Once there was a… failure?

So, I got nine days into my 30 day challenge and it all went a bit wrong. There are reasons. A full-time job that has required some extra cover. A week where I barely saw my daughter after which I felt it not just right but as necessary as breathing to spend more time with her wherever possible. A few late nights in a row…. I guess reasons start to sound like excuses in the end. And I can’t deny I’m disappointed with myself.

Still, I think even in nine days – and there is nothing stopping me simply restarting for a week or so, and I might still, since the desire is there – I learned the crucial lessons I was trying to hard to break into my thick skull that knew them but also didn’t. I learned that writing every day, and coming up with ideas from nowhere (when I’m so used to incubating them endlessly until they’re almost overbaked by the time they spill out) is possible – you can, if you want, force some creativity and it might be great, okay or utterly rubbish but it shall come. I learned that sharing a piece of writing in a raw, doughy, shapeless mass need not be terrifying. Most of the time, in fact, no-one will read it and there is an almost inexpressible freedom in that. When you suspect only four people are actually paying attention, it’s astonishingly liberating. I’m sure there is lots of common sense in writers seeking to be published professionally to think of audiences and tone, yadda yadda, but when you write just for the sake of removing the flaking orange rust from the dark cogs of your mind it’s so much more satisfying to please no audience except yourself. The skill of editing is a lesson for another day. Today we have just the words.

I might have achieved only a third of my original stated goal, but I broke a frightened thought pattern in my own head, and that was, after all, the point of proceeding. And an idea for something to actually do with all these fragments has also occurred to me… if I can keep that thought pattern broken for long enough to attempt to achieve it.

But first, I think, a little more writing. Maybe today (does this count?), maybe not. But soon. And more often. And happier.

OTWAG: Watching

Once there was a girl who had blue plaits and black eyes, with a tiny dot of gold twinkling in them. She used those eyes to Watch.

She Watched while the child slept, covers hanging off, one leg at an unlikely angle. She Watched while the child played, making a carefully constructed mess. She Watched while the child sang to herself in her bed when she knew it was too early for anyone to come for her. The girl liked to imagine the child’s songs were meant for her, rolling somewhere around a tune and never squarely landing on it.

The girl could not remember when she had started Watching, and she didn’t know what she was Watching for, but she knew this was what she was meant to do. She could just about remember the child as a baby, and was vaguely aware that her charge was getting bigger, but the passing of time was of no real interest to her. When the child was not in her room, the girl simply waited; not impatiently, because there was no schedule. When the child came back, the girl silently Watched. At all times she wore a smile that was a slim, tight line in her face.

The girl was also vaguely aware that she must be wearing something; she had noted the child’s clothes, and how she got into special ones at night, which was quietly fascinating. But she’d never been too interested in looking at her own clothes; had she paid any attention she’d have seen a red and white striped top and yellow trousers. There were heavy blue boots that matched the colour of her thick plaits. But these were not the things she Watched.

Gradually, the girl did notice one change. It was getting harder to Watch, because the view was getting less clear. She found the girl was getting… fuzzier. Greyer. Sometimes the details of her clothes were hard to make out. Watching sleep became nearly impossible now the night-light was no longer used; the grey and the dark merged into one as if the blanket was now over the girl and not the child. Who had also moved to the other side of the room, and a bigger bed. In the morning she no longer sang and her limbs didn’t hang out of the bed like a flopping starfish. She was, the girl was fairly sure, cocooned in a roll and she didn’t bounce out of bed with as quite as much energy, though she cried much less and she dressed herself much faster.

The girl Watched as the mother came into the room with the girl one morning and started brushing something onto the walls. Patches of colour, she thought, in shades of pale purple, light green and creamy yellow. They seemed to argue a little over what they preferred, though eventually the mint shade seemed to win out. They started creating a pile of things in the corner of the room; a huge white sheet, a few fat tins – it was hard to make out the details through the dimness that wasn’t getting any better – and some blades that still managed to cast a glint of light into the girl’s black eyes.

When the sheet was laid down, the girl was Watching. When the blades were taken up, and began scraping at the wall opposite, the girl was Watching. When the child and her mother splashed water on the walls and scratched and peeled and tore and laughed, the girl was Watching. When the pair started working their way around the room in opposite directions, coming towards the girl from either side, the girl was Watching. When the child looked straight at her, and rubbed a sponge across her face, clearing the greyness just for a moment, the girl was Watching.

When the first coats of paint went on, the girl was gone.

This is the ninth attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.

OTWAG: The Pink Paper


Once there was…

Once there was a girl.

Bloody hell, it’s cold in here. So many lies, some big, some small, and the one that bothers me most of all is how they promised we would be comfortable but instead it’s anything but.

Once there was a girl. She lived in a cold, hard, dark place.

I thought maybe if I started writing it down, it might feel a little less lonely in here. I mean, there’s 74 of us, including the kids, and that should be busy enough for anyone. We filled a coach, you know? And there’s all different ages and stuff. But it’s like when you’re a kid and people expect you to just get on with other kids because you’re all, well, kids. I think a couple of people were neighbours, and everyone looks vaguely familar; all from the same area, of course. But it’s not like anyone here was actually friends. You can’t take 74 people, shove them in a place like this and expect them to just… get along.

Once there was a girl. She lived in a cold, hard, dark place. It was meant to keep her safe. It was meant to keep her family safe.

At least I have my family with me. There was one woman, Hayley… her husband was away travelling and her kids had been sent to her in-laws for a week to get them out of the way of the chaos. We’ve been here a week and she hasn’t stopped crying. They burnt all the kids’ toys, but she managed to sneak something in with her – God knows how, with all the showers and suits and all the rest of it. It’s this tiny little plastic thing – like a toy you get in a chocolate egg? I know some of the others are pissed at her and regard it as, like, a threat. So they avoid her. I wouldn’t mind sitting with her. At least she doesn’t try to talk to anyone. But dad would kill me. He’s one of the ones who’s scared of her.

The girl was grateful that she got to keep her dad and her little brother with her. She saw people around her who had lost everything. And she wondered if they really wanted to be safe anyway.

That’s the thing about being saved. No-one ever asks you if you really want it to happen. Hayley had to be sedated when she realised they weren’t going to be picking anyone up and bringing them to us. The best they could offer was that the evacuation programme was going on everywhere, so if they were deemed low enough risk to be assigned to a camp, her kids and husband might, separately, survive. They’d be undergoing screening at the same time.

Screening. It sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? And you know what? It’s not even a bad procedure. It’s not humiliating. They make it kind of comfortable. If you could see the nurses’ faces you’d reckon they were being kind. Just a drop. Pink card. If it stays pink, you get on the bus. If it goes blue, you’re on your own. They say if it goes black there is no bus, and the whole thing shuts down there and then. Only how does anyone know this? We were told about pink and blue. They were honest about that. But if it’s all just happening know, where did the black story come from?

She had been so relieved when the paper had stayed pink. And then she had been terrified, because she’d gone in first and her brother was right behind her so that he’d feel confident and safe because even though he wasn’t really a little little brother he was still her little brother and he needed her. But then they let her stay to see. And he was fine. And then their father made them leave the room for his test and they sat, cold hand in cold hand, in the bus waiting room for the two minutes that felt like days.

It’s funny. It’s maybe the first time I’ve been grateful that my mother isn’t around anymore. She was spared all this.

They had been in the cold, hard, dark place for only a week, but already there was a routine. Everyone ate together, four times a day. They didn’t really have any tasks to do other than prepare food and clean up afterwards and it was warmest in the ‘kitchen’ where the fire was. They’d been given enough food and fuel to last months and promised more was coming, so they weren’t saving much. Though now, as the truth dawned about how little they’d been told and how much had turned out to be accurate only on a technicality, they did wonder if they should start rationing. Because what if those supplies never came?

What’s the phrase when something is missing and it’s really obvious? Conspicuous by its absence? That would be the best description of our medical supplies. We have enough to deal with a grazed knee and that’s it. We each got The Shot (I don’t know why, but whenever anyone talks about it it’s like it has capital letters and that’s just how I think of it now), and then that was it. They never did answer the question of what happened if The Shot didn’t work. Just some waffle about how it wouldn’t be an issue, because it always worked.

Kit, this girl of, oh, I dunno, I think she’s about 9? Anyway, she asked how come they got to wear the suits and round up the people and how we could qualify for that (she actually used the word qualify, immensely smart kid, I like her but she kinda scares me). That didn’t even get waffle. Just totally ignored.

Among those still-plentiful supplies, though, the girl was surprised to find they had been given paper and pencils. She decided to write down her story, as much as she could, in case that food ever did run out. Because someone should be able to know what happened here.

If only the girl was ever able to figure it out.

This is the eighth attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.

OTWAG: Bedtime Story

“Once there was a girl-”

“What did she look like, Mummy?”

“Well, if you let me carry on reading, maybe you’ll find out.”

“Once there was a girl with big, blue eyes-”

“I don’t have blue eyes. Can she have brown eyes, like me?”

“If you like, but we don’t know yet if her having blue eyes is part of the story or not.”

“You mean like maybe the story is about how she stopped having blue eyes and got brown eyes instead because they’re better?”

“Why are they better?”

“Because I have brown eyes and you have brown eyes and Daddy has brown eyes.”

“Why are we better?”

“Because… we have a cat.”

“Okay. Well, anyway. I can make her have brown eyes if you want. I’m just warning you that it might change the story. Which is fine – there’s always room to make up your own stories if you want.”

“No, I want to read that story. With brown eyes.”

“Alright. So. Once there was a girl with big brown eyes. Her eyes could see the future-”

“What does that mean?”

“It means she could see what was about to happen.”

“What, like, on a TV?”

“No, in her head. Like if you read a book and you can picture what’s happening in your imagination. Only her imagination is what’s going to happen. At least, I think that’s what they’re trying to say. We might need to read a bit more to understand it properly. It’s good to have questions, but sometimes if you wait, you’ll get your answer.”


“Anyway… She couldn’t see just any future. She couldn’t see what would happen to the baker, or the doctor, or her parents’ friends, who gathered like crows around the dinner table to peck at food and ask her questions she didn’t want to answer. She could only see the future of her own hands. She could see, in her mind – see? – what her hands would be doing, at some point in the future.”

“That sounds a bit silly.”

“Gifts are often a bit silly, until you work out what you can do with them.”

“What’s a gift?”

“Like a present. Some people think from God. It’s something you can just do, without really knowing how.”

“Like how I can read better than Olivia?”

“Well, not exactly, because you practised and learned to be able to do that. But maybe if you’d been able to read the very first time you’d opened a book-”

“But I could! I could do that!”

“Er… well, no. But anyway. Can we carry on?”


“Sometimes she could tell the hands were a long way in the future, because they were grown-up hands, with marks and veins, or wearing rings she knew she didn’t have. But she recognised them as hers because of the strange bend in her right little finger, where she broke it once and didn’t realise so it set funny and was never completely straight. And the skin around the nails was all bitten down and scarred and that was a bad, bad, worst ever habit of hers, as her parents’ friends so often liked to point out to her.”

“I don’t think the blue eyes really matter, Mummy.”

“You might be right. Sometimes she could see that the hands weren’t that far in the future, because she they were young and soft, and had a fresh scratch from the cat that she’d only got that day and which hadn’t faded yet.”

“I got a scratch from Penny’s dog.”

“What? Did you? When was that?”

“Well, her Mummy came to school with Penny’s dog which is called Milo and Milo jumped up on me to say hello and Penny’s mum said he doesn’t hurt people but he did, he scratched my hand as he was jumping down again.”

“Hmmm. Was it an accident? How big is Milo?”

“Bigger than Fluffy, but smaller than me. Now can we read more of the story?”

“Oh, yes. Hmm. Anyway. The hands would always be doing something different. The first time it happened, she saw her young hands tending a saucepan on the stove, and later that day she was sent to make soup for dinner. At the moment that her hands moved in the patterns she had seen in her mind’s eye, her heart raced for a second and her face flushed and there was ringing in her ears that made her father speak sharply to her as the soup almost boiled over. And then everything went back to normal and she realised that she had seen the future.”

“I like soup.”

“Me too.”

“I like soup with chicken and peas and noodles.”

“Mhm. After that first vision, the girl saw her hands more often. At first it was always the near future; the same day, or the next morning. Later it became here there and everywhere. Sometimes she had so many flashes of what was to happen that she’d forget she’d seen something until the sudden ringing in her ears happened while she was sewing, or writing, or holding a book, or opening a window, or brushing her hair. The ones from the near future were never that interesting, but some of the far future ones were intriguing-”

“What’s in-tree-ting?”

“In-trigu-ing. With a ‘g’. It means… it means when something makes you really interested in what’s going to happen. Like when you’re watching a really good film or reading a really good book and you don’t know what’s going to happen next but you really want to.”

“Is this story in-treek-ing?”

“It’s a ‘g’, not a ‘k’. I guess this story could be intriguing. Do you want to know what happens next?”


“Do you really, really want to know?”


“Then I guess, to you, this story is intriguing.”

“What does happen next?”

“Let’s find out. Where was I… Right. She had seen herself holding hands with other people, older, younger, the same age, male, female. She had seen herself petting an animal she didn’t know. She had seen herself holding a walking stick, but her hands did not look old. She had seen a tight grip on a wooden rail and felt sweat between her fingers. She had seen herself buttoning shirts, stirring pots, scratching her knee, shaking a fist.”

“Can you scratch my knee? I think there’s a cut on it.”

“There’s no cut. Where on earth did you get that bruise from?”

“I was playing with Olivia and Archie and we crashed into each other and I fell over. But it was really funny, and then Peter laughed and Mrs. Jane said that was mean but I was laughing too.”

“Right. It was an accident, then?”


“Well, I guess that’s okay then. And now, it’s time to put in the bookmark…”

Ohhhhh. But I want to know what happens next!”

“And so you will. Tomorrow. Because your great big brain and your bruised knee need some rest. And so does my voice.”



“I have a joke for you.”

“Go on.”

“Why did the cow get in the spaceship?”

“Why did the cow get in the spaceship?”

“Because it wanted to see the baaaa-oink-quack-moooooooon.”

“I see. Thank you. Good night, Squishy.”

“Night night.”

This is the seventh attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.

OTWAG: Resolution

Once there was a girl who had a really quite terrible day.

The toaster blew out. The train was slow. Her chair was squeaky. The tea went cold before she had a chance to drink it. Her boss was unhappy with her work. Her favourite shoe sprang a leak. In a puddle. And when she got home, her cat had vomited in the middle of the sofa.

As she cleaned, wretched, and cleaned, she knew how the story was supposed to go. She was supposed to count her blessings, because it could all have been so much worse. This much was true. The toaster could have exploded. The train could have derailed. The chair could have broken under her. The tea spilled on her lap. The puddle tripped her up. The cat could have been dead.

All of this was true, and she knew it to be true. But it didn’t exactly make her feel any better. In fact, she felt just a little worse. Because now she’d had a bad day and she was ungrateful.

She stared at the cat, who glared back with a look that told her that he, personally, had all day if she wanted to waste it. “I wish I could be a cat,” she said to him, ruffling his head only slightly maliciously in a way she knew he didn’t really like. “If this were a great story we’d swap lives for a day. I’d learn that being a cat is quite boring, and be grateful for my life, and you’d go and… I don’t know. Shit in my in-tray or something.”

There was a moment where, if she was totally honest with herself, she almost expected it to happen. Or for the cat to speak like one from her childhood books. And she became unreasonably irritated when nothing at all happened except for the cat getting fed up and running away. Because she once again had to trample on the little part of herself that believed in something way more exciting and interesting than bloody fairies. Her magic would never come; would stay trapped in paper and pictures, in mirrors and movies.

Why did it all have to be so slow? Why did she have to wait to feel better? A wiser woman than she had once told her that her stomach knew everything. And it was true. Right now, when everything was just a little bit terrible – not a lot, but enough – he belly ached and she felt sick and hungry.

The worst part was, it was such… mediocre… misery. I mean, there was nothing wrong enough to go on a grand destructive rampage, full of symbolism and fatal flaws (though in retrospect she found those a bit irritating; she was exactly the kind of person who could never live with a dreadful secret because her terribly pragmatic soul basically insisted that if everyone just spoke out about their problems the secret wouldn’t bother them in the first place). It was just a bit flat and nothing. A bit here and there. A bit “oh well everything’s okay really“.

The girl drank her tea – hot, this time, thanking goodness for small mercies – and gave the cat a few guilt treats. She scratched at the sore patch in then crook of her elbow, and ate noodles with chilli that was a bit stronger than she could really tolerate but seemed to burn some of the sour taste from her mouth. She eased herself into a bath that, in the tradition of the day so far, ran out of hot water before it was properly relaxing even though she didn’t even like really hot baths (how fair was that?).  In short, she waited. Waited for the lesson, or the realisation, or the epiphany, or even the real misery to show itself.

Impatiently, angrily, she went to bed and had a poor night’s sleep.

The next day should have been better. Shouldn’t it?

This is the sixth attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.

OTWAG: Holding the Leash

Once there was a Girl who was afraid.

She was afraid of the unfamiliar, and of the dully commonplace.

She was afraid of the dark, and of the bright lights.

She was afraid of hardness, and of too much comfort.

And so, almost everything frightened her. Looking ahead was full of the dangers of the unexpected. Looking to each side offered nothing new. Looking behind revealed a series of gaps and potholes, pitfalls and valleys so deep she forgot that they had steep walls that led upwards as well as down. So she carried on, and in a strange way the Fear became her friend; it was familiar yet exciting, it was expected yet unpredictable. She carried it with her always, sometimes a shivering mouse in her pocket, sometimes a writhing snake around her ankles, sometimes a fierce eagle digging its talons into her shoulder.

Some days, she could make the Fear do her bidding. It would stride beside her, a gundog with its eyes trained to the distance. Some days, it would dash ahead, an ill-mannered mutt dragging her behind. Most days it trotted to and fro, picking a meandering path, occasionally needing a tug to keep up and occasionally startling her as it jumped up against her.

Some people told her she must cast her Fear away, banish it for good. These words only made it cling to her tighter, shortening her breath. Some people told her to let her Fear guide her, to constantly follow in its wake. These words made her feel like a compass was slipping from her hand to crack uselessly against the ground.

Finally, in confusion, the Girl made a decision that also scared her. She decided to talk to her fear. To ask it what it wanted of her, and what she should do. She was afraid that it might tell her it wanted to leave, and that it would abandon her. She was afraid that it might tell her it had to stay, and that she would never breathe freely again. But she knew that if she never asked, she would never know, and that uncertainty was the heaviest weight to carry.

So she asked the Fear what she must do. The Fear asked her if she really wanted to know. Saying it a second time scared her even more, but she repeated her request – closing her eyes and holding out her hand, in which there was a leash. The Fear waited for a long moment, until it seemed like the Girl might give up and walk away. And then, when she was almost at the end of her strength, it spoke.

The Fear told her to push and pull. To lead and follow. To test the leash and taste the air. To allow and to deny. To whisper and to shout. To fear the terrifying and the mundane. To interrogate the unknown and question the obvious.

The Girl listened to all the Fear had to say, slowly turning the leash in her hands. She had meant to either offer it to the Fear, or tie it securely to her belt. But as the Fear stopped speaking, and turned to her expectantly, she found that neither one of these two actions was appealing. The Girl looked at the Fear for a long time, and it looked straight back at her. Its eyes glowed with warmth, and with an unsettling hollowness.

You are my Fear, said the Girl. And I will not set you free. And you are my Girl, said the Fear. And I will not let you go.

And so the Girl and the Fear walked on. Sometimes the Girl marched ahead, the leash slack in her hand, and the Fear dawdled behind. Sometimes the Fear charged ahead, the leash straining, and the Girl skipped hesitantly in its wake. But the Girl never let go of the leash. And the Fear never pulled it out of her hand.

This is the fifth attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.

OTWAG: Library

Once There Was a Girl. It was a book, of fairy tales she thought, that sat on Tina’s bookshelf. Amazingly, enough tattered remnants of the jacket had survived, held together as much by faith as by fabric, to read the name down the painfully broken spine. The brown bindings beneath were dully unimpressive, but patches of curling paper were patterned brightly with watercolour splashes which might have been trees or rainbows or maybe just random marks made of pigment and joy.

If Tina had ever thought about it for more than a second, she might have wondered just how it had got so battered, given she hadn’t touched it for the better part of a decade or maybe longer. But maybe it had arrived old and torn, her mother’s before her. She couldn’t remember, and she only really gave it more than a moment’s consideration when she was wondering whether or not to chuck things out. But she never really felt comfortable binning books; even books she hadn’t picked up for years.

If it hadn’t been for the flu, it might have taken several more years before it had been picked up again. But Tina felt absolutely rotten – alright, it wasn’t flu flu, but it might as well have been – and she was in that horrible state where she felt too gummed up to be awake but too fed up of being asleep to nap. She had been in the middle of reading a new book but her appetite to finish it had waned since she she found herself reading every third sentence at least six times to make sense of it. Maybe something easier. Maybe something familiar… Maybe something within easy reach of her sweaty pile of sheets.

The book felt small and she turned it over slowly in her hands without opening it. She thought about just taking the sleeve off altogether to preserve what was left of it, but it seemed to be glued to the hard covers. There was no author listed anywhere she could see – maybe on a torn section? – and no blurb or publisher’s mark. Now that that she came to think about it, she couldn’t really remember what it was about, either.

As she lifted it to open it, she was suddenly stopped short by a surprising scent. She was expecting must, old paper, the smell of books that people went on about as if it was the smell of church for people who had forgotten how to pray. Instead there came the odour of… leaves? Or possibly leaf mould. Sort of like being in a canopy of trees. Like that school trip they took to Parsonage Woods once, when she’d managed to get away from everyone for a few minutes and sit alone and forget about bloody Kasia and Mrs. Flynn and that stupid thing about the History test.

Her raging headache and red-raw nostrils all but forgotten, Tina cracked open the cover. She was presented with a blank page.

She turned it over. Another blank page. She started to flip through, and every single page was plain, ivory, perhaps faintly yellowed around the edges but definitely, unquestionably, blank. She pulled it up further towards her face, pushing up her glasses, and peered straight into the middle of the book. The scent of woodland was almost overwhelming now, and seemed to surround her. It was so strong it pierced her blocked nose like she was fit and healthy. Which, it suddenly occurred to her, she actually felt. Her eyes weren’t watery and sore as they stared fixedly at the crease between the pages. Her nose was full of the scents of spring. Her head felt shockingly clear and her ears no longer felt woolly as the sudden sound of birds filled them.

Tina suddenly, sharply dropped the book. And found herself sitting with it in her lap, still in her bed, still wearing her grotty old spaceship pyjamas and surrounded by a dense copse of thick-leaved trees.

This is the fourth attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.