Category: Just Write


I was at my writing group at the Post Box Cafe on Monday night. We were working on characterisation in fiction. Here’s my effort…

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Mrs Reece

Mrs Reece was my Year 3 teacher, 1st year Junior as we used to call it in the days when the world was in black and white. I had been rather scared of the teachers of infants in my school. Mrs. Chambers was always perfect in an Audrey Hepburn kind of way but without the softness. Mrs. Crowcher, Creepy Crawly behind her back, was scary. She ruled her class, the infant department and the other teachers with a rod of iron and wasn’t above a sharp slap across the backs of the legs of anyone who crossed her who she thought was needed to be kept in order. In those days, small boys all wore grey shorts and that gave her ease of access to our calves.

Moving upstairs in the old Victorian school was a big move, proof that you were growing up, leaving the baby things behind and going to ‘real’ school where there weren’t toys to play with except on the last day before Christmas and there was no afternoon naps under a grey, woollen blanket embroidered with a train.

The teachers were a revelation. First there was the thought that we might be taught by a man. Mr Wright had the brightest class in the last year before transfer to the even more grown up world of secondary school. I knew I would be in his class eventually and he had an even more fearsome reputation than Mrs. Crowcher and had a way of keeping truculent boys on the straight and narrow. He’d been at the school for years and had taught both my father and my uncle. Both had stories of crossing him and coming off worse for the experience. As it happened, when I did finally get into his class, I found him encouraging and heguided me through my exams that gave me access to a good school that led me to where I am now. So thank you Mr. Wright.

But back to Mrs. Reece. Mrs. Reece was motherly, calm, she nurtured you. She took children on trips to her second home by the sea in Blackpool. Being a city child it was a revelation that people could have homes by the sea and not be on holiday. She had a musical box that played ‘Happy Birthday.’ She got us all to listen to it when it was someone’s special day and told us all we would hear the birthdays child’s name in the music. We all did. Every time.

She had a chart on the wall with a winding path across it. Along the path there were coloured cards. Names were written on the cards to show the level you were at in reading, lowest at the bottom, highest at the top. There was no disguising where you were in those days. We were streamed and every child knew exactly where they were in the educational pecking order. As you progressed with reading your name moved up the path from card to card.

The holy grail of this chart was the GOLD card. Once on that, as I eventually achieved, you were rewarded with a little form. This you took home and, with the help of parents, filled it in. You then took it down to the local library which was on the corner of Greenheys Lane and Princess Road, where you exchanged it for two yellow library cards that the librarian filled out with you name and address. Once done you were allowed to go into the children’s section of the library and choose any books you wanted. I loved it. Starting with ‘Marmaduke & Joe’, I progressed to Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’ then onto ‘Just William’ and ‘The Fat Owl of the Remove.’ I really wanted to go to boarding school and be one of Harry Wharton’s chums, play cricket with Bob Cherry, have adventures and midnight feasts.

Reaching the GOLD card ignited a life long love of reading and books. Thank you Mrs. Reece….  

It was put to us that we might want to write a story set in a café as that is where we meet to for Just Write. So I had a think about it. And this is what I came up with. A lot of writers write from the perspective of their own experience or about things that have happened to people around them. There’s more than a grain of truth in the following story…

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James wondered how it was at all possible for all these people to be carrying on as normal, oblivious of what had recently happened. Of course, the fact was they just didn’t know yet. There were a few late commuters on flexi-time enjoying a late coffee and a Danish before making the short walk to the tram stop to travel into their offices in the city. In the corner there were a couple of Chorlton yummy mummys. They’d dropped their older offspring at school and were now enjoying a chat and a caffe latte before going back to what ever yummy mummys do in the day. Running their online business or maybe counting the hours until they can open a bottle of wine without worrying that they might be turning into alcoholics. Some senior citizens were finishing off breakfast. When the news broke maybe they’d remember the man sat at the bar in the window and wonder, incredulously, how close they’d been to him.

The pleasant waitress with the warm Irish accent brought over the coffee and cake he’d ordered. Large cappuccino and a piece of chocolate fudge cake coated in strawberry icing. He wondered when he would next be able to next indulge in such a simple pleasure. The pleasant girl placed his order in front of him with a smile. If she noticed anything strange about his demeanour she didn’t show any acknowledgement. He opened the sugar sachet, tipped it into the coffee foam, stirred and thought about the morning.

He’d been driving around the city for about half an hour from his home in the southern suburbs until he’d parked the car just on the edge of Chorlton village and walked along Wilbraham Road looking for somewhere to sit. The bars near the tram stop were still closed and the first place he came to that was open was the little cafe next to the village post office. It was the lull in the day after the morning rush, and even though he didn’t want somewhere too busy, he needed to think, he also needed people around him. He needed some normality at the moment, people just going about their own business.

He’d left home this morning at 7 30 am and arrived at work about 8. He’d been button holed by the Head of English almost as soon as he walked into the building. Something about an incident between a junior teacher and a truculent Year 10 boy yesterday. Being the successful head of a successful high school meant this had to be dealt with at some point, but not now. A promise of a meeting later in the day appeased her. But someone else would now have to deal with the Head of English, the junior teacher and the truculent Year 10 boy of course. He got to his office without further interruptions. Sheila, his PA brought in his coffee. She used to be one of the school secretaries but her job had gradually morphed into that of a PA as his own job had become increasingly complicated. She organised his day, prioritised what he needed to do, arranged meetings and filtered the requests on his limited time. And she knew how he liked his coffee. She was good at calming angry parents and teachers and deflecting them to other people in the school who were in a better position and had more time to deal with their problems. He appreciated her calming influence and efficiency.

Sheila rattled through the day’s events and the things he needed to do and when they were scheduled for. She looked a little taken aback when he told her something had turned up and he’d need to go out that morning. This would mean cancelling the visit by the Director of Education for the city to discuss the new maths strategy being implemented. The director wouldn’t be happy. She was about to ask what was so important that he had to cancel the director but something in his manner told her not to. She left to make the call before the director started out. He arranged some of his papers and at 9, as the school calmed down, he left, telling Sheila he would be in touch soon, and left for home. The ‘be in touch soon’ remarked confused her but she couldn’t think why.

Back in the cafe James was thinking about calls he needed to make. He looked at his watch. It was 10 45. He needed to time both calls perfectly. Back at school morning break would just be finishing. He fished his iPhone out of his pocket and made a direct call to Sheila’s work phone that gave him a direct line to her avoiding the school’s phone system and it’s irritating options system. Sheila picked up.

‘Morning Headmaster.’ In spite of having been working together for the best part of fifteen years she still liked to use the honorific title ‘headmaster’ while on school business. ‘Have you finished your important business? I have managed to put the Director of Education off until this afternoon. If I get Tony and Gwen to deal with some of your afternoon work we might just be able to save the day.’ She named two of the school’s deputies. James admired her efficiency. He took a breath to bring some calm to his voice. Saving today was going to be difficult, this was even well beyond cool, efficient Sheila.

‘That’ll be fine Sheila. But could you arrange for Tony and Gwen and Stuart to be in my office at 11 30? I think Tony and Stuart are free but Gwen will need cover. Could you see to it?’

‘Yes headmaster.’ Sheila sounded confused. She really liked everything to be as it was supposed to be. All this uncertainty and last minute changes unsettled her.

‘And Sheila? I need you to be there as well.’

‘Of course, Headmaster.’ He rang off.

James took a sip of his coffee. It was coming up to 11. He had something to do quickly. Some arrangements had to be made for his daughter, Amy. She was obviously going to be badly affected by all of this. And, in her GCSE year, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. But he honestly hadn’t got up that morning determined to turn his daughter’s life upside down but, like it or not, it had happened. He considered his options. Ideally, she could live with her grandparents but they were on the Isle of Man. Her life was going to be turned upside down later on today and moving to the Isle of Man and changing school in such a vital year wasn’t going to help.

The best option he could come up with was Frances and Tom. They were good friends of the family. Vicky, Frances and Tom’s middle daughter, was Amy’s best friend at school. She spent a lot of time round at Vicky’s house with Vicky’s two sisters and brother. The house was full of noise, dogs, hamsters and cake presided over by near perfect parents, Frances and Tom. He considered calling Tom, but had it at the back of his mind that Tom was on a business trip to Tokyo. Plus, if he was at work, he might be free to take a call and that would make for an awkward explanation. He wasn’t ready for that, even with an old friend like Tom. Frances, however, would have her phone off or at least on silent. She worked as a teaching assistant in a local primary school. He calculated that their morning break was probably over and she’d be back in class, unavailable to answer. And so it proved. The phone went, he was relieved to hear, straight to answer phone. He told her something had come up and could she possibly allow Amy to come round for her dinner that evening? Would it be OK? He knew it would be.

When Frances switched on her phone at lunchtime she picked up the message. Having Amy over would be fine. She would text Vicky to get the message to Amy. She was rather perplexed by the ‘please look after Amy’ comment at the end. There was something about it that didn’t sit well with a simple request to give a child some dinner. An event that had happened many times over the years. Frances put it to the back of her mind and focussed on a list of equipment that Ms. Jones needed for a science lesson later that afternoon.

James looked at his watch again. 11:15. His coffee was gone but there was still some cake left. He caught the eye of the pleasant Irish waitress and ordered another coffee. He had ten minutes until his call to school. That call was going to bring out what had happened earlier that morning. He was pretty sure that no one knew about it yet. But it wasn’t the kind of thing that could be hidden. Once he’d admitted to it and it was out in the open it would all be out of his control.

He thought about his wife, Jane. He’d met her twenty years ago. At first he’d been amazed that someone as stunning as her could possibly be interested in him. But she was and, for the first five years it had all gone well. Amy had been born. James’ career as a teacher was taking off. He was good at it and he had great organisational skills. He was first a Head of Department, then deputy and finally a head of one of the best schools in the city. It was doing well when he got there and, under his guidance, raced up the Sunday Times list of good schools where it became a fixture in the top fifty in the country. Parents moved houses and made sacrifices to get their children in. He started to work with the city’s education department and was even consulted on educational matters by the Dept. of Ed. in London. Government ministers had him on speed dial.

Financially, he was well set up. His job paid well and money left to him by an elderly relative had been ploughed into a company that bought and restored houses with his brother, Sam. Some houses were kept to rent out, others were sold and they were now buying parcels of land in up and coming Manchester suburbs with the intention of putting up new apartments and houses.

The family had an enviable lifestyle. A large house with garden in a quiet road in Bowden, a cottage by the sea on the Llyen Peninisula where they kept a boat. And a half share, with his brother, in a villa on the nice side of Marbella. Jane had given up work after Amy was born and he provided well for his family so she didn’t return. Instead, she went into interior design. First just painting the houses that they were restoring but gradually building up the business by doing designs for friends, then private clients and then businesses. They had money and all the toys and ‘stuff’ it could buy. People envied them their lifestyle.

But all was not well. Something in Jane’s character caused her to wander. James often blamed himself. He was either working at school or doing something for their building business. Maybe the desire to give his family a good life, to make them financially secure, had caused him to neglect them. So he was shocked to find, seven years into the marriage, that Jane had been having an affair with a business associate. The marriage rocked for a while but Jane stopped the affair and their relationship sailed into calmer waters.

That dealt with, James carried on oblivious of what his wife was up to. Weekends away with an old school friend, who James assumed was female, was actually an old boyfriend from her school days. There there had been a tennis coach and various builders that she came into contact with. James knew of four affairs and there were probably more. It had all come out at a party where the wife of one of his school colleagues had cornered him, emboldened by more wine than was good for her, and asked him didn’t he have any idea of what his wife was up to? He was confused but she soon brought him up to speed with his wife’s various infidelities and an attempted seduction of her husband.

James had confronted Jane about this. It was as if a dam had burst and she was almost relieved that he knew. As well as the ones he already knew about, she filled him in on several he didn’t. It seemed that she was some kind of a serial adulterer. And rather than cooling the relationships with other men, the fact that he knew seemed to embolden her. She would flirt with men at parties, in bars, restaurants. She would flirt with his brother and even with some of Amy’s school friends. There had been a very uncomfortable meeting with the parents of one of the Year 12 boys who had banned their son from going to their house.

Jane didn’t seem to care. Normal marital relations stopped and James realised that he should have ended the marriage years ago. He stayed because of Amy, who must have known what was going on, and because there was still a part of him that loved his wife. She began to drink. When drunk she would be even more open with him about her infidelities, comparing her current paramour to James in every way possible and James could never match them. It went on for weeks, months, years; a constant drip feed of the denigration of James as a husband, a man and a person. He took it all on the chin. But there is only so much a man can take and James had reached that point yesterday. He’d arrived home to find Jane in the marital bed with her latest lover, a young Scottish, red headed builder from one of their projects. At least the builder had the good manners to be ashamed, blushing bright red and had left but Jane cared not. She went on at length how Doogie, she called him, was so much more of a man than he had ever been and went into detail about how he satisfied her. James spent the night in the spare room.

He looked down at his watch, it was 11 30. It was time. He called Sheila’s number for the second time. He imagined her and his three deputies sat in his office waiting for him to appear, confused as to why they were there. The phone rang three times. Then someone picked up. It was Shelia.

‘Yes Headmaster?’

‘Hello Sheila. Is everyone there?

‘Yes Headmaster, but aren’t you joining us?’

‘No, Shelia, I’m still out. I’m in the little cafe by the post office in Chorlton. Can you put us on speakerphone please?’

Shelia forgot herself ‘Chorlton? What are you doing there?’ She recovered herself. ‘Of course Headmaster.’

There was a click and he heard the sound at the other end of the line change and knew that he had been put on speaker phone. ‘Is everyone there Sheila?’ he asked for the second time.

‘Yes Headmaster.’ He could tell she was being her usual efficient self but, from the tone of her voice, he knew she wasn’t happy with the situation. She liked everything just so.

‘Thank you Sheila. Gwen?’

‘I’m here James.’ There was the same confusion in her voice as there had been in Sheila’s.’

I’m going to have to make some changes to the running of the school. Gwen, I want you to take on the running of upper school, year 10 through 12.’

‘But why?’

‘In a moment Gwen, is Stuart there?’

‘Yes Head.’ A male voice but the same perplexed tone.

‘I need you to take over lower school. And Tony? I need you to take on my work with all the outside agencies, local education department, D of E etc? I think you’re more than ready for that.’

‘But?….’

James could imagine their confused faces in the office. ‘And Sheila?’

‘Yes Headmaster.’ He could tell she wasn’t having the best of mornings.

‘You know the cafe where I am?’ He knew Sheila lived in Chorlton. ‘ I need you to phone the police. Tell them where I am. I will wait here for them. Tell them there will be no need for sirens and lights. I won’t be resisting arrest.’ He thought he heard something fall to the floor in his office across the city. The dull thud of a coffee cup on carpet he thought.

‘Arrest? But why?’ What do I tell them? Why should I? What….?’

James was suddenly struck by the realisation that after this moment his life would change irrecoverably. He took a moment to calm himself, to steady his voice.

‘I can’t put it any other way. I really don’t want to upset you. I’m very sorry to burden you with this. But this morning I’m very much afraid that I have murdered my wife….’

After the Christmas break, it’s nice to get back into the old routines and do stuff that was on hold while we celebrated the season. Last night, it was back to the Post Box Café in Chorlton for my monthly writing group, Just Write. We did a number of things but I’m usually happy if I come away with a couple of ideas for writing something. I came away with two and I really must get on with the larger piece I started before Christmas but it got back shelved among all the festivities.

First we were invited to think about putting away the Christmas Decorations. Here’s my little piece….

As I put away the decorations…

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The decorations finally made it to the loft this morning. They’d actually been taken down on January 6th, Twelfth Night, the last day of the Christmas season, but had sat in bags and boxes in the spare room ever since.

I convinced myself that I’d left them in the spare room because some of them had been decorating the porch and the garden through the Christmas season and I wanted them to be properly dry before they were put away. The truth is I didn’t really relish having to climb up into the loft and put them away.

I’m also reluctant to put them away because it is January. After all the glitter and light of December it’s hard to come to terms with the grey, midwinter days of January. I feel a loss and mourn them being taken down. I know they are in the way but seeing them still out comforts me.

Nearly a week after Twelfth Night, with the spare room badly needing a tidy, it was high time to get them put away. As they went up I wondered what state they would be in when they were brought down next December. In spite of carefully putting them away so that the decorations that go up in the hall, sitting room, kitchen, bathroom etc were altogether in the same bag/box,; come next December they will have miraculously migrated to other boxes and bags. What lives up there that does this? Carefully wrapped, much loved glass baubles will have shattered. Strings of lights and strands of tinsel, carefully wound for ease of access next year, will have tangled themselves up into a series of knots that will have to be painstakingly unravelled with much Anglo Saxon English in the run up to Christmas 2015.

They are up there now. I’m over it. It is done. Time to move on and look forward to new things. On the positive side I did find the first primrose of the spring in the garden this morning.

The second piece we did looked forward to Valentine’s Day. We had to write some words on cards that suggested ‘Valentine’ to us. They were collected in and then we got to choose three at random and then write a piece suggested by the three words. Mine were ‘KINDNESS’, ‘LOVE’ and, difficult to understand, ‘CHAIN LINK FENCE’!

Here’s my stab at this one….

Kindness
Love
Chain Link Fence?

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I understand the concepts of ‘love’ and ‘kindness’ when connected to Valentine’s Day, but what the **** has a ‘chain link fence’ got to do with anything?

Possible ideas…..

1) Chain link fences are complicated things, so is love. The fences look fragile but are in fact strong. They can keep harmful things out and keep safe things that we want to keep safe. Chain link fences are easy to push, slight pressure in the right place can cause them to give. But press harder and a strange thing happens, they become stronger and more resilient, rebuffing any attempt the destroy them. Likewise with love…
2) Chain link fences look simple. Like love. They are interlocked pieces of wire. Not like love. In spite of their simplicity, they are, like love, difficult to unwind. If they are looked after, like love, they will last for ages. But, once a link has been broken, the integrity of the entire fence is compromised, like love. The entire structure can begin to unravel. Things take advantage of the breaks in the fence and, like in love, the holes can become bigger so that huge things can get through them. If the chain link fence is the survive, like love, the tiny breaks need to be fixed. If not the fence, or the love, will deteriorate, crumble, fall, apart….

 

We had to write a second piece. We chose a second object from the table and wrote a short piece about why it was important to its owner. In doing so you would be revealing something about the character of the owner. I chose a basic screwdriver. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write as I went back to my work station at the back of the café. So I let my conscious mind describe the screwdriver and waited for my subconscious mind to take over. This is what happened…

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The Screwdriver

It’s a simple screwdriver. The kind that can be picked up cheaply in any DIY store the world over. It’s about twenty five centimetres long. Sturdy black handle, ridged to give a firm, strong hold when in use. The handle is yellow in the valleys between the ridges. A long, strong, silvered, steel shaft protrudes, unmoving, from the handle, sealed in by heat. The end splays out into the shape of a traditional, flat screwdriver head and tapers to a narrow, but blunt, edge just wide enough for it to get an anchorage in the top of a screw. It’s design has changed little over the years. It fits comfortably into a competent hand. It’s strong, reliable, simple and convenient.

It’s important to its owner because it’s a tool of his trade. With it he can work, fix things, make things, sort out problems, make broken things work. People value his expertise with the screwdriver. With it he can sort out their problems and make their lives run smoothly. People without his expertise rely on him, and the screwdriver, to put things right. They are grateful. He does his job well. So they pay him handsomely, grateful that their heat or light has returned, the door is fixed, the fridge chills, the cooker cooks. As a result, he can eat and so can his family. With the screwdriver he is able to put a roof over his family’s head, it clothes them, keeps them safe and warm. This simple, cheap, readily available DIY store tool provides.

I like to come away from these sessions with an idea or two to develop. As well as this piece on the screwdriver, the piece on the coral, there’s a third idea which I’m hoping to develop. I’ve been trying to think of a way into it for a month now and on the way home it sort of fell into place. But it’s going to take a while to get right I think. Watch this space…

It was my monthly visit to the Post Box Café on Monday in my attempt to improve my writing skills. This week we were looking at ‘character’. We did a number of things to warm ourselves us up. One was a series of questions that helped you find out what sort of character you have. I’m not as nice as I thought I was! But the upside of that is I’m good at hiding it! That’ll do for me I suppose.

Moving on…. We had to pick a random item off a table. I chose a piece of coral picked up from a beach somewhere. We then had to do a piece about how our object was like writing. We were warned that our subconscious brain might take over and divert the original task from its purpose which is controlled by the conscious brain and so it seems with my piece…

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Coral

This little piece of coral is like writing to me because it is an outwardly simple structure, just a stick of hardness, but, in reality, it is a complex mixture of conundrums. It provokes many thoughts. It tells a story.

Where did it come from? The warm waters of the Red Sea or the deep, cold coral reefs off the Atlantic coast of Scotland? When did it start to grow? How ancient is it? Was it part of a larger structure? Almost certainly. How did it become separated from its parent structure? Some great storm at sea? A hurricane stirring the ocean, ripping to shreds the reef on which it grew?

Where was it found? How long had it taken to get from reef to shore? Which beach did it wash up upon? A white tropical beach with sand the texture of talcum powder? Or a dark, northern beach with yellow sand blackened with flecks of coal scrubbed from the sea bed?

Who found it?  What were they like? What were they doing that day on the beach when it caught their eye? An inquisitive child confused by its vegetable shape while it was as hard as rock? Someone charmed by this tropical artefact washed up on a cold, northern beach?

It’s a complicated artefact, just like a story. It’s hard like a rock but it grew like a plant. But it is actually neither. It was created by hundreds and thousands of tiny little creatures, working in unison but unaware of the others’ existence, unknowingly working together. They would wave tiny cilia into the salt water of the ocean trapping microscopic particles of food floating by. They would dissolve the food and convert the constituent minerals into a tiny home which would grow year on year, decade upon decade, century on century. Rather like we dig into the earth for elements and minerals and convert them into great cities. Periodically the creatures would procreate producing tiny replicas of themselves that would settle to build more coral colonies producing great reefs populated by billions of the tiny creatures that would dwarf the size of the biggest human city. Eventually some mini catastrophe happened and this tiny piece of coral was detached.

Were the life forms that lived in its thousands of holes aware of the others of their kind? Even the ones that were neighbours? If they did, did they regard them as a threat for available resources or an ally, something to work with to maintain the reef for the greater good? Was there a plan to build this or were they just acting on some primitive instinct to live, to reproduce, to create? Did they understand the processes they were involved in to create this beautiful, ambiguous structure?

My life feels a bit like the Solar System at the moment, more particularly when one of those conjunctions happens where several of the planets align and pull on one another through the vastness of space. Well that might be over egging the pudding a bit but it feels like it. Two of my things I like to attend at the Post Box Café, Cake Club and JUST WRITE, have turned up in the same week. And a new one, specialising in photography that I fancy trying has filled the day between the two others. So I’m going to be drinking a lot of Americanos and spending a lot of time at the Post Box Café. Life could be a lot worse.

So Monday was JUST WRITE. After a difficult start I’ve got into this. I just go with the flow and look for something to inspire a piece of writing. We did a few exercises to get the creative juices flowing and a bit of brainstorming about where we write on a daily basis. I liked the concept of the ‘six word story’. An entire novel in six words. I’d never heard of them but it is possible to do. Here’s one that landed in front of me…

HE DIDN’T. SHE DID. BIG MISTAKE.   (A.L. KENNEDY)

Then we were asked to write our thought on finding ourselves in a lift with the Devil. Now I have problems with the Devil. My first thought is that he/she/it doesn’t exist. If you want to look for evil in the world you should look deep inside people, not blaming it on a particularly nasty imaginary friend. In fact I’m not convinced with the entire Devil/God/ heaven/hell thing. I think the entire setup was invented by a rich, religious politically elite centuries and millennia ago to control the rest of the population. Put up with your miserable lives now and don’t bother us or our wealth and power and, when you die, you will go to heaven where you will live the life of a Russian billionaire. Do anything to shake the status quo and, when you die, you will burn in hell! On a toasting fork by the devil. When it comes to working out the mysteries of the universe, I’ll listen to the wonderful erudite, Professor Brian Cox.

Back to the writing. The rest of the group got on with scribbling down their ideas. I sat and watched for 5 minutes. A quote was put on front of me that was supposed to influence the path of my narrative. As I hadn’t got a word written down that wasn’t going to happen at all.

Then inspiration hit me. I changed the brief a little and here is what I wrote…

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I’ve never liked being alone in lifts with just one other person. Three is fine. Four is better. Of course, the larger the numbers get, the more unpleasant it can be. And I do try to calculate the accumulated weight of my fellow vertical travellers and hope it doesn’t exceed the recommended weight to be carried by the lift. I don’t relish plunging to my death down a narrow lift shaft with a bunch of complete strangers. But two is just a too uncomfortable number to deal with. You’re never sure where to stand. Should you smile? Should you make eye contact? It’s all very awkward and worrying being alone in a small, confined space with someone you don’t know. Not that anything has happened to me of course. I’ve been in lifts in buildings across the world and nothing remarkable of any kind has ever happened.But, being alone in a lift with another stranger is just wrong in my book. I try to make sure that there are at least three of us and that I have to get out at a floor before any of the other two.

I’d been quite excited to find that a business contact wanted to meet in a restaurant high in The Shard. I’d never been in it before and relished the opportunity to experience the building for myself and enjoy the views across London and beyond. It was mid morning when I arrived in the massive lobby of London’s latest landmark building and it was relatively quiet. Two hours earlier it would have been packed with people coming and going as people arrived to get to their offices and businesses. But mid morning it was quiet. I surveyed the bank of lifts in the lobby and chose one with two other people waiting. My minimum number for a comfortable ride. More than my dreaded ‘two’ but no where near enough to cause the lift to plunge us to our deaths in what ever sub basement lay deep in the foundations of Europe’s tallest skyscraper.

One of my fellow travellers was an attractive young woman, confident and well dressed in the Chanel suit of a successful business person. The other was a suave (I think that’s the word for him) man of an indeterminate age dressed in an expensive Savile Row suit, crisp Oxford, button down shirt, silk tie and highly polished Barker loafers. He carried an expensive, black, leather bag. There was something about his gelled hair I wasn’t sure about with the two tufts twisted into spikes, one either side of his head. And his choice of eau de cologne was disconcerting, while obviously exclusive it did have a marked undertone of sulphur. But, as the young woman was travelling with us, I pushed my concerns out of my mind.

I studied the numbers on the digital display above the closed lift doors. As it reached ’25’ a phone deep in the woman’s Prada bag beeped the arrival of a text. She fished around and produced the latest iPhone 6 and pressed an app. She looked with slight annoyance at the result and then turned on her Jimmy Choo heels and left, walking rapidly towards the St Thomas Street entrance.The doors of the lift opened. I was left in a dilemma. Did I get in with the suave, well dressed man waiting with me? Or did I turn on my heels and, likewise, leave?

‘This is stupid’ I thought. ‘What could possibly go wrong in one of the most secure buildings in the middle of London on a Tuesday morning? I got in. As the doors closes the suave gentleman turned and smiled. This was my first mistake that day.

 
This was the second piece of writing I did after the second meeting of JUST WRITE at the Post Box Café in Chorlton. We did some exercises and writing around the theme of support. On the way home this piece came in to my mind…

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Supporting Seb

Seb had never found making friends easy. Primary school, with kind teachers who knew you well, was happy enough but life in a roughty toughty, Salford comprehensive school was a different kettle of fish. He was quiet and polite, studious rather than sporty, and being called Sebastian didn’t help. He was bullied and was labelled as gay almost from the start. He wasn’t and isn’t but his tormentors realised it was a word they could hurt him with. Away from school people liked Seb, he was far too nice for them to dislike, but they positively warmed to his younger, better looking brother, Christian. Chris had an easy charm that guys liked and girls pursued. Seb took all this in his stride and, rather than resenting his more fortunate, confident, younger brother, treated him as his best friend (which I suppose he was) and spent time with him, taking him out on jaunts across the city when they were old enough to do so.

Eventually, the bullying got so bad that Seb had to be moved, at a great financial cost to his parents, from the comp and into a private school in Worsley. Here he was appreciated, his studiousness was an asset and, at long last, he had friends. Things were going well. But then his mother developed breast cancer. She recovered but then his parents’ marriage collapsed with his father starting a relationship with another woman. Chris coped but Seb took it badly and I don’t think his relationship with his father has, or ever will, recover from the hammer blow. The house in Manchester was sold, the proceeds split and Seb, Christian and his mother bought a house in Chesterfield to be close to where her brother lived.

I kept in touch with them and occasionally would make the pretty journey across the Peak District to Chesterfield to see them. Seb went to college over there but it wasn’t a success. He found it hard to make friends again and, when he did, something needy in him seemed to attract users. He had a car and a couple of guys befriended him for the lift into college in Sheffield. The quality of these friends was brought into sharp focus when, in an attempt to fit in with his new friends, he went on a drinking afternoon with them. On the way home, on a sharp bend and travelling far too fast, he lost control of the car and smashed it into a wall. He was knocked out and when he came round in the back of an ambulance, his friends has disappeared. He recovered but the police were involved and he was was charged with dangerous and drunk driving. He lost his licence but that was academic as the car was a right off. His friends swore blind that they hadn’t even been in the car. As there were no witnesses it could not be proved that they were.

Seb found girls difficult as well. While Chris’s easy charm and good looks attracted them in increasing numbers as he made his way through his teens, Seb, who grew slowly, was afflicted badly by acne at one point, lacked the confidence to talk to them. He had some as friends but his confidence in himself didn’t allow him to take any of these friendships to the next level. At eighteen there had not been one girlfriend while the family had learned not to bother to get to know the names of most of the girls that Christian, three years his junior, brought home with increasing regularity.

Just before his twenty first birthday, Seb’s life seemed to have sailed into calmer waters. He was back at college but on the bus. And his life long interest in computers had got him a part time job working with a small digital art company that had set up in Chesterfield. They liked his work and his enthusiasm and, once his course was over, he had the promise of a position, one that he had been happy to accept. He found himself the youngest person in the company. And for the first time in his life Seb had guys. Guys need guys. Women often don’t get this, but a guy likes to have guys. Men who they can hang out with, chat to and enjoy their company. Mates. The ones in the company took Seb under their wings. The older ones in their thirties (this is a tech company) helped him with the work, patiently teaching him about how the company worked and operated while he helped them with hardware and software problems. He had their respect. The ones in their twenties invited him out on their nights out. There was no question that they wanted him for an ulterior motive, he didn’t have a car and he wasn’t being invited along as a figure of fun. They simply liked him and wanted his company. Seb loved it. And it was on one of these jaunts, the Christmas before his twenty first that he met Amy.

I learned about Amy’s existence when his mother called me in March to invite me over for Seb’s twenty first party. It was almost an aside at the end of the conversation. Seb had met Amy at Christmas, the boy who hadn’t even had the courage to ask a girl out at 18, had gone on holiday to Ibiza with her as a couple at the end of January, and they had got engaged on Valentine’s Day. At my end of the phone my eyebrows shot up and I waited for his mother to say something. I think she was waiting for a reaction from me as well.

‘That’s interesting.’ I ventured and we left it at that.

Seb’s party came at a difficult time for me. Checking the calendar I discovered that the party was going to be the night before I had to fly to Amsterdam from Liverpool the following morning. I did the maths. Pack for Amsterdam the weekend before. After work on party day drive from work to Chesterfield, shower and change there, party for a couple of hours then drive back to Manchester for about midnight, up at five, taxi to Liverpool, Amsterdam by ten. I did think about calling the trip off but I imagined Seb being very polite about it all, understanding why I couldn’t come but hurting that I wasn’t there. Just because a guy reaches twenty one doesn’t mean he can’t hurt anymore and Seb had had more than his share of that.

Seb had been expecting a family dinner with just the Chesterfield part of the family there and Amy, the fiancée. He wasn’t expecting a house full of people. Neither was Amy who seemed a bit thrown by the event and less than happy with the arrival of some of Seb’s private school friends from Manchester including an attractive, vivacious young women who Seb was delighted to see. Seb seemed at ease with it all and worked the room greeting his guests and chatting and laughing. Amy was less so. She was polite but unenthusiastic when introduced to me I felt, but that was nothing to how she was whenever the vivacious, young woman came anywhere near him. At one point in the evening I was aware that neither of them were anywhere at the party. Later I was to find they were in his room having words.

About 10 30 I decided it was time to leave. If I got home by midnight I could grab a few hours sleep before the taxi came to take me to the airport. Chris went to find Seb and he came down to thank me for coming, present, card and so on. He followed me out to my car to see me off. In the house the party continued behind him. I turned to shake hands and say good bye and waited from him to return the social convention. It didn’t happen. Instead it was….

“What do you think about Amy?”

I was taken aback.

“She seems lovely.” I hoped I’d sounded convincing, I didn’t really know her but I was concerned about the speed the relationship had moved at.

“I’ve been stupid, I’ve got myself in a mess with Amy and I don’t know how to get out,” he blurted out. He meant the engagement and I got the feeling he was asking me to sort it all out for him.

“You must think I’m stupid,” he continued.

“Not at all, you haven’t been the first young man to fall hopelessly in love, get in deep and then wonder what he’s done. And you won’t be the last.”

He seemed comforted that I didn’t think he was a complete idiot. And it was clear that I wasn’t leaving any time soon. It was cold so we sat in the car. I knew exactly what he should do about this. It would be painful, unpleasant and could get nasty but, like Duncan’s murder, ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’ He wanted advice, but the problem with good advice is that people only take it when they are good and ready. I know. I’m the world’s worse at taking good advice myself. What I needed to do was to get Seb to a place where he could take the decision for himself. I sensed that he was more than half way there already. A few caring pushes in the right direction might just get him there. I had to be careful, changing someone’s future life isn’t something you do lightly.

“Can you see yourself married to this girl in 50 years?”

“Not really.”

“The mother of your children?”

“No.”

“You want to grow old with her?”

“No.”

“If you do marry her how long do you think it will last? Fifty years?”

“No chance…”

“Twenty?”

“Very doubtful.”

“Five?”

“Maybe.”

“But you’d be getting married knowing you aren’t 100% wanting to do it. You’ll be unhappy and doing something to keep everyone else happy but yourself. And by then there might be kids involved. Now, if you were to stop it now, plan the event properly and you might get away with a very awkward 10 minutes and lose the cost of an engagement ring. Leave it five years, the divorce will take a lot longer and you will be a lot worse off financially. And if there are kids, she’s never really going to be out of the picture. Have you set up a joint account yet by the way?”

“No.”

“Well that’s a relief. Don’t do it….and no choosing dinner service patterns…”

“What’s made you change your mind about the engagement?”

It was as I’d thought. After years of lacking confidence with girls, Seb had fallen for the the first girl who had shown any romantic interest in him, hook, line and sinker, He’d run with the passion and now that had cooled, Amy wasn’t quite what he thought. Reading between the lines she was more than a bit controlling. She’d seen in Seb a good future husband. She was probably right there but not for her. She monopolised his time, cutting him off from his new found guys and even from spending time with his brother. Seb is very family orientated and he liked the idea of having a group of real friends at long last. He was increasingly unhappy. She wasn’t keen on new friends turning up (like me) and if they were attractive and vivacious, fashionably dressed young women from Manchester, they were definitely off limits. An hour of the party had been spent with him corralled in his room having his ear bent about how that person was never to be brought this side of the Peak District ever again. Her not me. Though what she didn’t realise was that I was actually a far greater threat to her marrying Seb than the pretty friend ever was. I wasn’t about to let him make an enormous mistake if I could help it.

I asked him what were the positive things about her.

“The sex is amazing.”

“Too much information, Seb. All I know about her is her first name and the fact that she’s good in bed.” He laughed. I wondered what experience he was comparing her to. Probably not a lot, well none really.

“Seb, you’re a good looking lad with a good future in front of you, girls are always going to be interested.” I know when a guy needs his ego stroking.

We sat in the car talking till midnight. At one point Amy came out looking for him but she didn’t see us in the car parked up the street. He wasn’t going back just yet so he let her look.

At midnight I really had to go.

“Do you understand what you have to do?”

He said he did. I got a hug not a handshake this time and he went back to the party. I felt it had gone well and was honoured that he had chosen me to open up to but sad that he hadn’t been able to talk it through with his father, a man I’d had a lot of time for until the affair and the dumping of his family including both boys. I only hoped that I’d done it right for him.

I arrived home about 1 30 and fell into bed. The first day in Holland was a bit of a loss. I was tired. A couple of days after getting home I got a call from his mother thanking me for making the effort to come over for the party. Seb appreciated it and so did she she said. I’ve no idea if he’d spoken about our conversation but she did say she was relieved that he’d actually broken off the engagement. There was something about that girl that she didn’t really like.

 

The Post Box Café, in Chorlton, isn’t just a place where you can have a good meal, a coffee and some delicious cake, it has set itself to be a community hub. A place where people can come in and meet other people, old friends and make new. To facilitate this Chris, who runs it, has encouraged markets on the terrace outside, had special evenings where you can enjoy dinner and watch a play unfold around you and created club events. You can enjoy an evening watching old ‘B’ Movies or, like me, you can learn to make sweet treats at Cake Club.

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Some new clubs have started this autumn and one that I was interested in is JUST WRITE. It’s a club where people who are interested in writing can get together and try out new ideas. Its run by a writer, Tracy Tyrrell. Now I do like to write, I’ve been keeping this blog for over four years now and feel deprived if I don’t update it daily. But it’s a particular type of writing and I was interested in trying out new things. So I went along for the first meeting back in August. It didn’t quite turn out as Id imagined but it did inspire to me to write. To find out what happened read on….

Just Write@The Post Box Café

I’m doing this really to prove to myself that I can actually write. Writing has become, for most of us, a tool that we use to get by in life. We write for work but rarely write for pleasure. I’m probably unusual in that I maintain a blog. It started out as a way of organising my pictures in a coherent way so that friends and family could see them if they so wished. Once I’d uploaded the pictures, some of them needed explanation and so another dimension was added to the blog, a literary one. I thought only a few would be interested in my ramblings but, to my surprise, people way beyond immediate family and friends proved to be interested and so far it’s had an incredible 10,000,000 plus hits. It’s got me invited to parties with the likes of Mary Portas, got us invited to restaurants for dinner and even got me a car to try out for a couple of months.

But most of my writing is for work purposes so when I was invited to come along to a taster event to improve my writing skills at The Post Box Cafe in Chorlton, I thought what a great idea. I could sit on my own and try to improve my writing skills but the problem with that is you can always find something else that is more pressing to do and, like New Year’s resolutions, the idea of improving your writing skills gets sidelined. So the idea of going to an event at a dedicated time to do just that was attractive.

I’d committed myself to go but Tuesday had been tiring and it might have been a better idea if I’d stayed at home. But I’d said I would go and didn’t want to let anyone down, plus I wanted to improve my skills. So off I went. If got there and ordered coffee. I’d already eaten so when someone put a huge slab of cake in front of me I decided to leave it. The cafe was busy with writers and I was sure someone else would appreciate it much more than I would. This was my first mistake. There was a piece of origami that produced a book. Trying to do the folds in midair was difficult and by the time I’d cleared a space on the table to do my folding we were on to the next bit. I managed it but then found myself helping a neighbour with hers so I missed the next bit.

I then realised that I should have eaten the cake, or at least a piece of it, as I had to write three words suggested by the cake. The rest of the group got on with it while I cast about trying to think of suitable words. Never easy when you’re under pressure. We then had to link those words to a weather word on a flag stuck in our piece of cake. Mine said ‘Wintery’ and as I didn’t have any cake words to link to it, it all got a bit much. To be honest, I’ve never been keen on this type of exercise. It reminded me of those courses you go on for work where they say “now we’re all going to do some role play!” I loathe role play. I used to do it but then I got confident enough to tell the instructor that no way was I going to be doing any role play. That confused them and they weren’t sure how to cope with it. Usually they found the best thing to do was to leave me be and concentrate on the rest of the group hoping they didn’t take a lead from me.

So the first exercise didn’t get done. Neither did the second. We has three random words, mine were ‘receptionist’, ‘overnight bag’ and ‘beer garden.’ The idea was that we should link these words into a story. I thought about it but couldn’t come up with anything inspiring. People busily scribbled mini sagas into their little books but I was having a really bad case of writer’s block. Then I had a bit of a nightmare when I realised that people were reading their work out! I made sure that I didn’t make any eye contact with anyone.

It all got worse when we did the third exercise. We had to smell, taste and look at three different substances and think about what they suggested. I tasted jam, smelt cloves and looked at an un identified brown liquid. They didn’t suggest anything more to me than that. By now I was quite depressed about it all. Which is probably why the last ‘I remember….’ exercise gave me a list of all negative things that I done, seen or experienced that I regretted. More panic and avoiding eye contact as people read out their reminisces. There was no way I was sharing my past miseries with anyone.

So I came away feeling quite depressed. I needed to get something positive out of the evening so on the way home I gave it some thought. And the result is this.