The main part of the tale was told to me by a friend who had set off on a trip through North Africa somewhere - maybe Morocco, but I can't now remember. It might even have been Spain, but it doesn't matter - somewhere hot and dusty, where more adventurous, or just curious, tourists go off the beaten track and where there are conscript soldiers having to cross the country to get to and from their barracks. I was familiar with them myself from a long trip through Morrocco in 1989, and from trips in Turkey in 1988 and throughout the early nineties, when I lived there. Mostly the soldiers were rather forlorn but very friendly, and, in general, not well educated enough to know English that well. We usually communicated via universals like the sharing of food and cigarettes. I was often advised not to either pick up hitchers nor hitch, in both Morocco and Turkey, but my only concession to this was never to do it at night - all kinds of dangers were promised if I ignored this advice - though I did, sometimes, if I misjudged times or distances. Apart from some angry words with a hitcher, once, and a driver once, which I felt could have developed into a full-blown row if it had gone any further, my experiences were always unremarkable, and I'm just mentioning them here to show that the story my friend told me had a background with which I was familiar. But anyway, as I said, I wrote it, so could have just made it all up anyway!
The two main elements of my friend's story featured the soldiers robbing her and her pals, and the man out on the beach arranging stones to some scheme of his own. There was a whole minibus full of people on the trip, but as it's a short story I decided I had to keep the number of characters down, so I made it two couples in a jeep. My friend's story very much hinged on the dynamics of leadership in a group of people who were on the face of it egalitarian, idealistic about promising to share the work and responsibilities of a trip like this, but never actually fulfilling their share. I left out some incidents (which now makes me think it was indeed Morocco) when my friend repeatedly warned the others not to buy dope from just anybody; she was shouted down repeatedly, and they were ripped off repeatedly, even arrested once in a police scam worked out with the local dealers – the dealers get the money for the dope, the police get a ‘fine’, and the dope is handed back to the dealers, so it can all start again with the next gullible crowd of tourists. They still managed to blame her, despite her warnings. In fact, as the trip went on, she saw that they desperately wanted a leader or mother figure, but only to moan about, talk back at, and by which to feel hard done by, so that they could all feel like ‘proper’ rebels; by the end of it she felt like the spoilsport auntie of rebellious and sulky teens.
The characters remind me of those in TC Boyle's wonderful novel Drop City, the plot of which focuses on hippies in the sixties who take their 'back to the land' movement quite literally, and go to a remote part of Alaska to live off their wits and the land; not being particularly well-equipped with wits, the land proves formidably resistant to being lived-off. The comparison I make here is that many of the people in Drop City had a kind of self-assuredness that was untested against any actual test; it's the same with my characters, apart from Carrie, who are basically out of their depth, but still don't appreciate being rescued by her. Carrie is out of her depth too, to a certain extent, or is close to it; it's only the fact that she has the character to face the challenge which gets her through it.
The other story was told to me by a vegetarian friend who went to a restaurant abroad somewhere - again, I can't now remember where. The incident is more or less how I've written it: a child waiter with gloves too big, a piece of raw meat under an omelette. My friend thought it was sort of funny, though one of his friends was put off their own dinner because of it. The only difference I've made is that, when my friend complained, the manager paced grimly all over the restaurant yelling in turn at each and every member of staff who could possibly have handled the dish, and made the chef come out and say sorry, like that Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers. Even so, my friend thought this was an act, a way of entertaining the manager, the staff and the other people in the restaurant - sort of, it's a slow night, so let's wind up the veggies. Now I’m thinking that it might have been funnier to depict this, but the story was getting a bit long, and I wanted this interlude to be sinister, rather than comic. I don't know now: reading this story again after so long, I feel that it lacks humour, and perhaps could do with some comedy, so I may rewrite and add that part one day, and see how it turns out.
Lots of very short paragraphs, I notice, which I don't usually like in other people's writing. I guess they work here, which at least should make me more tolerant of them when I see them in other stories.
I also sketched out a big scene in which Carrie confronted her friends, and had her telling them what she thought of their cowardice, their lack of togetherness, their willingness to blame her for everything that went wrong, but I guess this should have been implicit in the story anyway.
I wrote it very quickly, possibly all in one go, I see from the original draft of it in a notebook, on 30th July 2000. I don't think I did much work on it for a while, wasn't convinced of its worth. I certainly showed an early typescripted draft to fellow writers at Out of Reality, the writers' group I used to go to from 1999-2001, and remember some of them liking it, and getting some good advice about it.
I worked on it further and had it in shape by the time I did my MA at Goldsmiths in 2001-2002, and submitted it as one of my pieces of assessed work. Some of the tutors said, among other things: 'effective characterisation through reaction to situations, the tone is cool and suspenseful, strong plot which impacts upon the structure (Eh? Don't understand that even now), a strong narrative, should open with the second sentence (I can't remember if I took that advice or not), but it is unclear how the different elements connect with the body of the narrative.' All these helped it towards the final version. It first came out in Ambit magazine, in 2002, and is now out again in Literally Stories, and you can read it here.