Librarian Mark Kirkby set Garforth Writers’ Group an offbeat creative challenge recently, using photographs from our local photographic archive, Leodis, as inspiration.
On arrival, the writers were presented with a set of images showing a variety of places and potential settings, across different time periods. They each selected an image to provide a basis for a location-setting writing exercise. Next, they were presented with a new set of images, this time portraits. The writers each selected one of the portraits, and turned them into a character who inhabited the world they’d created in the first exercise. In connecting and remixing previously unrelated Leodis images, the writers spanned multiple genres and time periods, and produced some sparkling work.
Our first story, by Rebecca Allan, was inspired by a picture of a cafe in Otley and features an unusual narrator…
Tommy’s Cafe cannot be described as pretty or fancy, it is not the kind of place where you would find haute cuisine, or a la carte, instead it offers something else, something from an age gone by. The orange paint makes it stand out like a sore thumb in comparison to its modest neighbours, whose brickwork instead lays bare without garish enhancement. The passersby find comfort and solace in the nostalgic smell of a good old fry up, that wafts out from the building, while their own stomachs feel betrayed by only having had avocado on rye, or granola, or whatever the new food trend of the week is. Inside the interior is dated, a chequered floor expands to the full length of the room, and the closely huddled together tables are swathed with PVC table cloths, for convenience rather than style. A widower sits at the table near the window, his usual spot, with his usual cup of tea, cheaper than most places he thinks to himself, he enjoys hearing the clatter of cutlery, the chit chatter of others, realising that here in Tommy’s cafe is his haven and he’s not so isolated anymore.
BUMP, BUMP, BUMP and roll…
I lay still on the hard surface trying to get my bearings, listening intently trying to make sense of all the strange sounds around me. I hear a sizzling and a chopping and then a thick northern accent holler “One for Eggs and Chips”.
What are chips, I wonder. What a strange a peculiar word is this chips?
I lay here for several more minutes, not knowing what I should do. It’s hot and humid and I’m uncomfortable. I feel home sick, I miss my mulchy abode amongst the worms. I don’t know what I’m doing here.
Uh oh, there is something around me, moving me, its grip feels clammy.
Ouch! My head!
“Psst, psst, over here,” I hear a voice of someone near.
I force myself to roll over and take a look. It’s my friend Maris Piper!
“Hey! How are you? What’s going on?” I have so many questions I want to ask him, I notice that he looks worried.
“We have to get out of here! I have an -”
Maris has just been sliced up, in front of my eyes, he was the finest potato that I’ve ever met and he’s now gone.
The monster that did this to him is not done. He has taken Maris’s remains. I watch out of morbid curiosity.
He’s dropped into a fryer.
* * * * *
Our second story, by Helen Thomson, takes two quite homely images but gives them a sinister spin…
It could have been very different here. The shadows could have lengthened with less menace. The birds could have sung more joyfully. The flowers could have grown tall reaching for the sun and the blackbirds could have plucked worms from the earth to fatten their chicks in the spring. The house could have loomed less intently.
Instead it squatted uncomfortably on a plot of land not quite large enough. It menaced the tree that grew gnarled by the gate. The lawn was patchy and brown, and colonies of ants had failed to make it a home. When the rain fell, it fell heavier here, forming waterfalls from the gutter and puddles miles deep in the driveway. Although swallows roosted in the eaves come summer, just like they did at every other house, the young never saw it to autumn.
The front door always opened without creaking, which shouldn’t have felt ominous, but it did. The hall smelt damp, though there was no sign of it. The paint did not flake from the walls, the dust did not settle on the mantelpiece, no spiders built their webs in the corners of the room. But the fire always sputtered and smoked, filling the house with its acrid stench but not a bit of warmth. Draughts crept round every window, heavy curtains swallowed sound. The noise of a dripping tap was persistent, but the source could not be found.
The portrait above the fireplace did not have eyes that followed you around the room. Instead, the dull oil paint memory stared resolutely ahead, into a future she could never quite reach. Behind her eyes, her soul howled in the abyss.
Granny watches over me while I sleep. She sits on the edge of the bed and sings to me and strokes my hair. There’s a picture of her downstairs, but that’s not really her. That’s what she told me.
Her hands are always cold, like ice, and if she’s not careful they sink into mine. I can’t look at her for too long, it makes my eyes sting. Her face changes sometimes so she doesn’t look like her. She never smiles.
She calls me a good boy because I don’t cry when she’s there. The other children cried, she said. I don’t know the other children. There’s no-one here but me and Granny. Granny says she loves me and she will always look after me. I ask sometimes where Mama is, but she just shushes me. If I ask to go out she gets cross, so I don’t ask.
Granny doesn’t use the doors, she thinks I don’t notice. She doesn’t eat or drink. I can’t remember the last time I ate either. Sometimes she stares out of the window without moving. That’s when she scares me the most. Sometimes she flickers away and I can’t see her anymore. She says I’m imagining it.
I would like to grow up and go on an adventure. My mama read me a story like that once. But I don’t think I will. I see strange things outside. People wear odd clothes, men come and dig up the road. At night there are lights everywhere and I cannot see the stars. Carriages grumble down the road, and where have all the horses gone? The sky is the same, except for the birds that glint so high up and trail smoke like a dragon.
Granny says I’m safe and she’s looking after me.
* * * * *
The final story in our trilogy was written by Nikki Johnson, and takes as its location a photograph of Albion Street in Central Leeds. You may feel you’ve met its central character somewhere before…
Ten buildings side-by-side. Cramped. In disrepair. Five to the left house the lawyers, who sit behind their glass across from their clients: five more buildings equally alike, yet within them contains assortments of items. Gifts. Ornaments. The smallest things that change a home so significantly.
These places sound busier than they appear to be. But it is only on the street the bustle happens. Cries from children saying “just one sweet, Daddy!” Mothers hushing these children, as though asking for a sweet was like asking why the Earth spins on its axis.
Horses clatter, carrying their owner’s wares. So, everything smells like horse funk. Its sour stench masking the polluted air.
And standing apart from this, a man smiles to himself – or is it another? – for there, on his shirt collar, lies the initials P.T. – a product, or a lover? You’d have to ask him. But he’s no longer there. His eyes look ahead, staring. He looks beyond and into the dust of the shop window. His eyes slide across the sign saying “best in show” and settle on me, nervous irises dart about in their sockets. He starts to sweat. I see it glisten in the 8 o’clock sun on his upper lip. He sticks out his tongue and licks the salt away.
His mouth is left open in the tongue’s wake, puffing in and out as the air passes over his dry lips. The window steams and clears with each anxious breath. He can’t believe his eyes.
“Penny?” he whispers, but I still hear. “Penny… Can you… Can you hear me? Is that you?” He shakes his head vigorously, like a horse swatting away a fly with its luxurious mane. He looks away for just a second, but it’s a moment so long I feel I have lost him already. It’s me, I want to say. If only I could form the words.
“I say, what are you doing?” I cry out in alarm. Hands place themselves around my middle and caress my derrière. A man with slick hair and a short moustache shaped like a broom head grasps at my curves.
“I demand you release me at once, sir! I shall have you for this!” But he either can’t or won’t listen to me. My, this is humiliating. I’m being fondled like a common mule! I shall kick out at them, once I get my chance.
But before I can even glare at him with my muddy eyes, he lifts me up as though I weigh barely a thing, and places me on a stool.
Then, it gets worse! Many people ogle me, snapping and flashing their cameras, oohing me and aahing me and muttering between themselves. I try to search through the window for my love but he has gone. The imprint of his fingers leave behind delicate marks in the dust.
I panic. What is happening to me, and where is my Edward? That was him, wasn’t it?
I imagine him leaving, striding away in confidence. I am not mad, he laments. He turns the corner at the Beek and Inchbold building and enters a shabby shop, invisible to the untrained eye. The smoke that covers the atmosphere almost chokes him, but he came here for a purpose. He has to know.
And in the little apothecary to the shamed mage, my husband pleads, “It’s just, I have this overwhelming feeling. The feeling that… My wife… I feel that my wife is a…” He breathes “… Potato.”
He starts to cry. Had I seen his display of untapped emotions, I too would have shed salty tears of confusion. As it was, I have confusion of my own to contend with:
“Here, what’s that you say?” I plead, as a little man mumbles close to my ear.
“Potatoes aren’t art, they’re just ill-formed chips. Sexy turnips. That’s what they are.”
I start to contest, but then shudder back and blush.
I’m prettier than a turnip. I muse. Why, that’s the greatest compliment of all.
Garforth Writers’ Group meets monthly at Garforth Library, and welcomes new members. The next meetings will take place on 1 November and 6 December, 2017.