Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Crazy Little Thing

This week's sentence was taken from Emily Brontë's 'Wuthering Heights.'

The sentence was:
'The minute after, she had sidled to him, and was sticking primroses in his plate of porridge.'

Crazy Little Thing

For a while now Clara had been furtively eyeing up the empty space on the bench beside Harold, taking tentative half-steps and then retreating, panicked, into the shrubbery. Finally she seemed to make up her mind. The minute after, she had sidled to him, and was sticking primroses in his plate of porridge.

'Do you think we all get to rediscover that innocent, joyous thrill of first love again when we lose our marbles?'
Rebecca pouted at me. 'Don't mock. It's kind of sweet.'
Over on the bench, Harold was grumbling and trying to protect his porridge from Clara's amorous assault. It was indeed kind of sweet, which made a nice change; working at the care home was pretty shitty most of the time.
'Besides,' Rebecca continued, 'first love is always a big, messy mistake; something that Clara's about to discover if Harold tips his porridge all over her.'
I chuckled and wandered over to intervene, gently disarming Harold.
'Not finished!' he yelled at me.
'Harold, it went cold ages ago and you've not been eating it anyway.'
Reluctantly he let go of his plate and I left the lovebirds to their courting.

Rebecca followed me inside, sitting on the counter and swinging her legs while I scraped Harold's cold porridge à la primrose into the waste.
I had to ask: 'So what made your first love such a messy mistake?'
'He was five and had a permanent wet booger hanging from his nose. He was always trying to kiss me with that thing bubbling and swinging around.’
‘Sounds a real charmer. So how old were you? Eighteen? Twenty-five? Ow!’
Rebecca was deadly with a wet tea towel. She grinned. ‘I was five as well, you goitre!’ She brandished the towel again. ‘Quid pro quo, Clarice. Dish the dirt on your own first love. I’m not afraid to use this, so fess up, buster.’
I’ve learned never to argue with a woman who quotes Hannibal Lecter, especially one as skilled in domestic weaponry as Rebecca.
‘I was twelve. She was older. A vision in white with hairy doughnuts stuck to the sides of her head. It was a long time ago …’
‘… in a galaxy far, far away. Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re not talking about your crush on Princess Leia, you saddo; we’re talking real, messy, traumatic first love here. Now spill. You’ve got one more chance before I slap your fat ass round the garden with this towel.’
‘Okay. Her name was Amy and she broke my heart into a thousand pieces.’
‘I loved her all through school, enduring the pain of seeing her date every other boy in class. Then the very day I was going to ask her out her family emigrated.’
Rebecca almost fell off the counter laughing.

Outside in the garden, Clara was discovering what I already knew: that love is crazy and love is blind and that the greater part of the love in this world goes unrequited.
But it’s still worth it.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Beach Blanket Blitzkrieg

This week's sentence was from H. G. Wells' classic, 'The War Of The Worlds.'

It was:
'There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty.'

Beach Blanket Blitzkrieg

There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty.
It made guttural sounds, belched and turned over.
‘What the fuck IS that?’ Candice blinked, reached for her glasses and then gaped in disbelief.
‘A German naturist. Every summer it's the same around here: Fritzie and his fraü get all nostalgic for the Third Reich and invade the rest of Europe. Only these days they do it naked. Makes me kind of miss the days of blitzkrieg.’
'Certainly puts you off bratwürst for life.'
'And a whole lot else besides. By lunchtime this beach will be filled with fat flesh and geriatric German genitalia roasting floppily in the sun. I think it's time we fled the scene of the crime. What say we take refuge in a coffee?'
'Good idea,' Candice removed her glasses again to save her eyes from further assault. 'I need some caffeine to get over the shock.'

The café terrace gave a nice view of the Atlantic, blue under clear Lusitanian skies. Mercifully a low wall hid the naturist from view.
Arnë sipped his espresso and took a long, admiring look at his companion. Candice smiled, happy to be an object of adoration, if only for the length of her vacation. She reflected that the two of them looked somewhat better naked than the German on the beach.
She had met Arnë just yesterday and this morning had woken up in his apartment, their bodies lost in a tangle of sheets, the sea breeze cooling them deliciously. Sure, he was a little older than she would have liked, and a little flabbier, but he had a nice smile and after all, Candice herself was, let's be honest, a pretty plain, bordering on frumpy, late-thirties myopic typist named Tracey, out for one last attempt at the Shirley Valentine experience. Tracey could lie about Arnë all she liked when she got home but for now, "Candice" was out for guilt-free, casual holiday sex, and lots of it.

Her first day back, Tracey rushed round to see her sister and insisted on regaling her with every lurid detail of her "non-stop shag-fest" with "sexy surfer Arnë." Jane had begged her for pictures but Tracey said her camera had been stolen at the airport. Better her sister didn't know the flabby, middle-aged truth.
Jane was pouring a second coffee when the doorbell rang.
‘I’ll get it!’ yelled Tracey.
She froze in sudden horror on the doorstep. There stood Arnë with a huge bunch of flowers. Her jaw dropped. How had he found her? Was he some kind of creepy stalker? And how in heaven’s name could she get rid of him before her sister saw him.
Jane dashed from the kitchen, beaming.
‘Tracey, I’d like you to meet my boss, Andy. He’s back from a business trip. I suppose I can tell you the big secret now: we’re engaged to be married!’
‘Oh, fuck.’ said Arnë.
‘Oh, fuck.’ said Candice.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Wormold Makes A Choice

This week's sentence was from Graham Greene's 'Our Man In Havana.'

It was: 'Wormold felt an enormous bewilderment.'

Wormold Makes A Choice

Wormold felt an enormous bewilderment. For a split second his mind considered alternatives before concluding that bewilderment was indeed as concise a definition as it could muster.
At least at such short notice.
One moment he had been wrenching his bag free of the damned ticket barrier and running pell-mell down the platform toward the conductor who was about to lock the doors.
And the next.
Well that was where the bewilderment came in.

Most things in life bewildered Wormold. He confessed that women especially were a complete mystery to him. Come to think of it, just about everything that had happened to him over the last fifty-something years had baffled him in some way or another.
Summoned into being in such a bizarre and traumatic fashion as to refute the existence of any benevolent deity, he discovered that life came equipped - rather shoddily in Wormold's opinion - with neither user manual nor "undo" button. Even a manual filled with gibberish, such as the one that came with his Moskvich car and which he was convinced had been translated by someone who spoke neither Russian nor English nor had ever seen a car, would have been better than nothing. But nothing was what he got.
From that first breath to this last he had lived, like the rest of us, by winging it and hoping for the best. And now, after a lifetime of not knowing what was going on or why, came the biggest bewilderment of all.

Wormold supposed that now was as good a time as any to consider the afterlife. Look at the possibilities. Browse the catalogue, as it were.
Most religions' afterlives were out of bounds to him as a non-believer, but he still had options. He had been raised a Christian, but would be happy to discover he had been misled. An eternity of hellfire and damnation didn’t sound a bundle of laughs but it was decidedly more appealing than a heaven filled with self-righteous god-botherers sucking up to the kind of deity who considered the penis an ‘intelligent design’.
Wormold had flirted with Buddhism as a teenager but now reincarnation seemed way too much like the lottery. A glance at the numbers told him that the laws of probability ensured that just about everyone on the planet would come back as an insect. Bugger that!
The only afterlife that really held any appeal was carousing in the halls of Valhalla. Wormold was sure he had some Norse blood in him somewhere and wondered if he might qualify.

But no. Oblivion was the way to go. To simply cease to exist. Nothing bewildering about that. As a bonus, existentially speaking, the moment his own consciousness, and therefore the entire universe he knew, blinked out of existence, so would everything and everybody else. Including the bloody train company.
As his body fought for breath that wouldn’t come and pain tightened across his chest, Wormold smiled. And the universe and everything and everybody in it ceased to exist.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Disappointment And Ketchup

This week's sentence was taken from John le Carré's short story, 'Call For The Dead.'

It was: 'Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as "My Friends".'

Disappointment And Ketchup

Turn off the Wash Road at Guyhirn and drive for miles out across the endless godforsaken peat-black plain. If you have committed sufficient sin in your life you might well find at last looming through the fog a dismal, yellow-grey building of squat, unappealing proportions surrounded by clinging, coal-black mud and fronted with a peeling-painted wooden sign: 'Pub Food. Car Park. The Greyhound. Polly Adam.'
Inside: Stygian gloom. Formica and brown linoleum. Faded. Worn through in places. Twelve tables. Forty-eight wooden chairs.
No two legs the same length.

Signs prohibiting:
coach parties,
food not bought on the premises,
Mrs. Arbuthnot,

Promised exotic delights:
steak'n'kidney pie,
scampi in a basket,
lemon meringue pie,
and ominously: "more".

The reality:
congealed fat,
uncertain wobbly brown things,
watery gravy,
burnt bits,
and ketchup.

And behind the bar:
Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as "My Friends."
Smeared glasses and stale ale served warm and flat joined the dreg-rich stew of her bitter, brackish, days-old coffee. Regulars wiped the oily film from their top lips between sips and spoke, when they spoke at all, in hushed monosyllables.
Polly Adam ran, with iron discipline and a grease-grey pinnie, the only pub (in fact the only social establishment of any kind whatsoever) for forty miles around. Locals grew up on her foul fare, and knowing no better, accepted it with the same grim stoicism that allowed them to live out here in this soulless, mirror-flat, drenched wasteland.
Miss Adam had inherited the place, and her dubious culinary skills, from her parents, who had in their turn received the same blessings from Miss Adam's grandparents, and so on down into the dim, damp and decidedly Dickensian distance.

Not conventionally attractive, even to the untrained eyes of the local lads, schooled as they were in more porcine pleasures of backfat and bristle, in her youth she had for one brief and wonderful week thrilled to the throes of wild romance, surrendering her innocence to the smarmy wiles of Mister Eve, a middle-aged travelling seed merchant whose own seed had mercifully not travelled, though he himself had, with unseemly haste upon discovery of his dastardly deception.

Now past her prime and fading fast it had begun to dawn on Polly Adam that the true love she longed for might never find its way out here to her cold haven in the bleak and empty fens. That perhaps her own Mister Darcy was not going to appear suddenly in the bar one evening and sweep her into his arms. That maybe it was time to start collecting cats.

Midnight. The last of the Greyhound’s regulars squelches disconsolately away into the inky mist. With a sigh, Miss Polly Adam locks up and climbs the twisting stair to her room. Afraid of what sleep might bring she sits weeping long into the night, shoulders softly shaking, salt tears falling, pat, pat, pat into her lonely lap.

Background note:

The Greyhound at Guyhirn now sadly no longer exists. Unlike poor Polly Adam, however, it was not fictional.
I stumbled upon it one foggy evening, lost on a forty mile detour after an accident blocked the only decent paved road across the flat, featureless fens: that endless dank pismire of squelchy peat bog and empty misery.
It beckoned in much the same ominous manner as a bat-bestrewn castle might in a Transylvanian thunderstorm, but at least it promised something different than the usual greasy-spoon roadside cafés and it has exerted a perverse fascination on me for years afterward. I was genuinely sorry to see it closed down.

The description in the story is pretty much spot on. I ordered a coffee and a sandwich and quickly regretted it, settling later for a flat, stale beer and a packet of soggy, out-of-date crisps. I left as precipitately as Mister Eve, though not - I am glad to say - for the same reason.

These days, the only remaining rest facility on that long, lonely levée stretching despairingly across the unending bleak waste is a tacky filling-station "Caff" dispensing chalky burgers to bored lorry-drivers. I stopped in once for coffee and petrol (not an exotic local cocktail … the coffee was to drink; the petrol for the car), returning from a conference with my old boss, Terry, who had refused to believe my tales of Guyhirn being the kind of place that would scare the crap out of the banjo playing backwoods freaks of 'Deliverance.' We were served by a girl of around fourteen with one eye and not many more teeth (every word of this is true), who took a fancy to Terry and kept leaning on him and giggling, offering up her gap-toothed grin to tempt him away from the outside world and into the nightmare haunt of fenland folk.
Needless to say we got the hell out of Dodge.

Guyhirn is now by-passed by an almost decent road so nobody from the real world need visit any more, leaving its denizens to live out undisturbed their lost and lonely lives of furtive incest and pork porking and whatever the hell else they get up to there. It truly is a place of palpable aching despair; driving past you can feel it clawing at you with a terrible emptiness that chills the heart and leaves damp, smeary fingerprints lingering in your soul. My own theory is that Guyhirn exists as the result of a sharp corner of our own universe accidentally puncturing the lowest circle of Purgatory (the one next to Hell). The suffering souls have been leaking into our reality and populating that part of the fens for hundreds of years. They now haunt the place, wailing and weeping as they wait in the sodden, mist-shrouded peat-bogs for Judgement Day to come at last.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Bob Has A Good Day

This week's sentence was taken from Henry James' 'Pandora.'

It was 'Then she has got her sister staying with her: Mrs. Runkle, from Natchez.'

Bob Has A Good Day

'Hey, Frank.'
'Hey there, Bob! Come on in, neighbour. Artemisia not with you?'
'Heavens, no. She's having one of her tornado days. The kids have brought the grandkids over for dinner, and they all brought their damned dogs, too, so it's a madhouse over there. Then she has got her sister staying with her: Mrs. Runkle, from Natchez. We don't get along. I just had to get out of there, Frank, so I'm throwing myself on your mercy and asking for asylum for an hour or so.'
'Of course, buddy. C'mon in the kitchen and I'll brew up. Abigail's out at her mother's all day so you're welcome to hide here as long as you like.'
'Ah, you're a lifesaver, Frank.'
'Say, I didn't know Artemisia had a sister.'
'Mrs. Runkle, yeah: Hortense, though she never lets me call her that.'
'I'm curious I've never heard tell of her before.'
'That's because we get on like cat and dog. We never visit one another; Artie and her sister don't really write 'cept for Christmas and birthdays. She's only here because of all that kerfuffle in Natchez.'
‘I must have missed that on the news, Bob.'
'It’s Ralph, her dumb schmuck husband. "Unkle Runkle, the children's entertainer." At least that's what he was until last weekend. As if it weren't bad enough having a goddamned clown for a brother-in-law, the police have gone and arrested him for fiddling with the kiddies.'
'Oh, my lord, Bob!'
'He always was a creepy bastard. We shoulda seen that one coming. Anyways, the damned press are camped out on Runkle's doorstep so the old bat sneaked off over here to make my life a misery.'
'She's that bad, huh?'
'Bad? She acts like she's some kinda southern royalty because Runkle came from old money. Expects to be waited on hand and foot, even though there's not a red cent of that old money ever came our way.'
'She sounds royal alright; a royal pain in the ass.'
'Heh-heh. You ain't kidding, Frank. She always resented the fact that her sister married a nobody; said I brought shame on her family. Now she’s gonna have to cook up a whole mess of humble pie before I’ll think of being civil to her.’
‘So if her husband is old money, how’d he end up working as a clown?’
‘Fool gambled away the entire fortune, and with a brain like his it was either that or stacking shelves at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart woulda been a better option after what he’s done to those kiddies.’
‘So what happens now? Sounds like you’ll be stuck with Hortense for a while.’
‘Nope. It’s payback time for Mr.Nobody. I called the press before I came over. They’ll be here soon and the old bat’ll be over the back fence like greased lightning and out of my life at last.’
‘Bob, you always were a sly old dog. Here’s your coffee. Let’s sit out on the porch and watch the fun.’
‘Cheers, neighbour!’