Predators

I’ve written plenty of blogs on the processes of writing, but not so many giving examples of the stuff I produce. I have a significant file full of short stories which I intend to raid now and then to make my blog posting more frequent. This one’s called PREDATORS and, thanks to some very perceptive structural suggestions from my friend Anneke Klein, it’s much better than my first draft. You can also hear me reading it over on my friend Richard Wood’s word count podcast.

Predators

All his adult life, even after he’d started the affair with her, he’d slept the sleep of the innocent, dreamed the purest dreams. The change began the day the newsfeed on his tablet reported the suggestion that wolves should be reintroduced into the Highlands. The imbalance in Scotland’s wildlife had started with the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, when families were evicted to make way for sheep and deer. At one time the country had had a thriving wolf population. In fact, officially until 1680, when a Cameron laird killed the last one in Perthshire, although there are other reports of them being seen over a century later. The purpose of restoring a top predator, which itself was prey to nothing, was to control the excessive growth of the deer population. As he read, though, he was reminded that most of the damage had been done by the most successful predator of all – homo sapiens.

But it wasn’t thoughts of the wolf itself that changed his sleep patterns. No, it was the area earmarked for its reintroduction, an estate north of Inverness, across the Moray Firth. Not far from where they’d had their earliest lovers’ meetings in the woods and glens of the Black Isle. The chosen locations, Glen Mor and Glen Alladale, bordered on what had been their playground in those early days.

Their respective marriages and jobs had compelled them to conduct most of their affair through emails and even an occasional letter. When they did actually meet, the intensity was beyond anything either of them had known before, so their messages struggled to articulate what they felt and to convey the fullness of their passion. They were largely repetitive, with desperately echoing ‘I love yous’ and tame efforts at quantifying just how great that love was.

He’d kept them all in a carrier bag from a long defunct supermarket and when they’d eventually divorced their partners and become an official couple, the need for emails vanished and he hid the bag in a cupboard at work.

Over the years, naturally enough, the familiarity of day-to-day living took much of the heat and power out of their passion. The desperation the letters carried of needing to be together, the yearnings to dispel the distances between them and the pain of frequent separations and absences were now irrelevant, and the two young lovers evolved into settled, contented co-habitants.

So when the news of wolves brought back memories of gentle days among the birch trees of Alladale, he remembered the emails, retrieved the forgotten carrier bag, and began re-reading its contents.

From the very first one, the shock of the separate emotional paths and distances the two of them had travelled was extreme. Not only was he reminded of the intensity of her early greed for him, but he was shocked by the distance he himself had moved from the – to use her words – ‘beautiful man’ he’d once been. She’d described how he sounded, moved, touched her and how these and other aspects of him had ignited feelings in her she’d never before experienced. She was addressing someone godlike, of whom no vestiges remained in the middle-aged person reading her words in an office some thirty years after she’d written them.

And that’s when sleep started to become elusive for him. He couldn’t dispel the images of the person who, for her at least, he had once been. It was flattering to imagine having had such power, but emasculating to know that it had been lost. The innocence was gone. Now, through his semi-waking dreams crawled babies with lost expressions on their faces, hopeless, envious men hungry for her love, cold-eyed, sexless women who aroused nothing in him. His nights were troubled. In his dreams, he wandered alone, restlessly now, through copses of birch trees like those to which they’d driven, back in the day, to make guilty love far from the eyes of witnesses.

All he wanted was to recapture that love, to become once again, the prince she’d made of him. Night after night, with her breathing softly beside him, he would summon up the usual memories of the two of them strolling between the birch trees, holding hands, stopping for frequent kisses, enjoying the silence of the Highlands, the sweetness of the air.

Then, one night, in a half-sleep, the dream walk became difficult. It was strange. They were together, but they began to slow. Their feet started dragging though drifts of snow. His dream-self wrapped his arms around her. She turned her head to look up at him, but the smile and love had gone from her eyes, leaving just indifference. She pushed his arms away, stepped back from him, and moved slowly towards the trees, where she stopped and stood knee deep in the snow, her eyes holding him.

He felt a hollow loneliness. Across his extended, beseeching arms lay the black and silver top whose removal had always been the prelude to their love-making. He dropped it in the snow and reached for her again.

But she was gone. In her place, head lowered, its yellow stare holding him firmly, was a wolf.

He knew there was no escape from it. They’d made their choices, surrendered to their instincts with total commitment, stepped outside ordinary living. Briefly, it had consumed them, closed off normal avenues. But what had it cost?

The eyes held him in their trap, there was nowhere to go. He didn’t know whether rediscovering and accepting love’s constant agonies again would end with his knife’s upward thrust finding a jealous heart under the fur, or hungry jaws tearing at his own throat.

An Old Man and some People

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The first of my radio plays to be broadcast, long, long ago, was called An Old Man and Some People. And I think its genesis provides a good answer to the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’

The main substance of it came from an incident which happened when we were at some friends’ for dinner. They lived in a house on an estate to which new houses were still being added. We’d finished an excellent meal and there was a knock at the door. It was a policeman asking whether the grey Citroën outside belonged to any of us. It was mine.

The policeman was very polite. He just wanted me to park the car around the corner off the main road. Apparently, the night watchman on the building site had ‘reported’ it. God knows why. There were no yellow lines or anything. In fact, he was just doing his job. But when the policeman left, I was angry. I was all for going out and telling the man what I thought of him. It didn’t help that our hosts tutted and said he was a nosy old bugger.

But the following day – sober, of course – I was ashamed of the way I’d felt. I was young, having a good time, eating great food and swallowing litres of wine in those absurd drink-driving days. He was old, alone, stuck in a hut on a building site. And I wanted to have a go at him. I disgusted me.

Then, a month or so later, I was looking through some newspaper cuttings. I clip out things which seem out of the ordinary, absurd, sad or anything which makes them stand out. This one was in the tragic category. A man was accused of the manslaughter of his wife. She’d been terminally ill for a while and was always asking him to finish her off to stop the pain. He couldn’t do it. Then, one day, she fell and was just lying there, so he took a pillow and held it over her face. Then he phoned the police and told them he’d killed her. The irony was that he was acquitted because the autopsy showed that his wife was already dead before he held the pillow to her face.

That awful image of the poor man, after months of suffering, ‘suffocating’ his wife’s body had haunted me but I’d put the cutting with the rest and forgotten about it. But now, suddenly, by making it a part of my night watchman’s past, I had a play which wasn’t just a petty subjective record of my unreasonable anger and consequent shame, but something which worked at a different level. Contrasting the relative levels of his deep suffering with the triviality of my childish petulance made its resonance far greater, its conclusions less facile. It might now constitute a play which involved listeners at a deeper level.

As I said, it was the first play I had broadcast. I still think it was possibly the best I ever wrote, too. I also realise now that it begs another question. What’s the morality of me using a true, tragic story to give substance to my writing? That’s not an easy one to answer. By writing the play, I may simply have compounded my guilt.

Writing: work, rest, and fun.

One of the (many) benefits of operating in an online world is that you leave a record of your opinions, attitudes, beliefs and all the other stuff that you’ve felt over the years. For someone who’s as bad at keeping records as I am, that’s invaluable. (There are plenty of disadvantages to being online, too, of course, but that’s for another blog.)

For example, it was reassuring, when I came across an interview I did 10 years ago, to find that my thoughts about writing haven’t changed a bit since then. I’m not claiming they’re profound or unique, just that they’re consistent, and I do seem to believe in them.

I noted, for instance, that writing was (is) a compulsion. I love spending time with my family, watching sport or good films on TV, wood carving, sailing, growing stuff, and doing all sorts of other social things, but writing is also part of work and rest and fun for me. As well as creating fictions, it helps to articulate things I might sense without really understanding. Putting feelings, beliefs (or lack of beliefs) into words gives them clarity, substance. That’s never felt like a chore.

And my approach to it hasn’t varied since the earliest days. When I start a project – big or small – I know overall where I want to be heading. There’s an issue I want to address, a character I want to explore, an anger I want to externalize, a remark I want someone to make – all sorts of things provide a starting point. So I have a notion of what the tone of the writing will be and maybe of some major turning point I intend to reach.

But then, as the fiction begins to build, it’s the characters who take over to a fairly large extent. They lead the narrative in directions which often surprise me. They add details I hadn’t suspected were there and, in the process, they force me to adapt my original intention.

It’s still the same basic drive and the purpose remains relatively unchanged, but the way in which I convey it is coloured by what my characters allow me to do. When it comes to rewriting, I correct some of the wilder fancies they’ve had and bring them back within the scope of the book but the process from conception to delivery (sorry to use a gynaecological image but, as a man, it’s the closest I ever get to having a baby) is organic, unstable.

However long the novel, until the final version is delivered to the publisher or uploaded to Kindle or IngramSpark, all it has is potential.  If I started with a rigid notion of its shape, I’d be inhibiting that.

In fact, the only time I did that was with a radio play. I was very keen to maintain a specific set of images, so I made the characters do exactly what was necessary to achieve that. After the broadcast, a well-known critic reviewed the play in a respectable journal. His review began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people.’ He was right.

Earning thousands of pounds for my scribbling would be nice, appreciative reviews and comments from readers are very satisfying, but the truly constant pleasure is the absorption I get in the process itself. I get lost in it, and yet all I seem to be is a witness to things said and done by a bunch of people who don’t really exist until a reader lets them.

Beats ‘reality’ any day.