I spent most of this week at Cove Park at a writing workshop with other students and graduates of the Birkbeck Creativing Writing MA Programme. Cove Park is on a dangle of land between Loch Long and Gare Loch, with views towards bleak hills. The light falls thickly through the clouds there, illuminating the leaden water in bright, unexpected, ways.
I slept in a "pod" - a converted container, which should have been heated. The view was spectacular. The only warm place, though, was the bathroom; and so I wrote in there - my back to the shower, with a view of the wall. Perhaps that was helpful.
We wrote for three hours a day, read each others' work for two hours, and then had a two hour workshop. Very intense.
The following was one of the pieces of work I did. We were given a choice of three short stories by Lydia Davis - an American author known for her (very) succinct, precise, narratives and asked to develop them. I chose "In a House Besieged" (a review of which can be found here, and here. I did not know the story before, and was unaware that it was complete (we were told simply to develop the story, and I assumed it was merely the first paragraph of something longer).
Our task was to be true to the style / tone. (The text we were given had the dialogue set out as follows - it is different in the original). Thank you Lydia! You inspired me.
Inspired By Lydia Davis …
“In a house, besieged, lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen, the man and woman heard small explosions.
“The wind“, said the woman.
“Hunters”, said the man.
“The rain”, said the woman.
“The army”, said the man.
The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.”
The man had not been her choice.
“If it is hunters we would hear shouting”, said the woman.
“If it is wind the windows would whistle”, said the man.
“If it is the army you would be fighting”, said the woman.
“If it is rain there would be clattering on the roof tiles”, said the man.
The table under which they cowered was low and narrow, and there was no space between them. The woman could smell the beer the man had drunk at dinner on his breath. His coarse jacket rubbed against her arms. There was egg in his beard. The candles had gone out and the only light was from an oil lamp on the dresser. Soon that would be gone too.
“We can’t stay under the table all night”, said the woman.
“I’m quite happy to”, said the man.
“I’ve things to do”, said the woman.
“Do them”, said the man.
The woman had not been his choice either. In their cramped position, one of her breasts was pushing hard against his ear. His only view was of the skirting boards, covered with fluff.
“How long have we been here now?”, said the woman.
“Hours”, said the man.
“How many?”, said the woman.
“No idea”, said the man.
The kitchen was almost perfectly square, with three doors. One led to the pantry, one to the hall, and one to the yard. The hall door was open. The woman could just make out the foot of the stairs. It was getting cold. She thought about her bed. About mattresses and blankets and counterpanes. At least she had her own room. They no longer made any pretence in that respect.
“What makes you think it’s hunters?”, said the woman.
“Gunshot”, said the man.
“How can it be both hunters and the army?”, said the woman.
“Why not?”, said the man.
The woman felt the man’s ear against her breast. It was a big ear, with wiry hair on the lobes. She thought about their child and how his mouth had felt on her teet. If he had lived perhaps he would have developed similar ears. It would have been a small price to pay.
“He would have been twelve”, she said.
“Don’t”, said the man.
“Why not?”, said the woman.
“There’s nothing to be gained”, said the man.
He focused on a particular patch of fluff, between the foot of the dresser and the pantry door. In the gold light of the gas lamp it shone like barbered hair. When he was a child, he’d had hair that colour, inherited from his mother. They had lived far from here. She was dead too.
“Look!”, said the woman.
“What?”, said the man.
“There!”, said the woman.
“Where?”, said the man.
The woman adjusted herself as much as she could so that the man could see. A mouse was nosing out of a hole in the skirting board, its whiskers whiffling.
“It will get the cheese”, said the woman.
“First it will have to climb”, said the man.
“I’ve seen mice climb”, said the woman.
“Let’s watch”, said the man.
The child had been born in winter and lived till spring. The woman was already old, and the child was weak. They gave him the man’s name, as was the custom. They buried him just beyond the yard wall, at the edge of the orchard. In the summer, the land around the grave was a riot of flowers: scarlet poppies and cornflower, daisies and purple clover. Over time it had become harder to tell where the field ended and the grave began.
“He’s checking us out”, said the woman.
“They’re wily”, said the man.
“If we stay still there’s more of a chance”, said the woman.
“Perhaps there's a family”, said the man.
When he was still young he’d joined the army. They all did. There was nothing else. He’d fought on the losing side. Afterwards he moved away. The woman had come with him. She had been sitting in the road by what remained of her house, a basket in her lap. She had lost her father and her mother, and two brothers. He had nodded, and she had followed.
“He’s all the way out now”, said the woman.
“Perhaps it’s a female”, said the man.
“Makes no difference”, said the woman.
“It makes all the difference”, said the man.
On the journey to the house they did not speak, and for weeks after they arrived they moved around each other, silently. He had never asked her name, nor she his. It was only when the child was born that this seemed important, and still he had not asked hers. He shifts his weight under the table and their cheeks touch. Against his own, her skin feels feather-soft.
“Excuse me”, said the man.
“Think nothing of it”, said the woman.
“Do you think of him often?”, said the man.
“Every day”, said the woman.
The ground had been so hard when he went to dig the grave that the rusting spade shattered with the first push. He had found a flint with a sharp edge, and on his knees, carved the land out, bit by bit. He had not seen her watching, but when he finished digging she came out from behind a tree, laid a hand on his head and rested it there.
“He’s at the table leg now. Shhh!”, said the woman.
“And now he’s climbing it”, said the man.
“Will you look at that!”, said the woman.
“Anything’s possible”, said the man.
The oil lamp was spluttering now. Strange shadows danced on the walls of the kitchen. The man saw soldiers, guns and cannons. The woman saw ghosts.
“Listen”, said the woman.
“I can’t hear anything”, said the man.
“The rain has stopped”, said the woman.
“The army has retreated”, said the man.
Above them the mouse rejects the cheese, choosing instead an apple from a tree that grows close by the child’s grave. It is an old tree, planted long before they came, its trunk scarred with ancient wounds.