Last summer, in late August, I was out for a late-night walk with R. (feeding the foxes as usual) and I saw two young men waiting, waiting under a street light. And out of the dark, we saw an extremely tall person, not obviously male or female, approaching. I wondered – is that who they’re waiting to meet? They were swathed in black, and wearing flashing cat ears attached to a headband. They swayed as they walked. I watched, the moment seemed to stretch time. And then they walked past the young men, and walked past us, disappearing back into the dark. And I thought, what if?
Because she’d said, be there, and the boys are new to this, they turn up early and stand on the corner, waiting.
Expecting a late summer night, they are dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and near-identical Trimm Trab trainers. They weren’t to know that August would be turning itself inside- out, blowing and drizzling its way to autumn, pricking their skin with goose pimples.
The boys pace up and down, heel-toe off the edge of the kerb, illuminated by streetlights the colour of Lucozade.
She should be here.
Yeah. She should be here by now.
A short-short story, Pink Orange Red appeared in Ellipsis Zine on 8 December 2022. Thanks to Steve Campbell for selecting it.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
Uncle Leslie was a kind man with a huge dark face, his chin brushed with a beard, his head topped with a luxurious, curly Afro. He looked like John Holt on the cover of 1,000 Volts, except that his nose wasn’t straight. It was broad, proudly Jamaican. I used to watch him play records: Gregory, Bob, The Mighty Diamonds, Marcia Griffiths, while talking and drinking with Dad, Mum and Aunty Monica. I was fascinated by the way he would slip the disc out of its sleeve and hold the edge in the ridge of his thumb, with a finger holding it steady on the underside of the disc. He would place it on the turntable and move the arm to the beginning. I would hear that gentle gulp sound as the stylus made contact with the vinyl. The record would spin, 33 1/3, and I would watch the label turn: Island’s palm tree upside down, the Trojan helmet against orange and white, mouth open like a skull. I was a small girl who lived for Top of the Pops, but I was steeped in reggae. There was no contradiction.
On one particular visit, I was playing outside with Aunty Monica’s cats, who had been banished to the garden for one too many accidents on the sitting room carpet, when I heard a familiar tune, one of my favourites, an English guy’s squawking approximation of a reggae singer’s croon:
bed’s too big without you
cold wind blows right through that open door
I couldn’t believe my ears. Uncle Leslie was playing The Police! I went back indoors to listen. The song lasted longer than the version I was used to. He had the 12” single! It’s a good tune Sone, he said. I was Sone to him, that drawn-out ‘o’ letting me know he was from elsewhere, a place where elongated vowels matter.
He nodded and turned up the volume, notched up the bass a little, both men clouded in cigarette smoke while Aunty Monica, my mum drank Babycham and chatted about Aunty Monica’s latest night school achievements. Their voices blurred into a background hum as I followed the bass of the extended dub.
I felt so proud that my music – mere pop music – was good enough to be played by Uncle Leslie, reggae enough to have a place in his collection. I felt such love for my nearly-uncle, one of so many Jamaican men, first-generation Black Britons who have come and gone.
For Leslie & Monica Henry, for Stanley & Maureen Hope.
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.
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.
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