On the joys of travel

No writing exercise post yesterday as a result of driving through Germany for 11 hours yet still failing to complete a journey that should have taken 5.

No writing exercise post today because I had two hours’ sleep in the abysmal hotel that I checked into in desperation following said 11 hours’ drive. However, on the upside, lying awake in the boiling hot foul smelling darkness on a really uncomfortable sofa bed type contraption has given me plenty of time to mentally compose the scathing review I’ll be writing on Booking.com.

Also, fuel for several posts about travelling, modern society, the bizarre thing borders do to car registration plates, and why the king of Denmark is insane, but in a nice way.

In the meantime, if anybody wants me, I’m having a siesta.

Writing exercise #8 – Fruit party

One of the things I most enjoy about these short writing exercises is that even the most unpromising prompt can sometimes produce a tiny, complete story.


“A fruit party?”

“Yes.”

“A fruit party?”

“Yes!”

“And that’s what, exactly?”

“It’s a party. With fruit.”

Just fruit? I mean, no little extras to brighten it up, like… oh, I don’t know, great slabs of beef or heaps of prawns or even… god forbid, gallons of wine?”

“No, it’s part of this health kick thing.”

“Kick is exactly what I want to do to Sarah. I mean, how could she?”

We both sighed and peered towards where the school doors were finally opening, releasing clumps of over-excited toddlers out to the loudly instructing parents all around us.

“Come here Ryan. Now.”

“Felice, leave that babe, it’s dirty.”

“I’ll smack your legs Keira!”

Nicky’s daughter Louise came skipping over and we started threading our way through the mountains of flesh in sports clothes blocking our way to the gate.

As we negotiated the reefs of lard, I wondered what this lot would make of someone inviting them to a fruit party. Probably much the same as me.

I’d been happy for Sarah to start with, when she and Roger first got into this health thing. I knew she’d been worried about him. At 35, Sarah’s husband had looked a good 15 years older and he practically got out of breath turning over the steaks on the barbecue when it was their turn to be hosts.

But now they’d apparently both turned vegan (thank you very much, Cowspiracy), and so we all had to suffer along with them.

“Maybe Ben’ll be away, or working or something, and we won’t be able to go”, I said, brightening.

“He’s already accepted for both of you”, said Nicky, as we finally squeezed through the school gates and out onto a pavement reduced to a third of its normal width by parked parent-mobiles.

“He’s what?!”

“Him and Jason bet each other they wouldn’t accept. And so they both have, and we’re both going as well, apparently.”

“I’ll bloody throttle him. A quick imaginary seminar in Inverness and we’d have been sorted. And now we’ve got to go round to Sarah and Roger’s and watch them gorging themselves on melon and strawberries without even a decent Chardonnay to wash it all down.”

“Carrot juice”, said Nicola glumly. “Or beetroot. It was in the email.”

“You’re joking.”

“I wish I was.”

“Fuck.”

“Exactly.”

Writing exercise #7 – Leaves

The start to another “adultery leads to a murder plot” story. I do know where this one’s going too; the final line is Laura walking down the path from her house to where a large black limo awaits, thinking “Eats, shoots and…”


Laura scooped up the last of her ramen and thought about words. Of course as a translator she was pretty well always thinking about words. Syntax, grammar, lexical shifts, onomatopoeia, grammar, puns, punctuation, grammar…

It was words that had finally made her decide to kill Kenny. No, not those words – although of course she’d been tempted on some level from the very first time he said his name. No, it had been the words he’d used in a text message that had sealed his fate. A text message not even intended for her, but that he had written – thumbed? – in her presence. As though nobody had ever managed to read someone else’s texts were following the movements of their thumbs over the screen.

Not that ‘I luv u’ really needed much deciphering, of course. After that it had been the work of but a moment to log into his mobile phone account; his password was the same for every account he had – “N0ttsFore5t”, which in itself ought to have been warning enough – and find out which number he’d been ringing most often. She’d recognised it instantly. It was probably the number, other than Kenny’s, that she rang most often too. Melissa. That bitch. Her own sister!

It had taken a while to get over that particular discovery, but once she’d recovered her equilibrium it was pretty obvious what she had to do. Kill both of the adulterous bastards, preferably during one of their repulsive fornication sessions.

She’d found it quite easy to get hold of the gun – translators are pretty resourceful when it comes to research – but finding an opportunity to use it so that she wouldn’t immediately be banged up herself had proven more delicate.

Then she started doing regular interpretation gigs for the Tunisian Embassy. Soon she started travelling abroad with the ambassador or various diplomats. And they always travelled on a private jet and they never had their passports checked. Laura just had to pick her trip and she knew she could kill Kenny and Melissa and climb on a plane to Tunisia, a place she’d loved ever since she first visited as a student – and coincidentally a non-extradition country. Once there she’d jump ship and settle back down to continue her peaceful life translating medical leaflets. She reckoned most of her clients wouldn’t even notice she’d moved to another country, still less become a double murderess.

Writing exercise #6 – Designing

She looked again at the brightly coloured objects in front of her on the desk. Some kind of aeroplane with excitingly swept-back wings, cockpit and long-since lost pilot – she vaguely remembered a small blue figure with tentacles  – and a chunky-wheeled tractor.

She sighed and lowered her head slowly to the desk, shoving her keyboard away with her forehead.

The problem with design briefs, she’d always found, was that they’d seem perfectly clear when the client explained them to her, but as soon as she sat down at her desk and tried to bring them to life she seemed to lose every bit of inspiration she’d ever had. And this was the most demanding client she’d ever worked for.

Still, she’d always managed to come up with something sooner or later, and her clients kept coming back. So she assumed she must be doing something right.

Which was just as well, because there was an enormous amount riding on this job. Far too much, really. Was this a challenge too far?

Then she remembered what her husband Ian had said to her when she’d once tried to explain this to him. “Inspiration can only get you so far, Moll. After that it’s training and years of experience and sheer bloody determination that gets you through it. It’s not the time you actually spend on the work that your clients are paying you for. It’s all those years learning how to put in that time and produce something they’ll love.”

She sat up and smiled to herself. Ian had always known what to say. Exactly the right words. Her eyes went back to the toys. Yes, the stakes were definitely worth the effort.

She drew a piece of paper towards her. This job had to be absolutely secret. She wasn’t going to risk committing anything to digital media for prying eyes to find. She’d do this the old-fashioned way.

It was the kids’ toys that had given her the idea from the start. No matter how much she tidied up there were always hard bits of plastic littering the house, ready to trip or stab the unwary.

Her mother-in-law, Elaine, had badly sprained her ankle at one point following a run in with an errant Moshi Monster truck. And of course Elaine had then repeatedly pointed out how dangerous it was to let the kids leave their toys about. Not that she ever lifted a hand to help on her infrequent visits. She’d rather sit in the kitchen being snide about Molly and indulgent with Ian.

And that was another thing that was going to change if she got this right.

Quickly and with confident strokes she began to draw the object she needed.

The blade-like wings, supported by the solid bulk of the tractor – that was what she was trying to replicate. They needed to be a perfect match for the real objects, so that afterwards she could replace them with the real toys, discard the weaponised version – she hadn’t quite worked how yet, but she would – and then call the police.

“It’s my husband”, she’d say. “He’s… he fell, slipped on the stairs, on the kids’ toys. Please come quickly. I think…” she’d sob, “I think he’s dead.”

And even that bitch Elaine would back her up. And Ian – her lying, cheating bastard of a husband – wouldn’t be able to walk out on them as she now knew he was planning to.

She’d get to keep the house, and the kids… and that lovely big life insurance policy.

And all she had to do was create the perfect accident. Now that really was a Grand Design.

Paradise

Another one word, 15-minute writing prompt. I actually do know where this one’s going after the abrupt stop that represents the end of the writing time, but I’ve never got around to extracting it from my head!


Stacy Andrews stood in front of the travel agents in the high street, daydreaming. She wasn’t on her lunch break in a miserable grey northern town, having stuffed in a greasy pork pie and two sickly chocolate doughnuts and about to go back to her soul-destroying job for an insurance company. No, she was Stacy Andrews, millionairess – or at least very-comfortably-off-ess – and she was just about to round off her lunchtime, spent mainly over a wonderfully healthy yet tasty salad at that expensive Raw Food place up the road, by booking a three-week trip to a fantastic resort in the Seychelles.

‘One of those places where you live in a little straw hut on a coral reef but there’s a jacuzzi in your bathroom’, she’d confide to her equally wealthy colleagues at the office where she’d go three days a week ‘just to stop me vegetating’ and from which would periodically issue gorgeously produced cookery books of the “cottage garden but with wonderfully styled photography” genre.

She’d go away, have a fabulous time, meet a rich, handsome and interesting man who’d fall instantly in love with her and propose – but she’d say no because she valued her independence so much and when she went home he’d write her intense letters every other day and they’d meet now and then and have passionate yet tender sex in equally exotic locations.

‘Spare some change, love?’ came a voice from beside her, instantly accompanied by a waft of unwashed body.

‘Ugh…er…’ she turned her first response into a kind of cough and rummaged in her handbag. After all, it wasn’t the… she peered at the grimy figure before her with its hand out. Woman? Yes, definitely female, despite the baggy layers of clothes and bobble hat. It wasn’t the woman’s fault she was homeless. Probably.

Stacy had seen that documentary about the homeless – the one proving that only 5% of those living on Britain’s streets had actually chosen in any way to be there. So she always gave money to help them when she could. Or at least when she couldn’t avoid not giving, anyway. It was her own fault for standing still. Usually if you maintained a sufficiently high speed you could be past even a persistent beggar before they got more than a few words into their spiel.

Seaweed

The prompt for this one fitted in with a story that I’ve been mulling over for several years (!) about a blacksmith who’s afraid of the sea – and for good reason, as this piece illustrates.

Once again, I’m amazed by what just comes out if I give myself even the tiniest opportunity to write. But I think the strictness of a writing prompt with a 15 minute time scale is really helpful. You can’t do anything but let your subconscious take over.


The sea took his sister first. She was six, he was eight, and they knew of the dangers of the water – or at least they knew the water itself could be dangerous. They didn’t know then – and Elisa would never grow old enough to find out – about the other things the sea held and about its very greatest danger.

It wasn’t even a summer’s day, not the kind of day when the other village children took turns showing off their bravery by jumping from the jetty into the sparkling, cool water. No, when the sea took Elisa it was grey and coolish, only barely into spring, and the water was bitterly cold.

Samuel had always felt fortunate that it had in no way been his fault. He hadn’t been minding his sister that day – hadn’t even been conscious, sick with a fever that had his mother at his bedside, frantic that she might be going to lose one of her children.

And so she had. But not him. Instead, Elisa had sneaked away from their father – not a difficult task when he was intent on forming metal in the smithy – and Samuel’s parents only realised she’d gone when the solemn procession came to a stop outside the house, Elisa’s soaked and lifeless body laid out on the handcart of the shellfish gatherer who’d found her.

Even in his fevered dreams Samuel had heard the screams, and the nightmares generated by the ensuing uproar had almost finished his fever-weakened frame.

But he’d survived. And so had his parents, although they never really spoke to each other again. Samuel’s father, always a taciturn man, had become almost silent, only speaking to give Samuel an instruction as he taught him the business of smithing. And his mother had turned from the village schoolteacher, lively and with always a kind word for everyone, into a grey shadow of a woman who took in mending and rarely left the house at all. Samuel had learned to buy food for what was left of his family, visiting the market every day with his mother’s basket over his arm, and if the other village children made fun of him to begin with, they stopped after he beat two of the bigger boys – older than him by several years – into a bloody mess. Learning to be a smith meant developing a smith’s muscles too, and it was not a profession known for its daintiness.

At 17, Samuel became a smith in his own right, and his masterpiece of an ornate sign to hang above the door of the village doctor had drawn appreciative comments from his father’s colleagues who’d come to assess it. The next day, his father went into the sea. As if he’d only been waiting all these years for Samuel to be able to provide for his wife.

But she didn’t live long either, pining away even further and finally just falling asleep over a pile of mending and never waking up again.

So Samuel found himself alone, with a livelihood and a house to be sure, but no love in his life – not even much companionship, as it was rumoured that he was a jinx and would carry on bringing ill luck to anyone coming to close to him.

Then he met Abigail, and he was sure the bad luck was over.

But the sea hadn’t finished with him yet.

My patterns

Another slightly sinister response to a straightforward free-writing prompt! The language doesn’t quite fit, but I think this may be the younger version of Layla from Cloud Dancing.


My patterns are pretty. They are sometimes very tidy, and they are sometimes very messy, and they are sometimes in between, but they are always just right. Patterns aren’t something I make out of my head, they are already there, in the stuff I make them from.

I have made patterns out of feathers, shells, stones, little twigs, bits of straw, soil, ice (I poked holes in a puddle with a stick but a big bit cracked at the end so it wasn’t a pattern any more). I have made patterns from cloth and ribbons and teeth and bones. I like to make the patterns from bones best, but I don’t often have bones to play with. Bones are rough and smooth and straight and knobbly at the same time. You can wash bones to get the green stuff off them, or you can scrape them to get the pink or brown stuff off them, but I’m not allowed to use a knife any more, not since Mummy went away. So Daddy lets me scrape bones with a piece of stone, if we find bones with pink or brown stuff on them. I keep the stone in my treasure box.

My treasure box is square on two sides and rectangular on four sides. It has six sides in total. My treasure box used to be Mummy’s and it’s got all my best things in it, my scraping stone and three big seashells and some blue sea glass and a little bit of blue and white pottery and the ring that Mummy used to have on her finger. It’s a gold ring and Daddy says that one day I’ll be a big girl and I’ll want to wear it like Mummy did, but I’m not sure that’s true. Mummy cried a lot, even before she went away, and she used to shout at Daddy too. “King retard”, she used to shout at Daddy.

I think Daddy would look nice in a crown. When I get older I’ll make Daddy a crown, maybe from bones if I can’t find bits of metal pretty enough. Because Daddy loves my patterns.

In the village

I remember seeing this prompt and wondering whether to make this piece a follow up to Cloud Dancing (I was rather taken with the character of Layla in that one and I’m pretty sure she’s going to come back at some point). But in the end I went for something a bit more non-fictiony. Thinking about it, I suppose this is, once again, a comment on the stupidity of Brexit.


It’s barely a hamlet; three large roundhouses and a collection of smaller buildings of various types – granaries, a shelter for the pigs and another for the goats although they keep eating it and it makes a lot of extra work. But a sickly goat is an unhappy goat, and unhappy goats give little milk. So they rebuild it every time, and the goats look at them sideways with their strange eyes and both parties know who’s going to win.

It smells of woodsmoke and tanning leather and baked pottery and animal and human dung and food. And sometimes something sharper, like mead or beer.

There are sounds of contentment and minor squabbles and effort from both the human and animal inhabitants, and beyond them the birds and the wind in the trees. It’s not a bad place to live, on the whole.

***

It’s a smallish village, 20 houses around a green and a collection of larger buildings of various types – barns, the church, the inn, the manor house. The lord’s not a bad sort, really – he keeps the peace with an even hand and make sure everyone’s alright, organising things so that widows and orphans find food and shelter and self-respect, and if possible another man to take them on. Because the women work hard and look after the children, but it takes a man to run a holding so he can pay his tithe to his lord.

It smells of woodsmoke and horses and human and animal manure, and on Sundays the incense from the church and every day of good bread baking and the iron being shaped in the smithy.

There are sounds of contentment and minor squabbles and effort from both the human and animal inhabitants, and the tolling of the bell, and beyond that the birds and the wind in the trees. It’s not a bad place to live, on the whole.

***

It’s a big village, almost a small town. Around the old village centre with the church and the green and the pub there are red brick houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, solid characterful dwellings with moss-grown walls and pretty gardens. And beyond them there are the newer houses; poor, cramped things on winding cul-de-sacs infested by cars and with red block paving and trampolines instead of gardens.

Nobody really works in the village any more – there used to be a school, but that shut down years ago and the post office went the same way last September. The church is inhabited by a glass designer from Cambridge who sells his work direct to galleries in London, and nobody from the village has been inside since he moved in five years ago.

It smells of car exhaust and fabric softener and fertiliser.

All you can hear, all day and for much of the night, is cars. They creep along the narrow country roads like turtles, rounded and shiny and completely unsuited to their environment. Most of the trees have long since been cut down to make space for intensive farming, and the birds went with them. It’s like hell on Earth, on the whole.

Bloody butterflies

The first in the series of short fiction pieces I wrote for the 15-minute free writing exercise. Each prompt consisted of a single word and a picture. Most of them came out a bit unpleasant, particularly this one. But I really have always found butterflies a bit sinister.


“I don’t know”, she said. “I just find them a bit sinister, that’s all.”

She walked a little further into the damp-smelling warmth, shuddering slightly at the contact of wings on her face.

“I think I read a creepy story about butterflies once as a kid. In a Misty comic or something. You know the kind of thing…”

She rolled her eyes at her companion sheepishly.

“You know, two girls on a hike or something come across a house inhabited only by a mysterious old lady, and she takes them on a tour of the house, and they have tea, and then they end up in a huge greenhouse like this.”

She gestured with one arm, and a ripple of colour launched itself into the air as her passengers were startled into movement.

“Like this, full of butterflies, and they sit down because it’s so warm and the fluttering of the wings is so relaxing, and they’re drowsy, leaning against each other, half asleep on an ornamental bench in the heart of this enormous, butterfly-ridden space…”

She suited her actions to her words, lowering herself rather gracelessly to the white bench beside the ornamental pool.

“…And then just as they’re sinking completely into unconsciousness, this sweet old lady says something that makes them realise that the tea was poisoned and she’s going to feed them to the bloody butterflies. So no, I’m not all that fond of them really.”

“I’m sure you can’t really feel like that”, said her companion with a smile. “I mean, they’re so pretty! Look at that red one there.”

A bright red butterfly was indeed perched nearby, crawling on the iron table on which the dirty tea things were scattered. The butterfly waved its feelers aimlessly, then flew away across the pool, leaving a splash of red behind it on the white china.

“No”, she said wearily. “I hate them.” And she turned to face her companion, staring deep into the beautiful blue eyes. “I hate them, because they make me do this”, she said, pulling the wickedly sharp knife from inside her jacket and slashing the teenage girl’s throat. The blue eyes were first horrified, then terrified, and finally just dully accepting.

The lifeless body slumped back onto the bench, and from all over the huge enclosed jungle of the greenhouse came the almost inaudible sound of fluttering wings.

She stepped carefully over the spreading pool and walked away towards the house.

“Bloody butterflies”, she said, looking back as she reached the door. “Bloody, bloody butterflies.”