What We Do Not Have

His smile on leaving, the idle phrasing of ‘an hour or so?’, even the feel of his leg, all hung in the piles of the deep blue carpet like suggestions.

She lay down and rested the same cheek on the floor, protecting it from feeling the absence of his thigh. There were stray hairs weaved into the carpet. Mostly hers, longish but not too long, shades of brown from tip to root. She spotted a few of his lighter hairs yet they were so short there could have been more. But she had sat on the chest to brush her hair every day for, how long? In the mornings, her weight keeping it tightly closed as she got ready for work. The space beneath her.

…coming soon.

Of Speaking and Not Being Heard

I recently started work on a story that’s made me think about how we speak, what we say, and how and when we’re listened to. There’s an obvious disconnection between these two actions – how often do we way something, and then find out later that the person we were talking to heard something else entirely?

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” Henry David Thoreau said. Similarly, it’s not what you listen to that matters, it’s what you hear. And this is not some lament about how the 21st Century, with its mass communication and digital media, is more full of ‘noise’ than ever – the world has always been full of noise if that is what you decide to listen to – but rather a question of perspective.

We filter out so much of what we hear, choosing to focus on the salient points and receiving only the information that we want. The rest is discarded like packaging or decoration, nice to look at but not of any importance to us when what we really want is the goodness inside, the nutrients of whatever is being said.

But is this what our interlocutor wants? At times, yes, certainly: we need to know what time the meeting is, where it will be held and who will be there, or we want to know how much our shopping costs or how much the bill is in a restaurant. We require only the information, and anything else could be seen as a superfluous diversion from getting on with the day. Yet in the last of these, the restaurant, when a waiter or waitress asks us ‘Is everything okay for you?’ what he or she is really saying is ‘I’m just checking in because I have to, and if I do it in a pleasant and friendly way then I might get a bigger tip, and you know how much I rely on tips to boost my wages.’ When we automatically reply ‘Yes, fine thanks,’ we’re agreeing to the transaction, acting out our parts in what otherwise is a meaningless dialogue, at least in terms of the spoken language used.

If we ask a close friend or a family member the same question, however, and get the same reply, we are hearing far more than the words. We hear intonation, cadence, inflexion, tone, we receive body language and facial expressions. But do we always listen to those other forms of speech and react accordingly, or accept the phrase ‘Yes, fine thanks,’ and carry on going about our business?

Or, to put it another way, when you speak to someone you care about, would you like them to hear you? Are you so keen to tell them exactly what it is that ails you that you use a multitude of interconnected languages to try to get your message across? And if that person doesn’t hear you and fails to respond are you left unsatisfied, frustrated, uncared for in return? There’s a sense here of action and reaction, of point and counterpoint, of call and response. Imagine then how that cherished person would feel if the roles were reversed, and you didn’t hear what they were saying to you.

People choose to talk to us for many reasons, in many different circumstances, and through many different forms of communication. I’m trying to ask myself, in writing this story and thinking through my characters’ actions, how I’d like to be heard in those various situations, especially in the intimate, private moments when I need nothing more than for someone to listen carefully to what I’m saying. If I can manage that, or at least am able to consider some of those thousands of times when I’ve not listened properly, then perhaps I can be better at allowing others to be heard. I don’t just need to admire the decoration, important though such nuances may be, I need to hear the contents inside.

Safety Measures

“Fancy forgetting to buy vanilla essence,” she says to the cake tin. It will have to do without. Bran won’t notice. Or if he does, he won’t say anything. She smooths the batter and layers apple in concentric circles, harder to cut once cooked but prettier to look at. The oven is hot. The last shake of sugar on the top of the cake will burn nicely. She picks up the red, egg-shaped kitchen timer, a present from her two-year old grandson, or so the label said on the wrapping paper, and turns the dial past the wide segments of four and five minutes of egg-timing to the narrower bands of ten.

from “Safety Measures”, in Issue 4 of The Bolton Review, out this week.

Reading in Manchester

Next Monday, 25th April, I’ll be reading averboset live literature night Verbose, at the Fallow Café in Fallowfield, Manchester.

Okay, nothing special so far – but I get to headline with two lovely poets, Anne Caldwell and Evan Jones.

Anne is currently a  Literature Programme Manager for The British Council, which perhaps makes her sound very important. Good. She is.  She’s also a dashed fine poet, and will be reading from her brand new collection, Painting The Spiral Staircase (Cinnamon Press).

Evan is Canadian, which doesn’t matter in any way except that it gives his voice that beautiful Québécois intonation, and gives his poetry a similarly melancholic and introspective tone. And it’s about time he brought a new book out, since it’s been four years since Carcanet published Paralogues.

I think – and this is only a guess – that I’ll be reading a story called ‘Safety Measures’, though I’ll need to check the timings. I hope so, though, as it’s going to be published  in issue 4 of The Bolton Review, so the publicity should help. I understand that some of the other nine published and up-and-coming poets and prose writers performing might also premiere work from The Review, ahead of its launch next Wednesday.

Since being relaunched in January 2015 by Sarah-Clare Conlon, Verbose has welcomed such luminaries of the North West literature scene as Jenn Ashworth, Elizabeth Baines, Sarah Butler, Aisla Cox, James Davies, David Gaffney, Jim Hinks, Sarah Jasmon, Tom Jenks, John McAuliffe, Ian McGuire, Fat Roland, Nicholas Royle, John D Rutter, Geoff Ryman, Graeme Shimmin, Scott Thurston and Emma Jane Unsworth. Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Alison Moore has also read.

What I’m saying, in a roundabout kind of way, is that if you fancy coming along to say hello and to hear some excellent live literature, then I’ll see you there – the  Fallow Café, 2a Landcross Road, M14 6NA. Free entry, and doors are at 7.30pm. See http://verbosemcr.wordpress.com.

Of Competitions and Competition

“We regret that your story has not been successful on this occasion.”

…as familiar as the rejection slip or email. So I didn’t get short-listed for the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize . This is not a surprise, of course. Nor is it particularly disappointing. “We again received nearly 4,000 entries,” they tell me, so the chances of making the 26-strong short-list were somewhere in the region on 0.0065%.

3974 of us didn’t make the cut. That’s a lot of competition to handle. I’ve dutifully entered the BBC/National Short Story Award, with similar expectations of greatness being thrust upon me – I have no idea how many entries that will have received, but the odds must be equally long. And this is basing the chances purely on mathematics, rather than aesthetics; should I worry about whether the stories I’m entering are any good, given the weight and strength of others’ work? No, better not to, for that way lies a falseness that ruins the point. Far better than I should simply write them as well as I can, because I need to tell a story, and leave the judging to the judges.

I’ve entered other competitions, too, and over time won a few of them – smaller ones, where the odds may be higher and the returns lower but the feeling of reward is just as great. Nothing will stir you to break that empty page more than having a stranger say they like what you do. We should all enter these competitions and ignore the ‘big’ ones, that can look after themselves.

Focus instead on the regional, the collective, the festivals…they need our help to survive and to promote what they do, to make voices heard, to give space in which those voices can speak. Let’s celebrate the small and the innocent, where writing happens not to make money or create fame but because it needs to, because expression is all we have, and if from time to time our writing is noticed then that’s good too. At least 3974 other people should all be feeling the same way today.

The Morning Will Allow

Cristina is asleep on the wrong side of the bed. The rain falls like lights or echoes. In the morning she will wonder if she dreamt at all, will make breakfast for Richard then wait for him to come home again at lunchtime. She was surprised at how eager and conciliatory the school had seemed, happy to accept him back, almost apologetic for his leaving. “Schooh,” he says, and “Itahien.” She will wait at home for him. Evian is too busy, too filled with potential. The tourists are returning, with strange, tourist voices.

She is on top of the covers in her bathrobe. The sheets have lost the smell of her husband. Two towels are making the carpet damp. Bulbs are still on in the bathroom and on the landing, shining a slither into Richard’s quiet room. A lamp on her bedside table illuminates the fragments of water still in her hair. On her left ankle there is a small strand of dried blood and the skin on her thighs is waiting for moisturiser. Somewhere in her sleep is the memory of tears.

Not You, Not Yours

There’s no real reason why you decided to write a second-person narrative. It just came to be that the idea you had, and the story you wanted to tell, needed to be told in the second person. That’s fine. It happens.

But then what do you do? How do you go about addressing the story to someone imaginary? Indeed, are you even writing to that person? It’s not simply a case of changing he or she or I to you, not at all – the work needs to be created with that specific addressee at the forefront of your mind, the focus of all the words and phrases and sentences. And who is this ‘you’, anyway? Are you writing to the character, whomever that may be, or are you talking directly to the reader, whether real or imagined, an individual or a collective entity?

There are things to consider, then. There’s the narrative voice, the pace, the extra dimensions of invasion or a skulking, insidious engagement with what might be private and intimate. There’s the locus and focus and hocus pocus of your point of view, hiding somewhere between over the shoulder and inside the brain, both limited and wide, both homo- and heterodiegetic, depending on the moment.

And there might be other choices, if you want to make them: you can step into and out of the story, commenting as much as you direct; you can infiltrate the most interesting corners of your character’s psyche and see how they react to what goes on around them; you can relate their perception to your own, or vice versa, stealing from them or yourself to fuel emotion; you can project yourself into their stories, responding, interpreting, recreating.

So many considerations to follow that first one. You chose to write a second-person narrative, to tell a story in that particularly instrusive way, with all its inherent complications and technical difficulties. Tell me again, why did you do that?