While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thirty Ways of Looking at a Blank Page

November Experiment – Hundred Word Stories


1. IVF

I can't eat this,” she said, and removed the half-chewed segment from her mouth.


It has seeds.”

So? Spit them out. So we bought seeded by mistake, it's nature's way, y'know?”

They didn't have seeds on Saturday.”

I don't remember.”

They didn't.”


So the seeds, they've grown in these mandarins since we bought them.”

I guess. As they ripen...”

She pushed the segments and peel further away from her.


I can't stand the thought of the things in my fruit bowl... struggling. Not rotting but fighting for life. To make life. It seems so...”



2. Half-life

I like bullet points, meetings with agendas, stationary cupboards, walking down the hall to collect something from the colour printer, holding it against my cheek, warm and smooth. I’m not built for construction or sales or science or medicine or piloting any sort of vehicle: I’m built for office work. I like semi-colons and ampersands and control-shift-8: the reveal key. If only there was one for life outside. Too much to absorb, filter, guesstimate. Give me a box of paperclips and a slow Thursday afternoon. Give me a farewell morning tea with sausage rolls and talk about the weather.

3. Medium

The television waited till everyone was in bed before it snuck out the kitchen window. It was rooting through a dumpster when the rain began. Under a cardboard box that may have once held another TV — the television couldn’t read — it hummed the theme from Bonanza. The same faint grey image continued to flicker on its screen: a young boy halfway up a hill of bison skulls. (The family had briefly switched over to a history of the Midwest while X-Factor went to a commercial.) The cardboard began to sag. The rain beat harder. The television resolved to stay.

4. St. Mary’s

I am standing in front of a huge stone cathedral. There are no paths. Grass is growing halfway up the door. It’s as if this building was moved here but never re-opened. Beneath the highest spire I find a man in a brown suit pressing a palm to the stone exterior. His head is turned towards me, one cheek hovering just off the pressing hand. His eyes are closed. It looks as if he is humming, but I can hear nothing. He opens his eyes, stares straight at me. His lips are moving, but I can hear nothing.

5. Soft

There were too many women talking at once for Chobe to understand a word of it. He did his best to look like he was listening, not wanting to appear rude. To keep a focussed expression on his face, he listed his favourite animals:

* Wombat
* Beaver
* Bison
* Kodiak Bear
* Highland Cow

He wondered why they were all so furry? And where were the animals from his own country?

Someone said his name, or so it sounded. He looked from face to face, but there were too many women talking at once for Chobe to understand a word of it.

6. The Six People You Meet Called Steven

The kid who taught you the fingers.

The learner driver who knocked you off your bike.

The video store clerk who always recommends Jules et Jim even though you always tell him you’ve seen it (and didn’t rate it).

The guy drinking at an airport bar who ends up asking you for a kidney.

The friend of your partner’s brother who does that thing with his eyelids, y’know?

The doctor who asks you to use his first name, but you persist in calling him Doogie, even though he’s too young to get it.

7. Leitmotiv

When I was a student, there were only a limited number of flats close to the university which landlords would rent to undergraduates. Somehow, I always missed out. Forced to live further out in the suburbs, the rent was cheaper but I still could not afford to catch the bus. Everyday I would walk passed houses that had passed me over, and houses that were deemed too good for my kind. But what really annoyed me were the vacant lots.
The effrontery.
After graduation, after marriage, the years of fidelity and filing, my memory is crowded with vacant lots.

8. Keynesian Slips

Any prolongation of the work will exacerbate an already alarming rate of deterioration.
The policy analyst read over this sentence a second time.

He control+C and control+V’d the sentence into an email and wrote: If I ever start talking like this you have my permission to kill me, pressed send and moved on with his life.

At the trial, the prosecution argued that the email did not represent a legal contract as it involved an illegal act.

The defense couldn’t think of any witnesses to call. He was too preoccupied with avoiding any prolixity in his spoken communications.

9. The Truth About Honesty

The morning after you lost your virginity, I was there. I wanted to ask how it went, but didn’t.

You bared your soul to me once, but I drank so much the black spots ate the whole conversation. You would never tell me what you said, just that you said it.

We drifted apart.

I feel I should apologise, but it may seem like I expect some apology in return. Like, for not replying to my emails. For having a secret that doubled with importance the second time you bottled it up. Perhaps I do.


10. Inventory

My knuckles have been replaced with grapefruit. My fist feels crowded. I expected this would come, one day. But my feet? The hinge between my foot and toes has rusted, the bolt buried in the middle aches to be released.

Grapefruit and rusted bolts.

My shoulders rattle like those hand-cranked cement mixers. My shoulders weigh so much. They never used to weigh at all, did they?

Perhaps this is the body’s way of taking an inventory. This is what you never knew you had. This is what we won’t let you forget again.

Grapefruit, rusted bolts and cement mixers.

11. Nodes

John looked up from his sandwich. “My kid, you know what he did? He went one better. He has this friend who moved away. Went to live with his mother in Auckland. But they kept in touch, you know, texting. Anyway, one day, this friend, his cellphone dies. His mother, she’s still finding her feet up there and can’t afford to buy him a new phone that minute. So he can’t text my kid. You know what he does, my kid? He writes a message on his phone, puts it in an envelope and posts it to bloody Auckland!”

12. Hear No Evil

This woman comes on the train with one of these modern prams with the oversized, off-road wheels. A real effort to find somewhere to park the thing, but she manages. Then I see the kid in this pram. It’s gotta be five years old. “You want to sit next to mummy?” she asks the kid, and hoists it out the pram. It’s wearing a fake fur coat, jeans and white boots with wee heels, listening to an iPod. The mother places her on the seat next to her and the kid just sits there, holding its ears.

13. Scandal

A ribcage is found washed up on the beach. A child, or perhaps a woman — it’s hard to tell. After a head-count, the police are called. The townsfolk watch them bag the ribcage — from a distance their care and precision looks like squeamishness. It is sent for testing. Days pass. The ribcage falls from conversation, though the antique dealer exhibits an unnatural interest. It’s not like C.S.I., he is told. These things take time. Eventually, he reads of the results in the local paper. Chimpanzee? People come to his store, eager to gauge his reaction. No one buys anything.

14. Three Friends

What are ten year olds like these days?”

Oh, you know.”

No, not really.”

Me neither.”


When I was ten I thought sex was like pumping petrol — you put the nozzle in and leave it there till it’s done.”

When I was ten my only concern was making a pottle of yoghurt last an episode of HeMan.”

When I was ten I got sick of waiting for my parents to buy me a Ken to go with my Barbie, so I cut Barbie’s hair off and drew on a moustache.”

And then?”

Ken-Barbie was just as lonely.”

15. Lecture Theatre

I had this psychology lecturer who was always drinking from a Pump bottle. One day I was late and the only available seat was on the end of the front row, right by where she kept her water. I didn’t think I was that late, but the bottle already looked empty. I was surprised, then, when I saw her walk over and attempt to have a drink. I figured she’d forgotten it was empty and pretended to drink to avoid looking foolish, but then, a few minutes later, she returned and had another drink from the empty bottle.

16. Hallway Sentence

Neil had come to the conclusion that whenever anyone asked How are you going? they didn’t really care — it was just a turn of phrase like gidday — and as such he ignored the question whenever it was posed and jumped right into his prepared conversation, which normally related to variance reports (with a hand shake for favourable variances and hands in pockets for unfavourable ones), though this one time, shortly after being promoted, he held up his hand like he wanted to high five me, but I just coughed and in the end he let the hand drop.

17. First Order Of Business

Ned suggested that, as an homage to Nirvana, they chose another Buddhist word. After trawling a website on Buddhist doctrines, Joel recommended they check Google for any existing bands with those names. Samsara? Melboune hardcore band. Bodhi? Exeter Jam Band. Kilesa? Students from Carlow, Ireland. Moksha was actually two bands, one in England, one in India. ‘What about Bad Karma?’ Neil, the band’s Warren Zevon fanatic, suggested, but another Melbourne group beat them to it. “The Dharma Bums?” ventured the Kerouac-enraptured Clayton. When the page loaded, Shawn suggested maybe they weren’t ready to form a band.

18. Switch

The problem bear turned out to be a Newfoundland named Waldo. The Missoulian couldn’t resist running the headline: Where's Waldo? along with a big photo of the rascal dog looking down the lens, his paw resting on the rim of a silvery rubbish bin. The photo later appeared with thousands of Lol Catz style captions around the internet. W.I.S.P.A. ran the photo as a full page ad in national papers with the caption: If I wuz a bear I wld hav been shotted. Waldo appeared boisterous but loveable on Letterman, while a man was being mauled back in Montana.

19. Hangovers

On my second Friday I went for a drink with my workmates and I found myself swearing a lot. I changed the topic away from my last job but the swearing continued. Conscious of the impression I could be making, I opted for silence. I looked over at the bar, to a woman with a black handbag the size of a For Sale sign and just as thin. A workmate tapped me on the shoulder. The bald buy in the corner was staring at me, apparently. “Fuck him,” I said. “Have you seen the size of her fucking handbag?”

20. _BC of Life (a pangrammatic lipogram)

In the spirit of George Perec, who wrote one complete novel without the letter 'e', this story does not use the first letter of the, um, list of letters in its common order. Without further fuss, the story goes like this: guy, girl, drive-in; necking, petting, cooling off; more necking, more petting, no cooling off; zygote, foetus, birth; teething, toddling, speech; primmers, juniors, high school; long locks, short locks, locks left on pillow slips; blue pills, red pills, purple pills; rest home, hospice, exquisite urn; silence/trumpets, void/cherubs on puffy clouds, nothingness/bliss.

21. If Six Was Nine

I can't believe you had the balls to meet his wife!”

I've had 'Ironic' by Alanis Morisette stuck in my head all day.”

You deserve to suffer.”

I wonder if it will rain on our wedding day?”


Mine and Brian's.”

You're unbelievable.”

Oh! O-o-o-o-o-o-o-oh, so you're unbelievable!”

Who sung that?”

Jesus Jones?.”

No, they did ‘Right Here, Right Now.’”

Second single?”

I’ll have to wiki it.”

Props bet?”

It’s not Jesus Jones.”

Whoever it is, it beats Alanis.”

Woe, you’ve just invited her back in.”


I can see you want to hum it.”


22. In certain weather, all you can see on the footpath is chewing gum

I decided economics was not for me today. Rudy Valentine was talking about sanctions, how they can have unintended consequences. His example: if you increase the sentence for rape from ten to twenty years, the penalty for rape is now closer to murder and may lead to rapists murdering their victims. “After all,” Rudy Valentine said, forcing his hands into his pockets, “it would eliminate the witness…” Bad example, sure, but it was the shallow laugh that we budding economists gave off that made my stomach slouch.

23. Memoir

The vice-principal’s rubbish bin. Too many pub bathrooms to list. Behind the recycling bins on Caledonian Place. In my mouth (swallowed). Every toilet in every house I’ve ever lived in. The path from the library to A Block before the debating final. The ferry back from Zanzibar. A truck somewhere in Northern Malawi. Over the side of a fishing boat off the Gold Coast. Outside a fish’n’chip shop in Taihape. The Kaimais. An ice cream container. A mixing bowl. An empty coffee mug. My hands. A plastic shopping bag. In the shower. Out the window of a moving car.

24. The Pohutokawa Wars, Pt I

After the flood there were potatoes and kiwifruit and onions over everyone's lawns. It seemed a kind of surreal pickmeup until it was discovered they were rotten. Nature continued to taunt with possibilities. The top half of Mr Jenkins’ pohutokawa, snapped free by the floodwaters, flowered gaily in the now-streaming sun, wedged between Mr Kellum's woodshed and back fence. Kellum left a note in Mr. J’s letterbox: Extricate your g-d tree from my g-d property. Miffed, he researched tree-related torts online. Extricate your head from your arse, he replied. The reply: a volley of onions.

25. Extra-curricular

Where’s Ernesto?”

Didn’t you hear?”

He wasn’t fired?”


Another job?”


He was too young to retire… So what?”

He finally sold a patent.”

No kidding. Which one exactly?”

You know how he was always walking into those Slippery When Wet signs?”

Oh yeah.”

And how he always said one day he’d make those signs a thing of the past?”

Sort of.”

Well, he did.”


He invented linoleum that changes colour when wet. Sold it for millions.”

Ernesto, eh? Geez.”


So what you up to tonight?”

Karaoke competition. You?”

Might take another look at my screenplay.”

26. Degradable Bio

When I was ten I had a calendar on which I crossed off the days till Disneyland. If there was a switch to skip the intervening months I would have flicked it.

When I was sixteen I had a journal in which I tallied my situps, though sometimes I just scribbled the whole page black. If there was a switch to stop existing I would have flicked it.

When I was twenty five I had a blog where I posted graphs and made nonsense calculations. If there was a switch to slow time it would be long flicked.

27. Workie

I pulled a workie today. I just couldn't face another day on the couch. I put on my black slacks and polo, walked down the road to the big Tesco and straightened shelves for four hours. After a cigarette and a Yorkie by the loading bay, I straightened shelves for two more hours until a guy with bluetooth earpiece asked me if I was able to work a double shift. I told him my kid was sick -- he looked disappointed -- but my wife was a doctor. He gave me a huge smile, and two jars of Dolmios.

28. Cliffhanger

but he was only clinically dead. Paramedics managed to revive him after fifteen minutes and six broken ribs. The doctors were amazed he wasn't a vegetable, and warned Sadowitz, Mendez and the band that his brain function would be reduced. “Reduced from what?” we asked with straight faces which evolved to tense-but-smiling faces. Two weeks later Robbie returned to the studio to work on Live And Let Dog. Little did we know he would be dead in six short months. Skin cancer. From a mole he never got checked. A crummy way to go. So uncool it killed us.

29. Solitude With Options

The comedian was a regular on celebrity quiz shows, well known for his garish shirts, buggy eyes and knack with accents. One day, he appeared with a ventriloquist’s dummy that looked just like him: same buggy eyes, same orange shirt. His normal voice was the dummy’s voice. Snippets of this particular show became popular on YouTube for the wrong reasons. The comedian refused to appear without the dummy. The shows acquiesced. The comedian hid behind the desk, refusing to show his face. The dummy remained a regular on celebrity quiz shows. The comedian was never seen again.

30. Curtains

You could see his tragedy coming a mile off. He’d worked up this momentum and there was nothing that could stop him, except, you know, the big full stop. Like how with some gas hobs you have to go though “full flame” to get to “off”. The last time I saw him, he was in full flame. It was probably the alcohol, poisoning from the inside, which made him sweat in the cool of the corridor. “I want to change,” he told me, stroking my lapel. All I could think was: A snowball’s chance in hell. A snowball’s chance.

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