If you were going to write about John in a short story, you wouldn't call him John, for a start. You'd give him a slightly exotic name with a hard edge to it. Something scandinavian might do - Eirik, perhaps, or Thorsteig. I don't even now believe his name really was John. People in his trade - in what I assume his trade to be - probably live most of their lives under one assumed identity or another.
If you were going to describe John in a short story, too, you'd draw him younger, and taller; you'd make him jump off the page dramatic, to introduce the reader immediately to the idea that here was an unpredictable man, a powerful man, a dangerous man.
But you didn't see that in him when you first met him. His appearance, like his name, was nondescript. He arrived in a rusty white ford van; he wore baggy, charcoal grey jogging pants, and an oversize, tatty charcoal army jersey. He wasn't very tall. His gaze was quiet rather than commanding, from rather pale grey eyes in a weather-beaten face. In fact it was his quietness which I came to realise was his defining characteristic; his stillness, his nondescriptness, his ability to fade into the background and not be noticed, even in a small room with only a few other people.
He was, in fact, the only man on that course apart from myself. That wasn't so unusual. In fact, it's part of the reason I take these courses. It isn't for the stipend the Writer's Trust pay; that's a pittance. It's because people who write stories are, to a degree, fantasists, and lot of those fantasists are women. Women who write about lives which are more exciting, more dramatic than their own - women who dream about lives that are more dramatic than their own.
And when you're shut up in an isolated house for a week with half a dozen women who fantasise, when what you're there to do is to mentor them in expressing those stories about the life more dramatic than their own, there's more than a chance that one or other of them will choose to act out some part of those fantasies in the quiet hours of the night - and more than a chance that the person on hand to help her act it out will be me. Which is why I look forward to these workshops; why I always pack a packet of condoms when I go, and why, in the late spring of every year, I like to run a workshop called 'Relationships'.
There were four women this year, but on the face of it they didn't look promising. One, Pat, was very striking - a tall, slender girl with a good figure and good skin; but she wore her hair scraped back into a complicated platted bun thing at the back, an overly tailored business-style suit with a skirt below the knee, a starched white blouse. She had a good body and good skin, but it was hard to be sure there was any life inside it. She didn't bend, she didn't sway, she didn't flow. When she flexed, to sit, or to reach for a book or some food, you could almost hear the gears and pulleys click and whir.
Another - Elise - bent all right, and swayed, and flowed; too much. There was too much of her doing it. She couldn't sit in a chair without some part of her flowing off it. Her prose flowed, too, beyond her ability to control it.
Yasmin's prose was compact, tight, well directed, sharp - but all it's barbs were directed at men. She was compact, tight, sharp, too - with her sharp black crewcut outlining her narrow skull, and her tight black jeans and pointed black boots, her narrow dark eyes gleaming out of her narrow dark face. Unpromising? Well, not if you were female, and of a sapphic disposition, perhaps; but clearly, explicitly, and uncompromisingly unpromising to men.
Which left Mary, who was clear and dry and straightforward and intelligent and neatly made, and had brought a good, clear, dry straightforward novel with an intelligent eye at was was presently marketable in the book-shops. Mary would not have been in the least unpromising were it not for the fact that she had once been my elder sister's head mistress. That and - well - perhaps the fact that she was too intelligent, too straightforward, to allow herself an indiscretion in a week's writer's hothouse.
So Friday evening we settled down and arranged ourselves into the bedrooms and set up our various word-processors and portable typewriters and pads of scribbling paper around the downstairs rooms; and enjoyed a convivial meal and turned in reasonably early. On Saturday morning I set some ice-breaker exercises - extended games of 'consequences' in which, first, I got them to add to each other's stories 'blind'; then I paired them up and set them to try to subvert each others' story; and finally got them to produce a story collaboratively, 'by committee' as it were.
Then over Saturday afternoon and evening I spent an hour with each of the participants, going through their work (which I'd already seen drafts of, and had, in fact, actually skimmed in advance) and trying to set plans for what they would try to achieve over the week. Common themes are a good thing in workshops like this; it helps if you can get people to work together on similar story elements, to discuss them, to try each other's approaches with them. But I was struggling to find that with this group.
I went to bed and tried to think about something common to work on in all these disparate works; and thought, and rolled over, and thought, and adjusted the radiator, and thought, and got up to close the window, and thought.
And the thing I kept coming back to was rough sex and sexual coercion, a whole tangle of issues.
Pat's story turned on a sexual relationship which started in rape. Yasmin's story turned on forced marriage to a sexually repugnant partner.
Mary's unnamed first-person heroine enjoyed borderline masochism.
John's foil character saves a few women from a rape camp - by raping them first. Elise' story started with a relationship between a slave-owner and one of his slaves.
I always like to do a day's session (or, preferably, an evening's session) on writing sex scenes in the course of these workshops, not least because it puts ideas into participants' heads... but it's not a thing which I would normally start with, and usually I do it about consensual sex. But it seemed like the solution, it seemed as if it would work, and I fell asleep and dreamed about the scene from Mary's story in which the heroine had locked herself naked to a bed in a hotel-room, expecting the man she was trying to seduce to walk in - but the villain had walked in instead. Except in my dream it was Yasmin who was locked to my bed, and it was I who walked in.
So Sunday they walked, or read, or wrote, or did whatever amused them; and first thing after breakfast, Monday morning, I sat them round the table in the big room we call the scriptorium, and handed them each, blind, the raunchiest, roughest sex scenes from one of the other's stories and asked each of them in turn to read aloud.
It was fascinating, and revealing. Mary read John's cynical, ambiguous mercenary with gusto and obvious appreciation. Elise read Pat's prissy heroine and brutal, uncouth hero with obvious difficulty. Yasmin managed to imbue Elise's slave girl with a fierce rage which I could not see in the text. John read Yasmin's sophisticated, educated, liberal teenager's first night with her father's employer's illiterate second-cousin with cool, efficient understanding. And Pat started to read Mary's bondage-and-mistaken-identity scene, and stopped half way through saying it was disgusting, and depraved, and she wasn't going to read anything like that!
So that, as you would expect, started the discussion flowing, and although I tried to lead it away onto the subject of the other stories, it kept eddying and curling back to the same central core all day and into the evening, and the core was this:
Mary's heroine puts herself in a position where she is helpless and sexually exposed to someone she isn't in a relationship with. As it happens it isn't the person she intends, and as it happens actual penetrative sex doesn't occur in the scene. But Mary's writing makes it abundantly clear that it is sexy, that it is erotically charged, that it is exciting. I would challenge anyone to read that passage without experiencing some degree of sexual excitement, of arousal. Indeed, I was sure (though I did not say) I had seen arousal in Pat's face as she read, in the heightened colour on her cheekbones, in gloss on her lips.
I had been watching for it.
But Pat most emphatically rejected this. She couldn't imagine that any woman could possibly enjoy sex with a stranger. She couldn't imagine that any woman could be excited by being helpless, vulnerable. And then Yasmin coolly, incisively, forensically, pointed out that it was because Pat wouldn't allow herself to so much as sympathetically imagine these things that the pivot scene in her own novel didn't work. Unless she could make it exciting, unless she could make it erotic, how could she possibly expect the reader to believe that the victim could subsequently fall in love with the rapist?
The first time the conversation came round to this point, Pat got up and walked out forcefully. I think that if she had come in her own car she would probably have left altogether; but the house being where it is, it takes half an hour for a taxi to arrive, and even if you drive the twenty miles to the railway station there's only two trains a day. In any case, with Pat gone, we focussed on the sexuality on Yasmin's piece, and talked about how it could be made more ambiguous, less black-and-white. Late in the morning we split up, and people went to their preferred writing places and wrote.
There's a woman - inevitably a Mrs MacLeod - who comes in from a nearby farm to do the catering and cleaning; she comes in at breakfast time, prepares breakfast, washes up, cleans around the place, and gets lunch and the evening meal ready, giving me careful verbal instructions about what I'm to do to actually cook and serve the evening meal. She gets lunch on the table before she goes. When Mrs MacLeod called out that lunch was ready that morning, Neither Pat nor Yasmin came. Yasmin I found in a corner of the garden-room, scribbling vigorously in longhand on a pad. The sun was baking in through the windows and it was stifling in there, but she seemed unaffected. She said she would get something to eat later - she didn't want to break her flow. Pat's bedroom door was shut, and knocking elicited no answer.
It was turning into the first really hot day of the year, and the scenery outside was just glorious. We took our lunch out onto the lawn, and talked about erotica and pornography, and the difference between the two, and whether erotica could be good literature, and whether pornography (if there was a difference) could too. People drifted back to writing, but it was hot, and quiet, and there wasn't a huge amount of concentration around. Mid afternoon Yasmin banged the gong and announced that she had a new version of her chapter she'd like to try on us.
I made a pot of tea and gathered people together; and amidst the moving about Pat re-emerged, with her stiff suit looking rumpled and creased and a smudge below one eye. Yasmin started to read, and immediately I felt she'd got somewhere. Her heroine was now less self-assured, less certain of her own rightness; the husband was less greasy, less immediately repulsive. The wedding night passage was both more erotic and more disturbing. Where the earlier version had been a simple story of a girl sold against her will by her parents for career advancement and social position, here we saw a picture of a girl bullied and persuaded and led - but led partly by her own sexual curiosity - into what she sees too late is a trap she can't get out of.
There was still something missing, though, the story wasn't fully there. Something was hanging that Yasmin hadn't expressed. Mary put her finger on it. What, she asked, had been the thing the husband done which had so disgusted the heroine? She had known that sex was going to happen, and, given the background she was supposed to have, she must have had a very fair idea of at least the mechanics of sex. So why the revulsion? Why are we expected to believe she feels so devastated and so squalid after it? If you want to say he buggered her, said Mary, with all the authority of a retired head mistress of an expensive girl's school, why not say he buggered her?
Yasmin suddenly laughed. All right, yes, that would do... she'd use that. Wasn't it, Mary asked, what had really happened? Yasmin laughed again, and looked coy, and said this was meant to be a work of fiction.
Pat sort of blurted into the conversation, off balance before she started. Wasn't this what she had said this morning? That any woman would be repelled by perverted acts? Of course, she knew this was in the context of marriage, which made it different... The others pounced on her at once from different angles; Elise calmed them down. These things were a continuum, weren't they? Sometimes sex was rougher than other times, and different people at different times felt differently about it, and it was all down to what people liked, and...
But surely, interjected Pat, no woman could enjoy being buggered! Mary asked coolly whether she'd tried it. Pat blushed furiously, and shook her head; and at that moment I felt acutely sorry for her, because I suddenly realised how much younger and less mature she was than the others.
Yasmin asked whether Pat really felt she had enough experience of life to do justice to the story she was trying to write. Pat said that it was stupid to expect that people shouldn't write about things they'd never experienced. After all, wasn't part of the reason for writing stories to work out in your mind issues which you wouldn't experience in real life? What about John's story, which was about rape-camps and ethnic cleansing and genocide and assassinations - were we supposed to believe he'd done all those things before we could allow him to write about them?
Mary asked what made her believe he hadn't. Elise said oh surely, and how could you think it, and... Mary asked, "have you?" and John, who I hadn't realised till that moment was even present, just looked back at her, blankly inscrutable.
When he spoke, it was to Pat, quietly, coolly. "Why are you trying to write a story about a woman who apparently falls in love with her rapist, when you can't imagine enjoying rough sex?"
Pat blushed painfully and spoke quietly, but she kept eye contact with him.
"Because - because I can't imagine it. Because - I found this story and it just didn't ring true, and then I found other sources... I mean it was different then and life was much more uncertain, but the people weren't different. They were just people like us. It really happened."
"It doesn't excite you at all, and yet you feel so compelled to write about it?"
Pat looked away, out over the loch and down the glen towards the distant sea.
"It does - not sexually, it doesn't excite me sexually - but it intrigues me. I want to understand - how she could - I just want to understand!"
"Do you remember the Patty Hearst case?" asked John, quietly. "American Millionaire's daughter who was kidnaped by some half-arsed terrorists and apparently joined them?" Pat shook her head. "One explanation was that she was so traumatised by repeated rapes that she was effectively a zombie, not in control of herself. Could that explain your princess's behaviour?"
"No..." Pat didn't sound quite certain. "at least, I don't think so..." She looked directly at him again. "I don't want it to - it's not the story I want to write, it's a - it avoids the problem. It's a cop-out."
"Even if it's what really happened?"
She nodded. "Even if it's what really happened. And... and I don't think it is, you know. She stayed loyal to him after he was captured by his enemies, and traveled to Rome to get the Pope to intercede - that's hundreds of miles. And after he was freed they had seven children. So, you know, I don't think that's the answer..."
The discussion had degraded into a dialogue between John and Pat; the rest of us, I think, felt excluded. Yasmin rather ostentatiously got up and walked off. Elise stirred unassertively. I said something to the effect that Pat should write another draft and try it on us, and we gradually drifted off to write.
The next morning was even hotter. The central heating was still on in the house, because it was only May and the Highlands can be cold. Mrs MacLeod showed me how to switch it off, but as it was a night storage system that wouldn't take effect till the following day. Most of us abandoned the house to write in the shade of the trees. Yasmin stayed in the conservatory; she seemed immune to heat and sunlight - it was baking in there. Mary and I sat at opposite ends of a rather proper garden seat on one side of the lawn. Elise had commandeered the summer house, but I didn't envy her; it looked hot.
Pat had come out in yet another good wool suit, and first sat in a canvas chair close to us. After a while, she took her jacket off. Then she got up and moved round to sit on the grass further away. Then she took a walk around the house, and came back to the canvas chair. Then she stood up again and went into the house. I carried on typing, and, at the other end of the seat, Mary's fountain pen swirled and hissed over the paper.
After a while Pat came out again, wearing a long, dark blue shirt dress, high necked and long sleeved, faintly reminiscent of a nurse's uniform. Severe, but at the same time showing off her slenderness and her curves. Her hair was damp, but still tied up in its complicated knot. I wondered how she could do it herself. She looked cooler; I watched hungrily as she crossed the lawn. The sound of Mary's pen had stopped, and I glanced over to her. She was watching me with her cool, clinical gaze. She smiled, slightly - not unkindly - and gently shook her head. I rattled the keys on my keyboard, jerky sentences full of mistypings. Jerkily, clicking and pecking at the keys, I went back and corrected them.
A faint sound of voices drifted through the hot, thick air, and I looked up again. Pat was sitting, knees drawn up under her chin, in long grass under some pine trees. She was talking, although her words didn't reach me. Then she was listening - an even fainter murmur of sound. I looked around. Mary was by me. Yes, I could still see Elise in the summer house. I couldn't, of course, see Yasmin, but I was sure she would still be in the conservatory. John? I stared at the shadows under the pine trees, at the grass and the heather. Judging by Pat's posture, the angle of her head, he was lying in the grass just in front of her. I couldn't see him.
I chattered at my keyboard, typing and retyping and retyping a paragraph which didn't want to work, hammering at my delete key. Across the lawn, a faint laugh. Her head tilted to one side, and then thrown back; and then leaning forward, talking earnestly; and then tilted to one side again. Scribbling pad on the ground beside her, unused.
I stopped trying to write, and instead tried to examine my own discontent. It was mostly the heat, of course, I knew that - an unseasonal, close, sticky heat. The sky was cloudless, the air stagnant, unmoving. But it was also - I felt cheated, and knew why, if I was prepared to admit it. The truth was there were only two women in this group who looked physically as though they would be any good in bed. Mary was too old; Elise, too fat. And Yasmin looked and sounded as if she was driven by anger, which left Pat.
When I'd met Pat, when I'd first talked to her, I'd marked her down as too reserved, too inhibited. Her shyness, refusal to make eye contact, her verbal inarticulacy, irritated me. But now she was talking to another man I was - jealous. This was my workshop. I was the tutor. She should be talking to me... Now that she was talking to another man, I saw that inhibition as a challenge, adding to the intrigue, the fun of the chase.