In order to keep my mind focused on writing and not allow this blog or other things to become an excuse for not getting on with the actual act of writing I’ve decided I’ll publish an excerpt every Friday.
It might only be a sentence or paragraph some weeks – I figure maybe it will help me with bits I’m not sure on or are unhappy with. I guess some of what I publish here might not even be in the final, full, story but rather end up being a stepping stone I needed but subsequently remove.
It’s absolutely terrifying to publish something from the story which has been mine and mine along until now. I don’t for a minute think anyone is reading this blog or cares what I write but it’s terrifying all the same. But I guess feeling that and publishing anyway is also a step as a writer in some way.
So…I’ll delay no longer. The first excerpt I’m sharing is the words I wrote this week. All of them.
It’s a first draft of a full scene from early on in the story and in my notes I refer to it as ‘the painting’. I hope that one day I’ll look back on this and chuckle at how far I’ve traveled as a writer since.
If you’re reading this now…please be kind…this is a step I’m taking, not a destination reached.
The painting – excerpt from Winter
I only needed to waste another half hour and I could go home and tell Pete I’d taken an early finish with a headache. Today had been unbearably long and I couldn’t settle into the routine I’d been building for myself over the last three weeks since losing my job and started the charade of pretending I hadn’t.
The summer had been miserable; grey days, cold winds and rain. Always the rain. But a week ago, with autumn appearing just around the corner and the first signs of Christmas sparkling in shop windows, the sun had appeared.
It hung low in the sky creating a clammy, damp heat that made everyone impatient and intolerant of their fellow city dwellers. I’d missed my place of work for the first time in this heat. Even in the shade of a tree in the park I’d been uncomfortably hot, the feeling of the air being too close around me, and longed for the dim lighting and cool of the storeroom at the back of the library.
But now there was just 30 more minutes to fill before I would allow myself to go home and tell a small lie to perpetuate my bigger one.
I left the park and waited to cross the road. Next to me a tall man with a middle-aged paunch pushing at the buttons of his shirt sweated and signed. He held his suit jacket bunched by the collar in one hand, the bottom corner of it touching the ground as he rolled his shoulders trying to unstick the shirt from damp skin. I looked at him from the corner of my eye as he wrinkled his stub of a nose and squinted deep-set eyes. He impatiently reached across in front of me and pressed at the crossing button a few more times, muttering under his breath at the wait and the effort of turning his head to look for gaps in the traffic.
As the crossing beeped at us he stumped angrily across to the other side, the jacket still trailing slightly on the ground as he rushed. Down his back the shirt was wet with a line of sweat and as I followed more slowly I could smell him lingering in the thickness of the air.
The man was away, and I wondered at how he was making himself get even more hot and bothered by rushing while I tried to move as little as possible, as slowly as I could to get on my own way. I stepped back onto the pavement and turned the other way, relieved to be heading into the shade of a quieter side street.
I knew exactly where I was going; a traditional Italian ice cream and coffee parlour two corners down.
Pete had taken me there once, not long after we’d arrived in the city, when we’d still done something akin to going on dates and he was exploring restaurants, cafes and markets that would help him be a better chef in the job he’d just landed.
We’d been on our way home from spending the evening in a shed in the garden of a run-down townhouse the other side of the park. Pete had wanted to meet an eccentric old boy his boss had mentioned who grew mushrooms in the dark of his shed. The introductions had been made and we’d gone round there, wrapped tight in coats and scarves against the winter and sat on upturned boxes in the entrance to the wooden hut.
The mushroom man, Crispin, seemed to feel no cold at all as he stood beneath a clear sky gently frying one single specimen of each variety for us to taste. Crispin turned the blackened pan from side to side, the gas of his ancient camping stove bright blue against the dark of the night. Pete had held my hand and squeezed my fingers, a sort of touch telepathy to let me know he was finding the whole thing unbearably funny too.
Pete wasn’t so angry all the time back then. I’d looked everywhere but at him as he tried to keep his giggles under control and have a professional conversation with the man in the velvet smoking jacket and cravat, cooking mushrooms in his garden, under a sky full of stars.
We’d left with two punnets, stuffed with the varieties Pete had been impressed with. I balanced them on top of everything already in my battered Gladstone bag and closed the clasp, hoping not to open it at home to find the funghi and dirt mixed in with my lipstick, phone and keys. As Crispin shook our hands and let us out through the garden’s side gate Pete and I hurried arm in arm away along the street, burying our faces into our chests and laughing at how ridiculous the evening had been. We’d giggled at impressions of Crispin as we walked along the edge of the park and as we got to the corner, the one where I’d just crossed today, Pete grabbed my arm, spun me toward him and surprised me with a long, needy kiss. We drew reluctantly apart at the sound of the crossing beeping and I clearly remember how time seemed to slow as I stared straight at Pete, a big smile on my face.
Even back then, when we were in love and excited at our life with each other, Pete rarely kissed me. It was a thing we’d never really done. Not regularly, not like I always assumed other couples did. When it happened I usually opened my eyes to Pete looking sad, or not being able to look at me at all. It had just always been one of those things that it seemed easier not to do.
But that night it had felt as if Pete needed to kiss me, as if he couldn’t stop himself from doing it. And as we stood looking at each other in the glow of the city street, he didn’t look sad at all. It was a proper kiss and the surprise of love made me shiver as much as the cold air.
He took my hand and as we crossed the road he began talking about the ice cream parlour and how he’d heard the Gelato was the best in the city, that they did this flavour and that. He babbled away for the length of the street and as the cafe came into view, it’s awning still stretched above the pavement, he talked about the hot chocolate, the biscotti, we would have that night.
We’d sat at a table in the window as the staff played cards over the counter and cleaned the cafe between hands. I’d wrapped my cold fingers around the warmth of the mug of hot chocolate and let Pete do the talking, letting his thoughts air out-loud, already over the humour of the evening and onto the serious business of making something delicious with the produce he’d found.
We hadn’t sat or talked like that for a long time. Pete didn’t share his ideas with me now, didn’t ask me to taste this or that, didn’t take me with him when he went to meet suppliers. I brushed a piece of hair from in front of my eye and felt sweat gathering on my forehead, the small part of me that had started to murmur about missing Pete was drowned out by the need to get to the cafe, to stop walking, to eat something cold.
The awning was out again today, offering further shade to those sat at the little round wooden tables beneath it. I waited momentarily at the door for a woman with a small boy dribbling pink and white ice cream from the cone he was holding onto his hand as they left and set off the way I’d come.
Inside the air was still warm but felt more pleasant for being moved slowly by ancient wooden ceiling fans, the cool of the ice cream counter reached me and I smiled at the good decision I’d made to come here, greedily eyeing up the bright colours and assortment of flavours on offer.
The Italian-looking girl that served me didn’t talk, but just smiled as she piled three scoops of my chosen flavours into a plain metal sorbet bowl, took my money and handed me the ice cream and a spoon. I tucked my purse under one arm and headed out of the back of the cafe into a small courtyard with another couple of tables all moved to one side to be in the shade.
One was already taken by a couple of American tourists hunched over unfolded maps and leaflets. I made my way to the other table and tried to watch them subtly as I savoured the cool of the ice cream.
I was almost finished when they got up and left. Alone in the courtyard I made the last couple of spoonfuls of my treat last as long as I could and looked up as the waitress that had served me finished wiping down the American’s table and turned to go back inside.
As she moved away I noticed a small staircase leading down from the corner of the yard behind that other table. A poster was Blu-tacked lopsidedly to the wall next to it and as I focused on it, curious as to what it showed, my heart beat faster and the ice cream threatened to curdle as a slight shock hit my stomach.
I scrapped my chair back, absently picking up my bag and walking unsteadily across the courtyard to get a closer look at the poster, sure I must be mistaken in what I thought it’s swirl of colours depicted.
As I stood on the top step, face level and up close to the image there was no mistake. I looked back around at the courtyard and the flapping strings of bright blue beads acting as a curtain at the door back into the cafe. I was alone in the yard but from inside I could hear an order being taken and the coffee machine whistling and frothing.
I deliberately let my eyes travel straight over the poster so I wouldn’t have to take the shock of seeing it again and looked down the steps. At the bottom a wooden door with peeling burgundy paint was propped open leading to a cool bright white space.
I crouched slightly and saw the wooden floor and white walls, the very bottom of a few paintings hung on the wall opposite the entrance. I stood back up again and looked once more on the poster. I took in the scene of the badly photocopied and laminated poster, an estranged but familiar name at the top, the dates of the exhibition below.
I swallowed hard, all the heat had gone from me and the sweat it left behind made me shudder as I swallowed hard and tried not to think about the nausea rising. I turned and walked down the steps, my feet falling heavily on each one, blood pounding in my ears. As I went through the door the image so poorly shown on the poster was in its full glory on the wall opposite me.
I was suddenly no longer in this strange little room at the back of the ice cream parlour on a hot city day; I was instantly miles and years away inside an image I thought existed only in my memory and was now hung in front of my face.