A NOTE FROM STEPHANIE ZIA:
Blackbird began by a happy accident in 2010 when the popular Transworld travel writer Susie Kelly joined me in my exploration of the ebook digital revolution.
Susie soon became a US Amazon bestseller, new authors joined us, we started producing print books as well and it has been non-stop ever since.
Ten years on, it's time for a pause. I have a 4th novel of my own to complete whilst I continue exploring new initiatives to promote our brand and our current list.
Please follow @Blackbird_Bks on Twitter for updates. Thank you.
Rosie loved Tom. Rosie had always loved Tom and, although she was unable to measure ‘always’ in terms of years and months, this made perfect sense to her.
Their love was not constrained by the mortal bonds of time; it was eternal, ageless and ancient beyond all recollection and record. All that mattered to Rosie, all that had ever really mattered, was that she loved him and he loved her. These facts, she knew, were as solid and undeniable as the old oak tree in the garden.
Nowadays, Tom talked to the oak tree more than he did to Rosie, but she didn’t take this personally. She understood his need to be with nature. She knew he found it comforting that a world which produced guns and bombs could also yield a dewy spring blossom. She realised that his eyes craved beauty, for she had only to look into them to see that his wounds were still fresh and current.
He needed time, she told herself. He hadn’t long come home and it was clearly going to take a little while longer for him to truly return to her. It didn’t make the slightest difference to how she felt about him. She had all the time in the world for Tom and, while she waited for him, their love would see them through.
Tom found the sudden change in his circumstances more than a little bewildering. To be here in the house, shadowed by his watchful, yet unobtrusive wife was wonderful, but also rather strange. It felt like the fantasies he’d created as a battle-weary soldier, when he’d shunned grim reality in favour of a romanticised vision of life back in England.
He’d so often dreamed of home, that his homecoming had seemed dreamlike and still now his surroundings quivered with the tremulous contours of a mirage.
Yet, for all its perplexing intensity, Tom was acutely aware that life here was good. The house was beautiful and so was she. It was his favourite time of year; the garden was brimming with burgeoning flowers, the house was bathed in the mellow luminosity of hazy spring sunshine and his wife… his wife’s blue eyes shimmered with the promise of better times to come. It was the culmination of his most cherished desires. His home, his garden and his lovely wife, waiting for him at the end of it all. Tom knew he would be happy, given time.
Rosie noticed that the ritual of familiar routine helped Tom adjust to his new environment. He took to making the bed with her, helping her set the table, putting out his West Ham mug next to her china teacup as she filled the kettle.
The more time Tom spent at home with Rosie, the more ownership he took of his daily chores and, much to her satisfaction, he even began to instigate them.
One Sunday morning, she found him in the kitchen, peeling potatoes and carrots for lunch. She watched him for a few moments, mesmerised by the rhythmic motion of his task and by the perfectly proportioned strips of orange vegetable peel emanating from the carrot in his hand. She bustled into the room.
‘You don’t need a housewife,’ she joked.
He put down the carrot and took her in his arms.
‘But I’ll always need a wife,’ he replied.
Rosie thrilled at his words and at his touch. After so long apart, his skin on hers felt like the very first time.
She cast her mind back to that exquisite night, not so very long ago, when their future together had stretched out before them, as long and as vibrant as their tightly intertwined limbs. She wished now she’d made a note of that date; the day they realised the full extent of their feelings for each other, the day that changed both their lives forever.
Why is it, she thought to herself, that I can remember every look, every smell, every taste from that night, but I don’t know whether it was July or January? She put it down to the heady excitement of first love and, as she looked into Tom’s eyes now, she knew he could still make her feel that way.
A few days later, he kissed her full on the lips, catching her unawares while she took tea in the garden. The shock of it caused her to drop her favourite cup and, as she responded to the warm pressure of his mouth, she watched the shards of rose-patterned porcelain scatter across the veranda.
She tried to focus on his kiss, the sweetness of which she had sorely missed, but her mind returned to the shattered pieces of bone china surrounding them. She fancied they were like splinters of fractured time; fragmented moments from their past together. Time they had wasted, time they had borrowed, time they had taken for granted and would never get back.
That night they lay down together, face-to-face on one pillow. Rosie held her breath and listened to the sounds of the silence; the dripping tap, the ticking clock, Tom’s steady breathing. She looked deep into the whirlpool of his cloudy gaze, trying to interpret its meaning and feeling much like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole; dizzy with excitement, yet fearful she would lose herself in the sensation of perpetual falling.
‘I love you, Tom,’ she croaked.
He shifted beside her.
‘I should go back to my own bed.’
She squeezed her eyelids shut and tried hard to understand.
‘This is your bed too,’ she told him, ‘whenever you’re ready.’
He stroked her face and kissed her affectionately on the forehead.
‘Good-night, my love.’
He rose from the bed and left her staring into the shadows. She lay awake for a while, doggedly counting her blessings; but then the creeping darkness slowly dimmed her senses and sleep erased her memory until all that remained in her consciousness was the imprint of her sorrow.
Tom lay trembling in an unfamiliar bed across the landing. He thought about his wife, about her sparkling sea-blue eyes. She was all he’d ever wanted in a woman. Why then, when he loved her so much, when his body ached for her, was he spending the night alone, yet again?
He was tired, that he knew and he’d been through so much, but coming home to her had helped soothe the pain and he was now ready to put the past behind him. Tomorrow he would talk to her, explain how he really felt. He’d get a few things off his chest, about the loneliness and the fear. Clear the air so to speak. She’d understand. He needed to talk, to get back to his old self and then they could get on with the business of living.
The next morning, Tom found her in the garden, barefoot and dressed only in a thin dressing-gown. She didn’t notice him at first, so enthralled was she by the dancing daffodils under the oak tree, by the sweet birdsong and the long wet grass, which felt like tiny puppy tongues lapping her ankles.
‘You’ll catch your death, you silly old moo,’ he reproached her mildly.
She turned to him laughing and shivering, delighted that he’d sought her out.
‘Watch it, cheeky!’ she said. ‘I’m not old.’
‘Well you’re too old to be wandering around outside half-clothed,’ he grumbled as he guided her gently back into the house.
‘I was going to have a bath,’ she told him, ‘but I looked out the window and the garden looked so pretty.’
They sat down in the living room together and she put her hands in his.
‘Do you remember when we used to do silly things? Just for the fun of it?’
He shook his head.
‘No, not really. Can’t say I do.’
She leant forward and searched his eyes.
‘Of course you do,’ she insisted. ‘Running down hills, blowing spit bubbles. Skinny-dipping.’
She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and saw a flame ignite in his dark eyes. He grinned.
His smile broadened and settled into the lines and creases of his lovely face.
‘There you are,’ she said.
She took him by the hand and led him up the stairs.
Afterwards, they slept and Rosie knew peace.
Tom’s slumber was not so restful and he found himself back on the battlefield. He was awoken by an explosion, which flung him out of the bed and onto the floor. His cries roused Rosie and she rushed to his side.
‘Get back in the tank!’ he screamed at her.
She cradled his head and stroked his damp hair.
‘Hush my darling, it’s not real.’
‘The enemy,’ he panted, ‘the enemy’s approaching. RUN!’
‘Look at me, Tom. It’s Rosie.’
He looked at her.
‘You’re at home with me.’
He sat up and looked around the bedroom.
‘Is the war over then?’ he asked.
‘Yes darling, it’s over.’
He let out a loud whoop.
‘Shush!’ she laughed, ‘you’ll wake the neighbours.’
The last thing she wanted was one of those busybodies knocking on the door. She got up.
‘Shall we have breakfast?’
Tom got up too but then flopped down onto the bed.
‘I’m still tired,’ he said, ‘how about you?’
He patted the empty space beside him on the mattress and she giggled.
‘I could do with forty winks myself,’ she said and lay down next to him.
They cuddled, oblivious to all else but the muted delight of their whispered intimacy.
Oblivious to the bedroom door slowly opening and a shadowy figure entering the room.
c. Tanya Bullock 2016
Homecoming - Quite Possibly the Strangest Romance Ever Told by Tanya Bullock
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Can a child be born strange? Or does it come from some early forgotten experience?
My parents and my maternal grandmother, Nan, were loving and caring. We ate well (especially considering that this was just after the end of WWII and many foods were still rationed). Our grey house was comfortable and warm, I had plenty of toys and rag books that Mummy and Nan read to me. I don't think I lacked for anything.
So why would I steal?
At the age of five I was a thief. I had a mania for stealing paper. When I could get to school before anybody else, I went around the classroom lifting the lids of the other children’s desks and digging into their exercise books with their lined and squared pages. Then, holding my breath with concentration and excitement, quickly, carefully, I would pull out several pages from the centre of each book, bending back any give-away staples that had worked loose. A new day had made a most satisfying start. Why, or what I did with the reams of paper I must have accumulated, I haven’t the faintest idea. In our class only my exercise books glowed with plump good health, while my classmates’ books were gaunt and skeletal, but the strange thing was that nobody ever seemed to notice. Nothing was mentioned, neither by the victims, nor by the teachers. Each day’s anticipation of being named and shamed meant that I was very frightened, but at the same time strangely excited.
Encouraged by my success, I began to supplement my paper reserve with money, which had a more practical benefit. Most of the other children in my class brought a 1d. (one penny piece) to school for break-time (this was the 1950s, when there were 12 pennies in a shilling). One penny might not sound much today, but it was sufficient then to buy a fine break-time treat – a choice of a pink or white sugar mouse with a little string tail, Ovaltine or Horlicks tablets folded into a small cone made from paper from used arithmetic exercise books, a packet of lemonade powder eaten from a licked finger, or a small thin chocolate bar. I don’t know whether I didn’t have my own penny because my parents didn’t know about it, or couldn’t afford it. In any event it didn’t matter because as we stood beside our desks for morning prayers, our hands devoutly folded and eyes piously squeezed shut, I reached out and felt for the penny pieces nearest to me, put on the corner of their desks by their unsuspecting owners. With a nimble movement my hand found the coins and transferred them into the pocket of my gymslip. On a bumper day I managed to scoop two coins, careful not to let them clink together as they changed ownership.
Astonishingly, none of my classmates ever mentioned the loss of their pennies, just as they didn’t appear to notice that their exercise books were showing signs of anorexia. If I’d had a penny to lose you can be pretty sure I would have raised quite a storm if it had disappeared. So each day some unfortunate child, or on a good day, two children, didn’t get a sugar mouse or similar treat. The Lord helps those who help themselves, and he certainly provided very nicely for me.
Apart from paper and pennies I began to find small, interesting items in other children's desks. Like a jackdaw I pecked them up. My satchel was a repository of things that did not belong to me – hair grips, pencils, tiny ornaments. It was the mother-of-pearl rosary beads and Bible that led to my downfall.
On an early-morning raid, I was enthralled to find these pretty items in another child’s desk. I slipped them into my satchel, so thrilled with this exceptional haul that I didn't even bother about harvesting any paper.
That evening there was a knock at our front door, a rare event, and my mother came and said there was someone to see me. It was the previous owner of my swag, with her parents.
It's only now, as I write this, that I think: How had they known where to come? How had they known it was me? It's most unlikely that they would have gone to the house of each child in the class. They wouldn't have had a car, in those days almost nobody did, so they would have either had to walk or travel by bus. I'm sure, now, that they had somehow known who the thief was and come straight to our house. Is it possible that my clandestine stealing sessions were observed, not as secret as I thought? Was I watched as I pilfered? Did the watcher know about the pennies and the paper?
“Susan,” asked my mother, “did you bring home some things belonging to Angela?” The dispossessed little girl gazed at me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
“Yes,” I said. I was a thief, not a liar.
“Then will you go and get them, and give them back like a good girl?”
Off I trotted and with a slight reluctance returned the pretty things to their owner. Then everybody made a great fuss of me. Angela's mother invited me to tea at their house, where she gave me a packet of waxed crayons and a new Bible. I never wanted to steal anything again.
Post-war London, where I was born, was a landscape in every shade of grey. Our semi-detached house was grey, in a grey road in a grey place called Hanworth in the now administratively-defunct county of Middlesex, south-west London.
At that time, we were a respectable middle-class family, like hundreds of thousands of similar families. My mild and gentle father worked for Kodak, and Mummy was a housewife and mother. We were the only family in the street who owned a motor vehicle – a motorcycle and sidecar my father used for travelling to and from work, and for pleasure rides. Mummy rode on the pillion with her arms around my father and I sat in the little pod with its slightly hazy plastic windows. We had a black cat called Clem, named after Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister. Clem’s favourite spot was curled up asleep in my father’s old leather attaché case in the garden.
On Sunday mornings my father liked to walk, and if I went with him I had to jog smartly to keep up with his long stride. Those walks took us to nearby Teddington Lock on the river Thames, and Royal Bushy Park where we played cricket, my father bowling slow balls and me trying to whack them back with a child’s cricket bat. The highlight of our visits to the park was a ride on Bonny Bright Eyes, the playground rocking horse that seated several passengers.
At weekends, Mummy's mother, Nan, came to visit with her corgi, Taffy. During the war she, like so many others had "dug for victory" and it was something she had enjoyed and continued. She spent Saturdays weeding, hoeing, sowing, planting, staking and harvesting boxes of beautiful vegetables and fruit. Short, dignified and plump, she was beautifully spoken and always impeccably dressed. Her passion was music. Both her paternal grandparents were opera singers; her father was a chorister at Westminster Abbey and her uncle a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral. She had trained to be an opera singer and sung in the chorus of many operas with the great names of the time. Later, when her voice began to let her down she became a secretary and worked for one of the senior directors of the General Electric Company. During the First World War she had married an American serviceman and emigrated to the United States. It was an unhappy marriage and after two years she returned to England with her little daughter – my mother. Although she never mentioned it, the stigma and difficulties of being a divorcée and single mother in the 1920s must have been considerable.
She was the quintessentially doting grandmother who would do and give me anything I asked for. For a while I had an obsession with posting presents to myself. Nan would find small things like her powder compact, a tiny scent bottle or a writing pad, and together we carefully wrapped them in brown paper, tied them with string and addressed them to me. Then we walked hand-in-hand to the Post Office to buy stamps and drop the packet into the letterbox. When it was delivered the following day I was beside myself with excitement. A week or so later it was recycled and re-posted, and no matter how many times I sent myself the same thing, the delight of receiving it never diminished.
Our next door neighbour was a tall, thin man with a long black beard, always dressed in black and always wearing a large black hat. Whenever our paths crossed he smiled and said “Hello”. My father hurried me past, telling me not to speak to him because he was a Jew. I asked once what a Jew was as he looked much like any other person, but my father simply said they weren’t like us. I tried pressing the question, in what way weren’t they like us, but there didn’t seem to be a proper explanation. I spent the next twenty years wondering exactly what it was about Jews that made them ‘not like us’. It’s strange that such a quiet and easy-going man as my father should have been a bigot. He also hated Germans which was more understandable, as he’d served in the British army for the duration of WWII and his uncle had been killed at Dunkirk.
Directly opposite our house lived Mummy’s friend Auntie Kitty. Tall and thin with a chuckly voice, wiry black hair and a prominent wart on her chin, Auntie Kitty became a celebrity in our street when she bought a television in 1953 so that she and we could watch the Coronation. I recall that the sound was very clear – the harsh, unfaltering voice of our new Queen as she made her first public address, although the black and white picture flickered on and off and the small screen seemed to be enveloped in a snowstorm. It was a freezing day and a long afternoon, punctuated by servings of Auntie Kitty's speciality. Soaked in a mixture of egg and milk, cooked in lard and saturated with sugar, her fried jam sandwiches were ambrosial. When Auntie Kitty's big chin wart began sprouting hairs, Mummy persuaded her to do something about it, and so we went by bus with her one day to hospital to have it removed. All the way home we laughed at her delight in not having the thing on her chin any more. Wherever Mummy was, there was always laughter.
Once a year we went on holiday with Nan to Boscombe, east of Bournemouth on England's south coast. After breakfast at the guesthouse on the Lansdowne Road, we marched down the long zigzag path to the sandy beach with its fascinating pools of slimy, podded weed and furtive creatures scuttling and darting beneath rocks. My ruched red swimming costume held water, so as I emerged from the sea it drooped around my knees as the water drained away.
Looking back, I recall the weather was always perfect, never a cloud or drop of rain to spoil the blue of the sky and the kiss of the sun. Boscombe meant being with my parents and Nan all day, every day, ice cream, pony rides, mini-golf, building sandcastles and then watching the incoming tide melt them away. At the end of the day the haul back up the long zigzag path was hard work for small, tired legs.
Those memories of the early years of my life are of security and love. As my father was at work I saw less of him than Mummy, and he was not as demonstrative as her, but I adored him.
I have pin clear mental photos of our life in Hanworth.
On the kitchen table sit rows of fragrant small sponge cakes in fluted wax paper cases. When they are cool, Mummy slices off the tops and cuts them in half. She spreads butter cream over the base and sticks the two pieces on top, like wings. She calls them Butterfly Cakes, and always leaves a generous amount of delicious raw cake mixture in the mixing bowl for me to eat with a wooden spoon. Even today when I make a cake and take a spoonful of the raw mixture and close my eyes, I see and smell the Butterfly Cakes on our kitchen table.
While I sit on the draining board with my feet in the kitchen sink, Mummy works her way down from my face to my feet with a flannel dipped in the warm, soapy water. When she washes my hair she gives me a flannel to press against my eyes to stop the shampoo stinging them. We run our fingers through my wet hair. If it squeaks then we know it's clean. Then she wraps me in a towel and pats me dry, feeds me into my pyjamas and warm blue dressing gown with the ladybird buttons.
The dressing gown has a cord of twisted blue and silver, with tassels on the end. Alone in the living room in front of the coal fire covered by a wire safety guard, I swing the dressing gown's tasselled cord into the flames so that it singes with a satisfying sizzly noise and an interesting smell. Mummy sniffs when she comes into the room and looks in puzzlement at the carpet in front of the fire for signs of smouldering.
The fire can be a bit of a sod to start. My father holds sheets of newspaper across the sullen chimney to encourage the draught. Putrid smoke billows, then a small flame grows, singeing the paper yellow. Half an hour later the coals glow orange as we sit listening to the radio. Clem gets as close as he can to the fire. Mummy knits or smocks clothes for me and my father puffs on his pipe.
All our walls are painted the same dull cream colour, so my father decorates the living room with a bucket of distemper. It's a thick green stuff the colour of baby's diarrhoea, and he blobs it onto the wall with a roller. It looks horrible.
At weekends Nan is in the garden with Taffy, rain or shine, always planting or picking. I don’t remember Mummy doing anything in the garden apart from rescuing birds from Clem. She stows them tenderly into a cardboard shoe box and puts them in the airing cupboard to recover. Usually they regain their senses and equilibrium after a couple of hours, and fly away to safety. Or straight back into Clem. Daddy doesn't garden, either, but he likes pansies because they have happy little faces.
Nan eats Energen Rolls because she is trying to lose weight. They are crispy on the outside and crispy within, but not very satisfying. I prefer Taffy's charcoal dog biscuits.
Once we go to visit Daddy's parents. There is a long, gloomy, dark green corridor and two and a half flights of stairs. At the top is a bedroom where a skeletal yellow-skinned woman lies in bed coughing.
Mummy comes home from the Ideal Homes Exhibition, merry, footsore and laden with carrier bags stuffed with miniature pots of jam.
She takes me to Bentalls in Kingston to have my hair cut, and then we have tea and toasted teacakes oozing with butter. We bring home one of their cakes shaped like a giant mushroom and made from marzipan and lashings of coffee cream.
Every Friday evening she coos with delight over a box of powdery Turkish Delight, Payne’s Poppets or Buttered Brazil Nuts, her weekly treat from Daddy.
She is always happy, smiling and beautiful, with short curly dark hair, golden hazel eyes and a carefully-pencilled black beauty spot to the side of her mouth.
In the summer she ties ribbons in my silver blonde hair and sews pretty smocked dresses. During the winter months I wear a pair of rust-coloured Harris tweed leggings and a liberty bodice beneath a knitted jumper. The leggings are thick hairy trousers with a broad elastic band that passes underneath my shoes to hold the trousers down over my ankles. Wearing them can best be likened to having both legs scrubbed with medium grade steel wool: they have an abrasive quality that makes each step torture.
Mummy takes great pride in dressing me in style, and these horrid trousers must be the dernier cri. She can't have the least idea of what torment it is to wear them. The liberty bodice is a less painful, more private garment, a short, white fleecy sleeveless thing with rubber buttons and little rubbery suspenders to hold up the thick brown wrinkly stockings that we wear to school; it fits under a chunky woolly vest that lies beneath various other layers of clothing culminating in a hand-knitted jumper all designed to keep the penetrating damp of English winters at bay. My hair is tucked beneath a bright red knitted pixie bonnet, tight-fitting like a snood and reaching to a nipple on the crown of my head. The rust-coloured leggings and the red pixie hat add quite a splash of colour to the generally grey environment.
On my sideboard today is a sepia photograph of a handsome blonde five-year-old boy. He’s wearing a one-piece woollen bathing costume with straps over the shoulders, sitting on a rock on a beach, smiling into the sun. This is my brother Ian, born in October of 1940, the height of the Blitz on London.
I suppose it was because Mummy would have been working during the war that he was sent to live with an elderly couple in Devon. All I know is that in February 1945, Ian's temporary foster parents wrote to tell Mummy that he was ill, with a seemingly permanent cold. She went to Devon, where the doctor told her that Ian had meningitis. There was no treatment, no cure and no hope. It was only a matter of time. He died with Mummy sitting by his bed and his father in North Africa. I cannot begin to imagine how they were affected by this loss, how my father felt when he learned the news, so far away, and how my mother coped with the loss of her child as well as the absence of and worry about her husband.
Probably it was for this sad reason that my birthday and Christmas presents were always things like a bus conductor’s costume, complete with a punching machine and tickets, or a Meccano set in the form of a crane with a little handle to wind it up and down to pick up matchboxes. My father made small contraptions from a cotton reel, a rubber band and a length of candle. When the rubber band had been twisted sufficiently the cotton reel jerked across the floor in a purposeful way like a little tank. I was never given the things I really wanted, and asked for repeatedly: a glass eye, a hearing aid, and a set of false teeth. I still don’t have any of them.
Each year, Kodak held a party at their offices in Kingsway, London for the children of their staff. Whether all the children found it as much of an ordeal as I did, I don't know. But none of us knew each other and I seem to remember that I couldn't wait to go home, with my slice of cake, balloon and gift-wrapped present.
There were only two things that darkened my days and nights. The monster that lived upstairs in the toilet bowl, skulking with evil intentions until the toilet was flushed, when it would spring out and rake at people’s bottoms with hooked claws and spiky teeth. From terror of these awful assaults I developed a technique of opening the door wide, reaching in and yanking on the chain and leaping down the adjacent staircase before the monster could get me, crashing to the bottom of the stairs with my knickers around my ankles and alarming Mummy.
And there was Mr Beeblesticks, who lived in the big wardrobe in my bedroom (where I hid from Mummy and the knife – I’ll come to that later). Mr Beeblesticks was a friend by day, but at night, once the bedroom light was turned out he became a gun-wielding murderer. So that his bullets would miss, I lay in my bed rocking madly from side to side. The rocking habit lasted until I got married, I just couldn’t get to sleep unless I kept madly rolling backwards and forwards.
I didn't mention either of these horrors to my parents, because I didn't want to worry them.
Where did these strange ideas originate, these evil people who wanted to kill me? I was safe, secure and very well loved. The Saturday morning matinees at the cinema showed only cartoons, and the most violent programs I watched on Auntie Kitty's television were Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, Andy Pandy, Noddy and Muffin the Mule.
Even stranger was the recurring nightmare I had for years. I was alone on an empty, sandy beach on a hot sunny day, with cliffs rising close behind me. As I watched the surf swishing gently backwards and forwards, the sea suddenly began to withdraw to the far horizon, leaving just the clean sand behind. Soon there was no sea at all, just the pristine beach. In the far distance a darkness appeared on the skyline. It began moving towards where I was standing. As it neared, it developed into a great wave, curling upwards. It rushed quickly forwards. It grew until it was the height of the cliffs behind, and I was beneath it, looking up, knowing that now the water would come crashing down and wash me away.
I'd certainly never heard of or seen a tsunami, so where did this image come from? Was it an omen, a warning of what was to come?
But these were only small blips in a very happy and normal family life filled with love and laughs and cuddles and hugs.
The convent school where I went to appropriate anything light enough to lift, not nailed down and small enough to fit in my satchel was in Sunbury-on-Thames, two bus-rides from Hanworth. Mummy walked me to the nearest bus stop, a couple of hundred yards from our house and put me on the first bus. This bus stopped at Sunbury-on-Thames where I changed to a second bus, which stopped a short distance from the school. From the bus stop I crossed a major road, although at that time there was little traffic, and then walked up a long winding rhododendron-lined drive. It’s unthinkable to imagine five-year-old children undertaking such a journey alone these days, but at that time it was perfectly normal.
One small girl in our class caught a train unaccompanied to and from school. At her invitation I went home with her one day, to the considerable consternation of her mother who had no idea she was expecting a guest. She had to take me back by train and bus to where my mother was panicking at my failure to arrive home.
In the classroom, before reading or writing, or sums or drawing we learned the Ten Commandments. We learned them by heart, by constant chanted repetition: thou shalt not this, thou shalt not that. You mustn’t do idolatry or adultery and you mustn’t steal (I think that was No. 7). If you did any of these things then you could not go to Heaven. Instead you would burn in Purgatory and have to suffer very much indeed forever and ever; but even this fearsome prospect did not deter or frighten me from stealing paper and money, despite the great black sin blotches I knew were printed all over my wicked little soul, which would be a dead giveaway on the Day of Judgement.
We were not a religious family. I think we called ourselves Church of England, but as far as I remember the family only went to church to deliver me to Sunday school. Like my weekly dancing and elocution lessons, a convent education would, my parents believed, make me into a little lady.
The only time I ever remember Mummy being angry was when I was eating. I was a slow eater and had difficulty swallowing. It wasn't that I was fussy. I'd eat anything except angelica, with which Mummy decorated the trifle, but I could chew soup or ice cream for hours on end, churning it around and around in my mouth like cement swishing in a mixer, until Mummy screamed: “For God’s sake, swallow it!” But the harder I tried, the less I could swallow, so I chewed and swished faster and faster. One day when I was struggling with a mouthful of tomato soup, she picked up a knife and frightened me so much I ran upstairs and shut myself in the wardrobe where Mr Beeblesticks lived.
When I ventured out, Mummy was sitting sobbing on my bed, and I don’t know which of us was the more traumatised.
After that I ate my meals with our friends the Mason family who lived on the opposite side of the fence at the bottom of our garden. Daddy removed a plank from the fence so that I didn't have to go around by the road. The Masons had a little boy called Charles, who was quite happy for me to sit churning in their dining room while he watched and waited patiently for the final gulp that released us to play. He must have been quite a precocious little boy, because the game we played most was ‘r’ for rudies, which mainly consisted of watching each other urinate into a small bowl in his bedroom. I think I probably got more out of this than he did. The casual way he asked in front of his parents if I wanted to go and play “r” used to make me hot and crimson with embarrassment. I was certain that his mother and father were perfectly aware of our urinary adventures.
One morning, left to our own devices, Charles and I raided my house of anything small enough to lift, and set it all outside to sell. In those days there was almost no motor traffic about. Milk and coal were still delivered by horse-drawn carts, policemen patrolled on foot and people went to work by public transport, so we could safely spread out our wares across the street without worrying. Whose idea this had been or why, I’m not sure, but possibly we’d run out of urine. Nan arrived just in time to save Mummy’s twelve treasured Apostle spoons going off with a stranger for one penny.
c. Susie Kelly 2014
I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry by Susie Kelly
EBOOK & PAPERBACK:
The last time I ran was for a train.
It was a warm August evening and a slight breeze fanned my face as I strolled into the safe, suburban railway station just outside London. A few straggling commuters huddled at the ticket kiosk. Realising the train was pulling in, I hurried across the bridge, scurried down the stairs, quickly and evenly, dashed across the platform and raised my leg to get on the train.
The door was open, I was on the running board and aware of people inside the carriage. Suddenly the train jerked and I lost my grip on the inside of the door. The train jolted again and I lost my balance. The weight of the heavy bag on my shoulder tipped me backwards and I dropped.
With a wrench, the sudden movement twisted me round and crushed me down. As I became wedged at chest-height between the train and the platform, the train picked up speed. I screamed and screamed and grasped desperately at the concrete. But the train dragged me along, gaining momentum, crushing my ribs against the platform, until I fell into the darkness and the wheels below.
One of my legs was ripped off, just below the knee. Beyond saving, my other leg was amputated above the knee later that night.
In 7 seconds I went from busy girl about international town businesswoman with everything to live for to a double-amputee, my life in ruins.
What could be worse? Could there be anything worse?
Seven days after my accident as I lay in a hospital bed traumatised and heavily sedated with painkillers, I learnt in the most underhand way imaginable that British Rail were going to interview me with a view to prosecution for trespassing onto their railway line.
It was unfathomable. I couldn’t yet believe what had happened.
That a train would move off as passengers were still getting onto it?
That the train would then not be stopped immediately by the Guard?
That I had just lost both of my legs for crying out loud. It simply couldn’t be true. But it was, and so the parallel nightmare began.
An indicator as to how British Rail would be behaving came just days after the accident. Their chosen method of communication was not by any letter or phone call to myself or to my dear, traumatised relatives, but, whilst we were all still in deepest shock, via the newspapers. There it was in black and white for all of London, and then as the news spread, the nation, to see: British Rail were going to employ a 100 year old bye-law and prosecute me for trespassing onto their railway line.
This was the first aggressive tactic by British Rail to throw the authorities off the real scent. They then chose to fight me. In every undermining way their highly-paid team of lawyers could possibly conjure up. There followed an exhaustive mission by myself, my family, friends and lawyers to follow this repugnant trail and clear my name. The legal battle that ensued took away five years of my life at a time when I was trying to learn to live again in the most painful ways imaginable.
When I look back on those years I can say with all honesty that my fight with British Rail is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Yes, even worse than having both my legs stolen from me. This attitude, of a public corporation towards its passengers was, at first, hard to fathom. But as, along with learning to live without legs, I embarked on my legal battle, the reasoning behind their inhumane methodology soon clarified.
After a busy morning, I’d left my business partner, Sarah, in the West End to tie up the details on another Primetime meeting, and had raced back to our office to prepare paperwork needed by a new client that afternoon.
MediaVision was based in an attic bedroom in Sarah and Justin’s Wandsworth semi in a safely suburban street 4 miles or so from central London. An arrangement we kept carefully hidden from the majority of our clients with their palatial, glassy offices in downtown New York, LA and Paris.
I was due to meet fellow PR Barbie back in town for pre-dinner drinks and moved speedily around the office, darting backwards and forwards between the filing cabinets and my computer. Yellow Post-it stickers littered the circumference of the screen – messages from Max, a tall, blue-eyed blonde American I’d met at the annual MIP Media Conference in Cannes and fallen for in a big way. When I discovered he was taken I’d finished it but he was still in hot pursuit. So far I’d been fortunate in that Sarah had been there to pick up the phone when he’d called. Though I’d finally moved on I didn’t want the temptation. Even his voice was dangerous – heavy in maturity and sexuality.
Typing furiously, my eyes drifted out of the window to the sunny day. I thought about ice-cream, wondering if I’d have time to grab a cooling cone to eat on the train. I bounced my way down the narrow flights of stairs, stopping off at the hall mirror to reapply my eye-liner and lipstick. I was looking good, lean and healthy with a sexy real-tan glow, attained from a quick week away to Greece with best friend Dinah and her family at the end of July. I gave myself a little smile before slamming the heavy door behind me and setting off for the station.
Heat warped the afternoon air and I could hear a distant cooing from a summer dove. An endless chorus from twittering birds added further song to the radiated atmosphere of that hot, sunny afternoon. Dawdling by the post-box, I rummaged in the over-sized bag slung over my shoulder, ferreting for my rail-pass and letters to shove in the slot.
I walked quickly. My Walkman, attached to my trouser waistline, bumped slightly with each step. The headphones were around my neck. I preferred birdsong whilst I was out and about and didn’t usually wear it until I was travelling to relieve the boredom of the long train commutes. I produced home-made tapes in my flat. The best songs from favourite albums got me frequently dancing around my home, the volume on the stereo turned up high.
All around were sights and sounds of an overcooked summer. Trees wilted with heat, leaves drooped with dust. An ice-cream van tinkled gently in the distance. I turned quickly into the station entrance, a blast of hotter diesel air greeting me from the hissing, squeaking train standing at platform one. When I got to the top of the stairs I saw through the bridge railings that my own train was trundling its 400 ton weight into the station. My cream, cropped top stuck slightly to my back as I re-adjusted the heavy bag on my shoulder and began trotting over the bridge.
A crowd of passengers hung around the glass box that caged the ticket collector. This was the fourth time I’d passed him that day. He filled the cubby hole, a black mass of shiny face and uniform. He seemed both distracted and sleepy. I didn’t bother to flash the pass that was in my hand. I had to struggle through a crowd of dawdling, chattering passengers who appeared to have all the time in the world.
I knocked one of them with my bag. Sensing she was cross, I muttered a hurried apology, intent on catching my train. I quick-stepped down the stairs and across the platform. The door of the train wasn’t fully closed and opened easily. I had my right foot on the running board and was raising the other when the train jerked ferociously. I made eye contact with some of the other passengers sitting inside the train. The train pulled away from me violently. I mouthed OH!
Then my right foot slipped, my hands scrabbled. As I clung to the wooden sides of the doorframe, the train jolted again. My left leg dropped below the running board. I struggled and was twisted down, down until I was wedged, crushed, between the train and the platform wall. Four hundred tons of metal began to roll against my back. The force rolled on, my feet were in the platform well, my stomach and chest pressed hard-up against the platform. I raised my hands, waiting for it to slow down and stop.
But the train didn’t stop.
Instead, it speeded up.
Through fear rather than pain I screamed, ‘Stop, stop the train!’
In a typically English way, I felt embarrassment. WHY didn’t they see me?
A red terror gripped as I realised how much worse my predicament was becoming. I was pinned, a butterfly with all limbs mentally flailing, my feet were with the wheels, massive, heavy crushing wheels and the train was moving faster, faster. I was still relatively safe with the wall and, although flattened, I hugged it still closer to me. I thought very clearly, “Keep your head away from the train”.
A metallic fear hit my nostrils and flooded my brain.
I felt a tugging and then – nothing.
My memory of the moment I fell beneath the wheels, thank God, does not exist.
I came out from the black pit of nothingness.
The train had stopped and I was trapped beneath it.
The smell of evil permeated the air, fumes of dust and black grimy coal. I breathed the gagging fumes of diesel and electricity.
A dull thud, atrocious in pain level, reached up from the track and held my body deadly still. I did not breathe, I did not move as the thud hit me again. Electricity was holding me down, claiming its route through my body, the fragile vessel. It made a sound, the deepest lowest buzzzz.
I raised my head from the ground, thinking, ‘I’ve got to get up, I’ve got to get out of this.’ A strange object came into focus, it lay away from my body at a distorted angle. A sliver of something attached it to me. What was it? It didn’t look human. But I recognised the shoe. It was mine.
No. It couldn’t be.
This is not me.
A wretched agonising pain filled all of me instantly. If there was a Richter scale for pain, this would be a tornado, a major earthquake, shuddering through my body. A sickening weight was crushing my left leg. I couldn’t see what caused it. My hands raked at the wall, my nails clawed the brick, I HAD to get up.
‘Help me,’ I mewed. ‘Help me. This is not me,’ I called from some primitive survival base in the back of my throat. I didn’t recognise the voice. ‘This is not happening to me. ‘Help.’ It was depleting my energy. I fell quiet. Too frightened to speak. But then came the surge of adrenalin, the adrenalin of fear and flight, my energy hopelessly boosted.
But there could be no flight. The fear accelerated.
A kind face appeared, warm black in colour. Soft eyes, sad eyes. He bent down. ‘I’m so sorry, someone will help you. I am so sorry.’ He straightened himself and left, walking backwards, his eyes registering horror.
Train doors slammed and banged. Panic rose. I sensed no one until Maggie appeared. I knew that was her name because I asked her and, even in fear and panic, one is polite.
‘Diana, hold on. Don’t worry.’ She was desperately trying to give me some security. Some semblance of hope. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t me she was speaking to anyway. I didn’t know where I’d gone. She held my hand. I gripped her life-force, unsure of where mine was.
Minutes ticked away, every second a tortuous hour of horror. A female policewoman type was there, on the edge of the platform. Her voice annoyed and distressed me. Two ambulance men arrived. They had difficulty getting to me. The train had to be moved. I could hear them talking. They’d have to switch the electricity on again to do that. It could give me an electric shock. The driver, sweating, heaving, tried to squeeze his way to me. He couldn’t. I let go of Maggie’s hand. I didn’t want her to be there when they moved the train off me if that electricity hit again. I knew I wouldn’t survive a third jolt of 650 volts. I put my head down on the track and scratched my nails deep into the black coal, perfect shiny pink against black. I remembered painting them that morning so they’d look beautiful.
That was a time long distant. Another, parallel, universe had taken me over.
Oblivion, that’s what I craved and that was the vision before me. If I turned my head away from the platform, to the left and to the tracks, that was all I could see – oblivion, an all-enveloping sense of being nothing. Not existing in any form. If I turned my head to the right, and raised it slightly I could see Maggie. I could reach my hand up to her. I chose to take her hand as they rolled the train off me.
I heard the engine of the train and buried my face into the stones of the track. Give me that oblivion. I was groaning and the sounds I made frightened me.
‘Don’t do this. Don’t do this to me.’
‘Diana give me your hand. Please Diana, give me your hand.’ Maggie ignored the wishes of the forces around her. They were concerned about the amount of electricity required to move the train. I couldn’t bear it. I turned my head to the left, away from the platform, away from Maggie. But the oblivion I faced seemed too deep. Too uncomprehending. Was this death?
I heard Maggie’s soft voice again, pleading with me to turn to her. I obeyed and took her hand as they rolled the train off my left leg.
With trembling voices and gentle hands they put, what seemed to be, plastic bags on my legs.
‘I’m sorry love, we need a doctor for painkillers,’ said one, his voice so low, so timorous, I could barely hear it. But I hadn’t asked for painkillers. I pleaded for a direct blow to the head from a sledgehammer. I whimpered the request, like a puppy in severe pain.
When you are in pain, a pain that obliterates everything else, you don’t scream, you squeal quietly, conserving energy.
A policewoman stood over me, looking in my bag. Her voice, strangely, got on my nerves. ‘Who should we contact?’ she asked. My first thoughts were my mum and dad. I couldn’t do this to them, not after Dad’s accident.
‘Sister. Helen. Drew. Drew,’ I whimpered half of Andrew’s name twice.
‘An… Drew. I need him. Please. Sur Name Palmer.’
I couldn’t breathe. My parents, oh sweet Jesus, Mum and Dad. I couldn’t think of anything. Such pain obliterates most thoughts, my brain didn’t work. My eyes couldn’t see anything.
‘Contact lenses. I wear contact lenses. Tell the surgeons I wear contact lenses.’
The ambulance men moved fast, attaching drips, which I could see, and doing something with my legs, which I couldn’t. Their breathing was heavy, I pleaded again to be knocked out. ‘Sledgehammer’ I muttered, over and over.
I could smell the sweat on them, it reeked of distress.
Somehow they got me onto a portable stretcher. Somehow they got me across four tracks and into the ambulance. I was shivering with shock, my teeth chattering and clacking with a fearful shuddering.
‘They will sew it back on again, won’t they?’ I asked the poor sod who had to travel with me in the back of the vehicle.
‘Don’t worry about it love. Not now,’ said the ambulance man, his words shaking away the enormity of the truth. I remembered the same cadence of voice from inside the ambulance that had taken Dad to hospital, a few weeks previously.
The kindly lie. A lie is kinder than the truth. For everyone.
I lay face down and remained face down when they took me out of the ambulance and through the swing doors to Accident and Emergency. I’d seen this on television. I was in an episode of ER.
White coats flapped. There seemed to be a room full of them.
Voices asked about my back. Scissors sheared material off my back. A slight piercing of indignation hit my senses. I like that shirt! What are you doing? I called again for a sledgehammer. I pleaded for the big hit over the head that would overrule all pain which had moved me from the real world into who knows what this was.
‘Your back, Diana, does your back hurt?’
‘No. Please knock me out, Doctor. Please.’
Still face down, I lifted my head slightly and looked straight ahead. There was one of the sweetest faces I’d ever seen. Another angel, looking distressed. A nurse with soft eyes. Deepest compassion.
‘Breathe into this Diana.’
‘Am I going to have a baby?’ I muttered, ironic to the end. I gulped at the mask and I was gone.
I came to and Andrew stood at the end of the bed, looking at me, his pale face shadowed in gloom. I felt I must say something, sensing my last words had to be said now. It was not just him I delivered those three words to, they were for everyone close to me.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’ His words, reluctant, hoarse with fear.
I felt I could go, aware of my last exhalation as I fell away to the darkness.
c. Diana Morgan-Hill 2014
Love & Justice: A Compelling True Story Of Triumph Over Tragedy by Diana Morgan-Hill
AMAZON UK £4.99
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The Modigliani Girl
By Jacqui Lofthouse
‘This is what I find encouraging about the writing trades: they allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence.’
– Kurt Vonnegut
I have often wished that I had been born at the turn of the nineteenth century, in Paris. It seems unfair to me that those lucky enough to be born in the right place at the right time had the opportunity of living a truly bohemian lifestyle, whilst those of us brought up in the eighties in Billericay are conditioned to a life of material acquisition that is hardly compatible with the pursuit of art for art’s sake.
That thought again, tormenting me. I brush it aside and focus on what I see. I’m sitting before a mirror in a white dressing gown, gazing at my face but not quite recognising it. My hair is in foam curlers and my make-up is half complete: my kohl-rimmed eyes and Barbie-doll false lashes make me an airbrushed version of myself. The rest of my face is ghost-pale; even my lips are not yet painted. The mirror is rimmed by opaque light bulbs and – yes, I admit it – there’s something of the Moulin Rouge about the scene and I ought to appreciate it, but somehow can’t. I laugh out loud only there’s no hint of jollity in the sound. I am not myself and I am definitely not in Paris, though the cabaret is about to begin.
Where the hell is the make-up artist, that’s what I want to know? She was telling me her name is Ruby and she can’t afford a down payment on a flat in Kentish Town. It was a distraction, at least, but now she’s vanished to take a call and I’m left alone, staring at this new creation in the mirror, wondering what I’m doing here. In a few hours, everything should fall into place. Everything I’ve ever dreamed of is about to come true. If I win, I’ll have it all (all the shallow stuff that is): fame, glamour and the kind of success that I always thought I wanted. My mascara is running down my face, cutting vertical lines across the pancake, but it’s OK. Really, it’s OK. It’s only natural to cry on an occasion like this. It’s stage fright. Last-minute nerves. Panic. The whole story is spinning in my head and threatens to spill out and I’m trying to keep it inside, but it’s like an out of body experience. I am at once in front of the mirror and above it, watching myself, like a player in a bad farce that has become quite frighteningly real.
There’s a knock at the door behind me and I stand to open it, half here and half lost in memory. Behind the door there’s a young woman, pushing past me. She’s holding a coat-hanger from which hangs a crumpled cream-coloured dress that looks a bit too much like a wedding frock for my liking. She’s looking at me as if she wants something but I have no idea what it is that she wants.
‘Well?’ she says. She hangs the dress in the corner and stands back to admire it. When I don’t reply, she forces the issue. ‘So what do you think?’
‘Of the dress?’
‘Isn’t it stunning? I’m beside myself with envy.’
She rolls her eyes as if I’m having her on. ‘It’s vintage Balmain?’ The inflexion in her voice makes me wonder if she is Australian. Either that or she thinks I’m extremely stupid.
‘Is that eco-friendly or something?’
‘Sod the eco-credentials – it’s a one-off piece. You’re going to look incredible in this.’ She is Australian, but she also thinks I’m stupid.
‘It looks a bit like a doily to me.’
‘Trust me. You’ll own the stage.’
I try to pull myself back into the room, to really get this moment and make it meaningful. This is it, Anna Bright. Sadly I don’t believe my own PR. It’s your time. What does it matter how you got here and what you feel inside? When you put on that dress, you can do exactly what she says: walk onto the stage and work the audience. You can become Fahy and Brown’s next big thing.
But even as I say these words, I am thinking of a girl standing before a high window in Paris. I can’t get her out of my mind. She has lost the only thing that matters to her and she is gazing down at the pavement far beneath, wondering if she will do it, whether the act she is about to commit is one of bravery or one of cowardice. And what would she make of me, that girl?
You are a liar and a thief.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ Ruby is back. She takes me by the shoulders and sits me down on the stool. ‘What did you say to her?’ she asks the wardrobe girl.
‘Nothing. She’s just been insulting the dress. Does she have any idea what it cost us to borrow that for the evening?’
‘It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what Anna makes of the dress. What matters is that she wears it!’ She turns to me. ‘Anna – are you OK?’
‘I’m fine,’ I say, though my voice is no more than a whisper.
Ruby leans forward, puts a hand on my shoulder and picks up a sponge pad from her kit, repairing the pancake, before applying more glitter to my eyelids.
‘Don’t cry,’ she said. ‘It would be really helpful if you could do “internal” nerves rather than “external” ones. That way, you know, it won’t mess up your face.’
If I can’t cry, perhaps they will allow me to scream. I hold back, bite my lip quickly and nod. I realise it doesn’t matter really. I’m not quite here any more. I’m somewhere else, driving my car, a whole year ago now. I can hear the music, the voice of Ian Dury playing my town’s theme tune Billericay Dickie and Dury’s voice takes me right back to the evening when all this madness started.
I was stuck in a traffic jam, en route to the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. It was a drizzling June evening, the sky was low and a summer rain threatened. The driver’s window was open and I was smoking, inhaling deeply, perhaps believing that if I inhaled quite hard enough, the nicotine rush might take away the memory of my argument with Will. But even nicotine would not do it. I kept going over the issue in my mind, trying to understand his point of view, but failing. I could not get over the fact that he had chosen to go to the Telegraph party rather than coming with me to support Hilary on her big night. Had I been too obnoxious? Quite possibly I had. Now, as well as having fallen out with my fiancé, I was also late and likely to embarrass Hils.
That was when Dury came on the radio … His lyrics were out of tune with my thoughts, but against my will I began to laugh. I tossed the burning cigarette stub from the window and listened. Dury’s voice made me think about my sister Lois: a memory of her pogoing about the kitchen to the strains of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, tossing her head furiously to the beat, while Mum – the original Dury fan – was busy cooking our fish fingers.
The traffic ground to a halt.
It was odd to think that Hilary was about to join the ranks of the Essex glitterati. Hilary – the same girl I met at the Mayflower School. It didn’t seem real or even right that she was appearing on stage that night with the much-lauded Meryl Wainwright, Grande Dame of British Letters. In typical Hils fashion, she had tried to play it down. ‘It’s just in the studio theatre, Anna. It’s not such a huge deal.’ But it was impossible to miss her excitement. This was a fund-raising event for The Reading Trust and Hilary would be reading an extract from her recently published novel, alongside five other authors, including Wainwright, the notorious Harish Devan and the man that I considered the wildcard, the latest bestselling guru, James Loftus.
It had taken a while for me to adjust to Hilary’s success. If I said I wasn’t envious, I’d be a liar. Who wouldn’t be envious of a school friend who’d just secured a six-figure publishing deal? If it had been anybody else, I’d say it was enough to make you vomit. But Hilary is my oldest friend and I was beginning to see there was some price to pay for this break. Every insecurity that ever haunted her before she signed that contract was now magnified tenfold. If she was a perfectionist before, now she was bordering on OCD. I had never known anyone more hardworking than Hilary but these days I hardly saw her; until very recently, she’d been working all hours on the sequel to her novel in a desperate bid to meet an impossible deadline. Tonight, at least, was her chance to enjoy what she’d achieved and I was furious at myself for being late.
But I was even more furious at Will. Because if Will had come along that night, I would not have been late in the first place. Will is never late. The word isn’t in his vocabulary. He was certainly not going to be late for the Telegraph party. Having decided it was more important to network in his own little circle than in mine, he was in his dinner suit and favourite Fornasetti tie before I even got home from work.
But I had to put my bitterness behind me. It wasn’t often that I fell out with Will and I vowed we’d make it up later that evening. It was likely I was being selfish. Will had been a freelance cartoonist for a couple of years now, but he got a lot of work from The Telegraph and if he didn’t suck up to the editors at these events then somebody else would suck up in his place. In any case, I should possibly have thanked Will for his absence because being late was what caused me to bump into Meryl in the first place.
When I arrived at the Lyric, the foyer and bar were deserted. The audience had already gone into the theatre. I tried to sneak in quietly but as I stepped into the darkness of the auditorium, an usher followed me.
‘You have to wait at the side,’ she said. ‘It’s started.’
Keeping close to her, I shuffled forwards in the darkness. As I approached the stage however, I realised that Hilary was standing immediately in front of me. Harish Devan was on the podium and had just begun his reading.
‘What are you doing here?’ I whispered. ‘Aren’t you meant to be up there?’
‘They screwed up,’ Hilary said. ‘They were meant to put out six chairs on stage but they forgot. The stage manager’s in a right strop, so we’ve got to take it in turns.’
‘Where are the other writers?’
‘They managed to find a couple of reserved seats in the front row. But the others were all taken. It’s full up, so I have to wait here until it’s my turn to read.’
‘Fabulous,’ I said. ‘Star treatment.’
As I spoke, I sensed that somebody was now standing behind me. I turned around and the person seemed so familiar that I greeted her.
‘Oh – hello!’
She laughed and I immediately realised my error. I recognised her now, even in the gloom. It was impossible to mistake her trademark craggy features. I had seen that face in Sunday supplements, on book jackets and on TV. Yet Meryl Wainwright was smaller in the flesh.
‘I’ve lost my damn umbrella,’ she whispered. At first I thought she couldn’t be talking to me, but Hilary’s attention was focussed on Devan and the usher had returned to the foyer. It seemed incongruous to hear a literary legend talking about something so banal. I had only ever heard her pontificating on cultural artefacts. The umbrella clearly mattered to her. ‘I put it down in the caff and now it’s gone. Do you think I’ve got time to find it before I go on?’
‘Um. I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Do you want me to have a look?’
‘Would you? Oh sod it. We’ve probably got hours yet. Harish is always so up himself. I’m gasping for a fag.’
‘Me too,’ I said. My forwardness took me by surprise. If it hadn’t been so dark I might have been more circumspect. ‘I couldn’t cadge one, could I?’
In the end, we found the umbrella behind a sofa and I suspected its loss had been nothing more than a ploy for nicotine. We nipped out the back via a fire door and stood outside, huddling beneath a small canopy. There was a light drizzle but not enough to distract Meryl from important business. She sheltered the flame beneath her coat and ensured that mine was lit before her own. I found myself trying not to count her wrinkles; it was simply a nervous reaction, a distraction from the fear of not knowing what to say. I was determined not to sound pathetic but the sycophantic stuff must have been on the tip of my tied-up tongue because without quite knowing how it happened, I found myself praising her latest novel.
‘I thought the characterisation of Ethan was so accomplished…’ I said. ‘Your prose is so tight. And there’s something… elastic about it.’ Elastic? How can it be tight and also elastic? What was that supposed to mean? My inarticulacy was killing me. Meryl must have thought I was a total prat but she was very nice about it.
‘Thank you, my dear. That was a terrible nuisance about the umbrella. And how kind. Do you write?’
I hesitated. I had been considering the idea of writing seriously for some time. I had written fragments in notebooks, then torn them out and thrown them away. Sometimes I would scribble ideas on scraps of paper and I occasionally gathered images and kept them in an attractive polka-dotted box folder marked ‘Novel’, but it was not something that I ever spoke about. It had been years since I had admitted such an ambition. In our early twenties, when Hilary was at Cambridge and I at Warwick, we would write long letters to each other, professing our love of Hardy and the Brontës and our desire to write great works, but Hilary had made that desire concrete and I was still at the back-of-an-envelope stage. My answer to Meryl’s question must surely be a resounding ‘No’.
‘Not yet,’ I said.
I suppose it just slipped out.
‘Fool’s game, of course,’ she said. ‘But you could do worse than listening to this Loftus fellow.’
She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow as she spoke, as if to say ‘don’t underestimate the chap’. She was looking directly at me, as if issuing a challenge. I had expected her to be patronising or dismissive or abrupt but she was none of these. Meryl appeared entirely serious. The look might even have been called encouraging. And something about this made me feel uncomfortable. It reminded me of a look my father used to give me, a look he gave me on the day Hilary and I went up for interview at Cambridge. I did not want to remember it.
It’s possible that Meryl noticed the impact of her expression. If she did, she passed no comment. I attempted to laugh it off and to continue the conversation without crying.
‘You think he has a serious message?’ I said.
I’d read all about the silver-haired guru in The Observer at the weekend (Will called my newspaper habit treason). Loftus was not such big news then as he is now, but his work was already a hit in the States and he was beginning to cause noticeable ripples here in the UK. His book, How to Be a Literary Genius was, as far as I could make out, an invitation to would-be writers everywhere to abandon self-doubt and to believe that they had a book inside them. I could not think of anything more depressing. The man appeared to be on a single-minded mission to convince us that “everyone is creative”. It was nothing that had not been said by a thousand other gurus before him, but no one could deny the power of his marketing machine. Loftus’s holiday company Genius Vacations had just expanded to take over half the Greek Island of Ouranos.
Yet here was Meryl Wainwright giving him a plug and challenging my cynicism. Was it possible I was missing something? According to the article, Loftus had a strong fan-base. Tens of thousands of people had used his methods to overcome chronic writer’s block but that didn’t give him any intellectual credibility. I had pretty much dismissed him out of hand. The last thing the world needed right now was more unblocked writers. The net result of that would surely be more bad literature. Hadn’t Meryl thought of that?
‘There’s only one serious message in the end,’ Meryl said. She stubbed out her fag on a railing.
‘Get black on white,’ she said. Then, after a brief silence added, ‘Guy de Maupassant. No one ever became a writer by thinking about it.’ She shivered then, and pulled her raincoat closer across her chest. ‘Come on. Devan’s probably still droning on, but we’d better not miss the rest.’
We arrived back in time to see Hilary walking onto the stage. She glanced in my direction and I wasn’t sure if her expression was one of relief or reprimand. I smiled back, as if to say ‘of course, I never would have missed you’ but I don’t know if she believed me. Beneath the brilliant light, Hilary appeared at once brittle and vulnerable. She wore a black Ghost dress, just on the decent side of transparency, the kind of dress that I could never carry off. Her hair was newly cropped and bleached. If you didn’t know her, you might think her composure unnerving. Though she fixed her eyes on the audience and raised her chin and did not allow her jaw to quiver even a fraction, the small fluttering movements of her hands to her face revealed her fear to me.
Hilary need not have been afraid however. Her novel was a deeply serious one, an apocalyptic vision, rooted in science and conveyed in crisp, elegant prose. I had read a previous draft and the opening moved me now as much as it did the first time. As Hilary read, I watched Meryl leaning forward, her hand resting on her cheek, frowning and absorbed. Afterwards, Hilary told me, when she came off the stage, Meryl had whispered ‘Bravo, my dear’ in her ear. I had seen that moment, as Meryl placed her hand on Hilary’s shoulder, her mouth to her ear and I experienced that closeness as a small stab of pain beneath my ribs.
When Meryl read, the Meryl I had always imagined reappeared. The distracted woman who had lost her umbrella receded and once again she was the literary diva, reading her work aloud in her trademark gravelly tone. Meryl spoke with authority and her talent for combining intricate research with a gripping narrative astonished me. It did not seem possible that I had just shared a cigarette with this woman. She was a legend and my friend had been on stage beside her. I remember her words in a fragmented way; perhaps I was distracted by the memory of our encounter beneath the canopy and the apparent encouragement she had given me. I was waiting for Loftus to come on; I began to anticipate his appearance as something significant. Whilst I attempted to remain calm, some small, neglected part of me would not be still; a buried voice that was now yelling out, like a spoilt brat sporting ringlets.
But I did not anticipate what happened next. The host walked to the centre of the stage, kissed Meryl on both cheeks and waited until she was seated again. He approached the microphone.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ he said. ‘My thanks to Meryl Wainwright for what I’m sure you’ll agree was a remarkable reading. We are honoured to have you here and deeply appreciative.’ He paused for more applause, cleared his throat. ‘I’m afraid, however, that I’ve just learned that due to unforeseen circumstances, our fourth reader, James Loftus, is unable to attend this evening’s event. He sends his sincere apologies, but he has been waylaid by – a family emergency.’
My disappointment took me by surprise. There was something unconvincing about this absence. The brat inside my head wanted something and threatened to yell if she did not get it. I shook her off. I didn’t really understand this feeling, nor where it came from but I knew I did not like this part of myself. I would send the brat to her room and lock the door until she came to her senses.
Afterwards, the foyer was packed. Hilary was on the other side of the room, at a table with Meryl, Devan and the others, signing books. I did not want to be disloyal, but the idea of queuing up to have my best friend sign a book was not remotely appealing. In any case, Hilary had already inscribed a copy of the novel for me. “For Anna” – she wrote – “Your turn next! With love and thanks for all your support, H x”
Hilary knew that I wanted to write. I denied it sometimes but she had known me long enough to see beyond my protests. Now as I looked about the room, I recognised a few familiar faces. These were exactly the faces I did not wish to see, the people that Hilary wanted me to meet, though I had no inclination to know them. There was the novelist Julia Claiborne, standing at the bar and laughing like a horse, surrounded by her acolytes, the small clique of women Hilary now belonged to: “the Martini Girls” they called themselves, all published novelists with varying degrees of success; their group seemed impenetrable and alien to me.
It would have been easier if Will were there. We could have found a quiet corner and had a glass of wine together. He would have made me laugh and put everything into perspective. Without Will however, I was like an uninvited guest, wondering how I might make myself inconspicuous.
In the end, I was rescued by a small display of books. There was a separate table where one could purchase the books prior to having them signed and as it was fairly crowded it was easy to browse and remain unnoticed. Though James Loftus had failed to show this evening, the display included his work. The bold lettering drew me: How To Be A Literary Genius. It was a crazy promise yet one which had made the man a small fortune. Will had laughed out loud when he first heard that title. ‘I’m sure it must be ironic,’ I said. ‘If it was ironic, nobody would buy it,’ he replied.
Certainly nobody about this table now seemed concerned at the stigma of the title. All around, people were handing over their cash and debit cards, as if the very fact that the book occupied the same table as novels by Wainwright and Devan made this purchase quite respectable. Yet it did not seem respectable to me. The brat inside me craved a copy but I was not about to be controlled by my alter ego. I told the brat that if she wanted one of those absurd books, she had better wait until I ordered it online, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to be seen dead buying one.
I glanced in Hilary’s direction. I tried to catch her eye but she didn’t see me. She was speaking to a woman whose book she was signing; her eyes were shining and her cheeks lightly flushed. Then she laughed, handed over the signed book and turned her attention to the next person in the queue.
It occurred to me that if I bought a copy of this book nobody would even notice. If I took a copy of the Wainwright too, the cashier would see that I was a serious reader; she might think I had bought the Loftus as a gift – for a deluded friend perhaps. Before I could change my mind, I picked both up and paid for them. I did not look the cashier in the eye. I stuffed them in my bag and walked quickly away from the table.
As I turned, I could see Hilary still, leaning towards Devan who touched his hand to her shoulder, smiling. I felt like a bulimic who had just stuffed an entire chocolate cake into her mouth and now must find the lavatory and be sick.
c. Jacqui Lofthouse 2015
Available as an ebook and paperback on Amazon and to order from bookshops worldwide. ISBN: 9780993092213
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Published in September, 2020, Diane Chandler's novel Only Human continues to keep its place in Waterstones Chiswick window.
Her husband Ollie is having an affair…
First love is turning her perfect child Sophie into a rebellious, pierced, teen…
Anna’s mid-life crisis is at boiling point…
The disintegration of a once-happy affluent family over one hot summer
The conflicting interplay of emotions as a betraying husband and a betrayed wife, who then becomes the betrayer, try to save their marriage, is played out against the teasing background of first love, sexual awakening and a devastating teen romance.
Only Human by Diane Chandler