One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since starting to write is that its like every other skill, you only get better at it if you practice. In the same way that a musician practices their instrument, regular writing is important to keep the river of ideas and creativity flowing.
At our writing group recently we had to complete a task where we were given a minute to write down as many words as we could about a given subject title. For this exercise the title was ‘Autumn’ – it was fascinating how many people thought outside the box and made unusual links to this word. These kinds of activities are really useful when practicing the art of writing. it is surprising how many ideas were generated from just this short activity.
In my teaching job I have always kept a folder of picture settings and characters which I’ve given to children who couldn’t conjure up an image of a place or person for their stories. In the same way, having a mini brain storm of a character, their likes dislikes, occupation, fears, favourite food etc, can help you to make your character real and plausible. As readers, we will only read a book if we care about the character, so creating a great character is essential for a good story.
Here is a story I wrote a while back, it’s quite different from the comedic monologues I’m currently working on. I’d be interested to hear what people think.
The Bell Tower
‘It’s terminal,’ the doctor said, ‘I’m really sorry Mr Harris.’
‘But it can’t be, I’m only twenty two. I feel fine. The tablets, they’ve really helped, I think you’ve got it wrong.’
‘There’s no mistake. I’m really sorry. I know it’s a lot to take in. Look have some time to get your thoughts together, then we can put you in touch with some people who can offer you some support.’
Steven didn’t wait to find out what was coming next. He grabbed his coat off the seat and ran out of the surgery, into the rain.
Outside the world looked normal, people were busily going about their business. Car headlamps shone, creating distorted patterns in the puddles and reflecting dark shadows. There was a hustle and bustle to the town – its sounds and smells – they were what he was used to.
Sitting down on a bench along the pathway through the park, he began to sob. Shallow sobs to begin with which he stifled in his coat collar, then longer painful moans, wrenching his shoulders and tightening his stomach into knots.
He felt the hand at first, as it was placed onto his arm. It startled him and he looked up.
‘Are you ok mate?’
As Steven turned, he saw a man about the same age as him standing by his side. He had dark, almost black hair and had a scarf wrapped loosely around his neck.
‘I hope you don’t mind me stopping – It’s just you looked like you might need a bit of help.’
Steven turned his face away from him, wiping his tears with his sleeve and pulling his collar higher. ‘I’m fine, it’s nothing mate, honest. Don’t trouble yourself.’
The man turned as if to walk away but then stopped.
‘I’m sorry. I can’t just go. Please, let me just park myself here next to you. You don’t need to speak to me, but I’m here if you want to.’
‘Look, I was just having a moment. I’ll be alright in a minute.’
‘No probs. I could do with a sit down anyway.’ He sat down on the bench, pulling his jacket tighter around his waist, ‘I’m Dave by the way.’
Steven didn’t speak, he pulled a used tissue from his pocket and tried to blow his nose.
‘Girl trouble?’ Dave asked, ‘There’s usually a girl involved in it somewhere along the line.’
‘Nah, nothing like that,’
Steven had to catch his breath as he spoke. A warm tingling sensation, danced on the bridge of his nose. ‘I’ve just had some bad news that’s all.’
‘Ah, sorry to hear that.’
Steven tilted his head slightly in Dave’s direction, ‘I’ve got cancer. No let me rephrase that, I’ve got terminal cancer, in my pancreas and liver.’
Steven waited for a response. ‘I’ve got just weeks apparently. Well I suppose they can pump me full of drugs to stretch it out a bit longer, but I’m not gunna spend endless days in the hospital and slowly deteriorate surrounded by old people and distraught relatives.’
‘What have your family said?’
‘My mum was with me when they told me. I just left her there. I picked up my stuff and ran. She’s probably worried sick.’
‘So what happens now?’ Dave was leaning forward on the bench, his hands clasped between his knees.
‘I go home and face her. I’m not sure I can bare it though. It’s always been just me and her. I’m not sure what she’ll do without me.’
There was a silence, a muffled silence which numbed the sounds of the afternoon. Then piercing the chilling air, came the rings of the cathedral bells.
‘They haven’t rung for years, they must be repairing the bell tower,’ Steven said, ‘do you know, I’ve always wanted to climb up there. I remember as a kid, I’d sit on the grass and work out how I could sneak up to the top.’
‘Let’s do it then,’ said Dave getting to his feet. ‘Come on, let’s see if we can sneak in.’
‘What? They won’t let us in. The cathedral’s been derelict for as long as I can remember.’
‘Who said anything about asking them? Come on. Think of it as a tick off your bucket list.’
Steven felt a rush of adrenalin at the prospect of their adventure. So what if he did get caught, they were hardly going to condemn a dying man now were they?
‘Let’s go in around the back. I think there’s a door covered by brambles, we can soon shift those. I remember seeing it when I was a kid. Here hang on a minute, I’ve got an idea.’
Behind a hedge at the edge of the park, there was a large wooden shed used by the park keeper. At the rear, there was a stack of pallets leaning against the outer park wall.
‘Here, help me to grab one of these.’
‘Are you mad?’ Steven asked as they lifted the damp wooded frame.
‘Ay, it has been said once or twice.’
Dave smiled as they made their way over to the cathedral door.
‘Lay it over the brambles and push it down hard with your feet.’
The brambles, bent and slumped towards the ground as they stood on top of the pallet, then Dave kicked hard at the small door. It flung open with little force so they climbed in, pulling it shut behind them.
They found themselves in the nave, where there were pillars of ribbed stone, holding up complex beams. A kaleidoscope of colour shone onto the red tiled floors as the light seeped through the translucent glass. Images of dated nobility and religious figures, brought to life with sun lit movement and shadow.
‘These must be the stairs up to the tower.’
Dave led him up the spiral steps, dusty and stained by the feet of time.
As they ascended along the helix passageway, Steven caressed the uneven stone of the walls. They felt damp and cold, but he enjoyed their texture and strength. A shaft of light, small but sufficient, guided them to the opening at the top of the wooden treads.
Dave pushed open another door, this one grained, with a circular iron handle.
Steven felt the dense flax of the bell ropes, each one still secured by its copper hook. He marvelled at the mosaic patterns, which could just be made out under the heavy dust of neglect.
A few final steps, transported them into the tower, where the city’s cast iron bell was located.
He let his fingers trace its grooves and indentations, enjoying the contrast of pattern and smooth metal.
From the bell tower, he had a panoramic view of the whole of the city. There was no better view of his homeland and to think, he may never has witnessed its beauty.
Steven’s breath had calmed to a shallow rhythm as he devoured the natural undulation of the landscape and the angular, abstract roofs of buildings.
‘As good as you expected?’
Dave had moved to his side and placed a reassuring hand on his arm.
‘It’s better, much better. Thank you.’
They both stood in silence, their bodies facing out, toward the changing landscape.
Steven turned and watched, as his friend absorbed every contour of the city.
‘Who are you? I want to know something about the man who risks getting into so much trouble for me.’
‘I’ve told you, I’m Dave. Nothing to tell really.’
‘What brought you to the park today? What do you do?’
‘Nothing now.’ He shuffled along the narrow ridge around the bell. ‘I was in the navy. My last posting was on a ship in the North Atlantic. Just off the Falklands. I was only there for a short while though. We ran into a bit of trouble and well, I’m here now.’
‘And have you any family?’
‘I had a girlfriend just before I set sail. We’d only been seeing each other for a couple of months before I got my posting. She was pregnant. I was over the moon. I asked her to marry me but she said we’d talk about it after my tour. I never saw her again.’
‘Did she have the baby?’
‘Yeah but I never got to see him.’
‘It must feel weird, knowing you have a son out there. Knowing that there will be something left behind when you have gone.’
Dave didn’t answer.
‘We should head back I suppose.’
The air had become chilled and the adrenalin which helped him climb the stairs had gone leaving him tired and drained of energy.
As he descended the last few stairs, he felt a sharp pain grip his stomach and he cried out. His knees buckled beneath him and he found himself splayed at the bottom of the stairwell. A hazy blur of distant voices and muffled sounds dipped in and out of his consciousness.
When his eyes finally managed to adjust to the faces surrounding him, he was able to see the golden hair of his mother, sitting by his bedside. A tangle of tubes and wires fed in and out of the machines and an orchestra of artificial sound beat his life’s rhythm.
‘Mum?’ he asked, his voice weak and dry.
‘I’m here.’ Her face looked older and her eyes were red and puffy.
‘How did I get here?’
‘You passed out love.’
‘Am I ok?’
She smiled at him through tears which she couldn’t disguise.
Slowly turning his head to the side, he focused on an image which he recognised.
‘Hello Dave. Did you bring me here?’
One of the nurses put her hand on his mother’s shoulder.
‘It’s the medication love, it can sometimes make the patient delirious.’
‘Mum, this is Dave. He came with me. He helped me get up the tower.’ Steven’s voice had become raspy and shallow.
His mum turned her face away, taking in a gasp of air and squeezing Steven’s hand tightly.
Dave stepped forward so that the light from the sun shone behind him.
‘This is my mum Dave.’
‘Shush son, you just lay still now.’ His mum’s shoulders were bent over; her chin slumped against her chest.
‘She can’t see me Steven. Your mum doesn’t know I’m here.’
‘What are you talking about? She must be able to see you.’
Steven’s mum stroked her son’s hand, unable to hold back the tears any longer.
Dave smiled, ‘She hasn’t changed a bit you know. Your mum, she’s still as beautiful as I remember. Those blue grey eyes and golden hair.’
‘What?’ Steven tried to lift his head to make sense of what was being said.
A tight spasm gripped his stomach and a chorus of monotonous sound resonated around the room. He felt his mother loosen her grip and found himself surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Touching him, lifting his arms, lowering his head.
Dave seemed to be leaning over their shoulders. ‘Don’t be frightened son, It’s almost time.’
A warm light feeling engulfed him as the faces slowly moved away. He could feel the touch of his mother again as she stroked his skin; her head lay peacefully on his chest and he could sense her tears.
Then the same hand which had comforted him at the park, was again placed on his arm.
‘Let’s walk this together son.’
The serenity which surrounded him reassured him as he rose from the bed. With his father by his side, he paused momentarily, inhaling the scent of his mother and kissing her head lightly.’