Kathleen & Johnny

 

We were so envious of Kathleen for being with Johnny
he was five years older than us and they’d been together since she was fourteen
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
I wondered about the scar that began at his top lip skin laced tight up to his septum
I wondered whether he used to have 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.

 

 

 

 

Uncle Leslie Played Bed’s Too Big Without You

Image from https://soundsoftheuniverse.com/search/john+holt/

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.

 

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 to 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 almost 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.

 

 

 

 

The Space on the Page: Cloth Against Skin

My story Cloth Against Skin was accepted by an online magazine last December. 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. The image they chose to accompany my story was perfect.

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.

With the loss of formatting, I feel that the story lost some of its power, so I’ve decided to post it in its original form here.

 

Cloth Against Skin

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.

 

 

 

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

I admit we 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/

My story This One’s Ours appears in Issue 7 of The Nottingham Review. For me 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.