Betwixt The Cup and The Lip is my first novel. Well, it's not really a novel. It's a collection of 26 short stories, but combined they make a complete story. Each story is voiced by a different character, but at least one of the other 26 characters appears in each story. This is loosely based on the idea of six degrees of separation where everyone can possibly be connected to everyone else by a maximum of six steps.
The stories are set in various years, and allow the reader to take a brief glimpse into the lives of 26 fascinating individuals.
But why 26 people? That seems like a strange number of stories. Why not 20, 25 or 30?
I will tell you. Each story is a lipogram. A lipogram is a piece of text that contains 25 letters of the alphabet, by omitting one. This is a technique that I first learnt about when I was at university, and I immediately fell in love with it. Although may people have written lipograms, I was inspired by The Book of Bachelors by Philip Terry; one of my lecturers and an active Oulipian.*
*NB - Oulipo is a form of experimental writing that imposes certain constraints in order to create unusual pieces through the concept of chance. More information can be found in Oulipo Compendium by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (an absolutely amazing book and a must-have for any creative writer who wants to push the boundaries of writing style).
So back to the 26 people ... I wrote 26 lipograms, where each story omits a different letter of the alphabet. All of my characters are connected to each other through various situations and events, in the same way that all letters are connected to each other when put in a certain order to create words.
In some cases, this constraint makes stories quite uncomfortable to read (let alone to write) and in other cases, you wouldn't know that this constraint had been applied. When reading the stories, the constraint should not be the first thing that the reader notices. They should still be able to enjoy the story as a stand alone piece of text.
Ideally I would love to get this collection published, but there seems to be little interest in it as it's not 'commercial' enough and doesn't appeal to a wide audience. I understand that, but it didn't stop me writing it, and it's not going to stop me sharing excerpts with you here. Self-publishing/e-publishing is looking more and more appealing, and I have made a couple of mock up covers for this book.
They're far from ideal, but I thought I'd get started to see what I could do with the resources I have. If anyone has any ideas for improvements, let me know.
So here are some snippits from the first six stories. Each chapter title is the name of the character speaking in that story.
Warning: This book is not suitable for anyone under 18 years old. The excerpts that I publish on here are family friendly (ok, they're probably PG if I'm being honest), but some of the completed stories contain graphic scenes unsuitable for children.
So Trish was going psycho out the back, and there were like a million people in the store, panic buying because of the impending Bank Holiday. I started walking towards the wall of CDs when I got accosted by an old woman in a granny-mobile. She rammed her trolley into my thigh and glared at me.
“I saw a CD advertised on the telly last night. I can’t see it on the shelf. Do you have it?”
“I’m sorry?” I said, slightly thrown by her lack of detail.
“I saw a CD advertised on the telly last night. I can’t see it on the shelf. Do you have it?”
Still rubbing my thigh I asked her what CD it was that she was looking for.
“I can’t remember the name. Now do you have it or not? I am in a hurry.”
I looked around to see if there were any hidden camera men or something from that show Hidden Camera Surprise.
You know, that show where people act like complete idiots to other people, and then they get in a big fight and then Jonty Caulfield jumps out of a wheely bin and shoves a microphone and a cheque for £500 in your face for being such a good sport.
But no, no Jonty, just an idiot. I kept my polite smile on, remembering what it says on my name badge.
Cheap & Cheery, I'm
Your wish is my command
“If you can’t remember the name of the CD, maybe you can remember who it’s by?” I said.
“Oh it’s lots of different people. One of those constipation thingies.”
A confused look spread across my face. "One of those constipation thingies?” I repeated.
“Yes, yes, are you stupid or something? You know. A constipation album, with loads of different songs by loads of different people,” she replied.
“Aah, you’re after a compilation album,” I said.
“Yes, yes, that’s what I said. Stop being difficult. Now are you going to get it for me or am I going to have to find someone else with half a brain cell to do it for me?” she said, and then to the side, “not that it would be difficult to find someone else with half a brain cell in here.”
“Would you like a mirror, madam?" I asked, under my breath.
“What did you say to me?” she glared.
“Would you like to follow me, madam?” I said.
I let the thought of me snapping the brakes on her granny-mobile and driving her towards the motorway pass through my head. I took a deep breath and walked over to the compilation display.
“There’s no point in looking on there. I’ve had a look already and I can’t find it.”
“BING BONG! Can Melanie Barker go to the confectionery aisle? Melanie Barker to the confectionery aisle.”
When did he die? He didn’t actually die.
Yes, I know he’s dead, but you’re not hearing me. He didn’t die. He was killed. That’s not the same thing.
Well, when someone dies, it’s just them. They do something to themselves, like they lose their footing on the stairs and fall to their demise or they drink so much that their liver bursts. Or it’s them and a disease. They lose a battle against cancer or AIDS or something. Or their body just decides that it’s had enough and all functions cease. That’s dying. When another human being is added into the equation then the dead human being is killed. They are killed. Dying isn’t taking a walk with your sons when a drunken idiot drives their car into you, ramming you into the railings, crushing your ribs into your heart and taking your life. That’s not dying. That’s being killed.
Jason. Jason Ross. One of those missionaries. Travelling all over the world, giving food, medicine and school resources to those that have nothing. Working to make life easier for others. Well thank you very much Jason Ross, you have made my life so much easier. One less Christmas gift to buy. One less birthday to remember.
Dad was a good man, you know. He did everything he could for us. We didn’t have much but we had enough.
We’d gone for a walk that day because he needed to talk to us about something. He and Mum had been married for 15 years and he wanted them to renew their wedding vows. Their original wedding had been a hurried affair. Money was tight and they could only ever afford the basics. Even then it was a struggle but they managed to survive. And they were in love, back in a time where love could get you through anything. And love was all that mattered. Marriage wasn’t about a costly wedding, huge dress or a 3 foot tall cake. It was about being with someone that you cared for and wanted to share your life with. But now it’s all show and little substance. One little argument nowadays, or a short time of stress in the marriage home, and it’s divorce all the way. Everyone is so lazy; thinking that the easy way out is the best way out.
Mum and Dad couldn’t afford much but it did us right. I remember this one year Dad built me and my brother a go-kart. Liam got in it first. He was all ready to drive away but then Dad said something was missing. He went into the kitchen and all we could hear was the clattering of tins and cutlery then he came back out holding Mum’s metal vegetable colander. He set it down on Liam’s head and tied an old belt around it all to make sure it was secure. Mum stood at the kitchen window waving.
I am so excited, like the most excited ever. Even more than that. I can’t even explain it. You know when you were like six years old and you knew that your parents had taken your Christmas list seriously and downstairs there was a Superstar Sasha bike and a Superstar Sasha butterfly princess doll and a Superstar Sasha jewellery box and a Superstar Sasha superstar make-up head with realistic hair extensions and a Superstar Sasha karaoke machine with all new superstar tunes, never heard before except in her feature film, Superstar Sasha Conquers Europe, which was also under the tree, all wrapped in Superstar Sasha Christmas paper. And you just couldn’t sleep because the butterflies in your tummy flapped around like crazy because you knew in a few hours they would be yours to keep forever and ever but you weren’t allowed to open them until your parents had had their coffee and smoke. And you would wish so hard that they would hurry up just so that you could rip off that paper and play. Do you remember how that felt?
Well that’s how I feel now, but even more excited. In a little while I will be able to open up my Superstar Sasha bundle, but this time it’s not Superstar Sasha. This time it’s not a doll that I have to play pretend with. This time it’s a boy.
I know. A real life boy. My boyfriend. Well at least I think he’s my boyfriend.
He’s a few years older than me but that doesn’t bother me at all. He’s so mature. My friends are so jealous. He’s in his 20s, I don’t know exactly how old he is, but that doesn’t matter, and he drives and he has a car; well it’s his mum’s, but he can use it whenever he wants. And he works at Tasty Tacos, you know; the tastiest tacos in town, which is so cool. He’s allowed to eat as many nacho cheese covered corn chips and as much salsa dip as he wants, for free! He only has to pass one more test to become a shift supervisor. His official title will be Saturday Assistant Shift Supervisor; it’s so cool to have a boyfriend in a position of power. Maybe he’ll be able to sneak me some extra fries at lunch. Perhaps he’ll take me out to celebrate once he’s promoted, in his car, out for dinner. Or he could buy us some cider and a couple of burritos and we could park up somewhere nice for some romantic time, just the two of us. That would be so cool.
Of course I’m not with him just because of that. He’s really nice, so funny. He can burp the alphabet in about 10 seconds. He doesn’t even need to have drunk fizzy drinks.
Busses are strange. I much prefer walking. Other things that are strange are cars taxis lorries trucks bikes prams scooters motorbikes trains. All vehicles with wheels are strange. I like them about as much as I like vomit cereal for breakfast. I ate this cereal this one time ages ago. Mum bought it because it was cheap at the supermarket. I knew why it was cheap because Mum pours it out into my bowl then pours milk on top. It looks like cat sick. It also tastes like cat sick.
I ate it this one time ages ago for a bet.
We give our cat a bunch of sweets from the shop at the bottom of our street. FizzyPoppers SherbetCrackles StrawberryBombs. We put them in his cat meal. We stir it all up so he won’t know it’s there. He eats it right up. Licking his lips he is. A bit of time later his mouth is proper open. Coughs splutters chokes. Pluh-huh-huh he goes. All these strange noises come out of his mouth then this rainbow of colourful sick comes out. It is blue yellow green orange purple a bit brown in places but still really bright. Franky says I bet you to eat some. I say what can I have if I eat some. Franky says you can have some bubble gum a couple of plastic army men some marbles or a picture of a girl wearing no clothes that he took from his uncle’s newspaper last week.
I choose the bubble gum because it’s yumalicious. So Franky gives me a spoon says you have to eat a whole spoonful. I eat it. I eat the whole spoon of cat sick. It tastes strange but I eat it all. Franky is nearly sick himself. He says I can’t believe you ate that. I say I can eat anything. I can’t eat anything but he wasn’t to know that. I’m allergic to nuts. If I eat a nut then I can stop breathing then I have to go to the hospital then ... well ... then I can’t even talk about it but it’s not nice. I say to Franky where’s my bubble gum. He says I’ll give it to you later. So we go to the park because the cat is boring now. Franky sees a big blob of bubble gum on the floor. He says there’s your bubble gum. He picks it up then points it at me. He says you have to eat it because you can eat anything. I eat it. He laughs. Later I’m sick but he wasn’t to know that.
(I'm afraid I can't post any of this story. It's too graphic, and it's full of expletives.)
A couple of days later I noticed you by chance. I hadn’t been looking out for you this time so it made me realise that someone or something had commanded this meeting. A higher force had been conspiring. I never considered myself to be religious, but it became clear from that moment that a deity did exist and he, or indeed she, had put us both in the same place at the same time for a reason, to fulfil a higher purpose. You had been in a second hand book shop, perusing the plays and poetry section. You then sauntered over to general literature. You glided so gracefully, as if floating like an angel on a cloud being carried to your destination by a soft breeze. I had imagined you as an intelligent lady but this proved it. You appreciated the finer things in life, and at that, I became slightly nervous. I’m not one of the finer things in life and I felt unsure that you’d appreciate me. It’s silly of me to have those thoughts. You can’t fight fate, and fate had decided that you and I should be together.
I came over and stood next to you. You turned your head and smiled the same smile as in the café, and you reached your hand out and picked up a book. I glanced at the title; Enduring Love. I smiled inside. That had been your sign for me, to illustrate your feelings for me. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t think it appropriate. You’d said all you needed to say by picking up that book.
I picked up a book so that you didn’t think me strange for standing in a book shop not looking at books. I didn’t have a clue about any of the authors that surrounded us. I’m not really a book person, more of a cinema goer. I reached up and pulled a book from its shelf. My fingers had closed themselves around the spine of Misery. I’d seen this film a couple of years ago. I opened up the front cover and read the dust jacket, even though the story had embedded itself in my mind. You glanced at me then the book I held. You didn’t smile. You just moved over to the counter to pay for your book. It hit me a couple of seconds later that I’d ruined it. You held a book presenting the message of ‘love’ for me and ‘misery’ had been my reply.
I ran after you to apologise. It had been a stupid mistake. I needed to explain. You had moved so quickly through the throngs of people, it had been difficult to keep up. You seemed to be quite fit. I imagined you at the gym on a tread machine, running up hill, perspiration dropping from your hairline, your skin glistening under the fluorescent lights. I panted for breath. I had a painful stitch in my side. I felt nauseous. It might have been love pushing me. The urge to catch you had been too strong to ignore. I had to keep going.
If this has piqued your interest, I will post some more story excerpts in a few days. Please feel free to comment or make suggestions; I'm open to any ideas you may have. And if you're a publisher and would like to publish this collection, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me. You can find my contact details here.