Weeknotes S07E02/Writing with Neil Gaiman, Chapter 2


Choose a folk tale or fairy tale that you know well.
Select one of the characters from the story for the following exercise and write a few pages about them, using one of the following prompts:

  • Pretend you’re a therapist treating the character. Write a scene in which you discuss the character’s life and problems, then arrive at a diagnosis.
  • Write a newspaper article describing the events of the story. For example, Snow White—Woman Hiding in Woods for Ten Years Found by Wealthy Hiker. Then write a story for that headline using journalistic objectivity.
  • Have your character explain their actions to a jury.

H is always on time to his session. Always. At 3 o’clock I open the door and there he stands. Once I opened the door at 2.59, just out of curiosity, just to see if he stood out there waiting. He wasn’t. I’d barely closed it before the clock chimed and the knock came on the door, always a heavy knock, a knock that seemed to knock inside me as well.

H was supposed to come for couples therapy. He does, sometimes: in the dead of winter he brings his wife. They’re an odd couple. She smells like – oh god, I can’t describe it. Like fresh grass. Sometimes like the oven as the bread comes out, and sometimes like the oven as you open the door and it roars heat into your eyes.

But today the sun was high up in the sky. The room I use for clients is at the top of my house, a three storey pile I inherited from some mad aunts. They took a floor each, and apparently they knew H. Sometimes it felt like they knew everyone. It’s a lot of building for one person, but the room at the top is generally light and airy – and the views are incredible. You can see all the way across Hyde Park, all the way to Buck House.

The clock chimed. I felt the knock in my bones, as usual, and crossed to the door to open it.

“Come on in,” I said, and motioned him inside. He came in, carrying with him a smell all of his own. It’s – I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘fungal’. It’s rich and dark and yet, for some reason, the image that comes to me is always a skull with a white mushroom blossoming in the socket.

I gesture at the seat, as usual. He takes off his flat cap, as usual, and scratches at his head.

“So.” I say. It’s always best to let the client go first, to follow where they lead.

“So.” He says. “Midsummer’s Eve today. Hot. Too hot.”

I agree. The sweat is already beading on my forehead, though Mr H doesn’t seem to be afflicted.

“No P today?”

“No. She’ll be out, enjoying the sunshine.” He stretched out his legs, and I heard a crackle from his knees. “Me, I’d rather she stayed home, but women – what are you going to do?”

He shoots me a look from under his bushy brows. They’re shot through with silver and cast his eyes into deep shadow. I keep as natural a posture as I can.

“Why would you rather she stayed at home, H?”

H leans forward. I resist the sudden urge to lean backwards, to get away from the maddening smell. “Because she’s my wife,” he says, as though explaining it to a child.

“Do you think she knows that?”

He holds my gaze for a second, and then looks down. He picks at the dirt under his nails. He’s a pit boss, apparently. I thought that would mean paperwork and management, but he still seems to get down in the dirt with everyone else. He told me at our first session that he preferred it that way – his two older brothers had both joined the military early on. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy respectively, I think, and now apparently at the very peak of their careers. H, though – he said he got enough joy out of doing the job to never really stop.

“Yeah, she knows it. We have an argument every Christmas about it.”

“About whose relatives to stay with?”

He snorts. “Yeah, that kind of thing. I don’t know. Whenever we’re together it’s great – it’s perfect – and I respect her job.” He opens his hands wide, the universal gesture for believe me, guv’nor. “And I know she has to travel about, bringing sunshine to the kiddies and so on. But I worry about – other men. She’s beautiful as anything, and when you’re so far from home, maybe temptation sets in?”

I give it a beat. Silence is a crowbar.

“And it’s not like I don’t trust her, of course I trust her – “

“That’s interesting,” I say. “Because it takes two, doesn’t it? Do you ever think she’d decide to cheat on you?”

He starts to say something, and then stops. “I can’t imagine it,” he says, slowly. “But there are other ways…”

“You mean rape.” I try to keep it as flat as possible.

The eyebrows bristle again, and the shadows deepen. I know he’s looking at me even though I can’t see his eyes. “Yes,” he bites out.

“I think that’s a normal fear,” I say. “The world is…unpleasant. Do you think your wife knows that it’s a possibility?”

This time the intonation is completely flat. “She knows it for a fact.”

“Because you’ve told her?”

H pauses longer than the answer deserves: “Yes.”

Fear uncoils itself in my belly.

“How did you meet?” I ask. I’m working overtime to keep the tremor out of my voice. The sweat on my forehead is not from the sunshine streaming in through the window any more.

“That has nothing to do with that.”

“With what?”

His shoulders, his fists, his knees are all facing me. The man is all right angles and hard lines.

“With – with how I feel.”

“What happened, H? How did you meet her?”

“It wasn’t – it wasn’t like that-“

His voice is so quiet, and yet I hear it still over the roaring blood in my ears and the sudden leaden weight in my bones. Somewhere a bell is chiming and it is too slow, it is not my clock but it is my bell, the bell that tolls at the end, the bell that sounds in the darkness at the end of the shift, the bell in the hand of the King of the Mine –

I gasp out a breath, suddenly, and suck in a mouthful of shorn grass and strawberries and the flat heat of the desert. The light is suddenly so bright that I can see the veins of my eyelids.

“Husband. Did you miss me?”

I breathe into my carpet. I can’t remember how I got here but I can hear, somewhere above, a conversation taking place.

“No, love. I was just worried about you.”

There is the sound of a kiss.

“Worry not. Not while the sun shines. I’ll be with you soon, husband. Go home. Look after those that need you.”

“I will. Come home to me soon, wife.”

The door opens. The door shuts. The sun goes back outside.

A bell – my bell – chimes softly, unobtrusively, to let my client know it’s time to finish. I hear the crackling of H’s joints as he stands.

“I’ll see you in a little while,” he says. As he steps past me I feel my bones press against my skin, as eager to jump into his hands as a puppy. “Thanks for your help today.”

The door opens. The door shuts. My bones, grumbling, go back to their work of holding me upright. I note today’s progress in H’s file and settle myself with a cup of tea.

Outside, the sun still shines. I think about it. Midsummer’s Eve is the longest night. After this, it all starts getting darker.

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