The Space of 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.

 

 

 

Fluke

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Little Women

I don’t know where the impetus came from. My sister and I just read a lot. There were books at home, but we knew without thinking about it that libraries were where we could find more. I remember the mobile library that turned up for a while near where we lived in The Fairway, Bedford – its narrowness and murky interior, and the books encased in plastic covers.

The first book to have a major impact on me was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I read an abridged version first (we seemed to have some abridged versions of novels at home, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), then I badgered my Dad to buy me a handsome illustrated hardback edition of Little Women, Little Men and Good Wives. I loved Jo. I liked them all and felt so sad for Beth (but gripped by the tragedy of her death), but Jo was important. By the age of seven, I was a self-identified tom boy.  Jo March was a tom boy too. But more importantly, she wanted to be a writer, and so did I. She was clever and brave, she read and read, she was friends with Laurie the boy next door, and I was heartbroken that she rejected his marriage proposal. But this portrait of a resourceful young woman was a powerful indication for me of how to be a girl. I also read Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Canadian Schoolgirl,  The Hunting of Wilberforce Pike, the Just William stories. But Little Women made the most impression. I wrote short stories, sometimes longer ones, as un-selfconsciously and naturally as if I was eating or sleeping.

I read Wuthering Heights when I was ten. It was 1978, and Kate Bush’s song Wuthering Heights was in the pop charts at the same time. My imagination soared. This was new territory – I didn’t understand all the language but I was gripped. Then I read other Bronte novels, possibly at the suggestion of our friend and neighbour Susan, who was five years older than me. My Dad bought me a red and gold-embossed hardback copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I loved it. I began to write a Victorian saga featuring three sisters, very much influenced by Wuthering Heights and the Brontë sisters, and I illustrated it with felt tip drawings. Years later, I looked at these stories and realised – all the characters were white. I had read so much, but there was no-one like me in the books that I read.

During my teenage years I read terrible romances and some teen fiction, as well as adult contemporary fiction. None of it left much of an impression on me. Music took over and affected everything that I did. I wrote (dodgy) poetry influenced by Cocteau Twins song titles and the names of works by artists like Jean Tinguely. Then I discovered Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. Woolf’s words have never left me. My habit of using too many ampersands came from emulating her. I felt that she captured life in space and time as it really is.

In my twenties and thirties I began to wonder how to be a black woman. I studied for an English degree part-time, while I worked in record shops and book shops and, eventually, libraries. Toni Morrison’s Jazz was on my reading list and it was like a bolt of brilliance. I was awestruck by its boldness. But Andrea Levy’s Never Far From Nowhere was one of the first books I read that contained characters like me: young black women growing up in Britain. I read all of Levy’s novels. Fruit of the Lemon reminds me of my unearthing of cultural identity. Levy’s books were, now I look back, teaching me how to be a black woman. When I studied black women’s writing for my PhD, my knowledge gathered momentum. I learning to articulate my female-gendered blackness through my reading and writing.

Zadie Smith’s  novels were exciting, relevant. Bernardine Evaristo was, and is, an innovator, more brilliant than she is ever given credit for. Black identity and fiction were, it turned out, not incompatible. Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher and Buchi Emecheta’s In the Ditch are touchstones.

My favourite books of the last few years are: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, for its intensity and experiments with language; Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, for its humour, rich evocation of character and focus on older black masculinity and homosexuality; Citizen by Claudia Rankine, for its achievement in expanding what poetry can be in terms of form and content and the social impact it can make; and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which is about authorship, Buddhism, the environment and memory that wears its scholarship lightly.

All these books and more have made me.