Short – but not so sweet

fountain-pen-447575_1280I’ve been thinking lately about writing a little fiction again. Those who knew my blog before it went all healthy, diety and weight-lossy back in January, will know that its roots lie in my passion for writing.  I began the blog (which was originally titled A Writer’s Notepad) whilst I was in the process of penning my first (and so far only) novel, Singled Out.

With Singled Out published and selling on Amazon, I fully expected my attention to turn to Novel Number Two.  I went away on a writing retreat and came home with a plot, characters and a full story outline.  I began writing, and made it all the way to… Chapter 5. They’re very short chapters, so that’s about nowhere, in terms of the overall story.

I ran out of steam for one reason: I had a growing feeling – not possible to ignore – that I should be spending less time at my desk, and more time getting active. I’ve made getting healthy and fit and losing my excess weight the absolute priority for 2016, and this mission-critical objective does not sit well (no pun intended) with spending evenings and weekends sat on my bum writing my novel – that being in addition to the five days a week that I spend sat on my bum writing scintillating copy for my clients.  So m’lud, the writing has been taking a back… umm.. seat.

But someone reminded me the other day of something I’d all but forgotten.  Before I took the arguably insane decision to attempt to write a whole actual novel, I’d written a few short stories.  They were for practise, to flex my writerly muscles after attending a couple of How To Write courses.  I’m not sure they’re all that good, but I posted them to the blog and they garnered a little feedback. Once I tore into my novel, it took over, and I never looked back to those short stories.

Now I’m wondering if I might try out one or two ideas, just to have a little fun with fiction again, but in small bites.  I know short stories aren’t just novels, shortened; they’re a different kind of animal altogether. But I’m wondering whether it might simply be fun to dip into my Ideas notepad and just… well… you know… write something… short.

2016-02-19 09.51.08 copyI’ll probably try and do it standing up though – now that I’ve figured out how to create a moderately stable apology for a standing desk (using my printer paper drawers, Singled Out marketing material, old files and an empty box, since you ask). It will at least keep the blood circulating through my lower limbs.

Whilst I dither about what to write, I thought I’d point newer readers to one or two of those original short stories, buried deep within the last 3 years’ blog posts. Enjoy, if you will.

Having trawled back through these three pieces, I’m struck that they seem to share a mood – and a theme: the disillusioned single woman.  Ouch.

But whilst fiction is – wholly and totally – fiction, I can admit to having become something of an expert on that particular theme over the years. I’m firmly in write what you know territory there.  So  I might try something else along the same lines.

Or would that be just too cynical?

Show Not Tell

2013-12-04 11.56.49Which version would grab your attention?

This:

As she entered the restaurant he was surprised to see her.  He felt guilty that he’d been caught on a date with another woman, especially one he didn’t fancy.  He feared his marriage could be over.

Or this:

As she entered the restaurant, pain prickled behind his eyes like a thousand tiny needles. What was she doing here? She was supposed to be miles away, tied up in meetings, entertaining clients; not sweeping, refined and elegant, through the sort of scruffy bistro they would never visit together,  to catch him with his pants down.  Or as good as. 

As the wrecking ball of his betrayal surged towards him, the woman across the table – what was her name? – yabbered on and on like a drumming bunny, blistering his ears.  He could see the chewed food between her teeth as she talked and her knife and fork screeched against the cheap crockery like fingernails on a chalkboard.  She wasn’t pretty or chic.  There was no subtlety in the satin bow that peeked out between grotesquely inflated breasts, nor the scrape of her grimy toes probing and poking at his ankles beneath the table.  He realised he neither wanted nor needed the sex that was palpably on offer.

He pleaded with the napkin on his lap for inspiration; he needed a credible explanation.  What possible reason could he have for being seated at a table dressed with a paper sheet and a dribbling candle in a bottle, with a woman whose name he couldn’t even recall?  All the while, his wife, his beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated wife, glided towards them, her eyes wide, lips taut, the hint of blood flaming across her décolletage. 

His heart rattled beneath his breastbone. This time there was no wriggling out of it.  The demise of his marriage was knocking on the door.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass” Anton Chekhov

Small Beginnings

My coffeeI 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…

The Play – a short story

IMG_0435Short stories are a good way to try different ideas and challenges. This one begun life as a writing exercise.  I was given a random photograph and told to write for 15 minutes without stopping, using the photograph as inspiration.  The picture was of a man – I thought he looked hot, and that’s where I began.  I got 3 rough paragraphs out in the 15 minutes and they languished in my notebook for 2 years. Recently I gave them room to grow.  This piece was the result. Not so much a story, more a vignette – a moment in time.

The lift hums through 24 floors before jolting to a halt, the words ‘Skyline Bar’ illuminating above her head.  As the doors part she can see him alone, silhouetted against the panoramic evening skyline, a blue-orange urban canvas pinpricked with light.  He’s perched astride a bar stool, one foot on the floor, one elbow resting on the bar, committed neither to sitting nor standing; a studied informality.  She watches him watching the room.  He scans from left to right, across clusters of low sofas where couples and small groups generate a babble of conversation against a backdrop of ambient electronica.

He wears an air of casual detachment like a jacket slung over one shoulder; there but not there, as if he’s somehow separate, above his surroundings.  This habitual pose doesn’t even hint at his paranoia. She knows that despite his circumstances, or because of them, he’s desperate to be seen as cool – a sophisticated urbanite – desperate to be noticed, desperate for roomfuls of strangers to be in awe of him, to wonder who he might be.

They always wonder, as he manages his image perfectly and looks the part.  He is after all a devastatingly handsome man, the wrong side of forty but looking ten years younger.  His shaven head, intense, dark eyes and subtle superiority of posture –  like a prince or a president –  radiate a tantalising cocktail of purity and danger; one which suggests he could drive a woman to heights of ecstasy or slice a blade silently through her neck, whichever might be… expedient.

He’s immaculately attired too, his wardrobe acquired through the biddable generosity of a succession of liaisons.  His is a muted designer style – Paul Smith, Gucci, Hugo Boss, nothing too obvious, never overdone – targeted to arouse the interest of those who would identify with his apparent restrained affluence.  Today he wears black and graphite, natural fabrics; impeccably casual.  As he scans the room his thumb strokes the side of a cut-glass tumbler, half-empty, ice melting.  She’s on time but he’s started without her as he always does. This would be his third at least.

She steps into the room and moves towards him.  He glances in her direction, not seeing her at first.  He stares right through her for a moment and she is snared by his cold, dead eyes.  It’s the look she notices more often than any other these days, now her significance to him is on the wane.

He’s a player, and he’s good. He’s accomplished at getting people to do what he wants and hand over what he needs.  Over the months he’s spent her money and milked her for contacts and connections.  Only now will she admit she knew from the start she was being manipulated, deceived.  It makes her feel pathetic to own up to it, but she accepted his stories because she needed to see herself as the kind, helpful one; the woman prepared to step up to the plate, as he would always put it, to support a friend in need.  And she needed him too.  Like an addict, she craved those moments where he delivered his expressions of gratitude and appreciation. She yearned for what she imagined might follow – his respect and maybe even his love.  It took too long for her to realise he had no comprehension of the word love and not the faintest interest in treating her with respect.  He’d long ago worked out how to manufacture emotions like interest, infatuation and even desire.  He’d accurately identified her needs and engineered a fantasy environment in which he seemed to fulfil them in return for her compliance.  Why would anyone respect a woman foolish enough to be taken in by such fakery?

He repaid unspecified debts and transacted questionable deals with her money, and he drew her friends and associates into worthless ventures. They were all houses made of straw and soon wind tugged at their frames and billowed around their empty rooms.  Claims of spectacular returns dissolved, replaced by hushed conversations with hostile callers, lips taut, fists balled with aggression. As the illusion of his life crumbled, out of sight of the world he sought to impress, alcohol and cocaine became his constant companions.

Only now is she prepared to acknowledge the toxic dynamic of their relationship, admitting – but still only to herself – that all is not as she paints it to the world.  Before her funds are exhausted and her friends all turn away from her, she knows she must begin to rebuff his ceaseless manipulations.  But with that, her usefulness will expire and he will be gone, which is the reason she’s postponed the moment, time and again.

Her early eagerness to oblige him has already evaporated into a parched ‘please let this be the last time’ reluctance. No doubt familiar with the signs of time running out, she imagines he is readying to move on.  She’s already an embarrassment to him, a distasteful reminder of his failures, a used-up patsy, standing between him and his next mark; someone else with assets he wants, who can be more easily persuaded to give them up.

But at this moment he still needs her.  There’s something he must obtain from her, she just doesn’t know what it is. It must be big, she thinks, because he’s been taking his time building up to it.  She tells herself whatever it is, she will refuse.  This will be the beginning of the end.  She’ll let him down as gently as she can and when it happens he’ll cut her loose and she will have to bear the pain.  She chides herself that she should have pushed him away long before. But she held on, savouring the heady rush of his presence for one more day, and another, weeks trading into months; her hope that he would change, that somehow her love could change him, proving wholly futile.

He spots her by the lift.  As if a switch has been flicked, he lights up.  His head tilts to one side and an unbearably sexual smile spreads across his face as he stands to welcome her.  Too late, she tells herself.  There were days when that look would have made her ache for him, be willing to do anything to please him, but no longer.

He summons the bartender and orders her favourite cocktail.  For a moment, she lets herself feel delight that he remembers what she likes to drink, although she knows it’s all part of the play for him.  He still occasionally makes the effort, it all works towards wringing one more big ask out of her.  It goes on the tab though – the tab which she will later pay, because he will find himself called hastily away on some unavoidable premise.  He pulls an empty bar stool towards him and motions her to sit.

‘Hi, sweetheart,’ he says. The smile his mouth forms is already disconnected from the rest of his features.

And then it begins.

‘This is hard for me, you know this.  But you’ve always been so good to me. I’ve never known anyone like you before; you’re such a loyal friend and such a wonderful person.’

She’s supposed to feel compassion toward him for his being in this painful, difficult situation, whatever it is.  She’s supposed to understand that under normal circumstances, he would never dream of calling on her for help, but that this one time it is unavoidable and he has nobody else to turn to.  She can’t bring herself to ask, what about his family; has he no other friends? She knows it will make him angry and he’ll struggle to retain his composure.  Then he’ll withdraw and sulk until she apologises for having been so insensitive. That’s how it always plays out when she asks a difficult question.  She never has found out why neither his family nor any other friends – friends she has never met – are ever able or willing to help him.

He wants money.  Again.  She hardly listens to the reason. It’s something about an overdue payment and some people she wouldn’t want to know, who’ll be coming for him in some unspecified way. It’s only ten thousand, and he only needs it for two weeks and after that he’ll be able to return it; so she can’t possibly refuse him, can she?  She’ll get it all back, after all, for he’ll be as good as his word.  She knows, doesn’t she? That he wouldn’t be asking her unless he absolutely had to.  But she’s proved herself to him so many times before; he knows she won’t let him down this time, especially as it is so vital to alleviating his current temporarily compromised scenario. Even his choice of words is disconnected from reality.

He’s right though; she has never let him down. It is he who has failed to keep his promises too many times to bear recall.  On so many occasions he’s leaned on her for small and then ever larger sums of money, for deals and ventures, for store credit, for guarantees on loans, for rent he’s fallen behind on, for letters of recommendation intended to enhance his credentials.  He’s working hard, he claims – for both of them, apparently – to break into a world where certain things about you count, where image is all and who you know and how much cash you can flash is more important than anything else. That he has no money of his own and doesn’t know anyone of consequence, and seeks to establish his credibility through her is something she’s only questioned in her own mind. She’s never asked why he doesn’t get a job like other people. She knows he has too much pride to ever be so ordinary.  Yet he isn’t too proud to pry another slice of her modest investments from her fingers.

Right up until that moment she’s been convinced she will refuse him. She’s even prepared herself for the backlash – the show of uncomprehending hurt, the far more genuine anger she feels certain will follow. She’s ready for this to be the last time she’ll see him.  Right up until that moment.

But he plays her back from the brink, as he’s done so many times before; with his words and with the intensity of his gaze, and with his exquisite, surreal beauty.  She allows herself to be drawn in by his show of self-contained assurance and his pretence of honour and love. When he tells her there’s nobody else in the world who knows him like she does, and how bright, intelligent and fascinating she is, she believes and accepts it all.  When he draws her close and whispers how he never wants to feel that he can’t enjoy being with her, she understands completely that he’s saying if she doesn’t capitulate, she will not see him again.  She is prepared for it.

But when it comes to the moment, she can’t go through with it. She stares rejection and loneliness in the face and looks away.  She fears this man and what he’s doing to her, yet what she fears more is the absence of him.

He knows all of this.  He knows he can make her give him what he needs.  It won’t be a surprise to him when she pulls a phone from her bag and goes online to her bank.  She notices her head pounds and her fingers shake as she presses the required digits one by one until it is done.  When he rests his hand on hers and delivers a look of such sincerity and gratitude through his triumphant, dead eyes, she almost believes him. And for the briefest moment she lets herself feel the soaring joy of being appreciated and valued; the glow that comes from having committed an act of kindness, even though it isn’t kindness but desperation that fuels her surrender.

As he downs his glass and heads for the lift and his own bank on the corner of the street, and from there to who knows where, he promises he will call and she knows he will not – at least, not until the next time. And as the lift doors glide together her heart shrivels and the pain of emptiness and foolishness returns, washing like a wave through her body.

(c) Julie Lawford 2013

On Scrumping

appleAnother 15-minute writing practice, tidied up here and there.  The instruction was ‘Write about Picking Fruit’.  Food features significantly in my first novel (editing underway), and I welcome any excuse to get the digestive juices flowing.

Today there’s a housing estate where the orchard used to grow at the end of her garden; tidy little boxes and strips of grey tarmac replacing gnarly apple trees and knee-high grass. She would always call it the new estate, thought it was no longer new, being at least 40 years established. Most locals couldn’t stretch their minds back far enough to recall the orchard, nor the farm to which it was welded.  But she would never forget.

As a child she would be coaxed into the daylight hours by a dawn chorus of a thousand birds nesting and resting in the orchard. Playing in the garden, she would gaze over the fence to where the boughs of a hundred trees bent tantalisingly low, their plump fruit beyond the grasp of small hands. She’d watch them growing all through the spring and summer, from the moment she could first distinguish the little bumps, like marbles, that appeared as the blossom fell. Those bumps would swell, fed by the sun and the rain, until they were so big that if she could only reach them, one fruit alone would fill and even overflow her outstretched hands.

She wished herself into the middle of the orchard, skipping through the grass, stroking the peeling trunks, standing on tiptoes to smell the acidic sweetness of the nearly ripened fruit. She wished herself to a spot where she couldn’t see a building in any direction, only trees, their crinkled branches teased by the breeze, leaves flittering the sunlight. And everywhere, the swollen red-green blush of apples, brimming with life and goodness.

One day her father played with her in the garden. He noticed her yearning glances towards the orchard. ‘How’d you fancy popping over the fence to snaffle us a few?’ he said. Shocked, she examined his features to see if he was joking, but there was mischief in his eyes. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘I’ll lift you over the fence. But you’ll have to be quick about it – you don’t want to get caught!’

Her little heart fluttered like a trapped bird as her father grasped her waist and flew her up in the air and over the fence. She ran into the orchard, thrilled to feel the tall grasses as they tickled her bare legs. It was just as she’d wished it – the apples hung so low she could reach dozens of them, so many it was hard to choose. She plucked two from a single tree and with one in each hand, ran back to the fence and handed them across to her father. ‘Go on,’ he encouraged, ‘just a couple more – we mustn’t be greedy.’ So she ran back to another tree and harvested two more fruits. She carried them high and proud and skipped back to the fence, where he lifted her back into the garden. Together they rinsed their haul under water from the garden hose. And when she took her first bite from the first apple she’d ever picked for herself straight from the tree, its juice, ripe and earthy, sweet and sharp, flooded her mouth and overran in a sticky drizzle down her chin.

Vive l’escargot

Exc1One of those morning writing practice prompts recently brought a particular food-related experience to mind (the topic was Eating Out).  I’ve written a lot of food into my first novel, so I embraced this exercise.  What came out as I kept my pen moving was not fiction, but a happy childhood memory:

I was accustomed as a child to eating out in restaurants for Sunday lunch – we did this perhaps two weeks out of four.  This was more than a little unusual in 1960’s and 70’s Britain.  But my parents had what were then considered to be exotic tastes, for garlic, herbs and spices, wines and dishes with names nobody could pronounce – all alien to the typical suburban dining table.

I remember the delights of Luigis, Trattoria Valeria, La Primavera and other regular haunts in North and West London, in the days when prawn cocktail and minestrone soup were the height of sophistication; when pollo sorpresa (or chicken kiev as we know it today), wasn’t something you could bring home from the supermarket in a plastic dish; when grissini sticks were a novelty.

A favourite of mine, and something you were guaranteed never to get at home – even in a home as gastronomically adventurous as ours – was l’escargots a l’ail, yes, snails in garlic butter.  I loved those half-dozen gummy grey blobs concealed within their shells and nesting in their dimpled tin dish.  I became adept at handling the special toolkit that arrived in place of a knife and fork; the intriguing tongs you had to squeeze to open in order to clutch the shell, allowing you to hook out its inhabitant with the tiny two-pronged pick.  I would empty every dribble of melted garlic butter from the shell into a puddle on the dish, then sweep my impaled snail round and around, harvesting as much of the glossy dressing on to my prize as I could.  Then the trick was to get it to my mouth before warm butter drizzled on to my Sunday best, then chew it hard, like a lump of bubble gum, until it surrendered.  Five more unctuous mouthfuls followed the first; then there was the basket on the table, crammed with chunks of crusty French bread to scrape and dip and mop with, until every last dribble of melted garlic butter had been soaked up.

My father, who is no longer alive, is central to my memories of Sunday lunches out. His craving for a mighty Chateauneuf du Pape, when Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and Black Tower were the order of the day; his delight in anything – anything at all – that came laced with garlic; his all-consuming sweet-tooth; the way he would engage with the proprietors who, when they realised his passion for their food, would produce special this, and extra that, and little treats, and even occasionally not charge for the flaming zambucas or brandies that always rounded off the feast (for the adults, only for the adults).  And their generosity was rewarded, for we would always come again, on another Sunday.

It’s what was whispered about…

A few days ago I blogged about my newly established habit – a 15-minute daily writing practice inspired by the topics suggested in ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ by Judy Reeves.  Every now and again something seems to emerge from this practice – something worth thinking about, maybe even working with.

Two days ago, the topic was: It’s what was whispered about.  I wrote for 15 minutes as Judy recommends, chasing the picture that entered my head in the first moment.  Unusually, my thoughts circled that picture on and off throughout the day.  Yesterday I went back and played with those 450 words – for an hour or so, no more.  What came out of that playtime is either nothing much, or it’s a vignette, done and finished; or it’s the outline, or the germ of a short story.  I’m not sure what.  But since my last post seems to have found its way to a bigger audience than I’m used to on this blog, I thought it might be fun to share it and find out what you think:

She hears them whispering before she reaches the kitchen.  The three of them, witches around a cauldron.  It isn’t the usual water-cooler chit-chat about last night’s Eastenders or who’s on Jonathan Ross this weekend.  Their voices are hushed and conspiratorial.  When she walks in on them, they skitter away like cockroaches.  One busies herself over a part-boiled kettle, another, the contents of a tea caddy; the third chases a stray smear of butter round a worktop.  They make their drinks in silence then they ease past her and hurry back to their desks, heads down, eyes averted.

So they know.

She’s become the object of sniggering gossip shared in snatched moments in the kitchen, the toilets, the smoking area; places where bad news is nurtured and secret goings-on mercilessly dissected and speculated upon.  She isn’t a co-conspirator in this conversation; she’s its subject.

These older, world-weary women – they’ve seen it all before, as they never tire of telling anyone who’ll listen.  They’re all so sure of themselves, always ready with an I-told-you-so and never a moment’s hesitation before they come out with it.  It would never happen to them, would it?

Or, perhaps it would.  Perhaps it had.

They’d all been young once, full of hope and optimism and as eager as she to receive a kind word or a compliment from a man of power and authority.  Had their hearts almost burst with excitement when the first move was made on them?  When that first touch had come, the placing of a hand on an arm, for just a few moments too long to be purely professional – had they become dizzy with the fear and the thrill of possibility?  When they noticed that first wistful gaze across the office, that first surreptitious wink, had they begged their eyes not to deceive them?  Had they stood, frozen to the spot in a crowded lift, certain that the sweet prickling of flesh on flesh wasn’t accidental?  What had they felt, when that first invitation came, when they’d been swept away (I’ll pick you up down the road) to a cosy lunch in an anonymous country hotel, miles away?  Had their empty existences suddenly overflowed with exquisite anticipation?

Or had they always been too street-wise, too savvy to be taken in by an old dog and his even older tricks?

Now he walks past her without so much as a glance, his eyes on everything but her, scanning the room for another hopeful child-woman with which to amuse himself for a few weeks.

She realises, now, what a casual crime was perpetrated in those few brief encounters.  She acknowledges the theft of her innocence, the ram-raid on her trust.  She knows, now, that those few cosy lunches were never about how pretty and fascinating she was, or how delightful her conversation.  She guessed it the first time he suggested they have lunch sent up to a bedroom, so they could enjoy it in private.  And she knew for certain the day he decided they should skip the pointless preamble of eating a meal altogether (you can grab sandwich from the canteen, can’t you?).  She had let herself be taken to a bedroom, and taken to a sordid slice of time where innocence withers away.  And later, while she waited patiently as he showered off the scent of her perfume and the odour of sex, the fragile ingénue died and the world-weary woman was born.