This week I thought I’d try something a bit different. So I’m sharing a piece that was an assignment for a course I did a number of years ago. I had lost this piece for a long time, then found it again last week – which has made me really happy!
The requirement was, to write a short piece about a topic from a list. I chose ‘A derelict building’. The first piece was to be a descriptive piece to set the scene. Then, we had to write a longer piece, developing this idea into a short story. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, we had to write a reflection, a short piece again, to explain why we wrote what we did and made the decisions we did about setting, point of view etc. This is pretty much a classic assignment in any writing course. I’m giving you here the three pieces, more or less unedited, and a tiny ‘now’ reflection on the work. Sorry – it is quite long!
A derelict building:
With my single step the dust flurries and settles again. A bird, startled, in turn startles me as it flutters away, my heart is in my mouth at the sound, sudden, unexpected. I am fixed on my spot for a moment then move on again, this time stepping more carefully, more softly. I do not want to disturb those that live here—creatures of the secret uninhabited places, or the shadows, those who are impressions left behind when the building closed, snapped shut on a half-drawn breath as the lights went out.
The shadows, the pigeons, the rats, they are all shut up in this place, hiding from the sunlight in the grey dusty corners. I can hear scratchings but cannot divine the source. I hear the creaking of wood, the groaning of heavy ancient timbers, and the wind sighs through the broken teeth of the windowpanes, and my goosebumps prickle up.
Dust. Cobwebs. Broken oddments of undistinguishable furniture, stranded like the rocks when the tide goes out, poking out of the sand.
I wipe strands of cobwebs from my face, but my skin still remembers the touch even though they’re gone, and I have to wipe and wipe again at the spot. The smell is dry, yet sweet, stuffy and somehow dull, as if there is no remaining scent or fragrance here.
My foot rolls on something on the floor, half-hidden in the mess. I pick up a biro, filthy, but when I test it on the back of my hand it writes in bright blue ink.
I find the stairs. It is darker here in the stair well, and I pause, wondering. Do I really want to go up there? Is it even safe to use these stairs? It’s dark up there, all I can see as I peer upwards is darkness and waiting shadows.
And now, the longer piece, I’ve called it Simon:
I could see them from my corner behind the staircase. I hunched down into the shadows, making myself as small as the mice that run along the ledges in the early hours of the morning.
A man and a woman. Smart suits. Briefcases. The man had a clean white handkerchief folded to his mouth and nose. Like he was going to be sick or something. The woman laughed at him and I heard her say, in her posh city voice, ‘Oh Jonathan, you’re so silly!’
Jonathan, his voice was posh too, but he said a bad word back to her.
If I’d said a word like that, Dad’d take off his belt and hit me with it. And Mum, she’d have said, ‘Simon, you shut your ‘ead.’
The woman was looking round her. She looked this way, looked towards the stairs but she didn’t see me. My face is the same grey as the dust in here now, and I’ve got cobwebs in my hair. They itch me a bit. I kept real still, and she was clattering about in those high heels of hers, scaring the pigeons in the roof. They whooshed past her and Jonathan, and made her scream with the suddenness of it, and their wings being so nearly silent—that was funny. I wasn’t scared. I was expecting it to happen—it happened last time when that old alky came in the other night when the rain was battering on the roof. Any time anyone comes in, them pigeons go off.
And, if anyone’s coming, the mice hide. So you know if they’re not around you’ve got to watch out, could be someone out there.
They’d take me away if they found me. Make me go back to the social people. They’d make me go and live with some clean people with a dog and a big garden. And I’d have to go to school.
But I like it here. It’s my own private place. All mine. Well, mine and the beetles, mice, pigeons, bats and that. We share it. They don’t bother me and I don’t’ bother them.
It’s quiet. It grubby but a bit of dirt won’t hurt you. And there’s loads of room. You have to be a bit careful on the stairs, ‘cos they’re wood and two of them in the middle have gone soft and crumbly. You have to jump that bit.
That Jonathan’s found my pen. It must have fallen of out me pocket, and now he’s stepped on it and found it. he looked at it, then he tried it on the back of his hand. It’s still working, I can see it from here. It was a good pen, that.
She’s just laughing at him again. Said it’s ‘obviously’ been there ages as it’s filthy. He’s chucked it down, he looks like he feels a bit thick. She’s really bossy, her. I bet no one ever give her the belt when she was a kid. I’ll get that pen once they’ve gone. It’s a good one.
I wish they’d go. I’ve got half a burger I want to eat. I found it this morning on the pavement outside the chippy. It had just been thrown down, still warm it was. The bloke got in a van and drove off. I want to eat it, I’m starving. It’ll be a bit gritty by now, I bet, ‘cos everything I bring in here, after a while it gets that gritty taste. Mind you, sometimes that’s ‘cos I get cobwebs on things—there’s loads of spiders in here. All different ones. Good thing I like spiders and mice and that.
She’s sneezing! Five in a row, then a quick gasping breath and then another five! I almost laughed. It’s all the dust. They’re stirring it up, moving around the place. She scared the pigeons again—which gave her another fright too! And all the noises they make are big. They all sound like the building will fall down.
They’re really scared. Just because it’s a bit dark and it keeps creaking and all that. I bet they think it’s haunted.
Now he’s just told her to stop being so stupid. More bad words and now you can tell she’s pissed at him.
They’re going to go upstairs, they’re coming over this way. I’m hunching down small and hiding my face. I hope they don’t see me. They’re still looking up the stairs.
‘It’s a bit gloomy up there,’ said Jonathan.
‘That poor little boy might be up there, though,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to make sure. What if he’s hurt?’
‘My suit is ruined. Dry-cleaning won’t fix this, Candida!’
She clattered up the stairs, and I waited to see if she’d fall through but she noticed the rotten steps just in time.
They were up there ages before coming down again. Both cross this time.
‘Told you!’ he said. ‘Bloody waste of time.’
‘We had to be sure, you idiot,’ she said.
Anyway, another quick look round and then they left. I heard the door creak as they went out. I hear the engine of the car start up and listened as they drove away.
It was a few minutes before the pigeons settled again. Then a couple of mice ran across the floor. I knew it was okay to leave my spot.
The stairs creaked as if someone was on them, but I knew it was just like an old man stretching or cracking his knuckles—just getting comfy again. A breeze moaned through the broken windows.
And I tiptoed out of my hidey-hole over to where I keep all my stuff in an old biscuit tin. The burger wasn’t warm now, but I was too hungry to care. I’m going to sit on the bottom step and eat my burger in the peace and quiet, my back against the post.
In my freewrite, I pictured the scene from my own point of view, using the first person to set myself in the derelict building and try to see what was there. But for the main write I wanted to see myself as a visitor, observed by someone else, someone who observed my reactions to the building. I thought about who might be there and settled on the idea of a teenage runaway as the narrator, and I wrote as if he were recounting or recording the episode.
I tried to combine the boy’s resilience in the face of difficulties with the experience of the people who were there to search for him, a boy who has been reported missing. The police officers are the visitors, the outsiders, and the boy gives us his observations of them, alternating his wry humour with his fear of being found and sent to live with strangers, and his growing sense of hunger and thoughts of his scavenged burger.
I tried to see the building as not only a derelict empty shell but also a refuge, a place of relative safety, and an autonomous kingdom where the youngster is the ruler of a domain only he knows.
I tried to avoid too much pathos, I don’t think the boy would see himself in a pitying way, as one of life’s victims. Rather I feel he is happier to live this way, and I feel sure that if he evades the authorities, he will be able to survive there as a squatter as long as he needs to. I wanted the feel of the piece to be more positive than negative.
With the benefit of hindsight, one of my main quibbles with this piece is that I now realise that plainclothes detectives with suitcases and high heels would not be despatched to look for a missing teenager in derelict building.
And I feel that the boy’s situation is not maintainable in any meaningful way. And there is quite a lot I would change if I was editing it now. But, oh well, as a creative piece it fulfilled the criteria of the assignment. And here and there, it has its moments.
It’s interesting to think about things—plot ideas, for example—from different points of view. And freewriting is a great way to explore your created world if you’re stuck and unsure how to move your story forward, or if you just want to play around with an idea.