At some point writers will always be asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ If I tried to answer that I would probably never finish, and consequently never write another story. This post is in response to a different question that I have been asked- about the details that end up in my stories – how do you do that? It is an attempt to replicate exactly the stream of (un?)consciousness that leads me to pick out the story from the detail, because for me it’s that way round, and the questions I answer for myself as I explore the possibilities.
I wake with an image:
An old woman on a train is thinking about cheese.
So I start thinking about cheese.
The cheese is something obscure, possibly Italian, from the mountains would be good.
So now the old woman might be Italian, and the cheese is in a basket on her knee and she is older than I first thought and her face is very lined and craggy, like the mountains, so that’s probably why.
And she is tiny and thin, but strong and implacable. I can feel the strength of her arms as she grips the basket, and because I can feel how much effort it takes to keep the basket steady, I now know this about the basket: The basket is large and flat and heavy and covered in a white cloth that contrasts with the black of her apron (so she wears her apron on the train? This is either somewhere backward or it’s a while ago. Or is it a coat? What time of year is it?) It’s not plain black; there is a single-stitch-thick stripe to it in grey and another in dark red. Very good quality, strangely; it must be her best apron.
The sun is bright, reflecting off the cloth to light her face making the lines more obvious (or less?) and the light flickers with the movement of the train through banks of trees. Banks is the wrong word, I must check what I mean.
So, it’s sunny and goat cheese doesn’t happen much in winter (oh, it’s goat cheese, okay…) let’s say September then. Heavy wool stockings. She’s been trying to keep the cheese cool, but she’s fallen asleep and not noticed the sun directly on the muslin and the cheese’s smell is beginning to rise into the trapped air of the rail carriage.
This is quite an old train, wooden seats. It rattles as it goes round a bend. That’s the first sound I’ve been conscious of but now I’ve heard it I recognise it: I’ve been on this train, up in the Cevennes going through a plantation of bamboo of all things, but that doesn’t fit, I don’t want bamboo, or the Cevennes. And who carries quantities of cheese in a basket by train these days? Probably still do in some places, but I really think this is Italy, so this might be pre-war, or during the war?
And if it is during the war, is Granny hiding something under the cheese? Is she allowing her ‘sleep’ to make a stench to discourage the wrong kind of attention? That goaty smell? The train isn’t crowded but there’s a murmur of voices. The other people in the carriage are: young woman, middle-aged woman with a child ten-ish, a boy? 2 soldiers, standing even though they don’t need to, casting a threatening shadow, armed.
Granny is wearing a black straw hat a bit like Mary Poppins, but no bird. Normally she’d wear a scarf, this is her ‘town’ hat it is 40 years out of date.
She must be boiling in all that black. Is the heat keeping her awake or sending her to sleep? I can’t keep calling her granny, she needs a name, something traditional in sense… Constanza maybe, but that’s too operatic. Matilde. Matilde sounds like someone who would rear goats and smuggle messages under her muslin cloth.
Where did I start? I woke with an image: an old woman on a train was thinking about cheese.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2011