The character sketch send me bonkers, I hate description and very thinly set my fiction, so 1k word description of someone was a struggle. So I made it into a scene in a story:
The two articles in the paper were four pages apart: the inquest and the obituary. One, full of judgements about the neglect of the pub’s owners, workers and patrons talking and drinking as an old man suffered a stroke and slowly died in the corner. The other full of love for the regular of thirty eight years, who had celebrated anniversaries and birthdays; children and grandchildren; good friends. The inquest had concluded, Duncan Anderson died by natural causes. The defiant obituary had concluded, he had died of a broken heart.
Julie folded the paper over at the obituary, flattened it down, and left it on corner of the oak bar. Customers would want to see the write up, even if they had helped write it. The picture of Duncan did him little justice, he was always camera shy. Maggie came out better, barely reaching his chin, smiling at the camera, thin hair neatly brushed back and pinned into a small bun, her hand lost in his.
The barmaid, Denise was already in, shaking off the drizzle onto the flagstones. ‘Want me to light the fire, love?’ Julie had put it off, Duncan had always come in and put a match to the paper, sticks and logs in the pub’s inglenook. He was like a child, the orange glow lighting up his grey, bushy hair, his thick eyebrows. He used to say Maggie wouldn’t let him light the fire at home, called him a pyromaniac just because he once set fire to some washing she was hoping to air in front of the wood burner.
Harry, the landlord, came in with a tray. ‘Is that the paper?’
Julie took a cloth and started polishing the still warm glasses, the squeak of the clean cloth echoing around the dark bar as Denise and Harry bent over the paper.
‘The Doc gave evidence at the inquest.’ Harry waved at the paper. ‘Is that in there too?’
‘We all gave evidence.’ Julie could feel her throat closing, a harsh note in her voice.
‘Well, we know the truth, don’t we love?’ Harry put an arm round her broad shoulders, briefly squeezed. Julie looked across at the empty, scratched leather chair by the fire. ‘The doc wrote the bit about Maggie, I never knew Dunc was so much younger than her.’
‘They met down at the Big Wheel Café, on the common.’ She lined up the glasses on the shelf, ran a duster over the brass fisherman’s lamps beside the spirit bottles. ‘She got TB when she was at school, spent some time in hospital. She used to say, she was left on the shelf, so she went to work as a waitress. She only got talking to Duncan because she couldn’t understand his accent when he ordered a cuppa.’
‘Was it Aberdeen?’
‘Arbroath.’ She touched the grainy picture in the paper with a finger, covering his deep-set eyes, so crinkled with laughter lines they almost disappeared when he smiled. He had organised her daughter’s brownie camp. He had sung behind her, two places to the left and one back, in the church choir. He had missed an E at her wedding. She walked over to the coat rack by the door and hesitated.
‘Go on, Julie, just for today. They will be a few in to pay their respects.’ Denise stood by the wingchair, one slim hand out.
Julie folded the scratchy, woollen seaman’s jacket over her arm. Despite the months of hanging up, it still smelled like Duncan, green sea, wet dog and the ghost of tobacco. It was moulded by his wide shoulders, one button hanging by a different coloured thread. Denise laid it reverently in the wing chair, as the sticks began to crackle and catch in the fireplace.
‘Tatty old thing, he always swore it saved his life in the merchant navy.’ At Harry’s curious look Julie continued. ‘One trip, out to Oslo with car parts I think, they got caught up in a terrible storm, he nearly got hypothermia, one of his mates got frostbite. He always said that coat saved him. It’s a submariners coat, it was his dad’s. Him and his brother were in the Royal Navy. They wouldn’t take Dunc because one of his legs was too short.’
Julie looked around, suddenly seeing Duncan everywhere. The barstool second to last bore the scars of encounters with Duncan’s built up shoe. His photograph holding a seabass (4lb 6oz third prize Parcombe pier fishing competition, 1994) was up on the noticeboard. His darts were up on the high shelf above the board where the local teams competed.
‘Morning all.’ A tall man in a suit smiled at Harry, nodded at the women. ‘I’ve come in to buy a bottle of whiskey to put on the bar. Give everyone who wants one a free tot on me, Harry. I’ll be over once the antenatal surgery is over. I think we need to remember Duncan as we knew him, after the write up of the inquest.’
Julie brushed the back of her fingers against one itchy eye, was surprised to find it wet. ‘We did the right thing, didn’t we, Doctor James?’
‘We did.’ His voice had authority, a conviction. ‘And we told the truth at the inquest. Duncan had a stroke, and he died. There wasn’t much we could have done about it, even if we had called an ambulance. Since Maggie’s death, all Duncan wanted was to be with his friends. He chose not to go to hospital. We were all there. We respected his wishes. We were good friends.’
Julie could almost feel Duncan’s cold hand, the fingers stained orange from his pipe, nails short on his stubby fingers, unable to grip hers. His eyes, deep set, deep green, looking into hers, not afraid, just holding hers. The doctor had been talking to him, soothing, reassuring, but Julie had felt as if it were just her and Duncan, locked in together for the two hours of his dying. Then she had taken a breath and he had not.
‘We were his family.’
I didn't give it a title, but my tutor felt it worked well, as a character sketch of someone I who wasn't even there. It's a pedestrian piece about an artificial subject but I liked the contrast between the obit and the inquest reporting in the paper, and so did my tutor. And it's very short on adjectives and adverbs!
My short story was better received, partly because I took a moral dilemma and twisted it around. My aim was to take the impossible - deliberately killing a child - and make it seem understandable on some level. My tutor liked it, even was disappointed when the child didn't die, so got into the story as intended. She managed to pick up my addiction to adverbs though, slowly, softly, gently, carefully, momentarily all being called superfluous. She's right, I tried taking them out. Worked fine. Rats! I don't even see them half the time.
One thing she did say (and the reason I'm not floating it here) is that she thought it would work well as a radio play. That stumped me, because the one literary form I have no interest in (except maybe life writing) is radio, because I can't stand it. They say you are a visual, kinetic or an aural learner - I am completely kinetic and visual, if I can't see it or do it, I'm lost (and rapidly bored). So books on tape, radio programmes, are impossible for me. But, over the years, I have been told many time that my dialogue pieces would work well on radio. A363 includes radio in part of the coursework, it does rather suggest I should at least have a look.
So I'm going to have a go! She's suggested the BBC writer's room website and the My Story project, too. More work - I'm swamped but obsessed - and that's without teaching science or worrying about the Chaucer.