Stories in Search of an Author?
I have come to believe that the stories we tell, exist before we confine them with words, harass them along paths, or have the arrogance to decide where they begin and end.
I have dreamt stories. I don’t mean derived stories from dreams, I mean written a complete story within the dream, at a desk in an examination setting with a two hour deadline, handed it to the ‘examiner’ and woken up. That story was set in Vermont.
That was inconsiderate since I have never been to Vermont, and when I showed it to those who had, one said ‘Soggy leaves do not lie on the autumn ground in Vermont, they get blown into corners against fences, in piles’. Another said that my hick-speaking character would live further south in Appalachia.
Still it was a good story, and one day I might redraft it. Or go to Vermont!
But my conviction in the pre-existence of stories found corroboration in reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. I have avoided picking up this book because I am a curmudgeon by nature, and everyone had said ‘This is the only writing book you HAVE to read.’ So I didn’t.
But I now just have. Yes, it is as good as they all said.
Here comes the interesting part.
Some years ago I thought I would try my hand at a genre story, crime, romance or some such just to prove I could. And because what I normally write has an uphill climb to find readers, too literary, too poetic, too philosophical, too difficult to Dewey. You name any difficulty and what I write will plead ‘guilty as charged.’
I would also write a short short story since my others run to 5K or more. I would stick to 2K. and do what I usually avoid, write in the present tense.
So I wrote a story called ‘Honey I’m Home’.
Now Stephen King sets one single practise ‘exercise’ in the course of his book. Here it is paraphrased and derived from the ‘Police Beat’ section of most local papers, most weeks, Here is what he sets.
‘ A woman- call her Jane- marries a man who is bright, witty and pulsing with sexual magnetism. We’ll call the guy Dick, the world’s most Freudian name. Unfortunately Dick has his dark side, short tempered… control freak… Jane tries to overlook…make the marriage work…They have a child…when the little girl is three or so the jealous tirades begin again. Abuse is verbal and then physical…
At last poor Jane can’t take it anymore. She divorces the schmuck and gets custody of their daughter, Little Nell. Dick begins to stalk…Jane gets a restraining order…about as useful as a parasol in a hurricane…finally after an incident which you will write in vivid and scary detail…Richard is arrested and jailed/
After Dick’s incarceration…Jane takes herself home to a house…how she comes by this house the story will tell…Something pings at her as she lets herself in…makes her uneasy…decides to have a cup of tea and watches the news. Three men have escaped killing a guard in the process. Two were recaptured the third still at large…Jane knows beyond a shadow if doubt the one who escaped was Dick. That unease was the smell of Vitalis hair tonic. Only Dick would make sure he had hair tonic in jail.
It is a good story but not unique. I want you to change the sexes of the antagonist and protagonist before beginning to workout the situation in your story. Narrate without plotting and let this one inversion carry you along….” ( On Writing Stephen King)
So here is the one I prepared earlier. Names are unchanged. Every single one. I promise. Just a hasty draft to see if I could!
When you have read it tell me the probability of the synchronicity? Or consider whether the writer anywhere is simply a scribe?
Honey I’m Home.
The trainee nurse in the white cap and uniform sitting in the pallid spring sunshine pretends to read. The long fair pigtail down her back hangs like a bell-rope, there for the pulling. It had been twelve years, almost to the day.
‘I want to come to you’ he’d written’ somewhere anonymous, somewhere nice. Go feed the ducks in St James’s Park and I’ll walk to you. I want the pleasure of finding you.’
She sits feeling as conspicuous as an archery target, unable to predict from which direction the arrow might come, and unwilling to swivel or look anxious. She would wait for a hand on her shoulder before she would believe him. It comes, falling familiar despite the years.
“Oh Daddy, at last!”
“My love, you waited” The shell of her father, this thin new ascetic in a checked shirt walks around the bench and gathers her to his chest. Silently they stand, and weep, soundlessly, mingling in joy. They had waited together and apart since that day.
Richard Dearlove is exhausted and it shows. His former days of athletic promise have been carved like wood; hair scraped over the pate with a curry comb, clefts from nose to chin deep enough to nest a wagtail and those once seductive eyes sloped with the effort of concealing shame. This man, scuff-walking along a country road, is buffeted by heedless cars passing at speed. He is inconspicuous even to himself; a drooping man in a rust coloured jacket out walking from nowhere to nowhere.
This remnant of manhood is sheltering hope, a candle lit in a wind. He is heading towards it, the hope of a home, a home yet to be. With little Nell and without Jane who liked to be called Janice. Will that even be possible? Jane had filled every room in every house with the smoke of terror, the smell of terror is all he now remembers. But now there is a shack in a clearing of a bosky wood, thick with billowing oaks, a shack concealed, and secured. He tries to visualise a future Nell, introduced to the liberty of safety; tree houses, friends, perhaps a puppy? Richard had cooked oatmeal porridge, tied her hair ribbon and ridden the bus with her to her new village school, a single room of golden stone and country children eager, open faced, and robust with knock about knees and country boots. His pinched peaky daughter had clutched his hand, her mouth tight and determined. Brave was his damaged daughter as he released her to the schoolmistress with swinging glasses on a chain, below a ready smile.
‘I’ll bring her home myself today. I know where you are’
‘That’s really kind’ Richard said.
‘Well is makes the link’ she said ‘I like to imagine where my pupils start their day’ Nell was led away, looking over her shoulder and nodding reassurance.
Richard is determined not to think of Jane, now safely ensconced in the ‘compassionate asylum for the mentally disturbed’. The savage event that had precipitated her psychiatric diagnosis (‘borderline schizophrenia’ hardly did justice to the true evil of her nature) had also cost his income, since no legal firm needed a rumour of ‘domestic violence’, not even to help the innocent party. Men were never believed innocent. The Law was far from impartial when it came to its self interest. They had paid him off generously and fortunately too late for her to hear of it. Securing her restraint had cost the family home, the capital invested to see her right for twenty five years. Given what had happened, he was only too glad to be rid of it. Rid of all of it, work included, because the Law was now an hypocrisy, that always left the victim abandoned.
What little money was left had bought the shack, hidden and lit in a clearing, remote, simple, quite sufficient. Jane had known nothing of this refuge; so not even her imaginative thought could sidle through a crack. Thinking of her penetration, Richard wonders whether he might manage without a telephone. That might be unwise if Nell got ill and a doctor was needed, but there would be no television, no internet, no crude stridency. He and Nell needed solitude until courage grew stronger. Was that too much a burden, to need his daughter to give shape and recovery to his own life?
Nell would soon get accustomed, find friends. Richard’s spirits lift at the thought of her opening out, like a flower, dropping her tight shoulders, running heedless through wet grass, and swinging on a tire from a rope. Trees he now has, enough to create walkways and platforms, a high world for her to command. Please God he thinks. His recovery would be through witnessing hers, he knows that.
The key was where he had left it, in the toe of Nell’s small Wellington boot, lying as though discarded in haste. Richard has become master of other people’s perception. He glances at the Harley Davidson under a tarpaulin, also undisturbed. He knew that a single father who rode a motorbike with his daughter riding pillion would raise the eyebrows of the social services. He had to believe in taking risks, to show Nell how to learn to be unafraid. What social worker would understand that? With her small arms about his waist they both might fly. It was easier to conceal, better to escape on narrow tracks and some things had innate nobility. His motorbike, always resented by Jane, was one of them, his last defiance.
He lets himself in. Ah the cool calm of a deserted house! He walks through the simple living room taking pleasure from the half drawn curtains that filter a woodland light. A bird rises outside with a sudden wild cry and a flapping tumult of feathers. Richard freezes. Is that a scent dropped like guano from a startled bird? It carries a clear musk, like Jane’s cloying perfume assailing his nostrils and his prickling skin. Get a grip he tells himself. All terror carries the scent of Jane, each resurrecting all the others.
He loosens his tie and tosses it over a chair. Would such simple freedoms ever eradicate the visions of her silent stealth? Her eruptions that could never be predicted? Her slithering withdrawal to lay new traps? Without Nell he might have escaped. Nell had chained him to Jane and Jane had used every convincing persuasion to try and strip him of her. Not because she cared for Nell, but because he did.
That would have been a defeat too far. Jane alone with Nell meant certain torture for his defenseless daughter. Taking her abroad would have been pursuit unending; Jane as ‘wronged mother’ would have stopped at nothing, and all the world would have added outrage to fuel her determination. Law, Equality, Liberation; none had been so much as scratched. He wanted nothing to do with the world with its vacuous pretenses.
A deep disquiet follows him into the kitchen, almost a blind puppy, nose to his heels. How has memory such power to penetrate where she had never been? She is in a locked ward and no doubt well sedated. She would be seething angry. Richard fills a kettle from the pleasing brass tap that offers an effortless smooth flow. He lights the gas and reflects that everything here would slow him down; no electric kettle, no efficiency, no intrusions.
As he stands gazing onto a patch of sunlight on the uncut grass he feels a pressure from the hall, and the sense of a step on bare boards that creaks. He grips his forearm and digs the nails of his right hand in the flesh to chastise himself, and release his irrational fear. He turns on the small clock radio which offers tinny drumming that drill through his teeth. Twiddling the dial offers the three beeps that herald the news.
‘News at One. Geoffrey Lancaster reporting. News just released. The Amphora Clinic, a secure unit for the mentally ill in North Hertfordshire reported the escape of three inmates earlier today. A night nurse changing to go off duty was attacked and stabbed. Attacked from behind and her throat slashed, she was reported dead at the scene. Her name is not yet being released nor those of her attackers who stole her car keys and made off with her car. Two were captured after they stopped at a garage to buy sandwiches. They were abandoned by the driver who drove off. She was only recently admitted to the Unit, and has conspicuous red hair worn loosely scarved. A woman in her early forties, she is considered extremely dangerous. Any one seeing her is warned….
Richard knows. Not a shred of doubt. Jane has escaped, and Jane has murdered without hesitation, and abandoned her accomplices, ruthless as always. Now his thought flows in beads of sweat below his shirt. He fights to retain some vestige of rational grasp. She knows nothing of this refuge, would there have been time even if somehow…. Richard quickly shuffles the details, the mortgage correspondence, the interrupted postal deliveries. He had been careful, perhaps too careful. Shuffling produces no clarity, just the cold certainty that she had been here already.
“Are you making tea for two?” The voice that chills the blood comes from behind the open door A foot stabs into view, propped on a puce stiletto heel. Richard reaches for the cutlery draw.
“Don’t do that” she says. He does it anyway. Terror is changed into clear and controlled fury. He grasps a small knife in his palm, blade towards his sleeve, ready to flick it forward, full fist thrust behind. All the years of self control is now concentrated in his blind desire to kill her.
“You and your little instrument…” she mocks, shimmying into sight, that hair, her weapon always, falling to the cleavage revealed by a faux kimono. For a woman who had just violently murdered she was unruffled, watchful, and bloodless.
“How did you find me?” Richard knows this is a pointless question but he needs to speak to concentrate his resolve.
“I never lost you, lover” Jane smiles. “I came here two months ago. Don’t believe me? Check the cupboard, all my lovely shoes waiting for walkies. We’ll have new kinds of fun…”
Richard is defeated. She lives only to torment him. Nothing will stop it. He lets the knife fall to the floor. Jane moves towards him to retrieve it.
“Where’s our Nell?” she asks bending down.
The name and the possessive were enough. Richard kicked with all force possible, collecting Jane beneath her chin, snapping her head sharply back. She falls heavily sideways against the kitchen shelves which spill steel in a crashing of pots and lids. A steel colander spins a prolonged applause. Her long legs sprawl outwards, her unconcealed sex her flaunted mocking weapon. He snatches up the pitiful vegetable peeler and slashed it aiming for her throat, but instead slices from one ear to the corner of her mouth. The mouth smiles wider. Somewhere outside himself Richard knows she is enjoying this, her new macho man armed with inadequate means. As always. He slashes again, across those mocking eyes. Welling blood oozes and rolls down the sides of her nose, like the beads of a crucifixion, to the smiling mouth.
That smile must be wiped. Survival depends upon it.
After Richard has kicked her to death among the ecstatic noisy pots, he washes the knife and replaces it in the drawer. It is almost time for Nell to be delivered by the school mistress.
He drags the matted body by its blood coloured hair to the back door, and out onto the flags that already look damp as a grave. He could not bear to touch her body so nudged her into a decent death with a foot and covered the shape with the bright kimono. He pulls her head up by the hair, pushes a cushion beneath it. He fetches a blanket from his bed, throws it over her and closes the door.
The pots are replaced, the floor is mopped, and Richard waits. Nell would be home soon.
The sound of slow tires and bruised gravel causes a moment’s panic. Nell runs in through the open front door.
“School’s lovely Daddy. Isn’t this all lovely, lovely, lovely…” she sings capering round his chair. The car reverses, and drives slowly away.’
“Didn’t she want to come in? Did you ask her?”
“Course I did. She said….Daddy what’s wrong?” Nell leans across Richard’s lap looking into his eyes. They are not the eyes she remembered from earlier. He puts a hand on each cheek and pulls her between his knees, holding her firm and still.
“I have just killed your mother.” Nell puts a finger to her mouth. Does she understand? Does she believe him? She puts her arms around his neck and thrusts forward to climb onto his lap. He lifts her.
“I’m glad” she says “Now we really are free. Aren’t we?”
“In one way, perhaps the most important way. Shall we go out to a restaurant for supper?”
“Ooh Yes! Can I have steak with chips?”
The Harley Davidson kicks into life on the first attempt, and slowly Richard nurses it through the grass onto the track. With the roar of acceleration Nell clasps his waist, her head warm against the small of his back.
After supper a tired man, hand in hand with his daughter, walks into the police station.