lie just beneath the surface of the water, waiting to catch the unwary, and Sam has no wish to run aground and risk becoming stranded. It gives him an idea though. He remembers there’s a tiny island a little further upstream. It’s only accessible by boat and it’s unlikely to be visited by anyone. There are no roads leading to this part of the river and no farms or dwellings near the river’s edge. Only the soggy reed beds. Sam smiles to himself and presses on. Birds dip and dive into the water in Porcupine’s wake, and Sam can see eddies where fish are being stirred up as the little boat progresses. There are plenty of them here. Sam’s stomach rumbles. A tasty river trout would be perfect for his supper.

The island comes into view around the next meander. There’s nowhere to tie up, so he drops the anchor.

Sam looks around. Up and downstream, and across over the open, empty marshland either side of the river. There is no one about. All is deserted apart from the insects that hover and the birds that stalk among the tall reeds. Beyond the marsh, cows graze on a strip of green, and in the distance, the purple and ochre of the distant mountains rise on either side of the wide river valley. The headland where Jannie found the cave, looks down on him. It dominates the landscape and looms over the ocean beyond. It too is deserted.

He listens. Only the sounds of nature and the water gently lapping against Porcupine’s hull reach his straining ears.

He opens the bow end storage compartment and takes out his fishing line and bait tin. There are still a few scraps of dried fish. Enough for him to quickly bait a couple of hooks. He throws the lines over the stern and secures them to the rail of boat, then kicking off his worn takkies, he grabs his spade and jumps over the side into the warm waist-height water. Within a couple of strides he’s standing on the grassy bank of the island.

The island is oval-shaped, no more than four times the length of his little boat. One small, solitary tree stands slightly off centre, its branches spreading low, dipping into the water at the upstream end of the island. He attacks sandy ground with his spade. It’s pretty hard work, since the sand keeps sliding back and refilling the hole, but slowly, slowly he’s making progress. After a few minutes more of steady digging, the spade strikes something hard. Not rock though. It makes the dull metallic clunk of metal on metal. Sam drops the spade and crouches down, scrabbling away at the sand with his hands.

Soon he’s uncovered a square metal box the length and width of his forearm. It’s rusted with age, but still sound. He feels around the edges, his hands seeking a way in. He locates the lip of the box and starts to dig down with his fingers. The sand is damp at this depth and separates from the side of the box easily. He peers into the hole. The lid of the box is a little deeper than his hand and is secured with a rusty hasp and staple. There’s no padlock though. Sam carefully pulls on the hasp and tugs open the lid. He reaches in and finds that the box is deeper than his forearm. He kneels down and peers in. It’s empty apart from a few pebbles and a thick layer of sand. He probes around with his fingertips. The box is sound; moreover it’s the perfect size in which to hide his treasure.

Sam jumps up and wades back out to the boat. Let me get this done quickly, he thinks to himself, as he clambers aboard. He drags the three sacks to the edge of the boat, then jumps back into the water. One by one, he swings the sacks from the deck onto the island then hauls them over the sand to the waiting box. Soon the gold is safely buried and Sam is smoothing the sand back into place. He scatters some twigs and stones over the site. No one would know that the ground’s been disturbed. He fixes the distance from the tree in his mind. He’s confident he’ll find it again.

Sam sits back on his heels and glances over his shoulder at Porcupine. The little boat is bobbing up and down in the water. Noticing that one of the fishing lines is straining, he hurries over to the edge of the island. Sure enough, something’s taken one of the baited hooks. He jumps into the boat and hurries over to examine the line. The river water is murky where it’s just been stirred up, but it must be a fish.

He wraps the line around his hand and starts to pull steadily. The line moves easily at first, but then the fish begins to fight. It must be a big one. Sam lets the line slacken a little to allow him to wrap his other hand around the line. As it tightens again it bites into his flesh, but Sam’s not going to let go. He pulls again steadily, ignoring the pain in his hands. The hook’s holding, so he puts all his effort into the struggle, bracing one foot against the boat’s rail.

Then he tugs sharply on the line. The silvery head of a large trout breaks the surface, but something’s holding on to the fish. Two slender hands appear, the long fingers wrapped around the belly of the fish. Sam gasps: what in the world..?

Then she breaks the surface. Sam is confronted by the face of a pretty young woman with bright blue-green eyes set in a pale oval-shaped face, which is framed with long dark hair that clings to her skin.

‘Let go of my fish,’ she cries indignantly. ‘It’s mine, I saw it first. I’ve been chasing it for ages and now it’s got caught in your stupid line.’

Sam opens his mouth, but words fail him.

‘Give me my fish,’ she says, tugging on the slippery creature, whose mouth is also working now that it’s out of the water. ‘Well..?’ Her eyes flash angrily.

‘I… I…’ stutters Sam.

She glides towards him and his eyes are drawn to the slender body, which is still submerged just beneath the surface of the water. Her hair swirls around her naked shoulders. His eyes travel down her back and, at first, Sam thinks she is wearing a tight silver skirt, but then he notices the glistening, fish-like scales.

It seems that Sam has caught a mermaid.


Song of the Sea Goddess

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Photo credits: westcoastway.co.za, Cliff Davies

Me and COVID plus Imagining a New Place by novelist Chris Hall

First of all, let me reassure you, I have not got the virus!

A little while ago, I was delighted to be invited to write a guest blog by writer, blogger and podcaster, da-AL. Then, just as she was preparing to publish my piece her husband came down with Covid! Thankfully he’s on the mend, and so is she, having also fallen sick subsequently.

Talking of masks, as she does, you can see one of mine on my desk in the photo of Luna, next to my ‘Pride and Prejudice’ mug. Looking at that messy desk, I could write a whole post about that. But I didn’t.

Instead, here it is, my guest post, in which I explain how my new novel came to be…

Happiness Between Tails by da-AL

‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, "Song of the Sea Goddess." Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website. ‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, “Song of the Sea Goddess.” Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.

Writers get to build whatever world they please — sometimes our novels bend the truth only somewhat — other times they invent entire new gallaxies.

My works in progress, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are set in fictitious towns within Los Angeles during 2002 and 2003. Back then, COVID-19 didn’t exist…

Note: Earlier this week, my husband became feverish and unwell. Turns out he has COVID-19. He’s doing his best to get well while I feel healthy and am awaiting my test results. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been super careful. I’m letting you know this as a reminder that one can never be…

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Location, Location, Location #11

Location No. 11 – The West Coast National Park, South Africa

This time, on our literary journey through the pages of my books, we’re back in South Africa to explore a little more of the beautiful west coast, where Song of the Sea Goddess is set. My imaginary little town isn’t a single place, but an amalgam of different locations, all quite close to each other, but brought together so as to satisfy the needs of the narrative.

Today’s visit is to a key site for the story. So pause, feel the African sun on your back, breathe in the salty sea air mixed with the sweet, spicy scent of the fynbos under your feet, and join me in the West Coast National Park, where the flora and fauna are protected and visitors now step lightly on the land.

I first visited the park on a day trip with my cousin and her husband, while they were visiting from the UK. It’s a lovely place for a walk by the lagoon, a little bird spotting and a pleasant lunch.

As a quick aside, the photo for the cover of my short story collection was taken at the restaurant.

These attractive yellow birds are weaver birds, whose nests fill the trees above the outdoor seating area. The males painstakingly weave their intricate nests out of grasses and the fussy females make their choice. If they don’t like them they destroy them and start again.

Better than a day trip is a couple of nights spent in the self-catering accommodation in the park. Some of the cottages are very isolated so that once the day visitors have left, it’s just you and nature and the night.

On one such visit, the sun had slipped beneath the horizon, not long after the photo above was taken, and we were sitting contemplating the dying embers of the braai (barbeque). Suddenly we were roused by a strange clicking sound. Lots of clicking. There was something around the other side of the cottage. Slowly we crept around the building.

What an amazing sight! One after another, a long ribbon of eland were walking past the cottage between us and the lagoon, no more than 20 yards away from where we were standing. There must have been about 50 of them, knees clicking as they walked, apparently so they can keep in touch with one another in the dark, or so I was once told by a park ranger.

Listen carefully. My increasingly arthritic knees can relate!

And now we come to the specific location and its role in the story. In the excerpt below we meet Jannie, one of our main characters, and catch an early glimpse of a mysterious, mythical figure who dives from the ‘looming headland’, which is a key part of the local landscape.

This is the ‘borrowed’ location, Kraal Bay, on the Langebaan Lagoon in the National Park. This is the place where Eve’s footprint was discovered: a set of fossilized footprints left in the sand some 117,000 years ago by one of the first people to walk on this shore.

My imaginary headland is possibly a little more whale-shaped, but that is the writer’s mind at work. Knowing the paths of the ancient people ran through this place, what else might be eventually be discovered beneath this domed hillside?

Kraal Bay – sanparks.co.za

Excerpt from ‘Song of the Sea Goddess

Jannie stretches out his legs and breathes in the warm sea air, which is laden with the smell of diesel and freshly caught fish. He smiles to himself. This is the life, he thinks, far away from all his cares and responsibilities. It’s been a stroke of luck that his brother, Robert landed a two month contract working up-country, and asked him if he would like to come and mind his little house on the coast while he was away. Robert, a long-time widower, lives alone now his family’s grown up and moved to Cape Town. He didn’t want to leave his house unoccupied. People are for the most part honest in the little town where he’s settled, but with more mouths to feed and fewer jobs, no one’s property’s safe for long.

Jannie has his own problems back home. Much as he loves his extended family, it was all becoming too much. What with his own grown up children, their children and assorted aunties, nephews and nieces constantly calling upon him for help, he’d really had enough. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t manage without him. It would be good for them, especially his four sons, to stand on their own two feet for a change.

He casts his eyes over the small harbour, looking out for Sam in his little fishing boat, Porcupine, which he’d helped him repair over a week or two when he first arrived. Jannie likes to keep busy, and was pleased to be able to use the skills he’d gained during his fifteen years at sea. But there’s no sign of Sam or little Porcupine. Perhaps they’ve gone further up the coast for a while, he thinks. Sam might be turning a better profit for his catch at one of the other busier harbours up the coast.

Remembering the past, Jannie chuckles to himself and closes his eyes. He’d run away to sea with his friend when they were just twelve years old. Carrying a little bag of warm clothes, he’d snuck out of his mother’s shack while she was sleeping and met his older sister up by the highway. She had a job in a bar next to Cape Town harbour, and she knew an officer on one of the deep sea fishing boats who would help them once they were on board. Jannie recalls standing in the almost pitch black on the quayside, his body swaying, thinking it was the ground under him which was moving, when in fact it was the looming steel hull of the ship in front of him. And oh, they had been so sick once the ship was underway…

Shouts and running feet jolt Jannie back to the present. The harbour master, jamming his peaked cap on his head, rushes past him towards the southern end of the harbour, where a small group of people have gathered. Jannie stands up and shakes himself, then hurries after the harbour master to join the gathering crowd, jumping up onto the harbour wall to get a better view of what’s caught their interest.

A tall, slender woman in long skirts is standing on the edge of the headland across the estuary. Her arms are held out in a welcoming gesture as dozens of whales break the surface of the waves before her. She lifts her head skywards, spreading her arms out widely, in a pose that reminds Jannie of the statue he’d so admired, long ago in Rio de Janeiro.

The woman opens her mouth and a loud, ululating song resonates across the bay. Suddenly the whales take to the air; wave upon wave of them. Jannie blinks and shakes his head. What’s going on? The woman’s song grows louder. The whales are flying! Jannie pinches himself.

The sky darkens, filled with the huge beasts. Then the song stops.

A close up of the woman’s face appears before Jannie’s eyes. She smiles revealing a row of pointed teeth. A selkie! He’d heard talk of these when he’d been sailing in northern waters. Jannie feels the harbour wall ripple beneath his feet.

Her face disappears. Up on the headland he watches her dive into the ocean. Her silver seal tail flaps once above the waves, and then she’s gone.

Jannie looks around. He’s alone on the harbour wall. A man passes close by him, he glances up and smiles, tipping his broad-brimmed hat in Jannie’s direction, while behind him, people are going about their business as usual. Jannie sits down on the wall and rubs his eyes. He looks up, the headland is deserted. Far out in the ocean he sees a solitary whale breaching.

Jannie returns to the white plastic chair that he’s claimed for himself and sits down. He rests his head in his hands, his thick brown-black dreadlocks spilling over his shoulders. It’s been more than ten years since he gave up the booze. So what kind of strange vision has he just had?


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