The Fiction Project

I've challenged myself to produce a new short story or vignette, or even a piece of memoir at the rate of 3 per week, until I have 100. Wish me luck!

Writer's Despair

The conversation had an air of hopelessness about it, a feeling that it wasn't worth while to mop the rings from the coffee mugs off the table.

"I'm not going to write any more. If I can't do it as well as Graham Greene then why bother trying?"

Caroline didn't react. She was never one to react. Yet her soul let out a thin, sharp-edged sound that rose to a silent scream. What the hell is he talking about? Graham Greene? That's ancient history. That's so establishment. And what a lame excuse after all these years of writing, or rather non-writing. What sort of excuse is this if it doesn't even convince me? How the hell could it convince him?"

She breathed steadily for a moment. "The task is to write like Graham Greene, is it?

"Well, you know what I mean. To do it as well as he did it."

"No, I don't know what you mean. And I don't know why you're comparing yourself to him. The task, surely, is to write like yourself. If you don't practice you'll never get a chance to let your real self come out. Especially if you think you've got to write like someone else."

"You're missing the point..."

"No. No I'm not. You are."

Unstuck

Let me tell you something - mind if I talk at you for a while? Yeah? Ok then, this is the story, just to show you how things can be.

I had this man come to see me about developing his writing. It was good writing, but very much autobiographical, you know? All about his childhood and his abusive father who used to beat up half the family. everyone except him, it seems. Traumatic stuff. And he kept returning to it.

After a while, though, I began to feel he was just re-traumatizing himself over and over. Yet another tale of violence and fear. And then he started not talking about the writing but he started talking about his personal life. Fine. After a couple of sessions like that he says to me, "Listen. I don't want to talk about my personal problems here. I want to talk about the writing." Then he goes right ahead and tells me about the personal stuff again.

I let him do that for a while and then I tell him, very gently, "Look, you asked me if we could not talk about these issues, but here you are talking about them, and not about the writing. Is this what you want?"

I think he's about to cry.

So then I see it's time for me to steer this into better waters. "And yet," I say, "perhaps we have to talk about this in a new way. Because, you see, whatever it is that gets in the way of the writing is about the writing, no matter what it is."

He looks at me, then drops his eyes. I continue. "This is what you have to do, for now. But it's not going to be this way forever. It's a habit you've formed to stop yourself from having to see things differently. And now you're getting tired of the old ways of coping. That's because you're starting to grow in compassion for that abusive person who happened to be your father. So, let's try to grow that compassion, shall we?"

"Does that mean I can let go, now?"

"Yes."

Bank Accounts I Have Known

After my mother died – four years afterwards, actually – a Swiss bank got in touch with me.  My mother was Swiss, you see. I live in the US, my mother died in the UK and was a British subject, and I’m now a proud US citizen. Anyway, they told me and my brother that some money was in their vaults for us to claim. All we needed to do was to submit a death certificate and a Certificate of Probate, plus copies of our passports. The death certificate was no problem. I had a copy filed. Neither were the passports difficult. But a certificate of Probate? 

I wrote to the lawyers who had handled my mother’s will. They’d have one, surely. But the fellow we’d worked with had moved on. As had his assistant (who did almost all the actual work). She, the assistant, referred us to another person. She’d moved on, too. This was clearly a high turnover joint, and I began to despair. Finally we got someone who said she could do something, and who then promptly turned it all over to her assistant.

Now, I realize that this is a first world problem of privilege – thinking about money that I might inherit – but hold on. There’s something else here.

Months of emails pass by, and the upshot was this: the lawyers in England wouldn’t release any papers to anyone until they knew how much money was involved, so they could charge the appropriate tax and levy the necessary fees. The bank in Switzerland wouldn’t say how much money was involved, and wouldn’t talk to the lawyers at all.

Me to the lawyers: “I don’t know how to put this to you, but you may wind up charging a fee for what amounts to barely enough money to buy a couple of pints of decent beer and a packet of crisps. I don’t think either of us wants that.” (Notice the veiled threat: I’m in the US so they’d have a hard time getting me to settle any such bill. I was rather proud of that).

Eventually the Swiss relented somewhat. They could tell me by phone what the sum was that we were discussing, but they would not put it in writing. A lovely chat then ensued with a Fraulein Elmer, who subsequently asked me to be a contact through LinkedIn (which I became). I guess that makes us almost related. We were able to ascertain that there was a sum of money small enough to be disappointing to my dreams, but sufficiently large to interest us in liberating it.

The Lawyers in England were pleased, but they still refused to act.  After all, I might not be telling the truth! Not that they said that in so many words, but you could see their point. Once I’d got my hands on the money they’d no guarantee of being paid.

Emails went to and fro. Eventually I said: why not send the money to the lawyers in England, then they can do their calculations, and we can all move on?

While working on all this I read an article about the English poet John Keats. It seems he had also some money bequeathed to him, but his lawyers managed to keep it out of his hands for years. When he needed it, when he was desperately ill with TB, he couldn’t get it. He died without having seen a farthing. Not that I’m a great romantic poet, mind you. But I think you can see the point. 

The money, in the form of an investment, was then cashed and sent to England. The lawyers took a look and said it would take time to calculate but they thought about 60% would be absorbed in costs. 60%. Two thirds. Make that one pint of best bitter and leave out the crisps. The other pint you can pay for yourself.

As I recall something similar happens in Dickens’ great novel, Bleak House. Except there it was 100% of the inheritance money that got absorbed.

So I write to them and point out that I’m not a UK resident and don’t pay taxes there, so how would that change things? Great consternation at the other end. Nothing definite said, though.

Which brings me to the point. My late mother didn’t know about this money. If she had we could have got it all sorted out when the rest of the estate was settled. That would have saved a fortune in lawyer’s fees. The reason she didn’t know about it was I presume because my grandfather had bought some sort of investment for her and hidden it away just in case she should ever need it. In using the Swiss bank account he figured she’d never have to pay taxes when she cashed it in. Neat, huh? But she didn’t know, and she never cashed it. So now we end up paying taxes at a rate far above what poor old Grossvati imagined, trying to get at money we’d like to have but aren’t desperate to get. I mean, we’re getting by. This is an extra. If it ever materializes.

The bottom line seems to be that Grossvati didn’t trust my father that much, and wanted to make sure his daughter had an emergency fund.

I think the old man had a soft spot for me, though. I’d tried to learn German so that I could speak to him on my vacations from school. I’d done quite well despite the fact that my teachers knew only high German and my Grandfather spoke Switzerdeutsch, which was way different. I’d given up Geography and History to take this language. That was the way it was in those days. Sadly, I was really good at both those subjects, but because I spoke Swiss-German to my teachers they thought I was stupid. Still, I persisted. Then I went to see my grandparents.  Two things were immediately apparent. The first was that they were both very deaf. The second was that they couldn’t understand my Hoch Deutsch

Still, my grandfather was fond of me. He liked that I had become a competition rifle shooter. So he bequeathed me his Swiss army-issued competition match rifle, the one he’d won so many trophies with. 

Try getting that through customs.

Bank Accounts I have Known #2

A second bank account comes to mind that I probably should mention. My grandfather, Grossvati, created a small savings account for me shortly after I was born. Every year, on my birthday or Christmas, he’d put some money in. And the account grew. Of course it did. I wasn’t old enough to withdraw anything, and it turned out I had to be in Switzerland to do it. After Grossvati died the account book was held by my godfather. My father told me that I had some money, but of course I’d have to go to Switzerland to get it. It would, he thought, just about pay for the expense of a trip. By this time I was living in the US, and although the money would have been nice, I couldn’t see travelling such a distance in order to break even, and then have to pay to spend a few days in the most expensive country in Europe.

When my father died, after a discreet interval, my godfather wrote to say I should do something about the account. He seemed somewhat annoyed that he’d had to remind me. Fine, said I, but I don’t have the bank book. Oh, you don’t need that, just the account number, said he, and I have that written down.

So I write to the bank and explain the situation. Do I, I asked, have to come to Switzerland to get the money? Oh no, came the reply, we can wire it to you. Just give us a phone call to verify who you are and leave the rest to us. 

The money arrived, effortlessly, three days later.

It wasn’t much, but looking at it I thought of how much of a difference it would have made about 15 years before if I could have got some of that money. It was my money, after all. But I’d been led to believe it was not really mine, since I couldn’t get it when I wanted. I thought back to when I’d been offered a deal on a Brough Superior and sidecar, a wonderful motorcycle from 1934. If I’d bought it and kept it, that vintage outfit would today have been worth almost 50 times what they were asking.  I’d have had the pleasure and the profit.

At the time I couldn’t get a loan from my father for this venture.

And so it came to me, forcibly, that all this pretense about the money requiring me to present myself in person at the bank had been a way of keeping it out of my hands because I wasn’t considered reliable or trustworthy. Even though it was my money, it wasn’t mine.

It’s nice to have the money now, but it’s not so much as to make me change my life. I’ll still drive the used Honda SUV I have at present. I’ll still wince at the heating bills in winter. But it could have been a game-changer. My life could have gone in a different direction.

But, you see, I was the one who was somehow regarded as unreliable. As a child I hadn’t stayed with my grandparents or cousins for vacations, the way my brother had, and so I’d never really learned their language. So naturally they saw me as stupid. The older brother can speak good dialect, so why shouldn’t the younger one? Even after I’d won scholarships that paid for my schooling and college years – yes, I went to the best schools in England for free after the age of 11 and until the age of 27 - even after I’d finished my doctorate, I was the stupid one.

It’s not what you bequeath, it’s what comes with it.

Snow Day

Bangs Holoescu stood gazing at the snow. The automated voice system at work had called at 5:30 am to say that the roads were too difficult (as if he needed them to tell him) so all employees were to stay at home until further notice. So he had the whole day to do whatever he wanted.

But that was the trouble. What he wanted was to go to the shed and keep working on his latest rescue motorcycle, or the 18 speed bicycle, or the lawnmower. He called them rescues because the owners usually gave them to Bangs just before they junked them. He wanted to be in the shed, or outside flushing out grime from old gas tanks, or so many other things. All of which required decent weather. Or at least not freezing. It was a free day in which he could do nothing he wanted to do.

He could shovel the snow. That would be exercise, true. But he couldn't pick the last few Hawthorn berries from the tree to make that great pie his Grandmother always made in the run up to Christmas, or pick and preserve the few remaining rosehips in honey. He couldn't put straw around the strawberry beds, or extend the vegetable garden. The ground was frozen. And when the weather got better, he'd have to go in to work, of course.

Work. It seemed to get in the way of everything he really wanted to do.

The snow continued its leisurely drift.

And then Bangs knew what he wanted to do. He opened his laptop and began: "Please accept this letter as notification of my resignation from my position."

Turning the Tables

After my mother died I was left with the task of clearing her house. It could have been a heartbreaking task but it wasn't. I'd long ago given up expecting much of our relationship, and even though I loved her I found her controlling ways to be hard to take. And so the distance increased over the years. Her last words to me as she gasped her last ragged breaths, were, "You really might want to take up Bridge. It's a social game." I took this as her usual directive style, telling me that I wasn't social enough, that I didn't have the right friends, that I ought to make more effort to be the person she thought I ought to be.

It wasn't what I'd hoped for. An "I love you" was what I'd hoped for.

When I began to clear the spare bedroom I tried to lift one of the small tables by the door, only to discover that it had a double leaf, and that it unfolded to display a green baize cloth. Her bridge table, I thought, and folded the flap back down. Which was when I discovered that of course the table top swiveled so it could sit square over the frame for playing cards. There, in the recess, I caught a glimpse of her cards and pencils for score keeping. And I saw something else.

Behind the cards was a small grey felt bag. I undid the top and tipped out the contents. Twenty eight solid gold Swiss twenty franc coins from 1935 slid into my palm.

She hadn't been giving me advice, after all. She'd been trying to give me a gift.

Faculty Chat

“Ah, Jeff, good to see you. Do you remember a student called Vanessa Blythe?”

Jeff, not looking up from his desk, grunts something vaguely affirmative, so Sandra continues.

“Well I’ve just been talking with her, and she said that your course – the exploratory writing course – was better than half the Psyche courses she’s taken.  She was quite enthusiastic, actually.  Said it was “life changing” for her. I thought you’d like to know.”

“Really?  She said that? Um….Was she serious?”

“Of course she was! Why would she not be?”

“Well, thank you for passing along the compliment, but I have to tell you, she was a real pain all the way through that semester. It’s been a year now, and I’ve never forgotten her rejection of just about all the things I said. In fact she wrote me the worst end of semester evaluation I’ve ever had.”

“Are you sure it was her? Those evaluations are meant to be confidential.”

“Yeah, well, I recognized the grammatical errors and the spelling mistakes. She was the only student in ten years who couldn’t spell Freud correctly. Reversed the e and the u.”

“I can promise you she doesn’t feel that way now.  She thinks the whole department should take your course. She’s quite vocal about it.”

“There you are then,” Jeff sighed. “Sometimes it takes them a year or more after they’ve left the classroom to cotton on to what it is we’ve said.”

“At least they get it, though. I wish some of our colleagues only needed a year until they saw sense.”

Paris

"You know this year we took our kids to Paris?"

"Really? That must have been amazing for them - and for you, too."

"Yes, it was. We did everything. Montmartre, The Louvre, Notre Dame, Chartres, then back to London, the museums. Everything."

"They must have had a great time. How old are they?'

"They're about the right age - 12, 9 and 7. I thought that this year I'd give them something special, something they could always remember. An experience of Europe."

"Wonderful. And how was it?"

"Well, when we got back we were sitting round the breakfast table at about 5 in the morning, all bleary eyed, because of the time difference, and being on British time and everything, and I asked them what they'd enjoyed most. And you know what they said?"

"Tell me."

"Ha. I can't even recall what the older ones said, but the youngest, she said, 'Do you remember that really rainy day when we all sat on the bed and played cards? That is my absolute best memory."

Make-Up

Make-up, especially eye-liner, eyelashes, extensions, mascara and the many ways you can put them on and change them during the day, and there are so many, that was a hot topic here in Shanghai. (Did you know that painting on a thin layer of coconut oil before you go to apply the color will make it easier to lighten or darken your mascara during the day?  Suppose you need to go to a meeting in a high rise office. High–rise, lots of windows, lots of light – your eye shadow color is crucially different from what it might seem like if you’re in a more ordinary office, with fluorescent lights, for example.  These are all tips you can get from my channel. I was the first person to really exploit that, you know. But I’m getting ahead of myself). I always wanted to be an internet star. I wanted my youtube channel to generate hundreds of thousands of followers so I could get wealthy from the ads. That’s all.  And I did. I was up to two hundred and fifty thousand followers when I did the Maybelline hybrid application. Brilliant. My life was going so well.

Here’s how it happened: I was talking about how to emphasize the shape of the eye to make it look more round, and I said something like “You don’t want to put too much black here or you’ll end up looking like a Uighur, and we all know what happens to them.”  I thought it was funny. I thought it would make people smile, and I’d be popular.

In the afternoon the police arrived and I was taken away. I do not like to talk about that time. I am not allowed to talk about any of it, any way. But by then I already knew what I’d done – the comments on my video had already told me I’d stepped into a big pile of shit.

I was at police headquarters for eight days, they tell me. While I was gone, people noticed. My family was frantic. Rumors started. And suddenly I became the center of all kinds of protests. Was I speaking up for an oppressed minority?  Was I the voice of Chinese privilege, dismissing a minority?  It seemed that I could be both at the same time.

I wasn’t either, as far as I could tell.

The protests got bad, they tell me. Most of it wasn’t shown on the news, though, for obvious reasons. I just wanted to go home.

If the protesters hadn’t made such a noise I’d probably have been let out sooner.

Now I’m some sort of sensation. I’m not allowed to do any more videos about anything. I have to stay indoors a lot.  I’ve got my fame after all. But I’ve lost my freedom.

Shooting Down Planes

This was a strange and uneven time for Derek. The RAF looked after him, and he was with all his old friends from the camps, and yet everything was off, somehow, in post war Britain. They were fed well in the mess hall, and yet at times at least of couple of the former prisoners of war could be seen scrambling up one of the ornamental mulberry trees to fill their hats with the ripening fruit. At night most of them would leave camp, more or less openly, just because they could, and because a simple wire fence was not going to hold them back now.

Derek’s friend Roger had somehow got hold of an Austin Ruby, a tiny and mostly rust colored car which took them to whichever pub was closest, where they tried to drink the brew that was called beer and was, of course, nothing like what they’d consumed before the war. Not even close. They got used to it remarkably quickly.

They were bored and confused by what England had become, but none of them wanted to admit that. 

One night the landlord of the Plough heard them talking about pies, particularly meat pies.  They seemed to spend a lot of time thinking and talking about food, he’d noticed, and he’d got to know their stories a little. He’d heard plenty of yarns and tall tales over the past five years, but not many like these. And he couldn’t get over how cheerful these men were. They’d start singing and laughing before they were half way through their first pint of bitter.  And they all seemed to know each other so well. This was entirely different from the aircrews he’d seen until now. Young men with ghosts in their eyes, drinking until they could hardly stand, and morose to a degree that made him shiver.  The future was their enemy. Waiting to get the chop, he’d say quietly to anyone who’d listen, but not many people wanted to hear that. Those young flyers knew a few of their companions, people they’d been crewed-up with, but they didn’t seem to know anyone else much. 

The POW’s were like one huge happy family reunion by comparison. More astonishing was that each of them had a “turn” they’d be called on to do. The shout would go up “Barry!  Where’s Barry? Barry – give us your Widow Twanky!”  And Barry, or whomsoever, would immediately stand on a table and give a raucous sung rendition of the pantomime character from the pre-war years. The chorus was taken up each time with great enthusiasm, sometimes with several repeats. Then it’d be someone else’s turn whose trick might be to stand on a table in the middle of the room and do a jumping somersault onto the floor. The piano was never silent for long.

On occasions it all got a bit out of hand, like when young Owen (to distinguish him from “old” Owen who was all of about three years senior) was called on to do his turn. This involved him facing the bar, looking at his watch, giving a stagey gasp of surprise, gulping his drink, then turning round and sprinting across the room to dive full length out of the open window. This was always greeted with cheers and often resulted in an encore. But then one day after the third encore, someone who wasn’t paying attention decided to close the window. Owen wasn’t badly hurt, but the landlord was upset about the broken glass.  But that was another day.

So the conversation around the bar that night about pies led to a discussion of the best sort of meat to put in the pies, and somehow the conversation turned to rabbits and hares, and how the hedges by the hangars were full of them, often sitting stunned by car headlights. An idea was born.

At about 10pm Derek and Roger and two others squeezed into the Austin Ruby with the landlord’s shotgun, some cartridges, and great hopes for bagging a lot of rabbits and hares for the pub’s larder.

The Austin didn’t accelerate very well at this point in its hard life, and chasing after the rabbits was a tad more difficult than they’d at first thought, swerving round the airfield, trying to get a clear shot. Twice they got stuck in some mud and had to push the car out, laughing and slipping. They thought they might almost have got one rabbit, though, and encouraged, went after a pair running side by side. Derek loosed off a shot.

An unfamiliar sound came back, and the rabbits ran on.

“I think we hit something.” Roger looked worried, “something that wasn’t a rabbit.”

“Better take a look.”

Bumping forward they saw that they had indeed hit something. Before them was a large transport aircraft, and they’d shot a ragged twelve-guage hole in its side.

Roger got out and prodded at the damage with his finger. It was a big hole, about a foot wide. “Bugger.  That just goes to show you how dangerous camouflage is. We could have collided with the bloody thing!”  And they laughed until they could hardly stand.

Back at the mess they hastily confided their adventure to one of their number who was dozing in an armchair, and he went and roused a chum from the Sergeants’ quarters. A few pound notes and some loose coins later it was all arranged.  The next morning the hole had disappeared, and a nice fresh new coat of khaki paint hid all their transgressions. 

“And that,” Roger would say, with a huge smile, “was how we came to shoot down one of our own planes!” 

Behind the laughter was another story as I discovered later. Roger had flown over 100 missions on fighters in the western desert before he’d managed to get close enough to an enemy aircraft to do it some damage. Out of a wheeling mass of planes he’d found himself by pure chance behind one of the dreaded Messerschmitts, which was turning lazily back into the melee. His Spitfire was a very tired item, suffering from all the shortcomings of a plane never intended to scrape by in the desert. It was, to use his own phrase “completely clapped out.” He knew that if he didn’t hammer the German, and hammer him thoroughly, he’d simply alert the pilot to his existence and he’d be fighting for his own life very soon against a extraordinarily agile adversary. An adversary who had canons as well as heavy machine guns. He made sure to line everything up, aiming ahead, allowing for deflection so his adversary would fly into the hail of bullets.  Then he pressed the firing button. All the guns opened up although two quickly stopped firing – sand got everywhere, guns jammed frequently. For a very brief moment nothing changed – and then the German flew right into the hail as plane and bullets converged. 

Roger knew that his rifle-caliber bullets had very little stopping power. They could damage an adversary but rarely knock him down at the first burst.

So he made sure he gave a long burst.

The German plane lurched, seemed to lose way, and smoke appeared in a thin stream. Roger fired again. Bits fell off the wings and came back very close to Roger’s plane. Roger risked a third burst. This time he knew the Messerschmitt was not going to make it home.  He broke off the engagement, looking around to make sure he was not about to be someone else’s next victim. Then he followed his quarry, which was now in a steep dive, trailing smoke. It seemed to be out of control. More wing parts fell off, small dark irregular shapes. It slowly turned onto its back. No one bailed out. 

It began to show flames, licking along below the cockpit, and it continued streaming downwards.

Roger pulled up to a safe circling distance, on the alert for any of his foe’s friends.

He watched his victim crash and then burn. There had been no parachute, no one scrambling away from the wreck.

He’d just killed a man in cold blood, shot him in the back, shredding his body with machinegun bullets, possibly roasting him alive, too.

The kill was confirmed by someone from his flight, with a brief entry in the squadron’s log.

A few weeks later the boot was on the other foot when Roger followed orders to strafe a German airfield his flight had happened upon. On his second low-level run across the sandy strip an anti-aircraft battery sprayed him, and he felt the first hits in his tail. Then he felt a terrific whack on the head. The armored steel plate behind his seat saved his life, but the bolt that secured it was hit by a canon shell, shot forward, and buried itself in the back of his skull. Stunned, he’d baled out somehow, not fully aware of what he was doing. His parachute opened just before he hit the ground.  He’d been flying at a mere 300 feet. Two miraculous escapes within three seconds.

Thirty years later, as he fought liver cancer, he still couldn’t forget that first kill, the oily back smoke as his victim curved towards the sand and rock below. He’d talk readily about the time they’d hunted rabbits, but hardly ever about his other kill, or how close he’d come to being someone else’s statistic.

I asked him about that and he managed a weak smile. “Everybody’s got a story,” he said. “The thing is which story you decide to hold on to and tell. There must have been a million stories like mine. No one wanted to listen anyway. Besides, everyone prefers the cheerful story, don’t they? It’s what you want to remember that counts.”

At the time he said this Roger was in a very stylish dinner jacket, presiding over a dinner dance he’d arranged for about forty friends and their wives, knowing that in a few weeks he’d probably be too ill to stand, let alone dance. But for this night he was going to have fun, celebrating friendship and life. Two months later he was dead.