Looking back through an old notebook, I came across this exploration for a new story:
'A frustrated, resentful young mother, determined to have her walk, strides along the beach making New Year resolutions. Something will happen that will prevent her return to her family, something that will both challenge her self-centeredness and drive a much deeper wedge between her and her husband. A life-course changing event. But what? This is just the beginning. All the essential elements are here, but I have absolutely no idea what happens next!'
You can read the complete story that this idea became, 'Choices', on this website. It also forms part of my new short story collection, 'Habits of Silence.'
I long ago dropped the notion that there were complete stories lurking in my imagination if I could only magically bring them into the light. Stories are constructed. They start with an idea, an incident, a scene, a character, and are built up in a way that may be more or less chaotic or organised, until some thing begins to emerge from the material.
My notebooks attest to many many beginnings, that have not, so far, progressed. I seem to be good at them, producing the character, the setting, getting straight into the scene, getting the reader's attention. Here is a recent one, provisionally titled, ''Where do Spirits Go?"
It was my first dead body.
I know that this is supposed to be a significant moment in your life, like the first time you have sex. Or your first overseas trip. (Martin said last night that he went to Mexico on his first trip, and I said Wow! Did he stay in Youth Hostels? And he said, No, you dork, my body was flat on the bed in Manchester, it was my spirit being that went to Mexico.)
The Charge Nurse told me when I got to work.
'Sad news about Mr. Stubbs.'
(He's called Mr. Stubbs because of the way he's always collecting cigarette butts.)
'He died an hour ago at breakfast,' the Charge Nurse went on. "We're still waiting for the doctor to come.'
'Isn't it a bit late for that if he's already dead?' I said.
But the Charge Nurse, who's called Ray Braithwaite and is really nice, said the doctor had to pronounce him dead before we could call the undertakers to come and take the body away. 'Go and have a look at him,' he said. 'He's in Room 2.'
So I did. Room 2 was down the back of the ward, by the back entrance. It wasn't the room Mr. Stubbs had lived in for the last 26 years, but I guess they'd put him there so he could be carried out discreetly. I had such a shock when I pushed the door open. He was completely naked. Just lying on the bed, with his arms at his sides and his toes pointing to the ceiling. I went to the side of the bed and stood looking at him. I was surprised I wasn't scared. More awed really.
His stomach stood up like a huge hill that rose from his chest up a slope to an impossible summit, then fell to the shriveled little mound of jumbled flesh and hair that was his penis and balls. And so much curly black hair! It was thick, all over his chest, and even on his stomach. His thighs too, thick with it. I stared at his skin, it was like looking at a close up photograph, all the pores and marks seemed magnified, and the colours lurid and blotchy like a bad painting.
His face was just nothing. I touched his cheek, it wasn't as cold as I was expecting. But his fat purple lips were never going to ask for another cigarette again. Mr. Stubbs had gone, and left his body behind.
'He was well looked after,' Ray said, when I went back to the nurse's station. 'We've got nothing to be concerned about.' I couldn't stop thinking about it though.
Yesterday, we had had a sort of conversation, Mr. Stubbs and me. I'd gone outside to have a smoke and a bit of peace. Not that there's much peace to be had these days since they'd opened up all the back wards and let the patients wander about at will outside. Mr. Stubbs liked to do the rounds, picking up his butts. He kept them in a tin, which he carried in a plastic shopping bag. When he wasn't picking up butts, he'd be sitting on the wooden seat under the chestnut tree. If he had enough, he'd roll them into a thin cigarette, scrounge a light off someone, and then draw the smoke down, deep as it would go, staring up into the branches of the tree.
'Hey Nurse, got a light?' he called to me as I walked past. He wasn't allowed matches, he'd set too many fires.
So I lit his ciggie for him, and then lit my own,
'Don't wait too long,' he said.
I didn't really know what to say to that, so I sat down next to him. He didn't say anything else though, just concentrated on inhaling, and moving his restless feet up and down. A magpie warbled above us. He can't have had any idea that he'd be dead the next day.
What happens next? I have absolutely no idea!
This is a story about my hair, and how it once came to be a problem.
In the beginning, my hair was not a problem. I had plaits as a child. My mother plaited my hair every morning. I stood between her legs, leaning on her slightly, feeling the gentle tugging of her fingers. Every night, she undid the plaits and brushed my hair. She bought ribbons from the haberdashery that she tied over the elastic bands in pretty bows, and also slides with butterflies and flowers on them that kept the wayward wisps off my face. Between the plaiting in the morning and the unplaiting at night, I didn't have to think about my hair at all.
But one day - I would have been about nine or ten - my mother decided to have my plaits cut off. Perhaps she had grown impatient with the time it took to do my hair. Perhaps she thought I had got too old for plaits. Perhaps she just wanted something to be different, and on a whim fixed on my hair. I can't remember it being discussed.
She took me to a hairdresser in town. There was a considerable sense of occasion about it. I sat up high on the booster cushion so I could see in the mirror. The hairdresser didn't undo my plaits, she cut them off with a huge pair of shears, and then dangled them in front of my face. She and my mother were laughing, my mother rather nervously I think. The hairdresser clearly saw it as a cause for celebration. She must have trimmed what was left of my hair, tidied the ragged ends up somehow, but I don't remember this.
My mother might have said, 'I don't know what her Daddy's going to say!' Something, at any rate, prompted the hairdresser to launch suddenly into a scene which has remained with me vividly to this day. Holding a plait in each hand, she bent close to my face, and whispered, 'When your Daddy comes home, HIDE!' Then, her voice rising dramatically, she went on, 'Hide behind the door! And when he comes in, JUMP OUT, and wave your plaits at him, and say HERE'S SOME FISH FOR YOUR SUPPER!' And she shook the plaits madly at me, her eyes wide and her coarse face shining just like a fish wife's.
What a strange thing it seems now! Did my plaits remind her of a couple of slaughtered plaice, perhaps? Maybe she had a long ago memory of her own, of a father taken off guard at the sight of his newly shorn and suddenly-much-older-looking daughter.
On the bus going home, I clutched the plaits tightly, and told my mother that I was going to do exactly as the hairdresser had suggested. Playing tricks on my father was not normally part of my repertoire; indeed, practical jokes and nasty surprises of any kind were firmly discouraged in my family. But the hairdresser had seemed to carry an authority and wordliness that somehow convinced me that my father would find the joke hilarious, and not, therefore, mind about my hair being cut off. I entirely missed my mother's non-committal, muted response. Perhaps she too was half convinced that the hairdresser's bull-by-the-horns approach was the way to go. At any rate, she didn't tell me not to do it.
I see myself now, hiding behind the lounge door, holding my plaits, holding my breath, my heart thudding in the sudden realisation that what I am about to do is outlandishly out of character, and not funny at all, but it is too late, my father is coming through the door, and I leap out, wildly waving the amputated plaits and shouting bizarrely, 'Here's some fish for your supper!' (We didn't even have 'supper' in our house, it wasn't even a thing.)
I see my father flinching away. He is surprised, but he's not laughing. He takes one of the plaits from me, perhaps he doesn't quite understand what he is seeing. He looks at it strangely, then hands it back to me.
'What have you done?' he says, but already I am too ashamed to respond.
We sit at the table to eat. My father eats in silence, and he doesn't look at me. My mother attempts conversation, then she gives up and we all eat in silence.
So begins five years of conflict and misery over my hair. Not with my father, who passes no further comment on it, ever. But it's as if he started a war and then left the battlefield. For, from this time forward, the sight of my hair seems to set my mother's teeth on edge. She never does my hair again, it's now my responsibility, and my struggle every day becomes, how can I find a way to do it that will take away her frown of disapproval and annoyance? How can I make her like my hair again?