My Jigsaw Months

We’re almost a year on from what I can only describe as My Jigsaw Months.

Around this time 12 months ago, I was not in the best of places. Things had gone wrong, I’d had my heart broken and I was at a loss for what to do in my life. So I started doing a jigsaw.

Because that’s an entirely normal thing to do, y’see. 

This wasn’t just any jigsaw though. It was a Star Wars jigsaw. And even better: a Star Wars jigsaw in the shape of Darth Vader.

I KNOW! RIGHT!

Thing is, as ridiculous as it may sound, that jigsaw became my guiding light. When things are starting to go wrong in life, you get scared – it’s all chaos and disharmony. There’s no clear picture, everything’s falling to pieces, nothing fits together…

Do you see where I’m going here?

Yes, I’m being a little silly, but putting together that jigsaw was genuinely therapeutic. It’s not so much the sense of adding order to chaos that worked for me, but the idea of a long-term, reliable project. Every night when I got back from work, there it was: my lovely jigsaw with bits of Han, Leia and Lando Calrissian scattered about everywhere.

It was a joy.

While putting it together, I got through the whole of Archer and most of the original series of Star Trek, and when I was done, I felt genuinely bereft. (And slightly annoyed because I didn’t really have anywhere to put it and what do you do with a 2ft Star Wars jigsaw that’s shaped like Darth Vader?)

People talk a lot about colouring books as counter balances for anxiety and upset, but that’s never really worked for me. The jigsaw genuinely did, and if you’re feeling the strain a bit yourself, maybe give one a go. It sounds daft, it’s time-consuming as hell, and yes you’ll find yourself screaming at tiny bits of mis-shapen card, but sometimes that’s just what we need.

Thanks Jiggy.

(Yes, I named the jigsaw.)

Why Disney sequels and remakes matter

It’s pretty good, y’know. You should check it out!

With Beauty and the Beast hitting cinemas earlier in the year, and footage from The Lion King being shown at D23, the focus for Disney fans at the moment is very much on the company’s repeated revisiting of its history. Opinion, of course, ranges from utter outrage to gleeful celebration, and as a fan of both Disney and creative remixing, I fall very much into the latter category. After all, what’s wrong with re-telling these ‘tales as old as time’ when they come from an oral tradition that enabled each storyteller to craft their version of the story in their own specific way. Surely that’s the point of (and one of the joys of) fairy tales.

Much of the criticism of Disney seems to revolve around a perceived lack of originality, and that’s a fair point. When you think of Disney’s output you probably don’t think much about sequels and remakes. That’s because out of the 56 films that constitute their core offering (their Animated Classics), only one is a sequel: The Rescuers Down Under. Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Frozen 2 will follow before this decade is out, and after their critical and commercial successes last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zootopia and Moana get spin-offs as well. But until recently, sequels and remakes have been a well that Disney has rarely wished into.

Sort of.

Buried away in the Disney filmography is a string of sequels that the studio released during the 90s and early 00s. Spinning off everything from Mulan and Pocahontas to Peter Pan and Cinderella, these films are often dismissed by fans and critics alike and were quickly stopped once John Lasseter took control in the mid Noughties. They were released direct to video (later DVD) and were produced by Disney’s TV animation wing, DisneyToons Studio, which opened its doors in 1990 with Duck Tales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp and has also produced the Planes and (really rather brilliant) Tinkerbell series.

It’s easy to be sniffy about these releases. The animation is often inferior to the Animated Classics, and the scripts are pretty tenuous because, in many cases, the stories don’t strictly need to be told. After all, is there really a need for Bambi 2, a midquel that focuses on the Great Prince of the Forest’s mentoring of his new charge? Do we absolutely have to have The Jungle Book 2, in which Baloo is suspected of having taken Mowgli back to the jungle? And who the heck asked for Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, which finds Cinders (I kid you not) travelling through time?

Some of these films (Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Lion King 1 ½, (which – again, not joking here – riffs on ‘Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ in the way the original riffed on ‘Hamlet’) are pretty good and well worth checking out if you liked the first films. But vital necessities? Not really. At least not in terms of telling stories that have to be told. But maybe, when considering these films, we’re approaching them in the wrong way. Instead of thinking if we need them, we should instead think about whether they’re needed by their core audience: kids. And in that case, I’d argue the answer is an overwhelming yes.

When I was young, I watched my favourite films over and over again. The Goonies, Superman, various Disneys, and various Spielbergs all went through the cycle at my house as me, my sister, and my brother learned every bit of dialogue and memorised every beat. I suspect you were the same if you had a film, or films, that you were truly passionate about. When you really love a movie (or a TV show, or a book) as a child, you don’t want it to end, so when you do get to those closing credits, you rewind and rewatch, knowing deep down that everything will happen in exactly the same way at exactly the same time as the other 7,984 times you’ve watched it, but still watching it anyway.

Films are windows into lives that kids haven’t yet experienced. They help them understand emotions they could be struggling with and get to grips with empathy, associating so firmly with certain characters that they don’t want to let go of them. It’s why fan fiction and fan art have become so significant as mediums for self-exploration in recent years, and why the pressure is greater than ever for film-makers to be more inclusive. In a world that’s as divisive and fraught as ours is, the safety of fiction offers a comforting arena where anyone can be anything without fear of judgement or reprisal.

Giving kids further adventures with their fictional heroes is therefore not simply a money-making venture, but something of genuine worth. I know I wish I’d had further adventures with the likes of Elliott and Chunk to enjoy when I was a kid. And I suspect the kids of today are lapping up the wonderful Frozen comic books produced by Joe Books and are thrilled at the prospect of seeing weekly stories from the worlds of Tangled and Big Hero 6They represent a very real, very important map through the chaos of growing up and that, surely, is more significant than star ratings and rankings on Rotten Tomatoes.

So when we think of these sequels and remakes like Beauty and the Beast, it’s wise to remove ourselves from the equation, regardless of how artistically significant we see the original, or financially motivated we view the new stories. Art, in whatever medium it comes, is not static and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists, and needs to evolve, in order to illuminate, engage and inform, as well as simply to entertain and stand as great work. That illumination shines in different ways to different people and if illuminating the lives of younger audiences requires a few sequels or remakes of variable quality, I’d say that’s a fair trade.  

Kids Riding Bicycles: Steven Spielberg and the Empowerment of Children

First published on my Medium page, this article takes an in-depth look at how Steven Spielberg empowers children in his films. I love writing these analytical essays and hope you enjoy it too. (Yes, the name of the essay is the same as the website. What of it? SYNERGY!)

In Sweden in 1982, a seemingly unassuming movie raised the ire of the country’s censors. The film had been released widely elsewhere and found huge success, but Sweden believed its content to be so incendiary that it placed an 11 rating upon it, meaning nobody under that age could watch. The decision proved controversial and provoked protests; not from adults, but children, who took to the streets with placards reading “Away with the 11-year-limit” and “Children’s films are made for children.” The film in question wasn’t Blade Runner or John Carpenter’s The Thing, but Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming E.T., and the Swedish censors’ rationale for keeping it away from youngsters was that it portrayed adults as their enemies.

There’s something faintly ludicrous about this story and it’s gone on to become an urban legend (the legend, of course, making it seem like E.T. was outright banned rather than just restricted). It does, however, highlight something often overlooked about Spielberg’s films: they’re not all sweetness and light. Spielberg’s family-friendly reputation (perpetuated, in part, by E.T.) has glossed over the darker elements of his career, which recur in everything from the bloody horror of Jaws to the saccharine sentimentality of Hook. It’s meant that we tend remember the majesty of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but overlook just how violent and disturbing the T-Rex’s attack on Tim and Lex is. Such tonal complexity doesn’t sit well with culture’s desire to provide simplistic readings of the films we consume.

The narrative has persisted though and it informs the way critics explore Spielberg’s treatment of children. One of only a handful of great directors to tackle the childhood experience in significant depth, Spielberg has nonetheless been criticised for ignoring the more troubling side of growing up in favour of a sentimental portrait of innocence and wonder. “It can prove challenging to throw one’s hat in the arena of Spielbergian delights without feeling a twinge of cinephilic guilt,” Eric Kohn wrote for IndieWire in 2011. “His movies not only frequently center around children but inhabit their perspective, tapping into a juvenile sense of imagination that explains the profound impact his work tends to have on younger viewers.”

Going further, some critics have suggested Spielberg’s focus on children corrodes the audience, giving us a view of the world that’s more comforting than the complex reality we need to live in. Spielberg is guilty of “infantilizing the audience,” writes Peter Biskind in his book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ and “reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.” Focusing specifically on E.T., Ilsa J Blick adds: “Instead of simply invoking the memories and associations of childhood, Spielberg consistently aims to infantalise the viewer. Thus, if the viewer is not looking through the eyes of Elliot or ET, he/she is looking at Elliot or ET looking up, just as children look to their parents or wonder at the stars.”

Ingrid E. Castro is kinder in her assessment, accepting that in his earlier films, Spielberg’s depiction of childhood was richer and more empowering. However, she also notes in her essay ‘Children, Innocence, and Agency in the Films of Steven Spielberg’ (which is available in the compendium ‘Children in the Films of Steven Spielberg’) that as he’s got older his films have begun to portray children as more innocent and in need of protection. This, she argues, has robbed them of their sense of empowerment. “In Spielberg’s films,” she writes, “the preservation of children’s innocence, a characteristic which is integral to adult redemption and character development/affirmation, transforms childhood into a “protectionist experience” for adults.”

Spielberg undoubtedly sees childhood as a magical state worthy of protection; it’s why Elliott in E.T. and Barry Guiler in Close Encounters of the Third Kind are open to the transcendental alien visitations those films depict. But it’s a magic that needs to be fought for and earned. Elliott is chased by the FBI and has to suffer through the apparent death of his new friend, while Barry undergoes a traumatic kidnapping after opening the door to the aliens. Even in Hook, one of Spielberg’s most maligned and apparently sentimental films, Peter Banning’s children are told the ultimate nightmare by Captain Hook. “Before you were born your parents would stay up all night together just to see the sun rise,” he insists. “Before you were born, they were happier. They were free.” Judging by Banning’s actions during the film, such a damning assessment might just be right.

Even as he’s got older and associated less with the child and more with the adult, Spielberg’s tenacious kids remain. In The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly gleefully battles Raptors using her talents in gymnastics. In A.I., David refuses to give up in pursuit of the Blue Fairy despite the odds being against him. In The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, the eponymous boy reporter is steadfast in his pursuit of the story. And in The BFG, Sophie refuses to be intimidated by the mean giants who make her friend’s life a misery. Spielberg’s children are all fighters and they have to be considering the odds against them. “I would not want to be a child in a Spielberg film,” James Kendrick, author of Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg, has noted. “They are constantly being abducted, enslaved and traumatized.”

Where does this come from? Like a lot of Spielberg’s cinema, it’s partly autobiographical. Spielberg was an anxious child who found fear everywhere and he’s hung on to that as he’s got older. “I use my childhood in all my pictures, and all the time,” he’s said. “I go back there to find ideas and stories. My childhood was the most fruitful part of my entire life. All those horrible, traumatic years I spent as a kid became what I do for a living today, or what I draw from creatively today.” Horrible? Traumatic? Surely not saccharine sweet Spielberg? But it’s true. “I was terrified by the tree. It was a huge tree,” Spielberg’s explained of a tree outside the window of his childhood bedroom (which almost certainly inspired the one that snatches Robbie in Poltergeist). “Every single night my imagination would find something else to fear. There was just something about bigness that scared me when I was a kid.

Indeed, such ‘bigness’ recurs in many of Spielberg’s most significant films. The truck in Duel, the shark in Jaws, the Mothership in Close Encounters, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the Tripods in War of the Worlds and the mean giants in The BFG are obvious examples, but others can be seen elsewhere, particularly in geographic locations. The wood the alien ship lands in E.T. is vast and intimidating, the temple in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an endless labyrinth of hellish pits and broken tunnels, the sunken New York of A.I. is a vast and desolate ocean, the forests of Always are infernos that humble and challenge the characters, and the airport in The Terminal seems to engulf Viktor and make connection with others impossible. Bigness lurks over everyone and that bigness is always a source of awe and wonder, fear and danger. It’s the thing that Spielberg’s characters have to counter, and it’s even more significant for his child characters, whose smallness it’s sharply juxtaposed with.

Adults are undoubtedly one example of the “bigness” that Spielberg feared and to understand his depiction of childhood, it’s important to understand how he portrays adulthood. Though his attitude to his adult characters has softened over the years (think of the kind father figures played by Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can and Bridge of Spies, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Mark Rylance in The BFG) he’s remained consistent in portraying adult characters with deep flaws and vulnerabilities. Spielbergian adults are weak (Martin Brody, David Mann), wild (Lou-Jean Poplin), morally dubious (Oskar Schindler, Keys), cowardly (Alan Grant), irresponsible (Roy Neary, Pete Sandich), ineffective (Jim Graham’s father), mercenary (Basie), destructive (John Anderton, Ray Ferrier) or selfish (Peter Banning). They’re rarely evil, but they do prove those Swedish censors right: they’re the enemies of children and throw down obstacles our youthful heroes must counter to get what they seek.

The subversion of social norms is how Spielberg’s children fight these monstrous adults. Think, for example, of Elliott breaking the formality of the dinner table by screaming obscenities (“penis breath!”) at his brother and friends in E.T, or Short Round showing disrespect for Indy by cheating in their card game during Temple of Doom. These are childish moments, and intentionally so. Spielberg isn’t interested in patronising his child characters by talking down to them, or elevating them to the point that they’re little more than miniature adults. That’d undermine the point. Instead he wants his child characters to revel in their childhood — their immaturity, their low status in society — and to show how those things make them more mature than the so-called mature grown-ups around them. When Sophie proudly describes herself as “an untrustworthy child” in The BFG, it’s a rallying cry for all Spielberg’s children. Being dismissed in such terms is a badge of honour.

Objects play a key role in this rebellion as well. Sometimes it’s just for mischief: the children in Jaws, for example, raise a false alarm on Amity’s beaches when they use a fake fin to convince beach-goers that a shark is lurking by the shore. At others, it’s more serious. In A.I., David’s toy Teddy helps guide him on his path to the Blue Fairy, offering the sort of comfort and acceptance he lacks from his parents. Meanwhile in Schindler’s List, The Girl in the Red Coat’s jacket helps her stand out in the chaos of the Holocaust and force Oskar Schindler into action. These are all childish items: toys or objects so small only a kid could own them. But Spielberg weaponises them by using them as tools of transformation and imagination. This is most apparent in Hook, where Peter Banning taps into his childhood by imagining an empty table is filled with colourful food that he and the Lost Boys use in a food fight. Another moment where the adult and childhood worlds clash. Another moment where social norms are undone by childish immaturity.

It’s telling that Spielberg owns two key objects himself. In 1982, after the success of E.T., he won the Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane at auction, while in his Amblin office at Universal, he’s hung Norman Rockwell’s famous ‘Boy on a High Dive’, which pictures a small child peering over the edge of a tall diving board with fear and excitement etched across his face. For Spielberg, these objects are sources of inspiration and in that way they’re similar to props in a film (literally in the case of the Rosebud sled): items that encourage him in his endeavours. He sees the objects he gives to his children in a similar way. They’re playthings designed to ignite the imagination, totems that are to be used to inspire a wider narrative that’s deeply childish in nature. After all, what else is the sight of E.T. and Elliott flying across the face of the moon on their bike but an updated version of the nursery rhymes of old. Just like the cow, the alien and his human friend jumped over the moon.

It’s another autobiographical trait of Spielberg’s film-making that connects him back to his own youth. A prankster always looking for attention, young Spielberg would use practical jokes (a form of comedic storytelling) and associated props to win power. In one incident, he applied tomato ketchup to his face to convince people he’d been brutally beaten in a fight with another child, while during another he concocted a terrible blend of foods to act as fake vomit that he dispatched at a cinema in an incident that would be immortalised through Chunk in The Goonies. Not even his family could escape his inventive wrath. At home, he once used a fishbowl to recreate a character from a science fiction film his sisters found scary, and later cut the head off a doll and presented it to his sister Anne on a silver platter surrounded by a bed of lettuce. A lone boy among three sisters who struggled to fit in at school, Spielberg found strength his ability to use imagination to reclaim strength.

Most significantly, this also stretched to his interest in film. A bully had been tormenting the young Spielberg for months, but when putting together his latest amateur effort, the budding director saw a chance to win the boy over. Noticing that he bore a striking resemblance to Clint Eastwood, Spielberg asked him to join the cast of a war movie he was making, and suddenly their dynamic changed.

“Even when he was in one of my movies I was afraid of him. But I was able to bring him over to a place where I felt safer: in front of my camera. I didn’t use words. I used a camera, and I discovered what a tool and a weapon, what an instrument of self-inspection and self- expression it is…I had learned that film was power.”

Now he’s older, Spielberg recognises the need to pass the gift of storytelling on to this generation of kids. Speaking to Tom Shone during promotion for The BFG, he discussed the stories he tells his grandchildren and how he aims to empower them:

“They’re all stories of empowerment, and being magical or able to read your mom and dad’s mind, or your best friend being a Tyrannosaurus Rex that only you know about and he lives in your backyard. Only one time, you got on his back and he took you to school, and he scared all the kids, but when you brought him in for show-and-tell, they realised that he was a nice T-Rex. They all sat around and listened to his stories. It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything. That nothing’s impossible.”

By granting his young characters objects and a language that only they can understand, Spielberg imbues them with power. It’s a power that means they’re able to craft their own lives and forge their own identities: ultimately taking back control of who they are. So those Swedish censors back in 1982 only understood half of the equation. Yes, adults are an enemy, but what makes Spielberg’s films truly inspiring and truly empowering is that his children, and by extension the children watching, are quite capable of taking them on. They’re untrustworthy children, one and all, and they’re not scared.

Lonely Hearts: Spielberg, Loneliness and the Longing to Belong

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill in The BFG

“Everything has to start with fear. Loss, loneliness, being challenged and pursued by big forces. [The BFG is] the loneliest story I think I’ve ever told. These two lonely people find a way to make a difference. Those are touchstones that attracted me to the book. I read it to my kids, and the bullying was one of the things that I painfully associated with my own childhood. And also being able to grow out of my fears and often, when I do, feeling taller than the tallest giant. Size doesn’t matter when loneliness is what our lives have meant to us.”
Steven Spielberg on The BFG

Why did you take me,” asks Sophie in The BFG. “Because I hears your lonely heart,” comes the eponymous giant’s response. It’s a line of huge significance that speaks not just to the orphaned Sophie, but also The BFG, who’s bullied by the meaner, bigger giants of Giant Country and confesses to being scared of them when Sophie tells him later in the film that she isn’t. But it’s also a line that echoes throughout Spielberg’s entire career. Sophie and The BFG aren’t the only lonely, isolated, confused, or broken characters Spielberg has made films about during his career. Indeed, they’re just the latest in a long line that feeds all the way back to the start of his career — and the start of his life.

As a child, Spielberg was unsettled and isolated. His father’s job as a computer engineer at a time when the technology was in its formative stages meant that the Spielberg family moved from home to home at a moment’s notice. “Just as I’d become accustomed to a school and a teacher and a best friend, the FOR SALE sign would dig into the front lawn,” he’s recalled. “And it would always be that inevitable goodbye scene, in the train station or at the carport parking up the car to drive somewhere, or at the airport. Where all my friends would be there and we’d say good-bye to each other and I would leave. This happened to me four major times in my life. And the older I got the harder it got.”

Even when he did settle, he still never quite felt like he fit in. “A wimp in a world of jocks,” is how he’s described himself, a reputation that meant his day-to-day life involved “just trying to make it through the year without getting [my face] pushed into the drinking fountain.” Indeed, things got so bad that Spielberg tried to remedy one of the most pressing discomforts: his appearance. “I used to take a big piece of duct tape and put one end on the top of my nose and the other end as high up on my forehead line as I could,” he’s remembered. “I had this big nose. My face grew into it, but when I was a child, I was very self-conscious about my schnozz. I thought if you kept your nose taped up that way, it would stay… like Silly Putty.” It never did.

Young Spielberg’s heritage didn’t help his sense of difference. Growing up in mostly Gentile neighbourhoods, the Jewish Spielberg felt a disconnect from all the other kids. It made him ashamed of who he was, even at one point ignoring his grandfather when he called for him using his Jewish name, Shmuel. Christmas was, of course, a particularly challenging period. As all the neighbourhood decorations would go up, the Spielberg house would stay bare and stand out because of it. One year, according to a neighbour, Steven set up coloured lights on the front porch, dressed himself in a white sheet, and posed like Jesus on the cross. It was his was of trying to fit in, but it left his parents mortified and they quickly put an end to the act.

Spielberg’s longing to belong manifested itself in his films early on. Duel and Jaws are both tales of bullied characters who need to muster the strength (both physical and emotional) to vanquish their foes; only once they’ve built up the emotional strength can they find the physical strength to win through. Raiders of the Lost Ark, and indeed the Indiana Jones series as a whole, expands this ideafurther. Indy may be much more powerful than David Mann and Martin Brody, but his plight is always a deeply emotional one: he isn’t heroic because he beats Belloq, Mola Ram, or Donovan. He’s heroic because he masters an emotion and becomes a better human being.

Look, for example, at Raiders, in which he learns the value of respect by shutting his eyes to the power of the Ark to stay alive. Temple finds him learning that the Sankara Stones mean something to the village, not just “fortune and glory” to him. Meanwhile in Last Crusade, he learns the importance of heritage, reconnecting with his father and realising that history isn’t just about hidden tombs and dusty books, but a real, tangible thing that shapes who he is. In each film, he connects with someone during his adventure: relighting his flame with Marion, seeing past the vapid screeching of Willie, and most significantly, understanding his father.

Henry Thomas in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

This desire to understand, to belong, is what fuels Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.. These are films of disconnect and tragedy, films about characters who feel lost in the world, unable to find a place for themselves within it. Roy Neary can’t connect with his family and seems to have little interest in his job. He’s daydreaming through life, and when the aliens implant visions of Devil’s Tower in his head, he finds purpose but can’t work out how to act upon it. “What is it!? WHAT IS IT?! Tell me…” he screams after another unsuccessful bid to craft a physical version of what’s in his mind. He’s not just trying to understand what the shape he’s seeing is; he’s trying to understand what he is and how he fits into the world.

Elliott and E.T. are no different. Both are lonely, both are without a centre. E.T.’s lost his people, Elliott has lost his father and is picked on by his friends. They find each other because they need each other. Deeply, fundamentally, there’s a connection between them, one built on loneliness. They find solace in their friendship, but it’s what their friendship leads to that truly transforms them. Half way through the film, they fly through, and above, a deserted forest, living a fantasy that’s totally disconnected from the world. They’re happy, but still lonely. It’s the second flight that marks their progress. Escaping their FBI pursuers, the pair again fly, but this time with Elliott’s friends. And instead of flying against a moon they fly towards a warm, inviting sun, a repeated symbol of truth and togetherness for Spielberg. They’ve connected not just with each other, but with other people too: Elliott’s brother and his friends. Only by doing this can they truly progress in their lives.

This idea repeats time and time again. Peter Banning needs the Lost Boys to become Peter Pan; Oskar Schindler needs the Girl in the Red Coat to take action against Göth; Alan Grant needs Lex and Tim to awaken his paternal feelings; the company need Captain Miller to guide them through their mission to save Private Ryan; David needs Gigolo Joe to help him find the Blue Fairy; Frank Abagnale needs Hanratty to stop his life of crime isolating him entirely; Albert needs Joey to help him survive the madness of war, Haddock needs Tintin to rediscover his heritage; Lincoln needs Tad to keep him centered during his fight to end slavery; Abel needs Donovan to defend him against Red Scare hysteria and the BFG and Sophie need each other to survive the bullying and isolation they suffer in their respective lives.

When we think of Spielberg films, we think of fantastical creatures and daring adventures. We think of sharks, aliens, and lost temples in ancient jungles. Too rarely do we think of the single most important thing in all Spielberg films: people. It’s people that propel Spielberg films, people that face up to the terrifying foes and emotional turmoil, and people that transcend them all. What these films teach us is that nobody is alone and no matter how bad the world seems, no matter how lost you feel, no matter how dark the night gets, there’s always good, there’s always light, and there’s always someone out there you can reach out to.

Short Film: Cycle Lane

One of the wonderful things about Twitter is that it puts you in contact with a wealth of smart, funny, talented people. One such person is Harry Orsborn, a writer who’s penned the above short film, Cycle Lane.

It’s a great watch and worth checking out. Once you’ve done so, visit the social channels and IMDB page by clicking the links below.

Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | IMDB

What Do You Believe?: War and Peace in Wonder Woman

WARNING: BIG SPOILERS

There’s a lot to discuss about Wonder Woman and, frankly, I’m not the right person to do it. The first cinematic depiction of this 76-year-old comic book hero (yes, you read that right – one film in 76 years) has been a hot topic on the internet for a little while now, sometimes for good reasons and sadly sometimes for bad reasons. Having already got very, very angry about those bad reasons, I don’t want to touch on them again, so instead I’m going to take a more positive route and point you in the direction of some incredibly talented women writers and their articles on the significance of this film (here, here, here, and here to name but a few). Read them because they’re much more important and interesting than anything I’m going to write here. But, for whatever it’s worth, I’m going to put some thoughts down anyway, just with a different angle.

Set during World War I, Wonder Woman is not just a rip-roaring comic book movie and thrilling summer blockbuster, it’s a moving and thought-provoking war film. Actually, scratch that: it’s not really a war film. At least not one like I’ve seen before. Most Hollywood war movies are, to some degree, anti-war, but they can never entirely be anti-war. The simple act of capturing conflict through a medium typically designed for light entertainment makes it difficult for even the most harrowing of war movies to totally remove themselves from the excitement and sensationalism cinema offers. So with Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins has taken a different approach: she’s made a peace movie.

Diana Prince’s battle through the film is one of idealism in the pursuit of peace, but in chasing it she must first navigate war. In early scenes, we see her as a child watching adult Amazons train. While doing this, she mimics their every movement, much to the distress of her mother, who’s desperate to keep her away from conflict. As she gets older, Diana does learn to fight and in her first major battle (a training session with her aunt, Themyscira’s general, Antiope) she discovers the true extent of her power, almost causing Antiope terrible harm. At this moment, Jenkins cuts to Diana’s reaction, which is one of fear, confusion and thrill. She has power, but how should she use it? How can power that can inflict such damage be a force for good and peace? And when, if ever, should it be used?

Moments such as this establish the film’s deep sense of humanism and there are many dotted throughout. Later, when Diana’s left Themyscira to participate in the war, she’s devastated when told of the millions of soldiers who’ve died, and furiously confronts a politician who callously dismisses the tragedy. Soldiers die, he reasons, and as unpleasant as he may be, there’s brutal truth in his words. War costs lives. People are killed. It’s a fact of conflict, and one that Wonder Woman‘s male lead, American spy Steve Trevor, accepts. He’s fought too long and seen too much to disagree. He knows that sometimes to win the wider war, you have to lose the battle. Sometimes to do the right thing in the long term, you have to do the wrong thing in the short term. Those, for him, are just the facts of life.

The conflict this philosophy creates between Diana and Steve is beautifully played thanks to Allan Heinberg’s delicate writing and two of the strongest performances you’ll see in a superhero film (from Gal Gadot and Chris Pine). Theirs is a relationship built on mutual trust and respect, so it’s genuinely satisfying, sweet, charming and romantic (there’s a bedroom scene that’s comfortably the most mature and loving I’ve seen in a modern blockbuster). That said, Heinberg and Jenkins never lose sight of their characters as individuals. Both make bad decisions, both do things wrong, but neither are vilified. Steve is never so pragmatic that he’s cold and Diana is never so idealistic that she’s naive. They love each other, and we love them, for their flaws as well as their strengths.

This compassion extends to all the characters. Etta Candy is comic relief who’s never bumbling or stupid, while the group Steve assembles to help he and Diana complete their task defy her initial negative judgements. Ewan Bremner’s PTSD-suffering sniper Charlie in particular speaks to this point. Upon first meeting him, Diana dismisses him as a cowardly killer who can’t even look those he murders in the eye. In moments of peace, however, he’s revealed to be a talented (if somewhat shambling) musician whose ability Diana appreciates and later encourages. He’s not defined by who he is in war. Only he can define who he is. (There’s an excellent Twitter thread by @vampexplosion on masculinity in Wonder Woman here).

Most impressively, the same is true of one of the film’s villains, the brilliant chemist Isabella Maru (nicknamed Doctor Poison and played with affecting vulnerability by Elena Anaya). Like so many comic book villains before her, Poison is pantomime for portions of the story, but in the final act Jenkins brings out her humanity. She lets her guard down during a conversation with Steve at a gala ball, and this draws genuine sympathy as we know Steve’s only talking to her as part of a wider plan to thwart her bosses. Later, she’s offered up to Diana as a victim in a final test for our hero: can she find the humanity in this villain or will she deliver the vengeance she ‘deserves’? Without ever forgiving her for her sins, Jenkins draws compassion for Poison by having her mask drop away to reveal a scarred, scared woman who’s more manipulated than malicious. Diana, of course, stands down. And so do we. War has forced an identity on her just as it has Charlie.

That’s the power of Wonder Woman. It asks something of its audience. Yes, come to see the film because it’s an entertaining comic book flick, but please prepare to think, have some preconceptions challenged and be genuinely moved in ways you may not be prepared for. I certainly was in the film’s finale, when we see Steve and Diana separated: Diana racing off to thwart the villainous God Ares, Steve needing to take care of a payload of poisonous gas. They’ve recently fallen out, and Hollywood structure has taught us to expect the final act to resolve this before presenting us with a happy ending. Well, Wonder Woman does and does not do that because Steve dies while nullifying the gas threat. Before this happens, however, he has an emotional goodbye scene with Diana, and here Jenkins does something truly remarkable.

The first time we see the scene, we don’t hear the dialogue. Diana’s been deafened by a bomb blast, so all we hear is mumbles from Steve’s mouth. However, as Ares is tempting Diana to exact vengeance on Doctor Poison, we cut back. This time, we do hear the dialogue: Steve’s explaining his plan and telling Diana that he loves her. Diana hears his words too, but whether this is literal reality is unclear. Is Diana, now recovered from the shock of the bomb blast, thinking clearly again and can therefore remember what Steve said? Or is she conjuring an imagined version of what she believes Steve said, what her affection for him tells her he said?

The film never seems to offer a clear answer, and for me that’s very much the point. “It’s not about ‘deserve’,” Diana tells Ares as he insists that humanity has done nothing to earn her help. “It’s about what you believe.” By remembering the best of Steve, by believing that his final words to her were ones of sacrifice and love, she not only asserts her strength independent of him, but proves that idealism, love, compassion and unwavering belief in those things can have a place in a practical world. In fact, they must. If they don’t then the value of peace is lost, even if the war is won.

Peace is not some intangible concept that’s simply the absence of conflict, Wonder Woman tells us. It’s something that exists every second of every day in every interaction we have. By exploding gender roles, by demanding its audience question what they see, by collapsing the comic book binary of good and evil, Wonder Woman brilliantly restructures both the superhero genre and the war film, and asks us all to believe. Believe in each other, believe in love, believe in goodness. Because in a world of war where we’re told loudly and violently that things are one way and always will be, sometimes believing is our only and best weapon.

Short Story: ‘Audrey and the Trash Can’

 

Below is a short story I’ve been writing for a number of months. It’s taken on many different forms and been changed a number of times. I’m still not sure I’m entirely happy with it, but there’s only so many times you can tinker with something before you actually put it out there. 

So here it is, ‘Audrey and the Trash Can’, for you to read in all its flaws. I imagined it as a fairy tale without the fairies, because while it’s set in the modern day and doesn’t have any fantastical elements to it, it’s still designed to do what all fairy tales are designed to do: impart a moral. 

Hopefully it does that and will put a smile on your face. Or at least, leave you jonesing for a plate of chips. 

A Very Sunny Day
The trash can wore a smile. It was crooked and misshapen, and formed when Mr Laurent from Number 36 forgot to put the handbrake on, causing his ghastly lime green Ford Fiesta to roll down his driveway and crash into Audrey’s front yard, where the trashcan resided. But it was there; a definite smile. And behind that smile, Audrey knew, there was more. A whole personality: John, a living, breathing being with hopes and dreams. Just like Audrey. Just like everybody else.

Audrey knew that people would find John strange, but she didn’t mind. She knew that being kind to John simply made sense. If a trash can could smile, she reasoned with laser-precise accuracy, he could feel joy. And if he could feel joy, it was common sense that he could feel sadness, and fear, and despair. All the terrible things, in fact, that no decent person would ever want anybody else to feel – and which Audrey, whose father had passed away when she was six, knew all too well.

Who would stop John feeling those things? Who would help him when the dark clouds filled the sky and the rain began to fall? No one on Primrose Drive was likely to step forward. So she did it herself, stopping next to John one sunny Thursday morning on her way to school to exchange a greeting.

“Hello John,” she said, anxiously twiddling her bright pink sunglasses (which she wore as often as she could) and pulling at the threads of her already-tatty yellow dinosaur jumper (another fixture of her wardrobe). Of course she needn’t have been so nervous. Audrey was a Very Nice Person with Very Good Ideas and a Very Excellent Fashion Sense. John liked her immediately.

“Hello Audrey,” he replied, grateful for the new friend he’d unexpectedly made.

Sometimes that’s as far as the conversation would go, especially in the early days. A simple greeting, an acknowledgement from human to trashcan of each other’s mutual existence and right to respect. Sometimes, there’d be a fuller enquiry: a ‘how are you’ here, an ‘oh fine. Yourself?’ there. And on other occasions, the exchanges would become full conversations, so long and involved, so joyous in their content, that Audrey’s mum needed to bring out her tea (always a plate of chips, because Audrey, like all Very Smart Girls, knew that chips were a Very Good Idea) while she chatted with her new friend.

These were Audrey’s favourites. Here, when she and John had more time, she would ask about his day, relishing every detail: who had walked by, how many red cars had he seen, had that pesky dog from Number 43 tried to wee on him again!? She also liked to ask about his interest in the arts. John was a very learned trash can, as many trash cans are, and she enjoyed hearing his literary recommendations, which blended the latest airport potboilers with the most respected of classics.

“Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment?” he said, barely suppressing a mischievous grin. “Well, it was quite the life sentence reading that one!”

He’d often repeat that joke, or jokes like it, laughing heartily as he did. Audrey liked it very much and didn’t mind at all that she’d heard it many times before. She laughed every time. For his part, John liked that she liked it, and they both liked that they could make each other smile as much as they did. The weather was warm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky on those very sunny days.

A Very Smart Teacher
As their friendship grew, so too did John’s features. Audrey ‘borrowed’ a hot glue gun from the school’s woodwork class, found a nice smooth rock from her mum’s garden, and glued it to John’s face, just above his crooked smile.

“There,” she said with a sense of glorious completion. “Now you have a nose!”

The heat from the glue stung John’s face, but he didn’t mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was delighted to finally have a nose – a critical facility for any living being: animal, human, trashcan or otherwise.

“Who ‘nose’ what I’ll be able to smell with this,” he joked. “Thank you, Audrey. I’ll take it everywhere with me.”

Audrey and John become inseparable as the days and weeks passed.

Every morning brought a ‘Have a nice day,’ John broadening Audrey’s vocabulary by using a new, more complicated word to use in place of ‘nice’. Eventually, they no longer simply wished each other a ‘nice’ day, but a great one, a wonderful one, an exceptional one, a super-duper-with-a-cherry-on-top one. Likewise, every evening brought a conversation about the day just gone. One night, Audrey returned with an armful of props from the drama club (“Mrs Matthews said I could have them!” she protested when John expressed his concern) and used them to give John extra features: eyes and eyebrows, a lush mop of hair and even a little hat and umbrella to keep the rain off. John thought the bright yellow umbrella made him look a little silly, but he appreciated the thought. Especially when that dog appeared.

It was, they both knew, a perfect friendship, one based on mutual love, affection, and empathy. Audrey learned things from John and John learned things from Audrey. Even the rare issues on which they disagreed – such as the various merits of merry-go-rounds (John was not a fan) and the degree to which raw marzipan is or is not edible (“Of course it is,” Audrey protested. “If it’s sweet and tasty it can – and should! – be eaten!”) – they could find common ground and respect.

“Thank you for believing in me,” John told Audrey one cool summer evening.

“Why would I not?” asked Audrey, genuinely surprised and a little saddened that her friend would even think such a thing.

“Many people don’t…” John replied solemnly.

The words lingered in Audrey’s mind all through the night and into the next day. They itched away at her as she brushed her teeth in the morning, got bored during Double Maths class in the afternoon, and left for home having aced a Science test. It was a Wednesday, so her mother had to work late at the lab and Mrs Matthews, Blacknot Primary’s Head Teacher, walked her home.

Mrs Matthews was the youngest Head Teacher in Blacknot’s history, and had almost single-handed saved Blacknot Primary from closure 18 months after her appointment. She prided herself on knowing the name of every pupil at the school, but held a special place in her heart for Audrey, who first came to her attention when the girl accidentally set the science lab alight.

“I wanted to make the world better,” Audrey said when Mrs Matthews asked what she was trying to do.

Of course, Mrs Matthews had to reprimand her slightly, telling her to be more careful from now on, but secretly she wanted to tell Audrey to keep at it. One day, she knew, Audrey would create something that really did make the world better.

Audrey had told Mrs Matthews all about John, and she’d even visited him a few days earlier, getting into a very long conversation about Mrs Matthews’ favourite author, Charles Dickens. She was, Audrey knew, A Very Good Teacher, and if anyone knew how to answer the questions that were plaguing her, it was her. So Audrey asked, and hoped there’d be an answer.

Mrs Matthews seemed a little taken aback at first. It wasn’t that she was surprised that Audrey would ask this question, but rather that she really didn’t know how to answer. How, after all, do you tell a 10-year-old about the nature of kindness; why some people are kind and others… are not. She could see that the pause was upsetting Audrey, like the lack of an immediate answer simply wasn’t good enough for such a critical question. So she started talking, stumbling at first but eventually speaking with the clarity and certainty Audrey had become accustomed to.

“Well, Audrey, sweetheart, there are different kinds of unkindness,” she began uneasily. “Some are unkind through sheer thoughtlessness. No harm is intended, and no harm is taken.”

She told Audrey the story of her neighbour, Mr Amir, a kind young man who always left food and water out for the stray dogs that wandered into his back garden, but who’d stormed home one evening with a face of fire and a headful of hate. He’d been frustrated by a long and difficult day at work, and spent the entire two-hour train journey back thrust up against a door because a fellow passenger didn’t take his bag off his back. That night, he could be heard ranting through the walls, but the next day, he emerged with a spring in his step.

“Hello, Mr Amir,” Mrs Matthews said upon seeing him the next morning. “Are you ok? You seemed very angry yesterday?”

“Oh hello Helen,” Mr Amir replied, smiling. “Yes, I just had a bad day.” And with that, he went about the rest of his day.

“Sometimes, Audrey, people just get annoyed and need to let it out. Other times, however, unkindness comes from unkindness inflicted upon a person…”

“Like Mr Goldstein!” Audrey jumped in to say.

Mrs Matthews didn’t know who Mr Goldstein was, but let Audrey tell the story, which she did with typically vivid panache. Mr Goldstein was a sweet but lonely old man who’d been the butt of jokes about his lisp for many years. The humiliation eventually got too much and he shut himself away as he got older, turning from a gentle old man who fixed Audrey’s bike whenever it broke into an angry tyrant who never left his house. His garden, which he’d once tended so carefully and which gave Primose Drive such great colour during the Spring and Summer turned to ruin, and when anyone would pop by to say hello, he’d greet them with a cold hiss that would shame even the deadliest of snakes.

“I tried to build a time machine to go back to the day he stopped going out,” Audrey told Mrs Matthews, “but it didn’t work.”

“Well,” Mrs Matthew said, “the laws of time and space are tricky to say the least and remain just out of reach, even for the Very Smartest of Girls with the Very Best of Ideas. I bet Mr Goldstein appreciated the effort.”

The two paused for a moment reflecting on Mr Goldstein’s misfortune. Mrs Matthews noticed that Audrey was looking sad again, tugging at her jumper and fiddling with her sunglasses, and tried to turn the conversation to other things. But Audrey was not one to be deterred, and asked about the other kinds of unkindness. It was a subject Mrs Matthews was hesitant to embark upon, but she knew Audrey wouldn’t let it drop. When she wanted to know something, she’d know it.

“Well, some people don’t have excuses like Mr Amir and Mr Goldstein. Their unkindness is not short-lived and nor is it a side-effect of the unkindness of others. They’re simply unkind and their unkindness is designed to be, and successful at being, harmful.”

Audrey saw this kind of person on the news all the time: the person who dislikes another person because of the colour of their skin, or the country they’re from, or the person they love, or the gender they are.

“This kind of unkindness is stupid and pointless,” Mrs Matthews continued, “and it grows in people, like a weed in a garden. And where one weed can grow, another can grow. And another. And another. And another. Until the whole garden is overtaken.

“And if a garden is full of weeds,” she added, trying to add some levity to put the smile back on Audrey’s face, “what room will there be for potatoes and the delicious chips we make from them?”

Audrey did smile, but not for long. She didn’t know many people like this, but the one she did know was horrible enough to make up for all the ones she didn’t.

“Mrs Roache,” she said flatly.

“Mrs Roache,” sighed Mrs Matthews, who’d had plenty of confrontations with this woman since arriving in Blacknot.

“She got rid of Natalia,” Audrey said, pausing and stumbling over her words, like she couldn’t quite articulate them.

“And I think I hate her.”

Mrs Matthews had heard most of the stories Audrey had to tell on her Wednesday afternoon trips back from school. Every invention, every brilliantly mad scheme, every character she’d dreamed up. She’d even spoken at length about her Dad, something she struggled to do with anyone but her Mum.

But she’d never heard of Natalia and she’d certainly never used the word ‘hate’ before, not even to describe the man who’d drunkenly knocked her father down.

“Who’s Natalia, Audrey,” Mrs Matthews asked, unsure of whether to use the past or present tense considering Audrey’s use of the term “got rid of”.

So Audrey told the story. Of Natalia, who’d moved to Primrose Drive when Audrey when seven, and who’d disappeared shortly after.

Audrey liked Natalia immediately. She was a few years older, ridiculously stylish and unbelievably cool. She put colours in her hair – pinks, purples, blues, and greens, a different one every week – and when she saw Audrey wearing her bright pink sunglasses, she took to calling the girl ‘Hepburn’. Audrey didn’t know what that meant, but Natalia made it sound cool, so she had everyone else call it her too. No-one made it sound quite as good as Natalia did though.

Natalia’s Dad owned a small shop just down the road from Primrose Drive, and Audrey often went in there to run errands for her Mum. He also called her Hepburn and would always give her a free bag of crisps – Salt and Vinegar, obviously! – as she left. He was a Very Nice Man and he’d promised Audrey a paper round when she got a little older (“To fund your magnificent inventions,” he said with an accent she couldn’t locate but she liked very much anyway).

The girls always smiled, and the weather was always sunny when Audrey was with her only friend and her only friend was with her.

But Mrs. Roache didn’t like Natalia and her Dad. She said they were taking over and ruining Primrose Drive. It looked the same to Audrey, so she didn’t know what Mrs. Roache was talking about. Somehow though other people agreed with Mrs. Roache, attending many meetings at the Town Hall to discuss ‘what should be done’. Then, one day, Natalia stopped visiting, the shop shut down, and there was no-one to call her ‘Hepburn’ any more.

“I don’t know where she is now,” Audrey said with uncharacteristic meekness. “And I don’t know if she’s got someone to make her smile.”  

At that, she and Mrs Matthews finally reached Audrey’s house. Mrs Matthews said hello to John, who asked if she’d finally come round to his way of thinking that Great Expectations was indeed better than Bleak House. Mrs Matthews agreed that she must indeed defer to the great literary mind of our age – which brought a smile to Audrey’s face – and the three said their goodbyes.

Mrs Matthews carried on towards her house and wrapped her coat tight around her as a chill wind swept through Primrose Drive.

A Very Silly Person

People like Mrs Roache never go away. Not really. And they certainly don’t stop being hateful. They just find different ways and different targets. Having targeted Natalia before, Mrs Roach now turned her attentions to the latest new and different thing that she couldn’t understand: John.

She’d heard all about Audrey and John’s friendship and didn’t like it one bit. She marched on Audrey’s house and knocked on the door, determined to talk to Audrey’s mum about her daughter’s strange friendship.

“Do you understand what she’s doing?” Mrs Roache demanded with venom in her voice.

“Having fun,” replied Audrey’s mother, who had argued tirelessly over Mrs Roach’s treatment of Natalia and her father, and had long since had her fill of this vicious woman’s hate. She already had her hand on the front door, ready to close it firmly in Mrs Roache’s face; something she was hoping to do as quickly as possible.

“You call that fun?” Mrs Roache replied, placing her foot in the doorway to make sure she couldn’t be shut out. She’d done this many times before and had many doors slammed in her face as a result. Like all people who like telling others what to do, Mrs Roache wasn’t so keen on being told what to do herself.

“That isn’t fun! It’s…” she paused, partly to find the right word, partly for dramatic effect because she already knew the right word – she used it every time she had this conversation, “it’s abnormal. How will I ever explain such abnormality to my children!?”

Audrey’s mum had to stifle a smile. Mrs Roache always returned to this argument, believing somehow that her concern for her children, and the children of her friends, made her right and gave her permission to hold any old opinion, no matter how disgusting it was, and force it upon anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot.

“As an educator, Mrs Roache,” Audrey’s mum began, her words dripping with irony, “I’d hope you’d know the answer to that question already. But since you’re asking, I suggest you start by sitting down and talking to your children. Have you ever done that?”

She didn’t need, want, or expect an answer, so Audrey’s mum sharply closed the door, not caring if she trapped Mrs. Roach’s foot in it.

“I’m sorry,” she said through the door when she heard the inevitable yelp, her voice barely masking false sincerity. “In future, I’ll try to make sure my door isn’t in the way of your foot.”

And with that Mrs Roache turned and left, but Audrey’s mum knew she’d be back and warned her daughter to look out for her in the next few days. So when Mrs Roach descended like a shadow at sundown on Audrey’s house again, flyer in hand and darkness in her eyes on one grey and cold afternoon, the girl simply laughed and went back to chatting to John.

“You’re a very silly person, aren’t you?” she said as she walked away, understanding that Very Silly People are worth neither time nor effort, especially not when there were Very Good Ideas to be tended to.

It didn’t do any good. Mrs. Roache ignored Audrey’s dismissal and carried on.

“Why do you talk to a trash can?” she said, floating like a ghost to where Audrey and John were sat talking about the various merits of French Fries (too thin. Obviously).

“Because he’s my friend,” Audrey replied, irritated that her conversation was interrupted by a woman (an educator, no less) who, for some reason, needed it explained to her that a trashcan with a smile could feel joy and therefore sadness and therefore needed a friend to help him not experience such terrible emotions.

“I thought you were on the Board of Governors at school. Maybe I should tell them to fire you as you’re obviously not very smart.”

Mrs Roache twitched, as she did every time someone threatened her power. She moved towards Audrey, knelt down so she was in the girl’s eyeline, and smiled a smile that bore more in common with a grimace than an expression of joy. “That,” she said with a voice so flat it could be used to draw a straight line in a school exercise book, “is a trashcan. It can’t be your friend and you can’t be its friend.”

Mrs. Roache put particular emphasis on the words ‘it’ and ‘its’, making sure Audrey and John knew that she didn’t consider John as anything more than a thing, an ‘it’ that warranted neither a name nor the respect that came with it.

The words cut like daggers, and Audrey could feel herself getting angry. Angry for Natalia, angry for John, angry for herself for having to listen to this silly woman and her silly views. She considered shouting, but knew it wouldn’t do anything. She considered trying to teach Mrs. Roach about why John deserved respect. But she didn’t think it would achieve much either. So she tried a different approach, one that would end this tiresome conversation and allow her and John to go back to their Very Good Ideas. She pitied her.

John watched with a wide smile on his face as Audrey stood up, placed her hand on Mrs Roach’s shoulder, and looked her in the eyes.

“You’re a very silly person, aren’t you?” she said, smiling with pity at this most pitiable woman.

She then walked in front of Mrs Roach and resumed her conversation with John as the sun broke through the clouds.

A Very Troubling Boy

Danny Roache was every bit his Mother’s son. He was disruptive in class, aggressive towards classmates, and where his Mum would expect agreement following her statements, no matter how silly, he would expected laughter following his jokes, no matter how unfunny. He roamed the halls of Blacknot Primary flanked by two friends, whose names Audrey neither knew, nor cared to learn, and had gained a special notoriety in the Teacher’s Lounge when he refused to read Romeo and Juliet in Mrs Walsh’s English class. “What would I want with some mushy love story?” he’d demanded.

He and his parents lived at Number 66, and he’d often pass Audrey’s house on Saturday morning as he made his way to football practice. Since forming her friendship with John, Danny had taken to hurling insults at Audrey, calling her a weirdo and Rubbish Girl. She didn’t mind; in fact, she was quite amused by how unimaginative his insults were. But unknown to her, Danny had become a spy for his Mum, watching her as she and John worked on their Very Good Ideas and reporting back to Mrs. Roache with every last detail.

For the past few Saturdays, Audrey had spent the majority of the morning with John. They were building a rocket ship to travel to the moon. Audrey reasoned that the moon-dwelling aliens, which John had dubbed Mooniens, were more friendly than the people who lived here on Earth. She wanted to be sure that John would never have to experience Mrs Roache’s unkindness again. The Mooniens would make for much better company, she reasoned, and so she struck upon the Very Good Idea of building a Rocket Ship that could take her and John to be with them.

As it turned out, Rocket Ships were not as difficult to make as the NASA scientists made it seem. A wing here, a satellite there, and voila! All done. Audrey and John couldn’t work out why so many compared Very Difficult Things to rocket science. This was a piece of cake, or more precisely, a plate of chips, which Audrey and John delightedly devoured after completing their third weekend of work on their Very Good Idea.

As the sun went down and John gobbled up the last chip, the two basked in the glory of their continued work, which now sat bathed in the warm orange glow of a setting sun.

“The moon will be better,” Audrey assured John.

“It can hardly be worse,” John agreed.

Life on Earth could get worse though. Much worse. As Audrey and John discovered on the fourth weekend of their Rocket Ship Project, when Danny appeared on their front lawn with a baseball bat in his hands and a dark intent in his eyes.

Danny may not have been funny or smart, but he was cunning and as he wandered Primrose Drive, spying for his Mum, he was working out when Audrey would be absent and for how long, slowly getting a gauge of the best times to appear.

On a number of occasions, for example, he showed up when Audrey was eating her lunch, only to be surprised that, in her eagerness to complete the Rocket Ship, she returned early, with cheese sandwich (no crusts – an omission which John simply couldn’t fathom) clutched in her hands. Danny, like every scheming bully, would sheepishly depart, backsack pulled tightly over his shoulders, hoodie concealing his face.

On the fourth weekend, however, the stars did not align so neatly.

Audrey had popped to the DIY shop for supplies when Danny spied his opportunity. It was mid-day, and the clouds turned dark. Danny pulled his hood hard over his head and slid a baseball bat out of his bag. Without even a second’s pause, he started destroying the rocket ship.

It was… well, it was a lot of things, but mostly, it was hateful. Utterly, hopelessly hateful. As all destruction is, of course. But this particular act of destruction was especially hateful. By attacking the rocket ship, Danny was doing more than destroying a bit of metal. He was destroying endeavour, creativity, hope, and friendship.

And he knew it. That was the point.

Danny knew all this and still wanted to destroy it. It’s why his rampage was as horrible and reckless as it was. Some violence is careful, quiet, precise. Some violence is even delivered through words, rather than physical kicks and punches: barbed language that shoots from a cracked and cold tongue and falls like smashed glass on its target.

Make no mistake: such violence is just as repugnant as the violence Danny inflicted upon Audrey and John’s Rocket Ship, but Danny’s violence was of a different sort. It was scary. And when Audrey returned home with the early afternoon sun barely peaking through a thick grey sky, she wanted to hide. Hide the ship (or what was left of it), hide herself, and most of all hide John.

It was to John she ran first when she first arrived back. It took her a little time to find him, causing her heart to race faster than she knew it could. Danny’s rampage had sent scraps of metal hurtling toward John, and at one point, the boy had swung so wildly it had hit John and sent him tumbling over.

When she did find him, she almost wished she hadn’t. She rolled John over and returned him to his upright position, but when she saw his face, her fast-beating heart ground to a stop so hard she imagined smoke emerging from it like that cartoon coyote’s feet did when he couldn’t catch the bird. The dents and dings Danny’s bat had inflicted on John had warped his once proudly crooked smile. Now, he no longer beamed with the goofy grin that greeted Audrey on her way to and from school every day; he frowned.

“Are you ok, John?” Audrey asked, voice breaking, already knowing the answer deep down.

There was a long pause as John looked at his friend with his bent frown.

“We’re not going to the moon, are we Audrey?”

“Not today, John,” she replied. “Not today.”

A Very Dark Night

Audrey couldn’t sleep that night. She didn’t understand. Why destroy something that wasn’t doing anybody any harm? Why hurt someone so much by destroying something they’d worked so hard on, something that meant so much to them? She asked her mum while brushing her teeth for the night, but no answer came. Adults, she quickly realised after her father’s death, have no greater ability to understand people, and the depth to which they will sink, than children. How could they? They make building a spaceship look like rocket science. She and John did it in three weeks.

And Danny undid it in three minutes.

As she tossed and turned in bed, Audrey struggled to grasp the feelings rushing through her. She was angry. No, worse than that. She was livid. Furious. Irate. Enraged. All those words John had taught her but didn’t quite capture just how angry she really was. She clenched her fists and gritted her teeth, trying with all her might to halt the fury she felt coursing through her veins like fire. She hated him. Him and his Mum. She knew it now. No ‘thinking’ about it. She hated them both and wanted revenge.

“If he can do that to me and John,” she reasoned with a coldness in her voice that’d startle you awake one cold and dark January morning, “then we can do it back to him.”

The thought made her smile and she got to wondering what of Danny’s she and John could destroy. Deep down, she knew this was just a way of taking her mind of the destruction of the rocket ship, something to occupy her head so she didn’t have to feel sad about it any more. She even felt a little twinge of guilt as the thoughts crossed her mind. But it felt good to do it, and so she carried on. She tried to find the perfect item, something that meant the world to him. She’d seen him polishing his bike on her way back from school one day. That’d do it. That’d hurt him.

She leaped out of bed, her feet hitting the floor with a thud she was sure her Mum heard. She froze on the spot, listening out for signs of her Mum getting out of bed, but nothing came. She moved around her room, slowly and deliberately making her way to the blackboard on which she devised all her Very Good Ideas. She picked up the chalk and sketched out the steps she’d need to take to steal and destroy Danny’s bike.

  1. Watch his movements.
  2. Find a time when the bike is unattended
  3. Take the bike
  4. Take the bike apart
  5. Use the bike to build a new Rocket Ship

She flipped the blackboard over, multi-coloured chalk that had been resting in the tray at the foot of the board spilling quietly to the floor. Hastily, she scrawled a map on the blackboard’s reverse side, a map showing Primrose Drive and the sidestreet that emerged from it. Here, she could plot Danny’s movements, work out his weaknesses, and mastermind her attack. She smiled again at the thought. It was a mean and malicious smile. The kind of smile she didn’t know she was capable of smiling. A smirk more than a smile, in fact. The kind of smirk she imagined Danny smirked when he smashed up the rocket ship and hit John.

John.

She paused. What would John think to see her like this? Angry. Frustrated. Planning to do to someone else that which had caused her and John so much pain. This isn’t what he’d want, and it’s certainly not what he’d do. She realised in that moment it wasn’t even what she wanted. Not really. She just wanted to rid herself of the hurt and outrage she felt. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair! But she didn’t know what to do to balance things out again. What could she do to stop feeling so bad and make things right again?

She glanced out of her window, towards the front lawn where the tattered remains of her and John’s rocket ship still lay, and where John himself still stood proudly, if a little more meekly, with his crooked frown. She smiled at how he endured and decided to do the same herself. She headed back to bed and went to sleep with an annoyed grunt and a final, futile gnash of her teeth. Doing right can sometimes be A Very Annoying Thing, she thought. She off drifted to sleep and her clock ticked on to midnight as the day came to a close without a star blinking in the night sky.

A Very Good Idea

The next day, Audrey arose as she often did: with renewed purpose, a clear mind and a pure heart. She looked out of her window at the remains of the Rocket Ship, just as she had the night before, and the morning seemed to shine a new light on the pile of scattered metal scraps. She smiled the kind of smile one smiles when one has A Very Good Idea. She smiled the smile she smiled when she first saw John smiling at her all those months ago. She smiled the smile of creation.

She got dressed, brushed her teeth, pushing the toothbrush across her mouth once, twice, three times, just as the programme on children’s television told her to, and bounded downstairs where her mother was preparing reports for her day ahead at the lab.

“Don’t you want some toast,” her mother called to her as she flew out the door.

“TOAST!?” Audrey bellowed, incredulous at the mere suggestion that toast were a fitting foodstuff for such a momentous occasion. “Mother, I have A Very Good Idea! I have no need for such human food as toast!”

And with that, her mum watched as Audrey dashed off down the road, heading wherever her Very Good Idea was going to take her.

“But it’s got jam on it,” was all she could meekly offer.

No amount of jam could distract Audrey from her path. Not even the very special strawberry jam her mother kept in the high cabinet for special occasions only and which she’d pulled down this morning to cheer her up after the events of the day before.

Audrey was already halfway down the road before her Mum finished talking, and within a matter of minutes, she arrived at her location: the hardware shop. She picked up a few key provisions, dumped a bag of coins she hastily swept up from her bedroom dresser on the counter with a dull metallic thud and dashed out again, without so much as waiting for a receipt. She didn’t need one. These provisions were for a Very Good Idea, and one never returns A Very Good Idea.

John was confused by the commotion. He couldn’t fathom what Audrey’s Very Good Idea was, and was still too upset to try to work it out. So when Audrey returned to the front lawn and started tearing up the pieces of the rocket ship even more, he was not only confused, but a little annoyed.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Working on an idea,” Audrey replied quickly and with a certainty that suggested she believed this answered the enquiry as wholly as it could possibly be answered.

“Oh,” John replied. Sad he may have been, but he knew Audrey well enough to know that when she was gripped by this kind of spirit, it’s best just to let her go at it with full speed.

“Is it as good as sliced bread,” John asked, shouting a little so he could be heard over the fizzing and whizzing that were no doubt screeching through Audrey’s active brain. “I hear that’s very good””

Audrey stopped for a second and peered over her glasses.

“Better,” she smiled. “Much better.”  

And so Audrey clanged and clanked, and clattered and battered, and bashed and thrashed her way through the Rocket Ship’s debris until something started to take shape. Or rather, some things.

No longer were the rocket pieces torn up shards of metal, they were rounded spheres. Three of them. All stood up. All with flat bottoms and little lids for hats. All with little umbrellas to keep the rain off. They were trash cans, and they had crooked little smiles, just like John did. Or did have. That was Audrey’s last job in this Very Good Idea that was indeed A Very Good Idea and certainly much better than both sliced bread and jam on toast.

She put her arm around John and looked at him with determination in her eyes.

“They’re friends,” she said. “For you… for us. We’ll be a family and we’ll always look out for one another. Me, you…”

She started motioning toward the other trash cans, pointing each one out in turn.

“Alan,” she pointed to the smallest trash can, whose diminutive stature belied a true and valiant heart. He’d once saved a child from a burning building, and dreamed of being a virtuous Knight of the Round Table one day.

“Penelope,” she pointed to a rough and ready trashcan with scars across her body but a warmth in her eyes. She enjoyed poetry and would often tell anyone who listened about the time she had a composition published in the Culture section of The Guardian.

“And Tabatha,” she pointed to the tallest and biggest of the trash cans, who was nonetheless the shyest and most quiet of the three. She gave a sheepish hello by way of acknowledgement and clutched nervously at her book.

There they were. Audrey and her trashcan friends. She turned to John, preparing to bash his frown back into a smile, but didn’t need to bother. John’s frown had already turned back into the smile Audrey knew and loved. He was happy. She was happy. She smiled. At John. At Alan. At Penelope. At Tabatha.

“What he destroyed, we created,” she said. “What he tore down, we built up.”

The five friends cheered as the sun went down, the honey glow and long shadows bringing this Very Good Idea on this Very Good Day to a Very Good End.

A Very Bad Thing

Over the next few days, the five friends were inseparable, as new friends often are and always should be.

On Saturday, they formed a band and recorded a handful of songs, before planning an album, a World Tour, and a film based on their illustrious career. It broke box office records and won every award at the Oscars. Naturally.

On Sunday, they wrote poetry that they submitted to all of London’s great literary journals and gained them the respect of the very finest minds the capital has to offer.

“I’d pull the stars from the sky and lay them down for you to sleep on,” proclaimed Penny.

“I’d take the clouds from up high and put them down for you to walk on,” added Alan.

“I’d take every sigh you ever sighed and wrap you up in my clouds,” offered John.

“I’d take every cry you ever cried and light you up with my stars,” finished Tabitha.

On Monday, they resurrected the dinosaurs, stomping and tromping through the front lawn and pronouncing with the accuracy you’d expect from five Very Bright Friends the cunning Epidexipteryx, the terrifying Phthinosuchus, and the lumbering Xiongguanlong.

On Tuesday, they performed a play by the great William Shakespeare, being sure to improve upon the less great moments that plagued Hamlet. “To be or not to be,” Tabby proclaimed. “Is not a question at all, for it is always better to be than not to be.”

On Wednesday, they ventured up Mount Everest, Alan making sure they packed a scarf, woolly hat and plenty of hot chocolate to keep the chill off.  

“They make it seem like it’s difficult climbing up here,” Penny said triumphantly. “Those adults are constantly making mountains out of molehills. Literally!”

On Thursday, they set off on the adventure of a lifetime, chopping through the jungles of deepest, darkest Peru in search of the prized Silver Medallion. Their efforts were stifled by a particularly angry snake they decided to call Gerald, but the friends took heart from the fact they’d gotten so far, and sat down in the Peruvian sun for a picnic comprising, of course, of sandwiches without a crust and lots and lots of chips.

On Friday, Audrey’s friends planned her a surprise party. There were banners and streamers, and cake and ice cream. Jelly of all different flavours – strawberry, and orange, and lemon and lime – was wheeled out on a ginormous cart and Audrey cheered with delight when she arrived at her lawn after a particularly arduous Science class.

“These are the very best days I’ve ever had,” she said as she toasted the banquet table. “I’m glad I could share them with you all.”

She smiled the biggest smile she’d ever smiled, just as her Mum had told her to when Very Good Things happened.

“Never let good things pass without recognising them as good things,” she’d said after her husband’s funeral. “There’s much to love in the world, Audrey, and when those things happen you should smile as widely as you can and enjoy every last second. Because sometimes bad things happen too, and you need to remember the good things to remind yourself that nothing – not bad, and sadly not good – lasts forever. Focus on the good and ignore the bad.”

Audrey took her Mum’s advice to heart. She relished all the good moments and tried to ignore all the bad ones. Every time she was called a name at school, she thought of something nice someone had said about her. Every time she fell over and scraped her knee while making one of her Very Good Ideas she’d think of the ice cream (Mint Choc Chip, obviously) her mum would make her to cheer up up. And, of course, for every horrible stick of celery she had to force down, she’d think of the delicious plate of chips she’d have the next day.

It was a good system, and it worked. But nothing’s perfect, and on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, a mere four days after the completion of Audrey’s Very Good Idea, her resolve was tested by a Very Bad Child with a Very Bad Thing.

Destruction is easy. It’s why so many people do it. They’re lazy, bored and quite often not very bright. They have neither the temperament nor the talent to create like Audrey did. So they destroy. Brutally. And quickly. A good thing too because even these people know what they’re doing is wrong. But they do it anyway. If they don’t do it quickly, if they took the time to reflect on their actions like Audrey did on the night of the Rocket Ship Disaster, maybe they wouldn’t do such terrible things. The shame and the guilt would be too much to take.

But Danny wasn’t a boy to reflect on how someone else might feel. How it might all creep up to him some day in the future and attack his conscience with the ferocity he’d shown on the day the Rocket Ship died and on this cold, wet Tuesday afternoon. Evil genius, you see, is a contradiction in terms. It’s that most apt of phrases: an oxymoron. Evil is never genius and very seldom smart. It is stupid and ugly and to be avoided at all costs.

Tabby was the first to go. That’s the thing about evil. It picks on the weakest first. But the thing with good is it always defies expectation. Tabby was stronger than her demeanour suggested, and she put up a fierce resistance. It took many strong and hard hits from Danny’s bat before even a small dent had been put into Tabby’s shell. She was proud of herself for how brave she was, and even as the critical blows rained down, forcing her to the ground, she smiled to herself, content in the knowledge that she hadn’t buckled easily.

Alan was next, and he fell fast. His body had been made of a patchwork of different pieces of the rocket ship, so it was less firm, less able to resist Danny’s beating. Like Tabby, Penny fared better, but ultimately Danny got the better of her too. All in all, it took eight minutes for Danny to wreck what Audrey had built. Looking back on the incident, she took some heart from the fact it took Danny longer to destroy her four friends than it took him to destroy an entire, NASA ready Rocket Ship. Trash Cans are pretty strong, she thought to herself, smiling.

For the here and now, however, there was only desolation and despair. Danny fled the scene as soon as his rampage was complete and would, of course, protest his innocence, just as he had when he destroyed the Rocket Ship. Maybe he even believed his lie. Such is the nature of a guilty conscience. It hangs so heavy and dwells so long that the person who lives with it may need to lie to themselves simply to get by. It’s a particularly brutal form of punishment, Mrs Matthews had once told Audrey, and not one you would ever want to suffer from, nor wish upon even your worst enemy.

The rain was still falling when Audrey returned home from school, but cleared with uncommon haste once she laid eyes on the scene.

There they were. Her friends. Beaten. Battered. She felt a rage rise up inside her. It was a peculiar kind of rage, unlike any she had felt before – even that which had gripped her on the night of the Rocket Ship disaster. She gritted her teeth,   clenched her fists, and breathed very, very slowly, hoping she could calm the flood.

Composure, she told herself. Calm. She had built Alan, Tabby and Penny from the remains of the Rocket Ship, and she could patch them up again. And again. And again.

“What he destroyed, I will create,” her brain screamed as loud as it possibly could. “What he tears down, I will build up.” No matter how many times he came back, she would hold firm. She would stand by her friends. She would not break. 

Audrey’s hope and dedication were admirable. She knew that. But she also knew that she might not be able to rebuild them every time. What happens, she thought, if Danny tears her friends to shreds? What happens if he scattered the pieces? What happens if there’s nothing left of John, Alan, Tabby, and Penny to rebuild?

The wind had been howling while she surveyed the wreckage, but as she drew her dark conclusion, as she formulated her final plan, it came to an eerie, upsetting stop. With a composure she’d later look back on with a chill, she retrieved her late father’s old cricket bat from the shed and quietly made her way to school. Where Danny would, right now, be preparing for football practice. Where he wouldn’t be expecting her. Where she’d end this sorry story once and for all.

The wind picked up and the rain began to fall.

A Very Big Moment

It was 5.15 pm when Audrey arrived at Blacknot Primary’s playing fields. The journey would normally only take 10 minutes, but a further five were added to this particular trip. Every traffic light turned red when she came to it, every driveway had a car pulling out of it, every element the world could throw at her, be it wind or rain or sleet or snow, headed her way. The fates seemed to be willing Audrey back, but she persisted. She was like that. When Audrey set her mind to something, for good or ill, it would be done and done well.

When she finally did arrive at the fields, she did so with no sense of ceremony. Looking back on that day, the boys on Danny’s team recalled seeing only a black dot on the horizon growing nearer, bigger and more ferocious with every step. It scared them to think of it. A game was in progress, but Audrey didn’t notice. Even if she had she wouldn’t have cared.

In total, there were 22 boys and the PE teacher, Mr Fitzpatrick, a giant of a man who even the biggest of the Year 11 boys feared, on the field that day, but in Audrey’s eyes there was only one, and it took just one firm push to bring him to his knees.

The other boys froze in shock and could only stare at Audrey as she dragged the fallen Danny by his arm through the mud. She flung him over on his side, encouraging a few stifled laughs from his team-mates. Many of them didn’t like Danny either, and the sight of him being beaten so easily by this girl who none of them had even seen before and certainly couldn’t name, brought smiles to their faces. This proud and nasty bully was finally being given a taste of his own medicine by a girl. It was, even the most virtuous of people would admit, a satisfying sight.

Audrey had been silent and methodical until this point – almost scientific in the way she went about the beating. Not a single breath, not a single action, was wasted: no effort was expended that did not serve her singular glorious purpose. But the anger rose within her, and finally exploded as she saw her foe trying to crawl away.

A wimp! A wimp who loved to fight but couldn’t even muster a defence when the fight came to him. Audrey thought of John, Alan, Tabitha, and Penny and knew that they didn’t have the option to defend themselves. They couldn’t even crawl away. Danny crawling insulted them, and that was another affront she simply wouldn’t stand for.

She leaped on the boy as his hands clawed at the ground, pinning him down and punching, slapping, and scratching anything she could. The attack seemed to last for an age before Mr. Fitzpatrick finally arrived, running from the corner flag at which he’d been attending a free-kick when Audrey arrived, and broke the fight (if such a one-sided bout could indeed be called a fight) up. He pulled her off, but succeeded only in hurling her into the path of the cricket bat which, in her rage, she’d dropped a few meters away. She swiped it from the muddy floor and lunged at Danny as Mr Fitzpatrick helped the boy off the floor.

Again, Danny was grounded and heat – broiling, hot heat – raced through Audrey’s veins.

Who was there to help her friends?

Why should he be helped up when nobody would help them!?

The anger wouldn’t stop. It shot through her spine and pierced the entrance to her brain. Her head swam with lava, her eyes burned like pavement on a hot summer’s day, her skin prickled like it had been stung by every bramble, in every bush, in every overgrown forest in the world. She was not herself. She felt like she never would be again. And as she rose the bat up high above her head, ready for a decisive swing, she realised with a pinprick of horror that she didn’t really care.

Slowly, in a moment that lasted seconds but seemed to go on for a lifetime, a drop of rain fell from her soaked hair onto her nose. It was ice cold.

Another drop came shortly after. And another. And another.

Each one pierced her skin and she swore she heard the kind of sizzling sound that normally only sounded out when her mum was making pasta and the water bubbled over the pan and onto the hob below. She stood there. In the middle of Blacknot School’s playing fields, cricket bat in hand, ready to swing and…

… breathed for the first time since she first spotted her friends, broken and cracked, on her lawn.

It was then that Danny, pulling himself up as Audrey came to her senses, attacked, pinning her to the ground, just as she had he, winding up his arm, and punching as fast and as hard as he could. 

He managed just a handful of weak, ineffective hits to Audrey’s torso before Mr. Fitzpatrick pulled him off. He kicked and screamed against the teacher’s grip, but there was no loosening it. Audrey pulled herself up from the ground, herself now as bruised and muddied as Danny, and stared at the boy. With what, she didn’t know. Empathy? Pity? Sadness? All three rolled into one? What she did know was that the blinding anger, the burning fury that had taken over her before, was gone.

It was 5.30pm on a Tuesday evening. And the rain fell hard, like it would never ever stop.

A Very Good Lesson

“Hello Audrey,” said Mrs Matthews as Audrey walked into her office the next day. 

Audrey smiled in return, head bowed silently.

Mrs Matthews’ fondness for Audrey made this meeting even harder, as did the fact that Audrey could see Mrs Matthews’ discomfort and felt guilty for putting her in such a difficult position.

Mrs Matthews had already held meetings with Mr. Fitzpatrick, Audrey’s mother and Mrs Roache. She’d heard the stories, from both sides, and frankly understood Audrey’s anger. Danny Roache was a particularly unpleasant piece of work, and in her younger days, had anyone done to her what Danny did to Audrey, she’d have probably reacted in the same way. Maybe even gone further.

But she couldn’t let Audrey go unpunished, as much as she wanted to. Two months suspension it was. There was nothing else for it, no matter how much she hated doing it. She offered herself the small crumb of comfort of knowing that it could have been much worse.

A fight with a weapon on school grounds merited expulsion. Had Audrey been cast out of Blacknot, she’d have had to go far beyond the boundaries of the city council to find a school half as good, and would have expulsion hanging around her neck for many years to come. Then of course, there’s the trauma of having to make friends again, which for a girl like Audrey would be a special and thoroughly undeserved form of torment.  

Mrs Roache, of course, had fought for the expulsion and many on the Board of Governors agreed with her. It was only when Mrs Matthews told the members that she’d resign if Audrey was expelled that the idea was thrown out. A dedicated educator and respected member of the community, Mrs Matthews knew her worth and knew the Board couldn’t afford to lose her. It was a risk to put her career on the line, but a calculated one, and most importantly a valuable one. Schools don’t teach empathy, but Audrey had created her very own lesson, and passed with flying colours.

As she left the board room, she walked by Mrs Roache, who was sat in the seat closest to the door. Her glasses were so low down her nose that she couldn’t peer through them, only over them, just as she liked.

“Mrs Roach,” Mrs Matthews said, nodding with an intentionally and genuinely warm smile that contrasting sharply with Roach’s own venomous scowl. “I do hope your son’s arm heals soon.”

She didn’t linger to hear if Mrs. Roach replied. She didn’t much care.

As for Audrey, she was made to do without pocket money for four months and was given a strict 6pm curfew. Her mum felt compelled to lecture her daughter on right and wrong, but she knew deep down that Audrey was already well aware of what she was saying. 

More than anything, she was proud of her daughter. She may not have fully understood her love for the trashcans, but she knew they gave her joy, and that’s all that matters. One night, she secretly cut out the local newspaper’s report on the incident, framed it and hung it in her bedroom . “The Black Mark of Blacknot,” it read in giant black letters.

“That’s my girl,” she said to herself, smiling.

Mrs Matthews did the same. “Quite a title,” her wife said. “Makes her sound like a superhero.”

“Accurate reporting in a newspaper?” said Mrs Matthews. “Now I’ve seen everything!”

Down the street, Mrs Roache was also nailing the excerpt to an empty grey area of an empty grey wall. She fixed a metallic stare on it, smiled that smile that looked like a grimace, and walked away.  

Eventually, Audrey’s suspension came to an end and she returned to school. The teachers tried to keep her and Danny apart, but every now and again, they’d cross paths in the hallway or on the playground, Danny sneering at his quarry with the same venom he’d inherited from his mother, Audrey gazing beyond him, dreaming up her next rocket ship.

Of course, she rebuilt her friends. Very Good Ideas cannot be crushed, not by baseball bats and certainly not by the evil of one angry little boy. In fact, the very best way to ensure that Very Good Ideas are never destroyed is to continue making them. And so Audrey, John, Alan, Tabby and Penny carried on, their current project being a car with little robot legs that would eliminate the need for those dirty old engines that spluttered out smoke and smog.

The clatter of hammers and screwdrivers were heard once more from Audrey’s front lawn as the sun shone and Very Good Ideas were afoot again.

A Critical Thought

Mrs Matthews stood at the podium on the stage of Blacknot’s assembly hall. While this position normally gave her a feeling of pride and satisfaction, today she felt only frustration. One of the conditions of Audrey’s ‘lenient’ punishment was that she be forced to shake hands with Danny at an assembly attended by all the pupils at Blacknot, the staff, a senior school inspector, the Board of Governors, including of course, Mrs Roach, and the local press. They, of course, stood with fingers twitching anxiously over their pens, ready to capture every detail.

She’d fought against it, angrily dismissing it as “a circus sideshow designed to humiliate and punish”. The fact that Audrey had to offer her hand to Danny, and not the other way round, only increased her anger.

“Don’t you see the message that sends?” she demanded. They didn’t, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t have cared. Little grey men in little grey suits rarely do.

But life, she knew, was full of tough decisions. Blacknot Primary had some of the smartest students in the country, but it was struggling, teetering forever on the edge of a low rating and the threat of closure that would bring. If the facade of harmony was necessary to ensure the school stayed open and the children wouldn’t have to look further afield for their education, so be it. She hoped Audrey would have made the same choice.

And so there she stood, alone on a stage in a wide room filled by disgruntled children who’d long since moved on from ‘The Audrey Incident’, as it had been dubbed internally. The shambles went off without a hitch, of course. Audrey offered Danny her hand, Mrs Matthews noticing her fingers crossed neatly behind her back; Danny took it with a grin of satisfaction that seemed every bit as rehearsed as she knew it had been.

The Head of Governors then gave a speech about harmony and respect. His eyes darted between the school inspector on one side of the hall and the men from the local newspaper on the other. Through it all, Mrs Matthew smiled politely, never actually listening to a word being said. None of it mattered anyway.

She knew she had to give a speech as well, but she didn’t write anything down. She knew what she wanted to say, and how she wanted to say it. Preparing would be a bigger waste of time than the event itself.

She cleared her throat and began.

“I wish I could tell you that there are always happy endings, and that the storybooks you read are all true…”

The Head of Governors shifted in his seat, smiling uneasily to the inspector and the men from the papers.

“That the sword of truth will fly straight and true and that the dragon will always be slain, forever and ever, the end. Sadly, I can’t. That’s not because those things never happen. Sometimes they do. But other times, things don’t turn out so well. There are good people, but there are also bad people. Sad things happen, bad people win and the good guys are punished.

“That’s the way the world is sometimes, but it doesn’t always have to be that way.

“You see, neither I, nor any adult in this room, can give you any real answers. We can tell you that two and two is four, of course, and that if you blend that substance with this substance, you’ll probably blow the science department up.”

She gave Audrey a knowing smile that the girl returned.

“But we can’t guarantee that things will turn out ok. We can’t always keep the wolves from the door and make sure everything turns out alright. And for that, I am so very sorry. I really, truly am.”

Suddenly, simply through saying something that people didn’t expect, that went against what everyone thought this day would be about, the whole room was fixed on Mrs Matthews. And she knew it. Of course she knew it. That was the point and Mrs Matthews, along with many other things, was a Very Smart Woman.

“So in lieu of an answer, I’ll ask you a question. Maybe the most difficult question you’ll ever be asked, but certainly the only one that really, fundamentally, matters.”

She looked at Danny and she looked at Audrey, both sitting in the front row, one rapt in attention, the other slouched in his chair, looking at anything but Mrs Matthews.

“Who do you want to be?”

The skies outside were grey and the clouds threatened rain, but a slim slither of sunshine broke through.

Mrs Matthew smiled.

“I trust you will make the right choice.”