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.

An Old Man and some People

wikimedia commons

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.