NEVER Kathleen Bell Catherine Brookes Tony Challis Liz Hart Jack Messenger Ronne Randall Marija Smits Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang Victoria Villasenor
This collection of work was published in 2015 by Nottingham Writers’ Studio, 25 Hockley, Nottingham NG1 1FH www.nottinghamwritersstudio.co.uk
Collection copyright Nottingham Writers’ Studio Copyright for individual articles rests with the authors
Nottingham Writers’ Studio gratefully acknowledges financial support from Arts Council England
Printed in Great Britain by Russell Press, Nottingham
INTRoduCTIoN ...................................................................................................................5 SLAB Liz Hart ...................................................................................................................7 INMATES Marija Smits...................................................................................................14 AT LAST Tony Challis....................................................................................................15 THE INTERVIEW Tony Challis .........................................................................................16 MoTHER’S WoRLd Ronne Randall ..............................................................................18 THE LoNG HARVEST
Kathleen Bell .................................................................................24
oNCE Kathleen Bell ......................................................................................................25 LEICESTER WALK Kathleen Bell .....................................................................................25 WICHEGA Jack Messenger ...........................................................................................26 IF NoW I AM AN APPLE Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang .....................................................34 CATCH ME Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang ..........................................................................35 CHERRIES FRoM GRANdMA God Victoria Villasenor ..................................................36 ALMoNd EyES Catherine Brookes ...............................................................................43
Welcome to the fourth issue of the NWS journal, marking our first full year of publication. So far we’ve welcomed stories on the themes of crime and secrets, and stories exploring a sense of place, which moved setting from a backdrop to a main element. This current issue also brings out into the open things that are neglected, overlooked, ignored – perhaps accidentally, perhaps for the best. At heart, stories are about exploring the possible: the road not taken, the ‘what-if’… what might happen someday, or in our wildest dreams. They aim to make the impossible, the make-believe, seem like real possibilities. The challenge given to writers for this volume was to break free of this paradigm and shun the possible or ‘ought-to-be’ in favour of the ‘never-will’ and ‘better-left-forgotten’. Instead of tales of what should happen, we asked for ones exploring what shouldn't. And then – with trepidation – we waited by our inbox. The stories we received more than met our expectations in the best possible way. From surreal workplaces to a touching friendship with a paving slab, from tests of courage deep in the exotic jungle to heart-rending loss in a bygone age, the pieces in this journal bear testimony to the fact that the best way to create the remarkable is by saying it can never happen. The NWS Journal Editorial Team 5
SLAB Liz Hart
I’ve been watching that paving slab now for a good while. Maybe it’s been watching me. I pull the chair up to the window in the upstairs bedroom and get a bird’s eye view. don’t worry yourself. It’s not that I’ve got a body buried under it or anything like that. Look, it’s that slab there next to the front garden gate, at the very end of the path. It doesn’t do much. Just lays there. Minding its own business. It’s york Stone, and you can see the tints and hues of God’s own Country in it. Some days when it’s wet after the rain, the stone shimmers, like Vera’s best lustre vase, the one we bought on that day trip to the Potteries with the Horticultural Society just after the war. Beautiful vase that was. Still is. It’s on the sideboard in the sitting room, next to our wedding photograph. Vera looks lustrous herself, white and tender as a snowdrop, and her eyes put that vase to shame, shining and glistening so… I like to contemplate the slab in all weathers, sun and shade, but I like it best on chilly winter mornings when it sparkles with frost as though it’s been transformed overnight into crystal. It’s magic, then, when it does that. But what I really like is that underneath it all, it’s always the same, solid and reliable. Whatever happens, it endures. Bit like me, I suppose. Being an intelligent sort, you’ll now be asking yourself, why would anyone in their right mind waste their time staring at a paving slab? It’s a good 7
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo question; I thank you for asking it and here’s my answer. It might be just a simple paving slab to you, but to me it marks the boundary of my world. The slab’s the last one before you push open the gate and step out on to the street, a nice street of pre-war semi-detached houses. or it was. you see, for the last five years, ever since Vera passed, the world outside that slab might as well be a foreign country for all the chance I have of ever getting there. I sometimes ask myself, will I ever walk down our street again, nip into the Co-op to chat to Jim behind the counter, go to the British Legion for a pint and a game of darts? The street’s only at the end of your front garden path after all, I say to myself. But the answer’s always the same. Never! Not if I carry on as I am. Not unless a miracle happens. Fat chance. They said it was the shock, with Vera dying sudden like that. I made it to the funeral, but I felt peculiar. Couldn’t wait to get back home. In the church, everything seemed strange and unfamiliar. First the church got bigger, then it got smaller, then the coﬃn did the same, as though Vera were swelling and shrinking inside it. When I glanced around, people’s faces had turned to masks, distorted like, glaring at me. Terrifying it was. And the noise… Even the choir singing went through me like an electric current. Couldn’t bear it. Afterwards, they said some of what I heard was me own noise, weeping like, but I don’t really remember. The worst part was when I started to suﬀocate, and that’s when they called the ambulance. Thought I was having a heart attack. Tried to stop them taking me. didn’t want to go to hospital. Just wanted to be back home with Vera. of course, I knew she wasn’t there like she had been before, but her being was still there. I was certain of that. Knew she wouldn’t leave me. She’d promised that not even death would ever part us, and I never knew Vera to make a promise she didn’t keep. She wasn’t about to start now, just because she was dead. 8
NEVER When they let me out of the hospital, the nurse said, ‘A touch of agoraphobia,’ and ‘No harm done, Mr Williams, just a bit of hyperventilation,’ as though I ought to be grateful. didn’t say anything to her, but I decided there and then, they could call it a ‘bit’ of what they liked, but I wasn’t going to have another. Never! I was going to stay home and look after Vera. Keep her safe. A week or so later, someone from community services come to see me, and he made sure there was someone bringing in me shopping and that I’d got enough to eat, that kind of thing. He said they’d send someone else to see me, and they kept on sending them. There’s another young woman coming to see me later today—a ‘therapist’. If she ever gets here, that is. They’ve all got cars and they’re always late. Expect she’ll talk to me about how she can help me get out of the house. Never, I always tell them, and they always smile and say, ‘Now, now, Mr Williams, that’s no way to talk,’ as if I were a simpleton. They’ve never sent a therapist before. We’ll see. Last one as called—a ‘support worker’ she said—come through the gate and stood looking at my house as if she were thinking of making me an oﬀer, but thought better of it. And you know what she did then? Stubbed her cigarette out on Slab and—even worse—ground it in to him with the toe of her shoe! I banged on the window but she just grinned up at me and waved, all innocent like. Thought I was barmy I suppose. The black mark stayed for days, even after the postman had walked over it. Heaven knows what she’d been smoking! I tried three times to get to Slab, to wash it oﬀ. Never made it past the front door. Luckily, it rained soon after, cats and dogs, and he looked better after that, spruced-up. don’t know what this one will be like. We’ll soon see. 9
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo That’s why I’m sitting here now, talking to you, with my eyes on Slab. Waiting. Bugger! Forgot myself and let the cat out of the bag, haven’t I? ‘Slab’ I’ve just been calling him! Know it’s daft, you’re probably sniggering up your sleeve, but when you share your world with something, even a lump of rock, you’ve got to give it a name. I learned that during the war. Anyway, what would you want me to call him? Malcolm or Steve or Wayne? They don’t sound right do they for something made of ancient stone that’s lasted a thousand years or more. But, Slab, now that’s a good solid name. A name for a square of yorkshire stone to be proud of! I’ve only recently realised that Slab’s a work of art in his own way. Nothing showy, but I was watching the telly last week—you might have seen it, on some culture show, a Museum of Modern Art in America somewhere, and they’d got a pile of concrete paving slabs, not as grand as my Slab. The presenter said it was a work of art, worth thousands and thousands. When you think about it, world’s a strange place, isn’t it? She’s gone now. Turned up on the dot! Time just flew. diﬀerent from the others. A nice young woman, she was, all things considered. Louise. A good listener, I’ll give her that. Asked me about what had happened at the funeral when I had me funny turn, and all about me ‘past history’. When I told her about the war, she said she thought that that had something to do with it. ‘Mr Williams,’ she said, ‘have you ever heard of Post Traumatic Stress disorder?’ I said I had, of course, I watch the news every day and have a newspaper delivered, but what they did to me, and thousands of others, were more than seventy years ago. I was only a young lad, wet behind the ears. She asked me what it had been like, but I wasn’t about to tell her. Never have. But I did tell her that when I came back I felt like an old man. 10
NEVER until the day I met Vera. Vera made everything clean somehow. It was like when your Mom’s washed and starched the sheets and hung them on the line in the sun and she makes the bed with you in it. Felt I could start again. All new and unsullied. Put it all behind me. Which I did. She said that’s probably what it was, with meeting Vera I’d ‘suppressed’ what had happened to me in the war—bottled it up I think she meant—and then when she died, it all burst out like a boil. Like it was yesterday. She said there’s a type of therapy that would be suited to me problem and, if I like, she can come again next week and for six weeks after that, and then she’ll assess me to see how I’m doing. I said I’d be willing to give it a try. Got nothing to lose have I? She gave me confidence that she could help me. only one as ever did. But that wasn’t all that made Louise diﬀerent. Just as she was leaving, she stopped by the sideboard and stared at Vera’s photograph. She was quiet for a while, like she was listening. Then she said, ‘Now, Wilfred, you know don’t you that Vera’s still with you. She’s telling me that she knows what those soldiers did to you, because you used to talk in your sleep. But she didn’t tell you. She didn’t want you to know that she knew.’ you could have knocked me down with a feather! Me own wife had known all about it, all these years, never said a word to me, and now here she is telling this young woman she’s never met before. Can you credit it? Like I said, world’s a strange place. It’s been four weeks since Louise’s first visit and we’re getting on like a house on fire. I’d never have believed it. She’s told me all about her family, how her great-grandmother Rosa came here from Jamaica just after the war to work at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital as an orderly. Her grandmother worked there as a nurse, then her mother as well. 11
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo Her late granddad came from Barbados in the fifties, a carpenter, he was, and he met her grandmother when he nearly sawed through his finger. She stitched it up for him. ‘Love at first stitch,’ I said to Louise, and she laughed and said that’s what her grandfather always used to say. She still misses him every day. She said she never knew a kinder man, nor a wiser one either. She said I put her in mind of him. Said she likes to think of me as her ‘Granddad Wilfred’. That brought a tear I can tell you. She said she did go back once to Jamaica when she was younger, and there were things she liked and things she didn’t. ‘I’d expected to feel at home, Wilfred, but I didn’t. Then I got confused about where I really did belong.’ I told her I’d felt a bit like that when I come home from the war. Like a foreigner in me own country. didn’t know if England had changed, or me, but something had. She told me that she’d loved meeting her family and seeing the Blue Mountains. ‘I can’t describe to you, Wilfred, how the sight of them moved me. I’d never seen anything as beautiful in my life before, except my babies’ faces when they were first born.’ Then, you know what she did? She looked me straight in the eyes. ‘Maybe I’ll visit again and this time I’ll take you with me, Wilfred. We can see the Blue Mountains together,’ and she smiled and squeezed my hand. I was just about to say ‘never’ when something in Louise’s eyes stopped me. For a moment it was Vera looking back at me, honest and true, and I knew she was telling me I could trust Louise. It’s only been six weeks now since Louise first visited, and already I’ve made it to Slab. She came with me, but it’s the first time in five years! I’m hoping, in not too long, to make it out of the gate on my own. I’ve learned a whole new language as well. ‘Cognitive Behaviour Therapy’ for a start. Now there’s a mouthful to conjure with! I’m making steady progress, Louise says, and I can tell I am. Hardly watch Slab at all now. Know he’ll understand. I’m too busy doing me ‘homework’, examining 12
NEVER what Louise calls me ‘core beliefs’—such as I’ll never be able to leave my house. With her help, I’ve learned I can question that belief and find a better one. It’s been eight weeks—the end of my therapy—and today I made it to the Co-op. By myself! Jim grinned all over his face when he saw me, nearly as pleased as I was. I even helped Mrs Sharma carry her shopping up the hill, chatting away like old friends. With Louise’s help, me and Vera have come through it. Vera’s still dead of course—nothing therapy can do about that—but we understand each other better now than we ever did. Never would have believed it. And what you are thinking happened to Slab? Well, he’s moved on as well, in a manner of speaking. My neighbour, Mr Puczkowski, the builder, he did it for me, even put a replacement down (concrete, of course, but I didn’t mind). Slab’s just over there, look, raised up on those blue bricks. He’s become a garden table. Growing me tomato plants on him, in those clay pots I used to keep behind the shed. He’s become a real work of art. World’s a miraculous place, isn’t it?
Liz Hart taught and carried out research as a social anthropologist and historian, and studied Creative Writing with don Webb at uCLA Extension. She has numerous non-fiction publications. She is currently working on her second novel (Nothing In It) about a homeopathic doctor and what happens when she takes on a patient who believes himself to be dead. Her short story Slab explores the mysterious, and sometimes miraculous, nature of everyday life.
INMATES Marija Smits We never see each other anymore. Work calls you away before I wake and rise, and open the curtains to another grey day. Then there’s the school run, meaningless chatter, chores, bills to be dealt with; elderly parents to care for. I sometimes sit and look at the walls of our prison, and wonder if they wouldn’t look so terrible with another lick of paint. Then it’s back to school—clubs, homework, rushed meals; you, back home, a virtual stranger. There’s a little more grey in your beard. At bedtime as I trudge upstairs, I see you escape your cell. you’re watching 80s hits on youTube, travelling back in time, reminding yourself of when you were young. I escape too, when our children are asleep. I build worlds that I’ll never inhabit, lose myself in stories that have happy endings. Sometimes, in my dreams, we meet. Marija Smits is the pen name of Teika Bellamy, a mother-of-two and writer whose work has featured in a variety of publications. When she’s not busy with her children or running Mother’s Milk Books, she likes to draw and paint. Late at night, when everyone else is asleep, she writes on her laptop in bed. Her work is rather eclectic and she loves semi-colons.
TWO POEMS Tony Challis At Last This is the day. Arrangements made. Sepulchral the walk to the altar. decades of preparation have led to this time; the training for theological inquisition, the rise from rank to rank, dull immersion in texts that had to be learned and intoned. Thus, me, the centre of my own universe, raised for acclaim, now to achieve the highest oďŹƒce, and to be the one who waves the wand as all declaim my virtue and my power. I rule this holy empire. (Is this not every manâ€™s true desire?) Loyal Maeve, holy sister to my ambition, leaps to enquire if the key will open the golden tabernacle. Heave. The portal swings; I am bid approach, and dare. I grope inside. The treasure isnâ€™t there.
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo The Interview Would you come this way, Mr Noun? Just go through there, Mr Noun. Ah, good afternoon, Mr Noun. Are you surprised by my curled finger? don’t you know the handshake? I am our esteemed chairman, Mr Noun. This is the deputy who does my job. This is my high-speed secretary, and this is my teasmaid; excuse me while I sip and swallow. How do you like the building, Mr Noun? I’m sorry about the toads in the lift; they’re very friendly and we feed them every night. do sit down, Mr Noun, please relax and feel at ease. We like our chaps to be themselves. Are you willing to work all hours, Mr Noun? Would you go away and leave the job undone? Would you leave the cages open, Mr Noun? Would you mind the apparatus when it frowned? Would you stroke the long-armed stapler, Mr Noun? Would you let it nip your nail and pull your cuﬀ? do you process words for breakfast, Mr Noun? Are you worried when insulted by a screen? How well do you emote with olive green? Have you ever tasted sellotape au lait? How do you like litigious lunches? Could you meet an ostrich at the airport? How would you fertilise a filing cabinet? Would you tamper with some Tippex that tattooed you? How would you treat a swollen switchboard? 16
NEVER Are you really very fit, Mr Noun? Are you sweating, is that a hankie, Mr. Noun? Ah, I’m not sure you can take the strain. yes, maybe you need air. oh, you’re not going, Mr. Noun? But—your application made us think you’re just the man. These days it’s so hard to find people who take sales returns to bed.
Tony Challis has spent many years working in education and therapy. He has been writing poetry since the 80s. He facilitates the Rainbow LGBT Writing group at Nottingham Writers' Studio and is secretary of Nottingham Poetry Society. He has become firmly enthusiastic about the compact but dynamic city in which he lives.
MOTHER’S WORLD Ronne Randall
If Lindsay hadn’t been in a rush that evening, it might never have happened. But she was—and it did. Shirley could see how anxious her boss was. Lindsay was trying to push the boxes to the back, put on her street shoes and apply lipstick all at the same time. She swore under her breath as she kicked the cartons. Shirley knew that it was Lindsay’s boyfriend’s birthday, and Lindsay was organizing a surprise party for him that evening. “It’s all right,” Shirley said, gathering up the boxes. “I’ll take these to the back. you go on and I’ll finish up—just leave me the keys.” Lindsay took a breath. “you know how to work the shutters, right?”. “yes, of course,” Shirley replied. “And the alarm. And I’ll be here early tomorrow to open up. don’t worry—it’s all under control.” Lindsay’s tense frown melted and her face softened into a grateful smile. “Thanks, Shirl. you’re a life saver,” she said, grabbing her handbag. “See you tomorrow.” “Have a lovely evening,” Shirley said, as she let Lindsay out of the shop, then locked the door behind her. Shirley had been working at Mother’s World since before they moved into the Springdale Centre, when they were only a little motherand-baby shop on Exchange Street. She’d started there when she was younger than Lindsay, just a couple of years out of school and hoping to earn a few bob for the wedding and to help her and Jim set up home together. 18
NEVER Those had been such different times. Shirley’s boss back then, Grace, had been a kind, easygoing woman, always ready for a laugh and a cup of tea – nothing like Lindsay, with her smart suits, shiny red nails and shinier ambitions. Her strict rules. Always on the phone to “head office.” There hadn’t even been a “head office” back when Shirley started. Shirley hadn’t planned to work for very long. She’d intended to stop as soon as she and Jim had their first. And indeed she had. But then… things had happened, complicated things, and she’d had to go back to work. Where better than Mother’s World, where Grace knew and trusted her, and where she felt at home? She thought she might only stay a year or two, five at the most – but now here she was, more than thirty years later, taking orders from a girl half her age and twice as brittle. Still, it helped pay the bills and gave her something to do. And to be honest, she did like it here. She liked seeing the pregnant mums, young and tired-looking but excited and full of anticipation. And she liked seeing them come back with their babies—the mums who came in here were the good ones, the one who looked after their little ones properly. Not like some you saw in the Springdale—shouting at their babies, shoving bottles filled with cola in their mouths. And of course, Shirley loved the babies themselves. She loved them all, even the bawling, red-faced, smelly ones. She could look at them now and smile without feeling like an ice pick was ripping through her heart. She hummed as she marched to the back with the boxes. She would just stack them in the storeroom, make sure everything was tidy and secure back there, and— She stopped so suddenly she almost fell over. For a split second she thought—hoped—it might be a display mannequin that had been left on the floor. But it wasn’t. It was a very real, living, slightly mucky-faced baby. A boy, judging by the stained blue t-shirt. Fast asleep. or was he? As Shirley crouched down, knees creaking with the 19
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo eﬀort, it came flooding back. Her hand froze as she reached out, and she was hurled back thirty-two years… *** Shirley woke slowly, blinking as she glanced at the clock. Seven-thirty! Thomas had slept all the way through—the first time in six months! She allowed herself a pleasurable stretch before she went the few steps to the cot. Pleasure gave way to panic as she reached down to her baby boy. His face was pale, waxy, the rosebud lips lavender-grey and still. She wanted to scream, but all that came out was a croak. “Jim!” Jim woke instantly. He bolted out of bed and tried to give Thomas the kiss of life, but they both knew it was too late. The rest was a blur—an ambulance, the hospital, police…then an inquest. The words “cot death” repeated over and over. Shirley stayed numb and faraway through it all. Three months later, her routine smear test showed something amiss. She went into hospital for more tests and came out ten days later without a womb. There would never be another baby. That’s when she began to cry, and cry and cry as if she would never stop. For a year it went on—deep, gut-wrenching sobs every night. Jim held her, and sometimes he cried too, but finally he told her it had to stop. So it did. Somehow she swallowed the rest of the tears and got on with life. When Jim had his accident and could no longer work, Shirley went back to Mother’s World. It was hard—unbearable at first—but it was the only place she felt she belonged. *** Now, at last, here was her reward. He even looked a bit like Thomas, with the same fair, wavy hair. A little crust of snot nestled below his nose, but his cheeks looked like ripe peaches, and his lips smacked gently in his sleep. She lifted him out of his carrier. 20
NEVER He opened round, deep-blue eyes that gazed up into her own. Then he began to whimper. As the whimper grew to a bellow, Shirley cradled him close and patted his back, rocking gently. The forgotten movements came back eﬀortlessly; the weight in her arms was warm and nourishing. The tears that fell now were soothing, healing, not acid etching into her soul. “It’s all right, my love,” she crooned. “Mummy’s here. you’re all right. you’re safe with Mummy now.” *** “Shirl, no. No! It’s wrong. you know it is. We can’t do this—it’s kidnapping. We’ll be arrested.” on the kitchen table, the meal Jim had prepared—grilled chicken, mash and peas—sat untouched, cold and congealing. Lurking near the doorway, Shirley clutched the baby, now fed, changed and in clean clothes thanks to supplies she’d “borrowed” from the shop. She rocked him fiercely. “But someone didn’t want him,” she said, “and I do!” Her voice was guttural, raw. “He was sent… sent to us, to make up for Thomas! Thomas sent him!” “Come on, love.” Jim’s voice was quiet, as soft and gentle as hers was harsh. “you know this mustn’t happen. The baby’s mother is out there, probably regretting what she’s done. We have to tell the police.” As Jim moved towards her, Shirley stepped back, into the dimly lit hallway. “No!” she shrieked. “No! No!” The baby in her arms cried too, his howls growing louder to match Shirley’s. She got as far as the stairs, where her knees buckled. She stumbled backwards and thudded on to the bottom step, her sobs now coming in hiccup-y spasms. Shaking, turning away, she yielded up the baby to her husband. *** The fluorescent lights in the police station made Shirley’s eyes ache. The girl was already there when they arrived. Shirley thought she couldn’t be 21
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo more than fifteen. She had pale, greasy skin, with three spots on her chin, one scabbed over. Her tangled, badly bleached blonde hair was streaked with violent blue and she wore tight jeans, ripped at the knees. dirty toenails painted glittery green peeped out of scuﬀed white platform sandals. She kept her hands shoved deep in the pockets of her pink-andgrey hoodie. A star emblem on the left breast of the sweatshirt bore the words “Girls Academy”. The girl’s mum sat next to her—a fat woman in an ill-fitting green skirt, with too much makeup on her sagging, fleshy face. Her garish red hair showed dark brown roots. A woman stood beside her—a social worker, Shirley guessed—looking over her shoulder as she finished the last bit of paperwork. The baby—Jayden Kyle, as it turned out, not Thomas—slept peacefully in his carrier under the watchful eye of a WPC. Shirley couldn’t look at him, and she hadn’t been able to look at Jim since they’d arrived. All the formalities were completed now—identity checks, statements taken from Shirley and Jim—but Shirley wondered what the point was. They were letting the baby go home with these people, these undeserving, thoughtless, horrible people who would not be able to give this baby what he deserved, no matter how much help and support they got from Social Services. That scruﬀy, stupid girl would never know how to bring up that beautiful little boy—look at how her own mother had raised her. As Shirley and Jim got up to leave, the girl rushed over. Grabbing Shirley’s hand, she said, “Thank you.” Shirley looked away. “It’s all right, love,” Jim said to the girl, speaking in the same tone he’d used with Shirley earlier. “We just did what anyone would do.” The girl ignored him and squeezed Shirley’s hand a bit harder. “I mean thank you for looking after him,” she said. “I know you kept him warm and clean and fed him and that. I know you kept him safe, like my own mam would of. I just wanted to say thank you for that.” 22
NEVER Shirley nodded, looking down at a mark on her right shoe. “you can visit us if you want,” the girl said. “If you want to see him, like. I’m going to look after him now. you can come see if you like.” A small sob escaped Shirley’s throat. “That’s kind of you,” she said. Then, wrenching her hand away, she turned and took Jim’s arm. “Let’s go,” she whispered. *** on the way home, Shirley gazed out of the car window at the street, the darkness broken up by brightly lit chippies, burger bars, cafes. young people congregated near some of them, and at All-Star Kebabs, a girl in clumsy sheepskin boots and a tiny skirt gripped the handle of a buggy as she smoked and talked with a couple of rangy, unkempt boys. That poor baby, Shirley thought, exposed to all that filthy smoke and the smelly night air. It should be home, safely tucked up in its cot, with a soft Mother’s World blanket and a colourful musical mobile. Safe, loved, protected. Jim, concentrating on the road ahead, suddenly cleared his throat. “It can never happen again, love,” he said. “you know that, don’t you? Never.” “I know,” Shirley whispered. “It won’t happen again. I promise. Never.” And it wouldn’t. She knew now not to make the same mistake again. Next time—and she would make sure there was a next time—she wouldn’t go home and let Jim spoil everything. Next time it would be just the two of them. Forever.
Ronne Randall was born in New york and has lived in Nottinghamshire since 1985. She has worked in publishing since the late 1960s, and for the last 35 years has written, edited, and Americanized scores of mass-market children’s books. She has an MA in Folklore from the university of Sheﬃeld, and has been a volunteer counsellor with ChildLine. Ronne joined the Writers’ Studio in 2014 and is currently working on a memoir of her childhood in Brooklyn.
THREE POEMS Kathleen Bell
the long harvest (from Balance Sheets for Mediaeval Spinsters) When the stubble scrapes and the corn, newly ripe, scores weals across my hand with its sting and its thin line of blood, at least I shall never hear a babe at my back, bawling in the bright sun nor a child at my side, dragging on with his whine of “Mother, I’m tired, Mother, I need to piss, Mother, I need to go home, I’m hungry, Mother, I need to feed” and I shall never feel the ache at my hip, in the small of my back or the sickness rise in my throat, knowing I carry another bairn within. In a bad year I’ll nurse my hunger alone. I’ll never feel the child grow sluggish and still till it stiﬀens inside me. The long harvest is shared, but when winter comes the cold is mine alone. 24
NEVER Once unroll the days and light another cigarette, gulp back your tears, order another beer. Nothing can touch you. As for the world, we'll build it starting here in this bar, Place de la Liberté, in the year that never was.
Leicester Walk “I don’t believe in ghosts,” you said. “Nor I.”— and we walked on, agreed, companionable, almost happy in the grey suburban dusk six weeks after your death.
Kathleen Bell’s recent pamphlet at the memory exchange (oystercatcher, 2014) was shortlisted for the Saboteur awards. Her poems have recently appeared in PN Review, New Walk, Under the Radar, Litter, The Stare’s Nest and Hearing Voices, as well as the anthology A Speaking Silence. She writes both fiction and poetry, and teaches Creative Writing at de Montfort university.
WICHEGA Jack Messenger
Must have been near enough sixty years ago, the day daddy came back, when we all drove down to our new home. It was out by the big highway that ran like a ribbon of dreams all the way to the far blue horizon. I watched all the folks in their automobiles, and wondered if where they was headed was better than where they’d been. I didn’t know then how daddy had no place left to go. daddy carried a duﬀel and an old suitcase oﬀ the freighter, but he weren’t wearing no uniform. I asked him why. He looked at Mamma and didn’t know what to say, but Mamma knew. ‘daddy’s been discharged from the Navy, Sweet Pea. He’s come home for good.’ daddy hugged Mamma and kissed her long and slow. I caught hold of daddy’s hand and held it to my face. His fingers smelled of cigarettes and soap. My little sister, May Alice, stood on his shoes and put her arms around his legs. outside of seeing daddy again, I guess the best thing that day was when they winched out his new car from the bottom of the ship and swung it high into the sun. It was sparkling and shiny and dripping with chrome, and the white wall tyres were clean as cotton. We all looked up and held our breath. Men in greasy coveralls put calloused hands to their eyes and watched that great yellow dream come swaying through the blue, swinging like a sunbeam down to earth. ‘Sure is one beautiful automobile!’ they told daddy, and I felt proud. ‘What kind they call that?’ 26
NEVER daddy smiled with all his teeth. ‘oldsmobile Super 88. Got a 185horsepower rocket V8 engine, four-barrel carburetor, four-speed hydramatic automatic transmission, independent front suspension with coil springs, and power-assisted four-wheel drum brakes.’ daddy watched them unhook the big rope net from around the olds, then walked around real slow, looking at every inch. I was scared he’d cry if he’d seen one little bitty scratch. daddy sure loved that car. Mamma scolded him. ‘Where’d you get that thing?’ ‘Bought it from the first mate. Got a good deal, too.’ ‘Bought it or win it playin’ cards?’ daddy bent down to look at a wheel and said nothing. When it came time to go, I got in the back and slid around on the shiny leather seat that smelled like a new baby. May Alice sat up front between Mamma and daddy. ‘daddy? This car got a radio?’ I asked. ‘you kiddin’? This car’s got everythin’! Hold still now, girls.’ I watched daddy start her up with a roar like a bear and then we all drove oﬀ down the dock like kings and queens. I waved at the people and some waved at me. daddy laughed and even Mamma smiled. ‘I wanna hear the radio!’ shouted May Alice, and so we did. daddy found some nice music and sang along. It took all day ’til we got to where we was going—our new home. only it weren’t new; it was Mamma’s old place, where she’d growed up back in the time when she was young as May Alice and just as dumb. Mamma didn’t have no parents no more. I watched her step out the olds and stare like a lost child at the squat old house with the screen door that needed fixing, loose shingles on a roof that dipped, flaking paint just about everywhere. The yard was all dirt and crab grass. I ran around back and found a swing hanging from an old tree. Mamma looked kind of sad and helpless, but she smiled when I told her, ‘I like it here already.’ Then she looked at daddy. ‘you promised you’d settle down. This the last time, you hear?’ 27
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo daddy dropped his bags and put his arm around Mamma. ‘I ain’t never goin’ back to the Big House. I’d sooner die.’ I heard him and called out from the swing. ‘What’s the Big House, daddy?’ daddy looked sad and Mamma told me to hush. ‘That’s a name they got for the Navy, Sweet Pea. But don’t you never use it.’ May Alice started to cry. ‘Mamma, I’ll sleep in the car. This place is real old.’ Those were the good times, when the long hot days waved to me like a bunch of new friends. I’d grab a hold of their hands and be oﬀ seeing what was to be seen all about, just roaming and watching for hours ’til I was too hungry to spit and trailed home. Seemed like that summer the air was full up with heat and bugs and things blown about. All I had to do was hold out my fingers and catch life on the wing. Felt like all the joy of living was in that air, with the earth calling out to me that the world was new and all woke up. ‘Sweet Pea, don’t you never go near the highway, you hear? That’s no place for a child.’ ‘I only sits in the grass by the pond down there, Mamma. It’s real cool under the trees, and they got a bridge. Ain’t no hurt in that.’ ‘That’s the worst place for a girl to get, don’t you know that? There’s a Wichega lives in that pond. That dirty critter eats girls for breakfast and don’t think nothin’ about it.’ ‘A Wichega? Ain’t no such thing!’ ‘don’t you never go down there, you hear me?’ Alone, May Alice and I whispered about what Mamma told us. My sister was scared of the pond and the Wichega, but she was just a bitty girl and I was eight going on nine. ‘Ain’t nothin’ to be scared of, May Alice. No such thing as a Wichega ever been born on this earth.’ ‘But we’s new here, Sweet Pea! They got one here, maybe.’ ‘It ain’t so! Mamma’s done told us about the Wichega since I can hardly remember. Nobody nowhere no how ever seen just one.’ 28
NEVER ‘I seen one!’ May Alice took a hold of my arm, her eyes filled up with nightmare. ‘It’s got claws and fur and lives at the bottom of the water. It hides in the grass and drags you down just when you thinks it’s safe. Ain’t nothin’ you can do about it ’cos you’s already died. Then it eats you and it hurts somethin’ awful.’ She sure made me shiver, but I couldn’t let on. ‘you just pretendin’!’ I’d dream nights of the big dark pond lying quiet in the trees, all covered in weed and full of water moccasins. It had a bridge that rattled like old bones. The highway people had put up a wire fence around the pond, but I knew where the ground dipped down around a post that hadn’t set right. I could lie me down on my back and hitch my way under the wire and then be up and running, my dress kicking high on my skinny brown knees and my old shoes filling with dry dirt on account of the holes. I’d hear the whoosh of the highway and the thunder of them big trucks taking beer and food and all the fixings to folks who lived too far away to have a name. Then I’d see something big and slow come slinking out the water. one day, daddy told us he’d found a job over the county line in Brayford. He’d get up each morning itching for that long ride down the highway, when it was just him in his olds and all the world waiting to see him drive by. It was some kind of freedom, I guess. I could picture him working all day at the plant, thinking every hour was an hour closer to quitting time and thirty-five minutes of riding in glory. I hoped one day I’d see him go over the bridge when I was hid like a dog in the long grass by the pond. I’d watch and dream and I’d sleep some, but daddy must’ve always passed by when I weren’t looking. I asked him one time when Mamma weren’t there how come I never seen him. daddy laughed. ‘I’m goin’ too fast for folks to catch me, Sweet Pea!’ The ground all along there was dry and prickly and smelled of dirt and wild things and trees full of living. I seen a deer once but it got scared and slipped away. Some big red ants lived under an old stump, and there 29
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo were trails and such through the grass and bushes, made by critters and people. Found me a shoe too—looked like a man’s, all torn and old like it was out in the rain for years, and I thought of the Wichega. Mostly, though, I’d just set and watch the bridge and the dark water and listen to the sound the wheels made when they went over the seams in the cement— ‘fump-flump, fump-flump.’ Those big old trucks would send the wind racing through the grass that swayed and bent and whipped my face, and all the breath I had would be sucked out of me for a while, like I was dying. ‘you been down by that highway?’ Mamma asked when she saw me through the screen door, my cotton dress all covered in dry dirt, and maybe torn where I’d crawled through the wire. ‘No.’ ‘don’t lie to me, girl!’ ‘There ain’t no Wichega, Mamma!’ ‘Sweet Pea, there’s always a Wichega! you’d best remember that, girl, and watch out. don’t you never go down to that highway. Promise?’ ‘I promise.’ ‘Never?’ ‘Never.’ The next day I’d be right back down there again, watching people’s dreams go by. Watching and waiting for daddy. The world to me was full of things that needed figuring out, or else I’d just die with the not knowing. I never could figure why we had to be moving around all the time. I tried to count the homes we had until we moved to Mamma’s old house, but I couldn’t remember them all. I made me a friend once but couldn’t keep her, on account of we had to go someplace else. Ellie didn’t have no mamma but she was real nice. She gave me a rock from her backyard as a keepsake. ‘Goodbye, Sweet Pea,’ she told me. ‘I’ll sure miss you.’ Seems like we was all the time waiting and watching, even when there was money in the house, or we had the new olds. When I asked 30
NEVER Mamma straight out, ‘Why did daddy have to hide that time when the sheriﬀ came to visit? Why can’t we stay where we is like other folks?’, her face kind of closed over and it made her cry. So I never asked again. Then came the hottest day on God’s earth. Everything except the highway stopped breathing with the terrible heat. The sun dried up all the grass and crops, and the new paint round the doors peeled away like the lick of a tongue. Weren’t a critter no place. Just about all of Creation stood still. May Alice was kept to her room, the shades drawn and the window closed. Mamma moved around the house like a tired old hound dog. I felt sorry for daddy down at the plant, working. I couldn’t stand it no more and went outside. The sun was like a red hot iron pressed against my face and I couldn’t hardly breathe. I thought of the cool shade under the trees by the pond and how the air would swoosh down there when the trucks went over the bridge. That might feel good. So I walked as slow as Moses and crawled under the fence and sat down by the water and felt the air rush at me like some all-over alive thing. The sky was big and blue through the trees, and I closed my eyes so I could feel my breathing. I must have slept some. I dreamed I saw daddy drive over the bridge. When I woke up it was dusk, and all the automobiles had their lights on, but it was still hot enough to kill a bird. over the other side of the bridge there was noise and people calling. I got up and followed the trail through the trees and the long twisting creeper things where I had to go slow. When I reached the end of the trees, the pond was just the same, deep and mean. The railing on that side of the bridge had one big hole, and what was left was hanging over the side and twisted some. The place was full of people and their cars, gathered round like for a show and with their lights pointing over the pond. There was a man in a skiﬀ. He was talking to some men standing on the dirt near the water. one of them wore a uniform and I guessed he was the sheriﬀ. He was nodding while he listened, all polite. 31
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo Then a crane backed up to the water and the man in the skiﬀ dove in and disappeared for a long time. I held my breath and had to let it out before I saw his head again. He waved his hand and then the crane began to wind. It made a lonely moaning sound like a steer I saw once, hurt real bad. It took one long time dragging up whatever they had down there, and once they stopped when the man in the skiﬀ dove down again then said everything was okay. I was deep down hungry and thinking of supper and what Mamma would say when I got back so late. Then something big as forever came up out of the pond. I watched it lift high into the air while water poured out on all sides. It looked like it was crying a river of tears. There were fat patches of mud all over it and long trailing weed. I knew for sure what it was. A ’54 olds Super 88. ‘He’s still in there sheriﬀ!’ the skiﬀ man called. People started yelling. ‘Serves him right!’ ‘No-account thief!’ The sheriﬀ kind of slumped and took oﬀ his hat. He looked sad and old. ‘Wind ’er up boys!’ I let out a yell. ‘No! you’s all wrong! My daddy… my daddy been drowned by the Wichega!’ They all saw me then, but I started to run and I run all the way home. I was covered in dirt and sweat by the time I got there. My dress was half torn and my arms and legs scratched all over from the creepers and the wire. I couldn’t see on account of the salty tears that filled my eyes with their sting. I told Mamma what I seen. When I got to the part about the Wichega, she cried and May Alice cried with her. We all cried. May Alice didn’t know what was done couldn’t be undone. ‘Ain’t daddy comin’ back some day?’ she whispered after Mamma told us to go to bed. She got real scared when they knocked at the door that night. I put the pillow over my head so’s not to hear the bad news from no uniform. I knew daddy never would come home. So did Mamma. She never did stop her crying.
NEVER We never was the same and didnâ€™t even try. I thought about it, I thought about it a lot. Seems to me that folks take their own road, never mind the promises they make, or the words you throw in their way. That hot summer evening, when the whole world was turning slower than he could bear, daddy got dragged down into the deep dark water. Feels like he took us with him.
Jack Messengerâ€™s writing is about character, memory and experience. It experiments with narrative voice and restrictions of time and space. The basis of Wichega is an autobiographical fragment, elaborated into a Southern Gothic tale of innocence and guilt. His novel The Long Voyage Home is set on a passenger freighter in 1935. Both stories focus on marginalized persons whose lives contain secrets, visions and revelations.
TWO POEMS Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang
If Now I am an Apple If now I am an apple Come to autumn shiny red Reach up and pick me down Nosing oak cider sweetness Polishing cricket ball blush on your thigh Bite Crack Teeth tearing cream flesh Hard to the core do it now! or neverâ€Ś Lest abandoned I fall to fester Weeping in the sod turned ground.
NEVER Catch Me you are not there to catch me as I fall you never were Never will be And I, hunched, sack cloth grey Glean harvest husks Gnawing, on the crust of the day
Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is the author of The Woman Who Lost China, published in 2013. Her poem, Oxford is a Port, won the 2014 Melbourne Poetry Festival and she is a former runner-up in the Woman and Home Short Story Competition. She has had work broadcast on BBC Radio and is a contributor to the literary journal Asian Cha. She is currently working on her next two novels, and is looking for an agent to represent her. www.rhiannonjenkinstsang.com
CHERRIES FROM GRANDMA GOD Victoria Villasenor
Never. Such a fatal word. So determined. I’ll never. He’ll never. She’ll never. But really, how can you know? unless it’s in reference to death. death is equally as final as the idea of never. Kind of. Wendy remembers a quote from a book, “Never name that well from which you will not drink.” using never in that context contains its own ironies. But the point, the idea, is a realistic one. How can you say never and mean it? or rather, how can you say it with the limitless possibilities of life spread before you in a kind of web-like four dimensional landscape? you may say you’ll never eat chocolate covered insects, and maybe you won’t. But if you’re in a new land, where you don’t want to be rude, where you’re desperately trying to do something new, something daring, something so distant from your old life…then ‘never’ no longer applies. It was a lie. These are Wendy’s thoughts as the bus trundles and bounces its way along the heavily rutted dirt track. Rock-slide peril on one side, certain death via a long drop on the other. dust clogs the heavy, sweat-sweet air of the overcrowded vehicle and she breathes in deeply, enjoying the tang of pine under the grit of dirt, in a country she never thought she’d visit. Learning a language she never thought she’d need. Surrounded by people she never thought she’d have anything in common with. Never. A lie told in honest earnestness, in an attempt to show that she knew the comfortable contours of her well-trodden life. The bus hits 36
NEVER a pot-hole, bounces, skids. The tires make that sucking air noise like her bitter grandmother used to make, then catch once more on the road. Wendy is thrown against the older-than-God woman, maybe God’s grandmother, sitting next to her, who simply nods and gives her a wide toothless smile, as though this is the grand highlight of her existence. Grandma God says something in croaking Spanish, but Wendy can only reply with her standard, lo siento. I’m sorry. A phrase so much a part of her life it may as well be tattooed in neon on her forehead to keep her from having to say it. But Grandma God just lets out a laugh that reminds Wendy of the bark peeling from a tree in the wind, and opens a bag of massive ripe cherries on her lap. Grandma God gestures with it, pushes it toward her. Wendy tries to politely decline, but Grandma God takes her hand and jams it into the bag. She laughs softly and pulls out two cherries, thanking her in white-woman Spanish. Grandma God pops a cherry into her own mouth and cackles like a child with chocolate. She gums it, looking for all the world like she’s just eaten the lottery. Wendy puts a cherry into her own mouth, bites down, is surprised by the amount of sweet juice that pops from the delicate skin, by the way it infuses her senses. Grandma God laughs again, pats her hand, closes her eyes and continues sucking contentedly on her cherries. Wendy never thought she’d be sharing marvellous cherries with Chronos’s mother on her way to a Costa Rican rainforest. She never thought a lot of things. She never did a lot of things. She thinks: for instance, when you say ‘I do’, never is implied, isn’t it? you’ll never leave, never give in, never go away. Never be with anyone else. you spin it in more positive syntax, with prettier words and the emotions deemed appropriate by Hallmark. But the bottom line is that you promise that kind of never. Not the kind of never that says, I’ll never see you again. I’ll never experience that… thing… with you again. That’s the part of never you don’t pay attention to. That’s the part of never you hope never to see, never to experience. And even that hope is buried deep, a nagging, 37
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo niggling sensation only when things start to upend and you think, surely, never… And so, you use the lie of never, and you ignore the impossibility of never, of never knowing what will happen when you travel through the space-time continuum that is human existence. you mean your words at the time, of course. you mean every one of them. And you mean them with the next person, when you say the same never-promises you said before. But that never didn’t count, because you didn’t know, then. Now, you can say never for sure. Plenty of people say it with tiny gremlin-like doubts crawling up their spines even at the altar, but they ignore it. They use never, forever, and leap forward. over the years, I’ll never leave you becomes I’ll never hurt you becomes I’d never cheat on you becomes I’ll never get over this becomes I’ll never get away becomes I’ll never get out becomes I’ll never be okay… Wendy’s attention jerks back to the moment as the bus arrives at their destination. Crowds of tourists meander around the base area, waiting for the courage that must surely be just below the surface, if they can only scrape the fingertips of their willpower against it. The bus rumbles to a stop and Grandma God pats Wendy’s cheek with a gnarled hand. She motions to the bag, motions outside and slowly makes her way from the bus, laughing and smiling all the way down the aisle. other natives greet Grandma God with a Spanish word Wendy recognizes as ‘grandmother’, and she wonders for a moment if, in fact, she could be the original Eve, the mother of all humanoid species on the planet. Grandma God Eve, selling cherries to tourists. Wendy gathers her backpack, double-checks that she hasn’t left any of her meagre belongings behind and leaves the nearly empty bus. Without Grandma God on board, the bus feels devoid of air, of life. She hurries oﬀ, needing to leave it behind. Like everything else. The heavy tropical forest air hits her the moment she’s oﬀ, and she takes in a lungful. She sucks in the drenched wet-earth smell, the green 38
NEVER taste of the canopy rolls on her tongue, she feels the songs of wild, rainbow-coloured birds slide over her skin, and she thinks, never. I never thought I’d see, feel, this. She makes her way to the main check-in, gives her name, trades small-talk pleasantries in stilted Spanglish, and heads toward the ‘go’ point, which she can’t see because it’s down a narrow dirt path through the trees. Wendy thinks of Snow White, of the other various princesses whose names escape her, who have met their fates in woods. But those were dark woods. Places they were forced to go because something, someone, was chasing them. No one is chasing her. No one is looking for her. These woods she’s entering of her own free will, though she never thought she would. Wendy sets oﬀ, smiles at Grandma God Eve selling her cherries to tourists, and suddenly feels grateful, feels special, that she got some of those robust little fruits for free. Eve, indeed. Maybe there was something special in them, some magic that would manifest itself over time. It was a hell of a lot better than any poisoned apple, anyway. She eats a cherry and sets oﬀ down the path, alone. Fairy tales are full of nevers. Fortunately, life was far from one of those. dappled sunlight filters through the dense tree tops, throwing strong, straight patterns across one another, over the ground. Some things in shadow, some in light. She stops at the grouping of people at the end of the trail. A shiver of fear, of never-in-a-million-years, shoots through her, from her stomach to her toes, making her various parts clench and her toes dig into her shoes as though to anchor her to the soft dark chocolate brown of the earth below her. The metal zipline glints in the hazy sunlight, thick and strong but surely too thin to support human bodies whizzing through the tree tops along it. It disappears from sight as it clears the canyon and river and becomes part of the tree tops once again. Wendy watches as a man is strapped into the harness thing, the thick straps that run between his legs and around his waist oﬀsetting his bottom like a sporty picture 39
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo frame. He slides on the gloves, stands still as they hook the cables from his harness to the zip line, and he when he’s ready, he steps oﬀ the edge with an excited yowl, trusting that his weight won’t be too much for the cable suspended high over the canyon. When. Another good word. A word in opposition to never. If never was a door with broken hinges and a bent frame, when was a doorway with no door. When I step oﬀ that ledge, when I let a stranger strap me in, when I, too, trust that my body won’t fall into the rapids below, that’s when I’ll be free. That’s when I’ll know never doesn’t matter anymore. She takes a deep breath, nods to confirm to herself that when is better than never, and catches the eye of the man tasked with strapping strangers into harnesses. He grins and motions her forward. His hands are gentle and expert. He turns her this way and that, and she feels him moving quickly around her thighs and waist. She’s an object, a job. She’s okay with that. She slides on the well-worn khaki gloves, stiﬀ with the sweat of hundreds of hands gripping the metal handle that gave them some little shred of something to hold onto as they hurled themselves oﬀ a safe ledge and into the air. He does one more check, says, “ready” in heavily accented English and motions her to the edge. When. Wendy breathes in the mist from the rapids below. When I do this, my life is about when, not never. When I left. When I got on a plane. When I travelled to a country I’d never been to, when I didn’t know a soul for six thousand miles. When I decided to spend three hours travelling through the treetops of a forest instead of reading a book with a cup of tea. She straightens her shoulders. She grips the handle too tightly. When. When you’re flying through the air, slicing it with your body, with no protective layers surrounding you and giving you the impression of safety. When it’s your body, the straps that hold it, the wire it’s attached 40
NEVER to, your centre of gravity positioned so your legs are out as though you’re reclining. The wind is whistling in your ears, making your eyes water. The sun beats down on you, and suddenly… Never. Wendy never thought she’d be this person. This person surprised by the treetops beneath her feet, and then next to her face. A few tangy leaves brush her shoulders as she passes them by. She’d taken the first step… No, not the first. The first was miles and landmasses ago, a never-never land full of nevers. This was another step in many she would take from now on. Not if. Not never. But when.
Victoria Villasenor is a full-time development editor for LGBTQ publisher Bold Strokes Books in New york, and she also runs the social enterprise Global Words, based in Nottingham. She and her partner are often oﬀ gallivanting around Europe, when she isn’t chained to her desk working. www.victoria-oldham.co.uk
ALMOND EYES Catherine Brookes
It is mostly quiet here in this Manhattan apartment, just around the corner from Central Park. Twice a day she comes. She scrapes the key in the lock and her rubber soles squeak a little on the bathroom floor. Two minutes to wash her hands and she will be here. My room is always the first. She lifts the dressings and I see her superannuated face peering down. usually a grunt, two white tablets and a rinse with a glass of water to encourage me to swallow them down. I think she’s Mexican, or speaks Spanish at least. The hem of the back of her short white uniform is losing its slovenly grip. I never dreamed I’d be doing this. But here I am, recovering from inviting a stranger to slice right through my eyelids then to stitch them tighter. I have trusted a man I’ve met once to melt the pendulous fat beneath each eye to make me look glad to be alive. How did this become my life? *** I never thought of myself as vain. Even in primary school I’d watched the others filing into assembly and my mind would compare; who also was thicker in the ankle, had ears that stuck out, wonky teeth? ‘They give you personality,’ dismissed my mother, as if teeth could captivate a room, in a good way. I flowered, brief as a Christmas cactus, in my twenties, when I was with the rich and interesting men as a matter of course. Then suddenly, nothing, until him. And he was too good to be true as I lifted the dustsheets from my heart and fell headlong from my life on the shelf and into his 42
NEVER kitchen. Too soon, it was ‘I don’t know if I do want to have children with you any more’—a light comment thrown to my thirty-eight-year-old back as I loaded the dishwasher, bought with my own salary. ‘It’s for your own good,’ he would say to disguise the delight he took in provoking my tears late at night. ‘I’m only telling you because I love you.’ He jabbed his finger at me. ‘You need to know when you are irritating people. Being attention-seeking. Looking blousy. With no makeup you could at least be wholesome, not some painted harpy with sharp, red nails.’ In the fourth year, just once, I did not listen in modest silence. I stood up for myself and talked back. ‘you only hurt me because it is you who are weak’. My words hung between us on the cream carpeted stairs. It was already 2 a.m., and I had work in five hours. For a moment he paused, almost with regret, but then he lifted his fist. I left. ‘you’re better without him,’ my friend urged as we went on evening strolls round the Heath before I returned to my new basement room alone. ‘With him, well it’s like you weren’t there anymore. I don’t know, it was like you’d turned into someone else. A bit, Stepford wives. you even stopped painting your nails.’ I looked down, my nails now brightly pink, my hands moving swiftly in counterpoint to my speech. ‘It’s just, I thought I was becoming real, you know, with a man, babies, leaving my parents behind, the past. But it’s all just messy genetic soup. Maybe the therapy will help.’ Week after week of therapy did release me, just not in the way I expected. I understood that ugly feelings would hang themselves on any convenient feature of my anatomy, not because I was ugly but because I did not feel beautiful inside. And if I am no longer as ugly as I feel, why not simply erase the things that bothered me? Create transatlantic teeth. Shout ‘begone’ to those drooping ledges that appeared and grew looser beneath my eyes each time I cried or slept poorly; in eﬀect, every day now. Hence this secret enterprise, submitting to a top u.S. plastic surgeon’s art. 43
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo According to the internet, his pedigree was impeccable and he had a method of working that avoided full anaesthetic and cuts. The misplaced fat could just be burned away; a precise cosmetic barbeque and within a week everything would be back to better than normal had been for years. He was even available for consultations in London. In the Savoy Hotel, up in a fourth floor bedroom overlooking the Thames, he twisted my chin towards the light and stared intently. ‘Humph. Everything else is oK, pretty good in fact. But you’re right. We need to melt the fat and tighten up those ocular orbs! I suggest we lift up the lids while we’re in there. That should give you another fifteen years.’ I tried not to notice the sprout of hair curling from his nostril. He looked diﬀerent from his headshot on the web site. I thought there might be books to point at; even paint charts help you choose and you can at least paint over a mistake, but there was just him and his expertise. ‘How will I know what I’ll look like?’’ ‘oh—just like you were fifteen years ago, I reckon. Although, I do like to think there is a little artistry in my science. Talk to Jaclyn; she’s a good example. She’ll explain the package. It’ll give you another fifteen years!’ I could tell I was dismissed. Jaclyn walked me through to the adjacent suite as he greeted his next arrival, I thought, with a touch more enthusiasm than he had shown to me. Perhaps she was spending more. The price did turn out to be in pounds not dollars, which was a shock. ‘But it is all-inclusive,’ drawled Jaclyn. ‘you’ll stay in a supervised apartment on Central Park and the nurse will see you twice a day.’ She was beautifully dressed in crisp linen, whilst I was hot with sweat. Her eyes were lovely too. Smoothed outwards, you’d call them almondshaped, blue and calm and for her, no undulating wrinkles, whispering of lost sleep. 44
NEVER I felt a little queasy. Trust. A cheque. Fifteen years erased. ‘Will it hurt?’ was my last question. ‘of course not. you won’t even know what’s going on. We’ll sedate you. It takes half an hour, you’ll rest and then you’ll wake up back in the apartment to your new life. We can even fit you in over the Easter break. That’s what I call a really Good Friday. Sign here.’ *** So here I am, sitting high against the pillows in my bed, waiting for the morning nurse as if nothing has happened. This is the third day of my new life, the Easter Sunday, when I rise up from the dead, especially now the sedation, a timeless dream existence, has let me go. during the operation itself, I could see myself slumping in the chair as the surgeon pulled the curtains round us. I could smell the sizzling fat on the diathermy, but I could not move. Was this how it was supposed to be or was this what merits claims for compensation? I could hear the nurses laughing. For many hours, I lay back in a forest of curtained booths, listening to the murmurs and groans of others passing among us like a breeze. one woman called out a hollow chant ‘No, no, no,’ with such regularity that it became almost soothing. A nurse tried to shut her up. ‘Stop it—you’ll disturb the others, you silly bitch,’ she hissed. It worked for a minute, or it could have been an hour. Now the morning nurse leads me by the arm to sit carefully in the living room. By moving my head in a stately circle, I can see two other tousled victims; white bandages hiding work. ‘Hello,’ I say, speaking towards the woman on my left. Heather turns out to be a housewife who has been lucky in the property market, thanks to a couple of male sponsors, she hints. ‘Now I just want to look lovely for my poochy darling oscar woof woof – I couldn’t bring him. I’m only here to have my chin balanced out from last time. He’d better not charge me again.’ I hadn’t given any thought to things going wrong. Risk-taking is so much easier when the bet is one way: success or nothing. Now I see that’s 45
NoTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STudIo not even a risk. ‘He made a mistake and you came back?’ I can’t help myself blurting. ‘Mistake. Bloody hell,’ says a third voice, with a Liverpudlian twang. A tall, slim bundle walks stiffly out and locks herself in the bathroom accompanied with gentle sobs that penetrate the door with ease. ‘Ignore her,’ says Heather with the wisdom and low expectations of a woman over sixty. ‘She’s only young. I’ll bet it’s not even her first go. She’ll never be satisfied. There’s always one like her. I think he gives them reduced prices. you’ll be fine. I can see from here, there’s not much scarring.’ Now I am in too deep—I have to trust. I fall into a doze only to lurch awake to pictures on the TV screen. There, more vulnerable and older than I had thought him when carefully suited in the Savoy Hotel; there walking into a Manhattan court, is my surgeon. ‘... multiple complaints, but this was particularly serious and has led to a High Court hearing,’ droned the East Coast voice. I can take in no more as I see him blinking into camera flashes on the dull street, flanked by two women. one is Jaclyn, his new assistant, the other, the newscaster says, is his ex-wife. Both have one striking thing in common; both have the most perfect almond eyes. I drag myself to the bathroom and peel back the tape covering the mirror. I came here, a single, modern woman longing to shape my own identity and shrug off the past. I didn’t want to look more like my bloodhound father with each passing year. I longed to rise with a fresh face from my failed marriage. I look in the mirror. I see my future in my new face—and I gasp in horror. Huge black stitching, regular, yet still with something of the Frankenstein about it fringes my eyelids like fake lashes. It looks as if someone had applied purple and black eyeshadow to the sockets of my eyes while I slept. Staring out of my face are someone else’s eyes, but I am not a stranger. It is an artful mix: still a hint of my mother’s eyes, deep-set in disappointment, but although 46
NEVER still slightly swollen, my new eyes are also the unmistakable, smooth shape of almonds.
Catherine Haines has published scholarly articles and a textbook on student writing. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at NTu in 1999. Writing as Catherine Brookes, she has been longlisted by Mslexia and Good Housekeeping for two novels: Starlingâ€™s Bequest, about the taxidermist who exhibited the largest bull-elephant ever stuďŹ€ed and Havana Honeymoon, about a course for would-be romantic writers and salsa dancers.
Stories at heart are about exploring the possible: the road not taken, the ‘what-if’… what might happen someday, or in our wildest dreams. In this volume we challenged writers to break free of this paradigm and shun the possible or ought-to-be in favour of the never-will and better-left-forgotten. Instead of tales of what should happen, we asked for ones exploring what shouldn't. Founded in 2006, Nottingham Writers’ Studio is run by writers for writers, and is dedicated to the support and development of all forms of creative writing. As well as creating a vibrant social community for writers to discuss and develop their work through courses, writing groups and live literature events, NWS has championed major writing events, including WEyA2013, the Eu-funded dovetail Project, and Nottingham Festival of Words, Nottingham’s first city-wide literature festival for over thirty years. We are proud to support Nottingham City of Literature. Membership is open to committed writers who have been or are on the verge of being published, living in or connected with Nottingham. Current members include novelists, poets, songwriters, scriptwriters, copywriters, playwrights and publishers at all stages of their careers. our patron is 2012 International IMPAC dublin Award winner Jon McGregor. NWS is supported by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.
Stories at heart are about exploring the possible: the road not taken, the ‘what-if’… what might happen someday, or in our wildest dreams....