lead in your pencil

lead in your pencil

– 24 hour short story challenge for storytails

i recently took part in storytails’ 24 hour short story challenge, as part of the 2012 stoke newington literary festival.

along with six other writers, i was given some criteria and packed off to write a story of less than 1,500 words. i then returned 24 hours later to read out the results.

the criteria we were all given were  that:

“the timeline of the story must be: 1 hour, 1 day or 1 week

the relationship must be one of: love, hate, or part of a celebration

the setting must take place entirely in: 1 room, 1 city or 1 train

all stories must include a pen.”

i really enjoyed taking part in this challenge; it was great fun producing something new over such a brief period of time, and the criteria for the story oddly made the process more exhilarating.

the results were, without exception, brilliantly written and read out on the day.

thanks again to storytails’ tireless champion of all things short and fictional, gabriella, for involving me; if you fancy a short story fix, do go along to storytails’ monthly sessions to listen to some new fiction – details here.

so here are the results of my 24 hour writing session. well, 12 hours really, but that sounds less dramatic.

if you’re lazy, or don’t like reading, you can listen to the story here.

you can, and should, listen to the other 24 hour stories too. it’s amazing what a difference a day makes.

lead in your pencil

“One day, we’re going to be number one.”

When Joel fed Jody that line, he barely believed it himself. But his words carried enough impact to convince her to sleep with him, then start a band with him.

Now they were a mere hour away from being number one, and Joey felt like a zero.

Tez had booked and paid for their tickets, of course, for the 12:55 from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston. Once they arrived, they would take a quick cab ride to Tez’s penthouse flat off Russell Square. Then there’d be plenty of time to sink into his obscene white sofa and sip at overpriced champagne whilst surrounded by acolytes and hangers-on, until The JJ’s new song, ‘Ink In Your Pen’, was revealed as the UK’s best-selling single just before 7pm.

That had been the plan, anyway. But Tez was so caught up with the inevitability of his label’s band shooting straight to number one, that he’d ignored the possibility that his rock stars’ train may not quite run on time.

“There’s no way we’ll make it now,” Jody sulked, her black-coated bottom lip downturned.

It was 6.05pm; less than an hour before the humourless DJ Vu faked surprise as he announced the new number one to an ever-dwindling but still immense audience.

They should have arrived at Euston two-and-a-half hours earlier but, thanks to a fatality on the tracks, they were still trundling along, at least an hour away from their destination.

The train was cramped, every seat taken by pasty-looking specimens, some of whom evidently recognised The JJ’s and thought it acceptable to stare at them incessantly. The stop-start shudder of the journey, drenched with the smell of overpriced burgers constantly shuttled from the buffet car to the carriage, made it impossible to relax.

“I’m such an idiot,” Jody suddenly said.

“That’s why I’m with you,” Joel replied.

Jody faked a laugh as she wriggled forward to delve into her bag.

“So what if we can’t make it to Tez’s to hear the chart countdown?” she explained. “We can listen to it here!”

Joel nearly groaned as Jody yanked impressively-knotted earphones from her bag and plugged them into her phone.

She handed him one of the earphones and leaned in close to him so that the lead didn’t stretch too taut.

“It’s 6.15 now,” she said. “Let’s listen to the charts together, like we used to. Tez and his twats can celebrate when we hit number one, but we’ll celebrate in our own way.”

Joel obediently put the earphone to his ear just in time to hear DJ Vu introducing the next song, his nasally twang as infuriating as ever.

“And it’s down to number nine for The Kings of Queen, with ‘It Ain’t Wrong (If You’re Doing It Right)’.”

As a horrible mesh of reggae and Euro-house filled Joel’s ear, he noticed the look of hope in Jody’s eyes.

“Jody, do you think it’s good enough?” he asked her.

“Er, no,” she laughed. “It’s fucking horrible.

“I’m so relieved to hear you say that,” he began, but Jody cut in with:

“This is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”

Joel’s heart sank as he realised they were having different conversations.

She was wrong. He knew a song that was so much worse.

And that’s when he admitted it to himself. He wasn’t in a foul mood because they were going to miss the party being held in their honour by their record label’s boss. He wasn’t angry about being crammed into a train carriage with meat-sweaty idiots, and didn’t even care that he lived in a world where a song that crossed reggae with Euro-house could crack the Top Ten.

He was angry – no, he was sad – because the song that was about to bring him and the love of his life the fame, money and respect they’d spent six years working towards was the worst thing he’d ever written. And he couldn’t pinpoint how he’d ended up here, cringing at the thought of ‘Ink In Your Pen’ becoming their first number one.

“It’s 6.35pm,” DJ Vu told Joel. “At number five, it’s Tizzy Flix with ‘Love You Short Time’.”

When he’d formed The JJ’s within a month of meeting Jody, Joel had been proud of the dirty noise they created, and the music press soon fell for the unholy union of Joel’s distorted guitars and Jody’s fallen-angel voice.

By the time Tez took an interest in The JJ’s, the duo had already started refining their sound. Joel developed his guitar style, Jody added vocal ticks that grabbed the public’s attention. They discovered hooky choruses and started bugging the charts.

“It’s 6.41, and time to tell you that last week’s number one has plummeted to number four! So let’s say ta-ta to Tommy Two-Steps…”

“And to think I used to have posters of this guy on my wall,” Jody chuckled as Tommy’s latest ballad trickled into her ear.

“Everyone changes,” Joel said to her, to himself.

The problem had started, for Joel, when The JJ’s started shifting significant units. Every single from their second album made the Top 40, and “Head Screwed Off” peaked at number seven. The record company told Joel and Jody that the lead single from the third album had to be the big one. After that, as Tez said, “they could release the sound of a tramp pissing against a wall, backed by Bontempi keyboard, and still sell shitloads.”

“No change at number three,” DJ Vu said with convincing regret. “So here are The Spasticated Staples with ‘Pull Me Inside Out’. It’s 6.46pm, and nearly number one time…”

Jody looked at Joel, bit her black lip, held up a hand and crossed black-nailed fingers.

Even as he played Tez ‘Lead In Your Pencil’ for the first time, Joel knew it wasn’t the best The JJ’s could do. It was an okay song, but too polished, too pop to be perfection. But, as diluted as it was, Joel shrewdly ensured it was unmistakeably a JJ’s song by loading it with his trademark risqué lyrics, the perfect match for Jody’s faux-innocent voice. Best of all was the chorus:

You bring your pencil,

And, baby, I’ll give you lead.

Gonna make sure I make you rise,

Without ever leaving bed.

Tez loved the song, or said he did, but didn’t like the lyrics. Now, apparently, was not the time to alienate the pre-teen market. He recommended other “improvements”: Joel’s guitar was toned down. Keyboards were added. Female backing vocals aped Jody’s once-unique voice.

Convinced the song couldn’t be ruined any further, Joel agreed to change the lyrics, but purposefully traded naughty for naff:

You bring your pen, babe,

I’ll give you an ink refill.

Gonna make sure I write your name

Across my windowsill.

Tez then put everything behind the single, and his relentless assault paid off; the midweek charts made it clear that ‘Ink In Your Pen’s destination was number one.

And that was it. Superstardom beckoned. Joel sabotaged his song, but not for his own benefit. He did it for Jody, because he knew how much she wanted to be number one.

He’d made a mistake.

This song – the worst song he’d ever written – signalled not only the end of his career, but the end of their relationship too.

Joel’s heart tightened as he realised he couldn’t love Jody if the song made it to number one. It would change her, in ways he didn’t want to consider.

DJ Vu’s voice, as irritating as an infected wound, cut through Joel’s thoughts once again, and The JJ’s held each other’s hands for different reasons.

“It’s 6.54, folks,” he said. “We’re getting close. And I can now reveal that, at number two…”

Jody squeezed Joel’s hand too tight.

“…Surprise! It’s The JJ’s, with the brilliantly-titled, ‘Ink In Your Pen’!”

Joel stared at Jody. Her tears started welling. She ripped her single earphone out, gripped Joel towards her, and sobbed.

“I can’t believe it,” she said.

“Neither can I,” Joel replied, once again swelling with love for his girlfriend, his muse, his bandmate.

He pulled his earphone out before the world’s worst chorus had a chance to hit him. He didn’t need to hear it, nor the mystery song that had beaten them to the coveted number one spot.

Joel held Jody as the train slowly moved towards their cancelled party. He let her cry, hid his smile from her. He started making plans: He was going to see his girlfriend through this minor episode in their career. He was going to fire Tez, and The JJ’s were going to, once again, be the noisy band they were born to be. From this point on, they’d only release beautifully dirty songs with filthy lyrics. And, one day, the world would forget that The JJ’s once did a number two that truly stank.


One Response to “lead in your pencil”


  1. lead in your pencil « daaanlewis - 06/06/2012

    […] lead in your pencil […]

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