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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m throwing pieces of bread from my balcony for the local pigeons when the phone rings. It’s usually silent, keeps itself to itself, so the noise startles me like a tap on the shoulder. I try to decide whether or not to answer it. Then, out of the corner of my eye I catch the scruffiest, greyest pigeon venturing into my flat, one tatty wing grazing the carpet. I kneel down. It doesn’t move. We eye each other for a moment. Then the pigeon blinks first, and flies away. The phone stops ringing.
I take the pissy lift to the ground floor of my flat and stroll down the road to Fags and Mags. A black cat appears from nowhere and pads slowly across my path. The cat is heavy-bellied, expecting. She sways past me in the opposite direction back to the flats, tail held high, proud and feral.
Instead of buying my usual scratch card and Daily Mail I decide to buy a lottery ticket and the Daily Telegraph. When I get home I make myself some cornmeal porridge with extra condensed milk for that sweet sunshine-yellow, and a mug of strong brown tea. After breakfast I turn the pages of the Telegraph, which are too big, like something you might shelter under from the rain, and the print is so small it’s on-off, on-off with the glasses for me.
I settle down on the sofa for the day, watching television. People talk to each other: they are Loose Women, searching for A Place in the Sun, giving invitations to Come Dine with Me. I’ve dreamed of having place in the sun where a loose woman would come dine with me. Not much chance of that. I worked for London Underground in the ticket office at Seven Sisters, but they shut it down. I didn’t want to stand at the barriers all day, pretending to offer customer service. So I’ve been made redundant at the age of fifty-seven.
The afternoon slides by, taking the daylight with it. Funny how the dusk seems to thicken the air. After a while the only light in the room comes from the television screen.
The programme I’ve been waiting for begins. I clutch the pink ticket. I sit up. Here we go. 6. Yes. 23. Yes. 36. Yes? 45. Wha? 57. Lawd! Well. I hold my breath. My ears feel full to burst, like I’m on a plane preparing to land.
What’s the last number? I look at the ticket again and again, and turn on the light to take it in.
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.