Thursday, 30 June 2011

Short story #1: A Very Lucky Girl

Major confidence crisis.

As per my previous post I have been working on an entry for Writing Magazine's short story competition.
Having worked at it the last few weeks alongside the continued quest to find a suitable writing course to begin (no time, no money, no idea what I want or why), arranged to meet with a local writers' group then chickened out, and generally got to a(nother) point of complete frustration and lack of confidence in my own skill, I have decided to top all that off by not entering the competition either. It just isn't good enough. I don't even know if it's how I want it to sound or if it's a story I particularly want to tell. I can't really be bothered to change it all that much becuase there's no substance to it that stands amendment. I'm questioning if I even have the concentration I need to write something other than a loosely threaded story for the sake of telling a story. I'm really getting stuck.

So for what it's worth I may as well put it up here and leave it behind. Although where to go next? It's all seeming rather futile at the moment.

Here it is:

A Very Lucky Girl

‘Is this seat taken?’ asked a quietly spoken man whom Veronica had never seen before.
Silly question, she thought, as it was the only seat left in the room, and he sat down anyway. Grown ups did funny things like that.
‘What’s your name?’
Veronica didn’t answer. JJ was sat right next to her, talking to the judge, and she didn’t want to get told off. Like before, when they were in the room with the camera and she asked the man if he used that camera for his kids, like on days out or on holiday or whatever. He was nice about it but JJ told her to be quiet.
That was JJ’s job, to look after boys and girls like Veronica – take them from the home to the court or the hospital, or sometimes to the cafĂ© by the boat lake. They weren’t real boats, just mini electric ones, and Veronica was never allowed to have a go, but she liked them anyway. JJ also made sure they were neat and tidy and had breakfast. And most importantly, she helped Veronica remember what to call people. Like, the judge was always ‘sir’, but she didn’t talk to him unless he asked her a question. Everyone else was Mr or Mrs This or That, but JJ was always JJ. The other kids at the home called her Jane, but then they hadn’t known her as long as Veronica. She liked it that way.
Did the quiet man have a nickname, she wondered?
‘I’m Paul,’ he said, as if he knew what she was thinking. She hadn’t noticed before but he was wearing green trainers, the kind with the white rubbery bit at the end and white laces. She liked those.
‘Mr Paul?’ she asked, with a small smile.
He smiled back. ‘Just Paul.’
JJ was talking a lot louder now, leaning forward and pointing at pieces of paper on the judge’s desk.
‘Is she always like that?’ asked Just Paul.
Veronica nodded. ‘I don’t mind.’ She thought for a moment, then asked, ‘Don’t you ever have to talk to the judge?’
Just Paul shook his head. ‘I’m not very good at talking. I try to help people in other ways.’
‘Me too. Stency isn’t very good at talking either, because her mummy never spoke English. So I helped her when she came to our home. JJ said I was the best at helping and gave me a sticker.’ She held up a tatty rucksack, Peppa Pig peeking out from behind a mosaic of stickers, corners curling where bits of dust and dirt and crumbs had gathered.
Right in the middle was a big holographic star declaring, in bright bubble letters, ‘I’m a good friend’. Veronica pointed it out, in case Just Paul missed it.
‘Peppa Pig comes with me everywhere. This is the one I got for helping Stency and this one for tidying the common room and this one for being brave at the doctors…’ she trailed off. ‘It says ‘Brave girl’, and I was, because even though I had to have stitches, I didn’t cry much and I got to look in the doctor’s thing that he puts in your ears. And this one is for when I came here the first time, and there were a lot of people outside by the steps so JJ made the taxi man pretend to drive past, but we weren’t really, we were coming to talk to the judge and the man with the camera. Have you got a camera?’
Just Paul laughed and shook his head.
‘Well this man did and he gave me a sticker for sitting still so he didn’t have to keep moving it. I had to tell JJ all about my stitches, so she could tell the judge, so he can make it better. But I think he keeps forgetting because we’ve seen him lots of times now but JJ has to keep telling him the same things.’
She paused again, checking on JJ and the judge.
‘Once JJ said that it was all a load of bollocks.’ She giggled. ‘But I wasn’t supposed to hear that bit. Do you ever say things you don’t want people to hear?’
Just Paul shook his head.
‘That’s good then.’
She looked back down at her bag.
‘Would you like a sticker? I’ve got ever so many!’ And before Just Paul could stop her she peeled one off and stuck it to the closest bit of him she could reach.
‘Thank you’ he said quietly, looking down at the yellow and purple circle on his leg.
‘That’s for being a good listener,’ said Veronica, ‘which JJ says is the hardest thing to do. I think she’s right because when Stency tries to tell me something I don’t understand and I wish she could talk to someone else, but all the other children are much older than us.’
She scrunched up in her chair, Peppa Pig wedged between her legs.
 ‘I like this turny chair. When I get to my new home I hope there’s a turny chair like this one, and CocoPops for breakfast and somewhere for Stency to sleep if she gets scared. She’s the same age as me but JJ says she’s not as grown up, because she still wets the bed and has to sleep with the light on. So sometimes I let her stay in my room on the bean bag, but I don’t always want the light on so I have to hide under the covers to go to sleep. Can you go to sleep with the light on?’
Just Paul laughed. ‘Sometimes. But I think you’re right. You’re much more grown up than Stency.’
Veronica beamed.
JJ started shuffling papers on the desk.
‘It looks like it’s nearly time to go,’ said Just Paul.
Veronica sank a little and felt something in her throat, like when you swallow your dinner but you haven’t chewed it properly and it gets stuck.
Things happened so fast. She would have to remind JJ about Just Paul, as JJ had so many things to think about. Like now, she was clicking her phone and sorting her papers and talking to the judge all at once. The judge looked up from his laptop and his phone and his papers and suddenly spoke, which made Veronica jump, because she was used to Just Paul’s quiet voice.
‘Well young lady. You might not have to see me again after all.’ He smiled but Veronica didn’t smile back. When would she see Just Paul if she wasn’t coming back?
JJ was smiling too. ‘You’re very lucky, Veronica,’ she said. ‘Mr Justice Lawford is a very clever man and he’s going to help you, just like I said he would. What do you say?’
Veronica knew she was supposed to say thank you but she couldn’t speak because the more she tried to swallow whatever was stuck in her throat the bigger it seemed to get. So she nodded instead.
All the grown ups laughed then, except Just Paul, who sat quietly in his chair. Maybe he had a lump too.
They were talking about her now, like they always did, thinking she wasn’t listening.
‘I’m sorry, sir, she’s had a long day of it…well, a long two years you could say!’
‘Not at all, not at all, she’s a brave young thing and I only regret this has taken so long.’
‘You’ll forward all the papers to the DSS then? And copy in Val, as I’m off on leave but she’s up to speed and will make sure it gets to the top of the pile. V’s my number one case, we’re throwing all our resources at it. The last thing we want is the press picking up on it again…’
A voice came from the corridor. ‘Cab’s here! Round the back.’
‘Come on then madam,’ said JJ, in that tone that Veronica knew meant they had to walk quickly. ‘Thanks again.’
‘My pleasure. Goodbye young lady. Look after Jane now, won’t you?’
Veronica shook her head. ‘I already have to look after Stency,’ she almost whispered.
JJ and the judge laughed.
‘Charming!’ said JJ, hugging Veronica slightly with one arm.
‘Ah, she didn’t mean it,’ supposed the judge, walking them to the door. ‘She’s a very lucky girl, and she knows it I’m sure…’
Veronica looked back over her shoulder to where Just Paul sat, waving and smiling. She had a sudden urge to scream, and it must have helped because the lump in her throat vanished and she cried:
‘What about Paul?’
The judge and JJ stopped.
JJ kneeled down. ‘Paul, Veronica? Do I know Paul?’
Her face was very close to Veronica’s now, which was good because Veronica didn’t need to scream.
‘We have to come back or I won’t see Paul. He said he’d help.’
‘When was this, sweetie?’
‘While you were talking. Just Paul, he said. His name’s Just Paul.’
Even as JJ and the judge followed her outstretched finger, the lump returned and it hurt so much she gasped for breath, tears streaming down her face so that she couldn’t even see whether Just Paul was still waving at her or not.
But JJ and the judge could see.
Where Just Paul had been sitting, a yellow and purple sticker clung to an empty chair.

Inspiration #2: Does Happiness Write White?

This fascinating programme on Radio 4 (am I only inspired by things I hear on Radio 4? Eek, hope not) explores the idea that authors don't want to, or can't, 'write happiness'.

It reminded me that I've long held the view that to write, for example, a happy song is much more worthy than a sad song because the latter seem to come so much easier. The same goes for poetry and prose, it would seem, and I found Helen Simpson's comments at the end of this programme particularly interesting. I intend to read some of her short stories as soon as possible.

Maybe this is a challenge I could take up - can I 'write happiness'?

Watch this space.

BBC Radio 4 - Does Happiness Write White?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

First one from the vaults

It's been a while. But I'm back. I've been ferreting around trying to find some examples of my writing, to share, for comment and to perhaps inspire some re-drafts or re-writes.

Here is the first one I want to share. It's a children's story although I'm not sure what age it's aimed at. Probably age six or seven. Before they get too clever, but when they're old enough to appreciate a few subtleties. I wanted to write something that grown ups might enjoy reading aloud with their child. I used to work in a primary school and it's one of the loveliest things, hearing children shout out the words to their favourite book at story time. So I wanted to try and write something that would make them do that.

The idea was to create a series of short stories based on the 'characters' on my bookshelf at home. I'll try and post a picture at a later date, but you get the idea. I'd love to know what anyone thinks. This is a first draft so it would need a bit of work. I've included notes on where the page breaks are and where illustrations might be, to help the story along. You could probably include additional questions at the back for teachers reading it out at story time. Like, 'What does hollow mean? What else is hollow? How does Peppa feel about Hungarian Lady at the start? How does he feel at the end?' etc. etc. I liked the idea of using Hungarian Lady as a metaphor for how children should treat the foreign-language speaking children in mainstream schools. I hope it's not too glib. I worked with children who speak English as a second language and with this now being the norm in most schools it's an issue that might make a good 'carpet time' discussion point. But hopefully the story is just fun on other levels too!

Hope to get some feedback!

In My Room

Introduction (Inside cover of every book): 

Hello! This is my room. (picture opposite)

In my room, there’s lots of stuff. I like having lots of stuff because it looks cosy and colourful. How many colours can you see? That’s right! There are lots.

But more exciting than all the colours, is the Big Secret about my room.

You see, in my room are all my magical friends. Would you like to meet them?

I thought so!

Let’s meet two of them now…

Picture (Salt and Peppa Panda Pots)

Salt and Peppa Panda Pots are salt and pepper pots. Can you see them? They don’t have any salt or pepper inside them. They’re just hollow. So they’re always hungry!

And they’re always arguing over who looks the most like a panda.

Salt has one white ear, which is very unusual for a panda.

Peppa has two black ears, but no feet because someone forgot to paint them on! So he’s always grumpy.

Can you tell which is which?

Picture (Hungarian Lady)

Salt and Peppa live on the book shelf. 

Hungarian Lady is their downstairs neighbour, but she can’t see Salt and Peppa. She likes Peppa, even though he’s grumpy! She’s always trying to cheer him up, but she doesn’t know that he is just a panda pepper pot.

Picture (Peppa, sneezing)

One day, Peppa was arguing with Salt, as usual.

“Of course you’re not a real panda!” Peppa shouted. “You only have one black ear! You would never survive in the wild.”

And then he sneezed.

“A-CHOO!” This happened a lot. Peppa said it was because of the leftover pepper inside him.

Salt laughed. “Silly Peppa!” She said.

She didn’t mind that he was shouting at her, because she was too busy laughing.

Picture (Hungarian Lady crying)

A little voice floated up from below.

“Bless you, Peppa!” It was Hungarian Lady. “Are you alright?” she asked.

Peppa huffed.

“Who’s snooping on OUR conversation?” he shouted.

Hungarian Lady started to cry.

“Now look what you’ve done!” cried Salt. “It’s OK Hungarian Lady. He’s always grumpy.”

Picture (grumpy Peppa, sneezing)

“I AM NOT!” said Peppa.

“You are too. Can you cheer him up with a song, Hungarian Lady?”

Hungarian Lady stopped crying at once. She loved to sing.

“In my country, when we are sad, we sing this song…” And she cleared her throat. But Peppa was too grumpy.

“In YOUR country?” he bellowed. “You’re not from another country! You’re just a toy! You live here on the bookshelf with us. That’s where you’ve ALWAYS been! A-A-A-CHOO!”

Hungarian Lady started crying again. “Well at least I’m not a grumpy old pepper pot!” she sobbed, paint running down her delicate doll’s face.

Picture (Peppa falling off the shelf)

Salt frowned.

“Naughty Peppa,” she said. “Apologise at once!”

But Peppa was still sneezing. He sneezed and he sneezed and he sneezed again, until Hungarian Lady stopped crying to listen to the sound of him sneezing. “Are you OK?” she whimpered, wondering what was happening. “I wish I could come up and help you!”

But Peppa couldn’t even speak, he was sneezing so much.

Poor Salt didn’t know what to do. She tried holding his nose, but he still sneezed.

She tried patting him on the back, but he sneezed again.

Soon he was falling over and bouncing off books and knocking over candlesticks, all because he was sneezing so much.

“What shall we do?” cried Hungarian Lady from the shelf below, but it was too late.

With one almighty “A-A-A-CHOOOOOOO!” Peppa went flying off the shelf and landed with a thud on the floor below.

Picture (Peppa on the floor)

Salt and Hungarian Lady peered over the edge, hardly daring to look.

“P-P-P-Peppa! Are you OK?” whispered Salt, already crying as loudly as Hungarian Lady.

From way, way down on the floor they heard a sniff. Then a clinking sound. Peppa was moving!

“Hoorah!” shouted Salt and Hungarian Lady. But then Salt saw what had happened. Poor Peppa had broken both his ears. They were nowhere to be seen. He looked up at Salt and Hungarian Lady. They looked down at him. No one said a word.

“I’m OK!” cried Peppa, beaming! He didn’t realise both his ears had gone.

Picture (Hungarian Lady parachuting off the shelf)

Salt giggled. “Well done Peppa. NOW what are you going to do.”

But she didn’t get a reply. As Peppa looked up at Salt, he saw Hungarian Lady teetering on the edge of her shelf. “I’m coming to help you, Peppa!” she shrieked.

And before anyone could stop her, she too jumped off the shelf. But this time, her pretty skirt billowed open like a parachute and she elegantly floated to the floor.

Picture (H. Lady and Peppa meeting)

Peppa was speechless.

Salt giggled.

Hungarian Lady looked at Peppa and his broken ears, and decided that she loved him more than ever. “Hello, Peppa,” she said, holding out a dainty hand. “I’m Hungarian Lady. It’s so nice to finally meet you.”

Peppa shook the dainty hand, still speechless. He had never seen such a beautiful doll. “But how will we get back onto the shelf?” he finally stuttered.

“Do we have to?” said Hungarian Lady, with an even prettier smile. “We can live just here, on the carpet. That way we can ALL see each other. And you’ll never fall off the shelf again!”

Peppa smiled.

Salt shouted down to the happy couple: “You were going to sing us a song, Hungarian Lady!”

“Oh yes!” she said, and cleared her throat. “Now Peppa, try not to sneeze…”