I wrote this post on 16 April 2023 when I was more than half way through the Novel Studio course. My sister was critically ill but we, as a family, were clinging on to a sort of blind optimism about her recovery. I was reading a book about writing that was both informative and alienating, and by the time I finished it I wondered who the author might be writing for, because it certainly wasn’t someone like me.
What to do with books that displace you? You survive them, I suppose.
The last time I completed a piece of fiction, sent it out into the world and had it accepted by a magazine was November 2021, which feels like a long time ago. It isn’t that I don’t have stories brewing – I have several embryonic ideas waiting for me to write them. My worry is that, with a novel-shaped elephant in my room, I feel that I’ve forgotten how to capture that glimmer of a short, or short-short story that was so joyous to write before.
How do writers work on novels and short stories at the same time? I have no idea, and no brain capacity with which to do this.
As for having time – well, I thought it was difficult before, but try having not one, but two close family members with a life-threatening illness who need support. I have little energy left for anything else. This is commonplace for women of my age – I’m just fortunate not to have children.
I am lucky to be a student at The Novel Studio, City, University of London, learning the intricacies and practicalities of writing a novel: a very public declaration that I am indeed writing a long form piece of fiction which still makes me cringe a bit. Who am I to be doing such a thing? All I can say so far about the experience is: who knew?
I spent the Easter term break travelling from work to hospital to care home, not writing, but catching up on course reading: James Wood’s How Novels Work, so very clear-sighted about the inner- and outer lives of novels. But what I wrote about representation for the Writing Room in 2022 feels more necessary than ever: out of 108 books in the bibliography of How Fiction Works only three were by writers of colour (all men). I will read Conversations with Toni Morrison afterwards and, most likely, will be writing in the dead of night to meet my deadlines.
I finished the Novel Studio course in June 2023.
With thanks to Kiare Ladner, Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone and Emily Pedder for making it possible.
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.
You can see more of Josie’s work on her Instagram page, and here.
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 Bo Diddley, 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.
The Untangling is the ninth anthology of new writing from poets, playwrights and fiction writers who had taken part in the Jerwood Arvon mentoring scheme. I was lucky enough to be part of the 2019-20 group of fiction mentees.
During the mentoring year which was extended due to the pandemic, I spent a week at Arvon’s idyllic Totleigh Barton with the other mentees, taking part in masterclasses, talking and learning from each other. We gained insights from industry professionals and received support while working on our own projects.
In November 2020 Jerwood Arts and Arvon organised an online showcase event at which the mentees read their work (and the playwrights had theirs performed by actors). I read The One-Day Diary Project: Going Home, a short-short piece inspired by the diary-keeping of the Mass Observation Archive project, and taken from Archive Stories, a sequence of four stories which explore the personal and political repercussions of colonialism, migration, and identity through portraiture. The stories were written with an awareness of the personal histories and sacrifices made by my parents and grandparents, and of the achievements of Caribbean travellers, adventurers and change makers in general. I salute their courage, bravery and hard work.
You can read The One-Day Diary Project: Going Home, below.
Thanks to Joe Bibby and Sophie Lloyd-Catchpole at Arvon for ensuring that, despite Covid-19, the mentoring year stayed on course.
Thanks also to Nicholas Royle for mentoring, and to Jerwood Arts for supporting such a fantastic scheme.
iv) The One-Day Diary Project: Going Home
I volunteered to write this as part of the One-Day Diary Project, which asks ordinary members of the public to write about what is happening to them on a specific day of the year: 22 May. My entry will be stored in the archive with all the others.
My husband was the clever one. He had an idea of what was coming way back, when that Maggie woman became prime minister. My husband – Makepeace, I call him, though his first name is Ellward – said, You see her? What she is saying? She will have us back on a boat to Trinidad faster than you can say Enoch Powell. So when the rules changed yet again, we paid our money to get new passports and become British – as if we weren’t already.
I’ve had a good enough life here. I worked as a secretary when it was rare to find black women in offices unless they were cleaning them. I had a wardrobe full of smart skirt suits, pussy bow blouses and high heel shoes. I straightened my hair with a hot comb so that it hung in a bob and wouldn’t frighten my boss.
That was thirty-odd years ago. Now I’m ready to go home. Not because they told me to, but because I want to. I promised myself I wouldn’t die in this country and be buried in this cold soil.
I have one sister left. Her name is Birdie. When we were young we used to go to school, sew and cook together. We talk on the telephone now, but it will be so much better face to face, none of this, I’m very well, thank you. I will know how she is and she will know how I am.
When I arrive at Piarco airport, Birdie will be there, waiting for me. I’ll move back into the family home with her. Birdie never left, you see. She taught at the local school in Arima, never married, and looked after mother and father until they died. She didn’t rush to marry the first man to ask her and then run away to England – though that didn’t turn out so bad for me.
I was going to do what some my friends have done: pack everything I own into crates and ship it home, where it will wait for me in Port of Spain. But I changed my mind. I sold or gave away all my furniture, ornaments, kitchenware, winter clothes and boots. Like shedding my English skin.
I shed my husband first.
I had loved Makepeace. We married young, grew up, grew old and grew apart. We ended up with nothing in common. It was so sad that no children came along. I didn’t want to know whether it was Makepeace or me, didn’t want either of us to carry the blame. So we will never know. He is happy here, just fine, going to his dominoes club and British Telecom retirees’ afternoons. When I go home we will write to each other and speak on the phone, as always. I might even try that thing where you can see the person and speak to them through a computer.
I’m ready to leave this country. I’m glad I’m going. Nearly all my friends are dead, or not far off.
In the summer of 2020 I was asked by Creative Futures/Collage Arts to participate in a project. The brief was to write a lockdown diary which, as well as being a good way of documenting a strange time, was a real test of very recent memory. I’ve become an infrequent diary writer, so I had to search through emails and my Twitter feed to work out what had happened, and when. Here’s an extract:
Mum’s care home is now closed to visitors. We have been visiting her without missing a day since 2015. I was only there the night before, but I go anyway as I’d been planning to, in case they’ll let me in. As I approach, I see closed signs on the gate, on the door. I stand at the entrance in the drizzle. The sky is pink. A woman approaches. She wears a nose ring, hood up, shoulders hunched with disappointment. She has come to see her Grandad. I tell her the home is closed, and her eyes become glassy with tears which don’t spill. I haven’t been for a while, she says. We stand and talk for a while.
Twelve women of colour took part, and our diaries were compiled into an e-book, released in December 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 of the story in the anthology, available from Salt, or online at EllipsisZine.
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.
We were so envious of Kathleen for being with Johnny, they’d been together since she was fourteen. We were so impressed, cos he was five years older than us. We were so jealous, even though he hit her sometimes, slapped her face – but they were always together. Johnny was interested in the British Movement, in the NF, in National Socialism, he said they had something, he said they were onto something, and I wondered about the scar that began at his top lip, skin laced tight up to his septum, I wondered whether he’d once had a cleft palate, I couldn’t help wondering whether he’d ever tasted glass from the neck of a broken bottle.
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