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 feet 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 shimmer

city birds.

East London doves.

 

For feral pigeons everywhere.

 

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.

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 perspex 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.

 

 

The Story Ring

images ‘Hello, I’m Stella.’

I’m so used to introducing myself. It’s the first thing I do when I meet someone new – put the other person at ease first. I’m the Activities Co-ordinator at The Larches, a care home for elderly people. It’s a sprawling red-brick bungalow set in an untended garden. I used to work five days a week, now I’m only needed for three and, frankly, it’s hard to live off the reduced salary. I’m going to resign – I’ve written the letter already and have it in my bag. I’ve got no job to go to, but I quite fancy training to become a life coach. I’ll be self-employed and, hopefully, better off than I am now.

Aude – Audrey Simpson-Jones – is Care Home Manager at The Larches. She’s the one who decided that my working hours should be cut as part of last year’s Budget Efficiencies. Well, I’ve just about forgiven her for referring to me as ‘that coloured girl’ when I first started working here, but I can’t forgive her attitude towards the residents. Aude thinks as long as they are fed that’s good enough, as if they don’t need any sustenance for their brains. I sometimes wonder why she chose to work in the care profession in the first place.

I hold the Story Ring on the first Wednesday of each month. Me and a small group of the residents get together in the Activities Room to tell stories and reminisce. Today’s session would be the last before I leave The Larches.  I’ve decided I won’t mention it to the Storytellers, as I call them, until after the session.

I go to the Activities Room, unload my stuff on to the spare table near the window, and stop momentarily to watch two of the residents walking together in the rear garden. Maurice, tall and thin with a slight stoop, is talking to Lottie. He’s moving his hands as if he’s explaining something but I can tell tiny, bird-like Lottie isn’t listening. She’s gazing up at the branches of the trees as she walks.

The furniture in the Activities Room has already been set up for the Story Ring. The red leather chairs, high-backed and sturdy, are arranged in a semi-circle facing a blank white wall. The other walls are decorated with paintings and drawings created by the residents. I unfurl a poster and tack it to the wall, covering it with a plain sheet of paper. I place pens, pencils and paper on the table at the centre of the room, and then I’m ready.

I can hear the Storytellers making their way down the main corridor to the Activities Room, a mixture of voices complaining, babbling, and laughing. Sally and Aisleen, the Care Assistants, are with them.

‘Story time again!’ Sally says, in a sing-song voice.

‘Yes, story time, thank you nurse,’ a gruff male voice grumbles as the group enter the room. ‘Morning, Stella,’ Edwin says.

‘Morning Edwin!’ And for the benefit of those with slipping memories, ‘Hello everyone, I’m Stella.’

Lottie has come in from the garden. Her thin red lips – Lottie loves her lippy – utter barely-formed words, but I know she’s greeting me.

‘Hiya Lottie, good to see you,’ I say.

Jean waves at me before sitting down in her usual place: the chair closest to the door.

‘Good morning, my dear.’ That’s Euphemia, a proper posh Jamaican lady, always neatly turned out in a pleated skirt and pussy-bow blouse.

Sally and Aisleen help the frailest members of the group, Carole and Antonietta, to their seats. I thank them both as they leave, and close the blinds to protect sensitive eyes from the spring morning sunshine.

I explain to the Storytellers why we are here and what we are about to do. I love the whole ritual of it. Then I peel the blank sheet of paper away from the poster to reveal a picture of a small girl dressed like a 1980s career woman: padded-shoulder suit, designer glasses. She’s sitting at a desk in front of a boxy computer with a ‘phone in one hand, poised to make a call. I thought they might like it.

‘You can see it’s a little girl, can’t you? A right little career madam!’ Jean looks at me quite fiercely, but I carry on talking. ‘It’s funny. One minute we’re kids, the next we’re grown-ups. So the question for this morning’s Story Ring is: what did you want to be when you grew up?’

‘Well I didn’t want to be a girl, that’s for sure!’ Edwin grins.

‘Sorry, Edwin, I couldn’t find a picture of a little boy to match this one. But still, have a think.’

‘I do not like the picture.’ Antonietta’s Italian accent is strong, despite living in Britain for many years. ‘She’s a little girl. Little girls do not work.’

‘But she’s playing, isn’t she?’ says Carole, smiling. ‘Playing at being grown-up.’

‘Yes, that is all,’ Euphemia agrees. ‘I like the picture.’

I say, ‘Imagine that’s you in the picture, being a kid, playing. What would you be?’

‘If I was in the picture I’d be looking after children. Me and Thomas, my brother, were sent away to Dorset during the war.’

‘Why, Carole?’ Antonietta asks. ‘Your parents did not want you?’

‘Oh no, nothing like that. We were evacuees, you see. Some children had a dreadful time, but I loved it. Aunt Myrtle and Uncle David were so kind, not strict like our own Mum and Dad. I wanted to be a nursery nurse.’

I ask Carole whether she ended up working with children.

‘No, Sula. I worked at Jones Brothers. Remember the big department store that used to be on the Holloway Road? I worked in the hats and gloves department for years, until it closed.’

Euphemia looks genuinely interested. ‘Did you enjoy your work, Carole?’

‘I didn’t mind it. It brought in extra money so that was good. What about you, Euphelia? It must have been quite different in Jamaica.’

Euphemia ignores Carole’s mispronunciation of her name. ‘No, not very different. I came here when I was young, nineteen years of age, in 1962.   I trained to become a nurse.’

‘So in that picture, you’d be wearing a saucy nurse’s outfit?’

Oh God, trust Edwin.

‘No!’ Euphemia says irritably. ‘I would be wearing a white wig, and be dressed in the gown of the law.’

I am so impressed. ‘You wanted to be a barrister? That’s great.’

‘Yes, except that in those days the law profession wasn’t open to the likes of us.’ Euphemia looks at me steadily as she says this.

‘Alright, Euph. Enough about you, what about me?’ Edwin pauses, winks, and looks at the others to see if they’re amused by his quip. ‘If I was in that picture I’d be a little boy surrounded by lions and tigers.’

‘They would eat you,’ Antonietta pointed out.

‘No, they’d be behind bars, like the wild beasts they are. Bit like me really.’

‘What do you mean, Edwin?’ I ask, although I can already guess.

‘I’d be a zoo keeper, of course!’ Then Edwin looks downcast. ‘But I ended up sweeping the streets, and when I lost that job I became a virtual down-and-out.’

‘Really?’ Carole looks appalled.

‘Yes. I’ve had a tragic life.’ Edwin turns to Carole, and at the other women, hoping for more sympathy. Then he looks at me. I raise my eyebrows. I’m sure he’s telling…stories.

‘But you persevered with life, and survived,’ Euphemia says. ‘That is admirable.’

‘Ha! Not really, girls. I’m having you on. Not lions and tigers. I worked with the penguins at London Zoo, Rockhoppers, mainly. Loved ’em. Best job in the world.’ Edwin succeeds in amusing himself.

Euphemia looks at him with disapproval. ‘Oh,’ is all she says.

Suddenly Lottie stands up, murmuring as she walks slowly towards the door. She opens it and leaves the room. I have to follow her.

‘Please excuse me while I check that Lottie is okay.’ I follow her down the corridor, but Aisleen reaches her first.

‘It’s okay, Stel, I’ll look after her,’ she calls. ‘Alright, Lottie?’ Aisleen gently takes Lottie’s arm and begins to talk quietly to her.

I return to the Activities Room feeling concerned and wondering whether Lottie is upset, but as I enter the room Jean is saying,

‘You’re not half as funny as you think you are.’ She turns to me. ‘Stella, Edwin is a disruptive influence.’

‘Least I’m not bolshie like you.’

Edwin and Jean always come to the Story Ring. They seem to want to be in the same room together, gently bickering.

‘Now, Edwin, let’s be respectful to one another. This is a chance to share and have some fun.’

‘I am having fun.’

‘Okay, well have fun kindly.

There is a knock on the door, and Sally comes in wheeling a trolley of tea and biscuits. When I started at The Larches, cakes and pastries were served at tea time. Now, there are only biscuits. Austerity elevenses, I suppose.

I’m so relieved when Aisleen re-appears with Lottie. She settles Lottie back into her seat and offers her some tea. Lottie refuses. She points towards the pens and paper left on the table, and I fetch them for her. She murmurs thanks, and begins to draw. I watch her hand move with seemingly choreographed grace across the page. It’s then I remember that Lottie was an artist, quite a successful one.

‘Oh, Lottie, that’s great.’ I sit down next to her. Head bowed, her grey bobbed hair swaying with each movement, Lottie carries on drawing and doesn’t look up.

When the clatter of cups and saucers slowly subsides. I’m about to resume the session when Antonietta asks loudly,

‘Are we starting again? I want to tell.’

The Storytellers say yes. They are ready.

Antonietta, so elegant even in her plain jumper, slacks and slippers, declares, ‘I would not be that girl. I wanted to get married and have a family. I am from Calabria in Southern Italy. I came to live in England with my husband in the ‘50s. Many Italians moved to Bedford for jobs in the brickworks, rebuilding after the war. I wanted children, but no children came. I needed something to do and I can cook so I opened a café, the first Italian café in Bedford. I became famous!’ She laughs. ‘Then I had a son, just one son. He runs the café now.’ Antonietta stops speaking, looking satisfied with herself.

I know the answer to this question, but I ask anyway. ‘What did you call the café, Antonietta?’

‘Antonietta’s Café, of course!’

The Storytellers laugh.

‘Antonietta, that is so interesting. My story is the opposite.’ Jean pauses, gathering her thoughts. ‘I always wanted to be a teacher, like my Father. I didn’t want to be stuck at home like my mother. I couldn’t understand why she put up with it.’

‘She was looking after you, no?’

‘Yes, but I just didn’t want to be like her.’

Jean seems agitated, so I try to calm her by referring back to the poster. ‘Did you play pretend-teacher when you were little, Jean?’

‘I did. But as I got older I became very serious about it. I passed my exams, and went to teacher training college. I qualified in 1970, I think, maybe 1960.’ Jean begins to look confused.

‘I bet you were a great teacher,’ I smile. Sometimes I have a feeling that Jean thinks I’m too shallow, a bit frivolous.

‘I like to think so. Anyway, my point is that when I got married I had to give up my career. I stopped teaching and had two children. By the time they were teenagers it was too late for me to re-enter the profession.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ I sense the regret in Jean’s voice, and it saddens me. ‘Well, you could say that you sort of had it all. A career and a family life!’ I say this a little too brightly.

Jean’s face reddens. ‘Had it all? That cliché! You have no idea what it was like for my generation of women. We didn’t have choices. Can you imagine that, Stella? Giving up your career because everyone thinks you should? You don’t know how lucky you are.’

I don’t know what to say. There’s no avoiding the fact that I deserved Jean’s outburst. I’d hoped that the Storytellers would remember what it’s like to be children, not dwell on unfulfilled ambitions. Perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen this subject. Lottie has stopped drawing and is listening, alert. Antonietta is watching, looking from Jean to me, sensing the tension. Euphemia rescues me.

‘Jean, I understand. Stella understands too, don’t you Stella? We all do.’

I nod gratefully. ‘I’m sorry, Jean.’

Jean doesn’t reply. She fidgets and looks out of the window.

There is silence. Edwin is looking at Jean with something like concern, and Carole has a worried smile on her face. I stand up, trying to reassert myself.

‘We’re nearly at the end of this month’s Story Ring. Do you have anything else to share?’

‘Nah. Thanks, Stella.’ Edwin beams a smile at me, and I really appreciate it.

‘Well, it’s great to see how our lives can become stories. Thanks everyone.’ That’s the best I can manage.

We end with a song, a Frank Sinatra number from my Story Ring compilation tape: You Make Me Feel So Young. It’s good to sway to. While we hold hands and sing, I decide there’s no way I’m telling the residents that I’m leaving. And Jean is right, I do have choices. I can respond to Aude’s vote of no confidence by leaving and becoming a life coach, trying to believe my own motivational platitudes and charging extortionate fees. Or I can stay for now, take more care in future, be the anti-Aude.

By the end of the song, I’ve made my decision. And just as we stop singing, the door opens and Maurice pops his head round the door.

‘I’m here for the stories. May I take a seat?’

 

 

Fluke

DSC_0513 (3)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Invertebrates

From https://pixabay.com/en/spider-crab-spider-1054740/

 

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, oh go on 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 unsatisfactory conduct – 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.

The Mappers

Copyright Local Cycling Guide 4 2015, Transport for London

i) The Runaways, June 1984
Kay and I are best friends. We’ve just left school, forever. We are three weeks into the summer holidays, and I’m walking to her house down the North Circular Road. The grass verge with its pink cherry trees that runs between the dual carriageways is beautiful, like a postcard from the country. I love the familiar smell of cherry blossom mixed with ever-present traffic fumes.
I have my homemade map with me. Kay will tease me a bit because I’ve bothered to bring it, but then she will take out hers from her wardrobe and we’ll put them together. The only roads and buildings we include are the ones that matter to us: my house. Kay’s house. The A406 from Edmonton to Palmer’s Green, the sharp left of the road onto Green Lanes. On mine, the way to Kay’s house is drawn as a sharp backwards ‘L’ with a dislocated tail. Our maps are more like constellations, felt tip dreams of our reality.
Kay and I became interested in maps when we joined the Science Club at school. It was run by our unfeasibly good-looking science teacher, Mr Forster. We were fascinated by his laborious experiments to measure longitude and latitude: building a quadrant, waiting for the midday sun. We had to take his word for it when it came to working out latitude and identifying the North Star, because we were forbidden from meeting him at night. But our imaginations soared. We called ourselves the Mappers, and spent hours poring over ordinance survey maps and atlases in the school library.
We agreed that we would run away today – only for a day. Kay thinks it will take my mind off the fact that I failed all my O’ levels except two: Maths and Physics.
‘Let’s catch the 29 bus all the way to Trafalgar Square and wonder down the Thames towards Docklands,’ Kay suggested. ‘Don’t worry. In twenty year’s time school exams won’t seem so important anymore.’
I’m not sure I believe her.

ii) A Baby, August 1992
I receive a letter from Kay. It begins,

Guess what? I’ve had a baby! It’s a boy, 7lbs 9oz. I’m so happy! The labour was hell, though, I could barely walk afterwards!! Dave’s been brilliant, he’s going to be a great Dad…

I begin to lose interest. Kay writes that they are going to christen the baby Perry, which is a horrible name. She regrets that I couldn’t come to their wedding (that was a year ago), is sorry that I missed their housewarming party.
I concentrate on the hum and trundle of washing machines and dryers from the launderette beneath my flat. I stare down at the busy street full of shoppers through my living room window.
When we were teenagers, Kay and I said that we cared about most in the world is freedom, and in order to remain free we wouldn’t have kids. We didn’t tell anyone about this. It was the Mappers’ secret. Kay has broken the pact between us. Worse, she’s obviously forgotten that we made the pact in the first place. We are no longer the Mappers.

iii) On Not Meeting, March 2004
I’m forty. My soul is lost to Barclay’s Bank and banking is what I do for a living. The Maths O’ level came in handy. I’m divorced, I kept the Mappers’ pact. I travel to work, walking from my flat to Turnpike Lane station. I get the tube to Moorgate, and walk five minutes to the bank. If I was still updating my map, I would represent this journey with one-dimensional Monopoly houses of different colours (red for home and green for work) and a tangle of felt tip lines to indicate direction and method of transport. It would make sense.
I have an account on the Friends Reunited website. I waste time scrolling through the profiles of my ex-school acquaintances, now remarkably transformed into happy, successful adults. I look at Kay’s profile occasionally, and she is now on Baby Number Four. Kay posts pictures of camping holidays and family Christmases, and nights out with work colleagues. One day, unexpectedly, after years of silence I receive this message:

Hiya! It’s Kay – great to find you on here, it’s been ages!

We send each other messages, promise to catch up, make a date to meet. But now we are plotted on a map not made by us I want to erase the timeline.