We had a large number of entries this month, all of which were strong. Once again it was hard to choose the winner but we eventually decided on Mandy Collins because her dialogue was perfectly pitched and extremely realistic and the meaning emerges slowly without anything having to be explained. Special mention also goes to Alethea and Helen. None of them overused internal thought or contemplation to make plain what the conversation was about.
Here is the exercise with Mandy, Helen and Alethea’s responses below. Thanks to Brian Kiteley for the idea. http://mysite.du.edu/~bkiteley/
Write a one-sided phone conversation. It is overheard by someone in the room. The eavesdropper, the caller and the person on the other end of the line are all connected in some way. This involvement need not be romantic. They could be family, friends, lovers, former lovers … whatever you choose. We want to get a sense of the side of the conversation that we can’t hear.
You will be reporting only one side of the conversation, through which we’ll develop a sense of the whole. It doesn’t need to be entirely clear. We don’t need to have a complete understanding of the entire conversation. We might build some understanding of its sense as it progresses, or we could end up without much sense of what they are talking about, but nonetheless build an understanding of the dynamic and emotions between the three of them.
You will have to make the side we’re hearing intriguing and capable of carrying a story. You may allow the listener in the room to comment or guess what the person on the other end of the line is saying, but try to keep this guessing to a minimum. And make sure this guesswork is done with integrity—well after the unheard speaker has spoken.
You are writing from the point of view of the eavesdropper. You have access to his or her inner life, but don’t use this as an excuse for exposition. Allow yourself 30 minutes only.
Mandy Collins’ Exercise
I hand the phone over. She’s not going to be impressed. Her bloody sister again. I wonder what it is this time.
“Hello? Oh, hi. How’s it going?”
“Okay. Nothing out of the ordinary. How are the boys?”
“Really? I see.”
That didn’t take long. I wonder if she does that when I phone her? If she’s reading her e-mails or filing the bills at the same time.
“And Dennis? How’s he?”
Oh, fuck. She had to ask. Wait for it…
“What’s he done this time?”
“What? I can’t make out what you’re saying. Take a deep breath and then tell me again.”
“What? And you believed him? Balderdash! He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. No, calm down. Take a breath. You’re being stupid.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but you are. You don’t think things through, or find out the facts. You always just take his word for it. And he’s bullshitting you.”
“Yes, he is. He probably believes what he’s saying is true, but I’m telling you now, that’s not how it works.”
“No, it’s not… Of course he can’t. What! Of course that’s not true.”
“Well do you want my advice, or not? Because I can’t help you if you don’t give me a chance to talk.”
“Well basically, it’s time you made plans to leave. You can’t go on like this. It’s bullshit. But don’t just leave. You have to have somewhere to go to; you have to have a plan.”
“You can. And you can take them with you. You just have to think it through carefully and consider your options.”
“Of course you have options. You always do this – you have such a victim mentality. Just grow a fucking backbone and make some decisions.”
“I know it’s hard. That’s life, I’m afraid. You can either accept it and make the most of it, or wallow in misery. Either way, it’s your choice.”
“No, I’m not lucky. I’ve worked damn hard to get where I am today – don’t tell me I’m lucky. And yes, you have had choices; you’ve just made bad ones.”
Oh, hell. Here it comes.
“Well I’m sorry if that hurt your precious feelings, but it’s true. Dennis was your first bad choice, and it’s just gone downhill from there.”
“Well if he’s so fucking wonderful, how come every phone call from you in the last fourteen years has been about how badly he treats you? About his latest bullshit?”
“I don’t care how depressed he is. Frankly, I’d be depressed if I was him – he’s what the old dispensation would have called a waste of a white skin. He’s done nothing with the opportunities that were freely dished out to him and now he spends his days bitching about how hard his life is instead of actively doing something to fix it.”
“He doesn’t need anti-depressants… no he doesn’t. He needs a swift kick up the butt… “
“Excellent. She hung up on me again.”
Great. At least two weeks of peace and quiet to look forward to. Happy families.
Lavinia leant forward, knot in stomach, as Henry pressed the speed dial. Her fingers convulsively smoothed the antique lace antimacassar.
The foreign sounding endearment smashed a hole through her heart. Through all of this, it was only now, that she realised how much he had let the side down.
“Yes, she is sitting with me on the sofa.”
“No, no. She’s not angry. Angel, let me assure you …”
“ After fifteen years, I think I can make that sort of assessment. YOU don’t know HER. She’s … Angel, just take it from me, she wants what’s best for ALL of us.”
OK.OK. Let’s agree to disagree. Elizabet! Please don’t cry.”
“Of course I love you. … I… I adore you. That’s why I want to get this out in the open. This way we ca…”
“It’s not unnatural, …”
“No, I can’t accept that.”
Henry was leaning away from her, trying to increase his distance from her so that the sound of Lizbet’s hysterical sobbing was lessened. Suddenly she regretted her decision. She’s been told as a child that she was too nice, too much of a lady. Perhaps she should …?
“Please calm down, you’re embarrassing me.”
“Surely I’m allowed feelings too.”
“Lavinia has told me repeatedly she bears no grudges, she wants us all to be happy, …content… fulfilled.”
“Well of course I’ll be fulfilled. No hiding away, only seeing you on business trips.”
“No! Listen to me! This way we can be together, even at Christmas time, a real family and we can be generous, she’s just asking to share…”
“Yes, she will. Look, you don’t know her as I do, she’s the most generous loving person on the planet. She should have been able to have her own…”
Henry reached across and grabbed her fingers. His hand was hot and sweaty. It made her think about all the sex they weren’t having.
“Oh! Please! Hijacking your body! Don’t be ridiculous. She’s the one who is being adult here.”
“Lizbet, think for a moment. Who do you think owns this house?”
“Yes, and the yacht … and the flat in London.?”
“No, she’s not blackmailing me. She just wants to be part of, … to share in our happiness. I owe her that… I owe her much more than that.”
I don’t believe you.”
“God, that’s the cheapest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Lizbet, stop it. “
“Stop laughing. It’s not funny, it’s sick.”
“No! I don’t believe you. The baby’s MINE”
“Please! Don’t hang …”
Henry stared at his phone for a few seconds. Then he turned his sagging, defeated body toward her. Tears welled in his baby blue eyes.
In the smallest of voices, he said,” Lisbet, says the … the baby isn’t mine. She says it’s her cousin Dirkie’s. She says she can prove it.”
Lavinia took him in her wide arms. He would make it up to her for the rest of his life. A small sigh of satisfaction, quickly disguised as pent up relief, escaped her lips.
Everyone, she reflected, had their price
His back was to her, locking her out, as usual.
“What did you say?”
His mean straight back.
“You need to speak up young man.”
He gave a cough and a wheeze and cleared his throat. It sent shivers up her stockings. She leaned forward trying to catch some of the mumble on the other side. If only he’d give her the phone.
“Herpes, I couldn’t possibly have herpes.”
She dropped her knitting.
“We’re on a farm 60 kilometres from Pofadder, man.”
Slowly she lowered herself to her knees and picked it up off the floor, pulling her petticoat straight. She started to twist the yarn round and round her finger. Herpes.
“What? I can’t hear you. No, no, I haven’t been frolicking around in the garden.” He gave a throaty chuckle.
She stood up.
“Oh I beg your pardon, you were saying “pardon” not “garden”. Fine fine, really is, but you have to speak up.”
She was standing almost directly behind his left shoulder now. If she leaned forward she’d make contact with her breast. All she wanted to do was rip the phone from his ear. “John,” she said.
“How many?” He leaned forward away from her. “No that’s far too many. I couldn’t possibly do that. Forty-two.” He leaned forward, “oh not, forty two. How many?”
“John,” she said louder. Wishing she could give him a shove. He cocked his head away from her, and held up his hand. “John do let me speak to him.”
His fingers shooed her away.
“Oh, one to two. Alright. Well give me that number then.” Still holding his hand aloft, he pressed his ear harder into the phone, locking it against his shoulder, and grabbing a pen with his newly freed hand. “No, no, I don’t have a cell phone.”
“John,” she said, manoeuvring her body round his chair to lean on the desk and face him, “perhaps I should listen for the number. He said I should last time.”
He creaked his body away from her.
Again he put up his hand.
“What? Zero. What? Hate? What? Oh eight. What? You? Two?.. Free.. Sex.”
She bit his hand with her dentures.