Saturday, 27 February 2010

With Apologies To Anton Chekhov, Master Of The Open Ended Short Story

This week’s sentence was taken from Boris Pasternak's 'Doctor Zhivago.'

It was:
'The hotel staff were being driven frantic; the incident in No.23 was only one more nuisance added to their daily vexations.'

With Apologies To Anton Chekhov, Master Of The Open Ended Short Story

The phone had rung for ages. The hotel staff were being driven frantic; the incident in No.23 was only one more nuisance added to their daily vexations. That aside, room service were going to get their arses kicked if his breakfast wasn’t delivered in the next half-hour. In the meantime he slouched to the bathroom. Showered, shaved but still angry he reached for the phone again.
Then he saw the gun. To tell the truth he had seen it several times already but it was only now that it registered. Once the initial shock had passed he sat and looked at it.
He was reminded of Chekhov: 'If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.'
He wondered who was writing his story and hoped they did not know their Chekhov. A writer should remove anything inessential from the story and now here was a gun placed nonchalantly on his nightstand, bringing with it an implicit threat from a dead Russian playwright. He decided not to be around for the next act.

Maggie was in the lobby.
‘What the hell is wrong with room service this morning?’ She said.
He shrugged.
Yanking her shapeless hat down over her head she checked herself in one of the big old mirrors and made a face like a lungfish.
‘Ah, screw it. I’m going out for a smoke. Coming?’
They sucked in traffic fumes and nicotine washed down with what might have been coffee from the stand on the corner. Maggie coughed up a lung.
‘Jeez, that’s better.’
‘There’s a gun in my room.’ He said.
‘What the fuck? Yours, I hope.’
‘I don’t own a gun.’
‘So what are you doing with one in your room?’
‘I woke up this morning and there it was. Actually, I didn’t notice it until I came out of the bathroom but it must have been there all along.’
‘D’you have company last night?’
He shook his head.
‘So what’ve you done with it?’
‘Nothing; it’s still lying there. I just got the hell out in case its owner came back.’
Maggie ground out her butt and tossed her cup in the trashcan. ‘Let’s go take a look.’

The gun was gone, which scared him more than if it had still been there. At least with it on his nightstand he knew where it was; now there was a gun in his story and he had no idea where it might turn up next. Consequently, nowhere was safe.

Maggie found the manager outside No.23.
‘There was a gun in No.42 but now it’s gone.’ She said.
He didn’t reply, just stared fixedly through the open door into the room. Maggie followed his gaze.
‘Holy shit! What the hell happened in there?’
‘You honestly don’t want to know.’
She looked up at him.
‘You know what would really make Anton Chekhov spin in his grave?’
‘No, what’s that?’

Note to self:
If you cannot think of an ending to your story, simply leave it hanging and call it Chekhovian. After all, a great many of his 800 or so short stories simply sketched out a situation, played it along for a bit and then left the denouément to the reader.

As the man himself said, when Suvorin accused him of doing just that: 'You confuse two concepts: the solution of a problem and its correct presentation. Only the second is incumbent on the artist.'

Which gives me a good excuse not to bother thinking up an ending.
Plus of course, I liked the idea of making Anton spin in his grave by introducing the gun and then NOT having it fired. And of not explaining the incident in No.23.
Or it could just be that this long, cold winter has given me cabin fever and I'm writing and talking gibberish.
Hey ho.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


This week's sentence was taken from Ken Kesey's glorious 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.'

It was:
'Out along the dim six-o'clock street, I saw leafless trees standing, striking the sidewalk there like wooden lightning, concrete split apart where they hit, all in a fenced-in ring.'


February. Daybreak.
I stepped outside and the chill hit. Bitter. I shook like a wet dog, my body sucking the last feeble warmth from my insides. I hadn’t eaten or slept since I couldn’t remember when.
Out along the dim six-o'clock street, I saw leafless trees standing, striking the sidewalk there like wooden lightning, concrete split apart where they hit, all in a fenced-in ring. Crab grass, rot and detritus strangling the shattered kerb at the impact zone.
I blinked. I saw grey: grey street, grey sidewalk, grey houses, grey sky. One big grey cloud, dark, mottled, livid like a bruise, hanging low, draped, drizzling over buildings like a damp duvet from horizon to horizon.
Dirty snow still hung around in patches like crusted scabs. Old grey snow so hard and sharp it could cut you, hunkered down gritting its teeth, marking the target for the next cold front, due in later today with another two feet of fresh reinforcements.
Down the street I saw Ralph stumble off to look for work through a yard strewn with broken Christmas sculptures, past last summer’s barbecue, tipped over and rusting in the long grass, past the long-dead Chevy Impala up on blocks, paint faded and peeling, off to wait for the bus in the freezing rain.
I saw the street pitted with potholes, littered with filth. Where I used to park my car leaned the crumpled blackened brazier round which me and Ralph had shared our last beer, warming our hands burning all the crap Arlene had left behind when she walked out on me and laughing long and hard and bitter. Shit, that was months ago.
I saw the rain turn to sleet. Stinging cold whipped up from Erie lashing down at my face. My teeth chattered and I hugged myself, wondering what the fuck I was doing out there. Too numb and too dumb to go back inside I carried on staring at the madness around me.
All along the street I saw plywood nailed up over windows. I saw dogshit, broken glass, plastic bags, gang tags, sodden cardboard, wrecked cars and the hopeless despair of the broken American Dream.
I saw drab lives shivering subterranean in dank, dark rooms, the deep and desperate helpless hurt of decent working people betrayed by imbecile greed.
I saw bright colours splash like blood, painful against the grey. Foreclosure boards. KEEP OUT! This house is no longer your home. We would rather it stand empty and rot than let you live in it.
Closing my eyes I saw blue skies, laughing children, Ralph and Norma, Arlene and me drunk as skunks, kicking back on lawn chairs and shooting the breeze, sharing our hopes and dreams long into the night.
And I saw myself standing here, unshaven and unwashed in dressing gown and slippers, no longer comprehending the world I was seeing.
Shell-shocked. What the fuck happened?
I saw the bus carrying Ralph off to look for work.
I stepped in front of it.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Fan

This week’s sentence was taken from Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’.

It was:
A pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash.

The Fan

Despite their occasional meetings they had never met.
The room was always dark. Twice now he had glimpsed the hands: heavy, scarred, age-spotted, yet always immaculately manicured. Expensive suit. Understated.
And the voice. Surprisingly soft. Mellifluous. In almost three decades that was all he had ever seen or heard of Bartleby himself.
Now they sat, sipping scotch in stygian gloom, idle chatter after Mac's debriefing from the Macao job.

One thing …
There was always a noise. A kind of soft clatter that reminded him somehow of his time in Indochina. It finally registered.
'So what's with the fan?' he ventured.
There was a long pause, Bartleby breathed slow and deep. Mac could almost hear the man smiling.
'It was a gift.' Bartleby spoke at last, snapping it open and handing it to Mac, who strained his eyes to make out the detail. 'Carved bamboo. Meiji period. It was found on him when he died.'
'You know I have to ask.'
Mac couldn't hide his surprise.
'Okay, I'm impressed. Is that all I get to know?'
'Tolson.' Bartleby enigmatic as ever. Mac screwed up his brain to squeeze out the connection.
'Clyde Tolson? Assistant Director FBI?'
Bartleby took another long breath.
'Their relationship was an open secret within the Bureau. In ‘72 it looked like it was going wide. Tolson panicked; he'd lose everything. He couldn't trust the FBI so he came to me.'
Another pause while Mac reeled at the enormity of what he was hearing.
‘I made it look like auto-erotic asphyxiation, though of course it was hushed up. Hoover’s death was officially attributed to a heart attack. He had high blood pressure. There was no autopsy of course. Tolson saw to that.'
Mac swallowed hard. Bartleby continued, as calm and measured as if he were reminiscing about a family vacation.
'They found him naked but for the items with which I chose to array him. A pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash. The sash made a nice contrast with the purple of his face.'
‘Holy crap.’ Was all Mac could think to say.
‘Tolson inherited Hoover’s estate. They even buried him next to the old queen.’
‘And you?’
‘And me?’ He sighed. ‘Tolson gave me the fan. And later I got unlimited funding and plausible deniability for the unofficial agency for whom you have killed so many people over the years, Mister Mackinson.’
‘Sir,’ Mac, suddenly scared. ‘Does your telling me this mean that my life is now in danger?’
‘Your life ended back in Cambodia. I gave you a second life, an act of generosity on my part that you should do well to remember.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Mac wondered who was standing behind him in the dark. When the shot would come.
But it never did.
‘As for the tale I just related? Of course, I could be lying.’ Bartleby chuckled.
‘No, Mac, your life is in no more danger than usual.
Go now. But please leave the fan.’

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

What Happens When We Choose

This week's sentence was taken from William Burroughs 'Cities Of The Red Night.'

The sentence was:
'He was passing a huge marble snail, a bronze frog and a beaver.'

Apologies in advance for the strange ending of this one. As I was writing it and wondering just who Hans might be and what was happening I got the idea for the ending. Unfortunatley, to write the whole thing properly would have taken about another 1,000 words, so I copped out and cut it down to 500 by writing a kind of precis of my idea for where the story was going.

Hey ho. I'm as confused as you are …

What Happens When We Choose

Hans had been walking for ages when something snapped him out of his reverie. He glanced at his surroundings, trying to get some bearings. Often on his wanderings he wound up in the oddest places and today seemed no exception. He was passing a huge marble snail, a bronze frog and a beaver.

'Either I’m in a museum,' he thought, 'or the drugs are kicking in.'

Cautiously he watched the animals for a few seconds. When none of them moved or spoke to him he concluded, with a slight air of disappointment, that he was not hallucinating.

It turned out to be the window of an art gallery; one of many such places that sprung up out of the ground like mushrooms in this part of the city and just as suddenly disappeared again.

On a whim he pushed open the door, to be greeted by the blank gazes of the inanimate animals and a frosty stare from a startlingly attractive girl standing awkwardly by what appeared to have been a tragic accident involving some hideously uncomfortable and garishly coloured sofas.

With a superhuman effort he managed to avoid opening with 'Nice beaver,' instead simply shifting his weight from one hip to the other and grinning a little sheepishly.

'Where the hell have you been?' the girl snapped at him. 'I was supposed to go to lunch twenty minutes ago.'

Despite the fact that he had never before seen either girl or shop, Hans felt it safer to play along, in the hope that things might become clearer later.

'Sorry,' he mumbled. 'You'd better take a long lunch to make up for it.'

'You're damned right I will.'

She flounced out in high dudgeon, shoving him aside and leaving him alone with the mad menagerie, the furniture catastrophe and his perplexity.

Avoiding the sofas he perched instead on the snail and tried to come to some conclusion based on the information available.

It appeared he was Hans, owner of a chic yet pointless art gallery and employer of the startlingly attractive and very angry girl who had left a bruise on his upper arm.

He stared at the beaver.

'I have no idea who I am.' He said.

Hans was also unaware:

• That before he took his walk he had been Peter, arriving at a business meeting with no inkling of where he was or why, yet somehow coping reasonably well.

• That when he left here he would be somebody else yet would retain no memory of any previous life.

• That every choice a person makes in life leaves an alternative life unlived.

• That these unlived lives linger, littering the universe.

• That he was dead.

This is what happens to dead people. Our souls become lost, un-anchored, set helplessly adrift among those countless abandoned lives that the living leave lying around, to be lit into consciousness only for the short time it takes such paths to cross, before moving on; perplexed, bereft, eternal.

The soul that was currently Hans stared at the beaver.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Incense and Insensibility

This week's sentence was from George Eliot's 'Middlemarch'

It was:
'I suppose it would be unprofessional,' said Rosamond, dimpling.

Incense and Insensibility

'I suppose it would be unprofessional,' said Rosamond, dimpling. 'Though I am sure a gentleman of Doctor Whimper's generosity of spirit would understand the delicacy of my situation, might he not, Mama?'
Mrs. Fingering nodded her assent, adding for emphasis a curlicue traced vaguely in the air with her lorgnette.
Momentarily nonplussed by the physical manifestation of the verb to 'dimple' as applied to Rosamond, Jonquil could merely spuffle, silently cursing the tautness of the Regency trouser. Had Rosamond at this point added a simper to her dimpling he would have found himself in an impossible situation vis-a-vis his social standing.
Avoiding those limpid pools and fluttering lashes and fixing his gaze firmly upon the aspidistra he managed to stutter his astonished acquiescence. That Rosamond would consent to accept his hand in marriage was beyond his wildest aspirations and, left to his own inadequate devices he would never have dared ask, but to be summoned by the girl's mother and to all intents and purposes to be ordered to marry her left him in such as state as to be barely able to gibber.

Kitty rolled her eyes. Since coming of age, her sister had launched into the quest for a husband with far more enthusiasm than was strictly considered decent. Displaying the delicacy, forethought and social subtlety of a rutting baboon, these past few weeks had found her dallying disgracefully with all manner of unsuitable suitors. From Squire to swineherd and all points in between, Rosamond had ravaged the village like the Plague in petticoats, culminating in her being discovered by Papa the previous night in flagrante delicto, riding the rector across the billiard table in the back room of The Splayed Pig.

Clearly something had to be done.
Now it seemed this dim doctor was Rosamond's sole chance of matrimony and, snivelling cretin that he was, Kitty still found it in her heart to pity the poor deluded fool.
At that very moment, as Jonquil knelt before his intended bride, the door burst open and there, towering and glowering, stood Squire Garth bearing the red-faced rector in a headlock.
His blazing eyes accused the fragrant tormentor.
'Vile strumpet!' he bellowed, 'Uncommon whore!'
Mrs. Fingering gaped, aghast, her lorgnette plopping unnoticed into her tea.

'Dare I read on, Miss Austen?' sighed her publisher.
Jane stared at her shoes, cheeks flushed with shame. She tried dimpling but regrettably she had never developed the knack and instead appeared merely colicky.
'Frankly, my dear, as a follow-up to Sense And Sensibility, this is unpublishable. It looks for all the world as if you wrote it on your journey up to London.'
Jane could only congratulate him on his perspicacity.
How could she tell him the truth: that she had perfidiously purloined the manuscript of Sense and Sensibility from notorious local roué Mister D'arcy?
What awful price might D'arcy extract from her were she to confess and to beg a follow-up from him?
Jane sighed, sadly.
If only she had learned to dimple.