These words launched The TES Magazine's short story competition 2008. Over the summer we are publishing two winning teacher-turned-writers and four high-profile authors. This is the third story by Ian McMillan, the poet, playwright and journalist. Illustrations by Daniel Mitchell.
I groaned, inwardly (and perhaps outwardly, given the reaction of some of the other visitors in the shared lounge at The Willows) at the words. I looked at my Uncle James, a proud man in a cardigan with biscuit crumbs scattered on it like stars. Biscuity stars. Nice constellations, Bourbon constellations, Rich Tea constellations. I was pleased with that image: the crumbs like stars, like constellations made from crumbs. I flicked my notebook open and wrote it down.
The rest of the shared lounge looked away, concentrating on the television on the wall or the view of the bus depot through the window, or the inside of their heads where the past lived and glowed. They were used to Uncle James's outbursts, his shoutings that took the shape of opening paragraphs or shock denouements from unwritten and never-to-be-written detective novels.
James Sercombe was the eccentric novelist at the edge of our family, the man who lived alone in a big house by the sea, the man who smoked a pipe and sat in a study all day, the man whose name we would sometimes see on the spines of books in second-hand bookshops or library sales and once, shockingly, in a skip I passed on my way to the station early one chilly morning.
In the early Sixties he published novels and stories with small pulpy publishers long since gone; cowboy books featuring Dick Slade, The Man in the Saddle; football books that chronicled the exploits of Frostam FC, who always seemed to escape relegation on the last page just before the referee's whistle blew, (or didn't blow, because Gaffer Grimley had hidden it until Frostam equalised); a ballet series for girls under the pseudonym Harriet Thompson; and the Morton McPhee books, his most popular series, about the eponymous Morton, boy detective, "the sleuth who never lost his youth", who never seemed to age and always emerged from any scrape fresh- faced and smiling, with his hair parted just so and a catapult in the pocket of his grey shorts.
And the thing about the books was that they were always predictable. On page one you more or less knew what was going to happen on page 200; maybe that's why I write poems. Poems can be unpredictable whereas stories seldom are.
However, as a boy I was excited by the fact that we had a writer in the family, even though he was, as my English teacher Miss Bourne said, "merely a scribbler of creakingly rusty plots"; writers were glamorous and Uncle James, with his wide-brimmed hat and his hip flask and the thick black hairs that pronged out of his nose, was more glamorous than most. Certainly more glamorous than Miss Bourne. Pronged: that's good. Get it in the notebook. My dad, James's brother, used to say that I became a poet because of James. "It's in the blood, lad," he'd say. "It's in the genes and it pops up somewhere and makes you grab a pen."
I don't know if there was any kind of bodily link between me and Uncle James, but certainly he made me think about the possibility of a literary career, and his example and the rejection slips and encouraging letters from publishers that he'd shown me meant that I didn't feel odd when I first starting sending poems off to magazines; magazines with names like The Kangaroo's Egg or OffCut Quarterly or The New Lancashire Review. When my first pamphlet of poems was brought out by Cut Scissor Press in 1981 I signed a copy (pretentiously, "from one writer to another") and gave it to Uncle James. Of course because my work was poetry it was a lot less predictable than his fiction. You can always guess the end in a story, and not only Uncle James's stories.
He made a fuss of me and we sat for a golden afternoon in his study as he made me read the poems to him and we drank whisky until I nodded off and was later sick into a metal bucket. I don't remember very much about the end of the afternoon but I do remember trying to capture the sound of the sick hitting the bucket in my notebook; "the splashy tolling of a rusty liquid bell" got pretty close, I reckon.
And now here we are: me and Uncle James. I'm the poet with the selected poems about to come out from the prestigious publisher and he's the old writer who's losing his mind and coming out with the same paragraph over and over. I lean forward and wipe the crumbs from his cardigan, and he looks at me as though he's only just noticed I'm there. He talks again, his voice thin and cracking round the edges; "Anyone could have done it. But only James could have had a crisp five pound note, a key to the chemistry cupboard marked "flammable" and a misdirected sense of curiosity." Old Doris the lollipop lady tuts and turns and tries to shrink further into herself, and one or two members of staff shake their heads. Time to take Uncle James for a walk.
I get the two who were shaking their heads (each shaking the opposite way, setting up a kind of headshake palindrome. Clever.) to help me to get him out of his seat and into the wheelchair, and I push him into the garden where the blackbirds sing and tell me it's spring. I push Uncle James up the slight hill to the far end of the lawn, near where the main road pulses by. Pulses: good. Pulses: it seems to capture the throbbing of the road but with an extra kind of urban edge. Pulses. I could incorporate it into my new sequence "The Street Map of My Years". That's only a working title, of course.
I fiddle in my pocket for my notebook and the free pen from the upmarket hotel. I collect free pens. They stick out of a jar in my kitchen like a hedgehog's spines. I hold one of the handles on Uncle James's wheelchair with one hand and scrabble for the notebook with the other, to write the word "pulses" down. Somehow I let go of the wheelchair. The wheelchair rolls down the lawn and the slight hill. Well, to be honest, it doesn't look so flipping slight now that Uncle James is rolling down it. It's gathering speed and I can hear Uncle James shouting; I can't hear what he's saying but I know it's something along the lines of "anyone could have done it, but only James would have had a crisp five pound note." and the rest of the words are thrown to the wind like confetti. Like aural confetti. Like syllable rice at a wedding. Great phrases. Got to write them down. Got to incorporate them in the next poems, shoehorn them into the sequence. But if I waste time picking the notebook up, then Uncle James might be lost forever. As it is, he's whizzing almost out of sight, down towards the lake at the bottom of the hill.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the writer's dilemma. (If this was a film I'd be facing the camera now, talking calmly: in the background Uncle James would be gathering speed towards the lake. There might be comedy music, or there might be dreamy music.) Do I write things down or do I live my life? Uncle James was a writer all his life and look where it's got him: one minute he's in a home and the next minute he's heading for a splashy grave. You're all teachers and you teach your children to use language well; maybe some of them may one day want to become writers themselves. But do you pause to write things down or do you carry on with your life? It's a difficult one, ladies and gentlemen. A stinker.
Uncle James suddenly flourishes a five pound note. A five pound note impregnated with flammable material from the chemistry cupboard. Oh, you can see what's coming, can't you? Not like life, but this is just a story. He rubs the five pound note against the spinning wheels of the chair until it catches fire, then it sets the wheels on fire and then the burning wheels collapse and the chair comes to a halt just before the lake. Uncle James wasn'tisn't as daft as he seems.
Ah, stories, ladies and gentlemen. Plots. Poetry. Language. Read this story to the children in your care and see if they can guess the end. Then ask them: is it better to write down the phrase or stop the runaway wheelchair? That's the writer's dilemma, ladies and gentlemen.