Here you will find some of the exercises I have been set as part of my writers group. They are a useful challenge, get you out of your comfort zone and force you to write in a style, or about a subject you would not normally consider.
Exercise – Short Story with a Christmas theme to be read on local radio, nothing too sad or rude. The listener demographic is conservative
Response 1 – This is a mash up between an advent calendar and the elves and shoemaker tale with a Christmas vibe.
The Cook and Mrs. Pye
It is a dark December morning as Joel arrives. The antique kitchen stands before him. Blackened rings, huge battered saucepans, bent ladles, large box on the worktop. Wait, what? Large box on the worktop? That wasn’t there yesterday. There is a message sellotaped to the top.
“Try something new.” Joel opens the box carefully. Inside is a cornucopia of meat, cheese, spices, herbs.
“Morning dear.” A soft brogue, kind but with a hint of authority. Joel turns. A wizened old woman stares up at him. Barely as tall as the worktop, dressed in a neat tartan skirt, a pale blue cotton blouse, pink spectacles and a pinny. She is the epitome of neat.
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
“Mrs. Pye dear. I’m your new assistant.” Joel looks confused. “Volunteer dear. No cost, just love.” She bustles past him, peers in the box. “My, what a selection!” She examines everything, humming and commenting to herself. “Hmm, cinnamon, very seasonal, lamb mince, hmmm, aubergines.” She turns to Joel. “Today we shall make a moussaka.”
“Moussaka! You can’t make a moussaka. The patients won’t like moussaka. I don’t even know what a moussaka is.”
“Well I do. So, put the kettle on for cup of tea, then start peeling potatoes.” She looks at him, smiling but with an expectant air. “Chop chop, we haven’t got all day, I need to make a tiramisu too.”
Now every day he arrives, he finds a new box. Mrs Pye arrives, peers in, hums, tells him to make a cup of tea while she explains todays menu to an uncomprehending Joel.
“Pork tenderloin, prune and Armagnac sauce, gratinated potatoes and cherry clafoutis.”
“Clafoutis is nice dear, go and put the kettle on.”
“Hmm, five spice duck, with sesame udon noodles and pak-choi. Followed by gulab jamon”
“Nice dear. Kettle on please.”
Stranger than Mrs Pye’s menus, is the fact that the patients love her cooking. Clean plates, requests for seconds, unheard of for hospital food. The nurses notice. Joel sees one licking a plate before returning it to the trolley. Even the relatives notice. They start arriving at meal times. “Helping” granny with her lunch, whilst secretly eating most of it themselves. One day a fight brakes out. Some old dear throws a hairbrush at her son. Threatens to cut him out of her will if he doesn’t stop eating her prawn biriyani and okra curry. It is even rumoured that the local food critic deliberately fell down stairs to ensure he got a bed. Everybody is happy. Joel’s catering bill is down and that pleases his manager Mr Dreich. The patients are happy, if more reluctant to be discharged. The nurses are happy. They start to barter hospital food in return for taking medicine or exercise without fuss. Any complaints are met by an icy stare and the unspoken threat that this patient isn’t going to get any sea bass ceviche at lunchtime. That soon shuts them up.
Nobody knows where the boxes come from. Joel tries sleeping overnight in the kitchen to find out. But the next day, when he wakes, there is another box, and he has a crick in his neck.
Ten days before Christmas, and with Mr. Dreich now joking that if he keeps this up, the hospital will soon get a Michelin star, a patient arrives who doesn’t like Mrs Pye’s cooking. A frail lady with a bright red shawl. Each day she picks at the food, making acerbic comments about the cooking.
“Lamb not pink enough,” or “too much chipotle in the mole sauce.” Each day her lugubrious son visits. A large individual, with white hair and a bushy beard. He sits by her bed, and sighs whilst she complains about everything and everybody.
Mrs. Pye takes the complaints to heart. From then on, dishes are tasted rigorously. Joel develops a palette, can distinguish different herbs and spices. He makes suggestions, learning things that Catering College never taught him.
But the old dear and her miserable son don’t let up, keep complaining.
“It’s Christmas Eve. She’s being discharged today, no more complaints.”
Mrs Pye purses her lips and frowns. “Hmmm, one last chance, time to get out the big guns.”
Joel thinks of jus’s and panaches. Of things sautéed, resting on spiralised beds of other things.
“Fish and chips followed by treacle sponge and custard.”
Joel is disappointed. This doesn’t sound very exciting. But he is wrong. So wrong. Fillets of moist cod in the lightest, crispiest batter. Chips, fluffy and crunchy. Tartare sauce, sharp with capers and lemon. Crushed petit-pois with crème fraiche and mint. It is greeted with gasps of delight. Then the treacle sponge. Light and golden, its darker top impregnated with industrial quantities of syrup. Floating in delicate custard, seeded with vanilla. Groans of pleasure fill the hospital, and not a word of complaint from the miserable old woman. She wolfs it down, smiles for the first time.
“Not bad, tell Agnes, not bad.”
Mrs Pye scoffs. “Achh! Maureen wouldn’t know decent food if it bit her!”
“You know her Mrs. Pye?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“What manner of speaking?”
“In a private, mind your own business manner of speaking. Goodbye.”
“Oh. Sorry Mrs. Pye.” No reply, just an irritated slam of the door.
Next day, there is a box. He waits for Mrs. Pye, she is late. He notices a message sellotaped to the box.
“Agnes thinks you have it in you to become a chef. Thank you for looking after my mother. Regards Mac Stirsh.”
Joel stares at the note, confused by the name. Then he shrugs, rolls up his sleeves, opens the box.
Response 2 – This one is just a sweet little story, dealing lightly with the problem of ageing.
There is a routine, a dynamic to Christmas Eve which makes it the best day of the festive season. All is still to come, the disappointment of the unwanted socks. The vicious games of Hearts. The bloated comfort of Boxing Day, complete with copious antacid tablets and just one more Quality Street. On Christmas Eve all is still potential and surprise.
In the kitchen, Trevor and Helen potter through their symphony of carefully choreographed chaos. A shared ritual going back over thirty years. A mutual joy at the muddled accomplishment of each task from the list. Ahh, the list. The definitive route to a perfect Christmas, handed down like commandments from their matriarch, Granny Evans.
Trevor rummages about in the cupboard and hands Helen a box of Paxo.
“Do you want stuffing dear?” Helen grins at the expected innuendo that the proffered box requires.
Helen peers over his shoulder. “What time is it?”
“Hmm, only twenty-two hours to lunch, better put the sprouts on, they were a little too crunchy last year.”
Trevor gazes out through the French windows over the gathering murk of the garden. “Winter draws on.” He sighs.
“Already are dear. This year they’re pink!”
The banter and badinage is all part of the script, honed via years of repetition into a finally polished performance, just for the two of them.
There is a knock at the door.
“I’ll get it.” Says Trevor. He pads to the front door in his tartan slippers, buttoning up his cardigan in anticipation of the cold. He opens the door to reveal Nigel, their next-door neighbour. He looks worried.
“It’s Joyce, she’s gone walkabout again.”
“Less than half an hour. I only popped down to shops for some more eggs.” Eggnog was Nigel’s singular contribution to Christmas, a secret family recipe known only to those who knew how to Google it.
“Ok, she can’t have gone far.” Helen’s anxious face appears at the kitchen door.
“Everything alright boys?”
“Joyce has wandered off again. We won’t be long.”
“Shall I phone the Police?” Nigel raises his hand.
“No thankyou Helen. I’m sure she can’t be far.”
Trevor laces up his boots, selects his favourite winter jacket and joins Nigel on the porch.
“Right, where does she normally go. It was the park last time wasn’t it?”
They set of down the crescent and turn into Lark Rd. Ahead are some carol singers. A group of Cubs and Brownies singing their hearts out for Christmas and a worthy cause. Their young voices are crisp and light, cutting through the gloom. All but one that is, for soaring high above their youth is an older voice, pure and unvarnished, unencumbered by restraint. It creates a harmony of age. Youth with maturity, wisdom with naiveite. Joyce is having the time of her life, belting out the carols as if they were the greatest pop songs ever written. The Arkela spots them and comes over beaming.
“She just started tagging along after we came to her house. Said she missed her youth. We weren’t sure at first. But wow! What a voice. I reckon she’s doubled our contributions.” The Carol finishes Joyce comes back down to earth and spots the two men looking worried.
“Hello boys, care to join in?”
“We were worried about you Joyce.” Nigel tries to keep the concern from his voice.
“Oh tish pish! Only gone for a few minutes, anyway you were out, getting eggs for your appalling Eggnog.” Nigel looks hurt.
“I thought you liked my Eggnog.”
Joyce comes over to Nigel, puts her hand on his shoulder and says gently.
“My dear, nobody likes you Eggnog, it’s horrible, but it’s Christmas, so we all drink it.” She tilts her head and stares into his eyes. “One of the advantages of going mad is that you can finally say and do what you really want and just blame it on the embuggeration. Now come on, as I recall Trevor, you have a fine tenor and as for you my dear,” she leans in and kisses Nigel fondly on the cheek… “Well you can just mouth the words. Oh goody, Good King Wenceslas, my favourite.” And with that she turns away and walks back to the pack, signing at the top of her voice with total abandon. Trevor looks at Nigel and shrugs.
“Com’on mate, looks like we’ve got a new Christmas ritual to add to Granny Evan’s list.”
Exercise – Running, a first person account 400 words.
Response – we are all running from something. In this case our life.
Comment – Somewhat autobiographical this one. I shall say no more.
The laptop and shoulder bag do not balance. They have different arcs, at odds with each other. The net result of this is to make me run in a hunched crab-like fashion across the arrivals hall. For those of us on the Sunday night fight into Schiphol this is a familiar sight. Soon to be stressed managers fleeing from the natural disaster of their broken family life into the corporate numbness of another week in the Rotterdam Hilton. The only respite, a possible room upgrade to a junior suite and your own lounge to watch pornography in.
I continue to run. I am on a tight schedule. Timing is everything. I need to get the 20:45 train to Amsterdam central. Then it is a fast walk to The Greenhouse and five grams of Northern Lights. Walk, waddle, run back to the station and the 21:30 fast train to Rotterdam a late check in and the escape of THC. The good thing about Holland, that I tell anyone who will listen, is that you really can plan your escape from reality using the train schedule.
I realise I have left my Euros back at home. Shit, shit! A delay, a loss in the slack I have left to complete my mission. Cash point on the right. Stop. Fumble with jacket. Shit, the strap from the laptop back is across the pocket. I stop, take it off. Throw it to the ground in anger. Card, machine, PIN. What! PIN again. No! Fuck, deep fuck! They have cancelled my card. They have found me out. The meeting tomorrow morning is to fire me. I shiver, a mixture of blind panic and relief. To be released from this waste of a life would be a relief, but we need the money, the show must go on. Oh fuck! One last time to get the PIN right. Oh shit! Right this time. Money grabbed, bag back on shoulder, crab run to station. Still just got time.
The Netherlands transit system does not let me down. I sit hunched, utterly alone, the tight flowers safe in my coat, watching lights pass. This is as good as this week will get. A place of calm and solitude. A moment I wish could last forever. I have three days of pointless meetings to survive, then I can run away again. This time back to my family. Only I know I will crave release from them in a few days. Then, I will find somewhere else to run, to hide.
Exercise – write a letter about a domestic situation to a relation.
Response – A letter between estranged siblings about their mother
Comment – Tried to cram as much sub-text into this one as I could.
I hope this letter finds you well. I know we have not communicated for a few years now, but we need to put aside our differences, as I am the bearer of difficult news.
Denise and I went to visit Mother yesterday. It has been a few weeks and we hadn’t heard anything, so guilt was setting in. When we arrived, it was an age before she answered. We thought she was out, or dead. But she eventually opened the door in her nightdress and asked who we were.
Inside, honestly the place was a pigsty. Plates and crockery left where the last mouthful was taken. Clothes left where they had been soiled and discarded. She has taken up smoking again and the house stinks. We opened windows, but the smell has already migrated to the curtains and cushions.
We asked if she was all right. She kept asking who we were, and saying we had to go as her boyfriend Peter was coming over to take her out. She seems to have lost fifty years and any memory of us. She sat there for an hour telling us about Dad. How she met him, how much she reckons he likes her. If it wasn’t for the lines on her face, you would believe she was a teenager again.
We tried to tell her that Dad was gone. Had left her a year ago, but she wouldn’t have it. Told us we were lying, trying to come between them. She became quite angry, shouted at us to leave.
Is this delayed grief, a refusal to accept what has happened? Before now, she has appeared so stoic. Perhaps this has been building. She has been a little more reserved recently. Stopped going to bridge club, no longer working in the charity shop. But, at the time we thought nothing of it. Well, we need to think about it, her know. This cannot go on. Whether this is madness or sorrow, the end result is the same. She needs constant care and she and we do not have the means to accommodate it, as you very well know.
I beg you. Please put aside the past, her rejection, my jealousy. We need to do what is best for our mother. Denise and I have done what we can, in our way. She now requires more, and even though she would never ask or ever admit it, she needs you.
Please call. My number is now 01223 830 226.
With Best Wishes
Exercise – write about a chaotic situation. 350-500 words
Response – how much crap can you dump on someone in less than five minutes
Comment – really enjoyed writing this. It flowed and took less than an hour from start to finish.
About Last Night
Pete returns to consciousness. Urgh! His mouth tastes of alcohol and sweat. His head pounds, his brain wants out, not prepared to put up with this regular weekend abuse. His hands cradle his head. Ohhh, please just stop hurting. Sunday is a day of rest and he intends to honour that singular bit of the scriptures with all the hungover religious fervour he can muster, nothing but tea and sympathy.
“Bing” (Text) “Sorry I had to leave early hun, but wife was expecting me home last night xxx.”
“What the fuck!” Wife!” Pete screws up his face, tries to remember. No, no, there were boobs, he definitely remembers boobs, there was no dick, he is sure there was no dick.
“Tring” (Phone) “Peter is that you, Peter! It’s your mother, your father has left me. The bastard, has been lying to me, been carrying on behind my back, Christine, that slut from the golf course. Peter…..can you hear me…..? I want you to come over at once”
“Yes mum. I can hear you, what do you mean dad has left you?”
“Tring” (Phone) “Hang on mum, someone on other line, I’ll just get rid of them…..Hello, who’s this?”
“Your bloody father of course, sorry, had to get new phone, your damm mother broke the other one…”
“Oh errr hello Dad, ummm I’ve got mum on the line at the moment…”
“Ohhh, errr, yes well. I had no choice, the mad old bat was driving me mad, come on over, I’m living in the beach hut, I’ll explain.”
“Ummm, hang on a minute Dad, ring you back in a minute…(click) Mum, you still there…….(silence). Oh fuck.” She has never got the hang of phones.
“Bing” (Text) “Hey lover, how you doin’ I had a great time. Never done that before, bet you hadn’t either 😊 😊 call me soon darling xxxx.”
“Jesus H Christ!” Pete sits up, head throbbing, not just from the excess ketones in his system. “What the fuck is happening?” He scowls at his phone, a malevolent object that has delivered instant chaos into his life.
“Bing” (Text) Reluctantly, like a moth to the flame, he looks, unable to refuse any communication, however dangerous or banal. “Hey Pete, brave move last night on twitter. Way to go bro. Wish I had the balls to say that about chief dick wad. All true. Kudos to you!” Dave.
“Fuck!” He looks at his feed (Following 28 Followers 168 Tweets 264) A one-hundred-and-forty-character rant about Douglas being an incompetent twat who wouldn’t understand a social media strategy if it offered to suck his dick. “Hah” well at least he won’t see that, the cretin hasn’t even got an account.
“Tring” (phone) “Ahhh hello Peter, Douglas here, took your advice from Friday’s meeting, got myself an account, started following a few people….see me Monday first thing….”
Pete throws the phone across the bedroom and draws the duvet back across his head. “Ohhh shit!”
Exercise – An Edwardian picnic. You are the tutor, describe your uncomfortable relationship with the family. 500 words
Response – A letter to a lover, despairing at their situation.
Comment – I wrote this in real time, as you would have to then. I wanted an unsympathetic and unreliable narrator.
My Dearest George
God how I miss you! I know I am supposed to be a writer, but words cannot convey the frustration I feel at being apart, by virtue of having to play this woe-begotten part. Although we are trapped and denied by our feelings, I find myself even more oppressed by the stifling mediocrity of the middleclass. These automatons seem to revel in their conventions that prevent any emotion or pleasure escaping their fixed expressions.
Let me tell you of my plight. last week we went on a picnic. A picnic! An occasion for pleasure, for laughter, for words and feelings to be exchanged in the full view of the sun. The warmth should have fuelled our excess, our lust for life and each other. It should have been a time to make memories to be treasured and to warm the dying embers of our old age. Instead what did I find? Yet another occasion to display circumstance and class, preserved like the salmon, in aspic. Even beneath the glorious sky, perched on a hilltop with the sea close by, my family found a way to suck the majesty of our location. Servants moved like agitated chess pieces, ruled by a nervous queen, desperate to ensure that everything and everybody were in their correctly allotted roles and places. A formal imposition on the ragged fecund nature that surrounded us. And there was I, dear George, a piece with no real role, a token to be played with by whomsoever saw fit. The father, thinking I am interested in his dull job in the city. The wife, anxious about the progress I am making with her dense progeny. The daughter, precocious only in that she thinks I find her attractive. She looks at me with wide bovine eyes and imagines I find her irresistible. The only think I am resisting here is the overwhelming urge to tell them all how pointless they all are. That there is no nobility in their lives, no future that has not yet been decided and mapped for them. Theirs’s is a life already over. It has been written, like a poor script to be performed by amateur actors in life. Not even a good farce to be enjoyed with friends.
The dull ache of playing my part is taking its toll. I cannot write. All that emerges is bile and doggerel. I am consumed by my position. I thought it would be an escape. A summer to teach and a freedom to compose. Instead I feel more trapped and more observed than ever before. My soul has retreated. It longs for our peril. That is the fuel I know I need to create. Not a picnic, not responsibility for learning, but fear of discovery, of illicit talk and clandestine meetings. That is what I crave. So, if you hear a knock, late at night, do not be afraid. It will be me, escaped from my cell, free to join you in our dangerous future.