This is something I wrote before I started the book, so it's a bit more scruffy, but I'm going to include it in the book as...a short story written by the protagonist. I haven't changed it, or the diary entries (which I'm also using) so it'll retain a slightly more raw style. I entered a few competitions with it; didn't even win a wooden spoon.
few years ago I attended a creative writing class; it was at Central St. Martin’s,
with which we’re vaguely affiliated, so it was free: For six weeks, on
Tuesday evenings, I learned how to lie more convincingly. I found it easy to
get the bare bones of a story down, but to turn it into a good read, with structure
and pace and that: Bastard hard.
The teacher, the gothically-named Elise Valmorbida, still occasionally sends me e-mails about various writing competitions. I’ve never entered one, but I just got a mail detailing three of them, so...why not ?
really not sure about this; don’t know whether I’m about to play
my trump card or inscribe my own headstone. We’re lying on the hillside
at the top of Hampstead Heath, London laid out before us under her thin sheet
of smog, round white clouds swirling across a blue March sky.
“Um,” I begin, decisively, “You know, in films, the characters might be in some sort of situation, and there’ll be this wise old…patriarchal…bloke, like Frazier’s dad or someone, and he’ll have this handy story which acts as a perfect metaphor for the situation his sons or whatever are in ? Actually it might be an allegory, not a metaphor, I’m not really certain.”
I continue to squint up into the sky and work hard not to look at her, in case I just start to babble or something, if I’m not already.
“Yeah,” she replies, after a slightly worrying pause. Good. “Something that puts everything into perspective.” She’s not stupid, this woman.
“Mm. Except it’s probably about baseball, so we wouldn’t get it anyway.”
She laughs. “It’s the bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded…I have no idea what that means. Mind you, I don’t know much about cricket either.”
Nor do I. She’s making a two-handed framing gesture against the sky and – I may as well look, I’m talking rubbish already – squinting through one eye.
A pause while I watch. She turns the squint towards me and opens both eyes wide, reminding me that I was in the middle of something. I return the look, then blink and clear my throat in a mildly theatrical fashion. “Yeah, so…no-one ever has those sort of stories in real life, right ?”
“They don’t,” she agrees.
“However,” I begin, with as much restraint as I can manage, “I actually have one.” I’m looking up into the sky again; I don’t dare to look at her expression, in case she’s decided she’s gone out with a lunatic. I don’t want to be future story material – well, I do, but not worst-date-ever stories.
Another pause, similarly worrying, before she prompts me: “Go on.”
I was a little kid, ten or maybe younger, and it was a day like today, blue and breezy although hotter, later in the year, during one of those vast Summer holidays suspended between school years. I was in the kitchen, pouring myself a glass of lemonade or orange squash or somesuch.
Looking out into the back garden at the shaggy lawn and the huge willow which was sending roots right under the house, I became aware of a sound, a humming noise. Occasionally a really big truck on the distant bypass would vibrate the front window, but this filled the whole house, coming from no apparent source. A sky sound. Not far away was an airfield where wings for the Airbus were made; interesting aeroplanes came and went and each had its own signature. The growl of the twin Merlins on the wings of the Mosquito, the pretty little wooden fighter-bomber from the Second World War; the deep thump of a Chinook’s rotors, the whir of a bloated Guppy flying in to collect more wings and take them to France. These sounds had one thing in common, no discernible direction of origin. I would run outside and look all around, knowing what I’d see but not where it would be. This throbbing hum was new, though, but it had to be from the sky, because it was coming from everywhere.
On my dad’s towering, sagging bookshelves, amongst the chemistry texts and histories of railways and warfare, were three black-spined paperbacks; Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. The cover illustrations – by Chris Foss, each bearing a small boxed “F” signature…it’s amazing what you remember – fitted together. My favourite was the middle of the three, Foundation and Empire, showing a vast ovoid spaceship with a deep ventral fin, black-and-yellow striped like a tropical fish. And somewhere in the back of my mind this immense space barge was probably what I wanted to see when I rushed out into the driveway.
What happened was, I didn’t spot the source of the sound at first, not because it was distant or obscure, but because it was so close to what I had unconsciously hoped for, so unlikely, that my brain discounted the truth, assuming it was my own invention. I scanned the sky…blue vault, big woolly white clouds, enormous spaceship right over the house, more clear blue…
I realised I hadn’t made it up; it was really there, low and unbelievably huge above me, filling the air with its drone and bulk. Not bee-striped but gleaming white, an airship, fans churning as they hauled it laboriously across suburbia towards the airfield. The future, right there over my head. I watched until it disappeared and the sound faded.
Yes ? And ? How is this relevant ? Well. One of the things about being, er, single-but-looking (for me, anyway) is that when you go out anywhere you hope to meet your idea of perfection. In a bar, at the bus stop, in a shop - anywhere. However deep this desire is buried, it’s there, the belief in the possibility of a dream realised. It can fade into the background or get on top of you, seemingly at random but perhaps in tune with your level of optimism. And just last week I went to meet some friends in the aptly-named Dive. Looking around the low-lit room I saw: The expected scruffy furniture, a few groups of early Friday nighters, some familiar faces, one talking to some woman I just made up, more drinkers…
Leaning against the bar; tall, broad-shouldered in a black vest, spiky dark hair, ankles crossed, a big smile with a little bike rack – a gap between her top incisors – sort of boyish but not even slightly masculine, if that makes any sense. In short, perfect. The future, right there in front of me, I hoped.
So that’s what it was like when I first saw her, that’s the story I tell, how a figment of my imagination once manifested itself so unexpectedly that I didn’t see it at first, and how it happened again just last Friday. And as I’m spinning my yarn I know this might be far too heavy a load to hand her, it’s too much too soon…perhaps.
All the time I’ve been peering up into the blue but finally I look across at her. She’s smiling at me, shading her eyes. Is it a look of approval or one intended to pacify the madman ? There’s that gap between her teeth. She’s going to say something…
I’m not really
happy with that ending, the way it tails off, but I’ve tried some more
definitive conclusions and they just don’t work, so there it is.
As well as hundreds of sci-fi book covers, Chris Foss also illustrated, of all things, The Joy of Sex.
That middle bit, about the airship, that’s all true. The rest’s bullshit; I can take or leave gappy teeth.