Friday, June 23, 2006

Random Highbrow

Random Highbrow is a writing competition set by Grimm Magazine. 12 words are given on the website ( and entrants have to write a 250-word story using each all of the words, in any order and any number of times. For me, this was harder than it first seemed. The excitement lay, though, in the online voting by readers which eventually produced a winner. Not me, I should add. I've typed the twelve words in red throughout the following text:

All that remained of their eight plump and faithful hens was the wrecked coop and a few bloody feathers. Shocked and fearful, the family could only look to the surrounding forest as the source of the violation. Soon, the father decided he would have to do some night-time poaching, in order to put food on the table.

That night’s full moon suited his plan and he set off on his foray. Wife and children could only pray for his safety and wish him well.

Just before dawn, the woman awoke to a heavy snuffling outside the cottage. Thinking her husband had returned, she approached the door. As she reached for the handle, the door crashed inwards, landing on top of her. Weakened, but hidden, she was pinned where she lay. A huge, hairy, smelly beast entered, growling and glaring at the children. As it stalked towards them, thick strings of saliva dripped from its fang-ridden jowls.

The mother, her children threatened, sprang to action. Grabbing a cleaver, she hacked at the beast’s neck. Shadows danced and flew as the little oil lamp swung wildly where it hung.

The thing died quickly, its head almost severed. She went to her children, wiping her bloodstained hands on a handkerchief. Meanwhile, a transformation was taking place. They saw the beast shrink, its fur fall away. Seconds later, their screams reverberated throughout the stirring forest as the head lolled to reveal its face – the face of their father.

More Precious Than Gold

Another Christmas writing competition. This time the 250 words had to be about 'gold' or have 'gold' in the title:

The evening had darkened. He surveyed his work once more, hand poised over the switch. Flicking his finger, the tree came alive. Golden colour appeared in places he hadn’t noticed earlier, glittering tinsel and twinkling baubles radiating their own vitality.

She had loved Christmas and she was everywhere in this tree: the little clay robin from their Parisian honeymoon, the red wood-carved Santa from Copenhagen, the winking Canadian snowman. Several papier-mache baubles hung by pipe-cleaner stalks – made from love by now-grown children. She’d loved it all, and that had made him feel alive. Unconsciously, he twisted the gold band he still wore.

Big snowflakes fell outside as the distant harmonies of carol singers tugged at him nostalgically. Such a special time and she wasn’t here to enjoy it; he could feel guilty at letting himself do so. The winking snowman revolved slowly to face him as he adjusted the tree’s position. He winked back and chuckled. She would hold it next to her face, mimicking the wink for him. Such memories – so happy they were painful.

Although she was gone, she had left bits of herself behind – KNOCK, KNOCK! – and here they were. He opened the door to shouts of “Grandpa!” and “Merry Christmas, Dad!” The invading snowy gust was outmatched by the warmth of collected family.

Yes. She was here. Their courtship history bedecked the tree and her spirit was all too apparent in his children and grandchildren. These gifts she had left him. Gifts more precious than gold.

Baby Comes Home

I wrote this one for a competition for Fiction Hints - an online resource for writers. The aim was to write 150 words on what it was like to bring a new baby home for the first time:

Everyone was waiting. Two sets of grandparents, assorted aunts and uncles. This was the moment they had always wished for, and dreaded. Bringing this little warm, wet bundle home for the first time was such a huge deal that everything they had learned went out the window.

“What do we do now?” giggled Mum, shrugging.

“Oh, you’ll know. You’ll just do it.” said Gran, fingering the shawl from the baby’s face to get a better look.

The thought of this new person inserted into their lives and dependent upon them for everything, was overwhelming but exciting.

“I’m going to teach him to fish; I’ll play football with him and show him how to tease his Mum.” said Dad, landing on the sofa - full of ideas.

“Well, you can start now, Superdad.” Gently, she laid the baby in his lap and waved a smelly glistening hand in his face.

A Favourite Author of Mine

This piece was written as a result of a writing prompt given in the Writers' Bureau online newsletter. The idea was to write up to 300 words on an author that inspires you and what it is about their writing that does so. I submitted it and it was published in the subsequent newsletter:

So mild-mannered was the man himself, it is hard to equate Montague Rhodes James with the creeping horrors of his stories. An accomplished medievalist and Provost of Eton, he lived the life of the stereotypical academic. His stories, initially not intended for publication, thrilled and chilled his students as he read them aloud each Christmas, in what became a traditional Yuletide treat. A candle-lit chamber full of youngsters, gathered around a roaring log fire, would savour the moment, agog at the unfolding tale of horror. One story per year maintained the quality of this treat - a quality that persists in the single volume of stories he left behind, aside from his academic writings.

At the end of most collections of his stories, there is a piece entitled ‘Stories I have tried to write’. Here, James shares some ideas that did not reach print. It is written almost conversationally and the shy humility of the man rises from the page. Most of his stories concern characters not unlike himself in background and habit: an unmarried, unassuming, cloistered academic. If we superimpose these characters, one upon the other, might we come face to face with James himself?

His equanimity seems at odds with his hapless protagonists, driven by curiosity, scepticism or greed. More incongruous, though, is the nature and variety of his ghosts and demons. In his perfect, almost Victorian prose he presents us with normality, only to invade it with some horrific entity or another. By extrapolating James from the sum of his characters, we are witness to his humanity when he teaches each one of those characters their own lesson. These same lessons form a theme that pervades all of his fiction – that no matter how much we think we know, far more lies beyond our ken.


Ventriloquism, in the context of writing, is the technique of presenting a scene through an inanimate object. This might be an inaccurate definition, so please feel free to correct me. This piece was written for an online Christmas competition that asked for a Christmas scene from the viewpoint of a gift. Word limit - 250 words:

She calls me Betsy. Whenever she visits, her grandfather brings me out and she plays with me. I was her grandmother’s doll, his only souvenir of her.

And now something has happened. I felt him come home one day not long ago, heavy, slow and distracted. He had a sadness about him. He was going away – soon and forever. His sadness, though, was for her – the little girl he dotes on – the one who plays with me. They are as close as grandfather and grand-daughter can be. I think he sees his wife in her. No – I know he does. And now that he knows his own time is limited, he grieves for the loss she doesn’t yet know will be hers.

Having known him these past fifty years, I’d say that his grief feels just like it did before – when his wife went on ahead of him.

So, here I am – cleaned up, restored, new dress. He wrapped me so gently in glittering paper that made his brimming eyes twinkle, a Christmas gift for his little darling. Just as I am his only memory of his wife, I am to become his grand-daughter’s memory of him – and he knows this.

Such responsibility, carrying all of these memories. I feel heavy with the weight of it. I have become the ghost of so many people.

Autumn Scene

This was written for a competition in Writing Magazine. It asked for a description of autumn in 200 words. In retrospect, I think I got a bit too flowery for autumn:

Russet, ochre, yellow, terracotta. How warm the colours of our sleeping tree-life in contrast to the cool of the changing climate. Such vibrancy of hue seems at odds with the wet air that blows in our faces or, on a dry day, the crisp rustle underfoot. This carpet of noisy colour betrays the presence secretive animals and birds. Nothing and no-one can move here, without the world knowing of it. In youthful innocence, children run and laugh as they kick up the leaves, unaware of the disturbance to the wildlife or to the little death that is taking place all around.

Like the trees, we are powerless against the never-ending cycle. Unlike the trees, though, we must ponder the greater meaning and find parallels – even when there are none.

It is a feast for the senses, although a conflicting one. The eyes sense warmth in the patchwork of carotene and chlorophyll, where the cold and rain make us shrink into our layers, cosy and warm.

And how inadequate the metaphor of autumn and later life. As our parts wither towards death, do we brighten and cheer passers-by? What hope of renewal or rebirth? Will there be a spring for us?

Original Sin - Act 1, Scene 1

This was a strange one to do, but we all had fun with it in an inoffesive kind of way. The task was to write a brief script, in less than 600 words, for the arrival of Original Sin into The Garden of Eden. (Apologies if this offends anyone - it was never the intention):

Sunrise over the Garden of Eden. Birdsong.
A man and a woman awaken, stretch and yawn.

Adam: Mornin’ babes.

Eve: Mornin’ hun’.

Adam: Sleep alright?

Eve: Yeah, not bad. You?

Adam: Yeah, fine. (Pauses) So…what d’you fancy doin’ today, then?

Eve: Mmm. Dunno. What are the options?

Adam: Well…Let’s see…We could…go for a walk?

Eve: Aw! We always go for walks. It’s all we do. Walk here. Walk there. I mean, was it really part of The Grand Design for me to have thighs like tree-trunks?

Adam: But I like your thighs.

Eve: Yeah! You’ve liked them twice - and look what that begot us!

Adam: The boys?

Eve: Duh! Yes ‘the boys’! Well, to be more precise – the boy: since good old Cain offed his brother. What the Hell got into him? Never mind shaking your head, Adam. I don’t think either of you realise the importance of what he did. I mean, in one fell swoop he’s not only scuppered our doubles tournament, he’s only gone and reduced our gene pool by twenty five per cent! I mean, c’mon!

Adam: Yeah, yeah. I know. But look at it this way, babes. What’s done is done…and, well…four was a bit of a crowd, don’t you think? No don’t make that face, babes. Things’ll get better. I promise.

Eve: Jee, ya think? And how exactly will things get better,’babes’? No! Never mind stroking my thighs. You’ll just have to make do with real tree-trunks, as long as I’m feeling like this.

Adam: Okay! I was saving this for a special occasion, but now seems as good a time as any.

Eve: What? What is it? Are you hiding something under the bedding?

Adam: Ta-raa!

Eve: Wow! That has to be the biggest, reddest apple I’ve ever seen. Where did you find it?

Adam: D’you like it? I picked it specially.

Eve: I love it! But where did you get it?

Adam: See that hill on the horizon? On the other side of it there’s this tree. Massive thing. Covered in hundreds of apples just like this one, only…

Eve: Yes? Only…what?

Adam: Well, there was a huge wall around it and a sign saying ‘Keep Out’. I was just about to turn back when I noticed this one apple hanging over the wall. It was practically begging to be picked. It was just out of my reach, but…

Eve: But…what? For God’s sake, Adam, tell me!

Adam: Well this bloody great snake came out of nowhere onto the branch. It was so big that the weight of it pushed the apple down to within reach. I mean, what an opportunity. Now, that was a sign…if ever there was one. So, you know me – not one to look a gift-horse in the mouth. So, I grabbed it and ran.

Eve: You stole it? Is that what you’re saying?

Adam: Not really, no. More sort of…acquired it. Go on, babes. Bite into it. You deserve it. Ever since you-know-who done his brother in, you’ve been right down in the dumps. So, go on. Eat, and enjoy.

Eve: Oh well. It does look nice. I suppose it’ll be alright. I mean…what’s the worst that can happen? Right?

Adam: You betcha, babes.

A Kitchen Smell

We were asked to decribe a kitchen smell without actually naming it. This turned out to be a difficult task as we all interpreted it as a kind of 'name that smell' session. Anyway, here it is, in less than 250 words:

This particular kitchen smell is as old as civilisation itself. In fact, it’s a marker for when it all began. It permeates a household and has that homey familiarity about it that makes people smile and say, “I’ll have some of that! With loads of butter!”

Its warmth coddles you and makes you aware of its ancientness. For four hundred generations, womenfolk have been kneading and folding and baking to feed their communities. Today, the practice is still widespread although less gender-specific and more automated.

The equipment may have changed. The ingredients might be more refined. But the result has ever been the same – a satisfying, magnetic allure that says “You’re home now. Come and eat.”

It is baked and consumed by people all over the world, to a thousand different recipes. The smell is always the same; the smiles always mean the same. The aroma of its oven-rising pleases and pacifies wherever it fills the air. And when it is ready, its sharing can prevent war or found religions – such is the power of its social cohesiveness.

Even when it is drawn from the oven and cooled, its soft yielding insides still hold that fresh, satisfying smell. A smell that starts the day and ends a meal.

(208 words)

The Musings of an Old Lady

For this task we had to imagine an old lady sitting at a window, thinking. That was it, just thinking at a window. Word limit - less than 250 words:

When did it get so dark?

The house gets very gloomy and cold at this time of day. I remember how it once rang with the laughter of children. It’s all so different now and yet…the view is so familiar I can’t imagine sitting anywhere else. It’s my view – mine alone.

There’s our tree. My brothers and I would climb it on summer mornings and doze in the lazy heat of the afternoons. Those were magical times, happy and oh so long ago. What happened to that carefree little girl?

Life happened.

Life stole people from me and made me lonely. Johnnie went off to die in the war and Billy soon succumbed to TB. Most of Father’s adult life was spent in darkness, breathing the coal dust that eventually killed him. Mother, bereft of her men-folk, just could not find the will to live on.

Four loved ones gone that were part…no, they were all of me. I learned early on that Life is a finite thing – with a beginning, a middle, an end. I was barely out of childhood when I decided that, in order to escape the aching, sucking grief of the end, I would have avoid the middle.

So, here I sit, at my window, seeking the happy past, asking myself – which pain would have been the easier to bear? My chosen life of loneliness or the bereavement of a sundered bond?

When did it get so dark?

It’s been dark for years.

Opposing Viewpoints

This was a particularly difficult task, but a worthwhile one to engage in. We had to write up to 250 words on a subject we felt passionate about. Then we were to flip sides and write another 250 words opposing that viewpoint. (Please note, I'm aware that I'm breaking some basic grammatical conventions by ending my sentences with prepositions. I'm writing colloquially here, and most uf us do this in our everyday speech.):

My Point of View

Humanity is an amazing species. Some even perceive the divine in us. An a priori view of our evolution, certainly suggests direction. Fate and destiny, however, have not yet been detected by the Human Genome Project. We are, and always have been, affected and selected by those same evolutionary pressures that cleared the planet of the dinosaurs.

We have even started to learn how to control our environment. Our immediate environment is modified at the expense of the world at large. Essentially, this is the stage we are still at. We can make little bits of our planet clean, healthy and well-stocked, but the rest of the world pays the price; amid the compost heap, there are little patches of garden.

Thankfully, we have spotted the problem. We are learning how to minimise damage to the environment. We form national and international committees to address climate change and displaced peoples. We protect vast areas of the planet to allow its species to thrive and perform their tiny roles in the gigantic organism that is Gaia. We also react en masse to major accidents, natural disasters and tragedy on any scale.

Our world has shrunk and we are the skin upon it. For a while it looked as though we would be its cancer. However, our society has created its own immune system of checks and balances. We know how to preserve our environment and make life better for people.

And we, as a species, will do those things.

(248 words)

The Opposing Point of View

It should be news to none of us that we have been abusive of our planet. In our headlong rush towards an easy life we have forgotten our origins. Our world has become a place for mining raw materials and, when we have finished with our manufactured products, it is where we throw the trash.

As we wrap ourselves in the cocoon of modernity, we expect such things as automation, instantaneity, free time and pleasure. Such illusions are maintained by our Western-style economy. But luxuries like these are hardly economical. For all the ease of living we enjoy, there are others throughout the world paying the price, effectively assuming the workload that we shed. Multinational companies pay wages that maintain poverty. Poverty breeds ill-health which, in turn, pressurises a country’s economy.

The price is not only a human one. Our industries have begun a cascade that, in time, will cause problems for us all: a domino effect involving climate, the oceans, our forests and, ultimately, our future.

Yes, some see the problem. Some are actively trying to change things. We are obsessed, though, by wealth, power and our own tiny versions of right and wrong. We believe that what we see on the news is all that is happening in the world. As our technology develops, the planet shrinks, people die and species vanish. In such a small world, we begin to realise the effect of every butterfly’s wing.

A realisation too late, though. The end may indeed be nigh.

(250 words)

Review of 'The Sinner' by Tess Gerritson

Thsi was another great idea for a writing task. We had to write a review of a novel for the Woman's Weekly magazine, in less than 200 words. I had just read The Sinner by Tess Gerritson, so it was fresh in my mind. As far as I know, this was never published:

A cold clinical coroner who dissects the causes of death from murder victims. A tough tomboy policewoman who roughs it with the gruffest of her male colleagues. Both are women. Both are proficient and effective at what they do. Both are wrenched from their grooves into starkly different roles.

The Sinner, by Tess Gerritson, is a fairly unremarkable crime novel with all of the trademark plot devices of the genre. As a study in feminine fortitude and resilience, however, it outweighs any of its nearest competitors.

Visited by her ex-husband, the coroner opens herself once more to romance - and regret. The policewoman discovers she is pregnant and is forced to acknowledge a whole other world. Alongside these developments, the plot seems almost incidental but is subtly paralleled by particular events: an unwanted pregnancy, a secret affair.

The author explores how both women unfreeze from their established lifestyles and confront new pressures and possibilities. Gerritson, herself a coroner, handles some controversial issues – child abuse, abortion, death – intelligently and fairly. In fact, there is a tenderness about the writing that engenders respect and humanity.

It is a book about women written by a woman, but containing lessons for everyone.

Sensory Deprivation

For this task we had to describe an emotional or stressful incident experienced by someone who couldn't communicate it to anyone, in less than 250 words. My effort here was panned by my colleagues on the writers' group. They gave me too many reasons as to why it was rubbish to put them all down here. Most were fair, but it's the downside of opeining yourself up as a writer - sometimes you just get it wrong and there's always an audience:

God, I need a pee, I need a pee! I hope somebody comes soon. It’s another wet bed if they don’t. They’re usually regular with their attentions – the staff here.

Oh, I’m going to burst.

I can feel the odd thumping vibration of someone passing by, but never near enough to notice my raised hand. I’m really struggling here! I don’t care who comes. I’d settle for one of the rougher ones. Even those nurses who suddenly appear and start rolling you round, poking and probing your every orifice. Then you’re left in their version a comfortable position.

Oh! This is murder! I can feel my bladder trembling. I don’t think I can hold on. It’s going to…aahh!!

It’s amazing. Once the anxiety goes, it’s actually quite a pleasant feeling: that spreading warmth that caresses you where no-one else will, these days.

Ah! Now here they come – that unmistakable regularity of approaching foot-thumps. Now that the near ecstasy of my release has given me some momentary pleasure and comfort – they have to come and take it away from me.

I wonder which one it’ll be. There’s one particular nurse – I’m sure it’s the same one every time – she’ll stroke my arm to let me know she’s there. The odd pat or squeeze makes all the difference when you can’t see, hear or speak.

If only they were all like her – or him.

Review of 'Moby Dick'

One of the group came up with the great idea of writing a book review and posting it on Amazon. OI chose my all-time favourite, Moby Dick by Herman Melville. If you read it here, you won't want to read it again, but I believe it's still published on the Amazon site, so I've included the link at the bottom.

From its famous opening sentence – “Call me Ishmael” – to the last-page sinking of The Pequod, the novel Moby Dick is as gigantic as its eponymous character. The breadth of the story and the sheer weight of detail, relating to Nantucket whaling in the nineteenth century, are achievements in themselves. Add to this the idea that Melville’s greatest work might be a story that finds context in any age.

Many of Melville’s allusions are transposable to the modern era. How many space operas could just as easily have been set in a whaler on an ocean? The inter-character dynamics and sequence of events are broadly familiar. In fact, there are some elements of Moby Dick that are as relevant today, certainly in terms of reader reaction, as they might have been when it was first published, in 1851.

The first-person narration by Ishmael is delivered in a jaunty, humorous, almost self-deprecating style. The humour is also amazingly modern, even by twentieth century standards. For example, when Ishmael pays for his bed for the night, he is unaware that he must actually share it with a Fijian harpooner – a formidable ‘heathen’ chap called Queequeg. After a night full of scuffling over bed-space and confusion over language, Ishmael awakens the next morning with a sleeping Queequeg wrapped fondly around him. Funny by today’s standards; how must that scene have been received one hundred and fifty years ago?

Consider also the crew’s sighting of a giant squid. Put into context, this was the equivalent of seeing a UFO. Many had heard of these creatures from mariners’ tales; some believed they existed; but only a few had ever actually seen one. Further to this, the giant squid, Architeuthis sp, remained unclassified until 1880 – almost thirty years after the publication of Moby Dick.

Another, more superficial, legacy from the story is the name of the First Mate, Mr Starbuck: nothing to do with coffee, but delightful nevertheless.

Other strong elements that drive the narrative along are Ishmael’s developing friendship with Queequeg, ultimately ending in the former’s death, and the occasional biblical soliloquys from Ahab. We hear so much of Ahab before we actually meet him, that he almost becomes his own leitmotiv. When he enters the scene, everything focuses on him – the story becomes him. Indeed, superficially, the story is of Ishmael’s apprenticeship, but Melville skilfully works in several other layers: Ahab’s craving for revenge on the white whale and a commentary on the Nantucket whaling industry.

This book has to be among the top ten of many who have read it. It is a rip-roaring yarn full of humour, pathos and wonder. A great read!

The Red Lunchbox

This writing task asked for the inclusion of a red lunchbox. You can tell our ideas for writing exercises were drying up - although, sometimes the stragest prompts brought out the best writing in some of the group's members. Word count - exactly 200 words:

He was there again. Just like yesterday and the day before: right on the kerb, ready to step out. I saw him from the crossing. He looked like he would dive into the whizzing traffic.

But he hadn’t crossed yesterday or the day before. The crossing lights seemed slower today, so I’d more time to observe this character. He was a dapper type: nice three-piece suit, shiny black shoes.

And today again, amid his formal greyness, that incongruous little red plastic lunchbox hung like a comedy prop by his side. It looked as foreign as his behaviour.

As I waited for our light to change, I wondered at his purpose. Did he really carry his lunch in that? Had he stolen it from someone? Was he doing it for a bet? Did he even know he even had it?

The mystery was solved when a little girl materialised from what looked like a school building, and threw herself at him.

“Daddy!” she shouted gleefully.

“Well about time too!” he teased. “Here. You can carry your own stuff. It’s too heavy for me.” And off they went, hand in hand, she skipping and recounting her day, he listening and nodding patiently.

A Shakespearean Resolution

To celebrate our first online meeting after New Year, someone set the task of writing about a New year resolution. The twist was to end it with a Shakespearean reference, in less than 300 words:

This year’s resolution was to give up smoking. ‘Was’ because I haven’t succeeded yet. I started well, determined to go cold turkey. That was awful. I was ill – no, really! I couldn’t sleep. I trembled then sweated then ached – then trembled, sweated, ached all over again.

Bugger this, I decided. I’ll die if I don’t get a fag!

Then, I realised – it’s withdrawal that’s the problem here. I don’t need a fag. I just need nicotine.

So, off I went, down the chemist’s, to buy some patches. I wasn’t convinced, so I stuck two on to make sure. I started to feel a bit better, when another problem raised its ugly head.

Smoking’s such an oral pleasure and I needed something hand-to-mouth to fill the gap. Okay, the patches gave me my fix – but when I’m drinking coffee or a pint, what’s my other hand supposed to do – my fag hand?

So, I bought one of those nicotine pens: the ones you draw on like a ciggie and keep in your pocket like a pen. There! Craving and ‘hand-to-mouth’ thing satisfied – and I felt better.

But something deeper was missing - that warm penetrating feel when you draw on a freshly lit Camel - those smoky tendrils suffusing your peripheries, caressing your nerve-endings, telling you that, for the duration of that first drag at least, everything’s okay.

Stuff this! Where are those fags? Nothing’s worth this torture.

What is it they say? A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet? Yeah right! A rose is a rose like nothing else is. Same goes for fags.

A memorable character

For this writing task we had to create a memorable character. Sounds straightforward right? We had to do this by describing his behaviour, while keeping dialogue to a minimum - in less than 250 words:

He’s not bad – just misunderstood. When he looks at you his gaze invades, penetrates, violates. Then suddenly, his face cracks the widest grin – and you relax. For the time being, you’re okay.

He’s not always like that, though. Sometimes, when he wants something, he latches onto you - then things can get a bit hairy. You see, he doesn’t know right from wrong. It’s not that he doesn’t care about what he does. He can’t care – his brain just isn’t structured like yours and mine. Consequences are an alien concept to him – as is morality.

For example, he was watching TV one evening, apparently content. Out of the blue, he rose, lifted an ashtray and smashed it onto this other guy’s head. He then grabbed the poor git’s newspaper, sat down and read.

Obviously, we tended to the head-injured guy first. He was unconscious for the next three days and needed surgery to remove a big clot from his brain. Later, I approached our protagonist, as I seemed to get on with him best. When I asked him why, he looked at me like I was stupid.

“I wanted his newspaper!”

I suggested that asking for it might have been easier than almost killing him.

“Oh, he’ll heal!” he laughed, “Anyway – he knows what I’m like.”

Well, that’s psychopathy for you.

Nameless dialogue

Only a cruel person could have set this particular task. The aim was to write up to 250 words of dialogue without mentioning any of the characters' names. I'm not convinced my effort was successful. Any comments on how it might be improved?

“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” I lied. Something was wrong, but she’d missed it.
“Sure? You’ve been quiet all morning.”
“Yeah, well…I’m tired.” I didn’t want to have this conversation. Not with her. Not now.
“Hi, you two! How’re things?” Great. Another chirpy chatterer to notice my mood.
“Well, I’m fine.” She answered, clearly implying that I wasn’t.
“Oh-oh! What’s this? You two been arguing again?”
“No!” I said, simultaneous with her “Yes!” She dived in.
“Oh, frosty here’s been sulking all morning, but wont tell me what’s up.”
“I’ve not been su…”
“I know what it is.” Oh God – just what I didn’t need. “It’s his birthday. Happy birthday, Frosty!”
“Is that it? I knew there was something. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you should’ve remembered!” I was disappointed. We’d been such a close couple at one time and, yes, we’d split up a year ago, but we’d sort of stayed friends and…
“God, what a child. Now I remember why we broke up.”
“That’s not fair! You know fine well why we ended it!”
“Okay you two. We’ve heard all this before…”
“Shut up!” We both turned on Chirpy simultaneously.
“Well sorr-eee! Maybe I’ll just go out and come back in again.”
“How about just going out, full stop?” She’d turned on him now. I thought about taking his side.
“Don’t talk to him like that! Your problem’s with me.”
“My problem? You’re the one with the problem…”
Isn’t friendship just precious?

The shoe's the thing

For this task we had to write 250 words on how a stressful situation is influenced by the protagonist's shoes:

It was an important occasion and I was flattered to be asked. Then reality set in. As well as perform well, I had to look the part. I had my suit, but I needed new shoes. I chose dressy brogues that the smarter professional is seen in these days – black, shiny, patterned with hole-punched leather. Not really me, but sometimes, you know…

Anyway, here I was, ready for action. I’d memorised it perfectly. My private, out-loud rehearsals had gone well. Only one thing threatened to ruin my day – okay, two things. These damned shoes.

First, it was a barely-noticeable rub on each ankle. You try them on in the shop – they fit fine. You wear them around the house – yeah, they’ll do. Now, though, my reputation depended upon two tiny patches of stiff leather that had debrided the flesh from my ankles.

My name echoed across the dimmed, face-filled amphitheatre. If I delivered my opener, I knew, the rest would follow and hopefully flow. Concentrate!

But one end of my body competed with the other - and either might prevail.

I stood. Pain shot up both calves. I hobbled – tried measured steps. More pain. What was my opener, again? Pain, pain, pain. Why was I here?

On the podium I faced my executioners. Sweating; grimacing; fighting for focus. I’m here now. It’s do or die. In the darkness, I surreptitiously slipped my shoes off.


I began.

“Good afternoon, Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, James, for that very flattering introduction…”

Diary extract

For this task we had to write an extract from a fictitious diary, in less than 150 words. The key thing was that the extract should reveal more about the writer than the writer himself (or herself) is aware:

Bad night last night.
Not that I can remember much.
First Sue came in late – had me worried: what with the attacks and all. That’s 3 in the past 2 weeks – and the last poor girl died in hospital. Scary.
I don’t usually let Sue go out on her own, but I had one of my blackouts again. Docs still think some kinda migraine but I don’t know.
Anyway, Sue gets in late. We argue cos I was worried – and she accuses me of sneaking off for a beer with the lads, and faking my blackouts.
“3 blackouts in the past 2 weeks?” She shouts “And you’re never in when I get home. D’you think I’m a mug?”
I don’t get it.

There goes that song again

The task here was to write about a song and how it had embedded itself into someone's memory, in exactly 250 words:

It had been their song. The melting mellow tones of Andy Williams had always rendered Moon River in a way that gave flavour to their courtship. Simply listening to it would make them quiet and introspective as they gently embraced and joined the fluidity of the music.

As the years passed, however, their love deepened and became defined by other things, the song forgotten.

They had had thirty-two years together when his cancer took him. Inwardly, she was glad that he had gone first, as she knew he would never have coped, had it been her. She got on with her life, made bearable by small changes he would never be part of – new grandchildren, new house, new friends. She was known for her strength and resilience.

For her seventy-fifth birthday her family arranged a small party. As the night tired, they sought softer music and promptly dug out the old records. As the first strummed bars of Moon River filled the room, her heart lurched. She hadn’t heard it in years but it had always been there. More followed, though, as Andy’s caramel voice drew out of her all of the grief she had suppressed over the years, “Oh, dream-maker; you heartbreaker”, and she missed him all over again.

They had been “two drifters, off to see the world” but, for so long now, she had been only one.

Her tears flowed, like the River itself, and all she could do was say his name, over and over again.

Fie on adjectives and adverbs!

The idea for this exercise was to write an emotive piece, in exactly 250 words, involving all five senses, but without using any adjectives or adverbs: (if you spot any, please let me know)

I saw them fall; first one then, soon after, the other. They had been two cuboids reaching for the sky, their familiarity a comfort. Dominating the south tip of the island, they had represented, not just America, but The West as a whole.

Maybe that was the problem. Someone, somewhere, had perhaps equated The West’s symbols with its sins – imperialism, holding nations in debt, disregard for Kyoto.

Sitting in a friend’s Brooklyn garden, breathing the heat and smells of an ageing summer, I remember noticing the two-second gap between seeing the first collision and hearing it. You think ACCIDENT, TRAGEDY - but more the sense than the words themselves.

When the second plane went in, though, we knew that this was no accident. What were our feelings? Disbelief, shock, confusion, wonder? Yes – all of those. But thinking back, the feeling I most remember at the moment of impact was – nothing! It was like someone had CONTROL+ALT+DELETED my mind and it had to reboot to acknowledge the horror of what I had just witnessed. And while I was busy reeling from a position of safety, how many hundreds of people were praying, phoning, panicking, jumping, suffering, dying?

My mouth goes dry at the memory and I can still taste the dust and desperation of that September morning. It’s hard to know how to come back from something like that, but it’s what people do. It’s who we are. Also – for all my anguish, there are thousands who feel a lot worse.

Yeah! As if...!

This task required a complete scene in under 200 words, ending with the phrase 'Yeah! As if...!':

So, I’m sitting in the dock and it’s verdict time. I glare at each juror, trying to suck their glances in my direction, but not one of them looks at me. I can’t decide whether that’s a good sign or a bad one.

“All rise!”

The singing clerk ushers the judge into the courtroom accompanied by the banging and shifting of several hundred people. After some technical court-speak, the clerk asks the foreman to stand.

“Members of the jury, have you reached your verdict?”

If the boys have done what we agreed, then every member of that jury knows the consequences of opting for ‘guilty’. They, and their families, have been tracked down and made aware of what can happen to people who don’t play the game.

“We have.”

Is he nervous? Did he glance at me just then? I think he did. This might be going according to plan, after all. It had better. If I get banged up here, the boys are in big trouble: my back-up team’ll see to that.

“Do you find the accused guilty or not guilty?”

In a matter of seconds, I could be a free man.

Yeah. As if…

It was a dark and funny night...part 2

Exactly a year later we thought we'd mark our longevity with a reprise. Same idea - humorous, 250 words - but this one must pick up where the previous one ended:

But it doesn’t have to be. Sitting there, cold, hungry and miserable, I thought about how it had come to this. I suppose she had a point. Come to think of it…she was right. I’d put all of my energy into trying to be funny, rebellious, original. I didn’t stop to think that she might want something a bit more…well – substantial? Personal? Mature?
Now, maturity doesn’t come easily to me. And I suppose a cynic might say that I’m only thinking of giving it a try now, because I want something badly enough. They might be right. But I know what I want and I’ll bet everyone who knows me would be surprised to know what that is. Yes, I want Sue. Yes, I want to marry her. But, in my dark, cold, empty, impecunious bubble, the thing that I want more than anything is…her happiness. Whether that involves me, or not, has to be secondary.
I had always wooed and won through humour and zaniness. Today, I learned how multi-layered people really are. There’s a time and a place for playing the fool. Persuading someone to commit the rest of their life to you is not one of those times. So, I got it wrong. Badly wrong.
In retrospect, I suppose I’ve always been this way.
It’s like that old philosophical question – if a man speaks when there are no women around to hear him, is he still wrong?
In this case – in my case – the answer is yes.

It was a dark and funny night...

This was the first ever exercise set by our writers' group. The idea was to write a humorous piece in exactly 250 words, beginning with the phrase 'It was a dark and funny night.':

It was a dark and funny night.
Dark because…well, the electricity bill was unpaid – pretty essential to an evening light source. But ‘dark’ also because today life changed bigtime – I’d been dumped! Yep! She’d jilted me. And today of all days. You see, this was the day I proposed. I mean, after two years I thought that we should maybe, y’know…
Well, I asked her anyway. And I did it in style…well, as much style as jobless me could muster. I’d planned it precisely – nice bunch of flowers for the down-on-one-knee thing, the ring…. Actually, in retrospect, I might have handled the ring part badly. Impoverished, I’d folded the silver paper from a chocolate bar into a band that would’ve fitted her finger snugly – had she given the thing a chance.
But she just didn’t catch the funny mischievous symbolism of the gesture. I mean, a token fashioned from love and ingenuity…Isn’t that romantic in a stony-broke, higher-love kind of way? Obviously not!
She threw the flowers at me and said, in no uncertain terms, that she’d seen “enough penny-pinching”, she was “fed up pretending we ‘had’ something” and I could “go and ####” myself. She probably didn’t swear but I couldn’t quite catch her utterance as she strode tearfully down the street. Yes – I proposed in the street. Another romantic notion backfired.
I’d sacrificed all my money to buy the flowers, only to be left in the dark (literally and figuratively): mood to match.
It’s a funny old game…