We all know a prickly character, someone around whom we need to tread carefully so as not to get stung. In our social lives, we might keep them at a distance but, in therapy, they’re often intriguing and we might relish the challenge of discovering what lies underneath that porcupine skin. In fiction, they can also be appealing but, like the shy character with whom there might be an element of overlap, they aren’t so straightforward to write.
In real life and fiction, people may be prickly for a variety of reasons. For my character, Diana, it’s because she’s anxious when anyone comes too close. In The Woman Upstairs, Nora is prickly – although I’d call her righteously angry – because she’s been betrayed. Emilie, the mother in The Gustav Sonata, might be irritable because of the emptiness induced by the deprivation of her early life. In Anne Tyler’s brilliant retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, Kate’s irritability can be understood in terms of parental neglect.
Interestingly, we don’t seem to have a male equivalent of the word shrew. Fortunately, my reading throws up a range of examples: Afrikaner, Bennie Duiker, who is losing the culture he holds dear; autistic teenager, Sam, for whom everyday life is a constant challenge; Eitan Green, caught in a trap of his own making. Perhaps the nearest parallel to the shrew is in the non-gender specific curmudgeon, which I used to apply to both myself and the main character of Fredrik Backman’s novel.
Nevertheless, there’s a type of prickliness we tolerate more easily in men than in women. Women in positions of authority often face a double bind of being judged unprofessional if they express emotion and unfeminine, and therefore unnatural, if they don’t. The witch hunt against Sharon Shoesmith, Director of Children’s Services at the time of a toddler’s death at the hands of his mother and her partner, is a case in point. As discussed in her non-fiction book, Learning from Baby P (my review is now on Shiny New Books), she was unfairly pressurised to apologise for something for which she was not responsible. Her analysis makes chilling reading for anyone involved in human services where, even when procedures are appropriately followed, things can go wrong. Or even for anyone who wishes politicians had the courage to be guided more by reason than by the braying of the gutter press.
Which is a good point to link to the Carrot Ranch, where things are getting rather prickly for Charli. With a presidential election looming, she’s come up against another example of the homeless person’s Catch-22: she needs an address to get her voting papers but the Postal Service won’t deliver without a box number, and a box number implies it’s not a residential address. Aargh! In contrast, writing a 99-word story about a prickly situation should be a doddle. In fact, it took me a while to find the right angle, but here’s my contribution:
Someone touched her once. The heat of it convulsed her and scorched her skin. For weeks it festered and, when even the lightest garment proved an irritant, she stayed indoors. When she healed, she threaded her favourite jacket with thorns and never left her room without it.
Snug in her prickly jacket, she grew in confidence, forgetting what had seared her skin. She met a man, and dreamt each night of his caress. She let him court her but, when the moment came for her to shed her jacket, she couldn’t. It had melded with her skin.
On Friday I’m off to London for the announcement of the Polari prize winner. I’m looking forward to meeting the chair of the judges and my fellow shortlistees. However, given that we’re actually rivals, I’m hoping it won’t be prickly. I’m also hoping I don’t make a fool of myself like the narrator of my short story "And The Winner Is…"