800 WORD STORY ~ TWAT

After last month’s variation with our solo efforts, Eden Baylee and I get back to normal with the fourth in the series of 800-word collaborative stories. This one has a blunt, uncompromising title but it’s definitely not gratuitously intended. Honestly.  If you’re new to this whole 800 word story idea, the background to it is spelled out here.

Prompt: It wasn’t so much that I’d been blind to the truth. It was just that I’d seen the truth differently.
Parts 1 and 3: Bill
Parts 2 and 4: Eden

***

Twat

Teachers generally don’t get a good press. Oh yes, there are the pious words in the broadsheets about dedication, vocational callings, responsibility for preparing the next generation and the rest, but alongside them are the mutterings from parents who have ‘real’ jobs and envy them their long holidays and 9 to 4 working days in centrally heated classrooms.

But those same parents are glad enough when the school holidays end and they can dump their brats at the school gates and let some other poor sod look after them for the rest of the day.

For me, it all came out when Kenny Briggs told his dad, Big Kenny, a bricklayer, that I’d said in Social Studies that women were second-class citizens.  Well, I had. And it’s true. Most women are still treated like skivvies. But the way Kenny told it, his dad reckoned I’d been slagging off his mum. Well, I had in a way. I’d seen the two of them at a parents’ evening and it was pretty obvious to me that Mrs Briggs was basically bullied by both Kennys.

But then, a couple of days later, Big Kenny turns up and I’m called into the headmaster’s room.

+++

Mr. Wiltshire, our headmaster, is a giant. He stands two metres tall with long limbs and a barrel chest. It’s like the parting of the Red Sea when he walks the hallways; students scurry out of his way. Rumour has it he played basketball in his youth, almost made the pros but for a barroom fight that ended his career. He wears a patch over his left eye after glass flew into his face from a broken beer bottle—so the story goes.

“Have a seat, Mr. Thomas.”

Wiltshire points to a chair when I enter his office. The big man is sitting behind his desk. “This is Mr. Briggs.” He motions to Kenny’s dad who is seated in front of him.

I sit down and swallow hard. My mouth feels dry as sand.

Mr. Wiltshire reads from a paper on his desk. “Mr. Briggs has brought me upsetting news, and I want you to explain yourself.”

I clear my throat. “Yes, sir.”

Big Kenny spews in my direction. “My boy said you called my wife a twat! I should smack you—”

“Quiet!” Wiltshire jumps up, arm extended toward Big Kenny like a policeman stopping traffic. “I’m in charge here.”

+++

He was right, of course. It was his school. He was wearing his gown, but this was macho stuff and they were like a pair of Sumo wrestlers. My chances looked slim. On the other hand, I’d seen through Wiltshire ages ago, knew I had his measure. The gown was a giveaway, too. When he’d first come to the school, he’d used his brawn to disguise his deficiency of brain. Real academics scared him. Most of the staff were intimidated by his bluster, but I didn’t buy it, right from the start. It wasn’t so much that I’d been blind to the truth. It was just that I’d seen the truth differently. It gave me the edge I needed.

“Mr Briggs,” I said, keeping my voice soft but screwing my face into what I hoped looked like shock.

Big Kenny just stared at me, malevolence personified.

“As you’re no doubt aware,” I continued, forcing my shock to dissolve into (I hoped again) concern, “the vulgar derogatory epithet ‘twat’ is the common man’s term for ‘vulva’ or ‘vagina’, i.e. female genitalia. Etymologically, its derivation is uncertain but, conjecturally, it may be from the Old Norse ‘thveit’or ‘thwāt’, meaning a slit.”

+++

Big Kenny’s mouth hangs open. He looks to Wiltshire. “You letting him talk to me like that?”

The headmaster lowers himself back into his chair. “Please, Mr Briggs. I’m trying to get to the bottom of this.” He turns to face me. “What are you talking about?”

“Sir, you asked me to explain, so that’s what I’m doing.”

The large man takes a deep breath and nods for me to continue.

“I’m taking Ms. Jenkin’s Advanced English class this term. One of her assignments is to read up on the history of words and use them intelligently in conversation. I’m starting with words related to the female anatomy.”

Big Kenny tries to chime in but Wiltshire cuts him off. “Get to the point,” he says, curtly.

“Yes, sir.” A part of me feels giddy. “I did not call Mr. Briggs’ wife a twat. I called his son a twat because he was not being very nice to his mum. You see, twat can also mean an obnoxious person.”

Wiltshire leans back in his chair, a look of exasperation on his face. “Get out of here,” he says to me. “And wipe that smirk off your face while you’re at it.”

***

All comments welcome.

800 WORD STORY ~ SAFE BET

By way of variation, Eden Baylee and I, who have been co-writing stories for our blogs since January this year (and before that on R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast), decided to intersperse the collaborations with solo efforts. We thought it would be interesting to apply the same basic principles (outlined in our introduction  to the series  here ) but rather than be alternate narrators, to write separate, individual stories based on the same prompt. This is mine.

Prompt: Tom lost 25 bucks at the races
Parts 1 to 4: Bill

***

Safe Bet

One Saturday in October, Tom lost 25 bucks at the races. He’d lost a lot more over the years, along with Rick, Jim and his other mates, but for all of them it was easy come, easy go. The times they went home with a (rare) profit just increased their addiction and brought them back to watch short-odds favourites cruise home while their own long-odds choices, that might win sixty or a hundred bucks for a single dollar outlay, trailed home exhausted as the winner pranced around the paddock tossing its head as if ready to do it all again.

But this loss was different. Tom wasn’t rich. 25 bucks was a significant chunk of his week’s wages. But the amount mattered in another, more important bet. With Julie.

In fact, this had been one of his better weeks. So much so that his winnings over the five days added up to 175 dollars. Putting 200 on the losing favourite in the last race was a deliberate, win-win strategy. He’d either win a packet or lose the bet with Julie, which meant when the season ended, he’d have proved his proposal was sincere and they could have a Spring wedding.

+++

Even though they’d been together for three years and neither was interested in other people, little differences in temperament, personality, beliefs kept surfacing, leading to days, sometimes weeks of silences and apparent cooling off periods. They always managed to overcome the differences in the end but when, in September, Tom confessed that, because of a bad streak on the horses, he couldn’t afford to go to a gig she’d been looking forward to, Julie had had enough.

“Again?” she said. “That’s the sixth time. You’ve known the date since July.”

Tom shrugged, shamefaced. “I know, but…” was all he could manage.

“But what?”

“I’ve tried but I haven’t been able to save enough.”

“Because you didn’t want to. It’s the same for me, but I’ve still managed to…”

“It’s not the same. They’ve been laying guys off at my place. I’m lucky I’ve still got the job.”

“Pity your luck’s not the same at the horses.”

Instead of bridling at the cheap jibe, Tom just shook his head.

“Anyway,” he said, “I was trying to save for something else.”

“What?”

Tom turned his head, looked away from her and, his voice low, almost an apology, said, “Us to get married”.

+++

The silence that followed was eloquent. All thoughts of the gig, money, horses, tumbled away to leave fantasies, hopes, impossibilities.

Julie’s reactive “What the…?” never developed into a coherent question because if this was what Tom thought was a proposal she should take it seriously.

The trouble was, they weren’t serious people. She liked gigs, he liked racing with Rick, Jim and the rest. They were just kids. With kids’ obsessions. Kids didn’t get married.

“D’you mean it?” she said at last.

Tom could only nod.

“Ask me,” Julie said.

“Ask what?”

“Ask me to marry you.”

After a long pause, during which they just stared at one another, Tom said, “I really love you, Julie. Will you marry me?”

She nodded and said, “OK”.

They kissed and, eventually, she pushed herself away from him and said, “Here’s the deal”.

When he tried to reply, she put her finger on his lips and went on, “I bet you can’t go a whole month without going to the races…”

But he was already shaking his head. She stopped, then started again.

“I bet you can’t keep your losses under twenty dollars a day for a week.”

“It’s a deal,” said Tom.

+++

200 dollars was the biggest bet Tom had ever made. It hurt to hand so much back to the bookies, but it meant Julie had won. The wedding was still on so he wasn’t a loser.

After that, the strength he’d felt in making that choice made it easier for him to resist the lure of the track. He and Julie spent more time together. Life was comfortable. But boring.

Then, on a warm, gorgeous day in early April, with the wedding date just 10 days away, he got the note. It was a scrap torn from a newspaper with a list of runners and riders for the following day. A big circle had been drawn around a horse in the 3.30: Bless the Bride, trained by Tom Julien.

Tom had never seen a more obvious sign. Rick and the others had been trying all winter to get him back to the track. They must have seen this and grabbed their chance. Tom smiled, folded the paper and tucked it into his shirt pocket. Four streets away, at the house she lived in with her mum, Julie bundled up the week’s newspapers to take them out to the recycling bin.

***

If you haven’t already done so, please visit Eden’s blog for her response to the same prompt. Next month, we’ll get back to our collaborative efforts but, for these solo efforts, all comments are still welcome.

Don’t Ask…

(An earlier version of this was  posted on the Authors Electric blog in January.)

To answer that perennially put question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I always have to think hard. Often, for occasions such as talks or workshops, to generate discussion or just activity, it’s a question I put to myself. Because the problem is that completed books are more than ‘ideas’. All sorts of things fit together to make them – characters, situations, progressions, solutions – and it all seems … well, complete, and certainly much more than just a few ‘ideas’. I’ve written eleven novels so far and there’s no real pattern which links them.

The ‘idea’ for the first in my crime series, Material Evidence, came from reading a book on forensic medicine. One of the cases described was very striking so I borrowed it but, by the time the characters had had their say, the details of the killing had changed completely and only one element of the forensic procedures remained.

 

The second, Rough Justice, was sparked in a meeting with a very rude, unpleasant individual for whose company I had to write a promotional DVD. He was so typical of a particular type of ‘self-made’ male that I wanted to pillory him. So I did and he became a plot-driver. Like all ‘revenge’ it would obviously have no effect on its target but writing it gave me great satisfaction, so maybe it was writing as therapy.

 

But that little revenge was nothing compared to the one I got on behalf of someone else in the next book, The Darkness. I was at a restaurant near Aberdeen with my wife and some friends (Remember what that used to be like?). The waiter’s accent suggested he was from the west country down in England, which is where I originated. I remarked on it and said to him ‘you’re a long way from home’ and he told me the reason why. His wife and two wee daughters had been killed by a drunk driver who’d been sentenced to just two years in prison but been released after eighteen months. ‘That’s six months for each life’ as the waiter put it. It was such a tragic story and the memory of it stayed with me for years until, at last, I decided to try to exorcise it and started writing The Darkness. It obviously came from somewhere deep inside me because in the course of the story my policeman’s character started changing and he was different in the two books that followed.

The germ of the next in the series, Shadow Selves, was also with me for years. An anaesthetist friend said that if ever I wanted to include an operation in a book, he could arrange for me to see one close up. I jumped at the chance, was worried that I’d faint, but went anyway and was fascinated not only by the various processes that had to be followed but also by the apparent nonchalance with which those involved went about doing them.

But I didn’t use the information until years later. The last (so far) in the modern crime series came from a suggestion made by another  friend who suggested that a North Sea oil platform would be a dramatic setting for a crime and that with so many being decommissioned, they were ripe for sabotage – and he was right. Hence Unsafe Acts.  But, from the same (non-writer) friend came  a totally different idea., one which led to, for me, the very enjoyable experience of writing my first historical novel.

Out of the blue, he said, ‘You should write about a figurehead carver’. He had no idea where the thought had come from but I grabbed at the chance and that was the start of The Figurehead. I love sailing so, using research as an excuse, I sailed across the North Sea as a paying crew member on the beautiful square-rigger, the Christian Radich. I also went to wood carving classes, and enjoyed researching and recreating the Aberdeen of 1840. Even then, though, there was a twist because, although most of my books are basically crime novels, the central female character in that one took over and made it into a romance as well.

Not only that, the unresolved relationship between her and my carver needed another book, The Likeness, to bring it to a resolution. This time, another good friend added to the impulse to write by insisting in her review of The Figurehead that ‘This novel is screaming for a sequel! I hope Bill Kirton will deliver!’

So, while I was the one who wrote them, the ‘ideas’ were definitely those of other people.

The ‘idea’ behind The Sparrow Conundrum, however, is something of a mystery. It’s my first novel but it was rewritten many times before publication and I really don’t know what made me start it.  Up until then I’d written plays, but one day I just started writing the story and the characters were so extreme and absurd that I let them get on with it and wrote down what they did. They must have done something right because it eventually won the Forward National Literature Award for Humor.

 

There are a couple of other novels, each with its own separate trigger, but this is already too much like a promotional spiel. Its intention, however, is to try to direct readers’ and interviewers’ attention away from that relatively uninteresting and irrelevant, (and yet still most frequently asked) question with which I started. It has more answers than there are books, and each one is different. Much more important, I hope it may serve to encourage wannabe authors to trust their instincts, follow their (unique) ideas (then edit, cut, cut some more, and proofread with diligence).