I was having coffee with a friend yesterday afternoon in the lounge at the Runnymede Hotel, by the River Thames at Egham. It reminded me that in this very same room on Friday 26th March, 2010, I had given birth.
I’d gone there to meet my writing buddy. It was a few weeks after she and I had participated in our first Arvon Foundation writing course. We’d become friends and had begun to motivate one another to realise our shared ambition to write fiction. We decided to do a writing exercise, just for fun. You might think budding writers have a strange concept of fun – and you’d be right.
The lounge was crowded. Given its convenient location close to the M25, the Runnymede is always packed with earnest looking businesspeople engaging in earnest meetings or enduring even more earnest job interviews. As it was Friday there was a sprinkling of casually dressed early/long weekenders too and a few tables of smartly attired Ladies Who Lunch.
We decided for our exercise, to pick a person in the lounge and, armed with nothing more than the physical image and our imaginations, create a character for our respective novels. I should add neither of us had much more than 5,000 words under our belt at that point – barely more than an essay.
My friend took as her subject a youthful looking man wearing a friendship bracelet. But he was a keeper. Today, 3½ years later, he has a modest role – even a line or two of dialogue – in her story. I chose a man in his mid-fifties with thinning hair. His appearance was at odds with the sea of Hugo Boss and Paul Smith that surrounded him, and he looked uncomfortable as he sat alone in a room that hummed with animated conversation.
Henry entered the world after a very short labour – I think we allowed ourselves between 5 and 10 minutes for the exercise. I took the image and wrote a scene where, having arrived on holiday (that’s the holiday, where my story takes place), he emerges uncertainly on the first morning, into the glare of the sunlight and the scrutiny of his fellow guests. From those few lines – which have been edited but remain almost as they were first written – he’s a major character now. He’s evolved into a bit of a misfit and there is much about him that makes me squirm, but as he’s matured into his part and exerted his influence on the plot, my affection for him has grown.
Here’s the short piece I wrote back in March 2010, as it appears now in Singled Out. It isn’t the first time the reader meets Henry, but it was the first time that I met him:
Henry appeared, wearing a crumpled short-sleeved shirt. Hairless milk-white legs poked out beneath its hem and drew the eye reluctantly down to feet clad in scuffed sandals and, in the long tradition of the English by the sea, a pair of tired beige socks. Flabby buttocks had been squashed into a pair of Speedos and a frizz of grey hair peeked out from under a sunhat. He looked nervously around as he hovered by the edge of the pool then scrutinised the sky. Eventually he settled on the far side, away from James and Brenda and most of the others. She watched as he clattered a lounger then a parasol across the concrete to his desired spot before spreading a frayed bath towel to partially cover the bed. He extracted a bottle from his beach bag and slathered the contents on to his arms and legs. Finally he smeared a greasy sheen on to his face. He adjusted himself inside his Speedos, then squatted awkwardly on the edge of the lounger and rummaged in his bag, bringing out a dog-eared paperback…