Once upon a time I wrote literary and mainstream fiction. Don’t believe me? Here, as proof, is something I prepared earlier. As in, seven years earlier. I’ve always been fond of this piece; I wrote it when I was angry and indignant at the elitist attitude of a guest speaker visiting the creative writing class I was attending at the time. Ironically, it turned out to be the most Literary piece I ever wrote. It was published online in Spoiled Ink e-zine and reprinted in Bravado, a New Zealand literary magazine. Now I wonder if the story is in fact mildly cursed, because both of those publications have since ceased to exist.
Kill All Your Darlings
By Tracie McBride
The tutor enters the room like a bantam rooster, taking small, quick, fastidious steps. He says, you can call me William, or Mr. Goldsmith, or Sir. He gives a split-second smile to show that he is joking about the “Sir”. Kate looks around the room and tries to guess who will be the first student to call him Billy. He claps his hands together and says, Time Is Money, people, let’s get started. He turns to the blackboard and writes –
Write What You Know
The letters are tall and thin, straining forward to take on the world. They are everything William isn’t. What do I Mean by this, he addresses the class. Fourteen pairs of feet shuffle, then silence. William puffs and frowns, and leans on his desk. His little piggy eyes glitter behind his John Lennon glasses. His voice rises half an octave, and he says, I do not mean that you can only write about what you have directly Experienced. If you all did that, your stories would be very Boring indeed.
The student in front of Kate stiffens at the implied insult. William says, I mean that you must write about what is Important to you. What do you Care about? For the next ten minutes, I want you to write a list of the Priorities in your life. Just your Top Ten. Be Honest. Go!
Fourteen heads bow obediently to their desks. Kate catches herself writing in random capitals, the way William speaks. At number three, she writes “Chocolate”, then crosses it out. Be Honest, William said. She puts Chocolate back in at number two. She writes “My Mother” at number three. My mother will never see this, she thinks, and demotes her to number five. She chews on the end of her pen. Two minutes to go. She cobbles together the rest of her list by sneaking a look at her neighbours’ papers. Being Honest is not on her list.
Sharon sits in front of Kate. Kate has a morbid fascination with Sharon’s backside. She looks like two different women spliced together. Her hips jut out from her size 14 torso like two fleshy shelves. Every day she watches Sharon’s tracksuit-clad buttocks spill over the sides of her chair.
Jeffrey is the only student to sit in the back. He sits there to avoid the chalk dust. He’s allergic to it, he says. Jeffrey sweats a lot, and his butt is almost as big as Sharon’s. Sharon says that William’s use of a blackboard is an affectation. All the other tutors use whiteboards.
Give Constructive Criticism
Hirini looks as though he should be sitting at the back of the class, but he chooses instead the desk directly in front of William’s. Hirini says, when I was at school, I was always made to sit in front of the teachers so they could keep an eye on me, and now it’s become a habit. Hirini used to be a soldier in the SAS, until he lost half a leg in a car accident. He cycles to class every day. William says to Hirini, you have led such an Interesting Life, so why must your writing be so Banal? Hirini leans back in his chair, shrugs and says with a smile, dunno, Billy, you tell me.
In the lunch room, Reece says, I wouldn’t be saying shit like that to a man who knows how to kill people with his bare hands. Reece has a severe case of acne, which makes him look younger than his actual age of twenty-three. When his attention wanders in class, he picks at his pimples. Kate wants to slap his hand away. Reece’s stories usually feature one or more people suffering graphically violent deaths. He asks Hirini, how many dead bodies have you seen? Hirini shakes his head. Can’t say, mate, he says. Official Secrets Act. I could tell you – but then I’d have to kill you.
Omit Needless Words
Jade sits by the window. She looks like Cleopatra without the kohl. Her small conical breasts are bare under her Indian cotton blouse. Her left nipple is skewered with a large gold ring. William turns towards her like a wavering compass needle. He calls Jade’s work Brave and Honest. Jade, he says, is the Only one in the class who writes with any Originality. Jade tilts her chin a millimetre upward and takes the compliment as her royal due.
Kate doesn’t understand half of what Jade writes. Jade says she is a vegan, but Kate saw her eating a Big Mac in the food hall at the mall on the weekend. Kate wants to say something cutting – McDonald’s making Tofu Burgers now? Or, was that your evil twin I saw down at Westfield on Saturday? She says instead, I really liked your poem about battery hens, Jade.
Hirini reads out his latest story about a woman whose multiple body piercings accidentally get magnetized, and she spends several days stuck to her fridge before someone rescues her. Everyone laughs, except for William and Jade.
Kill All Your Darlings
Only five people show up for class today. Their classroom door is barred with yellow “Police Line – Do Not Cross” tape. They gather in the common room. Reece breaks the rules by lighting up a cigarette. He takes one puff before stubbing it out, buckling under Jade’s glare. Reece’s hands are still shaking from yesterday. He tucks them in his pockets.
Sharon volunteers to be class advocate and find out from Admin what they’re going to do with the class. Hirini says, it’s a pity that woman didn’t shoot Billy in the first couple of weeks, then we might have got a refund. Sharon looks shocked. She says, how could you say something so callous, after you risked your life to save William? Hirini says, I disarmed one middle-aged woman. Hardly life-risking.
Reece vomited when William got shot, and had to be treated for shock. He says, Hirini’s a hero. He’s earned the right to say whatever the fuck he likes. Jade says, he’s earned the right to jack-shit. He’s just atoning for all the baby killing he did in Afghanistan. Hirini shakes his head. He says, neither of you know what you’re talking about. I’m gonna get out of here before the reporters catch up with me.
Structure Is All
Jade says, I’ll get some flowers for William. Kate, you can take them to him in hospital. No sense in us all traipsing in there. Kate says, why me? Jade says, you got something better to do? Jade borrows a pair of scissors from Reception and raids the Polytech garden. The Travel and Tourism class have the room overlooking the garden. Twenty-three heads swivel to see what she is doing. A caretaker approaches her, presumably to give her an earful for defacing Polytech property. She disarms him with a chest-thrust and a smile.
Jade returns to the common room. She ties up her bouquet with brown wrapping paper and flax and hands it to Kate. It looks as though it cost fifty bucks from a trendy inner city florist. Meanwhile, Sharon has fashioned a makeshift card with coloured paper filched from the art room. They take turns writing in it. Kate is last. She chews on the end of her pen for ten minutes trying to think of something meaningful to say. She tucks the words “Get Well Soon” into a corner, underneath Jade’s haiku.
Kate enters William’s hospital room. Floral bouquets cover every surface. William looks perversely smug to be in hospital. His left arm is in a sling. So you drew the short straw, he says. Kate mumbles an insincere denial, which William waves away with his good hand. They make small talk for a few minutes, about the other class members, about hospital food, about Williams’ prospects of an early discharge. William leans forward and says, there is Something you could do for me. If you could go around to my apartment and look in on Spot for me, I’d be grateful. He looks nauseated at having to say the word “grateful”.
Kate says, Spot is…your dog? No, says William. Spot is my budgie. Kate looks blank. Seriously, says William, my budgie’s name is Spot. It’s meant to be Ironic. He leans back on the pillow and looks out the window, his lips pursed the way he does in the classroom when he finds a piece of writing particularly boring. He turns to his bedside table and pulls out a wallet and a notepad. He jots down his address and hands it to Kate along with his house key. You’ll find the birdseed on top of the Fridge, he says. He leans back on the pillow and closes his eyes. When Kate gets back to her car, she finds Jade’s bouquet and the Get Well card still on the front passenger seat.
Show, Don’t Tell
Kate sits at the back of the courtroom. Most of the class are there, although only a few of them have been called as witnesses. The defendant sits in the stand. She wears a pale grey business suit that is a decade out of date. Her light brown hair is starting to frizz out of the bun pulled tight at the back of her head. She sits very straight, as if her back is lined up against an invisible wall. She is very still, except for the tiny, constant movement of her hands twisting in her lap. Kate thinks of Lady McBeth – out, out, damn Spot – then gasps. She’s forgotten about William’s budgie.
The lawyer for the defense says, Lynley Smythe has endured enormous personal tragedy, and in the months leading up to the shooting, was under immense pressure. Her teenage daughter committed suicide eighteen months ago. Her sister died of breast cancer a few months after that. She was made redundant the job she had held for six years shortly before last Christmas, and had been unsuccessful in finding further employment. She is a keen target shooter, and was disappointed to narrowly miss out on a place on the team to attend the International Championships. The final straw was when she discovered that Mr. Goldsmith, her partner of eight years, had been unfaithful to her.
The lawyer opens his hands to the jury. Ms. Smythe is being charged with attempted murder, he says. However, her only intention was to frighten and humiliate Mr. Goldsmith in front of his students. She’s an experienced target shooter. Don’t you think, if she really wanted to kill him, she would have?
Always Include A Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope
The flowers are still on Kate’s front seat. They’re in fairly good shape, considering they’ve been there for three days. She discards the most wilted and carries them back to the courthouse. She catches up with the defense lawyer as he is getting into his BMW and says, could you give these to Lynley Smythe? He puts his car door between himself and Kate. And who should I say they are from, he asks. Tell her…just tell her they’re from a sympathiser, says Kate. She pushes the flowers towards his face. He leans away, but accepts them, slowly, as if they could be booby-trapped. He drives away, casting glances at her in his rear vision mirror. She watches until they can no longer make out each other’s eyes.