In 2004/2005 the Alpha members took it in turns to alter a 700-word piece of writing.
The first Alpha member edited it down from 700 words to 350 words. The next member then expanded it back up to 700 words… and so on, until the piece had gone through eight members and had been reduced and expanded again four times.
As you’ll see, it changed in sometimes surprising ways. Here is the result.
Original 700-word Story:
Half dozing in the hot afternoon sun as the train pulled into Warminster station, my eyes hazily watched the ordinary conventional folk going about their leisurely business on a Sunday.
My eyes suddenly focused on one who was different. A tall woman, with the weight to go with it, and more. She wore a white summer dress, adorned with a pattern of large red and orange broad brush strokes.
It was neither her size nor her dress which I noticed, but the brash confidence in her movement, which caught my attention. She strode up to the front of the carriage, got on, looked around and got off again. I resumed dozing as the train gently moved forward.
At Westbury, as the scheduled two-minute stop stretched into three, I saw the ticket collector was involved with an occupant apparently sitting on the luggage bench: not so much a discussion, but a noisy altercation like boxers probing and searching for opponent’s weaknesses.
As the ticket collector stepped back, the occupant assumed her full sitting height and became identifiable as the woman from Warminster station.
The ticket inspector left and returned with a colleague (wearing a luminous jacket) for Round Two began. Battle cries emanated from the mixture of the navy blue, lime green and the garish brush-daubs.
“I bought a ticket,” she shouted, “and somebody stole it.”
“That’s not the point, madam,” said the collector, “you are not allowed on this train without a valid ticket.”
“I bought a ticket,” she stormed, “and it was stolen. I’m not getting off the train.”
“This train won’t be moving until you get off,” said the ticket inspector.
The dispute continued, she aggressively making claim of innocent victim status, the men parried them calmly with repeated comments and refusals. Impasse reigned at the end of the round. A third man arrived, who may have been the Westbury stationmaster, and he attempted to persuade her to leave the train.
Round Three was certainly an all-action highlight of the contest. The aggressive innocence became charged with obscenities and words that I don’t think I’ve heard before. The stationmaster warned her that such vocabulary was most definitely not allowed: it seemed to be in the same category as low punches.
But the stationmaster wasn’t an impartial referee, and this raised the temperature even more. Profanities were rejected as a sole weapon, so a good straight right fist was followed by a swinging left with a shopping bag. The manual worker appeared to ride the punch so that very fortunately her full weight had little effect. Adept ducking ensured that the bag did not make contact.
As the round ended, the railway employees withdrew and she turned on us, her spectators. We were treated to a diatribe along the lines of “All you rabble lot, you don’t want to help. I’ve got my rights to be here. They won’t put me off the train!” I’ve had to edit the words, but they were the sentiments. They didn’t reach the standard of Muhammed Ali, though one suspects they served the same purpose in building the hype.
The stationmaster re-appeared, and told her that there would be another train to Bath in an hour, and that she could catch that. That would give them time to sort out the ticket problem.
“Deliberately delaying a train is an offence,” he informed her, and waving his hand towards the rest of the carriage, “all these passengers are suffering”. Well, some may have been suffering, but at least it was entertaining.
Surprisingly, she rose to her feet and glared around at the rest of us, and got off, albeit with reluctance and defiance radiating from her. She walked to the nearest platform bench and determinedly sat down, the sun seemingly highlighting her bright dress. She glared at the train, directly at me, as I looked out of the window as we left Westbury ten minutes late.
I heard the announcements as we drew into Bath Station. “The train to Cardiff via Bristol is ten minutes late. Wessex Trains apologise for the late running of this service.”
New passengers joined the train, and I definitely heard one of them say, “Late train again. I wonder what it was this time – Wrong kind of heat, I expect!”
They were nearer the truth than they imagined.
…and the final, much-edited version:
It’s a sweltering day in mid-August, and I feel as though I’ve spent all day hanging around platforms. I hate travelling in the summer. I’m hot. I’m fed up. At the moment I’m sitting in Warminster Station waiting for the Bath train. The cafeteria has run out of cold drinks and to make matters worse, there’s a loud American woman telling some small man, and the platform at large, about her trip to her daughter’s wedding at ‘one of your quaint village churches’. She’s narrating every detail about the wedding, including how much she’s looking forward to meeting her English son-in-law’s family, how much money she spent on the gift and how she just loves the English. Oh, and how she ‘chewed them up bad’ at Macy’s when the wedding dress was lost. I can believe it. I wouldn’t want to cross her even on a cool day. A formidable woman.
The train arrives and I find a seat as far down the carriage as I can to avoid her. As ever with the motion of the train, I quickly fall asleep but am woken by the ticket collector arguing with the American, who despite my efforts to distance myself is now standing in front of me being told to leave the train as she has no ticket.
“I bought one at Warminster!” she shouts.
“But you can’t prove it, madam.”
“You calling me a liar? I’ll sue you, young man!”
She raises her arm imperiously and for a moment I think she’s going to strike him. The ticket collector, evidently fearing the same, retreats and returns a few minutes later with the guard.
“Madam, unless you can produce your ticket, I’m afraid that I must ask you to alight at the next station,” he says.
“How can I produce something that’s no longer in my purse?”
She claims the ticket’s been stolen while she was asleep. “Instead of harassing me, you should be calling the police to catch the thief.”
She towers above the two men, who are clearly no match for her. They’re wilting visibly in the combined heat of her tirade and the day.
“We need reinforcements,” the guard mutters under his breath.
We’re in Westbury Station now and they go to fetch the station master. The American drops into the seat next to me.
“Do you believe this is happening?” she shrieks. “That I could be treated like a common felon? What happened to trust? And to think you English used to be so polite.”
I don’t want to get involved and think about escaping. There’s an empty seat next to a nun a little further up the carriage. I consider pretending she’s an old friend, but before I can make my getaway, the station master appears. He is the picture of diplomacy and immediately begins soothing her with his reasonable manner. Before long he’s suggesting she catch the next train so that they can sort out the matter in peace.
“Why the hell should I? Why should I be late for a wedding just because you’re so damned suspicious?”
“So that we don’t hold up the entire train any longer, madam.”
That’ll fall on deaf ears, I think. But I’m wrong. Swiping up her luggage, she reluctantly leaves the carriage, verbally lashing all three railway employees and complaining that English hospitality is dead. Good riddance, I think in the welcome silence.
The train leaves and I shuffle in my seat, trying to get comfortable after the drama. A ticket falls to the floor. I stare at it without touching it. Warminster to Bath. Today’s date. Must be hers. I glance back briefly at the departing station. It’s too late to do anything now but I do feel bad about it. If only I’d moved after all, the ticket would have come to light, resolving the whole business.
For a while I feel uneasy about the incident, but then I decide it’s too hot for all this aggravation. I try sleeping but can’t. I just can’t put that woman out of my mind. Will she make the wedding? Will she ever forgive the English? I didn’t like her, but I dislike injustice more. If only it weren’t quite so hot. As we arrive at Bath there’s an announcement that my Cardiff connection will be ten minutes late. “It’ll be the wrong kind of heat,” I hear someone mutter. I smile to myself, thinking if only you knew. That comment is far too close to the truth for comfort.