findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the category “Prose”

Growing Up Is Hard to Do…

… especially when you are a girl. Two books I read recently reminded me very graphically of that.

At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.

Zazie‘Zazie dans le métro’ by Raymond Queneau is a zany romp through Paris, seen through the eyes of young Zazie, who has been dumped by her mother to stay there with her uncle for the weekend. The book contains zero metro journeys, but numerous taxi rides, bus journeys,  crazy characters (including a very relaxed approach to paedophiles and cross-dressers), swear words, phonetic spelling and a parrot who’s fed up with all that ‘talk, talk, talk’.

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‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ǿrstavik (translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin) is the latest Peirene Press offering. As you probably know by now, I am a fan of Peirene’s translations of unusual and often challenging literature (novellas and short novels), and this is a much darker, more thought-provoking book than the French one. It’s about Johanne, a young girl who has been hitherto pretty much the model daughter, well-bred, studying hard, regular church goer, attentive to her rather narcissistic mother. One day, she plans to abscond with her boyfriend to the United States (just for a holiday, possibly, although a longer stay may be on the cards too), so her mother locks her in her room to give her ‘the chance to think things over’. In the course of that day, Johanne relives her ostensibly quiet home-life with all of its hidden tensions, her encounter and love affair with Ivar. She starts questioning her religious upbringing and has vivid sexual fantasies at inappropriate moments.

Queneau’s style is exuberant, experimental, over the top, while Ǿrstavik is restrained and subtle. Yet both books are far deeper than they first appear to be. It’s about the taboos society imposes upon young women and girls, what they are supposed to know or desire, how they are supposed to behave. Zazie ignores and breaks the rules with a nonchalant ‘mon cul’ at the end of every sentence, while Johanne finds it harder to not live up to her mother’s, her friends’ or her own expectations.In both books, the girls end up having a transformative experience within a short time (and space: they are both quite slim books).

The final sentences in the Zazie book sums up the situation perfectly. Zazie’s mother, knowing how eager her daughter was to see the Paris metro, asks:

- T’as vu le métro?

- Non.

- Alors, qu’est-ce que t’as fait?

- J’ai vielli.

Have you seen the metro? – No. – So what did you do? – I’ve grown up (or grown older).

My Life Isn’t Open to Revision

This essay was written a while back for an online journal written by and for mothers. I think it was probably not quite upbeat enough about combining motherhood and creativity. Suffice it to say, it was not published, so I thought I might as well make it available here. Although, in the meantime, as I am reading Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’ about families who have faced real challenges in raising their (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender etc.) children, I feel terrible guilt about being a whiney spoilt brat who has never encountered real hardship. And that’s why I’m not really made to write creative non-fiction or memoirs. Fiction is much more fun (and less painful).

A few years ago, through no effort of my own, I became a ‘lady of leisure’. I’d resigned my job to follow my husband abroad and when we returned to Britain 18 months later in the summer of 2008, the job market was unrecognizable. I became a ravenous hunter, with 50+ versions of my CV to fit all occasions. In-between the rejections and the fortnightly humiliation of signing on at the Job Centre, I strove to become the best possible mother to my two sons. I may not previously have had time for toddler-aided bake-offs or 100 creative uses for wrapping paper, but now was the time to build all those cherished memories. For which I lacked talent, but made up through sheer force of will. In my remaining leisure time, I would also pick up and dust down that long-neglected passion of mine: writing.

Our minds play tricks on us: allowing us to pile so much upon ourselves, yet fiddling with the knobs on our measuring capacities. So we say: ‘More, more! It is too light still, not enough!’ even as we sink into the morass of multiple roles, none of which we fully own, none of which we play to perfection.

motorwaySo full-time and full-on was my life, that I used to do the weekly shop late at night at the 24 hour supermarket, once the children were tucked in bed. I would toss things into the trolley on autopilot, load the car and speed off home. One night, instead of turning right at the motorway junction, I paused.  On the left, a sign beckoned.

‘London’, it said.

‘Freedom’, I read through tear-soaked eyes. ‘Creativity. Endless possibility.’

The urge to turn left and never look back was so great, it frightened me.  Who can resist the siren call of simplifying your life, of escaping the chaos, of devoting yourself to a single pursuit far greater than yourself?

How had my life got so messy and overwhelming? You see, at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot… In my case, this manifests itself as the deep-throated relentless chime of a grandfather clock in the darkened hall of my conscience. One lifespan is not enough for all the beings I am, for all that I could be. I want to accumulate blindly, wildly: experiences, skins, memories, loved ones. Never possessions.

www.cyprusscene.com

Discarded snakeskin, http://www.cyprusscene.com

The problem is not the trying everything, it’s the hoarding thereafter. I can never let go. Imperfection hurts me like a blunt saw. One of my skins dropped by the wayside is a tragedy. I not only want to be, I also want to be good at it.  It overwhelms me at times, the cacophony of demands. It threatens all that is good, kind or creative in me.  So you can understand why I sat mesmerized at that junction.

I turned right. And I’ve never, ever allowed myself to question that decision.

I am far from that place now.  Physically and mentally. Yet it frightens me still. How there is always a disconnect between the life we feel we were meant to live and the one we actually have. How easy it is to err on the side of discontent. How the sinuous murmurs of temptation can slither its way into our hearts and convince us that single-minded perfection is attainable and that its costs are bearable, ‘if only’ and ‘when this is over’.

‘Twas the Day…

… after we returned from the summer holidays and all through the house… cobwebs and dust bunnies were having a party. The washing-machine was churning at full pitch, the fridge had started humming but was bare and hungry. ‘Twas the weekend before school started, so lists were pinned up, checked and found wanting. Protractors had been bought and lost, felt-tip pens had become separated from their lids and were gasping for rehydration. School clothes and pencil cases begging to be legibly marked with the child’s name. Not for the first time, I wished we had given our children shorter names. Shoes had been miraculously outgrown during the holidays. Haircut appointments needed to be made. Telephone messages listened to, some of them requiring replies. Several bills had floated into our postbox and needed rather urgent payment. Above all, we needed food. But supermarkets on a Saturday are a nightmare. I braced myself for battle with wonky trolleys, careless people chatting in front of the aisles I needed to access, the endless queues at the cashier…

FlowerssmallI drag the shopping bags inside the house to find those two bouquets waiting for me. Soundlessly. Shyly. I wonder. I approach them gingerly. I see a little note: ‘Happy anniversary, darling!’ It’s the first time since we got married that I had completely forgotten our wedding anniversary. I thought forgetting was something that men did. Or at least my man. And, just as I call out, blushing, my family rushes downstairs in an avalanche of love. One bouquet, they explain amidst giggles and gurgles, was not enough – they could not agree which one was nicer: romantic or exotic. Finally, they decided that Mama was both.

Samuel Peralta is hosting at the dVerse Poets Pub (sadly, for the last time) and he has asked us for a prose poem. Not quite sure if this qualifies – I fear it’s more prose than poetry. But one celebration I haven’t forgotten is Chinese New Year: Happy Year of the Wooden Horse, everyone!

 

Prosaic Monday

‘So, Mrs. Rhino, do you see my problem? I’m trying to give you some constructive feedback here, but you don’t seem to be prepared to take it on board.’

Munch.

‘We’ve been in this enclosure together for quite a few years now and I have never seen you engage in any blue-sky thinking. You’ve never really pushed yourself out of your comfort zone. You are content to wander around and munch your way through the same old greenness as ever.’

Snort.

‘Surely there is scope for improvement here. Have you considered doing things a little bit differently? Starting your grazing in the left-hand corner, for example? Or sitting down when digesting your food?’

Grunt.

‘What is the most useful coaching question I could be asking you now? They say your client has all the answers, but in your case, Mrs. Rhino, I do sometimes wonder… . I had such high hopes for you, but I am afraid our ways must part now.’

She turned her button-like eyes on him and peered past her horn.

‘And where will you go, my dear?’

rhino

Yep, I’m back on my corporate trails once more and allowing myself to be inspired by its wooden language.

Flash Fiction: 55 Word Challenge

A quick little challenge for you: can you write a piece of Flash Fiction in just 55 words?  That’s what G-Man is challenging us to do each Friday over here.   I was planning a different blog post for today, an interview with a famous French crime writer, but that will come later on, as I could not resist this.

She’d forgotten the milk again. Never mind, dry cereal strengthens the teeth.  She watched their little jaws chewing, but the thought of eating any herself made her feel nauseous.

After walking them to school, she felt the familiar waves of blackness engulf her.  She opened the second bottle of vodka and thanked her lucky stars.

 

Improvisations

en.wikipedia.org

en.wikipedia.org

What am I passionate about?  ‘So many things’ is the blithe answer that trips so lightly off my tongue.  But is it really passion to the highest degree, do I know what I am talking about?

Is it passion which absorbs and consumes, sucks you in and leaves you breathless?  Is it passion leaving you craving for more filling you with love and energy and laughter, giddifying you with joy?

No.  It is a random collection, a hodge-podge. Smattering of ideas picked up hither and thither, views jostling by insights, feelings I momentarily try on like clothes in a shop.

I am such a magpie.  All that sparkles is my gold.  One shimmer, one sparkle and I’m there in a flash, pecking and investigating, cooing over its coolness. Pretty shiny, I grasp, pull out and clutch.  But then the glimmer reappears elsewhere and my attention is instantly diverted.  Still I hover, still I swoop, digging for treasure in the mud, believing I am passionate about everyone and everything.  When in fact I am anything but a passionate torrent sweeping aside everything in its path.  Instead, I remain the meandering little stream, pooling up in shallow banks, excited by nought so much as fools’ display.

Fragment of a Chapter

I’ve been knee-deep in non-creative stuff lately, so this is my attempt to remind myself to be creative. Or to remind myself that I do have a book in mind! Here is the opening of Chapter 7 of my novel-in-progress, introducing the policeman who will help our two main protagonists to resolve the murder mystery.  The action takes place in a small town in the sub-Carpathians in Romania.  This is a slow, descriptive start to a chapter after some rather action-packed scenes, because it introduces a new character, one who will become important in the course of the investigation.  Do you feel it gives you a bit of insight into the character – too much, not enough? Would you read on?  And does it give you a bit of the local atmosphere?arges-250x187

Sergeant Dinu Vlăhuţ was up the stepladder, adjusting the flags in front of the Town Hall.  One of the flagpoles had got stuck again, so he had to get fiercely manual with it.  After all, you couldn’t have the national flag flying half-mast, as if it was a day of national mourning.

He’d climbed up there while it was still early and relatively cool, and he was in no hurry to get down.  It wasn’t like he had any exciting cases waiting for him in the office. Meanwhile, Gina and Lili at the public counter were more than capable of dealing with the ID card applications, criminal records checks and traffic fines.  Not that many of those ever got paid.

The Curtea de Argeş Police Station was located on the ground floor of the Town Hall, on the left. It didn’t even have a separate entrance, and they’d often get people wandering in asking about permits to open up shops or property certificates.  Dinu believed in helping people out and mucking in, but he did wish he could have a more slick, streamlined operation. A couple of computers wouldn’t go amiss, either.

However, according to the American cop shows he liked to watch on TV – and which now, after the Revolution, were plentiful on all TV stations –  NYPD didn’t have much better premises either.  Lots of open-plan offices with dingy furniture and everyone talking over each other while manning the phones…  Let’s face it, a darn noisy and tiring environment!  Surprising anyone ever got any work done, let alone solved complex crimes and hunted down serial killers, as they all seemed to do on a weekly basis.

He surveyed his surroundings from his superior vantage point.  Although Curtea de Argeş boasted a history dating back to the Middle Ages, the Town Hall was a modern building, designed to be functional rather than architecturally memorable.  It looked exactly like a school or a hospital, or pretty much any public building in Romania since the 1970s.  But Dinu was quite fond of the old place. At least it hadn’t been painted over in garish colours, like some other public buildings in recent years, in an attempt to freshen up after years of Communist decay.  There were even some flower arrangements on either side of the steps. And, because the gardener was paid directly by the Town Hall, he did actually bother to use the sprinkler every other day, so the grass was much greener than anywhere else in town in  mid-August. And…

‘Excuse me,’ came a voice from below, ‘Are you a police officer?’

Dinu looked down.  A pretty young woman was looking up to him.  Instinctively, he put his hands up to adjust his hat, then realised that he had left it down at the bottom of the stepladder. It had the annoying habit of falling off, being ever so slightly too large for him.

OK, time to get down.  He scooped up his hat as he descended and set it smartly on his blonde wavy hair,  his mother’s pride and joy.  He  folded up the stepladder. ‘Yes, I’m a policeman.  How can I help you?’

‘I wanted to find out more about the accident that occurred here a few days ago.   I am a friend of the deceased. Who would be the best person to talk to about that?’

She was indeed quite a looker. Surely there was no harm in being polite and helpful, although he was – of course –  a married man.

Birth of a Class Clown

marblesAfter all that, he’d forgotten the frigging marbles at home!  He knew there’d be a price to pay for that at break-time.  Two weeks at this school had been enough to teach him that no one, not even Jacques with the kind eyes and shy smile, no one got away unharmed when they promised something to Noah… and failed to deliver.

There was only one way out of it.  Miss break-time.  Fake an illness.  Would it work?  Would the teacher grasp enough of his stuttering French?

The teacher finally looked up, just before his arm went to sleep.  He hadn’t wanted to speak up.

‘Yes?’

‘Je peux sortir?  J’ai mal au…’ What was the word for it again?  Never mind, he’d say it with a French accent. ‘Au… tummeee.’

‘Je peux sortir, Madame,’ the teacher corrected him sternly.

‘Madame… tummee.’ He didn’t know what possessed him to repeat the word.  Perhaps he thought it would inspire some sense of urgency.  Instead, laughter rose like waves on a dried and sunken beach.  Some of it was abandoned, hysterical.  The teacher’s frown deepened.  Some of it was derision, as usual, at his lack of language skills, but for once he could live with that.

Of course he wasn’t allowed out.  Not then, not later.  But that day he discovered his weapon of choice: disarming through laughter.

 

Writing Exercise

This was a 5 minute writing exercise that I was set in a writing group, based on a photo prompt.  I’ve been unable to find this picture again, so you will have to take my word for it: it was a beautiful black-and-white photograph of a Cuban woman in white traditional dress, smoking a cigar, looking out of the window.  She is flashing an insolent smile straight at the camera.  Some makeshift flowerpots are teetering precariously on her windowsill.

The thyme is doing well this year.  Grown all over, in a hurry like a virgin about to be married, all ready to jump into the nearest pot.  Majoram, now that was a tricky one, hasn’t sprung the smallest green shoot. Rowdy waste of time. But who said aloe vera would never make it in a tin? Just bore’em and stuff’em, I always say.  Look at it now: it’s tall, it’s spiky, it sucks up my smoke like a greedy suitor.

Speaking of suitors, it’s nearly time for him to pass by again for the day.  He can’t keep away.  He thinks he’s so irresistable in his shuffling walk-by, with his fancy hat, his spit-polished shoes, his thin moustache. I’m sure he can dance and gaze into my eyes for days.  All he needs is a little feeding, watering, to grow into the man he could become. Do me proud, like my plants, every day.

This time there will be a pause in his shuffle.  This time he will look up. And learn to linger.

Fragment from the First Draft

This is taking me waaaay out of my comfort zone, sharing a small fragment (something more than seven lines) from the first draft of my novel. The usual disclaimers (rough, unedited, only a snippet etc.) apply. The only reason I am considering it is because some of you, dear readers, kindly asked to see some of it, and because it is part of the 15 day writing challenge devised by Jeff Goins.

By way of background to the story: it is a crime novel which takes place in Romania in 1995.  This woman is a secondary character, the wife of the policeman who is helping my hero (who is English) and heroine (Romanian) in their crime-solving mission.  Gina plays a small but crucial part in destroying the evidence.  The fragment below describes her motivation for it to a certain extent.  Any comments or suggestions would be much appreciated.  Don’t be afraid to be cruel in order to be kind!

To her surprise, Gina had not found married life and parenthood as rewarding as she had been led to believe.  She had been herded by her mother into the expectation that motherhood would confer new meaning to her life.  But now she often found herself wondering: ‘Is this all?  Is that all I have to look forward to in life from now to evermore?’  Oh, she loved the little blighter well enough, but she had to admit that she often did not like him much.  He was selfish, prone to tantrums, overly spoilt by his dad and grandparents, and he took all of that out on her.  As if she didn’t have enough troubles of her own!

All she had ever learnt about bookkeeping was out of date in the new market economy and had to be relearnt.  There were other, younger accountants snapping at her heels, with their new-fangled degrees from private universities (luckily, still not officially recognised) and their mastery of foreign languages.  She had been told she should learn some English or French too, that it would help further her career. What if their enterprise is privatised and sold off to foreigners: then where would she be, out on the streets?  Whereas if she could chat with her would-be bosses in their own language, that might make a difference.

But when was she supposed to have the time to learn a foreign language?  With the child still not sleeping through the night and Dinu often away on night-shift, or else dead to the world when he did get to sleep at home.  She also had her mother-in-law to look after, who was not necessarily getting more decrepit every week, but certainly more demanding.  Plus trying to maintain the fruit and vegetables weed-free and unbitten by pests on their small plot of land.  She had been told that keeping a few chicken would be no trouble, and that having freshly laid eggs would be such a bonus to her son’s health.  So now she had to feed and clean after those stinky, cackling nuisances.

And, to top it all, Dinu had now taken it into his head to build a house behind his parents’ old one.  True, their current house was small, dark and old-fashioned, with only an electric plate in the kitchen. The running water was barely running, since the pipes had burst last winter.  But now they had a building site to contend with as well.  Dirt everywhere and drudgery from morning till bedtime!  If Dinu ever took it into his dim little brain to mention having another child again, she would punch him right between his eyes!

Her only pleasure was spending her money on foreign chocolate.  When she got her salary (in ever-increasing mounds of cash, which were actually worth very little in the current inflation), she would stop at a kiosk on the high street on the way back from work.  She would buy pretty much the entire stock and hide it at the back of her wardrobe, trying to resist the temptation to have more than one entire tablet a day.  She was beyond caring what her body might look like if she gained too much weight.  She had no feeling of guilt at spending so much money on chocolate that she never shared with anyone else.  After all, her husband was willing to spend every last leu of his on that child: it had to be all foreign nappies and toys for him, oh, yes!  But he didn’t want to spend anything at all on her, his wife.

And now he was getting far too involved in this stupid case, all because a posh bird from Bucharest had batted her eyelashes at him.  Well, she would teach him what Gina was capable of, that she would!

The men had been nicely suited, with those fashionable pastel-coloured broad ties that she wished her husband could wear instead of that sweaty police uniform.  They had descended as a synchronised pair from their Dacia with tinted windows.  They had been well-spoken, polite, not at all like the security forces of the olden days.  Yet she had no doubt that was what they were.  Any Romanian worth his or her salt could sniff out these people a mile off, no matter how many manners they might have acquired in the meantime.

They had expressed their concern at Dinu’s over-involvement in this case, which she fully agreed with.  In fact, she hadn’t quite realised quite how many extra enquiries he had made in Pitesti and Bucharest on behalf of the posh bird until these gentlemen made her aware of them.  They asked her if he kept any paperwork at home (she didn’t think so), if he had confided in her any details of the case. He hadn’t and she wasn’t interested anyway, as if she did not have enough worries of her own.

Upon hearing that, they expressed their sympathy. Delighted that someone was finally listening to her, she poured out much more of her daily anxieties than she had intended, even more than she had shared with her girlfriends.  Not that she had many of them here, in this godforsaken little town.  And the men had nodded and taken her seriously, instead of trying to laugh off her concerns.  They had promised… well, she wasn’t quite sure what, but it sounded a relief, a solution to her problems.  Nor was she quite sure if they actually promised anything.  But, at any rate, they painted a picture of future possibilities.  Lifetime employment for herself, a promotion for her husband, most likely a move to a more happening part of the country, a big city.   Where her son could grow up in a civilised fashion, away from the dirt of the crumbling old house and animal shit. An escape from the clutches of her mother-in-law and the building site.  A chance to put herself first, instead of slaving away for others.  A chance to make that life for herself that she had hoped for, but which had somehow passed her by.  Until now.

And all they asked in return was to find out where he kept his notes and evidence from the case, and to hand it over to them, or, failing that, to destroy them.  Sink this nasty little story, which had nothing to do with them.

What could be simpler, more natural?  If (or rather, when) Dinu found out, he would be furious at first, but surely it was time he realised he was not Colombo or whichever of those American detectives were his heroes.  He would thank her once he realised how much they could gain from simply letting things rest.  Leave things be.  It wasn’t like they were hiding something, it was more about not wanting to dig any deeper and uncover unpleasantness.

So, if her husband wasn’t exactly forthcoming with the details, then she would have to snuffle  them out herself.  But she would have to be clever and resourceful, for there was no way that she could access any of his documents at work.   That much was clear. Although she had little respect for the coffee-swilling, nail-painting and endlessly chatting ladies at the police station, she was sure that they had enough basic police training to know not to share any documents with outsiders.  Even outsiders who were married to a police officer.

So what other solution was there?  She would have to convince Dinu to bring his paperwork home.

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