I'm pleased to invite Helen Laycock onto my blog today.
Back last autumn, a very nice lady called Jane approached me in the village library where I volunteer and asked if I gave readings. A friend of hers had enjoyed one of my short story collections, it seemed, and had passed it on to Jane, who had then passed it on again.
‘I loved it,’ she said, ‘and I know that my ladies would love your style, too!’ Her ladies are residents of the care home for the elderly for which Jane organises entertainment.
My ‘style’, eh? I don’t think Jane had come across my other stuff. No. Definitely not. After all, she told me that I was such a lovely lady. I shook my curls and smiled brightly, quickly dismissing any material from my two collections of dark, psychological tales about characters on the periphery of society, and thought about sunshine and flowers. La la la la la. I would focus on my light-hearted stories. Much more appropriate for the ladies (and Jane would still think I was lovely).
I decided not to select anything from ‘Light Bites’, the book she had read, as some of the ladies had also read it. Instead, I would put together a programme of carefully-selected stories which had not yet seen the light of day. I have quite a lot of new material ready to slot into three forthcoming collections – Fairytales for Grown Ups, Confessions… and (Sh! Don’t tell Jane) more disturbing stuff for a book which will have the title The Darkening. Last time I gave a talk, I broke up the story-reading with a few funny poems, a successful formula which I would repeat.
So, all I had to do was put together a programme.
‘That funny story about the cat! Yes, that always makes me laugh.’
‘But the cat dies,’ warned my husband. ‘You can’t read that. Old ladies love cats.’
‘They only think the cat has died. It’s actually under the bed eating the chicken fillets it stole from the shopping bag.’
But he was right. I crossed it off the list.
I would definitely read the one about the double booking of the Canadian log cabin in a blizzard over Christmas. Hilarious! But then Jane telephoned to ask if we could move the talk to after Christmas when their building work had finished, by which time it would be a bit of a stale subject, I thought. Back out with the black pen. Scribble scribble.
I then specially wrote an adult fairytale set in a care home for retired fairyfolk. It was funny… but would that be insensitive? Scrapped.
I did have a story which had done well in a competition and had been traditionally published. It was black humour, however, and set in a mortuary. A mortuary? What was I thinking? No. Scrapped.
More to the point, what would Jane think?
The more I re-read my stories, the more I became obsessed by details which might upset Jane’s ladies. Was a mention of alcohol appropriate? Drugs? Dating? S- (cough) -ex?
What I needed was bland. But, let’s be honest, who wants to listen to a bland story?
Finally, after weeks of re-reading, I had the perfect selection. I practised reading everything and developed an array of (rather good) character voices to bring the stories to life.
So, to the outcome:
I only got through half of my material; some of the residents were late arriving, and a few wanted to chat.
I introduced each story by briefly explaining what had inspired it and started with ‘A Recipe for Disaster’ (which will end up in ‘Confessions’). It’s about the (dastardly) lengths a woman goes to to replace the missing courgettes with cucumber when her neighbours come over for a meal – a good tip at the moment during the courgette shortage. You’re welcome! And, yes, something which I admit to doing, but, to clarify, I was a student at the time and it only involved vegetable-replacement, not dastardly deeds. This was followed by a new adult fairytale where I gave the giant a broad West Country accent, and then a funny poem which I had written after a painful pony trekking experience– I am happy to report that I am (finally) over it.
A few ladies listened with their eyes closed. No, they had not fallen asleep… I like to think that they were imbibing my words in a state of full contentment. After checking that they wanted more, I read just one more ‘confession’ story called ‘That Sinking Feeling’, inspired by a true event from my teenage years when I was desperate for the loo after arriving at the home of my French Exchange family. It went down well. Then the hour was up.
They laughed in all the right places, clapped and congratulated me at the end. I particularly liked the phrase ‘You’re very clever’. Of course, I completely forgot to take photos, or to give out the bookmarks I had made (I left some with Jane). However, lots seemed interested in my children’s books which I had put on display, and, being completely computer-savvy, went off to order books from Amazon! I still have the second half of the talk which I can use next time I visit and I came home with a beautiful pot plant. So, all in all, a successful morning (as it should be after all that blinkin’ planning).