Sometimes, a story arrives so fully formed that your only job seems to be this: be present and alert to its knock, and have a notebook handy. I thought ‘Eating Strawberries with Strangers’ was one such story, but on closer inspection, what had apparently fallen to the page fully-formed was in fact an assemblage of (a) things stored in my head, and (b) events at the time of writing. For the sake of this note, I tried to dismantle it like a piece of furniture to see how it was put together (sort of like working out an IKEA manual, but backwards). Post dismantling, here’s a catalogue of parts:
#1 Stored Part
Months before writing the story, I’d finished reading a book of fiction that revolved around urban loneliness. However, the way it dealt with it left me feeling frustrated, its neatly resolved ending felt a bit flippant. I thought about it for a while, then shelved it, and moved on to another book.
I live next to a river and walk past it on my way to everywhere. On one such walk, I noticed from a distance three women sitting on the grass in the sun. They were to my left, the river to my right. They were laughing, engrossed in their conversation. I don’t think they were eating strawberries.
As I drew parallel to them, I saw an older woman walking towards me from the opposite direction. Like me, she was walking alone. Like me, she turned her head to look at the group on the grass. But unlike me, she did not look away. Her eyes stayed on them all the way till we crossed each other. Her expression stuck to me like a clump of burrs on a skirt after a walk through tall grass. It was wistful, a resigned and mellow melancholy. It turned her from ‘alone’ to ‘lonely’.
#4 Plot & Plotlessness
Walking on, I wondered what I often do when a person catches my attention. What kind of life does she live? What kind of day has she had? The story came then. I had a notebook in my bag, so I sat down on a bench, and scribbled it as it came. The sights and sounds in the story—the dog, the mushrooms, the waters of Woolf’s river—were all right there at the time, they wrote themselves in.
#5 Spare Part
A week or two earlier, I’d seen a copy of Mrs Dalloway in a bar in London, and flipped through a few favourite passages. When the women in the story start talking books, Mrs Dalloway slid in. I knew which passage I needed. I left a couple of empty lines with quotation marks, and wrote on.
When I finished, I drew an arrow to the ending, wrote ‘FAKE’. I went home, typed it out, tweaking the odd word/phrase. Then added the second ending, which had been my only ending all along. I read through it, and before I could think/add/edit, sent it to CRAFT. It was one of those scarce and magic flashes of writing when you know the first draft is the right one, and let go of it.
During the dismantling, I realised that the second ending was my subconscious reply to that book I’d read many months ago. My need to say that urban loneliness, so increasingly acute, especially in the young and the elderly, is not something that can be wished away. It’s easy to resolve in fiction with a sudden turn in the story that brings the cure of life-changing friendships, but life doesn’t follow fiction in this case. There are thousands living with loneliness in cities heaving with people. And what they often need is not dramatic changes in fortunes and friendships, but small encounters of warmth and words, and the kindness of strangers.
PIA GHOSH-ROY grew up in India, and lives in Cambridge (UK). She’s the winner of the 2017 Hamlin Garland Award. Her work has been placed in, and short- and longlisted for, several other prizes including the Aestas Fabula Press Competition, Bath Short Story Award, Brighton Prize, Berlin Writing Prize, Fish Short Story Competition, and others. Pia is working on her first novel, and a collection of stories. You can find her at piaghoshroy.com