Those Who Cannot See
An original work (and therefore copyright) written for the Royal Academy of Bards Valentine Special 2011.
"The silent morning was torn asunder by the scream".
"Oh my God, you're not telling me you started the story like that?"
"Yes. Why? What's wrong with it?"
"It's pants, that's why. Total rubbish." Anne raised her head, to glare at Leslie from her position prone on the sofa, before resting her chin back on her folded hands. "If you think I'm beta-reading tosh like that you've got another think coming!"
"But I haven't written any more than the first line, how do you know it'll be tosh?"
"It is tosh. And you know it. If you didn't know it then you would have written more than the first line. Because the first line sets the tone for the story. You know that. You taught me that when I started reading for you!"
"I haven't written any more because I'm blocked."
"You're blocked because it's tosh." Anne rolled over and sat up. "All right, if you're convinced you're writing a good story tell me what it's about. Who are your protagonists and what are they doing."
"Well, it's a romance of course, and it's set in Scotland..."
"It's for a Scottish magazine."
"Oh God, not The People's Friend!?"
"There's nothing wrong with The People's Friend. They pay nicely and they buy a lot of stories; and stop interrupting."
"Sorry." Anne didn't look sorry but Leslie chose to ignore the small smirk.
"Anyway. It's set in Scotland, the heroine Fiona has just started her new job as a ward sister at a hospital in the Orkneys..."
"Are there any hospitals in the Orkneys?"
"Interrupting again!" Leslie glared at her best friend before continuing, "Yes, there is one, actually." She raised her head, leant backwards, and pointed her nose in the air in an attitude of superiority. "I always do my research." She relaxed and confessed, " Sometimes, I admit, I research too much and the writing doesn't get done. Anyway, there is a hospital in the Orkneys. Just the one though.
"Fiona has just started her first shift when she gets into an argument with the brother of one of her patients. He's a handsome local farmer..."
"Who, the patient or the brother?"
"The patient's brother. Will you shut up and listen!"
"The farmer, Alasdair..."
"Alasdair? Could you be any more stereotypical!"
"The People's Friend likes that sort of thing, besides, I didn't originally choose that, I wanted to call him something less obvious but I couldn't remember if Lindsay with an 'A' or Lindsey with an 'E' was the man's name. I have enough trouble with my own name because my father spelt it as the male, L-e-s-l-i-e, instead of the female version, L-e-s-l-e-y. I didn't want my poor character to get all upset by the same jokes and comments that I get."
"Erm. You do know he's fictional, right? You're writing him, you know he isn't real. So why would he be upset?"
Leslie looked shocked. "Of course he's real. He has to be. I have to know everything about him. If I met him today in the high street I'd have to know him instantly. I have to know which pub he'd prefer. Or if he rather a wine bar than a pub. I have to know what films he'd like. What book he's reading. Where he'd like to eat and what his favourite foods are.
"If I go window-shopping, I need to know exactly what shops he'd use; and what he'd buy. Whether he'd prefer long-sleeved shirts or polos, jeans or chinos. Even if none of this appears in the story, especially if none of this appears in the story, I still need to know it.
"He needs to be real to me or he won't be real to my readers. When I write the story I have to make sure I never have him say or do something that's out of character for him. The readers won't believe in him if he does."
It was the longest speech Anne had ever heard her make about her writing. She was quiet for a moment. "Do you really think the readers of The People's Friend would notice? They read fluff because they don't want realism. They want to escape into the arms of a tall, dark, handsome stranger, not the balding chap next door. All they need is a cardboard cut-out"
"Of course they want escape, and they might think that all they need is a peg to hang their daydreams on. And they might say that much detail wasn't important if you asked them outright, but they would still notice subconsciously. Honestly they would." Leslie stood up and began to pace. "And it would spoil their enjoyment of the fluff if they were suddenly wondering, in the back of their minds, if Alasdair would really say that to Fiona, or hit his horse, or kick his dog, or whatever."
Anne watched Leslie affectionately. She loved it when Leslie got like this. The pacing back and forth with passionate intensity, the total concentration; any minute now she'd start run her left hand through her hair, ruffling it. Anne thought that Leslie looked adorably cute with disordered hair. No sooner had she finished the thought than Leslie did exactly that.
Leslie stopped. "Is something wrong? You have the weirdest look on your face."
"What?" Anne flushed. "No, no. I was just thinking how much you put into a simple story. You put your whole self in."
"Do what? are you saying I'm a..."
Realising that Leslie had misunderstood, Anne interrupted her, "No, not at all. I didn't mean a self-insert. You wouldn't do that. And I wouldn't let you get away with it, I hate Mary-Sues. No, I meant that you put your heart and soul into each story."
"Ah, right. Yeah. There's some quote about writing being easy you just slash your wrist and bleed onto the page, or something like that. I can't remember the exact details and it's way too melodramatic for a simple soul like me." Leslie grinned; Anne rolled her eyes. "But it does kind of sum it up. You have to sweat blood into every line."
"But maybe that is part of the problem. You need to identify with your characters and you're writing a het romance."
"Yeah, well, I can't see The People's Friend being all that keen on a short story if ' handsome local farmer, Alasdair' becomes 'handsome local farmer, Ailsa'. They have the kind of readership that would be just a tad startled by that."
"Muppet! I didn't mean you should write lesbian romance for the Friend, I did wonder why you don't write lesbian themed stories in general though. You know, 'write what you know' and all that."
"That doesn't work, otherwise only murderers could write detective stories, only doctors could write forensic shows, only wizards and warriors could write fantasy and nobody but E.T. could write sci-fi."
Anne threw a cushion at her. "You're being deliberately difficult! "
Leslie sat back at her desk. "I know. But seriously. I'm a short-story writer. It's what I do best. It's what I make my living doing. There's not much of a market for lesbian-themed short stories that aren't erotica unless you've already published a couple of novels. I tried writing a full-length lesbian romance novel and it didn't work.
"As far as erotica goes, well, good erotica is difficult to write. And bad erotica is repetitive and boring and all too common. Even good erotica gets boring after a while. There's a limit to how many stories like that I could read, never mind write. I need to sell stories to pay the bills, and I couldn't write enough for that that's for sure. So I write what I can sell.
"Hell, given my complete lack of romantic entanglement in recent years I probably know as little about lesbian romance as I do about heterosexual affairs anyway!"
"Pardon? I thought you had a girlfriend?"
"Oh I did, once. About five years ago I think. For about 3 months. It didn't work out. She accused me of being in love with somebody else and walked out. I wasn't exactly heartbroken. I mean, I liked her and I sure as damnit liked sex. But I wasn't in love with her, she was right about that."
"Oh? Oh? Is that all you can say?"
"Well, no, I, oh. I thought you. What I mean is. Oh."
"Well that's not up to your usual communication standards. What exactly does 'oh' mean in this instance?"
Anne shook her head in exasperation. "I suppose it means I shouldn't jump to conclusions. You hadn't mentioned a steady girlfriend lately, you're never available on a Friday evening, you write romance stories, really good ones. I just assumed you played the field."
"Ah, right. I haven't mentioned anyone because there isn't anyone, casual or steady. You're my best friend, I've known you since junior school, don't you think I'd have told you if I was seeing someone? I'm never around on Friday because I go to an evening class. I'm learning German. And I'm a writer, writing stories is what I do. I'm glad I'm good at my job. Thank you for the compliment."
"I'm really sorry. I should have talked to you. Do you mean you've really never been in love?"
"Yes you should have and no, I didn't say that. I only said I wasn't in love with whatshername. I fell in love years ago, but it was one-sided, she wasn't in love with me. She was a friend and I wanted to keep her friendship so I said nothing. It worked out ok."
Anne said nothing for several long moments, lost in thought. Finally she spoke. "Are you sure?"
"What? Anne, sweetheart, you aren't making sense this afternoon. Sure about what?"
Anne stood up and walked slowly towards Leslie. "Perhaps this will make my meaning more clear." And she kissed her. It was not the kind of kiss a best friend gives. She pulled back. "Now do you understand."
Leslie looked stunned. "Ah...ah...ah".
"Now who's incoherent? If you haven't figured it out by now, come and find me when you do." She snatched up her jacket from the sofa and left.
Leslie sat, stunned for a full minute. Then she leapt to her feet. "Hey, wait, what." Anne was long gone. "Well, fuck me. Fuck. Me."
Anne sat in her kitchen, cursing herself. She'd tosses and turned all night, completely unable to sleep. She was tired, and very angry at herself. "Of all the stupid things to do. You've probably ruined a good friendship. Driven away the best friend you ever had. What on earth made you do that? What made you think she meant you? Just because you've carried a torch for her for years. You idiot." He ranting was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell. "Oh God. That's Leslie, I bet. She'll be here to tell me she never wants to see me again. Oh God."
She made her way down the hall, and with great reluctance opened the door. The porch was packed full of heart-shaped balloons in a variety of colours. Each one bearing the legend, "Be My Valentine". She stared, speechless. Beyond the balloons was the largest card she had ever seen. It stood at least a metre-and-a-half tall, maybe more. It too carried the plea, "Be My Valentine." At the base of the card was a plastic water-jug containing a dozen red roses. Anne began to laugh. Only Leslie could make a grandiose romantic gesture like a dozen roses and yet still be as sweetly down-to-earth as to use a plastic jug to put them in.
"Where are you, you idiot? Come out of hiding."
Leslie appeared from behind the card. She held out another red rose. "It's St Valentine's Day, didn't you know? Be mine?" Her tone was wistful and hopeful at the same time. "It was you, you were right. It's always been you. I didn't think you felt the same."
"You lovable idiot. It's always been you too. I gave you so many hints and you didn't see a single one. What's that line? None so blind...Come here." She pulled Leslie towards her and kissed her again.
As the drew apart Leslie sighed. "You make my knees go weak. I always thought that was just a cheesy line to use in stories, but it isn't. You really do make my knees buckle."
"So where are you taking me for my valentine dinner?" She rested her forehead against Leslie's.
"Erm... my house?"
Anne laughed and kissed her again. "Sounds good to me."
Leslie wrapped her arms around Anne and held her close. "So... about Alasdair..."
"Ugh. No thanks."
"Shut up idiot and kiss me some more."
"My pleasure, my lady. My absolute pleasure."
And she did.