If you like your reading in short, easily-digestible portions, here is my further-enlarged short story anthology Awakening (now eleven stories, folks, but still the same low price!). My collection of simply-told, compelling tales is a kaleidoscope of scenes from life. Sometimes hopefully touching, sometimes poignant, they’re always told with passion. They mine a rich and varied seam of human experience. Some are stand-alone short stories and some are chapters borrowed from my full length novels pretending to be shorts.
The tales are loosely thematically connected by seasons of the year. You could say they’re about the seasons of human existence. They’re stories of people of the present and people from the past playing out life’s dramas, major or minor, with consequences shallow or profound. They’re stories that will sometimes, I hope, warm the cockles of your heart; often they probe social issues. Sometimes they might make you smile. And sometimes too, if you’re inclined to the nostalgic, perhaps provoke another sort of smile: a wry one of remembrance.
Here’s a very brief rundown of the stories:
Awakening An un-named black girl finds awakening of love in her barren life. (From the novel Convergence)
Day Out At Skeggy A young girl samples a first kiss with a young man after receiving a fright at the seaside in 1924. (From the novel Forebears)
Baby Blues Two couples go through the hopes and anxieties of child adoption, with something in common. (From the novel The One of Us)
Dream, Dream, Dream The angst of being an ugly duckling teenage boy in the 1950s comes good.
Another Spring A writer reminisces about the recent years of his past in recollections bitter-sweet.
That July A young single mother’s clothes-buying trip threatens to go tragically wrong. (From the novel Secret Shame)
Autumn Mist A couple in peril in the Outer Hebrides in 1968 encounter a strange rescuer.
Forever Winter An elderly man talks tenderly to a wife who is no longer with him.
Easter Bunny A nearly-teenage girl desperately wants a pet and in so doing learns a life-lesson.
The End Of October An Irish journalist tries to champion the cause of a gay asylum seeker.
Graduation A young American woman graduates from the New York Juilliard music school, innocent of the drama lying ahead. (From The Flautist)
The Flautist will be published next month in paperback and ebook.
You can find out more about Awakening or buy it on Amazon. Or you can even download it this coming weekend, entirely free, on the same link.
Here are three reviews of Awakening:
Originally, this anthology was entitled Another Spring, then it had three new stories added and was called Awakening and now has a further three. I thought the original five stories were excellent and varied, written on all sorts of topics, and in a very heartfelt way. There are two stories from the previous collection (expanded to 8) that are my favorites and resonate very much with me.
Forever Winter is truly outstanding. It’s about the devotion and love a man has for his wife who is no longer with him. A superb read, not to be missed in my opinion. I can’t think of enough superlatives to describe how much I love this story and what wonderful reading it is. Brava!
The second, Dream, Dream, Dream, is pure nostalgia for those who grew up in the 1950s and loved the Everly Brothers, and is about a young boy’s first love experience. It is another beautiful love story
In the three latest stories, the delightful Easter Bunny tells of a young lady suffering all the angst of becoming a teenager when she asks for a very special birthday gift. This is a sweet story with just the right touch of childish innocence that will appeal to adults and children alike. It is certainly a favorite of mine!
By contrast, The End of October is on a very gown-up theme indeed. It deals with gay rights in modern society and is about a young gay man seeking asylum from persecution in his native country, only to encounter more obstacles in what he hopes will be a place of sanctuary. This story really tugged at my heartstrings. The author powerfully conveys how a person’s hopes can be shredded to bits, how he can be stripped of his dignity and how a system designed to help really gives little or no help at all.
The third new story is actually a chapter from the author’s forthcoming new novel The Flautist, apparently. We meet the heroine, Leah, her family and fiancé at her graduation from music school. She aspires to play in a symphony orchestra. The story tells of this young woman’s hopes and dreams for her future. It has certainly piqued my curiosity about the full length novel.
I loved reading this little collection of stories and thoroughly recommend it.
John Needham has a skill in evoking memories of growing up that any one of us can relate to, A truly warm fascinating read that takes you on your own journey of the things you may have forgot along the way of your life.
A relaxing read can lift your mood, something that author John Needham so skillfully provides here with brilliant effect.
John Needham has done it again: again he has given us a wonderful book.
I have read all of John Needham’s books and this one is a collection of short stories, most beautifully written.
He writes about ordinary people – people like us – which adds to the attraction of his writing.
I do recommend ‘Awakening’ so very highly. You will love it!
There’s a generous sampling of Awakening on the Amazon Look Inside feature, or you can read another of the stories below:
The End of October
It was my first visit to Harmondsworth immigration removal centre. I wasn’t impressed. It might not have technically been a criminals’ prison, but it was to all intents and purposes. It was scarcely less bleakly institutional on this drab, wet October afternoon, and it was still a place of incarceration; the unfortunate guests of Her Majesty’s Government were still deprived of their freedom. I found myself thanking my lucky stars for my own freedom to live and work as a non-Brit without persecution in Britain. But my spirits had dropped markedly on entering the centre, all the same. It was not a happy place.
Ken, my editor at the Clarion and I had agreed I do a piece about asylum seeking. But with an additional element: the LGBT angle. Well, it was topical in twenty-fourteen, since Uganda’s recent parliamentary bill to extend punishment for people having the ‘perversity’ to be gay, with imprisonment for as much as their entire life. The death sentence had even been proposed in the first place, although they’d had retreated from that barbaric notion, thankfully, following an international outcry and threats to withdraw aid. And now, although the still-draconian bill had been signed into law, it too had been quashed by the country’s highest court.
But clearly, homophobia was still institutionally entrenched in Uganda, not to mention many other countries too. Ken and I wanted to investigate the British government’s attitude to gay asylum seekers. We knew the official line, trotted out when challenged, which was to vigorously condemn any sort of persecution and offer sanctuary to victims of it. After all, Britain had signed up to the nineteen fifty-one Geneva Convention on refugees and followed the letter and spirit of the agreement. Didn’t it?
A friend in one of the law firms who did asylum work had put me onto a likely subject for the piece, a young man who had been brought there the day before. So I had come to see him. The level of security and close scrutiny of visitors was intense; I’d had to show photo ID and proof of address, been photographed, fingerprinted, been required to leave all my belongings in a locker (although I’d been allowed to keep my voice recorder because they knew I was a journo), been metal-detected and even searched.
Ephraim Kamuntu was waiting for me in the cheerless visitors’ room, watched over by two intimidating, burly warders wearing security industry uniforms and empty, impassive expressions. Did they seriously think he would do a runner, aided and abetted by me? They probably thought I was a naive do-gooder, anyway. He got to his feet politely to greet me. We shook hands. I introduced myself. ‘Hello. I’m Patrick Brennan. Pleased to meet you.’
‘I am pleased to meet you too, sir.’
We sat. I studied him. He was tall, dignified of bearing, the nervous brown eyes in his dark face betraying quick intelligence, tidily dressed in striped tee-shirt and clean jeans. I switched on my recorder.
‘May I call you Ephraim?’ He nodded. ‘Call me Patrick, please. Well, tell me your story if you would? Where in Uganda are you from?’
‘And what is your background; what does your father do for a living, for example?’
‘I have not got a father. He died, from AIDS. Four years ago. There is just my mother and my seven sisters and brothers back in Uganda.’
‘I see; I’m sorry for your loss. And I believe you’re applying for asylum on grounds of persecution in Uganda because you’re gay?’
Ephraim dropped his gaze, possibly embarrassed to be asked about his sexuality so forthrightly. His answer was a mumble. ‘Yes.’
‘How did you come to the UK in the first place? You can’t have applied for asylum from Uganda.’
‘On a visitor’s visa.’
‘Right. And then you applied when you got here?’
‘No. I found work. On a building site. Although my trade is engineer.’
I flicked a surreptitious glance at one of the warders. His face was expressionless but he would be hearing everything that was said. And I knew that Ephraim was not supposed to be working. That would be tantamount to being an illegal immigrant. ‘So, you applied later?’
‘Mm, no. I was going to apply but I was working to earn some money to live after the money I’d brought ran out. I did not realise how expensive it is to live in London. And I thought I might need money to pay a lawyer, perhaps. When the visa expired I just carried on working.’
It struck me that he had a good command of English, indicative possibly of a good education. Perhaps he thought that would be sufficient with which to build a life in Britain. ‘And where were you living?’
‘In a house with other seven other men in King’s Cross. The rent was quite cheap. Well, a lot less than most places.’
I could well imagine. Black-economy renting too, no doubt. Living like sardines in a can with many other illegal immigrants in some filthy rat-hole of a place with a very dodgy, exploitative landlord. His first impressions of Britain must have not been great. Hardly the land of milk and honey he’d probably dreamed of.
‘So when did you apply?’
He was mumbling again, probably trying to keep it out of earshot of the warders, between just the two of us. I moved the recorder closer and leaned in myself. ‘Well, I got found out. I got into a fight with a man on the building site, because he accused me of stealing from him; his mobile phone. I didn’t though. He left it lying around and I picked it up. I was going to try and find out who it belonged to. But he accused me of being a thief and called me lots of other names, horrible names. I should have walked away. Away from the job. But he started pushing me around and I lost my temper and pushed back, and then he hit me and I hit him back, and then the foreman got in between us and made us calm down. And then the other man said he would report me for being an illegal immigrant, because I had foolishly said that my visa had expired but I wanted to stay in Britain, working, but properly, and send money home to my mother.’
‘Ah, that’s bad. But you really should have applied for asylum properly, you know,’ I said. ‘When you first arrived. Kept things above board. Then, if it had been granted, you could have done that.’
He nodded dejectedly. ‘Yes, I know that now.’
‘So what happened then? Did you apply?’
‘Yes. The next day the police came to the site and the man I had fought pointed me out, and they arrested me and took me to the police station. Then they questioned me and put me in a cell, and I said I wanted to apply for asylum, and then yesterday they brought me here.’
‘Right. So you’ve applied for asylum now.’
‘Yes. I had a first interview this morning and it’s going to be the fast-track procedure, but I don’t really know what that means. Except that I have to be shut up in here while it goes on.’
‘Mm. And what about legal representation? My lawyer friend obviously knows about you; are you using him?’
‘No. I have not got very much money. Lawyers are expensive, aren’t they?’
‘Well, we have something called legal aid in this country. Have you not been told that?’
‘Oh; perhaps they said that. I did not really understand what they were saying.’ He looked unhappy and confused.
I tried encouragement. ‘Tell me; I know this might be embarrassing to talk about, but were you persecuted very much for your, er, sexuality in Uganda?’
Now he seemed on the verge of tears. ‘Yes, sometimes. I had to be very secret about it. I have been beaten up several times. Look.’ He pulled down his lower lip. Several lower front teeth were missing. ‘And my – friend was found out and now he is in prison for seven years. And then when my government brought in the new law making it prison for life if you are found out, I got really scared and applied for a holiday visa so I could come to Britain. And yes, I know I should have applied for asylum as soon as I arrived, but I was scared of being refused and thought I could get away with working – how do you say it – out of sight?’
‘Black economy. But then that would never have been legitimate. You would never have had a decent life. And you could have been found out at any time and deported.’
‘Yes, I know that now. I was very foolish.’
‘Well,’ I said, trying to sound positive, ‘when you’re interviewed tomorrow, try and stress how intolerable it is for gays in Uganda. And say it was simply an honest mistake, not applying for asylum when you first came over. Governments are supposed to grant asylum in cases like yours, after all. I wish you luck.’
He looked at me, a glimmer of hope in his dark eyes. ‘Yes, I will, Patrick. Thank you.’
Back at the office I telephoned my contact and friend James Patel at Asylum Matters, the law firm. ‘Well I’ve just been to see Mr Kamuntu. What do you think of his chances?’
James’s seen-it-all-before sigh was audible on the other end of the line. ‘Well, about ten-per-cent, I’d say.’
‘But the man’s been persecuted for his homosexuality, and there’s the real threat of imprisonment if he goes back, so isn’t there an obligation on the government to grant asylum?’
‘In theory, perhaps, Paddy. But you do need a pretty compelling case. And a provable one. Yes, the regime in Uganda is ghastly, we all agree, but they have rowed back on their homosexuality act. And they can’t lock up every gay person in the country – not that I’d want to live there if I were gay, I must admit. And it doesn’t help his case that he didn’t apply for asylum as soon as he came over here. And he didn’t apply for asylum in the first country he reached either, if he came overland. You’ve spoken to him now; did he say why that was?’
‘Well, he said he was doing some black-economy work first because he thought he’d need money for his application. And perhaps he flew here. Then this would have been the first sanctuary-giving country anyway.’
‘Mm. But you know as well as I, Paddy, that working but not applying for asylum makes him an illegal economic migrant. In fact, if the police knew that when he was arrested, which they did, that was why he would automatically have been taken to Harmondsworth and been fast-tracked. That’s what the government does, given the slightest excuse. It saves them a lot of expense and bother but it’s not so good from a human rights point of view.’
‘Yeah. The old “austerity” thing again. I suppose immigrants and asylum seekers are soft targets. Like benefits claimants.’
‘That’s right. Got it in one.’
‘He told me he’s being interviewed tomorrow, Jamie. That’s pretty indecent haste, isn’t it?’
‘No, not really. Well, it is, but it’s normal. He will already have had an initial screening interview, which is very superficial and usually conducted by some young kid with just a few weeks training. They’re not much better-qualified to make life-changing decisions than call centre people, quite honestly. But on the basis of that the Border Agency decides whether applicants should be fast-tracked or not. And then the interview proper happens the following day. It gives claimants very little time to brief council or collect evidence to support their claim of persecution. That way, the applicant has little chance of presenting a strong case.’
‘Mm; well he seems a pretty intelligent man. Perhaps he’ll be able to present himself convincingly.’
‘Well, maybe so, Paddy,’ James said, repeating doubtfully, ‘maybe.’
James told me that Ephraim’s application would probably be adjudicated the day after his interview. It all seemed shockingly hurried to me, but that was the point of the fast track procedure, my friend said. So I gave it three days before I visited Harmondsworth again. Ephraim looked utterly dejected as we sat down together.
I came straight to the point. ‘Have you had a decision?’
‘Yes. My application is declined.’
‘On what grounds? They’ve given grounds, presumably?’
‘They don’t believe me.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘They don’t believe me when I say I’m gay. They say I can’t prove it.’
‘But that’s ridiculous! How do they expect you to prove it?’
He sighed heavily. ‘I don’t know. I can’t show them what goes on inside my brain. That I just do not find women attractive, in that way.’
‘Well that’s absurd!’ I retorted. No, of course you can’t.’
‘They asked me very embarrassing questions about my – sexual feelings. How many men I had done it with. In great detail. Whether I was promiscuous.’ He shuddered. ‘It was horrible. And whether I had ever had sex with a woman.’
‘What did you say to that, about sexual partners and heterosexual sex – do you mind my asking?’
I glanced at the heavies guarding Ephraim. One was completely poker-faced but there was a trace of a leer playing around the lips of the other. They were probably really enjoying this. It would have been nice to have had privacy with Ephraim, I thought, irritated. But then I wasn’t actually a professional advisor of any sort; I was just an interfering newspaper hack, digging up uncomfortable truths, as far as the Border Agency was concerned. I’d certainly been treated very coldly and with great suspicion by the centre staff.
‘I told them the truth,’ he said sadly. ‘I did have one girlfriend, but I didn’t really feel attracted to her in that way. That was what made me realise that I was probably gay.’
‘And did you actually have sex with your girlfriend?’
‘Yes, a few times. Well, two or three, that’s all. But then we split up. I think she realised that I didn’t really like doing it.’
‘And you told the interviewer that you’d had sex with a woman?’
He bowed his head. ‘Yes. I thought I should be honest.’
‘Ah, Ephraim,’ I sighed. ‘You were being too honest, perhaps. You might have raised a doubt that you actually are gay. And what about sex with men. Have you had many partners?’
‘Just two. But only one regular boyfriend. We had to be very careful though, and pretend we were just ordinary friends. But still people found out and beat me. And then he got caught by the police and prosecuted, and sent to jail, as I said before.’
‘And did you tell the interviewer this? About your male partners and one of them being jailed?’
‘Yes, about the partners. But not about David going to jail.’
‘Why ever not? That would have possibly have strengthened your case. It might have suggested that you feared the same fate.’
He shook his head miserably. ‘I don’t know. I was feeling very uncomfortable being questioned like that. I just wanted to get it over with.’
‘And so what’s the situation now?’
‘I have two days to appeal to a tribunal, if I want to. And the person said that if I do, it should be heard within a week.’
‘Right. And are you going to?’
‘I don’t know. There will probably not be any legal representation for me, they say, and I cannot get evidence about David being put into jail without help to do it. And I don’t know what else I can say to convince them that I am gay.’
‘Well, you should appeal. Tell the tribunal that you were uncertain about your sexuality before but now you’re sure. And say you really do fear for your safety and liberty if you go back. Show them your mouth. And apologise for not applying before but tell them why you didn’t. And say you’re a trained engineer; you would be completely self-supporting if granted leave to remain. Everything you can think of.’
He looked at me and there was a faint glimmer of hope in his eyes. ‘Yes, Patrick. I will do that. Thank you for your advice.’
I stood up and he rose too. I offered my hand. ‘Well, the very best of luck to you, Ephraim.’
I wrote the greater part of my article although, obviously, Ephraim’s story was not yet complete. Ten days later, when I judged he would have had his appeal heard, I phoned James. Even if Ephraim had been unable to obtain legal aid, I assumed James, as his initial (and only) contact with inadequate British human rights law, would have been apprised of progress. It took a few hours for him to return my call. When he finally did, we exchanged a few sentences of small talk and then I came to the point. ‘Can you tell me what’s happened about Ephraim Kamuntu?’
James started with his usual world-weary sigh. ‘Not good news, I’m afraid. Your piece won’t have a happy ending. But then journalism seldom does, does it? That’s the nature of the beast, I suppose.’
‘So did he appeal then?’
‘Yes, he did. But without legal representation he stood a snowball in hell’s chance, really.’
‘So it failed?’
‘I’m afraid so. He’ll be winging his way back to Uganda before the end of October.’
‘Why did his appeal fail?’
My friend snorted. ‘It was only the illusion of an appeal. He didn’t get legal help, because they will only grant legal aid if there’s a good chance of the appeal succeeding. And there wasn’t that. The detained fast-track procedure usually results in failure of most applications, with only a slim chance of overturning on appeal. It’s applied precisely in those situations. That’s the point of it. Ergo, few applicants get legal aid representation. It saves the taxpayer money, don’t you know.’
‘Well fast-track applying sounds a bit of mockery then, in that case, if most applicants are doomed to fail. They might just as well say no in the first place.’
James chuckled humourlessly. ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head, Paddy. The bar for asylum seeking success is set a lot higher than people imagine when they whine about immigration. It’s all very political; being seen to be firm on bogus asylum seekers. And it’s basically a numbers name; keeping them low. The least-likely-to-succeed applicants are fast-tracked because then they don’t have to be found scarce local authority accommodation and given support – although it really is subsistence-level – out in the community, for what’s often many months. With fast-tracking, they can be deported back to whence they came within a couple of weeks.’
‘So why did they apply fast-track processing to poor old Ephraim in the first place then? He sounds like a legitimate enough candidate to me.’
‘Yes, possibly. But not legitimate enough. I didn’t really think he would be. Usually, applicants with a fairly strong claim get selected for normal processing at the initial screening; those without are rattled through on the fast-track and usually fail.’
‘You’ve not answered my question though, Jamie. Why did Ephraim get sent along the fast-track route anyway?’
‘Well yes, I have. His case was weak because for one thing he didn’t claim asylum straight away. He would have looked as though he was simply trying to hide below the radar, working the black economy. And secondly, he obviously didn’t come across as a genuine gay, so they probably reckoned he was just trying to pull a fast one.’
‘But how can they possibly know that! Jesus; just because he doesn’t conform to the usual camp gay stereotype!’
‘Yes, but remember: he was picked up by the police in the first place after he got into a fight, didn’t he? That sounds pretty macho on the face of it. And also, he admitted starting out as heterosexual. Big mistake on his part, if he was trying to claim sanctuary from persecution for being gay. Although perhaps he’s actually bisexual, for all we know. Well, anyway, perhaps if he keeps his head down when he returns to Uganda, he’ll be all right. Whatever; our friends at the Home Office think simplistically. They like nice straightforward un-nuanced definitions when they’re under orders to bear down on immigration numbers.’
James was beginning to irritate me a little with his worldly cynicism. He was supposed to be a human rights lawyer, for God’s sake. ‘Asylum seekers, Jamie. Asylum seekers!’I reminded him.
He laughed. ‘Yes, I know, Paddy. Don’t bite my head off. Anyway, now you’ve got a nice bit of investigative journalism for your paper; a juicy story of official heartlessness, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, Jamie,’ I said, not sharing his amusement. ‘So I have, sure.’