Some of this is true, some of it embellished: Writing ‘Fixator’

Ashley Stokes

Childhood’s End is a great title for a story. It’s a shame that Arthur C Clarke got to it first with a story about aliens overrunning the Earth, because I wanted it. My story in The Lonely Crowd’s Winter Issue is about childhood’s end. It’s called ‘Fixator’ and I had wanted to write it for a very long time. In fact, I’d wanted to write it so much that I’d written it already. Similar material appeared in a novel I wrote in my twenties that almost found a publisher but was ultimately rejected for being ‘not big enough to launch a season’. An editor at one publishing house even told me that I needed to ‘get out more’. This is how we can come to feel that the things that happened to us, the things that probably made us writers in the first place, were trivial or local, whinges and whines, untransmittable. Like the ghost in The Haunting of Hill House, where we walk we must walk alone.

Or maybe, at that time, I just didn’t have sufficient perspective to create a meaningful story about the thing that happened to me. Maybe I wasn’t ready yet.

‘Fixator’ is based on something that chanced upon me when I was eleven, when I was hospitalised for seven months by a disease that dissolved part of my pelvis. For two and a half of those months I was trapped in a body cast. During this time I could only move my head and arms.

When I’d written about this before, in the novel that wasn’t big enough to launch a season, I passed on the disease and used it as a way to excuse or justify a prickly, introverted character that has problems with authority. It’s possible that I might have been even a little bit self-pitying here. After the failure of that novel, I soon decided to leave the subject alone, broaden my scope, write about other things, get out more. And I did. I’ve even written about people who aren’t men. So why then did this dog return to its vomit after fifteen years? Hadn’t I learned my lesson?

Firstly I was encouraged to by someone who thought it frustrating that I wasn’t interested in writing a memoir, a survivor’s story that would be of use to other people with chronic conditions. ‘Go back and tell that boy (me) that everything is going to be OK,’ she said. Maybe I will one day, but I was rather haunted by the ‘not big enough to launch a season’ stuff, and I am a writer of fiction, not memoir. Maybe I felt that I didn’t have enough to say about survival to pass on, or that I hadn’t really survived. I could salvage something from this, but I couldn’t evangelise. Whatever, I didn’t feel I had the equipment, the materiel for this expedition. Nor did I want to travel to its destination. I was, though, beginning to wonder who ‘that boy’ really was.

But – and this is where firstly meshes with secondly – whenever I tried to think about ‘that boy’ I thought about the boy who appears as Danny in ‘Fixator’. For a while, the only unbidden thoughts I’d had about the hospital were of the time I was moved out of earshot of a very stricken, severely handicapped boy because he was yelling and swearing so much. This seemed the worst of it now. Somewhere in that yelling and swearing was an ugly truth I’d missed or misunderstood. Whatever it was, this truth, it was very humbling.

I realised that I couldn’t write a survivor’s story. I could only write about survivor’s guilt. If I could have gone back I couldn’t, in all honesty, have told that boy that everything would be OK when we came to look back on it from this faraway vantage point, thirty-four years later. Not for him, anyway.

This was the line I followed in constructing the story. A storyline, if you can sense where it’s going to end up, generally helps you decide what to exclude and include. Here, it enabled me to shove into the margins all sorts of potentially distracting material that would have bloated the word count or blunted the focus. There are many ways I could have written ‘Fixator’, other relationships I could have highlighted, but in the end, the approach I took is the only one I could have taken. This is instinct. The other approaches felt wrong in my gut.

When I was writing the first scene, I realized I was making some things up, so admitted this in the story itself, with the ‘now’ of narration described as the Place of Mists, a swirly, unstable locale where nothing is certain. Otherwise, I only changed the names, and I included a reference to a book I’ve never read, Ice Station Zebra. That novel just fitted with the snow and the general preponderance of the colour white in the hospital. The rest is accurate, or as accurate as can be, or as far as I can know. I did eventually cut, not without much kicking and screaming as it happens, a pretentious and aggravating outer scene that went on about Arthur Koestler’s having his tonsils out in Budapest in 1910, an experience he once used to illustrate his idea of Hell (sometimes our worst ideas are the most stubborn). I also decided to disrupt the linearity of the story by referring to things that happened years later. After all, nothing unfolds in order really, when you think about it. It all gets in a muddle the farther we get away from it and the more we let it scrape and scratch us. Things recur to undermine and embarrass us in inscrutable ways. That’s us. That’s what we are like: kept forcibly still on the surface, meanwhile writhing and shouting underneath.

Few things that have happened to me have fitted so well into a short story’s packaging. Usually I either start from a mysterious mental picture or after a few ideas or obsessions have congealed over a long gestation period. Here, I seem to have found a whole world that had waited patiently for me to be ready to face it.

I still regret that world ever existed but I am glad that it ended. The world also ends at the climax of Childhood’s End, though we won’t go into that now.

1523282_10153256769177008_4361424962478555497_oAshley Stokes is the author of ‘Touching the Starfish’ and ‘The Syllabus of Errors’ and he edits the short fiction series ‘Unthology’. His short fiction has appeared in The Warwick Review, Fleeting, London Magazine, LossLit, Lakeview and others. He won a Bridport Prize for Fiction in 2002. He is currently working on a collection, ‘This is How You Disappear’ and a novel, ‘The North Surrey Gigantopithecus’.

‘Fixator’ is featured in the Winter Issue of The Lonely Crowd, which is available to buy in our store here.

Banner photo © Jo Mazelis, 2015.