By the Time You Get This

The same old routine. Eight o’clock and being woken by a nurse — drifting back toward pill-induced sleep, only to be roused once again. This time around forty-five minutes later, and already fifteen minutes late.
“Steven, are you coming to breakfast?”
A familiar line always delivered with the same expectation. The only change would be in the message’s tone, something entirely dependent on the deliverers identity.
Some might think of it as laziness on his part, his father among them. He had spent years of his childhood invading his personal space — every morning he would enter his bedroom and take it upon himself to tear apart the curtains as he spewed a well-thumbed glossary of scathing remarks. Were he still around, he would be surprised to hear it wasn’t plain bone-idleness, and be doubtful it was due both to his son’s mental-health and the medication used to treat its symptoms. No, of his three boys, he was the one he was the most disappointed with, and whatever he did or did not do would always be a self-fulfilling prophecy as far as he was concerned.
It wasn’t easy sleeping in a place like this — there were the thoughts that endlessly spiralled through your head; the hourly checks throughout the night, supposedly for his safety, but the cynic in him thought it was as much about them, as it was about him. Sleep-hygiene was a term, like the medication, freely dispensed, but its practice was another matter entirely. If you ignored the reminder, you would be left to your own devices, and on days where you made it to the dining-room, there would always be some other poor unfortunate to take your place.
Has anybody else noticed that nurses, much like buses, go around in pairs? Each mealtime, you would hear one saying to the other, ‘so and so’ isn’t coming to whatever meal it was on that occasion. The recipient of this nugget of information would have a clipboard, and it was their job to place a mark against the offender’s name. Non-attendance at mealtimes comes back to haunt you when your team discusses you. It sounds like a concentration camp, but of course, it wasn’t — but when you find yourself institutionalised a little rebellion can be a healthy thing.
Another reason to avoid breakfast was the food – not that he could complain about the quality, but with three months spent in the same ward during a previous admission, there was a limit to the amount of Weetabix a body could eat. This time around, he had asked the catering staff to make up a fruit and oatmeal recipe he used at home. It wasn’t complicated to produce, but he had stressed the importance of preparing the mix the night before. Not too difficult, you would have thought, but he had got to see many variations on this particular theme and not all of them were palatable.
After breakfast would come the dispensing of medication — happy pills, as the patients liked to call them; a description I’m sure would be frowned upon by the drug companies and their shareholders. During my previous admission, there had always been two nurses attending the clinic, and they could process all thirty-eight patients at a decent pace. It meant not hanging around for extended periods of time, important if you had an appointment, a program to attend or just needed to catch up on some sleep. But this time around, things had changed dramatically for the worse. Now, there was only a single nurse, who would after asking which patient was next, close the clinic door while preparing your medication, then summon you and behind closed doors administer your treatment, before finally sending you on your way. Some patients – he among them – had to go through this routine four times daily. Part of the reason you had difficulty sleeping at night, was due to a significant portion of the day spent in a coma outside the clinic.
So that morning, Kathryn’s text had come as a welcome surprise. She was on on her way to the hospital and had a couple of hours to kill before she was due at her weekly Schema Therapy Progam, and wondered was he free? Any chance to escape to the outside world was welcome, and if it also gave him an opportunity to spend time with Kathryn, then so much the better.
Manning’s, a coffee-shop on Thomas Street was the venue she suggested — she would be there in thirty minutes. He had a good idea of its location, not too far from the hospital and on a road he frequently walked when he escaped to the city centre. He couldn’t think how it had escaped his notice; he was usually very observant. But when he arrived — some twenty minutes later — the reason became apparent. He used the opposite pavement, and on this section of Thomas Street, the coffee shop was obscured by some market stalls. It was a venue which locals knew well, but an outsider could easily miss. He took out his phone.
“I’ve arrived. I’m a bit early. Are you far?” He texted her.
“That’s quick. I’ve only just left. Sorry. I’ll be twenty minutes.”
“OK. There’s a charity shop opposite. I’m going in to see if they have any decent books. If I’m not in Mannings when you arrive, text me.”
“OK. See you soon.”
Kathryn thought she was a good time-keeper, she wasn’t bad, let’s just say she was at times, inconsistent. He turned, and entered the shop.
Ten minutes later, having purchased four books he hadn’t needed, he crossed to the other side of the street and went into the coffee-shop. He walked up to the counter and joined the queue. He hadn’t heard Kathryn shouting “over here,” as he came through the door, and sure enough looking at the tables, he could see it was as yet a Kathryn free zone.

13 thoughts on “By the Time You Get This

  1. Nicole L Ochoa says:

    I love your title, I think it has a nice hook and it made me want to read your story. It sounds like a guy is institutionalized for some reason or another but I am curious as to his age and how he was able to get out to see Kathryn, was he released or did he sneak out or is the shop part of the institution’s property? It might draw the reader in faster if the part where he leaves to meet Kathryn comes earlier, for me, that was when the story got going.

    • stevenlempriere says:

      Thanks for your comments Nicole. This is a second attempt at the opening; the first version starts in the coffee shop, and I think I might well return to that version; I just thought it a little too short at the time, but then it shouldn’t be about quantity.

      He is an inpatient at this particular Mental Health Hospital; the setting is Dublin, and this is his second admission in twelve months. He met Kathryn during on the first occasion when both patients on the same ward. They immediately hit it off and kept in regular contact. The situation is complicated by her diagnosis, Borderline Personality Disorder, her being married — although early on in their friendship, divorce becomes a factor — and his relationship of more than twenty years standing.

      There are varying stages of committal while under hospital care; firstly confined to the ward; next, you are given access to the hospital’s grounds and lastly, being allowed out for short excursions with certain conditions, hence the meeting with Kathryn.

      Their friendship is going to cross a line, and what the story is ultimately about is their relationship and its descent into tragedy — not much time is spent in the hospital setting, it’s purely a means to an end to give the story, the characters and their circumstances some context.

      The title comes from a text received from Kathryn when making an attempt on her life and saying goodbye. An event that causes a chain reaction, after he contacts the hospital, and results in her discovery in a coma in a Spanish Hotel. In effect, he saved her life, and that event deepens the bond between them.

      Much of the story is factual, but with a generous sprinkling of dramatic licence.

      PS. I have another example of a work-in-progress listed under ‘Thrillers’. It’s called She’s Dead, a working title, but this time, is set in New York and is about an ex-cop, down on his luck, problems with booze and with a huge chip on his shoulder — his soon to be ex-wife, although not in the manner he anticipated.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I think you have interesting subject matter and potential here. But some of the time, you spend too long on unimportant details which can get boring – especially near the end – the text conversation is unimportant, therefore tedious to read. There are some language issues which I found distracting. When you use pronouns, be careful to attribute them – in the section about his father, the ‘hes’ were really confusing – we never knew if they referred to the father or the MC. Also be careful of tenses – you shift between the past and present, and person – you jump between first and third and even some second at one stage. Having said this, I like the idea of guy with some form of mental illness wanting to escape the institution and I did want to read more. Just tidy up the writing and work for simple, clear sentences that focus on the really central point of what you want to say.

    • stevenlempriere says:

      Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comments.

      Texting is quite important to the story, Kathryn never uses her phone to make calls, all communication is by text and the title is from a text sent a couple of months before the opening — the first line in her goodbye before making an attempt on her life.

      I know the language isn’t great; this was a rushed second attempt to reach the deadline for posting. See my comments to Nicole. I’m on a ferry at the moment, heading from Ireland to France to spend a couple of months concentrating on the novel. An opportunity to do a lot more writing/editing.

      I see you have also commented on my other effort, ‘She’s Dead.’ I’ll get back to you on that; still, have a twelve-hour drive after seventeen spent on the ferry!

  3. johnsonofdaw says:

    You have set yourself a really difficult task – how to get readers interested in experiencing life as a patient? Hard enough in a non-fiction article making a point, but why would anyone enjoy a fictional account? You haven’t yet given me a reason – I would keep reading to see what you come up with, but not for too much longer.

    I’m thinking of “An English Patient”, but it had a number of storylines going. Dostoevsky’s “The Double” was a fascinating portrayal of a man going man as seen from inside his head. I’ve read some hilarious black humour stories from a patient’s point of view. But if not something like that I’d want to get out of the hospital soon.

  4. stevenlempriere says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    The story isn’t really about life as a patient, more one of a relationship that commences in that particular setting. Much of it takes place in so-called normal life. See my previous replies to Nicole and Jennifer, which you might find helpful.

    Much like the ‘English Patient’ there are other strands to the story, but this is only the first one-thousand words. The story is fictional, but a lot of it is based on my own personal experience, albeit served with a side of imagination.

  5. Rachel says:

    Hi Steven,

    I was increasingly interested as the story moved along. Who is this guy, who is Kathryn and how will they relate to each other? You’ve set them up so that neither of them will be entirely stable/reliable narrators, which is always an intriguing premise for me.

    I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to a story that opens with a character waking up. It worked for me in Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose but not many other places. Does it need to start there? Would your story work better if you started with the coffee shop, then maybe scan over his day leading up to the coffee shop. The meeting seems to mark a change in his routine, that this isn’t a day like any other.

    Changing the order would also give me a clearer feel for the voice of your narrator from the beginning. As it is, it feels like you get warmed up in the first 800 words of the excerpt and then hit your rhythm toward the end. Speaking of which, there is one brief passage where you lapse into first person, I assume from an earlier draft.

  6. Rachel says:

    I was increasingly interested as the story moved along. Who is this guy, who is Kathryn and how will they relate to each other? You’ve set them up so that neither of them will be entirely stable/reliable narrators, which is always an intriguing premise for me.

    I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to a story that opens with a character waking up. It worked for me in Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose but not many other places. Does it need to start there? Would your story work better if you started with the coffee shop, then maybe scan over his day leading up to the coffee shop. The meeting seems to mark a change in his routine, that this isn’t a day like any other.

    Changing the order would also give me a clearer feel for the voice of your narrator from the beginning. As it is, it feels like you get warmed up in the first 800 words of the excerpt and then hit your rhythm toward the end. Speaking of which, there is one brief passage where you lapse into first person, I assume from an earlier draft.

  7. Gentle Reader says:

    For me, your story started too slowly. The first page of a novel is very important real estate. Some agents will make a decision about your book in the first couple of lines. Start with some kind of disturbance and work in the backstory a sentence or two at a time later.

    Sometimes your writing is confusing. For example, this sentence:
    “No, of his three boys, he was the one he was the most disappointed with, and whatever he did or did not do would always be a self-fulfilling prophecy as far as he was concerned.”

    It looks like you have the word “he” referring to different people within the same sentence.

    You use certain words too much. For example, you used the word “around” six times in your opening. You can get software that will find these kinds of issues for you.

    You used the word was twenty-some times in your opening. Here’s an article that may help you to avoid this problem: (http://www.stlcc.edu/Student_Resources/Academic_Resources/Writing_Resources/Grammar_Handouts/To-be-Verbs.pdf).

    Good luck, and keep at it!

    • stevenlempriere says:

      Hi. I just want to thank you for your kind comments. It’s strange how people see things differently, and maybe you see more than the story. Needless to say, there is a way to go, and I’ve been ensconced in France for the last month doing just that. Peace and quiet, away from distractions are a help, and with another five weeks here, I hope to achieve a lot.

      I’m encouraged by you wanting to read more, but not sure how that is achievable — does this reply even get updated now the Boot Camp’s finished?

  8. Pam Portland (@TruckingWriter) says:

    My very first thought was if this character is in a pill-induced funk, how does he know exactly how much time has passed? And how is he able to have a cell phone? And get out and see Kathryn?

    But bigger than those issues, I’m so confused by the point of view of the story. At one point the main characters tells us, “If you ignored the reminder, you would be left to your own devices, and on days where you made it to the dining-room, there would always be some other poor unfortunate to take your place,” as if he is telling us his point of view. At another point, the author is telling us, “Ten minutes later, having purchased four books he hadn’t needed, he crossed to the other side of the street and went into the coffee-shop,” as if the story is in thrid-person. Who’s voice is this?

    There are bits here that are curious, but overall, I’m having more trouble with the structure than the content.

  9. Grace Berry says:

    A book opening with someone waking is often considered a writer’s cliché, so be careful. Though I love the concept of following someone’s life as they live in an institution, the descriptions given in this story are rather bland. Also, I didn’t realize the guy was in an institution until the bottom of the third paragraph. I would definitely start wit this.
    A major question I had was how did the guy get a cell phone in a mental institution, and how was he allowed to leave of his own volition? This should definitely be explained.
    Good job and good luck!

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