Alison Duthie story-writing thrills and spills

Story-writing Thrills, Spills and Knicker Elastic

Pop the kettle on and get ready to read more from our 2015 short story competition winners. Today we put Alison Duthie, winner in the 2015 adult category, on the spot to let us in on her story-writing thrills.

Alison’s Story-writing Thrills

Why did you decide to enter the ArtBeat short story competition?

I decided to enter the ArtBeat competition as I felt a naughty thrill at the idea of writing something about my own local community. The specific remit set within a small area of named streets made it more appealing and real to write about…plus I thought my chances of winning were greater!

What was the inspiration for your story?

My inspiration for the story began by thinking about what a stranger wandering our streets might notice. This made me picture all the ‘I ♥ Clarendon Park’ posters I had seen in the front windows of so many terraced houses of people I didn’t know.

How did you feel when you found out you’d won?

I was shocked and delighted to win. Announcements of names of winners and runners up were made amongst unexpectedly generous and encouraging feedback to participants. I was lulled into a warm fuzzy feeling of group bonhomie so that I almost forgot to anticipate rejection.

How long have you been writing?

I have been writing for about ten years. My pencil is getting short.

How do you go about starting to write a story?

When I’m thinking about beginning a story I carefully consider the remit, if there is one. I need to feel some kind of spark from a prompt like an image, a memory or a piece of dialogue. I use this energy to follow the ‘what if?’ paths of potential stories.

Can you give 3 tips for other would-be writers?

My three top tips for would-be writers are:

  1. Prioritise your own enjoyment of writing and reading.
  2. Find a way to support you to keep going, such as going to workshops, entering competitions or being part of a writers’ group.
  3. Ask yourself if it feels right when you read back your own work.

And finally, what are your future writing ambitions?

My future writing ambitions are to follow my own advice and enjoy my most recent novel idea.

“I ♥ TESCO” by Alison Duthie

‘Welcome to the in-aug-yural meeting of the I Heart Tesco campaign’, Shirley announces.

Ted glances round her front room at the empty armchairs, the gold trolley with its embroidered tray-cloth and plate of value biscuits.  He strains a glance at the front door. Is it possible that a Ninja anarchist has crept in? No. There is no Milk Tray man but there is Shirley in her loud flowered frock and best trainers.

She’s managed to cram two extra emergency chairs into her tiny terrace. They’ve not seen daylight since her mum died. Fetching them from the dank cellar was Ted’s least favourite chore of the day. He sinks lower into the brown dralon settee. His embarrassment for her rises with the hum of the stark ceiling strip-light.

‘Put your speech down, Shirl. It’s only us.’ He glances at his wrist watch, a retirement gift of shiny gilt. ‘It’s gone seven, no-one else is coming now.’

Shirley takes a last twitch at the nets then slumps into the armchair by the window.

‘I did my best, Ted.’

‘I know, Shirl. You always do. How many posters did you put up?’

‘I put one in Ethel’s window.’

‘Oh? I never saw it.’

‘Her daughter took it down. Said it wasn’t fair to take advantage of an old lady with Alzheimer’s. Went and stuck one of them Say No to Tesco posters up. Well, I Heart Clarendon Park too, but I know better than her what Ethel would have wanted!’

‘What’s that, Shirl?’ Ted mutters. ‘Cheap custard creams and free carrier bags?’

‘And what’s wrong with that! You always thought you were better than me, Ted, don’t think I don’t know.’ She fixes him with a bullish stare. He jams himself tighter into the corner of the settee, squashing down the bowel-twisting irritation. It’s a habit he’s perfected over fifty years, since his adored mum first asked him to be nice to the awkward daughter of her best friend. Childhood teatimes were spent with Shirley at the formica-topped table that’s still in the back room, cold to the touch. Ted used to long for his own mum to pick him up on her way back from work. She was an overlocker at Kemptons. They were called strippers and Shirley never tired of the joke throughout every long school holiday. Ted had often tried but mostly failed to lose her in Vic Park. It was hard not to admire Shirley’s persistence.

‘None of the shops on Queens Road would let me put up a poster.’

‘They’ve got their businesses to protect,’ Ted sighs, remembering his horoscope in the morning paper: April 2014 sees Neptune cast a fog over friendship.

‘There’s loads of us who would love another supermarket.’

‘Has anyone actually said that to you, Shirl?’

‘Well, no but they’re too scared, aren’t they! Might get a brick through the window.’

Or a handmade artisan loaf, Ted silently muses.

‘I put posters on lampposts and the café notice boards, the one in Sainsburys too but they all got torn down.’ Shirley folds her solid arms. ‘I was disappointed in Malcolm,’ she adds darkly, shaking her head. Ted recalls Malcolm’s nervous confession. He’d whispered that the club committee was on the verge of ‘taking things further’ if Shirley didn’t stop pushing past smokers in the doorway, demanding to see him. ‘I only wanted to put up a poster. Aren’t I allowed to say what I think like other people?’

How much should he protect her and how much should he let her go? Ted watches the stubborn furrows between her eyes deepen as she ploughs on.

‘What do I want with posh cafés and delicawotsits! I don’t want none of that wholemeal nonsense, gives me wind. And if I want to buy a birthday card, I don’t want to have to save up for it.’ Ted remembers the last one she gave him with its yellowed edges and picture of boats in a harbour, probably bought at the market years ago. She’s scared to use the bus now but won’t admit it. Ted leans forward and touches her arm.

‘Maybe you’re taking things a bit too far, Shirl. Going against the grain won’t make life easier for you. People take offense.’ Or ridicule her. Only last week he heard a woman in the paper shop sniggering about Shirley to a man clutching his three-crème-eggs-for-a-pound.

‘I’ve lived here all my life. The only way I’m leaving is in a box.’ Ted peers past the nets, above terrace rooftops to catch the last evening brightness between slow grey clouds. His gaze returns to Shirley, plate of biscuits resting on her lap and he watches her brush pink wafer biscuit dust from her bosom. It scatters onto the patterned carpet and Ted snaps,

‘What is it that’s so bloody wonderful about Tesco?’

Shirley shrugs. ‘In Tesco they won’t mind me because they won’t care. I can go in four times a day if I want. There’ll be lots of staff, not just one or two who get fed up of me.’ She fixes him with her dark eyes. ‘I’m not stupid.’

Ted deflates. He’s got his blood pressure to think of. ‘But there’s Sainsburys and the Co-op,’ he ventures.

‘I know but what’s wrong with wanting somewhere else to pop in, see a bit of life? I can’t go to fancy bars or restaurants or sit in cafés on my own. I tried it once. Cost me two pounds for a frothy coffee and I could feel them all looking down their noses at me, waiting for me to leave so important folk could have the table.’ Shirley pauses to wrinkle her nose in disgust. ‘If we get Tesco, it’ll stop places like that taking over.’

‘But why Tesco?’ Ted wonders if a proposal for a branch of Waitrose might have made his life easier.

‘Well I wouldn’t mind a Wilko but there’s only so many oven trays you can buy,’ Shirley replies. ‘Food shops are best. I like seeing young people and what’s in their baskets. Besides, Tesco would stay put, for the rest of my life anyway.’

Her mother’s carriage clock ticks on the tiled mantelpiece. Ted gets up to draw the curtains, stands by the cold gas fire and gulps down the dregs of his tea.

‘So what’s your plan now, Shirl?’

‘Embroidery.’ Ted feels his eyes widen. ‘I’m going back to Thursday afternoon classes in the church rooms,’ she informs him through a mouthful of chocolate bourbon. ‘No-one hardly spoke to me last time but I won’t let that stop me.’

Ted feels a weak smile break out and a lightness rise in his chest.

‘A hobby,’ he says. ‘Smashing idea, something to take your mind off Tesco.’ He stands a little taller. ‘And it’ll do you good to mix with other people.’  Should he be the only one to take some responsibility for her? Shirley rolls her eyes but Ted doesn’t see.

He’s picturing future Thursdays. Maybe he’ll join the bowls club like sweet, sensible Kathleen had advised. She’d told him to keep busy when she was gone, said that even if they’d had children, no-one can rely on them to fill up retirement. Kathleen had predicted, too, that Shirley would never let up once he’d collected his wife’s ashes from Gilroes.

‘I’ll get off now.’ Ted announces. He grabs his jacket, fights rising claustrophobia and the stiff front door to make his escape. Shirley stands on the threshold, a dark silhouette watching him on the pavement. He adjusts his cap and looks down at a cracked slab as he imparts the news he’s avoided sharing. ‘I’m going to stay with my cousin in Lincoln for a week or two, Shirl. Maybe longer. He’s taken a turn for the worse and his wife could do with a break.’ Ted shoots a glance at Shirley but she is silent and inscrutable. ‘So could I,’ he adds, turning up his collar against the chill as he sets off. It seems a long journey back to his two-up-two-down, three streets away.

A month later, Ted sees Shirley walking up Queens Road towards him and a loosened knot tightens in his gut. He arrived home from Lincoln last night but his postcard to her said he’d be back tomorrow. He should have stayed indoors, should have known she’d be patrolling the streets with her shopping trolley. He thought he’d be safe on a Thursday afternoon but can’t avoid her now. Shirley’s heading full-steam towards him. Through his varifocals, she seems benign but he prepares himself for all eventualities with a rictus grin and stands and waits by the grubby window of the abandoned Co-op Travel.

‘Ayup, Shirl. I came home a day early.’ She’s standoffish but calm. ‘How are you?’

‘Keeping busy.’

Ted nods, wondering what on earth could be keeping her busy.

‘I thought you went to embroidery class on Thursdays?’

A ripple of shame shifts him from one foot to the other. Shirley looks him up and down.

‘I left early and I’m not going back. They’re a snooty lot but it’s got me started. I’ve got plenty to carry on with at home.’

‘Oh?’ Ted replies, resisting a bony beckoning finger of worry. Perhaps she’s been kicked out of the church rooms and her world has shrunk a little more. ‘Well it’s good you’re keeping yourself occupied.’ She gives him a withering glance and he tries to change the subject.

‘What’s in your trolley, Shirl? It looks jam-packed.’

‘Never you mind.’ She taps the side of her nose. ‘Something I’ve been working on whilst you’ve been away.’ Ted resists the bait.

‘It looks heavy,’ he says, peering at the bulging sides and strained seams of the worn fabric. ‘Do you need a hand?’ he asks, not knowing how else to end the conversation but praying she won’t accept his offer. His heart lurches with a fear of being shut inside her shabby house, the last sound he hears being the creaking resentment of the black front door, but Shirley announces,

‘No, I can manage fine without you,’ and briskly resumes her journey. No arrangements have been made for him to go round and fix something or hack down the overgrown buddleia. She’s not handed him a list of things to fetch from town nor asked if he’ll come round to play cards and watch telly in the evening. Ted feels light-headed, like a man standing outside the thick wooden door of Welford Road prison, wondering what’s next. She never said goodbye.

Ted shields his eyes from the May sunshine and admires the gentle curve of Queens Road. It’s dotted with vibrant colours of fruits and flowers laid out neatly on the pavement, the purple and green bay windows above the bar and bistro, and hanging baskets prettily pointing the way to Victoria Park. He makes a radical decision to treat himself to a cappuccino and a sumptuous cake. He might even sit outside, watch the world and feel it turn.

Early on the June morning of the Clarendon Park street fair, Ted’s scooping loose leaves into his old brown teapot when he hears an odd news story on BBC Leicester. Someone has been caught, in the early hours, trying to hang an unauthorised banner across Queens Road. Police were called, caught the culprit and removed the offending item. A spokesman said it was a health and safety risk and appropriate permissions had not been sought by the local resident. However, no further action would be taken and the police wished everyone a pleasant day at the fair. Ted hasn’t seen Shirley much lately but recalls her recent request to borrow his long stepladders.

Mid-morning, he takes a stroll out to peruse the stalls, admiring crocheted flower brooches and skull-and-crossbones bunting. By the time he approaches the bank on the corner, his mouth is watering at the waft from the wild boar burger van. He is about to turn and head back towards hot food when he catches sight of Shirley’s head, obscured by a bobbing throng of women around a stall that seems to be hers. It’s laid out with some kind of handicrafts that could be cushion covers. Ted’s curious and decides to approach from the back to say hello.

He edges past stallholders nursing mugs of coffee and stands behind Shirley like a ghost. He stares, dumbstruck, at piles of women’s pants emblazoned with ‘I ♥ Tesco’ in clumsy cross-stitch.

‘They’re bespoke,’ she proudly tells him, grasping a fiver from a smartly dressed woman in exchange for a pair of full-sized briefs. Ted catches a glint of diamante and doesn’t know what to think.

‘Ironic knickers, lol!’ a woman laughs to her friend and leans across the stall to brazenly announce, ‘I’ll take five.’ He notices some kids sent by more circumspect parents to wait in the queue, warm ten pound notes in hand. Perhaps the anonymous brown paper bags have helped sales. Tesco tension is still thick in the air. Big business hasn’t won but it hasn’t lost either. Three of its proposals for alterations to the old Barclays bank have been refused by the city council and an appeal is expected any time. Fresh posters are popping up daily in the front rooms of terraces in the surrounding streets, declaring We Still Say No to Tesco and We ♥ Clarendon Park.

‘I got bundles of cheap knickers from Pricebusters, a nice cotton mix for summer,’ Shirley informs Ted over the street noise. ‘Some students tried to haggle the price down but I sent them packing. Took a lot of work, y’know. I’m a craftswoman and these are individually em-bellished.’ She holds a pair up for him to inspect at nose-level. ‘None of your mass-production or worker-exploitation here.’ Ted wonders if she’s forgotten who made the knickers and tries to picture the people she’s been talking to lately. Maybe she’s ventured into the health food shop after collecting her copy of the Daily Mail, evolved into a political maverick, careless of her contradictions.

‘The police took my banner down,’ she shoots him a glance over the pants whilst testing the elastic of the generous waistband. ‘But they can’t stop me doing this, can they?’ She grins with fat-cat satisfaction. I told you there were others like me. From now on, Ted, there’s going to be literally hundreds of women walking around Clarendon Park wearing my knickers.’ Ted opens his mouth to voice his brewing questions but she has the last word. ‘It’s a silent protest.’

Ted smiles and can’t help but give her a gentle pat on the back as he breaks away, wondering if he might stitch a two-fingered salute on his tired Y-fronts.

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