Real Time Short Stories

Splashback Sequences

Posted on: October 1, 2011

The picture here is misleading. This post deals with stimuli for short stories and the picture may, in this context, seem to suggest that a visit to the world-famous Gents’ toilets in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Pub provided me with the inspiration for the central character in one of my stories. This would be nonsense. They don’t have attendants in the Phil’s toilets: there’s no room. There was, however, one on duty in the barely more spacious Gent’s at the Alma de Cuba bar in town, when I was in there for a drink a few years ago. I had occasion to tell this story at the recent Merseyside Polonia event mentioned in an earlier post. The young African man manoeuvering himself around the tight space to offer me a squirt of aftershave – maybe a student, maybe a migrant worker – found his way into the story that appeared as Scent in Comma’s 2008 ReBerth anthology.

Those who stop to hover over the bottles never ask his advice as to which scent they should wear. He would recommend that they find the one they came out with, not attempt to mask the new smells they’ve acquired from the drinks and the smokers’ doorways, with something even more pungent. He would suggest that these layers build to give a fragrance that stiffens the air they move through. He worries about what it does to the water; wonders what a squirt of Hugo Boss will do to the ancient mating rituals of the eels that find their ways into the estuary. The men, when they speak to him, call him ‘mate’; they call him ‘lad’. Two or more of them visiting the toilet together will stand either side of him to continue their conversations, like neighbours on adjoining balconies.

The experiences that go into a story – like the aromas of the drinkers – are built, layer upon layer, so the image of this marginalised figure in an unpleasant service industry job gave me a character and a way into his psychology. The narrative I gave him, though, came from my own experience nearly 20 years earlier, when my unfurnished housing association flat, in which I had only managed to install a single bed, was suddenly equipped with chairs, desks and cupboards worth far more than the £50 cash I paid. My Magwitch-on-wheels lived across the corridor but, as in the story, he was in a hurry to get rid of the furniture, move out and leave town using the nominal fee I was paying. The reason he gave for his departure; the items of furniture; the window that had to be opened to get the enormous seventies couch in; and the neighbour’s trademark chariot races up and down Princes Avenue on a skateboard pulled by two dogs, the stuff of local legend: all details were lifted from real life and placed, more or less intact, in the story. Elsewhere, a scene in which the main character discusses jellyfish with a small boy and his father, at the Albert Dock, came first from the excitement of spotting the jellies with my own son on a visit to the Dock, then from research after I decided that the main character would have some expertise in marine biology, in its turn a layer suggested by the commission’s call for stories relating to the water and the edge of land.

We are so many of the characters in the stories we write. When casting about for narratives, remember what you’ve glimpsed and what you’ve lived. Having dragged this discussion into the toilets, I’m going to stay there for this thought on how an incident devoid of real narrative substance can, with some aftercare, set you on the path to a story. In a different bar at a different time – on this occasion for a 40th birthday party – but once more in the Gent’s, I met Jed (centre), who used to be in the band, The Stairs. After the initial how’re-you-doing, we admitted to each other that, though we’d both known the birthday girl since we were all teenagers, neither of us knew her surname. Subsequently, I’ve considered that it’s equally the case that I wouldn’t know Jed’s surname without the aid of Google, and he would probably have the same problem with me. Nothing much to report here: it doesn’t matter to anyone, this long-term, arm’s length sociability. But what if it did matter? What if the recollection of an old acquaintance’s surname was the difference between safety and danger? What kind of story would we be telling then?

Or what if Jed and I had met in the toilets of a venue in which there were two 40th birthday parties taking place in separate rooms? That he was talking about one Sarah, whose surname he didn’t know, and I was talking about another? The thriller of the earlier scenario becomes surrealist farce or Kafkaesque dystopia.

I have in the past week or so, renewed my acquaintance with, or newly encountered, groups of creative writing undergraduates charged in the coming weeks with overcoming the tyranny of the blank page. It’ll help them to remember that stories can start to appear if they took a look at their real lives, picked up a memory – that encounter, that image, that could-have-been that almost turned into a what-now? – and just added a quick squirt of what-if? to freshen it up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Real Time Tweets

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


%d bloggers like this: