In response to the ‘Haunted’ prompt for our next event, writer and First Draft regular David Hartley blogs about the ideas he’s haunted by in his own writing, and shares his short story ‘Fly‘.
Following Abi’s lovely post about being haunted by water (we’ve all been there eh?), I began to think about what it is that haunts my writing. Curiously, I’ve landed on something which I have, up until recently, not been obsessing over but actively avoiding. Give or take a few minor attempts here and there, this subject close to my heart has been effectively banished; locked away in an attic perhaps, too difficult to confront. And yet, on the flip side of the coin, I seriously believe it is the driving force behind my whole approach to fiction.
A lot of my writing is, at a most basic level, about perception and perspective. I’ll take known concepts and ideas and look for new ways in. I’ll try to see things from quirked angles or from unusual points of view and see what the new perspective will bring to bear on classic narratives. Quite soon I realised I was trying to see through the eyes of something not-quite-normal.
My upbringing was not-quite-normal. In many ways, it was perfectly normal but a significant quirked angle made everything just slightly off kilter, just slight too colourful. Not enough to seriously disrupt, but certainly enough to train me up in seeing things from the point of view of an ‘other’. This other is my older sister Jenny, who is autistic.
For ages I’ve wanted to fold autism into my writing but never quite found the right way to do so. I know I want to write about responsibility, about insight, about frustration, about miscommunication. I have various floaty ideas that are slowly starting to materialise. Recently I tiptoed my way into this short piece of fiction and when I crept back out I (and hopefully autism) emerged relatively unscathed.
I’ve been haunted by the spectre of autism for a while but I now feel almost ready to invite it in to the feast. Interestingly, I’ve also chosen to write about ghosts. Make of that what you will.
When Fly died they cut through the walls and pulled me back to Admin. She was crouched in the corner behind pencils pilfered from desks, neatly lined up in a size-order curve.
She calmed down when she realised it was me. She gathered the pencils and stuffed them into her pockets. I didn’t dare argue and shot a look to the Staff to say they shouldn’t either. They sliced us back to the Wilson house, eyes averted, faces blank.
‘Good to see you, Fly,’ I said, with all the right tones.
‘Buzz buzz,’ she said, soothed.
‘Don’t know what to do.’
I let her zigzag the room in the lazy circles that earned her the nickname. Her statement was not directed at me. It was part of the process, part of the figuring out.
I let myself wonder how she died. Painful or quick? Her own fault or no-ones? I thought about Mum and Dad, arranging another funeral. Then I shut it all out of my mind. A distant world, another life. Irrelevant. Fly stopped buzzing and turned away. Now the question was asked, not with words but with her stance.
‘I’ll show you what to do,’ I said.
Night fell and the Wilsons buried into their beds. Worried Staff sliced peepholes from Admin, which didn’t help with my own nerves.
‘Let’s do some colouring-in.’
She froze, her eyes diagonal-right as she processed my statement.
‘Hard or easy?’
‘Easy,’ I said, the only possible response.
We started with Jim, the father. I dropped the sheen over his left eyelid and showed Fly how to do the same to his right. She was very gentle.
‘We’re going to draw his dreams,’ I said. A flutter of panic. I called up the stylus before she could react and the sight of the instrument stilled her. I let her take it and called up another for myself.
‘It’s very easy. Put the pencil into his ear and I’ll tell you what to draw. Watch me.’
I slipped my stylus into Jim’s left ear and the nib appeared behind the sheen. Today Jim’s boss had told him all about his skiing trip and it had made Jim jealous. I drew a sandcastle, a deck chair, a holiday brochure.
‘Please draw a boat, Fly.’ Jim loves fishing.
She shoved her stylus in and giggled while she sketched out triangle sails, a rectangle deck, and big, smiling, circle sun.
The next morning the Wilsons woke to a Saturday and gathered for breakfast, eager to grasp the colours of their dreams. They talked about plans for the summer.
Fly was crouched in the corner, no pencils. She buzzed out a story to her fingers, told them their dreams perhaps. She’d been in a happy mood last night. It wasn’t going to always be that easy, but it was a damn good start.
‘Good to see you, Fly,’ I said.
David Hartley is a short story writer and regular performer at First Draft. He can be explored at davidhartleywriter.com and teased at @DHartleyWriter. He once encountered the ghosts of two children playing in an old cottage in Wales in the middle of the night. He no longer believes in ghosts.
Submit your own response to the prompt, and we’ll publish them on our blog throughout October!