Loose Ends

British actress .
British actress Hermione Norris: Ros. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PBS is airing MI5 for—what?—the fourth consecutive season? and I’m watching reruns. Again.

Last week, Ros died for the second and presumably last time. Because I’d already seen the episode (often), I used only a half box of tissues. When Adam died, I wept a puddle, but Ros’ original demise prompted a deluge. Now the team is picking up the pieces and moving on with Ros’ replacement, another attractive blonde. I find it impossible to bond with her. I’ve nicknamed her Not-Ros.

I don’t care for explosions and executions and car chases, and if that’s all MI5 had to offer, I’d have turned it off before getting hooked. Interesting characters and tight plots have kept me tuning in. That, and the fact that violence isn’t at the heart of the show: it’s the suspense, the waiting for the clock to tick down, for the bomb to detonate—or not.

And the knowledge that, in the hands of these writers, no character is safe.

Back in the olden days, one thing was certain: when he strode into the dusty Dodge City street on Saturday night, his badge glinting in the sun, his six-gun secure in its holster, to face the man in the black hat, Marshal Matt Dillon would be alive at the end of the show.

No such guarantee for Sir Harry Pearce and Section D.

No guarantee for anyone in real life either.

This afternoon, in a grocery store parking lot filled with cars but almost empty of people, a young couple passed me. The man was shouting at the woman. He reached out and pushed her shoulder. She turned away slightly, made a half-hearted attempt to fend him off. They made their way across the lot—the man shouting the same unprintable insult over and over, pushing and shoving, the woman staying beside him, hardly trying to defend herself.

Leaving the path leading to the cart return, I followed them. I didn’t consider what I could, or would, do. I just had to keep them in sight.

They had reached the sidewalk when a young woman rolling a cart filled with groceries and a toddler in the child seat stopped beside a nearby car. She called to me. “Call the police.”

“I don’t have my cell phone.”

She dug in her purse for her phone, then dialed 911. She then reported the couple’s actions and described them: jeans, black shorts, yellow t-shirt, blue and gray jersey displaying the number 31, baseball cap. I moved to a better vantage point and fed her details.

While she was on the phone, another young man and woman ran across the parking lot and managed to separate the couple. The women crossed the street. The men walked in the opposite direction across the lot. I lost them when they got into a car and drove away.

I wouldn’t recognize them if I saw them again, but I have a feeling the fellow doing the shouting and pushing would recognize me: He left staring over his shoulder at me. I wasn’t comfortable standing in that gaze. Since he obviously knew what my new friend and I were up to, he might have been uncomfortable, too, but he appeared too angry to feel self-conscious.

With no suspect, the 911 call ended. My friend turned off her phone and dropped it back into her purse. I thanked her.

“That wasn’t right,” she said.


“She didn’t even try to get away from him.”

“I was worried about what would happen when he got her away from here.” I was still worried. He hadn’t had time to cool off, if that made a difference. If they drove around the block, found the women walking up the street…

“It just wasn’t right.” She thanked me and finished loading her groceries.

I wheeled my cart to the return, got into my car, and drove home.

Ever since, I’ve wished I could finish that scene, tie up loose ends, get everyone home safely, make them live happily ever after. But in real life, I don’t get to write the script.

And I don’t always get to know how the story ends.


Image of Hermione Norris by Hermione_Norris.jpg: Sam Knox derivative work: ukexpat (Hermione_Norris.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Start with the headline…dear


“SCORPIO (Oct. 24-Nov. 21): No one can argue with your powers of conversation. You make language dance. Insightful without being overbearing, you’re a joy to be around. And you are about to meet your match.” ~ Holiday Mathis, “Horoscopes,” American Statesman [Austin, TX] 6 Jan. 2010, final ed. : D2.

Ha! My horoscope is way behind. I met my match years ago.

It was the fall of 1999, and I was right in the middle of one of my best stories, when my husband began to wave his hand in that circular  motion–the universal symbol for “Get on with it”– and said, “Start with the headline.”

He was actually my pre-husband then, and I hadn’t known him long, and he was telling me I wasn’t a joy to be around. I burst into tears.

He patted me and apologized. (And no doubt wondered what he was apologizing for.)

I cried some more, mourning our relationship’s untimely end. Because I was incapable of starting with the headline.

I am a Southerner. When I share an anecdote or impart information–such as the conversation I had with Cousin Bob at the post office yesterday–I am genetically programmed to start at the beginning. I may need to go back three generations before I can get to the core communication.

To properly set the stage, I must introduce Cousin Bob’s parents and grandparents, and possibly his great-grandparents, and maybe his aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. I have to say who married whom and why and how many children they had. I have to mention economic status, level of education, and geographic location. I have to describe outstanding traits and idiosyncrasies as well as interesting interrelationships, such as major quarrels, grudges, and feuds.

When I finally get down to Cousin Bob, I have to flesh him out as well.

Then, once I get the plot moving, I sometimes need to digress and pull in anything else I think might be helpful.

It takes time.

But I’ve  sat on enough front porches listening to old people talk to know the rule: Never start with the headline.

Still, in the interest of continuing romance, I made an effort. And in the interest of same, my pre-husband said no more about my tendency to mosey.

A couple of years later, however, taking a course in legal writing, I heard the lawyer at the front of the room say, “Start with the headline.” In other words, when you’re writing a legal memo or a case brief, state the conclusion; then explain how you got there.

The light dawned. My pre-husband had a law degree. He was trained to start with the headline. He didn’t want me to tell my stories backwards. He just wanted me to talk like a paralegal. Eleven months later, I emerged from the university with an official certificate in paralegal studies and an unofficial certificate in interpersonal communication, probably a first for that program.

Still, starting with the headline seemed a dreary thing for both writer and reader. How can the reader understand the headline before he’s met all the characters, seen where they live and how they’re related? And isn’t starting with the headline like reading the last page first? All the suspense oozes out.

I was so glad fiction doesn’t have to start with the headline.

A few years later, however, I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery. I set it in a small Southern town populated with characters whose family relationships go back several generations. I developed an intriguing plot. I jumped into the action. I wrote several chapters, revised them, and handed them off to a friendly writer.

She handed them back with some positive comments and a great big, “GET THE BACKSTORY OUT OF THE FIRST CHAPTER.”

In other words, start with the headline.