Ahh… it’s 1st December – the first day of the Festive Season. Just like I’ve previously written in Don’t Think… Just Write! post, there is something magical about Christmas, and the lead-up to the biggest holiday season of the year.

I wish I could say that it had something to do with the changing of the leaves and the temperature drop, but alas, living Down Under, the ‘changing of the leaves’ (or in this case, the Jacaranda tree) happened in September, when the season changed from winter to spring. And instead of cooling down, today in Down Under marked the first day of summer.

Nevertheless, there’s something in the air as the clock struck midnight on December 1st that always perk up my spirit from the long slug that was November. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that school finishes on the first week of December, and to me, it means a significant reduction in the amount of phone calls I have to take at work, giving me more ample time to get to those outstanding work I’ve been meaning to get to all-year round (like filing!). Perhaps it’s the fact that each shopping centres compete against each other in erecting the tallest, biggest, brightest Christmas tree and ornaments; or that the Christmas carols they have been playing since October have been further ramped up, and replaced more and more with choirs singing or real-life bands playing. Or perhaps, it was just as simple as people’s spirits everywhere being lifted up in anticipation of celebrating the birth of Christ.

To mark the first day of the last month of the year, I have changed the look of my blog accordingly. And of course, everything I post this month will naturally be Christmas-related.

What about you? What does the lead-up to Christmas mean for you? Do you get excited as November turns to December?

Today, I was given a golden opportunity to do a fifteen-minute presentation on my favourite subject to some of my fellow colleagues – my passion for writing.

To start of with, silly me, thinking that I was all prepared, forgot one simple fact; that Macbook Air didn’t have a direct connection like PC-based laptops do to a data projector, and arriving at the venue on-time, I had no time to source this little device connecting my Macbook to the data projector from anywhere else.

No matter – I have a back-up plan. Out came another device I have armed myself with; my trusty iPad. So I started showing my website on the iPad and asked my colleagues to pass this around whilst someone kindly sourced another laptop for me. Connected that up to the data projector, got visual, sweet! Opened Safari… only to be greeted with that (damn!) ‘Page cannot be found’ and ‘There is a problem in connecting to your Internet connection’ messages. No, no, no, NO, NO!!!!!

What is it they say in show business? ‘The show must go on’? Well then… I ‘ignored’ the technological problem and dived into telling the fellow Secretaries what started my love affair with my scribbling pen to paper, what I’ve accomplished in the past five years since, and what prompted me to delve more wholeheartedly into creating and maintaining social media presence, being unpublished notwithstanding.

You know, I considered myself being not as bad as I used to be in public speaking. I used to always have to type up my speech, memorised it days (if not weeks) prior to the big day, and refer to it from time to time during my presentation. These days, bullet points outlining the main topics were all I needed.

Still, having known the topic of my speech SO well, I could feel a nervous sweat broke out within the first few minutes of standing in front of about 25 of my colleagues; some of it culminating just below my eyes, blurring my glasses I was compelled to take them off and wiped the moisture away.

But I did get through it, and had tremendous fun doing it, even if:
1. At times, I spoke a little too softly for people to hear. It has always been something I need to consciously work on.
2. Whilst I explained to them the dream that started Eleanor I, and read an excerpt from said book, I didn’t think to explain the premise of Eleanor I and/or II (though perhaps, the excerpt would hopefully shed a light on that? Entice the audience to want to know more about the book? You know, the whole ‘not giving too much away’ point of view and all that?).

It is something I need to work on and improve between now and Monday, when I’m reprising this presentation to another bunch of my colleagues. To my very first group of audience today, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your time, and I hope I have managed to captivate/entertain you in some capacity.

As writers, we all tend to mull over each word, each sentence, each paragraph, making sure that one flows from the next; that the adjective we’ve chosen aptly reflect the mood of the character or the atmosphere of the situation. We consult our trusty Thesaurus over our word choices; sometimes, we even (gasp!) select a whole section we’ve deemed unworthy and press the ‘Delete’ button, or rip pages of handwriting we simply believe are made of utter crap.

Not so long ago, I came across the concept of Freewriting, written by Sue Healy. She describes a writing exercise in which you put whatever that first comes into your mind onto the screen, dismissing grammar and structure. It’s a warm-up exercise; a chance to stretch and flex those muscles inside your head; a great way to ignore those voices criticising your every literary move and just… write.

So here is my debut effort of it, dedicating three whole minutes writing whatever it is that comes into my mind. In 3… 2… 1…!

Sitting in front of my computer, with no sound other than the whirring of the air-cond above me, my husband snoring in the bedroom, it suddenly dawned on me that it’s nearing Christmas. And there is something magical as December approaches. While Christmas carols have been playing in big department stores since October (something I don’t quite get), nearing December, I can’t help but get swept up in the whole festivities. I love seeing the Christmas decorations each department store puts up, the baubles hanging from the Christmas tree branches, the bows on the displayed gifts under it. Nearing December, I always put on my personal Christmas compilation, imagining myself standing in the middle of snow-covered ground, wearing one of those thick, fur-lined red suit, watching the snow falls from the sky.

I must say that writing this was somewhat therapeutic. And I can definitely use that, almost as is, for a passage in one of my books. Go on – I dare you – if you haven’t tried this before… give it a go!

This book came highly recommended by a few of my friends, stating the old adage of ‘once you’ve gone past the first page, you wouldn’t want to put it down’. The synopsis at the back cover of the book didn’t reveal much, except this:

January 1946: Writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.

1. ‘Hook you in’ from the first page.

I must say that I had my skepticism about reading  a book that was narrated entirely of correspondence, from start to finish. It started… somewhat mellow, I must say, and lacked the punch line that made me go, “Oh my God! I have to find out what happens next!”

2. Be so riveting it keeps reeling you in, and you find it difficult to put the book down.

This is how unenthused I was about this book. I had had it for a year, managed to read the first 3-4 pages of it when I first bought it, put it down with a thought to ‘pick it up later’, and forgot all about it. When I did pick it up again, for the first few pages, I had to keep telling myself, “keep at it. Maybe it will pick up soon and surprise you.”

3. Convey a powerful message and/or educate me on topical issues.

Surprise me it did. As the book went on, it described the aftermath of the war, from a writer’s perspective living in London. It also revealed of the German occupation during World War II on Guernsey Channel Island, near France. It told in details of arrest and imprisonment of a Guernsey Channel Island resident for being caught of hiding and treating a German slave.

I have always been fascinated by anything written about World War II – in history books, reference materials, fiction, and otherwise. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it’s a combination of being interested in finding out how tough things could get during the war, making me appreciate the abundance I have in my life currently. I’m also intrigued at how people cope at the extenuating circumstance they may find themselves in; how they would behave, and act the way they normally wouldn’t had they not been caught in the middle of a war. And I’m always hoping for a ‘fairy tale’ aftermath – you know, the kind that the main character(s) doesn’t go into deep depression. Yes, they may have their trauma, their nightmares; yes, it’s definitely understandable that they refer to it from time to time, but on the whole, I do hope that they have the support of spouse/family/friends/relatives, and little by little, they can put what’s been done to them behind them and move on.

4. Produce A Great Piece of Writing.

I have to say that I now have a new appreciation of letter-writing. I had my doubts about how the characters would come across simply through letters (I mean, you know… there are only so many ‘I’s’ you can take before you’re branded self-absorbed), but through incidents, you get to see what Juliet Ashton’s like, and I find myself ‘digging’ her character wholeheartedly. Who wouldn’t throw a bloody teapot (with tea in it) at a nosy reporter trying to get you to admit to a whole bunch of false allegations? Who wouldn’t throw your fiancée out on the street for emptying your bookshelves only so that he could display his trophy?

I can so relate to her matter-of-fact cheekiness. “I do have a telephone. It’s in Oakley Street under a pile of rubble that used to be my flat.” And her sense of child-rearing is refreshing. “I knew that all children were gruesome, but I don’t know whether I’m supposed to encourage them in it. I’m afraid to ask Sophie if Dead Bride is too morbid a game for a four-year-old. If she says yes, we’ll have to stop playing, and I don’t want to stop. I love Dead Bride.”

5. Have A Well-Rounded Conclusion.

Yes, it did, but… I guess this is where a third-person narration, with details, like other normal books, would benefit. You know, I find the male main character nothing out of the ordinary; to quote, he’s “quiet, capable, trustworthy… and he has a sense of humour… let him walk into  room, and everyone in it seems to breathe a little sigh of relief.” From little snippets here and there, you realise that he’s watching Juliet from afar, secretly in love with her. But I would like, no, LOVE, to be able to get into his head more, to know what he was thinking rather than reading everyone else’s observations, to know when, exactly, did he fall in love with Juliet, and why he is so reserved and never says anything (something happened when he was five, ten, twelve? His parents didn’t show affection, ever?). These little details would have provided a better lead-up to the conclusion, I guess.

6. Leave a long-lasting impact and/or drive me to pick up again for a re-read.

Having written my point in number 5, yes, perhaps I will pick it up again for a re-read sometime in the future, if only for no other reason than to pick apart every word Dawsey Adams (the male main character) has written to Juliet and try find any hidden meaning/feelings he may convey (goodness, I feel like Mrs Marple they referred to). It’s an easy read, not as heavy and topical as others I’ve read, but it’s still an enjoyable read.

From the moment I began writing the ‘Lizzy & Michael’ saga, I knew I wanted to cover at least ten years of their lives. For the longest time, I was adamant that there was only to be one giant book of ‘Lizzy & Michael’, divided into four main groups; high school, college, growing up and now (now being the last 2 years of the ten-year span covered). That was until I reached page 1284 and Microsoft Word kept crashing on me, and I was somewhat forced to split Lizzy and Michael into four books.

Tonight, history has repeated itself. Just like every new novel I started, I was adamant that there would be one book, and one book only. My current work-in-progress, Evelyn, currently unfinished, has already clocked up over 175,000 words. As research has told me that agents and publishers wouldn’t even consider anything that’s beyond 120,000 words (unless, of course, your name is Diana Gabaldon!), I had had to re-strategise.

I was trying to do something different with this novel; picking up a leaf from several of Jodi Picoult’s novels, I was going to do a ‘Now’ and ‘Then’, in which Evelyn was constantly having ‘flash backs’. The story would focus on her choice of profession as a CIA agent, a drastic career change she had made from being a music teacher. She would then recall her dark, haunted past, which include being raped by a guy two years her senior in high school and surviving a home invasion by criminals who had been put in jail by her then policeman boyfriend.

Just like my previous books, the main male character had an equal first place as each of the female protagonist I’ve created. In this case, it was Nicholas, a fellow CIA analyst whom Evelyn met at the Agency’s Christmas party. So far, his most prominent story revolved around the fact that his Father passed away when Nicholas was sixteen, after battling pancreatic cancer for a number of years (a back story that would become very relevant towards the end of the book).

With all these going on, going back and forth between past and present just became a bit too complicated, and if I started getting confused, I guess I’d have no hope in convincing the readers that this was the right way to go for my novel.

So there was a moment of meltdown tonight, thinking that perhaps, I would have to discard the whole novel and start from scratch again; a prospect that invited a look of utter horror from my husband and a lot of angst from myself. But then, I had a bright, light bulb moment to discard the concept of writing the whole book switching between past and present. I decided to stick with the same way I’ve been writing, and split the massive 175,000-plus book into smaller ones.

(Someone help me!) Evelyn is now three books; Evelyn I concentrates on how she would overcome the traumatic experience from being raped in high school and from the home invasion, making her rethink whether being a music teacher was the correct career path in terms of being able to protect and defend oneself. Evelyn II focuses on her experiences as a CIA agent, and meeting Nicholas Walker; a man whom has managed to chase her haunted dreams away. Evelyn III looks at how she deals with the latest blow life has to offer her; one that no amount of counselling and unconditional love can cure.

Am I happy with my decision? You bet I am! And as soon as I thought of it, I wondered why I’ve spent days fussing over this; why I spent so much time contemplating to start the whole story from scratch. And it also means that there are a lot more thorough, detailed developments to be written without breaking the word-limit, which is something I am extremely excited about and looking forward to.

How do you calm your inner being in preparation to the night-time slumber? I’ve read of a fictional character once whom religiously brush her thick golden locks to the count of one-hundred (and not another brush stroke less!). I’ve known some who need to have a mandatory glass of warm milk, tea, or even wine. Others rub lotions to the cracked skins of their hands/feet. I myself have, from time to time, prop myself up with a good book (which can backfire when you want to finish just one chapter… and another… and the next…)

Soon after the first draft of Eleanor I was finished, and I was so excited to show it off to anyone who cared to read it, my husband invented a new bedtime ritual for us. Not an avid reader himself, he thought it’d be a good idea for me to read Eleanor I to him. And so began my days (or should I say nights) of story-telling, reading him my very own story. To say I was highly self-conscious would be an understatement. I was extremely nervous, which hindered the flow and clarity of the story.

At least it kept him from doing this...!

It was during such a night that my husband, being so absorbed with the story (now that I have been able to successfully adopt the tone of an articulate BBC news presenter ;)), suggested that I wrote Eleanor II. See, initially, Eleanor I was supposed to be a stand-alone novel; it was supposed to only be titled ‘Eleanor’, with an epilogue that gives the reader a glimpse of her life a little under two decades later. But my husband remarked, “you do know that the story doesn’t have to end there?”

I might leave that sentence hanging so that I don’t give away the biggest spoiler. For a while though, every time he brought this up, I was simply shaking my head vigorously, adamant that Eleanor I would be a stand-alone book. That I was only going to write this one book, and nothing else.

But it was a voice unwilling to be ignored, and the more I denied it, the more sparks of new ideas burst inside my head, urging me to pick up that pen and put words down on paper once more. What I thought was to be of permanent vacation from writing became a short break of less than a week, to both my dismay and amazement.

So here is the opening section of Eleanor II. I don’t think that this was the very first section I’ve written of Eleanor II, but it was one I wrote when the stars were aligned; where inspirations were bursting at the seams of my mind, and words came to me easily.

The waves of memories hit her as soon as she swings the door open. She took one step forward into the house, standing in the middle of her dining room, watching her younger self, perhaps around eight, serving her Father dinner for the first time. He had wrinkled his nose slightly upon seeing the charcoal-burnt chicken and over-steamed vegetables, but cut and chomped through the tough meat nonetheless, smiling at her as if it was the most delicious meal he had ever eaten.

She ran her fingers lightly along the length of the table, watching passively at her dust-smeared fingers.

“A little dust wouldn’t harm either of us, you know,” her Father had said.

“But it might smear the beige shawl I’m knitting for Jane,” Eleanor had argued as she vigorously wiped the table after dinner one night. “Anyway, isn’t it time for you to go to the pub?” she had asked.

“What if I don’t want to go to the pub?” He had challenged her, his brow rising comically.

“I could always push you out the door again,” she had replied, putting her hands on her waist, winking at him slightly.

“Any other Father could have beaten his child for being so disrespectful,” he had retorted, jokingly rolling his eyes.

Eleanor had thrown the cloth carelessly on the table and approached him, wrapping her arms around his neck and giving him a gentle peck. “I’m glad you’re not like any other Father,” she had whispered in his ear, moments before she nudged him gently, pushing him out the door and closing it behind him. She had walked to the kitchen, giggling as she watched her Father disappeared down the hill before she went to her room and took out the emerald-green gloves she had been knitting for him.

Eleanor carelessly rubbed her dust-smeared fingers on her black gown, belatedly realising it would leave a slight smudge. She smiled as she imagined the look of helplessness the servants would give her once she returned to the Palace. Slowly, she paced to the kitchen, turning around slightly to see her at twelve, fifteen, and again at eighteen, sitting opposite her Father, frowning as she studied the chessboard, thinking of her next move. Gradually, her image began to disappear, replaced by a slightly taller man bearing the same expression, with her standing in the kitchen, observing her Father and Patrick playing chess as unobtrusively as she could whilst occasionally stirring the mutton soup. She had emitted a little shriek as she misjudged where the ladle was and burned the tip of several fingers on the boiling hot cauldron instead, breaking both her Father’s and Patrick’s concentration as both of them looked up abruptly from the chessboard, frowning, and later on mocking her clumsiness.

She opened the back door and descended down the three steps of stairs, looking away from the empty clothes line to find the illusion of her Father standing at the second stairs, his eyes twinkling with both mischief and excitement.

“Guess what has just arrived for you?” he had teased her, making her blush in embarrassment as she carefully hung the sheets. She had never replied to his mockery; had simply stared at him and raised one half-exasperated brow until her Father gave in and waved the letters bearing Patrick’s Royal seal; the letters Patrick had written to her from Norway.

I have been MIA a bit this week. Have had three conferences I had to attend to down the Coast, running simultaneously during Thursday and Friday in different venues. And even though two out of these three conferences were held in the same venue, I found myself running (not walking, literally running) from Level 3 to Level 1, back and forth. I even jokingly said to a few participants I’ve come to know very well that I had been hanging out for these two days; that I had been purposely pigging out earlier in the week, knowing that making sure these three conferences run smoothly will require a lot of exercise on my part – a week’s worth of exercise crammed in two days 🙂 And I wasn’t exaggerating to reveal that in a much cooler, air-conditioned hotel, where some participants were complaining about being cold, I was sweltering!

No Longer the Perfectionist

You know, I used to invest quite a great deal of energy, focus and concentration into these conferences. Put it blatantly, I used to be quite the perfectionist when it comes to organising events such as these. It’s fair to say that apart from writing, this was another passion of mine.

I’m not saying that I no longer love organising events, but I think I’ve gone through enough of these to be able to look at the whole conference with a more realistic lens. In the month leading up to the conference, in addition to keeping track of three sets of accommodation bookings, various consultants coming to which cluster on which day, I also still had to keep on top of other aspects of my job. Moreover, all three of my bosses, the main facilitator of each conference, has also been running off their feet, travelling from one school to another, one office site to the next. It called for more creative approaches in trying to catch them up, because waiting until they got back to the office would be a case of ‘too little too late’. It called for more authoritativeness on my part, choosing the catering menus with very little to no consultation with said bosses. Everything that I usually have prepared way in advance became last-minute, apologising profusely the Event Coordinator at the venues and begging them for a 24-hour extensions on deadlines.

The other fundamental thing I’ve learnt, having organised these conferences for four years, was that no matter how much you’ve organised beforehand, down to the last, minuscule detail, things just tend to happen on the day requiring you to adapt and think quick on your feet. A case in point – I had organised for the AV technician of the venue to set up the data projector and the screen for it to project to; have asked him to prepare for a hand-held microphone to be available for my boss. I thought I was oh-so-organised, until half-way through the prayer I was flicking through the powerpoint presentation of, when I realised that said prayer required music to be played, and therefore needed connection to the speaker.

Well, we were already in the middle of it, so calling the AV technician to connect to the sound and disrupting a solemn prayer would be very inappropriate. So my brain quickly switched to quick thinking mode, placing the hand-held microphone to where the sound from the laptop was coming from to amplify the sound. In-between people ‘reading’ parts of the prayer, I dove to the other end of the room and grabbed the portable speaker I had armed my boss with (always have a contingency plan, my friends – another fundamental lesson I’ve learnt). When I wasn’t flicking through stories on powerpoint for all participants to read, I connected cables from speaker to laptop, to power board. And by the time the second song needed to be played… it was as if the speaker was always connected to the laptop, ready to go. Stuff up? What stuff up? 😉

Time To Relax, And Honour A Dear Friend

In the midst of all the running around, on Thursday night, I took some time out and had dinner with a cluster of principals and one of my bosses. I had a conversation not so long ago about this very topic with a colleague doing the same job as mine (for different bosses). Fair enough, it was ‘dinner’, but we, as Event Organiser, would sometimes still be called for duty, from making sure that the pre-dinner drinks were charged accordingly to the master account to ensuring that the venue hadn’t forgotten about the special dietary requirements participants needed. But all in all, especially when partners were allowed to join, I looked at the whole occasion as a treat, a chance to actually put my feet up after running around all day, enjoy the company of people I have spoken countless times on the phone throughout the whole year, and show off my husband.

It was also a chance to relive the tales and memories of a very dear colleague – one who used to be the boss of this particular cluster; one who had become the Director for the Centre I currently work at for a short six weeks; one who passed away unexpectedly in February last year from a sudden heart attack.

The pain from losing him had lessened, though it will never heal properly. There’s always a void in my heart, an ache from knowing that he was taken so soon from us all. On such occasions, and from time to time in between, I recall his crooked-yet-cheeky smile, his famous saying of “Eat concrete and get over it!” when the going gets tough. I unlocked my personal memory box and remembered the conversation he and I once had regarding a decision I had made.

Me: I’ve done some thinking over the weekend.
Him: Hope you didn’t do it too hard. Don’t wanna hurt your brain.

With that in mind, and countless other wonderful memories of him, a bunch of us headed to the hotel bar downstairs, raised our glass of Drambuie, and toasted in your honour. You may be gone physically, but your legacy lives on.

Home Sweet Home

It has become our own personal tradition that when my husband tagged along with me on these conferences, we stayed for at least an extra night after the conference was officially declared over to give me a chance to enjoy the hotel facilities and its surroundings; to dip into that pool I’ve walked past a thousand times; to sit by the balcony and admire the crashing waves of the nearby beach; to go barefoot and feel the sand of said beach.

In the busyness of the past two days, I simply didn’t have time to spare any thought to my writing. Any writing-related activity was buried so far down somewhere inside I still haven’t managed to find it yet. And so as wonderful as stain in a hotel had been, I was also more than happy to return home, to set sight on my writing couch, hoping that by sitting on it and gazing up to the ceiling, my muse will slowly make an appearance.

 Towards the conclusion of Eleanor II (there will be a separate post on how Eleanor II was conceived), I had another vivid dream. Like Eleanor I, it was only a snippet, flashing in my mind’s eye amongst fragments of other incoherent dreams, like a ball of laundry.

The dream was simple. A girl was standing near the entrance of what was unmistakably a mansion-like house, about to push the floor-to-ceiling door open when her male friend called out, standing on the third or fourth step of a spiralling marble staircase behind her.

“Come to the dance with me.”

It was all the guy said. But there was so much in what he didn’t say that gave me a bundle of information. Like the tender way he had stared at the girl, indicating that they had been friends for a long time. A flint of yearning and hope in his eyes suggesting that perhaps, this wasn’t the first time he had asked her out; and that the girl had, for whatever reason, rejected his offer in the past.

I mulled over this dream for far longer than I did with Eleanor I, because back then, I was still finishing the first draft of Eleanor II, and I thought that working on two novels simultaneously, on top of full-time work, would be the fastest way to kill myself. I have read how some authors actually thrive on working on multiple projects simultaneously; how they could actually feed off those numerous projects and prevent writer’s block, but most of those authors’ main job is writing.

So I persevered with working on one novel at a time. I had a little (I’m pretty sure it lasted about 3 days) break in-between in which I didn’t pick up that pen and piece of paper before Elizabeth Hartley (Lizzy) and Michael Bradford were born. And even though by the time I finished writing about them in its entirety, there were four books recounting the ten-year span of their lives and friendship, and this scene ended up being in book III, this was the section that started it all.

“Tall, white chocolate mocha with cream and nutmeg sprinkle on top,” he confirmed, handing her the slim Starbucks foam cup. She tore her gaze away from the tree in front of her, looking up from the bench she was sitting on, her earlier thought dispersing somewhere into thin air. He reached into his jeans pocket once she took the cup away from his hand, opening the lid at the same time he produced a sachet of sugar and handed her the spoon before sitting down next to her.

She raised the cup to her lips, sipping her daily addiction as she refocused her attention back to the tree, studying it intently as the soft breeze blew over, rustling the leaves and swaying the thin, dry branches back and forth, the whole tree dancing against the pitch-black, starry sky. Beside her, Michael slouched lazily, resting one arm along the shoulder of the bench, his fingers lightly, absent-mindedly tapping against the solid dark wood, almost touching her back, but not quite.

“So…, what’s coming up in the Bradford’s social calendar?” she asked at last, breaking the somewhat deafening silence that had hung between them.

“We’re having a benefit dance for Cancer Research three weeks from now,” he replied quickly, smiling as he remembered the countless times she had asked him the same question; at least once a week, since they were both old enough to attend such a prestigious occasion.

“Black tie?” she guessed, turning her head around to meet his gaze.

“What else?” he challenged her back, rolling his eyes helplessly. She chuckled slightly before burying her face in her cup once more, tilting the cup, and her head backwards, to drain the last few remnants of her hot drink. Slowly, he straightened himself up, resting both elbows on his thighs, scrutinising her feature; from her long, curled up, dark brown eyelashes, her pair of small, attentive, piercing Oriental hazel eyes, to her soft, light beige skin. He hesitated a moment, pondering, averting his glance down, watching his hands interlink together before he looked at her again.

“Will you come with me?” he blurted out before he had a chance to change his mind. Startled, her head jerked up, turning around and regarding him uncertainly.

“Michael James Bradford, are you asking me out on a date?” she teased lightly, her lips twitching in slight amusement as she tried to hide her nerves, her heart pounding loudly.

“I’m asking my best friend to be my plus one for a social function. If by the end of the night, we end up kissing…” He trailed off, meeting her gaze as she regarded him through slightly widened eyes, daring him to finish his sentence. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing that could ever happen.”

Ever had one of those dreams that was so vivid you thought it was real until the moment you opened your eyes? Or one so powerful you could recall it in such detail and precision throughout the course of a day?

I’ve had many such dreams, and this particular one was of no exception. It was a movie-like dream, involving a horse-drawn cart, a girl thrown into the dungeon, and a young man saving her from further torture. It was a dream that occupied my mind from the moment I woke up to the time I went to sleep the following night. Like other dreams I have had, I started ’embellishing’ it with more scenarios, and by the end of the second day, I had clearly envisioned in my head at least half-a-dozen scenes.

Unlike other dreams I’ve had previously, however,  I decided to write this one down. And just like that, my journey as a writer began. Words seemed to be flowing from that place within me I never knew existed. Those that didn’t come to me naturally and immediately, I seemed to be ‘plucking’ them out of thin air. And as each word materialised on paper, it was as if a chain that had suffocated me rattled and broke free.

Four days later, in winter of 2006, Eleanor I, my first-ever attempt at story-writing was born. Here is the excerpt that started it all (in its raw form).

Little by little, she came to; her eyes flickered, struggling to focus. She emitted a fearful shriek as a silhouette of a man began to fill up her vision.

“Eleanor?” He called, concerned.

She swallowed and blinked rapidly, hoping that it would further ward off the thick fog stubbornly clinging to conceal her view.

“Patrick?” She croaked, finding reassurance in one end of his lips, twitching wryly.

She looked around, now able to make out the firm outlines of the window frame, the somewhat cylindrical curve of the top of the bed posts, the flicker of flames leaping in the fireplace.

“Where am I?” She asked, brows knitted close together as Patrick ducked his head down, face flushing.

“You’re in one of the maid chambers,” he replied. “I didn’t have much time…”

Still feeling too weak to wave a dismissive hand, she pressed her palms to the soft woollen blanket covering her to above her breasts, the corner of her eyes observing the clean white linen covering the sturdy mattress of a proper bed, her head was lying on top of at least two soft pillows.

“Thank you,” she said hoarsely, the lips that had begun to quirk up into a faint smile froze, quickly replaced by a mild look of incomprehension.

“How…?” She said hoarsely, frowning at Patrick.

He reached out a hand, the tip of his thumb brushing soft strands of her hair away from her cheek. “You fainted,” he said simply.

Eleanor hoisted herself up with one arm before Patrick could stop her, immediately emitting a small gasp, eyes closing as she collapsed onto the bed promptly, feeling the stabbing pain on her back.

“Let me help you.”

Patrick put a hand on her nape, the muscle of his upper arm flexing as she used it to pull herself up, her breathing came out through gritted teeth to suppress the pain.

He waited until she looked like she was comfortable before he reached for a small bowl and scooped a clear-looking broth, blowing a spoonful of the liquid several times before pressing the brass spoon to her lips, repeating the process again and again, moving both the plain white bowl and the spoon away each time her hand reached out to take them away.

He placed the empty bowl on the nightstand and walked over to the window, tightly strung back facing Eleanor as she looked on, unsure as to what to say. It seemed the one thing she had always uttered lately was ‘Thank you,’ and repeating it once more sounded… lame.

“Patrick…” she called after gulping the lump in her throat. Slowly, he turned around, staring at her with a look of utter anguish, concern and… something else she couldn’t quite comprehend.

“Eleanor, I wish you would put aside your pride for once and allow me to help you,” he snapped.

Her mouth dropped; of all the things she thought he would say, she hadn’t expected this; not even remotely.

“My pride is about the only thing I have left, Patrick,” she replied with an edge to her voice; her body shaking uncontrollably. “I had to beg them to take me in my Father’s place,” she continued. “And still, they put chains on me and dragged me out of the house. They pushed and shoved me as if I had been found guilty. They beat me…”

Her voice cracked, tears welling up in her eyes she had to bite the inside of her bottom lip, the cracking sound of the whip on her back ringing in her ears; each one stripping her dignity away. “If I break,” she said tremulously, “what have I got left?”

She turned her face away, the back of one hand roughly rubbing her eyes and nose, the shoulders that had begun to shake paused abruptly as she held herself back from sobbing.

Inhaling a deep breath and holding it, Patrick approached her. He sat at the edge of the bed and stretched his hand to cup her chin, giving her his sweetest smile as he turned her to face him.

“You still have me.”

One of my most prominent childhood memories involve having my conversations with my friends being closely monitored by my parents. No, I’m not talking about them ‘tapping’ the phone and listening to every word I say through headphones, but they were always hovering nearby, either in another room or walking past repeatedly.

I remember being reprimanded once for not using the correct ‘greeting’. To my parents, the correct phone greeting goes something like this:

“Good morning/afternoon/evening. My name is Maria. Could I please speak to (my friend’s name)?” whilst most of my other friends simply said: “Hello. Is Maria there?” When I tried to shorten my overly long greeting to something like this: “Hello. It’s Maria. Can I please speak to (my friend’s name)?”, my parents had berated me as though the world would come to an end because of it.

It was something that stuck with me to this day, I guess; the importance of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Mind you, I don’t always remember to do it. Not that I purposely overlook uttering these phrases, but sometimes, in the busyness of the day, it was simply a matter of  I’ve checked whether you are busy doing something else; I’ve asked you in a nice way, using the least authoritative voice I have; I’ve accompanied this with the most grateful smile I could give the person.

It does get me thinking though, whether the non-verbal cues accompanying such requests, asking someone to do a favour, is as/more important than the actual pleading/grateful words. What do you think – do you prefer one over the other? Do you think saying ‘Please’/ ‘Thank you’ and accompanying them with appropriate body language an overkill in this day and age? Or is it a mannerism we still need to maintain at all times?