Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!
Suckage often occurs.
I took a break from Starter for Ten while I was busy marketing Before and After, but as I start to focus on writing a new book, the plan is to do them daily again but publish them weekly, or possibly weakly. Hopefully that way it gives you a bundle to read or ignore as you see fit, in one handy package.
There’s a little scratch on the wall and it bothers him. The walls were only painted a few months ago and to see this scratch where flecks of paint have been scraped off, reveals the colours underneath – that awful green that the landing had been painted ever since they arrived. He runs his thumb across the scratch and a minute fleck of the paint chips clings to his nail. It’s fine. He moves on with his day.
Later, he finds himself on the landing with a fine grade of sandpaper. He’s not entirely sure where he got the sandpaper from, but he dimly recalls a shop and a joke about DIY. Now here he is and he eases a sheet of the paper out and folds it carefully around a small block of wood, about the size of a chalk-board eraser. This gives him a pad which he can use to gently push at the edges of the gouge. He’s decided it’s a gouge and not a scratch – almost like it was a nail that pulled through the surface. He brushes and wipes and vacuums and soon he has a flat surface – the gouge is less prominent but underneath there’s that green colour that his wife insisted on. It reminds him of pea and ham soup. It’s a colour from another era.
The next morning he lays out a small cloth on the floor which is covered with spatters of colours. He’s mesmerised briefly and half composes a thought about Jackson Pollock, which dissipates as he returns his focus to the wall. He has a small tester pot in a colour which very, very closely matches the colour he chose for the landing when he was redecorating. He unscrews the pot and feels his tongue protrude through his lips as he daubs the paint in a neat line across the length of the seven inch fissure. In a macro he can picture the little valley of the gorge. The trauma that there must have been to create it. He pushes his face up close to watch the brush deposit the paint. As the paint hits the wall it fills the valley. It blots out any trauma and once again pushes the green walls back out of existence. It calms him to look at the now smooth walls. The paint is a good match. You’d hardly ever notice. He hopes it won’t dry darker, he’ll check again in the morning.
There was a small black cat on the table. It could only have been a few months old. Its body was growing but it’s head was still kittenish and her paws still seemed a little large for her body. The children had named the cats, so this one was Bing. The other ginger kitten was Mr Tumble, which had been shortened to Tum. She pushed at a pen on the table until half of it was over the edge. All right gents, I’ve got an idea. The pen fell and skittered across the floor. The noise scared the cat and it bolted from the table, which wobbled under the sudden movement and the vial tipped on one side and rolled with intent towards the edge of the table. Just as it approached the edge, the man reached out and calmly put a finger on top of the vial stopping it a centimetre from the edge.
He was a big man, but the word fat wouldn’t have done him justice. He was just large. His head was large. His chest full. His frame was double-sized. Even the finger that now held the vial was large, the nail as big as a fifty pence piece. He wore a double-breasted white suit and his head was wet shaved so that the lights glinted off his dome. Bing circled around his foot, feeling the safety of his presence and scenting his feet. He carefully lifted the vial and placed it back in the rack, where it should have been but it was an object that called to him and demanded to be lifted and rolled between his fingers. The outright horror of what lay behind the simple rubber bung never failed to bring him a thrill. To own death and to keep it trapped in such a feeble prison amused him.
He lifted Bing onto his lap and the cat brushed its face against his hands. It circled several times and sat on one of his thighs, its entire body easily fitting. He lightly curled a finger around the cat’s ear and it lifted its chin to glory at this attention. He reached over and pulled the vial from the rack and ran it across the cat’s jawline. The cat enjoyed the game and feinted to bite at the vial. The man smiled and pulled it out of reach and secured it once more. How thin the lines were between chaos and normality.
“Not today Bing.”
“’…Slapped the fish on the table and said cook it yourself’ – that’s not good,” Pops looked up from the laptop. He raised his eyebrows – inviting comment. When nothing came he carried on.
“’Our party was then told that the table had been double-booked and the waitress told us we had to leave, even though some of us had already been served our starters.’ That’s not good. Marcy? What can you say?”
Marcy lifted her eyes and took an exaggerated breath. She twiddled the control stick of her wheelchair which made her fidget on the spot.
“Trip Advisor is a really important source of customers for us – if we get reviews like this then it hurts us as a business. And if we’re hurt then it hurts our staff – including you – as well.”
Pops made an awkward face at Marcy, his expression like he was witnessing a five car pile up on the freeway. “If you can’t tell me why you did it, I think we have to let you go.”
Marcy twirled the pommel of the control stick in her hand and found that it was a bit loose, so she pinched harder and screwed it back into place. Pops was still looking at her, the grotesque pantomime of awkwardness playing across his face.
The silence stretched until Pops could bear it no longer.
“Marcy – was it because of the wheel-, because of your…did it happen…”
“Oh fuck off Pops. I kicked them out because I was bored. It didn’t have anything to do with my wheelchair. It didn’t have anything to do with my leg. It didn’t have anything to do with anything, other than the fact that I was bored of looking at another table of shit-munching customers who expected me to bring them food.”
“But you’re a waitress.”
“I was a waitress until ten seconds ago. Now I’m a gin-seeking missile.”
The line is nearly out of the door. It’s not even straight, it sort of circles around a display tables that has books about crochet on it. The audience is mixed, good balance of male and female, good ethnic mix and, best of all, they’re young – maybe averaging at around mid-20s. That’s all the more unusual when you consider that the city is mostly older and affluent. To attract an audience like this is surely the sort of thing his handler will take back to the publisher.
The handler was suggested by his editor. “She’ll help you make all the arrangements; it’ll free you up so you can focus on getting pages down.” That was the most appalling horseshit. The handler was there to take the temperature. Sales weren’t good on his last two books and although it still made all of the usual lists, that was now a given rather than a bonus. He briefly thought back to that magical Summer evening when he hit the best-seller lists for the first time. There had been whooping and wine and sex. The last time he hit the best-seller list his editor sent him an email asking if he had corrected the proofs for the German version.
He was saying a few words before the signing started. Generous, self-deprecating comments pushing his brilliance to one side and blaming the excellent crowd on the weather. Inside he thought about his pages. There were none. It was the book’s central idea that was the problem – there wasn’t one. He’d declared a breakthrough on this book so many times that it was becoming a bit of a cliché. Every time he thought he’d pinned the idea down it slithered from under his grasp like a squid. Fucking analogies.
“With no further ado then let me open the signing and thank you in advance for your patience.”
The table was set, a comical number of his favourite marker pens, a drink – lightly alcoholic – and, of course, his handler. The first reader came forward and smiled.
“Please could you sign this,” she asked and he took the book from her hands, opened it and fired his standard greeting into the inside cover.
“Thanks. Do we get the twenty pounds from you as well?” she asked.
The handler’s head snapped up.
It felt tickly, that was a warning. It felt a bit like a cough, but also like a bit of the food had got stuck in her throat. The difference was that coughing really didn’t do anything to remove the sensation. She started to cough anyway, a light, high-throated Hrrrem noise that she repeated two or three times.
“Are you all right, Shirley?”
“Bit of a frog,” she managed to croak in-between hrrrems.
But she knew. It had only happened two times before and those were in very different circumstances. Very different.
Shirley started to panic. If previous occasions were anything to go by then within a few minutes her throat would be closing up and her breathing would sound like a punctured bagpipe.
“Ladies and gentlemen, will you please rise for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.”
There was a sound of chairs being politely scraped back and a hundred cake forks hitting plates as the star of the garden party arrived. Even given her situation Shirley found the power of royal obedience compelling her legs to stand. She tried to hrrrem even harder in the hope that it would dislodge something.
But she knew. The real horror was how had it been triggered? She knew it was absurd, but she searched her mind for any way in which she could have forgotten a meeting of that sort in the last few hours. But there was nothing! Of course, there was nothing! She and Katya had been in the hotel, they had dressed and as the invitation had promised carriages had arrived – albeit a hackney carriage, where it had deposited them here and they had joined the queues of ladies, all looking so stately and perfect.
It had to be something she had eaten then. She breathed hard through her nose and looked at her plate. Two fairy cakes – which were exquisite – and three long-fingered sandwiches. A cup of tea with milk. Shirley was peripherally aware that the Queen was circulating closer to their table. She was shaking hands with a chosen few. She had beautiful, long white gloves. It was true what they said too – she was smaller than you expected. She exuded a force though.
HRRREM – another effort to dislodge the blockage. Katya was now shifting between beaming with joy at the nearby royal and looking with a dark concern at Shirley. Shirley looked at the Queen and wondered why she was so bendy. Why would the Queen have black splodges on her? The roof of the tent was beautiful. Why didn’t everyone lie on their back and look at it, like Shirley did.