A Writer Writes
No, it’s not quite what Hemingway actually said, but the sentiment is there. If you are a writer, you have to keep writing. But how?
Last week I posted the conclusion to The Way We Lied. If you want to read the early chapters, they are available in the archives, starting in October 2015. And now, while I await reactions to a recently completed novel, set in Corfu, exploring the consequences of deception and the island’s hidden wartime history, I’m going to post about writing habits, good and bad.
Of course, while keeping fingers crossed for the Corfu novel, I’ve not been able to resist starting another project. I’ve got 52,000 plus words so far, but whether they are all the right words I have yet to decide. Today I only managed to add 150 words, which is not much of an achievement considering I worked for three hours. But, after reading through the work in progress, then deciding to weed the garden in the sunshine, my writing brain continued to work and now I have a clearer idea of what to write next.
So, today’s rule for writing is: sometimes you have to take a break and weed the garden. Who knows what idea will pop up as you wrestle with the ground elder.
When I regain consciousness I am lying on the ground at the park. Someone is crouching beside me and they’re saying something, but I can’t understand it.
‘Gran,’ I try to say but my voice is a mere wheeze and my lungs and my throat hurt, just for trying.
Then the voice again. It isn’t Gran. I open my eyes and immediately blink them shut again. The pain is excruciating. I feel as if I have a thousand flecks of dust in them.
‘Hello?’ the voice says again. I must be more ‘here’ than ‘there’ now. As I can understand it now. ‘Hello? Are you OK? Can I help?’ I open my eyes just the smallest amount. There’s a girl there. She’s not Gran and she’s not June. June! I try to push myself up onto my elbows. I need to find out what happened to June! The girl puts her hand on my shoulder, steadying me and holding me back, I think. ‘Easy now,’ she says. ‘You look like you’ve been in the wars.’ In spite of everything, this prompts a small smile from me. If only she knew! ‘That’s a bit better,’ she says. ‘Look, I don’t know what happened to you, but you were lying on the floor and I saw you as I walked past.’
‘There was a fire,’ I croak out. ‘I got out, but my friend-‘
‘A fire?’ the girl sounds shocked. I find I can open my eyes a little more now, so I take a good look. She’s a bit older than me. She has died black hair, with purple streaks in it. Her clothing is black, despite the warm weather, and she wears a black choker and dark red lipstick. She looks kind of cool and edgy, I think, whereas I look…a state. ‘A fire?’ she asks again. ‘Where?’ She looks around, as if trying to detect a mysteriously hidden inferno. I decide to change the subject; this could get awkward.
‘I need my Gran,’ I tell her.
‘Do you know where she is?’
‘Home,’ I’m not coming over too well here, I know, but you try talking to someone when you’ve just fallen out of a burning barn and the past. I’d like to see you try! Just as I’m trying to think of a way to sound less like doofus, I hear the gate squeak and in comes Gran, almost at a run. As much at a run as Gran can do, anyway.
‘Ellie!’ she calls.
‘I found here like this,’ says the other girl. ‘She’s been asking for her Gran. Are you…?’
‘Yes,’ Gran replies. ‘Thank you so much for keeping an eye on her. I got here as quickly as I could.’
How on earth did she know, I wonder?
‘You’re welcome,’ says the girl. ‘Is there anything more I can do for you?’
‘No, I think we’re – actually, could you help me get her to her feet? If you wouldn’t mind?’
The girl nods and drags me upwards. This is neither comfortable nor dignified. I have to hope we never meet again. Then again, she is kind and didn’t even flinch at touching dirty old me.
‘Thank you,’ says Gran to the girl. ‘Thank you, I can manage from here.’
The girl nods, gives me a smile and a wave, and leaves the park. Gran helps me to walk, fussing over me an awful lot. She suggests calling an ambulance but I shake my head. I’m not burned. I have sore eyes, a dry mouth, stiff limbs and I look a sight, but I’m pretty certain I’m OK. Gran fusses for most of the way home. Then she sits me carefully in a chair and brings me a cold drink of water. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life!
‘Now sip that – no gulping!’ she instructs, and watches me carefully to make sure I comply. When the last of the water is drained, Gran throws her arms around me and sobs. I will not get used to this, I think: Gran crying. ‘Oh Ellie,’ I can’t believe the danger I put you in! There must have been another way! How are you? Are you all right? What happened? Tell me everything! No – don’t rush – go carefully. Tell me exactly what happened.’
I manage a smile at Gran’s eagerness mixed up with her concern. Then I tell her everything. I tell her about how pushing June out of the way didn’t work. How it just brought us back – or forward – to the park. I told her how Lilian came with me one time. Gran nods, as if she remembers that. Perhaps she does, I think. After all, it happened. Then I tell her how I forgot her the second time, so she’s still in the henhouse. She touches my arm, by way of reassuring me that this is alright, that she doesn’t mind being left behind. In the henhouse was where she remembered being, anyway. I tell her about my solving the mystery of her telling me to be, ‘back in time for tea,’ and she looks surprised.
‘Why did you say that, Gran? Why didn’t you just tell me what to do?’
‘I didn’t know,’ is her reply. ‘I just thought maybe…maybe we needed more help, you and I. Maybe it would work if we could get the adults in on it, but you were gone too fast for me to elaborate. It wasn’t really a plan, Ellie, just an idea – half an idea, really. You were brilliant to work it out like that.’
I smile, feeling kind of brilliant for a moment, but then my story turns to June, the matches and the barn. I think she got out OK, I tell Gran. I think Billy saved her. I want to go back and check now, but Gran is adamant that this won’t be happening – not today, at any rate. Then, for the first time since I arrived at Gran’s, I burst into tears. I sob and sob. I’m crying for exhaustion, for June, for not being able to tell Gran for sure if I did the one things she’s been waiting for all these years. Eventually, between sobs I manage, ‘I don’t know if Billy did save her, Gran. I don’t know for sure.’
‘He didn’t,’ says Gran. ‘Billy didn’t save June, Ellie: you did.’
The sky was copper where the park still burned beyond the horizon. As dawn crept up, returning tank buster single-seater ‘dragons’ careered recklessly in through the Queen Anne’s midships hanger bays to pull up sharply as their tail hooks engaged with the arrestor wire, each urgently manhandled to one side before the next warbird arrived. Cumbersome roach-like bombers circled Captain Rotskagg Blenkinsopp’s dirigible, waiting for their turn to be craned up into the ventral hanger. Ferdy, in his Cierva, bumped down onto the topside flight deck. He stood at the edge of the platform as a lift lowered him and his autogyro into the cavernous interior. He was met by the expectant enquiring faces of Phoebles and Flo.
“There’s no sign of him.” Ferdinand said dejectedly. Nothing had been heard from Boz since he called down the air strike, and the trio had accompanied the attack fleet in the hope of picking him up.
“But what can have happened to him,” said Phoebles.
“All be not yet lost.” Rotskagg came up from behind and placed a hand on the ginger cat’s shoulder. “We’ll be back in camp soon and gather together your colleagues to plan our next move.”
Ginsbergbear was outside the stockade watching the Queen Anne’s Bounty approach through his little brass pocket spyglass. He jumped as a scarlet, stubby, monoplane fighter roared overhead, barely clearing the blockhouse roof; its Shvetsov M-63 supercharged radial engine spraying oil and smoking. Two gaudy red and yellow Grumman J2F Ducks were hard on its tail firing bursts from the heavy machine guns gaffer-taped to their top wings. Within seconds the ack-ack battery immediately forward of the Queen Anne’s majestic four funnels opened up with a QF 2-pounder pom-pom. One of the Ducks erupted in a ball of fire and spiralled away. The other broke off and, with shells exploding all around, turned it’s rear end to the airship. The red Rata executed a 180-degree handbrake turn, losing height all the time. It banged down heavily, at speed, onto the cleared killing zone surrounding the corsair compound. It roared past Ginsbergbear and into the woods, sacrificing its wings and many other vital bits as it ploughed on between the trees. The bear broke into a trot, following the gouged scar of snapped twigs and flattened foliage. And eventually there was Wing-Comrade Polly Karpova sitting astride the tail section of her I-16 and downing a long swig of something suspect out of a plastic milk bottle. She unzipped her flying jacket and pulled a Rizla from the breast pocket of her dungarees.
“Ginsbergbear. Swap you the last of this Ukrainian horilka samohon for a roll of nip.”
The teddy bear offered up his tobacco pouch. “You be careful with a naked flame near to that moonshine,” but she tossed the bottle down to him before lighting up. “Where’s the rest of your plane?”
“Most of it’s on down there a ways.” Polly waved a thumb over her shoulder. “Not sure where I left the wings, I had my eyes shut. Think she’s going to be a bit of challenge for the maintenance guys.
“Are Boz and the rest of the gang here? I’ve some important news.”
The hospice was peaceful the following evening. My mother was lying in her bed, supported by soft pillows. Her favourite piece of music, that sacred composition by Thomas Tallis, was playing again; the repetitive chanting encircled her in a choral spiral that was slowly lifting her to heaven.
She turned her head a little as I entered, her thin hair and bruised hollow cheeks the most obvious signs of her diminished body. She was no longer the bold, strong mother of my youth; she was a little broken bird. I could do nothing to help her now. I could only try to give her the gift of a peaceful, untroubled death and the reassurance that I loved her for being a devoted mother. I could only give her one more lie to preserve all the lies.
And then I told her that I had been. I told her what I had found. And I told her that none of it could be read. She closed her eyes for a moment as if she was relieved, then she looked at me and laughed, the tiniest rustling tissue of a laugh that shook her shoulders as if she had just heard the funniest joke in her whole life.
“All that is past is forgiven,” she whispered through her laughter. “I have never put my hope in any other but you.”
Then she closed her eyes for the very last time.
My fall through the tunnel is slower this time: I know what to do. Closing my eyes tight, trying to ignore the pain that I think I am almost getting used to, I picture June. In the next moment, I hit the ground. I feel queasy, but I’m not going to throw up, I note with some relief. I’m getting good at this. Looking around I see that I am once more on the farm but, yet again, not in the right part of it. This time I’m by the hen house. I know the way from here, so I sprint on. Moments later I realise I forgot to go and get Lilian. I could kick myself but there’s no time for that and no time to go back. I have to get to the barn. I have to stop June lighting that match.
I reach the barn and stop sharply. I know what I have to do, I think, but not how. Last time I tried simply bowling June out of the way – averting disaster by force – but it didn’t work, did it? I simply launched us both into my time and now look: here we are again, facing the same old problem. We can’t keep doing this for seventy or more years! For one thing, it would get boring. For another, it won’t actually stop it. We’ll just keep doing it over and over and maybe one time I’ll be too late – too long in the tunnel or whatever it is, too far away with my inexpert landing. Then what will this all be for? For nothing – it’ll all be for nothing and I’ll just be some weird kid, falling through time for a dead kid. I’m not doing that!
Think! I tell myself, think! I try to remember what Gran said, whilst being careful not to picture her too closely. I don’t want to time travel just yet. I’d be stuck there with no June to get me back. So what did she say to me? ‘There’s hope,’ I recall and, ‘Go and make this thing right!’ I’m trying, Gran, I’m trying! Anything else? Just then I recall a rather odd thing she said to me as I left the house, ‘One more thing, Ellie – be back in time for tea!’
Yes, that was it. It was an odd thing to say because my dinner going cold was the last thing on my mind and it seemed strange that Gran was worried about it, given the serious nature of my task. What if she didn’t mean it like that? What if it was a clue? What if there was something Gran regretted not doing all those years ago and she wants me to do it now? I wish she’d been more clear about it, but maybe she only thought of it at the last minute and I was out of that front door like a rocket…
‘Back in time for tea,’ I turn the words over in my mind. I am back in time – I did that part. What about the tea? The tea! Suddenly I think I might have it! June’s job was to take the tea trolley out to the workers. Did Gran think maybe they could have helped? I don’t know, but I mean to try. I run towards the farmhouse and get there just in time to see a frazzled Aunty Doris leaving with the tea trolley, heading for the fields. I run to her, waving my arms.
‘Aunty Doris! Aunty Doris!’ I call out. I’m right in front of her but there’s no reaction from her – none at all. Of course – I’m such a plum – she can’t see me, she can’t hear me. This is a terrible plan! I trot along beside her, trying to come up with a better idea. Aunty Doris is surprisingly fast, given that she’s pushing a laden trolley, but then, I think, June can manage it and she’s strong, but only small. That’s when I think of my next big idea. I follow her to the edge of the field and watch her holler over the gate to the workers. While her back is turned, I shove the trolley and, yes, it’s lighter than it looks and the whole thing goes over easily, teapot spilling hot tea onto the ground, cups either smashing or rolling around in the dirt. I feel briefly bad about how this might set them back, what with rationing, but then I’m trying to save a life, so maybe it’s OK.
Aunty Doris turns around immediately and exclaims at the state of things. The workers are already making their way over and, at her cries, a few of them quicken their pace. The one I recognise as Billy gets there first.
‘Oh, Mrs Meers, what happened? You hit a stone there?’
‘No!’ replies Aunty Doris in protest. ‘I don’t know what happened, but I’ve lost that June – again – and now the tea’s spilled everywhere and, oh, just look at the state of this!’
‘Tell you what,’ says another, ‘You go and make another pot, I’ll help you carry it, Billy will track down June and see what scrapes she’s got herself into this time, you alright with that, Bill?’ Billy nods. ‘Rest of us’ll keep at it here for a few more minutes. You know what they say: no use crying over spilt milk.’
Billy sets off in the direction of the barn, thank goodness, and I tag along, my invisible self wishing he’d hurry up a little. We reach the barn and Billy calls out,
‘June! Miss Junie! Come out now.’
I sigh and pull at face at him, not that he knows it. That’s not going to work! I should think he does know that but maybe he’s giving her a chance or something. As I sigh, something catches in my throat on the intake of breath. I cough – silently, for all Billy knows – and glance at him. He’s sniffing the air and I know why: there’s a hint of smoke in it. He says something I won’t repeat here and runs at the barn. He opens the door a crack, which is probably a mistake as that lets in not just the light but a rush of oxygen, fanning the small flames higher. On the other hand, it lets out Freddy, Beryl and Ida.
‘What -?’ Billy begins, but even he now knows there’s no time. He pulls his shirt up over his mouth and nose and rushes in, while the Others wildly rush away, all disheveled. The flames are getting higher now and I realise Billy doesn’t know June’s hiding place. It would probably be obvious, but for the thickening smoke in there. If only he’d look by the bales and the tractor, I think. The tractor! I have no idea if there’s any fuel left in that thing but even the tiniest amount could make this whole thing a whole lot more dangerous than it is already. Can shadows and time travellers be hurt in a blaze? Can they breathe in smoke? There’s no time to think it through, I rush in and immediately drop to the ground, remembering something I once saw on a disaster movie, about that being the place with the most air to breathe in a smoky room. I crawl forwards as fast as I can, reach the hay bales and grab for June. My hand touches her arm but she’s unresponsive. She’s either paralysed by fear or overcome by the smoke. I kick a hay bale to one side, to make a better exit for her and try to drag her towards me. My eyes are smarting now and it’s getting harder to breathe. Danger must be like food to a time traveller: you can experience it. June feels heavy and I feel like I’ve no strength left but I must go on.
Suddenly, an arm reaches in and grabs hold of June. It must be Billy’s arm. Perhaps he saw or felt the hay bale move. I might have helped, might have done something useful! In seconds she’s over his shoulder and Billy is leaving the barn which leaves just me, seventy odd years from home and alone in a burning barn that could explode at any minute. I am about to give up hope when I remember the one thing that can get me out of here alive: Gran. I picture her as clearly as I can: her white hair, her glasses her kindly smile. There’s a rushing sound in my ears, whether of the cogs of time travel or the flames blazing around me, I couldn’t tell, and before I can investigate, I lose consciousness.
“So tell me,” said Rob as he handed me a chilled vodka and tonic and came to sit with me by the blazing fire, “have you solved the great Millennium mystery yet?”
I had told him what the letters said and also that I was meeting Mary, but I had not told him everything. I had not told him and will never tell him, that her eyes and her kiss haunt me. And I could not tell him that I was at fault and that Mary had said I would be forgiven. So all I could say was, “It was all such a long time ago, that it is nothing and yet it is everything to my mother. I think I can see now why Mum was so concerned. While she probably could not have known what any of the other letters said, she knows what she herself wrote. She knows it could be sensationalised in the hands of the wrong people and could distress my father. And yet I don’t think, from what I have read, that anything actually ever happened between my mother and Mary. Even if it had, I would not think any the less of her. She has always been a wonderfully devoted mother. I don’t want her to feel afraid of what we might think of her now, at this stage of her life.”
“And what did you make of this Mary?”
I was quiet for a moment, remembering her words and her touch, “From the little the letters can tell me, I know she had an impact on everyone who met her. She’s a charismatic character even now and my instinct tells me she was essentially good, yet highly controversial. She seems to have ruffled quite a few feathers in her time. But Mum loved her. That’s all that matters. My mother loved her. She was enthralled and tempted but I believe she resisted. And, as far as I know, I don’t think she ever saw Mary again. I honestly had no idea she even knew her and I never heard her name mentioned, ever.”
“And are you sure your mother could not have known what any of the others had written, not even your father?”
I stared into the fire, recalling the preparation of the time capsule. The letters had been left in the kitchen and then everyone gathered around the kitchen table while my mother put all the contributions into the box. “From what I can remember, the envelopes were all sealed. So I don’t think she ever had any idea what the others said. I think she can only be worrying about her own letter. I think she is just concerned with how we might regard her in the light of this confession.”
Rob was silent for a minute or two. He was extremely fond of my mother and they had always been very good for each other. “Are you going to tell your mother that you’ve been to see Mary?”
And then I was quiet for a while before I said, “I’ve been thinking about it. But that would mean letting her know that I’ve read her letter and that I know how much Mary meant to her. She’s been trying to conceal that from us all these years, so no, I can’t tell her. And also, she made the decision to say goodbye to Mary a long time ago. So I don’t think telling her we’ve met would help her feel at peace now.”
“And have you told your father that she asked you to go back to the old house?”
“Not yet.” I shook my head and concentrated on my drink. I had been contemplating this question too.
“Will you tell your brothers?”
“That I went back? Probably.”
“But will you tell them what you found?”
I sighed. “That’s what I’m trying to decide, Rob.”
He put his arms around me and I rested against his warm chest. “You should do what you think is right,” he murmured, putting his lips close to my cheek.
“I’m going to try.” I looked up at him. “Don’t let’s leave any surprises for our kids. Let’s have a big bonfire before we’re too old.”
He laughed. “A really big one. We’ll burn all our dark secrets. There’ll be nothing nasty left in the woodshed.”
And then I knew what had to be done. I gathered up the letters, the envelopes and the newspaper cutting and threw them all on the fire. They caught instantly and in seconds there were only charred shreds.
I watched all the hidden lives burn to nothing and then sat back, unburdened. “I’ll tell them nothing survived. I’ll say it had all disintegrated in the box. None of it could be read. And that’s what I’ll tell my mother too.” Rob held me tight and we were silent