Editing Alasdair: Redrafting a Short Story

A presentation for Calliberations: A Celebration of Willy Maley

A one-day symposium celebrating the career and contribution of Willy Maley, Professor of Renaissance Studies and of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.

Editing Alasdair by Cathy McSporran

I was Willy’s student in the M.Litt Creative Writing, and he was my supervisor for my PhD in Creative Writing.  He basically coached me through my first novel: I kept losing faith in it, but Willy never did. So I’ve got a hundred things to thank him for, but today I thought I’d show you how some work he did on my behalf is still working now for another generation of writers.

More than 20 years ago I wrote a short story, Alasdair’s Angel, about a man having a really bad day at the office. I thought it was great, but no-one else agreed with me. No-one liked the story, and certainly no-one wanted to publish it. So I asked Willy for help.

Willy offered to do an edit of the story, and make a few cuts. It turns out that a few cuts meant cutting out the beginning, the ending and large parts of the middle.

I’m sure I complained at the thought of taking out so much; no-one likes to see their beautifully-crafted paragraphs hitting the cutting room floor. But I pretty soon realised Willy was right. The original story was bloated, with too many extra scenes, extra characters and incidental details that didn’t go anywhere. But a short story needs to be so streamlined; everything that doesn’t advance the plot ought to be taken out.

So I rewrote the story as Willy suggested, and it went on to be published and to be longlisted for the Scotland on Sunday/MacAllan prize.

Just after that I started teaching creative writing courses in the Short Courses Department, and I realised I had a perfect teaching tool for classes on structuring a short story. So I turned the experience into an exercise for beginner short story writers. This is the slide I use:

First I tell the students to read the original version, then the Willy Maley edited version, while noting the differences. One of the first students said, “Is this you showing us how you fucked up so we don’t have to?” And I couldn’t have put it better myself.  

Then I ask the students to write a story, or write a plan for a story, or edit an existing story with these principles in mind, the ones that Willy’s critique had crystalised in my mind:

  • Start where the story starts. Prologues don’t tend to work in short stories. You start in media res, where the story starts. Alasdair’s Angel originally began with a prologue with Alasdair’s journey to the office – nothing actually happens.
  • End where the plot ends. Avoid epilogues in short stories – they’re just confusing. Alasdair’s Angel originally ended with an epilogue, which I put in to indulge myself because I felt bad for the character, and I wanted to stress he was going to be okay. In fact I needed that splinter of ice in the heart that Graham Greene says writers need to have – I just had to leave poor Alasdair where he was, with police cars converging on him.
  • Then cut away everything else that’s not needed: Including
    • Unnecessary quotes from John Donne poetry
    • Excess characters. A short story should generally have the bare minimum of people. Alasdair has sister in Dundee who never actually appears, so she had to go.

After that I set the students to get to work their own stories. I’ve used the exercise constantly over the past twenty years, and I also see great results: lots of very streamlined stories. I also see a lot more willingness to edit and engage with the first draft: the students have seen the tutor do it, so they know it’s a normal part of the writing process.

So Willy – your work was paid forward, and it’s still being paid forward. On behalf of myself, and a new generation of short story writers – thank you.


First draft of the story, before editing:

Summer in Hell  (aka Alasdair’s Angel)

Cathy McSporran


Alasdair’s salvation came about on the hottest day of the year.  There was little sign of it at eight in the morning, however, when the heat was already building up, and the windows of the flat were propped wide open in the vain hope of catching a breeze.  Alasdair’s sleeves were rolled up, and his armpits already beginning to darken, as he stood in the tiny kitchen reading a letter from his wife.

The letter confirmed what he already knew: his wife wanted their six-month separation made permanent.  She reminded him that she had grown as a person, since they were at school together, even if he had not.  It was not his fault, she said, that she felt so stifled by their marriage; they had simply been too young to be married in the first place.  Her tone was forgiving.

As Alasdair read, he realised he could no longer recognise the writing.  It was his wife’s, but he did not know it, did not understand anything that was written, and in another moment saw that the words had begun to squirm on the paper like insects.  He put the letter down.

He had to get moving.  He would be late for work – he had already phoned the office and lied that he was going to the doctor, but that would not give him much more time.  He went into the bathroom to splash some water on his face.  For once he remembered to take the pack of Prozac down from the shelf and pop one of the capsules into his mouth.  As he swallowed he caught a glimpse of himself in the grimy mirror – which he tried to avoid doing these days, since the Prozac had made his face heavy and jowly, and his Easycare shirts had begun to strain at the buttons – and remembered what his mother used to say, that summer weather had never been kind to Alasdair. 

Already he was showing the effects of the heat.  His tight red curly hair stood out like a clown’s wig.  His pudgy cheeks were flushed.   The stains at his armpits were spreading.

Alasdair put the Prozac back on the shelf, next to the empty packets which he now took down and counted, to remind himself how long he’d been taking them.  Six packets; three months.  Did he feel any different now?  Not really, but then he hadn’t expected to.  He replaced the packets, propping them against the bottle of yellow sleeping pills, which he had never taken and never intended to take – although God knows he didn’t sleep well, in this heat – but which he still kept.  Just in case.

Now he really was late for work.  Alasdair gathered his papers and stuffed them into his briefcase.  Spreadsheets, printouts, database designs; he had stared at them all last night, hoping they would begin to make sense to him.  But lines of poetry, by Milton and Marvell and John Donne – blow your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise from death, you numberless infinities of souls, and to your scattered bodies go – kept running through his head.  He couldn’t understand it, he had loved those poems once, but he hadn’t read them in years; there never seemed to be time.  And now among the printouts he found scrawled lines of his own attempted verse.  Once he had been serious about that, too; had even had some encouragement from editors; but then of course he had taken fright, and gone on a nice safe Computing course instead.  And now it was too late.

He read the verses quickly.  They were terrible.   Even that had left him now.  He tore them up and threw them away.

Now Alasdair left the flat, and emerged squinting into the hot white daylight.

His side of the street was already baking.  There was not a breath of wind; only the roaring traffic stirred the lukewarm air.  A group of running children shoved past Alasdair into the close.  Two fat young mothers sat smoking, unconcerned, on the next door step.  They glanced at Alasdair, and looked away.

Alasdair, skin already prickling, crossed to the shaded side of the street.

It was better here, cooler.  He passed the bank and the baker’s and the chip shop.  Only once he was outside the Alis’ shop did he look up, to see if the little girl was there.

She was.  Every morning of the holidays she stood there, under the awning outside her parents’ shop, a little girl about five or six.  She was immaculate as ever, gold sandals gleaming, long black hair brushed till it shone.  Other local kids wore shorts and T-shirts in shrieking greens and oranges.  This little girl was dressed as she always was, in a miniature version of the long loose blouse and trousers that the adult Asian women wore.  Today her outfit was white cotton, fresh as a crocus.

The girl was eating a big green apple; her father’s shop sold sweets of all kinds, but Alasdair had never seen her eating any – perhaps she had some kind of sugar problem.  She held the apple carefully in both hands.  When she saw Alasdair her face split into a big grin, mushed apple pushing between her teeth.  She waved the apple at him.

Every morning this kid smiled and waved as if she were delighted to see him.  In the six months he’d lived on this street, she was the only person who’d ever recognised his existence.

There was a flash of peacock-blue behind the girl, as Mrs Ali came to the door.  She eyed Alasdair – there was something about Alasdair’s large bulk and morose features that made parents regard him with slight suspicion – and drew her daughter inside.  Alasdair walked on, over the ripe-smelling river, and down to the Underground station.

The train was packed with grumpy students on their way to morning lectures.  The carriage smelled of sweaty bodies.  Alasdair had to stand, and when he raised his arm to hang on he was aware that his armpits had darkened even more.  He tried to ignore the wrinkled nose of the girl who was squashed up against him.  Sweat began to trickle down his back.

Fortunately, it was only a few stops to the City College.

When Alasdair emerged from the College station, and crossed the road into the new concrete campus, the students had already scattered ahead of him.  By the time he reached the ornamental lake there was no-one else around.  He must be very late.  He couldn’t go any faster, though – the concrete blazed in the sun like whitewash, and he had to move carefully between patches of shade.  At last he reached his own building, and went gratefully into the cool hallway and corridors.

When he opened the door to his own office, however, the stuffy heat took his breath away.  The light was as bright as if he’d wandered outside again.  The Departmental Registry Office was a ‘bright, modern workspace’ (according to the College brochure), which meant it had seven full-length windows each about the size of a solar panel, each with Venetian blinds constantly jammed near the top.  It had never been roomy, but now, since this year’s undergrad applications had arrived before last year’s exam papers could go into storage, there was scarcely room to turn around.   Piles of forms teetered on every surface and on some of the floor, leaning drunkenly against humming printers and computers; gathering dust, and sliding into avalanche if anyone moved incautiously.

Christina and Rachel were tapping away at their computers.  Already they had stripped down to their Top Shop halter-necks, and sweat gleamed lightly on their necks and shoulders.  They glanced up when Alasdair came in, and looked away again.  One of them – Christina – mumbled a greeting as he went past to his desk.  Christina and Rachel did not speak much to Alasdair, nor he to them.  They had both worked in the Registry only a few short months, and to Alasdair they did not seem as real, somehow, as Asha and Fiona, who had worked with him before.  Lately he had started to forget which was Rachel and which Christina, although they did not look alike.

It seemed, too, that they did not even had the sense to switch on the fans on a hot day; the standing fan by Alasdair’s desk was motionless.  As Alasdair’s computer beeped and whirred into life he flicked on the fan.  He was immediately rewarded by a waft of air, followed by a whirl of pages and cries of protest from Rachel and Christina.  While the two girls rebuilt the mountain of paper, which must have arrived from the Department first thing this morning, Alasdair switched off the fan and turned to his desk.

There was a large fat Jiffy-bag lying there, bearing the Stationery Office stamp.  He always got an almost childish pleasure from opening his stationery order.  He had just torn open the envelope when his boss came in.

Hugh Pirrie normally beamed at the world, vaguely but happily, through his straggly beard.  But when he spotted Alasdair his smile became fixed, and his eyes slid away from Alasdair’s.  Hugh Pirrie said:

‘Alasdair, can I have a word with you?  I have a meeting now, but – ah – about twelve?’

Alasdair nodded dumbly.  Hugh Pirrie disappeared through the side door into his own office.  Alasdair stared for a long moment at the stationery bag, then tipped it so that the contents slid out onto the desk.

Stationery had got it wrong again.  He had asked for scissors, all right; but ordinary scissors, not these.  These were twelve inches long, massive steel shears, polished and shining.

Much later, Alasdair told his doctor – jokingly, although the doctor didn’t laugh – that it was asking for trouble, giving out sharp objects to a man who had to work with Billy Innes.

And now Billy was here, backing through the door with his arms full of copier paper.  Christina and Rachel looked up at him and smiled.  The sleeves of Billy’s YSL shirt were rolled up, and his youthful face was flushed, but the heat did not seem to trouble him much.  His dark hair was perfect.  His long-lashed, rather girlish eyes were bright and clear.  Parents would never eye Billy with suspicion; he looked more like a children’s TV presenter than a junior office clerk.

‘Morning, Alice,’ Billy said to Alasdair.  ‘Or afternoon, I should say.’  His eyes met Alasdair’s for a moment then flicked away.  No-one seemed to look at Alasdair for long these days.  Billy never had, really.  Something about Alasdair – his polyester shirts perhaps, or his unstylish hair, or his wide mournful face – seemed to offend Billy very much.

When Alasdair didn’t answer Billy added shortly, ‘System’s down again.  We can’t get into the database.  We need to produce the graduation reports today, in case you forgot.’

Alasdair hadn’t.  He turned to the computer.

The student files should be there, on his space on the network.  But they weren’t.  Perhaps the College network manager had moved them.  Alasdair dialled the network manager’s extension, but the phone just rang and rang.  Now Alasdair had no idea what to do.   After a while he put the phone down, and stared at the blank space on his screen.  He was sweating.  He couldn’t do anything.  He was so hot.

Beyond the monitor, he could see Billy settling down to the tedious job of opening the vast pile of mail.  As usual, he was looking for a distraction, and as usual Alasdair knew who the distraction was going to be.  ‘You’re looking rough there, Alasdair,’ Billy announced after a moment,  ‘Out last night?  Out clubbing?’

One of the girls giggled.  Alasdair shook his head wordlessly.  Billy was encouraged.  ‘No?  In with the girlfriend then?  Up all night giving it whay-hey?’

Rachel pulled a face, maybe at Billy’s crudeness, maybe at the thought of sex with Alasdair.  Then she said, ‘Alasdair, any chance of those reports now?’

Alasdair stood up.  He would go out, sit by the lake.  There was always some fresh air there.  Surely he would feel better, after that.  ‘I’m taking my tea-break,’ he announced, and left the room, closing the door on the mutterings behind him.

When Alasdair reached the outdoor seating area, he found that the ornamental lake was on fire.  Some Chemistry undergraduates were pouring thick black liquid onto the water; it clung to the surface and burst into flames.  The air smelled of burning tar.

Alasdair sat on a concrete bench and watched, for a long time.  This was an unimpressive ‘lake’ at the best of times, just a shallow dip in moulded concrete, lined with stones and filled with brownish water.  But there was usually a whisper of a breeze, and usually it cleared his head, just a little. 

But today, the lake was a pit of lava.  Heat shimmered over the flames, and oily fumes choked the air.  Alasdair’s head swam, and pain began to throb behind his temples.  He should get back to work.  But he couldn’t think, much less move.  His face was scorching.   Any moment he would burst into flames, too.

The undergraduates took to their heels, pursued by security guards.  A group of undergrad girls were laughing uproariously.  College officials came to exclaim, janitorial staff swore and shouted for buckets of water.  Alasdair just sat, pandemonium shrieking all around him, watching the water burn.

When Alasdair finally returned to the office – after the Head Janitor found him sitting too close to the fire, and sternly moved him on – he found Hugh Pirrie was waiting for him.  ‘Come into my office, please, Alasdair,’ he said.  Alasdair followed him in, Billy Innes whistling a funeral march behind him.

The tiny office was even stuffier than the main Registry.  Hugh Pirrie sat with his back to a picture window.  Alasdair sank into the chair opposite, squinting, and watched Hugh make his face suitably grave and fix his gaze on Alasdair’s left ear.  ‘Alasdair, I’m sorry, but I have to give you another formal warning.  Your timekeeping has not improved, has it?’

Alasdair shook his head, but Hugh was carrying on with his prepared speech.  ‘I also have to tell you that your – ah – attention to detail has been slipping lately.  I had to rework the application files myself.  They were full of errors.’

Alasdair reflected that if Hugh Pirrie had been working on the files, then it was no wonder they were full of errors.  But he said nothing, and stared at the cloud of black oily smoke which was rising past the window.  Someone had put the lake out.  Eventually he heard Hugh say, ‘Alasdair, is there anything you want to talk about?  Do you feel all right?’

No, Alasdair didn’t feel all right.  His head still hurt.  His face was still roasting.  He wanted to get out of this broom cupboard before he suffocated.  He said,  ‘I’m fine.  Just a bit distracted lately.  You know.  Now you’ve brought this to my attention I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

Hugh Pirrie nodded.  ‘Very well.’  He may have been about to say more, but Alasdair took this as a dismissal and left the room.

He was hoping to find Billy and the girls gone for lunch; but there they were at their desks, watching him dispassionately.  He looked at the clock and jumped – nearly two o’clock.  How could he have been away so long – ?  Well, obviously, he couldn’t take a lunch break now.  He sat down at his computer and began to search the network, but after a moment he realised he couldn’t remember what he was looking for.  He ended up flipping randomly between directories, looking as frantically busy as he could.  His burning face eased at little, but his head still ached and ached.

It was mid-afternoon, but the day was stoking up rather than getting cooler.  The hands of the clock crawled.  Alasdair tried yet again to find the files, but they were nowhere in sight.  Instead he found himself staring at Christina – a lock of her bright blond hair had come loose and was brushing against her bare neck.  But then Christina looked up and met his eyes, and her look of furious disgust was enough to send him hurriedly back to his computer. 

Billy noticed this going on.  He had a nose for trouble.  He was dealing with another mountainous pile of mail, and his vicious boredom was growing.  ‘No new girlfriend then, Alice?’ 

Alasdair admitted there was not. 

‘That’s not good for you, Alice.  Going without.  Bad for the health.  Rachel should know, she never goes without, do you Rache?’ 

‘Shut your face,’ said Rachel, but she was smiling. 

‘You should get yourself a girlfriend, Alice.  You’ve been separated too long.  Get back out there.’  Billy was watching him with wide, mocking eyes.  ‘Or did you ever think about getting yourself a man instead? Is that more what you’re looking for?’ 

Alasdair paid no attention to that; it was Billy who was often thought to be gay, not him.  Alasdair turned his back on his tormentor.  Billy must have thought about what he’d said, because he shut up for a moment.  This meant that everyone heard the hum of a functioning printer turn to a brief tortured squeal, followed by a click, and then silence. 

‘Printer’s down, Alasdair,’ said Rachel, as if it were all his fault. 

Alasdair’s head was still throbbing.  The mechanical squeal had left a whining sound in his ears.  His hand closed around the big steel scissors, and he advanced on the silent printer, and used the scissors to prise up the lid.  Warm air puffed over him.  He pulled out some jammed sheets of paper, closed the lid and pressed the switch a couple of times.  Nothing. 

Behind him came Christina’s voice – or was it Rachel? No, Christina – with the indignant snap of one at the end of her patience.  ‘Alasdair, I need those data files today.  Where in God’s name are they?’ 

‘I can’t find them,’ Alasdair said.  He dragged the printer away from the wall and opened the back.  There was no paper in there.  The printer was hotter than an oven.  The scorching heat had come back to his face. 

Christina got up angrily, and flounced into Hugh Pirrie’s office.  A moment later she returned; ‘Hugh wants those files right now.  He says you’ve to get them.’

‘I can’t get them.’  Alasdair took the roasting machine in his arms and heaved it around again.  Sweat trickled down his forehead.  Then he used the scissors to lever open the bottom tray.  ‘There’s a system failure.  The system’s broken down.’ 

‘Give it one of your Prozac, then,’ Billy said quietly but clearly. 

There was a hiss of breath, laughter or shock, from one of the girls.  Perhaps even Billy sensed he had gone too far, because he went quiet. 

Sweat had run into Alasdair’s eyes.  He couldn’t see.  He stood like a dummy, still poking the scissors into the machine.  He was thinking to himself: It’s over.  There’s no more.  It’s over. 

Then his eyes cleared, and the whine in his ears cut off.  Alasdair began to move quickly.  In two strides he had crossed the room to Billy’s desk.  The scissors glittered in his hand.  Rachel or Christina screamed as he raised them high over his head and brought them down. 

The blades thudded into place, bang on target.  Billy leapt back, half-stumbling over his chair, shouting and swearing.  His face, Alasdair noticed with some satisfaction, had gone grey and shiny.  He looked as if he was going to throw up as he stared down at the long shining scissors, still clutched in Alasdair’s large hand, their points embedded in the fake pine veneer of the desk. 

Billy tried to back away, but only ended up against the wall.  Alasdair was aware he was still cursing him in the same high-pitched voice.  Rachel-or-Christina screamed again.  Alasdair was vaguely conscious of Hugh Pirrie appearing in his doorway and stopping dead. 

Alasdair let go of the scissors.  They teetered and fell with a clatter.  Alasdair looked at them sadly.  He couldn’t even do this right.  If he’d planted them in Billy’s chest, which the others had obviously thought he was going to do – which he had thought he might do – then that would have changed things forever.  There would have been blood and screaming.  There would have been sirens and radios and overpowering hands.  They would have taken him away, and he would have been surrounded by fear and awe and revulsion forever.  Things would have changed. 

Instead, he was still here.  Still in hell.  Nothing had changed.  He was afraid that any moment, someone might burst out laughing.  So he left.  Hugh Pirrie backed away from him as he went past, but it was little comfort. 

Alasdair came out of the Underground, and began to cross the stinking river.  He was aware of passers-by veering away from him, but he didn’t care.  The sun was hitting this side of the street now, and grilled him like a piece of meat.  But he didn’t cross the road; it didn’t matter now. 

He knew now what to do.  He would go home, lock the door, and then – the yellow pills on the bathroom shelf.  The Prozac too, just to be sure.  He had tried for so long.  He couldn’t try any more. 

It was a relief, to have made up his mind.  But still, he wept as he walked across the bridge. 

He cried for lots of reasons.  For his parents, what they would have thought, although at least they weren’t here to see this.  For his sister in Dundee, he hadn’t seen her for years, but she would still be upset when she found out.  And for himself.  Mostly, he admitted, with the frankness of one with nothing left to lose, for himself.

He cried, but he shed no tears.  He was dry, he had no water left.  His eyes stung with salt that he could not wash away.  But soon it wouldn’t matter, he told himself.  And that was for the best.  It was all for the best – 

‘Mister.  Mister.’ 

He stopped, confused by the light voice that came from close beside him, although he was aware of no-one nearby.  He looked around into a pool of shadow under the shop awning.  Whiteness floated there, cool blue-whiteness like snow.

He stepped closer, blinking hard.  Of course, it was the little girl, standing outside her parents’ shop watching him.  After the long dry day, her hair was still shining and her white clothes were still spotless.  In one small hand she clutched the neck of a clear plastic bag, as if she were taking a goldfish home from an old-fashioned fair.  But there were no fish in the bag –  it seemed to be full of bizarrely huge glacier mints, clear colourless cubes. 

The little girl looked up at Alasdair and didn’t look away.  Her deep brown eyes were bright and curious.  ‘Are you feeling poorly, mister?’ she said. 

Alasdair tried to speak.  His throat was parched.  ‘I’m hot,’ he whispered at last. 

The little girl nodded.  She opened the bag and extracted one of the cubes, holding it carefully between finger and thumb.  Water dripped from her hand onto the pavement, Alasdair noticed; the squares in the bag were swimming in water.  The girl held out her hand.  ‘Here y’are,’ she said. 

Alasdair went into the pool of shadow, and knelt down so that his head was level with the girl’s.  She nodded again.  ‘Open wide,’ she ordered. 

Alasdair opened his mouth, and shut his eyes.  The girl placed the ice-cube on his tongue. 

At first it was a shock like burning, anti-burning.  Then his tongue and mouth were numbed.  And then cold water began to trickle down his throat.  Alasdair swayed slightly as it reached his stomach.  He felt the chill seeping into his blood, and spreading all around his body, lastly to his burning aching head.  His skin cooled, his sweat began to dry. 

At last the water rose to his eyes, and the stinging salt was washed away.  He opened his eyes, and saw the little girl smiling happily at him.  He put his arms around her and drew her close, burying his face in her thin shoulder.  He felt her hand, still damp and cool, patting at his back.  She said something, to Alasdair, or over his shoulder into the shop – he didn’t understand and didn’t try.  He just cried and cried until the soft white cotton was soaking. 

Even when a  woman’s frightened shriek came from behind him, he didn’t stop.  Not even when angry male voices were all around him.  Only when a fist struck the side of his head, did he let the girl go, so she wouldn’t fall down with him. 

Then the rough hands he’d imagined were dragging him away.  The furious voices still babbled.  Pretty soon there were radios, too.  And sirens.  Lots of sirens.

Alasdair sat on the wooden bench, watching the autumn leaves dancing in the breeze.  The wind was cool and fresh, and the sun’s warmth seemed distant.  But Alasdair didn’t care about the cold.  He was lost in the swaying masses of gold and auburn.  The hospital grounds were beautiful. 

Alasdair glanced back at the warm sandstone building behind him, with something like affection.  He was quite happy here.  He never gave any trouble, so the nurses had always been pleasant.  Lately he had begun helping them left heavy loads, of linen or furniture, so now they were actually friendly, and sometimes invited him into the nurses’ station for tea and biscuits.  He was allowed to wander the grounds, and wear clothes instead of pyjamas, because the doctors knew he wouldn’t run away.  He was all right just where he was. 

Alasdair got up and began to follow the wood-chip path through the trees.  He had all afternoon before he had to be back for the five o’clock meal and head-count.  It was visiting time, but today Alasdair would be alone.  Which was fine by him. 

He did have visitors, sometimes.  His sister came whenever she could, although she always got upset and asked what had gone so wrong, and Alasdair did not know what to say to her.  At first his wife had come too, to weep and wail at him, but now she stayed away, much to his relief. 

Occasionally Hugh Pirrie came, which Alasdair found quite touching.  Hugh was quite adamant that Alasdair would come back to work at the College, although maybe not, ah, in the same environment.  Alasdair understood this.  He was sure Billy was still dining out on the tale of his heroic fight against the psycho with the scissors, and imagined the look on Billy’s face if the ‘psycho’ were to walk back into his office.  Hugh Pirrie saw Alasdair begin to smile, and looked pleased, and said he was glad Alasdair was looking forward to returning to work.  Alasdair explained that he had no intention of coming back to the College, but he could tell by Hugh’s grave expression that he thought it was just the illness talking. 

Alasdair settled down on another bench, under an ancient oak.  The ground was littered with crushed cans and faded sweet-wrappers; but he liked it here, because apart from the hospital he could see only trees, nodding and hissing in the wind.  He was sad to think he would have to leave here soon; his doctor was talking about a halfway house somewhere.  But well, that wouldn’t be so bad.  He didn’t mind where he was, so long as he got to write his poetry. 

He had begun writing again as soon as he came to the hospital.  Now, poems flowed from his pen like water.  He showed them to his doctor, who said they were good, although he expressed caution when Alasdair talked about sending them for publication.  Afraid, no doubt, that Alasdair would suffer a relapse if his work was rejected.

Alasdair could not convince him that he didn’t care, really, if his poetry was published or not.  To him his poems were things of fire and wonder; and it didn’t much matter what anyone else thought.  His poems were word paintings of damnation and salvation, in which divine and hellish creatures were always close, just a thought or a word away, to the lives and hearts of men. 

At the moment he was planning his masterpiece.  He hadn’t begun writing it yet – he had still to decide finally on the form – a sonnet sequence? Epic pentameters?  Perhaps too he was a little apprehensive to begin, because he knew it would have to be perfect.  Because what he had to say was so perfect. 

He had to tell this story.  The story of a soul in hell, who endures terrible torments until he thinks he can endure no more.  And then he feels cool water upon his tongue, and looks up into wise and compassionate eyes; and knows he has been redeemed, right there in the inferno, by the touch of an angel.