Messages Sent and Received

Petronus Towers

Petronas Towers

Author Richard Wright set himself a challenge this year to write a story each week based on photographs sent in by his blog followers. I was lucky enough to have one of my pictures chosen, of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Below is the story that Richard wrote, based on my photograph. Do stop by his blog and have a read, there are some great stories.

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The 52: Messages Sent And Received

Every Monday I’ll post a new short story here, based on an image somebody out there has sent me. Welcome to the 52. There’s been a bit of a hiatus around here, because of reasons, but we should be back to normal for the next couple of months at least. This week I’m collaborating with Amanda Martin for your reading pleasure. She sent a picture of the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia, which entirely by coincidence I was able to visit last month. They’re majestic in their own right, but it’s difficult in light of modern history to appreciate them in isolation.

Messages Sent And Received by Amanda Martin and Richard Wright

The Petronas Twin Towers are Malaysia’s modern jewel. Those who live in Kuala Lumpur and turn their eyes to the sky of a night draw comfort from their pale white glow, and are filled with strange pride that their city hosts the tallest twin towers the world has ever seen. Visitors fly in from across the globe just to gawp at them.

Kevin barely glances up as he returns to work that September evening. The smoggy, twisted streets are crowded, and he does not appreciate having to go back to the office for a late night conference call. While Tower One houses the behemoth that is the Petronas Group, Tower Two is rented out to a host of multinational companies, Kevin’s included. Life in Malaysia suits and fascinates him, with its heady layers of exoticism, technology, and squalor. The occasional requirement to touch base with his masters in the US is only cross he bears in grudging trade for the year long opportunity to work there at the company’s expense.

Walking up to the plaza on which the towers stand, he casts a glance skyward. No matter how often he sees them, the twin sentinels always impress him with their serene beauty. Were it not for the double decker skybridge shackling them to one another like conjoined twins, they would each seem like a vast syringe poised to vaccinate the clouds. From the top floors it is possible to see the stars, though from ground level that can be difficult to believe. The banks of pollution make the sky a flat void at this time of year.

In the absence of constellations, the towers define the sky. They are vast antennae, waiting to capture signals transmitted on a scale beyond human comprehension.

As ever, tourists surround the ghostly structures, craning their necks as they try to find ways to capture the whole edifice in a single snapshot. All nations mingle as one in the attempt, a ring of flesh around the towers that grows loose at the edges and bunches like tense muscle at the entrances to the bright shopping centre at the base of the structure. Security guards wander among the visitors, hunting out the pickpockets who float up from the city’s dark corners to prey on those made careless by wonder. With so many faces cast to the heavens, sly hands have open access to pockets and purses.

Kevin is crossing in front of the mall’s guarded doors at 20:30, weaving between shoppers and tourists, when his skin turns clammy and his pulse quickens. Claustrophobia plagued him as a young man, but he has not had a serious attack for five years or more, a period which not coincidentally matches the length of his relationship with Tasha almost exactly. He makes that link for the first time. They have not seen one another since her visit three months ago, and her absence is a dreadful ache. She is almost exactly half a world away, twelve hours behind him in New York, and will be arriving at her own workplace at that very moment.

Tasha is his soul mate. They are connected.

Closing his eyes, he fights the need to get out, find air, find space. It doesn’t work, and so he tries and fails to swallow it away. It will be better inside, he thinks. Away from the crush and din of the crowd he will feel calm.

The din has vanished, and when he opens his eyes and looks around at the crowd he realises that he is not alone in his strange trepidation. Everybody has fallen silent. Most are walking away from the building, an almost thoughtless drift that their expressions suggest they are not conscious of. They stare up at the towers. Allowing himself to look up too, he understands that it is not the towers that are so fascinating. It is the flat, dark sky and the thing that it conceals.

That there is a thing approaching, borne of nightmare, is something he believes to be true even though he does not know why.

Tasha stops him from backing away, putting space between those luminous towers and himself. It had occurred to him moments earlier that when he was finished with Head Office, he could call her at her desk and bid her good morning. Kevin loves Tasha a great deal, and it is that which makes him force his unwilling legs onwards to the staff entrance at Tower Two.

It is not a pleasant journey, nor an easy one. Every instinct he has wants him to run away. Logic tells him otherwise, for nothing is happening, nothing is wrong.

Logic is simply a means by which a person can be wrong with authority, but he lets it bully him into the building anyway.

*

Inside it is better. He has the open plan office on the sixty-first floor to himself, save for a solitary cleaner who cleans each surface with a slow precision borne of tiresome routine. Kevin has a desk beside the window, and stares out as his managers in New York drawl on about market share and next quarter predictions. While making reassuring noises at appropriate moments he watches the dancing fountains far below as they arc and spray in time to music he cannot hear. The coloured lights playing through the water are hypnotic, and make his eyelids heavy.

At 20:46 something vast fills his vision, even though it is not there. It has such weight and size that it gives the illusion of travelling very slowly, even as it rockets into the building.

Except it doesn’t, because it does not exist. A vast, encompassing roar does not deafen him.

Screaming, he throws himself to the floor, away from the window, and a blast of shattering glass and steel does not shred his face and clothes. He lifts his head, sure that tremors should be rocking the building, not understanding how everything can be so still. The telephone dangles on its cord over the edge of the desk, and he can hear tinny concern from his boss. Although he wants to pick up the phone and make some attempt at explanation, he cannot bring himself to step closer to the window. There is danger at the window, even though there isn’t.

The cleaner has gone. Kevin is alone. Easing across the carpet, as though the wrong step might cause something to implode, he makes his way towards the door.

He is terrified, hyperventilating, and does not know why.

*

At 21:02 Kevin pushes open the fire door and steps into the stairwell. For ten minutes he had stood by the elevator, willing himself to press the button to summon the car but unable to make himself do so. The lesson was too strongly ingrained. Elevators are to be avoided in an emergency.

There is no emergency. Nothing is wrong. He wants to go back to one of the offices and call Tasha, but the need to get out is stronger.

At 21:03, as he makes his tentative way down to the floor below, he feels the echo of an echo of a second collision. The building doesn’t move at all, but his body feels it anyway, as though somebody has pulled the stairs out from under him. Losing his feet, he topples backwards, landing painfully on his tailbone with a cry. Instead of standing, he huddles with his head in his hands, not knowing how to fight back the incomprehensible sensations wracking him.

For a few moments it is peaceful, and then something catches his throat. He coughs, which makes it worse. Now that he has started he cannot stop, and he hacks and splutters as phantom smoke fills his lungs. Although the temperature does not change at all, he begins to sweat.

With his eyes streaming, he makes his way back up the stairs on all fours like a parched man in a desert. Only when he reaches the corridor at the top and closes the door behind him does the burning cease.

*

Back in the office he huddles beneath Sayid’s desk, still too frightened to approach the windows and the sense of lethal void they represent. For the longest time he cowers, hugging his knees to his chest. The scale of what isn’t happening overwhelms him. There are no coping strategies to deploy, no defences to erect. It steamrolls over him.

For forty-five minutes he weeps, a swirl of regrets and longings. Tasha looms large over him, but when the taste of phantom smoke started to permeate the room, drying his throat and making him gag, it is not his lover that he calls.

Dragging the phone off the desk by its cord, he dials his mother like the frightened boy he has become. The call goes to the answering machine, and he babbles his love, and his regret, and tells her he is sorry even though he does not quite know what for.

Half a world away, she does not hear his muted voice in her hallway because she has the volume on the television up as she watches the world end.

Kevin stops talking when he can no longer breathe. The room is a blur seen through burning tears. He punches the underside of the desk as sweat drenches him, then claws at his throat and eyes as tiny choking noises spill from his lips. It is too much. It is unbearable.

Crawling out from under the desk, he staggers to his feet. The windows are dark patches, and he stumbles towards them, picking up speed, willing to die for just a touch of the cool Autumn air. He is on the sixty-first floor, but that has ceased to matter. He needs to get out. He needs to breathe.

He hits the window at a sprint, and if it had blown in earlier then he would plummet into the sky and drop like a rag doll, full of terror and regret and relief.

The windows did not blow in earlier, and he bounces back from the reinforced glass with a sick thud that drives stars through his mind.

It is 21:59, and he knows that the floor has dropped away, and there is rubble and crushing and hot death awaiting him.

*

It ends.

The floor is just the floor. There is a nauseous pounding across his forehead from where he hit the window, and the dull heat of his self-inflicted scratches on his neck and throat. When he raises his hands so he can see them he notes the blood beneath his fingernails.

But it has ended. Whatever it was, it is over. Nothing has happened. Nothing is wrong.

Weak, he drags himself to his feet. The room spins, but that is only because he has hit his head. Limping to his desk, he lowers himself into his chair, retrieves his dangling handset, and punches Tasha’s number. Shaken and in pain, he wants her voice to soothe him and make the world a solid place again.

There is no answer, but that is not possible. If she were not at her desk then the call should route to the switchboard. Instead he has nothing but an ominous single tone to listen to. Kevin squeals with need and high-pitched frustration, then hangs up and dials again. When he gets the same result, he tries again. Still nobody answers, his heart kicks up a little warning. Something is wrong. He is calling the World Trade Centre in New York City. It is 2001, and the switchboard is manned twenty-four hours. It is not possible that nobody is there to answer.

He tries over and again, but it will not be until many hours have passed that he realises he has already taken the last message Tasha had to send.

*

A rather blunt and to the point affair this week. I shall save subtlety for another time. If you enjoyed the story, please do tell your friends to come and read it too. Nobody will ever know it exists if you don’t.

This story, and the whole of The 52, is yours for free. Please enjoy it on that basis. If you want to support my writing and the publishers who’ve worked with me over the years, then consider buying a book. My latest novel is The Flesh Market, and is an excellent place to start. If short stories are your thing, why not take a look at my story ‘Skins’ in Nightscapes?

 

I Had a Brain Once: 2013 365 Challenge #211

The notebook page for my Life Writing

The notebook page for my Life Writing

I was recently invited to read a collection of short stories by author Pat Elliott. Another blogger that I follow, Sally Jenkins, also has a collection of short stories that I read and reviewed earlier in the year.

I’ve never been a short-story writer. Followers of this blog will know that I tend to the verbose, and so keeping a story to 1000 or 2000 words is almost impossible. Only once did a story come fully-formed in my mind in short format. I wrote it to see if I could break into the impenetrable womags market and, when it failed to do so, I abandoned the idea (much as I did with my attempts to write Mills & Boon).*

However, reading these collections of short stories made me wonder if I had any stories from my time studying Creative Writing at the Open University that could be worked on, partly for editing practice, and partly as a project to slot in between publishing Baby Blues and Class Act. (Have I mentioned before my short attention span? Or how addictive publishing books can be?)

Sally Jenkins Short Story Collection

Sally Jenkins Short Story Collection

So I had a gander through my assignments and did find one or two stories that I was proud of. There’s a piece of life writing, too, although I recall that I gave it to my students, when I taught Creative Writing for a couple of terms, and they tore it to shreds, so I’m guessing that needs some work (I wish I’d thought to take notes on their critique!).

There’s also an issue with the life writing in that it talks about people I know, and not always in a positive way. I have to decide whether to cut those bits out, hope those people never read my stuff, or rewrite it as fiction.

I found a collection of five poems I wrote as my final assignment in my work folder – again life writing, but this time addressed to my father after his death. Does poetry sell? Could I include them in a collection of short stories? Should I scrap the whole idea as too commercial, and stick to novels, or is it good to show your versatility as a writer? Who knows.

The other thing I discovered, going through my old study notes, is how much I actually knew (or sounded like I knew) about writing. The notes that went with the poems for my final assignment said things like this:

I believe poetry should ‘happen between tongue and teeth’ [Dunn, CD2], and I write to that end.  I like to include alliteration and enjambment to move the poem forward.  When I read these poems out loud, some of the enjambment seemed to jar the rhythm.  However I decided I liked the effect, as it mimicked the suddenness of death and how it jolts the familiar. For example ‘Like hands they wave goodbye.’ and ‘Already they are dying’ (May, lines 8 and 16).

Pat Elliott's New Collection

Pat Elliott’s New Collection

And this –

Feedback highlighted some trochees that disturbed the rhythm, so I reworked those lines. It was also suggested that I change the many 11-beat lines, but I like feminine endings [Herbert, ‘Form’, 2006, p.240] and so left these in place.

Huh?

Oh my, I used to know stuff. I had a brain, once, before it turned to fromage frais through lack of sleep. I enjoyed writing poetry, too, yet I never write it now. I doubt I would have the vocabulary for it, as the first thing that disappears when I haven’t slept is my command of the English Language. Still, it was a fun trip through memory lane, and add another line to my very long list of projects to do ‘one day’.

*Please don’t take from this that I’m a quitter: I know my forte is full-length novels, but there are bills to pay, so I have tried to find enthusiasm for the more commercial routes. I failed.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Sky skipped alongside Claire as they walked from the car to the theatre. Dark clouds gathered in Claire’s mind, the closer they got, despite the clear twilight sky. Claire looked up at the deep blue overhead. Thank God for small mercies. Even though the seats were covered, she knew the stage was in the open, and it wasn’t likely to improve Kim’s mood if she got drenched during the performance.

Eyes darting left and right, Claire followed the throng of people, trying not to be irritated by jostling picnic baskets and raucous laughter. The intention had been to bring a picnic and come early with Sky, but Jenny hadn’t returned her until six o’clock, by which time it was too late.

As it was, they’d only managed to find a parking space by grace of the Skoda’s narrow width, squeezing in between a Range Rover and a Lexus. The car looked ill at ease, as if intimidated by its neighbours. Claire had given it a pat, and vowed to be either the first or last to leave.

“Auntie Claire?”

Looking down, Claire realised her niece had been talking to her. “Sorry, darling, I didn’t catch that.”

“Will we see Jeff? You said your friend Kim is in the play, so will Jeff be here? I liked him, he was funny.”

Claire’s stomach plummeted to her feet. Crap. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might bump into anyone she knew, never mind Kim’s husband. She shivered. The word husband raised unwelcome images of the last time she had seen her friend.

“I guess so, poppet. We’ll keep an eye out for him.” And duck behind the nearest tree if we see him.

They took their seats and Claire arranged a blanket across Sky’s knees. The girl sat wide-eyed in the dark, taking in all the details of the stage beneath them, where painted scenery nestled amid real trees.

The performance began and Claire forgot to be anxious, as the unfolding story pulled her in. Glancing sideways at Sky, she wondered if her niece would manage to follow all the complicated language or if she would be bored. The girl sat forward in her chair, one hand on her chin, the other cupping her elbow in support. With her long golden hair around her shoulders she wouldn’t have looked out of place flitting between the trees with the Queen of the Fairies.

As Act I ended, Claire felt the tension tighten beneath her ribcage. It was a long time since she’d seen or read the play, but she was certain Puck came on in the second act. Her breathing shallow, she turned her face back to the stage in time to see a red-haired puck swing down from a tree to accost a fairy.

“How now, spirit! Whither wander you?”

The voice cut through Claire, and she realised for the first time that she hadn’t been sure Kim would be on the stage. Her friend’s words from what felt like eons ago came back to her. If the director finds out I’m pregnant, he’ll give the role to the understudy. Glad that Michael’s outburst hadn’t cost Kim her job, Claire settled back to enjoy her performance.

Their seats were about twenty rows from the stage. Far enough away that Claire felt able to watch without fearing that Kim would see her in the audience. She sensed a movement next to her, and felt Sky turn to face her.

“Look, Auntie Claire, there’s Kim!”

The girl’s whisper penetrated the auditorium, and was greeted with chuckles and a few whispered demands for silence. Claire’s heart thumped loudly as she added her request to her niece to be quiet. Returning her attention to the stage, she realised that Kim was looking directly at her, and the expression on her face was unmistakeable. Her eyes burned with a fury that stopped Claire’s heart.

***

Reach for the prize

Cover of "Notes From An Exhibition"

Every year about this time I start thinking about writing competitions. More specifically the Bridport Prize.  I did the same when I was painting. The theory goes something like this: enter prestigious competition, win competition (or get shortlisted at least) and therefore have something to talk about in query letters when trying to sell my other work.

I never do enter though, not with my writing. With the abstract paintings I used to gamble the entry fee on the rare chance someone would connect with one of my pieces: art is even more subjective than literature. Not that it ever paid off, mind you. I spent a fortune in entry fees before I accepted the truth.

With writing, though, I always talk myself out of it. The usual litany of excuses: I can’t see my brand of frothy romance getting past the first round; I don’t have the time; I’ve never really been a short story writer (I’ve probably written half a dozen since I started writing again four years ago and they were all for my university course.)

This year though I felt something different.

Determination.

For lots of reasons: I’ve just started thinking about short stories, after waking up with one in my head last week (see last entry). That one ended up in the post to Woman’s Weekly on Friday. I enjoyed writing it, but mostly – surprisingly – I enjoyed editing it. Working with a few thousand words instead of a hundred thousand meant I had the patience to think about every line, every word. Okay, mostly that was because I was cutting 800 words out to fit the Woman’s Weekly word count. But whatever the reason, I was forced to tighten up my prose and I felt pleased with the result.

So Bridport popped into my head again. Maybe this year I could read some award winning short stories, try and understand what it takes. Come up with a less frothy theme than my usual romance. Give it a go. I was further spurred on by noticing the short story judge this year is Patrick Gale, whose novel Notes from an Exhibition is one of my all-time favourite reads.

Then I noticed they’ve moved the deadline from end of June to end of May. Four weeks away. It also happens to be my husband’s 40th birthday, as well as being the week before we take our annual family trip to see the rellies in Italy.

I’ve basically got seven nursery days to sort out a birthday pressie for the man who wants nothing, buy new clothes for the kids, pack and all that jazz, plus read a hundred short stories, come up with an amazing concept, write a fantastic story and edit it until it glows.

Or I could just wait until next year…

I’ll keep you posted.

P.S In my Bridport frenzy I came across some interesting blog entries. See below, particularly the first one, which is a brilliant interview with a previous winner.

http://www.multi-story.co.uk/guestspot-archive-emmadarwin.html

http://www.jonathanpinnock.com/2010/09/the-bridport-prize/

http://teresa-stenson.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/brief-bits-and-bridport-advice.html

http://teresa-stenson.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/bridport-prize.html

When is it good enough?

Once again I woke with a story in my head. Well, not so much a story as a What if on my own life. Actually much of my fiction is based on that premise, so much so that I sometimes write the real names instead of the pseudo made up ones. This was definitely one of those.

Of course, me being me, I immediately abandoned my current novel (the one that also came in a dream, the one where, 35k words in, I still have no idea what it’s about) to write this story. Luckily it came out as a short story, two scenes, 2,700 words. I’d nailed it in less than two hours over tea and toast in the coffee shop, after dropping off the kids.

Problem is, I think it’s great. I bought a copy of Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special on the way home (I don’t know a lot about where to sell short stories, so it seemed a good place to start) and I’m all set to send it in. Besides I need to get something published soon before the bills send me back to work.

And that’s my Achilles Heel.

Having been told in the past that my writing was dull, any time I pen anything vaguely readable I’m just so excited I think This is it!

Of course, in reality, I should add ‘sh’ to the beginning of that last word because, as a first draft, it undoubtedly is. The difficulty for me is, once I’ve accepted the ‘sh’ bit, I don’t know what I need to do to make it better.

I write in a certain style, quite simple and chatty. Should I be more descriptive, build in alliteration, metaphors, similes? More sounds, smells, colour? Make my plots more complicated or daring. Make my characters suffer more, make them funnier? And if I do all that (assuming I can, of course, which is another issue entirely), will it retain what I love most; the easy going chatty style? And more importantly, will it sell?

I was always told to write for intrinsic rather than extrinsic reasons: I do love to write and that’s mostly why I do write, but, you know, the bills still need to be paid. I know that only a lucky few make a fortune as a writer, and not that many make a living. I just need to make enough to pay for childcare.  

Hmmm. Answers on a post card please!