Wednesday, 19 August 2009

What Happens Next?

So I started writing a children’s book a few years ago – not sure when exactly, but certainly before the start of the smoking ban, as you’ll see if you read on – and I didn’t get very far with it. But I read it again this week and I liked its vibe, man. So, as I’m not blogging at the moment, I thought I might put it here and ask you, my faithful readers, to read it for me, and tell me a) where you think it should go next, or b) that I should just forget about it. But be gentle. I beseech thee...

Chapter One :: Making Trouble

I’m sitting on one of the cold iron benches in Peckham Rye station, waiting for a train which is late, and composing a letter of complaint in my head. I light a cigarette, thinking as I do it’ll almost certainly make the train come faster.

This kid sits next to me. He’s much smaller than me and I know I look at least a couple of years older, but still I reckon we’re probably the same age. He’s singing to himself. ‘Get off your horse… get up, get on… get mmm-mm, get mmm-mm ….’ He fidgets for a moment, slaps his palms on the bare knees through the holes in his jeans, then stands up and walks to the edge of the platform, his big shiny coat making big shiny coat noise. He then proceeds to walk backwards and forwards, in front of the yellow line, singing this ridiculous song, over and over. Then he sits back down and resumes his fidgeting and knee-slapping. He seems too young to be proper mental, as in sectionable, so I imagine he’s just been smoking or sniffing something.

He carries on singing. ‘Get what you want and take what you can… get on your horse, get laid, get high… get mmm-mm, get mmm-mm….’ Then he stops abruptly, turns to me and says, ‘Yo, gimme that cigarette.’

I hold the cigarette between my thumb and forefinger and look at it as if to say, ‘What? This cigarette? My cigarette?’

‘Give it, man. Hand it over.’

I hand him the cigarette. It seems the most sensible thing to do. It’s half-smoked anyway. He takes it, frowning, takes a drag, holds it close to his eyes to examine the filter. ‘Marlboro Light?! Jesus.’

And with that, he flicks my cigarette off towards the tracks, bouncing up sparks on the platform.

I shake my head and make some involuntary spluttering noise. He hears me and turns to face me, indignant. ‘You got a problem with that?’ he snaps. The whites of his eyes are very red. I decide he must definitely be stoned. Just another little stoner boy, making trouble in Peckham. I swear I attract them.

I nod my head slowly, aware and miserable that a situation seems to be springing up from nowhere. ‘Yeah, I suppose I have,’ I say.

He smiles. ‘Good for you, man, but you keep it to yourself yeah, cause I don’t have the time.’

‘What are you….’ Words, as the expression goes, fail me. ‘Why do you have to be so rude to me when you don’t even know me?’ I demand.

‘Shit, man, don’t start blubbin on me now.’

He is still smiling, laughing at me. Despite myself I am angry. I should let it drop but I can’t. ‘Who do you think you are?’ I cry.

‘Don’t be a fool,’ he says, suddenly serious. He looks down the platform at the approaching train. ‘And stay in school,’ he adds, before he ships off up the platform singing, ‘Get on that bitch… get on, get up… get mmm-mm, get mmm-mm.’ Something on the cold iron bench catches my eye and without bothering to check if I’m being watched, I scoop up the stoner boy’s wallet and slip it into my inside coat pocket.

On the train I position myself a half carriage behind him, facing the back of his head. I’m trying to figure out what I make of him. He may be a little younger than me after all, maybe fifteen or sixteen, his hair cropped and his expression cocky and maybe just a little proper mental, even in profile. His feet are up on the seat opposite, his fingers slapping furiously on the narrow window sill and he’s still warbling away. I’m too far away to make anything out except for the occasional ‘mmm-mm’. The carriage is about a quarter full and he is drawing more than his share of disapproving glances.

I really don’t know what to do with his wallet. If he hadn’t been so rude, so strange and antagonistic, I would’ve shouted out, grabbed his attention and given it back immediately. Instinctively. But I was angry and my instincts were skewed.

Then a middle-aged inspector squeezes his fat belly through the narrow door at the end of the carriage and the only change in the stoner boy’s behaviour is that his fingers briefly stop slapping at the window sill, but only very briefly. When the slapping is resumed, it is, if anything, more belligerent than before.

After examining the tickets of three other passengers, the inspector reaches him. With no expression whatsoever, he says, ‘Would you mind taking your feet off the seat.’

‘What’s the magic word, Papa Legba?’ says the kid.

My face begins to burn.

The inspector sighs heavily. The last thing he wants is some pointless confrontation with some lippy delinquent who is probably out of his mind on crack and carrying a blade or a gun. ‘Ticket, please,’ he says, his anger and potential fear beginning to show through.

‘It’s because I’m black innit?’

The ticket inspector is also black. He ignores this. ‘Please can I see your ticket, sir?’

‘Yeah, man, yeah, get it on. But you have to chill out though, yeah? You got this power thing goin on, and… seriously….’ As he speaks he leans forward slightly and reaches into his back pocket for his wallet. Realising something is not right, he brings his feet to the floor and starts rifling through the pockets of his enormous yellow puffer jacket. I begin to feel guilty. But I know I can’t do anything now without appearing even guiltier than I really am.

‘Do you have a valid ticket for this journey or not?’ says the inspector. He is almost smiling now.

For the first time, the kid doesn’t answer back. I can’t see his face but I can imagine he must look seriously concerned. He then says something that neither myself nor the ticket inspector catch. ‘What?’ snaps the inspector.

‘Someone’s taken my wallet, man.’

This time the inspector does smile. ‘Do you think I was born yesterday?’ he says, almost singing it, he’s so amused.

The kid leans back in his seat, lifts his feet back onto the seat opposite and sighs loudly.

The inspector can’t believe it. ‘Did you hear what I said?’ he bellows.

The kid looks up at him and considers for a moment. ‘Yeah, man, yeah. I think you were born yesterday. OK? I think you’re one day old. You happy now, Babyman?’

A couple of passengers chuckle at this, and the inspector, who has clearly had enough of the dialogue, tells the kid that he if he cannot produce a valid ticket, he is liable for a £20 fine.

‘Right,’ says the kid. ‘I lose my wallet, you want to fine me. If my mum had just died, you’d want to kill my old man, is that how it works? And then if I don’t pay the fine, you take me to jail, yeah? And then if I still don’t pay the fine, and the extra fine you fine me for not paying the first fine, what then? You going to help the pigs kick me to death in the cells? Is that how it is, Babyman?’

‘I can call the police now,’ says the inspector. ‘It’s the same to me. If that’s what you want, I’ve got no problem with that.’ He unhooks his two way radio from his waistband behind the fat ticket machine and penalty fare pad, and whatever other train law enforcement paraphernalia he’s got hanging off his gut, and he waits for the kid to back down and hand over the cash.

‘Call them, Babyman. Call whoever you want. You ain’t gonna make me give a shit, you know that.’

Just as the inspector begins to speak into the radio, I hear a voice shouting, ‘Hold it, hold it right there. I think we can resolve this situation without resorting to drastic measures, don’t you?’ The embarrassment I feel when I hear the words is compounded as I find myself walking towards the confrontation and realise that the words are actually coming out of my mouth.

The kid turns around in his chair and laughs in my face. ‘Well looky hear,’ he says, in a not very good American accent. ‘It’s the Marlboro Light man, come to save the day.’

I ignore him and address the inspector. ‘How about if I pay the ticket price? How does that sound?’

Before the inspector can tell me that it’s gone beyond that now, the kid butts in. ‘Listen, Bono, I ain’t no charity case. You keep your bloodclot nose out of my business, alright?’

My reaction surprises myself as much as it does him. ‘Look, shut your mouth, alright,’ I snap. ‘And you call me that again, I’ll knock you out.’ Then I turn back to the inspector before I get bogged down bickering with the boy. I do notice however, that he looks suitably shamefaced, maybe even scared, or maybe I’m wrong and he’s feeling something altogether different.

The inspector tells me that if I want to help this boy – and Jesus only knows why I would want to do a fool thing like that – then I’ll have to pay his ticket price and the fine. The kid makes a disapproving noise through his teeth and says, ‘Bullshit, man.’

‘Come on,’ I say, trying to appeal to the inspector’s better nature. ‘You’ve got your ticket machine there. Why not just let me buy the ticket? Maybe he really did lose his wallet.’

The inspector smiles. ‘Oh, right, sure. And how likely is that?’

I shrug. ‘You never know,’ I say.

Finally, as the fast train to Victoria is pulling in to the station, the inspector relents and pushes a few buttons on his machine. I pay the couple of quid ticket price and thank him. Before he waddles past, I say, ‘By the way, if Jesus ever actually existed, yes – I’m sure He’d know exactly why I wanted to help this boy today.’

The kid laughs and makes that snapping noise with his fingers as he says, ‘Whoa, he’s talkin about Jesus now, man. Bare dumb.’

And my face is on fire with the humiliation of it all. Why I said those pious pompous self-righteous things I shall never know. And I’m such a hypocrite because I don’t even think I want to help at all. I just want to stop feeling guilty.

The inspector shakes his head and walks away.

I look down at the kid and hand him his ticket. He makes a gesture like he is waving away a bad smell from under his nose. ‘Keep it, man, you deserve it.’ Then he snatches it from my hand. ‘And don’t expect me to thank you neither, Bono. I never asked for your help.’

‘I don’t expect anything,’ I say, and I get off the train and make my way through threadbare gangs of flexi-commuters and slackers, like Gandhi. But I am lying. I do expect something. I’ve been expecting something since the day I was born.

Chapter Two :: A Proper Little Hero

I’m only on this train in the first place because my sister left a weepy message on my mobile, and then there’s this mini-rumpus with this idiot boy dodging his fare, and then this geeky boy stands up out of nowhere and starts talking about ‘drastic measures’ and like, what would Jesus do? And all the while he’s bright red and sweating like a chicken McNugget. I’ve never seen anything like it, but there’s no doubt, the thing he does is really really sweet. He basically bales this other boy out, pays his fare for him and stops the conductor calling the police. And the other boy is such an ungrateful bugger, I would’ve slapped his face if he’d talked to me like that. But this geeky boy just takes it in his stride. He sticks up for himself a bit and tells the mouthy boy to shut up, but you can see he’s scared even as he says it.

I end up behind him as we shuffle up the platform. The mouthy one is practically running, pushing his way past people to get out of the station. He didn’t even thank the boy who helped him, which I think is really well out of order.

Then the sweetly weird one walks into the main part of the station – the whatsit, the concourse. And then he stands still and looks around. When he looks in my direction I keep on walking. He looks straight at me and I feel myself blushing, like he’s caught me spying on him, which I suppose he has. I look down at the ground and walk past.

But for some reason I can’t just leave it at that. When I reach the next circle of telephone cubicles – well, they’re hardly cubicles – those poles with four telephones attached to them, and over each telephone is a plastic hood a bit like those old women’s hair dryers in those old women’s hairdressers – when I reach the next one of those I stop and pick up the telephone. I pretend to dial in a number and casually turn round to see what this boy is doing.

But he’s gone.

I’m shocked by how disappointed I am.

Then I see him again, smoking a cigarette and looking in the window of WH Smith. Again he glances in my direction. This time I look away and automatically start talking into the telephone. ‘No, well hopefully yes,’ I say and the woman who lives inside the phone asks me to hang up and dial again.

The boy bends down to look at something in the window. Then he slowly leans forward until his head is resting on the glass. Two boys come up behind him. One of them kicks him in the back of the knees, but it’s obvious he’s just messing about. The boy stands up straight quickly and turns round. The three of them start talking together, laughing.

Then I notice that there’s an old woman hanging around the phones, looking at her watch and sighing impatiently. I feel guilty for not really using the phone, so I pull a sorry face and wander away, still spying, pulling out my mobile. I phone my sister, not really knowing why.

‘Polly Perkins.’

That’s how she answers the phone. Even her mobile. I really wish she wouldn’t. ‘I really wish you wouldn’t say that,’ I tell her.

‘Oh, hello. I thought you were coming over.’

Then I say: ‘I can’t. Something’s come up.’ Which is a surprise, as until that moment, as far as I knew I was still on my way to see her.

‘What’s come up?’ she wants to know.

I think for a moment and decide to tell her the truth, whatever that may turn out to be. We’re very close. I know she’ll understand. ‘I saw this boy on the train,’ I tell her. ‘He did a sweet thing so I’m going to follow him home, find out where he lives and write him an anonymous letter.’


‘It’s the only way to find out more about him,’ I explain.

‘What’s wrong with saying hello?’

‘You know I’m shy,’ I tell her. ‘Look, I’ve got to go, he’s on the move.’

As I put the phone down, she is screaming, ‘You’re mad, Nell, you’re off your head! Be careful!’

I knew she’d understand.

It is only when I'm on a tube travelling north, sitting in the next carriage to the boy and his two friends, pretending to read my book, that I realise Polly is probably right: I am off my head.

Chapter Three….

I've no idea. Any thoughts?

Share on Facebook! Digg this


piqued said...

Could be a set up, the act of 'kindness' a lure, after all, the kid nicked the wallet, the innocent in all of this is the thug.

Just a thought.

I'll go back to creaming my beef.

emordino said...

First thing that comes to mind is to follow the impatient old woman at the phones. And then follow another character, and another, and so on, eventually circling back around until we're following the troublemaker from the first chapter. The idea that each character is in some way trying to connect with the previous one (paying for the ticket, sending a letter etc) could be an interesting motif.

(I tell a lie: the first thing that came to mind was that it starts off very Neil Gaimanish, and the troublemaker is going to turn out to be some grimy urban faerie.)

emordino said...

... actually, forget the connection thing, it's gimmicky. I've just read If on a winter's night a traveller and it's done things to my brain.

... unless! it turns out that the troublemaker is in fact Mysterious (tm) and is in some way dragging people in his wake. Then not quite so gimmicky.

Ok, I'm done.

Anonymous said...

I like this! To my American ears these kids sound older than they are, but it's probably just the English accent. :) Keep going!

Hayley said...

I'm hooked already!

La Bête said...

Hey, Piqued, I definitely see the troublemaking kid as a good egg. I wanted there to be something very important in the wallet too. Not sure what. By the way, that is the best euphemism for masturbation I’ve heard in quite some time. I intend to steal it immediately.

Emordino, I like that idea – like Slacker. I can’t remember if I liked Slacker. I think I might watch it again. Funny you mention If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller - I read it many years ago in one of those years where I read a magnificent amount and I found it by turns very clever and wildly irritating. I remember thinking at the time it was way cleverer than I was. I’ve never read any Neil Gaiman though. I’m thinking maybe I should. Cheers for that.

Hi, Jennifer. Yes, I think the first narrator is definitely very articulate for a 17-year-old, but I know they exist.

Hey, Hayley. Cool.

Antipo Déesse said...

Stan, you can write anything you like and I will LAP it up.

Catofstripes said...

Hey, you know I'm going to be brutal...but I still love you.

1) You appear to be channelling Neil Gaiman which isn't that bad if that's the vibe you're looking for but needs to avoid becoming NGlite. (just noticed emordino's comment, so that makes two of us)
See also David Mitchell's Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, or rather don't if you're feeling impressionable.

2) Are you confident that you can impersonate a girl well enough to write from her POV?

3) You know you might kill the whole thing by exposing it to critique here.

You said children's book, I was thinking teletubbies, but you mean young adult's I think.

There's some good use of misdirection in there, the whole thing has potential but not as a group effort.

lord, I hate myself for this. Be cheerful.

Anonymous said...

i have the attention span of a germ. i'd have had the troublemaker thank the geeky boy at the end of chapter one, then step off the train, take an accidental tumble onto the tracks and be whacked by on inbound express.

but the writing is good... engaging... leaves me wanting more.

La Bête said...

AD, I don't know what to say to that. Thanks I guess.

Stripey - I believe that's the second time - or rather the second and third time you've accused me of plagiarism. I've never read any Neil Gaiman, and I haven't read David Mitchell. I don't mind you being brutal but your false accusations I find rather irritating. Upsetting I guess. As for number two, yes. As for number three, I'm not really bothered if it dies. It was just a little something, and I was curious to see what people thought, as I said, about what might happen next. But actually, if I do choose at some stage to try and continue with it, I don't think putting it up here could kill it. Be cheerful yourself.

Daisy, maybe you're right. Instant death. Boof!

Anonymous said...

I like it! I agree the character sounds older than stated. But I love the changing points of view and stuff. I see a whole connection potential with all the characters fates being interwoven.

Maria in Oregon

Catofstripes said...

Nooooo, not plagiarism, just the style, which if you've not read them just means cultural absorption of some sort. I knew you'd take it the wrong way.

ah fuck it.

La Bête said...

Glad you like it, Maria.

Stripey - cultural absorption? Come now. You did actually use the word plagiarism once before, so you can understand if I'm slightly touchy. How do you absorb a book without reading it?

Henk Van Vleck said...

I also thought there should be some train-death involved at some point, but its the marlborough light kid who gets it and he gets so ground up in the wheels that they only identify him by the wallet they find, which is mental kids.

Mental kid is then free existing in the world without official record or trace, so that when the aliens invade he is not rounded up and set to work mining the earth's crust for minerals to make space-fuel. He then uses stolen alien technology to reincarnate and clone an army of intellectually enhanced to defeat the evil alien overlords.

Mandy said...

The first thing that came into my mind at the end of chapter 2 was for the next chapter to begin with Polly after she hangs up from Nell, I like the idea of lots of snapshots of peoples lives as they intersect and intertwine with passing strangers. Kind of like a Robert Altman film. I sometimes find plot gets in the way! Or maybe I'm just a closet peeping Tom! You could follow the black kid home and spy there or the ticket inspector might have an interesting secret life away from the station..Who knows where it would all go but that might become apparent on the journey? Bet that helps! P.S. Had to laugh at the use of 'bare', took me ages to work out what my teenage son was on about!

Catofstripes said...

I did use the word once and correctly because the actual words and events portrayed appeared to be identical to those written by another. I withdrew it when you told me that you'd never read the book in question. I didn't use it here because that's not what I'm saying.

You say you've never read NG which I can believe but it reads a bit like NG. Take it to a publisher and they may well pick up on that; "another NG clone, put it in the corner with the others". So it's worth knowing that's how it appears even if your creative pride is piqued.

NG is very much an author of the moment, so there's a lot of writing about that has some of that feel to it and it may have crept into a corner of your brain.

David Mitchell on the other hand, another excellent writer btw, has written a couple (maybe more) books on the lines suggested by someone or other here, linked episodic narratives that form a circular resolution. If you've not read those then they are examples of the genre that a) you should read for ideas of how it done or b) avoid like the plague because it may influence your writing, which point clearly didn't come across clearly enough in my original message.

I can't help talking to you like you're an adult who wants to improve his writing. Do you really, to borrow the words of my partner, want or need a 'coterie of sycophants'? But it's not really working and I shall endeavour to keep my mouth shut from now on.


Mandy said...

Henk has suddenly made me feel very very boring.....How do you join a coterie? Is there an entry fee? A secret handshake? I'm just off to get some badges laminated..

La Bête said...

Henk, now you’re talking. I’m not sure that not having a wallet will save anyone when the aliens invade though. ‘Oh, sorry, aliens. I lost my wallet.’ ‘Bah. You’re free to go then. Just don’t steal our technology and clone a futuristic army to defeat us.’

Thanks for your thoughts, Mandy. I’m not sure how you join a coterie. Unless it’s a sycophantic coterie, in which case you have to agree that I am wonderful and infallible and make it your life's work to STAMP OUT THE INFIDELS!

Catofstripes – there is a world of difference between wanting nothing more than a coterie of sycophants and reacting defensively to a false accusation. You maintain that you used the word ‘plagiarism’ before correctly (in comparing passages in my book to Past Mortem by Ben Elton and something called XKCD, neither of which I am familiar with). To plagiarise it to knowingly copy something and to pass it off as one’s own, so you didn’t use the word correctly. Insisting that you did is really quite insulting.

On the other hand, your comments regarding Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell are interesting and gratefully received. It’s not like you can’t talk to me like an adult (again, suggesting that you can’t is kind of insulting). It’s merely that I am bound to defend myself against things that are clearly untrue – I wrote this thing long before NG was ‘an author of the moment’ – the fact that it is reminiscent of him is coincidence and nothing more. Do you see where I’m coming from?

Bea said...

I love your writing, it's so engrossing and intriguing. I just feel as though you are writing it from an adults eyes and not from the kids, hence why a few people are saying the kids seem older than they are. If you're saying 'I' I just think it needs to be more kid like style writing... does that make sense? I'm not an expert by no means :-/ I'm just trying to think about a book - and I know there is one I've read, where the writer uses 'I' but they're writing about a kid and it really comes across that it's through the eyes of a kid in the way that's it's written and the thoughts that person has. Would prob be best to get some feedback from the age you envisage reading it. As it is if you finish it I'll definitely want to read it, but I'm not sure that's the point of you writing - if it's a children's book :)

Bea said...

ooo I remembered a book that was really well written from a child's eyes to then growing up - Memoirs of a Geisha. Have you read it Stan? It's one of my favourite books :)

janetyjanet said...


but from what I've just read, I want to know more, and that's surely a good sign, innit?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to say that I don't have any ideas to give you. I just wanted to say that I really think you should keep writing because I got to the end wanting to know what happens next. So please keep writing :)

Nicky said...

It's a damned sight better than "A Sensible Boy" - but I think we both knew that ...

La Bête said...


Henk Van Vleck said...

Oh yeah, sorry Bete, now I feel a bit silly.

No wait...maybe it's not that he forgot his wallet that's important but that everyone thinks he's dead already because they found his wallet in geek kid's residue (or is that creamed beef Piqued?).

It's just as well you write angsty heart-string tugging humour rather than convoluted twisty thrillers if you can't follow that simple plot device.

Also, to clarify I meant to say "army of intellectually enhanced velociraptors" (i picture them so enhanced they can be taught to speak english). The velociraptor bit is important as it sets up the sequel...and the love interest.

For the record I do read XKCD, am influenced by it and hence velociraptors rather than gibbons.

Anonymous said...

Well I liked it.

I didn't think it felt like a modern kids book either but that's because 'kids' books tend to be very clearly marketed and targeted at preschool aged boys or girls or aimed at tweenagers of 11-16, again, normally with a very clear gender bias.

But it wasn't 'adult' either. Do you know Nina Bawden ( feels like it's in that sort of territory perhaps in terms of age...something along the lines of Bird on the Trees ( which I read when I was around 18-19 years old and liked.

'Old fashioned' childrens literature then if you will, but set in a very real 21st Century. That's probably a good hate being patronised and increasingly they're sold vapid shit in more and more ingenious disguises.

It was an interesting setup though. Do you think you could you write a chapter a month and post it up on the blog? That might be a fun exercise for you and all of us.

You wouldn't have to think about the narrative arc too much if you kept to the concept of a new character for each chapter , vaguely linked to the one before and didn't worry too much about it all making 'sense' and being a unified story. Just linking one character to the other...a bit like that add when one person hands on and object to another person, to another etc. It's worked for Lost, why not for you?

And I think the key thing here is these fictional snapshots of life worked, were compelling, because of the strength of the writing. It felt effortless but that's often much harder than it looks. I doubt I'd be able to hold your attention if I was to try and write a banal slice of life. Chances are most won't even read this comment. Too long. too dull.

Anonymous said...

Oh and sooner do you tell us you're going to stop blogging for a bit, you go and post up 3 or 4 lengthy, interesting posts!

clareprose said...

Love it. Please write more!

Anonymous said...

Meant to send this a while ago but can't sleep so am doing it now. Dunno if this classifies as a children's book. My son is an avid reader - he's 10 - and all the books in his age range tend to be fantasy - ie, Beast Quest series. Michael Morpurgo is excellent storyteller for that age range. Not fantasy, either.

At the moment only one of your characters takes an active role. The other two are passive observers. I think thereust be an element of 'things are not as they appear'. Perhaps there could be some mystery about that wallet. A note inside, perhaps, with instructions. And perhaps the teen who finds the wallet should carry out those instructions.

The reference to smoking and sexake this more a teen book than kids'. There is an excellent book called Hugo Cabret that is full of intrigue. That is the sort of thing Iean.

Does this make sense? Typing on an iPhone is tricky.

Good luck. Nicely written. Needs more intrigue and suspense though if it's to appeal to a teen readership. If it is for kids aged, say, 10ish then no references to shagging.

Good luck

Ggirl said...

‘Well looky hear,’ ... Should that not be ‘Well looky here,’ ?