Thursday, 4 February 2010

A215 TMA 02

Tutor-Marked Assignment
  • Task 1: 2,200-word story. (Optional prompts: a closed door, walking in the rain, it's your turn..., a wager, all in one day.)
  • Task 2: Write a 500-word commentary, describing aims, decisions, difficulties, and solutions.
  • Due date: 4 January 2010
  • Mark: About 80%? (Actual mark temporarily unavailable on a dead hard drive.)

1. A short story.

Title: Even the Weariest River?

Breakfast time
It’s six-o’clock. The clock in the hall begins to chime.
One: Little Eustace Dauger, half awake, permits himself to open his eyes. Not being able to see a clock from his bed – or even tell time for that matter – he can never be sure at the first chime whether it’s time to get up, or the middle of the night.
Two: Eustace Dauger wriggles into a sitting position, expertly keeping all of his bodily extremities under the covers. It feels like morning. He slept with the light on. He can’t tell for sure.
Three: Beneath the covers, chilly Eustace Dauger hugs his knees. He hopes that it is time to get up and he hopes that Mommy will bring a mug of hot milk with his breakfast.
Four: Sleepy Eustace Dauger permits himself to close his eyes, just for a moment. It won’t matter if he falls asleep again - Mommy will wake him with a kiss and a hug and a waft of divine perfume.
Five: Little Eustace Dauger nods.
The sixth chime goes unheard by sleeping Eustace Dauger.

Lunch time
It’s midday. The clock in the hall begins to chime.
One: Eustace stops drawing. He has good hearing, and has been vaguely aware of the previous few hours, but sometimes gets absorbed by his drawing and merely fancies that he hears things.
Two: Eustace snaps the green top on the green pen, and slides the green pen into the pencil case. He snaps the blue top on the blue pen, and slides the blue pen into the pencil case.
Three: Footsteps in the hall. In one fluid movement Eustace zips the case swiftly and drops it into his open toy trunk.
Four: Eustace scoops up his drawing book from the floor and places it carefully in the toy trunk.
Five: Eustace closes the lid of the trunk and turns away.
Six: Mommy sure would love this picture. You’re such a talented artist, my darling boy! Eustace returns to the toy trunk, opens it once more and retrieves the drawing book.
Seven: The lid falls once more. Eustace crosses to the table.
Eight: Eustace is about to sit when he realises something is missing.
Nine: Special Smart Boy Napkin! Where is it? Eustace whirls, eyes scanning the nursery. There! On the bedpost!
Ten: Click, jiggle, jangle. There’s the sound of Mommy grappling one-handed with the door handle.  Skidding across the floor now, grabbing Special Smart Boy Napkin before landing neatly on a dining chair, with his back to the doorway. Don’t get under Mommy’s feet while she’s carrying stuff, my darling boy. It’s so dangerous!
Eleven: As Eustace ducks under the table to thrust the colouring book under the chair (Good children don’t colour at the dining table) Mommy will be shuffling backwards into the nursery, tray in hand, nudging - first with hip, then with shoulder - the door which threatens to close on her and send the tray flying.
Twelve: Eustace tucks Special Smart Boy Napkin into his collar, paying particular attention to the corners, making sure they are level. He sits up straight. He doesn’t hear shuffling. No “Good morning, my darling boy!” He turns in his chair and looks over his shoulder.
Eustace blinks. The door is still shut. His eyes flick in the direction from which the clock’s chimes came.
Did the clock chime six times? Or was it only five? I must have counted them right; I heard Mommy at the door!
Eustace realises he has been staring blankly at the ceiling. He shifts his gaze to the double doors through which Mommy failed to appear. One is painted pink. The other is plain wood. Both remain shut. Eustace fingers Special Smart Boy Napkin, checking the corners are nice and level. You’re such a smart little man, my darling boy. But it’s fine. Just so.
Eustace doesn’t have lessons today, so he glances over his shoulder at the nursery doors and wonders what’s for breakfast. After a bit, his eyes wander to the picture which hangs over his bed, and has an idea. He retrieves the pencil case and a toy from the toy trunk and the drawing book from under the chair.
I’ll have my picture ready when Mommy comes!
It’s very nearly finished. Eustace has patiently copied the picture on the wall. He’s copied the green gloved fingers, though the colours didn’t match exactly. He’s copied the silky blue background, though - not having a white pen – he’s been been forced to omit the fluffy streaks. He’s drawn the pale yellow band which tapers from the bottom of the picture, separating the two rows of fingers. Now Eustace has time for the final element; his own bit of originality. There’s no Vroom-Vroom in the original picture but Eustace is adding one to his copy. His Vroom-Vroom is on the table. He isn’t aware that his tongue pokes from the corner of his mouth as he draws Vroom-Vroom with a red pen.
When the clock strikes again, Eustace barely notices because the picture is almost complete but he’s cussing himself for a fool. He hasn’t left enough room to copy the writing! As the seventh chime fades, a decision is made. Using his boldest, blackest pen, he copies the letters onto the facing page in his drawing book one at a time, tongue fixed in place.
P I G N E R O L    F A R M
W A T E R C O L O R    B Y    A L E X A N D R A    D A U G E R
Eustace holds the finished work at arm’s length so that he can view it side by side with the picture hanging on the opposite wall. Satisfied that it’s as perfect as can be, he closes the book and plays with Vroom-Vroom for a while, pushing the little red toy from one side of the table to the other and back again.

Dinner time
It’s six-o’clock. The clock in the hall begins to chime.
Being already seated at the dining table, Eustace has plenty of time before the last chimes has faded to place the drawing materials on the floor and tuck Special Smart Boy Napkin into his collar, paying particular attention to the corners, making sure they are nice and level.
This time, however, he doesn’t even hear the click, jiggle, jangle of Mommy grappling with the door handle.
Eustace is hungry now. He still sits at the table, occasionally shifting his weight from buttock to buttock. He’s looking at the picture on the wall and becoming more and more dissatisfied with his own. He now sees that the green fingers are not fingers at all; they do not join hands. Instead, each rough-edged green tower perches atop a stump of brown. Eustace has seen the picture as a depiction of hands for so long that this new perspective is startling. The green towers-that-aren’t-fingers don’t alarm Eustace as such. He’s simply discombobulated by the sudden absence of the comforting effect the hands must have given him until now. Hands can hold and hug and protect. These perversely inanimate structures merely offend Eustace.
He squints, allowing his lashes to meet and thus blur the picture, but the alien towers refuse to revert. Irked, Eustace reopens the drawing book. Even his own picture has changed. It is as cold as the brick walls of the nursery.
Eustace sweeps the drawing book from the table and returns to his Vroom-Vroom game, eyes unfocused, lest he should spy the picture on the wall.
He’s been putting off the moment, but Eustace has already decided to go and find Mommy. He’s very hungry now. And thirsty too. He stands and walks slowly across the nursery, keeping his eyes on the double doors and off the disturbing picture.
First step: Don’t get under my feet when I’m carrying hot food my darling boy. “I won’t Mommy.”
Second step: Don’t go near the steps my darling boy. You could get a splinter from the wood. “I’m so hungry Mommy. I’ll be careful Mommy.”
Third step: See, Mommy has painted you a special picture. Stay safe and look at the lovely trees mummy painted you.
Fourth step: I’ll always look after you my darling boy. Nothing can hurt you here. “Where are you Mommy?”
Fifth step: I love you so much my darling boy. I’ll never leave you. “I love you too Mommy. Where are you?”
Sixth step: This is the top step. He must keep his head bowed, to keep from bumping it on the doors. Bowed and also cowed. Dare he?
She’s there, right on the other side of the door. He’s sure of it. At any moment she’ll fling open the door and sweep him up in her arms and shower him with kisses and say that she loves him and -
Palms up, flat on the unpainted wood, he pushes. The door does not move. Not even a little bit. He pushes harder, not noticing the splinter that punctures his thumb. He pushes harder still and suddenly a foot slips from the step and for one lurching second he’s falling back to the floor; he flails madly and grabs something.
He hangs there, panting, with fingers locked on the door’s iron ring. The ring squeaks slightly with each slow swing. He touches a toe to the nearest step and steadies himself. Calmer, but with heart still thudding, he shifts his centre of gravity and settles gratefully onto the steps once more.
“Mommy!” This time it’s barely more than a breath. He presses his face against the pink paint, as though he can kiss Mommy’s pink cheek through the door. And it moves. Just an inch, but oh-so easily! Eustace recoils, slightly revolted. Good boys don’t open doors.
It’s the faintest whiff of divine perfume, of good-morning hugs and kisses, that decides him. Not even daring to think about how he dares, he pushes the pink door. It moves an inch.
His eyes hurt. He weeps too.
Four inches. Five.
He moves his feet to the top step at last and with one final heave, throws it open. He remains half crouched for long moments, eyes screwed tight shut waiting for the door to fall back, or for Mom’s voice – comforting or scolding. He doesn’t care.
Nothing happens. His thighs now burn with the strain of crouching. He opens his eyes and this time they don’t hurt so much. But the square of the open doorway still dazzles him with its brilliance and unfamiliarity. His legs can’t remain like this any longer, and so he straightens them.
His head rises through the doorway and emerges into a room that is infinity. Its walls are so far away he can’t see them. Its azure ceiling is a vast canopy that makes his mind trill with fear. The all pervading brightness and shockingly cold air combine to sting his eyes. He blinks the water away, forcing his eyes to remain open. He cannot but gaze upon this horror. The green forms from the picture are here and they are fingers after all. Colossal fingers. Monstrous, hissing, rustling fingers. They rear above him, swaying against the white-smudged ceiling. And they –
They move!
Their bristling shapes seem not to march up the perspective of the pale yellow stripe, but down it. Down towards Eustace. Reaching for him.
Sickened, he retches. Nothing comes up, of course. His breath is happening in ragged little snatches. His fingers perform an unbidden spastic dance along Mommy’s cold arm, which this nightmare vista won’t even let him notice. His lips are slightly parted and he groans without knowing it.
He wants to flee. To hide from the giant green fingers, from the huge and ugly red thing that looks so much his like his Vroom-Vroom, yet so very different. But his feet remain planted on the step, rooted on the cusp of the familiar and the alien.
Long after his initial shock has given way to numb incomprehension, the ceiling turns black and the nightmare scene grows indistinct.
Then, somewhere as distant as another life, a clock chimes.
One: Eustace leans over and fumbles with the iron ring. He pulls.
Two: He heaves and then ducks as the door crashes into its natural position.
Three: He shuffles down the steps.
Four: He stoops and retrieves Special Smart Boy Napkin from the earthen floor.
Five: He sits up straight on a dining chair, like a good boy.
Six: Little Eustace Dauger tucks Special Smart Boy Napkin into his collar, paying particular attention to the corners, making sure they are nice and level.
[Word count: 2117]

2. A commentary.

My story uses the prompt “a closed door” which reminded me of a joke I heard told by a TV comedian (Phillips, 2005.) My aim was to use the germ of that joke to appall the reader. Sketching out the plot was simple. However, some technical elements of the story were quite tricky.
The biggest challenge was choosing the viewpoint. I felt that a first-person viewpoint was required if the shock ending was to be compelling and credible. However, the plot made this difficult. Someone of Eustace’s age and circumstances would almost certainly be incapable of narrating a readable twenty-two hundred word story. I drafted an opening paragraph written in the first person and introducing the story as an adult’s memory of distant childhood, but dismissed this because although it addressed the issue of literacy, it put even more distance between the reader and the action. Also, it would have been very difficult to pull off a surprise ending which the narrator knew all about already. Eventually I used a third-person viewpoint, but wrote in the present tense to make the surprise ending more believable. In retrospect I feel this was the right decision.
The next challenge was to seduce the reader into assuming Eustace’s circumstances are far less extraordinary than they actually are. I enjoyed leaving clues for the reader, and was careful not to cheat by being unfairly misleading. For example, when Eustace looks in the direction of the hall clock, the narrative explicitly states that he is looking at the ceiling, but (I hope) his internal monologue was just distracting enough that the surprise wasn’t spoiled for the reader, despite the seed having been sown.
Other decisions were equally necessary but not quite as much fun. Setting, for example, was almost entirely preordained. If one wished to lock a boy in a basement for his entire childhood, what better place to do it than a farm?
It was vital to give Eustace an opportunity to change his routine. I considered letting him plan an escape while his mother was out, and even drafted a scene in which he had to quickly retreat to his room when she returned unexpectedly. In the end I decided to kill Eustace’s mother, as this would deprive the boy of food and so force him to act. Of course, she had to die at the door, after having unlocked it.
My original plan was to end the story with Eustace’s dramatic emergence into the big outdoors, but I knew Eustace would slink back inside, so I shared that part of his story too, giving him a recurring stage prop for emphasis.
I wanted to give Eustace a pet, of which he in turn would be over-protective. He didn’t get one partly because of the word limit and partly because I really couldn’t decide whether Eustace would decide to liberate it.
One or two devices emerged naturally as I wrote the first draft. For example, Eustace’s identity is inextricably tied to his nursery, so as he came closer to freedom, I used his name less, only returning to his full name for the final sentence.
[Word count: 522]

Phillips, Emo (2005) Live at the Hasty Pudding Theatre, Audio CD, Sony Inc.