Writing Right with Dmitri: Dealing with Real Characters
Have you ever met someone who was almost 'too good to be true' in terms of type? Someone of whom you thought, 'If I ran into her in fiction, I'd swear she was a lazy stereotype?' Alas, such people exist. They may present you with a challenge as a writer. Let me tell you a story. It involves Honoria Blenkensop. That's not her real name, of course: her own was equally fanciful, and suited her.
Honoria was English. She couldn't have been mistaken for anything else. She was thin, and tall, and lithe. She dressed in what is now called 'boho chic', in oversized clothes from the stalls along Portobello Road, no doubt, elegantly thrown together to make colourful ensembles. She could have been played by Joanna Lumley, although she was neither blonde nor curvaceous, and her hair was far too unkempt for that actress. Still, Honoria made a complete and stunning picture of upper-class bohemia as she strode around the cobbled streets of our little town in northern Greece.
What made Honoria into a 'type' was her insouciant view of everything. She was sort of an English Suzie Q Ferguson – far more interested in her imagined world than the more disappointing reality of other people. Honoria combined an unspoken but unshakeable sense of privilege with Blanche Dubois'1 dependence on 'the kindness of strangers'. Of course everyone else existed to help her out of her difficulties.
Honoria came by her outlook honestly. By her own account, her parents were Darwin Awards waiting to happen. They lived in a cottage that was constantly damp due to a stream running under it, but could do nothing about it because it was a Listed Property, don't you know, and besides, One Doesn't…. From this damp piece of British history, the parents ventured out motoring in their aged Bentley.
One fine day, a no-doubt rare occurrence in the Home Counties, the car stopped on a country road, far from home. Mr Blenkensop sprang out and opened the bonnet, erroneously believing himself to be 'handy'.
'My deah,' he announced. 'The fan belt is broken. But have no fear! I have the solution. I shall require one of your stockings.'
'Whatever for?' Mrs Blenkensop wanted to know.
'If I tie the fan belt together with a stocking, it will hold until we reach the next village and find a garage2,' he informed her. 'I saw this in a James Bond film,' he added proudly.
Mrs Blenkensop dutifully removed her foot covering. Unfortunately, being County, and of a certain age, she wasn't wearing nylons. What her husband attached to his fan belt was a sock, polyester, comfortable walking shoes, for the wearing with, one. A sock which in the village garage proved to have wrapped itself around whatever the fan belt goes around, melted, and caused enough damage to require extensive repair and an overnight stay. The Blenkensops, unperturbed, checked themselves into a quaint inn. They had a comic story to tell, 'Silly us, etc.', while the garage earned a fee. That's how it goes in jolly old England, one supposes.
This was in the early 1980s.
Now I need to tell you about tsombas.
We were all teaching English in a lovely town in Thrace, in the north of Greece. It had old houses that hung out over the cobblestone alleyways, so that people could reach out of upper-storey windows and touch hands. It had minarets because there is a Muslim minority up there. They speak a dialect of Bulgarian and are blond. There are hundreds of cats, because everyone in the Mediterranean loves cats. And there is no central heating, because it is Greece. Instead, there are tsombas.
Most of the year, Thrace is hot and dry, like the rest of Greece. But in winter, cold air sometimes sneaks down from Siberia. It even snows occasionally, a light dusting. Greek house design is not exactly what you'd call snug. So there are oil stoves, and tsombas – stovepipes that run from the stove through the ceiling and roof, where they are covered with tiny roofs of their own.
Cats love tsombas. In January, when according to my grinning students, Greek and Pomax Muslim alike, 'all the cats get married, Sir,' tomcats gather in impromptu barbershop quartets and serenade. They do this, I'm not lying: I've never seen seasonal mating in cats anywhere else, but it happens in northern Greece. The tomcat quartets love tsombas: the resonance obtained from a rendition of Sweet Adeline, feline version, is as satisfying as turning on the Leslie speaker. Local humans do not appreciate this feature of 'cats-get-married' season, and express their unhappiness by throwing old shoes at the tomcats. This, too, I had always believed to be a fictional meme until I learned better.
Now back to Honoria. (Did you think I'd forgotten about her?) All of us had to learn to use the oil stoves that winter: how to fill the reservoir from the storage tank outside, how to turn the dial and leave it on for ten-fifteen minutes to let just enough oil coat the pan, how to light the touchpaper and insert it in the hole, and how to use the flow regulator to adjust the heat. It wasn't rocket science, but you did need to do it right. Unless, of course, you were Honoria Blenkensop. Obviously, the laws of physics weren't written for the likes of Honoria Blenkensop.
One cold evening, all the English teachers sat over an excellent dinner in our favourite restaurant. We'd got to our second bottle of wine and were reporting on the events of the week at our various frontistiria, the English schools that were our reason for being there. We also shared our adventures in town and around the region: who knew, someone else might appreciate the information that the bus from Kavala to Drama would stop at the ruins of Philippi on demand, or that it was imperative to catch the 6 pm boat from Thassos on Sunday, because there wasn't a later one? That's when Honoria shared her 'adventure'.
'You know those tsomba stove thingies? You do? Well, they're awfully difficult to manage. One has to wait forever for the oil to run in. Well, the other day, I simply couldn't be bothered, and I turned the little whatsit on and got busy doing something else. By the time I remembered, it had been….awhile, I don't know? More than half an hour? Anyway, I lit the touchpaper, and whoom!, off it went. Flames simply shot out of the stove.'
'Panageia mou!' one of us exclaimed in mock-fluency. 'What did you do next?'
'I turned the dial off and went for a walk,' Honoria shrugged. 'I stayed away a good two hours. By the time I got back, everything was fine. The fire was out, and no damage.'
Honoria and Nick, the working-class bloke from Great Yarmouth, got stuck on Thassos one Sunday night because they paid no attention to the information about the boat times. All the Greeks gossiped about them, but nothing 'improper' happened. I believed Nick when he said this, because no power on earth would have put Nick into a situation like that with someone like Honoria. I suspect he went on an excursion with her out of morbid curiosity. You couldn't have made her up, but there she was.
Do you know anyone like that? That you have trouble describing, because the fictional prototype gets in the way? Tell us about it.