Monthly Archives: August 2014

Good Writing

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Yesterday I finished a piece of writing that had been eluding me for months, a piece of writing that I first drafted almost a decade ago.

‘Good Pals’ is a short story about a fifteen-year-old girl and her ‘best boy pal’; it’s a story about friendship and family values and the changing attitudes towards relationships and sexuality in modern-day Scotland. It is also number thirty-two in a series of sixty-five short stories (collectively known as ‘Duck Feet’), which are all told in a Renfrewshire vernacular from the point of view of a lone Scottish schoolgirl as she traverses through six years of (often angst-filled) secondary education.

I started writing ‘Duck Feet’ back in 2004, in response to a call for submissions in Mslexia magazine. The brief was to write something about shoes: a poem, a piece of prose, something original; and I remember sitting in my parents’ living room, pen behind ear, racking my brains to come up with a list of all the different footwear you could get. My father had just finished a hard day’s graft working for the council’s cleansing department that day, and as I stared at him bathing his tired feet in a basin of warm soapy water, suddenly a little girl’s voice skipped into my head out of nowhere: ‘Ma da’s got bad feet,’ she crowed. ‘He says it’s cause when he wis wee his mother made him wear shoes that didnae fit him…’ An on and on she lamented in her sing-songy brogue. It’s unusual for me to get an idea for a story out all in a ‘oner’ as Kirsty Campbell (the narrator) would say, but that’s what happened. And it kept on happening for the best part of a year.

Kirsty started off as a precocious twelve-year-old, an ordinary wee girl worried about losing the attentions of Charlene, her life-long best friend, who had recently discovered boys and Buckfast, and trying hard to avoid ‘puni’s for not paying attention in class. My mum thought I’d based the character on myself because I was writing about a wee girl from a working class background who had a younger sister and two parents who were still married and whose relationship was not blighted by drugs or alcohol. I didn’t. In truth, Kirsty is more like my younger sister, she’s more like what I’d like to have been like at school: more ballsy, more capable of standing up for the things that she wanted or believed in. Guest editor, Julia Darling described Kirsty as an ‘earnest, fierce narrator’ in that first ever Duck Feet story that was published back in January 2005, but whilst I’ll take all the compliments I can get, I think it took another thirty or so installments before Kirsty gradually gained confidence and came into her own.

I interviewed several people about their high school experiences for this book: some were my age, some older; most were a little younger though, including the then thirteen-year-old daughter of a writer friend of mine. The things that people said over and over again could be summed up in the phrase ‘nothing much has changed’: according to my interviewees school certainly hadn’t, because there had always been the teacher you loved and the teacher you hated; the class clown, the brains, the bad boy, the wee person who smelled, and the popular crowd; there was also the person who everyone thought was destined for loserville who managed to somehow turn their life around at the eleventh hour and prove them all wrong; and lastly, the fool who threw away a glittering future. With this thought in mind, I knew by the tenth story exactly how my characters were going to end up: I knew who was going to be pregnant by the time they were fifteen, who was going to become hooked on drugs and who was destined to come out as gay.

I also decided that pop culture should play a large part in the development of the characters, but instead of dating it by mentioning real live boy bands and fashion fads, I invented my own. And I honestly believe it was that dash of imagination – rather than the reality they were based on – that brought Kirsty and her pals to life.

The Angel And The Phoenix

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The other day I had an idea for a short story about a married lesbian power couple who are also superheroes: one is an angel from a upperclass heavenly family who likes wearing black, and the other is a water-pistol-toting phoenix with an intense fear of cats. Their names are Victory and Amber Rose and they have two children, Celeste ( four) and Jesse-James (six).

The angel, I’ve decided, is based on Antonia, although I might make her blonde. The phoenix is a very loose depiction of myself – with flaming red hair obviously, plus she’s a lot more kickass.

I suppose rewriting myself as a regenerating mythical firebird is quite fitting when you think of it – I mean I am a firesign after all, and I have had copper and gold highlights through my hair a few times; and there’s also that whole reborn-at-the-age-of-fourteen-and-cant-remember-my-past stuff. I’m rather excited by the prospect of creating a mighty me on the page, who is probably going to end up being just as ridiculous as the real me, but with better biceps and the ability to juggle poi.

I’ve already started to imagine several conversations between Victory and Amber and their brood. In fact, I think their dinner dialogue might go something along the lines of this:

JJ:                        Mums, can I get a mohawk?

Celeste:            I would like a Tweetie Pie bird.

JJ:                        Mums, can I?

Amber:            (Grinning at Victory) I think that would be incredibly cute.

Victory:            (Horrified) Over my dead body.

                        (Pause)

Amber:            Where were you buried again, sweetheart?

JJ:                        So… can I?

Victory:            No.

JJ:                        (Looks at Amber) But you said…

Amber:            Your mother said no.

Celeste:            What about my Tweetie Pie?

Victory:            Both of you be quiet and eat your tofu nuggets.

JJ:                        (Under his breath) Tofu is gay.

Amber:            What did you say, mister?

                        (Silence)

                        Jesse, go to your nest, right now.

JJ:                        Aww but…

Amber:             Now.

(Celeste giggles)

Amber:            And what is so funny, Madame?

Celeste:            Jesse J is gay. (Finds this hysterical)

Victory:            You can leave the table too, Celeste.

                       

After the children are gone Amber and Celeste clear the table together and then sit hugging on the sofa.

 

Amber:             Ugh, remind me again why we had kids?

Victory:             (Smiles and ruffles her wife’s feathers) What for? You’ll only forget in the next incarnation.

Amber:            (Sighs) One of us needs to have a word with our son about the use of the G-A-Y word.

Victory:            Be my guest.

Amber:            Aww but… can’t you…

Victory:            Honey, I’ve got three guardian reports to write; Touched By An Angel is on in half an hour; and I want to stretch my wings at some point this evening…

 

Amber pouts. Fade to black.

I can’t decide where to set this story. I was thinking Edinbugh or Brighton perhaps. Antonia, between sips of tea and reading a fantasy novel, interjects to say that I should create a whole imaginary city.

I think she should be quiet and paint me a picture of two gorgeous winged ladies in a naked embrace… I think that would be a very inspiring visual image to work with… I tell her this. She ignores me and goes back to her book.

Sick Notes

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I’ve been inconvenienced at home for the past couple of days, confined to bed by a mystery illness which makes me feel sick every time I sit up. It’s typical that this should happen to me just as I am finding my feet in Sudbury; just as I’ve become a patron of the local library and the leisure centre, and a hilarious new white-belt addition to a karate class which is populated by mostly hyperactive seven to ten-year-olds, who seem to be intent on breaking my shins.

It was disappointing that I was too unwell to try out the yoga class last night. And I was even less pleased that I managed to miss out on a road trip to Thetford Forest Park with Antonia: she had borrowed her father’s car yesterday for the day, and the plan was to drive to South Norfolk to meet her best friend Jackie, who lives in Norwich, and Jackie’s four-year-old son, Euan (who is Antonia’s godson). Despite Antonia offering to cancel her plans so she could stay and look after me, I told her to go out and enjoy herself, and then I subsequently spent the rest of the morning alone and feeling sorry for myself whilst huddled in the loo.

It was better that I threw up in my own home rather than in someone else’s car – it has only been about six weeks since I last projectile vomited whilst Antonia’s father (Brendon) was driving us to Colchester. Of course, if you ask me, my reaction was totally understandable seeing as I’m not really used to being thrown along bumpy country lanes; and plus, it was the shock of nearly getting mowed down by a double decker bus that was driving on the wrong side of the road. Besides, I was so embarrassed about getting car sick that I actually cupped my hands together and caught the vomit. The problem only arose when Antonia – trying to help – gave me a polly bag that was full of tiny holes.

I suppose the saving grace about this whole illness thing is that I now have unlimited Broadband installed at home. So in between sleeping and puking and watching reruns of Prisoner: Cell Block H on Youtube (I’m now on episode one-hundred-and-eighty-four and I’ve calculated that if I continue to watch an average of five episodes every week then it’ll take me just under two years to finish the series), I managed to change my contact details on my ebay, play.com, paypal and a few other accounts; and I also deleted a few strange followers off my twitter plus several rude followees who hadn’t followed me back.

It is now nearly midday and I am still in my pyjamas, still sniffing and still feeling sorry for myself. I am bursting for a pee but I can’t be bothered to get up because I have a headache… I suppose I should… combing my hair is also an idea I should consider… as is having a shower…

A Life Less Orderly

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Yesterday I locked myself out of the flat for the second time in six days (the other time was fifteen minutes after the letting agent handed me the keys, and five minutes after she vacated the property). Now I know that it can happen to anyone, but that’s small comfort for someone with a brain injury who has a rather severe topographical memory impairment (inability to recognise buildings and other visual landmarks or read maps so basically all places either look the same or unlike anywhere I’ve ever been), because it can be really really confusing not to mention slightly traumatic. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, I had a full bladder and a bag filled with frozen veg.

Luckily for me, Antonia’s mother (Nikki) owns The Cabin, an icecream shed situated in Bell Vue Park which is just a few minutes along the road. This is one of the three places I have actually managed to learn how to get to and from on my own (the others being Caffe Nero and the gym respectively), so I was able to walk there and deposit my wares in amongst the icelollies.

Antonia was also pleased to see me because she’d been working there all day and hadn’t had a chance to go for a pee; and it was the first time there had been a lull in the neverending barrage of icecream-guzzling school children who were taking advantage of the sunshine during their summer holidays. So, like the nice friendly girlfriend I am, I agreed to keep an eye on things for five minutes. More fool me. Because as soon as my bean’s back was turned, customers began swooping in like vultures. And, of course, even though she’d shown me how to work the till the day before, the information didn’t stick; and this resulted in me pressing several wrong buttons and being short-changed by sixty pee – shame on you lady who bought the caramel cornettos.

Really, I should have known better than to have expected my ‘shift’ to have gone smoothly: about fifteen years ago, back when I was in rehab (that’s brain injury rehab not the one for drink or drugs) I did some unpaid work experience in Borders Books And Music in Glasgow and I was pretty hopeless then when it came to working the till, because whenever there was a queue (almost all the time) I would get flustered and fumble with the money and end up dropping it on the floor.

Despite this I was actually offered a job in Borders because my department (poetry and drama) sold thirty percent more books during the six weeks that I was working there – I now realise that it could have been because I was buying the books quicker than I was shelving them. And the job would have worked out fine if only they’d left me alphabetising plays and chatting to customers about Sylvia Plath and Benjamin Zephaniah. But no, they had me wandering around eight different floors trying to locate books for people who were too lazy to look themselves, and then they tried to foist a pager on me that I didn’t know how to answer. So when the job offer coincided with the news that booksellers would soon be doubling as baristas in Borders’ adjacent café, I politely declined and went back to college to do an HNC in Professional Writing Skills – and it was probably the right decision because the bookshop is, sadly, no longer there.

I eventually got back into my house several hours later. And the front gate was mysteriously open. Antonia thinks I was turning the handle the wrong way. I don’t. But I suppose it’s a possibility. It’s the sort of thing that would happen to me.

Call To Adventure

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Today is my thirty-sixth birthday and I am moving four-hundred-and-one miles to a new house in a new country, to Sudbury (in Suffolk), the hometown of my English artist girlfriend.

Antonia and I have decided not to live together and she thinks this makes us like Frida Kahlo and Diego:

I said: ‘You can be the one with the monobrow then.’

To this she replied: ‘You’ve obviously never seen a picture of Diego Rivera – he looks like a cross between a pit bull and a pig.’

Later, she chased me around the bedroom whilst brandishing a pair of slanted tweezers, and when she caught me and pinned me down I got my revenge by accidentally farting in her lap. This, of course, is just a typical day in the life of our three-and-a-half-year-old relationship. The teasing, the laughter, the intimacy that comes from allowing another person to know you bottom burps and all – that’s what we call ‘Bean Love’. Of course, usually it’s me accosting her with the tweezers.

By the time this blog goes out to the world I shall hopefully – weather, traffic and pee-and-tea stops dependant – be crossing the threshold of my new abode. However, there is always the chance that Antonia’s father (who is normally a very reasonable and laid back individual) will maim or murder one or both of us en route, or perhaps just abandon us outside a random motorway service station with our cardboard Costa Coffee sippy cups, our pre-packed vegan sandwiches, and (if we’re lucky) a big yellow polysterene thumb to attract a lift from a friendly driver-by…

It took me nearly two months to plan and pack for this journey. This was partly due to my constant petit mal seizures and my memory problems which caused me to misplace objects every few minutes or forget that I’d already boxed them; and partly because I made the decision to sell, gift and recycle about seventy-five percent of my possessions. (Antonia – who is as far as I’m concerned is a DIY genius – very cleverly upcycled the writing desk she bought me three years ago as a birthday gift into an over-the-bed sliding table so that it would fit into my gorgeous but miniscule new apartment.)

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It wasn’t easy letting go of my old life though, and over the last few weeks I’ve felt like a human conduit exorcising a myriad of demons and angels alike: I’m leaving behind family, and friends I’ve known for over a decade; over a hundred fairly decent paperback novels (and a few dreadful ones), plus a really rewarding job as a writer-in-residence at the local young offender’s instituation.

But the time is right for me to move on.

I have lived in six houses to date – and aside from a ten month hiatus sometime around the millenium when my family moved five and a half miles along the road to Erskine, all of those houses have been in sleepy Renfrew. I’m hoping now that my itchy feet and my desire to experience new parts of the globe will lead me to lucky number seven.

I suppose the Achilles’ heel in this whole plan is that I am good at abandoning things at the eleventh hour, especially creative projects, and promises I’ve made to myself; I came close to leaving once before when I almost went to Aberystwyth to do a creative writing phd; and only last week I began having second thoughts about this whole going-to-England adventure after discovering that my new street hadn’t been hooked up yet with fibre optic broadband. Pretty ridiculous, I know.

Antonia says it’s all self-sabotage. She says it’s like that time a few weeks ago when I went indoor climbing with her and our friend Amanda: I got seventy-five percent of the way up the wall and then suddenly aborted because I couldn’t figure out how to reach the next hand hold.

And she’s absolutely right.

My new house is conveniently placed on a main street near a sports centre, a library, and a coffee shop that sells tasty egg-and-dairy-free cherry scones. What more could a budding novelist want? It is also diagonally above Caffe Nero’s where I can totally imagine myself getting my morning mango and orange cooler fix whilst people-watching behind a pair of oversized dark glasses and my laptop…

All that besides, the deposit on the new pad is paid, as is the insurance premium; and I’ve signed up with EE for a year of unlimited internet access and given official notice on my old flat… Whatever happens now whether it’s embracing homelessness or life in Suffolk, or crawling back to my old box room at my parents’ house, my life is about to radically change…

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