Writing exercise #23 –Journal play

A fragment, this one. I do have a few thoughts about where it could go, but anyway, you get the idea. And at least nobody dies! (yet)


“So I hope you all brought your journals with you”, said Leader Len. “Because this week we’re going to do a journal play.”

His name wasn’t really Len, but he was the leader of their writing circle and she never remembered people’s names anyway, so she’d given all of the group members onomatopoeic names that describe their main characteristics.

“A journal play?” asked Suspicious Sheila.

“Yes. We’ll go around the group and you each read a line from your journal that fits – or doesn’t fit, that’s sometimes even funnier! – with the line before it. You’ve got five minutes to pick out some suitable lines and then 20 seconds a go to find a line you like, and no cheating! Anyone can challenge at any time if they think you’ve made your line up.”

‘I thought the whole point of the creative writing circle was to be crea… oh, sod it’, she thought as they all flipped through their diaries and underlined potential lines. Len was getting more and more peculiar every week – last week’s assignment title had been “Liver and lights”, for God’s sake – so there was no point arguing.

“OK, so you start”, said Len, pointing at Larry. She stifled a groan.

“That girl in the chip shop doesn’t half fancy me”, read Lecherous Larry with a repulsively oily smirk. Fortunately Brusque Brian was sitting to Larry’s immediate left.

“I really think she must need her eyes testing”, he said triumphantly, leaning over to Larry and pointing to a page of his diary.

“Tonight I went to the pub”, droned Dreary Dave. “Three pints of bitter, a packet of cheese and onion crisps and three games of darts. 2-1.”

“I really must talk to Mrs Stevens at number 21 about her dustbins”, said Haughty Hilda. “I’m sure she’s mixing her plastics with her biodegradables.” Flirty Fiona leant towards Len, giving him a better view down her cleavage. “Spent far too much in the La Perla shop in Maidstone”, she breathed. “Now all I need is a nice man to try it all out on.” Judging by Len’s uncomprehending expression, he’d never heard of La Perla, but Bryan snorted and Larry turned rather red.

Writing exercise #22 – Hands up

“Hands up!” I shouted, and the people in the room all froze. Then, a second later, they all burst into laughter, and looking down I realised that the black, vicious-looking object I was holding in my two clasped hands wasn’t in fact a Tariga pistol – or even a good old-fashioned Uzi or anything useful like that. Instead it was a crow. Again.

The bird cocked its head, did an eye movement that on a human would be both sarcastic and impossible, and gave me a sharp stabbing blow with its greyish beak.

“Ow”, I said, and dropped it. Well, I let go but it didn’t drop to the ground. Instead it soared over the ducking heads of the still amused spectators and took up a position on the gilded head of a cherub amongst the ornate marble of the Embassy’s entrance hall.

As for me, the security guards either side of the door weren’t slow to explain – demonstrating excellent non-verbal skills, I thought, although admittedly I was probably somewhat biased – that my attempting to hold up the Swiss Embassy, whether or not armed with a crow, was not being seen as a joke.

They really don’t have any sense of humour, you know – security guards, that is, not the Swiss.

So anyway, I was marched fairly unceremoniously through a side door and into the bowels of the building, then deposited in a small windowless room with two hard chairs and a grubby grey metal table – all clamped to the floor, I couldn’t help noticing – and left there, presumably to reflect upon my sins. Which, admittedly, were many.

I took advantage of the peace and quiet, climbed up onto the table and went to sleep.

Some time later, I was woken by the door opening to admit a tall, lean man with a shaved head and wearing an expensive suit. He looked rather like the more skilful kind of Italian footballer shortly after he’s become a manager for the first time. I half expected him to start talking about how “the lads all played well”, but sadly he was more interested in my little corvid jape.

Sadly for him, that was. Because a croak in the implant in my inner ear let me know that the entrance hall was about to be filled with the most hideous smelling gas, and as the sirens went off and the man turned his head to the door, I tried out my line again.

“Hands up!” I said, making him look back at me instantly, a half smile on his lips. Only this time I really was pointing a Tariga pistol at him.

Writing exercise #21 – Mapping her moves

He’d been mapping her moves for days. Just like all the other bitches, she was so fucking predictable.

She always left her brownstone at 8:15 am. She always walked three blocks to the subway in eight minutes, plus or minus one minute. She always got the second or third subway carriage, because they stopped where she always came to rest on the platform, head buried in her smartphone, earbuds in, totally unaware except of potential threats to her purse.

He grinned as he flipped through his notes. Money wasn’t the prize he was after.

Then she always got off the subway at the same station, walked up the same stairs leading to the street and stopped on the corner to get a soy caramel latte to go from the same coffee shop. Then, still immersed in whatever her headphones were feeding her, she’d walk a further four blocks (eleven minutes, plus or minus one) to her office building, never sipping from her coffee mug with “Magen” written on it in sharpie until she was half way there.

Once she’d disappeared into her building he knew she’d be there for the day. To begin with he’d hung around at lunchtimes, trying to pick up her trail again, but after a week or so he’d realised that she probably didn’t often – if ever – leave the building to lunch. This conclusion was confirmed first by a quick bit of research (he’d rung the building’s management company pretending to be from city’s health department and asked for the contact details of the catering manager), and then, with a big stroke of luck by overhearing two of the woman’s colleagues commenting on her eating habits as they left the building.

“That Magen who works at your office. Does she never stop working?”

“She does, just not for long. She eats a sandwich at her desk so she can go home a bit earlier. We’re on flexitime and the boss doesn’t mind if we do that.”

“Well why don’t you, then? You’d get home at least half an hour earlier, have more time with Roy and the kids… Oh right.”

“Yeah, it’s because I’d have more time with Roy and the kids.”

So after that he hadn’t bothered waiting for her in the daytime during the week. But he was there again every day at 4.30 pm when she emerged from the building and did the whole route in reverse.

Occasionally she stopped off somewhere on the way home. Sometimes she went out again to the gym or to meet friends. But pretty often the only other time she left the house after returning from work was to go for a walk. To the park. On her own. The stupid bitch was just asking for it.

So tonight he was sitting in his van, right by one of the park entrances. He wore a pair of Parks Maintenance Unit overalls and a baseball cap pulled low over his face. And his van had the right Parks vehicle paint job. It had taken him to a while to get that right, but it had been worth it. Nobody would look twice at either him or his van now.

Just as he looked at his watch again, she appeared in his rear view mirror. He slipped quickly out of the driver’s seat and had his hand over the woman’s mouth and her dragged through the van’s side door and into the soundproof interior before she could even begin to think about drawing breath to scream. He held her limp body closely against him, inhaling her scent. He was going to get to know how she smelled real well real soon.

And then suddenly, he wasn’t quite sure how, he wasn’t holding her and contemplating what he was going to do next. He was lying on his back on the floor of the van while she held him by one wrist with a force only just this side of breaking the bone. He couldn’t see her face very well in the gloom, but he could tell from her voice that she was smiling. “I’m so glad you invited me in”, she said. “I was beginning to think you were never going to get up the courage.”

And then he felt her teeth graze his skin, and he was suddenly very, very afraid.

Writing exercise #20 – Lighting up

It was always special when it was Selin’s turn to light the beacons. She was lucky that her group of novices had been so small – and that there had been so many who hadn’t made it this far. Well, she corrected herself, remembering Nalia’s pale face and her limbs splayed at the base of the Magnetic Keep, maybe not lucky exactly. But she was glad all the same that her turn came around relatively often – about every 200 days as far as she could tell. It was hard, sometimes, to keep track of time, especially when they did their long practices which could have them emerging, blinking, into the daylight and marvelling at the brightness of the sky after hours – or possibly days – spent in ritual.

Eventually she’d be able to count better and then she’d know what day it was just like Revered Lyanka, who could count seconds better than an automaton, even when she was performing the complicated ritual dances requiring her to sing a rhythm other than the one her feet were keeping.

Lighting the beacons required an awareness of time, too, but fortunately it only had to coincide with sunset, and that was easy to count. Selin had lived here in the Sacred Fort since she was very small, and she knew what the sunset looked like at every time of the year.

And she always started early too, partly because beacon duty was an acceptable excuse for avoiding anything else scheduled for that day, and partly so she would never be late with the final lighting.

She had some time left, still, she knew. Just the right amount of time to prepare the two beacons in the lake and then make the climb to the top of the Forlorn Tower to perform the lighting ritual. Many of the other novices preferred to take the easy option and light the beacons one by one as they prepared them. But ever since Selin had first seen it done, when she was only just old enough to be out of bed at sunset, she had vowed she would always do it properly, the way Revered Amanda had taught the first novices all those years ago.

So she removed her robes and took the wicks and flints and special oils, in an oiled skin bag tied around her waist, and she swam to the two beacons in the lake. One by one she lifted the heavy glass covers onto their special iron stands, prepared the wicks and replaced the covers, always remembering to seal around them with the special red beacon wax and to mark it with the Order’s seal.

And then she swam back to the shore, her arms and legs shaking slightly from the exertion of keeping herself afloat as she worked – and set off on the long climb up to the Forlorn Tower. The beacon there was easy to light, thankfully and this time she was profiting from someone else’s hard work because the large oil vat was nearly full. The only lighting days she disliked were when she had to fill the vat too.

And now everything was ready. She stood at the top of the tower, hearing the faint sounds of the Order drifting up to her in the blueing air, and she breathed the ritual breaths and spoke the appropriate words and finally lit the holy circle – the apparently magical iron ring that sent the flame to all of the beacons at once. The sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the lake, the sky darkened immediately, and the rest of the Order, all gathered in the main courtyard, all sang a single harmonious note at the same time… and the beacons lit.

From the one by her side to those around the curtain wall, the three huge ones on the roof of the main temple and the row of nine small ones on Revered Lyanka’s house, to the two now submerged in the lake – they all shone with a cool white light, and the dusk was suddenly a greyer, more veiled thing around her. And she held her breath and listened. Because now, she knew, they would come.

Writing exercise #19 – Paper patterns

Nicola could hear it as soon as she got through the front door. The snip snip snip of her mother’s steel scissors.

Fuck. Not another one of those awful bloody creations. It had been bad enough when she was a kid. Although – and Nicola couldn’t prevent a small moan of shame escaping from between her lips – she’d actually like some of the fecking things at the time. But then when you were six you liked all sorts of shite, she reminded herself. Now she was older. Now, in fact, since her birthday last week, she was an adult.

She went into the kitchen quietly, hoping her mother would be too preoccupied with cutting out whatever horror she was making to leave the living room. She was right.

“Is that you, Nicola?” Nicola rolled her eyes. Who else would it be, for fuck’s sake? Her dad had died when she was three, and neither of them had many friends. Or at least not friends she’d bring back here.

“Yeah, got loads of homework to do, Mum. I’m going to make a start before tea”, she shouted, grabbing a handful of biscuits out of the tin.

“But I just need you to help me with…”

“Sorry, busy!” And she stamped upstairs, slamming the door behind her and reached for her headphones. Anything to block out the snip snip snip and that horrible metallic scrabbling noise the pins made.

***

She thought she’d escaped when her mum didn’t mention the garment, whatever it was, over tea. Maybe it was being made for some other poor unfortunate sod. But before she could flee back upstairs, her mother insisted she came into the living room to see it.

“It’s a very special dress for my very special girl”, said her mum, holding up a paper envelope of the type Nicola had become only too familiar with over the years. Sailor suits, dungarees, pinafores… she’d had them all, each in more garish fabrics than the last.

She peered at the image in her mother’s hand. Actually, this didn’t look like the others.

“I know you’ll be having that prom thing soon”, said her mother, passing the envelope to Nicola, who studied it intently. “Though why it has to be a prom I don’t know. In my day it was just the sixth form disco, and that was it. That was the first time I kissed your dad, you know.” She smiled in reminiscence, looking away into the distance, seeing something other than the tidy living room and the paper pattern spread out on the table. Nicola raised her head and cleared her throat, eyes suddenly moist. “It’s… it’s beautiful, Mum”, she said, looking back at the illustration on the cover of the pattern. The dress was dark red and long, with a draped bodice running up into a single strap, and a skirt that was neither too full nor too narrow, and with an over skirt of dark red gauze.

“With your hair up in that Audrey Hepburn style you do, you’ll be the belle of the ball”, said her mother.

“Oh mum, it’s perfect!” said Nicola, surprising herself by throwing her arms around her mother’s neck and kissing her on the cheek. Her mother hugged her tight, then let her go and stepped back, her own eyes suspiciously bright.

“Well, you’re a young lady now. It’s time I made a really pretty dress instead of all those awful things I used to make you wear. What I was thinking, I don’t know.”

“Oh don’t say that, Mum. They were cute, some of them…”

“They were awful and I’m sorry. But now I’m going to make it up to you.”

Stroking the gorgeous red satin fabric, Nicola could only agree. And to think that earlier that evening she’d happily have stabbed her mother with those bloody scissors.

Then again, a few days back she’d seen a programme about a woman’s prison; the kind of place where female murderers were sent. And to earn money they’d worked in a big factory-type space. Making clothes using paper patterns.

Writing exercise #18 – Filling pages

On the dangers of telling someone to write what they know….


I do it dutifully, every night, and in the morning. I fill my pages as I’ve been told.

“It’s very useful. It’ll loosen you up, help you flex your writer’s muscles”, says Ken, my writing tutor, and everyone else in the class always seems to be fine with this. One of them has already had a story published, for God’s sake, that she first wrote during her daily pages. “It only took me an hour to write it. I just couldn’t stop once I’d got into the flow”, she simpered. I hate people like her, Sylvia, with her exotic looks (half Chinese, half Spanish or something), and her cute little pink notebooks with cartoon animals on them and her always perfect hair.

In class, when she announced her publication news (in a magazine I’d even heard of too – she didn’t even have the decency to be published in the Wisconsin Monthly Advertiser or something equally obscure) I’d sighed and looked down at my latest attempt to fill pages – three half sheets from one notebook and a piece of kid’s stationery found marking a recipe for meatballs in a second-hand cookery book, all framed by my equally scruffy hands; chewed nails, torn cuticles, scratched from trying to tame the feral cat that lives in the empty house down the street.

My sigh had been so loud that everyone around the table had turned to look at me and I’d had to explain that I was thinking about something else.

“Yes, remember that too folks; inspiration can strike a true writer anywhere, anytime”, trilled our tutor, and everyone laughed at me. I think it was about then I decided to kill him.

Since then I’ve actually had no problem filling my pages. I bought a tidy notebook with elastic to keep it shut when I’m not plotting his demise. Actually I’ve bought two – the ideas just come thick and fast, just like he always said they would. And I’m struck by plot ideas all the time – on the subway, hanging upside down during my pole dancing class, under water in the swimming pool (injection of air into a vein, strangulation, drowning). So I suppose just because a lot of his trite ideas did finally come true I should let him off. But I’m not going to. “Write what you know”, he says, over and over again. Well I want to write a book about a murderer and I don’t know how my character feels as she kills her victim. So he’ll just have to die for his craft.