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The lovely girl

by DJC 

Posted: 16 January 2006
Word Count: 1077
Summary: The second draft of an idea I've been batting around in poetry form on poetry II, about a friend of ours who had a sudden mental breakdown, just before Christmas.
Related Works: Looking for Elizabeth • 

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This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

Such a lovely girl

Anna wiped the children’s faces before they went in. She straightened Jacob’s tie. He squirmed, was still. Marianna stood placidly by the bottom step.
Inside there was shouting. Anna expected one of the children to say something, ask a question or say they wanted to go home. She wouldn’t blame them if they did. She felt that way herself.
She knocked on the front door. Jacob and Marianne remained by the bottom step. Shuffling footsteps approached the door from the other side.
It took a moment or two for the many latches and locks to be opened. The children fidgeted in the cold air. Anna’s finger ends began to lose their colour. ‘I need the loo,’ Jacob said.
The door opened. Anna barely recognised the man on the threshold, standing hunched in the sudden draft caused by the mixing of warm and cold air. Her father, Gustave, a headteacher for twenty years, a housemaster before that, now lost in his own doorway, as if he’d left part of himself back in the sitting room.
‘Ah,’ he said by way of a greeting. He held out a bent arm, lowered his head a little. ‘So good of you to come.’ Always so formal, the old man. Even to his daughter and grandchildren. Even to his own wife, most of the time.
They stood in the hallway, the four of them, and for a moment no one spoke. All were pretending not to be listening to the voice, or voices, coming from the next room. It sounded like someone asking unwelcome visitors to leave. Gustave looked down at his grandchildren. ‘My but you have grown.’ His voice was whisper thin. The children hid behind their mother.
‘A bit shy today,’ Anna said.
‘Of course they are.’
Anna took the hands of her children, squeezed them gently. Marianna’s felt cold and sticky. The three of them followed Gustave in.
‘Hello mum,’ Anna said to the woman stood at the end of the room.
‘Oh I am so wicked, such a terrible terrible person, oh dear yes. You need to leave right now. You shouldn’t be here. I’ll do you no good.’
Gustave sat in his usual chair, with his back to his wife. She was leaning against the wall, her head tilted upwards a little, as if bracing herself for an earthquake or explosion. Anna looked at her two children. They stared at their grandmother with a mixture of terror and fascination. Marianna gripped her mother’s hand more tightly.
The three of them sat on the sofa; Anna in the middle, her children either side. The sofa was old and soft and gathered them into it. Jacob struggled to stay close to the edge with his feet on the floor. Marianna seemed to have stopped breathing. Her eyes had not left the strange sight of her grandmother, who in turn stared absently at the candelabra above the dining table.
‘And how is work?’ Gustave asked, his hands resting on his knees, as they always did when he sat. As they’d always done.
‘Good Dad, yes – but –’ Anna paused, looked back at her mother, who was swatting imaginary flies away from her face and talking to them all the while. ‘Won’t you come and sit down, mum?’
‘Oh no, I can’t do that – I must stay here. The chairs are dirty, too dirty. Like everything. Just so much filth. Where are my cloths?’ She moved towards the kitchen, her hands moving restlessly. Gustave turned in his chair.
‘Don’t worry about that now, Ellen. I will see to it all later, as I told you before.’
‘I need the loo,’ Jacob said.
‘And me,’ added Marianna.
‘We’ll go together,’ Jacob said.
They were out of the room before Anna had time to speak.
‘Oh, where are my cloths?’ Ellen asked, panic rising in her voice.
‘Why don’t I make us some tea?’
In the kitchen, Anna leant against the counter top and forced herself to slow her breathing. She filled the kettle with water and waited for it to boil. Her mother had a point; the house was dirty. There was a thick rim of scum around the sink, and the floor needed a good sweeping. Her father had never been a practical man; his books were too important. They came first, even now.
Anna looked through the serving hatch. Her mother was sitting on a dining room chair, attempting to remove a heat ring from the polished surface using only the cuff of her cardigan. Gustave had a book in his hand, but Anna could see that he wasn’t reading.
She took the teapot in. Her mother stood unsteadily and moved towards her, arms outstretched. ‘No, that is the wrong tea pot, can’t you see? It has a chip in it. The tea will be ruined now. All of it ruined. I should have thrown it away before, when I could. Now look, all the tea ruined.’
Gustave stood and took her arm. ‘It’s alright Ellen. This teapot is fine for us. Don’t make such a fuss.’
Ellen pulled her arm away from her husband. ‘Get off me you stupid man. Just keep your fucking hands off me. You stupid, stupid man. Oh why did I marry you and have all those children. Where are they now, those children? Where? I’m no good for any of it, no good at all.’
Theirs had always been a polite home. If they had gone out, perhaps for an evening, or if they were on holiday by the pool, the sound of ‘toilet words’ always raised comment from Ellen. ‘Only dirty people swear,’ she’d say. So the word, as soon as it left Ellen’s mouth, hung in the air like pollution. Ellen shrank back into herself, began slapping her leg. ‘Oh dear me,’ she muttered. ‘Oh dear me.’
‘It has been getting somewhat worse,’ Gustave said as they went back to the sofa, leaving Ellen alone in the middle of the room.
‘I’m sorry Dad.’
The children returned and stood at the door. Marianna had been crying. A sensitive girl, like her own mother at that age. Anna stood, gestured for her father to remain seated.
‘I think we should make a move,’ she said.
‘Of course,’ her father replied.
Her mother moved towards Anna and the children, who shrank behind their mother. ‘Have you seen Anna?’ she asked. ‘Such a lovely girl. Lovely, lovely Anna.’

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Comments by other Members

old friend at 07:33 on 16 January 2006  Report this post

A very nice piece of writing that touches on an unfortunate illness. Anyone with experience will recognise the advanced state with the use of expletives by the sufferer.

I did not see the need to use the present tense for it almost prevents the characters from easily introducing past events and emotions to create more definitive characters through expressions of their thoughts.

A good read.

Cholero at 08:04 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren

Her father, Gustave, a headteacher for twenty years, a housemaster before that, now lost in his own doorway,

Blimey. Terrific.

I think this piece is great, a difficult subject, with a real feel to it. I like your tone of distant objectivity, which conveys its own melancholy. I like it especially in those parts where the POV is from Anna but via her children... a 3-generational persepective. As in:

Anna looks at her two children. They stare at their grandmother in a mixture of terror and fascination. Marianna grips her mother’s hand more tightly.

The first third seems tighter and more closely written than the rest, but it all seems like it's further down the line than a 1st draft. I felt that some of the effects could be enhanced by different timing/presentation, i.e. when Ellen moves towards the children at the end. Likewise, when Ellen swears. I felt this might have greater impact if it were 'staged' differently. I don't know exactly how though.

The character and personality of Gustave is nicely defined, in several different ways. But because of this I am led into thinking the piece is mainly about him. I feel like seeing similar levels of definition in Anna and Ellen. Especially I'd like to see the faces of the kids, their expressions... because everybody else is hiding their true responses.

(I just thought: maybe it is mostly about Gustave.)

It's hard to criticise without sounding like a patronising curmudgeon. All the above is in the context of being impressed. It's a terrific subject. I can't help being reminded of those 17th century Dutch artists with their gloomy, meticulous interiors painted with a kind of photographic objectivity...



DJC at 08:24 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks for your comments. This is the first short story I've written in ages (have about ten novels-in-progress which aren't progressing, so I thought I'd write something I'd actually finish), so I' a bit rusty. I'll have a look at the present tense thing, and see whether making it past tense would work. I didn't really want the thoughts to come through - I tried to write this almost in a Raymond Carver style, with reporting of things as they happen and not too much interior. Not sure how well I did it, though.

Thanks for your encouragement. I struggled a bit with pov here, as I wanted to try and remain distant, but it's so hard. Makes you realise what a genius Hemingway was before the booze got to him.

I'll have a look and post a redraft soon.

davedave at 12:53 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren,

Welcome to the group.

Firstly, I really liked it.

I think I agree with Len's comment about the present tense. (I've just finished a book mostly using it, so I'm in no position to criticise!)

Here I was unsure about the POV - it just jarred a little:

Her mother has a point; it is dirty in here

This I smiled at:

‘It has been getting somewhat worse,’ Gustave says

Perhaps there could be a little more of Ellen - I mean, I got a clear picture of all the other characters, but not so much her. And I agree with Pete's comments that it could be improved upon in terms of heightening the impact.

But I liked it a lot. For a first draft it's really strong on a sentence level, and the scene is clear and uncomfortable and well-judged.


DJC at 14:11 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Cheers, Dave. I'll put it into past tense and see what happens...

Nell at 14:36 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren.

You've captured and conveyed the unease of the situation brilliantly. It's in the details of body language of Anna and the children, the somewhat stilted conversation. Like Pete, those words ...now lost in his own doorway... really stood out for me - so much shown in a phrase.

I noticed that there's no mention of Anna going to her mother at first, and wondered if this was deliberate. I felt she should at least have touched her - it seemed odd that she didn't. This would have been a chance to show us Ellen's reaction to a more intimate greeting - to make her more present. But now I've typed 'present' I'm questioning the word. She is present, but in a reduced form, which is as it should be given her condition, yet I felt that you'd missed an opportunity. Gustave is very real, and seems to act as a reflector for Ellen's state of mind.

On first reading I felt I'd have liked the sentence where Ellen is swatting imaginary flies to be shown - for some reason I wanted to know a little of what she was saying at that point. Yet that comes almost immediately, so I have to confess that without seeing it tried I'm not sure.

In the same section as above ...and talking to them all the while... the immediate image was that Ellen is talking to the flies - but then perhaps she is?

I found the ending heartbreakingly perfect.

On a sentence level I noticed a few points (below), that (for me), interrupted the flow slightly - see what you think.

There's a repetition of 'say' very early on, and 'moves' and 'moving' later. She moves towards the kitchen, her hands moving restlessly.

They stand in the hallway, the four of them, and for a moment no one speaks. All are pretending not to be listening to the voice, or voices, coming from the next room. It sounds like someone asking unwelcome visitors to leave. I'd be inclined to cut 'or voices' here; it tends to make one question whether the form of the verb 'sounds' is correct.

...two children either side... This felt like four children. Maybe '...the children either side...' as it's clear there are two.

There are a couple of places where 'dad' is used as a proper noun without an upper case D.

The section where Ellen swears works really well. I felt the atmosphere in the room afterwards, her discomfort as she begins slapping her leg, but wondered if you needed a question mark after the first 'children'. See what you think.

Darren, I've concentrated on sections for improvement and other picky points rather than detailing all the excellent work you have here - hope that's OK by you. You've written a sensitive portrayal of the alienation caused by this condition - a memorable story.


DJC at 14:42 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks a lot, Nell. I think we must have cross-posted, as I've just resubmitted it in the past tense, which I think works better. I've made the alterations as well, as you've suggested. Thanks for your words of advice and encouragement.

Nell at 15:56 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Darren, I read the first version. Yes, I think this works well.


gkay at 09:20 on 17 January 2006  Report this post
Bit late in the day, but just wanted to say that I really liked this piece. You've received plenty of good advice it seems to me and I haven't got anything to add. Like Nell I really enjoyed this particular sentence:

Gustave, a headteacher for twenty years, a housemaster before that, now lost in his own doorway, as if he’d left part of himself back in the sitting room.

A very good image. Great work.


Cholero at 09:37 on 17 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren

Great improvements, it flows much, much better. It feels tight and deliberate now. Only one thing, and I hesitate to be specific, but can't help thinking that in the following...
‘Get off me you stupid man. You stupid, stupid man. Oh why did I marry you and have all those children. Where are they now, those children? Where? I’m no good for any of it, really. Just keep your fucking hands off me.’

...if the 'Just keep your fucking hands off me.' came straight after 'Get off me you stupid man.', it might have more impact. But then, you may not want that effect.

Lovely stuff


Heckyspice at 14:16 on 17 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren,

A belated welcome to the group from me.

A difficult subject but well handled. The decline in the standard of health does have a connection with a decline in the cleanliness of the house I think you could push this further by making the house smell different, it adds depth to the trauma Ellen is facing and would bring the grandchildren closer to Anna when the walk in.

I agree that you should make the fucking hands comments closer to the Stupid man line. If it is designed to shock make it happen earlier.

Best Wishes,


DJC at 16:02 on 17 January 2006  Report this post
You're right - it does work better with the 'fucking' coming earlier. Ta very much for all your advice and encouragement - as I said, I've not written a short story in such a long time, so it's nice to feel that it worked okay.

old friend at 08:14 on 18 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren,

To me this certainly does become a better story for being in the past tense. Present tense can be very effective but I think what the past tense does in your story is to concentrate the reader's mind onto the action and dramatic nature of the story.

Often the use of present tense can make the reader more aware of the writing as opposed to what is written, if you follow me.


Cholero at 13:30 on 18 January 2006  Report this post

I just read this again. It's terrific. I suddenly got the details about how Gustave's personality might be in part responsible for his wife's state of mind.

What follws is IMHO and purely from the position of my personal taste.

I think the story could slim down a bit, and I say this because it's the story's lack of fat generally that makes it compelling. Most of the writing has great deftness, but the occasional faltering in that deftness causes me to disengage as a reader. There are still one or two parts that I feel could be sharper.

Now you can tell me to go take a long running jump.

Again, this is in a context of being truly impressed.


DJC at 14:56 on 18 January 2006  Report this post
I'd never tell anyone to take a running jump, honest! Cheers for the encouragement, Pete - but could you be more specific about the bits of the story that could be thinned? This really interests me, as I'm working hard on being minimal, as it's always the fiction that I enjoy reading most. I think of Rose Tremain's latest, 'The Colour', which is really stripped down and beautifully crafted. Also Raymond Carver's short stories, and some of Hemingway's. So do let me know which bits could be pruned, and I'll see what I can do.

And I'd agree with you Len about present/past - it's much easier to tell a story in the past tense, particularly if you want to keep it pared down.

Cholero at 19:46 on 18 January 2006  Report this post

I read this printed out, and it's wierd what a difference it makes. To the extent that I will take back what I said in my last slightly pompous post. It's perfect as it is.

I love it.



DJC at 06:08 on 19 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Pete! Yes, I wasn't sure what I could strip from it as well.

lieslj at 16:54 on 20 January 2006  Report this post
Lovely girl is a lovely story about an unlovely subject.

For me as a reader, you've only just begun to tell a much fuller story. I hope I'm not advising you to start novel number 11...

I'd contest Pete's initial post to trim the fat. I want much more. I want to know whether Anna knows what is wrong with her mum, whether Gustave does too. If they do know, then I'm curious why she takes her children along with her. I'm curious too about what will happen to Anna. Is this a kind of pre-senile dementia, is it a psychotic episode. They have quite distinct features I understand and could inform the story more.

I also want to see and hear more of Anna's thoughts, anxieties, confusion. She still feels a little flat. When her mother says, ‘Oh I am so wicked, such a terrible terrible person...' she doesn't seem to engage with her - disagree, comfort, cajole. Know what I mean? I hope to feel that something shifts along the line.

Keep at it. You've got a good structure at work.


DJC at 07:21 on 22 January 2006  Report this post
Cheers, Liesl - actually, it'd be number 12, as I'm having thought about the flash I posted, 'Spin Cycle'. Oh well, it'll keep me busy I suppose...

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