Godlike omniscience

Myra had made a pot of decaf. She didn’t want anything adversely influencing her thoughts, like that time she was so buzzed from a post-coital espresso session with Brad that he managed to convince her to quit college and book a flight to Marrakesh, all before 10 in the morning. She had to be sure this time that she was making a level-headed decision. Riley didn’t have that problem. He’d heard the pros and cons of capital punishment when he was growing up in Galveston. He wanted the guy dead, and didn’t see why he had to suffer sloppy coffee along the way.  Tom was tired of their talk, going over and over the details and practicalities. He couldn’t care about that. He’d spent 23 years carrying around the guilt from when he abandoned his baby daughter. He didn’t want another load on his back, one he might never learn to live with. No, someone else would have to do the killing, and he was sure he could get Riley to agree if he dropped a little something in the next pot of coffee.

 

(Exercise: Try to present God’s consciousness or POV. Since God should be efficient and get to the point, do this exercise in only 200 words.) From 3AM Epiphany. Based on yesterday exercise, An execution)

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An execution

Myra had made a pot of decaf. We’d banned caffeine and alcohol. A democratic decision. Riley was outvoted on both counts. We needed clear heads. We needed to think straight. We needed to leave emotions and feelings (there is a difference, Myra says) and any kind of distracted thinking behind. We needed to make some decisions and develop a plan that would cover any doubts we might have later.

‘It has to be quick,’ said Riley. “No room for mistakes. No chance that he could see our faces, escape or fight back.’

‘He should be made to realise why it’s happening,’ countered Myra, ‘be forced to face the things he’s done.’

‘What?’ sneered Riley. ‘So he doesn’t do them again?’ Riley laughed, looked to me to see if I would join him, but I didn’t.

‘He should be given a chance to repent,’ explained Myra.

‘Repent?’ Riley was stunned. He rarely moves out of his slump, but he’d pushed his Babe Ruth bulk over the table. “So what? He can have a nice time in heaven?’

Myra wasn’t taking the bait. She focused her attention on me. ‘He needs to have a chance to …’ she almost looked at Riley, ‘not confess, but explain. Atone. Doesn’t everyone deserve that right? They let Bundy have a last word on the chair. This guy is bad but he’s no Bundy.’

Riley leaned further across the table, stretching his arms into our space. ‘So what do we do? Take him to our secret lair? Tie him up like we’re the bad guys and he’s James Bond? Bond always gets away, and he always kills the bad guys.’

Myra kept her eyes on me. ‘We just need a good plan. The perfect plan.’ She sat back, picked up her coffee cup. ‘That’s why we’re here, right?’

‘We’re here to decide how we’re going to do it.’ Riley started counting off his fingers. ‘Bullet. Knife. Bomb. Piano wire. Poison.’

‘Bomb?’ It’s was Myra’s turn to be incredulous. ‘Even if we knew how to build a bomb, wouldn’t that attract just a little bit too much attention? Wouldn’t that risk killing innocent people when the whole time we’re here because we want to save innocent lives?’

Riley spread his arms. ‘This is good. This is dialogue. We can rule out bomb.’

This step onto common ground helped diffuse the emotions for a moment. They both sat back in their chairs, Myra sipping at her coffee, Riley with his arms folded, steadfastly refusing to drink anything that didn’t give a hit.

‘I can consider poison,’ said Myra. She stared at the wall as she processed that particular thought. ‘Something certain. Something deadly, but that would take some time. It would give him the insight into death he needs, without us,’ she looked to Riley, ‘having to find a secret lair.’

It took a moment, then they both shared a half-laugh and smiled.

Riley nodded. ‘We could slip it to him easy. He goes to that same coffee place every morning.’ He looked to me for confirmation of this fact. I nodded. ‘Or better yet, the bar on a Friday night. We could just drop it in his drink.’

Myra didn’t look so sure. ‘He might taste it. Or it might turn the drink cloudy and he won’t touch it.’

Riley already had an answer for that. ‘We find something tasteless that won’t turn vodka rocks cloudy.’

‘Like what?’ Myra was getting all sceptical again.

‘I don’t know.’ He looked around the office. ‘You got all these computer here. Fire one up and ask the internet.’

‘Oh sure. Great idea. Dear internet, we want to kill a prominent lawyer with close connections to the police and organised crime, what would be the best poison to drop into his Friday night vodka?’

Riley wagged a finger at Myra, but he was looking at me. ‘Do you see this? This passive aggressive bullshit? That’s why she wants to keep the guy alive, so she can sarcasm his ass to death.’

‘You’re the one talking about poisoning the guy, but you don’t know the first thing about poison; what kind you’d need, where you’d get it, how you’d give it to him, how much would definitely kill him before he had the chance to get to a hospital. ‘No,’ said Myra, trying to calm herself again, ‘however we do it, whatever we use, we need to have a solid plan. Right, Tom?’

They both looked at me, waiting for an answer.

I didn’t have one. I only had more questions. And there was only one that was really troubling me. ‘I think we need to ask ourselves this,’ I looked at them both in turn, right in the eye, ‘which one of us is going to do it?’

I let that sink in for moment, then got up and started to brew another pot of coffee, this time with caffeine. It was going to be a long night.

(Exercise: Gather three or four ordinary people to discuss an execution. from 3AM Epiphany)

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The cheerful spectator

Two foreign men have been coming into the bar recently. Both around the same age. Middle aged. Both English. Or, at least, they speak English.

They sit in the same places every day. Separately. They are not together. One sits upstairs, at a table on the mezzanine floor. The other sits in the corner at the bar, facing the door, although he is usually looking out the window to the street. The man on the mezzanine floor spends most of his time looking out the window too. He never reads a newspaper or a book, just sits there staring out over the canal.

They both drink coffee. Black coffee. Never a latte or a cappuccino. Just coffee. Black. Although the man on the mezzanine floor has recently started drinking beer after his two coffees.

The mezzanine man always arrives first. Around 3.30 in the afternoon. He takes his seat upstairs and drinks his coffee. The corner man comes in a little later, usually just after 4. They never speak to anyone. Not really. The mezzanine man makes one phone call, always around 5.30, just after he’s finished his second coffee. He speaks very quietly, like he doesn’t want anyone to know his business. He’s probably only telling his wife what time he’ll be home, but he makes it look like he’s protecting some very important secret.

The corner man sometimes speaks to other men at the bar. At least, he did the first one or two times. He was telling another man at the bar, a regular, about how he had been parked across the street one day, on the other side of the canal. He had parked the car just before the bridge, which rises up in an arch and then comes down again. He said that when women cycled over the bridge towards him in the car, he could see directly up their skirts. He could see their underwear, he said. It was their underwear that he wanted to see too, because he did not need to look into some big blinking horse’s eye, he said. He said it like a joke, but the regular man doesn’t have such good English, or he maybe just didn’t think it was funny. The mezzanine man was listening too, although he was pretending not to listen. He was at the bar, waiting to pay his bill. He usually left after paying his bill, but this time he paid and then asked for a beer, and took that back to his seat upstairs. He probably thought  the story about the women’s underwear was funny, but was too shy to say anything to the man, maybe feeling that he wasn’t supposed to hear the story. He probably thought the beer would give him the courage to speak to the corner man, but then the corner man left, as usual, just before 6.

The corner man always receives a phone call before he leaves. Maybe his wife asking to meet him, or telling him the dinner is ready, although the phone call is always at the same time every night. The corner man never says anything. Or not much. Just, ‘OK’, and ‘thanks’. Actually, it sounds a little too formal to be a phone call from a wife. And it is unlikely that someone who looks so lonely would even have a wife. The mezzanine man too. They both look very lonely. The phone calls could be with their wives back home. But the way they both looking longing across the street, it’s more like they’re waiting for some woman from their dreams to suddenly appear. But she never does appear, and they keep on staring.

They should really start talking to each other. They could swap ideas of what this woman would look like if she ever did appear. They could share their dreams about the places they’d go with her, the lives they’d lead. But what if they’re waiting for the same woman? They might fight. And that would not be good for the bar. There is something threatening about both men. Even though they are middle aged. When they look at someone they look right into that person’s eye like they are memorising every detail of the eyeball. It’s confrontational. A lot of people don’t like to be looked in the eye like that. So maybe it’s better they don’t talk. Who knows what would happen if they looked into each others eyes like that.

(Exercise: Introduce a narrator intimate to the story but outside it. From 3AM Epiphany )

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The ironist

After barely a week in the city, he already has a routine. He could be seen heading to the city-end of the street at 4 every afternoon, his shoulders hunched, buckled towards his chest in an attempt to keep warm. He turns right at the baker’s shop, swerves to miss the open stairwell down to the basement coffee shop, never lifting his hands from his pockets for even a moment. He passes an antique-clock shop on the first corner, a pharmacy on the next and enters the bar on the third. He has walked for less than 5 minutes.

The bar has a large window that faces one of the city’s busiest streets. Anyone passing who looks inside could not fail to see him, to see his face gazing back at them. Most people look away, they don’t like to be confronted by a stranger staring straight back at them, but usually they think nothing more of it because they pass so quickly. Anyone sitting inside the bar could easily see him too. Just as easily as he could see them. He sits on a short stool in the corner, leaning one arm on the low bar, his back to the wall. He can see everyone who comes through the door, although he usually has his head turned to look out the window. And he only has to shift slightly to see the other way, right along the bar to the tables in the back corner or look up to the seats in the mezzanine floor above.

Anyone who was watching him would see him take his time over a cup of black coffee. He can sometimes make it last till 4.45, then lets the cup sit empty for easily another ten minutes before ordering a fresh one. He is clearly uncomfortable about this. He finds it bad form to take up a space in a cafe or a bar and have no drink. It’s already a struggle for him to sit in a bar and not have a real drink, an alcoholic drink. But nobody knows him here, nobody will call him a miserable bastard, and he sees other people doing the same, so he guesses it’s all right.

All this time he is waiting for a phone call. It usually comes around 5.30. The caller will tell him where to be to start work at 6pm. It is his job to be in his car at that time, and to follow another man – the ‘target’ – for 12 hours, right through the night. He has to note all the places the target goes and, around 5am, call in his position, which so far has always been outside the target’s home. He assumes that someone else takes over from him at 6am. But he doesn’t like having to make such assumptions. He would like to know for sure if there is someone else following the target during the day, and he would like to know who this colleague is. And so, he waits in this bar from where he can watch the target’s office (where he has – so far – always started his shift) and, presumably, where he can see the colleague waiting in a car. If he can identify the colleague, he can find out more about him. So, when he’s not watching the target, he watches for the colleague. He doesn’t yet know what the colleague looks like, and wouldn’t be able to recognise him even if that colleague was sitting in the same bar, on the mezzanine floor, for example, which gives a perfect overview of the target’s office and the hunched man sitting in the corner seat by the window.

 

(Exercise: Write an observer who indirectly reveals a complex reading of the events he is describing. From 3AM Epiphany )

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Historical omniscience

By the mid-1980s, young people were steadily becoming concerned about the spread of HIV / Aids. Media reports and government campaigns had led to increased awarenes  that it was not only drug addicts, prostitutes and homosexuals who were ‘swirling in a cesspit of their own making’, but that heterosexual couple could also be at risk.

Anecdotal evidence acquired from recruits undergoing training with Greater Manchester Police, for example, suggests a distinct change in attitudes when the young officers-to-be visited the city on rare evenings off. Several cadets attested to their fellow trainees during Monday morning tea breaks that women they had met over the weekend had insisted that they should wear a condom if they wanted penetrative sex. Even women who admitted to regularly taking oral contraceptives, and therefore had little chance of becoming pregnant and who had previously been willing to have unprotected sex, were demanding the use of a prophylactic. Cadets who did not yet routinely carry or could not acquire a said item at the appropriate moment reported heightened levels of frustration, and even complained of a whole weekend being ruined. Such grievances were particularly acute among cadets who had only arrived in the Greater Manchester area immediately prior to the commencement of their training. They were reported as being especially vocal upon their return to quarters, stating that they had expected more from the city, and the ‘slags’ who inhabited it.

Not all cadets experienced such a sense of injustice, of course. There were those who had long-term girlfriends who would readily offer detailed accounts of their Saturday evening recreational activities, especially after attending a cinema showing of the film 9 ½ Weeks. There was even one cadet who appeared unaffected by the fuss his colleagues made. This cadet merely smiled, or laughed openly, when he listened to their accounts. The recruit in question had left his home in Scotland to attend the GMP training programme. He had informed his fellow cadets that he was remaining faithful to his childhood sweetheart who was expecting their first child in the near future. In several statements made at the time, the recruit claimed that she would be joining him in the north of England as soon as possible.

The young Scot appeared to pass most of his free time following a countryman who had also recently arrived in the area. The cadet was said to have been a long time fan of Aberdeen, even though he grew up nearer the west coast of Scotland. When Alex Ferguson then took up the position of manager at Manchester United, the cadet  believed it was only logical to make these other Reds (the true Reds, many told him) his local team. He, therefore, spent his Saturday afternoons at the football matches whenever he was free and there was a home game. In the evenings, he visited bars such as The Bishops Blaize where, for his own protection, he told fans and fellow drinkers that he was a carpenter working for the Liverpool city council and that he had to escape the ‘Scouser scum’ every opportunity he had. This cover story was accepted without further questioning, but it gave the young cadet some cause for concern when he successfully completed his training and had to attend the games in uniform. Much to his relief, however, none of his weekend acquaintances managed to positively identify him as ‘Dibble’.

As the months passed, the Scottish cadet found it increasingly difficult to account for the continued absence of the alleged girlfriend and baby. After some time, he did confide in one colleague with whom he frequently worked that the ‘bitch’ had ‘put the kid up for adoption’ and had ‘buggered off’ from their home town without confessing any word of justification or even admission of temporary insanity.

Around one month later, the young constable attended a club night at the popular venue, The Hacienda, where he met a young woman. When he reported the incident to his colleagues the following Monday – two of whom had witnessed the encounter from a distance – and gave details of a swift, condomless assignation, it was station mates’ turn to indulge in derision. They informed the newly-appointed constable that the young woman in question was a prostitute and drug addict, and that his ‘cock’ would probably drop off in the weeks to come while the rest of his mortal substance would whither away with the ‘gay plague’. It is said that the Scotsman then proceeded to abstain from sexual relations for a period of almost one year, during which time, it is alleged that he could not even entertain the idea of touching his own private parts for fear of contracting an illness or illnesses unknown and so purchased many rubber prophylactics for the sole purpose of relieving himself through a method known colloquially as a ‘posh wank’. Any evidence of this behaviour, however, remains purely circumstantial, but the constable in question gained a reputation among his colleagues as one who always kept a condom handy. In fact, they duly provided him with the nickname, Handy Andy.

 

(Exercise: write about an event set in the past as if by means of researched opinion)

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Third to first

From this position, sitting in the fragile-looking chair, I can see clearly into the flats opposite. If the windows were open, I’d be able to have a conversation without having to raise my voice too much. But the winter chill means the windows are closed, and I’m happy to sit there drinking my tea.

It’s mostly young people in the building opposite. Student types. They come and go with their little backpacks slung over one shoulder, or gathered in their little rooms at night drinking beers, laughing or playing music (that I’ve heard without any windows being open).

In the room directly opposite is a single girl. She’s pretty, but painfully thin. That’s obvious even though she always wears big heavy jumpers. She probably needs such thick clothing because she’s too thin to ever be warm. Anorexic, probably. Or the other one. Bulimic. Is that it? Some kind of eating disorder anyway. If she was to come out one day in her underwear I’d be able to tell for sure, but she never comes out in her underwear, or in anything less than those thick, shapeless jumpers. She never wears any of the skimpy outfits that other young girls have, which only confirms the theory that she’s not comfortable with her own body image.

In the two days I’ve been here, I’ve only really seen her sitting on her couch. Alone. Her back to the window. She keeps her head bowed low most of the time, like she’s quietly crying into her lap. She can sit like that for hours. She never switches on the television, even though it directly faces her. As far as I can tell, the screen stays black the whole day.

She will, occasionally, drag her fingers through her hair. She teases the strands to their ends, lets them fall, then lifts another lock and repeats, over and over. It looks compulsive, like she’s combing for tangles that could not possibly exist in such shiny, silken hair. And, at one point, she lets her head fall back and lets loose a lengthy sigh. If the window was open, I’m sure I would’ve heard her moan.

Shortly after, she stands. A laptop in her hands. She claps it shut, checks her watch, and tidies the computer onto a corner desk. She leaves the room and pulls the door closed behind her. She’ll be going to her bed. She’ll shut the curtains, and get under the covers, still fully clothed. She probably does this instead of eating.

I get up, take my mug of tea to the window. Her flat is so tiny that we’re probably still the same distance apart, even with her in her bed. And maybe that gives her some comfort, to know that people aren’t so far away, if she ever needs them. And maybe she would feel so much better if she just knew that, somewhere, somebody would be very happy to see her again.

And then she appears. Outside. On the street. She has a little backpack slung over one shoulder, and walks in the direction of the city. A doctor’s appointment, probably. That’s good, I think. At least she’s getting help.

(Exercise: Rewrite a third person story from a first-person POV, reducing the number of the narrator’s pronouns by half the original number. The original is here)

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Family consciousness

After the two police officers had left, they sat in the living room for a long silent minute. Dad was in his usual easychair, the one that looked directly at the TV, but he didn’t look so comfortable. Neither did Mum, perched on the arm beside him, looking like she could hop away any second to make a cup of tea or go back to peeling the spuds. Nearby was Michael, at one end of the couch, on the edge of the cushion, desperate to get out to his mates to give them the gossip. At the opposite end of the couch, the far end, was Jill. She pulled at a strand of hair so she could bite it.

Nobody knew what to say, where to begin. Should Mum and Dad start by apologising for 19 years of lies? Was lies too strong a word, since they’d argue they had her best interests at heart the whole time? If it wasn’t lies then it was certainly deception. All those times when Jill needed her birth certificate but Mum couldn’t find it, only to come up with it later and bring it personally to the school or to the Post Office to get her passport that time. Or should they start by going over the events of that morning, talk about how frightened Jill had been, how she hadn’t been paranoid this past week after all? That guy really was stalking her, and not just for a week – for three years! Freak. He was clearly mentally unstable, not the kind of person you’d want passing on genes to a new generation. But here they were, coils of that man’s DNA right in this room. Were they all replaying the moments of Jill’s past when she too had been difficult, a little obsessive, a touch too sensitive? She spat out the ring of hair, then fought hard not to pick at the fingers in her lap.

‘At least we won’t hear from him anymore,’ said Mum.

‘No,’ agreed Dad. ‘They’ll lock him up for a long time.’

‘Not bloody long enough,’ said Mum.

Dad only mumbled, only half-nodded his head. If he’d been watching this on the telly, seeing it unfold on some mid-afternoon talk show, he’d have been outraged. He’d have been shouting at the flickering colours on the box, trying to make himself heard, trying to get them to lock up the bastard up for good, throw away the key, while Jill and Michael sniggered at his impotent rage. But he wasn’t saying any of that, now that it had come to his door, was interfering with his family. His mind was elsewhere, perhaps calculating his own guilt, thinking about what he could’ve done better, how he could’ve prevented all this, how he should’ve been protecting his little girl these last three years. She was, still, his little girl after all. After all that had happened that morning.

Mum seemed more secure, more confident that everything she’d done was the right thing at the time. For the best reasons, and with the interests of her whole family in mind. But then, Mum never did admit mistakes. She remained stubbornly steadfast in her decisions. She was the parent. She was there to be obeyed. Even if hindsight appeared to prove her wrong, she would still refute any criticism. ‘It’s all right saying that now,’ she’d say, ‘we’re all very clever after the fact, aren’t we?’ And with that, the conversation would be closed, no ‘but Mum’ allowed. It would be: up to the room to get the homework done.

Were they thinking about that? Were they thinking about how Jill was so good at school? The first of their family – meaning extended family too, and going back generations – to go to university. And not only that, but to finish third in her course, behind the two guys that were obviously going to get PhDs and work in a lab the rest of their lives. Were they wondering about that? Where her brains had come from? After all, you’d have to be pretty smart to stalk a young girl for three years and never be caught, never even get noticed. Today was his own fault, like he couldn’t sit back any longer. He practically gave himself up. That takes a certain type of person too, a certain type of courage.

Dad shuffled, looked at the white rug under his slippered feet. He clapped his hands together and looked up, looked round them all. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘I suppose we should make that statement now.’

 

(Exercise: Dip into the consciousness of a family in a short piece of prose)

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