Day 20 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Having been asked to produce a piece of erotica for today’s challenge, I couldn’t help thinking that a) that’s not the stuff I write and b) it’s not the sort of stuff I want to write. Besides, as a teacher in a secondary school, it’s definitely not the sort of stuff I should be writing either. So, instead I’ve produced my own take on the theme and imagined how a woman might find solace in chocolate instead.

Hungry for Love

Julie’s husband’s having an affair. She wouldn’t mind, but it’s ruining her waistline. When they married, she looked like a matchmaker, a slim silhouette in pointy high heels. Now, however, she’s a fat Malteser, her belly rounded by the chocolate she’s eaten.

Julie’s husband’s having an affair. He sees his secretary twice a week for a quick roll on the office floor. Julie goes to Tesco every day and has a swiss roll on the bus. When they married, she was only seven stone. Now she stands on the scale and realises she’s considerably more; she’s been weighed and found wanting.

Julie’s husband’s having an affair. He comes home from work with lipstick on his collar and another woman’s smell on his skin. Julie has chocolate smeared lipstick and cellulite on her thighs. When they married, she thought he was the most romantic man she had ever known; these days, her idea of a hot date involves just her with a giant Mars bar and a family sized bag of popcorn.

Julie’s husband’s having an affair …

Julie’s husband doesn’t know she knows. He thinks she hasn’t spotted the tell-tale signs, the grey hair dyed brown again, the sudden interest in jogging. He thinks she hasn’t noticed that he’s not where he says he is, when he says he is. Julie’s husband thinks she doesn’t know.

Julie does know, of course, just like she knew about the one before, and the one before that. The one before was her best friend; the one before that, his ex-wife. Julie’s known them all and they’re all the same: skinny blonde bimbos who don’t eat for weeks at a time.

The first time it happened, she was thin too – until despair drove her to the drive-in, stuffed her full of sympathetic burgers and friendly fries. Chocolate comforted her; biscuits dried her tears. By the time he got onto number two, she’d gone from a size ten to a fourteen and forgotten what her waist looked like.

Julie’s husband doesn’t know she knows. He thinks she believes him when he says he’s ‘working late’, just like he believes her when she says she’s joined Weight Watchers. Julie’s husband doesn’t know she knows …

Julie’s got some secrets of her own. Julie’s husband flirts with the tart in the office whilst Julie dallies with three jam tarts and a cream horn. Julie’s husband looks for crumpet in the typing pool whilst Julie loads her shopping trolley with crumpets and thick, white bread. Julie’s husband whispers sweet nothings in other women’s ears; Julie pushes Wispas and other sweet somethings into her mouth. Julie’s husband can’t keep his hands off his secretary; Julie can’t keep the inches off her hips. Julie’s got some secrets of her own.

She has tried to get thinner but somehow nothing seems to work. She’s tried every diet in the book: the Atkins, the Cambridge, the Hip and Thigh; in fact, she’s tried them all at the same time and still found herself hungry. She’s cut down on eating between meals – and started eating six meals a day. She’s bought exercise DVDs and watched them religiously, stuffing squares of chocolate into her mouth as she does so. In the end, she just gave up trying and went back to sticking pins into Barbie dolls.

Julie’s husband sits in front of his computer. He drools over scantily clad females, indulges in erotic daydreams. Julie watches ‘Bake Off’, ‘Masterchef’ and Delia Smith. She salivates at the sight of ingredients in their saucepans, wallows in gourmet fantasies. Julie’s husband hides a stack of magazines under the bed: naked girls pout at the camera. Julie has a secret hoard too: seductively packaged chocolate calls to her from the kitchen cupboards.  Julie’s husband goes out twice a week, taking his secretary for sordid sex in a quiet hotel. While he’s gone, Julie has her own secret rendezvous with the cake tin, crams slice after slice into her mouth and lovingly licks up the crumbs.

She used to cry herself to sleep when it first happened, would sob into her pillow every night that he didn’t come home. Now she takes herself to bed with a mug of hot chocolate, three Lion bars and a Bounty, bites into her marshmallows and gorges herself into oblivion.

Julie’s got some secrets of her own …

Julie’s decided she doesn’t like her husband any more. She’s thought about leaving him, but she’s worried he’ll get custody of the freezer. She’s dreamed about killing him, but she doesn’t know how. Julie needs to find a way out …

Today is their anniversary. Julie thinks she’ll make him a cake. She collects her utensils, her ingredients, and sets to work.

Eight ounces of flour                           (Eight instances of adultery)

Eight ounces of butter                        (Eight years of infidelity)

Eight ounces of sugar                         (Too many unexplained phone calls)

Four eggs                                            (Too many nights when he didn’t come home)

Two ounces of cocoa                          (Too late to make it work now)

She tips the whole lot into her mixing bowl, adds one other ’special ingredient’ and starts to stir the mixture. If only life were as uncomplicated as baking, she thinks. But even in the stories she read as a child it went wrong: she should have realised then that her gingerbread husband would run away from her too.

She pours the chocolate goo into two tins, makes sure the oven is hot enough. If she had her husband here at this moment, she’d make him test it by climbing inside, like the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’. She can’t, of course: she grew up long ago and adults aren’t allowed to do such things.

She put the tins in the oven, sets the timer for twenty minutes. She’s got just long enough for a little treat. She might have a Feast to celebrate.

The cake is done and lies cooling on wire trays. It looks good enough to eat – almost. First she has work to do. In the office, her husband signs a new contract; in the kitchen, Julie ices his name on the cake. In the car park, her husband kisses his secretary; in the living room, Julie licks her ice lolly.

Julie knows she hates her husband. She knows before he comes in, bringing the flowers that form his apology; knows before he sits down, makes his usual excuse for being late. Julie knows she hates her husband.

She shows her husband the cake. His eyes light up, as she knew they would. She cuts him a large slice and watches while he eats it.

Julie’s husband lies on the floor. His face is a funny colour and he is twitching convulsively. Soon he will be dead. Julie unwraps another Galaxy, peels back the paper, strokes the smooth brown squares. Her husband does not move. She looks at the chocolate, bids a fond farewell to her lover.

Julie steps over her husband, opens the waste bin. There’s no need now for chocolate: she’s finally satisfied.

Day 19 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

As a child, I was lucky enough to have a great-grandmother who told me plentiful stories about her life. This piece is loosely based on some of the stories I remember, but I’ve also used dramatic license to embellish these into a complete story.

  The Patient Lover 

Inspired by the life and death of my great-grandmother, Ivy Conway (1893-1991).

Death courted Ivy for the whole of her life.

Born in 1893, the fourth child out of the six her parents would somehow squeeze into their tiny two-up-two-down back-to-back cottage, she nearly didn’t make it. Her mother bit down hard on a stick, thinking that her other deliveries hadn’t been so difficult. As the scrawny mass of baby, blood and vernix slithered into the world, Emily started to haemorrhage; for the next hour or two, the baby was all but forgotten as she lay, wrapped in a clean towel, in a box in the corner of the room. Luckily, Ivy’s older sisters, Mabel and Evelyn, despite being only six and four, knew instinctively that this little scrap of humanity needed taking care of. When Ivy finally let out a thin wail, Mabel picked her up out of the wooden crate and held her tight, whilst Evelyn fetched a cup of milk from the pantry downstairs. For the next twenty-four hours, they dribbled milk off a spoon into the baby’s mouth, until Emily was stable and could finally feed her newborn child. Death shook his head and retreated until another day.

Despite this shaky start in life, Ivy grew and thrived, just like her siblings. Their father was a cobbler so there was little money but a lot of love. Two years later, Renee arrived, followed (after a more respectable three years’ gap) by Charlie. By now, the little house was bursting at the seams: Ma and Pa had the small bedroom and the children shared the larger one, dividing it into two with a blanket strung over a rope that went from one side of the room to another. The girls squabbled and fought for space in the bed they all shared, but it was a companionable relationship and they loved each other fiercely.

As, one by one, the elder siblings became old enough to work in the mill, Ivy found she could earn a ha’penny a week by carrying the lunch pail to the mill and back every day at noon. This was one of the perks of being the next eldest: when she started work herself, it would be Renee’s turn.

On her eleventh birthday, Ivy was treated to a whole egg for breakfast to mark the occasion of her first day at work. She would be going to school in the mornings this week and then doing the afternoon shift at the mill; and this would alternate with a week of mill first, school second. She grew to hate the morning shifts because she always had to go home and change her cotton-impregnated dress before going to school, and this meant she was often late and would be beaten by the schoolmaster.

Death was a frequent visitor to the mill. The cotton dust in the air had a way of working itself into people’s lungs. Many of the older workers died well before their time. Occasionally, he would steal a glance at Ivy, working busily; he always had a particular fondness for those who had eluded him earlier.

He was the uninvited guest at Ivy’s wedding to Alec, some years later. Perhaps it was his macabre sense of humour, but he couldn’t resist reminding her of his presence with the funeral hearse that almost collided with her carriage as she and her husband left the churchyard. The black plumed horses made a startling contrast to the coloured ribbons Ivy’s sisters had tied to the carriage axles; but Ivy was too starry-eyed with love to notice them.

As time progressed, Death found himself busier than ever. The onset of the Great War saw people dying in their thousands. Miraculously, Ivy remained unscathed – although there was a tricky moment when Alec lashed out in a drunken temper: she hit her head when she fell and was unconscious for several minutes. Fearing for their baby’s safety as much as for her own, Ivy fled her marriage and her husband (they were by now living in Scotland) and made the perilous journey back to Hyde and the safety of her family.

Death followed her to her old spot in the mill, watching attentively as she worked a gruelling sixteen-hour day, six days a week. He left her side for long enough to visit her older brother, Harold, as he lay in a hospital bed, his arm blown away by a bomb. Northern grit ran through the entire Conway family, though, and Harold left hospital some months later, living until his sixties despite his missing limb. Death sighed and returned to Ivy. Perhaps the Second World War would push her into his arms. But no, Ivy’s resilience kept her, her new husband, his children and her daughter alive and well. Even the air raids couldn’t touch them – in fact, the only bombshell that did any damage was when her son-in-law ran off with another woman the year before the war ended, so that he never saw his second daughter; but they soldiered on.

Through decades of disease and despair, Death kept a constant vigil at Ivy’s side, more faithful than either of her husbands. The car accident that killed her stepson left her with a slight limp but otherwise unharmed; the byssinosis that choked the lungs of so many of her former co-workers in the mill somehow passed her by. Time and time again, he issued an invitation for her to join him; on every occasion, she declined.

Renee died in her eighties, a casualty of carcinomatosis. The twenty cigarettes a day she’d smoked for sixty years eventually took their toll. Mabel was only seventy-six – but then she’d had thirteen children and the rapid succession of pregnancies and births, coupled with the anxiety of rearing so many at the same time, had aged her prematurely: her hair was grey by the time she was twenty-five. Charlie, who, as a child, had flirted with Death far more frequently than his sister, nevertheless lived to the ripe old age of eighty-one. Ivy often told her great-grandchildren the thrilling tale of how Charlie had stopped the runaway grocer’s horse-and-cart when he was only a teenager; but he was more likely to have ended his days at the hands of an irate husband, since his womanising ways in later life were legendary. Evelyn died in an old people’s home, well into her nineties. Almost totally blind after a botched cataract operation at eighty-four, she claimed that every time there was a power cut in the Home, she could “hear them carrying out the dead bodies.” As a girl, she’d been unbearably bossy towards Ivy and Renee; as an adult, she was equally unpleasant to her husband and daughter, alienating Alwyn to such an extent that she only visited the Home once or twice a year. Despite this, Ivy wept uncontrollably when Evelyn died: she was now the last remaining sibling and the loneliness was unbearable. “They’ve all left me,” she sobbed as she sat by the fire with her great-granddaughter. Emily (named for Ivy’s mother) held the tiny old lady as if she were a child, her fifteen-year-old wisdom realising it was better to let her cry.

Several times, there were false alarms. A bout of severe pleurisy almost finished Ivy off in 1982. Death sat by her bedside, waiting patiently. She was sufficiently ill for her daughter to make the three hundred miles’ trip from Sheppey to Summit, to be with her mother at the end. It was a wasted journey when Ivy rallied unexpectedly, causing Death to retreat once more and bide his time.

The following year, Ivy moved to Kent herself, claiming that she “couldn’t stand another northern winter”. Sharing an isolated house with her daughter and the dog, she was happy enough, walking round the garden each afternoon and watching ‘Songs of Praise’ every Sunday evening.

By the time she was ninety-five, Ivy started planning her hundredth birthday party. She had an ever-decreasing guest list – not just because all her old friends kept dying off, but mostly because whenever she fell out with someone, she crossed them off the list in a fit of childish petulance. “Well, he’s not coming to my party now!” she was often heard to say.

She never made it to her party. Death, who had waited so patiently for almost ten decades, finally managed to entice her into his arms just a few months before her ninety-eighth birthday. Ivy died as she had lived, with a song on her lips and her heart full of love. Death had finally claimed her – and, like all the best things in life, she had been worth waiting for.

Day 18 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Write something Gothic, they said. Great, I thought. Set it in modern times, they said. That could be a challenge, I thought. After all, what’s creepy about the 21st century?

And then I thought about what might freak someone out today and I penned the following. Welcome to

Grandma’s House

As a child, I was always terrified of Grandma’s house.

I had a nervous disposition as a little girl, thanks to the fairy-stories I read. The witches and ogres in the tales I devoured on a daily basis came back to haunt me by night. I would lie awake for hours, eyes closed, listening to the dark. I was sure I could hear them breathing, even if I couldn’t see their shadowy outlines.

            If I was scared in my own bedroom, Grandma’s house was even worse. Every room had a slightly sinister atmosphere, from the ominous ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway, imitating a human heartbeat, to the creepy dolls in the spare bedroom, lined up like miniature corpses, watching me. I dreaded staying there overnight, my imagination working overtime to produce in me a state of frozen fear. I was sure that, once my eyes were closed, they would come to life, slithering off their shelves and approaching me, zombie-like, with outstretched arms.

I may have been scared of their house, but I loved my grandparents. White haired and twinkly-eyed, they embodied everything grandparents should be. Grandma always smelled of baking and bitter almonds; Grandad of Guiness. (The doctor said it was good for him.) I remember sitting with them both for hours, in the safety of my parents’ company, playing Gin Rummy whilst sucking on one of Grandma’s homemade treacle toffees. (She made them with orange juice and claimed they were good for sore throats.)

When Grandad retired, my visits increased – only, this time, without my parents as I found myself being sent there during the school holidays. At first, I quite enjoyed it. They were a happy couple: two old people who had genuinely enjoyed growing old together. Now in their twilight years, they were able to indulge more freely in the pastimes they’d not previously had time for. Grandad was a gardener and loved making things grow: the garden was a blaze of riotous colour, declaring his joyful passion for life. Grandma’s hobby, on the other hand, was the dead opposite – literally. She had spent years obsessed with taxidermy and her living room was now a testimony to this. Perfectly preserved animals sat on tables and filled cabinets: a pair of sporting badgers, glassy eyed, their mouths and bodies twisted unnaturally to suggest playfulness; a moulting eaglewith a mournful expression – I could go on. Their lifeless eyes unsettled me as much as their forced poses.  Faced with this menagerie of moth-eaten creatures, is it any wonder that I often ended up siting there as rigid as these anthropomorphic inhabitants, desperately awaiting five o’clock when my mother would arrive to take me home?

I was fifteen when we finally moved Grandma into a nursing home. She didn’t tell anyone when Grandad died – I’m sure it was from natural causes, but there was something unnatural about the way she arranged his stuffed, silent body in an armchair by the fire, looking for all the world as if he’d just dozed off. It was three weeks before anyone noticed the difference.

“Probably better if she’s got someone to keep an eye on her,” my mother said tactfully as she signed the paperwork.

To begin with, Grandma hated the home. “What am I doing with all these old people?” she’d ask fretfully, staring at the walls of her bedroom, tastefully distempered in a pale yellow. And, “It’s like a mausoleum in here – everyone just sits staring at the TV.”

She had a point: the residents’ lounge was a dismal affair, with uncomfortable looking chairs arranged in regimented rows, facing an outsized television set that seemed permanently switched on. Assorted old people dotted the seats, not one of them with even a fraction of my grandmother’s vitality.

“They just sit there knitting,” she told me scornfully on one of my visits. “That Mabel in the pink cardigan – she’s been knitting a pair of bedsocks for five weeks now and she still hasn’t got any further than the heel.”

“Can’t you play cards with some of them?” I suggested. I was sure that all elderly people loved Whist and Bridge.

She rolled her eyes despairingly. “Most of them can’t even remember what day of the week it is, let alone keep track of the cards in everyone’s hands. Frank and Harold sometimes ask me to play ‘Happy Families’, but the games go on for days because they keep forgetting who asked for what.”

A few months later, I visited again. My usual pattern of going to see Grandma every weekend had been disrupted by mock-exams and a short-lived romantic liaison. I felt guilty as I entered the Home, wondering if my poor grandmother had been slowly dying of boredom with no one to talk to. When I knocked on her bedroom door, however, she seemed strangely animated.

“You’re looking well,” I remarked, thinking there might be another budding romance in the family.

A mysterious smile hovered on her lips. “I’ve been keeping myself busy,” was all she would say.

We spent a happy afternoon in her room, looking at old photograph albums and reminiscing about Grandad. Just before I left, something struck me.

“Where are all your stuffed animals?” I asked, secretly relieved that they were gone.

She shrugged dismissively. “I don’t need them anymore.” Then, as I was putting on my jacket, she added, “I’ve had a lovely time decorating the living room.”

A feeling of foreboding slowly made its way through my veins. Surely she couldn’t have …

Quickening my pace, I hurried to the Residents’ Lounge to be faced with Grandma’s handiwork: a roomful of octogenarian corpses, displayed like dolls in a variety of positions. Mabel sat, as before, still knitting her bedsocks; Frank and Harold faced each other, each clutching a handful of cards. Every figure was perfectly posed and a trace of bitter almonds lingered on the air.

My childhood terrors of Grandma’s house paled into insignificance beside the horrors of her Home.

Day 17 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This time the challenge is to write a story beginning with a famous first line from a novel. This is my offering, based on the first line of ‘Eureka Street’ by Robert McLiam Wilson.

My First Love

All stories are love stories – and this one is no exception.

I was nineteen, a naïve and idealistic undergraduate, when I fell for one of my English lecturers.  Dr Small wasn’t particularly good looking, but his voice, when he taught us about Romantic Poetry, was hypnotic, mesmerising. I used to close my eyes and let his smooth, mellow tones caress me into a state of almost-ecstasy – instead of making notes, which is what I should have been doing.

Martin Green was my tutor for the first term: he specialised in American literature and we read ‘Catch 22’ and ‘The Tenants’, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. At the time, I wanted grand outpourings of emotion – something akin to ‘Wuthering Heights’, which I’d done for A level, or ‘Jane Eyre’. I longed for a brooding, Byronic hero to cast smouldering glances at me, then sweep me off my feet. None of the protagonists in modern literature did anything for me at all.

Everything changed, though, when we went back after the Christmas holidays. We’d been assigned new tutors and Dr Small was mine. Supercilious to a degree, he was, nevertheless, amazingly erudite; and, like I’ve already said, his voice had me from the first moment I heard it. When he spoke, it was a soulful, smoky blues song and a soporific wine; it was plunging into a waterfall of tones and cadences, and being rocked to sleep in a cradle of sound. I listened intently to every word he said about Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats; when he read out loud in his mellifluous tones, I fantasised that he was speaking to me and me alone.

He was married – I think he might have had children too – but none of that mattered. In a way, his unavailability enhanced his attraction: like a trophy of courtly love, I placed him on a pedestal and worshipped from afar. It was the idea of being in love that mattered most; I see that now.

It’s not as if I’d never had a boyfriend before. I’d had a reasonably long-term relationship with a boy at school when I was sixteen and seventeen – you know the sort of thing: friendship gradually deepens into something more and then you start spending all your time together. We were surprisingly innocent though: the physical side never progressed any further than (what I thought of as) passionate kissing. When I later discovered he’d ‘come out’, I wondered if that was why he hadn’t wanted to take things further: had he been secretly aware of his repressed sexuality all along?

Despite the lack of sexual chemistry, it was a fairly successful courtship. I think we both enjoyed having someone to talk to who could give us the opposite perspective. I had close female friends, but there was a different dynamic in talking to a boy. Even when we stopped dating, we still spent a lot of time together, only without any kissing. At the time, he was an important part of my life.

Maybe that’s why I found myself looking for a replacement once I got to university: I wanted a male confidant, a soul mate who was happy to remain ‘just friends’ without either of us feeling any pressure to make it something more. Paul Simms was in my Hall of Residence – I’d spotted him hanging out in the bar several times before I recognised him in one of my English lectures and struck up a conversation with him afterwards. He was Combined Honours, like me; but whereas I was taking English and French, he had Music as the other component of his degree. We spent a fair few hours together in the Arts Faculty Coffee Lounge after that: drinking tea and eating custard creams and putting the world to rights. Eventually, I found myself telling him about my crush on Dr Small and how incapable I was of writing anything down in any of his lectures. He teased me constantly about it – even more so once Dr Small became my tutor – but it was an affectionate ribbing, nothing malicious.

As the second term drew to a close, I found myself faced with an essay to write for my idol. I desperately wanted to make a good job of it: I’d done well in my assignment for Martin Green, even though I didn’t particularly like the texts; surely writing about poetry was my chance to show Dr Small how much his teaching had meant to me?

For two weeks I travailed over text books, sweated over syntax, burned the midnight oil. This essay was my love letter to a man who’d barely noticed me in tutorials: it was my way of saying, ‘Look, here I am. I exist.’ Painstakingly, I researched every last detail of William Blake’s life, wanting to leave no stone unturned. I desperately wanted Dr Small to take me seriously. A week after the essays were handed in, he returned them with feedback. When he asked to see me in his room – just me: not any of the others – I felt delirious with happiness.

It says something about how delusional I was that I actually convinced myself that he was  going to tell me he liked my essay, maybe even suggest he felt something for me; instead, he tore my writing to shreds. “The title of the course is ‘The Idea of the Poet in the Romantic Period’ but your essay reads like the Ladybird book of William Blake!” His voice was as cold as his eyes as he continued mercilessly, “Maybe you should think about switching to a different degree course – something you might be better at.”

I stared at him in disbelief. I had loved him so passionately, so hopelessly, pouring out my heart in seventeen pages of literary analysis – how could he treat me so callously?

A storm was brewing as I walked back to Hall, the purple and grey sky looking as bruised as my heart. No longer starry-eyed with optimism and inexperience, I had learned the difference between love and infatuation – it’s an easy lesson when you discover your idol has feet of clay.

I couldn’t face dinner that evening. Paul came to call for me – at least, I assume the loud knocking on my door came from his fist – but I remained where I was, curled tight in a tiny, broken-hearted ball beneath my duvet. I couldn’t bear to see him or anyone else who would question my red eyes and tearful face.

It must have been about an hour later when a knocking sounded again – gentler this time, as if the person outside my door was genuinely worried about me. I crawled out of bed and let him in, sniffling miserably whilst I told him my tale of woe. I think I half-expected him to laugh; instead, he wrapped his arms around me and enfolded me in a hug that lasted aeons. “Let’s go to the bar,” he said at last. “You need cheering up.”

I said I couldn’t face the bar at the moment, so Paul disappeared for ten minutes and came back with a bottle of wine. It was only cheap stuff – slightly fizzy – but it did the trick. Within two glasses, I was feeling more relaxed; and as we emptied the bottle, he leaned forward and kissed me. “You know I’ve always had a thing about you, Sarah,” he breathed, the longing in his eyes speaking volumes.

I know what you think I’m going to say: that alcohol and vulnerability conspired to push me into his arms; that when our lips touched, it was with an explosion of desire that incorporated Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve, July the Fourth and every other major fireworks display; that all the months of agony and heartache disappeared when I realised that my best friend was also The One … Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not how it turned out.

We sat and stared at each other for what seemed like ages, the silence between us growing more uncomfortable by the second. His declaration had built a wall between our easy intimacy: things would never be the same again and we both knew it.

Eventually, he spoke. “I shouldn’t have said anything, should I?”

My silence was the only answer he needed.

“I suppose I’d better go, then.” The awkwardness we both felt was palpable.

“I suppose you should.”

We never spoke of that night again.

The following day, I took my rejected essay to Martin Green for a second opinion. If he agreed that it was terrible, then I’d rethink my course; but, in the end, his criticism was more kind than Dr Small’s.

“It’s not a total failure,” he told me, having read the first page. “I’d jettison the first paragraph and start from the bit where you talk about Blake’s reception as a poet. After that, it’s not too bad – not as good as last term’s essay, maybe; but it’s not dire.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could have you back as my tutor?” I asked hesitantly. “I think maybe there’s a bit of a personality clash between Dr Small and me.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he promised and, a week later, I was back where I’d started.

After a while, I began to forget Dr Small. His voice ceased to thrill or mesmerise me the way it had before; and now that I no longer hung on his every word, I realised that he wasn’t even a particularly good lecturer. He was adequate, but not that great.

That’s when I finally fell in love properly: not with a man, but with a subject.  I rapidly became aware that English Literature was my true love – my first and last.

When I did finally marry, years later, it was someone I met by chance at a friend’s party: he was a scientist, not an English graduate, but somehow we just clicked.

All stories are love stories; but they’re not always predictable.

Day 16 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is the Post Script to yesterday’s entry – after all, this is a story of only eight words, more like an afterthought than an actual creative composition.

However, telling a story with as few words as possible is a definite art form: several newspapers and magazines regularly run competitions where entrants have to write a story on a given theme, using only 50 words or fewer. As a teacher, I’ve given the same challenge to students in the past: it’s a good way to decide what’s really important in a story.

So, below is my eight words entry, followed by some of the examples of 50 words stories you can find online. Authors have been credited.

My short story entry

The Divorce: their life ended; her life began.

Examples of 50 words stories from other writers

The Scottish Book Trust has some fantastic entries from children and teenagers – here are a few prizewinning stories:

Theme: your story must include a piano

All-age category winner by Lisa Holland:
The boogie-woogie was driving her crazy. 
Every night, downstairs, her brother would practise those songs on the old piano.
Every night, upstairs, the music would keep her awake.
Until the day she crept downstairs in her pyjamas, and smashed the lid on his fingers.
Now his knuckles had the blues.

Theme: your story must include a bike ride

All-age category winner by Giancarlo Rinaldi:

“Look mum, one hand!” cried Luca, excitedly, the first time he cycled past the family home. Then, the second time around, he shouted with even greater delight: “Look mum, no hands!” But, on the third passing, it was the bicycle that spoke. “Look mum,” it said. “No Luca!”

Theme: your story must include time travel

Young Writers (12-18) category winning fictional story by Ashley Willis, age 16:

Travelling back in time to kiss your tiny palm clinging to life. I’m shredding you out of your skin of wires, machines and pushing you on a swing, healthy giggles erupting the sky. Your life isn’t marked on a stone rotting from rain and tears. In the past you breathe.

It would be interesting to see if any of these talented children become professional writers in the future.

Day 15 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

It must be the weekend because I’ve had time to sit and write at leisure instead of squeezing it into the few precious moments between work and sleep. After the recent briefs of writing an epistolary piece and than an ’80s style ‘Write Your Own Adventure’, it’s been good to return to ‘proper’ story writing today.

Three Sides To Every Story

You gaze at the man lying next to you – the perfect husband; the father of your children – and suddenly you realise that you don’t know him at all.

She wasn’t prying when she discovered the email. He’d left his laptop lying open again and she went to shut it, before the kids could touch something and delete an important work file – and that’s when she saw it.

It’s so hard not having you here all the time. When you come round, I think this is what life is supposed to be like, and then you hurry away at the end of the evening and I’m all alone. Get here as soon as you can tonight. Missing you already xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The knowledge was so unexpected that it caught her off-guard. Was that where he was every night he said he was ‘working late’? How long had it been going on for? Her fingers trembled as she scrolled up the screen to see how many other emails there were from this unknown woman and the sick feeling at the back of her throat intensified.

Last night meant so much …

I wish you could hold me forever …

Can you get away for a weekend? I really want to be able to wake up with you.

She’d thought that knowing would help her understand: instead, it just made her feel worse. He loved someone else, was spending evenings with her instead of with his family. Large, salty tears rolled down her face as she wept for what she’d lost.

*

Women! Why did they have to be so emotional?

You think you’ve got it all figured out by the time you hit thirty: you’re married; settled – then along comes someone who wants you so much that you can’t help straying. After all, it’s flattering to be the one being chased. It’s every man’s dream, isn’t it? To have an attractive woman practically throwing herself at you every time you see her?

Of course, the first time he’d met her, he’d had no idea what would happen. She was a new client and he’d been sent round to do her taxes. He didn’t normally make house calls, but she was paying a lot for the firm’s services – and that meant a substantial percentage for him.

It had seemed quite innocent at first. She’d offered him a drink when he arrived and, despite his better judgement, he’d accepted a glass of wine, telling himself that he’d be okay to drive by the time he’d finished checking her accounts.

Her fingers had touched his as she’d handed him the glass. Startled, he’d looked up, detected something in her eye that suggested she might be interested in more than business. Responding to an unspoken question, he’d followed her into the bedroom and towards the large, unmade bed whose rumpled covers hinted at what she had in mind.

Afterwards, as he dressed hurriedly, she watched him from the bed, her face flushed, her eyes sultry. “That was an unexpected treat!” she murmured.

He said nothing, guilt already choking him. What had he been thinking? He couldn’t let it happen again.

But he did.

*

How did you let yourself get into this mess? she wonders. Before him, it was all so simple. You never let your heart get involved.

She’d thought at first that he would be like the others: a brief interlude of pleasure to break up an otherwise monotonous day. When you worked from home, running your own business, it got pretty lonely. She could have hired an assistant – someone for companionship more than anything else; but she was too paranoid of having her ideas stolen. Freelance design was a poisoned chalice: if you weren’t careful, it would destroy you.

Now she realises that he’s just as dangerous. Her heart used to be intact: these days, it’s just a collection of fragments and each one has his name written on it. She’s a stick of rock, stamped all the way through with her love for a man she can never truly have. Why are you torturing yourself like this? she asks herself, hearing the answer in a whisper: ‘Because half a relationship is better than no relationship at all.’

*

Last night, he didn’t come home until almost midnight. By then, you’d read all the emails, waded through all the heartfelt emotion poured out on page after page. You’d torn at your heart by counting all the kisses, listing all the times she told him she loved him.

And now? Now it feels like there’s nothing left. This man is a stranger. You’re suddenly afraid.

*

I think she suspects something. Last night, she was asleep when I got in. It wasn’t that late – only eleven or just after. This morning, though … She’s lying there, watching me, pretending to be asleep. My eyes are closed, but I can feel the disapproval radiating from her. Maybe I should just confess – get it out of my system; clear the air.

But what if she kicks me out? Or, worse still, asks me to choose …

Choose! I can’t choose! How do you make a choice between two things you want equally? It’s like asking someone to choose between eating and sleeping, drinking and breathing.

No, better to say nothing, to let her think she’s imagining it. I can’t give either one of them up. I shouldn’t have to.

*

She wakes, as usual, in a bed empty of anyone other than herself. Every morning it’s the same: the night before always feels like a dream, an illusion. Greedily she clutches at any lingering moments that glitter like dewdrops on the spiderweb of memory, but the mirage melts in her fingers and she is left lonely and bereft.

When he isn’t here, the ache in her heart is so strong it feels like her soul is being ripped out of her body in a grotesque parody of giving birth. I’m pregnant with misery, she thinks sadly, knowing that he’ll never give her a child when he has a family of his own already.

She spotted them in the park once: he’d foolishly told her he was taking the children out for the afternoon on Sunday. He didn’t know she was there: she sat, stalker-like, swathed in scarf and woolly hat, peeping out at them from behind her copy of ‘The Telegraph’. Was that why these papers were so large? So people – spies, rejected lovers – could hide behind them whilst on stake-out?

She’d planned, at first, to wander up casually and say hello. A part of her was curious to see his children up close, to ascertain whether they looked more like him or Her.

She couldn’t do it. This was a part of his other life: she couldn’t intrude.

Bitterly, she wondered why it was that men could compartmentalise so easily: a box for work; a box for his wife and children; a box for his mistress. What was it Byron had said? Something about love being only a part of a man’s life but being “Woman’s whole existence”. And Byron should know! she thought grimly. Didn’t he have something like sixteen illegitimate children? He was definitely the ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ type.

Long after they’d left the park, she still sat there, her fingers freezing in the cold. But they weren’t as icy as her heart.

*

Looking forward to seeing you tonight. I can’t believe how much I miss you when you’re not here. My bed feels empty without you in it.

He stares at the email, his heart thumping. She knows.

“Do I need to show you the rest?” Her voice is tight; she’s holding onto self-control by her fingertips, as if it is a clifftop and she is clinging to the edge.

He doesn’t answer, so she continues to scroll through every damning scrap of evidence:

The first time I saw you, my heart swelled with the crescendo of violins. You are all I can think about, day or night. I love you. I love you. I love you. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

I’ve missed you so much these past few weeks. It’s been the longest fortnight ever. Come round as soon as you get back. Love you xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

All is not lost, though: he’d prepared for this eventuality, deleted his own emails so only her side of the conversation remains.

“She’s a client with a crush on me,” he says confidently. “It’s all one-sided, I promise. Look, all the emails are from her – I haven’t encouraged her.”

She’s less certain now, wanting to believe him – if only to save her marriage; dreading the consequences if she lets him get away with it.

He takes hold of her shoulders gently, twists her round to face him as deftly as he manipulates her with his words.

“Would I really be stupid enough to leave the emails on my laptop if I was having an affair?”

Now he says it, it all sounds so preposterous that she almost laughs. Almost. Not quite.

“What about the email with a thousand kisses?” she asks in a small voice.

He feigns surprise. “Really? I had no idea. I haven’t read any of her messages – she’s obviously deluded.”

“A thousand kisses,” she repeats. “I counted them all. That’s a bit over the top if it’s just one-sided.”

“There’s nothing going on – I promise.”

And his eyes are so sincere, his tone so heartfelt that she starts to wonder if he’s telling the truth.

*

We sit in still proximity as the evening draws to a close. The words you’ve told me are still echoing in my mind; half-empty wineglasses pressed to our lips.

“You always knew it would be over if She ever found out,” is what you say at last, and I nod dumbly, unable to protest.

I’ve already taken you to my bed – ‘break up sex’, that’s what they call it these days. Ironic, isn’t it, that an act of closeness should be the way to say goodbye.

By now, I know She’s seen the emails and that you’ve covered your back by lying. Technically, we could carry on as before – she’s not really any the wiser.

That’s not what you’ve decided, though: even the ghost of a suspicion is enough to make you terminate this contract and take your business elsewhere.

“I’ll pass you on to one of the other accountants.” You’re looking down as you say it; won’t let me catch your eye. “Will’s good – and he’s single. You never know: you might hit it off …”

Beneath the bravado, behind the façade, you hurt as much as I do – only you’ll never admit it.

Time ticks by slowly: each second an unbearable lifetime. The evening’s turned into tomorrow – and instead of making love, we’re waiting for you to go.

Day 14 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

50% vampires; 50% inspiration

1. You have only twelve hours left to write an exciting and engaging interactive adventure story.

If you sit down straight away and start typing, go to number 5.

If you decide you need inspiration and settle down to watch ‘Love Island’, go to number 2.

2. ‘Love Island’ has finished, but there is an absolutely riveting documentary on shipbuilding.

If you reluctantly turn off the TV and head for your laptop, go to number 5.

If you open a tub of Pringles, grab a family sized bottle of Coke and settle in for the duration, go to number 3.

3. You have now watched documentaries on shipbuilding, pig farming in Albania and ‘Coffin Making for Beginners’. You have approximately eight hours left to write an exciting and engaging interactive adventure story.

If you sit down straight away and start typing, go to number 5.

If you decide you’re worn out by all this activity and need a nap, go to number 4.

4. You wake up feeling refreshed and realise you have thirty-seven minutes exactly to write your story.

If panic galvanises you to sit down straight away and start typing, go to number 5.

If you decide to give it up as a lost cause and watch the repeat of ‘Love Island’, go to number 10.

5. Sudden inspiration strikes you and you start typing feverishly. However, you soon realise that you are not feverish but faint from lack of hunger.

If you order a pizza and carry on typing, go to number 8.

If you decide to take a quick break to visit KFC, go to number 6.

6. You jump into your car and start driving to KFC. Unfortunately, your car shudders to a halt halfway between your house and KFC.

If you were sensible enough to join a breakdown service, go to number 11.

If you have no breakdown cover, no insurance and no common sense, go to number 7.

7. You get out of your car and decide to walk the rest of the way to KFC. You might as well eat your meal there and then get an Uber home.

If you allow yourself to be distracted by the handsome young man serving behind the counter, go to number 13.

If you grab your food, order a taxi and hotfoot it back home to continue writing, go to number 8.

8. You’re really buzzing with inspiration now and rattle off three pages without breaking a sweat. You’re about to congratulate yourself when you hear a ring at the door.

If it’s the pizza you ordered in number 5, go to number 9.

If it’s a bunch of kids, dressed like vampires for Hallowe’en, go to number 15.

9. You eat your pizza whilst busily typing away and pretty soon you have sixteen pages.

If you’re happy with what you’ve written, go to number 12.

If you suddenly realise you’ve produced sixteen pages of complete and utter twaddle, go to number 10.

10. You’re a terrible writer and you really must stop putting yourself (and everyone else) through this agony.

Your adventure is over. Go back to 1 and start again.

11. The breakdown service promises to be with you within the hour. Unfortunately, if you wait that long, you’ll miss the deadline for your story.

If you can’t wait that long and decide to walk home and carry on writing, go to number 12.

If you decide to cut your losses and give up on your story, go to number 10.

12. With only ten minutes to go, you’re unstoppable. This is the best thing you’ve ever written.

If you upload your document and press ‘Send’, go to number 16.

If you suddenly realise you’re completely deluded, go to number 10.

13. This guy is SO hot and he seems really into you. He can’t tear his eyes away from your neck. He puts a note in your meal bag that asks you to meet him outside when his shift finishes in ten minutes.

If you decide to hang around and see if this attraction’s going somewhere, go to number 14.

If you suddenly realise you’ve wasted too much time already and need to go home and start writing, go to number 12.

14. Vlad, the hunky Eastern European guy who served you your food is waiting outside for you. Unfortunately, he’s a vampire. His fangs biting into your neck are the last thing you know.

15. These kids are so cute, dressed as mini-vampires. Unfortunately, as they tear into your flesh, you realise they’re REAL vampires.

You’re deader than your story.

16. You are an awesome writer. In fact, you have just been awarded a Pulitzer for the story you’ve finished.  Just remember that there are vampires around every corner …