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.”

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.


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.


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.

If blog posts were buses

Since I posted the other day, I’ve received several comments to the extent that I should write more. Which, of course, I know. And when I started looking through the notebook I’ve been using for Tim Clare’s Weekly Writing Workout, it turned out that I’ve actually done more of the prompts than I thought.

So my first intention was to post the results, to try to encourage myself to do more. And I’m still going to do that. But it turns out that I never posted the results of the last writing prompt thing I did, which was a prompt a day for a month (no link to this one because it no longer exists!).

These are all 15 minute things, written longhand – and, as always, I’m amazed at the stuff that comes, fully formed, from my head when I just sit down and actually write. Where does it all come from? Years of life experience, I suppose. Although in this case a lot of them turned out rather macabre. I’ve noticed before that the shorter my fiction, the more likely it is that somebody’s about to die messily. Personally I blame reading too many Misty comics when I was a kid.

There are also a few that link up, using recurring characters or settings. And I guess that in itself is a reason for writing more of these short pieces.

Anyway, I’m going to post these as and when I remember, over the next month or so.

Not only an appropriate image, but also, if you click here, a really good explanation of why it happens…