Fight or Flight is the topic for this week’s writing submission. I think it’s an awesome one and suits the storyline I’ve been working on. In my writing I find one of the hardest things to write is a good action sequence. I think if it was just translating the scene from my brain into words I would do okay, but when I’m writing the characters tend to pontificate and emote more than they get outside and really do stuff.
For this reason, when I come across a really good action sequence in my reading I stop, rewind, and really pay attention. I came across this scene last week while listening to a book by David Mitchell called The Bone Clocks. There are aspects of this book I really, really like and just as many that I really, really don’t like so I’m not going to do a review.
I’m pasting a portion of the scene below for your study of its structure, pacing, and use of imagery. After you read it to enjoy, go back and appreciate what magic David Mitchell employed in writing it. I listened to this scene while driving to work, and I’m pretty sure by the end of it I was speeding. I can say with certainty my heart was racing. I should mention that I put more white space into the scene than the publisher did. It lends to the pacing in the book, but it makes it hard to read on screen.
The bit takes place in the third segment of the book dedicated to a character called Ed Brubeck. The book itself jumps along the timeline of a woman named Holly Sykes. (Who I really like, yeah?) It travels from 1984 to 2025 (possibly further, but I gave up on it in 2025 because…annoying concepts emerged). In the scene below it is 2004 and Holly has a six-year-old daughter named Aoife (pronounced “EE-fah” – I think it’s Irish). Follow Ed as he wakes up from his nap into a nightmare.
I was dreaming Holly woke me up in a hotel room, her eyes panicky as a horse’s when it knows it’s going to die. It sounds like Holly’s saying “Where’s Aoife?” but she can’t be because Aoife’s asleep, next to me. Gravity’s wrong, my limbs are hollow, and I try to say, “What’s the matter?”
Holly’s like someone doing a bad impression of Holly. “Ed, where’s Aoife?”
“Here.” I lift the blanket. There’s only the Arctic fox. Twenty thousand volts fry me into hyperalertness. No need to panic. “In the bathroom.”
“I just looked! Ed! Where is she?”
“Aoife? Come out, Aoife! This isn’t funny!” I stand up and slip on Animal Rescue Ranger Annual 2004, fallen to the floor. I check the wardrobes; in the two-inch gap under the bed; and the bathroom, in the shower cubicle. My bones turn to warm Blu Tack. She’s missing.
“She was here. We were having a nap, just a minute ago.” I look at the time on the TV frame: 16:20. Shit shit shit. I lurch over to the windows as if— as if I’ll see her waving up at me from the teeming weekend crowds on the promenade below? My toe bangs something and the pain drills a hole: Aoife was asking where Dave and Kath’s room is; and why she couldn’t visit Dwight Silverwind. I look for Aoife’s sandals. Gone. Holly’s speaking but it’s like I’ve forgotten my English, it’s just vowels and consonants, and then she’s stopped, and is waiting for me to respond.
“Either she went to find you, or to your mum and dad’s room, or … or she’s gone to the fortune-teller down the pier. You go to your parents’ room. And tell Reception not to let a six-year-old girl in a— in a”— fuck, what was she wearing?—“ a zebra T-shirt out of the building on her own. I’ll check the pier.” I ram my feet into my shoes, and as I leave the room Holly calls out,
“Have you got your phone?” and I check and call back, “Yeah,” then hurry into the corridor, down to the lifts where two old ladies from Agatha Christie in flowery frocks are waiting by an aspidistra of prehistoric size in a vast bronze pot and I punch the Down button, but no lift comes, and I punch it and realize I’ve been mumbling, “Shit shit shit shit shit,” and the ladies are glaring, and finally it arrives, opens, and a Darth Vader points upwards with his light sabre and says, “Going up?” in a Belfast accent, and I’m walloped in the nuts by an image of Aoife up on the roof, so I get in.
Miss Marple says, “We’re going down, but I must say your costume’s splendid.” No, what am I thinking? Any door onto the roof’d be locked, that’s stupid. Health and Safety. And, anyway, Aoife’s on the pier. I get out, just as the doors close, and bark my shin, making the doors open again and Darth Vader says, “Make your mind up, pal.”
To the stairs. I follow the arrow marked STAIRS to another arrow marked STAIRS and follow that arrow to another and another and another. The carpet muffles my footfalls. Up ahead the two old ladies are getting into the lift so I shout, “HOLD THAT LIFT FOR ME!” and spring, like Michael Jordan, but trip over my undone laces and slide ten yards, friction-burning my Adam’s apple and the doors rumble shut, and maybe the Agatha Christies could’ve held the lift for me and maybe they couldn’t but they didn’t, the bitches, and I hammer the button with my thumb but the bastard thing’s gone and my trusting, innocent daughter’s getting closer to that man on the pier, with his own lockable booth, who probably doesn’t even bother with underpants underneath his Merlin robes.
I do up my laces, and step back, and the lift stops at “7,” and about a decade later it moves down to “6,” and stays there another decade, and a scream’s welling up, and then I notice stairs through a glass door, behind the aspidistra. For fuck’s sake! Down the echoey stairwell I pound, like an action hero with dodgy knees, but what sort of action hero nods off while he’sminding his only daughter, his only lovely, funny, perfect, fragile daughter?
Down I run, floor after floor, on my Journey to the Center of the Earth, the smell of paint getting fumier, and past a decorator on stepladders: “Bloody hell take it easy mate or yer’ll slip and dash yer brains out!” I reach a door marked EMERGENCY EXIT with a grimy little window and a view of an underground loading bay, so it’s the back of the building when I need the front, and the door’s locked anyway, and why didn’t I just wait for the bloody lift? I hurtle along a service passage, skidding past a sign marked LEVEL ZERO ACCESS, and what’s this prodding certainty that I’m in a labyrinth not only of turnings and doors but decisions and priorities, that I’ve been in it not just a minute or two but ages, years, and that I took some bad turns many years ago that I can’t get back to, and I slam against a door marked ACCESS and turn the handle and pull but it doesn’t open— that’s because you’re supposed to push so I push—
What? An exhibition space, opening up deeper and wider and higher even as I marvel that the Maritime Hotel could possibly contain this vastness extending— surely— under the foundations of the neighboring buildings, under the promenade, if not the English Channel. Thousands are perusing the rows and avenues of booths and stalls, and the noise is oceanic. Some are dressed in normal clothes but a majority are costumed: Supermen, Batmen, Watchmen; Doctor Spocks, Doctor Whos, Doctor Evils; a trio of C-3POs, a pair of Klingons, a lizardy Silurian; a file of female Chinese Harry Potters, a stubbly Catwoman adjusting his bra strap and a brace of apes from The Planet of; a posse of Agent Smiths from The Matrix, a walking Tardis, a blasted Schwarzenegger with bits of T-800 endoskeleton showing through; banter, laughter, earnest discussion. What if Aoife fell into this reservoir of weirdos, geeks, and fantasists? How would she ever get out? How will I get out? Through the big doors on the far side, of course, under a banner— BRIGHTON PLANET CON 2004. I hurry through the slow flow of browsers of manga, of Tribbles, of T-shirts bragging TREKKIES DO IT UP YOUR TURBO-SHAFT, self-assembly USS Enterprises, metal die-cast Battlestar Galacticas; I pass a Dalek blasting out the lines “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”; I dodge an Invisible Man, swerve behind a Ming the Merciless, squeeze between some Uruk-hai, and now I’ve lost the way out, I’ve lost Aoife, I’ve lost my north, south, east, and west, so I ask Yoda which way’s the way and he answers, “Next to the bogs, pal,” and points, and at last I’m in the lobby, and I come between a cub reporter and Judge Dredd.
Out I plunge …
… into the Ready Salted afternoon, froggering between the traffic to the promenade. Horns beep but today I am exempt. The warm weather’s brought out a hellish Where’s Wally? of seaside humanity, of families who haven’t lost their six-year-old girl through carelessness, through neglect, and I’d swap my soul for the chance to go back to our room an hour ago and I’d handle Aoife better, and I’d say, “Maybe I was a bit grumpy earlier, sorry, let’s go and see Mr. Silverwind together,” and if only I could have Aoife back I’d give the mystical old bastard my ATM card and wipe his arse for a year and a day. Or if I could jump forward an hour in time, after Aoife’s turned up safe and sound, the first thing I’d do is to call Olive Sun and say, “Sorry, Olive, send Hari to interview Dufresne, send Jen.” God, God, God: Let Aoife run through the crowd and jump into my arms. Let no stranger be bundling her into a van— Don’t go there, just don’t go there. A jostling river of people flows on and off the pier, I jog upstream, then slow down; mustn’t miss her if she’s walking back this way, looking for Daddy … Keep sweeping the faces, side to side, scan the faces for Aoife’s; don’t think about the headlines reading DAUGHTER OF WAR REPORTER DISAPPEARS or the tearful TV appeals, or the solicitor’s statements on behalf of the Sykeses, the Sykeses, who lived this nightmare once before, the very same one— TRAGEDY STRIKES TWICE FOR FAMILY OF JACKO SYKES; those weeks in 1984 when the Captain Marlow was shut “due to Family Circumstances,” read the note on the locked door; the papers reported a few false sightings of a boy who could’ve been Jacko, but never was; and Kath’d say, “Sorry, Ed, she’s not up to seeing anyone today”; in the end I didn’t go Inter-Railing but worked at a garden center on the A2 roundabout all summer. I felt responsible, too: If I’d talked Holly into going home that Saturday evening, instead of picking the lock of that church, Jacko might not’ve gone walkabout; but I fancied her and hoped something might happen; and my phone trills— Please, God, end this now; it’s Holly, tough-as-boots Holly, and I’m praying, Please God Please God let it be good news, and I say, “Any news?”
“Mum and Dad haven’t seen her, no. You?”
“I’m still walking down the pier.”
“I told the hotel manager. They’ve made an announcement on the PA, and Brendan’s watching Reception. They say the police won’t send anyone for a while, but Ruth’s onto them.”
“Call you as soon as I’m at the fortune-teller’s.”
“Okay.” End call.
I’m nearly at the Amusement Arcade— look look look look look! A little black-haired girl in a zebra T-shirt and green leggings slips inside the propped-open doors. Christ, that’s her, it’s got to be, and a hand grenade of hope goes off in my guts and I shout, “AOIFE!”
Mitchell, David (2014-09-02). The Bone Clocks: A Novel (pp. 273-277). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Be sure to pop over to the reading list and read, comment, vote. The poll closes tonight.
Write your own Fight or Flight story, scene, poem, essay, memoir and submit it before the deadline on Sunday. Just for fun is an option this month if you missed out on the week one submission.