I came here to write – Day three

A short story over five days. Day three

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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.

I came here to write – Day five

A short story over five days. Day five.

I wake early, pull back the thick curtains and make welcome a new day. I wash, dress, breakfast and marvel at how, over just a few days, a routine has been establishing itself despite late rises, missed meals and all-night absences. Natural rhythms asserting themselves, absorbing, making sense of the everyday activities generated by acts of free will.

Today, I leave.

Perishable food has been bagged and placed in the grey bin at the top of the lane. Some loose papers, packaging and glass bottles have been carried to the green bin and placed inside. I have washed, dried and stored my plates and cutlery from breakfast. I have wiped down the sides, brushed the floors and left the dirty and damp towels alongside the bed linen in the bath, as requested by the welcome note I found when I arrived. The cottage is tidy.

My bag is packed and sits on one of the spare kitchen chairs. There is just room for my laptop. This sits open on the table. The snow-white page still floats on a grey still sea, but now the pulsating black cursor beats comfortingly in its own silence. I watch it flashing like a negative lighthouse and wonder at its constancy. Only a few days ago, I was intimidated by its persistence, as if it might jump off the screen and chase me into a corner and terrorise me until I give in to its demands. Now it marks the passing of time, independent of anything I might or might not do.

I came here to write and I will not leave until I have, although the words I have hunted down will not form themselves into a Classic of any kind, just a brief note. I pick up a black ballpoint pen and take two plain sheets of A5 writing paper from the middle of a small stack that has sat undisturbed on the hall table since I arrived five days ago.

Finally, at last, I write.

I fill three sides of paper with an open confident script that leans a little impetuously to the right. I offer rough directions and a brief explanation of the choice I have made. I toy with the idea of adding a sketch like one of those found in a quality guide to local walks, but it would take some time to work out a scale and my drawing today is limited to inevitable conclusions. For formality’s sake, I sign and date the note. For clarity’s sake I print my name and my home address.

There is no envelope, so I fold the two sheets of paper in half, plain side outward and write: ‘To whom it my concern’ on the front and add a full stop for no good reason. I place the note in the centre of the kitchen table.

I rise and wonder who will find it. I suppose it will be the changeover cleaner when she arrives the day after tomorrow. Why ‘she’? Cleaners these days come in all genders, particularly those attached to small businesses. Less so in the home, perhaps, where domestic labour more often than not remains the preserve of the woman, with the more enlightened households containing a husband or son willing to ‘help out’.

We shared everything back then, including the drudgery. I miss that the most, I think, the sharing. The wealth of our short-lived tiny island nation was not based on a division of labour into specialisms. We mucked in together and mucked up together. What we lost in efficiency, we gained in laughter and the joy of being in it together. Our thoughts and memories seemed to merge the more time we spent together and the more we did together. We would bicker not over future plans, or the hopes and dreams we expressed for our girls in the quiet hours that fell between putting them to bed and falling asleep ourselves, but over who laid claim to origination and who to mere amplification. We created memories together and remembered together.

For a while after, it was enough to hold a photograph, a postcard, a note, even a scribble and remember alone. But each remembrance smudged just a little, the details shifted to the edge and then the memory moved out of sharp focus. I noticed it first with the voices. They became echoes floating away to the back of my mind. Actors or voiceover artists mimicking the people I loved could have spoken the words on the few digital recordings that we had made together during birthdays and holidays. The people, the real people, not their digitalised representations, but their flesh and their blood and their laughter and love, they were gone. Of course, I expected their smells to fade from the pillowcases and T-shirts, even though I never washed them. But now even the aroma of sweet tomato, garlic and basil sauce simmering on a low heat no longer situates their clear, bright expectant faces around the kitchen table we shared. The memory of each face no longer bears much resemblance to the images caught in such exacting detail on photographs and videos. In the early morning or the fading evening light when I see them together in the intense shadows, I recognise them by the way an arm swings or a hip shifts its weight to allow a torso to twist or a head to turn, but never by the sharpness of a facial feature.

I have the idea of them still and it is more intense than ever, but the reality is gone. I share nothing with any of them now. They have moved beyond any place where new memories can be made and they are in no position to remember with me. Tomorrow, I will remember a little less clearly and the day after that a little less clearly again. It is not a forgetting that clears away and opens up space. It is an intensification of a loss that replaces presence with absence and empties more and more everyday existence of its meaning. They are here with me now by not being seated at the three empty kitchen chairs, and they are all around in the silence that should be filled with shouts to hurry up, get ready, make sure you pack your toothbrush, fetch the dog’s lead and what else was it we used to always say before leaving somewhere to head home?

I leave by the front door, placing the keys in the holder outside. I shuffle the combination lock and check that it is secure from the opportunistic burglar who might pass by.

I walk toward the woods and hope I’ll find them there in the shadowlands.