Where does a story come from? Where does any piece of fiction—especially, perhaps, a short piece of fiction—come from? How does it emerge? Analogous to the sculptures that live, according to Michelangelo, inside every block and need only be revealed, do stories similarly pre-exist the page, laying in suspended animation until its author gives birth to them? Until, Godlike, he or she gives them life.
For me, ‘Flood’, started with a single image. We’ve all seen it. We saw it in Cumbria in 2015; we saw it in New Orleans during Katrina’s short burst of terror; we saw it in Thailand after a tsunami devastated an entire coastline—the man or woman stranded upon the roof of a house surrounded by rising water, their pale, stricken face peering up as a circling helicopter shows the world their helpless plight. This is the Big News Story. This is the story event the news channels wants you to see. That gripping, perennial plot-line: man against nature.
But there’s always another story. The story before the story, if you like. The smaller, less sensational, more human story the newsreels are not there to film; indeed have little care to tell. And this was the story that interested me. I wanted to know what small, personal catastrophes preceded the larger. Every life experiences at least one.
I confess, other than that single image—roof, man, floodwater—which sloshed around inside me for several weeks, and where I knew my story would end (bucking conventional wisdom, some writers might opine)—I hadn’t the foggiest idea where I should start. I knew only that whomever my protagonist turned out to be, he (I was pretty certain it should be a man, though why, I don’t know) needed to find himself confined to a relatively remote and low-lying location, and that at some point needed to find himself alone, or abandoned, and unable to swim. Once I realised that the place could only be a small country farm of some description, and again why at the end he might be alone—once I’d found this foothold, the story came quickly, almost fully formed, spilling out as though it had been there, dormant inside me, all along, awaiting the right stimulus to free its shape.
Likewise, the story’s themes did not identify themselves until I had the first draft down. Only then did I realise my subconscious mind had been working without my prior knowledge. Or at least had been furtively aiding and abetting my conscious mind. Then I understood that where and how Ted finds himself at the story’s curtain-fall—that’s to say, in total isolation—was indicative of the burden of guilt one might endure when, for example, one has not apologised to their parents before their deaths, dumped a sweet-natured girlfriend by text, or, as in this instance, has had an adulteress affair. For guilt, much like writing, is a lonely, solitary place.
It occurred to me also, how, throughout the story, Ted strives to redeem himself for his transgression, but at every turn is rewarded by yet another failure, another unassailable obstacle. Here, then, I recognised a metaphor for the unpredictability of life. For no matter what we do we cannot always be the masters of own destiny. We cannot always load the dice in our favour. And not every tale can expect a happy-ever-after ending. In this instance, as in so many instances before, and in so many more to come, it is the weather, and nature, that has the final say.
Paul Davenport-Randell has had stories published in Veto and Fwriction:Review, been short listed for the Bridport Prize, and received a high commendation from The Writers’ Centre Norwich. He has a first class degree in Creative Writing from Norwich University of the Arts.
You can read ‘Flood’ in the new issue of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.
© Paul Davenport-Randell, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.