I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.
I remember overhearing one yoof talking to another about his baseball cap. Yoof #2 was admiring the cap and trying it on. Yoof #1 said, rather anxiously, ‘Don’t you lose my cap, man. That cap is my identity.’
It’s these kind of scenarios that fuel my imagination.
Here’s what happened one day. I must just add, as a disclaimer, that all I saw were two people in a coffee-shop—my imagination, tawdry and cynical, and my love of detective fiction did the rest!
So I was sitting there with my cappuccino and my triangle of ‘tiffin’, in a Coffeebucksta Emporium in the town where I live. And I saw this:
A smart young man, late twenties, in a very modern suit, latest hair-do etc., all smiles and full of conversation. With him a frail and bent old lady in a wheelchair. She was also smartly dressed and her white hair was short and chic a la Dame Judi Dench. But she was way too old to be his mother. Grandmother? Great aunt? Great-Great-grandmother? I mean, she was OLD.
I’m already plotting a story around them. He parked her at a table and went to join the queue. She was reading the paper. I’m thinking, maybe she’s not a relative but his Sugar Mommy?
The idea appeals to me. I can remember several detective novels where scandal ensues due to an inappropriate attachment between a favoured young man and an older, vulnerable (or perhaps not so vulnerable) woman. I like the idea that even in this day and age, a young man can still cash in on his good looks, and an old lady can still enjoy having someone to dance attendance on her.
I decide she probably has someone at home to help with her personal care. And to take care of the cooking and cleaning. I’m picturing a large sprawling mansion, empty of people but stuffed with suits of armour and gloomy, grimy portraits of people who have been dead for hundreds of years. Glass cases of long-dead animals. Lots of wood panelling. Surrounded by vast expanses of grass and tall dark trees. Maybe some peacocks? An old uneconomical car, with her cosseted in the back under blankets, and him in front at the steering wheel.
And I don’t want to think there could be anything sexual involved (eww!) but that he acts as chauffeur, secretary, assistant, companion and entertainer. He flatters her, makes her laugh and she pays him for his smiles.
I think of the people that know her, local villagers? I imagine them talking to me. Or to a policeman sent down from Scotland Yard to investigate some awful crime. Perhaps she’s been murdered? Or him? Perhaps he’s the victim, not the perpetrator? Over our coffee, my informant tells me, (this is in my head, you understand,) “Well of course she gave out that he was her great-nephew, though I’ve never believed it. But she said it—you know—for appearance’s sake. He certainly is a charmer. And so patient. Well all I can say is, he’s worked damned hard for the money she’s left him. If there is any money. No one seems to be too sure about that.”
Was he a little too friendly with the nurse who looked after the old lady? Is that what they’ll say when her body is discovered? Did the old lady resent him giving those smiles to someone else?
Back in the real world, I’m picking up on tiny details. He returns with a coffee for her. Nothing for himself. Which seems odd. He sits. She leans forward and says something to him, and he takes her cup and has a sip of the coffee, and shakes his head. He returns it to its saucer. Too much sugar? Not enough? Does this taste a little odd to you? I’m not sure what is going on, but she doesn’t drink it.
They don’t stay long. I think he was actually in the queue longer than they sat over the drink that went almost untouched. Why didn’t she have her drink? Why even bother coming into the cafe? Why didn’t he have anything? Does she hold on a little too tightly to the purse-strings?
Even though he is smartly turned out, perhaps his shoes are showing signs of wear? Not quite as new or of such good quality as they first appeared? Perhaps she doesn’t pay him so well after all? Are there arguments over money? She thinks he spends too much, or asks for too much. He thinks it’s unfair that he has to beg and plead and justify what he needs, thinks she is too keen on having power over others. Perhaps it’s just not worth it after all? Perhaps it’s time for this ‘arrangement’ to come to an end?
For one mad moment I think about taking her cup for analysis before the table is cleared. Then I remember. Only in my imagination am I a detective. Here in the real world, I’m just another person sitting in a cafe. But in my mind, and in my notebook, I have the bones of a story.