Thursday, 16 June 2016

Future Tense

I've spoken in the past about coincidence in writing; about writing a novel only to discover that it shared startling similarities with a deceased author's short story.

I've even had my share of ghost tales.

What I've never experienced until now, is writing the future. Possibly because I focus on Historical Fiction most of the time.

I know this isn't an uncommon thing. Existence is a story - many stories - so anything we can conceive of could potentially happen someday. I was once on a writing forum where an author swore he'd written his future girlfriend into being, right down to the colour of her hair and the way she walked. So much so, that he could hardly believe his eyes when he turned up to a blind date to find her sitting in front of him. Charlie Brooker expressed a similar level of surprise when #SwineEleven happened, having written a television show called Black Mirror in which the Prime Minister of the UK had sex with a pig.

Accidentally guessing the future is a common hazard for writers, it would seem. I remember listening to an author at Cheltenham Literature Festival speak of a conversation with his publisher. Like Brooker, he'd written something about a popular figure, only that something came true before the book was released, necessitating a rewrite.

In my writing folder, I have a subfolder called Closed Projects. This is where I store the scraps of stories I know will never make it to fruition. Most ideas are worth playing with for a day or two, but part of professional writing is to work out which of those ideas has longevity - about 100,000 words of longevity. Few of them do. Yet, most writers are loath to throw away something they've spent twenty minutes on, yet alone two days. At the back of your mind there is always a sneaking suspicion that those scraps might come in useful one day.

On 1 April 2014, I started a short story with the working title Clowns at the Party.

Two years earlier, I had released a collection of short stories called Splintered Door (now free online). The cover had been designed by Jessica Clark at Raven Feather Photography. I was really smitten with her artwork. I'm a big fan of portraiture, and often draw inspiration for characters from it.

There was one picture in particular that appealed (on the right). I suppose she reminded me a bit of Frankie from Lip Service. One thing you're always looking for in a character is attitude.

I always knew I wanted to write a story around that picture, and Jessica was happy for me to do so. I just needed the right story to come along. Clowns at the Party occurred to me quite suddenly. At first I thought the picture looked like a corpse, a murder mystery perhaps. However, the more I stared, the more I felt she was a living person. Someone who had lost everything and now had nothing more to lose. That sort of mentality makes a person unpredictable, which makes for an interesting character. The type you learn about as you write.

The question was: what had happened to cause such destruction of self?

I based the story in a nightclub in London.

In my story, an anti-gay extremist had walked into a nightclub, started shooting, then blown himself up. My main character, Kay, had just left her best friend, Jodie (the picture), and started walking home. Hearing it begin, she fights her way back looking for Jodie, but ends up in a form of hell, surrounded by casualties.

The story was 3,300 words long when I abandoned it. The idea was that it would be the story of Jodie's recovery and Kay's refusal to leave despite her increasingly irrational behaviour. An examination of trauma, love versus loyalty, the limits of friendship, how one comes to accept an act of unspeakable violence committed against them, and what the alternative is if they can't. 

I'm really glad I didn't take it any further. Some stories are not ours to tell, and that one wasn't mine.

It was cold outside, the city streets damp with old rain. Everything smells different when it’s wet. Dogs have that wet dog smell, grass has that cut grass smell, quim has that salty, satisfied smell, and streets smell like garbage. Hot tarmac and leftover lunches, burnt rubber and plaster dust.

Kay turns for home, not fast enough to avoid a guy shoulder-barging his way past with a sense of pedestrian entitlement. People walk as they drive: pulling out without indicating, slowing for no reason, racing past, overtaking, parking on the pavement and practising emergency stops.

Life is a continuous progression from one state of being to another. It happens over days, weeks and years. We change so slowly that we do not notice we have changed. Like the short hand on a clock, creeping forward imperceptibly until you look up and realise another year has gone. Milestones are things we see retrospectively, looking back. You can pinpoint very few to an exact second in time. A second so precise that it lives in the moment between one foot leaving the pavement and meeting it again. Between a breath in and a breath out. Between the blink of an eye.

When the screams start, they go unheard, absorbed by the towering grey office blocks and hydraulic hush of a passing bus. They rise and refuse to be silenced, as though someone has turned up the volume in a bar so that all smalltalk must end.

Eyes meet eyes, heads turn, feet begin pounding the pavement.

As the short hand continues forward, Kay has no idea how she moves from walking the street to pushing against the river of people flowing from the club’s entrance.

It's futile. They move as one, stampeding onto the road, causing brakes to screech and horns to blare. A girl falls. As Kay reaches out her hand to help, three men push across the top of her, smashing her nose against the pavement. Blood pools. She cries out, then lies still. Kay tries again to reach her, but a boot meets her wrist causing her to draw back in pain.

Sirens can be heard in the distance.

She watches as the girl is lifted over the shoulder of a panic-stricken bouncer, carried above the swarming crowd. Squeezing between bins, she begins running along the side alley. There are fewer people streaming out of the delivery door, making it possible to push between them and enter the club.

It takes a moment to work out where she is. The thunder of feet from above sound as though a freight train is passing overhead. A fire door leads to a stairwell. As it opens, she recognises the girl who steps out.


The girl's hand slips on the handle as she stumbles forward.

Shame hangs over those instances where we should help, but don’t. Where the desire to run to a friend’s assistance meets revulsion at the reason why.

Her white shirt isn't bloodstained, it's saturated.

Kay’s words freeze in her throat. She glances behind to the door, reassuring herself that it's still there. Zoe continues towards it, oblivious of her presence. If she could be two people at once, she would split herself down the middle: go with Zoe, and continue down to the club.

But she isn't two people, and she has to choose.

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