First Chapter Series: I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry by Susie Kelly

 

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

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 2022

Not to be reproduced without permission 

  

I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry by Susie Kelly

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Winning Entries to CWWL Creative Writing Competition 2022

 

CWWL, Creative Writing Workshops London, run by Blackbird novelist 

Diane Chandler and Blackbird editor  Stephanie Zia, is proud to announce the winners of their third annual writing competition. 

 

First prize: Eliza Frayn  THE VERY LAST COLOUR

Second prize: Astrid Wilson A MEMORY OF FOSS

Joint third prize: Sam Jayasuriya  THE GIFT WHICH KEEPS ON GIVING

Joint third prize Kate Vick  HO'OPONOPONO IN BERLIN 

 

The competition was administered by Maddie Chandler. The guest judge for 2022 was Barry Walsh. Barry's second novel Danny Boy will be published by HarperCollins in January 2023.

 

The autumn programme of workshops is now open for booking. See the end of this post for details and links.

 

Here are the winning entries:

FIRST PRIZE

THE VERY LAST COLOUR

by Eliza Frayn

 

 

Tinfoil, shiny and crinkled. I can hear it rustling in my book bag, silver wrapped around a sandwich, bumping against my leg as I go to school. All the angels in the nativity have silver wings, except for Gabriel, he has gold. I am Gabriel this year. I have to say, ‘Mary, do not be afraid’. I can see my mother’s arm wave at me from the pew of the church.

 

She came.

 

Silver marker pen on dark card, Christmas. Silver lights suspended in the darkness of the sky on Oxford Street. Long, dangly silver earrings hiding in my mother’s hair that chime together as she bends down to kiss me, a rush of perfume, a rush of love. My mother is pregnant with my brother and wears a silver bell because the maternity nurse says he’ll be able to hear it. It tinkles when she sits down. Silver is the sound of the keys jangling in her hands on the way home, silver is the sound of children screaming with delight in the park.

 

Silver is the colour of little fish writhing together in a net, silver is a dish my grandmother has left out for the cat, its little tongue lapping, lick, lick, lick. It is the noise the spoon makes against the side of the mug as my grandmother stirs it. Silver is the taste of sugar in coffee.

 

My grandfather’s hair is silver. It’s the colour of his huge Volvo. I lie in the boot of the hatchback, watching the sky slip past, hoping for tunnels. When we get ‘where we are going’, I pretend to be asleep, so someone has to carry me.

 

Silver is important. It’s the colour of the doctor’s stethoscope on the cancer ward. I swing my legs against the plastic chair as I wait for my dad. He appears in the doorway. We can go into the room now. I look at my granny, she looks small and scared. There are lots of empty yoghurt pots on the bedside table, their silver gaping mouths wide open. I’m hungry. My dad gives me coins for the vending machine. I sort through the fistful of sweaty silver change again and again, delighting in the sound it makes as I rummage around the glittery pile.

 

I have special silver shoes; I spin around in them and look down at my silver toes flashing by until I feel dizzy. I can do anything I want; I am made from stars – my mum told me.  Silver is the sound of stars, it’s the sound of space. Silver is the chinks of light in the sky reflected in a puddle. Silver is the colour of the wind; it is the sound of the trees talking to one another. Silver is the colour of an escaped balloon that I’ve let go of at the zoo, rising higher and higher into orbit as I wail below. “We’ll buy another one.”

 

Silver is the stubble coming through on my dad’s chin. It’s the colour of lies. I weave wonderful stories out of silver. I tell the children at school I grew up in France and that I had a twin that died. They don’t believe me. One day, my dad leaves suddenly, and takes nothing with him, not even me.

 

I sit in the hallway of his new flat and patiently watched him sleeping. Silver is the sound of my dad’s soft snoring. It’s the colour of the empty beer cans that I stumble over as I eventually try to wake him up.

 

Silver is the colour of the ear-piercing gun in Claire’s Accessories. I watch my mother’s face carefully, for any sign of alarm as they line up the needle with my earlobe. They do one of the holes lower than the other and I spend a lifetime wearing long earrings to try and hide the difference.

 

I study my mother’s face for years, captured by her changing expressions. We watch films together. The silvery glow of the TV lights her up. I watch her intently; I don’t watch the film. I laugh when she laughs, I furrow my brow when she frowns. I cross my arms just like her and wish I had glasses to push back up on to my head too. Sometimes she notices. She gets irritated and tells me to watch the film or I’ll miss it, and so I turn towards the TV, and snatch glances at her intermittently instead.

 

When she gets a boyfriend, I cry, because now she belongs to someone else. We watch less films, but she smiles more. She comes back from nights out, breathlessly happy. My dad is babysitting us, he laughs when she comes in and asks her if she can even walk in a straight line. I don’t know what that means but I laugh too. My dad has a great laugh.

 

One day I will grow up. I will sit at my grandfather’s funeral and weep, a silver cross suspended high in the roof of the church, glinting in the last of the September light. He didn’t like churches. He refused to come inside when I was confirmed and stood outside scowling. My teenage uncle sat on his big silver motorbike, smoking roll ups and telling jokes, one big silver filling at the back of his mouth flashing every time he laughed.

 

I ring the doorbell of my grandmother’s house and I wait for her to come to the door. I used to live here. I think about how long I have to stay before I can leave. My grandmother’s eyes are silver, clouded with cataracts, always wet, always glistening. Silver is the colour of memory, and hers are all tangled up, loose silver threads knotted together in despair by old age. She used to secretly smoke cigarettes and pull out the silver paper when she opened a fresh packet and fold it neatly into a tight square. I would carefully unfold and refold it later after I’d found it, discarded.

 

She doesn’t smoke any more.

 

Silver is the colour of guilt. It’s the colour of cheap spirits, nights out, lying about my age, being sick into the street. I haven’t seen my dad in ages. It’s my reflection in a wing mirror as men leer at me from their cars, it’s the colour of my hoop earrings, the performance I put on, the drinks they buy me. Silver is the colour of low self-esteem. I let them light my cigarettes with a silver lighter and I give them a number with one digit wrong. Silver is the very last colour dancing at the centre of a flame. It’s fucking dangerous, but I do it anyway.

 

Silver is the colour of shame. It’s the sound of my brother being taken away one Monday morning, after another long weekend inside. It’s the colour of the tap that is always running, as he washes his hands red raw. It’s the sound of the silver handle rattling as he shuts it and checks again that it is really closed. Again. And again. It’s the sound of my mother crying for him as he lies a few miles away on the floor of a secure ward. He refuses to use the bed. I listen to her ragged sobs and wonder whether he can still hear her.

 

The watch my dad gets me is silver. He buys it for me on a whim, and we sit together in the shop and wait for the assistant to bring it over. He smiles as he puts it around my wrist. He asks me what time it is even though he already knows. Silver is the sound the clasp makes as he clicks it together. That’s what ‘I love you’ sounds like. I tell him, “It’s quarter past three” - that’s how I tell him I love him back. We walk out into the afternoon together, and we talk about politics, my sister, his job, and the renovation on his roof. We don’t talk about the weather, my brother, his parents, or my drinking.

 

I cry on the train home.

 

Hours drag on but days pass quickly; entire lifetimes are shaped by a single choice. The spur of the moment is silver; silver is change. Silver is the colour of the first sobriety chip that I collect one Sunday afternoon in a church basement in front of a group of strangers. Silver is the sound of applause, it’s my mum saying, ‘well done’ and squeezing my arm, it’s the colour of smudged pencil on a page as I write down a list of all the ways in which drinking costs me more than just money.

 

I meet the woman who will become my sponsor and learn that her name means ‘light’. That makes sense. She’s the only person that I never lie to, and I cling to her like a child, like a silver anchor in a storm. We walk side by side along the river in Hammersmith in the dying evening light, and she teaches me how to live.

 

The boy who left me when we were teenagers calls me and asks if I’d like to go for a walk. Silver is hope. It’s the colour of a promise, the colour of a ring. It’s dreaming up babies and engagements and looking at listings in the windows of estate agents. We roll the names of imaginary children around in our mouths like silver pearls, tasting them all, spitting them out when they don’t suit. We know it’s silly. But it doesn’t make it go away. Silver is patient. It grows and solidifies; it beats within you, rising until you can hear it rushing in your ears like a train trying to take you forward.

 

Silver is that feeling of, ‘it might just happen’. It’s the colour of the foil wrapping on the pregnancy test, it’s the trembling hands, the held breath, the sound of the toilet flushing. It’s the sound of two minutes passing, and then time stopping altogether. It’s the colour of a twelve-week secret. The small shape on the monitor, a silver cut-out pulsating on a dark screen. It’s my heart in my stomach. “We’ll make it work”. Then it’s the love, the love.

 

Silver is memory. It is a rough shape, an outline, a feeling. It is unsure. It has no dates, street addresses or times, only faces and half-remembered conversations. One day my hair will be silver. I’ll have a silver walking frame and wear all my mother’s jewellery and give it away piece by piece to my own children, crying, smiling, remembering her.

 

I will age, I will get old, I will die. Silver is the colour of the heavy pen that I’ll use to sign my will. I’ll twist my rings around my swollen knuckles, just like Grandma used to, and I’ll try to be fair when I divvy my stuff up between the kids. Silver is the colour of redemption, it’s the colour of second chances. I’ll kiss my grandchildren on the head and never shout at them. My children will feel pleased and jealous all at once. I’ll become softer, kinder, more forgiving. These will be my best years, where I’ll live for joy, with nothing more to strive for: the mortgage paid off, the children already grown, the years turning themselves over neatly like the pages on a calendar.

 

Silver is inevitable.

 

I’ll get weaker and fainter and slowly fade away. “Hi Mum, it’s me”. I’ll look up from the chair and see a face that I half-recognise, but I don’t remember that I made. I will be statuesque, a piece of silver furniture, a vintage, a relic, a hallmark of what has passed. Things will start to happen around me, not to me, and my days will shrink to the sight of my own reflection in a glass of water that I shakily raise back and forth to my lips with the help of a carer. I will start to irreparably tarnish.

 

Silver will come full circle. One day, death will come and gently breathe all the life out of me, one final exhale. I don’t want to die, but I die anyway. Silver is the colour of celebration, of a long life, well lived. It’s the final notes of the symphony. It’s wanting an encore but accepting that the last chords are playing out. The bell tolls, the silver dome swinging back and forth. It’s the sound of goodbyes, hands clasped together, eyes closing for the last time.

 

But silver carries on, it outlasts me, it doesn’t stop. Little silver fish continue to dance in a shoal, birds fly past my window as they go south for winter, flowers burst forth from the frozen earth. Silver is new. It’s a baby crying, it’s the sun breaking over the rooftops, it’s the start of another day. A tired mother wearily shushes her baby back to sleep as she yawns and wipes her eyes.

 

Silver is the world turning anyway, even though you’ve left it, it’s the sound of the waves continuing to break, it’s the sound of people falling in and out of love, leaders rising and falling, millions of people rushing to work, cash registers opening and closing, someone shakily reading out their first poem, a boy nervously beginning ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ on his own, his voice cracking. It’s someone getting down on one knee and proposing, it's what ‘yes’ sounds like; it’s the sound of heartbreak, someone else holding it together while their world falls apart. It’s a ringing phone bringing bad news, an acceptance letter arriving, that moment before a kiss, two people running towards one another on a bridge after a year apart, an outstretched hand, open arms, a closed fist. It’s someone being brave, someone being kind, someone screaming, someone drowning, someone dreaming, someone waving. It’s the sound of seven billion people all breathing in and out together, all the time.

 

But I don’t know any of that yet. I don’t know anything. I see in pictures, people speak to me in four-word sentences, ask me lots of questions, they loom big in the sky. I collect broken bits of shell and rattle my milk teeth around in a little silver box.

 

Silver is the colour of childhood. One day, it will be the colour of my lifetime. Until then, I run to my grandfather and press my face into his coat and cry, too small to use my words to explain what it is I really want.

 

I look out into the darkness of the church. Mary, I begin. I hesitate. My mum smiles at me encouragingly. I look right at her. I take a deep breath.

 

Do not be afraid.

 

c. Eliza Frayn 2022 

No part of this story may be reproduced without permission 

 

SECOND PRIZE

A MEMORY OF FOSS

by Astrid Wilson

 

In the late autumn of 1947, a car could be seen winding its way from the railway station in Pitlochry towards the little village of Foss in Perthshire. There were five people in the car: the Reverend William Gillis, minister of Foss and Tummel, his wife Elsa, her father and her two daughters.

 

For William, it was a fairytale come true. He had recently been appointed to a parish in his beloved Highlands. He had married Elsa, a widowed refugee from Estonia. They had been pen pals since they were teenagers. Now, finally, he was collecting her father and her two children, who had been living in a camp for Displaced People in north Germany.

 

I was one of the occupants of the car, Astrid, Elsa’s eldest daughter. I was six years old. Behind us lay a typical story of war time Europe. We had fled from Estonia in 1944, as the Soviet tanks once again threatened Estonia. My father, Bruno Lustig, a doctor, had disappeared on the Russian front in 1942.

 

In 1945 we were in one of the last trains through East Germany as the German army collapsed. The Russians were shooting at the train. We were homeless for a bit and then we found refuge in a United Nations camp for Displaced People from the Baltic.

 

With my father presumed dead, my mother looked to starting a new life. An opportunity came with the Baltic Cygnets project, in which young women from the Baltic States were recruited to work in hospitals in the UK. My mother had been allocated to Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire and this is where William, who had been searching for her throughout the war, found her.

 

So now the horror of the war was behind us. A new life beckoned and the setting, the Tummel valley, could not have been more idyllic. In her memoir, The Wings of Love, my mother writes of her first impressions of Foss:

 

‘I was very impressed with everything, but most of all with the Highlands, the beautiful hills, forests, the heather and the lochs. Everything was so beautiful and peaceful... I felt I was in paradise.’

 

I, too, felt I was in paradise. There were flowers everywhere, in the garden and in the meadows and fields surrounding the manse. The moors and hills blazed with heather. At the back of the manse, a little wood led down to the banks of the River Tummel.  

 

I gradually came to know the parishioners of Foss and Tummel. I met them at church every Sunday. It was so peaceful in the little church, with the sunlight falling through the tall windows onto the polished pews, while William, standing in the pulpit, conducted the service. Afterwards, we all stood around in the porch and chatted.

 

I went to the village school, which is directly opposite the church. Miss Robertson was the teacher. She was later awarded an OBE for services to teaching in a remote area. There were six pupils, including my sister Dagmar and myself.

 

I enjoyed school. In winter, the classroom was heated by a blazing fire. In the summer we played in the lovely garden surrounding the school house.

 

One of the parishioners at Foss was Mrs Balfour. She lived in what my mother called ‘the big house’. I was taken to visit her one day soon after we had arrived. The drive leading up to the house was very impressive. On either side of the drive were what seemed like acres and acres of snowdrops. I had never seen anything so beautiful.

 

I was overawed by the grandeur of the hall and also by Mrs Balfour herself. She was very stately. She stood, very upright, in front of me and looked down towards me. After a brief pause, she asked me:

 

Do you like reading?

 

Yes, I replied, I like reading.

 

A few weeks later crates of Victorian children’s books and leather- bound volumes of the annual Little Folks arrived at the manse. She had sent me all the books of her childhood.

 

Sadly, about a year later, her lovely house had to be demolished and she had to leave Foss. The reason for this was the decision taken by the Hydro- Electric Board to flood the Tummel valley in order to increase the size of the loch.

 

This was a very dramatic event. The water was introduced into the valley by a few feet every day and every day I would go down to the water’s edge to look at what was happening. It was very strange to see little fields and entire walls disappear under the water. Quite often I saw dead animals – rabbits and even sheep – floating in the water.

 

And then we, too, had to leave Foss. This was because of a very complex scenario with many strands.

 

One of the strands of this story was the good news that my father, having been presumed dead, was in fact alive. He had been captured on the Russian front in 1942. He had then been placed in a concentration camp near the Estonian border. Because he was a doctor, he had been put to work in the camp infirmary. He had performed an operation that had saved the Camp Commandant’s life and so his own life had been spared.

 

Of course, many problems then arose from this situation. One of these was the fact that William’s marriage to my mother was now bigamous. However, this was a fairly common occurrence after the war and the usual decision of the courts was that there were no guilty parties.

 

This is what happened when the case was heard in Lubeck in north Germany. My mother was told only to choose which husband she wanted to remain with. She chose William. There were of course some legalities- she would have to obtain a divorce from my father and then go through another marriage ceremony, but that was all. There was no imputation of guilt.

 

The Church of Scotland, too, accepted the situation. The parishioners of Foss and Tummel, however, were not so happy and they made their feelings very clear. As an entire body, they stopped attending church.

 

The reaction of the Church was swift and decisive. William was quickly removed from the parish. He was appointed chaplain to a Scottish regiment, at that time serving in the Far East. Foss was stripped of a dedicated minister. The manse was put up for sale. Foss Kirk was combined with the parish of Kinloch Rannoch.

 

At the time, I knew nothing of what I have just described. I was only eight years old and my mother told me the facts only when I was older and more able to understand the situation. There was, of course, a very wrought atmosphere at the manse – my mother was often exhausted and strained, and no longer the jolly companion that we were used to – and I did pick up on this.

 

Otherwise, life as it existed on my level, went on as normal. My sister Dagmar and I still went to school. At home, we spent hours wandering through the beautiful surroundings of the manse.

 

William was no longer there and we no longer went to church. I simply accepted those facts as I had accepted the other unusual events in my life.

 

One thing that does surprise me now is the fact that we stayed at the manse for so long after William had left. It must have been a period of at least six months. It was during this time that my youngest sister was born. My mother was alone at the manse at the time and saw to everything herself. Since we lived in virtual isolation, nobody had known that she was pregnant.

 

It was after my sister’s birth that I got a glimpse of what people thought about us. This was because my mother had a nervous breakdown after the birth and spent some time at the cottage hospital in Aberfeldy.

 

During her absence, one or two parishoners did actually visit the manse. I suppose this was to check up on the welfare of myself, Dagmar and the baby. During these visits, hurtful comments about my mother were made. They said, for example, that my mother had married William only to gain UK citizenship and also that she had had a baby only to ‘keep’William and to remain in the UK. In fact, her job as a nurse at Papworth Hospital had carried with it the possibility of UK citizenship.

 

I had not really been aware of any unfriendliness towards us until then, although I had always felt uncomfortable when our strange names were discussed as well as the fact that our hair was done up in pigtails and our clothes were more elaborate than the clothes of the local children.

 

Not everybody was hostile. During this difficult period we were greatly helped by Kitty and William Brown who lived in Tummel Bridge. Their daughters Elizabeth and Margaret who were at Foss School with us are still friends today.

 

I was devastated when I was told that we were leaving Foss. It meant so much to me. The beauty of the Highland landscape, the wildflowers, the heather, the little woods – it really was paradise on earth.

 

And so, it came to another car journey. I can still remember those last moments so clearly. I had written goodbye letters to all my animal friends – the sheep, the rabbits, the adder who lived in the garden wall. I rushed around placing them all. I was saying goodbye to the hens when I heard my mother calling,

 

Hurry up, hurry up, we’re leaving!

 

The hens, I replied, the hens! Who will look after them?

 

And then I was in the car and it was moving slowly down the hill from the manse. It gathered speed and then we were moving swiftly along the main road, away from Foss, away from Foss for good.

  

c. Astrid Wilson 2022

No part of this memoir may be reproduced without permission

 

THIRD PRIZE 

THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

by Samantha Jayasuriya

 

Spring

 

I love the apple tree. It has always been a part of my life. My parents received it as a wedding gift. My early memories were made up of tales from my mum of the times I would sleep in its shade whilst she snatched a nap in the chair in the afternoon sun. She would awaken to my chatter and be convinced that I was talking to the tree and that it was talking to me. I know now that she was just hearing my running toddler babble on the many insects I could see on the branches, leaves and trunk. The insects in the tree and around the roots fascinated me as a child and that curiosity has remained.

 

Now, as a teen, the tree still holds me. Lying on my back looking up through the silvered mossy branches, I train my eye on one branch and follow it through to the end of the knobbly twigs. A thousand petals bloom, with the light shining through changing the hues from gold to pinky coral. As I lie and look up, the branches rustle with what seems like a response to a question. I quieten my breath and strain my ears to hear the voice, but nothing.

 

A small green caterpillar catches my eye, spinning slowly in the breeze on a silken thread so fine you might think it was floating on its own in the air. My eyes travel again to the branches, a gust of May wind catching the blossom and showering me with petals like pink and white snow.

 

A call comes from the kitchen door – 'Dinner!' – pulling my thoughts away from the caterpillar, and I think of all those countless times the tree has given me joy and solace over

the years. Now, as I move back to college it will be another tie that will keep me coming home – to see its blossoms, of course, and to eat its fruit perfected by my mum in the best ever apple crumble. Off to college to study insects – what else? It was the apple tree that started that so many years ago.

 

Up now and shaking off the blossoms, I return to a childhood springtime ritual and hug the trunk. I started doing this after my teacher read us a story in primary school about ‘the

people who hugged trees’, a tale of social action and defiance where a village took charge of a small wood when the Maharajah wanted to cut it down. I can still encircle the trunk with my arms now, the bark cool against my skin. I nudge forward so that my body is against the bark and put my ear on it to listen. Maybe today I might hear it speak. Closing my eyes, I  

convince myself that I can hear the sap rising. I whisper ‘good wishes for a bountiful crop’ and with one last caress I walk away.

 

Autumn

 

Two apples grafted on one tree ... how perfect, a bit like the two of us, she mused. His workplace had decided to use their collection to buy the tree as a collective present. I think Tom had once mentioned that he liked apple crumble. The pot stood on the patio for a few months as they waited for the best time to plant it out. The shiny bow which had stood so proudly on the trunk at the wedding grew grimier and much less shiny as the autumn passed and winter took hold. And then it was time to plant. Tom put his back out just slightly digging into the clay – pulling out long brambles, roots and chunks of concrete left behind from the footings of an old fence post. He was keen to get it into the ground and had been anxious about it all winter. She hoped that the care he had shown the tree would also be shown to her and she was glad that this had been the case. The tree blossomed and then the fruits came. These were her treasures. She would watch them carefully, gently moving them to check for holes and nibbles. The heat of the summer gave way to the glow of autumn when the fruits were ready to drop. Harvesting was a time she really enjoyed, on her own in the garden, listening to the birds tweeting and the wasps buzzing around the windfall on the ground. As she gently twisted them the ripest fell into her hands and into her basket: two fruits from one tree, one sharp and crisp, the other aromatic and juicy. Every autumn as she harvested the fruit she had the same thought ... that the apple tree loved the family. Over the years she had tried so many different recipes to use up the harvest: apple pie, apple crumble, muffins, chutney, jams and more. Her favourite use came in a vintage year, the year of their 10th anniversary when they had a glut of apples and made their own apple wine. She had found the recipe in an old paperback book, 101 ways to make wine at home. The pages smelt musty but it was one of those treasures she could not put back on the charity shop shelf. The wine had a gleam, which to her was the essence of autumn bottled. As she picked the last windfall off the grass, the wind sent a shiver of cold down her spine. She straightened up and smiled at the tree. Stepping forward she put both of her hands on the trunk: thank you tree for the gifts you have given. Turning to go back inside, she thought she heard a response and looked back over her shoulder. No, she was mistaken. It was just the breeze in the branches. 

 

Summer

 

His back twinged. Oh no, his old war wound was back. Damn, digging clay was hard work but he needed to show that a bit of clay was not going to get the better of him. He had to prove his manliness to his new perfect wife. He was rather overwhelmed by this gift from his company. Usually, HR were charged with getting something off the wedding list, and he fully expected a set of towels. But the new intern had taken charge after listening to him go on about his mother’s apple crumble. She had done some research and came up with the double variety grafted apple tree. The tree was perfect – he was worried all winter that the frost would get it. He had covered it with fleece to keep out the worst of the weather and some of the wind away from the roots. Early summer was just what he needed. Working in an office all day, he needed time outside and had quickly built a walk into his day to shake off the stresses and strains of the job. He had been yearning for a longer period of light and fresh air and chose the first warm weekend to plant out the tree. Tools assembled, watering can ready, the job was over and done with quickly.

 

As the seasons progressed and over each year he took up his job as keeper of the tree. He picked off all the greenfly, taking great satisfaction in squishing them between his fingers. He put grease bands on the trunk to stop the female winter moth from climbing the trunk and laying her eggs, which would turn into caterpillars that munched the green leaves. Each year Tom would inspect the leaves as high as he could go on the rickety step ladder, picking off any caterpillars he could see and never using a spray which was forbidden by Alexia and his daughter. He enjoyed peering into the canopy where the light would be tinged with green. The sounds of children playing and lawnmowers buzzing would be dimmed and he could almost hear the apples ripening at the end of the twigs. Now, in his elder years, he chose to sit in the shady spot as he watched his grandchildren rough and tumble on the lawn, and he would watch as his daughter had done in her buggy many moons ago for caterpillars dangling in the leaves.

 

Winter

  

Leaves dropped, apples picked, blossoms fallen, but the roots, trunks and branches are always there. Time passes slowly for me and quickly for them – those who speak to me, caress me and sleep under me, come spring, summer and autumn. My purpose is to care, to feed, to shelter all and to mark the marriage of this fine couple, Tom and Alexia. They have grown together like my trunk, two trees blended into one. As I age and lichen covers my north face, I can feel my trunk stretching slightly to the south, seeking the light. They think that they cannot hear me speak. I watch them strain their ears for my voice. But I know that they have been part of my conversation since we met so many years ago. My blossoms tell them to look forward to new ideas, my leaves rustle and speak of plans of today and my fruits remind them of the joys of the past. I am the gift that does not stop giving.

 

c.  Samantha Jayasuriya

No part of this story may be reproduced without permission

 

 

   

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FIRST CHAPTER SERIES: The Modigliani Girl by Jacqui Lofthouse

The Modigliani Girl

By Jacqui Lofthouse

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

‘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.’

‘Why?’

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.

‘What’s that?’

‘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

Amazon US    Amazon UK

 

 Jacqui Lofthouse's author website: https://jacquilofthouse.com/

The best books that capture the spirit of the Ukranian people

Diane Chandler's passion for Ukraine and its incredible people began when she managed a European Union aid programme there in the 1990s. Ukraine had just become an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and DiFD, the UK government department she worked for, was supporting its path to democracy.

 

She travelled throughout this stunning country umpteen times and met thousands of warm, welcoming people, who quickly found their way into her heart. The Road to Donetsk is her tribute to Ukraine. It won the 2016 People’s Book Prize for Fiction, an award she dedicated to the Ukrainian people. Today, her memories of all those she met weigh heavily on her mind. 

 

Ben at Shepherd.com asked Diane to pick and review 5 books that capture the spirit of the Ukranian people. 

 

Discover her book picks here at Shepherd.com. 

 

US Readers are Discovering Diane Chandler's Prize-winning Novel Set in Ukraine

US readers are discovering Diane Chandler's prize-winning debut novel set in Ukraine. Diane is a former programme manager of the UK's overseas aid to Ukraine.

 

The Road To Donetsk is a novel full of love for Ukraine & the spirit of the Ukrainian people. It won the 2016 People's Book Prize for Fiction. 

 

All past and current author & publisher income is being donated to aid for Ukraine.  

 

More details: smarturl.it/roadtodonetsk

 

 

Back in 2016 we had the honour of featuring Diane's novel in the Kyiv Book Festival. We spent a memorable week in this beautiful city.

#prayingforpeace #prayingforUkraine 

#Ukraine #Istandwithukraine

#ukrainianpeople

#peopleofukraine

#slavaukraine

#supportukraine

#uniteforukraine

#solidaritywithukraine

FIRST CHAPTER Series #9: Famous Cat Lovers Through the Centuries by Christina Hamilton

Introduction

 

The story of the domesticated cat covers many centuries and ranges from adoration to hatred and back full circle to mostly love. 

      Recent speculation seems to confirm that domestic cats are descended from one species; a Middle Eastern wildcat that lived 12,000 years ago. As the fertile crescent of the Middle East flourished, farmers began to store their grain and the mouse population expanded rapidly. The wildcats came out of the woods to hunt and so the familiar tale of the cat and mouse began. The cat was welcomed as the perfect solution to pest control, and thus began its domestication and the enduring relationship between humans and cats.   

Whilst I am sure the farmers were happy that the mice were under control, all cat lovers know that cats bring far more than just an instinct for hunting small rodents. 

      In the US in 2017/18 nearly 32 million households owned a cat and in the UK in 2019 the PDSA estimated 10.9 million households owned a cat. This book aims to bring you surprising, interesting, and astonishing stories of that relationship. Whether they are the humble moggy or the highest pedigree, cats have always inspired and endeared themselves to people. It’s not surprising that some of our most distinguished historical public figures in literature, art and politics fell in love with cats. This book ranges across the centuries and brings you the personal, private cat stories behind the public faces. I hope it will surprise and delight you as I reveal what happened behind closed doors between these famous owners and their cats. 

 

Chapter 1 – BC/CE and 1st Century

 

The cult of the cat began thousands of years ago. It has been established that Egyptian culture from as early as 450BC worshipped the cat. The penalty for killing one was death and when a cat died the household would shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning. 

      These were some of the observations of Herodotus, the Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC.

He wrote The Histories, the first narrative record of the Ancient World. It is in his second book that he writes about Egypt and although scholars of this period have doubted his methods and authenticity he has come to be known as ‘The Father of History’. 

      It wasn’t only the cat which was worshipped by the Egyptians. Their religion was animistic; the belief that natural places, objects and animals were spiritual. Bast, or Bastet was a cat goddess and one of the most popular. The temple at Bubastis was dedicated to her and dead cats were brought to the temple to be mummified as an offering to her. 

      When Cleopatra arrived in Egypt from Macedonia, she adopted not only the language but its culture. It would therefore be entirely possible that she owned a cat. Some sources name her cat as Charmain, whilst others say it was called Tivali. It was not common to name a cat. They were usually called ‘mui’ or ‘muit’ perhaps relating to the noise they make.

 

EMPEROR ICHIJO, Emperor of Japan

980AD-1011

 

The invention of cat cafes in Japan has given rise to many more around the world. The Japanese love cats, some even worship them, but lack of living space and long working hours prohibit many from owning them. This yearning for cat love has been satisfied with the cat café where you pay to spend time with the cat of your choice. 

      There were no such restrictions for Emperor Ichijo, the 66th Emperor of Japan, who ruled from 986-1011. The high status of cats in Japan is credited to this Emperor because when he was 13 years old, in 999AD, a litter of five white kittens were born. The Emperor’s favourite kitten, Myobu No Omotu was given a rank at court; Lady of the Fourth Court. A banquet was held in honour of the cat’s birth and special rice cakes were made. The Emperor was so enchanted by his favourite that he decreed she was to be treated like a Royal Princess. She even had her own lady in waiting. 

 

MOHAMMAD, Prophet of Islam

570 CE – 8 June 632 CE

 

In Islamic culture the cat has a special place in the hearts of its followers. This is due largely to the Prophet Mohammad and his favourite cat, Muezza. A particularly famous story relates how Mohammad rose from his bed as he heard the call to prayer and saw that Muezza was lying on the sleeve of his robe. He cut off the sleeve rather than disturb the cat. Such was Mohammad’s devotion to Muezza that he allowed her to rest in his lap during his sermons. He also drank from the cat’s water and washed himself with it. Legend also says that the ‘m’ marking on the forehead of a tabby cat was made by the Prophet resting his hand on its forehead. 

The teachings of Islam state that Muslims must not trade or sell cats for money; they can drink the same water as cats as their saliva is harmless, unless impurities are visible in its mouth. They are free to live with cats so long as they feed and water them and treat them well and allow them to roam freely. 

 

c. Christina Hamilton 2020

All rights reserved

Paperback: £4.99

Ebook: £1.99

FIRST CHAPTER Series #8 Only Human by Diane Chandler

What were the odds that I would spot them that day from the top of the 94 bus? Sitting up front like a child to bagsy the best view, enjoying the warmth of the year’s first sunshine on my face. Ironic that I was en route to buy him a birthday gift too, one of his favourite polo shirts. My husband, down on the pavement, in the secret shadow of a pub doorway, tenderly kissing another woman. The way it had wrenched them when they’d pulled apart, the way it had punched me in the gut. And it was I who had felt criminal, loping off the bus, stomach on slow spin, and into a furtive black cab home.

That evening, Ollie had been hosting a wine tasting at the shop, Sophie was sleeping over with a friend, and so I sat in the darkening kitchen tormenting myself – that look between them. Play, misery, rewind, play. When he was finally home, my face must have glowed white in the gloom. At first, he’d thought I was ill and sat down concerned by my side, a caring hand at my shoulder, while my belly roiled on; all out of vomit, it offered only limp spasms.

‘What’s her name?’ I said, quite calmly.

‘Who?’

‘You shit.’

Ollie flinched, his own face drained of colour, but still he said nothing, still he must have hoped.

‘I saw you,’ I said. ‘On the way to Westfield.’

He grasped my hand. ‘She’s just a friend.’

A dizziness took hold then. At some point, I was going to have to stand and stomp off, but my body was denying me that triumph.

‘Kiss all your friends like that, do you?’

He was nicked. A plaintive sigh and he released my shoulder, slumped into his chair.

‘How long’s it been going on?’

He hung his head, it was a good minute before he spoke.

‘Christmas.’

‘Since Christmas?’

My mind hurtled back through the months; snatches of days, events in our diaries, Ollie’s business trips. Nearly five months and I’d not had an inkling – how had he pulled that off?

I really did try to leave the room. Had I been in a film, I would have risen with dignity and glided, turning at the door with a damning, ‘Finish it now or you’ll lose me.’ Truth is that I didn’t dare challenge him like that. Truth is that a tear bobbled onto the rim of my eye and, against my vehement command, slid down my cheek. I watched it plop onto my shirt. It was he who had stood and left the room.

A wave had smashed me off my feet. I found myself tumbling, rolling and spiralling. Where was the surface? Where were the depths? What would I do if he left me?

It never occurred to me to leave him.

 

Nearly two weeks on and I was still reeling. Any hopes he may have harboured at finding himself still in our bed were skewed; it was crucial that Sophie remained oblivious, and so there we slept, back-to-back, stony-to-sheepish. Some mornings he’d attempt a sickening hand to my shoulder as we passed in the kitchen, a lopsided smile, grotesque in its meekness. While I sustained the ice treatment.

Why had he done it? We were still having sex, weren’t we? – true it was same old, same old – but what ancient marriage had not slid into the comfort of a fleeting missionary every now and then? What was he not getting from the marriage? From me? My own shortcomings unfurled before my eyes like a magician’s handkerchief, endless and garish, but I remained frozen by shock, by fear. Unable to confront him again.

‘I hate seeing you like this,’ said Scarlett as I sank into her sofa, cowed like a rescue dog. ‘You’ve got to have it out with him. Don’t let the bastard off scot-free without telling you everything.’

Sound advice. Scar was one of my dearest friends, and the only person I’d confided in, but whenever I sought to muster that anger I found only vulnerability, my once exuberant confidence shattered. She too must have been stunned by the depth and speed of my unravelling, a ship’s cable whipping from its spool. The fury did bubble, finding release at odd times – and on unlikely victims – but I had not yet gathered the courage to unleash it upon him. In case he did indeed tell me everything?

Instead, I’d been scrabbling to fortify myself, to restore the old Anna, so that I might cope with whatever the consequences of that everything would be. And the way forward, as I saw it then, was to flee backwards to a time when Ollie and I had been equals, to unearth my corporate self. I might now be a product of the school gate, but I used to be somebody.

So, after a spontaneous email to a former colleague, I was sitting once again in a slick meeting room at my old firm, a city investment bank. But what was I thinking? Sixteen years since I’d left, much longer since I’d last been interviewed, and the nerves were tap-dancing inside my chest, breaths coming in staccato bursts. Was I really up to this? At least, outwardly, the Max Mara suit was bestowing some of the old swagger. Black wool with a soft chalk stripe, and classic I thought, plus the fact that it fitted me again after the recent weight loss – every cloud and that.

Nice,’ Sophie had said that morning. ‘Don’t let the fashion police see you, Mum.’

‘I need to impress on them that I was once a professional woman. Can’t wear anything too funky.’

That sing-song voice I now assume to appease my tricky teenage daughter.

Funky?’

That eye roll she’d recently perfected.

I cast her from my mind, thoughts of Ollie too, and fixed a smile for the man across the desk, middle-aged, white, alpha – all that privilege in one human being – and then for his sidekick, a young Asian woman. My email had fallen upon good times. They now had this diversity scheme, a drive to recruit women returners, to harness the experience and perspective that evaporates once we leave to have our kids. Not an opening at my previous level, of course, but still.

‘Research suggests that women are better at spotting opportunities, at inspiring others, even that they are more strategic than men.’

From his smug tenor, I knew that he believed otherwise, and already I disliked the man; flashes from my past, of a thousand other chauvinists.

‘Oh, I’m very strategic,’ I said, with a firm nod.

Even if, at home, I was being buffeted like a dingy in a perfect storm.

His eyes narrowed, did he sense that?

‘So, can you flesh out the qualities you would bring to this position?’

Qualities? The word flitted, my mind unable to pin it down. I rummaged for those lines I’d rehearsed in the mirror, lamenting how the face above the suit was now more crêpe de chine than porcelain, shaking my hair forwards to hide what it could.

Qualities, qualities… How do you vocalise the expanse of life you’ve encased yourself, infused yourself with, during all those years at home as a wife and mother? And make it count? Not those weekend mornings I’d dragged Sophie out of bed to engage in every activity under the sun. Not those playground drop-offs spiked with testosterone-pumped women. Nor those evenings of playing wifey at wine events, or poring over recipes with ingredients I’d never heard of.

No, I knew he was after the soft skills I’d apparently acquired in that role of homemaker which would see me well back in the corporate world. And, thankfully, they came to me just in time – the critical thinking, the time management, the resilience. I held forth at length, added a joke too, well that was my intention, one that might capture a skill he would appreciate.

‘And I chaired the PTA at my daughter’s primary school,’ I said. ‘Put me in a room full of tiger mums and I’ll emerge alive and kicking!’

A slow nod, just the one, but no smile – I guess the tiger mum bit was lost on him. (Of course, I was one of those pushy mothers myself, most of us seemed to be these days, even if as a tribe we’d be shocked to be considered such.)

As the man made a few notes, my clammy palms found the rough wool of my skirt with a surreptitious clench; so nervous, but did I really want to subject myself to this life again?

‘How would you feel about getting up to speed on the new technologies, which will have transformed themselves twice over since your day?’

Helpless. But that was ageism – even if I must have been one of the oldest potential returners.

As if in tacit agreement, the sidekick uncrossed and re-crossed her legs; a silent signal, and he did clock it.

‘I mean, change has been especially rapid in our business,’ he added, shifting in his seat, a hint of weakness which bolstered me – and also brought a sudden memory.

As a young graduate I’d once been advised to imagine all interviewers sitting naked in the bath, a rubber duck floating between their legs. So that’s what I did. Stripped him off, paunch and all, steering that duck clear from his stub of a modesty, and my shoulders sank a little.

‘Well,’ I said, with a deep breath and a more relaxed smile, ‘I understand that these days emotional intelligence is just as valuable as technical ability.’

And I happily added two more qualities to my list: empathy and intuition. Not that I’d intuited my husband’s affair, had I?

A flicker of smile. Steepled fingertips. And then he floored me.

‘An impressive track record while you were with us.’

‘Thank you.’

I felt myself flush, surprised tears springing in gratitude.

Because, yes, I’d been bloody good at my job, had been valued, on other people’s radar. And yet here I was, Anna Bond, in my mid-forties, in the prime of life, and floundering. The female term for a cuckold, I’d read, is a cuckqueen, and that felt perfectly apt.

 

On the Tube home, I stared through the pages of the Evening Standard. They’d said they’d be in touch but, whatever their decision, I’d known. Even as I’d sat gazing at the abstract swirls of colour on the walls in reception, as I’d been led through the open plan, with its splash of screens and the stench of callow greed. Let’s face it, I’d known even as I’d dressed that morning. I had moved on. The corporate world which had once given me meaning would no longer rouse me, and if offered the job I wouldn’t take it; there would have to be some other route back to me. The interview, however, had fortified me – I was still in there somewhere. Perhaps the way forward was philanthropic, some form of charity work, even if the thought of sorting fusty second hand clothes or stuffing envelopes left me cold.

I nearly missed my stop. Dashed to the closing doors and out onto the ground I loved. Chiswick, my one constant. Down on the pavements of Turnham Green Terrace, the heatwave which was to smile upon the nation that summer was already warming itself up, and the yeasty scent of Fuller’s Brewery steeped the air, a deep breath of it heightening my sense of home.

Hanging back, I glanced in at Ollie’s shop on the other side of the road, its frontage painted in Plummet Grey, the lettering a deep charcoal, Oliver Bond Esq. Purveyor of Fine Wines. He stood planted at the oak desk, frowning down at his phone, one hairy arm outstretched, hand resting on the layers of tissue paper. Pillar of the community, so he always joked. Still a thick crown of hair, still sandy too, and cut to perfection by the guy opposite – all the local businesses enjoyed the fruits of barter and Burgundy was a heady commodity.

A woman entered and Ollie looked up with that winning smile. Expecting the sight of his face to bring misery, I found instead that it stirred a surge of defiance. An impressive track record, the man had said. Who was this bastard to have an affair on me? He fetched down a bottle from the wooden shelves, holding it with reverence, stroking it. Not unlike he once used to hold and stroke me. Did I still love him? I had no idea. We just were. Anna and Ollie a solid couple, married now for nearly twenty years. A slide into marital oblivion so steady that the moment when I’d no longer caught my breath, when my insides had no longer flipped was indiscernible.

‘Leave him,’ Scar had said. Simple words for such a terrifying act of dismantlement.

I crossed over to the deli in search of something quick for dinner.

 

At my front door I assumed that cape of super-motherhood which smothered all fragility of my own. I’d been slipping it on since Sophie was born, and it now draped itself automatically in her presence.

In our hallway I found a bike propped against the wall, heard her chatting to someone in the kitchen and smiled with relief, it was easier these days when we were not alone, just the two of us. Cocking my head to gauge which of her friends she’d brought back from school, I was pulled up short. A male voice, rich and deep, suffused with a particular joyous-come-cheeky resonance, which I recognised from my own youth. They were flirting. I wandered through to them.

The boy was sitting at the island opposite my daughter, and he didn’t look up immediately. Between them sat our pet tortoise, Horace, whom the boy was feeding, leaf by leaf. Cocky then. Finally, he glanced at me, his eyes a startling pewter grey, luminous with his laughter, with enthrallment.

‘Hi,’ I said, bearing down on Sophie with a quizzical smile, unable to hide my initial shock.

‘Hi Mum. This is Jack.’

Her tone towards me was warmer than usual, right from the start I was aware of that. Her smile shone half euphorically, half sheepishly, and our eyes remained locked while the impulses leapt between our synapses – why didn’t you tell me? Why should I? And then I looked away, softly rueful of her inevitable slide towards independence. She’d been pulling away for some time now and this was a further step. For a moment I felt completely alone, abandoned by husband and daughter, the two truths of my life.

The boy stood up from the bar stool, causing it to rock on its legs, and I pretended not to notice the face Sophie pulled at him, mocking his stumble, but was heartened to see that she held such power.

‘Hello.’ I strolled over and held out my hand.

‘Nice to meet you, Mrs Bond.’ A chunk of dirty-blond hair flopped onto his forehead as if by remote control. ‘You have a lovely house.’

‘Thank you, Jack. Cup of tea?’

‘Awesome, thank you.’

I turned to fill the kettle. Her first boyfriend. But this was not a boy, he must have been six-foot tall, his chest was as broad as Ollie’s, his wrists were muscled for Christ’s sake! As I unloaded my bag of food into the fridge, I could feel the energy dancing between them and finally I swung around, arms folded.

‘What are you up to, then?’

‘Revising together. History. We’re in the same set.’

‘The rise of Hitler.’ It was Jack who spoke, his smile disarming. ‘And the causes thereof.’

Thereof. Clearly from an educated family.

‘Sounds like a plan. Biscuit?’

I took the tin over, it felt good to have a prop.

‘Awesome, thank you.’ He dug out two chocolate digestives and slipped one whole into his mouth.

Again, I contemplated Horace, now abandoned on the island to feed himself, and I shared a further lingering look with Sophie. My hygiene rules were strict, no tortoise on eating surfaces, but we both knew I wouldn’t nag. I wandered back to pour the teas.

‘How was the interview, Mum?’

I turned with a bright smile but her own eyes were on Jack, her radiant face carefully framed by a mass of blonde, and my heart leapt out in protection – take it slowly Sophie.

‘Great,’ I said, watching the boy as I placed his mug of tea down. His smile oozed filmic confidence. ‘If wanky bankers float your boat.’

‘Mum!’

I was pleased to see him blush; not so cocky then. ‘Hope your father doesn’t work in the City?’

‘No, er, he’s a garden designer.’

‘Creative, I like that. Anyway, been a long day, I’m off for a bath. Nice to meet you, Jack.’

I slunk from the kitchen, mug in hand and stopped on the first stair to catch Sophie’s words.

‘Parents, hey?’

I waited, leaned into the banister.

‘She’s mad,’ said Jack.

 

I’d intended to soak off the interview but instead I was fending off thoughts like missiles. Ollie. Why had he had the affair? I was going to challenge him while that post-interview defiance was still fresh; the Max Mara suit alone had restored a bundle of confidence. But I had been counting on a return to my old firm as the way forward, it would have allowed me to walk away from my marriage – if that was the path I chose – or to cope if he were to leave me. I saw again that woman in the doorway, the look between them. What was I going to do now? Where next would I search for that elusive someone I used to be?

And now there was Jack. This stranger lounging in my kitchen, a boy-man whose presence hung in the air. The space he took up was disturbing, a mass of limbs and flesh, a trace of earthy aftershave too, whereas most teenage boys smelt of baked beans.

The bath water had cooled so I topped it up with hot and plunged beneath the foam of raspberry bubbles (I still bought Sophie’s childhood favourite) wallowing until my breath burst. Sweeping back up, I scooped a palmful of froth, squeezed until the bubbles had vanished and reached for another. What had just happened in my kitchen? Well it seemed that, totally out of the blue, a rite of passage was underway for my daughter, an emotion in her eyes I’d not yet seen. Had I warned her enough about sex? About the privilege of her own body? What if Jack were to coerce her into it? You can’t tell a teenager not to do it, I myself was younger than she is now, but somehow, at fifteen, I seemed older than my daughter, more street-wise.

A gale of laughter from below and I sank again beneath the water, losing myself in its cocoon. Mad, he’d called me. And I knew that mad was teenage slang for cool – it didn’t mean loopy or unhinged.

By the end of that summer, however, I would be unable to fathom quite what I had become.

 

c. Diane Chandler 2020

All rights reserved

 

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