Story-A-Week #5: Myrtle Davis is Lost

I said in Friday’s post that I had written a complete story in the course of my first Café Stories workshop. I realise now that I only felt it to be complete. I knew it needed work, nothing comes out perfect first time, but not quite as much as it actually does. Distracted by other things, I didn’t get to read it again till Sunday when I saw that it was more a sketch of an idea than a story. That is, it was too much of a mess for me to do anything with it for today. I did try, but got nowhere. Sometimes writing is hard, and this is an instance of that. I still think there is a story in there, it’s just hidden in a guddle of sentences.

As I said, I began it in the Cafe Stories workshop. These are six, weekly one and a half hour sessions in which I provide prompts in order that the participants may realise their writing capabilities. Last Tuesday we looked at character. I asked them first to pick a person in the cafe. Then to give that person a backstory by giving them the following:

Marital status.
Children or not.
Favourite food.
Favourite way to relax.
Favourite place.

Once they’d done that I asked them to give their character a problem. It could be a big problem – the police are after them; they are being stalked/harassed; their child has a possibly fatal condition… – or a small problem that has become all encompassing – can’t get a plumber; hate the wallpaper in the hall; hate their boss’s taste in music but have to listen to it all day… –  anything really.

The next step was to write the first scene of a three act story that shows this character dealing with that problem.

I was beyond impressed by how they just got down to it, writing away frantically. 

As always when I teach, I also set about the task. Here are my character notes:

Myrtle Davis; 16 June 1973; divorced; two children of school age; degree in personnel management; loves white chocolate especially in cakes as she feels it makes them really moist; likes walking in the hills, especially in the very north Highlands where the air feels much cleaner.

 And here is what I wrote while sitting in the café:

The kids have left for school, the laundry’s done, I have absolutely nothing left to do. There was a time when I dreamt of this, a free day, a day in which I could do anything I wanted. When I worked full time, and the kids were small so needed everything done for them, and Doug was always wanting something: his favourite shirt ironed, a suit picked up from the cleaners, or delivered, his car taken to the valet, picked up from the airport. It felt never ending, I never had a moment. It didn’t matter that I worked the same hours as him, and looked after the kids, my office was in town, his was too but he had to travel a lot. Which is, of course, where the problem set it. When you’re away all the time you are going to end up feeling apart, even from your own family. Weekends, it turns out, are not enough, even when they are longed for all week.

In those days we didn’t call Fridays Friday, we called them Daddy Day! We’d all three of us wait at the window watching for his car, and sprint to the front door to greet him. I had no idea that what he really wanted was to be left alone for half an hour to get his bearings. He didn’t tell me. He just got grumpier and grumpier. I’ll have made one of his favourites for supper, we’d eat with the kids so he could reacquaint himself with them, with all of us, and I’d always be wearing something nice. Knowing that he was out there meeting all sorts of professional women I kept my weight down, had good haircuts, dressed well. I could never have been accused of sloppiness. I thought that’s what he liked: a toned body in good clothes, a little make-up: a wife who looked like she cared. A wife who did care. I’m not a natural when it comes to hairdressers and nail bars, I like to feel the soil, I’d walk the highlands barefoot with the wind knocking seven bells out of me. But I worked in an office, married an executive, and organised myself accordingly. 

Now here I am living in a city, raising city kids, alone. What can I do today, on my precious day off? What do people do in places like this? Shop? I don’t need anything. Go to the cinema? I can’t imagine sitting still for that long. Go for lunch in some trendy cafe, maybe take in a gallery? Maybe.

And this is where I’m currently at, you’ll see it’s quite different from the first effort, but still needs a great deal of work.

Myrtle Davis is plumping cushions. With two teenagers in the house the cushions take a lot of punishment. She sees her favourite has split and feathers are leaking out of it like factory workers when the lunch siren goes. It’s her favourite not because it’s a particularly attractive cushion, it’s not. It’s faded yellow chintz is perfectly out of place in this neutral space of grey elephant cord couches and milk coloured walls. It’s her favourite because it was given to her by Laura, her sister-in-law, when they were barely older than her children are now. 

She takes the cover off the cushion and examines it. Turning it around in her hands, pulling the loose feathers off it in order to see better, but finds no obvious lesion. The seams are all intact. Perhaps, she thinks, the problem is with the cover itself, and the feathers merely worm their way out of the cambric inner, as feathers are know to do, and now have a way out due to a tear in the chintz. She picks the cover up, discarding, for the moment, the inner, turns it inside out, and shakes it to remove the debris. Feathers fall around her like plastic flakes in an agitated snow globe. 

The fabric, she notices, is worn to almost nothing in several places, like the knees of old jeans. She sits down on the floor and smooths the square of once glossy cotton on the coffee table before her, now turned the right way out, and remembers the receiving of this gift. 

She and Doug had recently got their first place together, a small studio flat at the top of a run down tenement. You had to walk up three steep flights of worn stone stairs to get to it, and once you did it was furnished only with a formica topped table, two chairs and a single bed. The gas boiler was so temperamental they got someone in to clean the chimney, and took to hauling bags of coal up the stairs in an attempt to keep the place warm. They removed seven layers of wallpaper, some of which were fixed with staples, and set about making it home. That Christmas Laura gave them the cushion. 

Because she was his sister, Doug argued that he should get everything Laura had given them over the years, he only left the cushion because he’d always hated it. He took the painting she’d given them for their twentieth wedding anniversary, the pewter goblets, the silver fish-knives. He had always been persuasive, and Myrtle had been unable to argue against him, even now. 

She looked about the sitting room, ragged with feathers, picked up the cushion and its cover gave them one last shake to make sure they were loose-feather free, and went to the chest of drawers on the landing for an old pillow case. She put the cushion in the pillow case, and the cover over that, hoping that this would fix things, if only for a while.

Rather than a second draft this is more a first draft of a second attempt at realising the idea, trying to show Myrtle Davis’s problem. When I wrote the first attempt I thought her problem was not knowing what to do on her day off. But it’s much bigger than that: her marriage has ended, and she is having to deal with all the many losses that entails. In the first attempt I fixed on the loss of structure to her day, but that came out too vague so I decided to home in on some activity and show her loss by her actions. As you can see, that uncovered something else entirely. Poor Myrtle Davis.

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