Return to Sender



Yet again, I’m back to the fascination of co-writing stories but this one’s rather different.  I’m not sure how much writing my friend Catriona does nowadays but, in my opinion, she should do more. In a recent email, she referred to the Oscar ceremony cock-up and said The Wrong Envelope would be a good title. In fact, we changed the title, I wrote half a story, sent it to her to finish, and this is the result. The asterisks mark the point at which she took over.

Return to Sender

Reading too much Byron, that was the problem. ‘Oh, that the desert were my dwelling place, With one fair spirit for my minister.’ That’s what coloured Tim’s thinking from the start – the idea of fusing with some ‘her’ into one being to the exclusion of all else and all others. Successive girl-friends tired of his intensity and ditched him for less Manfred-like inamoratos. And each time, despite the fact that none had so far achieved ‘fair spirit’ status, he was devastated to have ‘lost’ them, and loved them even more because of their inaccessibility.

Then along came Deborah, a student at Gray’s School of Art. She hadn’t read Byron, but OK! and Hello! had shaped her conception of romance in more or less the same way, and Tim was soon able to luxuriate in the certainty that she was exclusively his. They did everything they could to protect that purity. They had the usual social media accounts, but only used them in their contacts with other people. Their ‘desert’ was, in fact, a gentle oasis amid all the chatter and fury of Facebook, Twitter and the rest. No alien electronic separators divided them. They had no selfies on their phones, never used Skype or emails, preferring to express their love through tangible media – real letters, notes scribbled on paper, flowers, chocolates – all direct, actual things, things which let them share the touch of the lover’s fingers. And Deborah’s letters were unique, worthy of the greatest romances. The sentiments expressed were relatively trite, but each ‘i’ was completed not by a dot, but by a tiny heart. The tails on each ‘g’ or ’j’ curled into extravagant flourishes, and all around the edges of each envelope crawled a tangle of cherubs, roses, and intertwining foliage.

Only one shadow crept across the image of their timeless bliss. For Deborah it was reassuring, but for Tim it became progressively darker. He accepted that chastity was a natural component of the spiritual vision they shared. Whenever they talked of it, they were quietly proud of the fact that, in a terrifyingly permissive context, they still managed to respect the sanctity of their embraces. Tim still cherished his ‘fair spirit’, but it was a thing of the mind, a chaste ideal which nothing should desecrate. And it was hard to ignore the growing insistence of another hunger.

* * *

Its pangs were increasing dramatically, along with what Tim identified as despair. Longing and yearning were rampaging through him, eclipsing his noblest intentions. and the battle between body and soul was being won by the corporeal forces. Seeking a solution outside himself seemed futile. The violent hailstorm he could see through his bedroom window mimicked the torrential surge of longed-for pleasure in his blood. Even the shape of the table legs disturbed, teased and tempted him. He sneered at his reflection in the mirror.

‘Face facts,’ he told it. ‘You’ve become a pathetic fallacy! Think. What would Byron do? “Manfred! I call upon ye by the written charm which gives me power upon ye. Rise! Appear!”’

Of course, ‘the written charm’. That was it. Honeyed words would beguile her, linguistic caresses would prepare the way for other tongue-related activities.

His reflection was standing taller, shoulders squared.

‘We can do it,’ he told it. ‘We can tread the Byronic path. I’ll write to her, explain, share my longings and torment in beautiful, graceful words. Not the whole hog, of course. I’d need to tone down “into her dream he melted, as the rose blendeth its odour with the violet”. Make it more OK! or Hello!. In fact, leave Manfred out of it. Stick with Don Juan. I know it’s all very well to dream that “a union through the written word would be spiritual perfection”, but our search is for a baser sort of perfection. Right, to work, then.’

At his desk, he pushed aside the various bills and household communications that were waiting to be sent off, and took out a sheet of the Crown Mill paper he’d bought especially for the love letters he sent to Deborah. He looked at his colourful array of writing implements: the long pens which would ooze their ink on to the parchment of his naked soul; the italic nib tracing its ever changing trail over the virgin page; the trusty ballpoint – direct, passionless; the soft, sensitive felt tips for stroking the surfaces. Well, in time they would all serve but, to craft the elegy of his desire, only the italic nib would do.

Hours later, he had finally met his objectives and finished the best, and most important, letter of his life. He gathered up the envelopes, carried them to the garage, wheeled out his bicycle and rode to the nearest post box. The bundle of household things was pushed in first, landing with a soft, papery thud. Only the letter to Deborah remained. He held it to his cheek, kissed it and took a deep breath.

‘I’m being manful now’, he said. And he thrust it into the gaping mouth of the bright, red, erect pillar, hearing the whisper as it fell into the soft darkness, and simultaneously shaking off a momentary fear that the Postal Workers’ Union might call a lightning strike. The die had been cast. Eventually, Deborah would read it and he would be as patient as possible as he waited for her reply.

Forty-eight hours later, that longed-for reply landed on his doormat. He seized it, ripped it open, and saw the familiar, charming, heart-topped ‘i’s’ and the pretty, smiley-faced emojis that punctuated the text. Was this the answer he wanted? The right answer? The answer that would liberate his libido? The letter was less bulky than he’d feared, even brief. Surely that must be a positive indicator.

It took the longest five seconds of Tim’s life for the horror to dawn upon him. Everything. Suddenly. Drooped. An echo of the words of his English tutor at University rang in his ears. ‘It is impossible to separate form and content!’ Appalled, he read once more Deborah’s chilling words.

‘Dear Tim,
Why have you sent me your electricity bill, with a covering letter complaining that you’ve never used that amount of electricity?
Hope all’s good.

The blood drained from his face. Not only had his so carefully chosen words failed to breach the walls of Deborah’s chastity but, in all probability, they were now fuelling the fantasies of one of the electricity suppliers’ clerks in Delhi.


Selfie Love


Two years ago I wrote a blog about co-writing a short story with Eden Baylee for R B Wood’s Word Count Podcast. Eden was 3,330 miles away. She started it, I developed her opening, she wrote a complication for me, and I wrote the conclusion. The end product worked well but the writing experience was interesting in that we each knew that we’d have to relinquish control over the characters and maybe find that when they were handed back they might be totally different from how we’d imagined they’d be.

In fact, it was a satisfying experiment and there were no obvious clashes between our relative styles and the way the whole thing evolved.

But we’ve done it again, and this time the experience was very different. The previous effort was written in the third person (a narrative position we shared). This time, the story takes the form of an exchange of emails between Laura and Ross, who’ve spent an illicit weekend together. That means Eden and I were writing something with two totally separate first person narratives and each of the characters was at the mercy of the other. As Ross, I could start by saying what I liked but, until I heard Laura’s response to it, I had no idea what direction I’d be able to take. It was, of course, the same for Eden as Laura. And although it’s assumed that a first person narrator can offer a fuller, deeper insight into his/her psyche, it’s complicated when another person’s subjective opinion of him/her is thrown into the mix. Paradoxically, the added first person brings more authenticity to each character.

If you’d like to see the full text, it’s on Eden’s website.  And I recommend experiments like this. As well as setting interesting challenges which need to be met to make any progress, it causes one to look more closely at how the whole writing business works, to think more about the thin line between narrative control and chaos. It also illustrates something I’ve said before: writing is like acting. To create a legitimate character, we have to share his/her space, sense his/her reactions to things and act (write) accordingly.

If you have done any of this sort of thing, I’d love to hear how you found it.

Puzzle time

Puzzle time


Facebook is a strange place for all sorts of reasons – some good, some less so. You can, for example, find out which 18th century politician, Renaissance painter, or Jane Austen character you most resemble just by answering a few questions. Really useful, eh? Other questions help you decide whether you’re a porcupine, a swallow-tailed butterfly, or a haddock. Some ask you to combine the name of a relative with the make of car you drive to reveal what you’d be called if you were in a Quentin Tarantino movie. And they’re all part of the daily reality of millions of people.

One of those transmigrations happened to me recently when, by giving the wrong answer to a puzzle, instead of remaining the small wooden grotesque which my mugshot identified me as, I had to become a llama for a day. I asked my nephew, Joe, to draw the animal for me and he did a great job so that, for those 24 hours, I was, in fact, quite attractive.

Another part of the punishment was that I had to explain why I’d come over all South American camelid, and that meant repeating the challenge as part of my own feed. The upside of that was that it triggered far more comments than usual so it seems that Bill Kirton, pillar of the community and writer of high quality literature, is far less interesting than Bill Kirton, llama.

Anyway, in the course of mentioning that fact, I suggested I might concoct some puzzles of my own. I don’t mean those in which men have to row wolves, foxes, chickens, goats, sacks of grain and the latest iphone across a river one at a time without any of those still on the banks eating one another or stealing the man’s bank account details. They’re too easy. I prefer the type which only have an answer when the responder provides one that fits.

As writers and readers, we use words to create our worlds, our truths. Faced with extremes of any sort, including absurdity, our impulse is to explain them, bring them under control, impose some order, try to make them make sense. And that’s exactly what the sort of puzzles I’m talking about demand of us. The writer provides the text, the reader analyses it and gives it coherence. So here’s an example of the sort of thing I mean. All you have to do is tell me what’s going on in this scenario.

A man is carrying a yellow box very carefully. He walks up to a cottage door and knocks. The door is answered by a teenage girl with dreadlocks. Over her scruffy clothes she’s wearing a spotless white apron. She keeps her hands behind her back as they talk.
‘Is Marie-Louise in?’ says the man, ‘I brought this for her’.
‘Let’s see,’ says the girl.
The man opens the box and holds it towards her. She looks inside. It’s empty.
‘They’re all asleep,’ she says. ‘You can’t come in.’
She closes the door. The man takes off his shoes, puts them inside the box, leaves it on the doorstep, and walks away.

A hat

I’m offering two of my ebooks as prizes: one for what I judge to be the most inventive, entertaining (or some other adjective) explanation; the other to the person whose name will be picked out of a hat (see picture). So if there’s only one response, that person will get two books, two responders will get one each, and if there are no responses at all, I’ll cry, sulk a lot, drop-kick puppies and kittens over fences and join UKIP because I hate everybody.