1.

Mr deValiers was already seated when I arrived, studying the menu over glinting half-moon glasses. His face looked heavier than I remembered – bloated somehow – though perhaps it was a trick of the light. The maitre d’ hovered above his shoulder, alert to the old man’s every twitch and nod.

He barely looked up as I approached; merely flapped a yellowish hand at the seat opposite and wrinkled his nostrils as if smelling something unpleasant. I smoothed my palms down the black suit I’d had specially pressed and stooped at the knees as a waiter pushed in my chair.

“A great pity,” he said once the wine was poured. “My condolences. Your father was a fine lawyer.”

“Thank-you, sir. I wish only to follow his lead.”

Mr deValiers sniffed. “As you can see, I’m not well myself. My doctor says I’ve hardly six months.”

I did my best to hide my shock. Now that I looked closer though I could see the signs: the lumps under his jaw were the cancer pushing through.

“I’m sorry.”

“Yes. Well.” Mr deValiers sighed impatiently. “I wish to bequeath an inheritance.”

I bowed my head. “Of course. A matter merely of the Will.”

He dropped his knife with a clatter.  “No, no. I told your father. Not like that.”

I waited, sensing the need to tread carefully.

“Something else, sir? As your solicitor, I am at your service.”

Mr deValiers gazed away over my shoulder. “My son Robert. I wish him to come home.”

 

2.

The graveyard was cold. I turned up my collar. It took me a while to find the headstone; it seemed to have moved from where I remembered. I flicked withered stalks away from the plot and tipped dirty water out of the flower holder. The cheap bunch I’d bought crinkled in its plastic wrapper.

“Hello, Dad.”

I laid my offering.

An awkward silence.

I turned my face to the grey clouds and wondered why I had come. What had I to say that hadn’t been written in all the angry letters we had exchanged? He’d never backed down and now he was dead. Let that be an end to it. I pushed my hands deeper into my pockets and stamped my feet.

At least I could make a difference for deValiers: his book was not yet closed. But so far Robert had proved as elusive as a ghost and something about his utter untraceability was making me uneasy. I was only too aware of how far beyond my professional remit I had already stepped, yet there was something about the old man’s request that would not leave me alone.

A dark flock of birds clattered across the sky. The flowers gazed up at me, white and innocent. I pressed my hand on the cold gravestone and searched for something else to say. But my mind was blank. I mouthed a silent goodbye and turned my steps towards home.

 

3.

“Is green tea OK? We don’t have coffee.”

“Green…? Sure.”

Lita leaned back against the worktop while the kettle boiled.

“You’re from London?”

“Robert’s father is very ill. I’ve come at his request.”

The kettle began a gentle shriek. She lifted it from the cooker with a tea-towel and filled a chipped teapot.

“Let’s go through.”

To my relief, the living room was clean and sunny. We sat cross-legged on the floor and Lita watched me steadily while I drank.

“When Robert came to our commune,” she said, “he was very unhappy. Something was wrong for him, right in the core.”

“He told you so?”

Lita smiled. “It was plain to see.”

“So he came here. To you. To this.”

“He needed to start again. We helped him to do so.”

“He was running away.”

“I wouldn’t call it that.”

I pressed my temple. A headache was beginning. “And after? Where did he go?”

“Abroad, perhaps. He liked the sunshine.” She shrugged. “What is it to you?”

I put down my mug, more forcefully than intended. “I need your help. Mr deValiers is dying.”

Lita swirled her tea and looked away to the mandalas in the window. Her eyes were grey and seemed older than the rest of her. “I can’t help with that.”

I fought to hold my voice steady. “Robert is his only son. Mr deValiers wishes to see him.”

“No doubt.” At last she returned her gaze to mine.  “But does Robert want to see his father?”

 

4.

The muezzin’s call to prayer wailed across the roof-tops; somewhere in the courtyard below a bird was shrieking and flapping. I followed the woman as we climbed the spiralling yellow stairs up the tenement. My handkerchief was soaked with sweat and my English suit was suffocating. She climbed slowly, her lungs giving out a wheeze with every step.

As we ascended, I imagined telling deValiers the glad news. I could hear his throaty voice thanking me, congratulating me; I imagined his expression of delight and pride. At last I had reached my goal. At last I would bring Robert home. The woman led me slowly but surely up the yellow stone steps, looking back through her thick veil to check that I followed behind. Surely even in this strange place, so detached from his homeland, I need only lay the simple request before him. I pressed my hand to my breast pocket. The plane ticket crinkled under my fingers.

The woman stopped outside a low wooden door and pointed sharply.

In there.

Despite the heat, a shiver ran through me. Was Robert really here? I had grown so accustomed to his non-existence that I was almost afraid to find him. The woman pointed again, and turned to go. I raised my hand to knock, but she grasped my arm and shook her head. She tapped her ear then pressed her upright palms together.

The call to prayer.

She rocked her open palms towards me, breathing heavily.

Wait.

 

5.

My father paid for the flight?”

I cleared my throat. “He was so pleased that I had discovered your whereabouts.”

“A strange sort of pleasure.”

What haughtiness! Annoyance prickled my gullet. I shifted uncomfortably on my low seat.

“He wants to make amends,” I said. “A sort of restitution.”

Robert leaned his elbows on the window ledge, almost unrecognisable in his dark beard and white robes. He did exist, this man I’d pursued for four long months, but his transformation unnerved me. Nothing deValiers said had prepared me for this. Face to face at last I had the urge to cover my ears, to block out what he was about to say.

“Did he tell you what happened?”

I hesitated. “You had been unhappy at school, the two of you drifted apart. He didn’t elaborate.”

Robert carefully rearranged the folds of linen over his shoulders.

“As soon as Mother died, he arranged for me to board.”

I forced myself to nod. “But there were difficulties?”

“Let me put it this way. Certain teachers had their peccadilloes. I was good-looking and submissive.”

My stomach crawled. “I didn’t realise…”

“When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I wrote to him. Told him what was being done to me. In his letter back, he ignored those particular sentences. They were… inconvenient to him.”

The bird in the courtyard was silent. On the table, the plane ticket fluttered in the breeze. Robert reached out and closed the shutters. “And now he wants me home.”

 

6.

The sickroom stank of fever and sweat. I pushed a chair up to the bedside and leaned in as close as I dared.

“Mr deValiers? It’s Michael.”

His hand twitched the bedclothes. His tongue made a clicking sound.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner. The flights were delayed and…”

DeValiers’ jaw jerked. I looked to the nurse but she merely tilted her head. I pressed on.

“When I last called, I believed your son to be in Cairo.”

A grunt.

“- And I did find him there. He looked… well. He’s made a sort of life for himself, in his way.”

A flicker of pain crossed deValiers’ face. One pale, sticky eye searched the darkness of the room.

“But did he come?”

I pushed my thumbnail into my palm. What could I say to this sorry old man? How could I explain that I’d returned alone, that I myself had torn Robert’s ticket to shreds?

“We spoke. I was able to express your wish. I think he understood.”

His head rasped against the pillow: a nod. The clock ticked a dozen slow beats.

“But did he come?”

I shook my head. “Sometimes,” I said, my voice cracking. “Sometimes, it’s not easy to forgive.”

The room was still. DeValiers’ body was rigid under the sheets. Water ran from the corners of his eyes. At last his hand groped for mine and his bony fingers gripped my knuckles. I only just made out the words:

“Thank-you for trying. Thank-you for coming back.”

Instructor Response

1.

Mr deValiers was already seated when I arrived, studying the menu over glinting half-moon glasses. His face looked heavier than I remembered – bloated somehow – though perhaps it was a trick of the light. The maitre d’ hovered above his shoulder, alert to the old man’s every twitch and nod.

He barely looked up as I approached; merely flapped a yellowish hand at the seat opposite and wrinkled his nostrils as if smelling something unpleasant. I smoothed my palms down the black suit I’d had specially pressed and stooped at the knees as a waiter pushed in my chair.

“A great pity,” he said once the wine was poured. “My condolences. Your father was a fine lawyer.”

“Thank-you, sir. I wish only to follow his lead.”

Mr deValiers sniffed. “As you can see, I’m not well myself. My doctor says I’ve hardly six months.”

I did my best to hide my shock. Now that I looked closer though I could see the signs: the lumps under his jaw were the cancer pushing (right word? how about eroding? emerging? erupting?) through.

“I’m sorry.”

“Yes. Well.” Mr deValiers sighed impatiently. “I wish to bequeath an inheritance.”

I bowed my head. “Of course. A matter merely of the Will.”

He dropped his knife with a clatter.  “No, no. I told your father. Not like that.”

I waited, sensing the need to tread carefully.

“Something else, sir? As your solicitor, I am at your service.”

Mr deValiers gazed away over my shoulder. “My son Robert. I wish him to come home.”

In this opening segment, make the gender of the protagonist clear. It makes a difference in the interpretation of the scene. When a reader is kept wondering, it prevents total acceptance of story and premises.

2.

The graveyard was cold. I turned up my collar. It took me a while to find the headstone; it seemed to have moved from where I remembered. I flicked withered stalks away from the plot and tipped dirty water out of the flower holder. The cheap bunch I’d bought crinkled in its plastic wrapper.

“Hello, Dad.”

I laid my offering.

An awkward silence.  (This has a narrator feel to it in distance and syntax. Can you keep in the close first person? For example, “The silence annoyed me. The silence deepened the chill. The total lack of sound seemed to absorb my identity and for an instant I questioned my existence.” These are only examples; make up your own. The idea is to keep in a close first person and let the observation work for you in setting, in the emotions of the scene, and/or in characterization in general. You could overdo this, but with restraint, you can make this short sentence, which is nice for the pacing, work for you.)

I turned my face to the grey clouds and wondered why I had come. What had I to say that hadn’t been written in all the (our) angry letters we had exchanged? He’d never backed down; and now he was dead. (Semicolon is a suggestion for emphasis.) (Also, what did he never back down from? Is it something that can add to plot, theme, meaning, or characterization?)  Let that be an end to it. I pushed my hands deeper into my pockets and stamped my feet.  (Great! How skilled you are at keeping the reader in the story with great images and action that replaces narrative description. Just to let you know that not many can do it with such aplomb.)

At least I could make a difference for deValiers: his book was not yet closed. But so far Robert had proved as elusive as a ghost and something about his utter untraceability was making me uneasy. I was only too aware of how far beyond my professional remit I had already stepped, yet there was something about the old man’s request that would not leave me alone.

A dark flock of birds clattered across the sky. The flowers gazed up at me, white and innocent. I pressed my hand on the cold gravestone and searched for something else to say. But my mind was blank. I mouthed a silent goodbye and turned my steps towards home.

This scene is great for the story. A good choice. It seems to tie in nicely with the protagonist’s desire to help another father still living. But what the conflict was between father and protagonist might be clarified, subtly, and related to the motivations and desires of the protagonist. Is there a reason that would motivate the protagonist to tear up Robert’s return ticket? And why? To protect Robert? From what? To spare the old man? From what? It is important to know that tearing up the ticket was not just because it wasn’t going to be used; instead, it should have a purpose clear to the reader that reveals character and emotions. It might also reveal something between the protagonist and their father that would explain an instinctive understanding about what is going on between Robert and deValiers. You can do this without exceeding the word limitations, which will, through well-written prose, increase the value of this segment overall. But stick to your instincts and don’t let a father-protagonist story derail the story of Robert and his father.

 

3.

“Is green tea OK? We don’t have coffee.”

“Green…? Sure.”

Lita leaned back against the worktop while the kettle boiled.

“You’re from London?”

“Robert’s father is very ill. I’ve come at his request.”

The kettle began a gentle shriek. She lifted it from the cooker with a tea-towel and filled a chipped teapot.

“Let’s go through.”

To my relief, the living room was clean and sunny. We sat cross-legged on the floor and Lita watched me steadily while I drank.

“When Robert came to our commune,” she said, “he was very unhappy. Something was wrong for him, right in the core.”

“He told you so?”

Lita smiled. “It was plain to see.”

“So he came here. To you. To this.”

“He needed to start again. We helped him to do so.”

“He was running away.”

“I wouldn’t call it that.”

I pressed my temple. A headache was beginning. “And after? Where did he go?”

“Abroad, perhaps. He liked the sunshine.” She shrugged. “What is it to you?”

I put down my mug, more forcefully than intended. “I need your help. Mr deValiers is dying.”

Lita swirled her tea and looked away to the mandalas in the window. Her eyes were grey and seemed older than the rest of her. “I can’t help with that.”

I fought to hold my voice steady. “Robert is his only son. Mr deValiers wishes to see him.”

“No doubt.” At last she returned her gaze to mine.  “But does Robert want to see his father?”

Well done.

4.

The muezzin’s call to prayer wailed across the roof-tops; somewhere in the courtyard below a bird was shrieking and flapping. I followed the woman as we climbed the spiralling yellow stairs up the tenement. My handkerchief was soaked with sweat and my English suit was suffocating. She climbed slowly, her lungs giving out a wheeze with every step.

As we ascended, I imagined telling deValiers the glad news. I could hear his throaty voice thanking me, congratulating me; I imagined his expression of delight and pride. At last I had reached my goal. At last I would bring Robert home. The woman led me slowly but surely up the yellow stone steps, looking back through her thick veil to check that I followed behind. Surely even in this strange place, so detached from his homeland, I need only lay the simple request before him. I pressed my hand to my breast pocket. The plane ticket crinkled under my fingers.

The woman stopped outside a low wooden door and pointed sharply.

In there.

Despite the heat, a shiver ran through me. Was Robert really here? I had grown so accustomed to his non-existence that I was almost afraid to find him. The woman pointed again, and turned to go. I raised my hand to knock, but she grasped my arm and shook her head. She tapped her ear then pressed her upright palms together.

The call to prayer.

She rocked her open palms towards me, breathing heavily.

Wait.

Nice touch for suspense.

5.

    “My father paid for the flight?”

I cleared my throat. “He was so pleased that I had discovered your whereabouts.”

“A strange sort of pleasure.”

What haughtiness! Annoyance prickled my gullet. I shifted uncomfortably on my low seat.

“He wants to make amends,” I said. “A sort of restitution.”

Robert leaned his elbows on the window ledge, almost unrecognisable in his dark beard and white robes. He did exist, this man I’d pursued for four long months, but his transformation unnerved me. Nothing deValiers said had prepared me for this. Face to face at last I had the urge to cover my ears, to block out what he was about to say.

“Did he tell you what happened?”

I hesitated. “You had been unhappy at school, the two of you drifted apart. He didn’t elaborate.”

Robert carefully rearranged the folds of linen over his shoulders.

“As soon as Mother died, he arranged for me to board.”

I forced myself to nod. “But there were difficulties?”

“Let me put it this way. Certain teachers had their peccadilloes. I was good-looking and submissive.”

My stomach crawled. “I didn’t realise…”

“When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I wrote to him. Told him what was being done to me. In his letter back, he ignored those particular sentences. They were… inconvenient to him.”

The bird in the courtyard was silent. On the table, the plane ticket fluttered in the breeze. Robert reached out and closed the shutters. “And now he wants me home.”

6.

The sickroom stank of fever and sweat. I pushed a chair up to the bedside and leaned in as close as I dared.

“Mr deValiers? It’s Michael.”

His hand twitched the bedclothes. His tongue made a clicking sound.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner. The flights were delayed and…”

DeValiers’ jaw jerked. I looked to the nurse but she merely tilted her head. I pressed on.

“When I last called, I believed your son to be in Cairo.”

A grunt.

“- And I did find him there. He looked… well. He’s made a sort of life for himself, in his way.”

A flicker of pain crossed deValiers’ face. One pale, sticky eye searched the darkness of the room.

“But did he come?”

I pushed my thumbnail into my palm. What could I say to this sorry old man? How could I explain that I’d returned alone, that I myself had torn Robert’s ticket to shreds?  (Because he wouldn’t go, or to prevent him from ever going?)

“We spoke. I was able to express your wish. I think he understood.”

His head rasped against the pillow: a nod. The clock ticked a dozen slow beats.

“But did he come?”

I shook my head. “Sometimes,” I said, my voice cracking. “Sometimes, it’s not easy to forgive.”

The room was still. DeValiers’ body was rigid under the sheets. Water ran from the corners of his eyes. At last his hand groped for mine and his bony fingers gripped my knuckles. I only just made out the words:

“Thank-you for trying. Thank-you for coming back.”  (This last line has more opportunity. As is, it seems what we would expect. What inside the man can be revealed? Could he deny that he really wanted his son to return? Could he be angry that he didn’t? Is there some way to reveal that he carries great guilt over not responding to his son’s cry for help when abused? Does Robert’s not returning prove to him the rightness of his view of his son as a crass, uncaring, mean human being? Or is the old man aware of the effect he’s had on Robert’s life? The idea is revelation. And it doesn’t need to be just the old man; there might be something the protagonist discovers, and you have the skill to deliver it succinctly here.)

 

As a general comment about the purpose of the assignment (you did great!), keep aware of a strong skeletal support for a story to which everything relates, and don’t write about extraneous emotions and feelings, multiple unrelated themes and opinions, expository narration, etc. Write for maximum effect on the reader (you do this naturally) without abstractions and inaccuracies, confusing syntax, poor word choice, or poorly developed character desires, motivations, and logic. And always have a story purpose for everything you think and write when creating literary fiction. Purposeless fiction writing is unrewarding for a reader. So continue to do what you do well, namely make meaningful story-related choices in your creation of characters, plot, and setting. Use the power of fiction to entertain the reader. Never succumb to memoir or nonfiction to get words down on the page, when fiction will suit your purpose best.

Always a pleasure to work with you. Thanks for the submission.

Bill Coles

  1. Many thanks for your comments.

    I have to admit, I didn’t have all aspects of my story and characters clear in my own head (including the final revelation), and of course this shows up in my writing as you have pointed out! A good lesson for me not to be lazy and skimp on thinking out my stories in proper detail.

    I also very much take your point about everything having “story purpose”. I now think of stories as like a tree – everything has to connect to the main “trunk”, even the tiniest twig!

    Many thanks again or your help. I look forward to tackling another of your assignments soon.

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