Today I am at a Baptism in Bologna, Italy, with all my husband’s family, so this post was scheduled on Friday when I was meant to be packing (thank you husband!). As you’re reading this I am mostly wishing I had worked harder at learning Italian (I’m the only family member apart from the kids who doesn’t speak Italian. I can just about manage hello, how are you in Italian, despite many purchases of teach-yourself-Italian CDs).
My picture today is of my character matrix. (I borrowed the template from a blog but my WordPress reader is playing up so I’m afraid I can’t say who just now.) Usually I fill one of these out about halfway through a first draft, once I have a good idea of all my main characters and some interesting facts about them.
Because I need to ensure consistency in my blog posts for this 365 Challenge, I decided to figure some of it out upfront (like names, ages, physical appearance). I find it hard to imagine details about characters until I have written in their voice for a while. Characters don’t come to me fully formed. It’s more like meeting people in real life: when you first come across them you have a bunch of preconceived ideas about who they are based on past experience or stereotypes. As you spend time with them those ideas are either proved or disproved. That’s part of the fun of writing for me – finding out who my characters are. They always shock me.
“Auntie Claire! Mummy said you were coming to stay but I didn’t believe it.” A whirl of blonde hair and beads threw itself at Claire’s legs and hugged tight, almost tilting her to the ground. Claire resisted the urge to shake her off like an unwanted dog and waited for the shrieking to stop.
“Hello Claire,” Ruth greeted her sister as she came to the door. The two women air-kissed, leaning over the child still wrapped around Claire’s legs. “Is that a new perfume, it’s very exotic.” Ruth sniffed the air and Claire could tell she really wanted to say it was awful, but as Claire was there to do a huge favour she had no choice but to be nice.
“Yes, Michael bought it for me,” Claire said tightly, before gently removing Sky from her legs so she could walk down the corridor to the kitchen-diner.
“How is Michael?” Ruth asked over her shoulder. Claire wondered if her sister had been so caught up in her own misery she had missed the status updates on Facebook. Or is it that she just can’t keep the maliciousness at bay for five minutes?
“We broke up.”
“Oh, did you? I’m sorry to hear that. He was very charming. Not that we saw much of him.”
Oh, here we go.
As if sensing her sister’s reaction, Ruth didn’t continue. Instead she pulled Sky away from where she hung off Claire’s arm and smiled brightly at her sister. “Tea?”
“Earl Grey please, if you have it?”
“No, only Tetley I’m afraid. Or I have Nescafe?”
Claire shuddered then shook her head. “A glass of water would be lovely, thank you.”
Ruth ran water from the kitchen tap into a plastic Disney Princesses beaker and handed it to Claire, who had sat down at the table. Ruth then poured herself more treacle-coloured tea from a spotty-red teapot and sat opposite her.
“Mum will be here shortly. I’m not supposed to drive, so Mum’s taking me. They’ll do the tests, keep me in overnight for observations, then Mum will come and get me in the morning. I’ll be back by lunchtime tomorrow.”
“Where are you going exactly? Peterborough General?”
“No, I’m still covered by Mum and Dad’s health insurance so I’m going private. It was going to be weeks before they could get me an appointment with the NHS.”
Silence filled the kitchen, broken only by the sound of Sky munching grapes. Claire cupped her hands around the bright pink cup and stared at the reflections in her untouched water. It was always like this with Ruth. Unless she was ranting about the latest injustice or gushing over some bloke she’d snogged they didn’t have much to say to each other.
Claire looked up, surprised at the question. “Fine. I have a new assignment.”
“Oh, something interesting?”
“Yes, it could be. I guess. It’s for Coca Cola.”
The spark of interest in Ruth’s eyes died. “Disgusting teeth-rotting stuff. I can’t believe you endorse evil brands like that.”
There didn’t seem any way to respond to the comment without starting a row. Sky was now slurping milk through a straw but she looked up and surveyed the two sisters. Catching her gaze, Claire was surprised at how much comprehension there was in her niece’s eyes. She realised she hadn’t seen her niece in over a year. Claire hadn’t joined her family for Christmas, which meant it was the Christmas before that she last saw Sky.
“Miss Hawkins says Coca Cola was invented by a chemist.”
Claire didn’t know what to say to the non sequitur. It no longer seemed possible to brush the girl off with That’s nice and a smile.
“What else have you learned at school?” She said instead.
“If two pieces of metal touch each other in space they get stuck together.”
Claire stared at Sky, bereft of words. Where did that come from? I remember learning completely useless facts in school, but that seems a bit technical for a six-year-old. She was still scrabbling for a response when the front door opened and she heard the familiar swish of her mother’s floor-length wool coat sweep the laminate flooring.
“You’re here then,” her mother said as she came into the kitchen. Claire turned to look at her, trying to read behind the words.
“Yes, the traffic was surprisingly light, I made good time.”
“Right. Well, we’d best be off Ruth. Have you told Claire where everything is, when Sky has her tea and when to put her to bed?”
“Won’t you stop for a cup of tea?” Ruth looked up at her mother, who was still wearing her winter coat. “We’re not due at the hospital for over an hour. Claire’s only just arrived.”
“We don’t want to be late.”
Ruth looked apologetically at her sister, as if their mother’s rudeness was somehow her fault. She handed her sister a handwritten sheet of paper. “I’ve written it all down, but if you have any problems you can ring Dad.”
“Much good that will do you. Your Father’s working this week, otherwise he would have taken Sky.”
“I thought Dad retired.” Claire smiled at her mother, to show that she was making a light-hearted comment. Her Dad had retired the year before, but he was finding it hard to let go. He had taken on various non-exec roles that seemed to take up more of his time than his full-time job as Chief Financial Officer.
“Your father works harder than all of you,” was all her Mum said, before turning to face the corridor. “Come on Ruth.”
Sky got down from the table and ran to give her Grandmother a cuddle. “Bye bye Nana, see you tomorrow. Auntie Claire and I are going to have so much fun.”
“Bye bye poppet. You be good for your Auntie Claire.”
Claire remained seated at the table as her sister bent to kiss her cheek, gave her daughter a huge hug, and scurried off down the corridor after their mother. Sky came over and leant against Claire, putting her arms around her neck. As the front door clicked shut Sky’s face widened into a broad grin.
“I’m so glad you’re here Auntie. I want you to show me how to paint my nails and my lips and all the things Mummy doesn’t let me do.” Her clear blue eyes sparkled in a way that promised trouble.
Claire was conscious of a strong desire to run down the corridor after her mother and sister, to tell them she would drive Ruth to the hospital. Instead she looked down into the face gazing mischievously up at her and forced out a smile.
“Okay, Sky. Let’s have some fun.”