A Cup of Tea 

I was reminded today about the the decisions that we face when telling a story. Not so much to decide whether it is first person or third, but the angle we use to get the reader into the narrative and the theme that we want to emerge. Plot, after all can arguably be considered an empty vessel which holds your characters and themes.

I am currently struggling with a couple of stories that I have ideas for and the reason, I think, is because they have started with a plot idea and I have no character to hang them on. I kick around various opening paragraphs – I have even written a few, but the idea sort of never catches flight after that. I guess this is the 99% perspiration bit. It is nice when a story arrives fully – or nearly fully formed in one’s head, or when there is an image which will drive the narrative towards or from it, but the rest is graft.

A number of years ago, I was doing a project based on the theme of Medusa. I had wanted to write a number of stories based on the idea of this character with modern twists, but I was struggling. Like most people, I suppose the idea of Medusa invoked the image of a woman with snakes for hair and eyes that will turn people to stone, a creature that could only be defeated when one man had the brilliant idea to polish his shield and move backwards towards her guided by her reflection, which kept him safe. He slayed her and removed the head.

But this is not all the story. Medusa had been a beautiful woman, who had upset the ever fickle gods and had been transformed into this creature as punishment. She had gone from being admired and loved to a monster who was unable to ever experience contact with another being again – not even eye contact. No wonder she was angry. This new angle on the myth was my entry into three different stories based on the legend, but there was one story that I never did manage to get off the ground.

News broke today that The Moors murderer, Ian Brady had died in prison and with it came the end of a terrible story wth no winners. I was too young to remember living through the trial and jailing of Brady and his partner in crime, Myra Hindley for the abduction and murder of five children in the north of England during the ’60s, but their names were synonymous with evil. The was only one image of Myra Hindley ever used in the press that I can remember – a grainy black and white photo of a woman with platinum blonde hair and dark shadows beneath her eyes staring blankly at the camera. She looked evil and was supposed to. The crimes that she and Brady committed were atrocious.

It reminded me of the time, over a decade ago now that I was doing the Medusa project. I was talking to my lecturer about ideas for stories and she mentioned something that had happened to her. She had been at Holloway women’s prison attending an interview with the governor about a creative writing course that she was going to run for the inmates. During the conversation, an inmate who was a trustee brought in a tray of tea. The woman had mousy brown hair tied in a pony tail and came and went in a matter of minutes. After she had left the room, the governor asked if the lecturer had recognised the inmate. When she answered, no, the governor calmly revealed that the tea-serving trustee was Myra Hindley.

I never did find a way to tell that story. At the time, the lecturer said that she would never have recognised her, as the only photo ever used in newspapers was the blonde, staring face. Clearly the image of the mousy-haired meek woman would not have fitted the acts that she had committed, so it was one that no one outside of the prison where she was to remain until her death would have known. I guess if the story was told from the lecturer’s point of view, it might have explored the awful mundanity of evil, but perhaps it might have looked at the motivation of the governor? One would have to wonder what he was up to. Was he parading his chief exhibit in a freak show? Was he testing the lecturer to see how she might react given that she was going to be working with inmates? Either way, it was a fictional story that I never was able to write – and I guess now I never will – at least as a story based on Hindley. It may well be that even with the distance of time I felt that any story that invoked that particular woman would need to make damn sure it was good enough to justify it, and nothing I could write, did.

Finding a way into a story can often be a problem and it can be an interesting exercise to explore how one might take a real life event and present the narrative. Perhaps in this case, though, whatever the angle, it would be better to create a completely fictional set up, rather than using the real criminal who caused such real pain. Not only would it remove the problem of whether it is even a good idea to tell the story, but you can have fun sinking the governor without any twinge of conscience while you are at it.

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