Stealing from the Everyday: The Road to Woop Woop
People ask: Where do you get story ideas?
If you have a nose for a good story, ideas are everywhere. I’ll share with you an excerpt from Writing Speculative Fiction (2019) by Macmillan:
Stephen King in his book on writing saw stories as relics, parts of an undiscovered world for writers to excavate. Feel, smell, see—ideas float everywhere. Stories cartwheel in little word associations in your vocabulary. Unfound plots flirt all around you: in the rubicund bell innocently dangling on the Christmas tree in your unswept lounge; in the bald young man with honey-brown eyes who beamed at you in the lift on your way to work; in the ash-eyed tramp by the wayside who held your gaze a particular way and asked for nothing, but something drew your hand to your pocket and you pulled out a note; in the tarmac-black pebble that a little girl with braids throws onto a chalked out square on the gravel, and you see nothing but the blackness of the stone as the child hops on one foot, square after square, humming a nursery rhyme … --Writing Speculative Fiction
I was powerwalking in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens one dawn, when I remembered an ad I saw on Seek.com: Must have a phone.
It struck me, right there, an idea of a black speculative fiction set in Old Kampala, where a village woman sacrifices everything for her family. It starts with an ad the husband sees:
“Must have a smart phone,” the job ad said.
Ping! A job alert.
He was good with gasfitting, roofing, drainage, even power outlets, ladders, testing and repairing. Most electrical things he could do, and gardening. His hands were clever with greenscapes. He could water and feed lilies or stinkwood, trim shrubs or mow grass, fertilise sunflower or pluck cashews from the plant.
What he wasn’t good with was lies. The employer hadn’t been upfront at the interview about the data, how it was out of pocket.
—“Unlimited Data”, unpublished story
The husband gets employment as an itinerant handyman on call:
… peddling over fields, tarmac and potholes, moving from suburb to suburb, gasfitting, roofing, draining, mowing. Ping! Another job and he wheeled to it, phone in his pocket. But doing jobs on call gobbled data.
The black-market solution is cheap but costly.
Most stories in my new collection, The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories—be they surreal, fantastical, scientific—came about walking, swimming, watching, listening to people… A word, a phrase… It’s silly, really, how easy you can craft a poignant story by taking something ordinary out of context and extrapolating:
Eugen Bacon’s work is cheeky with a fierce intelligence, in prose that’s resplendent, delicious, dark and evocative. NPR called her novel T-Mo ‘a confounding mysterious tour de force’. imbues the same lushness in a writerly language that is Bacon’s own. This peculiar hybrid of the untraditional, the extraordinary within, without and along the borders of normalcy will hypnotise and absorb the reader with tales that refuse to be labelled. The stories in this collection are dirges that cross genres in astounding ways. Over 20 provocative tales, with seven original to this collection, by an award-winning African Australian author.
Eugen Bacon is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She’s the author of Claiming T-Mo (Meerkat Press) and Writing Speculative Fiction (Macmillan). Her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Australian Shadows Awards, Ditmar Awards and Nommo Award for Speculative Fiction by Africans.
Tumbling down the stretch, a confident glide, the 4WD is a beaut, over nineteen years old.
The argument is brand-new. Maps are convolutions, complicated like relationships. You scrunch the sheet, push it in the glovebox. You feel River’s displeasure, but you hate navigating, and right now you don’t care.
The wiper swishes to and fro, braves unseasonal rain. You and River maintain your silence.
Rain. More rain.
“When’s the next stop?” River tries. Sidewise glance, cautious smile. He is muscled, dark. Dreadlocks fall down high cheekbones to square shoulders. Eyes like black gold give him the rugged look of a mechanic.
“Does it matter?” you say.
You don’t respond. Turn your head, stare at a thin scratch on your window. The crack runs level with rolling landscape racing away with rain. Up in the sky, a billow of cloud like a white ghoul, dark-eyed and yawning into a scream.
A shoot of spray through River’s window brushes your cheek.
A glide of eye. “Hell’s the matter?” you say.
“You ask me-e. Something bothering you?”
He gives you a look.
Classic, you think. But you know that if you listen long enough, every argument is an empty road that attracts unfinished business. It’s an iceberg full of whimsy about fumaroles and geysers. It’s a corpse that spends eternity reliving apparitions of itself in the throes of death. Your fights are puffed-up trivia, championed to crusades. You fill up teabags with animus that pours into kettles of disarray, scalding as missiles. They leave you ashy and scattered—that’s what’s left of your lovemaking, or the paranoia of it, you wonder about that.
More silence, the cloud of your argument hangs above it. He shrugs. Rolls up his window. Still air swells in the car.
“Air con working?” you say.
He flexes long corduroyed legs that end in moccasins. Flicks on the air button—and the radio. The bars of a soulful number, a remix by some new artist, give way to an even darker track titled ‘Nameless.’ It’s about a high priest who wears skinny black jeans and thrums heavy metal to bring space demons into a church that’s dressed as a concert. And the torments join in evensong, chanting psalms and canticles until daybreak when the demons wisp back into thin air, fading with them thirteen souls of the faithful, an annual pact with the priest.
Rain pelts the roof and windows like a drum.
He hums. Your face is distant. You might well be strangers, tossed into a tight drive from Broome to Kununurra.
The lilt of his voice merges with the somber melody.
You turn your face upward. A drift of darkness, even with full day, is approaching from the skies. Now it’s half-light. You flip the sun visor down. Not for compulsion or vanity, nothing like an urge to peer at yourself in the mirror. Perhaps it’s to busy your hands, to distract yourself, keep from bedevilment—the kind that pulls out a quarrel. You steal a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Deep, deep eyes. They gleam like a cat’s. The soft curtain of your fringe is softening, despite thickset brows like a man’s. You feel disconnected with yourself, with the trip, with River. You flip the sun visor up.
Now the world is all grim. River turns on the headlights, but visibility is still bad. A bolt of lightning. You both see the arms of a reaching tree that has appeared on the road, right there in your path. You squeal, throw your arms out. River swerves. A slam of brakes. A screech of tires. Boom!
The world stops in a swallowing blackness. Inside the hollow, your ears are ringing. The car, fully intact, is shooting out of the dark cloud in slow motion, picking up speed. It’s soaring along the road washed in a new aurora of lavender, turquoise and silver, then it’s all clear. A gentle sun breaks through fluffs of cloud no more engulfed in blackness. You level yourself with a hand on the dashboard, uncertain what exactly happened.
You look at River. His hands . . . wrist up . . . he has no hands. Nothing bloody as you’d expect from a man with severed wrists. Just empty space where the arms end.
But River’s unperturbed, his arms positioned as if he’s driving, even while nothing is touching the steering that’s moving itself, turning and leveling.
“Brought my shades?” he asks.
“Your hands,” you say.
“What about them?”
“Can’t you see?”
His glance is full of impatience.
You sink back to your seat, unable to understand it, unclear to tell him, as the driverless car races along in silence down the lone road.