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 of the story in the anthology, available from Salt, or online at Ellipsis Zine.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

writing, not-writing

 

When my Dad died in 2013, and my PhD was drifting up the creek, thanks to a severe lack of time management on my part and a supervisor who had given up on me, my survival instinct compelled me to write.

I started – or restarted, as I’ve always written except for when I was studying – by writing poetry. I have a horror of bad poetry, so I became self-conscious, and struggled until I stopped trying. After that, I began writing what I called ‘scraps’ – tiny fragments of prose intended to capture an event, a character, a thought. They offered complete freedom and were great fun to write. I hadn’t heard of flash fiction yet.

In 2014 I went to my first ever workshop. It was organised by Spread the Word. After years of avoiding writing workshops, I went and I survived. Later that year I went to a flash fiction workshop at Southbank Centre and survived that, too. I even managed two stories that are now on my blog.

The following year I embarked on an Open University Creative Writing course. Just one module. It was eye-wateringly expensive and the teaching was quite prescriptive, but it proved to be instrumental. The tutor gave sensitive, critical and fair feedback, instilling me with confidence and spurring me on. I am so grateful to him for boosting my confidence.

Over the past three to four years I have taken a few more short courses. Some have been great (London Lit Lab), others much less so. I was very lucky to be a beta tester for the Lit Mag Love course run by Rachel Thompson, which gave me the mindset and the knowledge to take my writing seriously enough to submit stories to magazines. She also introduced me and many other would-be and actual writers to Room magazine, a Canadian, feminist world of literary brilliance. Shortly after completing the course, I had a story accepted in one of my favourite magazines.

In August 2017, due to a single tweet sent by an incredibly generous poet, I spent a week at Totleigh Barton on an Arvon writing course. I’m writing this nearly a year to the day that I left London for Devon. It was like going on an expedition. Quite terrifying and also exciting. It was also life-changing – the sort of thing I never thought I would be able to do: go away on my own to be with a group of strangers, and just write. I can’t thank her enough.

A few months later I had a story accepted by an online mag I’d admired. It was my third, but this one was special. The story had taken me a year to write. It was written for, and partly about, my mother. It was the first piece of writing I’d ever been paid for, but when the issue appeared the layout of my story had been completely scrambled to the point where it had lost some of its meaning. I was really dismayed, but it taught me to submit more wisely, and do not assume all will be well!

2018 has been the year of writing and not-writing for me. Full-time work and overwhelming fatigue from having a chronic illness and ongoing worry about two of my closest relatives has meant that all I have to show for the year so far are half-finished drafts and weeks of not writing at all. The sheer frustration of it is debilitating and confidence-sapping.

But lately, I’ve realised that I haven’t actually stopped writing. It’s been happening without my really noticing. Scraps in notebooks, ideas mulled over and over, scribbled, written and rewritten. Out of about seven stories, three are complete drafts, and two are nearly there. One, at 6,000 words, is a long-term project that my heart is set on.

I can’t not write, because my survival as a human being depends on it. If my Dad was still here, he would understand.

Continue reading writing, not-writing

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.

 

Our Nest

It was us who polished off your bottle of Laphroaig and refilled it with water. And yes, it was us who borrowed all the pound coins in your giant bottle and haven’t replaced them (yet). But nowhere does it say on that flimsy bit of paper you gave us when we moved in that you can boot us out with only a week’s notice.

We like this room: the carpet of technicolour galaxies with its signature scent of cat wee, the black MDF furniture, the bed with its lunar terrain mattress populated by bugs. We’re skint. We’re in love. This is our nest.

So I’m asking: please let us stay. We’ll turn off the music at midnight rather than 2am,  like you asked us to. We’ll wash up after ourselves and scrub the bath. We might even try to pay some of the rent.

 

On the last day of my Arvon week at Totleigh Barton in August 2017, Jo Bell gave each of us a slip of paper with a line of poetry on it. Mine is at the top of this post. She couldn’t remember the poem, and I haven’t been able to find it.

Ms. Anderson

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.

 

Him

She is waiting in the hallway, clutching a piece of paper with a phone number and an address scrawled on it. Her bulging suitcase is next to her, dragged out from its hiding place under the bed.

The helpline woman had told her gently, twenty years is too long.

Will the refuge be full of women with bruised faces and broken limbs? Do the children wet their beds?

The taxi beeps its horn in the street and makes her start, accelerates the beat of her heart. She leaves, closing the door behind her and slipping her keys through the letterbox.

This One’s Ours

Image from: Circle of London http://circleoflondon.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/

This One’s Ours appeared in Issue 7 of the online journal The Nottingham Review. It’s a rare instance of ideas, thoughts & words coming together, being taken apart, coalescing over two years, and eventually working as a snapshot narrative.

Thanks to the editors of The Nottingham Review for giving it time and space in their publication.

Update, January 2021As The Nottingham Review no longer exists (much missed), here is the complete story:

Manny’s heart beat fast and close as if it had found its way out of his body, concealed only by the thin white cotton of his shirt. He sat upstairs at the back of the bus with Paul, only occasionally looking down, amazed that they were holding hands, fingers interlaced.

Manny and Paul had grown up in the maze of a north London estate, a slip road away from the A406, that tarmac-kissed artery skirting the city and leading to its greater and outer edges. They were travelling down that same dual carriageway, and Manny found himself measuring time through the stop-start motion of the bus as it pulled up beside steel and glass shelters. To him, the bus was full of possibilities: the seats were covered in black and green fabric and splashed with scarlet, like blood spilt on grass. The stanchions waiting to steady its passengers grew from them in curves like the branches of trees aiming for the sky.

Manny’s mum was always saying that they were twins under the skin, partners in crime: cheeky, but not bad boys. Both were doing well at university.

So what are we now? Manny asked himself.

As Paul looked out of the window down to the street below, Manny gazed at his profile. There was no doubt about it. He knew, and his sister said it often enough: Paul was hot. His hair was shaved neat and low, his face framed by the sharpness of his sideburns. Manny smiled to himself as he took in Paul’s nose which – he teased his friend often – was broad and equine, with prominent nostrils. Why the long face? Paul’s skin was dark brown, darker than Manny’s. The quizzical wavy lines of his lips made Manny wonder what Paul was thinking, but Paul remained silent.

He freed his hand to press the bell for the next stop.

‘This one’s ours,’ he said.

Una

Emmeline liked to believe that her mother had named her after Mrs Pankhurst the famous suffragette and not the Hot Chocolate song, but she knew the latter was true. She volunteered at the Museum of Women’s History, helping the archivists to wrap fragile protest banners in vast sheets of soft tissue paper, filing precious, yellowing copies of The Suffragette and Votes for Women in fawn-coloured boxes, and making lists of items ready to be catalogued.

After closing time Emmeline haunted the archive store, noting what she had already added to her collection at home: the woman-man-fish-bicycle badge; Kitty Marion’s letters scrawled in pencil on flimsy toilet paper while on hunger strike in Holloway; the magazine dated the month and year she was born – the title was something like Liberation, Asian, Black & Working Class Newsletter. It was so long she could never quite remember which way round the words went. Emmeline knew what she wanted next: the only photograph in the collection of Una Marson, captured as she stood at the BBC-Marconi microphone, her hair straightened and curled, striped pearl-button blouse shining through the greyscale of the print. She was laughing, radiant.

Emmeline knelt down between the stacks of labelled, ordered, acid-free photograph albums, and found Box L-M. She began to slip the photograph stealthily out of its melinex pocket and did not notice the rolling stacks that she had forgotten to lock, the rotary handles spinning slowly as they slid towards her, closing her in.