I have two things on the go. I am currently working on a collection of short stories themed around the periodic table. Also a novel in progress, working title Cicatrice.
This was published in The Lune Journal, 02 Dislocation, December 2018
There’s not much poetry in potatoes. Even less when they rot and turn black. It was the English, of course, who called our style of planting ‘lazy beds’. You can still see them, snaking up the hillsides, the pattern of the ridges etched into the land; but now it is only grass that flourishes where we heaped up kelp and sea shells to feed the soil. That was the year they call Black ’47.
Mary was born 100 years later. Rode on the back of her uncle’s motorbike, in her mother’s belly, before ever she got out into the wide world. How the vibrations must have travelled through Kathleen’s body, her thighs clenched against the metal, her breasts pressed up against her brother-in-law, and the tremors shaking her uterus. Quite an exciting start, I suppose, and suggestive of much more excitement to come. Which it didn’t, I’m afraid, or at least not for a good many years. The house in which she was born was in a slum, one of the poorest parts of the city. Kathleen had come over to England to stop Sean carrying on with another woman, so he had to carry on with his wife instead. Mary was born, therefore, out of retribution and guilt, not love at all, which cancels out the glamour of that pre-natal motorbike ride. Makes her a sort of penance, doesn’t it?
The London of her childhood was a grey and shattered place. On bus rides into the city, Kathleen would have to climb the stairs to the top deck, clutching her shopping, the handrail and the little ones, so that the children could look out and down upon their world. Bomb sites gaped, the ragged sides of houses sliced open, their walls and roofs tumbled into jagged heaps. These ruins were left for so long that the children thought them part of a normal city landscape. When Sean moved the family out to Essex, their new places to play were abandoned gun sites at the edges of the fields, and Anderson shelters which their stories turned into dungeons. He would take them for spins in the car across deserted airstrips where grasses were beginning to reassert themselves in the broken slabs.
But that 100 years is important. For if Sean and Kathleen had lived a century earlier it is likely that none of them would have survived. Or they might have been American.
Think of it, now. More than three million quarters of corn. That’s over 24 million bushels. And those four thousand ships, carrying peas and beans, rabbits, salmon and honey. Think of the poetry of it. Four thousand ships laden with salmon and honey.
Kathleen’s father had fine moustaches that tickled her when he kissed her goodnight, and a nice wave to his hair. She danced her childhood through his fields, and in the streams and mountains of her homeland. So her heart never could embrace that grim city. She would bundle the family back some summers, the long roads winding through the Welsh mountains, the night crossing and the seasickness. But they began to be too many and the younger ones knew little of Ireland except in stories.
‘But if it was so lovely,’ you ask, ‘why did they ever leave? And why did they never go back there to live if it was such a paradise?’
T’wasn’t only the people that left. The ships were crammed with livestock – with sheep and swine, oxen; horses and ponies, cattle. Think of the comedy of it, coaxing the terrified horses up the gangplank. All those sheep milling about on the quay, the dockers turned shepherds in case they tumbled themselves into the water. A regular Noah’s Ark tossed across the Irish Sea.
I was telling you about the father, the one with the moustaches. Now he did come back, transformed into an American in the meantime, but he did come home. It was hunger and disappointment that had driven him away. Not the Great Hunger. That came earlier. No, just the regular hunger of poverty and oppression and stolen land. You will be wondering who it was who killed his father. Well, uniforms do not go down well with the Irish, so maybe that was enough. But then, what was it killed his grandfather? And where was the rest of his father’s family? It is back there, at the beginning of that hundred years, that we would find them. But, trust me, that is not a time where you would want to be.
And there was corn and alcohol distilled from grain. And butter – great golden tubs of it stacked in the holds. Why, they even loaded potatoes on board. Now, all things considered, that’s a fine sort of irony. So many good things to eat and to drink. Fair makes your mouth water.
But we are heading in the wrong direction. There are the neighbours to meet and the priest. There’s the solicitor and the farmers. If you stepped into any of their homes there would be a welcome. Tea would be brewed, in all likelihood stronger than you care for it, but you cannot say so, as the thick dark liquid streams from the spout; and great plates of bread – dark rounds of malt loaf and the flour-dusted discs of soda bread. There will be a scrambling in the kitchen and the women of the house emerging with dishes of bacon and cabbage, mounds of potatoes decked with a slide of melting butter and a glitter of salt. And afterwards, when you are trying to ease your belt a little to give your belly a bit more room, there will be the offer of that alcohol, grain distilled. No point in refusing, the glass will be handed to you anyway. It goes down smooth and hot and you don’t refuse the second, so that the next morning you will be lying in bed wondering how many you had and why does your head hurt so.
Perhaps it is to drive out the memory of that hunger that they give you so much to eat and to drink.
Some died on the ships to America. But the ones to Canada, dear God, they were worse. Coffin ships that bore twenty thousand corpses. Twenty thousand stinking, dying Irish, fevered and starving and pestilent.
So, going forwards again. How they spread out. Some went to Australia and others worked in America. It the women married they tended to stay, to die there. But some of the old men, single, childless, made the mistake of coming home to a land where they did not fit anymore. Mary, she who rode a motorbike before she was born, drifted from London out to Essex and you’d think she was the dullest of the lot, but appearances can be deceptive. Imagine, now, if she became a ballroom dancer, winning trophies with her young partners when she was in her sixties, scandalizing her sisters. They had their adventures, too, wandering around Europe and Africa, cutting loose from their religion, one of them even getting divorced. But their mother, Kathleen, rarely stirred abroad. She had moved from one country to another and that was enough, except for the occasional pilgrimage to Lourdes.
The younger generation would go back an odd time – to the farm with its little mountain and its lake; to the cousins by the fjord at Leenane; to weddings in Dublin. Usually, news of funerals came too late so they missed those. A shame, for there’s nothing like a good Irish funeral.
Sean went back for his mother’s, of course, but he had turned into a Londoner now, almost an Englishman, with the faintest of accents and an odd beard, long and bushy but no moustache. Could he have been someone else if they’d stayed at home? There’s promise in that photograph. A tall, well-made man, just out of his youth, with a hint of gangliness left in the dip of his head and the sheepish smile. The sleeves of his jacket are too short and the bones of his wrists stick out.
Kathleen stopped liking him after that business with the other woman, which must have left him lonely. And as the children grew they went from loving him unconditionally as their daddy, tall and loud and funny, to a mild contempt for the old man.
Emigration, eviction, starvation. The imported maize made them sicken. And the corn was unfit for human consumption. Public works were instituted so that the dying could earn their keep. They were set to build roads that went nowhere. That came from nowhere. You will not find them on maps, these famine roads, but if you search, you may find their traces. Part the rose bay willow herb. Lift aside the travellers’ joy, the old man’s beard. While you are gathering sloes or blackberries, mind out for the thorns, but remember to look under the brambles. And while they were digging and starving and dying, bodies lying by the road side, swollen and ripening for the grave, those ships set sail for England, their holds full of the goodness of the land. Salmon and honey and corn and butter and livestock.
This was the editor’s pick 11 November 2018
Women and Children First
It’s a regular morning, nothing special. A boy sits at the breakfast bar eating cereal, watching the cartoons that dance across the big TV screen. There’s his mom, at the table, scrolling through her phone as she drinks her coffee. Lisa is an ordinary looking sort of woman, carries a few more pounds than she should, so not very active, I guess. Her hair is bobbed and shiny, and she’s dressed for work, a tailored cardigan over a neat blouse, a straight skirt in some dark colour, flat shoes. They haven’t spoken for a while, Jake and his mom, but as soon as she notices the time it will start.
‘C’mon, Jake, gonna be late. Hurry up now or the TV’s going off. You still gotta brush your teeth, and where’s your stuff? I told you to get it ready last night.’
It’s a familiar litany, chanted most mornings, the ‘stuff’ varying from books to gym kit to show’n’tell, whatever it is Jake has failed to organize.
He likes school but Jake never makes a move on the first warning. He’s about six years old and his big, dark eyes are hypnotized by the cartoons. He smiles as the figures run and tumble and slam through walls. Sometimes, when his mom looks down at him, her heart is stopped by the beauty of the curve of his cheek and the dark sweep of his long eyelashes. But that’s usually in the evenings, when she sits on the side of his bed, Jake propped against her and beginning to doze over his bedtime story. In the morning she is irritated by the sight of him, his spoon arrested en route to his mouth as the cartoon action hots up and Jake has to pause to see what happens next.
Mom has to repeat herself, her tone sharp, as she moves around the kitchen gathering up his lunchbox, his pencil case, his jacket. It’s nearly Christmas and the temperature regularly drops below freezing, so his jacket is warm and thick, quilted, with a fur trimmed hood.
‘Your other shoe, Jake? C’mon, hurry. Where’s your other shoe?’
She gets cross at this point, really cross. Why can’t he keep both shoes together? How can you just take off one shoe, wander to another part of the house and then remove the second one? They can leave the house without most of the other items Jake mislays, but one shoe?
‘Dammit, I told you. Put them together when you take them off. I tell you every night but you still . . .’
Jake has bounded off upstairs so he doesn’t hear her. Maybe he enjoys the shoe hunt, for this is the quickest he has moved this morning. He finds it, the shoe, at the end of his bed and comes down grinning with triumph. But Mom is still tetchy.
‘I’m late now.’ She’s not smiling. ‘You’ve made me late. Goddammit, why . . .?’ But Jake has tuned her out. She bustles him out the door, piloting him by his shoulders. Jake clambers into the passenger seat, his belongings heaped at his feet, and she belts him in. He can’t see out of the windows, that’s how small he is. Mom reverses down the drive, craning her neck for pedestrians and the cyclists that seem to appear from nowhere on the tree lined street. It’s a nice neighbourhood, the spacious houses set back on lawns that slope down to the road.
School is not far, but this is America and nobody walks. She drops him at the gate and watches as Jake wanders in. He’s such a dreamy boy, she thinks. Lives in a world of his own.
When school ends Jake will go to club and wait for his mom to pick him up in the afternoon. That’s what usually happens anyway.
‘He was a student at the town’s high school. Some class mates have described him as happy and very smart. A friend who hung out with him at the school’s technology club, said he was probably a genius.’
Amy is flying around the playground, weaving in and out of the other children. Her coat is buttoned at her throat but her arms are free so that it can swing out behind her. Amy is being a superhero. Already she has wrecked the neat arrangement of pink ribbons that her mom spent ages plaiting into her hair. She cannons into Jake in passing. He is momentarily knocked off his course but soon recovers and sets off in pursuit. Amy looks back over her shoulder and laughs. She knows he cannot catch her, even if he dumps his lunch box and his clutch of possessions. She is very fast, the fastest in her year, and Amy particularly likes beating the boys.
This does not please Amy’s mother. She worries that her little girl is a tomboy, that she will never have boyfriends or a husband. She dresses her daughter in frills and bows, Amy shifting impatiently from one foot to the other. Hair brushing is a torture, the skeins to be untangled and returned to the shimmering golden river of tresses that her mom tells her is her crowning glory.
‘Ouch. That’s too tight, Mom. You’re hurting.’
The hair is teased into curls or restrained in a French plait; it is lassoed into a high pony tail or cute bunches that wrench at her scalp. Mom puts it in pigtails before Amy goes to bed but they have always come loose by the morning, Amy having spent her night dreaming of running and flying and being free.
Amy’s mom is quite right, of course. She will never have a boyfriend or a husband. But not because of the running.
‘There are indications that high functioning autism, or a degree of Asperger’s Syndrome, could have been part of the behaviour that some interpreted as the eccentricity that went with his smartness. But nothing has been confirmed.’
Maria and Jimmy make love while it is still dark. She has woken to find him hard against her, and turns sleepily into his arms. They do not put a light on or even speak. It is a week day so they know they need to be quick. She wriggles out of her pyjama bottoms and his hand moves from her breast to slide in between her legs. Maria tries not to groan as his fingers move inside her. She buries her face in his neck to muffle the sound. It would never do for Mama to hear, or any of the boarders in the house.
Her breath is coming faster now and Jimmy rolls her over. Maria kneels, lifting her butt up to meet him, her face in the pillow. With one hand he opens her labia and she braces herself as he slides into her.
Jimmy does not notice the thump of the head board that alerts Mr Connelly, in the next room, to their lovemaking. Maria does, and she tries to hold herself back, but Jimmy is going faster now and she wants to keep up. Mr Connolly knows the faint mewling sound that Maria makes when she comes and he has already got his dick good and stiff when he hears her. Like a kitten, he tells himself, as he fantasizes that it is him in the bed, on top of her, Maria helpless with desire as he pumps into her. He imagines her dark hair spread across the pillow and her wrists tied to the headboard.
Maria helps to serve the breakfasts before she sets off for the school. She feels sorry for Mr Connolly, who seems to her a very old man.
‘He looks at you funny,’ Jimmy tells her, but Maria only laughs. He never has time to sit down and eat breakfast, just grabs a coffee standing up in the kitchen before he goes off for his shift at the garage. Maria works at the elementary school as a substitute teacher. Things will be easier for them when she gets a permanent job, but in the meantime she helps Mama in exchange for rent and Jimmy has a second job in the evenings.
As the boarders finish, Maria scoots dishes out to the kitchen. Then she runs upstairs, gathers her school things, yells goodbye to Mama, and is off. Joanne picks her up at the corner and then she is able to relax. It is a relief to sink down into the car seat and not have to do anything, just for a few minutes. As Joanne’s voice washes over her, Maria smiles a little at the memory of that morning’s lovemaking. The day ahead beckons her but her thoughts leap forward to tonight, Jimmy waking her up as he slides into bed, tired from his evening’s work but easily roused as she wriggles into his embrace. But that isn’t going to be happening tonight.
‘Adam and his elder brother were said to be left depressed over their parents’ breaking up, though their mother was described as “working hard to protect her sons.” Their aunt said her nephews were raised by nurturing parents who wouldn’t have hesitated to call in psychological help if they thought it was needed. This contradicts the comment of a former babysitter at their home who described the young Adam as a “rambunctious” teenager, capable of severe mood swings and temper tantrums, who required medication to control his behaviour.’
‘Maybe Maria can come up with something around dance. The board are not happy with our performance assessments, and, well, she is Latino . . .’ Mrs Karnau shrugs as the principal straightens up, one eyebrow raised and her lips tightened in disapproval. ‘You know what I mean, Anna. It’s not just that . . . she’s young, she’s fit.’ Mrs Karnau sighs. ‘It’s been years since I did any dancing.’
The two women are in the principal’s office, bent over a litter of pages, matching the curriculum framework to the board’s report.
‘They’ve been very literal,’ Anna Lambert says, then she sighs. ‘But I can hardly tell them that.’ Pushing the sweep of hair back from her forehead, she yawns. ‘Let’s just get through this week, eh. Boy, am I ready for the vacation.’ She stands up and stretches, then walks over to the window. ‘I never thought it would happen to me, Mary, but would you believe I am actually looking forward to retirement.’
The winter semester is always hard, half the staff catching colds and flu from the kids, who are wound up all the way from Thanksgiving to Christmas. And Anna is worried about her husband. Jeff is losing weight and has begun to mention stomach pains. It is twelve years since the first cancer and they had thought they were safe. They are bracing themselves for a visit to the oncologist but Jeff had pleaded that they leave it until after Christmas.
‘And let’s not tell the boys yet. Not until we know.’
Anna is afraid that she already knows. The thought never leaves her throughout the day and the weight of it disturbs her sleep. But she will not have to worry after today.
‘The brothers had not met or been in contact for two years, suggesting their relationship was not close. But Ryan’s own evaluation went further: he told the police that his brother was suffering from a “personality disorder”.’
Nathan Greene slides the car into the kerb. An assortment of parents clutters the sidewalk. They fuss a little over their kids, checking books and bags, tucking in scarves. As the children are dispatched, most of the moms and dads leave, only a few stopping to chat.
Nathan is weary. He hasn’t the energy to get out and shepherd Ben into the playground, or to exchange cheery greetings with the other parents. He turns round to make sure Ben has collected everything that he had dumped on the back seat.
‘We’re making gingerbread houses today, Dad. Like in Hansel and Gretel, you know? And Mom says . . .’
He zones out, adjusting his face into a listening attitude, for Nathan is worried about the upcoming meeting and has more to think about than Ben’s school day.
‘See ya,’ he says, as Ben slams the car door. ‘Be good.’ The boy is quickly lost to view as he moves between the parents. But Nathan is not looking. He pulls out into the road and heads for the office, working through the morning’s activities in his head. The meeting is not until 11 and he has two appointments before then, plus several calls to make. He’ll need to go through the Miller file as soon as he can and maybe see if he can find out what John thinks before they have to go upstairs.
Waiting at the lights he tries to ease the tension out of his neck and shoulders. Nathan’s complexion is florid and Joan worries about his blood pressure. His soft belly balloons out over his belt, straining the buttons on his shirt. Nathan is worried too, but he never admits this to his wife. She is stick thin, active, full of energy from all the fitness classes she takes. Because Joan always goes to the gym before work, Nathan does the morning school run. He drops Ben before 8:30 and rarely thinks about the boy until he is on his way home in the evening, adjusting back to family life. But things will be different today.
‘Her son knew him. “He just said he was very thin, very remote and was one of the Goths.”’
It only takes Adam half an hour to get to the school.
Maria’s class is buzzing with the excitement of their cookery task. She has already covered reading, the story of Hansel and Gretel yesterday and today the recipe. They have weighed and measured, which is math, and she has devised a writing exercise to describe the project. But the making of the gingerbread house is the best part. They are working in small groups and each house will be different, ‘so we can have a gingerbread village,’ she tells them. Maria is worrying that she has got them too excited at the start of the day. Jake has got syrup in his hair already and Amy is sprinkled with the glitter of sugar.
‘Now, how did you do that, Amy? You’ve even got sugar down the back of your sweater.’
Amy looks up at Miss, unwilling to be distracted. Her mom would be so pleased to see her, hands plunged into the bowl of dough, flour dusting her apron. So feminine. But Amy is creating an earth monster, or maybe the Incredible Hulk, she hasn’t decided yet. Each time she brushes the hair out of her eyes she deposits some of the dough in her fringe.
Ben is getting too loud, bossing his group, and Maria has to intervene when he shoves Hadley away from the table.
‘But she’s doing it wrong, Miss. Look at all the butter . . .’
She calms him down for now but he’ll need an eye kept on him.
Adam has got through the security door.
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Anna Lambert hears the first shots. She is still working through the curriculum guide and has pencilled in a meeting with the program leaders to discuss changes. She and Mary Karnau stiffen. Yes, they recognize the sounds. Anna runs across the room and switches on the intercom.
‘Security,’ she yells. ‘Intruder firing. Lock your doors. Now, now.’
She and Mary run out into the corridor. He is already there.
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Is it because they are invading his space that he shoots the two women?
They are both dead before they hit the floor and the blood begins to spill and stain. Adam is a good shot, well practised. All those sessions at the range with his mom have paid off. Hell, it is even her guns he is using. He moves on and enters Joanne’s classroom next. She does not have time to save the children. Or herself.
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The gingerbread has to be left to cool. In the meantime they are going to make drawings of their proposed houses, labelling the decorating ingredients, the flaked almonds, the chocolate fingers, the coloured sweets. Maria jerks upright as the intercom blares but now she, too, can hear the shots.
‘Quick, kids, here.’ She spreads her arms, trying to gather them to her. The cupboard? Under the desks? What to shove against the door? She is thinking fast, moving fast.
But so is he. He is already here.
‘No,’ Maria says. He doesn’t say anything. He opens fire. A Sig Sauer carries five rounds, a Glock 17. But you can’t beat the good old Bushmaster. 30 rounds. His weapons of choice, the serious confidence weighty in his hands, so he can enjoy great performance and convenience.
The bullet rips through Maria’s brain and her movement is frozen for a few seconds before she collapses. She falls back over a table and a bowl of gingerbread dough crashes to the floor with her. Then he shoots all the kids. They scream and try to run, but there is nowhere to go. They die terror stricken, not understanding, painfully. Bullets are quick, but there is still time for them to hurt. Amy cries out for her mom but now there is blood in her hair as well as gingerbread dough. Ben’s sternum is shattered and it takes him several minutes to die, slumped across Hadley’s body. Jake has the added horror of being the last.
He shoots himself. He has not spoken. He has been in the school for less than ten minutes.
‘Joe Navarro suggests the authorities should be looking at the psychology of murder-by-proxy; that he murdered 20 schoolchildren because of their emotional associations with his mother.’
It’s a scramble to contact the parents. They come fast, racing through the traffic, trying to still the panic and their galloping heartbeats. Lisa Vanbrugh, Jake’s mom, listens to it on the car radio. Some fatalities, no numbers yet, police and medics on site. Her mouth is dry. Not Jake. Dear God, let it not be Jake. Her husband is there ahead of her. As she runs from the car Lisa sees Pete moving round among the groups of parents who have found their children. He turns as she grabs his arm.
‘He’s not out yet. They don’t know . . .’
His face is grey, his eyes bleak with worry.
‘His class?’ she asks. ‘Are any of them . . ?’
‘I haven’t seen . . .’
Neither of them can get to the end of a thought.
Jane has circled the playground several times but they won’t let her go into the school. Nathan is not taking his calls and she is getting hysterical. She keeps asking,
‘Ben? Ben Greene? Has anyone seen him? Is he still in there? Please? He’s six years old, quite tall for his age, curly hair. He’s wearing . . .’
Some of the children are crying. But these are the saved. Inside the police have taped off the two classrooms where the small bodies lie. Messages are being radioed back and forth, and the count has begun.
Outside the press has arrived. The world will know the story before Jimmy or Nathan.
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This was written as part of the campaign to stop library closures in Plymouth. It was published in the Library Party’s Anthologia, and then in The Herald, March 11, 2017
Libraries I have known and loved
“Knowledge is free at the library. Just bring your own container”
The Children’s Library
Books were not plentiful in our house. We had a few children’s stories – The Water Babies, a volume of fairy tales – but we could not afford to buy books, so the library was our only resource. The children’s library was up the hill, almost a mile away. It was separated from the adult library, which opened on a parallel street and which we could not enter until we had reached the magical age of 14.
An older sibling marched us up the hill every Saturday and, armed with our four library tickets, we browsed for an hour or so, trying to guess what would keep us occupied for the following week. Biggles was good, and his female counterpart, Worrals. Blyton’s Mallory Towers opened a magic window into the mysterious world of boarding schools, but I don’t think we ever came across The Famous Five. I have fond memories of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Elizabeth Goodge. And there were all those books about how to become a ballet dancer, a musical comedy star, or an air hostess, none of which I turned into.
One day I managed to read all the books I had borrowed that morning. What, nothing for another week! I trudged back up the hill, only to be told that books could not be returned on the day they were borrowed. My mother took pity on me and lent me two of her childhood volumes. We were not noted for treating her possessions with respect. We had once borrowed her books to make furniture for our dolls to sit on and we drew gas rings on the cover of a volume of Moliere to serve as a doll’s cooker. Augusta, A Queen among Girls was about a plucky heroine who sacrificed herself for her little brother. I think she fell ill – young heroines tended to contract brain fever and had to have their hair cut off – but she was revived by beef tea. I had no idea what that was, but Augusta won through in the end. And then there was Hollyberry Janet, which reduced me to floods of tears, the ultimate accolade for any novel.
The Adult Library
This was a holy place, hushed, great mahogany book cases lining aisles where silent readers lurked. Old library buildings always seemed to have upper galleries, secret places into which the staff vanished, staircases that borrowers could not ascend.
I read indiscriminately – Virginia Woolf, Colette and Georgette Heyer; James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Alistair Maclean. I fell in love, briefly, with D.H. Lawrence, but was disillusioned when I read a biography that located his characters in real life. I was shocked. He hadn’t made them up, these were people he knew, which I considered cheating.
The classification system was a wonder to me. All knowledge was neatly ordered, and the catalogue resided in a vast array of drawers that could answer an enquiry from any angle, alphabetical by author or subject, numerical by Dewey Decimal. Folklore resided at 398, the arts in the 700s, history at 900, and it all made perfect sense.
Here I discovered poetry, play scripts, travel books. It was an upmarket guide to Paris that sent me there on a solo trip, aged about 16, staying in a two star hotel, navigating the metro with my schoolgirl French. The guide book took me to the Louvre, to Sainte-Chapelle, Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur, to the Jeu de Paume. Lots of very sophisticated night spots were recommended but I did not venture beyond the pages of the book. I was impressed by a reference to James Bond’s favourite cocktail, having worked my way through all of Fleming’s novels. I still wonder what champagne and Benzedrine would taste like.
My First Job
Imagining a world of possibility, at 16 off I went to the Youth Employment Bureau. Unfortunately romance and imagination played no part in their brief so when I said I loved reading and wanted to travel they sent me to Stepney Public Libraries – not quite what I had been hoping for.
The library was very fine, built on the Victorian scale. In addition to the book lending section there was a collection of gramophone records, newspapers and local history. The reference library was always full. Mile End was a deprived area and the elderly and the poor congregated here, often falling asleep in the warmth. On a wet day they would spread their coats over chair backs and radiators, and it was very smelly!
My first library had a section marked Classics, each volume carrying a yellow sticker to distinguish it from the common run of fiction. I rose to this elitist challenge and worked my way through almost all of them. There was a mysterious looking trilogy, grey volumes with a curious border of runes and an eye. No blurb, no excerpts from reviews. It was Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, my first fantasy novel, a genre of whose existence I had been ignorant.
We ran Story Hours in the children’s libraries and I picked up a smattering of Turkish from the children I read to. Many of them, only four or five years old, wore fur coats. It was a traditional area for furriers and some of the older Jewish tailors suffered from hairballs. Car manuals were so sought after that a dummy book resided on the shelf, the original being claimed at the desk, lest they be purloined.
There were smaller outposts, Cable Street, or the Isle of Dogs. Borrowers were fewer, but there were the same types – eccentrics with life stories to share, old ladies who wanted ‘another romance novel, love’, or young Asian men, struggling with the language, educating themselves by working their way through the ‘Teach yourself’ books. Then, as now, the libraries were used for learning and recreation.
This is the first place where they live together, two rooms high up in the house, odd shaped, with sloping ceilings. See – they’ve painted the walls yellow to reflect the sunshine which comes in the dormer window. That’s where they sleep, the mattress on the floor, pushed up against the wall. Not much room for anything else, only that cheap chest of drawers in the corner. He has to climb over her to get in and out of bed and she grabs his bare legs and pulls him down on top of her. They make love, but you shouldn’t be looking.
On the weekends they sometimes lie in until mid-afternoon, when hunger forces them into activity. She cooks pasta in the grubby little kitchenette on a gas oven sticky with ancient grease. If they leave saucepans out overnight there will be mouse droppings in them by the morning. They eat at the little Formica-topped table which wobbles under the weight of their elbows.
The bathroom is shared with downstairs and there are always pubic hairs to be flushed away or a rim of soap scum to be scrubbed off before they can use the bath. This does not dent their optimism, however, as those yellow walls will have told you. One day curiosity drives him to put down the toilet lid so that he can climb up and look out of the window. She laughs when he comes back upstairs, the bottom of his jeans wet where the lid has cracked and he has fallen through.
‘And what, pray, did you see out there? Was it worth it?’ You can tell from her tone that she is mocking him. But he doesn’t mind.
‘There’s a sort of shaft,’ he tells her. ‘Not much light and no way into it except through the toilet windows. But there’s a bicycle down there and an old armchair.’
‘So, is your scientific curiosity satisfied?’ she asks. ‘Your quest for knowledge?’
She is wearing only a faded bedspread, wrapped around her like a sarong. It is patterned with peacocks and trailing vines that swell and sink over the curves and hollows of her body. She thinks she looks rather beautiful.
‘How on earth did they get there,’ he asks.
He is long and lanky, nearly a foot taller than her. From which you can tell that their story begins some time ago, before we went metric. A foot is thirty centimetres, in case you didn’t know. When she falls behind him in the street the sight of his long legs and little bum pleases her. They are physically so different that he tells her they should keep having children until two come out the same.
‘They’ve got a very interesting genetic pool to choose from. Different heights, hair colour and eye colour; ectomorph versus endomorph…’ She kisses him into silence, but you will have noticed that they are at the stage of thinking about having babies so it’s looking pretty permanent. When they next have the discussion – well, it’s him talking and her listening – he muses on their different ancestry. They are down the pub, sitting outside in the fading daylight, and he covers the Vikings and the Picts and the Celts, and she enjoys listening. He knows so much, he has lots to tell her. But part of her is thinking about learning to knit. You should be able to knit when you have babies and she has never progressed beyond purl. Or is it plain? And how do you cast off? She has decided to find someone to teach her and is planning this as they walk back along the canal. He is telling her about the stars. They stand still, holding hands, looking up into the dark sky. Of course she is listening as he points out the constellations. But she is distracted by the fluff of cloud that drifts across the moon and the gleam of lights on the water.
They progress from renting to buying, but always in the poorest quarter of the city. This is all they can afford but they do not think of themselves as poor. At the end of the day, the stallholders in the market sell off the leftover fruit and veg cheap. Their furniture is minimal – and this is before minimalism was fashionable, remember. They sit on cushions on the floor and do not yet have a television. They find an old trestle table in a skip and wrestle it free, which is not easy. It is sticking out from beneath old timbers and lumps of brickwork. But she is determined.
‘I can sand it and stain it,’ she tells him. ‘Then we’ll have a dining table.’ Now it is his turn to mock her.
‘Yeah, and then we can have dinner parties.’ They laugh at the idea, the picture of their ‘guests’ kneeling on cushions, trying to eat off the table. But gradually they acquire chairs, from family, from second-hand shops. And the children come too. She is out with her first son one day when they see a chair on the pavement outside a junk shop, green leather seat and back, old studs to keep the leather in place, dark wooden arms. The seat is sunken but comfortable and it looks handsome. They buy it for five pounds and get it home between them. Her son is small, only four years old, so she pretends he is helping as she lugs it along. When they stop for breath she tells him,
‘See, you always wanted a pet.’ They cannot have one because of the flat. They are on the first floor, with no garden, and it wouldn’t be fair. At least, that’s what she tells him. But you know the truth is her memories of all the pets in her own childhood which she neglected to clean and often forgot to feed. It fell to her mother to look after them and she’s not going to get caught the same way.
‘Well, this has got four legs and we are taking it for a walk. So the chair can be your pet.’ The boy realises that this is a joke. He still hopes for a pet one day.
Have you noticed that the father is not about much anymore? That happens when the children start coming. The mother’s focus shifts, their relationship changes. Also, he is working longer hours. He likes his work. It is orderly, satisfying. And he is doing well. There have been promotions and this means more money. The company sends him north, which he likes because now he has more responsibility, more people under him. But he claims it is because his roots are there. She hates it, however, hates the disruption and all the things they have to leave behind. The table does not go with them, the long dark piece of wood that she had sanded and stained and varnished. It can accommodate all of them, the three boys ranged down one side, which she finds satisfying. They had dragged it out of the skip and lugged it through the market, hot and dirty with brick dust. She had decided that it was their public declaration of coupledom.
Or is it couplehood? She thought that passers-by smiled on them indulgently and knew they were in love. Now, though, they drive up before the removal van, in his company car, and you can see the neighbours at their windows, taking note of the new arrivals.
The house echoes to their footsteps and she is lonely for London. But she is adaptable and eventually settles in. Of course, when they are moved back down south again, a few years later, she finds that she hates that too. But he will earn even more money. The opportunity is not to be missed, therefore, even though the children are upset at having to leave their friends. Well, can’t be helped and you’d probably have done the same. They live in Islington for a while, and now the boys are settled in school, so she starts her interior design business. She rents an empty shop, single-handedly clearing out the rubbish because she is unable to tempt the boys to join in. He is away often, too jet lagged to be useful when he is home. He has to fly off all round the world, meet important people, and solve their problems.
She doesn’t miss him much, she is busy with the new shop. Surveying the windows she has just cleaned, admiring the fall of sunlight across the floorboards, the memory of their first home startles her. Thinking of dinner for the boys as she walks home along Upper Street, fragments of a song torment her. It was a lover and his lass, with a hey and a ho and a hey nonino, then something about the spring. She feels rather melancholy.
When he comes home, she likes to meet him at the airport, making it into a game. She stands beyond the barrier with an absurd name scrawled on her placard, pretending she does not know him. But he is tired. When he lands abroad he can dispel his fatigue in the Jacuzzi or the sauna. But now, here, he doesn’t want to talk or play games. All her bits of news go over his head and, anyway, he has already heard most of them over the phone. I expect you can predict what comes next. He decides to have the company car collect him in future.
‘No need to be dragging you out at this time of night. I’m not great company and if I can just sit back, not talk to the driver, well, it gives me time to switch back to being … er, the dad, the husband. D’you know what I mean?’
Yes, she knows what he means.
You see what’s happening, don’t you? Drifting apart, going their separate ways. There’s lots of money, very nice holidays abroad once or twice a year, all of them together. But mostly, her life now is just her and the boys, and the lovely interiors that she creates for others. And she doesn’t really know what his life is. Lots of work brought home at weekends, so he doesn’t sit around after dinner but retreats to his study with files that look very important. Meetings after office hours. In fact, they don’t see a lot of each other. You are wondering if he is having an affair with his secretary. But you don’t know the secretary. An embittered old battle axe who came with the job and he doesn’t like her but can’t get rid of her. She’s very efficient and very sarcastic, and she pricks his self-esteem at every opportunity. So, no, they are not having an affair. Anyway, he is too tired and too busy to have the energy for such duplicity.
Still, against all the odds, they rub along together. And ‘rub’ is the right word because sometimes there are tensions, snappy comments when they rub each other up the wrong way. Uncomfortable isn’t it, when couples snipe at each other in front of you, so that you have to pretend to be examining the books on their shelves? You would prefer that they quarrelled in private. But you do acknowledge that, despite their differences, they have managed well together for decades. They are materially successful and you think the house is rather nice. It’s bigger than yours, actually, and has featured in one of those ‘At home’ things in a colour supplement. There are no bright yellow walls, however.
The boys are grown, married, and having children. He is winding down his work commitments and she takes on fewer commissions. So, from this point on, it could go two ways. It might be that they get on each others nerves so much that a divorce is inevitable. But when they sit out together in the garden, in the late summer sun, this seems unthinkable. He is into gardening now and the borders are blooming and sweet scented. There is a worldwide shortage of bees and yet their garden is full of them, drunkenly nuzzling their way into the blossoms.
‘I need some early flowers, lungwort and such, to bring the bees in next spring. Where, do you think? Down that border?’ She looks where he is pointing, and nods. But really she is wondering what next year will be like if he is always at home. He tops up their wine glasses and cannot help feeling smug at the beauty of their surroundings. So, perhaps no divorce. But they have both thought the unthinkable. They have imagined being free and solitary. They have imagined the lack of pressure, the sheer relief of not being together anymore.
And the other way it could go, to stay a couple, decline into the winter of their old age and slip into senility together? Will they choose this, the easier way? She thinks about it in bed when she cannot sleep. She has drunk too much wine and it makes her thirsty, so then she drinks water and has to keep getting up to pee. He has rolled onto his back and is snoring. Annoying, isn’t it? Even if it’s not very loud, the sound of your partner sleeping contentedly, when you cannot, is irritating. When they were younger and she could not sleep, she told herself stories. Sometimes it would be winning the pools – this was before the lottery – and planning how to spend £75,000. More modest times, you will note. If she did that now, she’d have to spend £50,000,000 and she’d never get to sleep.
Sometimes she would create her ideal house. It was always hidden behind great banks of laurel bushes. There were steps up to a porch wide enough to house two benches for sitting on. These, however, she covered in pots of bulbs, crocuses and daffodils and tulips. She could never decide which was best, to have their pale spears just breaking through the soil or to be greeted by the glory of their golden heads as she came up the steps. Pushing the heavy door open, she would walk through the rooms planning the décor. She usually fell asleep during her tour of the first floor.
Now she has plenty of money and is living in a perfect house, so these stories will not work any more. She finds she worries about leaving the grandchildren too much money and spoiling their futures because they do not have to work hard. She sits up and wriggles out of her nightie to cool her warm, fat flesh. Yes, she is fatter than she used to be. He is still tall and skinny, but age pulls him down a little closer to her height. She looks at the dark shape of him and thinks about their past.
Is this what sends her up into the loft the next day? It is usually his task to climb the ladder and risk the spiders and mice which she suspects inhabit the dark corners, though she has not had to live with mice since they left Islington. There are still some boxes up here, although she has been good about not accumulating what he calls rubbish. He does not see the point of keeping things that are not used, no matter how beautiful they are. She ducks under a beam to drag a box into the light, kneeling down to tug at the tape and wrench the flaps open.
The square of cloth is folded on the top. They used to lie in bed in that little yellow room, and this piece of fabric was suspended in the window, draped over a string between two stick-on hooks. They would lie apart after the first lovemaking of the day, silent, watching the sunlight move into the room through the piece of patterned blue chiffon.
‘Pretty,’ he says, ‘but not very functional as a curtain.’
‘Look,’ she points. ‘See how it moves in the breeze, how the gold threads dance in the sunshine. It shimmers like silk.’ He is interested and follows her gaze. They lie close, their bare arms touching.
‘Oh, yes,’ he tells her. ‘That’s the diffraction of light on the fibres.’
You’re wondering about the mountain? That’s Canigou, the sacred mountain of the Catalans, 2784 metres high. In the valley below little towns cluster in its shadow. The churches are always the tallest buildings, perched on the highest point, but they cannot compete with the majesty of Canigou. I used to go out every morning, along the terrace, ‘looking out at the day and up at the eternal hill’, fancying myself as the Reverend Eli Jenkins.
My story The Other Sister is included in Two Thirds North.