Sisters

Two young black women, one wearing a navy hoodie, hair pulled back. The other with short curly hair, wearing a white flower-patterned blouse. She has her arm around the other.
Susan (R) & Sonia Hope (L), December 1988

Is a sister still a sister when her sister dies?*

Four & a half years older. A dedicated bank worker. A singer, a dancer. An expert bargain hunter. An animal lover. Faithful in her beliefs, faithful to people. Amused by absurdities. And really annoying when we were young.

My sister used to introduce me to friends as, ‘This is my baby sister Sonia. She’s a writer.’

Susan Hope Faminu died on 21 May 2023.

 

 

* paraphrasing Fatimah Ashgar, When we were Sisters, Guardian Review, 17 June 2023

Writing/not writing – April 2023

How Fiction Works by James Wood & Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie, from the Novel Studio reading list.

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.

& to R. and Jim for creating a cocoon at home.

 

 

 

 

Pink Orange Red

https://www.glowuniverse.com/light-up-cat-ears-pink

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.

 

Who Do You Love? & Roadrunner

Roadrunner zine

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.

Roadrunner

for Josie

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.

            Mona will ask Herman, Who do you love?

            And he will say, You. Most definitely you.

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.

The Cat by The Incredible Jimmy Smith

https://www.discogs.com/The-Incredible-Jimmy-Smith-The-Cat/release/5142431

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 …

You can read the full story here.

You can listen to the title track of the LP here.

sapling & umbrella

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.

Kathleen & Johnny

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.

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.