The women gathered at the fountain each day: Elodie – her single, long brow dipped in a frown, always a fresh hole in the same, worn smock; Ottilie – tugging her sleeves to cover the bruises; Maribel – pregnant for the seventh time despite the empty cradle at home.
Other women came and went, cooling hot cheeks in the fresh water. But these three would stand apart, heads so close their hair mingled, their voices lost below the burble of water.
One thing is true – they all vanished on the same day, leaving the water to speak alone.
Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers, the best writing prompt on WordPress. See here to join in the fun.
Adam stood at the boundary between wadi and desert, one boot dipping into the gritty sand, the other in the grass.
The view summed up his family.
There was the desert, the grey gold dunes, the lush but hardy date palms, that blend of beauty and toughness – that was his Saudi wife, Cala.
Then there was the agricultural land. The swathes of emerald grass, the sorghum and millet sprouting in the fields, the non-native trees that were scorched by the sun but wouldn’t survive at all without the wadi. That was him.
And the narrow path between them both, that was their daughter Bibi. She had a fall of black hair like her mother, his snub nose – though the crease between her eyes was all her own.
He wondered how long she could walk the narrow path between the two worlds.
Written for What Pegman Saw, the prompt that uses Google Street View as its starting point. This week we visit Wadi ad-Dawasir in Saudi Arabia. See here to join in.
‘Lesley Howard?’ Patricia pulled on her cigarillo, puffed a cloud of blue grey smoke into the air. ‘Is that the Brief Encounter chap?’
‘No, that’s Trevor Howard. Leslie Howard was Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.’
Patricia selected a card from the hand she was playing and slapped it on the green baize table. ‘So in answer to the question, “which film actor would you want to be”, you choose the one who loses the girl.’
Bobby rubbed his stocking feet against the flank of a dozing Labrador. Firelight flickered around the living room, casting picturesque shadows over the threadbare rug, the stacks of mouldering newspapers. ‘Always seemed like a decent sort,’ he said. ‘Shot down over the Bay of Biscay, 1943.’
‘A dead war hero? So decent, so proper, such a good egg.’
He recognised the hard chink in her voice. ‘You and Scotch do not make happy companions.’
She raised a hand. ‘I’m just saying you sound very alike, you and your dead actor.’
‘Always doing the right thing. Fighting for King and country. So noble. So very, very bland.’
Bobby reached for his own glass. New Year’s Eve and she was as impossible as always. Well, this year he refused to bite. ‘Who would you be then? Greta Garbo, I suppose, wanting to be alone?’
Patricia’s teeth chinked against her glass tumbler as she threw her head back, laughing hoarsely. ‘No, not Garbo. Too sulky. Perhaps Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. Remember that scene? Her in a top hat and tails?’
‘Huh. Very, very you.’
She raised her glass. ‘I always was the butch one, dear.’ She drained the last of her Scotch, rolled the glass between the palms of her hands. ‘Ideally, I would have been Gable.’
Patricia nodded. ‘That sharp moustache, the oiled hair, stamping around the Deep South, shooting Yankees.’ Then with a watery smile, she added, ‘Not giving a damn.’
I’m currently planning a new novel and these are two of the main characters. Their spiky relationship keeps drawing me back and Patricia talks to me, even when I don’t necessarily want her to.
For reference, the novel is set in the early 1970s and they’re both in their 70s, hence the selection of old film stars.
The stillness of the afternoon sits, heavy as a sand bag, on his head and outstretched limbs.
He’s lain under the bridge for hours. His back is still damp from the morning dew, trapped by his mass, while the grass around him has turned brittle in the heat.
This is his favourite place, the best time. Crickets rasp at his ear then flick over him, ants worry his hair. Better than town, the children’s sniggers, the adult’s guarded looks.
Troll, they call him and worse. Beast, Foetus … Abortion. He didn’t know that last one, so he asked Gem at the store who laughed spittle in his face. Gem’s words buzz like flies. Unwanted … Terminated.
A fleshy burn rises inside him, filling his chest and throat. The day fuzzes with tears.
Footsteps on the bridge make him jump. The touch is light, a skip-skip-hop.
Toward the end of this year, I had a particularly inspired time as a short story writer. This was due – in very large part – to the change of seasons.
Autumn and winter days are gloomy and brief, the nights long and forbidding as one of the original Grimm fairy tales (before they censored the really nasty bits). The weather here in the UK is by turns warm, wet and windy, and clear, still and crystal bright with frost.
While the summer inspires me to be outside, writing never feels a more attractive prospect than during the colder months, when there are no butterflies to chase and bees to bother.
And so this autumn I found myself entering several writing competitions*. Okay, it helps that Halloween brings a swollen crop of writing challenges and there’s nothing excites me more than dipping my stubby toe in the murky waters of the dark and the creepy.
The idea for one competition sprang from another favourite past time – television.
The Antiques Roadshow was on the box. For those unfamiliar with the programme, the Roadshow is a BBC staple (it first aired in 1979) which encourages people to raid their attics, empty the contents into the grounds of a stately home and stand for hours in the pouring rain/blazing sun waiting for an expert to tell them their treasure is worthless tat or – very occasionally – that it really is treasure.
The fun comes in watching the reactions of the owners as they hear the news, usually falling into two camps,
The ‘Well-I-love-it-anyway-despite-how-obviously-ugly-and-worthless-it-is’ Camp
The ‘It’ll-stay-in-the-family-despite-being-terrifically-ugly-and-worth-more-than-my-house’ Camp.
Which if you believe them means no one sells anything that’s been valued – ever.
Anyway, we were watching an episode that featured Victorian mourning jewellery made from human hair. Because the Victorians had very different views on death and thought it perfectly acceptable to pop their dead granny down to the photographic studio to have her portrait taken for the album before lopping off her hair and having it woven into a brooch, a watch chain, a ring or even a framed family tree – if there were enough dead relatives to make a tree of course.
Watching this fascinating piece, my writer’s mind wandered …
Along the back streets of Victorian Manchester, to a lace maker down on her luck who one day takes on a rather unusual commission …
Don’t let anyone tell you being away from your laptop/typewriter/notepad is a waste of writing time. Watching TV and films, reading books, going for long walks and communing with bumble bees all have their place in the writers’ life and in feeding your inspiration.
Just make sure you get your bum on a seat afterwards so you can carve a story from those sparks of creativity.
*Of the other three stories I wrote this autumn, I wasn’t placed in one and haven’t yet heard about the others. Watch this space. Or not, because, let’s face it, I’ll only write a post if I win.
Writing novels is a strange way to spend your life.
You take months (in my case, years) working alone on a project then there comes a point – if you want your baby to develop, to grow and not remain swaddled to your over-protective breast forever – when you must push what you’ve made into the world and watch from a safe distance to see if it will fall on its face or walk, perhaps even run.
But what if it manages to both face plant and saunter cockily round the block on the same day?
A few weeks ago, I learned I’d come second in a Writing Magazine competition (more on that nearer publication day). My prize was either a modest amount of cash or a critique of 9,000 words.
Now, as I’m a writer with heaps of artistic integrity and a yearning to polish my craft until I can see my squadgy face in it, I opted for a critique of my Urban Fantasy novel opening.
On Tuesday the critique popped up in my inbox and I avoided reading it for three days.
This was my Schrödinger’s cat moment. I left the email unopened for the same reason it takes me weeks to check the numbers on a lottery ticket – if I don’t look, the unread critique/lottery ticket has the potential to be at once a marvellous review of my talent/worth millions and a hideous rip in my self-esteem/a worthless scrap of paper heading for the recycling bin.
Better not to know, right?
Except of course, wrong. I had to know because otherwise what’s the point in any of it? I opened the document …
And read the most delightful feedback I’ve had in a long while. The opening was engaging, the reader said, the characters realistic and sympathetic. My descriptions were good. I create a sense of mystery and the only thing that she truly found disappointing was not being able to read more.
Now, I’m British. Pretty reserved generally.
I tell you, I was dancing round the kitchen in my slippers after reading that. I fist bumped the air and I’ve never fist bumped anything in my life before.
Filled with renewed self-confidence, I sent a (very polite) follow up email to an agent I sent my chapters to back in August and submitted to three new ones. This could be it. If a professional reader at the UK’s bestselling writing magazine thinks my story has promise, it could be the vehicle that sees me become a published novelist, right?
Towards the end of the afternoon, another email popped into my inbox. From the agent I’d sent my (very polite) follow up to.
After apologising for taking so long to get back to me, she took around a page to say:
That no publishers want Urban Fantasy just now.
That the perspective in the first scene was confusing.
That the premise was too well-trodden to grab her interest.
Basically, that she didn’t think the story was strong enough to sell.
At this point there was not another euphoric little dance around the kitchen. A professional had now told me my story was unoriginal, not good enough to warrant a read in full.
A black hole, a nobbly Hell especially for writers would surely now open up in the lino and swallow me whole. Tiny demons armed with nothing but sharpened quills, reading extracts from Fifty Shades of Grey would poke my eyeballs for all eternity, whispering, If E.L.James can get published, why can’t you?
Of course, this didn’t happen.
Because she also:
Said the mystery at the heart of my story was a strong one.
Said I wrote well.
Actually gave me a personal response, took time to read my submission carefully and gave me guidance on how to improve. And anyone who’s been down the submission route will know that getting any kind of personal response feels like a small win.
So, what have I taken from yesterday?
That writing is utterly subjective. That what one professional enjoys another will not.
That I need to be more adventurous with my story telling, not just thinking outside the box, but climbing out of the box – hell, I just need to burn the bloody box!
And that I can write. I really can.
And for now, that’s all the speck of gold I need to keep me panning for more.
NB For my dear, generous beta readers, Maureen, Chris,Jane, Karen, Sammi, Jane and Lauren, I’m not giving up on finding Caro and Neil a home just yet. And whatever the story’s merits, you’ve helped make it that way. Many thanks again, all of you.
Corrugated iron sheets rusted over the front door, the balcony was crumbling, buttressed by wormy wooden posts. People would retell the story of the day the railing gave way, when metal poles and curlicues pocked the street and concussed Ori the grocer.
Food rotted in the kitchen, the floors rippled with rats and the drains flooded in the annual rains, turning the street into an impassable sewer for weeks.
Still, no town inspector visited. Dajjal was never reported by his neighbours for the stench, the ticks or the occasional outbreak of Weil’s disease.
Instead, they nodded courteously if he was sitting on his front step smoking his evil smelling cigarettes, though each house kept planks by the door to lay over the filth when the street was in flood.
When your neighbour is the Antichrist, you show respect.