There’s a girl who walks around my village with a cat in her backpack. The cat isn’t alarmed by this. He has an aristocratic look about him, maybe it’s the whiskers, and he seems to be saying with his eyes, “Yes. This is how it should be. Move on.”
Once, I watched as an elderly couple approached me from the end of the road, his back bent like a cresting wave, her fingers frozen into claws, and as they slowly shuffled along the pavement, I felt a sudden surge of tenderness. But then they got closer and as they passed, I heard her say, “If you keep on doing that, I’m going to cut your fucking winky off.”
There’s a man who sits outside the supermarket passing people pamphlets about something (I’ve never stopped long enough to find out what), and every time he sees me, he compliments something I’m wearing. “I like your pashmina,” he said the other day. “Nice boots.”
In the bakery, a bored looking teenage girl shoves bread rolls into paper bags. Her make up is so thick it splits and cracks around her mouth. I would like to tell her that she doesn’t need it. She has beautiful skin. But she is surly and cold-eyed, and I am still working my way up to it.
Once, a trio of boys (I can’t bring myself to say men) yelled at me as I passed the kebab shop. They were pumped up and had the testosterone shakes, their swollen arms hanging out of singlet tops, a sheen of sweat leftover from their workouts still on their skin. One of them had half-chewed fries on his pink tongue when he opened his mouth to holler at me. I briefly thought about scaring him. I could go up to him, too close, and tell him my age. But I only lifted my chin and kept walking, even though my eyes wanted to dip to the ground.
For almost two years I helped a boy learn how to read and write. I stayed after the school bell went and gently guided him through the spelling words he hated. I let him draw when he’d had enough. Sometimes as he doodled, he told me about his fathers, both in prison, and about his sister and mother. When I drove home afterwards, I spoke all the things I am grateful for out loud like a mantra, so that by the time I arrived home, I no longer hated the world. One day, he disappeared, and I never got to say goodbye.
A few years ago, I overheard two school mums call me, ‘That stuck up one’, presumably because I rarely talk to any of them – out of awkwardness, not snobbery. I could have corrected them, but I was too shy.
Last week, I forgot it was Book Day at school. I sat through half of the special assembly, watched as all the children but mine showed off their costumes. It was cold so I found a patch of sunshine to sit in, but it was too bright so I had to keep my hand over my eyes like a visor. Twice, I had to stop myself from weeping because I was angry that my illness has changed so much about my life. Then I told myself to get a grip, and I went home.
The last time I saw my grandmother, she gestured at me with her swollen hands; her words like little explosions flying from her frozen mouth, and for a long time no one in the room could understand her. Finally, after long minutes that had my heart torn from my chest, laid at her feet, we understood what she was saying. She was pointing at the top I was wearing. She was saying, “Pretty collar.”
A friend told me once about a work colleague who always makes a big show of contributing a generous amount of money to the office pool whenever a gift needs to be bought. But then when no one is looking, he takes his donation out again, and no one ever knows.
There are stories everywhere, if we are open to them. This is what makes a writer. If you want to write, you first have to notice the world around you. I don’t mean who is in the space around you. Don’t just see the man sitting alone at Mcdonalds at 11am on a Tuesday morning. Notice the creases in his business shirt, the ones that tell you he unwrapped it and removed its cardboard insert only that morning and didn’t have time to iron. He’s rolled the sleeves to the elbow to try and make himself more comfortable but he’s shifting in his chair, and every few seconds he glances at the door, as if he’s embarrassed someone he knows will find him there. See the tattoo? It’s a little bird, cartoonish and out of place on his thick wrist. There are words, too, but you can’t make them out. What’s he ordered? How does he eat it? Does he take big, confident bites? Or does he remove the bread and fish for pickles, before putting everything back together again?
This is what makes a character step out of the page and become a real person. When writers do this well, we can see ourselves in the characters they create. It’s not the obvious stuff – how tall he is, what his hair is like – it’s the small stuff. He’s scared of bees. His favourite treat is a marmite and cheese sandwich with the crusts cut off because that’s what his mum used to make him after school.
If you’re an aspiring writer, I encourage you to practice the art of noticing. The next time you’re out, keep your eyes and ears open. Take notes. You never know what might happen. Your first book could be waiting for you to find it.