Writing in the first person and in particular writing about childhood can give an impression of autobiography, of fact not fiction. Plus writing in the present tense lends an immediacy that even more suggests that the writer is recounting his or her own past. All writers routinely plunder their past though; that’s what we do. We store away what we see, hear, smell, feel – you get the gist – and then, when the moment is right, we dust it down, modify as we see fit – and call it fiction.
We not only choose to adapt the past; the memory undoubtedly isn’t always reliable and nostalgia distorts our recollections. Busy at the office describes a few moments of a family car journey en route to a caravan holiday in Wales. And yes, as a family, we drove to Wales every summer when I was a child. I recall rain weeks on end. My brother’s immediate comment on reading Busy at the office, was: ‘you’ve got it wrong; it sun shined every holiday when we were children!’ Perhaps this says more about our respective personalities…. What’s important, of course, is not whether your stories stick to the facts or not; what really matters is that the reader is able to engage with what you write.
Busy at the office
It’s wet. The car’s stopped in a layby. Dad’s left on the engine. The wipers go backwards and forwards. We’re under a tree, it’s windy; the rain seems to stop and then it’s loud again. Steam from Mum’s thermos means we can’t see out.
My brother Douglas and I are in the back, Mum and Dad in the front. I can smell Nescafe. We’re going to Wales on holiday. Every summer we do the same. Years later Mum told me she hated the Welsh holidays, she went for us. She wanted a fortnight in a hotel in Spain, like everyone where we lived. But for my brother and me, she spent eight weeks in a static caravan, the toilet block a field away.
I think it’s odd that Mum and Dad only argue in the car. But Douglas says it’s the same at home when we’re in bed; his bedroom’s above the sitting room so he should know. He can tell when they’re getting started: they turn off the TV. Mum’s pouring coffee into plastic mugs that she hands back to us. She goes on and on at him, then she starts crying. He barely speaks but when he does, he shouts, looking ahead at the windscreen, gripping onto the steering wheel. She starts wiping her window but outside there’s only rain. So she opens a packet of Rich Tea. He lights his pipe and winds the window down an inch. Drops of rain land cold on my bare legs. Douglas’s staring at his steamed up window, knees clenched. I try to hide my tears but Dad looks round, saying ‘Now look what you’ve done’; then she’s off again at him.
I can’t remember a summer holiday when we didn’t go to the caravan. Dad loved the outdoors – that’s why he bought the van. But he was almost never there, he was at home instead. I asked him once if he didn’t come with us because he and Mum argued. But he said, no, he had to go to work, he couldn’t get away from the office.
© Martin Redfern 2012