Thursday, 27 October 2011

Short story: Untitled

This is a story that, to be honest, I like but I don't like this version.

I love the idea and the character of the little girl - but I was trying to fit it into short story format as per the course I've been doing, and it just wouldn't go. The ending isn't right and I had loads more ideas around this story that I think would make it something a bit more lengthy. Would appreciate any feedback!

Short story homework, unfinished

Josie jumped at the sudden sound. She had been absent-mindedly shuffling along in the queue for over an hour, which wasn’t as long as usual but in the damp November twilight it was long enough.
The human centipede of a queue wriggled and writhed with the fidget of stamping feet. Hungry people sheltered against empty shop fronts for the memory of warmth they once offered. Like every other High Street in the country, it had long since died.
Shop signs had been flipped to ‘closed’ in every window, fancy displays looted by the Revolutionaries. Stark red sale banners still hung like party flags, warnings of a calamity no one had wanted to hear.
A few people in the queue could remember going to those sales, thinking they’d grabbed themselves a bargain. But not Josie Whyte. At the time of the Final Crash she was “knee high to a chromosome” as her scientist dad would joke. Even though he used to be something high up in the government health department, they had to queue like everyone else.
It was starting to get dark. “We’re lucky,” Josie’s dad had told her one day, before he got too weak to queue with her. “This old town still has gas lit lamps. Fancy doing this in the dark?” She shuddered. It looked pretty dark to her as it was. The flickering light cast a damp mud glow over the rows of figures, each with a ghost of their own breath for company.
Most people came alone – it wasn’t worth a whole family catching cold for half a loaf and a tin of condensed milk. Josie wasn’t the only child, but at nine-and-three-quarters she was one of the youngest.
She knew she wouldn’t see the other kids today, because she had got here early especially. Now here she was, next in line. Dad would be pleased.
“Straight there and back now,” he had warned, pressing the tokens firmly into her mitten-clad hands. “I’ll be watching the clock.” He said it cheerfully, but she knew he was worried. It had been weeks since he last had his medicine and his cough was getting worse. Today was Delivery Day. She had to get some medicine, or they would be waiting another month and then who knows what would happen.
The ration station was an old chemist’s. She walked up to the high counter, where a flustered woman in the government issued uniform was counting ration coupons and attacking them noisily with a rubber stamp.
“Who’s next?”
Apparently she couldn’t see Josie, who had to jump up and grip onto the edge of the slippery white counter with both her hands. Her mittens dangled at her sides from the string inside her smock coat. The one thing her mother had knitted her before she died.
“I need my dad’s medicine please.”
“No medicine today, Missy. Can I get ye anything else?”
Josie nearly lost her grip in shock, but pulled herself up again, wide eyes just peaking over the counter at the woman’s smocked breast and the pile of coupons in front of her.
The stamp swooped past Josie’s nose and made her blink as it landed.
She had to speak. She had to do something.
“We saw it. On the ration newsletter. It said today was delivery day?”
The woman put down the rubber stamp and peered at her little customer over her reading glasses.
“And who be the ‘we’, if yous don’t mind me asking?”
“Me and my dad. He’s sick. He needs medicine. It said there was a delivery today. I came early, especially.”
The stamp woman’s expression softened and she glanced up, for the first time that day noticing the cloying mist swirling around the door. Was it getting dark already? She sighed and rubbed her face with her hands.
“Ye came on yus own?”
Two wide eyes nodded. Josie clung on, the tips of her fingers now white and hurting from the effort.
People were shouting from outside.
“Come on!”
“What’s the hold up?”
“Get a move on, some of us want to be home before dark.”
“I tell ye what child, I’ll do you a deal,” said the stamp woman, looking at Josie’s whitening knuckles. “But first, come round here, or you’ll do yeself and injury and I don’t need that just before rush hour.”
Relief gushed through Josie’s veins along with the blood to her numb fingers as she let herself drop back down to floor level. Pins and needles flooded into her arms. She made a mental note to ask her dad what pins and needles was, trotted round the counter to the bit where part of it lifted up, mounted a step and came face to face with the stamp woman’s whole body. Most of it was covered with her smock, but Josie could see a nice skirt underneath and proper shoes. She must get paid alright, thought Josie. Everyone else had worn through nearly every pair of boots, and it was not even half way through the winter.
The woman crouched down and took Josie’s hands in hers. Instinctively, Josie withdrew them and clutched the tokens to her chest. The woman laughed.
“Come on now, I’m not going to swizzle ye. I just want to see how much you’ve got.”
She smiled and Josie thought it might be OK.
“Have you got any medicine?”
“You’re a determined one aren’t ye?”  She held out her hand. “Show me the money and we’ll see if we can’t help ye, and your pappy too.”
More shouts came from outside and there was scuffling. Josie knew she was pushing her luck already and that if people rushed in the woman would forget all about her and shut up shop to stop the looters getting in.
Slowly, carefully, she held out one hand and uncurled her fingers. The coupons were squashed and damp from being held under her sweaty mittens.
Still looking Josie straight in the face, the woman slowly and carefully picked up the notes.
She thumbed through them. “Ten, twenty, thirty…my! Where’s your pappy live, eh? Wouldn’t I like to know.”
Josie shifted nervously on the spot.
“Can I have the medicine now?”
The woman jumped up without warning, nearly bashing Josie on the chin. She stumbled backwards off the step onto the shop floor, only just keeping her balance. The woman was back behind the counter with her stamp.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
“It’s someone else’s turn now. Race home to pappy now and not say a word, if ye know what’s good for ye.”
Josie stood, dumbstruck, on the pale shop floor, her face ashen in the low energy bulb light.
She ran out into the damp November night, pushing her way through the cold but somehow warm legs of the people scrambling to get through the door, hot tears mingling with the ice cold mist which stung her face. She sobbed. Was it true? Had it really happened? As she ran, visions hung in the fog around her and she batted them away with her flailing arms, to no avail.
Red flapping sale signs were floating down, down, down onto a bed where her coughing father tossed and turned, moaning with pain and despair: “Josie! Josie! My Josie-Jo! What have you done to me?” She couldn’t bear his sad face, his hacking lungs, gasping for breath…she tried to reach out to him but he was drowning under the red banners which fell faster and faster…now they were turning to giant notes like the ones she’d seen in pictures with the Queen’s head on…strange, bodiless hands appeared from every angle clutching and grasping in vain at the notes as they fluttered midair.
Defeated, Josie fell to the ground, the vision evaporating into the mist.
She wept, hearing the brutal STAMP! of the woman as though it was right above her. Somewhere in the distance another victim presented their coupons to be stamped.
“Can I help ye?”


Short story: The Videotape

For the aforementioned short story course I was doing, we had to work on a 1,000-word story to read out in the final week. This was my story. It's sort of adapted from an idea I had for a collection of stories about people with sad tales to tell. The collection would have more impact than one story on its own (well that's my idea anyway) but this had to be butchered quite a bit to get down to the word count, and in order to try and put into practice the tips I received on the course I gave it a 'twist' which on reflection, I probably wouldn't do in the final story.

But anyway, here it is! Comments/constructive criticism as always, much appreciated:

The Videotape

The day I found the videotape had been just like any other.
Breakfast, put some washing on, think about what to do with myself in those long dead hours in the afternoon, between lunch and the six o’clock news, when my tea would be ready. I found myself envying the vegetables I was chopping as I put them into the slowcooker, knowing each carrot, parsnip and swede cube was nestled safely and purposefully in its own place, only one eventuality to become them all. Ha! Silly old fool, I told myself. Envying veg. What next? Better to put the long afternoon out of mind, work on your cross stitching, watch the news, and count your blessings before bed.
Except this Wednesday, I never got to the news.
A report on the radio reminded me of the talk at last Thursday’s social. Something about technology. As if a dozen or so widows cared about new technology! But it made me think about Bill and his love of gadgets.
In that instant I could see him, in his armchair nearest the telly, slapping his hands down on the arm rests and shaking his head.
‘It’s no good. We’ll have to get a new one.’
And that was it. I never asked why, or a new what? Just nodded and let him get the catalogues out to start comparing prices and models and specifications with faint pencil notes in a tiny red notebook.
I don’t know why I remembered the notebook, but I had a sudden urge to check – check that it was real, not imagined, that something tangible of dear Bill still existed. Before I knew it I was rummaging around in his precious Back Room.
Piles of books, magazines, papers and old boxes nestled together conspiratorially in the musty darkness. We’re safe, they seemed to say. Nothing ever changes in here.
As I tugged at one of the drawers in the old fashioned bureau that belonged to Bill’s father it came out clean in my hands, bits and bobs flying everywhere. My heart leapt – what would Bill say? Then I remembered, with a funny feeling in my stomach, that he couldn’t say anything because he wasn’t there.
So I ploughed on.
Old receipts, shopping lists, instruction manuals, light bulbs, screws and nails and wall hanging hooks. It was all there, just where he’d left it.
‘What on earth were you planning on doing with all this?’ I found myself wondering.
Instinctively, I started sorting things into piles, until I realised I was clearing out this bureau and I intended to do a proper job of it.
The notebook still hadn’t appeared when something else caught my eye. Hidden beneath ancient alarm clocks, radios and floppy discs was the old video player.
‘Videos? Pah. It’s all about digital versatile discs now love,’ I remembered him saying. But it was the only bit of kit I was interested in using. I used to tape old films to watch in the day, whilst ironing or stitching or the like. I didn’t fancy re-training to the new DVD player.
Now, with no accusing eyes watching, I grabbed it with both hands and pulled it free from its hiding place. Grabbing a few videotapes from an adjacent mountain I triumphantly bundled my booty back to the living room. After a few minor rearrangements of plugs and sockets, I heard the blip telling me the video welcome screen was running, clear as day. Where had this tech-savvy woman taking over her husband’s beloved technology come from? I barely knew myself.
In a daze, I shoved the first tape into the player and waited. The machine whirred and hesitated and seemed to get stuck, and I suddenly felt tired. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. My knees ached and my heart was racing with the sudden burst of activity. There was all the rubbish to put out and I’d have to unhook the damn thing as it looked so cumbersome and out of place in my neat living room.
Giving up, I left the machine clicking away and put the kettle on. Suddenly, I heard music.
Faint at first, then louder, but not like a film soundtrack, more like it was being played inside some other room. A voice, slightly muffled, was speaking in a few short sentences at a time. Curiosity got the better of me and I went to see what this strange film could be.
It wasn’t a film at all. It was a home movie. People, wobbly and faint with the passing of time, were dancing in pairs, in some kind of community hall. Then it twigged. Our anniversary party! I knelt right in front of the telly and turned the volume up.
Ahhh, look. The happy couple! It was Bill’s work colleague, Ian something or other. As he spoke, the shaky zoom focused and refocused again on a couple, dancing awkwardly in the centre of the room. It was me. Cradled in Bill’s arms. Clutched, more like. He always held on too tight, but I didn’t mind. We span amateurishly across the floor, all the while Bill catching people’s eyes, ever the friendly neighbour, chit chatting and making jokes with his friends. I basked in his being, allowing myself to be spun and twirled and shunted around the dancefloor like Cosmo dancing with the dummy in Singin’ in the Rain.
Then, as abruptly as it started, the screen flickered and was gone – replaced with static.
I struggled to rejoin the room. Where was Bill? What had happened?
It was just a normal Wednesday. Yet now it felt like the days and weeks and years had melted and merged and were swimming around in my vision like the black circles that formed when I looked away from the snowstorm of the screen at the disappearing sunlight. I closed my eyes and let my head sag down to my bony chest. That chest. It had been so close. So wedged in to Bill’s ample torso, squeezed until I could feel his heart beat against my bosom. Together we span, one person, never questioning the closeness that bound us, never contemplating how fragile that moment was, how quickly it would be gone. By the following Christmas, he was dead.
Slowly, carefully, I unplugged the wires and buried the video in its place back in Bill’s room. I shut the door, went back to the kitchen and made a cup of tea to drink before the news.
The last thing I remember is a warm, solid pressure against my chest. I imagined it was Bill, squeezing me tighter and tighter until I knew that my last breath would take me to him, I would be safe in his arms once again. When they found me, I was still smiling.


End of the short story writing class...and other things

Wow it's been a while since I updated this. Technology at home is one of the reasons, plus any spare time I had was devoted to various writing and other assignments for the Writing a Short Story course I was doing at Leicester Writing School.

Now that's finished and I'm still deciding how I felt about the whole thing. Overall it was a positive experience, I met some really nice people and I felt that it was a very good use of my time.

I'm not sure what I expected to happen. I think I hoped that it would ignite a spark to write that would produce a never-ending array of new works in progress which would eventually satisfy my desire to 'write something worth reading.'

In reality I wasn't all that pleased with most of the stuff I wrote. I am still struggling with WHAT to write about. And I'm not sure I can do the whole 'story arc' and 'satisfying ending' things that publish-able short stories apparently need to contain.

But none of that is the fault of the lovely tutors who I really respect and appreciated their advice and encouragement. I think Bead shouting "Just write something! Anything!" at me during one of the exercises the first week of the course will stay with me forever!

Maybe THAT'S the best thing I got out of it........just to keep trying!


Will post a couple of new things as a follow on to this, sort of stuff i worked on during the class.