2,000 words, or less, in a story or poem. A pictorial story is also fine; no-one has attempted it yet (quite difficult, I feel) but there may just be someone out there who would enjoy the challenge.
The theme is: “For want of a nail …” (proverb)
The following words should be included: “toad” and “lemon”.
I quote Mr Mackie, as did Jaime (because she knows what’s what, even though the sentence gives me a headache) and it is the quintessential Mackie, in my opinion, although I could, of course, be wrong : “Deadline midnight GMT (01.00 am BST on the day immediately following the specified day and all and/or any other time zones pari passu)” on 21 September 2010. 121words.
“Well, of all the half-arsed stupid things to do,” exclaimed Christopher, folding the newspaper clumsily and pushing his glasses up his nose.
“Darling,” chided Cynthia gently, “You might scare Alice.” She looked at the girl sitting rather primly on the sofa as she spoke, and smiled at her. “His bark is worse than his bite, dear,” she said. “And it’s always politicians who upset him. He’s a lamb with everyone else.”
Alice’s mouth curved politely, but she said nothing. This is going to be a very long week, thought Cynthia. Surely she can’t be like this at home.
It was fifteen years since she had last seen Alice. She had only been five; a lithe, blond little thing who turned cartwheels in the garden and took her kitten for rides in the basket on the front of her tricycle. She had treated them to an enthusiastic, if rather garbled, account of how ants organise themselves, firing questions at them to try to fill the gaps in her knowledge. They had been amused and charmed in turn. Time seemed to have turned her into a pale version of her younger self. Her hair was still long, but now it was a mousy brown. She could have been pretty, but her faced lacked animation; it was as though she had been switched off on the inside.
Her mother, Jill, had been Cynthia’s best friend at school, and they had kept in touch down the years. Her husband Gary was a successful self-made man, dealing in office equipment, a cheerful self-confessed philistine, with a huge heart and a talent for story-telling.
Geography and work had prevented the women meeting often, but when they had, or had talked on the ‘phone, the warmth was still there. While other, newer friends came and went, somehow this friendship survived.
So when Jill had called and asked if Alice, now twenty, could stay with them for a week while she attended a crash course in photography, Cynthia had unhesitatingly agreed. Now she was wondering what she had let them in for. She and Christopher had not had children, there were no young people in the house she could hand Alice over to; the evenings of the coming week seemed to stretch away like a prison sentence. At least Alice would be out during the day. Maybe she’d have evening assignments too. Insensibly, as she imagined Alice working late in the library, downloading and manipulating her pictures, her spirits started to rise. She caught Christopher’s eye.
“Drinks, darling?” she said, “I’m sure we’d all enjoy one. Do you like gin, Alice?”
Over that first drink Alice loosened up. When she finished it, she unself-consciously reached into the glass, picked out the slice of lemon, and ate it. Wine with dinner thawed her further. If not exactly chatty, her answers became longer, and she even asked some questions of her own; how long they had lived in the house – five years; had they always wanted to live in London – yes, they enjoyed the theatre and the galleries; who was the painting by over the fireplace – Reuben Powell. No, not to feel bad that she hadn’t heard of him. He was making a stir in some circles, but he wasn’t well-known.
Alice nodded gravely.
‘So,” said Christopher, “ tell us about this photography of yours. Have you got any of your work with you?” and when she nodded, he said “Let’s go into the sitting room and have a whisky and you can show them to us.”
Alice excused herself and joined them a few minutes later with a laptop and a small external drive.
“Are you sure you won’t be bored?” she asked, looking from one face to the other. “You’re not just being polite? Daddy said I mustn’t expect everyone to be interested in my pictures.”
Cynthia patted the sofa cushion beside her. “ Come on,” she said, “try us.”
She didn’t know what she had expected, but the close-ups of garden wildlife took her by surprise. The colours were vivid; intense. She realised she had never looked properly at a worm before; had never noticed how its colours shaded subtly through pinks and pale browns. There was a Cabbage White, a butterfly she had always thought boring. Now it was revealed as a small miracle of serated edges and fine hairs; delicate veins across the wings, which were tipped with chocolate like the ears of a Siamese cat. But it was the toad that made her gasp. Alice had captured it face on. It looked straight at the camera. It was regal. Its eyes green-rimmed under ridges like a haughty emperor; its mouth spanned the width of its face: a disapproving line above a fleshy, golden throat. Its left front leg was extended, and the spread toes were like human fingers. Its right backleg was flexed like an athlete or a warrior.
It exuded power.
It was beautiful.
Cynthia realised she had been holding her breath. She exhaled and looked at Alice.
“These are amazing,’ she said. “Where did you learn to do this?”
Alice shrugged. “I’ve always liked looking at things in the garden. And then I got a little digital camera and discovered I could do close-ups with it. I’ve never been taught. That’s why Daddy thought I should do this course. He says it’ll teach me to take pictures of things people like looking at.”
She hoped Alice hadn’t noticed Christopher’s impatiently dismissive gesture. Before he could speak, she said quickly, “What sort of things does he mean? Has he discussed it with you?”
“Commercial pictures,” Alice said flatly. “ He took me round a bookshop and showed me how most of the cards and the calendars were of kittens and puppies. The wildlife cards were of tigers and elephants. People don’t send birthday cards with pictures of worms on the front.”
This was irrefutable. Cynthia opened her mouth and shut it again. She couldn’t think what to say. It was all very well to damn the mass market, but Gary had a point. It was Christopher who spoke. “I can see where your father’s coming from Alice,” and his tone was gentle and diplomatic. He was speaking slowly and with a sort of deliberate calm, “but there’s more to photography than greetings cards and kitchen calendars. I’d buy the pictures you’ve showed us tonight. All of them. I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen to your father, I’ve always respected his business acumen, but this stuff seems to be where your real interest lies, and what I’m looking at isn’t just technical skill, it’s your enthusiasm, your love I should say rather, for your subject.”
Cynthia looked at Alice. The girl’s face was naked; it held wary hope and downright despair. Christopher was telling her what she longed to hear but did not dare to believe.
The girl lifted her chin, and said “You’d buy them? You meant that?”
Christopher held her gaze. “Yes I would. And although I can’t promise you anything, I’d like you to show some of your photographs to David, a gallery owner we know. I think he might be interested.”
“And what about the puppies and kittens, and this course I’m supposed to be on tomorrow?”
“Go on it,” said Christopher. “You don’t know what you might learn. Don’t miss an opportunity. But promise me you’ll come with me to see David one night before you go home.”
Lying in bed that night, Cynthia reached out her hand to Christopher. “You did a good thing tonight,” she said. “But what happens if she fails?”
“She’ll know she’s tried,” he said. “She won’t spend her life wondering if she could have made it; always feeling that she’s missed out: cross with herself for not trying harder; for falling in with Gary’s plan to give her a safe future. She can’t be his little girl for ever. She has to spread her wings and see if they work.”
He put his arm around her and they lay in silence, each with their own thoughts, about opportunities missed or taken, until soon, they both slept.
In the spare room, Alice lay awake, smiling in the darkness. Tomorrow she would turn cartwheels again. Her toad might just turn into a handsome prince.
The gallery was full. It was hot. There were people talking too loudly and drinking too much of the wine that the waiters kept offering. More and more people kept arriving. The red stickers were appearing steadily on her pictures, and Alice felt as though she might burst with happiness. Her father hugged her tightly, then posed proudly beside her as the cameras flashed. David approached her with a couple who had just bought two photographs.. As she turned to speak, Alice saw Cynthia wink at her across the room. Jill was beside her, looking happy and proud. Alice raised her glass to them both in a silent toast.. She looked over to the corneer where she could see Christopher reading the brochure the gallery had produced to accompany the exhibition. She hoped he would be pleased with the dedication. It had taken her some time to decide what to say.:
For Christopher, who helped me see that chance is a step you choose to take.