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.
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.
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. Here is a short extract:
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
Saturday 24 June was National Flash Fiction Day. It seems like a long time ago now, but what a joy to spend the day reading short-short, sweet, scary, beautiful, quirky stories as they were posted on Flash Flood journal every few minutes. My story Ms Anderson was included. This story has been brewing for a couple of years and started life as a much longer piece that included an in-the-classroom rant about Mr Breheny’s love for Steely Dan, and some of the narrative is from Ms Anderson’s point of view. I might post it on the blog sometime. It was fun to write.
Walter Pigeon sits on a red plastic bench at the bus shelter on George Lane. He is waiting for one of the single-decker ‘W’ buses to arrive. The cool, damp drizzle of the early morning intensifies his pensive mood.
Walter glances up at the bus timetable: ‘about every twenty minutes’, he reads, and knows from past experience that twenty minutes can stretch to half an hour, depending on the sluggish suburban dual-carriageway traffic; that a bus may not arrive at all if a driver is ill and the route is short-staffed; that he could be sitting there for some time, with others around him waiting, then disappearing onto buses bound for other places. Over the years, Walter has witnessed the dissolution of queue etiquette. Who gets on the bus first cannot be predicted, as this particular triumph now depends on who has the most cheek to elbow their way past fellow passengers. No matter that Walter is a large but fragile man, his ageing, weighty body supported by crutches. Courtesy and politeness are long gone, he muses.
Walter is proud of the fact that he has never needed to own a portable music player. Walter loves the blues, sings blues songs to himself in his head. Today, his mind throbs with Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Woke up this Morning’, his silent-voice riding the rolling intensity of Hopkins’ melody.
‘Wild’ Walter Pigeon dwells inside him, a lithe, long-fingered guitar virtuoso, a rebellious poet of misfortune, loss and ruined romance. Walter has never played the guitar, but he can feel the rhythm and the cut of strings against his fingers. He has never sung in front of an audience, except in dreams.
He smiles as he thinks about his secret self, so lost in contemplation that he does not notice the W12 arrive until he feels the small crowd shuffle in front of him, vying to be the first to get on the bus. He eases himself slowly off the bench to join back of the queue, when a young boy, hunched, hood up obscuring his face, stands aside.
When I first started this job, Ged said to me, What do you want to work here for? You should be out taking drugs and clubbing and fucking. I looked down at my clothes: too clingy, too red, too much boob, ass, leg? He struggles to look me in the eye. Rather than show me how to work the till, the first thing Ged did was to ask me where I’m from. I said, Cockfosters, and can you believe he actually said, no, where are you really from? I said again, Cockfosters. He thought I was being facetious.
I am on probation.
I was so bored in that dead hour before the shop closes that I was looking up pictures of spiders on the internet. I found one that’s the absolute spit of Ged – admittedly, Ged has fewer legs – but he’s the closest any homo sapien has come to resembling a Crab spider: a blob for a body, spindly legs, milk-white. The website states, helpfully, that they stalk their prey by jumping on unsuspecting victims. Spiders do what they must.
It’s one minute to nine the next morning. We’re not open yet. The phone rings. I say, Paul, can you get that?Paul says, no, you get it. I cajole, ohgoon Paul with the professional voice, please. Then I feel Ged’s eyes boring into me across the shop floor, so I pick up. A voice is competing with the sound of traffic. His tongue curls around vowels, stretches them out. The voice is spilling out of the mouthpiece of the phone. I want a tri-band router. A ZT-5300 ZonePro Tech ethernet router.Can you hear me? I say, I’ll check, hold on a moment. In a thick-tongued, bristly brogue, I say to Paul, yooou got a ZT-5300 root-orrr in stuck? Paul shakes with silent laughter as he checks the shelves behind the counter and nods. I take my hand off the mouthpiece. Hello? Sorry to keep you – hello? But the voice has gone. Ged takes one contemptuous look at me and marches upstairs to his office.
A week later, and I’m in Ged’s grubby office sitting opposite a regional manager in an ill-fitting blue suit, an HR consultant from Head Office, all padded shoulders and bootcut trousers, and Ged. I’d half-expected the latter’s monotonic lecture about my unsatisfactoryconduct – but then he uses The R Word: the one I use to describe my ex-boyfriend’s Dad who wouldn’t have me in the house; the one that sums up my maths teacher at school who outright called me thick, like the rest of my lot. Not to mention the people who moan and say the country’s full! I look at the faces opposite me: Ged’s, narrow and treacherous; the regional manager, his smile oily with schadenfreude. I listen to the HR consultant as her scarlet lips extol the virtues of training that will improve my cultural awareness. That’s when I begin to laugh. I laugh for so long that the muscles in my gut ping like overstretched elastic. I laugh myself out of the office, out of the front door of the shop, and out of a job.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.