Diana Bretherick: “A Circle of Souls”

Portsmouth-based author Diana Bretherick was inspired to write this gripping short story after leading some ‘memory’ sessions at the Portsmouth Central Library drawing on the city’s archive collections.  Portsmouth proudly holds the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collection.

Clarence Pier Southsea c1900

A Circle of Souls by Diana Bretherick

They sat in a solemn semi-circle, hands touching lightly, their sweat mingling as anticipation grew. Who would visit from the spirit world that night? Everyone present, Violet noted, had their own part to play, from unquestioning believer to sceptic. The famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was there, like his detective character Sherlock Holmes, to discover the truth. Mr Powell whose lilting Welsh tones were currently wafting around the room, was the medium.

Earlier Violet and Michael, the Portland Hotel’s receptionist and trainee manager respectively, had spent some of the afternoon with Sir Arthur rearranging the furniture in his hotel room ready for the séance.

As they finished, the author smiled warmly and said to Violet:

‘I’ll need an observer. Do you have shorthand?’

‘Well, yes, I do, Sir, but…’ she had looked to Michael. He nodded.

‘That’s fine, Sir. I’ll find someone to cover at reception.’

So, despite her distrust of this new fad for Spiritualism, that evening she found herself watching as Conan Doyle tied the medium Mr Powell to his chair. She was then presented with a small megaphone circled with luminous paint to inspect. Violet had no idea what it was for, but nothing seemed amiss with it, and it was placed with great ceremony next to Mr Powell, whose lilting Welsh tones rang through the room as he enjoined them to form the circle.

The lights went down and the séance began. Violet could hear heavy breathing which seemed to be coming from Mr Powell. He spoke, but gone were the lilting Welsh tones. Instead, a deep, resonant voice announced itself as Black Hawk. He spoke quite cheerfully, Violet thought, notwithstanding the fact he was dead. He was also remarkably well versed in English for an American Indian and had a preoccupation with wigwams.

After he went quiet, the only sound was Mr Powell snoring. The megaphone slowly rose in the dark, the luminous paint glowing as it swooped and circled like an errant sparrow, before vanishing and then reappearing with flowers stuck up the end. At this, Violet had a sudden urge to laugh. Then Black Hawk was back. ‘There is someone here…’

A cold wind blew across Violet’s face. A mantel clock struck repetitively – ding, ding, ding – telling out the time as midnight. At the door she saw a figure. It was Michael. Curiosity had clearly got the better of him considering he wasn’t meant to be working that evening. He frowned as he cast his eyes around the room; then he saw Violet and smiled, making an odd gesture, his hands clasped together, as if he was imploring her to do something. But what she wondered? Help him? It was most peculiar. What was he thinking?

There was a crash and the lights were turned on. A decorative wooden pedestal was on its side in the centre of the semi-circle. Violet looked back to the door. Michael had gone.

‘How are your notes, Miss Pilgrim?’ Sir Arthur asked.

‘It was a little dark, so they may be no more than scribbles.’ She glanced down at her notebook. Written at the top of an otherwise blank page were the words ‘I am the only witness.’




Inspector Harry Fox was unmoved by death. After losing both his wife and son in the last three years he had little space left in his heart for emotion, only cold hard facts. Ironically his pain had made him an excellent detective. Searching for truth through the fog of deception was easier without feeling, whatever the crime.

Today the crime was murder. The dead man lay on his front in a pool of blood, arms placed out to the side in a macabre imitation of a crucifixion. The face was to one side, eyes wide open, cheeks inexplicably covered with grime. The corpse had been found by a kitchen porter in the early hours of the morning, lying near dustbins in an alley way at the back of the Portland Hotel. Harry’s sergeant Sam Tubbs knelt gingerly beside the body and began to search the pockets.

‘Nothing sir, ‘he said. ‘Looks like a robbery.’ Then he lifted something – a pocket watch that had disgorged its glass lens on the ground when the Sergeant flipped its cover. The hands had stopped at exactly midnight.

‘Broken as he fell, Sir? Maybe that’s why the robber didn’t take it.’

‘Maybe.’ But Harry was doubtful. The murder seemed too vicious for that. His suspicion was confirmed when the pathologist had the body turned. There were so many cuts on the torso it was hard to see where one ended and another began.

‘What next, sir? Interviews?’ Tubbs asked.

‘Yes, sergeant. Let’s get started.’



Violet sat in the café, staring out at the sea front. The wind was lively and every now and again the waves crashed against the promenade and seeped onto the pathway forcing people to retreat from the water – the ladies squealing and the gentlemen laughing and offering a hand to pull them clear.

Violet was not amused. Instead she was dazed by a conversation that she couldn’t explain.

‘Miss Pilgrim?’ A familiar Scots burr made her look up.

‘Sir Arthur, I…’

‘May I buy you another cup of tea? That one looks cold.’

‘Well I really should be going…’

‘Surely you have time to keep an old man company for a few moments.’

His blue eyes sparkled and she smiled. ‘I don’t believe you could ever be described as old.’

He ordered their drinks from a star struck waitress and sat down. ‘You left so quickly last night I didn’t get a chance to thank you.’

‘It was my pleasure.’

Sir Arthur laughed. ‘I’m not sure that pleasure quite describes it but I hope you found it interesting.’

Violet hesitated. ‘Sir Arthur…may I ask you something?’

‘Of course…ask away…unless it’s a request for more Holmes stories or to ask me where I get my ideas from.’ He peered at her with mock intensity. ‘No, you look far too intelligent for that.’

‘Do you think there really is an afterlife?’

He peered at her again, thoughtful. ‘Do you, Miss Pilgrim?’

‘I don’t know…well that is to say until last night I would have dismissed it but now…’

‘What decided you? Was it the voice of Black Hawk? He’s an interesting chap, isn’t he? Or was it the pedestal? It took two of us to put it back, you know.’

‘Neither although I did wonder how it was done…No – it was something I saw…or thought I saw but I couldn’t have done…not really…’

‘Miss Pilgrim I have seen many strange things in my life and have tried to judge them scientifically. True, there are frauds pretending to be mediums and preying on the misery of the bereaved…’


‘But Mr Powell is not one of them.’

‘You really believe in spirits?’

‘I do.’

Violet got to her feet and shook Sir Arthur’s hand for all she was worth. ‘Thank you…you don’t know what that means… thank you.’ She ran off jamming her hat back on her head and waving goodbye to a bemused Sir Arthur.



Harry glanced down at his watch. Had they been here for only three hours? It felt more like ten. They had found no weapons, no witnesses and no motive to kill Michael, the hotel’s trainee manager. It was frustrating but sometimes that was how it worked out. Not every crime could be solved quickly.

The door crashed open and a young woman rushed in.

‘I have to… talk to you…it’s important.’

She sank onto the seat he offered, taking a moment to catch her breath.

‘The young man who died…he was my colleague…more than that really.’

‘Were you…sweethearts?’

The girl blushed. ‘No, just friends.’ She held out her hand. ‘I’m Violet Pilgrim…Michael, the dead man…he was murdered.’

Harry took her hand and shook it limply. ‘That much we know.’

‘I wasn’t going to say anything,’ she blurted. ‘I thought you’d think I was foolish or mad or something but Sir Arthur persuaded me… or I should say something he said made me…’

‘Sir Arthur?’

‘Conan Doyle,’ Violet answered as if it was the most natural thing in the world to talk to a detective about the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

‘He wants me to tell you that he doesn’t know who did it or why.’

‘Well that makes two of us. But why should Sir Arthur know anything?’

‘No, not Sir Arthur…Michael…the dead man.’

Harry looked at this strange woman to get the measure of her. Was she playing some elaborate trick? She looked flustered but earnest. He detected no madness and no mockery.

Violet took a deep breath and took off her hat, running exasperated hands through her auburn curls. ‘Michael was murdered. I don’t know the name of his killer but whoever it was wore a gentleman’s cologne called Eau de Vetiver and expensive soft leather gloves.’

‘And how do you know that?’

‘I saw Michael.’


‘Last night. In the séance. He looked in.’

‘What time was that?’ Harry was suddenly alert.

‘Exactly midnight. I know because I heard the clock strike.’

Midnight. The precise time of the murder, judging by the victim’s pocket watch.

‘He spoke to you, did he, Miss?’ he asked trying to hide his disbelief.

‘No – well… yes. There wasn’t time in the séance. But he left me a note. And later he told me.’

Later, thought Harry. How could it have been later unless the pocket watch clue was wrong?

‘When did he tell you?’

‘This morning,’ Violet said, ‘in a café on the seafront.’

Harry sat back, irritated by this hysterical woman – another spiritist who thought she could speak to the dead.

‘I know. It doesn’t make sense to you – or to me for that matter. I didn’t believe in any of this until now! Michael asked me to tell you. The killer took his wallet but this wasn’t a robbery. Look at all those cuts.’

Harry stared at her. How did she know about the cuts? Nothing had been said to the Press.

‘He told me so himself,’ she said, as if she could read his mind. ‘I know you won’t believe me but I had to tell you and now I have.’



Harry thought a moment. Then, half-reluctantly he took out his notebook. Of course, he didn’t believe in this mumbo-jumbo. But at the same time, here was a material fact that as a detective he had to write down, collate and compare with the scant other facts.

Violet had given them something to go on in a case that appeared unsolvable. But explaining to his boss that the testimony of a dead man was all they had was not going to be easy.

And even more troubling, explaining to himself why he was willing to accept the testimony of a dead man in a world he knew was devoid of ghosts and spirits – well, that was even harder still.

Reading the South – a space for writers

Worthing seafront-James Holland“What is it that makes the area you live in ripe for writing about?  What is the history of the place? What are the towns and cities and surrounding landscapes like? What are the peculiarities of the people who live there?  Creating a sense of place in fiction or poetry is not just about describing your surroundings but about examining the history and quirks of a place and the people who inhabit it that make it unique.”Lizzie Enfield


Local author Lizzie Enfield beautifully sums up what Reading the South is all about.  She and many of the other authors involved in Reading the South in 2015-16 have given us in the Reading the South Writers’ Blog some wonderful insights into their attachment to the region and how it influences or even inspires their writing.

As Reading the South develops, we invite our writers and artists to continue using this space to share their thoughts and to inspire others to get creative!

Pieces of Me by Wayne McNeish

Glitter ballPieces of me are not left
Lying around to be found
By strangers:

They are guarded.

Pieces of me don’t exist on this page
Because I don’t feel to share
With strangers
The pieces of me that are shattered
And broken,

Clunking to fragments, awaiting that day
I can piece me back together again.

No piece left behind,
Even the splinters must be swept
And kept
Because they are part of me;

Pain born from experience
Re-invites growth,
I have a place on my shelves
For my pieces of hell;

Every piece of me counts,
Without any I’m incomplete;

Destined to search,
To be whole,
I need every piece of me.

Solitude by Andrew Baker

Climping-David Wise
Photo by David Wise

Solitude, the silence that our thoughts
Drift through;
The quietness that seems to allow our brain to evolve.

The drifting sea dampens the shores
Yet sharpens the wit with its coolness
And dark sea sound.

The two old men seek the solitude of the prayers
As they bow to the East;
Traditionally, they have to follow their belief.

The sea birds drift on in the air, swirling,
Diving; always scavenging for a morsel of food,
Always hungry.

The horizon blends with the sky, never ending,
But showing that earth goes on for ever,

The life of the sea.
The silence of peace,
The beauty of solitude.

Singleton by Sue Birch

Weald and Downland MuseumYes, I remember Singleton-
The museum because one morning
Of late September warmth I drove there
Unhurriedly. It was Sunday.
The latch clicked. Someone checked my ticket
To rough-hewn buildings, lime wash cherished.
Boarhunt, Hangleton and Bayleaf fair.
Wisp smoked smell that clung like taste
From dampened hearth of Yeoman’s farmhouse
As along the jagged path I strode
To pagan holly, ivy and yew berry red,
Old man’s beard, beech masts and hawthorn hips
And Woodman’s axe tolling pure and true.
But no horse chestnut loomed so tawny proud
As that which sunlight kissed with gold
And as I lingered a minute more
Close by a blackbird sang with praise
And silence leant my soul sweet peace
And dappled shade my heart did lift.

Extract from a story by Kate Leader

Brighton pier in winterHe gripped the pier railings and stared into the sea. The cold wind chilled him through, but he did not move. It was still dark, on this, the first day of the year. Seagulls screamed and the sea rushed and sucked at the pebbled shore. The waves crested white. Under the pier the water crashed and thundered.
Would she have been found by now?
He saw her under the lights of the dance floor of The Connaught Hotel. So young. Was that her mother at her side? A portly but pretty faced matron in a shiny grey low necked, three quarter length sleeved, evening dress. Her daughter the delicate girl with the blue gown and pale skin? He thought he had never seen such fresh beauty. The whole room with its posies of pink and white and purple party dresses swirled around as he gazed at her. He took courage. He would ask her to dance. Maybe she would say yes.

Juliet West: “Celebrations”

Library booksWorthing library was bright with balloons when I arrived for the final Reading the South creative writing workshop. It was the library’s 40th birthday, and there’d been celebrations throughout the day as staff and library users shared cake and memories. I would have been almost five years old when the building first opened, and I can well remember my excitement when I discovered the red bean bags dotted around the children’s section. A book and a bean bag – bliss!

Forty years on, I felt a different sense of anticipation as I walked into the library foyer. I was leading an extra workshop which had been organised in response to the great demand for Reading the South creative writing sessions. I wondered what kind of group this would be? How would they respond to the extracts and exercises I’d prepared? Age-wise we turned out to be a mixed bunch, from young students to retirees. Many were from Worthing, others had relocated to Sussex quite recently. Previous sessions had included writers at different levels (including some with MAs and published work on their CVs), however this group all described themselves as complete beginners. Is it wrong that the phrase ‘fresh meat’ flashed into my mind? Perhaps ‘blank slates’ would be more appropriate…

During this session, we focused on first person narrative as a way of developing character, looking at extracts from John Fowles (The Collector), Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea) and Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall). I was impressed once again by the imaginative and original responses to the writing exercises, with some memorable Sussex characters and settings which participants will soon be sharing on this website. There was a lot of laughter during this session, as well as interesting discussion around the subject of character, for example how characters can – and arguably should – drive plot, rather than vice versa.

I might not have been clutching a balloon as I left the library that night, but my mood was definitely celebratory. Reading the South has been such an enjoyable and inspirational experience for me and, I hope, the many readers and writers who’ve attended the various workshops, reading groups and events. I’d like to thank Jackie, Lyndsey and Julie for organising the Worthing sessions – and special thanks also to my workshop groups for sharing their enthusiasm and their creativity.

Juliet WestJuliet West


My Pen Doesn’t Write by Pauline Suett Barbieri

pen-and-paperMy pen doesn’t write, it’s been acting like that small brat on the number 11 bus last night. It’s been dashing backwards and forwards, won’t stop until we hit a curb, then it backs up, rubs up the blond on the back seat the wrong way. On paper, it keeps turning over the page to start afresh and I’ve told it before, there’s no point in jumping ahead and getting off, the next one is not due along for another half hour or so. It clings to the pole, with its clammy hands, starts pressing the red bell. The driver and me are getting all hot and bothered. The driver stops, starts swearing, won’t move until we get off.

Now it looks as though we are heading for Eastbourne Library. The corner is dark but the lights are on. It goes ahead, opens the door for me (how can that be? why is it now so well behaved?) It goes up the stairs to the conference room, which has a notice on the door ‘Do not disturb’. It opens the door, I follow it in, feeling very nervous. It points to an empty seat, I sit down, it comes over, takes my hand and smiles….