I wrote the following monologue in response to a writing prompt from my friend, Natalie. She asked me to write from the perspective of someone who can’t get out of bed.
The prompt reminded me of my nana, who spent a month in hospital this summer after fracturing her leg. While she was in there, I visited her a few times a week. On some of those occasions, she had been given codeine to help her with her pain. Codeine and my nana’s imagination make an interesting combination…
The story went on to win first place in a contest run by domestic violence charity Equation, and I got to perform it at Waterstones, Nottingham. It’s being published in an anthology with Global Wordsmiths, coming out in January 2017!
Hello, my name is Lily Thompson and I am ‘Bed Ridden’. Have you ever thought about that phrase? ‘Bed Ridden’? What does it mean? I’m riding the bed? The world’s got rid of me at last: sent me to bed? I’ve heard the phrase all my life, bet you have too, but I’ve never really sat down and thought about it for long, realised how silly it is. I’ve plenty of time to sit down now. Maybe there’s another meaning of ‘ridden’ that I don’t know. Probably. There’s lots of meanings I don’t know: I left school at fourteen. Didn’t want to wear glasses to read the board, see. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses. Worked though, didn’t it? Married before my twentieth birthday. For what that’s worth, now. Now that I’m bedridden, no husband left to visit. And the NHS would have given me a bed anyway, whether Derek had been able to afford it or not.
My daughter Elaine was an English teacher, before she retired. She’ll know what bed ridden means. Or my granddaughter: she’s an English teacher too. Makes me wonder if being stupid isn’t in my bones after all, as me mother was fond of saying. I did a test for dementia once, with one of the carers. My score came up as ‘mild something impairment’. Can’t remember the middle word. Typical. Elaine told them about me leaving school at fourteen and they noted it down, said it was a handicap, gave me an extra point. Didn’t matter, I was still mildly impaired. Not impaired enough for a diagnosis, too impaired to rule it out. None the wiser then, on the stupidity front. I said to them – what’s the point in all of this, anyway? To embarrass me? Isn’t Parkinson’s and a missing breast and a dead husband handicap enough? The only handicap Derek had was a ten in golf. That bloody man breezed through life. I’ll always look after you, Lily love, he told me. Stick with me, duck, I were born lucky. Well where are you now, ey, my lucky duck?
Bed ridden. Chair ridden. Same blummin’ difference. I’ve been ridden one way or another for years, since Parkinson’s lost me my licence. Well, the two crashes lost me my licence, but it was Parkinson’s fault. I’ve been doddering on me zimmer from bed to armchair for three years. Carers to make breakfast, carers to make tea, carers to wash my blummin’ privates. One cup of tea I wanted to make myself, tripped over me own feet. That’s what’s landed me here. But the bloody joke of it is that now that I’ve got a fractured leg, now that I’m bed-ridden, I’m on my feet more than ever. Blummin’ physiotherapy. Blummin’ nurse, barely out of nappies, telling me to think positive, think myself well. I lived through the war, duck! Ration books! I tell her all this, tell her to shove her positive mental attitude. She walks off, mutters what a sweet old lady. She says it so as I’ll hear, so I let her hear what I’ve got to say, too. I shout it. ‘If you want sweet old ladies, go to a W.I. meeting, duck, not a hospital ward! Old age is serious business, you cheeky cow!’ Sweet old lady, indeed. I was never a sweet young lady, why should I start being sweet now? I’m a human being, not a Werther’s Original! What was that poem Elaine was always going on about, for her O Levels? Rage against the dying of the light! No one told Dylan Thomas to keep his bloody chin up, I doubt.
The think positive nurse comes back. Gives me some pills, ‘for the pain sweetheart‘. ‘Thanks, love’. Even under all these wrinkles, even with the blue of my eyes dimmed to grey, my evil eye’s better than hers. Still got it, old girl, Derek would say.
I only realise its Codeine once it’s too late. They’ve been warned not to give it to me. On my little wall chart it says: ‘Lily, milk no sugar, no opiates (hallucinations)’. Too late. She’ll get away with it. Overworked NHS. Ah well. How much worse can it be? What was that advice mother gave me about my wedding night? Lie back and think of England? Poor mother. Who knows what she’d have made of the sixties. My wedding night was a blummin’ riot. Wouldn’t mind being that kind of bed ridden again.
Anyway, I don’t think of England. Not this time. In fact, I think of Kilimanjaro. That’s in Africa! My grandson went on an trip with his university a few weeks ago – he says he doesn’t mind doing it again if I fancy it, he wants to show me the view. We have fruit trifle in the cafe at the top. He has to leave for a cricket match, so I ask him to drop me off at the theatre on the way. Barbara and I tour London together. She looks amazing – best she’s looked since we were at school – her blonde hair in a bob, polka dot dress like she’s Marilyn. You don’t look bad for eighty-six Barb, I laugh, and she says we’re only young once, Lil, you’re looking pretty grand yourself, and she’s hoisting me up on to the stage. The actors don’t seem to mind, they’re clapping. Really, I ask her, you don’t think this is too much? I’m pointing down at my bush, which is as blonde as Barbara’s bob. Too much? She laughs. Do you see anyone complaining? If you’ve got it, Lil, flaunt it! So I do, firing rainbow lasers from my nipples which I don’t remember getting pierced but I tell you what, it looks blummin’ good: I should never have kicked up such a fuss when Elaine got her ears pierced, I should never have kicked up any fusses, I should have spent more time tap dancing naked under the spotlight. I will from now on.
I’ll wipe the ‘no’ off my little board, when I get back to the hospital. And the bit about hallucinations. I’ll add an exclamation mark, add three, I reckon I can get out of bed for that. Lily! Milk no sugar! Opiates! My granddaughter’ll complain, no doubt. ‘Come on, Nana’, she’ll say, in her concerned teacher voice. Bless her, she means well. ‘Come on Nana’, she’ll say, ‘we want you to walk again’, and I’ll say ‘listen ducky, I don’t need to walk, why walk when you can fly?’
There has been a huge hiatus since my last post, but not because I’ve given up on writing – rather that I’ve been distracted by it, and by various pieces of good news about it.
My children’s novel, the opening of which can be found here, was longlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2016. Yay! The novel is a middle reader called Dream Catchers, and the main character is based on my best friend, Esther. The previous winner (and one shortlisted author) got published! More news on Dec 5th.
A monologue I submitted to a contest run by Equation (a Nottingham based domestic violence charity) won first place in the Over 16 category, and I got to perform it at an event at Waterstones, Nottingham! I’ll post the monologue in another post as soon as I’ve clicked ‘publish’ on this one…
I wrote this piece yesterday based on a prompt from a friend: 300 words that take place in the time between putting a piece of bread in the toaster and it popping up. I wrote it on breaks between rereading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (which makes much more sense, for some reason, at 27 than it did at 22). As a result, the characters came out a lot like Tony and Sarah West, from that novel.
Dark or Light
You’ve chosen well with Kerri, Mrs West mused, slotting two slices of granary into the toaster. Girls take after their mothers, you know, so she shan’t lose her figure. Dark or light?
Dark, I lied. Mrs West turned the dial from three to five.
The measure of a man is how he treats his mother, supposedly, she continued. Her dressing-gown was silk: a peacock feather pattern. Something her undeserving husband had picked up on a business trip no doubt; a guilt purchase, when exiting some sleazy spa. It billowed open as she moved around the kitchen balletically, plucking jam, butter, teaspoons. I tried not to look. How about your mother, Dominic, Mrs West was asking now, do you treat her well?
Oh yes, I began, hoping that something witty might materialise after. It didn’t; I left the sentence trailing upwards, a rollercoaster track without a dip. Mrs West’s hair was still bed tousled, I realised. But her lipstick was perfectly applied; pillar-box red.
Then she was looking at me. Hands on the counter (and I noted that her fingernails were pillar-box red too), her lips parted, her eyes daring me to confront her clavicle. I could smell burning. Is this what love feels like, I thought, burning? Or lust maybe, real lust, and my heart was pounding: I could hear my blood in my ears, and I wondered if Mrs West could too. Do it Dominic, I thought, she wants you to, there’ll be other Kerri’s, and I leaned forward an inch before Mr West had burst in and – BANG! – slotted a bullet into my skull.
Except of course not, but there the toast was, in its blackened glory, with Mrs West saying shall I ask you again Dominic, or are you hoping I’ll guess, is it marmite or jam?
This is a quick piece of flash fiction I wrote yesterday. The jumping off point was a prompt about a cliff and a lily, but the finished product ended up nowhere near that.The word count, this time, was 500 words. I did 498. Flash Fiction – I am learning – is a real challenge. There’s really only room to introduce one character, one scene, one idea, and doing so with any kind of depth is prettttty tricky.
Keep Calm and Carry On
I’ve a pad of inspirational quotes – one for each day – stuck to my fridge. My sis gave ‘em last Christmas. ‘Big ideas for yer little head, Neil, maybe you’ll be inspired and like, leave the house?’ Princess Angelica, I think, I see your idea and raise it. I’ll live that pad, 365 days of inspirationeil. I say that, laughing, but she walks out shaking her head. Probably to give our parents the pity report. Bide your time, Neily, I think. Christmas 2017, show ‘em all then, just bide it.
Jan’s great. I dance like no-one’s watching and it’s easy: no-one is. I twat around to Queen, get my hooverin’ done too. Next, I live, laugh and love – bit more abstract but fully doable: Terry and I watch Fools and Horses on G.O.L.D and laugh our arses off. Terry’s my hamster: I love that furry bastard. I give him double treats as a random act of kindness, no stress. Terry’s over the bloody moon.
Feb I have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Metaphor, I know, but I’m leaning in 100%. I pick Patrick – homeless fella on the high street round the corner. Never knew his name before, he takes some persuading but eventually he takes my Doc Martens as a holding deposit and I march his bashed up Cons along the canal. I have a good think about Patrick the whole way, really empathising. I’m practically in tears when I get back, but the bastard’s done a runner. Unlucky for him, he picks the shop doorway below my flat to hide in. Lucky for him, I’m still down about his parents lettin’ him sleep outside Debenhams, so I say keep the shoes, come for tea.
I do us waffles and beans. Pat wants sausages but I’m veggie, I say. Since I got Terry, I tell him, not got the heart. Pat just eats. I point out the pad on the fridge, explain all, how it inspired today’s events. He shrugs, asks what’s tomorrow. It’s not protocol, but he’s a guest so I check. When you get knocked down, roll over and look at the stars. It’s a clear night, I say, let’s go on the roof. I been knocked down and looked at stars enough, Pat says. A tinny convinces him.
Roof’s quiet, Orion’s Belt’s out, inspiration feels like it’s working. Friends AND hobbies, I think, next Christmas Neil, you’ll show ‘em. You feel any calmer, I ask, more inspired? Calmer than what, says Patrick, I need a piss. I give him a key to get out and back in. When he slams the door it’s the only sound on the street.
Thirty minutes, no return. Don’t be hurt Neil, I think, he doesn’t know it’s the only key. I stay lying down in the peaceful silence, wondering whether today is a day when good things come to those who wait or a day to take a leap and trust I’ll land on my feet.
Here is a list of twenty random words. Don’t read them too closely – but cut and paste onto a fresh document, save and close. When you have twenty minutes to spare, make a cuppa or something stronger, and get ready to write. Only when you are ready, open the document, glance at that first word, and start writing, immediately. No planning in advance. And every few sentences, pick up the next word, incorporating that into the flow. Make it happen – make those words fit – it will feel absolutely nuts, but it is only a bit of fun – and you will end up with unplanned, surprising twists and turns, strange connections.
I didn’t like what I produced with that first list but I found the exercise really productive, so tried it again with another random list of 20 words from a word generator website. The result was as follows. As with the last post about building on weaknesses, any feedback on endings, dialogue and avoiding SHLOCK will be received warmly. Apologies for inconsistent formatting: things seem to happen in the transition from Microsoft Word to WordPress and I don’t have the wherewithal to solve them.
Jodie and the Great, Flashing Countdown Timer
When Jodie and Doug were on their first date, Doug noticed that Jodie had a great, flashing countdown timer floating above her head, independent of her body, counting down minutes. Everything else about Jodie though had been completely normal. Breathtakingly beautiful, in fact. On that fateful first day, the number on the countdown was well over four million, and Doug was renowned for his courteous demeanor. And so it was that the couple had been married for five years and had a one year old son by the time Doug happened to bring the timer up in conversation.
“Have you ever wondered what it’s counting down to? I mean, what’s going to happen when the timer runs out?” Doug gently tapped the side of his boiled egg with his knife and watched with great satisfaction, as the crown of its as yet undipped yolk wobbled. “This is a perfect boiled egg by the way, Jodie. It’s got wobble but not too much wobble. Know what I mean?”
Jodie didn’t answer. Doug looked at his wife and found that she wasn’t listening: her glance was shifting instead between her phone screen and the cryptic crossword on the back page of The Times.
“Maybe it’s quicker to just ask you Doug. Is a ‘lipa’ a type of pulse?”
“No. ‘Lima’ is though. Did you hear my question?”
“It’d be better if lipa was, because I’m sure 6 down is epilate. What was your question?”
“Could it be emulate?”
“Oh. Yes! But it’s not really a very good clue. That’s annoying, I’ve already written in epilate now. What was your question?”
The sleeve of Jodie’s jacket trailed in her coffee as she attempted to turn the ‘p’ of ‘epilate’ into the ‘m’ of ‘emulate’. Doug asked the question again and caught his wife’s attention at last. She looked at him with the expression of someone who very much does not consider herself to have a great, flashing countdown timer floating above her head, independent of her body.
“What the hell are you talking about, Douglas?” The question had stopped Jodie in her tracks; she held a slice of marmite on toast in limbo between plate and mouth, staring at Doug as though his face were a particularly difficult ‘magic eye’ puzzle.
“There’s no need to Douglas me, Jo. If it’s a private reason that’s fine, you know me, it’s your timer, after all.”
“No Doug, it’s not my timer, the timer is completely new to me.” Jodie furrowed her brow. “I think the timer must be your timer.”
“Well sorry Jo, that seems pretty unlikely to me. It’s on your head and it’s always on your head, I’m almost 100% sure it’s your timer.”
“Ok. I’ll call your bluff. If you genuinely can see a great, flashing, countdown timer over my head, why wouldn’t you have mentioned it on our first date?”
“Well I didn’t want to make you feel embarrassed about it, or make myself look uncool by not knowing what it was for.”
“What did you decide it was for, then? My timer?”
“I didn’t know! I thought Maths might be one of your hobbies, and it might be like… a Maths tattoo. But floating above your head, independent of your body.”
Doug definitely wanted to start dipping his soldiers into his egg yolk, but it would be rude to turn from Jodie’s gaze at a moment like this. He could spy the egg out of the corner of his eye, slowly congealing. In a few more moments it’d have solidified, and he’d have to spread it onto the soldiers instead. A complete waste of an egg. A premium egg, perfectly soft boiled. Frankly, he regretted mentioning the great, flashing countdown timer at all.
“So, let me get this straight. You met a girl with a flashing countdown timer above her head, came to the conclusion that it was a sort of modern tattoo, accepted that as normal and then kept your mouth shut for over a year of courtship and five years of marriage. Then one day you just thought, I know, I’ll ask Jo about that countdown timer, while she’s eating her breakfast and about to go to work?” Jodie had intended to project a calm demeanor, gently leading her husband to recognize his delusions himself, instead of accusing him directly: a trick of the trade she used on some of her patients. But – perhaps because it was not yet 7.30am or perhaps because it was her own husband that was deluded – the trick was not working. She could feel her throat tightening; her voice becoming more shrill.
“Well yes… because whatever you’ve been counting down to is imminent! It’s exciting really! I wondered if it might be a baby countdown, but then obviously the numbers didn’t work out with Theo and n-”
“So what was the time on the timer when we met, exactly?” Her voice was calmer now: her mellifluously reassuring doctor’s voice. You are a consummate professional, Jodie, a consummate professional, she intoned inwardly.
“Well I can’t remember exactly. But it was well over four million for the first while.”
“Aaaand what does the timer say now?”
“Now that I can tell you, babe! Nine thousand, four hundred and seventy two minutes, thirty two seconds. Well, thirty now. Twenty nine actually. Tw-”
“Ok, ok. So to clarify: on our first date, the first time we had sex, when you proposed to me, when we got married, as I was giving birth to Theo, every day when I come home from work, every morning when I wake up, right now. On all of those occasions you’ve been able to see a great, flashing countdown timer floating over my head, independent of my body, and you’ve kept it a secret until now, and only because it’s going to run out soon?”
“It wasn’t a secret Jo, I don’t keep secrets from you. It’s not like I was lying about it or anything. I thought it was just one of those things, you know? An unspoken thing. You’ve never mentioned all the moles on my balls but I’m sure you’ve noticed them.”
“Doug, of course I’ve noticed them. It’s hardly the same though, is it? The moles on your balls aren’t as noticeable or as big a deal as a flashing countdown timer.”
“Yes they are, there are eight of them. I’m probably really susceptible to skin cancer.”
“Right. Well. I’ve never counted. And as far as I’m concerned there’s no timer, it’s not about to run out, and if it is I don’t know why. And that’ll have to be the end of it for now, because if I don’t get off soon I’ll end up hitting the bad traffic.”
“Time’s up in just under a week, actually. Next Tuesday evening.”
“Doug, I love you. But you’re starting to sound a teeny bit like one of my patients.”
“Which one? The one that thinks sweetcorn kernels are sea creatures and keeps trying to release them into the wild?”
“No. A new, even wackier one. One that I’d be telling you all about, if it wasn’t you that was coming out with it. Look, I’ll be late if I don’t leave within sixty seconds. Give Theo a kiss for me when he wakes up. We can talk about this later, ok?”
Jodie popped the final morsel of toast into her mouth and raced out of the front door before Doug could protest, the great timer flashing 9468:27! 9468:26! as the door slammed behind her.
Jodie decided not to bring the timer up that evening, after work. Theo had gone to sleep quickly and without complaint, and Doug had made a curry. Though the light was almost completely gone, it was warm enough to be outside. They ate from steaming bowls and rocked lazily on their garden swing, Doug’s head in Jodie’s lap. Why bother bringing it up, thought Jodie, if he doesn’t? Why ruin one of the only evenings of the year where it’s warm enough to be in the garden? Be peaceful like Doug.
“I love being in the garden at night time,” Doug said, “particularly when it’s a clear night. If we stay out long enough we might see some stars.”
“Yes, can you see the timer in the dark?” It was out before she had chance to think about it.
“The countdown timer! The great, flashing countdown timer floating above my head, independent of my body!” As difficult as it was to be angry at someone as gentle as Doug, it was extremely easy to become frustrated by his resolute passivity.
“Oh, I didn’t think we were going to discuss that anymore.”
“What?! Why not?”
“Because I didn’t think you believed me!”
“Does that matter!?”
“Well, I thought we just had divergent opinions. You’re entitled to your opinion, babe! What kind of monster would I be if I didn’t respect that? But yes, since you asked, it’s glow in the dark.”
It took four days for Doug to convince Jodie that the timer existed. It was not that he had tried in any way to convince her: in fact, he’d attempted to steer the conversation onto different topics whenever she brought it up. But every time he did, she managed to steer it back. And every time she steered it back, his stoic insistence that the timer existed remained. Jodie tried being grumpy, then angry, then weepy. Doug’s responses were sympathetic, apologetic, unwavering. She cross referenced his theory with Theo who – being barely a year old – responded with a mixture of garbled non-sequiturs and nondescript gurgles. Doug politely asked his wife to drop it, even suggesting that he might have imagined the great, flashing countdown timer, but Jodie had a tenacious nature. The seed had been planted. Eventually she tested him, making Doug read out at random intervals and comparing them with the clock on the kitchen wall behind his head. After the forty-eighth correct response in a row, Jodie burst into tears. Doug scooped her into his arms and began stroking her hair, his fingers grazing the bottom of the number two every time he raised his palm.
“I’m going to die aren’t I, it has to be that,” she whimpered into his shoulder.
“Jodie Albright! In six years of knowing about this timer, that idea has never crossed my mind once. Don’t be silly. I’m almost cross that you suggested it.”
“What else could it possibly be, Doug?!”
Doug was silent. He didn’t want to admit that he had never really interrogated the possibilities of what the timer might represent. The first time his curiosity had been piqued enough to actually mull on it had been at the breakfast table, four days earlier.
“It’s probably to do with your income! You’re probably going to get a promotion on Tuesday! Some kind of huge, exciting pay rise!”
“Why would I get a promotion and a pay rise at eight o’clock in the evening, numpty?”
“You could do anything, Jodie! You’re wonderful!”
“For God’s sake, Doug, that’s not what I mean. I mean if it was about a promotion it would be during my work hours. And I haven’t even applied for a promotion!” A pang of affection made her reach for her husband and wrap her arms around him. “I’m sorry I called you a numpty, I feel guilty now. Calling you a numpty feels like punching a puppy in the face.”
“How did you find out what it feels like to punch a puppy in the face?” Doug grinned as his wife laughed and shook her head, despairingly. “Come on Jo, we can figure this out.”
They discussed it all night, until Sunday had become Monday and dark had become light. They bullet pointed reasons for the timer on A3 paper, then systematically ruled each one out in turn. They discussed the possibility of Jodie’s impending death; of conceiving a second child; of conceiving a second child and that child heralding the second coming of Christ, or the first coming of another holy being, a girl this time, perhaps. They talked about why Doug might be the only one able to see the timer: whether it might be indicative of a specific task he had been set by a higher power, in order to teach him or Jodie some kind of life lesson. So they bullet pointed higher powers and possible life lessons too, but the later it got, the more the ideas seemed to blur. By 5am, every bullet point on the list seemed both absurd and possible.
“We can’t really be contemplating whether God brought me into your life with a countdown timer so that I could teach you a five year long lesson about recycling and reducing your carbon footprint. We can’t, Jodie. We need sleep. And there’s no way you’re going to work tomorrow, either. I’ll call Charlie in an hour or so and say you’ve got a vomiting bug. But let’s try and sleep a bit first.”
Jodie looked at Doug forlornly, wanting to argue. Deciding that she hadn’t the energy to resist, she flopped onto the bed instead. Doug closed the bedroom curtains and coiled himself around her, their sleeping arrangement as familiar and cosy as a favourite pair of jeans.
“I wish you’d told me when we first met,” Jodie said quietly, before they slept.
“Why? Would you have decided not to marry me?”
“Of course not, that’s not what I mean, silly. I love you.” Jodie took Doug’s hand and kissed it by way of demonstration. “I believe you. But if you’d told me back then, we would’ve had bags of time to discuss it. We could have told people. Figured it out. Two days isn’t long enough.”
Doug soothed his wife with reassuring words and soporific tones, until her responses became shorter and her breathing steadier. For over an hour he watched the timer, until it ticked below the two thousand three hundred mark. It was Monday morning. The countdown would finish at 8:30pm on Tuesday night.
It was almost midday before Jodie emerged from bed, already dressed in a black trouser suit and red lipstick. Doug was sat in the kitchen with Theo, feeding him chunks of banana and singing along to Queen on the radio.
“Femme Fatale!” Doug announced, rubbing his eyes in mock disbelief.
“Toothsome”, Jodie replied, smiling.
“Tussum!” Theo interjected, gurgling happily.
“Toothsome,” Jodie repeated. “It’s the answer to two down in yesterday’s crossword. ‘Difficult Maths problem Northerner says is tempting.’ I think I must have been solving it in my sleep. Such an ugly word for delicious, isn’t it?”
Doug smiled and stood up to make some breakfast for his wife, hoisting Theo up onto his hip.
“Impressive stuff, Jo,” he said, spreading peanut butter onto a bagel with one hand and bouncing Theo with the other. “You look like a new woman! The power of sleep, ay! I think we got a bit silly about it last night. We were tired and started taking it too seriously.”
Jodie smiled and tossed the newspaper down onto the kitchen table. She kissed Doug’s and Theo’s foreheads in turn, so that the former smiled and the latter gurgled with satisfaction.
“I agree. Definitely silly! Listen, Doug, I’m feeling a load better after that sleep. If I get off now I’ll still be able to make all my afternoon appointments. Do you mind if I take my bagel with me?” With cheerful efficiency and without waiting for a response, Jodie wrapped her bagel in foil, planted two more kisses on the foreheads of Doug and Theo, plucked her car keys from her bag and left. The final bars of Bohemian Rhapsody were still playing as her car pulled off the drive. Doug watched her from the window, the number 1948 becoming smaller and smaller until she was gone from the street.
It caught Doug’s eye as soon as he returned to the kitchen: an envelope emblazoned with ‘DOUG & THEO’ in bold, red, felt tip. As though he’d been expecting to see it. As though Jodie had asked it to keep quiet until she’d left and, now that she had, it was announcing itself with alacrity.
“There’s a letter, Theo,” Doug murmured, as though Theo might be capable of offering some kind of reassurance or advice about the letter’s contents.
“Ledaaa, fee-o! Ledaaa!” Theo suggested, amiably.
“It’s obvious what it says, isn’t it?” A note of panic had crept into Doug’s voice. Maybe I should check to see if her passport has gone, he thought. Or if she’s packed a bag. Maybe I should just drive to the clinic. That might be easier than reading the note. “Maybe I should just check to see if her passport has gone? Or drive to the clinic?” He asked Theo.
“Pahpuhhh! Pah! Go!” Theo countered, lifting his arms and waving them at his father, clenching and unclenching his chubby fingers into fists the size of apricots.
“Sorry littlun, I’m worried if I lift you at this precise moment I might faint and drop you.” Doug fumbled behind him for his chair and sat down heavily, his chest tightening, his thoughts whirling, feeling unsure as to whether he might pass out or throw up.
“Numma! Numma! Ma!” Theo squealed, giggling, clapping his pudgy palms together in apparent glee. Doug turned his attention to his son: the joyful innocence of the boy, his happy obliviousness to everything besides bananas and the music of Queen and strawberry jam. Something about it made him burst into tears.
“Whatever this is, little man, whatever this timer thing is, and this note here, and this thing with your mum, we’ll sort it okay? We’ll figure out a solution together, you and me, team Albright, the Dougstinator and Theopotamus, we’ll get through it. Okay tiny?” Doug sniffed a little and wiped his eyes, his son’s face comforting him, calming him, reassuring him that nothing had changed.
But Theo was silent now. His hands were still raised in the air towards Doug, his round eyes rapt by the empty air above his father’s head.
The first time I heard the word ‘verbatim’ used to describe an art form was in reference to theatre. A drama teacher I was shadowing in my PGCE year was encouraging her A Level students to produce pieces of verbatim theatre by reading through transcripts of historic court cases and shaping them into performances. *As a side note, a shout out must now go to Alessandra, Bao Vi and Yeon Kyu, my former AS Level English Lit students, who may or may not still read this blog. All three of them got an A in their English A2 result (so another shout out must go to my friend and their teacher, Emma). If you’re reading this girls, CONGRATULATIONS, YOU MADE IT! And let me know how you got on in your other results!!* Ok, side note over. The definition of Verbatim Theatre is as follows:
a form of documentary theatre in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic.
To be honest, I didn’t get the point of it. To me, it seemed lazy: a way of spoonfeeding students a ready made story line and script in the absence of real creativity. But then I saw my first piece of Verbatim Theatre and changed my mind.
In 2012, the National Theatre staged a production of ‘London Road’: a verbatim MUSICAL, no less, about the Ipswich murders. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it: a script drawn entirely from interviews with the residents and prostitutes living and working on London Road, and which aspires to be both hilarious and tragic. Every um, every er, every accidentally misspoken word would be preserved in the script. I went because I loved the National Theatre, but I wasn’t expecting much.
To my surprise, it really worked (and not just for me – it’s since been revived, transferred to other theatres and even turned into a film). The moment though that, for me, really crystallised the value of verbatim came towards the end. After a busy, cheerful string of show tunes about flowers, town hall meetings and other innocuous aspects of suburban life, the lighting dropped to a single spotlight and a single woman, alone on the stage. In a wavering falsetto, in a tiny circle of light surrounded by all that darkness, she sang:
“I mean, sounds awful, doesn’t it, but they’ve. They’ve um, done us all a favour, haven’t they, really?”
The ‘they’ she referred to? The murderer Steven Wright. The ‘favour’ he did them? Improving the class of her neighbourhood by murdering five prostitutes.
After that line, the spotlight cut to black and three women (representing the prostitutes who lived on to mourn their friends deaths and fear for their own lives) stepped onto a balcony, their faces lit from below. They stood for maybe three minutes, utterly silent. No one in the theatre made a sound. Three minutes of silence to reflect on whether you’ve ever felt like that spot-lit woman. Three minutes to realise that those words were really spoken, by a real human. Three minutes of silence to remind you that these women’s voices were never invited into the conversation, so there are no lines to give to them in a piece of verbatim theatre. That was the moment that this art form first made sense to me. Sometimes, the power of art is not in creating something new but in casting fresh light on something which already exists. Verbatim theatre can do just that.
So is Verbatim Poetry a concept? Why yes, yes it is! Although it’s often called Found Poetry instead, as sometimes the art is in noticing that the poem already exists, whole, if you look at it the right way (as opposed to constructing something artificial from things that already exist, as with the London Road script). Google Poems are a great example of these, in which Found Poetry lovers screenshot Google’s predictions from half typed searches. The results are sometimes hilarious, sometimes profound. Here are some fun examples…
So this morning, for my poetry writing warm up, I decided to write some verbatim poetry after getting the following poetry prompt:
Grab the closest book. Go to page 29. Write down 10 words that catch your eye. Use 7 of words in a poem. For extra credit, have 4 of them appear at the end of a line.
Since I’m in the library with Pete today, the nearest book to me was ‘Principles and Practice of Surgery – 6th Edition’. And page 29 is all about ‘transfusion of blood components and plasma products’. Yay. As I was reading through to pick my ten words, trying to think how ‘immunoglobins’ or ‘coagulation’ could be embedded into a poem that I might be able to both write and understand, I decided to make that the focus of the poem: applying random scientific phrases to the topic poets normally seem to write about: LOVE. As a result, I ended up with these: two short, silly verbatim poems which list commonalities between blood components/plasma and love.
Hopefully the informative nature of this post will make up for the flimsy nature of the poems. =]
Enjoy! If you’d like to try some verbatim writing, why don’t you try writing your own poem listing commonalities between love and something? You could use any kind of non fiction book: a recipe book, a text book, a travel guide… as long as it’s page 29!
Ruminations on The Principles & Practice of Surgery (6th Ed)
1) Commonalities between Love and Fresh Frozen Plasma
Available for use in children
Can be removed
Can be removed from a unit of whole blood
Associated with severe bleeding
2) Commonalities between Love and Human Albumin
No compatibility requirements
No clear advantage
There is increased vascular permeability
There is a risk of acutely expanding the intravascular space and precipitating pulmonary oedema
While working on my MA this year, I’ve really tried to focus on identifying and combating my weaknesses as a writer. It turns out it’s very easy to identify weaknesses. Here are some I’ve identified myself, by looking at the habits and strengths of successful writers:
the boundary between emotive and shlocky
working without tangible evidence of progress or success
writing comedy that is actually funny
writing romance that isn’t cheesy/cliche
writing convincing dialogue
And, for fun, here are some I’ve had pointed out to me:
your main character is too superficial and self absorbed to be likable (damn lady, that character is me)
you rely too much on rhyme in your poems
your dialogue is unrealistic
this has been done before so many times that I think if you’re going to do it, you need to do it WELL
I don’t like sci-fi so it’s difficult for me to critique it (but could you try though please, creative writing teacher)
I don’t like fantasy so it’s difficult for me to critique it (but could you try though please, creative writing teacher)
I don’t really write short stories so it’s hard for me to critique it (can I have some of my seven grand back please, teacher)
please stop rhyming all of your poems
‘People carrier’ is not convincing sci-fi language, I don’t think people would say that in real life
FFS do you literally only know words that rhyme
Ok, I’ve gone off on a tangent now. But the point is: I am trying to focus on setting myself challenges which target my weaknesses. This flash fiction piece was an attempt to target the following:
I tried to find a picture on the topic of heaven but couldn’t find anything particularly relevant. Instead, here’s a picture of Pete and me on the ‘Heaven and Earth’ bicycle tour of Hoi An in 2014, and at the Danang Intercontinental resort the next day (the closest I’ve come to heaven on earth so far).
Seeing as this is a challenge to target my weaknesses – PLEASE feel welcome to offer some critique/criticism (particularly relating to dialogue, comedy and the effectiveness of the piece as a whole) in the comment section.
Checking In, Checking Out
The pearly gates are furry, not pearly. Imagine that! I read the information plaque just after I joined the queue: a misprint that got out of hand, apparently. And it’s leopard print! Going by what I’ve seen of the lobby, leopard print and gingham are the height of fashion here in heaven.
Angel bouncers are a misconception too – those decisions are all made electronically nowadays. Well – there is an angel, but he’s more ‘fancy spa receptionist’ than ‘shit nightclub doorman’, vibe-wise. I reach the front desk after two hours. Angel gives me a glass of watermelon juice, a glowing smile and a sing-song greeting.
“Hello and a very warm welcome to Earth Heaven, may I take a surname for yourself please, sir?”
In case you’re wondering: yes, it was unexpected.
“Fabulous Mr Trent sir, thank you. Okay, bear with me, bear with me… George is it?”
Angel swallowed a guffaw before apologising stoically. Turns out George is slang in Earth Heaven for a fluorescent pubic wig. Pretty rich considering his name-tag read ‘Colostomy Southampton’ and I hadn’t said a bloody thing.
“Fabulous! Okay, Mr Trent sir, bear with me… okay. First and foremost: you bashed your head on an outcropping of rock while bouldering with your girlfriend in the Dordogne, correct?”
“Well, she’s my wife actually, but- ”
“Oops, terribly sorry, it was your honeymoon, bear with me… Okay that’s sorted for you… Can I just confirm with yourself that this collision caused a large intracranial haemorrhage which increased intracranial pressure, prevented blood supply to your brain and subsequently resulted in death for yourself?”
“Sorry Mr Trent, I know it seems like stating the obvious, it’s just a little formality we have to run through with yourself sir for legal reasons, terribly sorry sir.”
It was only at this point that I mustered the wherewithal to ask if my wife was ok. My blood ran cold as Colostomy’s brow furrowed sympathetically. Well it might have done, had my blood not ceased to circulate my body as a direct consequence of my recent death.
“Unfortunately not, Mr Trent, sir.” Colostomy patted my forearm reassuringly. “According to these records she’s gutted, actually sir.”
“So she’s alive?!”
“Oh! Sorry, yes, alive. Definitely alive! Misunderstood your question there. DOIYNNNG!” Colostomy mimed a slapstick halo tug. “I honestly think, Mr Trent, I’d lose my own halo if it wasn’t an integral component of my immortal, celestial form! On that topic though, Mr Trent sir, I can actually at this juncture offer you a free upgrade to our couples package for no additional cost, is that something you’d be interested in at all today, Mr Trent?”
“It’s something we offer all new arrivals sir, although I should point out that whatever decision you make for yourself and Mrs Trent is final, sir; once it’s in the system I can’t undo it under any circumstances.”
“Hang on. Are you asking if I want you to kill Jenny?” Colostomy giggled uncomfortably, shifting in his ergonomic gingham cloud chair.
“Well, in a word, sir, yes. Though many customers prefer to think of it as offering their spouse the chance to get to heaven early and remain with their loved one. Yourself, in this case! Unfortunately I will need to press you for a quick decision on this one.”
“That’s horrific! Jenny’s only 28! She deserves to live a long and prosperous life! To know what it feels like to look into the eyes of her-”
“Okay, I’ve popped you down as a no for that one Mr Trent, since we are pressed for time – may I remind you that Mrs Trent will almost definitely die anyway within the next fifty to sixty years, and she is currently operating on a 78% likelihood of coming to heaven, at which point we’ll be back in touch with yourself, Mr Trent. So no worries, it’s – what’s that Earth phrase – six and two threes really, isn’t it sir? Oh no, not that one… Much of a muchness!” He laughed, muttering the phrase under his breath a few times. “Does that all sound okay to you, Mr Trent, sir?”
Now, in a moment I’ll give you your welcome pack and my colleague will be along to show you to your room. There’s an orientation presentation which screens hourly in the recreation room. Any questions you have will hopefully be answered then. Does that all sound alright for yourself, Mr Trent, sir?”
“Ah! Here’s Pam: she’ll show you to your room and answer any other questions you have along the way, okay?” Colostomy hauled a gingham holdall onto his desk and smiled at me with finality. “Here’s Mr Trent’s welcome pack, Pam. He’s on the 532nd floor. Oh, and double room please, he opted IN to the couples package-”
“No, I opted OUT of-”
“Of course, haha! Pam, I’m as useful as a lead halo today! I’ll just call my manager and get that sorted, okay, best of luck to yourself there sir, Mr Trent, sir, bye bye!”
Before I had chance to respond, Colostomy had disappeared and I found myself struggling to keep up with Pam through a labyrinth of corridors.
“Pam is it?” I called after her, hoping to slow her down. “Lovely, a good traditional English name, reminds me of an aunt I used to-”
Pam turned to me and beamed.
“French, actually! Short for Pamplemousse! Pamplemousse Apartheid. And I know what you’re going to ask next so before you do: no, you can’t meet him, 33 years old and yes but they rotate the menu weekly. Hang on, my phone’s ringing.”
Pam coughed, vomiting a cloud of pixels from her throat which formed into the shape of Colostomy’s face in the air in front of us.
“Hiya Pam, could you just pop Mr Trent back to reception for me for a moment, love? Just an extra admin thing to sort, you’re both going to laugh when you hear it!”