As I mentioned in another post earlier this week, I’ve been trying to conquer my weaknesses in writing, lately. Among those weaknesses are:
- finishing things
- the boundary between romantic and shlocky.
So in the spirit of finishing things, I’ve been focusing on short stories. In the spirit of improving dialogue and romantic writing, I’ve been writing mostly about couples.Since I often struggle to actually come up with ideas in the first place, I used the following exercise, which I found here (and which is for flash fiction, I realise, despite having written a 3000 word story):
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.