Writing exercise #11 – He knows what he’s doing

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.

Creativity all over it

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’.”

Writing exercise #9 – The Castle

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.”

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?”


“A fruit party?”


“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.”



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.