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Creative Nonfiction Fiction Sad

I unwrap the keyboard my grandmother once fell asleep on after she'd drunk a large glass of Southern Comfort, thinking it was low alcohol ginger wine. It's not on the antique desk it had rested on then, it's not in her cosy lounge, or even in her half-timbered house. It's not where my grandfather had found her, slumped over her work, head spinning, eyes closed. He’d laughed when he'd told us how the square shapes of the worn keys had imprinted themselves into her cheek and chin. He'd chuckled about how her glasses were skewwhiff and her fringe was stuck to her forehead. But there was a tinge of worry in his eyes, too. And in mine.


I place the old-style Amstrad keyboard onto my new-style Ikea desk. I blow along the keys and tap the shift button. There are a few scuffs and bits of discolouration on the curved edge that faces me, but the bit of kit is in good nick. I picture my eighty-something grandmother learning to type on it with her slow, wrinkled hands. I say she learned to type. She did. But her octogenarian computing ability did not stretch to punctuation of any kind. My mother and my aunt spent many hours adding that in later. Often to be told that my grandmother had since changed the ending of a story, so all their work was to be redone. Sigh.


elisabeth dashed to the ballroom carrying the bucket of water splashing droplets onto the floor as she ran she hesitated at the door but it was slightly ajar so she could just squeeze inside she kept her back to the east wall sidestepping along the length of the busy room hoping not to be noticed as she drew level with lord beauchamps table haversham the butler caught sight of her and gave chase but elisabeth was too fast for him she reached the fireplace and grabbed the golden carriage clock down from the mantelpiece just as the hands ticked round to midnight but before the westminster chimes began their familiar melody before haversham could stop her she had dropped the clock fully into the bucket of water and a few bubbles had emerged as it glugged to the bottom and it had no hope of chiming ever again she had saved the Devon mansion and with it her family fortune


The next greying dustsheet peels away revealing the faded cream plastic of the monitor unit underneath. I strain as I lift the ancient computer out of its oversized box and onto my desk behind the keyboard. It may have been in my aunt’s loft for over a decade, but she's kept it carefully covered and well protected. There isn’t a spec of dust on it under the outer wrap. It takes me a few moments to connect the keyboard up and fiddle with the plug.


elisabeth hurried to the ballroom sneaking through the tall arched doors left open by a careless servant she ran across the dancefloor pushing guests out of her way spinning them into each other mid waltz creating chaos haversham the butler gave chase but elisabeth was too fast for him she reached the fireplace and grabbed a poker from the stand as the carriage clock hands ticked round to midnight before the westminster chimes began their familiar melody she swiped at the clock with the poker and brought it crashing down onto the parquet floor she smashed the clock with the poker several times until tiny pieces of it had scattered across the ballroom and it had no hope of chiming ever again she had saved the Devon mansion and with it her family fortune


Just as my aunt promised it would, the Amstrad whirs into life as I click the power button in. The screen flickers green and the prompt appears in the top left. I’ve watched a fair few YouTube videos on how to get the word processor working on this machine, but it’s never that easy in real life. My gran managed it. I recall her determination to get her work computerised, how slowly but consistently she typed, how much it meant to her that she mastered the required skills, before her time ran out. I brush a shaking hand across my dampening eyes.


elisabeth hurried down the passageway into the ballroom and dropped to the floor lifting the bottom of the flowing table cloth from the buffet table she crawled underneath hidden by the deep pink cloth and was sure she couldnt be seen making her way along the long side of the room under the fancy food and polished champagne flutes elisabeth prepared to save her family the stroke of twelve she thought the stroke of twelve reaching the far end of the table and being just inches away from the fireplace she scampered out from her hiding place just as haversham the butler appeared by her side she could not let him stop her elisabeth ducked below his reach and grabbed the carriage clock from the mantelpiece before the westminster chimes began their familiar melody she flung the clock to the floor smashing its glass cover then she bent to pick it up and ripped the hands off its face haversham was too late she had saved the Devon mansion and with it her family fortune


Gran had long intended that her children's stories were to be published, and any return they made would form an inheritance for her seven grandchildren. But the truth was that publication was a fair distance off. Even now, fifteen years after she passed away. Twelve years after the floppy discs had been boxed in frustration because it was never clear which was the final version, no one was sure what the next steps were. My mum and aunt had all but given up on getting the stories in shape – it was my turn to try.


elisabeth ran down the passage into the bustling ballroom helping herself to a goblet of wine from a waiters silver tray she ran to the open fire where she stood staring up at the golden carriage clock as its hands ticked round to midnight the lights flickered for a few moments and elisabeth knew what she had to do before the westminster chimes began their familiar melody she flung the wine over the clock then grabbed another glass from the nearest table and flung that too lady beauchamp gasped from behind her and haversham the butler put his hand on her shoulder dragging the girl away from the fireplace his face flushed and his breath fast but he was too late she had saved the Devon mansion and with it her family fortune


After a couple of attempts I get the word processor loaded. It’s funny to think that these three-inch floppies became the save icon on later generations of home PCs. I guess most teenagers now don’t know where that symbol came from even though they use it all the time. I load the first story disc and pick a story to start with – The Clocks. It's the story she told me about on her deathbed, in the last conversation we ever had, as her final days ticked by. She'd hinted at it being very sad, but given no idea of the plot.


I'd been reluctant to leave her that day. I'd wondered what she was doing with clocks and my mind had searched back for a happier memory, one of the grandfather clock she had in her hallway. It had a beautifully painted face and a low, deep chime. But even that was ticking.


elisabeth ran down the passage into the bustling ballroom dodging her way between the dancers and the waiters until she reached the open fire where she stood staring up at the clock face as the hands ticked round to midnight the lights flickered for a few moments and elisabeth knew what she had to do before the westminster chimes began their familiar melody she ripped the clock from the mantlepiece and threw it into the flames there was a roar from the fireplace and the clinking of brass on coal haversham the butler put his hand on her shoulder and dragged the girl away from the fireplace his face flushed and his breath fast but he was too late she had saved the Devon mansion and with it her family fortune


There are six versions of this story on the disc but they are not numbered, they just have slightly different file names. Each one is titled "The Clocks" at the top of the document, though. I guess I’ll read them all and try to pick my favourite ending. It was always the endings she changed. My mum and aunt warned me that this would get irritating and I would probably give up before I got anywhere. But I'm determined to at least try to fulfil my grandmother’s dream of seeing her name in print. Even if there is no return on them, she deserves the satisfaction of her stories being appreciated by somebody sometime. Maybe that somebody is me. Maybe that time is now.


elisabeth ran down the passage into the bustling ballroom dodging her way between the dancers and the waiters until she reached the open fire where she stood staring up at the clock face as the hands ticked round to midnight the lights flickered for a few moments before the westminster chimes began their familiar melody and elisabeth knew she was too late all was lost the room around her disintegrated into fragments of stone and timber as she watched the ladies in their coloured gowns and gentlemen in their top hats and tails turned to dust floating out through the widening gaps in the walls elisabeths efforts were for nothing



I read the six versions of this story, set in coastal Devon, where my grandparents had run a guest house in their younger years. I'm taken back to the harbour at Ilfracombe. My grandad loved to breathe the sea air and always treated us kids to ice cream. We were even allowed to play the one armed bandits, back before they brought in age restrictions for slot machines.


I find the last ending horribly bleak, that Devon mansion fragmenting and decaying before the character's eyes as time ran out. Five different ways the character had destroyed the clock, but in the end she was late. Late. Like my late grandmother. This was the sad story she had spoken of. I remember my gran aging and crumbling, like that mansion, while I watched. I recall the last few times I saw her. She'd been in a care home bed, frail, confused, and a million miles away from a keyboard, but still talking about her stories.


I look up at my own clock. I’ve been sitting here for hours. If all the stories have this many endings, then where should I even start? And how much time do I really have? I glance down at the three boxes of discs, each holding twelve to fifteen floppies. I have no idea how many tales are on each one. I have no idea how many possible endings each story has. It’s approaching 10pm and, as predicted by my aunt, I have got nowhere really. Just like Elisabeth in the last version I read, perhaps I’m fighting a losing battle. That must have been the ending my gran had settled on - it was the only sad option. It gave me no solace, but she always changed the end – and so could I.


I crack open a bottle of Southern Comfort. The liquor warms my throat, but how she mistook it for ginger wine I've no idea. I fall back on happy memories of Devon, they form my own personal 'southern comfort', and I settle in to work at my desk for the night. 


Tick-tock.

Tick-tock.

February 04, 2024 18:55

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11 comments

Alexis Araneta
06:22 Feb 15, 2024

Oooh, I like the treatment you did here with the embedded narrative. In a way, we get to meet the grandma through the story within a story. Great use of imagery too.

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Cedar Barkwood
23:22 Apr 18, 2024

Very clever. I love this idea, and the imagery was amazing! I seem to learn a new word every time I read one of your stories. Great write.

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Brittany Jung
23:14 Feb 12, 2024

It is beautiful to read and learn about people who have passed through the lens of the person still alive. As part of the human experience, we remember people through storytelling, and even though we never meet the grandma, a picture has been painted of who she is and what she loved to do - write.

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Michał Przywara
22:30 Feb 09, 2024

There's lots to like here. We never meet the grandmother directly, but we get a good idea of her, partly through the narrator's recollections and partly through the elisabeth stories. “skewwhiff” - that looked like a typo to me, but it turns out it's not, so I learned a word today :) The lack of punctuation is interesting. On the one hand, we can say it's the mark of someone who just didn't have the technical knowledge or patience, but I think as a device, it goes much deeper. No punctuation makes the sentences run, makes things “sound f...

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23:28 Feb 09, 2024

Just to note - your comments inspired me to strengthen the time theme in the piece a little. Thank you again.

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Michał Przywara
02:13 Feb 11, 2024

Yeah, it seems like a really strong theme here, and it ties everything together. Best of luck with this story!

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22:40 Feb 09, 2024

Thank you so much Michal for seeing so many things in this. The grandmother is (or was) my own grandmother, and it very much felt like time had run out for her. I'll never know the real story of her clocks because it was the one she never wrote down, she did tell me about it, in a way, on her deathbed, and that's why it came to mind when I wrote this. I've been told I don't write much that's personal to me. This is an attempt to rebalance that a little. But I find it hard to capture things so close to home. Your comments reassure me that I d...

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Jon Casper
10:11 Feb 05, 2024

After seeing Creative Nonfiction and Fiction in the story categories, I was curious how you would pull that off, but it makes sense: There is a creative nonfiction piece, into which you spliced versions of the grandmother's fiction piece. I'll bet it was a challenge writing with no punctuation or capitalization, fighting that automatic impulse. (Is it significant that Haversham is the only word capitalized in the grandmother's first block of text?) Fascinating to see the changes between the versions. I liked the construction of alternating...

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20:16 Feb 05, 2024

Thank you Jon, helpful notes as always - I will edit.

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Mary Bendickson
03:11 Feb 05, 2024

A little Southern Comfort will comfort you through the night working on the ending. My husband tells me all the time to name or label my drafts better. I am computer illiterate but this is why I should do better.

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Kevin Marlow
02:37 Feb 16, 2024

How relatable. My granny left a pile of papers, typed in red ink since it was the only one on the typewriter that worked (I tested it as a child). My cousin had first cracks at the house after she died but only remembers keeping stories about her. I would love to publish her poems, but they may only live on through the influence they had on me. At least some have records, my history has been relegated to the circular file 13.

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