Last night I attended the local writers’ group, which you may remember from previous meetings. It was entertaining as ever and I will tell you all about it, but not tonight. I’ve also been reading some good books that I will review, but not tonight. It’s turning into another busy week, so in the absence of coherent thought, I wondered whether you might be interested in hearing about last week’s writing course exercise? I’m longing for someone else to do one of these, you know.
Anyway, the prompt was simple and therefore a bit daunting. My instructions were to: ‘invent a scene on a commuter train. It’s 9am and a man and a woman enter a carriage from different ends and grab the last two facing seats. Each is conscious of the other’s presence. There is no instruction beyond this.’ I had 500 words to tell the story of the journey from each perspective and my first thought was, yikes. As you may know, I am a hopeless plotter. However, when I thought about it, and remembered that this was supposed to be an exercise in character, I felt a bit more in my comfort zone. My tutor suggested I draw on life for my people, and so I decided to make the them a mother and an academic, given that those the types I know most about. The result was as follows, and I post it here because my tutor was quite pleased with it, which means it can’t be too awful. Afterwards I’ll briefly mention the feedback she gave me.
Unaccustomed to her heeled shoes, she snagged one on the plastic runner and nearly pitched onto the lap of the elderly gentleman. His hand, surprisingly strong, held hers until she was seated, but she withdrew her own quickly then. Something about his dry parchmenty skin was repulsive after all those months of holding sweet new flesh in her arms. The commute was horribly familiar and yet, after six months away, she was completely changed to it. Without her baby she felt starkly, nakedly alone. And so exquisitely exhausted, vulnerable and skinless, as if she had been flayed of her natural defences. As the train’s brakes juddered beneath the carriage and they moved off in that swaying, snakey, syncopated movement, she knew that the motion was pressing itself onto her soul and that every time she closed her eyes today, she would feel it again; would feel, too, the clasp of the old man’s dried up fingers, and see his image imprinted on her retina, his unashamedly curious gaze.
Nursing in the middle of the night she had longed to be here, free from the relentless demands, alone and undivided, not sucked clean of any purpose of her own. She had imagined liberation, the solidity of her self returned. Instead all she could feel were the physical sensations of hunger and thirst (she was always feeling hungry and thirsty), the ache of a pulled muscle. She felt hollowed out inside, and scraps of disjointed emotions rattled around, magnified by the space. It was peaceful in its way, to feel this disconnected from what used to be her real life. It seemed she had pushed her vital core out into the world and without it she was just a husk, just a shell. She seemed oddly irrelevant in this train, an invisible woman, no longer at home in herself.
But now the image of her baby without her dealt a series of glancing blows. The precious part of her was left behind, growing, laughing, learning to speak and walk without her, maybe learning how to do without her altogether. She could see it all in her mind, the process monstrously accelerated, as he grew into a small boy, kicking a football, shoveling fish fingers and ketchup into his mouth, tearing off on a wobbly bike, learning to kick that ball through the neighbours’ windows, turning sullen and moody (oh no, no, not so fast as that), bringing girlfriends home, getting drunk with unsuitable mates, leaving home, going to work, maybe commuting like herself until (and her gaze was drawn irresistibly to the specimen in front of her) one day his gorgeous peachy skin would be shriveled and calloused, his blue eyes sunken and weak. It was intolerable. She wanted him to stay the way he was forever, and felt with mad certainty that to miss a moment might somehow deprive her of his entire lifetime.
It was extraordinary how much she reminded him of Botticelli’s Abundance. It was that long, distended belly, of course, a point of ugliness, almost, in the original if he hadn’t drawn it to be so enticing. When she sat down opposite he felt quite frustrated, and briefly entertained the notion of asking her to stand up again. But of course he could never have explained himself. He could not have told her, some uneducated and probably uninterested young girl, what a compliment it was, to remind him of Botticelli’s loveliest, most delicate portrait. Not, in any case, when the comparison hinged on an over-long abdomen. Although there was something about her face, too, in the way it had the same curious flatness, the same wide-spaced eyes, vacant in expression, looking inward towards some cosseted flame of feminine mystique. In reality the woman before him was probably thinking of nothing, or some trivial domestic incident. Botticelli’s greatness lay, amongst many other qualities, in the charm with which he infused his beauties, their maidenly fragility cleverly aligned with a powerful, almost mythical, strength. Their faces dreamt gentle dreams, while their bodies gave strong, supple birth. Abundance, he could recall quite clearly, had hold of a pudgy infant in one hand, and there was another child, too, he was fairly sure. The drawing was bold and clear of the woman, but he seemed to recall that its edges faded away, as so many Renaissance sketches did. He was troubled, deeply irritated for a moment, by his uncertainty over those uncertain margins of the drawing, and wondered whether there would be time after his lecture to call in at the British museum and look at the image again.
Before he could properly weigh up his timetable, he found himself drifting back to the heat of a distant Italian summer. Thinking of Abundance carried his memories seamlessly to that first glimpse he’d ever had of a Botticelli, his magnificent Primavera in the Uffizi in Florence. The same woman, of course, had modeled for both figures, that glorious pear-shaped belly less nakedly obvious in the painting, but unmistakably outlined by the flowing folds of her dress. He had been coming down with a fever at the time although he didn’t know it. He simply thought it was the fault of the painting that he continued to burn inside, despite the clammy chill of the museum. He had been full of passions then, abrupt and devastating ones that propelled him through heatwaves up hillsides in search of dazzling tryptiches in dark churches, that saw him almost kneeling in supplication before heart-stopping beauty. When his eyes drew back from the past, he unconsciously clicked his tongue in exasperation. The woman’s hair, he noted now, was stringy, her dress was soiled with some sort of food deposit. When she bent over her capacious hold-all and rummaged around in it, he glimpsed some kind of hideous milking contraption, a plastic bottle attached to a suction cap, that made him turn aside in faint disgust. Fervently, he felt an almost physical pain to see that drawing of Abundance once more. He was sure he could make the time for it, so long as that silly fool Carstairs didn’t keep him talking. He had been refuting Carstairs’ feeble arguments for some thirty years now but amazingly he kept at it. One might think he would eventually take the hint.
I still feel tremendously self-conscious writing fiction – where are my lovely facts I can hide behind? Anyhow, my tutor’s main comment was that I might have marked more difference between the two voices, and in particular, might have made the mother’s more congruent with her personality and her emotional temperature. So a bit less smooth and polished, then, a bit more harried and chaotic. I thought that once again, this was spot-on in terms of critique. Next week, is dialogue week, in which I must fictionalise a conversation with my husband. Now that I am looking forward to!
ps. having a nightmare here trying to get some formatting on this post, grrrrr. Silly wordpress. Apologies if I can’t manage to make some distinctions!