How writers can benefit from writing support groups
A writing friend and I decided to set each other small weekly writing challenges. This was to keep our creativity sharpened.
The prompts can be about anything. “Since there is no judgement or end goal involved it’s all about what one originally loved about writing,” he said. “Just telling a story, recreating a slice of life on the page. And since I think all writers have a need somewhere deep in them to have what they wrote read by someone, exchanging the stories with one another takes care of that need.”
By finding a writing buddy or group, you often leave comfort zones. “Speaking for myself – I tend to stick to certain genres,” he said. “With this you can bet that somewhere in the future there is going to be a prompt that might get me out of my comfort zones.”
We do these exercises weekly. We limit it to a minimum of 500 words and a maximum of 2000. You don’t even have to give much feedback – it’s about leaving comfort zones and writing for fun.
Our latest challenge or writing prompt was: Beyond the Pale and this is the result.
A Good Neighbour by Anthony Ehlers
When they moved in to the house across the street, I was intrigued. I’m curious about new neighbours.
Watering my lavender pots, I saw a big moving truck pull up. I almost drowned the poor plant as I watched as the truck was unloaded with middle-class and comfortable belongings. I shuddered at the gauche leather lounge suite. The mattresses looked new though. A sweaty black man in an overall hoisted a red tricycle over his shoulder. The sun was shining.
Sometimes I hate suburbia’s green middle-class complacency.
The next afternoon, I popped over with a foil-shrouded Pyrex dish. The wife came to the front door, a barefoot and exhausted woman of thirty, blonde hair pulled back in a clumsy ponytail.
She lifted the edge of the foil, smiled. “Smells great,” she said. “I’m Cheryl by the way.”
“Gillian Rimmer,” I said. “Beef and vegetable casserole. It’s just braised steak, I’m afraid—it cooks faster. Just warm it up in the microwave.”
“Where is my microwave?”
Just then, her husband came in through from the backyard. He was shirtless and had a four-year old on his shoulders, while a six-year old in swimming trunks whooped past him into the living room. A dirty gold dog panted in the doorway.
“Babes, we’re going to inflate the plastic pool—”
“When are we going to hang the curtains?” she said irritably. “I need you to help me—”
He saw me. “Hello.”
“Oh, these are my brats, Jason and Travis,” she said. “And the biggest kid is Ross—my husband. This is—?”
“Gillian,” I said. “Gillian Rimmer.”
“I—I live just across the street.”
He smiled as he ruffled his son’s hair.
In the kitchen, Cheryl set down the casserole. “You’re a lifesaver,” she said. “I was going to send Ross out for take-out later.” She licked a spot of gravy from her finger. “Where’s your husband?”
“David works every Saturday,” I said. “He’s a consulting engineer.”
“Ross works shifts,” she said. “He’s just been transferred to the airport, which is why we moved. To be closer to his job.”
From the living room, her kids screamed in delight as they tore out through the French doors in the living room, out into the garden. Ross’s deep laughter resonated in the empty room as he ran after them, while the dog barked like crazy. I felt their excitement on my skin, I shivered. “They’re so noisy,” Cheryl apologised. “Especially Goldie. The boys excite her.”
“They’re just—just boisterous, I imagine. Goldie’s the dog?”
“Yes. You got any? Kids, I mean.”
“No, David and I discussed it before we got married,” I said. “We didn’t want any.”
“This is going to sound cheeky,” Cheryl said, “but do you have any wine round your place?”
I hesitated. “I don’t think so,” I answered. “Wait. I may have some chardonnay in the fridge, I use for cooking. Why?”
“Let’s escape this noise and mess and fetch it.” She grinned. “I could really do with a drink. Do you smoke?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Good,” Cheryl said. “Don’t start.” She linked her arm though mine, leading me across the quiet street to our house. She smelled lightly of sweet perfume and sweat; she wore a toe-ring, her varnish chipped. I liked her, envied her almost—she was so, so— spontaneous.
With me, everything must be carefully and patiently planned.
“Shit Gillian, you have a beautiful home,” she said. “How do you keep it so neat? I know you don’t have kids, but you must have help.”
“No, do it all myself,” I said. “I don’t work, so house-work keeps me busy. I have other hobbies, too, of course.”
“As soon as Jason is in Grade 1, I’m going to find a job.”
I poured a single glass of wine, filled it with ice.
“Aren’t you having? Oh, come on, Gill, you’re not going to let me drink alone. I’ll feel like a total alkie.” She swallowed half the glass and looked around my kitchen.
“Why not?” I let out a giggle. “I’ll make myself a spritzer.”
I opened the fridge to get soda. Behind me, Cheryl said, “Shit—that’s another thing; I’ll have to send Ross to the shops for. Milk! I don’t suppose I could bum a cup from you?”
I set out a small jug, started it to fill it with milk.
“Thank you,” she said. “So what are the other neighbours like? Wait, wait. Before you close the fridge, top me up.”
I poured. “On our right is a lovely family, the DeWets. That would be your left. She’s a school teacher and he sells insurance. But he’s not pushy about it—David took out a policy with him. In fact, Johan was teaching me some basic golf moves at the country club.” I laughed. “I don’t think I had any talent for it.”
“We’ve had him and his wife over a few times for dinner.” I sipped my wine. “On the other side are the Kennedys—David doesn’t like them.”
“They’re a little offish,” I said. “Keep to themselves. They go to that new big church just outside town.”
“Happy Clappies,” Cheryl declared. “I know the type. Ross’s mother is also a reborn—I’ve got no time for her.”
“I think we should keep an open mind about everything,” I said. “I do.”
I heard a car purr into the driveway. Outside the window, a gleaming flash of a blue Volvo. “That must be my husband,” I said. “He’s early.”
If David was surprised to find Cheryl in our kitchen, he was too polite to show it. “This is Cheryl,” I said. “She and her husband Ross moved in across the street—Cheryl, this is my husband David.”
He said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cheryl.”
She said, “Hello, David. You must come over and meet Ross. He’s putting up the pool for the kids.”
“Cheryl has two sons.”
“I see.” David’s eyes fell on my glass of wine as he placed his briefcase on the counter. He doesn’t like me to drink too much. The perfect wife. Perfect façade.
“Two brats,” Cheryl smiled. “Two brats that have given me a helluva headache. Gillian, d’you have any headache pills?”
“Maybe a cup of coffee will help,” David said. He looked at her toe-ring, her dirty feet. He looked at me.
“I’ll just take an aspirin it with some of this delicious wine,” Cheryl declared. “I can’t believe you just use it for cooking. Gonna join us in a glass, David?”
“Afraid not,” he said. “I’m going to chan
ge out of these clothes. Nice meeting you, Cheryl.”
Once he was out of earshot, Cheryl said, “Wow. Does he always dress like that for the office?”
“On a Saturday?” Her eyes widened. “He must love his work.”
I sighed. “He does,” I said. “He does.”
To say thank-you for the casserole, Cheryl and Ross invited us to a braai the following weekend. David didn’t want to go, but I insisted. “What about your diet?”
“I’ll start on Monday again—to refuse their invitation would be rude.”
Afterwards, at home, getting ready for bed, he said, “That Ross sure can put the beer away.”
“Cheryl loves her wine,” I said.
He buttoned his pyjama top to the last button. “Those are the most misbehaved children I’ve ever come across.”
“The youngest one is quite nice,” I said. “I think he’s taken a shine to me.”
David went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. “And Ross has no ambition whatsoever,” he called out. “Do you know what he does?”
“Travis.” I was putting away my ear-rings. “Or is the older one Travis?”
“He’s just a glorified mechanic, maintaining planes, which is just a bus that flies really,” David scoffed. “I don’t know how they afford that house.”
“They seem happy though,” I said. “Cheryl says she’ll get a job once the boys are older. Do you know she came over to borrow my vacuum cleaner; I thought it a bit of a cheek.”
“It was on the market a long time,” he continued. “Maybe they picked it up as a bargain.”
“And on Monday she ran out of coffee.”
David gargled Listerine, spit, rinsed. “If you think about, he is really a grease monkey,” he said. “I’m sure he just has a diploma.”
“He is very good looking,” I said.
David came out the bathroom. “What?” he said. “Don’t you think you should get ready for bed, Gillie?”
He kissed me. His lips tasted like peppermint.
On Wednesday, after my husband left for work, I saw Cheryl leave in a dirty Ford station wagon with her boys.
I knew Ross was working night shift. At ten, I walked over and rang the bell. It didn’t work. I knocked. After a while, a groggy Ross answered. He wore red sleep shorts and black T-shirt.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I—I was hoping to find Cheryl.”
“Gillian, hi.” His hands scrubbed his unshaved cheeks and yawned. “She’s at her mother’s. She takes the kids there so the house is quiet—I can catch some sleep.”
“And here I’ve woken you up!”
“I’m sorry,” I lied.
“It’s OK,” he said. “I’m up now.”
“Let me come in and at least make you a cup of coffee,” I said. “I feel just terrible for having disturbed you.”
“It’s really OK, Gillian,” Ross smiled. “What did you want Cheri for?”
“I—I was just hoping she’d finished with my Pyrex.”
He blinked. “Pyrex?”
“My casserole dish,” I said. “Maybe I could pop in and have a look for it.”
I moved closer. Ross hesitated. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Cheryl hasn’t really cleaned the place much.”
“I’ll just be a minute,” I said.
He stood back and I entered the house, close enough to smell his sleep-warm skin, his breathing. I felt myself tremble.
Ross left the front door open—Goldie bounded out the house and barked.
In the musty-smelling kitchen, I took a few deep breaths. How was I going to do this? Would it be as easy as it had been with Johan? I hated it when it started out on a contrived note.
From the window, I watched Ross. He stood on the front veranda. He lit a cigarette and scratched his balls rather indiscreetly. “Find what you were looking?” he called.
“Not yet,” I said, joining him on the veranda. “Not to worry though. I’m sure it will turn up.”
He watched Goldie snuffle in a bush.
“Can I have a drag?” I asked. “Of your ciggie?”
Ross’s eyes came awake. “You don’t smoke.”
“I keep it a secret it from David,” I said. He handed me the cigarette. “I’m sure you keep little things from Cheryl.”
He gave me a sideways look as I blew out pale smoke. He didn’t respond. I said, “Do I shock you, Ross?”
“No,” he said slowly. “In fact, Cheryl said to me that you were hiding something.”
“She did?” I laughed. “She’s quite bright, little Cheryl.”
“Perfect people are always hiding something. That’s what she said.”
I handed him back the cigarette, fingers touching briefly. “I’m not perfect, Ross,” I said.
“I really need to get back to bed, Gillian.”
He left the front door open.
That night, I made strawberry mousse for dessert. David was delighted.
“This is a treat,” he said. “What happened to your diet?”
I hugged suburban secrets to myself; the sweet ache in my bones. “I think it’s OK to cheat once in a while,” I said.
He laughed. I laughed.
“Seen Cheryl lately?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Do you know something? She hasn’t returned my casserole dish or our vacuum cleaner.”
“That is beyond the pale.” David set down his dessert spoon. “You really mustn’t let people take advantage of you, Gillian!”
“I’m just being a good neighbour.”
Use this phrase – Beyond the Pale – as a prompt to write your own short story.
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