Writing Exercise III: Time & Narrative

We were working on issues of time in a narrative, and how to handle it. The task was to think of an event, and then pick one time point – 2 days before, 10 minutes before, 10 minutes after, 1 day after, or 1 year after – and expand on it.

I had originally wanted to write about a car accident or a plane crash or something equally disastrous, but then I realised I still wanted some sort of human conflict to play with, in which case would my event be the disaster or the thing which happened between the people? In the end I went with something completely different. I picked the timepoint of the day after.

She can’t find a dry bench to sit on and she isn’t wasting tissue to do the public service of wiping them dry, so she squats on one of them to eat breakfast. She keeps her knees together so she doesn’t look like a coolie; still, she feels the shaming gazes of passing joggers trained on her, all too apparent in the way their legs slow, measured gaits stumbling, as they pass her by.

She’s barely halfway through the McDonald’s meal when the burning in her thighs becomes unbearable. Still, she chews as slowly as she possibly can. Because finishing breakfast would mean having to put the wrappers away and crumpling the plastic bags and then finding a dustbin to put them in, and then– and then what? Maybe she can take a shower again but she doesn’t want to, and her towel will take ages to dry, she knows that now. She could get on a bus and go to town. Stay in air-conditioning, find a library, read a book. Her heart soars at the thought: It’s free, it’s all free. The 200 dollars in her wallet no longer feels like a stone weighing in her pocket, her conscience– more like a shallow dish of water she has to hold on to carefully, so carefully.

The moment she takes the last bite of her hashbrown her phone rings in her pocket and she nearly jumps off the bench. She lets it vibrate for several rings while her heart pounds. She wants to believe it’s Jo, regretting her freakout of the night before, saying it’s ok, you can stay with me, you can sleep on the floor. She doesn’t want to think it’s her mother, trying to say, Look, we’ll talk about this later, please just come home.

The phone goes silent before she can pick it up and she lets out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. The phone, too, would be out of battery soon. She crushes the hashbrown wrapper in her hands and puts it in the plastic bag. Gathering them up like they are the most precious things in the world, she hops off the bench drying in the rising sun.

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Writing Exercise II: POV

So we did another writing exercise for class. We were playing with POV this time – first persson, third person etc. The exercise was to tell someone else in the class about a neighbour we had, and listening to their story in turn. Then we’d go away to write a story about the neighbour we’d just heard about. My attempt, to tell the story of Rebecca’s neighbour (whom she hardly ever sees  and has never spoken to, so this is all made up.)

The car had belonged to the old man. It was a Nissan Sunny, bought back in a year when Nissan was content to be seen as that plain and reliable friend you had, the one who could be relied on to get enough sleep and file all their taxes on time. It was a particularly ugly shade of green. The old man had personally handpicked it from the lineup of muddy coloured squares in the showroom.

His mother used to nag him about it. The car, you haven’t washed it yet, right? The engine oil needs to be changed, must send for inspection soon, right? The car, it hasn’t been moved in a long time, right? And he would nod, nod, nod, take the car out for short drives like a pet dog, water it with the hose along with the drooping plants that passed for a garden in their house. He used to wonder why they didn’t sell it after his father died. After all, it was his father’s car. Maybe no-one wanted to buy it.

These days the car sits silent in the driveway, collecting a coat of dust for itself. He doubts he can move it anymore, the wheels sagging over spotty rims one sharp kick away from crumbling. He can see its silhouette where he sits in the darkened living room, slowly breathing air circulated by an uninterested ceiling fan, where the TV yammers on and on with its constant stream of light and sound. He imagines the unkempt garden growing up around the car, tendrils of grass pulling it into an embrace until it vanishes into the foundations of the house.

And then we had to write the same story from another character’s perspective. I chose a different point of view for this one, as well.

The house opposite is always very quiet. Other houses on this road, they always have people coming in and out. But this house nobody visits. Not even during Chinese New Year. Ma’am says that last time, when the old man was still around, people would still come, his nephews or something like that. But now, nobody. When I started working here, there was the old woman and her son, but then the old woman died. That’s what my ma’am says. Very strange, you know — there was no funeral. But you don’t see the old woman around any more, so I think she died. Then the son never leaves the house. I think he has no job. Last time, he will still take the car out, but now, no more. No wife, no girlfriend, I think his life is very sad. I don’t know why he doesn’t sell his house and buy a HDB flat. His house is so big, it’s too big for only one person– if it’s me, I will go crazy.

Writing exercise I: Observation

At the moment I’m attending a three-day novel-writing masterclass organised by the local branch of the British Council. Yesterday our themed writing exercise was to make observations of people at lunch, something about what Chekhov wrote in his notebook. It was an exercise in detail, except that it being lunch I found more interest in the detail of my food…

 

Heavy-waisted and large-bottomed, she stood fixing her hair while her baby played at her feet with dusty hands and knees.

The old man hadn’t bought any food. He sat at the table in the furthest corner of the alfresco terrace, thumbing through a dog-eared newspaper.

She had on a slinky dress monogrammed in gold, and her dark glasses hid half her face. But her gait meandered across the courtyard and her voice piped up and down as she spoke over the phone.

#fridayflash: Fast Food Romance

They had dinner dates in fast food restaurants at opposite ends of the world. It was his idea. He’d call the day before, or at some point during what passed for her morning, and make arrangements. It was a cute conceit, shared gastronomic experience separated by the miles and li between them. The easy availability of franchised foodchains was their helper, their happy medium: McDonalds on Monday, Wendy’s on Wednesday, Subway on Saturdays. They picked the same items from the menu and took photos with the food that they sent to each other over Twitter. I miss you, he’d add to the pictures sometimes. “Stop that,” she’d say every time, embarrassed by the sentiment.

Then one day she rocked the boat, her phone tucked between shoulder and ear as she folded the laundry. “I want to try the new seaweed shaker fries from McDonalds.”

He paused. “We don’t have that here.”

“That’s sad. It’s really good. And it comes free with every Extra Value Meal when you upsize it.” She tossed aside a shirt whose color had faded to unwearability. “Maybe I’ll have the seaweed shaker fries and you can have the regular ones.”

He pursed his lips, not that she could see it. “But that’s not the point of why we’re doing this.”

“What does it matter? It’s not like we’re even eating the same meal. You’re having an early lunch and I’m having late supper.” She sent him a picture of the shaker fries later, showing him what he was missing out on.

A couple of weeks later she said, “I don’t really feel like having fast food today.”

“But we’re supposed to do this. That was our deal.”

“I’m sick of fast food. And Tony says I’ve been putting on weight. It’s all the junk food I’ve been shoveling down.”

“Who’s Tony?” he asked.

“We’re going to try a new Japanese restaurant that just opened recently,” she said, and hung up.

He stared at the dead and silent phone. “Fuck globalization,” he said.

 

 

Waiting For A Train

This is dedicated to anyone who’s ever had to take the train in Singapore in 2010. For you, my fellow sufferers.

***

He called it Godvision: a bird’s eye view of the sorry souls he was overseeing from his little glass-walled cubby far away from the platform.  They left Brownian patterns as they milled about, listless, dragging their feet to a workday probably spent in a fluorescent-lit box somewhere else. From this angle they looked like little insects, barely distinguishable from one another, gender and race all shrunk down into unidentifiable human blobs.

How small and sad and grey our lives are, he thought.

“It’s time,” his supervisor said.

He recoiled at the idea of what he had to do, dimly wondering if his revulsion made it through the medium of his body and came out as a physical cringe. It was really just a press of the button, no more than the movement of a finger that cost him nothing. But it was another thing when you could see its immediate effects on the teeming masses. The collective hatred and fear that rolled off them, the resentment that was apparent even from the faceless and nameless. The suffering he could not bear to see.

“Do we really have to do this every single time?” he asked.

He thought of the musician who had once written a song with lyrics collected from various PSAs and later called it one of the most depressing things he’d ever done in his life. How was this any better?

His supervisor looked grim. “It’s not your job to question decisions from the Management.”

What should he have done? What could he have done? There was only one way out for him, and it was not much of a way out at all.

His hand hovered over the dreaded button for a long second before it descended and pushed it into place. Somewhere deep in the machinery a circuit was completed and electrical signals raced along wires hidden and serpentine, from switchboard to relay all the way down to the magnetic coils, where the signal he had given juddered out a series of sounds. A jingle, cute and cheerful when initially conceptualized, but worn down through endless replays into something dull at best, sinister at worst. All across the station he could see the waiters look up or shake their heads or just remain stock still, bound into inaction by jadedness. He imagined he could look into their eyes and see blankness recessing into infinity, too devoid of care to do anything in the face of this insidious horror but to mindlessly take the next step in front of them, one after another.

“Train is coming,” he sang softly to himself. “Train is coming, train is coming. Please start queuing. Love your ride.”

 

 

**Bonus points to anyone who can identify the other song referred to here. As a side note, I’ve actually collected an entire pageful of Helpful Missives taken from one SBS bus and I intend to make an electronica song out of them. ONE bus by the way. It was literally plastered all over with instructions to move to the back, give up your seat, look out for terrorists, don’t forget to tap out etc… madness.

#fridayflash: Look For Me When You Turn Aside

Phew! Managed to get this one out of the door in time for #fridayflash. Not much else to say except– enjoy! (And I really need to get back to writing sci-fi at some point in time. That time, however, is apparently not right now. Oh well!)

***

Look For Me When You Turn Aside

Her father, at the time of his death, had been at the height of his career. Rockstar, actor and son of a well-loved politician (as far as politicians can be well-loved), he made the pages of respectable broadsheets often, with his trademark sunglasses and cheeky, lopsided smile. On a Friday morning he kissed his wife of six months goodbye and boarded his private jet, bound for the Maldives for a photoshoot with his band. He never arrived. There was one garbled distress signal, and the eight-seater vanished off the radar over the deep waters of the Pacific. Rescuers searched the area for six weeks and only turned up pieces of the fuselage. The cause of the crash was never determined.

Two months after the crash the grief-stricken widow found out she was pregnant with her first, last and only child. She named her unborn daughter Laila, after a writer her late husband had admired when he was alive.
***

Laila grew up steeped in her absent father’s presence. Her mother put his music videos on the television for her, and taught her to read from a book of his quotes. At night she would sing her daughter to sleep with “Look For Me When You Turn Aside”, the hit that had first propelled his band to international fame. “He was an amazing person,” she would tell the attentive girl, as they snuggled together on rainy days. “He shone with his own light.”

By the time Laila was five she knew by heart all the lyrics to his songs and the all lines from the two movies he had starred in. She greeted the large poster of him over her bed when she woke in the morning, and said goodnight before she went to bed. She wrote letters to him, which she kept in a box under her bed. Sometimes she would stand in front of the mirrors, mapping the features of her face to his. She introduced herself to others as the daughter of that famous dead guy, and only gave her name upon prompting.

It was during the 13th summer that she saw him, spending a couple of months in Rio de Janeiro with old friends of her mother. They were on their way to get an ice cream in a trendy part of town when she saw the strange man with his face entirely hidden a dark hoodie, coming their way at a brisk clip despite the thickness of the crowd on the sidewalk. He kept his gaze to the ground as he came towards them, and she didn’t pay very much attention to him except to note his presence in the back of her mind, just in case he was a kidnapper. As he passed by right next to the group of girls she was embedded in, he turned his head, and she caught the flash of round, piercing eyes from within the darkness of thick cotton fabric.

Her world crashed to a halt. She knew those eyes better than anyone else’s. She could not be mistaken.

“Daddy,” she shouted, spinning on her heel. “Daddy!”

The man kept walking. She ran after him. “Daddy, wait! Daddy, it’s me.”

He picked up the pace without turning around, weaving through the crowd with practiced ease. She elbowed and shoved through clumps of passerbys frantically, leaving a trail of profanity and dirty looks in her way. “Wait,” she shouted. “Don’t go!”

The man ducked into a white van parked at the end of the street. She managed to slap her hand once on the dusty surface before the engine reved up and the van drove off. She ran after it, shouting, chasing it down the tarmac as it grew steadily smaller and smaller in her vision until she was left standing, breathless with her hands on her knees, cars honking irately as they passed by on either side.

She had seen her father. She was sure of it.

***

She kicked up such a huge fuss about it the local police force has no choice but to open an investigation at her mother’s behest, tracking down the owner of the van based on the licence plate number Laila remembered. The chief superintendent himself brought them to the small windowless room, bare except for a table and a couple of steel chairs.

They brought a man into the room. “This is the man who owned the van you saw,” the superintendent said.s

The man they’d brought in was thin and scruffy with eyes that stared endlessly at you. He looked a lot like her father. But he wasn’t the man she’d seen on the sidewalk that day. Laila’s sobbing mother had to hold her back as she screamed and tried to throw her mug of water at the superintendent. “That’s not him! Where is he? What have you done to him?” She refused to listen to anyone else.

***

The counselor was very gentle with her mother. “I know you miss your late husband,” she said, “but dwelling on his life is leaving a negative impact on your daughter.”

“She’s his daughter too,” her mother insisted. “She needs to know who he was.”

“And I agree. But it’s become an obsession in her life. Can’t you see how unhealthy that is for her?”

Her mother cried.

“You love her, don’t you?”

“Yes,” her mother said, and Laila reached over to touch her hand. “She’s the most important thing in the world to me.”

“Your husband is gone, but your daughter is still here. And she needs you. You need to led him go.”

Her mother nodded. She understood.

***

The agent sits across the table from his charge. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am,” he says.

The vanished man clenches his fists. “That girl is my daughter. You have to understand what it feels like.”

“A daughter who only exists because you pleaded to have her created so your wife would have something left to go on with after you vanished. You knew the consequences.”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I didn’t realize what it would be like.”

The agent let out a noise that might have been a sigh, or the verbalization of a suppressed urge to drive a fist into something wet and organic. He took the slim manila folder that had been sitting at the edge of the desk, flipped it over, and slid it over to his charge. “I want to show you something.”

Inside there was a stack of pictures of another family–a middle-aged man, strong-jawed, fairly good shape, with his young smiling wife, and two children under the age of five. The pictures were ordinary, seemingly taken candidly: they were out grocery shopping. Having a barbeque in their backyard. Going to the beach. “What is this?” the vanished man asked. “Who are these people?”

“That man was one of our best,” the agent said. “He was deep undercover in with the families, so deep that he retired from the business without any of them realizing he was one of ours. Bought himself a nice property out on Long Island, started a family, the whole nine yards. ”

“Now,” the agent said, leaning forward, “he was the one who was tasked to carry out your assassination. If the family found out that you were alive–if you were accidentally seen cavorting around with your daughter, for example–then it wouldn’t take them much to realize that you were under our protection, instead of being dead. Then they would realize that their man lied to them about having completed the job. And there would be… consequences for him. Do you understand?”

The vanished man’s hands were shaking.

“Do you understand?” the agent repeated.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

***

It had taken her a year, but Laila had finally allowed her mother’s new boyfriend to put his arm around her shoulder when they went out together, all three of them, like a little family. His name was Mark and he couldn’t play an instrument, but he had written some pretty good books and his jokes made them laugh. Last year, he bought her that phone she had always wanted, in red. She supposed he was all right, considering.

“Who wants some ice cream?” Mark asked.

“You know I always want ice cream,” Laila said, and her mother smiled at her.

As she turned to go into the store with them, she stopped short. She thought she’d seen something at the edge of her vision– something that looked like a man in a dark hoodie, watching her. She turned back and stared at the spot in the park across the road where she thought she’d seen him.

There was nothing there. Laila shrugged, and followed her mother into the shop.

***

Microfic: Puppet Strings

For Sarah Coldheart, who wanted to read it.

***

If you put him in a room with a guitar, anywhere, you’d find it in his hands eventually. I like to think that they find their way there on their own, as though he were some guitar magnet, a center of gravity for six-stringed instruments. I imagine them coming to him with their tails wagging, and him picking them up and petting them like a fond owner, putting them in his lap. And that’s how I’d find him when I came into the room: seated cross-legged on the floor, bent over the fretboard, a look of pure concentration on his face.

Sometimes I think that he isn’t really complete unless he has that guitar there; alone, unaccompanied, it seems like there’s a blankness in his manner, a void in his arms where an instrument should be. His hands held open, subtly and unconsciously, just the right way to insert a waiting axe, to complete the circuit and bring him to life. I toy with the idea of the guitar in its various forms just being an extension of his body and find it somehow appropriate, him and the guitar being one, a symbiotic cybernetic organism, Johnny Mnemonic.

And then in moments of sudden clarity during the heat of performances when the world is nothing but sound and our hearts are tied to the drumbeat the truth suddenly opens up on me like a floodlight and I see how the relationship between man and guitar goes past parasitism and into an arena where the instrument lives through him and draws the breath in his body and the pulse in his veins to drive the music that is not his, but from some source we cannot comprehend and are only the vessel for. In that moment I can glimpse the will of demons flowing through him and bursting out like detonations, each screaming note a verse and stanza, pouring doctrine into the souls of the listening.

***

100 word fiction #9: Interview

***

The applicant is as well spoken as she is dressed and qualified. She’s perfect for the job. But the way she speaks bugs him.

Decades ago he worked on a government project, cheap digital dictionaries for slum kids, teaching them how to speak and read proper. They sprinkled vocal tics into the computer voice, random strange vowel inflections.

The way she pronounced ‘elite’ was one of his, thought up on a sudden whim.

When she leaves he puts the red mark on her dossier and adds “Unsuitable For Position”. After all, he’s seen where those kids come from, and how could he trust anyone like that?

***

100 Word Fiction #3: Best Friend

***

Ten years between them could not stop their love. Inseparable from day one, they ate, played, slept in the sun together. He quickly outgrew her in size, but never in heart.

Her left eye went first, claimed by cataracts; by the time he was four she was blind. He brought warm towels to her in winter; she never stopped showing him affection.

But when spring came round she stopped eating, and one day they took her away to the pound in a basket. He sat by the window, waiting and waiting for her to come back, but she never did.

***