He had been handsome once, but now his hair was greying and unkempt, his face reddened by the elements or drink or some combination of the two. Still there was a twinkle, a lively curiosity in the dark eyes.
‘Hello, little one.’
His voice was roughened, gravelly, but his smile was wide as he watched the child bouncing to the back of the bus, keen to sit on the ‘cool seats.’
‘Do you like school?’ he asked and, when answered in the affirmative, seemed pleased, adding that he hoped she would go to university as well. ‘I never had the chance to go,’ he said, smiling at her. Then he looked at me. ‘I only really learnt to read properly when one of me ex girlfriends sat down to teach me.’ As he recounted his story it was without resentment – simply acceptance of a life lived and choices made, sweet appreciation of opportunities missed that now appeared again, manifested in a small girl.
‘What did you think of the man on the bus?’ I asked the gorgeous child as we walked, hand in hand, to dance class.
‘Nice,’ she said. ‘He was curious.’
Sometimes it takes a child to see to the heart of things.
I think that taking in your surroundings and the people you meet is a huge part of making your writing believable. Many years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret Atwood. My friend Mark and I, two nervous high school students, interviewing one of the greats of Canadian (and world) literature – can you imagine? But luckily she was wonderful, absolutely charming and just as interested in us as we were in her. She was particularly taken with the tights I was wearing (from memory they were white and footless – bear with me, it was the eighties) and asked me several times if they had a special name. Then she explained that she kept the people she meets in a ‘filing cabinet’ in her mind, so she could call them up whenever she needed a character for her stories.
What a wonderful way to describe something so important to every writer, and a lesson to us all to remain engaged with the world around us.