The Opening Sentence: Linda Who Died Of A Broken Heart

After a long break, a new post in my fiction project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here, check out previous posts here and share any thoughts/ideas/criticisms below. This one takes its title and opening line from a 1935 newspaper article about a police horse. But I can’t write convincingly about horses, so we’ll go in a different direction . . .

With the tumult and shouting of the showground behind her, death, sudden and without pain, came to Linda.

This was not the way I had planned it. Let’s make no bones about it; I wanted her dead. But I wanted her to suffer too. So far, she hadn’t suffered enough.

I wasn’t quite angry enough to risk a murder conviction. At least, I don’t think I was. If you asked me the same question again next Friday, my answer probably would be different. But dying the way she did — anyone would assume a heart attack from the way she crumpled to the ground — didn’t seem like a sufficient punishment for all the pain and chaos she had caused.

Inevitably, that kind of death caused its own version of chaos as well. It was a busy Friday afternoon, so the showground was packed, schoolkids and over-attentive mothers and people who had finished work early. Everywhere you looked there was movement. That was a promising sign for the day’s takings. Then Linda carked it in the middle of the main thoroughfare.

The woman standing right next to her screamed. That attracted even more of a crowd. Someone pulled out their mobile phone and called an ambulance, but it must have been at least 10 minutes before any medical personnel showed up. By then it was much too late. Judging by the speed of Linda’s collapse, it would have been too late if she’d collapsed next to the Red Cross tent.

Fortunately, no-one suggested shutting down the whole show. I’m only guessing, but I assume that it was so evident she had died from natural causes that there didn’t seem any need to treat the whole thing like a murder investigation. It’s still possible, I suppose, that the police will insist we stay around for a few days. I hope not. If it comes to that, I might have to show the local constabulary my copy of Linda’s medical history. It would be awkward to explain why I had a copy of it though.

On reflection, it surely won’t come to that. Her cow of a mother is bound to show up — she only lives a couple of hours’ drive away. And she’ll be eager to tell all. That family never missed an opportunity to talk about their health problems. Sometimes I wonder why I thought I needed those medical records. Most of their content was on Facebook anyway, if you knew where to look.

Steve doesn’t know yet. I’d agreed to take the Friday afternoon shift and he’ll be opening on Saturday. I should have called him as soon as it happened, I suppose. But what was I supposed to say? I know he was planning to catch up on sleep — I’ll tell him I didn’t see any point in disturbing him. Hopefully that way we’ll avoid a row. But perhaps not. Death so often leads to arguments.

The Opening Sentence: Brilliant Disguise

This is the fourth post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here, check out previous posts here and share any thoughts/ideas/criticisms below. Today I’m practising descriptions, in a way.

Edith looked like a chicken. When we say that, we usually mean that someone has a neck that is so wrinkled and red you could present it as a restaurant garnish and no-one would bat an eyelid. That wasn’t the case with Edith Jones. Her neck was smooth enough, if marred with a few freckles and a strange hairy mole at the back left. But that wasn’t something you saw on poultry terribly often.

Perhaps it was Edith’s nose, which had a sharp angle that called a beak to mind if you caught her in silhouette. And perhaps it was the beady expression in her pinched black pupils, staring out at the world with a bird-like mix of caution and blank incomprehension. She seemed vaguely aware that a threat loomed in the world, but not alert enough to sense the axe swinging through the air and preparing to slice her head off and watch the blood spurt while her legs danced brainlessly.

You couldn’t blame it on the hair. Brown and curly, it looked much less like a hen than an old English sheepdog, greasy and unwashed and unthreatening. Yet the impression didn’t stick; Edith’s face lacked the air of supplication or simple happiness such a hound would provide. That expression called out the chicken again, unsure enough of the world to be unsure if the outstretched hand would actually offer grain.

At six feet tall, Edith’s height might have called to mind an ostrich. But she lacked the elegance and alterness, and there was nothing in her pinched frame to suggest the buttocks of a plains-dwelling bird. She rarely wore pink.

And so it was the chicken that prevailed. Ultimately, we will have to blame the voice. When Edith spoke, it was the cluck of the fowl-yard; easy enough to hear, but nothing that anyone would pay attention to. If someone had bothered to pay attention, perhaps she would have stayed at home on January 13, and Frank Temor would not now be counting corpses in a school playground.

The Opening Sentence: Airport Dialogue

This is the third post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here, check out previous posts here and share any thoughts/ideas/criticisms below. As with yesterday’s example, the opening line is a real fragment of conversation I overheard.

“Don’t drop it. There’s a PlayStation in there, for fuck’s sake.”

“I didn’t drop it. It just fell over.”

“Well, why can’t you hold onto it? The queue isn’t that long.”

“Fuck that. I don’t know why we have to bring it anyway.”

“Because I’m not paying the hotel thirty bucks a day just so I can play games.”

“Because you never get to do that, do you? It’s a bloody holiday. Why do we have to drag the fucking console along?”

“Because there is no way that I am watching Indonesian TV. No fucking way.”

“You’ll be lucky if it arrives in one piece. Those baggage handlers always treat luggage like shit.”

“It’s well-padded.”

“Well, if it’s well-padded, it shouldn’t matter if I drop it, should it?”

“Whatever. Do you want me to carry it instead?”

“No way. You can carry the other suitcase. That weighs a ton.”

“Well, that’s hardly my fault is it? I’m not the one packing a PlayStation for a beach trip.”

“Well, hold on to it ya mong.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you, ya cunt.”

It was going to be a good holiday.

The Opening Sentence: Platform 3

This is the second post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here and share any thoughts/brickbats below.

The voice boomed across Platform 3. “Would London Transport Police please come to the Piccadilly Line platforms to remove a beggar?”

I knew that was the opportunity I needed. The station was already crowded with commuters on their weary way home, but everyone stepped away from where the resting figure, huddled in a blanket, was cursing huskily under his breath, a handwritten cardboard sign in front of him. He wouldn’t move until the police arrived, and that would take a few moments, even if they used the staff exits and avoided some of the corridors teeming with passengers.

I was standing directly behind Rebecca Blake. I was sure she hadn’t seen me. Even if she noticed me in passing, the scarf around my neck and the beanie on my head made my features hard to discern .And she had only met me briefly that one time, when I guided her into Leonard Johnson’s office. Numbers were her passion; it seemed unlikely she would have much of a memory for faces.

Even so, I waited on the platform until the police finally arrived to remove the beggar. The crowd was forced even closer together as the three coppers (two male, one female) leaned in and reminded the poor wretch that he had to leave. This was my chance. As everyone squeezed in tighter, I slipped the device into Rebecca Blake’s handbag.

She didn’t notice. She might not have realised even without the distraction, but I couldn’t see the point in taking the risk. By now the beggar had reluctantly agreed to move on, and a train was pulling in, bound for Heathrow. Rebecca Blake boarded, along with most of the crowd. I hung back. Let everyone think I was waiting for a service to Uxbridge. I loitered for a few seconds, then headed for the escalators.

Bruce met me in a pub a block away from the station. Our guess had been correct; once the police had escorted him out of the Tube station, they weren’t interested in taking matters further. The distraction had worked. But we’d have to wait three days to find out if the rest of the plan was as successful. If everything worked, Rebecca Blake would be dead.

The Opening Sentence: Hallowed

This is the first post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here and share any thoughts/brickbats below.

Sunday School seemed old-fashioned. Ryan vaguely knew that. It wasn’t properly modern. Modern was important. His father was always saying so. “Old-fashioned rubbish!” Rob Tarrant would mutter, switching channels on the television set. The family was never allowed to watch old-fashioned rubbish. But Ryan still had to go to Sunday School.

Ryan’s mother and father did not attend the church service while the children were receiving their Sunday education, unlike most of the other parents. His father would drop him off when the class began and was waiting outside for him when he emerged. Ryan assumed he went back home. The church was only two minutes’ drive away from their house in Brown Street. Ryan imagined his father read the newspaper.

Sometimes his mother would drop him off, but not often. There was usually housework to be done and a Sunday dinner to prepare, tasks which didn’t brook interruption. Ryan vaguely thought Sunday dinner was old-fashioned too, but he liked roast lamb so he didn’t say anything about it. Gravy matters when you are eight years old.

He didn’t like Sunday School as much but he had been sent along since he was five. He hadn’t thought to protest when he went to ordinary school and he didn’t think to protest on Sundays either. It was old-fashioned and boring, but Ryan was not the kind of boy who minded anything much. At least not until Mr Jenkins came along.

What Ryan always remembered and feared was the sound of Mr Jenkins’ keys. You could hear them jangling in his pocket even before he entered the church hall where the lessons were held. Mrs Jenkins was the teacher. Mr Jenkins came to collect her at the end of each lesson.

Unlike Ryan’s father, Mr Jenkins only came to accompany his wife back to the main church building. And unlike Ryan’s father, he didn’t wait outside. No matter how early he was, no matter what the class were doing, he came inside, the solid door slamming shut hard as he entered and setting the lock rattling.

Mrs Jenkins didn’t seem to notice. If anyone else came into the hall during lessons, she would react, chastising or greeting as the occasion demanded. “You’re late, Maria.” (This to a perennially tardy girl with badly-organised plaits.) “Sorry, Mrs Prentice, we’ll only be another five minutes.” (This to the head of the Church social committee, anxious to remove the pupils and prepare for other activities.)

But Mr Jenkins simply walked in, and the verse reading or singing or colouring in continued. Apparently no-one else was supposed to notice either. And that was why Ryan found it impossible to tell anyone why he was so afraid.

Introducing my new project: The Opening Sentence

This blog has been sorely neglected over the last six months: just four posts since January 2012. I blame my full-time job as editor of Lifehacker Australia. I love the work but it’s a lot of words to craft each day, and what energy I might have once had for blogging often ends up as either narky posts on my Twitter feed or in Lifehacker posts which might once have easily run here.

I’m not saying random pop culture and travel stuff won’t continue to appear on the blog if I suddenly get the urge, but I’m going to test a different approach over the next few weeks. Ever since first taking part in NaNoWriMo in 2010, I’ve been keen on writing fiction. (You can read the opening chapter of my 2010 effort and the pitch for my 2011 project right here on the blog.)

I already have a plan for my 2012 NaNoWriMo creation, but I figure my writing muscles need more regular exercise before November. I remember Helen Garner arguing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival a few years ago that doing some form of creative writing every day was excellent discipline, even if you didn’t end up using it. I write thousands of words of journalism every day, but my skills in fiction writing aren’t developed to the same level. So I need to practise outside the context of a planned 50,000+ word work.

Hence The Opening Sentence. In my fiction ideas list, I have dozens of half-sketched concepts and possible opening lines for stories. I’m going to grab a different one of these each day and spend at least 15 minutes developing it. If I’m enthused and want to write for a bit longer, I can, but whatever the length and the quality, I will publish the result right here on this blog.

How long will this last? Either until I run out of opening sentences, an idea grabs me so strongly that I decide to keep working on it, or I collapse with exhaustion. I hope it’s not the last, as that will be dispiriting. Comments, as always, will be welcome.