In Two Minds

Returning to another of my collaborative efforts with the fabulous Eden Baylee, this is the third of our joint stories and, in my opinion, the most successful (not that I think any of the others has ‘failed’ in any way). Perhaps that’s helped by the fact that, as the title suggests, it’s told from two distinct points of view (a male and female character as well as a male and female author), but it’s still pleasantly surprising that it has an overall coherence in terms of plot without either of us discussing at any stage the direction it would take, whether it would be comic or tragic or anything in between. In a way, it confirms my long-held conviction that, whatever an author’s intentions, it’s his/her characters that determine what will happen.

As before, to hear Eden and myself reading the story, visit http://rbwood.com/dir/index.php/2017/07/02/the-word-count-podcast-episode-67/

The prompt was a shot of a concert at the Jones Beach Theater on the south shore of Long Island and our story’s title was:

In Two Minds

Thanks (again) to Eden

(Eden)

I hate crowds, but here I am at one of the busiest places in New York on a June afternoon. The Jones Beach Theatre kicks off the summer with a free concert featuring famous musicians, and some not so famous. Though it is never confirmed, rumours swirl that music agents dot the crowd in search of fresh talent. The concert attracts musicians from all across the country and goes on for the entire day. It’s believed that catching the attention of one influential agent amongst 15,000 concertgoers is still a better odd at success than uploading a viral Youtube video.

I would not be here if it were not for James. He and I have just started seeing each other; it’s our third date. His teenage son is in a band that will play here today. Given the chaotic start, I imagine their band won’t appear until the second half of the show.

It’s only noon, and it’s sweltering.

Greasy people in shorts and tank tops, smelling of coconut scented lotion, are in constant motion around me. We are seated in the middle of a row where twenty-somethings shuffle by us to get to the end of the aisle or to their seats. They carry trays of beer and snacks. I stand every time someone passes in front of me, not to give them room, but to avoid having them touch me.

My germaphobia is on high alert.

“You all right, Maggie?” James touches my arm lightly as I sit down again. “You must be hot in that long sleeve blouse.”

I shake my head. A bead of sweat pools at my hairline, but I dab it before it rolls down my face. “No, no … I’m fine.” It’s a lie of course, but I like James. I’m willing to tough it out for a few hours with him here.

He leans toward me and brushes a sticky strand of hair from my cheek. “You’re such a good sport for coming out here with me today, especially in this heat.” He smiles in a way that makes my stomach drop a little. “How about I go buy you a souvenir T-shirt?” he says. “I’m sure it will be a lot cooler than what you’re wearing.”

I am hot, and only getting hotter. I suddenly feel heat rush to my face. “Thank you, James, but I won’t be able to wear it anyway.”

“Why not?”

“It’s … it’s the formaldehyde. They use it to treat new materials, so I never wear anything new unless I wash it first.”

James furrows his brow as he looks at me.

Have I offended him?

* * *

(Bill)

Bizarre creatures, women. Necessary, essential even, but so hard to fathom. There’s not much I like more than putting on a fresh, brand new shirt. Does that mean I’ve got a thing for formaldehyde? Poor Maggie. She’s sitting there, obviously uncomfortable from the heat, but it’s more than that. It’s the people. I sort of knew it from how I first met her. In a library of all places. Who the hell goes to libraries nowadays? Well, obviously Maggie does. I was there to look up something for Cal. He’s written a couple of new songs for the band which they think could be their breakthrough. I have to admit the lyrics are pretty impressive but he said there was something missing from the second one. He’d been a bit ambitious, tried threading different sets of references together and wanted to get Norse myths into it. He’d looked online but hadn’t found anything extreme enough – he wanted weird hybrid creatures, the things that popped out when Gods had sex with humans – so I said I’d check the stacks in the university library. And there she was – not in the main building, but at a single table tucked away in a corner of the stack. Little halo of sunlight around her hair, stunningly beautiful – so much so that you’d expect her to be gliding about where there were others to admire her. But no, she was in a near empty building, reading quietly amongst dust and volumes that were rarely opened.

She’s an enigma. OK, we’re still new to one another but at least she’s here. I really thought she’d say no when I invited her to come. I mean, The Jones Beach Theatre? First concert of the summer? Hardly the place for someone who’s agoraphobic. But she’s here. That’s a positive, right? But can anything come of it really? I can’t help feeling I’m invading her space. When I brushed back her hair then, she flinched. Only slightly, a conditioned reflex. She smiled to hide it, but it was there. And yet we’ve kissed, I’ve held her. Nothing much more yet and I’m trying not to rush things, but if she always needs to stay in that cocoon of hers, well…

God, the noise. That’s the trouble with these things – most of the stuff onstage is derivative. Tribute bands without admitting it. The present lot are probably copying Spinal Tap, with the amps set to 11. I’ll be glad when Cal’s set’s over. I won’t look for him. His mum’s here somewhere so she’ll probably find him and embarrass him in front of the band. Maggie and I will just find somewhere quiet. Yes, quiet would be good.

* * *

(Eden)

I’m relieved when James takes my hand and brushes his lips over the fingertips. Despite the heat, a shiver runs down my spine.

He is unlike the others. James is gentle and considerate, and when I’m with him, I feel like what I imagine a normal woman would feel like. I can only owe this to him being a father. He cares about more than just himself. I sensed that when he approached me at the library where we first met. He immediately apologized for disturbing me and sat in a poorly lit area so he would not infringe on my space. I felt bad for him, trying to read in the dark like that. When I gestured for him to sit closer to the window and the light, closer to me, he almost seemed reluctant to do so, but he did.

I always fall for the shy, quiet types.

It’s been two years since Mike, even if I’m reminded of him every time I walk by the overgrown flowerbed in my backyard. The patch of wild flowers is hidden behind my wood shed, a dilapidated structure used to store garden equipment, along with leftover cans of paints and cleaners. I repainted that garage with three coats of oil paint. The smell was awful, but for a time, it masked the odour of the body.

It was with Mike that I learned everything I needed to know about formaldehyde. Mike turned out to be an abusive drunk after our initial honeymoon phase. My biggest mistake was inviting him to live with me after only a few months. He must have been on his best behaviour before then because he changed immediately after moving in. From the moment he came home after work, he drank beer and hardly moved from the couch in front of the TV. Next came the hard liquor, soon followed by his violent fits of rage.

Ten drops of methanol added to his scotch over three nights was all it took. The chemical metabolized into formaldehyde inside his body and led to respiratory failure. Mike’s asthma sped up his demise. The hardest part was keeping his body in the shed while I dug up the flowerbed.

But James is not Mike. He’s different from the rest. He’s not a loner. He has people who depend on him. That will make it difficult for me to fall back into old patterns.

The others are gone now, in the past. James is my future.

I palm his face and offer a sweet smile. “I’m just being silly,” I say, “Of course, you can buy me a T-shirt. I’d love to have one as a reminder of our day.”

“Excellent!” he says. A grin lifts the corners of James’ big, brown eyes. He appears genuinely pleased.

* * *

(Bill)

You know, maybe I’m seeing problems where none exist. As I’ve said, we’ve kissed, touched, and she’s here beside me. Even in this heat, she’s still looking great. I couldn’t resist kissing her hand. And she let me, even smiled. It was magical – her and me, a little oasis of quiet in the din. And she touched my cheek, trailed her fingers over my lips. No recoils, no flinching. Maybe it’s my imagination again. It’s just that she seems so fragile, vulnerable. That’s so bloody attractive nowadays, when women’s sexuality has become so … well, aggressive. She’s probably just shy. I’m going to get her that T-shirt but I don’t want to leave her alone here with all these strangers around her. We’ll get it after Cal’s set.

I can’t help feeling sort of special that she’s let me get this close. It seems like a real date, the first. The other two we’ve had so far were fine but there was a distance. We were feeling our way – both of us. You know, I even think she may be a virgin. I know it’s unlikely. I mean she’s well into her thirties, but there’s that mystery about her, that otherness. Makes me want to protect her. I know, I know – typical male fantasy, macho crap, but I can’t help it. It’s that fragility. When I was at her place for dinner, it was almost a parody of the single female. The place was immaculate, the kitchen spotless. She’s a wonderful cook. The meal wasn’t at all fussy and yet the flavours were superb, but she blushed when I said so, waved away the compliment and said something about adding chorizo oil at the last minute.

But she’s no handyman – the garden, the shed, they’re just embarrassing really. It’s a nice place, lots of potential, but it needs a bit of TLC. The shed ought to come down. Apart from the state it’s in, it’s right at the front, hiding the bit of garden that’s got the most potential. The central flowerbed’s a disaster. All around the edge she’s got delphiniums, lavatera, hollyhocks, foxgloves – that sort of thing. It’s like a wall of flowers and, in the middle, where you can hardly see them, there are phlox, Californian poppies and peonies. It needs a man’s touch. I’m toying with the idea of surprising her. She has a graphics conference in Massachusetts next month. I’m thinking of giving the garden a make-over while she’s away. Put up a new shed, fix the trellis at the side of the house. Most of all dig over and replant that bed.

That’s for later, though. For now, I’ll just sit with the beautiful Maggie and watch my own kid, whose nappies I used to change, excite these thousands of people with his music. Life doesn’t get much better.

THE WRONG SHOES

My last novel, The Likeness, was published in 2016 but since then, apart from some commercial writing, much of my time has been spent collaborating on short stories with other writers. Many of these were written for The Word Count Podcast, a monthly show created by Richard Wood, a writer-friend in Boston, and have been posted on the website of my friend/collaborator, Eden Baylee (https://www.edenbaylee.com/blog/). Our first was written at the beginning of 2015 and we recorded it for the 45th episode of Richard’s show but, until now, I’ve not published them anywhere myself. In future blogs, I’ll write a bit about the processes of collaborating, the very few problems it creates and the significantly more ways it which it’s useful, inspiring, and a great way to learn more about one’s own writing. But now, for those of you who like the shorter forms of fiction, I’ve decided to release some of the stories in a series of these blogs.

Richard’s prompt for the story content was simply that it had to contain the three words ‘frozen, whisky, and time’. You can hear Eden and myself reading our joint contribution at: https://thewordcount.libsyn.com/webpage/2015/01

Its title is:

THE WRONG SHOES

Composite mugshot created by Eden

(Eden)
The playground of the elementary school, which Jackie crossed on her way to the bus stop, or to anywhere for that matter, had turned into an ice rink. Normally a carpet of grass, it quickly froze after the temperature dropped to minus twenty following a night of freezing rain. The grounds had become a dangerous place for unsuspecting pedestrians.

It was the weekend, and she was at her local until closing time. She’d had one too many, as was her habit most Saturday nights. Leaving the bar, she had to walk across the schoolyard to get to her apartment building. She’d done the trip a thousand times, even when drunk, and made it home without any problems, but that night … she fell. The advantage of having had too much to drink was she fell limp and boneless, like a rag doll. There was no resistance, which meant no broken bones anyway. She was lucky in that sense. Instead, she had stumbled and dropped face down on the frozen ground.

When she came to, she heard voices and an instinct warned her to keep quiet. She smelled cigarette smoke and soon murmurs formed hushed words. The voices were male, with at least three of them from what she could tell as the conversation ping-ponged above her.

“Darren, how about we take her to your place? No one will see us there.”

“Are you crazy? I may live in the basement, but my mom would kill me! She hears everything.”

“Steve, you still have access to that empty warehouse on Merton Street?”

Jackie’s entire body heated up beneath her goose-down coat. Even her face, painfully pressed against the ice, turned fire-poker hot.

She was in big trouble.

***

(Bill)
They say fear or trauma sobers you up quite quickly. They’re wrong. Her mind was still cloudy, slow. Even as she’d downed that last whisky, a double, she knew she was already way over any sensible limits. It wasn’t just her words she was slurring, it was her thoughts, too. So she lay there, trying to clear her head, trying to understand the plans being made by the voices.

“How the hell are we going to get her to Merton Street?”

“Carry her. Drag her. She’s pissed.”

“So what?”

“Well, Saturday night, innit? Everybody’s pissed, staggering about. We’ll just look like all the rest.”

The one called Steve wasn’t convinced.

“It’s too far. She might come round. Start screaming. How about the school? Maybe we could find a door open round the back, a window.”

Silence. Then “Yeah, Okay,” and other muffled sounds of agreement.

As two of them grabbed her arms and hoisted her to her feet, she knew she had to do something. In the school, even if they were stupid enough to let her scream, no-one would hear. Somehow, she had to stay where there might be others around, people who might hear her, save her. She shook her head and forced out a laugh.

“Aw thanks, guys,” she said. “I was bloody freezing down there.”

It silenced them, gave her a tiny advantage. She stammered on, her mind racing.

“I need to be in my bed. Cuddled up. Warm. Don’t suppose you could help me home, could you? It’s not far.”

She saw them looking at one another, uncertain. But smiles were creeping into two of the three faces. She nodded her head vaguely in the direction of her apartment building.

“Other side of the school,” she said. “Just there. Ground floor.”

The one on her right said “Anybody there to look after you?”

The cold was helping to clear her head.

“No,” she said. “Just me.”

“Bingo,” he said, and they set off through the darkness of the slippery playground.

***

(EDEN)
Steve hated this. He didn’t want to be here. He had only suggested using the school with the hope they wouldn’t be able to get in, that the cold would eventually deter them, and they’d leave the girl alone. He wanted no part in what his friends had in mind. It turned his stomach to even hear them chat her up, trying to make her feel at ease, no doubt.

“Good thing we came along,” Darren said, his arm around her waist. His six-foot-two frame towered over her. “We’ll take care of you, honey, don’t you worry.”

“Oh yeah,” snorted Kenny, supporting her on the other side. “We’re your knights in shining armour!” He turned to look behind him. “Hey, Steve, keep up, will ya? We’re all gonna get nice and warm real soon.”

Steve bowed his head so he didn’t have to meet Kenny’s eyes. “Yeah…I’m coming.”

It was then he noticed the girl’s shoes. Even while propped up by Darren and Kenny, she teetered along like a child wearing ice skates for the first time. No wonder she fell. She wore the wrong type of shoes for this weather—the heel much too high, the material too thin. There was no support at all. His younger sister had the exact same pair. She had also fallen, fractured her wrist. For the past week, she’d  cried with the pain, night after night. Kept Steve awake, hearing those sobs from her room. Made her sound so … lonely. And now here was another lonely, silly woman, out getting pissed all on her own, nobody waiting for her at home. He speeded up, overtook the others and turned to face them.

***

(BILL)
“Listen guys, we can’t.”

“What?” said Kenny.

“Her,” said Steve. “We can’t.”

“Why not? Look at the state of her.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Steve. “She’s pissed. It’d be like shagging a side of beef.”

“Cheeky bugger,” Jackie said. “You gay or something?”

Her voice was loud, penetrating, and coarse. Kenny hoisted her higher against him. The sudden pressure must have brought on a wave of nausea because she gagged and threw up on the path. Darren and Kenny let go of her and stepped away. She staggered but managed to stay upright.

“See?” said Steve. “D’you want to go home stinking of that? What d’you think your mom would say then, Darren?”

“Hey, gay boy, listen up,” said Jackie, sounding as if there might be more where that just came from. “Nothing wrong with me. I bet you’re talking about that HIV test. Am I right?”

Steve just looked at her.

“Am I right?” she said again, louder, almost aggressive. But, as she spoke, he saw something else in her eyes. Not aggression: a stare, fear, a plea for help.

“You are, aren’t you,” she said. “Bloody Angela’s been tweeting it. Well, she’s lying. It was negative. Right? The test. Negative.”

“What’s she on about?” said Darren, staying well clear of her.

She turned to him.

“Chlamydia, that’s all it was. Bloody Chlamydia.”

“See what I mean, guys,” said Steve. “We can’t.”

Darren and Kenny looked at each other, then back at Jackie. Darren spat on the ground.

“Slag,” he said, and started walking back the way they’d come. Kenny reached out a hand, grabbed her breast, squeezed hard then turned away to follow his friend.

Jackie watched Kenny and Darren disappear into the darkness. She pulled her jacket more tightly around her chest, wincing as her fingers touched against her breast. She turned back and looked at Steve. The fear was still there and tears were beginning to form.

“Thanks,” she said, her fingers gently probing her bruised flesh. “I… I don’t know what to say.”

Steve shook his head and said, “Buy some decent shoes.”

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.