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The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret

by Robbo 

Posted: 10 January 2006
Word Count: 1394
Summary: Prologue

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Friday 9 June 1995, 11.35pm
107 Hampton Road, Redland, Bristol

Alison awoke with a jump at the sound of the sirens. She could only have been in bed a few minutes and had been starting to fall into the first stages of deep sleep. Adrenaline swam through her body at first but soon dissipated, giving way to a sensation of relaxed emptiness. It was very like the feeling she often got after crying, drained but relieved after the release of emotion.
She lay in bed and watched the blue lights dance to their own peculiar rhythm on the high white ceiling. Alison had lived in this house for two years and it had felt strangely cosy. Now though it looked decidedly sparse, with most of its usual contents gone. Her father had come down earlier in the week to take her stuff back home to the Midlands, all neatly packed in cardboard boxes. All that was left was the furniture, thankfully not hers, and a suitcase which lay open on the floor, three-quarters full of clothes and other odds and ends. Alison closed her eyes slowly; she felt sick. She forced herself to retrace the events of the evening in her mind.
It was all Darren's fault; he was never usually late and Alison had certainly expected him on time, tonight of all nights. Early tomorrow morning she was off to the south of France for her vacation job, teaching English at a summer camp. He had said he would come over at eight: blow the lads out for one night, her last night at University. Of course, as it had turned out, she had made the mistake of actually looking forward to it. By 10.20 there was still no sign of him.
She had gone to the window to try to relax, opening the sash fully to let the summer night air cool her head. The street below her was empty, as it often was at this time; Friday night in the student area of a university town is not the time to find casual walkers. Most people would be well ensconced in a pub or the Union by now; the rest either off somewhere for the weekend or, who knows, maybe even studying. There was no studying to be done tonight though; the exams were over and everyone was getting on with the serious business of enjoying themselves. Very soon though, Alison had a much better idea. She walked out of her room and into the bathroom next door. It was tidy and clean for some reason, more so than it had been all the time she had lived there. Cleanliness is not next to godliness in a house of six students - more like next to impossible, Alison had thought, as she opened the small white door set into the bathroom wall. The door led into a cupboard which contained nothing but a rigid metal ladder, bolted to the floor. Alison climbed up, pushed the trapdoor and clambered onto the roof.
Alison's house, or rather her landlord's, was a tall Victorian affair. Of course it was all flats now: three students on the ground floor, Alison's lot on the top two floors, and a long-suffering married couple in the basement. In an effort to retain a modicum of suburban dignity in this bohemian location, this poor pair referred to their home as the 'garden flat'; it was the kind of snub to reality of which only landlords and estate agents are usually capable.
Alison walked to one edge of the large, flat roof, took a deep breath and gazed out across the Bristol skyline. The house was nearly halfway up a fairly big hill. She could see the lights of Clifton and the City fall away to one side and, across the road, Redland stretching out to the other. Alison had always considered the roof to be the finest feature of the flat. Barbecues, parties, god knows what else; it had all gone on up here. The thing was though, you could have a party anywhere - when the roof really came into its own was when she wanted to get away; to ponder, to be alone. Anyone who has lived with five other people for any length of time knows that you are rarely alone, a great thing a lot of the time, but not always. Alison had often found she needed her quiet moments. When she was a kid it had been her bike; she would go out for hours, riding nowhere and thinking; now it was this roof, and she was going to miss it.
On the other side of the road, a few hundred yards or so further up the hill, Alison's eyes stopped on another house. It was identical to hers and a familiar place too, both inside and out. This was the boys' house; and one of the boys, holed up on the top two floors with five others in what seemed to her to be numerous grades of unbearable squalor, was Darren.
What had drawn her gaze to this house tonight was the impression of movement on the roof. Alison strained to see clearly who or what was up there. It was definitely someone; but beyond the swaying trees and against the backdrop of the newly-dark sky and yellow sodium lamps, she failed to recognise the mystery figure. It had better not be Darren up there, Alison remembered thinking, or he could forget any ideas of getting anything more than a perfunctory peck on the cheek by way of a loving farewell.
She got up and turned to go back to the trapdoor, back to wondering where Darren was. Or trying to relax and not wonder where he was. Then a thought occurred: if she went right to the far edge of the roof, she could avoid the trees and get a better view. It was silly and risky - the surface of the roof was different over there and more slippery. But her curiosity had been strongly aroused now and she knew she would not be able to go back into the house without at least trying to satisfy it.
She crept gingerly to the other side of the roof, first carefully shutting the trapdoor then keeping low to stay close to the apparent comfort of the roofing. Eventually arriving at her destination, she looked up to appraise any improvement in her view. There were no trees blocking her vision now and the light was better here too. Alison stood up.
She tried to scream but could not; not as she saw Mikey come tumbling suddenly off the roof, not as his body fell flailing to the ground, not even when it landed heavily on the yellow garden path below.
Her very first thought on seeing him hit the ground had not been for him but for Katie. She and the other girls were probably over there right now, investigating the cause of the commotion. Soon they would all know; then the long night would really begin. Katie was the highly strung type and Alison could only speculate as to how she would take her boyfriend's death.
Death. Alison opened her eyes as she realised that this was the first time the word had entered her mind. He was dead, wasn't he? Surely he was, to have fallen so far. What if he was not? Well, too late; she had long ago missed any opportunity she might have had to do anything for him. What sort of unfeeling monster was she, to have retired to her bed like a sickly great aunt rather than report what she had seen? Yet she knew the answer to that one before she even asked herself the question. The whole scenario was already crushing her and she felt her own breathing quicken. She tried to calm herself. No, she had decided - the ambulance was here now, and the others could sort the rest of it out. What she had experienced this evening would stay with her a long time, forever in fact, and she saw no need to talk about it tonight. And tomorrow she would be away from here.
And with that thought alone to comfort her, Alison turned on to her side, closed her eyes again and let a shallow, unquiet sleep enfold her.

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Comments by other Members

Creative Content at 21:08 on 10 January 2006  Report this post
Oh Boy - lots of twists! Just when I thought I knew where this was going...it didn't!

I think your work is really well presented; you manage to keep threads running so this reader at least didn't have to go back and re-read things.

I really enjoyed your work.


gkay at 08:57 on 11 January 2006  Report this post

I thought this was a great theme to explore, and you wrote it well.

A couple of things I noticed. Firstly, it would make it much easier for the reader if the piece was split into paragraphs. A single block of text makes it difficult for the reader to seperate and marshall their thoughts.

Secondly, there were a few places where the word order within the sentences threw me slightly, e.g.

She tried to scream but could not; not as she saw Mikey come tumbling suddenly off the roof, not as his body fell flailing to the ground, not even when it landed heavily on the yellow garden path below.

Somehow, I felt this sentence should have had more impact.

Apart from those things, I enjoyed the story a lot. Nice work.


Robbo at 19:04 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Donetta and Guy - thank you both very much indeed to take the time and trouble to read my work and comment on it.

Guy: apologies for the formatting - the work you read is meant to have paragraphs, but I didn't manage to get them to show up when I submitted it. Unfortunately, I am not yet a full member so cannot edit my work!

Also (and this goes out to anyone else who reads this work as well), what I have submitted is the prologue to a full-length novel (although I am glad in some ways that it seems to read like a complete story!). Again, my inexperience of the site ensured that I did not adequately get this fact across in my submission!


Cymro at 22:59 on 14 January 2006  Report this post
Wow - this is a truly thrilling piece - I actually felt very tense when reading it! I loved the fact that you subvert the expectation that Alison might slip off the roof, which is what I was anticipating was going to happen.

I have a few pedantic niggles that I think you could tidy up to improve the piece...

There seemed to be a contradiction between Alison only just having gone to bed and being in the stages of deep sleep, particularly given what had just happened (although, of course we don't know it at this stage)...perhaps 'first stages of fretful sleep' or 'first stages of troubled sleep' (or something similar and less cliched than my efforts!) might read better - later on you call her sleep shallow and unquiet.

'strangely cosy' - didn't understand why 'strangely'.

The sentence '...; and one of the boys, holed up on the top two floors...was Darren.' was a tiny bit tortuous to read. 'and one of the boys was Darren, holed up on the top two floors...' might be a clearer order for the sentence.

'to recognise the mystery figure' I'd get rid of the word mystery - this seemed a bit melodramatic. Perhaps 'the unidentified figure' or just 'the figure'?

I think you could also tighten up how you handle the fact you are describing to the reader a flashback e.g.

'It had better not be Darren up there, Alison remembered thinking,' - this jarred with me as it took me out of the moment to a small extent. And then the final paragraph, I didn't realise that we were now back in bed with Alison (so to speak!); I thought what she was thinking these things on the roof immediately following the fall. Perhaps have a rethink about how you can signpost to the reader where exactly we are. It might be interesting to see Alison climb down from the roof and coldly get back into bed, perhaps.

And great title - inspired by the Queens of the Stone Age song, perhaps?

Hope you go on to develop this further, it's an abolutely cracking start to a novel!


SophieD at 17:12 on 17 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Robbo,

I enjoyed this story. Couple of comments / suggestions for you!

Getting POV right seems to be a big deal in creative writing. I think yours is done well, except for a couple of bits. E.g.

Alison had lived in this house for two years and it had felt strangely cosy

This doesn't sound like something she would say -- maybe should be something like: "Two years in this house had made it feel cosy, almost like her real home."

The main thing that struck me when I read this was confusion over the time sequence, although I see that other commenters have said it wasn't a problem for them, so maybe it's just me.

So basically you're using the past tense to indicate the "present" time, i.e. when the action is happening. E.g. "Alison awoke with a jump at the sound of the sirens."

Later, you transition into a memory using the past perfect tense, which seems sensible....

She had gone to the window to try to relax, opening the sash fully to let the summer night air cool her head.

... but then you switch back to the past tense, and stick with that for quite a long time...

The street below her was empty, as it often was at this time.

So that by the time you come back to the present time (i.e. the memory scene is finished), I was a bit confused.

I encountered the same problem in something I was working on, and after much thought, I decided to make them two separate scenes: i.e. first have her on the roof, seeing Mikey fall off; and then in a separate scene, her waking up and remembering what had happened.

Alternatively, maybe you could just separate them a bit more clearly with paragraph spacing, italics etc (I know you can't do that on this site!)

Another small point - first she sees someone on the roof, but can't make out who it is; and then suddenly we're told that Mikey is falling off. I think you need to say something like, "From this new vantage point she could see clearly, and she recognised Mikey's t-shirt" or something like that.

Another small/technical point -- she assumes that Mikey has been killed by the fall, but I wouldn't have assumed that, because I don't know how far the drop is, what's below, etc. Maybe write those details in when she's thinking about whether she should go to the far edge of the roof. We already know the roof is slippery, it would add to the fear factor for us to know how high up it is, and we might jump to the conclusion that Mikey's roof is the same height, and be truly horrified that he fell from such a terrible height, and we should also gasp and think to ourselves, "Mikey is surely dead"

Finaly tiny point: I'd expect "adrenaline pumped" or "adrenaline rushed" rather than "swam"

Anyways, I think it was a well written piece, lots of suspense, would make me want to read more. Good job! Good luck, and let's have some more :-)


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