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.