‘How was your class? First day back with familiar faces or new people?’
The enquiry was genuine but sounded strange to Tom as an adult. It was a long time since anyone had asked him a similar question. A very long time. It came from Sam – his mate - as they sat in the garden enjoying a beer in the last of the summer sunshine. Tom made no reply to his friend. He seemed lost in thoughts of his own.
Class was, of course, session number one of the new writing season. Tom had waited all summer for the booking season to open, then the scramble to register in time to make sure of a place – last year had been very near the wire. After all that came the wait to hear if the reward of membership would result.
There were some familiar faces and a few new ones but the character of the group – friendly and encouraging seemed to have survived the summer break. At the end of the session Miss had set the group their homework – write something about your own experience.
It was always the same question for him. Write about what? There had been the usual mulling over of ideas, discarding some, kicking others about within the grey matter but reaching no satisfactory conclusion. Like there were the rich and the poor – so there was another equal and opposite pairing. This was the group who when given a blank sheet would launch into a flight of creativity bounded only by a word limit versus those who craved an air traffic controller of the written word able to guide the writer through the fog of part formed ideas with clear instructions for a safe landing.
Last night Tom had an old nightmare again. Always the same type linked to anxiety, like an unwelcome school bully whenever there was homework due. Sometimes, he saw himself as a child holding lots of balloons. Each one had a story title printed on the surface. There were so many, and they lifted him into the atmosphere drifting over the landscape far below. Always upward and ever closer to the sea. No one heard his cries for help. He told himself that he must let go of some balloons and save himself before being lost at sea.
Which balloons to let loose? They all had potential for a story. The longer he held on the less time he had to save himself from disaster. He had to let something so he could arrive in class with his homework. He knew that he had to choose but how could he decide?
Some people had the same nightmare every time. Not Tom. His grey matter devised twists in the torture of his bad dreams. Not for him the dread of a looming fate and waking moments before inevitable doom. His nightmares had variations. In one version he saw himself sitting in his usual place in class. Miss would smile and look in his direction. His stomach would tighten as the others in the group gazed benevolently towards him. He would hear himself say
‘The dog ate my homework, Miss.’ Laughter would erupt while Miss would smile kindly and say, ‘Never mind, my dog is a hungry beast too! They will eat anything not nailed down.’
In another version he would blame technology - always a sure-fire winner to direct enmity towards machinery. Worst of all was another balloon fantasy. However, many balloons he tried to blow up no amount of puff would inflate them. Their empty skins remained limp in his hands providing an unhappy metaphor for his lack of creative ideas. In the still hours of the night, he was sure that Jung or Freud would explain them as related to earlier life experiences, probably sexual. Those psychiatrists had more issues than him!
Last night’s dream was the one where none of the balloons would inflate. Worse still as he began to wake from his slumber, he felt a heavy weight on his chest. A heavy weight on the chest could only mean a heart attack. Terrified he opened his eyes. There, only inches away were two eyes, a nose and whiskers. The cat was signalling that any caring owner should feed her no matter time it was.
‘Hello. Anyone at home? Tom. Are you all right mate?’ Sam’s voice brought Tom back from thinking about his dreams and heart thumping awakening.
‘Me? What? Oh, er, yes, I was miles away thinking about what to write for class next time.’
Sam also had an interest in writing and always wanted to be helpful. Even if he could not help then at least he could give his opinion on any subject whether it was invited or not.
His suggestions came uninvited ‘Look around a room for ideas. You know, the books on shelves – why did the person buy them? Have they ever read them or are they just for show like economics books. Who ever reads those? Or those little paragraphs in newspapers that never give you the end of the story. Did you see the one where the escaped python slithered across a roof into the people next door? What happened to the owner? Did they face any consequences? Why would anyone, anyone at all keep a python in a terraced house? How can it be legal? You know me, mate, I never judge anybody but what is the world coming to?’
‘I know Sam. Sometimes I have a no inspiration at all and then at other times I write lists of thing but never seem able to decide what to keep or throw out. It is all interesting so how to decide?’
‘Tom, it might all be interesting to you, but you must make decisions. It doe not really matter how you do it. Even tossing a coin – a random method that lends to a story reliant upon whether it lands heads or tails. Make your list and then toss a coin for what stays and goes till you get to one remaining. Your story can be about how you chose the topic!’
The sound of car tyres on gravel at the front of the house carried into the garden. The slamming of car doors, the sound of high pitches voices and a harassed adult gave an audible account of event otherwise out of sight.
‘That will be Jane bringing the grandchildren to play but stay and finish your beer, Tom.’
‘I’ll drink up and be off. Never leave a glass with beer in it. You know I always obey the slogan on the detergent adverts, Sam.’
‘Slogan? What slogan?’
Tom smiled with the confidence that his reply would appeal to his own sense of humour and said, ‘Always keep away from children.’
The gate into the garden from the driveway opened and through it came a child holding a huge bunch of balloons each jostling its neighbour in the breeze. On the table was a half full glass of beer glinting in the sunshine and Tom was already through the gate.