In 2018 I went to see an exhibition called Who Do You Love? at Magma, in Covent Garden. My friend and colleague, super-archivist illustrator Josie Sommer had a painting on display, also called Who Do You Love? after Bo Diddley’s song.
Josie’s work is extraordinary: lively, loving, joyous and often humorous. It’s women’s work, mainly depicting women’s worlds. Subtly feminist. Her painting caught my imagination, and I promised her that I would write some stories in response. She had already created the fictional world, so all I had to do as a storyteller was to create characters and stories, while staying faithful to what she had depicted.
I sketched out four short-short stories – and then, with too much else going on, I put them in a drawer. About a year later, I made the first story into a zine and gave it to Josie, and it wasn’t until last year that I looked at the other three drafts and thought that they might make little stories after all. This year, I finished them and made them into a pamphlet as a job-leaving present for her.
Making up these stories was probably the most writing-fun I’ve ever had, especially writing the animal characters. Having them talk really amused me. The stories were written without the usual anxieties of critical assessment and possible publication/rejection, and they only make sense with reference to Josie’s visual world.
Here’s Roadrunner, below.
One winter’s day in December, just before the end of the year, Bettina and Mona sat at their kitchen table eating breakfast. Bettina gnawed on strips of grilled buffalo and sipped warm almond milk from a mug held between her paws. She watched Mona stirring her porridge clockwise, anti-clockwise, but she wasn’t eating.
Bettina knew all about the fight Mona had had with Herman, a battle of words during a date gone wrong at Arlene’s Ices that neither of them had won. Sad, angry and sometimes both, the couple hadn’t spoken to each other for six months, one-hundred and eighty days, four-thousand, three hundred and eighty hours, twenty-six million, two-thousand and eight-hundred minutes. Bettina refused to work out what six months equated to in seconds for her friend.
‘Whatcha thinking, Mona?’ Bettina was a lioness from Bounds Green, but she had been to New York once, picked up the accent, and decided to keep it.
‘I’m gonna tell him,’ said Mona, who had also been to New York, liked the accent, and did her best to keep it, even though she was from Muswell Hill. ‘I’m gonna give him a piece of my mind.’
‘Which piece, Mona?’
‘The piece that says I love him.’
Silence. Then crunching, as Mona pushed her bowl to one side in favour of eating cornflakes, dry, straight from the box.
‘Ooh,’ Bettina said. She put down her mug, eyes wide, paws and claws flexing. ‘I see. It’s gonna go like that, is it?’
‘Well, yeah. I think so, yeah.’
‘And he’s leaving town any day now, right?’
‘Right.’ Mona’s shoulders sagged a little. ‘It might be too late.’
‘No, M, that’s not the attitude.’ Bettina paused. She let out a low, quiet, rumbling roar. Then she said, ‘We have to make a move.’
‘Now? As in, right now?’
‘Yes. Gotta get you there before it’s too late, right?’
‘But I haven’t even –’
‘Finish up those cornflakes, M, quick-sharp. Let’s do this.’
Bettina took Mona’s cereal bowl and her mug and plate to the sink. Mona pulled on her plimsolls and reached for her big wool coat hanging from a hook on the door.
‘It’s not that kind of emergency,’ Bettina said. ‘Pyjamas won’t do. Gotta have the right threads on, M, the right bag. You know the one.’
Bettina’s sense of urgency was infectious. Mona abandoned her plimsolls and coat and ran upstairs. A few minutes later she was ready, standing in the hallway. Bettina held the door key in her mouth and tossed it to Mona.
‘Okay,’ said the lioness. ‘Got everything?’
‘Yep, you bet!’ Mona was looking dapper in slate-grey ski pants with braces, ballet pumps and a tailored white shirt with Bo embroidered on the breast pocket – the gravel-voiced blues hero was close to her heart. Her red hair was bobbed and curled just so.
Simone, who had been asleep upstairs, was woken up by the commotion. ‘Szzz?’ she said, slithering downstairs. She looked at her housemates and quickly understood what was happening. ‘Szzz!’ Simone said, as she uncurled herself from the banister and slid around Mona’s neck under the collar of her shirt, tying herself into a perfectly stylish knot. Simone was a cobra of few words, but she was keen to come along, not just for the ride, but to lend Mona emotional support.
Mona clutched her red and gold handbag, her favourite, the one that brought her luck. It was studded with the letters r-o-a-d-r-u-n-n-e-r, a tribute not only to the great Jonathan Richman but also to her leonine friend, who could outrun an Olympic sprinter.
‘Right, let’s go,’ said Bettina. ‘Traffic’s crazy-busy this time in the morning.’
Mona slid onto Bettina’s golden-furred back and clasped her hands around her neck. Bettina began to trot down the road, very slowly at first so that Mona could adjust her position at the curve of Bettina’s spine and sit upright. Then Bettina, big cat, hunter, sprinter, lengthened her stride, and began to run, slipping through gaps in the traffic. Simone nodded and curled this way and that, the air rushing past her head, her tongue flickering with exhilaration. The three friends couldn’t see the heads turning, the traffic lights red-amber-green; couldn’t hear the beeping car horns and the white van man insults. Pedestrians and shop facades dissolved into a rainbow blur as they flew past. They were away, speeding towards Mona’s beloved.
Mona will ask him, Who do you love?
And he will say, You. Most definitely you.