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An Exercise in Patients

ImageHe bestrides the plastic chairs like a colossus, sinking upon them with the dire decision of a Hoffmann Press; and yes, as the thin foam cushions wheeze in protest, it is entirely possible some steam does rise.  Bestowing an avuncular smile upon the sad woman in the wheelchair, he begins a genial conversation in a voice expelled from his chest with the gusto of an organ’s tenor pipe.  His t-shirt and his shell-pants don’t quite meet.

The sad woman does not really want to talk, for she is old and her years drape from her like the folds and furls of a badly-fitting conscience.  She hates her visibility, the statement she makes:  ‘I am ancient and disabled – only pain could bring me to this’.   Her eyes betray no direction the room can see, but at home upon her favourite window-seat a book lies waiting, neatly marked at her place.  Her eyes have never left it.  She wants, she so badly needs, to finish her book.

“It’s paint, you see.  It’s stuck.”  Explains a man with a red eye to a little woman who dutifully listens, while secretly wondering how she came to be drawn into conversation.  “They don’t know what it is.  It should have cleared by now, but it hasn’t.”  He squints to offer further justification:  a finger begins to rise threateningly towards his lower eyelid and the woman draws back, alarmed.

She smiles politely.   There is nothing wrong with her, she says apologetically – she is here with her husband.  “They’re seeing him now.”

A policeman, mighty in protective black, rattles around the corner.  He scans his assembled audience with his best ‘Any terrorists?’ glance, then jingles from sight for a moment to reappear, accompanied this time by a fellow rattler who has a miscreant on his wrist.  They sit, the three of them.

There is nothing remarkable about the miscreant apart from his manacled attachment to the fat jingling man.   He is very white – white singlet vest, white trousers, white trainers, white flesh.  He is also very under-weight, unfortunate in a man who has decided to tell his life in pictures, for the tattoos that adorn him have shrunk to a point where they are indecipherable.  Only one, a voluptuous and very naked female on his arm, remains regrettably explicit; though disfigured by diet.  Clearly Mr. White has woken this morning and donned his ‘ready to be arrested’ look; and he seems to bear no ill-will towards his captors, with whom he jokes freely. 

A chariot-race for the lavatory ends badly.  The polite ‘After you’ duologue does little to diffuse the grinding of metal or the subsequent mutterings of the elderly loser.  The name of the man lying across five chairs is called.

“Mr. Odergrass?”

He has been sleeping, or in some way dormant there for as long as anyone canImage remember.  Few seem to have noticed him.  His rising, difficult and undignified as it is, causes raised eyebrows from those of us who nearly sat on him, apparently.  He limps painfully to his destiny with a look of accusation at the woman talking to the red-eyed man about dogs.  Maybe she did sit on him?

Oscar Wilde enters.   Tall and regal of bearing with the arrogance of the artist in his stride he uses a rolled umbrella as a walking cane.  He is also wearing a long overcoat.  It is thirty degrees outside.  He glares around him at the seating arrangements, tutting disapprovingly, then stalks to a chair free of immediate neighbours, where he imitates the actions of Mr. Odergrass.  He smells of alcohol.  He snores sonorously.

The waiting room – an hour gladly spent for the new characters I found there, though I would have wished for other than a hospital accident and emergency department, maybe.  There is so much to be gained in watching the actions and interactions of people forced into proximity by time and circumstance it is no wonder so many great writers have weakened.  A simple set with volumes of space for reflection. A thousand unwritten plots.



There have to be times when the tyranny of the blank page gets to the best of us, and I’m certainly no exception.   There are occasions when I cannot think of words, let alone sentences, and the river simply stops flowing.  So I thought I’d explain what I do when that happens, and compare notes with you. 

First of all, if I have already been working on something, I stop.  There’s no point in pursuing it if the inspiration which drives it is dry.

Then I start with the blank page.

I think of a place I know.  A street, a park, a piece of pavement.  Then I change it a little.  Give it a different name.  Maybe it would look better with a church, there, a large limousine parked there, or a bus at a bus stop nearby.

Now I put feet on the street.  Whose?  Male, female, young, old?  Usually I tie these things to someone I know, too.  But then I alter her a little – make her more attractive, or less:  give her a mannerism that adds substance – why does her hand twitch that way?  Why does she seem distracted – even anxious?

And I walk with her.  Yes, I do.  I try to view her life from the inside – see what she sees, do what she would do.  Or he – it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter yet, but it’s beginning to.  It starts to matter a lot more as she passes the big limousine and its door swings open, or a man leaps from the bus and begins running towards her, shouting………and I have a story.

The point is, I don’t plan it.  I don’t plan anything, I’m afraid.  I honestly had no idea where this was going five minutes ago, and I have no idea what will occur in the next five.  Will it be a short story or a book?  It might even be an article about road safety!

So, to those who insist I should plan my writing, I am a nightmare.  If I know where my story is going I cease to be engaged, and I simply won’t write it.  It will join the realms of the unfinished that march in legions across my hard drive.

This works for me.  What about you?  How do you meet the tyranny of the empty page?

I just surfaced from immersion in an article about etiquette – the kind of thing that brings out the zealot in certain people and transforms them into pre-occasion monsters – what sort of gift to bring to a party, how many drinks should be the maximum, whether to formally introduce anyone lower in rank than a Duchess, and so on.   Not a pretty subject (well, not to me) and not a new one, either.  In fact, the days of ‘finishing school’ and ‘Coming Out’, while not entirely behind us, have dwindled into a rather comic back-cloth, like those back-projection movies shown through car rear windows on old silent films.

And I quite miss them…..

In my world I am one ant in thousands carrying a bit of leaf back to the nest.  I am a six-figure number on a Government computer, vaguely scared in case someone presses the wrong button.  I’m a file in the system; Google has a picture of my house, when I go to buy a pair of shoes someone asks for my address, when I go to buy a TV the retailer already knows my address….

Great grandfather proclaimed himself a ‘Society Photographer’.  He married an impossibly air-headed flapper (my great-grandmother) when he was fifty and still using the kind of camera that required his subjects to remain motionless while he went for lunch.  Technology had moved past him, but he didn’t care, and guvnorwhat is more, he was very successful.     He drove an open-topped Morris Oxford down the centre of every road in London demanding loudly that elderly pedestrians and other motorists get out of the way.  He died of a stroke at ninety-two.

My grandfather was a merchant sailor with a master’s ticket.  When they finally gave him a ship he got his own cabin, which he lined with bMC900212933ottles of brandy.   He died aged forty-four, probably of alcoholism, though I like to think he baled rather than face a life in retirement running a Torquay guest house.

Aunt Daisy was a coiffure’d Edinburgh lady who swam and dived in the sea of etiquette as only a Scottish lady can.  Long and elegant, she pronounced any form of ribald enjoyment ‘sinful’ and was devastating in her criticism of bad Scottish dancing.   She also put away prohibitive amounts of very good sherry without turning so much as a hair.   Her house was always filled with flowers which Uncle Hubert insisted should be stripped from their vases and re-deployed for her funeral.  Uncle Hubert was parsimonious in other ways too.   At dinner he was famed for his detailed examination of restaurant menus.  His habit of carrying menus from several different restaurants with him and openly comparing them with the fare offered did not necessarily endear him to waiters.

In my youth I befriended a sign-writer:  not one of those undoubtedly highly-skilled guys who cut out and stick vinyl letters onto plastic, but a genuine original with paints and brushes and a ladder.  The back seat of his car was a mass of colour with spilled paints and congealed brushes stuck all over it.  The car only had three gears and Harold had never learned to change them, so he drove everywhere in second…..

Where have they all gone, these probably unpleasant but colourful, interesting people whose lives were defined not by what they were, but by who they were?    In today’s world ‘The Gov’nor’ my great grandfather would have quailed before digital technology and his driving or his manners would have ended in a gaol sentence.   Shipping in the English Channel would be far too busy for my grandfather to miss all of it, and Daisy would be a sad old woman buffeted by a busy street.

What of Hubert, confronted by ‘fine dining’?   Driven downmarket, might he have resorted to Pizza Express?  Imagine, if you can!   And Harold the sign-writer?  Well, the times caught up with Harold long before the retirement he richly deserved.  His craft died far too long before he did.

The obvious common characteristic of each of these individuals was just that – their individuality.   What was so different, then?   When did we become the sober, calculating machines that people the modern Metropolis?  How did it creep in, this insidious ‘patterning’ we are told we all must follow?   What, in floods and volumes and avalanches of individuality have we suppressed – have we lost?    Orwell warned us, and we thought we listened, didn’t we?

So this New Year I raise a calculating glass (150 calories, 75cl alcohol content) to those who turned the grey street of my past into a kaleidoscope of colour and I wish them well, at whatever stage they have reached upon their journey.  They may have sworn at me or made me laugh, hit me or kissed me, but not one of them would be seen carrying a bit of leaf back to anyone’s nest.

(media courtesy Microsoft clipart)