I went to a conference recently. London. Serious-minded and (mostly) suit-wearing people from around the world. Public transport morning and evening (for me, anyway), and a small hotel.
Four days of sitting in audiences watching panels of serious-looking (and minded) people discuss serious subjects that interested them. Lots of security.
Then I came back to Falmouth and went for lunch at the extremely healthy café, Nude Canteen, up Killigrew Street from the Moor. I like it and I’m not alone in that opinion. Lunch for two.
Nude Canteen was launched in April “to make the most of Falmouth’s vibrant, creative population,” which is convenient because it saves me having to describe any of the other regulars. Vibrant. Creative. They fit in.
[I checked the name, because I always do, and I came across the original press release, in the Falmouth Packet.]
Nude Canteen offers flatbreads, Hawaiian poke bowls, sushi burritos, dahl bowls and salads; all completely made-to-order with freshly shredded organic vegetables. Just thought I’d mention that.
[The Falmouth Packet is probably not where E Annie Proulx got the idea for The Shipping News (1993), but, yeah, could have been. There’s also a weekly print edition. Shipping news? Yes, that too.]
My idea isn’t a particularly good idea, and I don’t suppose it’s all that original, either.
But it’s mine this time. I had it, and I got excited about it, and I kind of roughly worked out how to do it, and then – as you do – I explained to myself – as I do, anyway – all the reasons why it wouldn’t work.
Which is fine. I remember my idea, a while back, for waste-plastic road surfaces embedded with wifi to talk to (carry road-sign information to) self-driving cars. There was a definite release of tension in deciding to write about it rather than start a new career in road-building.
And my new idea is so close to what I’m doing already that – hang on, I haven’t told you about it yet.
Last week. I was in an audience waiting for a conference session to start.
The lights went down. The big thumpy music started up. The title of the session – and a collage of images – flashed up on the cinema-sized screen backing the stage.
The subject for the session was interesting enough, and the people due up on stage were well-known enough, and – well, high production values. They were trying to get our attention.
I looked around.
I was the only one not transfixed by the screen of my smartphone.
Cut to the following Tuesday – two days ago.
I looked up from my flatbread-full of freshly shredded organic vegetables.
You guessed it.
Now, I realise that we all look at our smartphones a lot.
I realise that there are times when the only available gadget is a smartphone.
But I hadn’t really thought this through.
Flashback. I remember, back in the late nineties, getting my head around the idea that the internet meant direct access to audiences. Thus, to readers.
I was writing a book at the time, and (I’ve just checked) you can still find it online. It was called E-Commerce in Retail Banking, and no, it wasn’t a fantasy novel about a group of young people heading off on a quest that seems to involve a cat up a tree.
“The cat’s just a diversion, surely?”
“Ed. I haven’t explained my idea yet.”
My idea – look, I didn’t say it was a good idea – was to develop fiction for the small screen. Tiny chapters in tiny novels. We have short attention spans, and if we’re attending conferences in London, short journeys to work.
So an app on your phone offering a menu of novels, none of which is more than ten chapters long (five-day week, to and from work). Short chapters to cut down on the scrolling. Bonsai novels, you might say.
And if you didn’t, you might come up with Phone Fiction, or perhaps Pocket Novels. Remember pocket cartoons on the front pages of broadsheet newspapers?
Okay. Pocket cartoon: “an editorial cartoon consisting of a topical single-panel single-column drawing”.
Okay. Broadsheet newspaper: “a newspaper with a large format, regarded as more serious and less sensationalist than tabloids”.
I had the idea of telling coherent, attention-holding micro-novels that smartphone users could read via a dedicated app, as an alternative to flicking through Facebook or checking their emails. Stories with beginnings, middles, ends, et cetera – characters, plots, twists, goodies, baddies, spies, detectives, romantic encounters and occasional shoot-outs. Always the same length. Consistent.
“What if the cat’s magical?”
Ed looks up from his newly delivered flatbread.
“Is it me now?”
“Yes. What if the cat’s magical?”
“You mean – one of them rescues it and then it’s helpful somehow?”
“Something like that.”
Ed doesn’t reply. He’s unfolded his flatbread and now he’s holding up a fork-full of freshly shredded red cabbage as though he’s never seen a vegetable before.
“How do they decide what to put in these things?” he says softly, asking himself.
Pipsqueak has moved his yak close to the tree. He’s about to stand up in his saddle and reach up to the cat.
“You could try it. But which of them gets it? Because it wouldn’t be loyal to all of them.”
“Ah – hold on.”
Pipsqueak’s yak won’t hold still. Something about the tree is bothering it. Pipsqueak stands at its head, holding the bridle.
“Is that bit a bridle? I thought it would be a snaffle, or actually a bit, or something.”
“I’ll look it up later.”
Stace is down off her horse in a second and scrambling up onto Pipsqueak’s yak.
“Hold my legs!” she says to Myrtille, and to Pipsqueak’s surprise, Myrtille comes scrambling down off her yak and does exactly that.
Both women are staring up at the cat – kitten. It’s mewling piteously and staring down at Stace with occasional glances at Myrtille.
It’s almost as though they’re hypnotised, Pipsqueak thinks.
“That’s a bit obvious!”
“Ed! This is a first draft. Maybe they both like cats. I haven’t decided.”
A movement further up the tree catches Pipsqueak’s eye. The upper branches seem to be curling down towards Stace, almost as if they’re trying to grab her.
“Come on, Kitty, come to mummy, come to Stace, come on now, mew, miaow, sweetie, oh, you’re adorable, you sweet little thing, you.”
Pipsqueak can’t work out whether he’s embarrassed for Stace, for the sounds she’s making, or just embarrassed generally. He looks away as she stretches up, doesn’t watch as she stretches up her body to reach the kitten, revealing her tummy and her hips as her clothes part at the middle, and then realises that Myrtille isn’t watching him.
Pipsqueak watches Stace take the kitten in her hands and hold it to her chest. She’d fall down if it wasn’t for Myrtille, who steadies her as she sits down on Pipsqueak’s yak.
Stace curls herself round the kitten and Myrtille holds onto both of them. The tree seems to wilt. It’s as if it wants the kitten back, Pipsqueak thinks, watching the branches curl down towards the two women on the yak. And then he realises – it really is reaching down!
Before he can do anything, the kitten – its tiny face visible on Stace’s shoulder, close in against her neck, half-hidden by her hair – the kitten hisses at the tree, and the branches spring back into place.
“Did you see that?” Pipsqueak shouts. “The tree’s alive!”
And the kitten – wait, what did the kitten do?
The kitten stares at him.
What just happened? Suddenly, Pipsqueak can't remember.
Both Stace and Myrtille look at him as though they’ve just woken up. Pipsqueak’s yak pulls her head free and steps decisively away from the tree – he has to catch it. The two women scramble down, the kitten between them. Pipsqueak, his yak safely held, sees it snarl at the tree, showing its teeth.
The kitten just snarled at the tree!
The kitten turns its head and stares at him.
Pipsqueak frowns. There was something… something he’s forgotten… about the kitten...
“Eh?” Throughout all this, Roland has been sitting on his horse staring down at his–
“He can’t have a smartphone. This is a fantasy world.”
–staring down at the lines on his hand. He’s missed the whole scene.
Myrtille’s back on her yak and Stace is back on her horse with the kitten tucked in front of her.
“Wake up, Roly!” shouts Stace.
Roly looks up. “I went to a palm reader once,” he says. “She told me to wake up.”
Pipsqueak can see that he wants to say more, but Stace is set on leaving. Roland shuts up and pulls his horse round, ready to follow her.
Pipsqueak mounts his yak. Something just happened, but – what?
“Let’s get going!” he shouts, more to clear his head than because they won’t hear him say it quietly.
And then because he looks that way, just at the right moment, he sees that when Stace spurs her horse, the kitten reaches out and lays a paw on the horse’s neck – and the horse doesn’t race off ahead.
Okay, thinks Pipsqueak. That’s going to be handy.
The kitten smiles, in the expressionless way that kittens smile, and thinks to itself: let him understand gradually.
The four of them ride together, close together, as the forest gathers around them.
The trees rustle, as though they’re talking to each other.
But every time the noise gets loud enough to drown out their conversation, Stace’s kitten – he’s already Stace’s kitten – hisses once, loudly, and our hero and her companions ride on in silence, untouched by any of the sharp, black branches.
“I like that. Very nice.”
“Did you catch the thing with the palm-reading?”
“Telling him to wake up? Yes, very clever. He wakes up to his heroic side.”
“Maybe I should have added a golf bag to his luggage earlier. So he can pull out a sword unexpectedly, at a crucial moment.”
“What’s that behind his saddle?”
“Oh, you’ve done it for me. Thanks.”
“Roland’s heroic moment set up. I like the way you’re making it an inner journey, by the way.”
“Isn’t everything an inner journey, if it’s worth making?”
“But you’ve blown the punchline. You were going to end with those branches, weren’t you?”
“Ed. A little faith. You want a good ending – have you seen the puddings here?”
I subscribe to her Ten-Line Tuesday poems – one arrives every Tuesday (strictly, Wednesday; she’s in another time zone) and it’s a certain length.
I can’t quite say that I don’t know Maya Stein, because I’ve been reading her poetry for quite some number of years now, but we’ve never met and only exchanged perhaps half-a-dozen emails in more-than-that years.
More about Maya Stein at www.mayastein.com. This poem is a good example of what you could get by going there.
Train will not whistle at crossing
It would be nice to have signs. A cloud parting in two, say, and an arrow of sun
pointing. It would be lovely, at the fork of any unbearable decision, that a path
with equidistant, perfectly round stones would unwrap at your feet. Haven’t you waited
at certain corners, squinting at maps? Haven’t you held a damp finger to the sky,
gauging the wind? Haven’t you searched the bottoms of tea cups, scattered feathers,
tipped your ear against gravel, shaken dice, placed hands palm-up on a table
at a county fair, made bargains with a stop light, a sidewalk crack, a dime, a daisy?
Haven’t you held a deerskin pouch against your chest and counted to 10?
It would be nice to have signs, but mostly, the train will not whistle at the crossing.
You must stand at the empty tracks and decide. You must be that arrow, and point.