Fiction – Short Story
Tuesday: September 6th 1988
A terrible day. A horrible day. Head: throbbing bump at the back. Left shin: grazed. Pride: non-existent, obliterated. The first day of a new school year. A blank page. What should have been a fresh start ruined before I had even entered the school gates. I’m writing this in bed. Rump, my King Charles Spaniel is lying at the end of the bed, on his back, one paw straight up, the other bent over, and his back legs in frog position, his jowls flopped back as if smiling. He looks posed as if synchronized swimming on a sea of duvet.
The bus routes have changed over the summer holidays, so this morning I had to walk down Summersdale Avenue, across the park, and up to the corner of Milbury Road for the number 8, which isn’t that far, but left me stertorous and unable to speak as I boarded. It was absolutely rammed on the lower deck so I climbed the steps upstairs and seated myself on the second row as inconspicuously as possible.
As the bus slowed to the stop outside Lloyd George House on the council estate, I noticed Kevin Simmonds fondling Sharon Cottle up against the bus shelter. Her plump legs were wrapped around his. I couldn’t see her face, because Kevin seemed to be feeding off it, but I could see her mass of peroxide permed hair around his head. Nothing much to speak of her face anyway, it’s all blue mascara and frosted lipstick. To my annoyance Kevin threw a can of drink over his shoulder before alighting the bus. I could smell Sharon’s cloying perfume, Charlie Red I think, before they even came up the stairs.
On the back seat, the rightful throne of King Kevin and his gaudy princess, sat a first year student. Basin haircut, spanking new uniform, blazer sleeves a little too long, tie done up perfectly, probably by Mum, and a matching gormless look on his face. I watched the scene unfold in the circular mirror. My stomach tightened. It was like watching a wildlife programme just before the antelope is mowed down by a lion. I could hardly breathe, let alone intervene.
“Oi Poofter, move it!”
I watched for a second with baited breath. Fight, flight, freeze or fawn? I asked myself. Freeze. The poor little wretch was doing his best stick insect impression. I found myself urging him to get up and find another seat, he might get away with a slap around the head from Kevin if he was lucky.
“Didn’t you hear me you little shit, I said move.” – Still no response.
“Oh come on Kevin leave him, there’s plenty of room”, Sharon said. I rolled my eyes, it was like Nancy and Sykes on the number 8.
“No. It’s the principle ain’t it? Right cunt breath”, he hoisted the boy airborne by the lapels of his neat blazer. “Move it.” The boy stood there motionless. I realised I would have to put a stop to it.
“Simmonds! Is it your intention to land yourself in hot water at the beginning of a new school year? Pick on somebody your own size!”
He turned slowly around licking his lips and spitting on the floor of the bus like a villain from a spaghetti western. I knew at that moment that this hooligan, fully grown at fifteen was not going to take notice of a middle aged spinster in a pleated skirt, he was going to devour me.
“What’s it got to do with you? I’m not in school.”
“But you’re in school uniform, sit down and behave properly.”
He started to walk towards me, I suddenly realised he had grown a foot taller during the holidays. He didn’t quite make it to me before the bus pulled in to the stop outside St Luke’s and we both lurched to the side, he into the head of a smartly dressed woman who looked appalled, and me down the stairwell to the lower deck. I lay there for a few minutes with my feet still on the second step and my head on the floor of the bus. There was a shriek of laughter as the army of demonic children marched down the stairs. I suddenly realised my skirt had flown up to my chin, I scrambled up quickly to try and save my dignity, but it was far too late. I limped off the bus wounded and defeated and walked through the gates.
All day I have faced jeers from the students, sniggers in the corridors, whispers in the rows of seats during assembly. At lunch time Ms Taylor, the art teacher found me and asked me if I was okay. She cocked her head to one side in faux-sympathy, doe eyes and pouty mouth. She had heard some of the pupils laughing about my ordeal. Oh! Could the humiliation be any worse? The last thing I need is sympathy from this halfwit who thinks that being an art teacher gives her carte blanche to wear head scarves like some aged hippy. I did a double take on the way to the canteen. On the wall, in rather bad handwriting, “Brownie skiddy nickers”, I corrected the misspelling of knickers and counted down the time until I heard the first pupil to call me my soubriquet.
I will get a taxi to school tomorrow, but a more permanent solution is in order, my wages won’t cover that luxury, not on what Kenneth Baker pays this country’s teachers. Driving lessons are in order, I think.
Thursday: September 29th 1988
At last, my provisional driving licence arrived in the post. And not before time. I have spent a fortune on taxis over the last few weeks, I’ve had to break into my savings. I searched through the yellow pages to find an instructor. I noticed a remarkable similarity between the names of driving schools and the taxi services I had been using over the past few weeks: A1 Driving, ABC Driving, A-B Driving, A-Z Driving. Then came more themed names: First Time Driving school, Hill Start Driving, Hill Top Driving. I scanned the page and found a neat bordered box. Mr P Morris, driving instructor, 30 years experience, very reasonably priced, negotiable. 0225 8_______.
I was nervous about calling. I made a pot of tea before I plucked up the courage, I even talked to Rump in the hope that he might respond with a positive bark or less encouraging whimper, but he just rested his head on his paws in boredom.
The telephone rang a couple of times before it was answered.
“Morris.” The voice sounded abrupt.
“Yes. Is that Mr P Morris.” I said, wondering why I suddenly had adopted an accent worthy of Brief Encounter.
“Yes, Morris speaking.”
“Oh, yes. I would like to take some driving lessons. If you’re not too busy of course. If you are, perhaps you could recommend a colleague, or – or something.”
“No, I’m sure I can fit you in. Let me get my diary.”
The phone line went silent, I listened carefully and heard the sound of rummaging and paper rustling.
“Right then, when’s good for you?”
“Well, um perhaps Monday Evening?”
“Where would you like me to pick you up?”
“At my house please.”
“And where is your house?” He sounded wryly amused. I felt a bit silly.
“46 Summersdale Avenue.”
We arranged to meet at seven o’clock. I put down the phone and felt my stomach turn with excitement or nerves, I wasn’t sure which, but I’m sure I will suffer a few nights of restless sleep before Monday. I have just realised that I will be stuck in a car with a man for a whole hour. Good grief, I need to get a grip. Rump has given a less than encouraging whimper.
Monday 3rd October 1988
School was terrible today. Since the bus incident I seemed to have lost complete respect from the students and I’m sure some of the faculty are sniggering at me. I swing from one chaotic class to the next waiting for each day to pass. To make matters worse Ms Taylor has decided to befriend me. Every break, every lunchtime is a game of cat and mouse to avoid her overbearing humility. This lunchtime I sat in one of the cubicles in the staff toilets and ate my sandwiches and managed a few chapters of Barchester Towers. Completely unhygienic, but at least I had some peace.
All day through the chaos I held on to the fact that I had a driving lesson. I searched through my dressing table when I got home and found an old red lipstick and some old blue eyeshadow, which I applied rather badly I’m afraid. I looked at my garish reflection in the mirror and made the decision to wash it off, but it was too late. The door-bell rang. Rump sprang into action, barking in absolute glee. He’s not experienced an evening caller, not since Daddy was alive, when Daddy would have his friend Fred over on a Wednesday. They were model railway enthusiasts. Mummy would never have allowed his obsession, but she died ten years earlier.
I readjusted my blouse and paused before opening the door. I was pleasantly surprised. Mr Morris is tall and thin. He wore a smart grey leather jacket, and grey trousers with a neat pleat at the front, and grey slip on shoes. His hair is auburn, although he only has sideburns and a rather fetching moustache. His crown is bald, but it makes him look very masculine. I pulled myself together and tried not to swoon. I could tell he was a good soul because Rump took to him straight away and Mr Morris did not seem at all bothered by the dog.
“Right first things first. You need to become acquainted with the car before we can hit the road. This model is a Vauxhall Nova, 1.3 engine, one year old.” He pointed to a rather ordinary looking blue car. He must have noticed my reaction because he said “It doesn’t look like much but with the wrong person behind the wheel this machine can become a beast. Cause a lot of damage.”
He must have taken a good twenty minutes to explain and demonstrate the finer features of the car before we got started and switched the engine on. Then to my dismay we practiced changing gears, flicking the indicator, adjusting the mirrors for another ten minutes before we got going. But – But! Once we got going it was absolutely exhilarating! I was out on the open road. I even got up to twenty miles an hour and into third gear. Mr Morris is an excellent teacher, and he only had to use his instructor pedals twice. “A gold star for your first lesson.” he said. A gold star! I waved him off and closed the front door and stood in the hall for a few minutes, ignoring Rump as he clawed at me, tail wagging. My heart was thumping, whether it was the driving or Mr Morris I am still uncertain.
Monday October 31st
I hardly have the nerve to write about the events today. The day has taken an unexpected turn. This morning I was Janet Brown, spinster schoolteacher. Tonight I am Janet Brown, Femme Fatale!
The day at school was as much the same as any other. I have adopted a new stance. Why bother trying to maintain some kind of order with these hooligans? – I have told myself. Whatever I do doesn’t make the slightest difference. So I have stopped trying to maintain order. I have decided to sit at my desk and read. There is so much I haven’t read. I decided to read some Stevenson: Dr Jackyll and Mr Hyde. Wonderful. At first the students were a little bemused and quietened down, but they soon went back to anarchy when they saw I wasn’t remotely interested or bothered by their antics. I went from a mad woman flinging her arms around trying to achieve the impossible in teaching them, to a quietly poised reader. Either way they completely ignored me, and at least I have my sanity intact at the end of the day.
This evening Philip picked me up from the school. He quite rightly pointed out that it was a waste of money getting a taxi when he could pick me up for my lesson and take me home. The lessons are going well but I’ve been having terrible issues with my three point turns. Philip is very patient with me. We have become good friends. The events of tonight have thrown us even closer to one another.
I slowed down at the zebra crossing on Woodchester Road for a teenager wearing a ski mask, for Halloween no doubt. He began to cross, looked at the car and then did a kind of double take. Up went the mask and there before us stood Kevin Simmonds. He laughed boisterously and grabbed his crotch provocatively.
“Get out of the road. Moron!” Philip was leaning out of the window. I wished I could melt into the grey upholstery of the car.
“Fuck Off!” shouted Simmonds, gyrating against the bonnet.”
“Get your hands off my car!”
Simmonds kicked the front of the car and Philip got out. He tried to hold Simmonds but he wriggled out of his hold and punched him squarely in the jaw. What happened next was so extraordinary, I can only describe it as a kind of red mist. I felt my face flush hot and my eyes were frozen in steely determination. I shifted into gear, put my foot right down on the acceleration and took my left foot off the clutch. I spurted forwards, the wheels screeching as the car rocked from side to side as I ran over Kevin Simmonds. I turned the wheel, braked, put the car into reverse, turning the wheel as I went, and then forwards again over Kevin, ignoring the sound of crunching bones. I stopped and Philip got into the car.
We drove in silence back to my house. I was absolutely full of dread by the time I reached home. I couldn’t believe what I had done. I parked outside my house. Pulled up the handbrake. Switched off the ignition. We sat for an age before I spoke.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” I thought I might cry. “Your face, is it okay?”
“What should we do? Should we call the police?” I began to panic.
“No. Of course not. He had it coming. You were magnificent. Your three point turn was one of the best I have ever seen.”
“Really?” I said, confused. I wasn’t sure if I should feel remorse at this point.
“Yes, the best. Kids like that make me sick. They think they own the streets, but tonight we reclaimed them. You were wonderful.”
He reached his hand behind my head and we kissed. A long slow kiss. He checked the car for signs of damage, but it was really too dark to see. He said he would look tomorrow. We kissed again before he left me on the doorstep. I am smiling as I write this. Is it wicked of me? No, it isn’t. I have reasoned all night with this question. I am utterly convinced that I have done the world a great service. What kind of life did Kevin Simmonds have ahead of him? He would leave school without any qualifications. With some luck he might get a job, but I doubted it. He would probably sponge of the system, leaving a stream of broken and abused hearts and fatherless children in his wake. No. The world is a better place with one less thug tonight. Of that I am sure. Rump seems to agree, he has curled up against me in complete unconditional love as I write this. I will sleep soundly.
Monday 7th November
I’m afraid I rather ranted throughout my driving lesson this evening. Philip is such a gentleman he didn’t seem to mind, in fact, he seemed to enjoy me going on. Today was an absolute nightmare at school. Ms Taylor has taken it upon herself to organise a memorial service for Kevin Simmonds. Plant a tree in the school grounds. Well at least he’s not around to carve some obscenity in the trunk.
She approached me in the staff room at lunchtime.
“Janet, I was wondering if you might like to ask some of the year fives to write some poems for the memorial service. It might be cathartic for them.”
I responded boldly “I’m not sure if it would be wise to encourage such a public display of unbridled emotion.” I turned back to fish the teabag out of my mug.
“How can you be unfeeling?” She was actually crying.
“I’m not unfeeling. It is very tragic for one to lose one’s life so young, but I can’t help feeling some of his fellow students will breathe a sigh of relief that they no longer have to come to school in fear of having their head flushed down the loo, or being forced to hand over their dinner money.”
She stood upright and screamed at me. She actually screamed. I was a little bit impressed. I didn’t know she had it in her. “Sharon Cottle won’t be relieved. She’s pregnant you know.”
“More fool her. If it hadn’t been Simmonds some other lout would have knocked her up sooner or later. Now if you’ll excuse me I would like to enjoy my cup of tea before afternoon lessons resume.”
She stared at me. Grabbed my cup and threw it over me. It was scalding. We stood there for a moment frozen in disbelief. Then she fled from the staffroom. The faculty returned to their broadsheets and conversations as if nothing had happened.
Philip listened to all of this calmly. “She sounds like a right lefty loony.”
I laughed. “Yes – a lefty loony! That’s very good.”
He kissed me again before I got out of the car. “Don’t let them grind you down. You’re too good for that place.”
“Thank you Philip.” I said. He is so gallant, I think I might be falling in love. I mustn’t get too carried away with myself.
Monday 14th November
Well Ms Taylor certainly got her just deserts. It was the memorial service today after school. The apple tree was planted while the whole of year five stood holding white candles, which was a bit of a disaster, as several of them were burned by the dripping wax. Mr Jones, the caretaker looked non-too pleased at the prospect of scraping up the wax from the tarmac.
Philip was waiting for me in the school car park. I got into the car and drove towards the gates. As I turned onto the road. I noticed a cyclist, hardly visible in the dusk, but the long skirt was unmistakable. My nemesis.
“That’s her. Taylor!”
“On the bicycle.”
“She’s riding all over the place.” Philip said with disgust. “She should be wearing high visibility clothing at this time of the evening.” He reached over and pressed the horn sharply, and then again, but this time for longer. Ms Taylor wobbled out in front of us forcing me to hit the brakes. I stalled the car. I started again.
“What are you waiting for? She’s asking for it, dressed like that, on the road at this time of night.”
I sped up and Philip pressed the horn again. She was wobbling furiously now. At the junction she turned, her face in horror beneath the sickly yellow glow of the streetlamps. She had recognised me. She hurried on. I followed. Speeding up and then pulling back. She cycled up on to the pavement. Philip pulled the steering wheel so that we pursued her. Then she made a fatal mistake. She turned down the lane to the old Sumsion Quarry. It was dark, but she was lit by the headlights. She came to a sudden stop by the edge of the quarry and got off the bike. She was sobbing. She held her hands up.
“Please Janet. Please, please stop.”
I nudged forwards. Goodbye Ms Taylor. We laughed in sheer delight. Then Philip got out of the car and threw the bicycle over the edge. We drove back to my house, giggling all the way. I invited Philip in for coffee. We talked until the early hours, then he kind of lunged at me. We made love on the living room floor. It was rather awkward, a lot of fumbling around at first and Philip had to repeatedly push Rump out of the way. It was a little bit of an anti-climax, I must say, it was much nicer once we got to bed and cuddled. He is asleep now, his arm curled around Rump. I have no doubts about Ms Taylor. It all seems so clear to me now. Kevin Simmonds was a thug, but people like Ms Taylor enable his behaviour. They try to explain their behaviour by feeling sorry for these ruffians. Blame their violence and crudeness on a disturbed and traumatic childhood. But we all have troubled childhoods, we all have demons to fight. If we ridded the world of thugs like Simmonds, and lefty loonies like Ms Taylor then the rest of us could carve out some kind of existence that might be worth living. Remorse? Not an ounce.
Friday 23rd December
They found Ms Taylor. There is to be an inquest, but the papers have been running with suicide. She was on anti-depressants and her friends and family are reported to have said that she became increasingly traumatised by Kevin Simmonds’ death.
I passed my driving test today. After the test Philip drove as I am no longer insured now that I have passed. As we left the test centre a police car began to follow us. Then I heard the whir of the siren, and saw the blue glow of the lights in the wing mirror. Philip pulled over. His knuckles were white on the steering wheel. I stared forward and held my breath. The police officer walked over to the car. Philip wound down the window slowly. I felt tears prick my eyes.
“Yes officer.” His voice sounded strained, as if he was trying to sound chirpy.
“Would you mind stepping out of the car sir?”
Philip got out. I couldn’t look around. I could only stare forwards. Fifty two years untouched. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my soul mate, for that is what he is. We are kindred spirits. Philip and the officer were talking at the back of the car now. The officer walked back to the police car. I prayed for Philip to get back into the car so that we could make a get-away. Philip pulled up the boot. He was rummaging around in the back. I thought he might pull out a crow bar and attack the officer, but when the boot went down they both stood there talking quite amicably. They shook hands.
Philip got back in the car calmly. “Rear brake light not working.”
I sighed with relief. When we got back home Philip and I sat in the car.
“Why don’t you give all this up Janet? We can go exploring the British Isles. Take it in turns to drive. Rump can come too?”
It was a perfect plan. “Yes Philip, I would like that.”
“Do you have any plans for Christmas?”
“No, no I don’t”
“I’ll pick you up on Christmas day then, come round to mine for dinner, Rump too.”
“I’d like that.”
I am crying tears of joy as I write this in bed, Rump curled up at my feet. I am a new woman.
My original idea was to write the first chapter of a novel: a romance between an unlikely pair that develops over the course of driving lessons. Following feedback from my tutor and fellow students at my tutorial I decided to change this to a short story as I agreed with the suggestion that it would be difficult to write an engaging start to this romance in 4000 words. I also decided to change genre from a romance to a black comedy, and this was given the go ahead by my tutor following TMA04. My tutor advised ‘Now the thing with black humour is that you absolutely can’t pull your punches. You have to be completely ruthless. And, of course, you can’t actually tell any jokes or do anything particularly obviously funny.’ (Ryland, TMA04, 2015). I found this easier to do by shifting my narrative from an omniscient narrator into Janet’s own voice. In writing a diary format I have attempted to use delayed decoding so that the story unravels at Janet’s own pace.
Once I had decided to write a black comedy I considered changing to a film script for a while as I had quite clear pictorial scenes in my imagination, particularly around the murders and the memorial service. I referred back to ‘Chapter Ten: Film Technique in Fiction’ (Anderson, Linda, pp. 149-163) from A Creative Writing Handbook (ed. Neale, 2009). Anderson writes of film and fiction ‘The two forms share common ground and a linked history… But they have significant differences as well and it is important to exploit the full range of fiction’s possibilities. Most films can only show hints of a characters inner consciousness.’ (p.161). She goes on to cite Zoe Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal (2003) as an example of where a novel narrated by an unreliable narrator is reworked to make it suitable for the screen. I was partly inspired by the relationship between Bathsheba and Barbara from the novel in my characterisation of Janet and Ms Taylor, although Janet is much less manipulative than Heller’s Barbara, and Ms Taylor is much more innocent than Bathsheba. Once I had decided on writing in a diary format I decided a short story was the most appropriate form. I could perhaps have explored Janet’s inner consciousness in a film script through extended dialogue with Mr Morris, but I felt a diary would allow me to also give some insight into her impressions of Mr Morris.
I was really interested in creating an unreliable narrator, or at least a narrator with questionable ethics. This is something quite new to me. I found the writing activity 12.7 in ‘Chapter 12: Voices in Fiction’ (ed. Neale, p.193) very useful for this. I wrote a few passages in both Janet’s voice and Ms Taylor’s voice – most notably the staff room incident. I realised that Janet’s reflective voice after each of the murders needed to be only superficially reflective. It was more about her absolving herself of her crimes. I also found Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov to be very insightful in the characterisation of an unreliable narrator. Nabokov’s narrator Humbert is unapologetic in his narration, yet his actions are completely despicable. Janet convinces herself that her actions are just and she never meets her comeuppance. In fact, she finds absolution in her relationship with Mr Morris.
I wrote three different endings for the story. In the first Janet runs over Philip Morris and makes a get-away, in the second Janet and Mr Morris are chased by the police back to the quarry and they drive over the edge Thelma and Louise (1991) style, but I settled for the third ending where Janet and Philip are able to walk away unscathed. It should be an unsettling ending because it is typically romantic, although neither character is deserving of this end. I chose this ending because I felt it underlines Janet’s justification for her actions, even though the reader knows this is not quite right. I also felt that making Janet and Morris pay for their crimes undermines the tragi-comedy element of the plot.
I wrote all three endings of the plot in my notebook. I have almost a whole notebook of writings based on this short story. My original story contained lots of back story to Janet’s life and politics. Most of this has been omitted in the final draft with the exception of the small detail that Janet is a spinster who lives in the family home where she cared for her elderly father – alluded to in the diary entry of 3rd October 1988. Writing numerous drafts and descriptions of Janet’s life has made me know my character inside out. I feel almost (rather fearfully) as if she is a real living person! In order to ‘pull no punches’ as my tutor suggested I have forced myself to write against the grain of my character, which has turned Janet into something quite different to what I initially imagined. I think this is important because at the end of the story the reader is left with the choice of feeling some kind of sympathy with Janet, although her crimes are obviously contemptible. What I have tried to attempt is to take Janet on a journey. She is not the same Janet at the beginning as she is at the end of the text. Her driving lessons have given her freedom to respond (albeit in a loathsome way) to the world around her. She embraces a distorted justice and a new found passion with Mr Morris. She becomes the driver of her own life, or co-driver with Mr Morris.
During this module I have learned to think in a more filmic way when writing. This has enabled me to create clearer scenes and stronger dialogue. I have found writing an unreliable narrator challenging, but equally rewarding. I have found it really useful to write and re-draft over a longer period, my ideas have almost become like organic matter, growing of their own will. In particular I have learned to give my characters room to grow and develop within the story arc.
Anderson, Linda (2009) ‘Film Technique in Fiction, Neale, Derek (ed.), 2009, A Creative Writing Handbook: Developing Dramatic Technique, Individual Style and Voice, A&C Black Publishers Ltd London, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes.
Ellis, Brett Easton, (1991), American Psycho, Vintage Books, New York, USA.
Eyre, Richard (dir.) (2006), Notes on a Scandal, Fox Searchlight, UK.
Goldthwait, Bobcat (dir.) (2011), God Bless America, Darko Entertainment, USA.
Leigh, Mike. Happy Go Lucky, (film), 2008, dir. Mike Leigh, Momentum Pictures, UK.
Nabokov, Vladimir. (1955) , Lolita, Penguin Books, London.
Neale, Derek (ed.), 2009, A Creative Writing Handbook: Developing Dramatic Technique, Individual Style and Voice, A&C Black Publishers Ltd London, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes.
Redmond, Phil. Grange Hill, (television drama), 1978-2008, created by Phil Redmond, BBC Television, London.
Ryland, G.S, (2015) Tutor comments TMA04, The Open University, Milton Keynes.
Scott, Ridley (dir.), (1991) Thelma and Louise (film), MGM, USA.
Smith, Paul. Murder Most Horrid, (television situation comedy), 1991-1999, created by Paul Smith, Talkback Productions, BBC Television, London.
Wheatley, Ben (dir.) (2012), Sightseers, Studio Canal in association with Film Four, UK.