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My first ever short story.

The Leash

We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…

The leash to the greyhound tightened around her red raw hand. Across the river the lights of the car factory flickered and bounced in the water and she finally let go. The dog hesitated,then was gone, streaking off across the frosty ground toward the derelict bandstand that was disappearing in the dusk. She watched the dog circle the bandstand and head back across the icy grass. She suddenly thought of the family car her father drove when she was a child. The memory of warm leatherette seats and chrome trim around the dashboard vividly came to mind. Sometimes it smelt of his mistress. A sweet smell that was different to her mother. She wondered about the furtive kissing and hasty meetings that must have happened in that old car. She thought of his hand resting on the back seat on another cheap night out holding a cigarette. There was always a cigarette. Most times the car just smelt of the stubbed out butts in the ashtray. She remembered the ash swirling up and over her when the door opened once and her angry mother brushing it off her party dress.

The dog bounded away then returned. She always did. Her sides panting with the exertion of a few laps of the park. One time the dog had just kept going. She went home and had taken the back of Jimmy’s hand when she told him. He told her off for being ‘so fuckin stupid’. The two of them spent hours in another twilight looking for the pale grey dog. They were about to give up when she suddenly appeared from some bushes. Her right paw was dripping blood and leaving red paw marks on the tarmac path. It was probably caused by a broken bottle left in the undergrowth by the drunks that used the bandstand during the day or one of the teenagers who collected there of an evening. Jimmy said he’d never trust her with the dog again. A class dog in its day so he said,so he’d be walking her now. Just him. It didn’t last long. After a week he gave up walking her every night. He preferred the pub and his mates after a day as a plumber’s mate. So here they were again, her and that dog, circling the same dumb riverside park. The council estate behind them ricocheted to the sound of joy-riders cars and helicopters overhead as usual on a Sunday evening. She’d always liked the dog, more than Jimmy if she was honest. The dog was gentle and curled up at her feet when Jimmy shouted at her or showed her the back of his hand.

She bent forward and just managed to catch a hold of the collar. Felt the studs scratch the back of her hand as she struggled to attach the lead. Finally it was secure and she tugged the dog gently back towards captivity. They started the slow walk back down the side street that led home from the park. She watched the frost on the chain-link glisten. It was almost festive. The moon and stars above were fast being hidden by cloud as rain clouds came in. The quarter-moon above flashed and then disappeared like a coin in a drain. A woman in high heels and a tight dress careered into her, obviously in a hurry. The stupid woman almost fell over the dog’s lead. She shivered, just a little, then heard the first siren. Then another and blue lights flashing in the bay windows of the houses at the top of their street. Distant foreign and English voices merged as they echoed down the street toward her. She heard crying. Loud men’s voices shouting. Then she saw the van. Jimmy’s van. It was parked at a weird angle, half on, half off the pavement. She felt confused. It wasn’t time for him to be back from the pub yet. Every Sunday evening he’d leave her cooking mid-afternoon to watch the football and be back by seven. Always. It was half past six. Then she saw him sat on the pavement head in hands, not moving. Sat on the frosty pavement with a police-woman standing over him speaking into a radio. The police-woman’s hand on his shoulder half in sympathy, half restraining. As she got closer the voices became clearer but the foreign accents still confused her. The dog sensed Jimmy and started tugging hard on the leash. She wanted to go to him but held them both back.

Then she saw the bundle of rags under the front wheel. At least that what she thought it was until the shape of a small child’s shoe became clear. A paramedic was cutting the clothing from the child’s legs. The body was so still. She was now close enough to see a dark pool of what must be blood. Shone like a patch oil in the headlights. A woman in a long dress was being held back by a large bearded man. Other men were arriving or coming out of a local house. There was a lot of shouting in a language she did not understand. She had never talked to the people down the road. Jimmy said they were immigrants, or worse asylum seekers. Jimmy wasn’t the type to mix with anybody he didn’t know let alone their sort. He locked his tools away each night just in case after they had moved in. He’d heard stories down the pub. She stopped and could now see things clearly. Nobody seemed to see her or the dog. Jimmy’s van door was open. She could see the mess inside. Empty beer cans, empty sandwich wrappers. She stopped dead. Heart racing. The dog dragging at her outstretched hand which was now raw from holding on. Clouds still scudding across the quarter moon and the pavement glistening white under the streetlights. She could hear Jimmy sobbing now. Something was being said to him. A policeman got out of a second police car and pushed a breathalyzer at him. Head down at first Jimmy didn’t see it. The sobbing was making his body rock like the dog panting earlier. She’d never seen him cry. He was the tough guy. Always. The big man when out with his mates. He did things his way always. She just stayed out of the way. Most evenings she’d spend in that dimly lit front room with the telly on. Sometimes she’d light a cigarette from one of Jimmy’s smuggled packs even though she was trying to give up. Occasionally if lucky she’d treat herself to a single glass of cheap white wine from Tesco. She never got to join in the lad’s nights outs. ‘Girls was not allowed’, that was what Jimmy said. Most nights it was just her and the dog, watching Eastenders or some shit.

All of that had just changed. A third police car passed her and an ambulance pulled in behind. She couldn’t quite take it all in but like the clouds above her things were changing and moving on. The dog still tugged hard on the lead trying to join in the action. Suddenly there was a burst of activity and the child was lifted into the back of the ambulance at the same time as Jimmy was finally pulled to his feet and led to the second police car. There was a small bundle of rags left on the pavement soaked in blood. The second car disappeared with Jimmy. The ambulance left and there was just the first police woman inside her car now talking to her radio. She got out and started winding blue and white tape around Jimmy’s van and up on to the pavement.

She felt like she’d been watching T.V. Nothing seemed quite real. This was not the kind of thing that happened to her. Everything had a dull routine. Now this. She eased the tight lead on her fingers to try and get some circulation into her frozen fingers. The dog continued to pull at the leash. It was getting agitated and started to bark. She had to do something. Instead of walking past the police woman she turned and hauled the dog back towards the darkened path and the park where they’d come from. The dog sensed something had changed. She did too. She tried to take it all in. She wanted to be in their front room as if nothing had happened. Back in that dimly lit space with the dusty cheese-plant, the dodgy video player and the telly. She walked back around the park in the exact same pattern as before. She even pulled the lead off the dog but she just stared back at her and didn’t move. She shouted ‘go on…off you go’ but nothing. She gave up knelt down and held her tight and re-attached the collar. She could feel the dog’s heart pounding through its bony chest. She knew things like this happened to other people but she still couldn’t relate it to her and Jimmy. She remembered her mum used to say….’you don’t know what you don’t know’. It had never made any sense before. She started crying. She led the dog towards what used to be home.

She started to think about the child. Was it dead. Was Jimmy in really big trouble? What was happening? She was shivering from being out in the cold too long. Turning into their street again she saw the police woman driving toward them leaving the blue and white tape flapping around the van. She summoned up the courage to walk past on the other side of the road. The bundle of rags was still on the pavement glistening with frost under the street-light. She started to feel sick. She passed the house the people had come out of earlier. All the lights were on and she saw men talking in the front room. There were even more men than she remembered and more people arriving as she got to their front door. The key turned easily for the first time in months. She usually had to wrestle with it. The door swung open. The main light was on. Jimmy must have been back whilst they were at the park which was odd. Suddenly she could smell stale ash and the sweet smell of sex just like in her father’s car. Maybe she was imagining it. There were a couple of empty beer cans on the table. She didn’t remember them being there earlier.

She felt sick and let the dog go, still on its lead, then ran to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet bowl. She looked in the mirror. She wiped the blur of mascara from round her eyes and rinsed the taste of sick from her mouth. She stood there listening to the familiar sound of the dog lapping water from its bowl downstairs. She’d left the front door open and could hear foreign voices from down the road again. A siren could be heard but far away. Somebody else’s problem. Finally she went downstairs and closed the door. She sat for what seemed like ages looking at the cream plastic receiver on the wall. It never rang. Suddenly she went to the kitchen and fed the dog, grabbed some packets of crisps from the kitchen cupboard and went back upstairs to the bedroom. It took ten minutes to cram her few clothes into her old holiday suitcase. Grabbing her thickest coat she started explaining to the dog why they were leaving. She picked up the trailing leash and pulled the dog after her. They passed the blue and white tape, the frosted van, and the now stiff and frozen bundle of blood-stained rags and were gone.

Thanks Ray….and Tess.

 

 

 

 

Get in, Get Out: Writing the Short Story ‘The Leash’

‘Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.’[1]

These words are from Raymond Carver’s 1985 collection ‘Fires’ which was a starting point for my own engagement with the idea of writing short stories. Apart from a few false starts, which were closer to prose poetry than the traditional short story, ‘The Leash’ is my first attempt at the form. From the 1980s onwards I was drawn to the works of Thomas McGuane, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason and Jayne Anne Phillips. I became familiar with the concept of ‘dirty realism’ as defining American fiction from this period. The notion of ‘Sudden Fiction’ (the title of a 1986 anthology[2] also known as ‘Flash Fiction’ or ‘Short Short Fiction’) appealed as it related to song-writing in its brevity. It was a style I felt familiar with both artistically and politically and it connected to the kind of music and lyric-writing I was engaged in. I wrote poetry but did not consider myself a prose writer. I have found the process of starting from zero in fiction very difficult. Far more difficult than I expected. Having lost the connection to writing poetry until recently and not reading fiction I found myself a complete beginner again. Apart from the Americans the most important writers to me historically were Chekhov (discovered through Carver) and Scottish and Irish writers. I did not and still do not consider myself as part of a particularly ‘English’ scene or style.

To ‘jump-start’ so to speak the learning process I read as many and various short stories as I could in the first term. The emphasis in class on constant reading producing writing made perfect sense to me and it was the reading that I lacked. I read as many short stories as I could including Rick Bass, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, John Burnside, Matthew Licht, John McGahern, Arthur Machen, Mark Strand, Joy Williams, John Romano etc. I liked some, hated others but used each reading experience and published an online critique for each as ‘Daily Shorts[3]. This experience was really useful as it started me analysing exactly what I might want from the fiction I wrote. The writers I selected were sometimes deliberate e.g. poets who wrote fiction like Carver and Burnside and other writers which outside my comfort zone like Machen and Romano (a scriptwriter). I found the experience both pleasurable as I reacquainted myself with past heroes like McGahern and Carver and also troubling as I struggled with more contemporary short story writers like Gaffney and Licht. My age was a factor that also coloured my experience here and in class as the generational changes in writing fiction, the new ideas of what fiction was or could be and the emphasis on generic styles like fantasy and historical fiction helped to challenge my ‘older white male’ literary boundaries. I have now completed two 2000 word pieces of fiction. The first of these in hindsight was where I made most of my mistakes. Leaving aside the number of ‘as’ or the over long sentences I now feel that jumping in at the deep end with a pseudo-historical Zeppelin spy novel with embedded images in the manner of W.G. Sebald [4]may have been a tad ambitious. However just the physical act of creating 2000 words was a major achievement for somebody who had not got past 1000 words of any fiction before. My bizarre version of ‘Riddle of The Sands’ set on the Norfolk coast received the feedback it deserved and although there were good ideas embedded in the piece it has gone into the bottom draw for now.

‘The Leash’ is my first short story. It is just under 2000 words and the statement at the beginning is a reminder to myself of what I trying to do which draws on both A.E.Coppard[5] and Jonathan Taylor’s introductions [6]concerning the ‘orality’ of specifically short fiction.

We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…

It is simply a note to self….do not run, walk. Craft before imagination. Get in and get out. Write about what you know first. Written in one go no editing it relates to how I write poetry now. As a young man I constantly rewrote pieces to the point of destruction. I employed similar techniques in painting often losing work because of over working. Having hand-written it (important to me as this how I write best) I then re-edited a couple of times on the laptop. This feels right to me. I have read many descriptions of writing technique and this what suits me best others may have different approaches. I am happier with the story. It relates to a poem called ‘Greyhound in Frost’ written in 2002 but takes a completely different approach to the mid-1990s subject matter. It is my first attempt to write from a third person narrator point of view about a female character which means it not completely ‘authentic’ but I did my best. I still struggle with the idea of dialogue. It may form part of a sequence of short stories to be called ‘The Oxford Stories’. I think it is the first time I have found a ‘voice’ that like my poetry in fiction. Political, realist, working-class it is definitely not academic, historical nor particularly English in terms of influence. I have more in common with James Kelman than any Oxbridge writer…..hence the greyhound in the story is a tip of my hat to all of that.

Endnotes

[1] Raymond Carver, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.

[2] Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction:American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)

[3] Shaun Belcher, ‘Daily Shorts,(2014) < http://www.shaunbelcher.com/writing/?cat=49 > [accessed 5 January 2015]

[4] W.G.Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (London: Collins Harvill, 1998)

[5] A.E. Coppard, ‘Foreword’ in ’The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951)

[6] Jonathan Taylor, ed., Overheard: Stories to read aloud (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012)

Bibliography

Coppard, A. E., ‘Foreword’ in ’The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951)

Taylor, Jonathan, ed., Overheard: Stories to read aloud (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012)

Carver, Raymond, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.

Sebald, W. G., The Rings of Saturn (London: Collins Harvill, 1998)

Shapard, Robert and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction: American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)