Red Sky In The Morning

If you have never been to Britain, maybe this is your image of a British winter. All powdery snow and happy, cold-pawed doggies, a heavy hat of snow on car bonnets, lych-gates and wall … what do they call those little brick-built tower-things at the ends of low garden walls? No doubt there is a technical term.

It’s all very Christmas-cardy. Any minute now, one feels, a carriage and horses will appear, complete with overcoated coachman. Any minute now, Santa’s sleigh. Any minute now a fat robin will flutter down and arrange himself, scenically, in the foreground on a red post-box. And surely, all over Britain, there must be villages exactly like this. Surely it can’t all be wishful thinking.

When I was at school, as part of English lessons, they used to occasionally attempt to teach us creative writing, only it was disguised as Composition. (Editing was disguised as Précis, and proved much more useful in later years than Composition.) It was before the Seventies and they weren’t into all that stuff like inspiration-producing heaps of photos or magazine cuttings, inspirational tracks of music, mysterious works of art. In those days the teacher turned her back and chalked up on the board something like “The Life History of a Penny”, “Ten Minutes To Wait” or “Seen Through A Window”. Prompts, in other words. The internet is heaving with them now.

The truth is, that if you can write you can write, with or without prompts. Indeed, you will write whether or not you want to, feel like it or are ever likely to be read by anyone. And if you can’t write, this sad fact will not be changed by any number of creative writing prompts. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, trawl for prompts.

Anyway, “Seen From My Window”.

Seen From My Window this morning is an untidy rectangle of lawn, thick with frost. At the far end of it, in the half-light, a fat blackbird and one of the Ratties are picking up yesterday’s overspill from the bird-feeder. The dawn sky is a strange mixture – streaks of almost-summer pale blue overlaid with streaks of pink and orange cloud. Bad sign. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning. (And in case you’re unfamiliar, Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight.)

Behind that is, as far as I have been able to discover in the last seven years, anyway, the only beautiful house in the village. I am thankful, that I am the one who gets to gaze at her from her kitchen window in moments of abstraction. She’s kind of Tudor, with a multitude of weirdly sloping tiled roofs, and those black beams. I say kind of Tudor because she’s not. Probably 1920s or 30s.

However, she’s been here on this bramble-infested hillside for so much longer than any of the excrescences that surround her. She must have been on her own, once. Her new owner has managed to ruin the garden by chopping down a couple of trees, bulldozing most of the rest and installing a portable building-site toilet in one corner, but hasn’t yet thought to paint her white bits dayglo pink or jazz her up with a Roman portico. No doubt he will.

My green bin’s lips are sealed against me. I went out there in the almost-dark to collect the stray-cat dishes and put new out, and put the overnight black bag of waste into my green bin. Had I been keen and energetic I should have done like Canadian Sister with her post-box at the end of the Infinite Driveway – returned with special spray, chisel and whatever to do battle with frozen binny. But what I did was dump the black bag on top of it. Why struggle, when the sun will (eventually) be coming out?

Later, hopefully wearing slightly more than damp bedroom slippers, a worn-thin droopy nightie and a man’s velvetesque dressing-gown, I will have to brave the garage (assuming it will let me in) to fetch more cat food and the shopping bags. Sainsbury’s are delivering this morning, whoopee. A tiny moment of excitement.

Leap while you may, Young Ladies

I used to be able to do that once – that backward flip thing. Never in a bikini on a sunset beach, though. Back garden. Even my Mum used to do stuff. She’d tuck her voluminous 1950s cotton-print skirt into her knicker-legs (we all did that, it wasn’t just Mum) and execute a cartwheel or two on the bumpy grass that had once been a cherry orchard. Not bad after two or three babies. Leap while you may, Young Ladies. Leap for your lives and for the love of leaping.

Presumably this Leap ruse of WordPress’s is because it’s Leap Day – that extra day they put in every four years. I would explain why, but I expect everyone else is explaining why today. Google’s got bunny-rabbits, I see.

‘Leap’ unfortunately reminds me of stuff. At one point I signed on for a Creative Writing course at the University of Kent. I think I had actually got past that stage – sounds vain, but you know what I mean – but I wanted to be part of something for once. I was lonely. I wanted to belong to a Group. Fat chance. I found myself surrounded by Yummy Mummies some twenty years younger. There was one man (there always is) but he left after the first week (they always do) and was never seen again.

Earnest, they were, about The Art of the Novel and Being Creative. Earnest always puts my back up for some reason. I sat there week after week thinking, why do we need recipes for writing? Can there be a right way of writing?  Why aren’t we just…writing?

So we sat there in this underground dungeon of a classroom, evening after evening, and we brought in our exercises and assignments, and we circulated copies, and we tore each other’s work to pieces in a Positive, Creative, Intellectual sort of way. I had written a very strange story about an insectoid creature, distasteful in a semi-sexual sort of way, that lands on an Eden-like planet disguised as an Angel and fools the innocent inhabitants into letting it have charge of their children. Then, Pied-Piper-like, one day, it leads them off the edge of a ravine and they are all found dead and crushed to bits at the bottom and he is eating them. Yum, yum. I was working through some issues at the time. [see Eden (1) and Eden (2)]

The stories were circulated anonymously but to my chagrin everybody recognised mine. One of the Yummies explained, with a flashing, fluoride smile that illuminated the basement darkness – it’s because Rosie’s stories are always about Dead People and usually about Dead Children. Everyone was nodding.

Gulp! Afterwards, I went back over my past oeuvre. Bloody woman was right.

I have since made a conscious effort to write short stories in which no one dies – at all. It’s no good – my characters will keep snuffing it!

I was talking the other day about that free app I found – Dark Echo – and how the footsteps clatter around in the pitch dark, echoing, visually, and how sooner or later they reach an invisible wall and just sort of mark time, echoing the while, until you turn round and retrace your steps across the screen. It’s an infuriating game. It reminds me of writing. That Dead People thing – my dead end.

I went back over the few bits of fiction I have written for, or uploaded to, this blog and blow me down, I’m still doing it. SnuffingIts are rife! I accept it now: I’ve hit the wall, game-wise and creative-wise. I’m clattering around in the dark, my footsteps echoing, echoing; waiting for the monsters to come.

In the darkness on the edge of town

Some things you remember are just too dark to write about. But they stick in the back of your brain. Templates are formed from them. And always after that your life is patterned. Your chance of freewheeling gone.

This is the tale of the Brown Books. I first wrote it down for the biography module of a creative writing course at the University of Kent. Sitting there one evening in one of their black-walled basement classrooms (I was told they recycled plans for a prison complex, when designing the University of Kent) amongst a selection of Yummy Mummies with Literary Leanings, I felt ill at ease, common and awkward. I had ventured into the borderlands of the Middle Classes. I wondered how they would react, whether they might feel what I felt when it happened, but didn’t hold out a great deal of hope. The telling required more skill and subtlety than I possessed at that time. Suspect it still does.

There was a whole bookcase full of them – big, thick hardbacks covered in brown paper, the titles written in my mother’s neat hand and underscored with her trademark wavy line. She was a very neat person. She made a lot of lists, and they were neat too. She never read those books but I did. They were my private horde; somewhere for my imagination to go.

I’ve forgotten most of them now. There was one for Housewives. The pictures were poor quality, grainy black and white on shiny paper. It featured ladies with stiff hairdos and white aprons, heads bent over their needlework. It told you things like how to make a petticoat out of parachute silk. There were crochet patterns for baby layettes, with instructions for threading the ribbon through; there were sections on keeping bees, making rose-water and unblocking chickens that were egg-bound.

There was one about Gregg shorthand. I suppose she must have studied it at school, or maybe was teaching herself. I tried it. It was beyond me, but I liked those Egyptian squiggles, the whole idea of there being a language made of shapes – that a language could be made of anything you wanted – maybe sounds, maybe colours, maybe numbers. There was one called The Science of Mind At seven years old I read about the Id and the Ego, picturing the one as a statue or an angel, the other as a black burr-thing, like the ones that got caught in your clothes when you walked across the field. Id and Ego floated just above my head, casting sideways glances at one another. There were photographs in that book too. There was one of a Congenital Idiot. I was glad I hadn’t come to earth as one of those.

There was a book about tropical fish. You could make out the spots and the stripes, the fanciful fins. You had to imagine the colours. I imbibed those fish names, recited them over and over on my way to school, like a charm or amulet, to drown out the bullies in my wake…

… Angelfish, Pufferfish, Guppy, Molly, Piranha…

One afternoon I came home from school and she was kneeling on the floor by the bookcase, her print skirt flounced out around her, pulling the brown books out and packing them into a cardboard box. I remember the flare of distress, the hot flare of rage, the welling-up of tears. ‘What are you doing with them?’ I asked.

‘Jumble Sale,’ she said.

gregg shorthand

‘She’s highly strung, that child,’ a neighbour once said in my hearing, ‘a regular Prima Donna.’ Afterwards I asked my mother what a Prima Donna was. She said an opera singer which made no sense. I couldn’t sing. But rage and sorrow would certainly rise up and overwhelm, like a storm, in seconds. On the outside I was small and dull, and nobody listened. On the inside I was Old, and engaged in listening to the universe. I would hear Her screaming; feel her fists hammering, on carpet, on wood, on people – on one occasion punching through a glass window. The Old One watched the purple blood blossoming out of her wrist like a fin.

And now the Old One observed and waited as she cried, cracked and undignified, her face swelling up. She had one of those faces, the Prima Donna: cry for a minute, red balloon for days. It is for that reason that I rarely allow myself to weep nowadays.

As she bawled and hiccupped and kicked the skirting board with her brown school shoes, the Old One looked on. It won’t work, it was telling her. Be calm. Listen to the universe.

‘Let me look after them in my room,’ she screeched. ‘Let me have them. Please, Mummy, please‘ – knowing all the time they would not fit into her room, which she shared with the airing cupboard, a chest of drawers and the larger of her two sisters.

‘Please, Mummy, please.’

She was very tidy, my Mum, and quite young herself. You tend to forget how young your parents were, when you were young. I doubt if she would remember the death of the Brown Books now; indeed, she has forgotten almost everything about those early years – almost everything about everything. But I find I still can’t manage to forgive her for the Brown Books – the ignoring – the ignorance – of what lay behind the tantrum. I was one of those who came after the War. All those other sons and daughters lost – we were their replacements, saplings planted in the gaps where others had been cut down. We were bred, like piglets, and I think we were not quite real to our parents in the way that children had been real, once upon a time, in the long, sunny days before Hitler.

Sometime after that I turned to stone. My face became a kind of mask, my voice ceased to work in any meaningful way. Behind the silence and the blank expression the Old One continues to observe and proffer advice and, I suppose, to commune with the universe. Although the universe feels further and further away as time goes on, its signals fainter. And with it, behind the mask, lives a seven year old Prima Donna, still spiky and black, still screaming. Still putting her wrist through the glass.

gregg alphabet