It must be a classic, of course. That much is known. A murder mystery, a suspense thriller, a tale of young love betrayed in the heat of the night, a dystopian fantasy deploying the tropes of a post-truth political disintegration, or an old-fashioned love story with a happy ending. Characters brought to life by their possessions, behavioural tics, a quirky gait or the sharp-edged gossip of minor characters wheeled in for the job. A plot unfolding in three acts – inciting incident to grab and hold, a midpoint reversal to unsettle, and a denouement to conclude and satisfy. A journey, real or metaphorical, from here to there creating a narrative arc that mirrors the reader’s own life experiences and touches a melancholic cord of remembrances past but stops short of drowning in a well of saccharine nostalgia.
Where to begin. The opening line bears the weight of expectation. It must tease and thrill and shine and lead to a second line that, while released from the responsibilities of the first, still presents the reader with some reason to carry on to the third. This is where my efforts will be expended today. A perfect first line. It doesn’t have to be too long. A few words will suffice, if they are the right words placed in the right order. They will need to set a scene, establish tone and pace. In the third person they will bring to life a narrator and introduce the central protagonist. In the first person they will – cogito ergo sum – plea for the reader’s complicity in the conflation of you and me even while they acknowledge the deceitful duality of every fictional ‘I’. They will present the reader with terms for a relationship between strangers founded on a promise of shared intimacies to be woven out of the words that will follow. What better way to start a relationship of mutual need than with a shared deceit? The opening line mustn’t give away too much though. It can’t tell the whole story like the opening paragraph in a tabloid newspaper – who, what, where, when and how. It must open doors, not slam them shut.
It is enough to simply imagine the task of plucking from the universe of possibilities just the right words to feel crushed.
The shadows are lengthening now. I have sat here for hours. I have sat here for hours and stared. I have sat here for hours, stared, started, stuttered and faltered. Top right, two rows down, the tiny backward arrow is my most utilised key. The letter ‘e’ is supposedly the commonest letter to be found in any length of English writing. So its key should show the clearest signs of wear and tear. Not on this keyboard. Top right, two rows down, the tiny backward arrow has the unmistakable shiny glow generated from the millions and millions of tiny drops of mildly acidic human sweat left behind from the countless times a finger tip – my finger tip – has pressed it to destroy the infantile, derivative, empty words that tried to unleash the potential of the white page. A useless, hopeless enterprise.
I should eat. Dinner and an early night. A good night’s sleep. Regain my creative energy. Start afresh in the morning. Banish the clichés. Bring to life those first words. A short walk while a fat long potato bakes in the electric oven. Just down the lane and up to the top of the rise in the hope of seeing the sun set over the distant hills. I step over the stone stile built into the body of the wall and wonder at the effort in making and maintaining this crossing since it was first constructed within a wall designed to pen back the animals and mark a boundary of ownership. At some time back then, the new landowner will have celebrated the wall’s construction as marking an expansion of personal ownership and dominance but will have mourned the insertion of these stone steps as a battle fought and lost to exclude others from this precious land. Each stone – how many are there? – has been picked up, carried, laid down, compared and contrasted, matched with its neighbours and placed just so to hold and be held. Given a purpose, each has performed its role as both a stone and as a stone-in-a-wall. No choice of course. Inanimate objects. Can’t choose at all. No innate purpose. Purposeless. Simply stones forged through the pressures of time recast as bit players in the temporary drama of human existence. And yet, each appears made for just this precise job. To shuffle them, reorder them without thought to their relational character would be to expose them as simply stones. Here, bound together into a wall, their character has changed. Each is part of something more than itself. Their individual characters have been identified, drawn out and put to work to create this whole. There must be a realised potential in each of them now, as the stone that forms the wall. What was that old saw about the beach dune? How many grains of sand form this dune? Count them. Then the tide ebbs and flows adding and subtracting, and the wind carries away and deposits millions of grains in its great swirling energy. What difference then would the addition or subtraction of a single grain make to this dune? None, it seems at first, but as the action is repeated over and over, why then, at some point, the dune vanishes, or turns into a mountain. What was it supposed to prove, I wonder? Individuals matter. Individuals don’t matter until they are measured in their multitudes? Everything gives way, and nothing stands fast?
Under the wooded canopy that skirts the side of this shallow rise the air is moist, the temperature lowered a degree or two and the light dimmed in anticipation of the dusk that is coming to settle on this world. Midges dance in the last of the sunlight threading through the trees, their mouths agape and preparing to feast on this passing bald pate that has been moistened by the effort of the gentle climb. I’ve climbed like this many times before, and not alone. Then there was gentle cursing and exhortations to speed up or slow down for the sake of the dogs or the children. There was laughter at our antics on the way up, shouted anticipations of reaching our goal and fervently expressed hopes of just rewards for our efforts upon our return. Not this time. Not any more. The silence roars. My thoughts, like poorly shod feet losing their grip on a vertical scree escarpment, scramble to take hold of anything solid. Now I hear echoes of familiar voices and see faces dimmed and blurred. Playing through the trees and bushes, the gloom throws up tangible, pure movements and mannerisms of bodies, all just out of reach. I stand still in the hope that the lengthening shadows will reach me and carry at least one of the forms to my outstretched arms.
I know that I shall stay here now. I’ll take my rest sitting against the base of this sprawling beech where imaginings and memories meet. When it gets dark and the shadows have done dancing, I will close my eyes and hope to be carried away with them.