No writing stuff today, Monday or Tuesday because I’m in Stockholm for the weekend getting more inspiration!
I hesitated about posting this one, because several people close to me are seriously ill at the moment. But that felt like pretending it’s not happening to them, that their pain and fear and courage and determination aren’t real.
And surely if we’ve learned anything in this millennium so far, it’s that life is short and even the world we live in is uncertain. That you have to enjoy it while you can. That you have to grab the little smidgeons of joy (thanks again, Allison!) wherever you see them.
As I drive away, the maize in the field next to my house is now brown and brittle where once it was leathery and green, rustling drily instead of softly shushing above its deep purple-blue shadows.
The bones of trees are starting to show through, some of the branches already bare, and drifts of shed skin beneath them.
I walk by the sea, empty now of people – as indeed is the beach, a long expanse of white sand and marram grass undisturbed except by the odd seabird and the waves. And even they don’t venture far onto dry land here. The sky is pale blue behind me, but clouds are gathering quickly out to sea and the light is failing, dwindling. I comb the beach, searching for the amber that should be here but never seems to be. I find instead chewed-looking plastic bottles, pieces of wood, seaweed and the odd small half-smashed shell.
My fingers are turning what would be a rather attractive shade in a flower – but isn’t quite so fetching in fingers.
I stagger up the sand dune and into the woodland behind the beach, suddenly deafened by the silence of the pines around me. No longer resinous and heady scented, they stand dignified, waiting for the arrival of the first snows, their greyish pink bark apparently no defence against the cold. Actually, of course, they are perfectly adapted to their setting, and it’s more likely to be I that won’t be here by the time spring finally comes around again.
I walk along the winding path and back to my car, solitary occupant of the car park I last saw full of family-friendly vehicles and people emptying the sand from their shoes.
I hesitate for a moment before I turn the key. And then I drive away to yet another doctor’s appointment.
This was another one that came from nowhere, in 15 minutes, from what first appeared to be the most unpromising of prompts. I find these to be the most interesting exercises because they take my writing down totally different paths.
She stood for the thing I hated most – weakness. She sat behind the desk, hair freshly washed and styled, wearing a prim floral dress and made a pretence of consulting her screen and being terribly busy. Why did the force even employ somebody like this? When I’d entered the room she’d checked me off a list, said “Please take a seat, Colonel Tyrone will see you shortly”, offered me coffee and gone back to her ‘work’.
I’d already been sitting there for nearly half an hour, and the sound of her typing was driving mad. The little sighs and tutting noises, the creak of her chair… Where was this Tyrone person, and why was he making me wait so long?
I’d been told nothing in advance of this meeting, simply that I was being considered for a new unit and to present myself to a certain office at a certain time. And not to take my datapad with me.
So here I was in this bloody office with its deep blue carpet and that bloody woman – what was she doing now? She’d taken her handbag from under her desk and was touching up her make up. Probably primping herself for a bit of lunchtime sex with Tyrone. Assuming the fucker ever actually did turn up. The woman took out a comb and started rearranging her dark auburn locks, and I sighed. I’d had just about enough of this.
“Excuse me?” I said.
She looked at me quizzically.
“Colonel Tyrone does know I’m here, doesn’t he? Only I’ve been waiting…”
“43 minutes and 18 seconds”, she said crisply, dropping her hairbrush on her desk and standing up.
“Er… I’m sorry?”
“You should be, Lieutenant”. By now she was standing in front of me, a bit too close, looming over me as I sat in the ridiculously uncomfortable chair.
“You were invited here by the Colonel because this unit needs new people and because you’re reputedly one of the best”, she said, cutting me off again when I tried to speak. Who the fuck did this bitch think she was?
“Now, Colonel Tyrone is very busy and you’ll be seen as soon as possible. So I suggest you just be patient.”
That was definitely the last straw. I started to rise out of my seat, ready to storm out of there and never come back, specialist unit or not.
Then I froze. I’d not been looking at the woman’s face, but more at her feet, encased in ludicrously high lilac shoes, and as I’d begun to raise myself from the chair I’d seen the skin on her feet move. I’d seen it move as a result of the shifting of tendons and muscles under the skin. And I recognised that movement. I’d done it and seen it myself thousands of times before – the very slight movement that indicates somebody shifting their balance to counter an attack.
I eased myself back down into the seat, and this time I did look at her. Really looked. Underneath that girlish floral dress, she was lithe as a whip, but muscled too. I looked at her wrists, her calves, her forearms, her neck. I took in what I was seeing, in probably just a few milliseconds, then I looked her in the eyes. Bingo.
They always used to say that the eyes were the windows of the soul. And if that was true then before me was one very tough soul.
I relaxed back into my chair and smiled at her. She was very good – there was absolutely no reaction from those bright blue eyes. No widening, no twitch. Just the same smooth, professional expression secretaries have always employed.
“No problem, Colonel”, I said. “I’ll just wait here until you’re ready.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “Conroy told me you were good”, she said, then put out her hand. “Welcome to the unit, kid.”
This was frequently his favourite time of the day, as the air cooled from the sun’s peak and the smells of evening flowers began to waft on the breeze across the yellow stone of the square. A blackbird called in a nearby garden, and he smiled to himself, as always pleased by the similarities between the bird’s plumage and his own black robes.
He opened the door of his place of work and went inside. The dark coolness enveloped him like a deep, secret pool, and he gave thanks to the magnificent deity who had chosen him. He appreciated how lucky he was, every day. When he saw the ordinary folk of this region, when he realised that he could have been one of them, with a hovel to live in and a few poor fields to farm, with probably 12 or 15 children born to his wife and perhaps four of them living to adulthood to helping with the grazing beasts and the crops…
He was thankful again now as he trod quietly over the age-smoothed stone slabs, and as he opened the lid of a chest to remove the holy accoutrements lying in the finely carved box.
He took the items and laid them out on the table next to the altar. Then he began lighting candles and torches around the altar. He continued his preparations as his congregation began to arrive, the murmured conversation of the faithful rising to the rafters far above.
Finally he was ready, and outside the sun was just dipping behind the tallest mountain. He had timed it perfectly as always. The door opened, and the celebrants were brought in, their white robes forming a startling contrast against the dark clothing worn by everyone else.
The small group halted just before the altar and the escorts stood back a little, just far enough that they could still intervene if the service didn’t quite go according to plan.
But it would be fine, as always, he could tell. The celebrants were thoroughly sedated – still upright but without any fear. And his knives were very sharp.
Part two of the text I posted on Friday. Maybe the start of something longer?
Teej shouted as her dart was fired away from the building by the catapult. Shouted with that half laugh, half exhilarated terror she always felt when the Gs hit her. That was one hell of a launch though, using actual hand wound springs to send them zipping off into the clear air. Anything to save power, and they needed what they had to charge the darts. She had about two hours’ flying time now, but that had to include getting back to the tower. Landing was somewhat less fun, consisting of aiming at a massive patch of sticky webbing strung between two of the tower’s decorative projections – and hoping that the retrieval crew got to you with their hooks and winches before the sticky wore off and you just slipped down the side of the tower. She wondered whether one day the fear of that landing process would drive her from the sky.
In any case, that was not today. She was skimming along silently, climbing to about 3000 metres, just about to cross low marshland of the coast and head out over the sea. It was a crappy mission, really, the first reconnaissance of that sector since Jared had failed to return from a mission a month ago, but she was still relishing the sky. Because that’s what fliers did. Even if your lover – and, she’d thought, maybe future husband – disappeared while flying. Even if she saw his crumpled dart on a hillside below her, she’d still be a flier. And she knew suddenly that she’d never fear the landing more than she loved this.
The darts were small, one person craft with not much in the way of comforts. But as a flying machine using minimal power in an uncertain world, they were unbeatable. Light and manoeuvrable, almost invisible until you were right on top of them even before they deployed their built-in dazzle mode – and such sheer fun to fly. It was the closest humanity had ever come to being birds, and maybe that was why she always felt so giddy at the start of a mission.
She checked her heading, checked the transponders of the other darts – just six of them, now that Jared had gone. Everyone was in formation, and they were perfectly on course. She checked her heading again, rolled her shoulders and grinned at the blue sky, at the sparkling water and the uneven green bumps of the Scatter Islands running not quite left to right in front of her. She’d done her mourning, and no doubt would mourn some more yet, but just now everything felt perfect. Jared would have understood.
Whatever had happened to him, he’d gone while he was flying, and he’d always said that was how he wanted it to be. So had she, if it came to it.
An hour later, as she fell away from her dart and down, down, away from the blue sky and towards the sea where it crashed against the cliffs of Big Skerry, she wasn’t so sure she still felt the same way.
In case you’re only now coming to this series of short writing exercises, here’s the explanation of what I’m doing.
This one’s a demonstration of why one of my English teachers – not the good one! – used to get so frustrated with me. She could set me any subject and I’d twist it around and produce an SF or fantasy story. It’s also a two parter, though even with the second part it’s once again only the start of something much longer. Second part to follow on Monday.
Being at the top of the Southern Tower always scared her, even now. Somehow it was more frightening being this far above ground but on a fixed surface she couldn’t control than it was being in her dart even higher up. Trust issues, Jared would no doubt say. Would have said… She took a deep breath and brushed away the moisture from her eyes. Up here it would be the wind, anyway.
A voice came from behind her. “Lieutenant Sanna.”
She turned, momentarily made dizzy by her own motion over the transparent material beneath her feet.
“Everything alright, Lieutenant?”
“Yes sir. Sorry sir. Just this…” And she gestured at the 2000 metre height of the tower beneath them, and the Colonel grimaced.
“Gets me every time too. But I thought you flyers were immune to this sort of thing.”
He gave her an arch look and she was suddenly sure he’d seen her tears and was just trying to distract her. After all, he must be well aware that the effect was by no means restricted to the land bound. She smiled gratefully.
“Well, you know how it is, sir. Us flyers just can’t count on you land dwellers to keep it still long enough for us to get away.”
He chuckled and looked down at his feet again, down through the two kilometres of almost perfectly clear building and right down to the ground.
Teej had never been able to understand why their ancestors had built the thing. There were plenty of other tall buildings in Valinq, but none of them made of this glassy material. Apparently it was possible – or would be if they had to power – to polarise the tower’s clear surfaces, providing apparently normal spaces for humans to occupy. But they barely had the power to run the lifts – and thankfully to keep them opaqued – so anyone who came up here had to have a pretty good head for heights, to say the least.
She looked over at the rest of her squad, all in black night issue coveralls with their dart harnesses over the top. One or two of them were finishing last minute equipment checks, but otherwise they were ready. Ready to launch the mission to find out why Jared had died.
A rather self-referential piece this time. By this point in the writing challenge I’d spotted the violent theme and was wondering where it came from.
He walks along the towpath, looking for inspiration. The sky is pale blue with shreds of white cloud, and the almost leafless poplars make it look like a Monet painting – one of those ones of canals that don’t really have a subject and were maybe just painted out of exuberance, the joy of simply being able to capture something.
Just like he can’t. Well, of course that’s not actually true, in fact. He can capture stuff – there’s nothing wrong with his actual style – it’s just that what he writes about is all so gloomy. No matter what he starts writing, it always ends up with at least one and usually more characters suffering a violent death. Which would be fine if he was writing a whodunnit, but he’s not. Years ago someone – Martin Bell, probably – suggested that there should be more reporting of positive news, and he’d always wholeheartedly agreed with that.
He’s long since pruned his social media feeds of any sources of negativity; he doesn’t have a telly; he doesn’t read the newspapers. He only really hears about stuff if someone down the pub is talking about it. And yet his writing oozes death and disease and violence and misery.
Take this canal, for instance. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture the dead bodies floating in it. After all, Morse and his ilk seemed to spend their entire careers fishing corpses out of the water. Or what about if it was frozen and some teenagers were skating on it and one of them went through the ice. Just an accident – or is it? All those rampant hormones running wild. Lovers trysted by canals (suicide, murder, quarrels over abortion). Anglers might fall in by accident (it couldn’t be easy swimming with waders on). The one that didn’t get away.
And then there’s the canal – often deserted and usually running through a dodgy part of town – as the scene of ambush. Or what about the emotions and hidden jealousies in a group of people living moored up near each other on narrowboats? Arson would be a neat way to rid yourself of a troublesome neighbour. And then there are the cyclists; suicidal/murderous loonies using the towpath like a race track. Motorcyclists, too. Or canal bridges with collapsing walls or run into by a car… Even the power lines spanning the water in the distance are potentially lethal.
He sighs and looks at the far off hills. Maybe tomorrow he’ll walk there, try to get some positive vibes. After all, surely hills are less threatening than a canal? Though of course someone could have fiddled with the brakes on your car…
This one is the next part of “How I met Mr Wonderful“, which I produced a couple of years ago as part of a different writing challenge and is probably the least ‘me’ and the most fun writing I’ve ever done. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to sustain Stella’s lifestyle for long enough to finish her story, but I’d love to try. And of course, meeting up with Mr Wonderful again is always nice.
He knows what he’s doing. Of course he does. If you ever feel the urge to jump off the Orient Express in the night as it hurtles across France, he’s definitely the guy for the job.
First he drags me back down the length of the train – Mr De Jong apparently being occupied somewhere near the front – allowing me a brief incursion into my cabin to retrieve my handbag. Fortunately I make it a habit never to travel with anything personal in my overnight bag; one too many lost pieces of aeroplane hold luggage cured me of that. So I abandon it and allow myself to be pulled through the rest of the train. We slow each time we encounter a fellow passenger, and Mr Wonderful tries to look less like he’s a caveman in an Alexander McQueen suit and more like a bashful lover taking his sweetheart for a nice walk along the train. Prior to a “North by North West” style night of passion in a railway bunk, presumably.
I keep trying to ask him why exactly he’s so worried about Anders de Jong, but he hushes me with a sound like a pre-whistling kettle, so in the end I give up.
And then we enter the viewing coach, which is fortunately empty, and he puts his hand on the handle to open the last door… and it’s locked. I’m bitterly disappointed. I’d pictured the back of the train being an open platform where you went after dinner to smoke. Or, in this case, to jump off. Instead there was just a normal door, with just a tiny pane of glass in it. Is nothing sacred?
I start looking around for a window to open, which is pretty futile as the whole train is sealed tight so that the nasty plebs we’re rolling past don’t get a whiff of the sweet smell of wealth within.
But as it happens, windows are not required, not with Mr W about. He reaches into his jacket and brings out a weirdly shaped piece of metal, which he proceeds to insert into the hole in the door beneath the handle. Because of course one always carries a guard’s key with one on train journeys.
He grins at me, and my knees do that melting thing again. Then he opens the door, and the tracks are suddenly blurring away from us just a couple of metres distant.
“Come on”, he says, and pulls me through the door. For one horrible moment I think he’s going to jump onto the tracks zipping past at some hideous speed, but actually we squeeze into the oval rubbery bit just beyond the door, which he then shuts again and locks. Leaving us squished together in an area of rather less than a square metre, and with absolutely nowhere to go.
I can see him faintly in the (red) light from the lamps on the back of the train, and he’s grinning again. He moves his mouth down to my ear and speaks loudly enough for me to hear over the noise of the train.
“We’ll have to stay here for a while. At least this way we’re hidden.”
I can feel his warm breath on my neck, and his body is pressed close to mine from head to toe. He smells… well, wonderful. I try to think of something sensible to say but my brain seems to have gone for a coffee break.
“Stella?” he says, putting both hands on my shoulders.
I look at him in the red glow and smile up at him.
“Is that an attaché case full of secrets clamped awkwardly between your legs, or are you just happy to see me?” I ask.
He smirks, a dimple coming and going in his chin. “Both”, he says. And kisses me.
I initially thought this was a really stupid prompt, but I had such fun writing this one. I’m pretty sure this took a bit more than 15 minutes, but not much.
Warning: Not for readers of a sensitive disposition.
The grubby black door opened suddenly as she was raising her hand to knock for the second time, revealing a bleached blonde woman with a lived-in face and too much makeup wearing a black-and-white spotted top and a short black skirt. Her stockings – the suspenders were visible below her skirt – were both laddered and her shoes had seen better days.
“Yeah?” she asked around a wad of gum.
“Er, I’m…” the girl remembered her new stage name and changed what she was about to say at the last moment. “I’m Delilah”.
The other woman snorted. “Delilah, is it? Well I suppose it’s a while since we had one of those. You’re the one Mr G told me about, are you?” She had a very faint accent. Polish, maybe?
“Yes, he told me to come and ask for…”
“Angel”, said the other woman, finally standing back from the doorway and gesturing her in. Stairs plunged down immediately inside the door, and as they clattered down them Angel said, “Yes, I know, it’s a stupid name t… A stupid name. But when I came here first nobody could say my name, so they called me Angel.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs and walked along a dingy corridor. Angel opened a door on the left, held it open but didn’t go in. “The club”, she said. “You auditioned there, yes?”
“OK.” She shut the door. “So that’s where you go in if you’re not on stage, and you get changed here.” She opened a door on the right and flipped a switch just inside, revealing a large space reminiscent of a gym changing room, with benches to sit on and lockers against the walls.
“Bring nothing you don’t mind if you lose”, Angel said as she turned off the light and pulled the door shut. “The lockers don’t lock and some of the girls will steal anything they like the look of.”
She continued along the corridor, nodded to another door marked “STAGE” in large red letters, and finally opened the door at the end of the corridor.
“And here’s the staff room. Would you like a cuppa?” The last word sounded odd in her accented English.
“Er, yeah, thanks. Black, two sugars.”
Angel went over to the kettle in the corner and started slamming mugs and spoons about.
Delilah entered the room – quite big but low ceilinged – and shut the door carefully behind her. The air was almost stiflingly hot and smelled of a badly mixed cocktail of perfumes. Tatty sofas and armchairs were complemented by coffee-ring-stained tables. Delilah perched on the edge of one of the armchairs and wondered whether she was really this desperate. Then she remembered her debts and decided she was.
On the coffee table in front of her was a large, thin book covered in paper with a strangely intricate pattern. It looked like one of those cartoons where you had to spot one character amongst hundreds of people all enjoying a day out at the zoo or throwing snowballs or something.
She turned it slightly with one finger, trying to make out the motif. Finally she got it. Written all over it in letters of different colours and sizes was the word ‘Creativity’.
Angel saw her looking. “My grandmother’s idea”, she said. “When I was a little girl, in Yugoslavia – that’s what we called it then – she always told me, ‘Slavica’, she’d say, ‘you must always work at your creativity. Never forget that life is more than just work.’”
“Oh, that’s sweet”, said Delilah. “And what do you create? Can… Can I see?”
“Of course you can. It’s my sex manual.”
Delilah dropped the book as if it had burned her. Angel threw back her head and shrieked with laughter.
“No, it’s very tasteful, really.” She leaned over the table and flipped the book open.
“See? This is…” she squinted at the diagram – which Delilah had to admit was indeed beautifully drawn.
“This is double penetration”, said Angel. “See? With instructions as well. I decided to do it like a kind of recipe book, you know, take two men, add plenty of lube, preparation time 10 minutes, like that.” Delilah looked more closely at the exquisitely calligraphied text and winced.
“A bit too hardcore for you, is it?” asked Angel not unsympathetically.
“No, it’s not that”, said Delilah. “It’s just that there’s meant to be two Ls in ‘bollocks’.”
She walked slowly up the drive in the quiet morning mist, the gravel crunching beneath her boot soles; loud no matter how much care she took in placing her foot down. Her breath was shallow and too hurried. She stopped and forced herself to relax, automatically doing the movements she’d practiced hundreds of times. Shoulders down and back, jaw and fists unclenched, feet relaxed, deep breath in through the nose… inhale… exhale…
She felt exposed and a little ridiculous standing here on the gravel, surrounded by beautifully kept gardens and exotic trees. She knew she was probably being watched, but she maintained her stillness anyway.
“Never be afraid to stop and think”, Master Shen had said. “Thinking again rarely got anyone killed. Rash actions often do.”
She didn’t think she was being rash here. All the same, she felt the need to hesitate, to pause her movement as though her trajectory at her original speed had been somehow wrong. She tried, without moving her head – or even her eyes – to decide where the watcher was located. Perhaps more than one. She knew they were seeing a skinny figure in a long, loose black coat, unbelted, over loose black trousers and boots. A broad-brimmed black hat above her white face and long brown hair. Hands held loosely by her sides, waiting. A crow, perhaps, from a distance, or a magpie for that flash of white. Or a woodpecker, she thought wryly, moving one hand to unbutton her coat so the red fabric of her jacket was visible.
Fully revealed, she continued moving towards the building, now stalking arrogantly as if she had been in the grounds of this castle many times before. As if she owned the part ruined, part expensively renovated construction before her.
She passed an ornamental fountain, its waters falling quietly into a large green-tinged marble basin. And then she was in front of the huge doors – no fortress portal this, but impressive nonetheless, with huge black studs in the paler wood. There was a massive black ring set into the centre of each door, but before she could even begin to reach out for one of them, the doors opened inwards, revealing a tall, thin, grey-haired man wearing clothing not entirely unlike hers, in colour at least.
“I’m expected”, she said, proffering the stiff white card of the invitation.
“You are indeed miss”, he said with something approaching a bow. “Welcome to the Castle.”