Belly, in Best British Short Stories 2020

Belly, which was published in Ellipsis Zine in 2019, is included in Best British Short Stories 2020 (Salt Publishing). Thanks to Nicholas Royle for selecting it.

Vanessa couldn’t believe her luck when Reggie asked her out. I’ll treat you to a Nando’s, he said. He drove her to the West End in a silver Volkswagen Golf GTi. Vanessa didn’t dare ask where he’d got it. They abandoned the car down a side street off Charing Cross Road and ran laughing towards Trafalgar Square.

Read the rest in the anthology, available from Salt, or online at Ellipsis Zine.

The Maybe Box

The Maybe Box is about Bee, a department store supervisor who is determined to keep making beautifully decorated boxes out of the cardboard she salvages at work, all the while denying that they are works of art:

Jamshed the warehouse supervisor collects the used boxes for me, and if they are partly crushed or torn all the better. He approaches me with a mountainous pile of cardboard, origami-like folds and perforated edges not quite meeting after careless use.

He helps me compress the cardboard so that it fits inside my suitcase.

‘There you go, Bee. Is that enough to keep you going?’ He beams at me.

‘Definitely. Thanks, Jamshed.’

After work I go home, make dinner and feed the cats. Des knows he will have to wash up – I have work to do in the basement.

I open the suitcase and the cardboard springs into life. I close the curtains and turn on the old Anglepoise, directing the light out into the room and onto the sheets of paper pinned to the wall: I’ve sketched out the spaces and angles of the boxes that live in my head.

You can read the whole story in King Ludd’s Rag #2, September 2020. Print copies are available from the Malarkey Books store.

Thanks to Alan Good & Malarkey Books for publishing it.

Moustache

Moustache is my favourite sort of story to write. Short-short and sweet. It was published in Ellipsis Zine on 19 June 2020.

He decided to grow a moustache because he knew she loved them. He nurtured it carefully, at first trimming it himself. Then, when she made what he took to be a disparaging remark about stray hairs tickling her lips when they kissed, he started going to the Grooming Club, a barber’s with the traditional red, white and blue rotating pole mounted above the shop façade.

You can read the full story here.

The Ceramicist

 

The Ceramicist (detail) © Josie Sommer, 2020

The Ceramicist is about a couple who meet an artist at a party, and what happens when they visit her in her studio. It is also about art and generosity, memory and forgetting:

We receive an invitation to the ceramicist’s open studio day, and I decide that we should go. Jim says, Experimental ceramics? Are you sure?

The ceramicist lives in a gently tilting house on the corner of The Hill, a desirable part of town where the houses are proud of their exposed sand-coloured brick, their facades wreathed in climbing roses.

The Ceramicist appears in Ambit 240, and it is my first print publication. Special thanks to Kiare Ladner for her brilliant, energising short story workshop at Collage Arts Writing Room in October-December 2019 which helped me to start writing again after a dry spell, and to Kate Pemberton and the editors of Ambit.

The Cat by The Incredible Jimmy Smith

https://www.discogs.com/The-Incredible-Jimmy-Smith-The-Cat/release/5142431

The Cat by The Incredible Jimmy Smith was shortlisted for the Guardian 4th Estate BAME Prize 2019.

1964: the year his marriage ended. The year his record stopped spinning, the needle in his groove lifted haltingly, and with a snap returned his tone arm to its cradle.

He had never wanted Marilyn. Not her prim-girl curls hot-combed into place on her head. Not her full-moon face so earnest that the sight of it irritated him. He hadn’t wanted to hear, I’m eight weeks gone! We have to marry, the corners of her mouth drooping. He hadn’t wanted the ceremony in Hackney Town Hall, his signature and hers in the register (but he had wanted the tonic mohair suit that made him look like a prince). He hadn’t wanted to live in rented rooms above a shop, with Marilyn asking, But where will the baby sleep? He hadn’t wanted any of this. He had come to England to find work, to do something with his life, to send photographs of his handsome Jamaican self back home to his Grandma, make her proud. Dear Granny, I hope that when these few lines reach you they will find you well …

You can read the full story here.

You can listen to the title track of the LP here.

Belly

Belly is the result of writing around 3,000 words trying to imagine various scenarios in fast-food restaurants, chance sightings, getting completely sidetracked by researching the origins of Landseer’s lions, and the Great Disappointment that is teenage romance. Only a few hundred of the words survive in the final version. The story is like a memory of something that I haven’t actually experienced. Belly appeared in Ellipsis Zine on 1 July. You can read it here.

sapling & umbrella

Before the sapling appeared there was nothing but weeds and rubbish at the end of the alley. The locals dumped their bin bags, and foxes looking for food tore them apart. A woman taking her usual short cut home wondered, Who would bother planting a tree here?

She noticed that someone had shoved an umbrella into the sapling’s branches. Its spokes were broken, its limp canopy folded like crow’s wings. Eventually, bin men cleared the rubbish away but they left the umbrella behind.

Walking past every day, the woman noticed the sapling and umbrella growing closer, nestling together. The streetlights illuminated them at night. It was an unlikely romance.

One night the woman was caught in an icy shower of rain. She stood for a moment and considered pulling the umbrella from the clutches of the sapling. Maybe she could use it, prop it open with her fingers until she got home. But the umbrella’s handle was hooked protectively around the sapling’s trunk, and she knew the sapling would tug back, cling to the umbrella. So she left them alone and made her way home.

Time to Herself

Linda watched Desiree adjust the mortarboard so as not to ruin her hair. It was still lopsided, so she reached out to straighten it until it rested evenly on Desiree’s elaborate braids. Mum! Stop fussing. Desiree, draped in a black graduation gown and silver six-inch heels, drifted away from her mother towards her friends. They hugged, chattered, laughed. Whatever Linda did or said now was met with a tut, an eye roll or a shrug from Desiree, but it didn’t bother her anymore.

Their last argument had begun with Linda asking, Can’t you wash up your own dishes?  and ended with Desiree muttering, head bowed, at least I won’t end up like you. And Desiree was right. She wasn’t going to end up working in a supermarket by day and cleaning offices at night. She wouldn’t have to worry about paying rent on her housing association flat, and making sure they both had enough to eat. A double first in History and Economics from Cambridge had seen to that.

When Linda was fifteen, a boy took her by surprise. I like you, he said. Weeks later: come round my house, my mum’s out tonight. In his bedroom: Lie down, it’ll be alright. Linda’s parents mourned her as if she had died. You? And that English boy? And then Desiree was born, a light-brown, demanding, wriggling thing, and it wasn’t long before the boy was passing Linda in the street as if they were strangers. She left school, her friends drifted away, and university was just a building she saw on her way to work.

After graduating, Desiree got a job in the City, a banker boyfriend and a spacious flat miles away from home. She was too busy to visit Linda, had no time to call – which was everything that Linda had wished for. To be alone. To have time to herself.

 

 

 

 

Cloth Against Skin

 

Cloth Against Skin was accepted by an online magazine in December 2017. I was really pleased. It was obvious from the finished issue that care was taken in the selection of stories, that the editors had been thoughtful when considering how they would fit together. I wasn’t anticipating that the layout of my story might be changed. The story is short, under 1,000 words, but the format of it is very important to me: the separation of paragraphs and the italicisation of some sections is there to convey and emphasise the theme and meanings. The story lost some of its power due to the loss of formatting, so I’ve decided to post it in its original form here.

I arrive in Southampton from Port-of-Spain hoping that I’m suitably dressed for an English summer:

An iris-yellow dress cinched tight at my waist.

A white pillbox hat with a little net shading my eyes.

White kitten-heeled stilettos that lift my feet off the ground.

The breeze, though, is unexpectedly cool; it embraces me like a shawl. I’ve heard about the cold of winter that drains the blood from your fingers and toes, but I haven’t felt it yet.

I take the train to London where my cousin Rita is waiting for me at Waterloo station. She lives in a house with two bedrooms, one for her and Alan and one for their son Errol – no spare room, but she said I could stay.

At night I sleep on Rita and Alan’s settee and dream of being adrift in the Atlantic, but when I feel furtive hands creeping across my skin I am wide awake, holding my body rigid. I keep my eyes squeezed shut and wait to be left alone.

In the morning, sitting at the Formica table in Rita’s kitchen, Alan’s eyes won’t meet mine. They are blue and fathomless like the ocean that separates me from home.

*

I meet a man called Patrick. He buys me a pearl-pink glass vase and a weekly supply of carnations until I agree to marry him. On the day of the wedding, Calvin, Patrick’s best man, whispers in my ear that I am making a mistake, that I should go away with him.

I say yes to Patrick anyway.

Seven months later, Mia is born. She is such a dry-eyed, hushed baby. Sometimes I feel like tipping her out of her cot just to make her cry. Every day I hand her over to Esme to be looked after I feel so relieved. I leave Mia sitting in a room full of other babies, mute while the others gurgle and scream.

I catch the bus to work, sitting close to the open platform. I am unable to blend in with my surroundings but I’m used to the stares of Londoners now, their faces as bloodless as a winter sky. This is what they must see:

 My stiff paper cap perched on my head, brown leather brogues on my feet.

 My pale-blue dress with a starched white collar, thick black stockings.

  My navy wool cape keeps me warm.

My nurse’s uniform protects me, tells them who I am.

*

Mia drapes her coltish body across the bed and watches me get dressed for a party. I have been promoted: I am a ward sister now. I stand in front of the mirror, but she is behind me stealing its attention, her face morphing from smiles to pouts to frowns. My daughter is nothing like me. She thinks being able to suck her teeth diverts attention away from her East London accent, her love of Marmite and Top of the Pops, her knowledge of no other country but this one.

  I still relax my hair into waves and curls.

 I still dust my cheekbones with powder that shimmers like moon dust.

 I still paint my nails wine-red with lipstick to match.

My dress wraps around my hips and clings just so. With cloth against skin, I make myself visible.

*

After twenty years, Patrick breaks the strained politeness of our marriage to pursue a girl not much older than Mia. His body is distant and heavy with answers to questions I dare not ask. When I leave our home, Mia chooses to stay with him.

*

 I retire and rent a house in a seaside town. I don’t have much to do except please myself, so I re-read all the books I own, drink strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk, and flick through my old records, returning to my favourites: Bessie, Ella, Billie, Sarah. I sing along. Sometimes I dance, awakening muscles that are usually quiet and still.

Every morning I wrap myself in an oversized parka that once belonged to Patrick, and I walk down to the sea.

My jeans are so worn the denim has washed away.

My hands feel snug in sheepskin mittens; they recall my first English winter.

My green wellingtons crunch the pebbles on the beach with each step.

Sometimes I think about going home – I wonder if I’ll die before I’ve made up my mind? My mother and father only exist in my memories now, and our house will be in ruins. Bats and birds will be nesting in the gaps of the galvanised roof, and green lizards will skim-skitter across the veranda where I used to sit and dream of coming to England.

*

It’s morning. The nurse comes into my room. She leans over me and her hands roll away the waves of sheets and blankets. My nightdress is unbuttoned and removed as if being unpegged from a washing line.

She says, stand, but I can’t – the frame won’t catch me if I fall.

She says, hold, and my fingers curl into my palms because of the pain.

She says, wash – my skin recoils from the tepid water filling the basin.

The nurse immerses a flannel and wrings it out briskly. She scrubs me as if she is cleaning a window. I am dried, and fresh clean clothes pulled on to my body. I have not chosen them:

Disposable knickers and a grey polyester vest.

Navy linen trousers, elasticated at the waist.

A moss-green jumper, its woollen folds nestling against my skin.

I’m strapped into a wheelchair, pushed into the lounge and given warm grey porridge for breakfast. The sour milk bleeds into the plastic tang of the beaker.

Afterwards, I am moved to the bay window where glimmering sunlight burns through the glass. I sit here for hours, and I can almost feel the catch-fire heat of the sun on my skin, inhale the sea breeze so it fills my lungs.

On days like this, I am no longer four-thousand miles from home.

 

 

 

East London Doves

You spot a dead pigeon on the pavement outside Lagos Island restaurant and pick it up, cupping your hands in the shape of a heart to hold its body. You unbutton your coat just enough to put the bird inside and carry it home.

You find an old shoebox, line it with newspaper and soft tissue and lay the pigeon inside, being careful not to disturb its still-folded wings. You wrap the box with purple crepe paper and tie a black ribbon around it to keep the lid in place.

The hole you dig in your garden is deep enough to fox the foxes – unearthing already-planted bulbs and resting perennials. You bury the box with the pigeon inside.

And when you have finished you sit indoors thinking about all the pigeons you’ve ever seen

pale-pink stepping promenading head-bobbing blinking pecking shitting shifting flexing wings flying flocking perching

streaked-white-concrete-grey feathers painted the colour of urban winter

mauve-green caught by the sun in spring shimmering

city birds.

East London doves.

 

For feral pigeons everywhere.