I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Life as fiction

The Disconnection
(Shortish short story, 953 words)

The hotel belonged to the nineteenth century when size was a synonym for luxury. Ceilings in the bedroom corridors were abnormally high, apparently supported by huge wood-panelled columns. Despite the grandeur Potterton couldn't help feeling the decor had been left behind, found wanting, irrelevant. He wondered – but only idly - whether the columns were called pilasters.

Archie sat in one of the bar’s easy chairs holding a glass containing what looked like fizzy water. But then he’d been an austere youth and Potterton hadn’t been surprised to learn he’d spent the last decade doing PR in Geneva. Switzerland seemed to fit.

Potterton ordered a pint of Tetley not because he liked it but because it was part of a tradition they were here in Bradford to celebrate.

“I wouldn’t say I’m sentimental,” he told Archie, “but joining the Telegraph as a tea-boy changed my life.”

Archie who’d gone straight into the reporter’s room nodded sympathetically. “They worked you like slaves.”

“Long days, long weeks. I got home exhausted. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t school.”

“School, eh? Not the happiest, gladdest days?”

Potterton scowled. “I never got the hang of it: superiors and inferiors, masters and pupils, clever-clogs and dumbos. What’s more nobody ever told me why school mattered. A new world when I found myself among people who read books, talked about ‘news', wrote ‘stories’. I didn’t need telling those things mattered.”

“Do you remember the smell when you came in through the front entrance?”

“I always thought it was printing ink. Perhaps the presses themselves.”

“For me it was fear,” said Archie.

And Potterton was sure he’d been right to buy the train ticket.

Before the meal the deputy editor read out messages from those unable to attend. One of Potterton’s tea-boy contemporaries, now editing a newspaper in the Midlands, faced a budget meeting. A puckish sub-editor, long retired, had condemned clich├ęs by acting them out; used his letter to rate others according to their acting ability.

As he ate the unexceptional meal Potterton listened to a retired sub-editor and the Halifax district reporter reminiscing about stories they’d handled, witty headlines, people who had wrecked their lives with drink. During a pause Potterton mentioned, concisely, he’d edited an industrial magazine in London for several years. The reporter ignored him; the sub – who had always tended to behave oddly – looked at Potterton vaguely, then resumed talking about writing errors. Later, Potterton bought the sub a Scotch to engage him in conversation but the glass was lost amidst others on the table, some empty, some half full, and it was doubtful the sub knew the Scotch was his.

Potterton looked for other faces he’d known as a tea-boy before he moved from Bradford to Bingley as a trainee reporter. One was a handsome, rather languid man who’d gone on to anchor regional television news in the south-east, becoming a minor TV celebrity. Potterton couldn’t imagine tempting him with industrial factoids; in any case he quickly paired off with another minor celebrity, a former reporter who’d adopted a Scottish name in order to write thrillers.

As conversations were intensified by drink, breaking in got harder. Men, and they were mostly men, who had joked with Potterton when he’d gone out into the city to buy them packets of cigarettes or battered-fish sandwiches from the canteen looked at him, frowning, unable to place him, and in the end not caring. Their behaviour, Potterton realised, was a byproduct of their specialised skill – the ability to decide within seconds what was important and what wasn’t, and thereafter ignore anything that lacked substance.

In the summer he and Archie had met for their own personal reunion and Archie had mentioned tonight’s event. Potterton looked around and saw Archie, animated despite his glass of fizzy water, the centre of a cluster of faces all moderately familiar. He decided trying to join Archie would be disruptive, would break up the bonds Archie had established.

The evening reached its unproductive nadir when Potterton bumped into Vic who’d arrived after the dinner. Vic had been a high-speed typist taking copy over the phone and had had nominal responsibility for the tea-boys. He looked questioningly at Potterton, then shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t remember.”

Potterton ordered himself a Scotch and sat apart from the noisy chat. His expectations had been high. He’d wanted others to help him re-live that magical moment when he’d ceased to be a schoolboy and stepped into the trade he knew, then and now, he was fitted for. But it was clear he’d passed through the Bradford headquarters at a lower, almost invisible level, before moving to Bingley. Tea-boys weren’t important; didn’t linger in editorial memories. His epiphanies were his and his alone, they weren’t shared.

Walking up the ludicrously wide staircase to his bedroom he paused. Descending the stairs slowly - he must by now have been in his seventies – Fred too paused. Then smiled. “Hello Potto. Busy evening. We haven’t had time to talk. Next time perhaps.” Some of the warmth Potterton had hoped for flooded through him. In a subs’ room charged with competition, rapid decisions and incipient humiliation Fred had always been one of the good guys. For years he’d given up Sunday afternoons to teach tea-boys and trainee journalists the basics. Once he’d awarded Potterton  a humbug for a quick 150 words on the subject of fog. Potterton raised his hand in salute as they parted and remembered how Fred, of Welsh stock, had pronounced “accurate” as “ackerut”. An essential word.
 
Along the upstairs corridor Potterton now noticed other anachronisms: wide mahogany doors, fluted brass wall switches, deep complex cornices. A corridor  immobilised in time and space. A good conduit to an editorial reunion.

10 comments:

The Crow said...

A wonderful glimpse into another world - great details setting the scene, both physical and personal. Some writers excel in fleshing out characters; others in drawing complete settings; yet others, in capturing mood.

You do it all, very well.

This vignette was complete, yet leaves me wanting to know more, wanting to know what happened before and after the reunion. You've created a character worth following. Is this a preview to your next novel?

Roderick Robinson said...

The Crow: What happened "after" was that you and I exchanged emails. Potterton is me and much of what is described actually happened. This is not my normal approach; I prefer to rely on my imagination, supported by small flashes of what I remember. These flashes (which are usually descriptive) concern events or static tableaux that are normally only a few seconds long. None of the scenes in my novels are lifted from real-life, most are imagined.

Neverthless this is I think fiction. I didn't change my name because I wanted to hide myself, but so that I could achieve the necessary detachment. Once one starts using "I" all sorts of tendencies creep in. Real life is often messy and - surprisingly - unvivid. Fiction is a way of tidying things up. For instance, Archie exists but he and I never had that conversation in the bar at the beginning even though the facts that emerge were shared between us. That scene is there for two reasons: to explain my reasons for attending the reunion and as a lead-up to that wonderfully dramatic observation about fear by Archie which he told me in real-life and may (if I'm honest) be the main reason for putting this story together.

I appreciate your comments and the fact that the story seems to have worked for you. However, now I've taken you back-stage, I hope you don't feel deceived.

There's an irony in your words "a character worth following". Potterton won't reappear but I the puppetmaster am scattered all over the stories and the novels - the good and the bad. Incidentally the second story in the series Oughties. Worth a damn? (this one is outside that series) - the one about the two women working in a hair salon, has attracted 670 pageviews. Yes, I know Google stats aren't worth a damn (though Julia tells me Blogger has changed the algorithm to pick up different types of writing) but the stories all score much better than the normal posts; I can pretend, can't I?

The Crow said...

Robbie, I knew it was about you, or - at least - based upon your experiences. What I said stands, nonetheless. Not everyone can use their lives as backstory in a piece of fiction and have it work without having their ego come through. Like truly great actors who so immerse themselves in the character they portray that you forget who it is you're watching.

That you can so effectively take your life and transfer it to a character not unlike you but not obviously you is something to be admired and respected - and not a little envied.

You succeeded wonderfully in accomplishing your goal with this piece. Take a bow. Accept the accolades.

mike M said...

I'd have suspected Potterton was you early on, I think, even without the dead give-away of the title. Very atmospheric and poignant, evoking a great sense of loneliness and detachment. It builds beautifully to the encounter with Fred, obviously a very special fellow, a pulse of joy, the salute, then alone again with the memories.
The para about msgs read aloud tripped me up a little with the semi-colon.
On first read, this morning over coffee, I was particularly struck by the para beginning "As conversations were intensified by drink.."
Beautifully written.

Roderick Robinson said...

The Crow: It still comes as a surprise and I know it shouldn't. What I do is try and solve a series of technical problems, what you do is read a story. What you do is beyond me.

Here's one technical problem that was easy to solve. Had I used the first person singular I wouldn't have been able to handle myself as an object, from outside. Imagine writing: "I smiled." - there's something horribly self-conscious about such a statement. Even more so if I'd added an adverb: "I smiled uneasily."

It gets worse. "He was tall." is acceptable. "I am tall." isn't, any more than "I am handsome" is. Had I been fool enough not to recognise this problem in advance, you would have recognised it immediately. Readers are vital to the process of writing; even if there are no readers the writer has to work as if there might be. Another way of saying the writer has to do his/her best.

Thanks for being part of the process. What about that story you let me read?

MikeM: Your comment is salutary; a reminder that despite what I say to The Crow about doing my best, I frequently fall short. Here's why - it's to do with what I hold most dear.

The first draft becomes the first draft when I'm more or less satisfied with the structure: the sequence of the paras, a bit of dialogue in here, a bit there, the reassurance that most of it matters to the story, that there are no free-wheelers. I then read through the story and improve the detail.

Once I've done that I re-read. Change more detail. Re-read; change details. Re-read/change. Re-read/change. It's called revision - a definition of whether I'm taking what I do seriously or not. The rule of thumb is that once I'm able to read it through without making a change - however small - it's finished. Well, not quite. Leave it for 24 hours and it's astonishing how many more bits and piece scream out to be changed. Gradually, so many details are changed that the structure is altered, because nothing is sacred. The tone of voice also changes.

Finally, I'm finished and I post the story on the blog. Now it's in a new format and as I read it more errors - previously invisible - appear. Mainly clumsiness; the reader may not recognise these defects for what they are, but may pass discomfited through that passage. I cannot afford to ignore these comparatively small defects because they could link up with other small defects, sapping whatever was good in the story, assuming anything was.

Finally I couldn't see anything more that needed improving with this most recent story and could pass on to other things. Only to re-read the story that afternoon (it's never really finished, you know; that would mean I'd written the perfect story and we all know none such exists) and I notice the semi-colon left over from when the sentence had a quite different format. For some reason - probably domestic - I didn't change it to a comma. Many people say punctuation doesn't matter - you have proved them wrong.

Thanks for reading my stuff. I've run off at the mouth because you may find this stuff useful. If there's anything worthwhile in what I do, then it's the result of revision. Just in case you didn't realise it before, you now know what revision consists of.

Oh, and thanks for the nice things too.

mike M said...

My revision system is markedly similar to yours, though you are clearly a MUCH more accomplished writer. In Wordpress one needs to remember to "save draft" subsequent to a revision. I can't tell you how many times I've previewed, then posted without "saving draft" to find a seemingly random draft posted to the world at large. Frustrating, to say the least, the realization that anyone who receives the text via email feed may only see the crude emission, and it sets off a mad scramble to save viewers of the "actual blog". The larger problem at that point is remembering revisions or trying to sort through drafts to find the proper one...or something close. I wonder if Blogger is similar? I think I have always been a fairly close reader, but practice at writing, being analytical of writing, has made me a closer one. I've no doubt you're aware that typos and other errors are to be found in almost all printed matter.

The Crow said...

I'm trying to give Joe some shortcomings that will make the story better, the homecoming more poignant.

(Actually, I'm still battling my nemesis, so most things have been laid aside temporarily. Creativity is a hit-or-miss thing right now.)

But, when I've revised it, I'd be pleased to send it to you again

mike M said...

I've reread your description of revision and realize that my revision lacks several of the steps you describe. Alas, I am still gainfully employed.

Roderick Robinson said...

MikeM (1): There is a further key to revision; embark on a read-through expecting to find defects, being disappointed if you don't. Tell yourself they're there, I know they're there

Keeping copies of different drafts. Fine if you intend to sell your authorial papers to a Texas university as a financial comfort in your old age. With me I merely edit the original; the errors and the interim changes disappear into the ether.

MikM (2).: Yes, that's a big difference. All I've got is time.

The Crow: Keep on battling. Perhaps you need a real villain in your story. How about Nemesis: the guy with the slouch hat, metal-toed boots and a history of being involved in something horrible in North Dakota?

mike M said...

I think my original trouble with Wordpress began before I even discovered the "save draft" button. Wordpress AUTOMATICALLY saves drafts....every minute or two while one is composing. Here is an examample of how I first got into trouble: Having composed, revised, re-revised and struggled over something, I might be satisfied. On the brink of posting I would decide to add change or delete a single word...perhaps even a single line. Thinking "with this change, it is ready" I would make the change and immediately hit "post". Wordpress, having not auto-saved my quick change, would post the text as it existed before my change. This displeased me, but I hadn't (I think I have now) figured out what was occurring. I also received occasional alerts at page top in editor telling me that there was an "auto-slave" version of my text retained somewhere in the editors records. All very confusing, and of course I made no attempt to find instructions pertaining to Wordpress use. I began to manually save drafts, which I now realize is a complete redundancy and only adds to the confusion, because I occasionally revise, forget to manually save, then post before the draft is automatically save, duplicating my original error. I'm thinking of opening a blogger account just to see if it is simpler, and thanks for your amusing comment re my drafts and posterity. It's interesting how humor can trigger realization of one's foibles.