Summer writing circle assignment #6 – On the bench

This one needs a bit of explanation too. It’s the last assignment in the writing circle, which is a shame because I’ve enjoyed it, but then again I’m doing two new writing courses this autumn, so I hope to keep up the momentum.

Anyway, for this one we had to describe a person/animal with a handicap, write about an encounter, include a dialogue and try to express as much as possible between the lines. I had a major mental block with this one and wrote it in a hurry at the last minute. Given that, I’m pleased with how it came out, particularly how I dealt with the handicap part, although admittedly it’s a bit of a cheat.

Cheat #2; this isn’t my photo. Must remember to nip out and take one of a park bench so I can replace it.

On the bench

I’m sitting on the park bench where we’ve met every Tuesday for the last 8 months, and I know this is going to be the last time, one way or another. I can feel the pale spring sun on my face, and I’m picking the flaking paint from the wood beneath my thighs. The breeze brings the scent of awakening earth mixed with the sound of children playing from down the hill near the park gate, and nearby a woman is shouting for a joyfully barking dog to “Come here, you bad boy!” But there’s breathless laughter in her voice and the barking is dopplering as the dog runs around avoiding her, so I know it’s more play scolding than serious.

I lean down and pat the smooth head of Mackenzie, well-behaved as always, tucked in by my feet but alert and interested, his warmth spreading into my leg.

I hear Stefan’s footsteps well before he arrives; that curious light-footed gait that Sara said, the one time they met, reminded her of Mr Spock. And then I catch the scent of him; his deodorant, fresh but somehow intoxicating at the same time.

“Hey sweetie!” he says, and he bends – rustle of his jacket – to kiss me on the forehead. Which gives me all the answer I need, really. I should get up now and walk away, but I keep hoping, as I’ve hoped with increasing disappointment throughout our affair, that I’ll be wrong.

“I’ve been in meetings all morning”, he says, collapsing onto the bench beside me with a sigh and stretching his long legs out in front of him, crunching the gravel beneath his baseball boots.

“Oh yes, the funding meeting for the new show”, I say, pretending that I don’t remember exactly what it’s called. “How did it go?”

And he tells me about what the various attendees said, and what was decided, and I try not to be too interested, not to keep track of who’s who and where they fit into the balance of power within the theatre company that he works for, what that might mean for his eventual promotion prospects.

Finally, his account comes to an end, and I take a couple of bites of my sandwich and chew them thoroughly before saying, “I was thinking that next week…”

“Did you hear the one about the dinosaur who goes into the bar?” he says. And he starts telling me the joke even though it was actually me that first told it to him, a month ago.

I force myself to smile, and wonder if it looks as artificial as it feels. Presumably not, or he’d notice. Maybe. Possibly. I can tell from the sound of his voice that he’s not looking at me, he’s looking off down the hill towards the theatre.

“I’ve been…” I start, but he says something at the same time, and I run out of courage again.

“Sorry, babe”, he says. “What were you going to say?” He’s leaning close to me, I feel the warmth of his breath on my cheek, and I smile again and turn my head away.

“Nothing, it’s not… no, you go on”.

“OK. Well I was just thinking about my buddy David, he’s a photographer and he’s been working with a circus, and he was taking photographs of the clowns and…”

And off we go again. It’s very like being on a swing, really, up and down. Exhilarating but dizzying and you don’t get any time to stop and think about what you’re really doing and then suddenly it’s over and you’re off the swing and it’s someone else’s go.

Not that I didn’t know it from the start. When you meet a married man and he says he’s been doing this for years, with a string of other women, you have to assume that you’ll become part of his past at some point. Only I foolishly believed his assurances that he always stayed friends with his conquests. Actually I do still believe it. I just don’t believe that he knows what being a friend really means. I am – though I try hard not to be – interested in his preoccupations. He no longer even pretends an interest in mine. So I distance myself, and the pain when he doesn’t notice makes it even worse.

Some people will say that it’s my own fault for seeing a married man. But I actually don’t want to live with someone all the time. I’ve got Mackenzie, and my work, and a few friends, and I’m bad enough at standing up for myself when I’m not living with a man.

He’s still talking, now about a play he’s going to see tonight. I’d love to go with him, but he’s long since stopped involving me in his plans.

I interrupt him. “I was thinking that next week I might go to the coast for a couple of days. Can you get away for a night?”

There’s a silence for a few moments, and the world seems to go very quiet. Beyond the park I can still hear the buzz of the city, and the planes rotating around the airport, but close by it’s as if everything has stopped. And I’m thinking ‘This is it. If he changes the subject or makes a joke now, then I’m going to get up and walk away’.

“I’m sorry”, he says, without a hint of sorrow in his voice. “But I don’t want the sexual side of our relationship any more. Can you find it in your heart to just be friends? I’d really love that.”

I think someone’s stolen all my oxygen. Breath just doesn’t seem to be coming. But as my spine turns into ice and my stomach sinks down to my feet I manage to speak all the same. “Oh really? Why’s that then?”

“Oh, the reptile side of my brain just got bored, I guess”, he says. “But the rest of me still feels the same way about you.”

I remember the last time we spent the night together, a fortnight ago. He dragged me through the hotel and practically ripped my clothes off me. We were in bed together five minutes after meeting in the lobby.

Then I think about friendship and about how little he’s ever been a real friend to me. I sigh, and for a moment I wonder whether he’d even notice if I hit him.

“Well thanks for the explanation”, I say. “That makes things a lot clearer.”

Then I get to my feet, fumbling for my bag.

“You’re not going already?” he says. “I haven’t finished my sandwich yet.”

“Sorry about that”, I say, and I’m surprised to hear my voice coming out perfectly level; even civil. “I have to go.”

“Bye sweetie”, he says, cheerfully, giving me a quick, clumsy hug over Mackenzie’s head. “See you online!”

‘Not if I see you first’, I think.

As I walk away, slowly at first, but then gradually more quickly, I feel sad, but I also feel as though a heavy burden has been removed from me. It’s been so difficult to force myself to step back from him, over and over, but now the thing I feared has actually happened what I feel is relief.

It’s as if I’ve been blind, but now I can suddenly see again. The colours seem brighter, the sunshine is more intense, all the couples I pass are smiling and holding hands and looking fondly at each other. I’m wearing my turquoise gloves that he once told me he liked but which I’ve always hated, so I strip them off and throw them in a bin, feeling faintly guilty as I do that I ought to have taken them to the charity shop instead.

I rummage in my zebra-striped bag for Mackenzie’s red frisbee. We’ll have a game, then we’ll go home and I’ll have a cup of Earl Grey tea and a chocolate biscuit and call Sara – who always said I was wasting my time on Stefan – and then I’ll spend my afternoon doing something more worthwhile than wondering when his next email is going to arrive. I know I’ll be really upset at some point, but I also know that I’ll get through it. Because the worst is already over.

I find myself smiling broadly as I walk through the park gates, past the exuberant display of spring flowers. Tulips and daffodils and… No, actually, not daffodils. Narcissi.


Summer writing circle assignment #5 – How I met Mr Wonderful

(This one needs a bit of explanation. The brief was as follows:

The following must/must not be in your text:

  1. At the start, your hero/heroine must already be in a tricky situation.
  2. He/she escapes from this, only to end up in an even worse situation (and perhaps yet another).
  3. There must be at least two changes of location in your text. You can move the action from Eslöv to Mexico City to Stockholm or from Narvic to the moon to a garage in southern France. Or from Möllevången to Värnhem to Rörsjöstaden in Malmö. From one room to another in the same house. DON’T describe how your hero/heroine has got there. It’s only important that there are changes of location.
  4. You may NOT use the following words: think, know, understand, realise, believe, want, remember, expect and other verbs that describe thoughts. Nor may you use the words “love”, “hate” or related words. (This means that instead of DESCRIBING your hero’s thought processes you must SHOW them with actions.)
  5. There should be an open ending and a title that makes the reader curious.

And all of this in two pages? Er… Well, mine overran a bit and even then I cut loads of stuff. But my God it was fun to write!)

How I met Mr Wonderful

As it starts to rain over a midnight Paris I’m hanging head down from the decorative twiddly bits on the roof of a hôtel particulier that’s seen better days.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Two minutes ago I was hanging by my fingertips from the guttering of a hôtel particulier etc. etc.

Fortunately all those hours doing CrossFit have really paid off, so I manage to extricate myself from that situation with only the loss of the red Jimmy Choos that caused my precipitous descent of the roof in the first place.

Now I’m merely caught on these bloody twiddly bits by the strap of my handbag. I could be in a much less dangerous position if I’d simply slip the strap off my shoulder and abandon it. But it’s an Alexander McQueen – limited edition, if you please – so if I let it slither out into the darkness over the murky waters of the Canal St Martin I might as well just chuck myself after it. Also, the rather trashy trinket I’ve just risked life and limb – not to mention virtue – to obtain almost certainly wouldn’t survive the fall.

No, I’m just going to have to… ladder my tights on the sharp little hooks clipping the roof tiles in place, dammit, before sliding myself slowly back over the roof ridge, every muscle straining to cling on, and then having another go.

Better. Now I’m sitting upright, gingerly straddling the extremely uncomfortable twiddly bits on the roof of a hôtel particulier

As the rain pours down on my ruined hair and almost certainly ruined Vivienne Westwood dress, I look out over the Paris skyline and wonder whether there might not be an easier way to earn a living.


At least this time the client – Mme Monnier – is suitably grateful when I return her property the following afternoon. In fact, for a few minutes I think I’m going to expire from being smothered in ermine and 24 Faubourg as she enfolds me in a surprisingly strong embrace, gushing about me being formidable and having saved the honneur de sa famille and so on. The honour of her family in this case being a rather risqué China shepherdess that Napoleon is reputed to have given to Josephine, and which Mme M unwisely showed to her latest toy boy, who promptly absconded with it. “Le petit con”, Mme M exclaims. And I express sympathy it’s easy to fabricate given the size of the fee she’s just paid me for recovering it.

I’m about to take my leave, perusing my mental wishlist for Galeries Lafayette, when she hands me a business card.

“A friend of mine. A very good friend”, she says with a lascivious wink. “An Italian Count. He needs the help of someone discreet, you know?”

I do indeed.

And that’s why, three nights later, I find myself jumping off the Orient Express as it thunders through the French countryside en route for Venice.

Some weeks would be better if they just didn’t happen.


It all starts so promisingly too. I ring the number on the card and speak to a male secretary. He’s a bit put out that I won’t give him my name, but when I explain about Mme M he suddenly sounds more cheerful.

“Ah yes, the discreet young lady”, he says. “The Count would like you to accompany him to Venice. Tonight. Leaving in three hours. On the Orient Express. At his expense, naturally.”

I try to sound like this is the kind of trip I take all the time.

“Er… OK… But I’m going to need a little more information before I…”

He interrupts me smoothly. “I’m afraid the Count has not taken me into his confidence on this matter, so I really cannot tell you any more. However, he desired me to inform you that he will pay the sum of €20,000 to accompany him to Venice and listen to his…”, here he coughs politely, “…problem, regardless of whether or not you ultimately accept the assignment.”

Twenty grand for a night’s work? Either this is something well dodgy or… Or nothing. This is something well dodgy. Fortunately dodgy is my middle name. Except it’s Catherine, but you get the idea.

I arrive at the Gare de l’Est with five minutes to spare before the train departs, dressed in my finest but still looking like a pauper compared to all of the other passengers, of whom there seem to be many. Quite how the Count has found a berth for me at this late stage I don’t know.

A uniformed flunky intercepts me and my overnight bag and leads me onto the train and along a wood panelled corridor to my cabin. Here he points out the note from the Count which has been left on the table, together with an exquisite arrangement of pink orchids and a bottle of champagne sweating in an ice bucket. The note asks me to meet the Count in his cabin for supper in an hour’s time.

I decide that while I’m waiting a nice glass of bubbly is exactly what I need. Only one, though; I want to keep sharp for whatever this “problem” is.

So I watch the lights of Paris gradually thin then disappear outside the window and I sip my Krug, and finally I make my way to the Count’s cabin.

And it’s when the door opens I realise that I’m in deep, deep trouble.

Trouble in this case is maybe a little older than me and slightly over six feet tall, with greeny-blue eyes and hair that’s somewhere between caramel and blond, and white teeth and a smile and… Oh no. Not now. Not again.

And it’s made worse by the fact that he’s staring at me like he’s never seen a woman before. He stumbles over his own feet as he backs out of my way, and his voice takes a second to settle down as he invites me in. The door closes and we’re alone in the cabin. His presence overwhelms me, even though he’s standing several feet away. I can’t breathe. I’m too hot. My hands and feet feel enormous and I can tell my mouth is open but it won’t obey me when I try to close it.

“Andrew… er… Thurston”, he stammers, holding out his hand. And even though I know what’s going to happen, even though I’ve done this before too many times and always regretted it in the end… I take it. The electric shock turns into a singing in my ears and a numbness in my arms. We stand there, hand in hand, for hours – perhaps days – before he finally releases me and steps back. He turns away from me and fusses with some papers on a table. “I’m afraid the Count has been slightly delayed”, he says, and his voice is still uneven. Still with his back to me, he carries on speaking. “Please take a seat, Miss…?”

I almost fall into a chair, my knees buckling, admiring the muscles in the back of his neck above his suit collar, and for once I’m relieved that the Bloody Name Thing will give me a few minutes’ thinking time.

This is how the BNT goes:

Other person: “Miss…?”

Me: (resigned) “Lavish. Miss Lavish. Stella Lavish.”

Other person: (incredulous) “Stella Lavish?”

Here I watch out for the momentary dip of the eyes to my chest, which most definitely doesn’t live up to my name.

Me: (brusque) “Yes. People are called Lavish, you know.”

Other person: “I’m sorry, it’s just that it’s a bit…”

Me: “A bit too James Bond. Yes.”

I’ve been playing my part in this scene since I was about 15. So it’s a sign of exactly how disturbed I am by Mr Wonderful that I don’t initially spot how we’ve gone off script. Because he’s spun round to face me and he’s not doing incredulous, he sounds – not to put too fine a point on it – utterly bloody terrified.

“Stella Lavish?” He repeats it a couple of times, and I notice that his accent is suddenly a great deal less upper class. “You’re Stella Lavish?” I nod, and he looks at his watch, then starts patting his pockets urgently. “Shit”, he says, and now he’s definitely more Ivybridge than Oxbridge. “Oh fucking shit and hell. We’re dead. We’re both so fucking dead.” He opens a drawer in the desk, yanks out a small attaché case and then grabs me by the wrist, pulling me to my feet. “We’ve got to get out of here. Right now.”

“What? Why? What are you talking about?” I’m pulling away from him, but he’s stronger than I am, and he’s dragging me across to the door. He stops before he opens it, bends his head down to mine and hisses, “Did you do any due diligence on this guy at all? Do you have any idea who he really is?”

I stare at him. He sighs, and the way he flares his nostrils makes me quiver and consider reaching up and kissing him. But his next words change all that. “He’s Anders de Jong.”

Shit, shit, shit. Well I don’t know what his part in all this is, but he’s right about one thing. I’m definitely dead.

The musical semi-colon – and a You Must Read This

I’ve just finished reading A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I picked it up last week in my favourite bookshop, simply because I liked the title. The cover blurb says very little about what’s inside, and I’m not going to describe it either. Because you don’t really understand what it’s all about – or even what genre you’re reading, if that’s important to you – until you get to the very end.

It’s a tough read in some ways, because it’s structured as a set of interlinked episodes told in non-chronological order over several decades and from different points of view. Imagine trying to understand a painting as complicated as a Breughel simply by looking at small, random sections of the canvas, and then finally standing back and seeing the whole thing – you can’t quite see where the individual bits fitted in but you know it worked and you know that it’s great. Like that. I’m going to have to read it again, possibly with a notebook so I can keep track of the different characters and how they relate to each other.

Anyway, there’s one whole chapter written as a series of PowerPoint slides, which sounds a bit naff but is in fact a thing of beauty, describing an entire family and their interactions in very few words and at the same time talking about the power of the pause in music.

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I’m not keen on any of the tracks mentioned, but I’ve always been fond of this musical device. It’s used to great effect in many of my favourite techno tracks (such as DJ Mismah & DJ Tim’s Access; there are even better examples in the genre but I can’t remember offhand – or more probably never knew! – any of the titles), and it always works best when what comes afterwards is a kind of a “See?” It’s like a musical semi-colon; my favourite punctuation mark.

Here’s one where the artiste really got that. (Although this version skips shortly after the pause, which comes at around 4.36, so I’d recommend listening to it on a music streaming service if you’ve got one.)