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Issue 16: Bloody Television

21 Oct

Yes, this for this issue we have decided to rummage around in the goggle box.  Our post is a bit thin on the ground this issue. It seems that Celia found herself too glued to Don’t Tell the Bride to get her piece finished, while Emily spent her writing window being distracted by The Young Ones on YouTube.  Perhaps they will find the off switch and get a piece up here at a later date.  But for now, please turn on, tune in and put the kettle on for two original pieces by regular contributor, Jim and new donator, Sean.

086Next issue’s theme: Bloody Tourists.  It’ll be out around Christmas.

 

Bloody Television Contents

WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS – by Jim

OMNISCIENCE IN NAME ONLY – by Sean

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WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS – by Jim

082Davie’s grandpa was forever decoding secret messages: they were hidden in his crossword clues, obscured by the weather forecast and embedded in the classified results. The rise and fall of the place names from Portsmouth to Partick could only be decrypted using a form he’d mark off with crosses and figures. Davie thought the balloon had gone up when the old man punched the air at an unexpected announcement from Falkirk, but when the news came through from Ross County he tossed his screwed up coupon into the fire. This show of disgust was enough to loosen the TV’s vertical hold and send Scottish Division Two into a tailspin, until a single thump from Grandpa knocked the world back onto its axis. He was a man impatient for the final destruction of the Daleks, and all other enemies of the planet, and it was to this end that he and Davie would reconvene in front of the telly after their tea of spam and chips. Grandpa was a widower with only the most basic cooking skills, but his close resemblance to that early Doctor Who, a stern professor with knowing eyes and white hair, had convinced Davie they were tuning in to a dramatised version of his grandfather’s own exploits. Monday to Friday, while other pensioners played bowls and bingo, Grandpa was saving the earth from giant maggots or marauding mannequins, then parking his Tardis at the bottom of the hill next to a milk machine that took threepenny bits. During the programme, Davie would peek from beneath Grandpa’s chair, one arm shielding his eyes and the other round Pixie. Both boy and dog knew that if the real life Doctor couldn’t protect them nobody could, but they still liked having each other for company and Davie found the smell of Pixie’s head especially soothing.

To defeat the forces of evil, Grandpa kept a stock of strange objects in his basement, the hidden potentials of which were understood only by him. Davie knew that if they couldn’t all make it to the Tardis, the cellar would serve as a fall-out shelter and impenetrable anti-Dalek fortress. A workshop and storeroom, it was lined with bunches of rusty keys, piles of folded aluminium foil, egg cartons, empty tissue boxes and drawers full of wine corks and beer can pull-tabs; but the items that captivated Davie most were the old valves – bubbles of the most delicate, dust-coated glass, which he would carefully wipe clean to reveal the tiny solar systems within. You could peer through air holes in the back of Grandpa’s telly at the tubes still on active service, steadily glowing hotter and brighter as the hissing blizzard on the front developed itself into recognisably human forms, yodelling and smoking cigars, dressed up as golliwogs or singing in rocking chairs. Using the vertical lines on his own furrowed brow as antennae, Grandpa was able to intercept the signals, so that he knew what was going to happen in advance: ‘There’s a Dalek coming round the corner,’ he’d say, ‘but the goodies’ll hide in that ventillation shaft.’ The charged particles that flew around in the back of the telly and inside Grandpa’s brain were what made thinking and communication possible – but they also contained enormous destructive power. This was why Grandpa carefully stored the valves after their broadcasting lives were over – because they could be turned into nuclear grenades, not exploding but imploding, as Grandpa carefully explained, if you ever had to lob one at a Cyberman.

No sooner had the Dr Who theme echoed into the distance than Grandpa would turn his attention to the wireless and make his grandson listen to the shipping forecast – another stately procession of gobbledygook about mysterious forces and their direction of movement. Grandpa would gaze at the sky, sometimes picking up the heavy binoculars on his windowsill. As well as the maps, atlases and globes that festooned his house, he also had a star chart, which he obviously needed for his space journeys, but which was explained away as a relic of his time in the navy. Black flecks of shrapnel remained under the skin on his temple, as though the pain of the torpedo explosion that claimed his shipmates was permanently burnt into his face.

In winter time, as Davie’s eighth birthday approached, Grandpa told him the names of the constellations with a note of longing in his voice. His battle-hardened outlook had lately taken on a far-away aspect, as though he felt increasingly shipwrecked on Earth and just wanted back to his own world. There had been a lot of adult talk at home about Grandpa and Davie was getting worried that the old guy might be about to board his Tardis and dematerialise for ever, but surely he wouldn’t leave them all in the lurch? One week Davie was told not to make his usual Saturday visit because Grandpa wasn’t well and Pixie was coming to stay for a while. Then late at night his dad came into Davie’s room and found the boy still nervously awake. He sat down and started to explain that Grandpa had passed away. Confused and over-excited, Davie giggled and tried to jump up and down on the bed, but his dad lay him back, shushed him and told him to go to sleep. Davie could hear his dad saying ‘he doesn’t understand’ in the other room. Then the boy started to cry because all of a sudden he really did understand that his grandfather was not an immortal superhero but just an old man who had reached the end of his days.

For a while Davie refused to watch Dr Who, but that was a short-lived phase. Soon the Doctor regenerated as a younger man with dark hair and that made things easier. Davie was allowed to keep something of Grandpa’s and he chose the star chart, which, as a grown-up, he framed and hung above his desk. The coin-slot milk machine didn’t last much longer than Grandpa but the old police box stood at the foot of that hill for many years, until Davie had grandchildren of his own who knew all about Dr Who and would point with excitement at the Tardis on the occasions they drove past that way. When the dark blue shelter was finally removed, Davie explained to the kids that the Doctor had completed his mission in Maryhill and gone to another galaxy, which was fine, because they would still be able to receive his signals, being beamed across the universe through Time And Relative Dimensions in Space.

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OMNISCIENCE IN NAME ONLY – by Sean

090The grip of the grain and opioids had rendered his form prone, glass skimming the floor

as he drunkenly slumbered on his lazy boy chair to the soundtrack of old fashioned white static. Unplugged aerial. No licence fee, no spoon-fed deathless images. In his hypnagogic state, the old black and white ultra-vivid dreamscapes unfolded, the days of the electric babysitter as his mother tried to cook to the standard of Fanny Craddock, whilst under the myriad layers of benzo-diazepines. The slurred speech as she tried to take his attention away from Champion the Wonder Horse as he too had his medicated milk. Bed-wetting and anxiety? Valium 10, young man, Valium 10. Ghosted words as his chemically altered synapses fired slowly, delaying the memories as he almost caught up with himself. It was about then, 1965, that he’d stopped conventional education, reading, or having any interest in the world beyond the confines of the cathode ray tube aimed directly as his ten-year-old viewing field.

 His father arrived home with dogged regularity and the boy screamed as his father moved in front of the screen inches away from the 20″ locus of control. DC Jameson was an over-worked vice squad officer who at 43 had seen far too much already. Cathy, what about the boy? I can only keep the truancy officers at bay for perhaps another month or so, he’s no imbecile, is he? Jameson had the directive, commanding tones of one used to berating skinny pimps and dead-cod eyed vice girls as he trawled the streets around Soho. Jameson had caught the tail end of Dunkirk and had the night terrors to prove it, his lad, Simon, troubled him even more. A cherub in a faded Dan Dare t-shirt and organ-stop orbs, constantly fixed on the dreaded TV set. Jameson had too much at work to contend with and usually left mother and son to their demi-monde of dull images as he sat in the fastness of his minute study with his ham radio equipment. Different frequencies, the disembodied voices of wavelength revenants fading in and out; soothing Hungarian baritones, Finnish grammar, the staccato of the Netherlands, a symphony of human tones. Voices, no distracting images. Letting those voices reach out and remove him from the umbilical chord of the 15625 Hertz line rate his wife and child were hypnotized by. Bloody sucking the soul out of them Jameson tuned out the nagging fears for the future of his only son and lit his consoling plug of plum cake. As he pulled at his briar, he caught a vision of a future; an obese nation, apathy and an encroaching state. The first twinges of the ischemic stroke that would in twenty five minutes take him from Chepstow Road, Bayswater to the mortuary at St Mary’s, Paddington were upon him, and he pitched forward from his armchair, hitting the threadbare carpet with the finality of a bass thud. Cathy stirred a moment from her viewing of the TV from the kitchen serving hatch as young Simon distractedly ate cheese and pickle sandwiches, spilling the contents onto the rug in front of him.

 The memories of that evening are largely invented by design as the man emerges hungover from the boyhood reverie and shuts down the cussed static hiss. The overwhelming noise is that of traffic, windows opening onto Chepstow Road, 29 buses heading into the city arteries and shouts from the barely-legal, under-the-counter off licence below. He rouses himself and fancies an ethanoic top-up. Out on the streets, there is nary a soul as aluminium delivery capsules in various colours relay commuters home before the 9PM curfew. He’d been the next one to go tonight, hadn’t kept on with the protests, as his friends who’s fled London had the resistence, people like Old Jody, the Irish street seer, who had warned him that his constant TV viewing was a ‘weakener’ and that his tap water was tainted with benzos. Mad old bugger, but quite accurate in the long run. He’d seen Jody receive a truncheon blow a fortnight ago, for missing the newly-imposed curfew by five minutes. His military bearing made it all the more shocking as he refused to be told how to conduct himself and endured blow by blow until the para-military post-9pm boys tazered him to semi-consciousness.

 After witnessing   that, he’d started drinking heavily, stopped drinking tap water and recorded the TV using an old Dictaphone. When he played back the recording the messages that were a frequency below the suggestible level relayed authoritarian and consumer-coercive messages. Over three long days and nights he put together a compilation of these and listened back, unplugging his aerial and looking at his reflection in the mirror for the first time in decades. He must’ve tipped the scales at 20 stones or more, an amorphous mass of human meat. His face whey-complexioned and the eyes all pupil and hardly any iris, the look of a zoned-out factory-farmed pig. And then the ID tag, clipped casually onto a huge blouson jacket Simon Jameson BBC. Director General. It was only then that he too capitulated to the self same ischemic stroke that had robbed his father of life.

 Old Jody O’Dwyer smoothed his white mane over a scalp livid with dried blood and sighed as he hid in the doorway beneath Jameson’s flat. It was 9.30pm; he’d missed the curfew and compulsory daily vote on prisoner conveyance. The military regime had been by stealth, a draconian bye law here, a bloodless coup there. The government was all but run by PR experts and New Media gurus. Justice had become a literal game show, first as a satire, then as truth. There was a small band of resistance, O’Dwyer and a few others in London, where the orbital roads had become rings of steel around an effective city state. The media achieved the rest. O’Dwyer’s eyes caught the roving CCTV 360 degree hidden device and he smashed the infernal globe with a claw hammer. He’d wait for Pete and the others and thanked an invisible and unknowable god that he’d grown up without television. He whistled Arthur Macbride and the Sergeant and smiled grimly at the fragile present, his penny-bright eyes shining with quiet defiance

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Issue 15: Bloody Madness

19 Aug

Welcome back to the jumble sale where you never know what creative writing bargains you might pick up.  This time, Emily, Jim, Celia and new contributor Roger, explore the theme of Bloody Madness. So buckle up your strait jackets and don’t forget your anti-psychotics, anti-depressants or nerve tonics  as we take you through four tales of tipping and slipping over the edge.

Issue 16 will be out in early October, on the theme of Bloody Television.

CONTENTS

Tree – by Emily

Deja Vu – by Jim

The Fire – by Celia

Death of a Literary Lion – by Roger

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TREE by Emily

004

Two women sit in a sitting-room in a house on a suburban street, somewhere out on the eastern end of the Central Line.

Jean: I don’t know how she doesn’t get it chopped down.

Betty: What, the tree?

J: Yes, I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t live with it still there in the garden.  Still alive and growing.  Every time I saw it, it would remind me.

B: Which tree was it? Pauline’s got a couple of big trees hasn’t she?

J: It was the apple tree, down at the bottom, near the shed.  I tell you, I’d have had some men round by now to get rid of the blessed thing.

B: Maybe she will.  But it’s got happy memories too, hasn’t it?  Didn’t Ryan used to climb it when he was a kid?  And what about the apples?  Be a shame to get rid of it.

J: You’re telling me that you could eat an apple off of that tree now?

B: [sigh] I can’t imagine what she’s going through, really I can’t.

J: You know I saw her on the day she found him don’t you? White as a ghost.  Not crying, just stood there, in my hallway, her eyes kind of flickering, hands shaking.

B: Poor cow, it was the shock.  Thank goodness you were in.  Did you give her a brandy?

J: Yes, a large one, and I sat her down, right here, in the lounge.  Gave her one of Reg’s cigs, too, and lit it for her.  She hasn’t smoked for donkey’s years, but I knew she’d need one.  She smoked it like she was a robot until the police and ambulance arrived.

B: I know he gave her a few sleepless nights over the years, but she didn’t deserve this.  She can’t have been expecting it.  What a shock.  Does she have any idea why he did it?

J: I haven’t liked to ask, yet.  I don’t think it’s a good idea to dwell on it anyway, the whys and wherefores.  What’s done is done.

B: I’m sure she doesn’t want to dwell on it, Jean, but surely any mother would need to know why.  How’s she going to grieve for him if she doesn’t understand?

J: Well, if you want my opinion, I think it’s pure selfishness.  It’s about the most selfish thing a person can do.  And he must have known she’d find him.  His own mother, who’d cared for him all these years.  That’s not just selfish, it’s nasty, horrible. The ungrateful little…

B: But the poor lad must have been in a terrible state, surely?  People say it’s selfish, but if you think about it, he must have been suffering terribly.  From what Pauline said, he was quite upset when he got turned down by the army.  Perhaps that triggered it off?

J: We’ve all had our setbacks, Betty, doesn’t mean we just end it all, take the coward’s way out.

B: My Kelly said she’d seen him down the Crooked Billet the other week.  He seemed OK, she said, but maybe because he’d had a few.  Or because he was winning at darts.  He was with that crowd from football.  But Kelly thinks he was still cut up about being denied access to his son.  Perhaps that’s what tipped him over the edge?

J: Well, he wasn’t exactly the greatest father in the world, was he? No job, no prospects, no intention of doing the decent thing and marrying the mother.

B: [pause] He was only 19, Jean.  That’s pretty young to be a dad.  It was tough for him.

J: In our day, you made your bed and you lay in it. We just got on with things, didn’t we? Had no choice.

B: We did our best, Jean, we did our best.  I don’t remember it always being easy though.

J: Well, at least Ryan apologised.

B: How do you mean?

J: He left a note.  Didn’t I say? Pauline found it in his room.  It just said “Sorry, mum”.

B: He knew his mum, knew she’d be upset.

J: I don’t think upset quite covers it!  Everything she’s done for him over the years.  All the sacrifices she’s made, especially since his dad left.  Always put him first.  Who’s she got now?  Do you think he was really sorry? I don’t see it.

B: He must have felt he had no other way out.  I think it’s a tragedy.  I know he didn’t have access, but that little boy will never know his dad.  A whole life, a whole future just gone, like that.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

J: Isn’t it time we got going; the funeral starts in half an hour.  What do you think the vicar will say? Does God forgive?

B: I’ll call a taxi. I don’t feel up to driving. I’m sure the vicar will know the right thing to say.  It can’t be his first.  We just need to be there for Pauline.  She’ll need all the support she can get, and not just today.

J: Yes, we’ll be there for Pauline.  But I think the best thing we could do for her would be to get that tree cut down.  Perhaps plant something else; a rose, or something else.  Something bright and cheerful.

B: Let’s not rush into anything, Jean.  Let’s just help her get through today. See what Pauline wants to do.  After all, it’s not the tree’s fault, is it?

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 DEJA VU – by Jim

005

There were two people I knew in the Mental Health Unit waiting area and one of them I was glad to see.  That was Diane, my supervisor from Tourettesco’s, which is what they call the supermarket we work in due to the number of staff who are space cadets, retards or social cripples of one form or another.  It’s a tribute to the high employment on this island, with its oil terminal and numerous fish factories, that it is virtually impossible to be out of work, whatever your disadvantages, since you can at the very least find a job at our place. I’d heard Diane had something like bipolars and the confirmation of seeing her in the queue for the shrink gave me a valid medical reason for finding her a narky, temperamental cow.  The other familiar face was my ex-landlady, who hadher head in a copy of Take a Break.  I managed to sit down behind her before she could look up,engrossed as she was in an article about a woman who’d been raped by her husband whilst having a hypoglycemic fit.  The landlady’s daughter-in-law had told me the old dear was schizophrenic after she was sectioned.  I’d used her removal as an excuse to bale out, because the family had no idea how far in arrears I was, but there was a chance the old lady might still remember, which was why I wasn’t keen to get chatting.  Plus, before being carted off she’d been giving it hideous seduction movements in the hallway at night, blocking my exit from the bathroom, touching me up and telling me she wanted protecting from the guy in the next room, who she reckoned was an Al Qaeda bomber on the run.  Maybe she suspected Alessandro because of his dark complexion and beard, but he was just an Italian hairdresser, temporarily homeless after cheating on his wife with one of the trainees.

            Diane was avoiding eye contact as we sat there and, as she normally spent her time berating me in front of customers, pulling faces behind my back for the benefit of her friends or whispering with other staff to make me feel paranoid, I now took  a spiteful pleasure in her discomfort, especially as I didn’t actually share her sense of shame at being round the bend – I was sat there bold as brass – but then maybe my particular mental illness is relatively high status, since virtually all our brave servicemen come home with it fitted as standard.  You guessed it, I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I didn’t get it fighting for my country, in a car accident that wiped out the rest of my family or anything else you might want to brag about down the pub.  The experience that sent me doolally happened a long time ago and I thought I was just about over it until they started going on about this kid who died.  It was one of these big abuse things that happen now and again, but there was something about this one – I think it was the mug shot they kept showing of the dad.  All the old triggers started having an effect: anything to do with rope, the smell of hay, any loud noise or shouting, even darkness; but to be honest it can just be someone being not very nice to you, and that happens to me a lot.  It happens to us all at Tourettesco’s.

            There’d been a bad one when Diane started laying into Malcolm at the checkout.  Malky has Asperger’s and sometimes seems to zone out and do mad things like running completely out of coins and asking customers if we can owe them their change.  People are less sympathetic to oddballs if they’ve got serious personal odour problems so I wished they would just keep Malcolm on stock control and reductions, because he is good with numbers, but it’s usually all hands on deck at the front.  Anyway, this woman has to wait ages while he’s fucking around with the till roll, then he tells her to cheer up for Christ’s sake.   I’m about to say something along the lines of Malcolm doesn’t mean anything by it when Diane appears and starts yelling at him that he is a total waste of space.  That’s when it came back really strong.  It’s hard to describe because it’s not like anything else.  It’s like your daily life is a quickly forgotten dream that you keep waking up from, back into this insufferable black horror that engulfs everything and which you now remember is what’s actual and real – this is you being shown again how it really is and will always be.  It’s like a nuclear form of déjà vu that comes with an overwhelming nausea and the inability to recall who anyone is, or understand what they are saying.  That’s why it’s really important to get away from people.  So there’s all this shouting at Malcolm and I’m getting up from my till with ten people waiting and going into the storeroom, trying to find a corner between the shelves.  I hunker down behind some boxes and cover my head.  This had happened a few times when it wasn’t as busy and I’d gotten away with it because it can ease off after a few minutes, but this time Diane comes through and finds me.  She is standing over me and shouting and there is no escape so I lift a heavy box full of tins and throw it at her full scale, but she ducks out the way.  I am skipping round the cans of pears rolling all over the floor and Diane is screaming for someone to come and help her even though she can see I am just trying to get out the back door.

            The doc wrote me a line explaining the incident which I took to a meeting with Diane and the store manager.  They ended up designating a safe area for me that consisted of the cleaner’s cupboard.  Diane never once mentioned her own issues even though they were as plain as the bandages on her wrists and, judging by the way she was blanking me at Mental Health, she still wasn’t in a sharing mood.  I got called into my appointment with the psychie nurse who wants to move a finger back and forth in front of my face while I go over in my mind the events that started my problems all those years ago.  She says it will be upsetting but that it will help to get everything into my long term memory where it belongs.  She is a nice woman the nurse, like a youngish aunt with really nice tits, and I’m thinking why can’t she just tell me a story while I fondle her breasts, but we go through the rapid eye movement rigmarole and she is right – it is very upsetting.  She has to wag her finger and then every few seconds stop and ask me where I am now.  I am in the cowshed.  Now Dad is winding rope round my wrists and throwing the other end over a beam.  Now he is hoisting me up.  Now he is doing a few practice cracks of his belt.  At this point I jump towards the consulting room window.  I manage to open it and start gulping in air but the nurse must have pressed a panic button because this bloke runs in and puts me in a restraining hold on the carpet.

            At my next supervision with Diane I told her I couldn’t handle the PTSD therapy, but the story of the murdered boy had blown over, with the father jailed for life, and I’d started to be less fearful of TVs and newsstands.  Diane admitted she had seen me in the health centre and apologised but said she found it hard to be as up-front as me.  I told her it had really helped having my stuff out in the open and the safe area had been brilliant, although it had caused some envy amongst my colleagues.  She said she could understand the reaction of the other staff and asked if I wouldn’t mind her joining me in the there from time to time.

            They give you anti-depressants for PTSD and for bipolars, but I can vouch that the bonking chemicals your body produces when you’re having a passionate love affair are every bit as effective.  The cleaner’s cupboard has mostly been replaced by Diane’s flat as a rendezvous, but we give each other pheromone top-ups throughout the day: brushing past in the tobacco kiosk, squeezed fingers behind the bakery counter – every little helps, as they say.  I worry about the crash landing that will happen when this phase is over and how awkward it’s going to be when we fall out. But, I suppose, if and when that does happen, there’s always Morrisons.

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THE FIRE – By Celia

003

That bin’s on fire again. It’s the boyfriend. Sore from last night’s argument, he’s pacing around the flat: up and down, cheap pumps stomping, wearing down the rug.

I’m awake, drowsy and dizzy.

He’s clutching the mobile; fingers hovering between 111 and 999.

I climb out of bed and pull my T-shirt down towards my knees. I lock myself in the toilet and stand on the seat so I can see out of the small window at the top. The flat’s opposite the fire station, surely one of them can come out and deal with it? The Council or the Mayor or the Government, one of them or all three of them, want to sell it off because of the cuts. There’s a big sign outside. Guiltily, I wish that they would, I can’t relax with the lights and sirens at all hours.

The bin’s caught properly now, I can hear small pops and see orange flames dancing through the holes in the top. The smell’s quite nice, plastic and warm and wintry, even though it’s summer and boiling hot.

There’s someone out there on the phone, I think they’re dealing with it. I just want to go back to bed, but he’s already folded the sofa bed where we sleep back into a sofa and pushed the duvet down behind the wicker chair.

I wonder if it was arson. I want to know what’s for breakfast. Maybe there’s a Mr Kipling French Fancy left over from that pack he brought home last night.

Someone probably put their fag out in it, didn’t they?

He’s happy that I’m engaging with him at last.

Oh no, Celia, I don’t think so. Look at how it’s burning, they’ve used a propellant.

You mean an accelerant, I think, but don’t say anything. Maybe I start to smile a little at his use of this forensic term, he’s been watching too much TV.

Sirens and blue flashing lights fill the living room. There’s a big sssssshhhh as the fire engine puts on its breaks after driving ten feet out of the station and two firemen jump out. They use a hose to douse the flames in foam. It’s out and they jump into the engine and reverse it back into the front of the station.

What did they need to do that for? Are they on commission or something?

It’s all over. We grin at each other. I smile as he fills the kettle and puts the last French Fancy, a pink one with white icing, onto a chipped plate for me.

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 DEATH OF A LITERARY LION – By Roger

  vintage ORIENTAL CHESS SET really cool pieces

You may or may not remember Donald Strathearn as one of Scotland’s minor nationalist poets. There was a time, though, when he was hailed in literary circles as “the Scottish Walt Whitman”, thanks to an enthusiastic (and somewhat silly) 1972 review of his long, rambling autobiographical poem of that year, The Cause of Thunder. His star fell just a few years later, but his work can still be found in some Scottish poetry anthologies, mostly key passages from The Cause of Thunder , which was his first foray into free verse. He thought the Whitman tag was ridiculous (he resented any comparison), but Whitman was indeed one of his main inspirations, especially the Civil War poetry. Believing that what Scottish literature needed in the late twentieth century was its own “barbaric yawp”, he looked to Whitman’s intimate, free-ranging, patriotic example. The result is a strange work – the chaotic narrative begins at the moment of the conception of the poet on a picnic blanket atop a cliff in Caithness, and goes on to recount his early life in a series of unstructured, impressionistic vignettes, powerfully evoking his years as a riveter in the Glasgow shipyards and his subsequent ascent to the trade unions. It culminates with his arrest at a protest march organized by the Marxist-Leninist Worker’s Party of Scotland in 1965 – that night, in a small prison cell, Strathearn recounts, his “consciousness erupted, blazing / across the cosmos”.

            The poetry was just like the poet: angry, vitriolic, high-minded, difficult, and nationalist in the most heavy-handed way. Reading it now, you feel that he was trying too hard. Indeed, those who tend to admire it tend to be those who are themselves trying too hard (mostly old school nationalists and Trotskyists). These days I don’t have much nationalist fervour – I don’t really see how Scotland could make it as an independent nation. I tend to think we’d be better off staying put. Why rock the boat? Mind you, these days I haven’t much fire in me for anything. I work as a pub chef, I have sciatica, and I’ve been divorced twice by the mother of my three children. It’s hard enough to stump up my alimony and have enough left over to pay my rent and heat my highrise shoebox. So I don’t go in for politics much now. But back in the 1970s I was a feisty nationalist firebrand and socialist activist along with the best of them, and so I developed something of an obsession with Strathearn, an obsession that was deepened by the fact that we both came from the town of Dunbeath. I wrote him an embarrassing fan letter after reading The Cause of Thunder, and even enclosed some of my own god-awful poetry. To my astonishment, he replied and invited me to have a pint with him at his Working Men’s Club. I never plucked up the courage to go. I’d seen him give public readings and I’d walked in his shadow at a political march in Glasgow. Six foot two with powerful shoulders, long grey hair, and a red-speckled beard, he resembled a Viking warrior (when he took his round specs off). His nickname among colleagues was ‘The Yeti’. He glowered and drank and gave fierce lectures in the universities, railing against everything from industrial capitalism to the “pish-soaked English decadence” of The Rolling Stones. He was quick to savage fools, and often backed it up physically. He punched his brother at their father’s funeral following a dispute over who should lead the pallbearers’ procession. He bickered and fought his family over money and property. He’d been known to turn up bare-chested outside people’s houses in the middle of the night, having decided to settle a perceived wrong there and then.

            Later on, it was understood that he was mentally ill, but only when it was too late to make any difference. His behaviour was seen by one half of the literary establishment as mere poetic excess (he was “wild”, a “primitive”, a “force of nature”, and other cliches), while the other half used it to discredit his ideas. Family, friends, and academic acquaintances gradually distanced themselves from him. His political comrades no longer wanted to be seen with him. His teaching position at the University of Glasgow (his main source of income) was cut. Publications rejected his poems and essays. By the late 1970s he was almost completely alone. The death of his alienated daughter, Elizabeth, in 1978 seemed to harden him further. The following year he severed his city ties and retreated north to a commune near Dunbeath. He wandered from town to town in ruined clothes, drinking himself into madness. His beard got ever longer and dirtier and greyer. He published nothing, apart from questions for the local school exam board for cider money and the odd ferocious letter to a local newspaper.

            I chanced to see him around this time. I was in Dunbeath visiting my mother. I’d just left her house and was driving out through the town in a bitter rainstorm when I spotted him standing in the street. He seemed to have been going somewhere but then simply stopped, as if he’d just lost the will. He was sobbing loudly and rubbing tears and rainwater from his eyes and beard. I could hear his sobbing from the car as I went by. I had somewhere to get to. I kept going.

            It bothered me for months. I was terrified of opening my newspaper and reading of his suicide, knowing that I had left him breaking down in the street. I decided to write to him again. At length I managed to obtain the address of the commune. I didn’t expect him to remember me or write back, but he did. His reply was warm and expansive. He talked of his plans to instigate “a New Poetry for a New Scotland”. He also challenged me to a game of chess by correspondence. Many people with intellectual pretensions try their hand at chess; I was one of them. I wasn’t very good – I’d never had the patience to develop my game – but I felt bad for him, and, admittedly, the notion of playing with an intellectual heavyweight appealed to my ego. I accepted the challenge. His first move arrived in the mail a few days later:

P-Q4 

   I responded:       

Kt-KB3 

  A few days later came the reply:

P-QB4

 And so it went on. We played non-stop over the next few years. To keep track, I bought a  chessboard in a charity shop and set it up in my living room to play our games out with real pieces. I didn’t win a single game, however. My best result was managing not to lose one – I somehow dragged things out and forced stalemate. I was fine with it after the first two drubbings; he was clearly a brilliant player. I merely started to look forward to the virtuosity of his attacking play.

            When we began, his moves were accompanied by friendly notes and chess tips. As time went on, he began to share thoughts with me on political affairs and contemporary writers. I was fascinated. It gave me something to think about and look forward to. I did my best to keep up the conversation. I debated with him, taking the side of Labour and the Unionists. Scotland was too weak, our energies too scattered, I suggested. We lacked confidence as a nation. How would we defend ourselves once independent? How would we cope with the debt we’d be lumped with? How would we get our fair share of oil revenues? Where we would stand in Europe? Scotland can’t go it alone, I argued, and certainly not under any socialist government… His replies got longer and more impassioned. It was a thrill for me. I started to mess up food orders at work because I was composing counter-arguments in my head. The debate intensified further. I started to feel convinced of my own arguments. His rhetoric became increasingly violent and obscure. He began to rave about a “New Scottish Revolution” that he apparently believed was going to take place soon. There were long passages referring to Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Robert Owen, and John Maclean, laced throughout with phrases in capital letters: “DIALECTICAL INEVITABILITY” and “ABSOLUTE SELF-KNOWINGNESS OF THE SCOTTISH MIND”. He berated the Scottish Nationalist Party, Scottish Labour, and the socialists for being weak and confused. He lampooned writers of the “pretend Left”. I did my best to stay with it but after a while they became unreadable. Finally, they became outright strange. The handwriting melted into a wild scrawl; surrounding it were inky clouds of equations, diagrams, cartoons, song lyrics, and musical notes. Often the sheets were stained with wine or blackened with cigarette burns.

            Then the communications stopped abruptly, as did the chess game we were in the middle of (I’d actually been doing quite well). The final letter arrived in February 1982. Had the handwriting been legible, I doubt the meaning would have been comprehensible. The diagrams and equations ran off the side of the page. A roughly-sketched map of Scotland was drawn over what appeared to be a star chart with ghostly faces emerging from it. In the middle of it was a thumbprint made in blood. A month or so later, I read in the Standard that Strathearn had been sectioned.

            Six months passed. I didn’t do anything. I thought there was probably nothing I could do anyway. Indeed, I wondered if I had contributed to his mental collapse. Perhaps I should have taken his letters to someone, a doctor or psychiatrist. In truth, it hadn’t even occurred to me that he was ill – I had just thought he was “mad” in the way that brilliant people often are. Have you ever seen the manuscripts of William Blake? I went about my life. I had a new girlfriend. She moved in with me. We had wild pub nights and cosy mornings in bed. I was selfishly happy.

            I still thought of Strathearn, though. I talked about him to my girlfriend, and she pushed me to go and see him. That October, I gave in. I phoned the psychiatric hospital he was in and drove out for visitor’s hours. I was walked up to the third floor of the gloomy hospital building by a chunky-built orderly in white with a shaved head.

            “He’s just had a manic spell,” he said, “He’s on the downturn now, though. You’ll be fine on your own with him. I’ll be outside.”

             He unlocked a white steel door and showed me into a sunlit ward with a large bay window. The poet sat on a wicker chair by the wall hunched over a small table with a chessboard on it. An empty chair sat opposite. He was still a big man, though the broad frame was frail and jaundiced. The white hair had been clipped ludicrously, the grey beard hacked away. He wore thick NHS glasses and faded purple pyjamas with a sky blue dressing gown over them. His long pale feet were bare; his blueish toes gripped the metal crossbar of his chair like talons. He stared at the chessboard with an expression that was both vexed and sad.

            “Hello Donald,” I said.

            He didn’t move. He was fixated on the chessboard. The game appeared to be well underway despite the lack of an opponent. I assumed he must be playing himself. Then, stepping forward, I recognized my own defensive formation from nearly a year ago. The opponent was me.

            “Donald,” I said.

Silence.

            “Donald, it’s Kenneth.”

            “Play, then, for God’s sake!” he bellowed, gesturing violently at the board without looking up at me. At a loss for anything to say, I sat down in the empty chair. Finally, I made a move I’d been considering after receiving his last. I took his queen’s pawn with my knight. He snorted contemptuously and took the knight with his bishop, tossing my piece high over his shoulder. It hit the window behind him and fell to the floor. I sheepishly moved a pawn forward.

            “Donald,” I said, “how have you been?”

            “The Revolution is coming!” he snarled, snatching up my pawn. “Red Caledonia shall command the nations….”

            In taking my pawn with his knight, he left his queen open to my bishop. I hesitated, suspecting a trick. There was no trick. Terrified of patronizing him, I took his queen. He looked shocked and saddened for a moment, then nodded gravely. We played on. He didn’t look at me once. He ranted and muttered and laughed, all the while making disastrous moves, losing piece after piece. Finally, I maneuvered an attack squad – queen, knight, bishop, two rooks – in for the kill. He was four moves from checkmate. Seeing it, he gasped. A moment later he swung his fist in the air and smashed it down on the table. The chessboard flipped into the air scattering the pieces across the room. A glass ashtray and a mug of milky tea flew off it and shattered on the tiled floor. The orderly shouldered the door and sprinted in, followed a moment later by a stocky female nurse. I stood up and backed away. They rushed up and leaned over him. The orderly held his wrists while the nurse looked into his eyes and began saying his name, telling him to calm down, that it was all right. Strathearn was offering no resistance, though. He lay there, lank and pathetic. His chest began to rise and fall. For a few moments there was just the thinnest hint of the sobbing I had heard from my car on that miserable wet street in Dunbeath, then it passed. A long, glistening tear made its way slowly over the rise of his cheek bone and down into the cleft beneath it, where it disappeared into the thick beard. I motioned to the nurse that I would go. She nodded. I found my way out of the building, and (once again) I drove away.

            A week later I received a letter. The address written on the envelope was not in Strathearn’s hand. Inside was a single sheet of writing paper. It was blank, except for one word scrawled violently across the middle. This was in his hand:

ZUGZWANG!!!

          A week later, Donald Strathearn was dead. Initial reports said it was heart failure, but there were rumours that he’d hung himself with a dressing gown belt. Obituaries appeared in some lefty Scottish newspapers, and a couple of literary magazines noted his passing. I attended his funeral. Academics and literary types outnumbered family by about eight to one. They dominated the tributes. They referred to him as “Scotland’s literary lion” and “our Viking bard”, and they wheeled out the “Scottish Walt Whitman” line right on cue. One of them even seemed to hint that his descent into madness was a fitting end for a such an impassioned, visionary poet. They made it sound as if they’d been there beside him on the Independence march right up to the bitter end. They droned on and on ludicrously. They were soft and chinless. They’d never been to a trade union meeting in their lives. I nearly scoffed aloud, but an uneasy feeling held me back. When it was finally over I went through to the bar and ordered a pint. I sat thinking. A man in his thirties wearing an ill-fitting tweed jacket came in and sat down beside me. He turned and looked at me. He was Scottish but spoke with an Oxbridge affectation.

            “Were you family?”

            “No,” I said, “just a friend.”

            “He was a very great poet. I’m writing my PhD thesis on him.”

            “Oh right.”

            “Yes, I’m charting the evolution of his nationalist thought during the decade 1968 to 1978 and exploring how that influenced his poetic imagery.”

            “Good for you.”

            We were silent for a couple of minutes.

            “I played chess with him,” I said, for something to say, “by letter.”

            “Oh, really!”

            “Well, I tried. I hadn’t a hope against him.”

            “Some do say he was a better chess player than a poet. I don’t agree, of course. But did you know he was an accredited Chess Master back in the day? He played in the Soviet Union during the….”

            “No, I didn’t know that.”

We sat and drank in silence for a minute. Then on an impulse I took Strathearn’s last note out of my pocket and unfolded it.

            “Do you know what this means?”

            “Zugzwang,” read the scholar. “Ah yes. It’s German. In chess, it means a position where the only move you can make is one that will lead to you losing the game. I’d say that calls for a drink!”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “He was conceding the game to you.”

            “…”

            “You beat the great Donald Strathearn at chess! There’s one to tell your grandchildren about. You must be thrilled!” He clicked his fingers above his head. “Another drink here!”

            “No,” I said, waving the barman off. “I’m going.”

            I got up and went outside. It had begun to thunder and rain heavily. I didn’t have a coat with me, only my black funeral jacket. I stood smoking in the doorway for a while. The iron-grey sky didn’t look like it was going to clear any time soon, but I didn’t want to go back inside. Eventually, I pulled my collar up, tossed my cigarette, and started walking.

 

 

Issue 14: Bloody Neighbours

10 Jun

Welcome to the fourteenth edition of the Feminist Jumble Sale.  Neighbours from hell; we’ve all had them.  Perhaps some of us have been them.  Whatever, the trials of living in close proximity to other people can certainly bring the worst out in even the best of us.  Emily, Jim and Celia take you on a tour of the madnesses, petty politics, jealousies, varied music tastes and subversions that rear their heads through flimsy partition walls, concrete ceilings and over garden fences.

Next issue will be out early August, and we’ll declare the theme once we’ve thought of one.

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CONTENTS

Onward Christian Soldiers – by Emily

From Hell – by Jim

Bubble Gum – by Celia

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ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS – by Emily

041

My sister, dad and I celebrated the day Mrs Wagg moved out from the flat downstairs.  We had got in from school to find removal men loading up a van, while Mrs Wagg barked orders from the doorstep.  My sister and I watched the rest of the progress, cheering when the Hammond Organ was taken down the path and out of our lives for good.  Over a special tea that dad made when he got home, of avocados and mayonnaise, vegetable moussaka and  tinned peaches blended with yoghurt, we talked about the peace we would enjoy with no more all-day renditions of Roll out the Barrel, and no more of Mrs Wagg’s double-standard complaints when we turned Top of the Pops up too loud.

A few weeks of quiet and freedom later, some new people moved in.  Two women in country tweeds and riding boots, they stared at us from their window when my sister and I got in from school.  “They seem a bit odd, don’t they? I said.  “Yes, but there’s no sign of a Hammond Organ!” said my sister.  We stared back, for a laugh, but took little notice.  Later, dad said he’d met them; they were a mother and daughter.  He found it strange that they dressed as if they lived on a country estate, rather than in a housing association flat in the centre of Peterborough.  I found the way all adults dressed a bit strange, so didn’t really have an opinion on this.

When we found them standing in the front garden as we left for school, my sister and I started feeling a bit unnerved.  They didn’t say anything, just stared, and we hurried off.  The next weekend we were at dad’s the banging started.  I often lay awake at night in that flat, because of dad’s snoring which reverberated through the woodchip-papered wall between our bedrooms.  I would stuff cotton wool in my ears and pull the duvet over my head, but the snoring was powerful and incessant.  I heard what sounded like a broom handle being bashed against the ceiling.  It was slow, and rhythmic at first, starting at one end of the flat, and building in frequency as the neighbours seemed to march up and down the flat.  It was strange; Mrs Wagg had only banged on the ceiling when we were being noisy.

Over breakfast of toast and Marmite, it was clear that dad and my sister had slept through it.  Dad didn’t seem to believe me, but I swore it was true.  “Oh come off it,” he said “Why on earth would they be banging on the ceiling if we weren’t making any noise?”.  I was tired and  angry, “Perhaps your snoring kept them awake too!” I said, before grumpily picking up my bag and heading down the stairs and out the door.

The next Thursday we were there, dad admitted he’d heard some strange banging a couple of times too.  That night we all heard it.  It was louder, and went on for hours.  I went into my sister’s room at the other end of the hall, just as the singing started.  We strained to hear the words, was it Onward Christian Soldiers?  It sounded like one of the hymns we secretly enjoyed singing at school but we couldn’t work out which.  We dared each other to bang on the floor, but this made the singing louder, the banging faster.

Dad went round to see them the next day, but the women refused to answer the door.  The next time we saw them, they stared, as usual, and then the older one shouted at us “Comb your hair!” We laughed, and said “No!”  My sister added, “Our hair is none of your business” but they said it again.  What did this mean?  Our hair wasn’t that messy, and anyway, it was the mid eighties. We quickly went inside the flat and closed the door, but they shouted “You are the devil’s child!” at us through the letterbox.  We told dad that they really were mad.  He advised us not to speak to them, and got in touch with the landlord.

Every alternate weekend and Thursday night we were there, and  the night time ceiling-bashing and hymn-singing continued.  Every time we saw the women, they told us we were the devil, that we were evil, that our hair was a mess.  “What a mess!” they would take it in turns to shout after us as we left the flat to return to our mum’s.  Sometimes they quoted what sounded like bible nonsense at us.  One day I was so exasperated, I shouted “Fuck off!” but  ran inside, scared, slamming the front door.

It was one Sunday when my sister and I were hanging out some washing. We backed to the end of dad’s side of the garden as we saw their back door open.  “Oh shit, here we go” I said.  The younger woman crossed from her side of the garden, and started telling us we were the devil.  How could we both be the devil, I thought?  How could we be both the devil and the devil’s child? She had a bucket in her hand, and quickly marched up to my sister, and after saying “How dare you!” tipped water over her head.  My sister screamed and I rushed over.  The woman quickly went back inside, and shut the door; both of them staring at us through the glass panel as we gathered up the washing and headed back into dad’s flat.  “How dare we what, for fuck’s sake?” I said as I tried to comfort my sister.  She was soaking wet and crying.

It was after this that mum said we couldn’t stay at dad’s any more.  She was already worried by the night time disturbances, and I was exhausted from lack of sleep.  Dad upped his pressure on landlord.  We still spent time there, and one Saturday when dad was out, we were in the flat, messing about in the kitchen.  We had opened the kitchen windows wide to air the flat; it smelled of stale cigar smoke and bins, as dad mostly stopped with his girlfriend now.  We had the radio on, and were quoting The Young Ones at each other, making each other laugh.  My sister was being Neil, and I was being Rik.  Then suddenly something came hurtling through the open window.  It hit the far wall, and we saw it was an egg, it’s slimy contents sliding down the woodchip.  We swore, as another one, and then another followed.  There was egg all over the wall, but we didn’t dare go to close the window for fear of being hit.  The women were chanting, “Get out! You are the devil!” We managed to get to the sides of the window, each pulling down a sash, as more eggs came flying, hitting the glass, and spattering all over the window frame and sill.  We were really scared now, we locked the windows and I ran down to bolt the front door.  What would be next, after the bucket of water and the eggs?  Dad called the police when he got back from the market.

It took a while but eventually they were evicted.  We had hoped to see them in court, as we stood there to give evidence, our hair neatly brushed, and wearing crucifixes borrowed from school friends. But they didn’t show up.

The following summer on a day out to a local stately home with dad and his girlfriend, we saw the mother and daughter walking arm in arm in the rose garden.  They had on their full country outfits: the mother in a Barbour and deerstalker, the daughter in tweed jacket and flat cap.  My first instinct was to hide, but we braved walking past them to see if they would do or say anything.  They ignored us, and continued walking about the garden, slowly, heads held high, as if they owned the place.

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FROM HELL  – by Jim

042

The crowd for the solar eclipse was the biggest gathering on that beach since a similar occurrence three thousand years previously, when, fearing a demon was consuming the sun, villagers had yelled and beaten drums to scare away the evil presence. They thought the rumble and shaking of the earth was the titanic struggle between the demon and their thunder god, who had come to help them fight off the sun-swallowing devil, and danced and cheered in the returning sunlight, even as it shone victorious through the perfect thirty foot wave that washed them away, along with their dwellings and almost all trace of their community.1  Knowing nothing of that calamity, the modern locals mingled in an atmosphere of muted excitement, a cross between a picnic and the build-up to a wedding service.  Neighbours who had last spoken harshly over a boundary dispute or car parking problem now waved awkwardly, estranged spouses shuffled past each other with their current partners in tow and hard-nosed tradesmen grinned and shrugged, as if they’d been spotted entering a fortune teller’s tent. It was all a bit hippyish, and they could just as easily have been watching from their own back gardens, but something drew everyone to the beach – possibly the rumour that there’d be live music and a burger van.

As he wandered along the water’s edge, Dan, normally used to doing things on his own, felt strangely self-conscious at the sight of his downstairs neighbour from the block of single people’s flats in the town. It was like being pulled up short by your own sad reflection as you sat on a bar stool.  Not that he looked exactly like his fellow resident, who was a dead ringer for Nosferatu – bald, drawn, with pointy ears and dreadful teeth; but Dan, if he was being honest, was quite monstrous in his own right, his face a network of scarring left after a previous neighbour’s pitbulls had gone berserk. The fact that there were no pets allowed in the current premises had been a major selling point.  As well as his fiendish appearance, Mr Ground Floor, from the one time Dan had heard him talking to the postie, had an odd way of speaking, like a record being played too slow. But you didn’t end up in that block unless you had a few problems, be it ill health, addiction or previous imprisonment. It was often in the paper and, though folk complained how hard it was to get a house, few would accept a flat there; the address was Brae Foot and it was nicknamed Beirut.  And Dan hadn’t been encouraged by the greeting drawn in the grime of the cracked glass panel in the main entrance: “welcome to hell”.  He’d been burgled once since moving in, a neat job using a crowbar to unhinge his door.  After taking the telly and lap top, they had simply put the door back in its frame, leaving it to fall on Dan’s head as soon as he touched the handle.  There were a few young people in the flats and some of them partied a lot.  Along with the noisy guests, paramedics and police were no strangers to the place.  One night a girl jumped out her window, but from just one floor up she’d only broken a leg.  Dan called her an ambulance and, a few days later, as she struggled up the stair on crutches, asked how she was, only to have her whimper and squeeze past in a panic, maybe freaked out by his appearance but more likely not wanting to get caught talking to another man by her boyfriend – after his Good Samaritan act a young bunch had given him the hard stare outside, different from the usual looks of horror he attracted.  Nosferatu and Dan didn’t normally draw attention to themselves if they could help it, though the former certainly liked loud music. He had good taste, to be fair, and incredibly varied – Dan didn’t think he’d heard the same track twice. Although well out of context on the beach, Dan and Nosferatu gave each other the briefest of nods, exactly as they would have done in the hallway at home. Dan didn’t want to sit too close, but felt like making some gesture of affinity, so picked a spot just a bit further down the same slope at a distance of fifteen or twenty yards.

A few minutes before the eclipse, the birds fell quiet and the calm spread to the human audience.  A few had set up projecting devices with cardboard boxes, others had welder’s goggles or special sunglasses that had been on sale at the shop.  When the moon started to cross the sun, an eerie band of shadow raced over the sea, then a weird twilight came, the wind dropped and friends and families stood together in silent groups.  The uncanny stillness lasted until the sun was fully out again, sparking a dawn chorus and relieved chatter along the beach.  As the spectators dispersed, a small boy passing the dune where Dan and his neighbour remained sitting in alignment, said, “Look, Dracula and Frankenstein!”  He was immediately shushed, but the two men shared a chuckle, even if Nosferatu’s smile was even scarier than his serious look.  They walked back together, quietly at first, but Dan broke the ice by mentioning Nosferatu’s eclectic musical tastes and, in terms of age group and influences, they did have a lot in common.  It took Dan’s neighbour longer than normal to articulate himself but by the time they got home they were laughing like two battle-hardened veterans of every youth sub-culture and pop trend since the seventies. When they turned the corner towards Beirut, however, they were confronted by a scene from the apocalypse: black smoke pouring from Dan’s windows, broken glass everywhere and a trio of young women shouting and screaming on the pavement.  “We thought you were still inside,” cried the girl who’d broken her leg, full of relief. “We’ve called the Fire Brigade.”  Her and her pals made out they didn’t know what had happened, but Dan surmised Broken Leg’s bloke had gone on the rampage, smashed up her flat and torched Dan’s place as an extra touch of malice – a  punishment for getting involved before.

Dan was decanted to a B&B while his home was fixed up.  The guy in the next room was a foreign doctor – a locum surgeon, in fact. He was interested in Dan’s scarring and urged him to seek a referral: “You can be good looking once more.”

“I’ve never been good looking.”

“Perhaps for the first time, then. Plastic surgery has come a long way.”

Dan watched Champions League football with the doctor and got used to the landlady’s French toast, so it was with a heavy heart that he returned to Brae Foot.  But Nosferatu pulled back a curtain and gave the thumbs up as Dan fumbled with his keys, and no sooner was he back in the re-painted flat than there was a knock on his door.  It was Broken Leg and her two pals:  smackheads the three of them, all tiny, with shadowed eyes, prematurely aged.  Huddled together, they looked like one soulful, multi-headed being, apologising and hoping he’d be okay; then they disappeared.  He’d been given a few sticks of furniture by the recycling charity and, as he put his feet up on the settee, music started pounding downstairs. He realised it was “A Song from Under the Floorboards” by Magazine and, from there, the undead DJ traversed the punk era, new wave, the outer reaches of the Manchester scene and the highlights of hiphop, Britpop and beyond.  Dan felt he’d been under a shadow for years, but with the three wicked witches wishing him well, a dedicated playlist courtesy of Count Dracula, and even the prospect of a new face in the bathroom mirror, life in hell was definitely on the up.


1 A shadow of these events survives in a local legend about day becoming night and fish pouring down chimneys.

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BUBBLE GUM – by Celia

044

I knew it was her, even before she turned to me and exclaimed, “Celia!”

It must have been twenty years since I had last seen her, but it seemed the only difference was the bright red lipstick she now wore. It looked like she had stolen it from her mum’s drawer.

She carried an oversized designer handbag and I remembered reading in the paper of her brother who had becoming a multi-millionaire after inventing a giant plastic spoon which made it easier for owners to throw balls to their dogs.

Standing there on a Tuesday evening, sober, in the kitchen of the church hall, waiting for the meeting to start, I found myself quivering. I shifted my posture slightly in the hope that she would not notice.

I remembered standing in her kitchen alone one summer all those years ago. On the table lay her two last pieces of Coca Cola Flavour Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum.

I looked behind me and then with great urgency I ripped open the wrappers and pushed both pieces in my mouth. Immediately realising that I could not cover up this act, I walked out into the garden. She stepped out after me, looked at me and saying nothing, she turned and ran into the house. I heard her say to her Dad, “She’s eaten them! They are both there in her mouth!”

Feeling dizzy with panic and exhilaration I ran from the garden and all the way back to my house.

And now I had been caught again, standing next to the tea urn in the kitchen of the church hall. I was still here, but then of course, so was she.

 

 

Issue 13: Bloody Weather

27 Apr

Greetings from the Feminist Jumble Sale regulars Celia, Emily and Jim.  We have ventured through thick fog and howling winds, snow, hail and sleet to bring you a selection of tales connected somehow to the all-year-round favourite moan topic of our isles.  As Brits, we are battered by the widest range, and most unpredictable weather of anywhere in the world, so we think we’re allowed.  And it’s always a good conversation starter at the bus stop. You might need to be prepared for anything as we bring you the glamour of first festival experiences, dangerous inventions borne of boredom and the perils of  weatherbeaten wanderlust. So grab your sunhat, wellies and thermal long johns and join us to see whether it’s turned out nice again.  Or not.

Theme next time: Bloody Neighbours. Due out mid June.

CONTENTS:

FESTIVAL – By Celia

RAINY PLAYTIME – By Emily

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS – by Jim

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Festival By Celia

Finally school is over and we’re off to the festival. It’s gonna be brilliant

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We have with us:

– ten Silk Cut (Laura)

– a lighter (Gemma)

  five bin bags (Diane)

  a copy of Melody Maker and six Nutrigrain Bars (me)

  the clothes on our backs (all)

It’s really dark when we get there and we have to walk for miles and miles. My Doc Martens are already caked in mud and water is seeping into my socks.

We wait at the meeting point for Caz who’s Laura’s friend from the year above. We walk around the wooden structure which is hung with all these fluorescent flags yelling “Caz!” “Caaaaaz!!” for an hour and smoke a Silk Cut each. Caz turns up. She’s dressed in shorts and a T shirt with a Nike tick that says ‘Just Do Me‘underneath. A boy from my drama group says she gave his friend a blow job in a phone box outside Ritzy’s, but I don’t think this is true. She’s the only person in the whole school with a tattoo. It’s of a dragon and it’s on her back.

Caz leads us down the hill to our campsite. She’s set up our tents and we go and sit round the fire. There’s a boy with dreadlocks playing Radiohead on a guitar. Caz shows us the ‘piss tent’, a tent without a groundsheet that we can use if we can’t be bothered to walk to the toilets. I notice her diamond navel ring glinting as she mimes squatting under the orange awning.

A man wanders over and asks me if I want to buy some Ketamine. I decline, but offer him a Nutrigrain Bar instead. He looks at it as tears well in his eyes, “For real, man? That’s so kind.” He disappears amongst the tents.

First thing the next morning it’s raining loads and I can hear the bass drifting across the fields. Laura is in the tent opposite, attempting to roll a joint for the Radiohead boy. Gemma and Diane say they want to stay at their tent to do their make-up and later watch Robbie Williams and an England football match. I head off with a tight band watching schedule I drew up from Melody Maker on the coach.

It’s still raining and the mud is reaching the tops of my boots, even though they’re 10 hole ones. I exchange a Nutrigrain Bar with an overweight Northern man for a JD Sports carrier bag which I pull on over my head as a hood. It’s a bit difficult to watch the bands as I have to stop to wipe the rain off my glasses every few minutes. The mud’s sloshing up the legs of my combats now.

I’m wading over to the main stage when I hear, “The Dance Tent has sunk into the mud, Rolf Harris has had to be airlifted out.” I can’t go on any further as a fast flowing stream has broken its banks and is blocking my path. “Rolf Harris is dead!” someone says.

I call my parents from a pay phone by a burger van. “It’s on the news!” They say. “Come home!!” and they keep chanting “Come home! Come home!” until the pips sound and the money drops down and we are cut off.

I get back to the tent and open up the zip. The sleeping bags are floating in a pool of muddy water. Caz’s tent is open. Everything is gone, except for her make-up, wet wipes and packets of Microgynon which have been flung around the campfire.

Caz comes back to the camp, being held up by a man with loads of piercings drinking a bottle of cider. “Oh my God!” she goes. Laura pokes her head out of her tent. The Radiohead Boy is in there too in a fog of smoke. Caz goes ballistic, “You mean you was in there all the time and you didn’t stop them!” Laura just stares at her like she is thinking about forming a sentence, but it’s too much for her.

Gemma and Diane come tripping over the guy ropes with England flags painted on their cheeks singing “It’s coming home, it’s coming home…”. “It was amazing, where were you?” they go. Then they clock Caz’s stuff and the floating sleeping bags and Laura’s eyes and my JD Sports bag and just go “Oh”.

All of us, Radiohead Boy and Cider Man cram into Laura’s tent to get dry and have cider and Silk Cuts and spliffs and Nutrigrains until it stops raining.

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Rainy Playtime – By Emily

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I loved rainy playtimes.  Instead of negotiating the terrors of the playground, having to avoid being mown down by the big boys zooming around pretending to be aeroplanes in their anoraks, or the bossy girls with their aggressive communal skipping games, we got to do art. It was my favourite thing in the world to do.  I liked to draw pictures of girls in elaborately patterned dresses, sometimes in a beautiful garden with flowers and ducks in a pond.  Sometimes standing next to a house with smoke billowing, comfortingly, from the chimney on top of the pointed roof.  These girls always had long hair, but never had noses because noses were too hard to draw and made the girls look horrible.  They were always smiling.

I was disappointed that this rainy playtime, Mrs Christmas set us a specific art task.  It was still better than being outside on the tarmac wilds, but I didn’t like the sound of it.  We were given sugar paper and the usual plastic tubs of nasty, stumpy crayons, and told to draw a giant P on our paper.  Inside the enclosed loop of the letter, we had to draw, colour in, and label as many things that began with the letter P as we could until the bell signaled the end of lunchtime.  I sat with Tara, and we worked together, sharing ideas.  We drew a plank, a potato, a party dress.  We decided to draw all the things as small as we could so that we could fill our spaces with the most items as possible, taking on the challenge we’d been set with a modicum of gusto. It soon got very boring, though, and we began to struggle to think of anything else to draw.  The crayons were mostly brown, and this gave me an idea: I drew a poo, and labelled it, to make Tara laugh.  Then she drew one too; we were quite pleased with our joke.

We rummaged in the box, trying to find any of the scraps of crayon in colours other than brown and murky green.  When I found a piece of my second-favourite crayon colour, a colour I secretly called shine-your-eyes-bright-green, I drew a green parrot.  Tara drew a pig with the tiny, luminous pink crayon that I had been desperately rummaging for. We swapped colours and soon both had a parrot and a pig next to our brown poos.  A lot of space remained, dauntingly, to fill but we had run out of inspiration, and there was still quite a bit of playtime left.

Then Tara came up with an alternative plan.  She said, excited at her idea, “Let’s play Hide the Crayon!” We joyfully established the rules, and she went first.  I closed my eyes while she hid the green crayon, and told me when she was ready.  I looked under the paper, patted her pockets, looked up her sleeves.  This was a good game, Tara was a genius, I decided.  Last time she’d been round mine to play, she invented Keep the Kettle Boiling, which involved us and our little sisters climbing up onto a filing cabinet from a stepladder, and jumping off onto a pile of cushions dragged from the sofa.  That was one of my all-time favourite games.  Eventually I found the crayon tucked into the top of her white knee sock. Tara closed her eyes, and I took some time deciding where to hide the luminous pink crayon.  It was very small, so I had too many options, but wanted to really challenge her, and to make her laugh. And to win.  So I hid it up my nose.

She searched everywhere, even making me take off my shoes, but when the bell rang she still hadn’t found it, so I had to declare myself the winner, and told her where it was.  I could tell she was impressed with my ingenious hiding-place, but when I tried to get the crayon out, and found I couldn’t, she started to panic.  I tried a different angle with my fingers, but it was lodged.  Mrs Christmas shouted across the other children, asking what I thought I was doing, picking my nose.  So I had to tell her about the game and the crayon that wouldn’t come out.  I was embarrassed.

Instead of joining the rest of my class’s afternoon activity of reading some boring picture books about some unrealistic children called Janet and John, I spent what seemed like forever in the head mistress’s office.  She gave me pepper to sniff, in the hopes that I would sneeze and expel the crayon. I was told to drink a glass of water, but I couldn’t see how this might help. I was told to blow my nose, which made more sense, but none of these attempts worked and I thought maybe I’d just have to live with a crayon up my nose forever. It felt funny, but didn’t hurt. The headmistress told me she would call my mum to collect me, and I briefly felt excited that maybe I’d get to go to hospital.  While I waited for mum to arrive, I saw through the glass panel of the office door one of the scary boys from the top year infants kicking the wall repeatedly, slowly thudding his scruffy shoes against the tiles.  This was the standard punishment for boys who kicked other boys.  He was crying, and I felt sorry for him, even though he was one of the playground aeroplanes who terrified me.

The headmistress handed me over to my mum kindly.  I felt embarrassed all over again, but needed some comfort too after my lunchtime ordeal. I needed some reassurance that this crayon crisis could be resolved.  Mum smiled, but also sighed as she took me out and unlocked her bike to walk me home.  She was wearing culottes, and her hair was back in a clip.  She seemed somehow different from the mum who had brought me to school that morning.  “Let’s get you home,” she said, with a just-perceptible hint of annoyance in her voice.  I felt stupid that my brilliant act of comedy had backfired, and I put my hood up, and walked beside her, staring at my feet as they walked the familiar pavements.  Mum wheeled her bike, and I wished I could ask to ride on the saddle, but didn’t think this would go down well.

 I had never thought before about what mum might do while my sister and I were at school, but it definitely got the impression that my misdemeanour had interrupted her day. She said if the crayon didn’t come out, she would take me to the hospital, like last time when I had stuck a ball bearing up my nose, and a doctor had to get it out with some special tweezers.Then I had only been a two, and such behaviour was only to be expected. It had become a funny family story.  Now I was six, I just felt stupid and ashamed.  The crayon crisis would never be a funny story. I knew I was old enough to know better.  But if Mrs Christmas had let us draw whatever we wanted, Tara and I would never have needed to come up with the game that I knew we would never play again. Stupid Mrs Christmas.

The rain had eased off as we turned into our street, so I took down my hood.  As mum opened the back gate which had slammed shut and cut the end of my finger off a few years before, I suddenly saw a small scrap of luminous pink fall glowingly between my feet.  I picked it up to show mum, physical waves of relief rushing through me.  The crayon had fallen out and the crisis was over.

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A Man for all Seasons – By Jim

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In March, while daffs were poking through the snow, the vicar from St Jude’s was busted in the toilets on Scarborough Esplanade in the company of a teenager.  ‘It’s better to give than to receive’, the clergyman had quipped, as he helped the younger man into position.  The lad couldn’t be named, for legal reasons, but was widely rumoured to be Dale Wagstaff, a troubled soul who finally seemed to have found his feet at the tanning salon.

Dale figured to swap the freezing toilets and orange suntans of Northern England for a gentler, more naturally outdoors lifestyle in Ibiza and, come June, discovered himself walking into the Balearic sunset with a regional transport manager from Leeds, then a London stockbroker, an Edinburgh GP and, on one especially starry night, the Conservative MP for Reading.  Dale wasn’t as keen on the bum parts of gay sex, initially, but the perfect Mediterranean evenings and E-fuelled huggy feelings helped, as did the money they gave him.

Things changed when he met Phil, who had grown up in Spain with a Cockney single mum, his mobster dad having been shot round the Elephant and Castle years before.  Phil was a year older than Dale and could box and drive cars and motorbikes.  The girls loved him and Phil filled his bisexual boots while working in a nightclub.  He helped Dale hustle for clients too.   Though he said he loved Dale, it didn’t seem to be a very possessive form of love.  The sweet moments were when he was coming down – that’s when he wanted Dale around. One Sunday they rode into the hills and snuggled up in an olive grove.  Late sun glanced through the trees, Phil dozed and Dale lay wondering how long it would all last.

Phil said he wanted to tell his mum he was gay, so they spent a week at her place, which had horses and a lot of English neighbours: the women with big sunspecs and heavy beads, the men white stubble and ponytails. They were trying to be cool with Phil and Dale, but the stony smiles suggested they were either desperately sorry for Phil’s mum, or quietly amused at the unexpected poofdom of her toughnut son.   She was hanging round the pool in a fragile way while her friends went on about how right they had all been to decamp to Spain, because Britain was ruined in every sense, just a shithole; and of course the weather, they didn’t miss the bloody weather, did they? But, having helped Phil come out, all Dale wanted was some soft English rain on his face.

In October, he wore a preppy coat and scarf and posed round the leaf-carpeted lanes of York, not actually at Uni, but managing to blag his way into the student drama crowd.  As a promising newcomer, he was ripe for picking by the up and coming director who gave him a part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  He felt well cast as Puck, the “merry wanderer of the night”. “‘If we shadows have offended’”, he would repeat to himself, again and again. When the director asked him out on a date, he accepted half-heartedly, as Simon was a nice enough guy but not someone Dale would normally have slept with free of charge.  Simon interpreted Dale’s lack of enthusiasm as naivety, shyness, or a lingering denial about his own identity, and Dale thought it wiser to go along with this than further hurt Simon’s feelings.  After finding himself dropped for the next production, however, he threatened to tell the University Senate that Simon was a predatory gay paedophile.  When Simon called his bluff, Dale backed down and caught the bus to Scarborough.

It was a bitter night in December when he got back and the Christmas lights were rattling in an arctic blast.  Dodging salt spray, he tumbled along the promenade, beyond the scene of his deflowering and into a pavilion where he stopped for a fag.  “Didn’t expect to see you here again.”  It was a burly older guy he remembered from the scene.  Dale tried to brush past, but the man shoved him up against the wall of the shelter and pinned him there by the throat while unzipping himself.  Having freed his dick, he slipped his massive hand round the back of Dale’s neck and started to pull his head down. “Get on with it then,” he said; but, using a move Phil had taught him, Dale felled the old fucker with a stiff upper cut to the throat, then skipped round the kneeling, gasping figure and jogged over to his mum and dad’s.  He knew it wouldn’t be a long visit home; the North Yorkshire coast can be an unforgiving place in the dead of winter.

Issue 12: Bloody Kids

10 Feb

Welcome to our first issue of 2013.  Jim, Celia and Emily bring you tales to celebrate the wondrous time of innocence and hope for the future via companionship, competition, custody, cheating and craft projects gone wrong.  The best years of your life?  We’re not so sure, but it seems the bloody grown-up kids are the ones to look out for…

The next issue will be on the lovely topic of Bloody Weather.  We’d like more writers.  Please send us your stuff by the end of March for April’s issue.

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BLOODY KIDS CONTENTS:

CHILD-CENTRED, FUTURE-FOCUSSED – By Jim

THE INVISIBLE EGG  – By Celia

MIDDLE-AGED CRISIS – By Emily

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CHILD-CENTRED, FUTURE-FOCUSSED  – By Jim

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I never actually spoke much to Norman in the jail, but I used to have to listen to him quite a lot.  He thinks he can play guitar for one thing, and, though he was in for an assault on three bouncers, he could just as easy have been done for murdering Horse with No Name, Free Fallin and Wonderwall. During the hour before lights out, the mangled sounds of his fucked up fingerpicking would drift over from B Hall and I must have been just one of sixty convicts who dreamt of smashing that thing over his head, but no one was going to do that to Norman:  six foot three, 15 stone of muscle and sporting a dent on his forehead that could have been inflicted by a meat cleaver.  “You should see the other bloke,” they would kid when he wasn’t around, but no one actually asked Norman about his scar or about much else.  He wasn’t the sort of person that ever looked lonely either, but appearances can be deceptive.

I found out all about Norman’s inner demons after they sent me on the course to be a listener.  That means sitting with guys while they sob into their cocoa about their sentences, their cellmates, the  screws, and quite a lot about their girlfriends finding new partners and new stepdads for the weans.  That’s why it was pretty weird getting paired up with Norman, because it didn’t take long to figure out he was greeting about Nicki.  I’d known from the off she wouldn’t be waiting around for me, and fair play to Norman, although we’d seen each other round the town, he didn’t really know my name and he obviously knew nothing about Nicki and me, which meant the photos of us must have come down off her Facebook page before I was hardly through prison reception.  She’d decided on a clean sheet and a new man and as alpha males go she’d have been struggling to find one scarier than Norman, so you could see it made sense from her point of view.   The real issue was, this baby Norman was going on about – was it really his?  I found myself trying to look sympathetic while asking questions like, “So how old is the wee man exactly?” and “Does he look like you?”   According to Norman, this bairn was the best thing that had ever happened to him, but he was worried about some scumbag he’d heard had been sniffing around.  I was worried too when he said it was Lloyd.

Me and Lloyd had a lot of history with women.  I don’t know what it was but we both seemed to appeal to the same type – drug addicts in their early twenties.  For women who fitted that profile in our area, it usually boiled down to a choice between me and Lloyd and, as Lloyd was a violent maniac, they tended to go for me.  He was never all that bothered until it came to Nicki.  It was after I got serious with her that the drug squad came round and mysteriously found a whole load of smack in the ingenious hiding place of my wardrobe.   “This might be in breach of your parole conditions,” said Det Sgt  Hogg, holding two of the kilo bags up in his gloved hands.  It turned out the gear had been cut that much it could have been sold as talc, but that was beside the point.

Happier after getting all the Nicki and baby stuff off his chest, Norman went straight back to his cell and massacred Stairway to Heaven, while I lay picturing the horrific domestic circumstances the son I’d never even known about was now growing up in.  I wasn’t sure whether to request not to be Norman’s listener, but in the end decided to hang in there, since he was the only one who could tell me anything about my own flesh and blood.  For the next two years he showed me pictures of the baby becoming a toddler and then a right wee boy.  He looked like his mum, for sure, but there was something about the eyes…

I got the DNA done as soon as I was out.  Why I’d been so sure from the start Connor was mine I don’t know, but I was right.  Nicki agreed to access, glad of a babysitter every weekend, and Lloyd never objected because he probably couldn’t care less, but also because he’d just have been waiting for me to come after him and get myself put back inside.

By the time he’d completed his sentence, Norman knew Connor wasn’t his son after all, but, as I expected, he still showed a desire to keep in touch with the kid.  With no legal rights, he asked for mediation and I agreed.  I think he thought he was going to be dealing with Nicki or Lloyd  and got a surprise when I turned up.

“Are you doing this now?” he asked, looking from the mediator lady to me.

“I am Connor’s dad,” I announced. “I didn’t know that when we were inside but I suspected it.  I didn’t mention about me and Nicki because I wanted you to keep talking.”

Norman’s scar burned red while he processed this, his breathing went funny and his hands were bunching into great fists as he rose to his feet.  “You….,” he gasped, “you…”

“Time out!” cried the mediator.

“No, hold on,” I said.  “I know how much you care about Connor – sit down Norman. There is definitely room for two dads in his life.”

“You mean three,” said the mediator, reminding us of Lloyd.

“Whatever.” I looked up at Norman. “Just don’t try teaching him guitar, okay?”

We gradually got him calmed down, then started to put together a rota that we could propose to Nicki, but it was when me and Norman got outside that the real negotiations started.

Norman was soon back at the fishing, on his brother’s boat.  They’d be at sea for two or three days at a stretch and he was on one of these trips when Lloyd went missing.  It so happened I was down the coast with Connor, introducing him to his gran and grandpa.   Nothing was heard of Lloyd, but when a leg bone washed up on the beach months later they started doing some tests.  People often take their own lives off the cliffs round here.  It was in the paper that they used an old comb of Lloyd’s to make the match.  There had been no sign anything was wrong, apparently – he hadn’t said much – but I know from my Samaritans training that suicide can be like that, especially amongst young men from our sort of background.

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THE INVISIBLE EGG – By Celia

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My Mum woke me up at 8am, and was surprised to find me already dressed and ready for school. I had decided to go to bed in my clothes so that I could have an extra lie in the next morning. I loved cheating the system.

That day was my school’s Annual Easter Egg Competition. You had to hard boil or blow an egg and then decorate it. There were prizes for the most beautiful design and the most ingenious idea. I could see cars pulling up outside the school and flustered parents getting huge cardboard boxes out of their boots then carrying them carefully towards the gates.

I entered the school hall to see Alastair Bailey’s Mum putting the finishing touches to her Egg Cathedral. She had fashioned a church with stained glass windows out of a giant cardboard box and some sweetie wrappers. She had then decorated dozens of eggs to make an egg congregation. They were like the Terracotta Warriors, each one with a unique facial expression, even miniature hats, ties and glasses. Next to her, Penny Prestwich’s Mum gently placed a Fabergé-style egg made from blue paint and lace onto a bed of potpourri.

I cleared a space on the big table for my entry. I began with a straw basket which I had found in my Mum’s drawer and had once contained Christmas soaps. I had then lined this with my Dad’s cotton wool roll. I used my fingers to make a slight depression in the centre of the cotton wool.  Finally, I positioned a sign in front of the ensemble which read ‘THE INVISIBLE EGG.’

No sooner had I stepped back from the table when the Headteacher Mrs Barnes came up and peered at my basket. She turned towards me and I could see that her face was red.

She had already marked me as a troublemaker after I had cheated in that year’s Potato Race at  Sports Day. It had been her idea as the new Head to introduce the Potato Race. The objective was to collect potatoes one by one which had been laid out in a line on the track and deposit them in a bucket; then run to cross  the finishing line. I decided to pick up all the potatoes at once, carry them in my arms to the bucket and then jog to the finishing line. That was the only hope I had of ever winning a race at Sports Day. As I crossed the line first, Mrs Barnes didn’t look at me, but her face went very red.

She clasped my egg basket in her hands; “Take this away immediately, it is disgusting!” She threw back her head and I could see a metal bridge running across the roof of her mouth. Trembling, I ran out of the hall into the playground. The massive Mars Easter Egg would never be mine now.

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MIDDLE-AGED CRISIS – By Emily

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Jessie taught me the word bollocks on one of those holidays in France.  We yelled it as loud as we could as we jumped off the diving board into the swimming lake. I thought it was the best word I’d ever heard, and so perfect for shouting.  I vaguely knew it was rude, which made shouting it seem rebellious, even if none of the French kids could understand.  Jessie was cool.  A year or two older than me, she also knew what the word fuck actually meant.  If I had known the word chic then, I would have said she was effortlessly chic; she wore a piece of string tied round her wrist to measure her summer tan.  In my pastel gathered skirts or corduroy dungarees I always felt fat and frumpy next to her.  Tall and athletic, she wore Bermuda shorts and vests, or sweatshirts and jeans and her lace-up plimsolls were far more sophisticated than my brown Clark’s sandals.  She was witty and funny and could run fast.  I looked up to her and I think she enjoyed it; even though I was younger and less worldly-wise, she let me be part of her secret society.  We were the only two members as the other kids were too young.  We made stapled-together folders and designed a logo and made a great show of the mysterious contents to make the younger ones jealous.  They didn’t know that we couldn’t think of anything to put inside them.

My little sister played mostly with the other children of our parents’ friends; spoilt Gemma who had tantrums and called her dad by his first name as she ordered him around.  Little Robbie who was so young he would go along with what any of the others suggested.  Our four families holidayed together most summers in a rented converted barn deep in the French countryside.  Of mismatched ages, none of us would have chosen each other as friends, but we met up each year and picked up where we had left off the summer before, a little taller, but only briefly awkward.  We would run wild in the fields and down the country lanes and farm tracks, and mess around while our parents cooked and ate endless outdoor meals late into the night.  I liked it best when it was just me and Jessie.  Being the eldest two, we stayed up late with the grown-ups and watched shooting stars.  I liked not having to be the most responsible one, as I usually had to with my sister. Jessie and I  walked along the track to get milk from the farm, daring each other to touch the electric fence.  I did this once, to impress her, and saw the look of panic on her face as I screamed.  It reminded me of the time I’d tried to keep up with her walking along a wall and had fallen into a bed of nettles on a previous holiday. But she put her arm round me and I felt protected and safe, she made me feel brave, and with her by my side even managed to laugh.  She taught me the rudest song she knew on our way back.  I had no idea what frigging in the rigging meant, but loved belting out The Good Ship Venus at full volume across the idyllic rural landscape.

Jessie had been adopted, and this made her even more special and exotic to me.  We had never spoken about it but it was obvious because she looked different from her parents.  One day we were playing with some English boys we’d met at the swings near the lake.  Jessie’s mum came and gave her some money to buy ice creams, and when she went to the stall, the boys asked me why she looked different from her mum.  “Oh, she’s adopted,” I said.  I told them what my dad had told me when I must have asked the same question, years before. “She was left in a supermarket by her real mum.” The boys seemed impressed, and when Jessie came back with ice creams, one of the boys, a confident kid with freckles and a Superman tee shirt said to her, “I hear you were left in a supermarket.” I was horrified, they weren’t supposed to say anything.  I hated them, but hated myself more. Jessie said nothing and started walking back towards the lake.  I followed quickly, wishing I knew how to make up for my terrible betrayal, but said nothing, silently pleading with her to forgive me.

When Jessie’s parents divorced, she would sometimes come on the annual holiday with one of them and sometimes with the other.  One summer there was a complicated hand-over half way through.  She told me that they couldn’t be in the same room together because they might argue or fight.  There had been an incident with a fish-slice and a saucepan that sounded terrifying to me, but being cool, Jessie made this grim anecdote into a funny story, rolling her eyes and laughing.

It was a couple of summers later when Jessie and I were sharing a bedroom; was my idea of heaven. It was the first time I had seen a Sony Walkman and she generously let me listen to some unfamiliar music as long as I didn’t wear out the batteries.  We were up late talking and reading books with sex in them that she had got hold of from god knows where, that she said to me suddenly, “I’m sorry to hear about your parents.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but deep down knew it could only mean one, terrible thing.  “It’s the middle-aged crisis,” she said, laughing.  I didn’t want her to know I didn’t know any news about my own parents, so I said nothing.  I thought about the arguments I’d witnessed, the tension I had been uncomfortably aware of but thought little of.  Until now.  I hadn’t seen my mum hit my dad with a fish slice, though, so perhaps she didn’t mean that they were splitting up? If not, what could she mean? And how did she know, when I didn’t?  I lay awake wondering what this could mean for my family, wishing I could ask her for more information, or better still, some advice.  Perhaps it would be fine.  If only I could be like Jessie.  She was obviously alright, even though her parents had had this middle-aged crisis thing.  Giving the condition this sophisticated phrase made it seem less frightening.  Perhaps I would be alright too.

Issue 11: Bloody Birthdays

10 Dec

Celia and Emily invite you to join them for a special birthdays issue.  Celia was born 9 years to the day after Emily, who was born 9 years after our regular contributor Jim.  To celebrate this odd coincidence, we have come up with a selection of birthday fun from these three plus a  brand new contributor, Dean. Toast us with your tipple of choice as we take you though the dark side of anniversaries,  adolescent drinking, the politics of childhood parties and as often on these pages, an exploration of mental fragility and family tensions. Many Happy Returns…

Our next Issue is due out in early February.  If you’d like to write a piece, the theme is Bloody Kids, and we’ll need it by the end of January.

Celia and Emily would also like to invite you to a regular writing group.  We often write together in a cafe and would love others to join us once a month for writing, tea, vegan cake and feedback.  If you’re London based and fancy joining us, please email Emily at jostnumber1@hotmail.com

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Contents:

Grief Part Three: Lilies – by DEAN

If the Bomb Falls – by EMILY

The Birthday Party – by CELIA

Never Quite the Sane – by JIM

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GRIEF PART THREE: LILIES – By Dean

045

I’m holding your birthday Lily in the palm of my hand, no present to adorn with it and no grateful kiss in reciprocation, unrequited love is the constant for a grieving heart.
The winter evening closes in on a person at this time of year, just moments ago fine late autumnal sunshine coloured the living room wall, now a naked tree’s veined silhouette is projected from the toxic orange street light.
Your glasses collect dust under the cherry red lamp on the side table, there is something particularly affecting about this. A pair of glasses come as close to a living appendage an object can, seeing all we see, changing our appearance and shaping the world around us. The square of light reflecting on their lens has my mind wandering back to candle lit evenings of our youth.
When true love takes a grip on the heart, it does so by moulding itself to one’s form, like a deep red silk sheet falling upon the body, softening each contour, covering everything in the softest of hues while suffocating those foolish enough to fight against it. All previous love seems sharp, harsh and hurried, permeating little more than the outer shell, inspiring spectacular yet short lived withdrawals.
I often pause here at the bottom of the staircase, still expecting to see you at its top, smuggled under that pale, spearmint blue dressing gown which looked as flammable as it did static filled. I’m not sure which thought scares me more profoundly, the shock of seeing you there or the little deaths of not.
I don’t sleep in our bed any longer; it has grown in your absence and refuses to warm my body. It’s as if its circuitry is faulty — but I can’t seem to relinquish my hold on anything between these life scorched walls.
I’m peering out of our bedroom window to the distant sight of a couple kissing under a lamp post on the corner; winter is the season for lovers, encouraging the warmth of intimacy. Their breath dances vividly upon each kiss, drawn to the sky, lost forever. The cruellest part of love is that each moment is fleeting, a kiss cannot be held within cupped hands or on the lips of those who sire it. Like attempting to catch yourself sleeping, it is destined to be lost unless you are.
I’m sat on the edge of the bed, looking through old pictures I know as intimately as my own skin, often catching myself staring longingly at old wallpaper or glimpses of furniture; it’s amazing how evocative the small details in a photo can be. This particular one is from a Christmas which I cannot place; it has that old wooden clock we both disliked standing over you, which now seems like a kindly protector in the sepia tones of decades old photographs and I miss it like an old friend.
A singe tear criss-crosses my cheek, forming a pattern akin to the crack on your favourite tea cup — I cry without sound or expression recently, to make a fuss only exhausts me further.
Steadying my heartbeat, I make my way downstairs.
The bannister still holds several jackets of yours, hidden under the heavy grey overcoat you insisted on buying for me last year. In the stark shadows of winter, this pile of stitch and cloth adopts the ominous posture of a Victorian Hunchbacked Villain.
I wrap myself in the familiar scent of feint dampness and step out onto the frost sparkled street.
With renewed focus and a single Lily between my gloved fingers, I’m making my way to your favourite bench, up the steep incline you found so difficult to traverse in the last months, practically carrying you the last painful steps but it was wondrous to see your sallow skin sun tinted and the translucent blue of your eyes catching sight of swaying tree tops once more. Summer seems a life time ago now.
The wind carries daggers which invade my bones as I take my place on our bench’s left side; you were always drawn to its right. How peculiar these habits of territory are, cultivated without thought and carved out over time like the melted form of steps at a busy underground station.
I’m clasping The Lily tightly in the absence of your hand.
Passing night time clouds like black smoke drift past a liquid full moon, with which my breath seems impatient to join — everything is busy going somewhere.
I place the Lily beside me, my hand dwelling on it briefly before departing back to the skeletal pattern of streets below. I don’t think I’m ready to dwell in thought at home yet; I’d rather walk the back streets and talk for a while if that’s OK with you?
I can feel your arm linked in mine, carrying ME this time, easing my gait and lifting my spirit. I can smell the Lily’s scent upon the tips of my gloves as I breathe hot air into my stiffening fingers and I’m lost in memory once more.
Anniversaries are superfluous reminders in truth, it’s in silence and the mundane that you invade thought, finding energy in my stillness, something I would not change for the world.
Happy birthday Lily, may your scent remain on my fingertips and your memories remain in my heart.
Copyright © 2012 Dean Stephenson
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IF THE BOMB FALLS – By Emily
043The traditional argument about leaving the table early to go and watch Top of the Pops was over much quicker than usual, and Dad let us take the remains of the mashed potato cakes he’d made us for tea into the front room.  Louise and I raced for the seat nearest the gas fire; she won, so I switched on the huge television in its wood-effect formica box.  I wonder why he’s in such a good mood? I said.  Louise shrugged, her eyes already glued to Banarama’s latest video. Louise was incapable of conversation when the telly was on, but I continued anyway.  Perhaps he’s cheered up a bit? Or maybe he’s just looking forward to his birthday?  That would be weird, for someone so old, though, don’t you think?
Dad washed up while we watched Eastenders, and came in when he heard the theme music ending, and switched off the television.  Caught up on you pop and soap? He asked, but without having a go.  He didn’t understand that we wouldn’t be able to join in any conversations at school tomorrow if we hadn’t watched these essential BBC Thursday institutions, but he seemed to have given in to his unfathomable adolescent daughters.  I’m thinking of having a party, he said.  What, really? Louise said.  We looked at each other.  Dad never had parties.  Hadn’t had a party since he moved out of the family home.  I couldn’t even remember the last party he and Mum had had. In fact Dad hadn’t done much apart from go to the pub and on our classic arrangement of alternate weekends, often took us to see his old friends in remote parts of the country.  Whether we went away or not, he’d often cry. But it was true.  He’d decided to celebrate his 45th birthday properly, and wanted us to be there too.On the day of the party, the three of us got on well, which was strange and nice. We went shopping, prepared food and got out all the glasses.  Louise and I tried to make the flat look nice.  This wasn’t easy; the overpowering woodchip wallpaper couldn’t be even temporarily disguised, and there was no getting away from the odd assortment of heavy second hand furniture in shades of 1930s brown varnish. Stale cigar smoke clung to the curtains, sofa and carpet. But we unfolded the spare canvas chairs, placed cushions and tidied away the piles of papers and newspapers. It will be fine when lots of people are here, Dad said.  Thanks for your help, girls.Getting ready, I wondered which of Dad’s mates I’d know.  Whether I’d have to answer the usual questions about school.  I put on my new batwing tee shirt and tube skirt and looked in the mirror of my dressing table – positioned too low to see my head.  It was obviously one of the least flattering outfits ever assembled, but I had it on good authority from Just 17  magazine that it was fashionable, and that was all that really mattered.  I knelt down to see my face in the mirror and applied several coats of electric blue mascara. Louise came in in leggings and a baggy tee shirt, asking to borrow my make up.  No! I shouted, buy your own! Having a day without conflicts with my sister did not make me feel any more charitable than on days when we fought and argued relentlessly. But I thought about it as I put on my powder, deciding to let her use some Constance Carol lipgloss that I’d bought from the market and followed her down the hall to hand it over.

Dad had asked us to help people to drinks when they arrived.  Having been drunk once before, I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to revisit that hazy world of silliness where things didn’t  matter any more.  People started arriving with bottles and cans, which began to fill the kitchen table.  Want a drink, Lou? I asked my sister.  I started her off on cider, but as we helped the guest to drinks, we sampled the contents of each bottle, had to spit some of it out, but soon refilled on the more palatable types of alcohol. Some of Dad’s friends we knew, and they seemed to find it amusing that his two slightly tipsy daughters were in charge of the bar.  We answered the obligatory school-related questions as we handed round peanuts and crisps. We pretended to be bar maids, and the more we drank the stupider we became, putting on silly voices and becoming slightly hysterical.  I loved the warm, lightheaded feeling, all the harsh edges of existence blurred.  Louise was starting to sway, and her swaying made me laugh, which made her giggle until she collapsed on a heap on the kitchen floor.  We hadn’t laughed like this together for years.  Enjoying getting pissed? I asked her. It’s brilliant! she said. Cheers! The adults were all in the sitting room, so the kitchen was ours, and we seemed to be getting away with getting drunk.  I couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand this music any more, I said to my sister.  I headed to the sitting room to sort this out, and it was filled with people laughing, talking, smoking and even dancing. Dad was amongst them somewhere but I couldn’t see him.  I had to get to the hi-fi without seeming drunk, so I thought it best people didn’t see me at all, the solution was to crawl on hands and knees, and I made my way through dancing legs to hit the stop button on the tape deck.  There was a cry of Oh by the people who had been dancing to Free Nelson Mandela.  It’s OK, I said, I’m just putting something better on.  The adults laughed.  It took some time but I eventually found a Police LP; it was the best I could do.  While I was there, I turned up the volume. The Da-da-da blaring out of the speakers, I felt confident enough to stand up and walk back to the kitchen, feeling able to walk straight..  This is better, said Lou.  By now she was slumped against the table leg, a glass of Martini Rosso and bitter lemon in her hand. I staggered a little and crashed into the table, spilling a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. That had been one of our rejects so I didn’t care. Louise started laughing again which set me off.  Are you OK girls? Dad had come in for a top up.  Yeah, we’re fine! I said, and Louise just smiled, her eyes not focusing.  I think you’ve had enough now, he said.  Why not come and have a dance?  I said we’d be through in a bit.  I felt almost drunk enough to dance, even in a room full of grown-ups.

Gonna be sick, Louise said, soon after Dad had returned to his mates.  I said Oh shit, come on, and tried to pull her up.  I grabbed both her hands, got her to her feet, and gave her the washing up bowl just in time.  I did not want Dad or his friends seeing this.  I would be in so much trouble for getting my little sister drunk.  I tipped the sick down the sink and pulled Lou to the toilet, where she knelt by the bowl.  Oh God, she was saying.  Seeing her, and hearing her retch made me want to throw up too.  But there wasn’t room, so I sat on the lino, my feet resting on the skirting board of the opposite wall, held my head back against the woodchip and closed my eyes.  I thought if I didn’t move at all, everything might be OK.

I opened my eyes and looked up at the CND poster on the toilet wall. Where other peoples’ parents might have displayed a copy of the Desiderata, a scorched hand reached out across a black background towards a melting telephone.  If the Bomb Falls, Don’t Call the Doctor. The threat of nuclear war used to give me terrible nightmares. This poster had sent a shiver down my spine every time I’d been to the toilet at Dad’s for the past three years.  I read it out to Louise, who seemed to have stopped puking, and was now resting her head on the toilet lid.  Because he’s dead! she said, and we looked at each other and laughed, then she started crying.  I put my hand on her shoulder. We stayed there until someone started hammering on the door.

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THE BIRTHDAY PARTY – By Celia
044

Birthdays nowadays involve binge drinking and friends offering little bags of white powder which I decline because I’d need about four days in bed to recover. When I was younger, birthdays really were something to look forward to. To attend Femke Tannenbaum’s birthday party, I was allowed a pair of ‘party tights’: thick black tights with tiny crystals stuck on at the ankle.

Femke was one of four sisters and each of them had been allowed to invite their whole primary school class round. Their house was enormous, although not in a palatial way. The upper floor was rented by a couple of lodgers. Another room housed an elderly great-aunt who we never saw, but could hear her occasional moans and deep phlegmy cough echoing in between gaps in the music.

Femke Tannenbaum’s dad was from London and rode a bicycle with a basket on the front to his job at the university. He always wore an old anorak, tracksuit bottoms with a hand knitted woolly jumper which had shrunk and his hairy stomach could be seen spilling out of the bottom.

The partygoers were allowed to roam wherever they wanted to in the house. They sat emptying board games into the flowerbeds or asleep on the bathmat. The older children were ushered into the living room to play party games directed by Mr. Tannenbaum. The first game we played was the ‘Yes or No Game’. In this game, a child was called forward to sit on the piano stool above the rest of the group who sat cross-legged on the floor. Mr Tannenbaum then fired questions at them until they broke and replied ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Then Mr Tannenbaum decreed loudly that they were ‘out’ and the child had to sit back down on the floor looking flushed and unnerved. I had never come across this game before and therefore had no strategy other than to remain completely silent as the questions were fired. I gave a twitch of the head which was interpreted as a nod for yes and was rapidly returned to the floor. I held tightly on to the bottom of my skirt to stop me from crying.

Then it was time for birthday tea. Mrs Tannenbaum was Dutch so we had bowls of liquorice, ginger biscuits and strange sweets which tasted of herbs. Mr Tannenbaum had prepared a vegetable soup which he ladled into sturdy plastic cups. I could see that none of the vegetables had been cut up, one child ended up with an entire carrot sticking out of their cup and I could see a whole onion bobbing around in the pot. I remembered Natalie Jones’s party nostalgically where her mum had gone out to the new McDonald’s Drive Thru and returned with boxes and boxes of Chicken McNuggets and plastic containers of brightly coloured sauces. At Paula Davidson’s party, whoever agreed to kiss the giant hamburger man had been permitted to go into the kitchen and actually see the food being made. I declined as I was too scared.

There was a stampede to the living room when Femke’s Dad announced that Pass the Parcel would begin imminently. It was rather a lengthy game as every layer of parcel contained a forfeit, usually involving a sum or spelling to answer. Eventually the final layer was here. The children held onto the parcel for longer, knowing with each pass went their chance to claim the prize. They looked at it longingly as it made its way from them around the giant circle.

I was delighted when the music stopped and I had just been handed the parcel. I could feel the shape of the prize through the final layer of newspaper. Inside were the most wonderful gifts: a black heart-shaped eraser with a tiny piano keyboard pictured on the top and a beautiful new pencil which glittered in silver and pink.

Suddenly the sound of wailing filled the room. I looked up to see Femke’s two younger twin sisters, Nanda and Anika,  red faced and sweating and with tears rolling down their faces, come towards me, grabbing for the eraser and pencil with their sticky paws.

I fell back as I lost the pencil to one of the twins who had grabbed it from my clenched fist and was brandishing it above her head. I clasped the eraser in my hand tightly and locked my hand between my legs so that the other twin, who had now clambered on top of me, could not wrestle the eraser from my hand. Nanda, who refused to give up the pencil, remained smug for the rest of the afternoon. Anika, having been lifted off me by her Dad, was inconsolable and had a heaving chest and red face all day, even by the time we were all made to go out to the garden and rest on homemade blankets for the remainder of the afternoon.

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NEVER QUITE THE SAME – By Jim

042

It’s always nice to receive a home-made birthday greeting, just not so good if it’s wrapped round a brick that comes flying through your living room window, and I’m afraid that’s how I conveyed my best wishes to the brother Stewart on our last one.  Yes, he and I are twins, always have been, funnily enough, and, bizarrely, we are very alike – physically, that is.  In all other ways we’re about as different as two people with the same DNA could be, and for some reason our birthday celebrations tend to emphasise that fact.

I thought taking the new girlfriend home would balance things out, because Stewart turns up to birthday and Christmas dos with his missus these days.  I met Dee Dee at Link-up and we’re both nutters.  Well, I’d say I outclass her in that department, because I’ve got bi-polars, whereas she has a mere personality disorder.  She’s ballsy, with lots of piercings and tattoos, so I thought she would shake things up and give me an ally for a change.

That week I was on a real high, which is normally bad news, because anything can happen.  The day before the birthday, I walked, half naked, out of a training scheme for the long term unemployed, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been snowing a blizzard.  It was the bit about opening envelopes that had really annoyed me, or Receiving Incoming Mail, as they called it.  Avril, the trainer, had a diagram of a paperknife up on the projector screen and was explaining the technique: slice open both ends and then compress the envelope into a tube in order to ensure all contents have been removed.  Avril was looking at me through her tube when I snapped.  I was actually thinking about the speech the course co-ordinator had made on Day 1 about Billy Bremner, the fiery football captain with a never say die attitude.

“What would the Billy Bremner approach to this one be?” I asked, using my own tubular envelope as a megaphone.

“A sliding tackle!” said one guy.

“A tantalising miss from close range,” suggested another.

“No,” said a man at the back. “He would throw his shirt at the ref and stalk off in a huff.”  Right enough, this was how Billy had expressed his disgust whenever a referee sent him off unfairly, which used to happen to him every week. I started to strip off my top layers and some of the women whistled.

“Wooah!  Show us yer boabby!”

I threw my hooded top towards the big paperknife picture, but, as I headed for the door, Avril shouted me back.

“Sign out,” she said.

“Eh?”

She held out a clipboard.

“If you’re leaving, you’ll need to sign out.”

“Fuck off,” I said, and strutted out to massive applause.  I soon realised my mistake, but didn’t want to spoil the effect by going back in for my stuff.  Exhilarated, I jogged as far as the Pond Hotel with it’s entourage of miserable, frozen swans, stopped and hooked my fingers through the fence.  I was  remembering a birthday when Stewart hadn’t been there, due to an important football match.  For once, my birthday present had been every bit as good as his.  It was a model speed boat and Dad had taken me to the Pond to try her out.  High on the memory of that special moment, I cantered along Great Western Road, parting the pedestrians and their umbrellas. Realising I was shaking violently, I wiped the snow from my face and laughed. A girl in a green coat and red lipstick I recognised from Philosophy gawped at me, almost staggering  in front of a bus.  I waved and wove between her umbrella and another, jumped on and off the kerb, dodged a growling taxi but collided with the outstretched trilby of the guy who was always outside Tesco with his filthy car coat and apologetic smile, like a football manager trying to laugh off the worst run of results in history. Fifty pence in the bunnet.  “That’s dangerous mate, you better get wrapped up.”

When Dee Dee came round she was proud of what I’d done, but worried about hypothermia and gave me a big hug.  Then she took me, properly dressed, to Next to get Stewart a present. I couldn’t believe she was up for facing my family and she played even more of a blinder than I had hoped, coming out with some crap about being able to read palms.  Making an educated guess about all their deepest hopes and fears, she proceeded to predict the patter of tiny feet for Stewart and wife, a financial windfall for Mum, another promotion for Stewart and an accident at work for Dad, if he didn’t watch himself around machinery.  Things only really got out of hand when it came to the presents.  Me and Stewart played out our usual score draw with the checked shirts, then, as is often the case, my gift from mum and dad proved to be a mamby-pamby version of Stewart’s, like when we both got Action Men but his came as a stormtrooper while mine was a Buckingham Palace guard – talk about a sitting duck.  On this occasion we were both given silk ties, his businesslike and smart and mine with a weird and wacky design.  Mum said it was because we were both office workers now.  That’s when I told them I hadn’t actually been working, just doing a training scheme which I had now dropped out of.

“What are you talking about?” Mum’s face was settling into a familiar look of  disappointment, while Dad was doing his James Bond eyebrow thing.  “You mean  you’re still unemployed after all those computer modules?”  Sadly, Mum thought having a SCOTVEC certificate in Clerical Procedures made you a yuppie.  “And on top of your degree?”

“You have a degree?” asked Dee Dee.  Actually I didn’t, but I had never spelled this out to my parents, who just thought I hadn’t been into the pomp and ceremony of graduation days.

“I probably just need a bit of space and time to figure out what I want.”

“You’ll never know what you want,” Mum said bitterly, and left the room with her eyes watering.

“Why does she get so upset?” I asked Dad, but it was Dee Dee who answered.

“Maybe she doesn’t like you throwing your life down the toilet.”

My jaw dropped as she laid into me.  “Jeez, a graduate and you’re doing courses in photocopying?  Give me a break!”

“It’s difficult to argue with that,” said Stewart.

I looked round at the embarrassed faces and knew I was about to throw up.

“Going for a walk,” I managed, struggling to my feet.

It felt better in the cold air, trudging up the moors towards Sammy’s place. He was the oldest regular at Link-up, a schizophrenic, though he reckoned his problems had started during his drug-taking days in the seventies.  “I don’t remember anything after Led Zepellin 4,” he liked to say.  Sammy lived in a hut on top of a mound, well hidden in the middle of some woods, and it was getting dark by the time I found it. Sammy wasn’t there but I knew where he hid the key.  I lit the stove, got myself under a blanket and started to review all the times in my life I had done a runner.  One of the biggest was after stabbing Stewart with the scout knife. I hid under the rhododendrons behind the school, but was caught when I broke cover to buy Irn Bru, a roll and some crisps at the shop.  That was when they sent me to the psychologist, a young guy in a combat jacket who played headies over the clothesline with me, then asked where I would most like to go in the world.  Australia. Why?   Because it was the furthest distance I could get from Stewart.  And why didn’t I want to be near Stewart?  “Cos I don’t want to be a spastic.”  I recited the words into the flames of Sammy’s stove, welling up with fellow feeling for my smaller self.  “So are you totally mad?” my classmates had asked.  “A wee bit,” I confirmed, quite chuffed to have been marked out as different.

I  looked round at the slatted walls of Sammy’s hut, with its pictures of pyramids and temples.  It was an upgrade from squatting under a bush in the school grounds, but I was still playing hide and seek with the authorities and it was going to have to stop. I closed the door of the stove and walked out, stood for a moment in the pitch dark, then missed the first step and somersaulted to the bottom of the hill.  It wasn’t going to be such an easy trip home, I realised, and  I was soon properly lost, crashing through branches and finally stumbling into a marsh.  Wading with increasing desperation in the blackness, I cried out “Fucking help me” and was immediately caught in a set of headlights.  As I waved with both arms, the car slowed and came to a halt about fifty yards away, but no one got out. I staggered and plunged my way through the swamp in the beam of the lights until, finally, I was scrambling up a bank towards the car.   The windows rolled down and the heads of two teenage boys emerged.  “Bog man!”  they shouted, before disappearing in a cloud of exhaust, with me screaming “Bastards!” and hurling a handful of sludge after them.  But  I could smell silage and knew, if I stayed on this road, I would skirt a golf course, then a farm, and be on the way home.

After half an hour of squelching in waterlogged shoes, I came to the front of the house.  The curtains were still open and they were all sitting around listening adoringly to Stewart, especially Dee Dee.  It was like a love-in.  Why was I only allowed to have anything that was a shit version of his?  Why did anything decent of my own always get taken away?  That’s when I cast around for a missile and picked up the brick.  I looked in Dad’s van for his joiner’s pencil and a scrap of paper, wrote Happy Birthday on it, then wrapped it round the brick and hurled the lot through the front window.  There was screams and shouts and, at this point, it might have been normal for me to split, but I was exhausted.  I slumped onto the garden wall as Dad and Stewart came piling out, saw me and stopped dead in their tracks.  In the light from the front door, I realised I looked like I’d just emerged from an underground explosion – black from head to foot, with streaks of blood from the scratches on my face.

By the time I was out the bath, Dad had boarded up the window.  Dee Dee put her arms round me and apologised for giving me a hard time.  On his way out, Stewart said that next year a card would be nice and Mum cracked a joke about letting me pick my own ties in future.  Everybody was hyper-reassuring and Dee Dee  revealed that we had been invited to stay for a few days, just to make sure I was getting my rest.

“No thanks.  It’s a girlfriend I want, not another carer.”

I set off across town alone, deciding that this birthday was going to be the beginning of a new era for me.  It was a downer about Dee Dee, but you’ve got to watch your back.  As soon as I got home I would unfriend her on Facebook.

Issue 10: Bloody Holidays

10 Oct

As the cold and damp of autumn arrives, here at The Feminist Jumble Sale, we are harking back to holidays past.  In this issue, you’ll find donations from the usual suspects, with a selection of postcards from the edge. We manage to transport you on a cheap European break, to a West Country holiday let, and aboard a static caravan.  It’s not all sun, sea, sand and sex, though; emotions run high, lives are changed and family dramas erupt. Getting away from  it all; it’s easier said than done.  Wish you were here? Ah well, maybe next summer.

Next issue: Bloody Birthdays.  Please send us any donations on this theme by the end of November.

CONTENTS:

The Getaway – By Celia

Lyme Regis – by Emily

Caravan of Love – by Jim

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The Get Away – by Celia

Head down, I picked my way over a Nando’s receipt that had been ripped into pieces and thrown onto the pavement, avoiding the dog shit and oily puddles.

I wandered past the Georgian terraces, peered down into the basements used as home gyms, with static bicycles and projection screens. Five pairs of sodden espadrilles in selected sizes, from small child to adult male lay in a pile by the recycling bin.  The kids in blazers sat in the Range Rover waiting for their mother to emerge in gym clothes and drive them to school. There was a strong smell of skunk from a workmen’s van, smoking while they sat waiting to start work on the artisanal staircase down to the newly damp-proofed basement cinegym. I leaned against the railings for a while, unsure of whether I wanted to see you again.

I looked up when I felt you clasp my hand tightly in your dry and trembling fist and began pulling me through the extended family who were making their way slowly down the high street. ‘Twats,’ you muttered under your breath.

‘We’re going on holiday,’ you said. We had never been away anywhere before, from my flat, the damp and arguments.

We arrived at the coach station just before rush hour. I slept as the coach took us back along the streets we had just walked, only waking up when we reached the ferry.

The spray kept me cool as I watched you smoke roll ups on the deck. ‘Don’t worry about anything’ you said to me. And I thought ‘But I’m not worried about anything’. I didn’t say it out loud.

When it was time to get back on the coach I lay with my head against the window, my mouth furry from tiredness and dehydration.

My senses were made alert by the foreign surroundings. The coach speeding along the opposite side of the motorway or whatever the called it here. Grey plastic bollards and sun dried shrubs lined the carriageway. Road signs with places I’d never heard of and would never see with  strange accents above the vowels, their distances listed in kilometres rather than miles, they were closer. I felt nearer to this environment and to my senses, but not to you.

The change seemed to have had the opposite effect on you. You seemed jumpy, on edge.

I hoped you hadn’t brought any illegal substances with you in your jeans pocket. The coach sped over another open border. I saw bored prostitutes lounging on wooden picnic tables at the side of the road.

When we stopped at the service station, I bought beer and hot potato cakes covered in breadcrumbs. The bus passed memorials to war dead in fields and forests.

You began to complain of chest pains and moved constantly in your seat. I got the greasy  paper bag from the floor and made you breathe into it as I had done before to ease your hyperventilating. You dragged on it heavily. The other passengers were worried now, shooting us concerned looks. The sweat poured off you. You grunted at the passengers, now savage and shaking.

The driver stopped the bus in a wooded clearing by a lake. He moved towards us shouting in broken English. He wanted you off the bus. I didn’t want to leave you quite that way, but I knew I couldn’t carry on.

You tried to hold my hand, but I turned away to the picnic site at the side of the lake. A family sat eating sandwiches. I hoped they could help you. You took your rucksack and climbed down from the bus with your head bowed.

I carried on alone, eastwards.

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Lyme Regis – by Emily

Louise and I were sharing a twin bedroom with twin polyester bedspreads.  The room was dark, even with the lamps on, and despite it being May, was chilly.  It was half term – which always meant revision.  I had brought all by books on this holiday, but lacked the urge to actually open any of them.  My new personal stereo was a godsend.  It wasn’t a proper Walkman, and buying batteries for it used up a lot of my pocket money, but it played me Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and the Cure whenever I wanted, or needed.  The company of these bands helped me escape. I didn’t have to talk to my sister, the lyrics which made no sense but somehow sounded so meaningful took me somewhere else.

As I listened and pretended to concentrate on a dull chemistry textbook, the diagrams and text blurring in front of my eyes. I knew she would like me to talk to her, that she felt isolated.  But she was an idiot.  She didn’t like good music and worse, didn’t seem to realise that our mum and her lover were our sworn enemies.  I had no time for someone that stupid.

It rained every day.  The four of us went for walks along the cliffs, or the beach and I kept at a distance behind them, stared down at my unsuitable footwear as I trudged over the wet shingle.  The distance between us was a force field, keeping me safe, I hoped. I vaguely looked for fossils, while thinking about beautiful Sam Wainright and his ivory skin and how he’d recently broken my heart.   I wondered if I’d ever recover.  I doubted it.

The relentless rain and the four of us on holiday was bringing back memories of three long years before, when we had gone to Ireland.  I’d had no idea then what that holiday was the start of.  Patricia had still been newly installed in our lives and was desperate to make a good impression, to cement her relationship with mum.

Mum drove us to Liverpool then from Northern Ireland west to Donegal.  I had just been discharged from hospital with a new disease and lots of alien equipment which I now needed to use all day, every day: syringes, insulin, blood testing apparatus. It was all horrible and smelled weird. The hospital said I was fine to go on holiday, but I wasn’t convinced.  On the long drive, Patricia in the passenger seat sometimes rested her hand on mum’s left thigh.  I looked out the windows so as not to have to notice and think about what this meant.  She was also in charge of the tape deck, and played Irish folk music to get us in the mood.  I didn’t know any of the tunes and missed the tapes we always used to sing along to before.  American Pie and Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Driving through the border terrified Louise and me.  Actual soldiers with guns lay in ditches either side of the car as we were questioned, the car searched.  Patricia found it amusing that we were so scared.  It brought on one of her IRA songs once we’d got out of earshot of the men.

The rain poured through the thatch in our rented cottage, filling pans, buckets, bowls that needed emptying every hour.  Lou and I slept in an ex-hayloft, which was exciting, but damp.  I cried every time I had to do my injection, but no one seemed to want to help.  I was on my own, now, perhaps this is just what happens when you’re 11.  You just get on with it and look after yourself.  So when I ran out of insulin one week in to our stay,  it was obviously my fault.  The hospital had only given me half a bottle of insulin. We had to drive back over the border, late at night, to find a hospital.  Scared and cold in the back of the car, I was glad for the lack of folk music, this time.

On our way back home from Ireland we stopped over at Patricia’s mum’s scrubbed-clean council house in Belfast.  It smelled of bleach and air freshener and cigarettes.  I could understand the mother’s accent, but could feel the tangible tension between them.  Why had we been brought here?  After a night on camp beds with a carpet that swirled beneath us, Lou and I were given toasted potato bread with a thick layer of butter and the strongest tea I’d even seen for breakfast.  All of us were relieved to get out of there and head to the ferry.

Tea times in Lyme Regis were even more of a strain than at home.  As usual, mum did all the cooking, while Patricia sat about, talking shit and popping out the front door for a Silk Cut.  At the table we ate potatoes out of aluminium pans, and had even less to talk about than usual.  We half-heartedly planned walks and excursions.  I mentioned my dread of the exams that loomed. As soon as I could get back to my pretend schoolwork and rewind Burning From the Inside, I did.

One evening, Patricia took it upon herself to challenge my bad attitude. I was ungrateful, apparently, made no effort, hadn’t washed up for two days.  My rage found no words apart from the Fuck Off that had been brewing for three years.  I fled into the dingy twin room, slamming the door hard.

She burst in after me demanding I take back what I’d said.  She would not be sworn at, she said.  What a hypocrite, she bloody swears all the time, I thought.  I refused to take it back. This caused her to storm up and down the corridor for a while, before disappearing out the door.  She wasn’t just going for a fag.  I heard her putting on her cagoule and wellies. Good, I thought.  After she’d been gone half an hour, mum started worrying.  After an hour, I was in serious trouble.

I pretended not to care.  This was important for my pride, of course, but I needed to set an example to Louise too.  Someone had to show her, as she comforted mum. When Patricia finally returned, smelling of pubs, mum was overjoyed.  My sister was relieved.  I watched the reunion from the corridor and sickened, retreated back to the twin room, to Bauhaus singing about lunatics and graveyards. I lay on the bed and listed in my head all the things I hated about her.

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Caravan of Love – by Jim

You’re sitting in the lotus position on the hilltop overlooking the campsite, the dunes, the sea and the isles, with your long hair and bum fluff beard, wearing the heavy crucifix you’ve just shoplifted from the gift store way below us.  I’m looking down nervously, waiting for the manageress to run out and raise the alarm, but nothing happens.

You got me to ask the lady about an Airfix model on the top shelf back in the toy section, while you nicked the jewellery out front.  I know the drill by now and, I’ve got to admit, take a helluva pride in displaying a form of competence even you have to acknowledge.  Obviously it’s terrifying – just not as much as saying no to you would be.  I usually play decoy while you lift fags or booze, but you’ve got higher things on your mind on this trip.  You’re concerned about your spiritual development, and about your new relationship.  As well as the pendant for yourself, you’ve pinched a smaller piece to take home to Joyce. And you’ve sent her a postcard with “love and peace” scrawled on the bottom – the catchphrase you’ve adopted to go with your new style, though some of the skinhead paraphernalia is still intact, like the flick-knife hidden in the secret pocket of your Wrangler jacket.

You were describing Joyce’s vagina to me the other night, while we lay in the bunk room.  I didn’t need that, to be honest. The caravan was already rocking gently back and forth, while I tried to block out any mental image of what might be going on in the master bedroom.  You were sniggering and throwing sweets at me, the hard boiled ones Gran always sends wherever we go on holiday, along with the lucky dips and comics, in what she calls our “red cross parcel”.

I think I heard Mum and Dad shagging once before in the house, but I’ve never actually been shoogled around by the vibrations of it up to now – it made me feel sick, but sad as well. I feel sorry for them, especially Mum, that they feel they’ve still got to do that sort of thing, even though they’re virtually fossils.  It’s probably just a holiday treat cum chore, like the books they buy whenever we go away (Mum and Dad read one book apiece per annum – a romantic novel and something about spies or war).

I don’t mind the thought of sex entirely, only not if it’s too close to home or involving the elderly.  To be honest, the idea of you and Joyce going at it like rabbits doesn’t exactly fill my heart with joy either. I suppose I mainly don’t mind thinking about it just if it’s me doing it with someone decent, like Natalie Wood, or one of the Biggerstaff twins from regi class – the quiet one.  Even then, I would rather not talk about it.  But you want to talk about it non-stop.  And, as with everything else, you are so fucking angry about it, you’re staring at me like a psycho played by Jack Nicholson.  You could be a famous actor yourself with those eyes, I reckon, if only you would broaden your emotional range.

“Listen to this,” you say, picking up Dad’s novel.  “This is what turns the old bastard on.”

“It’s just a war book,” I say.

But you make me listen to every word of some rape scene you’ve found, involving Japanese soldiers and a young girl, even though you can hardly read and it’s the last thing you would want to do normally.

All this talk about Joyce’s wet fanny and gang bangs and Mum and Dad – it’s too weird.  Thank God the thought of the old ones at it is so utterly bogging, otherwise I’d probably get a stiffy, as I do most of the time these days, and I know that is what you want, so as to prove what a hypocritical mutant I am.

Towards the end of last term I had to permanently position my Adidas bag so as to shield my groin from public view.  Barry Kerr, who was next to me in Biology and is very mature about these things, admitted any tree with a skirt wrapped round it would almost be enough to get him going at the moment, and that’s pretty close to what actually happened to me when Mrs Reid’s skirt rode up her leg while she was sitting at the front of the English class. So big and ancient is her thigh, it was like being turned on by a glimpse of the Birnam Oak.

Still cross-legged on the hill, you start glugging from the half bottle of vodka you’ve bought with money from Dad’s wallet.  You say they can’t smell it if it’s vodka and if you go back late enough when they’re in bed it won’t matter about being half cut.  We can say we’ve made friends on the site.  We have actually been talking to a gang of boys you sarcastically call ‘the heavy mob’ because they are younger than you.  They are a bit older than me though and look cool in their aviator sunglasses and college jumpers, like Showaddywaddy. It’s the first time I have ever felt protected by you, because they are the sort of lads who would normally have beaten me to death if you hadn’t been there. They said I am the spitting double of you, which makes me feel good.

You get friendlier after a drink and put your arm round me.

“Faithful soldier,” you call me.  You tell me you’re going to leave home now you’ve turned seventeen.  You’re already doing an apprenticeship and Joyce has started her first job too.  You’re going to get a flat together.  You tell me I can come and visit.  I am excited because I think having an adult brother makes me cool.  I am also relieved because it means I will no longer have to be scared of you round the house, or generally feel terrible all the time about being a snob, a tit, a spastic, a sook and a specky, useless, fat, poofy, wee cunt.

You stagger down the hill with me by your side.  It’s dark and we fall through all sorts of bushes and bogs, being bitten to death by midges.  When we get into the caravan, Dad is sitting up waiting.  I am scared, but he just looks depressed.  He sends me off to bed and I listen through the door while he tells you he’s going to run you home in the morning and leave you there.  By the time the rest of us come back at the weekend you’ve to be out of the house.  You can learn the hard way what it means to be responsible and we’ll see how long you survive if you think you can pish everything you earn against a wall.

Nothing is said while we lie in the dark or the next day over cornflakes.  I’ve always liked the Kellogg’s selection packs Mum buys for going on holiday, but even the choice between Frosties and Ricicles fails to cheer me up.  Me and Mum watch you and Dad drive away and Mum cries and tells me to go for a walk, so I wander around on my own, hiding from Showaddywaddy, until I’m too

hungry and go back for a sandwich.  Mum has composed herself and tells me that you have a long road to travel but there is nothing any of us can do because they’ve already tried everything, but at least I am not like that – I will make something of myself.

I go into the bunk room and find a tiny box on my pillow.  It is a St Christopher’s medal you must have taken from the shop.  I hide it in some bushes, under a stone, nowhere near our caravan, in case the shop phones the police and they come with sniffer dogs.  But I’ll go back for it just before we set off home.  And when I’m wearing it I will try to make my eyes go like yours – scary but beautiful – though I’m not sure if it’ll work through my glasses.