The mapping of your heroic plot
To plot or not to plot?
Guest Blog by Author and Writer Coach Siofra O’Donovan
If you’re struggling with plot and you feel a little put off by Stephen King’s premise that plot is all artifice and that the character should lead your narrative onwards, look no further. The Hero’s Journey is a blueprint that could just work for you.
It’s a powerful, dynamic, archetypal journey that can be applied to personal experience and to the process of constructing a narrative that works as a screenplay, novel or short story. The Hero’s Journey is about both a universal and a personal story.
Joseph Campbell was a world-renowned expert in comparative mythology and a professor at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years, known for his expression ‘follow your bliss.’ Campbell determined a narrative pattern in all myths and stories, called ‘The Hero’s Journey’ or the Monomyth. George Lucas, the producer of Star Wars, used the Hero’s Journey to write and develop the narrative in Star Wars.
“Whether the hero be ridiculous or sublime, Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew, his journey varies little in essential plan. Popular tales represent the heroic action as physical, the higher religions show the deed to be moral, nevertheless, there will be found astonishingly little variation in the morphology of the adventure, the character roles involved, the victories gained.
If one or another of the basic elements of the archetypal pattern is omitted from a given fairy tale, legend, ritual or myth, it is bound to be somehow or other implied- and the omission itself can speak volumes of the history and pathology of the example.” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Plucked out of the Ordinary World
The Hero starts out in the ordinary world. Think of Luke Skywalker, bored to death as a farm boy before he tackles the universe, at the beginning of Star Wars. Think of Frodo at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings, in the shire. There is a situation. Their ordinary world is upset. They’ve got the call from the Universe. It’s task time.
In the film Witness, you see both the Amish boy and the policeman in their ordinary worlds before they are thrust into alien worlds- the farm boy into the city, the city cop into the unfamiliar countryside.
The Hero’s Journey is Universal
Think of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Think of Prometheus ascending to the heavens, stole fire from the Gods, and descended. Jason sailed through the Clashing Rocks into a sea of marvels, circumvented the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, and returned with the fleece.
Aeneus went down into the underworld, crossed the dreadful river of the dead, threw a sop to the three-headed watchdog Cerberus, and conversed, at last, with the shade of his dead father. All things were unfolded to him: the destiny of souls, the destiny of Rome, which he was about to be found. He returned to the ivory gate to his work in the world.
“Select two or three heroes and then ask these mythical beings to incarnate through you, and watch the change.” – Deepak Chopra in ‘Finding Joe’, a documentary about Joseph Campbell.
Inner and Outer Transformation
You are the hero of this journey. By tuning into yourself and the character you are developing as a hero, you will awaken your inner potential as a writer and creator of worlds and activate powers that you never even knew you had. The character reaches a stage of the journey called The Master of the Two Worlds, in which she has received the ultimate boon. She crosses the return threshold, and finds her way back to the ordinary world, a transformation has taken place within and without.
We all know what it’s like to return from an amazing adventure, and with photos in tow. We enthusiastically try to convince our friends that this is the place to go. And please, oh please, listen to me recount every detail of what happened. No! They say. I don’t have the time. And why do they not have the time? Apart from being envious, they may also be threatened by you, an emissary of another spatiotemporal reality that… actually has nothing to do with theirs. Or so they think. And isn’t it excruciating when the returnee is a particularly enthusiastic photographer and inflicts you with a slideshow?
But the thing is, it was just the same for Jesus, and for Buddha, and for Mohammed. And the same for Rip Van Winkel, and poor old Gulliver, who returned, sadly, empty-handed and with nothing but their tales to tell. At the end of their extraordinary cavortings. Gulliver was deemed mad by the Royal Geographic Society, after recounting his tales of Lilliput, Laputa and the Land of Houyhnhnms (a race of intelligent horses described in the last part of Jonathon Swift’s satirical Gullivers Travels) But this is how it is for every traveller I believe.
The Mastery of the Two Worlds
But for the Spiritual journey-er, it is an even more explosive reception, the Mastery of the Two Worlds… What do you do with your message, your gift, your Boon of Wisdom, when you return? Are you stoned, slated or worse again, crucified? We each go through Hero’s Journeys every day. For there are micro and macro versions of this never-ending spiral. It’s like Yeat’s Gyre, or the Serpent shedding its scales.
The serpent, demonised by the Western World as an evil, poisonous and devious creature of sin, condemned from the Garden of Eden for Eternity, is a creature revered in the East. The power, our power, resides at the base of our spine, and this in the Vedic tradition is likened to a snake coiled at the base, and over time and with much yogic practice, it climbs up through the body, clearing out the debris of conditioning, delusion and ignorance along the way, until it reaches the crown, where the practitioner becomes enlightened.
“Woman brings life into the world. Eve is the mother of this temporal world. Formerly you had a Dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden – no time. No birth, no death – no life. The serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god. Actually, in the Garden of Eden, Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening is just a visitor. The garden is the serpent’s place.” It is an old, old story.” – Joseph Cambell.
The Hero’s Journey undertaken is an act of uncoiling that latent inner serpent, shedding the old skins, and growing a new one, infused with wisdom in insight. It is a transformation of the human spirit.
“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well, the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
More than a Formulaic Blueprint
And so The Hero’s Journey is much more than a formulaic blueprint for writing a story. It is a tool for going within, taking a journey as you/ yourself/ other- your hero, your heroine and finding the treasure that lies beneath decades of conditioning, conflict and inner turmoil. Outwardly yes, we face Darthvader- but remember well that when Luke Skywalker did that, he saw his own face. It was the showdown for the Father-Son separation. There was no difference between what he saw, and what he was.
And remember that when George Lucas wrote Star Wars, he did so with constant reference to The Hero with a Thousand Faces
. He consulted Joseph Campbell himself, who said that Star Wars was ‘a myth for our time.’ Just as the Marvel stories are, and The Game of Thrones. The writers of these may not pay any attention to the Hero’s Journey, but inevitably, its bones are there beneath the story- informing the development of the plot and the character arcs.
Is the Hero’s Journey an Overused Tool?
“Stories are about solving problems, not mythical journeys of spiritual transcendence. In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Belle is the Main Character and the Beast is the Impact Character. Both don’t fit in with the rest of society, but one—Belle—has found an appropriate way of dealing with it.
In the end, she continues to do things the way she always has. The Beast, however, is the one who has the major transformational change. This is NOT the physical transformation but rather, the transformation of character that he undergoes. He changes and the spell is broken. The Author’s proof that Belle made the right choice is apparent in the smile on her face as they dance into the clouds.” – Narrative First, ‘Not Everything is a Hero’s Journey.’
Refer Back to the Steps
You can use these steps if your hero/heroine get lost in the mire of the plot:
- The hero leaves the ordinary world. Sometimes, they are ripped out of this by force.
- The hero experiences death and rebirth. Literal death and resurrection, or a close brush with death. Or it could be a figurative death.
- The hero is initiated into their new life. This is a period where they’re able to get their bearings and learn the rules of their new existence.
- The hero returns to their own world. Permanently changed by everything they’ve experienced. A classic return ending comes at the end of Stephen King’s alternative history novel 11/22/63. The return doesn’t always happen, especially in tragic endings or in more literary examples of speculative fiction.
‘The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that governs the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.’ – Christopher Vogler.
Siofra O’Donovan’s Creative Writing Workshops at the Novara Centre are inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell, whose Hero’s Journey is a universal blueprint for all myths and stories across the world. The Hero’s Journey is taught as a method for enhancing Creative Writing. It can be used as a tool for self-discovery or a greater creative project like a novel or screenplay.
Learn more about Siofra at www.siofraodonovan.com
To see the Hero’s Journey in the context of a travelogue memoir, see Siofra O’Donovan’s Lost in Shambala.
The story of her amazing journey through the Himalayas in search of Shambhala, among the Tibetans living in exile along the Indo-Tibetan border. Based on years of research, this book was published first by Pilgrims books and is now available on Kindle.
‘It’s everything the armchair traveller with spiritual leanings could hope to read about Tibet in exile.’ – O.R. Melling
Drama short story
© Susan Browne 2019
Bob has loved Donna all his life. Now she is in a nursing home, but he hasn’t given up, and finally, he has nothing to lose.
NYC Midnight challenge, 2019: Drama / Nostalgia / A chauffeur
It is a frosty morning in Hyde Park, and Bob is walking home for the last time from Marlborough Lane Chauffeur Services. All he wants is a drink. To sit by the fire and watch the squirrels play in his little white garden.
Swans weave in the mist on the lake, and he contemplates throwing his work bag into the black water. Letting it sink down. But he might only get stopped for littering. Doggy patrol are all around. With their poo bags and camera phones.
Feeling pain in his fingers, he regrets not bringing his gloves. Queen Victoria looks down at him with contempt, frost on her eyebrows. He pulls a face at her and walks on the grass to feel the crunch of frost under his feet. His boss’s words run over and over in his head.
‘You don’t work here anymore, Bob. We’ve talked about this enough now, and it’s time for you to go.’
At the kiosk just outside the park he picks up a newspaper, and the headlines make him stop dead in his tracks. Nursing Home Near Miss as Dementia Patient Walks Out into Traffic.
He’s getting an idea.
At home, he lights a fire and pours himself a glass of scotch. The idea whisps past again. His pulse quickens. Crazy but possible.
He closes his eyes and thinks of June 1965, shooting catapults with his friend Mark. Marks little sister Donna goes by, and Bob feels his face flush. She is not quite a kid any more. Twelve but sculpting into a beautiful woman. Mark is going to shoot at her, and Bob puts his hand on the catapult.
‘Urrgh, you fancy my sister. You’re disgusting, mate, you know that?’
He was disgusting. He knew. The law of the jungle is that you don’t fancy mates’ little sisters. Especially ones so much younger. But he couldn’t help it. Ever since their joint family holiday in Scotland, two years previous. He tried to make it stop. But whenever he thought of her, he felt out of control.
‘Ouch! You bastard, Mark.’
‘Don’t call me that,’ and with that Mark pounced on her. They were on the pavement, she was screaming, and Bob, stronger, broke them up. He grabbed her close, pressing her against himself. She wriggled free and glared at him.
‘What the bloody hell are you doing, perve?’ She stormed off. Bob didn’t see Mark for a while after that. Their friendship fizzled, just like many friendships do at that age with life making its own twists and forks. But he never moved on from Donna Roberts. He refused to let go, no matter how many times she rebuffed him. He thought he just had to wait until the time was right. She’d come around.
When she got married seven years later, he thought of it as just another delay. She had four children. He could wait. Her husband died of a fall in 2004. Off a ladder, such a shame, and such a careful man. Things got deferred further still as in her grief she went off travelling for years, then arrived back only to develop some brain condition or other and was later admitted to a nursing home in South London.
Now perhaps the wait is over. Now maybe it’s time. He’s running out of patience. And of reasons to hold back.
He bought her a teddy last Valentine’s Day in the shopping centre. It holds a heart across its chest that reads in white writing ‘Be Mine.’ It sits on his bed. He keeps a photo of her beside it, age twelve, that he stole from Mark’s house one day and nobody saw.
Now, already he’s outside Oakdale House again. He watches the big red, Georgian front door. It’s locked of course. You need to ring to be let in. There’s a camera. You need to sign in. And you need good reason to visit whoever you are visiting. He can’t mess it up, or they will be on alert for him.
He waits and watches from across the street. Sitting on a bench near a bus stop. He’s done this a number of times since she got here. Never been in yet. He hugs a takeaway coffee, into which he’s poured a nip of scotch from his hip flask. A retirement gift. His car is parked around the corner. Ready just in case.
He’s going to take a chance. He can just visit this time. He’ll see. Test the water, come up with a proper plan. He writes a fake name in the book. Tells them he is her cousin. A care assistant shows him the room, and she is there sitting in her chair with a blanket on her knees.
‘Hello, Donna. I bought you a teddy bear,’ he tells her. He’s trembling, and he can’t stop the smile stretching across his face. She is still so beautiful.
‘Thank you,’ she says as he puts it on her pillow. Be Mine. He can’t tell if she knows who he is. She seems like she is thinking hard and trying to make sense of something. There is a greyness to her eyes that wasn’t there before.
They sit in silence for a while. He is running over the years in his mind, and she is quiet and still.
‘Do you want to come for a walk?’ he asks her.
‘Of course,’ she smiles. ‘I love walks.’ Bob wonders if she will really come with him. He is excited and tries to calm his breath in his chest.
‘Back in a minute.’ He wanders down the hall and pauses here and there. Watching. He sees the woman at reception pressing something on the wall to release the door.
In the sitting room, just two patients are sitting there and there is a daytime chat show playing on the TV. He lights the corner of a paper napkin and puts it in the wastepaper bin, then walks hurriedly to Donna’s room. She is sitting on her bed. She looks through him when he comes in.
‘Did you miss me?’
‘Is it Monday today?’
‘Yes,’ he lies. He starts putting some of her clothes in a plastic shopping bag. Cleaning items and all he can grab quickly. The teddy. A coat smelling of must in a wardrobe. A nightdress. Underwear. Socks and slippers.
‘Who are you again?’ she asks.
‘I’m your chauffeur, and we’re going on a grand adventure. You must get bored in here, with all these old cronies. A young woman like you.’
‘Is it raining outside?’
‘Frosty. So put this jumper on. That’s the girl.’
And they walk arm in arm as the fire alarm sounds. People are rushing around. Even the receptionist has left her chair, and he says to Donna ‘open the door in a second, when I say. Okay?’ He puts her hand on the door handle and shows her how to open it.
And it works. They are out. Down the slope and onto the street. She stops, frozen. ‘What is that awful noise?’
‘The alarm, we had to get out. Everyone is. Are you ready to come for a drive with me?’ He flips on his hat that he stole from work.
‘Is there champagne?’
‘By God there will be. For you my darling. Champagne it is. The best money can buy.’
He guides her into the passenger seat and she looks around. He locks the doors. Before long the A40 turns into the M40 and all is going to plan. He looks over at her from time to time. He wonders how it would be if she were suddenly to start yelling and trying to get out. Attracting attention. He wonders about the cameras in and around London. His fingerprints on the sign in book. No going back now.
He’s low on petrol at around Stoke-on-Trent. She is asleep, so he leaves the motorway at the next service station. Parking up he gets out as quiet as he can. Tank full and she’s still sleeping, her head lolled to the side. When he goes to pay he’s conscious but tries to smile and relax. She’s just out of view from the queue. He buys what food he can grab, and pays by card. Another traceability – he curses himself for not thinking things through more.
Then his heart jumps in his chest. Donna isn’t there. His first reaction is to wonder where to hide. Perhaps the police have got her. But they haven’t. She’s there chatting to a woman filling up her tank. Stay calm.
‘Come on my lovely, better get back on the road.’
She looks at him sharply, a confused and slightly suspicious look. ‘Who are you again?’ she asks. The woman, about forty with a black fur hat on, frowns a little as she replaces the nozzle and screws her petrol cap back on.
‘Here I got your favourite chocolate,’ and he gently pushes her back into the passenger seat and her body yields.
‘That’s so nice of you,’ she says and looks at it as though she has no idea how to unwrap it. He takes it from her and removes the wrapper, and she tastes it. ‘I love chocolate.’
The log cabin is nestled on the banks of Loch Lomond, with a view of Ben Nevis. Very like the big one they stayed in all those years ago. He gets her inside, and then he can’t rest. Pacing and wondering what to do, trying to make her comfortable. He makes her tea. Shows her the patio then brings her in again.
‘Do you remember, Donna? When we were here last?’
She looks at him, bird-like. Her head a little to the side. He just can’t tell, but he likes to think that she is remembering too. She has chocolate at the side of her mouth which instinctively makes him wipe his own.
‘I’ll tell you about it to jog your memory. In August 1967 my family and your family holidayed together. Our parents were the best of friends. And Mark and me, and you. I was fifteen, and you were ten.’ It’s clear she’s not listening now but he continues anyway.
‘One day, you fell and sprained your ankle, playing in the waterfall, and I saved you, carried you all the way back to the cabin. It was very like this one. Not far from here either.’ Bob closes his eyes and goes back there, feeling her small frame in his arms. The way she looked at him. Like he was some big strong mountain man. Tarzan. She seemed to be enjoying it as much as him. She rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes.
The adults told him he was brave and responsible and caring and he and she were silent. Sharing a special moment that couldn’t be spoiled by speaking.
That night time the parents drank at the pub on wooden benches on the bank of the lough. Bob made sure to include Donna in their games. The sun stayed up very late into the night as though it didn’t want it to end either. They paddled in the clear shallow waters edge, splashed and skimmed stones. Mark made fun of Bob for being unable to swim. Bob didn’t care, and Donna said ‘at least he’s not afraid of the dark like you are,’ and they both laughed.
Now, Donna just sits there, tea in hand. An almost-smile on her lips.
Later, she is sitting in front of the television. He doesn’t know how she switched it on. She can’t seem to do very much independently. But the news is on. Her picture. A woman is believed to have been abducted from a nursing home in Kensington and the man…. He switches it off in a panic.
‘The world is cruel. What life have you got, a good-looking woman in your sixties in a nursing home? Life’s only beginning for us, darling.’ Perhaps he can take her away to another country. Make her better. And she will marry him as she knows this is true love which is as rare as diamonds in the night sky.
Donna wakes at four in the morning. There is a strange man beside her, and she doesn’t know where she is. She just thinks she should be really quiet. She slips out of the door and walks in her nightdress out into the night. It’s so cold. She wishes she had her coat, but now she can’t remember where she came from. A pathway leads her onto a track, and the moon lights it for her. She keeps walking until she reaches the waters edge.
Bob wakes and finds he is alone. He searches everywhere, but she is gone. Then he sees the police lights and hears the sirens. They’re coming. ‘Donna,’ he hisses. ‘Where are you?’
Then he sees a crumpled body hunched over in a little rowing boat down on the shore. He rushes over, and Donna is there, curled up and crying.
‘It’s okay, I’m here. I’ve got you.’
He wraps his coat around her. He pushes them out into the water and rows gently.
‘Don’t cry now, Donna, we need to be so, so quiet.
She is quiet, so quiet at one point he isn’t sure she is still breathing. Still, he rows.
Then she says, ‘Bobby, is that you? I’m so cold. Can you lift me back to Mum and
‘Yes, it’s me. I’m here.’ He’s crying now. His precious butterfly that he loves so much is being crushed in his own stupid hands. ‘We just have to wait a little longer.’
The police boat has a huge searchlight that beams right past them. He can surrender, and she will be saved. Her chill healed and a warm bed provided. He will be in jail. He can’t do it, and so calls out to them.
‘Here. We’re over here,’ and with that, he throws himself overboard. At first, instinct
has him grasping at the boat, but when he sees how violently this rocks it, he lets go. Freezing
water fills his nose and mouth. He tries not to cry out so as not to upset her as it closes in over
his head and his body starts its descent down some three hundred feet.
The light from the police boat searches across the black water.
‘I was sure I heard something, sarge,’ said Peter Maclaughlin.
‘Aye. Must’ve been the bloody seals or something. That fella is long gone I’ll bet you.
He’d never be so stupid as to take a woman with dementia onto the water at night.’
‘No. Course not.’
To see other short stories click here
Climate Change – what can I do?
There’s an elephant in the room. Our climate is not just changing but it’s breaking down and people don’t want to talk about it.
I want to talk solutions.
Stuff we can do. Stuff that makes a difference.
I sometimes wrestle with black and white thinking. If I can’t do the whole climate change life thing perfectly, then why bother at all? But it hurts to bury my head in the sand because the truth is I really do care about it. I always cared about it. I am nature lover and I don’t like the cruelty, greed, littering, polluting and so on that comprises human disrespect of the planet.
So I’m going to look at it as parts of a jigsaw.
If I can’t get it perfect today with my carbon footprint, what one thing can I do?
I like to think of sowing seeds. Ask the question (see my other blog called ‘Ask the Right Question’) ‘what is one thing I can do today to help towards the conservation of planet earth?’
Maybe it’s to shop in a more eco-friendly shop, or choose less plastic and more eco-friendly products in the shops I do use. As a mother of three, I’m well aware that some of the eco-friendly choices are more expensive. But actually, some of them are cheaper.
There are a lot of people out there asking the same question so it’s worth seeking them out so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. After a quick search on Facebook of climate change followed by the name of the area I live in I realised there were lots of initiatives happening close by that I didn’t even know about.
This month’s copy of National Geographic is full of inexpensive home remedies we can use that do less harm to the environment, from beauty products to homemade laundry soap.
Grow it yourself
To reduce plastic and the carbon used to transport foods a ridiculous distance, grow your own. If you have a garden or access to an allotment there is a lot you can grow yourself. Sure, the carrots might not take off this year and you will learn as you go along, but don’t underestimate the ripple effect this has. Other people hear about it, taste your homegrown treats, and perhaps want to do the same. I love this book on the power of growing your own by artist and grower Lisa Fingleton.
We need to make the shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies.
Many of us are reliant on fossil fuels to heat and power our homes. It’s just not feasible to change everything in one day, so what can I do today? Look up ways of changing to more renewable energy, thinking of long-term goals as well as short ones. Wear extra clothes on cooler days to reduce the amount of home heating needed.
Many people have started out local groups and have put them up on social media to help share ideas on what we can do to help in both small and big ways.
What is Ecocide and what can I do about it?
Serious damage to, or destruction of, the natural world and the Earth’s systems. Making the people who commission it – such as chief executives and government ministers – criminally liable for the harm they do to others while creating a legal duty of care for life on Earth. Click here to sign the petition and here to give as little as a €5 once off donation and become an Earth Protector to stop ecocide and change the law.
It is said that just a hundred companies are responsible for almost three-quarters of global emissions, and so doesn’t that mean that the government should just come along and sort it all out? The sad news is, they haven’t been doing. Things are looking up in some ways though. Just a few days ago in Ireland, a Climate Emergency was declared, as well as in the UK and other countries. The more the general public demands clean energy, zero plastic and so on the more they have to listen to us and do something. It all filters down.
You are powerful. Your voice matters.
You don’t need to be Greta Thunberg or Sir David Attenborough to make a difference. Talk about it. Share stuff on social media (all shares of this blog much appreciated too btw). Choose to buy from companies that respect the environment. Leave the ones that don’t. Tell them why. Write to or comment on social media why you don’t want to buy from them.
Ask or write to your local politicians. They are anxious to please, especially around election time and your questions may make a difference. Encourage others to do the same.
Use your talents
If you love photography, why not volunteer to take some photos at an eco-friendly event you can attend? Love writing? Write about it, share it. Love speaking, speak about it. Love gardening? Share your gift with others and show them what to plant and how to help the bees, plant more trees or grow your own. Good at organising people? Help to organise an event near you or start your own. Focus on your strengths and how these could be of service if you have any spare time to give.
Who to look up/follow on social media
These lists are far from exhaustive and apologies for the many I have missed: Polly Higgins (RIP, 2019, but her movement goes on and the resources on her page are invaluable); Greta Thunberg; Greenpeace; Climate Camp; Franny Armstrong; Eric Pooley; Bill McKibben and many more. Even by just liking and sharing someone else’s efforts, you are helping the message get more reach and keeping climate breakdown top of mind.
Hashtags to use/follow: #ecocide #pollyhiggins #gretathunberg #climatechange #climateaction #climate #climatebreakdown #globalwarming #ecologicalbreakdown #arctic #nature #environment – many of the Instagram-only ones are prefixed with ‘insta,’ e.g. #instaclimatechange
Think grass roots action.
“You can argue all day about whether one person not using straws or going vegan makes a global difference. The point is the mindset. We need to change our thinking from this idea that the earth is a bottomless pit of resources and start acting like what we do matters. Changing the philosophy of cultures and societies starts with individuals changing their own hearts and minds. That’s the importance of grassroots action. It’s not that my composting will empty landfills of food waste, but my changed mind and heart may influence others. And that could spread and change the world.” – Olga Evans
The Taste Tester
By Susan Browne © Susan Browne 2017/2019
Callum has taken up an unusual job opportunity, keeping a paranoid elderly author safe from poison.
I’m lying here, curled around my dream girl like a c-shape. My lips rest on the crown of her head. We fit together perfectly. Me, a clumsy six foot three, and she a dainty five foot five. I nearly lost her, then I won her back again. When I close my eyes and feel the rise and fall of her breath, my mind wanders back to Elena, and her house in the mountains. It’ll be minus ten up there tonight.
Elena and I found one another, wretched and vulnerable. Her furious ex-lover had dumped her in the city, knowing that would leave her distraught. I was looking into the hurriedness of the Liffey. Wondering how it might be to sleep with the fishes. All that mattered to me then was Ailsa. She had dumped me for my best friend, Darcy. I didn’t care about life.
Then I heard crying under the bridge. I went to investigate. Birdlike, in a fur coat and hat and long boots she lay crumpled in the mud. She looked about sixty. A sad, thin scarved face of bright lipstick and rouge and dark eyes.
We didn’t say much at first. She shook my hand, shivering.
Her accent was foreign. She wanted to go home, is all. We walked to my car, and I drove her to her place. It was over an hour’s drive outside the city. I would have travelled anywhere, for the distraction and for having anything at all to do.
I had never seen such a beautiful house. It was enormous, and yet she lived alone. It had a pool in a room with a peel-top roof, so it could also be open air. At the top; a viewing dome. A gym, pool and outdoor jacuzzi. She fixed us tea, and then, before drinking hers she said:
‘Would you mind tasting this for me, just to see if it’s safe?’
I laughed at first. Her eyes never flickered. She wasn’t joking.
I honestly wouldn’t have cared that day if it was laced with arsenic and so I agreed. Out of politeness, I used my teaspoon to ladle some out. I was aware of her watching me intently for a few minutes, and I tried to shrug away the prickly feeling around my neck.
Then we drank our tea, and she began to tell me about herself.
‘I am an author. I write fiction. Originally, I come from Russia, but I moved to Ireland in 1997.’
It turned out she wasn’t just any author. She was an international bestseller and one of her books was currently being made into a movie with some of my favourite actors.
‘I need someone to work for me up here. Would you be interested?’
‘What sort of work?’ I asked her.
‘I need a taste tester. My other boy has gone travelling and I need someone who could start right away.’
‘What even is that?’ I asked her.
‘Someone to test my food before I eat, and drink before I drink.’
There was a long pause here. What do you even say to that?
‘I work in an office,’ I told her.
She waited for me to say more.
‘..And it’s incredibly boring.’
It was regular money, but it was not what I had envisaged for myself at twenty-two. My dad couldn’t afford to keep me in college and I couldn’t afford it either.
She smiled and regarded me carefully. ‘Then you would be perfect for me. I will pay you well, but the hours are long.’
‘We’ll give it a go,’ I said.
My employment began immediately. I worked right up until 9pm. I emailed my boss to let him know I was resigning. This gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction.
She had saved me. And I had saved her.
‘Why do you have a taste tester anyway? Is someone out to get you or what?’ I wondered about her other boy who had gone travelling.
She became still and stared at me. ‘I cannot say. I’m sorry.’
‘Alright then.’ And that was that. I hoped he wasn’t buried here somewhere.
Elena was queen of the mountain. She could do what she liked, including hiring a taste tester. She could hire whatever she wanted up there.
‘Were you always like this?’ I asked one day. ‘Y’know. Suspicious and all.’
‘Not always. Only since the character of Dina.’
I had searched for her books and seen that the character of Dina was part of the fantasy thriller she had written in 2015 that was being made into a movie. Dina was a paranoid but very powerful witch. Turns out my Ailsa had the very book too. I didn’t tell Ailsa who I worked for. Confidentiality was part of the deal.
‘What are you writing since?’
Then she looked at the floor, her shoulders slumped. ‘Every day my agent calls; ‘what are you writing?’ I can’t write. Dina has sucked all of the words out of me. Now I am empty.’ She suddenly looked even older, like a crumpled plant shrinking down to the earth.
‘Well, maybe you have enough writing done. Maybe it’s time to take a rest.’
She scoffed, and I felt silly.
Here I lie in Ailsa’s bed. Her father’s apartment. He is upstairs with his big, black moustache and disapproving stare. Big tattoos on his big Popeye arms. He doesn’t even know I’m here. He never liked me. Give him time, he’ll be grand about us.
I am still inside my head thinking about a paranoid old lady. Her ability to write those incredibly popular books. It didn’t make much sense. The fact I could lie here with The Goddess of Happiness in my arms and still have her on my mind. I watch her red lipstick smile inside my head, at the thought of that.
I breathe in the smell of Ailsa. Her silky dark hair, tangerine body lotion. I know it’s strange, but I can tell that she loves me now and that she didn’t used to. I feel safe.
One day Elena had me swim in the pool. I didn’t see how that was part of the job, but I did as I was told. It gave me the creeps at first. That this old lady wanted to perve over me or something. Images of a terrible scene from ‘The Shining’ flooded my mind and I tried to shrug them off.
But that wasn’t how it went. It turned out she wanted me to swim in the water to see if it was poisoned. She herself got in exactly twenty minutes after me when she was satisfied that it was safe.
‘You can go now,’ she said, thank God.
Sometimes it felt as though I was part of a game she was playing. I was a pawn on her chess board. I couldn’t very well argue. I didn’t want to get the sack. And I wished to please her. Strange and cantankerous as she was, I got satisfaction out of getting things right. I was her circus monkey.
She knew all about Ailsa and the bother I was in. So, she asked me more and more questions. Personal ones. And, out of loneliness, I told her.
‘You are an idiot. Of course, the girl won’t want you then. You need to wake up and play the game.’
‘What game? I don’t want to play any games. I just want her back.’
She taught me things. And as though by magic – as soon as I let go, Ailsa came to me. I made a mistake. There was only us. Of course, there was. I knew it all along, and so did my moronic mate, Darcy. Ex-mate now.
There were long periods of time where there was nothing to be done. She needed quietness and solitude, but still, I must remain on the premises. I started using the gym. I began to get fit and enjoy it. I started to like myself. I learned the different trails on that freezing cold mountain, I took her two blue-eyed huskies for walks and they showed me the way. It didn’t feel like Ireland there. It was as though she brought her own climate with her and placed it there.
In this bedroom now, I feel her vaporous presence. She lingers, watching me holding Ailsa. I feel the sense of unease as the air stirs and the nets move. Outside a train passes and the house shakes a little.
‘Would you die for me? Like the president’s bodyguard?’ she asked one day.
I considered this carefully. ‘Isn’t that what I do every day? Risk my life by tasting your potentially poisoned food and drink?’
To this, she snorted. ‘You were a dead man that day, down by the river, if I had not saved you.’
I looked at her incredulously. ‘And yourself?’
She only laughed. Funny Irish boy.
It’s no good. I can’t sleep, so I peel myself away from Ailsa’s warm body. She moans softly in her sleep. I reach for her tablet and I find myself reading about Dina. I’ve read most of it already. Dina is just like Elena. The appearance, the mannerisms.
I reach the final chapter and still a goddess and a contemptuous Scotsman sleep.
“He searched everywhere for her on the cold mountain. Afraid of what he would find. Down by the lake, he fell to his knees. The ice sparkled, and then he saw her. Frozen under the ice looking up. He beat and bashed the ice…”
I snap it shut and realise that I am holding my breath. I get dressed as quick as I can, and I am out the door.
‘Is that you, Hen?’ her father shouts.
I’m gone. Into the car and headed for the mountain. February’s dawn creeps over the iced valley, and the road is slippery. I know the complex code to get through the gates. The blue-eyed dogs are whining; agitated. I park the car and run down the trail to the lake. They are leading the way. She is there beside the water’s edge.
‘Callum? You came.’
‘Are you alright?’
She turns to face me. ‘I just had my tea,’ she says. Her eyes are full of a tenderness that I haven’t seen before.
‘But it’s alright, Callum. It must be this way. You see I am Dina.’
‘You’re not Dina. No, no. You are Elena. The author. The author can’t die.’ I lift her little frame in my arms and bring her back up the trail. The dogs are crying. She gets limper and limper, and hot tears are coming down my face.
‘Help. Somebody.’ My phone is in the car. I lay her on the back seat and call an ambulance. By the time it arrives, she is unconscious.
‘Come on, Son,’ the paramedic says to me. ‘We need to get her out of the car, alright?’
‘Alright. Hey, I think she might have taken cyanide.’
‘Why would you think that?’
‘I could be wrong, but it’s what the character in her book took.’ I realise how crazy that makes her sound and how someone else couldn’t understand.
‘You may be right too. Leave it to us now.’
She seems even tinier now, as they lay her out on the gurney. She’s slipping away from me. The quiet snowy mountain is suddenly awash with blue lights. I drive slowly home. We’ll be in touch again; the Gardaí had told me.
Months after I often go up to the mountain. Always alone. Never telling anyone. It’s not cold anymore. Spring flowers and birdsong annihilate her further. I wonder if I could have saved her, had I arrived just a little earlier. And sometimes I question if it really was she that poisoned herself. I find myself colluding with the story. This is how I keep her alive. Just a little. And in my head, she smiles about it.
About this Story: This story was written in response to a short story challenge run by NYC Midnight in January, 2017, where I had 8 days to write a short story.
The Prompt: Genre = romance/ comfort zones/ a taste tester