Steak And Chips

Henry sprayed himself with his strongest aftershave once again. A thick cloud rose up and he coughed as it filled his throat. In the mirror, he saw that his fringe had already collapsed under the weight of his hair gel. Great! Producing a toothpick, he began prodding about in his mouth. “Lettuce. Ham sandwich. Pringle,” he thought. They couldn’t afford to stay there.

He was convinced that something was sabotaging his date with Emily before he’d even been on it, and he was insecure enough already.  He and Emily would be having a meal; he was pretty confident about eating. But he didn’t know how to greet her, how to say goodbye, or what to talk about in between. “Do we kiss? Do I hold her hand? What are her interests?” He felt pressure from some anonymous force to be someone he wasn’t, and he desperately wanted to impress this girl naturally.

Unfortunately, Henry overthought every possible worst-case scenario. Last night, the latest in a long line of nightmares manifested themselves. He tossed and turned in bed as hazy images of spilling a drink on her dress, and kissing her with garlic breath, swirled in his mind. But as scary as those more trivial things seemed, there were other aspects of a potential new relationship that terrified him even more. He looked around at the paper strewn across his desk, and his overflowing bin. “What a shithole,” he thought to himself. “She’d hate this, wouldn’t she? What would her parents think? How fast would things move? Would she get bored of me?” He’d tried to fix his wonky hairdo, but there was only so much a careful comb could do. Accepting that it would probably collapse again soon, he took his keys and wallet and left his flat.

The short walk to the restaurant where Henry would be meeting Emily seemed to go on forever. Even as the town filled up with pubgoers in the twilight, he studied himself intently. He rubbed furiously at a stubborn stain on his shoe. Something he couldn’t identify that he tried and failed to rub off of his jeans. “Toothpaste? Mayonnaise?” All of the possible suspects entered his head. His eyes widened at another. “Bird poo?!”

He felt his shirt collar. It was wonky, so he promptly straightened it. He’d noticed himself sweating more now, and his hands were trembling. He quietly clenched a fist, just to confirm that he did indeed have increasingly clammy hands. He’d sniff his armpits again later on, even though he had already applied deodorant five times. Was that a spot he could feel on his nose…? Whatever it was, he removed his hand quickly, to avoid aggravating it.

“Get a grip,” Henry muttered. His friends had all told him that nerves before a first date were only natural. “It’s good to be nervous, it means that you care,” they would say. But Henry thought that being this nervous was borderline ridiculous. Surely all he had to do was be himself, and he’d be fine? Breathing in, then out again, he tried to relax his shoulders. The more Henry considered it, being himself seemed awfully cliched. He was neither outstanding nor awful, just average, and these days it seemed as though that wouldn’t cut it with anyone. There was so much pressure on so many people to look good and achieve great things in their lives. Life was presented like a race, in which nobody could afford to finish last – and as things stood, Henry was definitely finishing last. His mind flashed back to his modest room. He couldn’t help thinking that the odds were stacked against him, and his mindset didn’t improve when the restaurant appeared in the distance, modestly lit by the lamppost outside.

Henry thought about his bank balance as he patted his back pocket, just to ensure his wallet was in there. He couldn’t afford to splash the cash too much – his parents had always been very clear about the value of money. What would happen if he ordered something small? He could practically see the look of disgust on Emily’s face as a modest bowl of soup and a crusty roll faced up to rump steak and chips. “If I see her nose curl up,” he thought, “the ground may as well open up and swallow me whole.” He needn’t have worried.

With considerable trepidation, Henry slipped quietly through the door, and Emily watched as he approached. She was sat at a table surrounded by older couples who’d left the kids at home with the babysitter, and the last remnants of refracted daylight through the window almost formed an orange halo around her date. It made his skin and hair shine together; he was the physical embodiment of a deity and a dream, and she was totally at ease. All of a sudden, she wasn’t so worried about split ends or getting something stuck in her teeth. Even so, she fumbled in her bag, just to make sure the toothpicks were there.

Minutes earlier, Emily had been wiping the sweat from her brow in the toilets, such were her nerves. She had to laugh, because she’d been sweating when she first laid eyes on him as well, sitting in that university taster session.  The next time she met Henry, six months had passed, but the chemistry had been as magnetic as the attraction. She remembered having a drink outside, as the September sun made them squint and giggle as they discussed their hopes and fears. Just as she had been then, she found herself looking deep into his hazel eyes, hanging on his every word as he hung on hers. They may have been relatively new to each other, but conversation flowed like they had known one another for years. Some of those other couples looked over at them, fondly recalling the way things used to be when they were young. Who said romance was dead?

Oh, and they both got steak and chips.

Mason

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The Skeleton

I’m currently in the process of writing my last essay for this year, ahead of my return to Winchester on Saturday. I don’t have a detailed plan as such, only a few brief points for me to incorporate and consider – I procrastinate badly enough without something stopping me from getting stuck in. 1,500 words separate me from the first year’s finish line. The draft I’m working on is my third attempt at this essay, since I got halfway through the first two before becoming dissatisfied with them, but I’m doing so feeling much more comfortable.

I’ve chosen to tackle it using the “skeleton method”, if you like. I begin by writing all of my basic, fundamental points for the different areas of the essay, so that it has a vague structure. Then, once I reach the end, I go back to the start and fill everything out, providing references and quotes and developing my arguments. I don’t always use this, but when I do, I feel much less stress and pressure as I work. This occasion is no exception, and it comes just as I’ve received a mark of 68 for my poetry portfolio, and 65 for the rationale that went with it. That significantly surpassed my expectations, in a module that I thought would be by far my weakest, so I can hold my head high as I submit this last piece of work and look towards next year. At a glance now, I’m 793 words down, with just 707 – excluding quotes – to go…

Mason

Flarf Poetry

I’m now in the midst of my Easter break back at home – although, to all intents and purposes, my first year at university ended just over a week ago. I’m going back anyway, but for the next couple of weeks, I’ll focus on getting the last four assignments for the year done, while looking at what I’ve already accomplished with a great deal of pride. My marks this year have been very consistent (although nothing counts until Year 2) and I have learnt much and grown creatively. Approximately 7,000 words in total lie ahead of me during this break, and I hope can be as pleased with those as I am with what has gone before. Having such confidence in my work is very rare, since the self-doubt almost always kicks in once something is finished!

I’ve now submitted my poetry portfolio, and in time you may well see the whole thing here. For now, though, I just want to show you the poem that concludes it, as an example of flarf poetry. In class, we were told to think of two completely random words and enter them into Google so that we could write something using its search results. I chose “grassy brick”, which meant that I swiftly came across a set of instructions on how to grow grass in an old brick. I adapted these into stanzas – with some artistic licence – and I ended up with a simple and surreal final poem that didn’t take itself too seriously. I wouldn’t have ended the portfolio any other way. It’s called “Gardening For a New Generation”, and it goes like this:

“Gardening for a new generation.

Plant a seed in an urban jungle.

What will you need?

A brick, glazed, strictly non-porous;

Nothing else will do.

 

Blow away the dust and the cobwebs,

The ghost of a hardened hand.

Make it wet, soften the stone to sand,

Eat that pie on the windowsill;

You’ll need the tin tomorrow.

 

Half an inch of water will give new life.

Bless the brick with more,

As it sits in its bakelite bathtub.

Watch the cheap seeds sprout;

You’ll like grass, it’s hardy.”

 

Mason

Blackout Poetry

Two writing worlds collide! As my poetry portfolio of 150 lines is nearing completion, I’d like to show you one of the poems that will feature in it. I wrote it over the weekend, and although it is untitled at the moment, it serves as an example of blackout poetry. This is created through taking a larger piece of text – perhaps a page from a book, or in this case a stand-alone piece of non-fiction – and isolating totally unrelated words and phrases to use in the poem. I used Charles Simic’s “Dinner At Uncle Boris’s” to write this, looking carefully at different parts of the text to see what could form something strangely cohesive and intriguingly surreal. It will appear as the penultimate poem in my portfolio – I hope you like it as much as my workshop group did yesterday!

“The four of us, out of water glasses,

Eating through our second helping of fly.

I’m full of shit, with a bit of fat underneath.

No guts.

 

The old guys are reminiscing about the war.

‘You were very good at it,’ my father assured him.

We are all composite characters.

We survive that somehow, the incredible stupidity of our family.

 

Orgies of self-abuse, our family is a story of endless errors,

Making us all in turn say ‘aaaaaahh’ like a baby doctor.

Of course, we can barely keep our eyes open.

For the moment we have run out of talk.”

 

Mason

Bulldozer

Since Halloween, Mum and Dad have seen me a few times here in Winchester, and have spent the entirety of Christmas and New Year with me at home in Somerset. In that period, they have failed to notice one thing. Whilst it is inconspicuous enough to avoid attracting too much attention, it is unquestionably staring them in the face, sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s no denying it; my wheelchair is bent. The arm supporting its controls and the bag that hangs underneath is drooping downward, although I have done my best to straighten it and minimise the damage. As you may have guessed, I wouldn’t be mentioning this if there wasn’t a half-decent story behind it. Only a select group of people know it thus far – and they all agree that after keeping it under wraps for so long, it’s about time I told it…

The flat in which I spend most of my time at university is not my own (as some of you will know), but the one in which my friends live at the top of the block next door. As the end of October approached, it rapidly filled with various Halloween decorations. In the kitchen there was a neatly-carved pumpkin in the windowsill, numerous plastic spiders scattered around, a blood-spattered tablecloth and several balloons floating above the floor. Remember the last two – to be honest, I’m surprised they haven’t given me PTSD.

Picture this. It’s late on the evening of 31 October, and I am conversing casually with Lara, Nora and Ben when someone absent-mindedly begins throwing one of the balloons around. Let’s face it – what else are they good for? Very few people can resist batting them back and forth like Roger Federer on a Wimbledon winning streak, so it wasn’t long before we were all joining in. The strikes against the rubber became increasingly ferocious as we tried harder and harder to outdo each other, so the balloon quickly gathered speed. Nora passed it to Ben on her left. He shot left again towards Lara – and before I knew it, it had darted in my direction. It missed my hand. Engrossed in the ferocity of our competition, there was only one thing I could do as it fell beside me. In a flash, my seatbelt was off and I was diving head-first towards the balloon. Looking back, if I’d had any sense I would have made sure my chair was switched off. Needless to say, it wasn’t.

My entire bodyweight pushed the joystick forward as I dangled helplessly over my armrest, and the chair ploughed through the table before me like the world’s most pathetic bulldozer. Since I was hanging upside down throughout, those few seconds were a rapid blur, and I very quickly ended up in a miraculously uninjured heap on the floor. Nora and Lara were similarly lucky, since they narrowly missed being pinned against the wall, and their laptops likewise avoided an untimely end as they teetered on the edge of the table, mere centimetres from disaster. Ben was out of the danger zone, which meant he had a clear view of the whole thing, much to his considerable amusement. Even if he pictures it now, I think he still finds it funny! We could all laugh once we had established that no harm had been done, and we still do months later. We returned the table to its rightful position, straightened the laptops and got on with our evening, watching The Great British Bake Off. The only evidence that anything had happened came via a tear in the tablecloth and my chair’s bendy battle scar.

Oh, and Mum and Dad visited again last weekend. They didn’t notice then either.

Mason

The Gym

What do you do when you want to go to the gym? You go, and you probably don’t give it a second thought either. I wish I could say the same. When I decided to venture into Winchester and try it out so I could write an article for Creative Non-Fiction, even I wasn’t prepared for all of the questions and careful consideration that lay in wait. The process began on Friday afternoon, when I sent a Facebook message explaining my circumstances and asking whether I could come in. After a brief wait, Hayley – the manager to whom my enquiry was passed – replied that evening. To my surprise, her response was favourable.

“Would you like to come down to the club at some point on Monday for a chat?”

Too right I would. A positive step – who’d have thought it? I was relieved that at the very least, whether I publicly humiliated myself in the gym or not, I would have some kind of development to write about. After the weekend had passed in a flurry of doubt and worry, the day arrived, and I made sure to head straight to the gym so that I couldn’t put it off any longer. I’ll admit that on the way, I found it hard to focus. I was convinced that my disability would make all of this impossible, and that the end result would be a resounding “no”, but luckily you don’t have a pointless conversation to read here. Hayley was more than welcoming, although I was somewhat surprised when she asked me her first question.

“What are your goals?”

Blimey. Goals? That’s the sort of question you ask dedicated gym-goers, not spotty little whippersnappers like me. Fearful of giving a wrong answer, I reiterated that I was visiting for the purposes of an article and we moved on to my limitations. Hayley gesticulated at the equipment around her and asked what I’d like to have a go at.

“How about a rowing machine?”

I thought for a moment. “Well, I tried one at school a few times, but I had to be held onto the seat. It’s still feasible though.”

“The exercise bike?”

I looked over at it, and it was clear to me that I would be unlikely to magically climb onto it, but I supposed Hayley couldn’t have known. She made the perfect suggestion, however, when she said she could have some weights brought in if I waited a couple of days.

“Here’s my email address,” she said, scribbling it onto a piece of paper as I left. “Send me as much information as you can about yourself and we’ll sort this out.”

Two days later, I was back, and everything I needed was ready. Hayley had her colleague Steph on hand to show me a few things with the weights, but first, I parked as close as possible to the rowing machine – so that my wheels were straddling it, so to speak. I then started off by drawing the handlebars toward my chest and pushing them out again, and the resistance from the cable meant that this was much trickier than I had initially expected. My workout had begun in earnest, muscles I clearly hadn’t used in a while were already starting to burn, and I had to take my fleece off because I was already sweating. Evidently, it was doing me some good! Once that first exercise had come to an end, I was given the weights, which promptly became heavier when I mentioned that the first set was too light. I brought them up and down above my head, in and out in front of my chest and around in circles until I was physically struggling to hold them. It wore me out, of course, but the further I pushed myself, the more I saw why people warm to this kind of activity. The sense of accomplishment I felt made it impossible not to smile, and eventually, Hayley had to insist that I stop.

“I wouldn’t want you to overdo it. You’ve done half an hour,” she said.

“Really?!” I was so engrossed that I had completely lost track of time. Reluctantly, I put the weights down. I felt as though I was only just getting started, but I was still tremendously proud of what I had achieved. Hayley seemed pretty pleased, too.

“You look properly chuffed,” she beamed. “You’re more than welcome to come back if you want.”

I was seriously considering it, even after being told that I would soon be aching all over, and it still remains a distinct possibility. Hayley’s email address is still in my bag, and after such a positive experience, she could be hearing from me again very soon…

Mason

Introverts And Orators

It is now Week 4 of the semester, meaning that exactly one third will soon be behind me – and that in turn means that it won’t be long before I have to start thinking about assessments. In my Creative Voice module, one of these will involve reading my work out loud, and since a lot of us on the course are somewhat introverted, there is a certain amount of apprehension surrounding the prospect. The seminar I went to yesterday morning attempted to reduce this by letting us know exactly what was expected of us – perfect diction isn’t, thankfully – and giving us some experience of reading aloud to each other so constructive feedback could be given. In order to do the latter, we needed something to read, and that was naturally the point at which we got to flex our creative muscles. Our tutor showed us a selection of photographs – some with prompts, some without – and we had to use the resulting inspiration to write a paragraph for each of them.

Once we had done that, we had to choose our own personal favourites so that we could expand on what we’d written and read it to our groups. My chosen photograph was a close-up shot of the face of an older man with a grey moustache baring his slightly dirty teeth at the camera. I just want to share what I wrote with you – the paragraph is from the perspective of a character who has had to deal with the loss of their father. I was able to read it well despite having a voice that is weaker than normal due to illness, and fortunately the rest of my group couldn’t see much wrong with it. Can you?

“When Dad passed away last year, I was numb with grief for months. Nothing helped – I wasn’t in the mood to eat, listen to music or talk to my friends. I think my circumstances were made worse by the fact that I only had memories of Dad, and surprisingly little that physically reminded me of him. I didn’t even have a decent photo, but I eventually found the most unlikely perfect snapshot. Dad was a clever and caring man, but to say he was slightly clumsy would be putting it lightly. Sometimes it would be like he couldn’t even chew gum and walk in a straight line, but he always took these shortcomings with good humour – that was Dad, laughing until the end. There’s no question he’d want me to laugh too, so what could be better than that infamous photograph he tried to take one family barbecue? When Dad was faced with brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins and grandparents all jostling for position in one shot, he was evidently looking at a recipe for disaster. The best that he ended up with – thanks to his endless fumbling with the camera – wasn’t something that could take pride of place on our mantelpiece for years to come, but a close-up view of his distinctive grey moustache and his not-so-pearly whites. It doesn’t even show his whole face, but to my surprise, I really couldn’t care less. I know if he were here now he’d be laughing, and it was thanks to him that for the first time in months, I was able to laugh too. It was the best parting gift I could have asked for.”

Mason