Friday, 7 October 2011

Leslie daFox

The outside of the Camberwick Commuity Centre was Stalinist: it towered for seventeen stories above the surrounding houses and businesses, emphatically stating that it was watching them.  Windows were recessed by fluted columns of stone, carefully cast into shadow so that people looking out couldn't be seen by people trying to look in, and all the windows on the lower floor were smoked glass or one-way mirrors.  The entrance was reached by climbing seventy stairs, a wide granite staircase that begged for three minis to come roaring down them and zoom off towards central London, laden with stolen gold.  At the top of the stairs, unseeable from the bottom, the entrance doors were two entire stories high and fronted by doormen dressed as early-Soviet KGB men, whose salary apparently came from a singular bequest from an oligarch with a strange sense of humour.  As Leslie daFox, onetime author and sitcom-writer, approached the doors they moved en masse to greet him.  He paused, a fatal error as it allowed the eight of them to surround him and start demanding proof of who he was and what he was doing there.
"I'm delivering a class," he said, unable to get the bad taste out of his mouth caused by knowing that he was resorting to paid employment.  "A twelve week creative writing course, for the Litter Ate."
There was a snigger from his left, and he turned that way, swivelling on the heel of one smartly polished boot, astonished that his condescending little sneer had been recognised.  The sniggerer, a man with a moustache that would have made Stalin proud, was still chuckling under his breath.
"Oh you shouldn't look at us like that, Sir," he said.  "I've got three degrees in various branches of English Literature, and one in Finnish Theological Studies.  This job pays very well and provides you with a lot of time for study: most people give up before they get half-way up the stairs.  If you don't mind, I might sit at the back of your class and audit it for a while."
"Er."  Leslie was nonplussed, and furiously running through his own qualifications trying to find one suitable for a put-down.
"Well, I think we've got you on the guest-list now," said another, a young man with runny eyes and whose breath smelled of oranges.  "There shouldn't be any issues from now on, but just in case –"  He handed Leslie a laminated card with a sickle-and-crescent logo on one side and "ADMIT one" on the other in large letters.
"Er." Leslie was aware that other people would say thank-you at this point, but was still struggling with the idea that a doorman might be better educated than himself.
"That way, Sir," said a third doorman whose face was overshadowed by the outsize peak of his Crimean-issue hat.  "You're in the Kantorovich Chamber.  Seats three-hundred on a good day."
"It does?"  Leslie's jaw dropped, but gentle and firm hands were already pushing him in the direction of the doors – well, the portals – to the Camberwick Community Centre.


Twenty minutes later he was joined in a room on the eighth floor that he rather thought should have been an amphitheatre.  His class trooped in, mostly middle-aged though there was one man who was on two crutches and looked to be dying and another girl who might not yet have been eighteen but was dramatically pregnant.  Leslie was sitting on a hard wooden stool at the front of the room looking over the class-list which had been on the stool before him.  Despite the size of the room it appeared that only nineteen people had signed up for the course, which he was still bitter about having to offer.  If it hadn't been for his wife deciding to interrupt their retirement by offering flower-arranging classes he would still be sat at home right now, probably shouting at things in the paper, or at the maid for dusting wrong, or at the gardener for either wearing or not wearing a shirt.  Leslie was secretly very amused that the gardener kept trying to get it right, and had not realised that Leslie was going to shout at him no matter what he wore.
"Sit down, sit down," he said, a little testily.  They all sat at least four rows back from the front, and he was about to motion them all to come forward when he realised that this allowed him to shout.  That thought made him feel a little better.
"Creative writing," he said, not bothering with a formal introduction, "is not something everyone can do.  I expect that over the course of the next twelve weeks we shall discover that none of you are capable of creativity, and that most of you are equally incapable of writing.  However, I shall do my best to leave you with at least an understanding of why you are so utterly worthless.  Are there any questions before I begin?"
A woman in the closest seated row raised he hand timidly.  Leslie stared at her, having expected no-one to be brave enough to respond.  She mistook his astonishment as an invitation to proceed.
"Will we be learning how to write slash?" she said.  "Only I'd like to be able to do that.  No-one really seems to see how naughty that Harry Potter is, and I'd like to set the record straight."
"Slash?  The guitarist with Guns'n'Roses?"
The class giggled, and Leslie glowered; he'd been quite pleased that his knowledge of modern culture extended to musicians and their bands.  He decided to ignore the question.
"Right!  First exercise.  Look around you at this... vast... classroom.  It should be obvious to all of you that this room has been used for more than just teaching over the years, so close your eyes and relax, let yourself soak in the atmosphere of the room.  There will be many overlapping threads here, activities that have happened again and again will resonate strongly, seeking to repeat themselves once more, while things that happened just the once might be faint, dying echoes or loud, desperate clouds of unhappiness.  Find one.  Make it yours.  Share the misery of the room, and then bring it back with you, write it down, in pencil, pen, or blood if that's what it takes.  Show us all the story that you've found, and when you've all written something, no matter how incoherent and shaming, we shall read them out and have a good laugh, and someone, perhaps me, will offer some criticism."
Silence prevailed as the students closed their eyes and sat back, and Leslie promptly sneaked his smartphone from his pocket and started to google slash.  And regretted it.

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