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maisondulacAnyway,… there she was, centre-stage, hemmed in between a pair of frightful old waxworks – namely her parents, Monsieur and Madame Lafayette. Madame was one of those jowly old dames who appear permanently displeased, while her husband had the dry, superior air of an old-school academic. Madame had just noticed something on her dessert spoon and, with one eyebrow arched in disapproval, was tipping the spoon towards her husband for him to inspect and share in her low opinion of the standards they were having to endure. I caught the word, ‘sale’,.. dirty! He shook his head and tutted in dutiful dismay. Personally, I’ve never known a better presented hotel than La Maison, and since it so clearly failed to measure up to their expectations I supposed nothing ever would.

Gabrielle had the look of a child that night, and she was so quiet, so undemonstrative, she went unnoticed between her more animated parents. She was pale, looked even a little sickly, and was dressed in an unflattering blouse and an unfashionable skirt that would have better suited someone her mother’s age. This was in stark contrast to the Italian girls on the neighbouring table who were dressed, shall we say, less modestly but considerably more in vogue. However, like the Italian girls, Gabrielle was hardly a child – she must have been in her early thirties – yet she appeared shrunken, the full bloom of her womanhood arrested, and she had become instead a flower rendered papery thin and transparent for want of sunshine.

The only hint that all was not lost was her hair, which had the colour and the fertile sheen of a freshly opened chestnut. It would have been voluminous, I thought, except for now it was severely fastened up. Surely if there was any spirit left in Gabrielle, it had fled her body years ago, and resided now exclusively in those lovely chestnut tresses. What a pleasure it would be, I thought, to see her let that hair down, and let the spirit of her secret self flow back into those sickly bones.
Her eyes never left the table – not even when her parents spoke to her, and I noticed Madame had the habit of fussing with Gabrielle’s table setting, as if the girl could not be trusted to leave things tidy. I found this deeply irritating, though I don’t know why because these people were nothing to me. All the same I wondered how she managed to bear it so patiently.

After dinner I lingered over coffee, watching as she left the dining room, still captured safe between them, noting also how she walked with a pronounced stoop, as if wary of low ceilings, that she was embarrassed by her height, afraid to rise up to the stature of which she was surely capable. And beneath the rather ill fitting clothes, I’m ashamed to say I joined the dots and reconstructed the outline of an attractive figure, generously curved,… curiously desirable,…

Actually, although it might read like a story, this incident is taken pretty much from the observations of a lone man in the dining room of an hotel. Namely me. It also forms the opening of my novel “The Last Guests of La Maison Du Lac”, written decades later, and by which it becomes more of a half-truth, before blurring out altogether into the realms of a purer form of fiction.

Her name was probably not Gabrielle, nor did I see her again after she left the dining room that evening. But the impression of her lingered subliminally, and she was to provide a powder keg of inspiration for a further two hundred thousand words, much later in life. It was an English hotel in reality, but I moved it to Switzerland, fashioned it roughly along the lines of another place I’d stayed in on Lake Lucerne. I did this because the dining room of that Swiss establishment had a view of the lake and a snow capped Pilatus, which I renamed because location wasn’t important in the geographical sense – only a dramatic and mysterious remoteness.

Then in April 2010, as I penned this opening, an Icelandic volcano, the Eyjafjallajökull, erupted and for a period of 6 days, grounded every aircraft in northern and western Europe. This bit is also true, but if I’d made that bit up – I mean about the eruption – no one would have believed me because it was too fantastic. It was the first time since Bleriot the skies were empty of flying machines – a sudden and extraordinary thing that caused chaos. This gave me permission to try other unsettling ideas, like how about an X class solar flare which combines with the outfall of that volcano to produce an electromagnetic pulse, one that that wipes out every microchip in the northern hemisphere? Cars, planes, computers, memory cards, watches, everything electronic,… gone! Overnight.

And then again I was thinking about buying an old car, an MGB, a vehicle that predates just about every modern convenience. In the end I didn’t buy it, but it got me thinking how such a vehicle would be unaffected by  electromagnetic pulses, and I’d find myself being the only visitor to La Maison not now stranded. But what kind of Europe would I find outside the calm oasis of La Maison, and with a thousand miles of uncertain roads to drive between me and Blighty? And what if the peculiarly oppressed Gabrielle came to me and asked that, when I leave, will I take her with me, because she wants to escape her monstrous parents?

What kind of story would that then be, I wonder? And how much stranger could I make it?

Writing is a melting pot of seemingly unconnected ideas, encounters, events. They all go into the pot. Life and memory stir them. Reflection over the keyboard produces strange, sometimes alchemical effects as these disjointed things, sometimes decades apart, join to form an unexpectedly coherent and informative narrative. It’s as if our lives are not played out solely in linear time – that what happens today might not make sense right now, but only later when tacked onto something else that happens twenty years later. Truth or fiction? Well, it’s a bit of both usually, the boundaries blurred, smeared out across time and space, and the writer doesn’t care. It’s just a story after all.

You can link to the novel from the right of the page. It’s free. No sweat. I had a great time writing it. On the Richter scale of fictional strangeness, I put La Maison at around a nine. And boy that Gabrielle,… she really was something else.

Keep well.

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