The Blackest of Fridays

She crept to her door, iPhone pinging deliriously in hand. It was out there. Waiting, just for her. She peered out. Nothing could be seen through the bobbled glass. She would have to go outside.

Stretching between the hedge and next door’s wall was a web, a brown-speckled spider brooding in its middle. She walked past it and out, seeking those things that were promised to her. The sky was cold blue, remnants of leaves squadged into mounds. She would need to go further.

The bus lurched, gorged full of swaying bodies. Each of them clutched phones, trolleys, bags, waiting to be filled. At their destination the bus vomited them onto the grey pavement. Hard concrete under her feet, huge signs shouted from windows. All those things, just for her.

She checked her phone. It took her hand, guided her to the best place. The one where she could get the most.

Hours spent dragging other people’s food over a barcode scanner. Mopping up the spilt orange juice in Fridge Aisle Three. Pinning the laminated badge over her shirt-enclosed breast. She was happy to help. And this was her reward.

Bargains dripped from the walls. Scavengers looted the racks, garments falling to the floor, trampled under shoes bought two weeks ago, ready to be replaced. In the distance were the electronics, recognisable from the heaving mass that throbbed around the shelves.

That could wait. A gaudy blue dress squawked at her from its hanger. But there were others it called, too. Applying her elbow firmly to the nearest set of ribs, she clambered over a heap of clothes, something solid under the fabric, and clawed it from the hanger. Such a bright blue. And that fabric, the hang of it. Hot For This Season, and definitely suitable to Transform From Office To A Night Out. She clutched it close, the scent of newness hanging over it.

But there was a jacket, too. Stripes To Flatter Your Figure. This was harder to get to. Another had it already in her grasping fingers. She reached over, smiled, scraped her fingernails up the exposed length of arm. The woman shrank back, easing her grip. Perfect. All it needed was some jewellery to go with it. Perhaps those people, the reporters, would stop her on the street when she wore it, her face smiling from those coloured pages, a beacon of fashion to the dowdy.

Scattered finery littered the floor. Necklaces, jangling bracelets, it was like walking over a dragon’s hoard. What she needed was gold. Something to Stand Out From The Crowd. A glitter caught her magpie eyes. Chunky chain, adorned with fake-diamond lumps and a cross at the bottom. Perfect. But there was only one left.

She watched as another swooped in. Lacquered nails clasped around the treasured item. The usurper started to walk away. She would have to act fast.

Grabbing a set of earrings, she lunged forward, tripping, falling to her knees. In one movement she drove the studs into the back of the woman’s leg. A trickle of blood could just be seen through the 20-denier tights.

With a shout, the trinket fell to the floor. She scooped it up, dodging round the display filled with hair accessories to avoid recriminations. Her prize was clutched in her hands. Such a good start, after only thirty minutes of shopping time. Imagine what she could achieve in a whole day.

Her key scraped in the lock. Heaving herself up the stairs, she collapsed onto the sofa in a satisfied lump. Bags were lined up each arm, a huge box clutched between her hands. As she leaned forward to put it on the coffee table she winced, the twinge in her back attending to the distance she’d walked back with this lot, unable to fit on the bus.

She peeled the packaging off the black hulk – Active Shutter 3D, curved screen, LED, 720p, High contrast ratio, Internet connected HDTV. Her reflection was muted in the 50-inch display. The smudge of a bruise on her cheek, the red ribbon of blood trickling down from her split lip. She dropped the bags, wincing at the pain from her cracked rib. They healed on their own. Better to try these things on, parade her body in front of a mirror, fragrance it, shave it, moisturise it, daub it with colour, style it, dry it, freeze it in a single click of a glorious selfie that would capture her in this beautiful peacock dress, sitting amongst her purchases after the Blackest of Fridays.

The Jacket

It was bought for Harry’s christening. Sharp darts in the waist and a slippery blue lining. Mum kept it at the back of the wardrobe, shielded in a cover. Black makes anything look smart.

A baked late-September day; the interview. Perched at the back of the bus, the hum of the engine vibrated sweat into my skin. Keep the arms down. CV printed at the internet cafe with grades in a bigger font than the school name.

I’d tried to press out the cardboard shape from the shirt packaging. Iron too hot; a shine-streak down the front, a whiff of polyester plastic.

They put us in a room. The other candidates were beige flowing lines, rippling pages of magazines. I was the cardboard leaflet jammed through the letterbox.

The slick from the bus crept from beneath the fabric. That prized item. It didn’t belong here.

Foraging for Ideas

In the last few months, I’ve found myself running around Hampstead Heath thinking ‘I need to find an idea for a short story.’ Thanks to sites like Creative Writing Ink, I’ve got a monthly alert of short story competitions and deadlines for magazine submissions, all laid out on my Google calendar. The problem is, I don’t have that much of a back catalogue yet, so for each one I need to come up with something new. And, funnily enough, simply trying to think of ‘a story idea’ doesn’t work. Trust me.

As far as non-fiction stuff is concerned, I find that much easier to spark ideas. Usually, the book(s) I’m currently reading give me more than enough scope to rattle on for a few hundred words. Either the ideas explored in the book, or the way it’s written, allows me to go off on a personal tangent into my other reading or writing experiences. Sometimes the same thing happens from a lesson I’ve taught, or an experience in the classroom, that also gives me a way in. Current news and events are always a good springboard, with my opinionated conversations often providing an article that has a good sense of personal voice. This has worked so well, it landed me a position as a guest blogger on the Huffington Post. You can read my first blog (about why modern women aren’t getting married) here. After all, we’re all passionate about something, so whatever it is, write about it, preferably linking to something else happening in the world at the moment.

Unfortunately, thinking of ideas for fiction (for me at least) is always a little trickier. It’s a bit like meditating. The harder you try to do it, the more difficult it is. Lucy Caldwell (tutor at City University) came up with a lovely phrase. She told us to ‘thin our skin’ when walking in the world. Open ourselves up to the little things we see on a daily basis, allow ourselves to drift into another person’s head, imagine what they’re thinking and seeing, and let the imagination take root.

Just last month, we looked out of the window of our flat and saw something in the tree. It looked like a canoe. From each angle, we looked and looked, but couldn’t figure out what it was. The next time I sat down to write, my protagonist was someone who became obsessed with something in the trees. You can read the story here. Thinking thin worked.

Images can also be incredibly powerful. While googling ‘story images’ tend to produce a rather flat set of images (fairytale castles, mountains) the strangest searches can also produce something you weren’t expecting. There’s a free writing competition (check it our here) that changes the image every two months, from which you’re encouraged to produce any piece of fiction. Even if you don’t win, it’s a great exercise in keeping your creative muscles going. The picture of a metallic rose led to my prize-winning short story (here) while a picture of some shoes sparked off a flash fiction piece about a first meeting and the changes that happen in relationships (read it here). Search for things like ‘feet,’ ‘doors’ or ‘keys,’ and ask yourself what they open, where they go, how they came to be there, and you’ll find your imagination will take you to unusual places.

Poetry is also a great resource. If you’ve got an idea around a specific theme or mood, try finding a poem that is based around the same set of ideas. Because the language is so condensed, it allows for a multitude of interpretations, that often lead you off on a tangent which might prove more unusual than the thing you began with.

Finally, go back to the things you love and the things that make you unleash a tirade at someone in the pub. If you’re that passionate about it, you’ll find that there’s a way to put it into your fiction. I’m currently grappling with an idea based on a woman who works in abortion clinic being treated like a witch (partly because I’ve been watching Once Upon a Time) and a re-imagining of the Adam and Eve story, where the monster that tempts them is not a snake. It’s possible that these ideas won’t go anywhere, but what’s important is that down the side of my Scrivener file marked ‘Stuff,’ there are a huge amount of titles, ideas, notes and words. Actively searching for inspiration in the world around you and acting on it will keep your fiction muscles toned. You wouldn’t expect a pianist to develop their craft without regular scales, so use the world around you as a way to hone those writing skills.

Good luck! Please post the things that help you find inspiration below.

Short Story – Windy Day

In part inspired by the blustery horrible weather we’ve been having!

Clouds hang in the murky air like soiled sheets on a line. The slow thrum of traffic reverberates around his skull. He raises his head; sight is blurred by the sleet arcing its way horizontally over the hard ground. A pause to wipe the grit from his left eye, pink and sore from exposure to the harsh elements.

His thoughts revolve endlessly around the stilted speech. His face mirrors the shift from anxious hope to pained despair. He will knock on the door. She will see him. It will be different. It will be awful. He will reach for her hands. The contact will be reassuring. She will remember. The hands.

He had always found the hands to be the most erotic organ. Their dexterity and sensitivity with threadlike veins mapping out the delicate and vulnerable wrists. A finger traced over the palm caused shivers to shockwave to the delicious core of the body. She had let him sleep with her, he had known that at the time. His drawn out and tentative courtship had lacked reciprocation. A house warming where he accompanied a friend, stumbling intoxication and fumbling fingers had finally allowed him to revel in the glory of her nakedness. She had even let him linger in the morning. Allowed him to trace his fingers over the bones of her hips, the pleasant bulge of the tummy.

“Ben!”

A soft voice cuts through the biting wind. Her hair is plastered to her pale cheeks, the red hue of her rain jacket matching the bright raw nubs of her knuckles as she begins to intertwine her fingers anxiously.

“Why are you here?”

The question hangs between them.

“Willow, great to see you!” His voice verges on desperate.

His eyes crease effortlessly, accepting the smile her presence brings.

“You promised.”

As he reaches for her hands she angles the line of her body away from him. The hands.

He regurgitates the words. In his head they sounded convincing and heartfelt. Now they seem trite and feeble. His eyes are fixed on her fingers. They wind around each other, lingering over a garish pink plastic ring. They stop. His words fumble and fall to the ground. He meets her gaze. There is pity.

Later in the pub he will tell his friends that he is happy that at least he tried. The lie will stick in his throat.

Spanish Adventures Part II

Relenting to her urges, influenced by the first sisterly visit in two years, she returned to the fridge. Ice cracked into the bottom of the glass, followed by a slice of lemon and a fizzy gush of casero. A steady glug of red wine followed, perhaps a little strong for the time of day. The cool liquid would hopefully lend her brain enough fuzz to dampen her qualms. She felt a little idiotic; surely at 45 she was too old to be seeking approval. As the older sibling she had always provided the answers when Harriet was younger, but now she often felt left behind. Family photos seemed farcical. A series of couples and groups with a gaping hole next to her smiling face where she had envisaged so many others would join her. The wrench of leaving behind so many familiar faces had been softened by the fog of obscurity. It had surprised her the extent of the thrill that a lack of a past had lent her. For the first time in her life she felt somehow mysterious, a strange shore to be discovered. In all honesty these thoughts were usually accompanied by just enough wine to allow her to spend a little longer than usual in front of the mirror. Those were the times she allowed herself an appreciative glance at her prominent cheekbones and ample cleavage, albeit slightly hidden now under softer, folded flesh. It was when she had returned from her cautious preening that her wine was knocked from her hand by the careering child. If she hadn’t been in that particular mood she might not have continued to talk to the man that had received the contents of half her wine glass to the back of his shirt.

A buzz from her phone on the kitchen surface roused her from her reverie. Glancing at the time, she cursed quietly and threw the remainder of her glass down her throat, grabbing her handbag on the way to the door. She paused and scurried back, grabbing a container of mints, popping one in her mouth and pulling the door shut behind her. She didn’t fancy recrimination today. After navigating the perilous track from her urbanisation and clashing with traffic, she realised she had underestimated the time it would take her to get to the bus station. Harriet and her two children wilted in a pool of disappointment under the harsh lights as she rushed breathlessly into the waiting area.

“Sorry, I’m so sorry,” she exhaled,

“Aunty Angie!” both children leapt forward to wind themselves round her neck.

“Well, to be expected really,” Harriet smiled, although it failed to reach her eyes.

The drive back was filled with excited chatter and flailing limbs gesturing towards new landmarks. This was especially animated whenever the turquoise sparkle of the distant sea crept into view.

“Can we go to the beach?” A high-pitched voice enquired,

“Yeah, the beach, can we?” Another chimed in.

“Of course we can, the beaches are gorgeous here” she indulged in a little pride, “in fact, you can’t really go in the day, so we could have a quick visit after dinner, how about that?” She was eager to form shared memories.

“Not today, I’m too tired from travelling,” the voice of authority chimed in.

“Ohh, mum!”

An arched eyebrow silenced the outburst to a few muttered grumbles.

Getting out of the car involved a flurry of heavy bags, something else and extensive other things. Once the kids were safely absorbed in their Nintendo DS games attention was turned to food. Something about making it and a hint of slight tension.

Once the kids were safely tucked into Angie’s double bed with the fan on and the windows open to let the breeze in, the sisters settled down for a catch up.

Spanish Adventures

This is the start of a story I wrote while in Spain in the summer. Please enjoy, comments and feedback most welcome!

The hot blustery air held a hint of promise. Strolling along the parched street, trying to avoid the halting step of thronging tourists, she felt a twinge of hope. The promise of unlimited sun had already become mundane. It hadn’t taken more than a few weeks for the oppressive heat to become a hindrance, the sweat pooling in the deepening crevices of her skin. Simply walking to the local Mercadona to collect provisions for the impending visitors had rendered her sluggish and woozy. She no longer needed to practice the phrases she needed in her head on the way to the checkout. Gone too was the twinge of panic that threatened to arise in case she was asked a question she didn’t understand. Walking back, she shifted her shoulders awkwardly, slipping a thumb under the damp strap of her dress to rescue her bra strap. She wiped the sheen of sweat off on her faded floral dress.

The thrill of the exotic still struck on her when entering her small apartment, even though she hadn’t been able to afford a beach view. Her feet had acquired a rough cushion to accommodate the hard flooring and the frequent grating of coarse sand. A smattering of melody escaped her lips as she clattered in the kitchen. Large bags of pasta and several cartons of tomate frito took up most of her kitchen storage. She squeezed the bright bags of sweets next to the crackly pasta bag. A large box of Cheerios and three large cartons of milk and she felt better prepared. Opening the fridge, she fingered the single blue gem around her neck. Her other hand beat a rhythm on the plastic, suddenly unsure that her purchases would be right. The sharp shrill of the phone interrupted her cold musings.

“Hola,” she answered, slightly breathless,

“It’s just me, no need for that,” a sharp voice quipped,

“Oh hi Harriet, how’s the journey going?”

“Horrific, totally…” The speaker turned, the harsh voice directed elsewhere,

“Will you sit quietly! No, I don’t have any water.” A muffled voice could just be heard, filled with indignation,

“Well give it back then! Sorry about that,” the voice was weary.

“Don’t worry. How was the flight?”

“Delayed, hundreds of screaming kids, total nightmare. Just waiting for the bus, this heat is just too much, I don’t know how you cope.”

“Well, you get used to it, you just…” a smile crept into her tone.

“Can’t talk, got to see to the kids. Bus station at 4?” She hurried on.

“Yup, absolutely, see you there.”

The phone rested back with a sharp click as a small sigh escaped her lips. Pressing her head against the cool tile of the walls, she resisted the call of wine and cooling soda.

It had taken quite a while for her to convince Harriet that a visit with the kids was a good idea. A slave to routine and schedules, she had insisted it was impossible until they were older. Despite her assurances that she saw much younger families here all the time, her opinions were rebuffed due to lack of experience in such matters. She preferred the calm acceptance of children she had found here. They were not seen as a hindrance, a constant barrier to adult enjoyment, but rather a welcome addition that took part in all areas of life. She had often seen youngsters barrelling around the confines of an intimate restaurant, adding their yells to the general hubbub that seemed to accompany food. Only last weekend she had been sat at her usual small table in the corner, savouring the last of her wine, when she had jarred forward from the impact of a game of chase that had got out of hand. The injured child had burst into a flood of anguish. Her hands had felt warmed as she stroked the lump on his head, muttering nonsensical English until his dark-haired mother swooped him away. Once Harriet found out her husband would be away at a conference for several weeks it had been easier to bring her round. Her current fad had been for familial bonding through games, especially of the paternal kind. This now seemed to be defunct for the time being. She had sensed her angst across the miles, masking insecurity through a new fad someone had shared on Mumsnet.