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!