Friday, 13 April 2012

Just a Little Something I Knocked Up Today for the New Book

Here's just a little something I knocked up today for the new Book. The scene is in an attic room converted into a 'schoolroom' in a country house in the south of England. It's more a scene-setting thing than anything else but give it a try anyway. The pictures are just a couple of things I've found and nothing really to do with the story as such. Oh! And it may well be full of typos, for which my apologies in advance - it is at that kind of stage; please let me know.

The Importance of Keeping Count

She stood resting against the wall at the back of the room. Here she could observe the scene without the girls being certain they were being watched. It was that element of uncertainty that was so important in fostering the sense of being under control she wished to reinforce in her charges; it kept them off balance. Levering herself upright she wandered between the school desks, casually observing the girls’ work as she moved toward the front of the classroom, their twin beribboned heads bent dutifully to their studies in the unnerving silence.

Today she had dressed in her white blouse, the crisp white shirt-collared one that she knew exaggerated her tendency to appear domineering; but that was something of an advantage here. Trim waisted and tailored where it mattered, it emphasised the aggressive thrust her long-line corselet gave to her bust. Finished off with a dark grey tie that tucked in to the waistband of her skirt, it also provided just a hint of intimidating masculinity. This she had teamed with a dark grey worsted pencil skirt having a hemline coming to within a couple of inches of her knees. Her athletically trim legs were encased in perfect dark-tan stockings of the old-style fully-fashioned variety she favoured and showed off calves stretched to their most adventurously shapely extreme by a pair of black stilettos.

Her coloured auburn hair – she’d had it dyed especially for the impact she wished to achieve - she had swept up, pining it behind a half-moon tortoise comb and forming an austerely tight bun. The latter’s rich hue, she knew, threatened to clash with her thin lips and nails - both attributes painted a glaring matching post-box red - but she knew it was a look she could carry off. Even if, against her naturally pale, almost alabaster, complexion, the effect was a little stark, she knew that element of starkness was something she could use to her psychological advantage.

Having reached the front of the classroom she stepped up on the dais, turning on her heel and stepping smartly in front of her desk, her heels clicking noisily on the hollow platform as she did so. Leaning back lightly against the desktop, supporting her weight with her left hand while simultaneously rattling the school cane against one of its legs with her right, she feigned a cough.

“Sit up straight! Now, girls, pick up your pencils – you are going to be taking notes; we’re going to be discussing your futures, your prospects if you will.” The imperious hazel-eyed school mistress surveyed the scene with what she fondly imagined to be a friendly, almost affable smile on her expertly made-up face. Discipline bolstered by punishment, yet tempered with love, even if affected; that was the way to mould the minds of impressionable young women like these two. By the time she was finished with them the two of them wouldn’t know if they were coming or going – but they would know how to obey her, they would want to obey her. In fact they would seek to earn her approval at every turn.

"Tell me, what do you see as the purpose of education?” It was a rhetorical question, as so many were that she posed; smiling, she went on without pausing for an answer. “Well, I’ll tell you – very little in terms of academic subjects as far as girls of your very limited levels of accomplishment are concerned. To be honest, there are very few jobs out there these days suitable for girls, such as your selves, that are… how should I put this? ...somewhat intellectually challenged, as far as I have been able to determine. Those paths that are available are unlikely to be particularly academically challenging.” She smiled condescendingly at the timid pair of young girls seated trembling before her as she spoke, her gaze shifting from one to the other in turn, continuingly gauging the effect her words were having on further quashing their spirits. She went on, leaving a pause for effect.

“…Domestic service, perhaps waitressing? …Shop girl?” She pressed a finger to her lips pensively, as if genuinely actually pondering. “…No, no, not shop girls – too much initiative required. And you, Alice, with your agoraphobia, your fear of the outdoors… Well, I guess waitressing would be out of the question…”

The sour faced school mistress softly laughed at that observation, her hands now in the attitude of prayer, her index fingers tapping together in an expertly affected show of faux consideration. Absentmindedly flicking an errant strand of hair that had somehow had the temerity to have escaped the austere grip of her tightly wound bun, she went on.

“…It would have to be something ‘live-in’ I think… Not children’s nanny - I don’t think you could be considered a responsible enough adult to be trusted with children; not with your history of drug problems. And besides; you’re ‘known’ to the police – that alone should be enough to put most people off!” She gave a knowing little laugh as the target of her belittling reddened prettily, the teenager’s glowing cheeks set off by the diagonal red stripe incorporated into her school tie and hair ribbons. “…No, for you, young Alice Marchment, it would have to be something ‘domestic’, something ‘in service’ as they would have said in the old days, but nothing too intellectually challenging; it would have to be a pretty menial position, I’m afraid, something right down at the bottom of the pile.”

Alice bristled inside, yet rather than the steaming anger that might once have soared up within her there was instead a sort of grumpy ‘acceptance under protest’. It was so unfair, all this constant questioning of her intelligence. She had been doing quite well at school… She had – hadn’t she? But that school report she had been handed… and now that letter, recently arrived, cancelling the university place that had been offered ‘on advice’… What did all that mean? She had become such a ‘muddle-head’ of late, perhaps… No, she was clever than that, she knew she was… If only she didn’t feel so ‘sheepish’, if only she had more self confidence! But she looked like a child, she felt like a child… No…they’d made her look like a child… they’d made her feel like a child.

Whatever the truth, nevertheless Alice sensed her shoulders sag, felt her eyes drop away, heavy with shame and she began to contemplate the Formica top of the school desk she was made to sit at day upon endless day. She knew every inch of its annoyingly finely ruled beige chequer pattern, just as she knew every nuance, every accent, encoded within the insistent, incessant tick, tick, tick of the school clock up on the wall and the fact that, try as she may, it was never possible to hear anything of the world beyond that nerve-twisting sound… The sheer monotony made her want to scream, to the point at which her teacher’s voice, even at its most humiliatingly belittling and bullying extreme, had become something that she mentally begged for – anything to fill in that dreadful silent void between one ‘tick’ and the next…

And every so many ‘ticks’ would come a heavier ‘tock’ - and every so many ‘tocks’ there would be a slightly heavier, more resonant, sort of woody, ‘tock’. Then there was that odd, metallic ‘scrunch’ – that only happened a few times per day; but she knew exactly how many ‘ticks’, ‘tocks’ and ‘woody tocks’ had to pass before a ‘scrunch’ came… It was important! She knew exactly how many ‘ticks’ made up a ‘tock’ and how many ‘tocks’ made up a ‘woody tock’ and exactly how many of those had to pass in turn before one of those metallic ‘scrunches’ would arrive.

More importantly she knew, or thought she knew, how many of those crunchy metallic ‘scrunches’ constituted a ‘school’ day. She had decided they would be hourly, it being a mechanical clock and all. But the trouble was that the roughened metallic quality was not particularly prominent, in reality little more than a subtle change in the character of the clock’s chanting, perhaps some defect in a cog somewhere; it had to be listened out for. She could – and did – count the ‘woody tocks’; but they constituted an even subtler variation in the timepiece’s voice. The basic ‘ticks’ and ‘tocks’ were easier to differentiate, but there were so many to count… so, so many. A cough, a chair scrape – the teacher’s, hers and Angel’s were an integral part of their desks –and the count was gone. Similarly the click of the teacher’s high heels – and she often wore stilettos more suited to a ball than to a classroom – would wreck her counting. She had burst into tears on one occasion simply because her teacher had risen from her desk and strolled across the room, yet still she had counted on.

She’d tried keeping time, surreptitiously tapping a toe when some sound detracted from the school clock’s rhythm, counting the taps rather than the ticking – she was doing it now while the teacher was speaking. Sometimes, if she’d been caned, the throbbing in her bottom would interfere and she’d find herself counting that instead. She’d also tried to stop herself, but that had failed also. Nor could she ignore it; it wouldn’t let her.

If only the hands would turn, as a clock’s hands were supposed to – but she knew they wouldn’t, they never had; it just ticked and ticked and ticked… What was the point of a clock it didn’t tell the time? Ah! But it did, it did! If you could only count the ticks and the tocks and the clicks and the clunks…

She’d lost count again, she was sure of it… It was so easy to lose count… And if she was made to do arithmetic, then how could she concentrate, how could she not lose count then? It was no wonder her school work was so poor…

What was the woman saying now? If she was going to make a good impression… what was that… sewing and cleaning and serving at table… no she’d be too clumsy at that…cleaning and polishing then…and keeping her uniform crisp and her apron starched, yes she could do that, that was important too! Sewing lessons, domestic training – no maths, no sums… it was going to be so much easier to keep count… she wouldn’t lose count… and it was important to keep count. If only that damn clock would stop that incessant ticking! But then she’d lose count, there would be nothing to count… Damn! She’d lost count… She’d have to start again… She was always losing count… Why was she doing it? Losing count or losing her mind? Or was it both?

Why was she thinking about losing her mind? She wasn’t losing her mind – just because her stepmother had her seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist or whatever… just because that woman wanted her in that clinic of hers, in that psychiatric hospital… just because they made her dress in school uniform, bend for the cane and didn’t let her leave the house any more. Why, perhaps that hospital would be a way out, if she went along with it, with what the psychologist woman wanted – she would be out of her stepmother’s grasp there, she could get help there… if only she could keep count…but the teacher’s voice…can’t hear the clock properly…I’ll go out of my mind if I can’t hear the clock…

“…Alice! Alice!… Alice Marchment – are you going out of your mind? Stop tapping your foot this instant… Get yourself out here and get yourself bent over my desk immediately – knickers down, skirt up and arms folded across the small of you back. Six strokes for you my girl – for inattention... and make sure you keep count!”


Charles said...

"for the new book"
The four sweetest words I've heard today!
Absolutely loved this excerpt. Just confirms your great gifts as a writer.

Anonymous said...

OK, there's just so much spiffy coolness in this that I really can't cover it all in this one brief little comment, because I'm on the way out the door really soon. So let me just say that I like this a LOT, especially the ticking of the clock scene, because it just totally distills the essence of the torture of the slow passage of time.

Please do keep working on this.

Or, as the little boy said, "Please sir, can we have some more?"

The Non Victorian Chick

Toyntanen said...

Thanks for that 'Non Victorian Chick' - very encouraging. Actually I was a little worried about including the clock thing, that some people might not 'get it' and that it might put them of trying the whole thing once it is completed.

At the same time I wanted to gauge reader reaction to what is, after all, something of an experimental concept (see below).

So the more comments - negative or positive - the better folks. Ta!

Thanks to you too Charles for the kind and encouraging comments, both in your email and above.

I have to say, though, that this extract might not even make it in to the final copy,at least in its present form. It doesn't really set the scene for the story as a whole but just sort of embellishes a short section of it - if that makes sense.

The concept is based on a thing I exchanged ideas on with another guy long ago as a sort of collaborative project for a now-defunked Yahoo Group. I can't remember the name of the group and lost what I had of the story when I wiped the hard drive of an old computer I had, which is a shame as there were some good ideas in it.

The other writer described a clock as part of the furnishings of a young woman's cell-like room in some sort of
institution, the inclusion of which I was against and that disappointed me at the time (pardon the pun - sort off).

But then I got to thinking and my imagination said:

"Hmmm! But what if it told the wrong time, could be manipulated remotely in some way or - better still - what if after a while she was allowed to discover that fact for herself?

Perhaps one day she might spot the hands going backwards, the clock resetting or something similar? "

Behind the present scenario is the fact - mentioned in an earlier section of the new book - that, other than the second hand, the hands on this particular vintage timepiece no longer revolve at all. It also pointed out that the thing is blessed (cursed?) with an irritatingly loud tick and being sited at the rear of the 'schoolroom' is largely out of the view of the two 'pupils'.

Alternatively, I might change that latter idea and mount the clock within our unfortunate protagonist's vision - what do you folks think?)

Or are you just thinking "what the hell is all this clock stuff about?"

Anonymous said...

This is so wonderful! Am I correct in assuming that the two girls were in fact once highly promising scholars? And does their future as the merest of menials exist in the context of a past in which they were of the very bluest blood?

You are a wonderful writer, with an imagination to match!

Tick tock!

Lady Charlotte

Anonymous said...

Tick, tock. I like the clock. It makes the scene rock. I grok the clock.

OK, stop it. No more of that, or I'll get banned for silliness.

The point is, yeah, the clock works, I understand how they're playing with the girl's head. Not everything has to involve whips and canes and wet sploogy stuff. I appreciate what they're up to, and I really like that we have a writer who can be truly creative, and who realizes that the slow passage of time, and the slow ticking of the clock, can be just as unbearable as a cane across the bottom. They can speed the clock up, or slow it down, and play all sorts of wicked head games. They can even make Dr Ecclestone look like a good idea.

Now the scene as written may or may not end up in the book, which I gather isn't done yet. Which is cool. A lot may change before the book is finished, and the scene may change, or get moved, or deleted, or whatever. The point is the scene rocks, and I bet the rest of the book will too.

The Non Victorian Chick

Toyntanen said...

Hi there and welcome, Lady Charlotte.

Thank you for the kind comment, as a bit of an experiment the ‘clock thing’ thus far seems to have been surprisingly popular judging from the emails I have received.

As for whether you are correct in assuming that the two girls were in fact once highly promising scholars. How would you have it?

As to their pedigree; at least one has a long, select lineage behind her. The other, too, has previously enjoyed something of a privileged upbringing, although it is a background born of ‘new money’. Neither is of the very bluest of blueblood, however – that premise brings with it too many problems of what I would call ‘plausibility’ – though there is definitely a bluish tint to the veins and a silver spoon or two lying around.

No problem with a little levity here, ‘Non Victorian Chick’!

The good doctor already looks like a good idea to me – as one looking on from a distance of course!

Anonymous said...

I have always loved your ideas, ever since I came across a posting of yours, long ago, in which you floated the prospect of an heir to a company being progressively demoted, until she ends up the very lowest of the low, in the corporate structure that by rights should be hers to command! In your books, I particularly loved the poor maid who wears as an insignia on her uniform the crest of her own family - and the slim and graceful dancer who ends up a compulsive feeder. There is something about such pointed role reversals that sends shivers down my spine!

That is why I love to imagine that your remedial 'schoolgirls' might actually, under different circumstances, have been flourishing at Oxford - and to think that these poor unfortunates, with a future of minimum wage drudgery now stretching before them, had originally enjoyed backgrounds of privilege and wealth. It sharpens the piquancy of the humiliation and control for me!

Anyway, thank you for your wonderful books. I have enjoyed them so much, and can't wait for your next one!

Lady Charlotte