A BIG thank you to everyone who has taken part this month. It’s a cliché but it’s true… we couldn’t have done it without you. Please keep checking the site for information between now and January, and in particular for the names of the selected writers on 15th December.
We hope to see as many of you as possible at The Poetry Café, Betterton Street, London on 31st January for the launch of Your Messages.
And please keep in touch.
Lynne & Sarah
One morning, in bed, he turns his naked back to you and you start to write.
Unthinking at first. You wet your finger, trace letters on his skin. ‘I l...’ Then your hand takes over. ‘...eft you,’ it continues.
‘Mmm...’ he murmurs. ‘Me too.’
You worry about this all day – me too what? So that night, when he’s late for the film you both want to see, you scream at him. ‘People are looking,’ he hisses and that’s when you start to run. But he catches you up, holds you tight by the arm until you calm down. ‘Where are you going?’ You’re not sure, maybe you just wanted to be the one to go. While you wait for the film to start, you read the review. The Loneliness of a Jilted Woman.
Somehow you stay, although you clutch at him so tightly he shows you the bruise later. ‘It’s in the shape of a heart,’ you say wonderingly and then he can’t stop looking at it in the mirror.
‘I’ve been marked,’ he crows and you’re OK just so long as he doesn’t show you his back. You don’t sleep because you need to make sure he doesn’t turn away. You try to understand what he’s saying when he makes those little noises that have never bothered you before. Then he takes a sudden intake of breath and you start to punch him. You can’t stop.
He wakes. ‘Jesus,’ he says, ‘it’s four fucking o’clock in the morning.’
You tell him how he wants to leave you. You’re crying so hard you can’t get the words out.
A month later, you pick up the phone. Hear the message you used to share, except now it’s just his name. ‘I left you first,’ you say. Silence echoes down the line.
These are some things I'll miss if I die too early…
* mornings like this one, when everyone’s asleep and I’m sitting curled up in the armchair in the kitchen with a mug of hot coffee writing about things that bring me pleasure, but there’s an opening in my chest too and I’m writing direct to the page, concentrating on writing what I see as the truth.
* the chance to live by the sea, to find a country that will absorb me and take me in without being judgmental, that will have water I can go walk by and watch.
* the excitement of meeting new soul mates, who I want to talk to every morning, sit with over long meals telling jokes and ghost stories, fiddling with candles and laughing.
* the pleasure of choosing and trying on new clothes, when I know I look good and can walk down the street and return smiles, when flirting is just fun, that glance between you that says ‘in another life, then maybe, you and me’.
* seeing my name in print and sneaking up on strangers who might be reading my words. That moment when my work takes off without me and I have to run to catch it up, and when I read it, it’s as if it has nothing to do with me and I think – yes, this could be true.
* the heat of the sun on bare flesh, a full glass of red wine, oily spicy food that drips down my chin, stealing looks at people I love, that feeling of pride bursting through my chest when friends do well and are happy, the sparkle of clear water as I break through a clean swimming pool. Good sex, good food, good chat, good poetry. Good.
Dear Special Friends
What a better time than Xmas to meet new soulmates! I love to imagine your surprise at getting this letter! Some of you might have gone straight to the bottom to see that the sender is indeed Brian, but this time it’s Veronica-and-Brian as opposed to Jane-and-Brian! I’m pleased to meet you!!
When Brian told me about Jane’s now famous Christmas letters, I thought her tragic death was no excuse to lose touch! Even our therapist has joined our quest to forge a new, special and wonderful relationship (very unlike Jane and Brian’s but that’s another story).
So what’s happening? You’d be amazed to see how much happier Brian looks these days! Jane was a wonderful woman in many ways, but even her friends among you will agree her dress sense wasn’t one of them! I know you’ll all agree that Brian could never be an autumn, so why did Jane keep buying him all those brown clothes? But I digress. To our delight Kevin at Headzone has taken Brian’s hair under control, and his cosmetic surgery is planned for May. Watch this space…!
You’ll probably be relieved to hear we’ve cleared out all Jane’s boring books – what a dust trap! – and painted the walls a nice Magnolia colour. In the garden, we cleared out Jane’s herbs and laid some wonderful trouble-free paving. In place of that horrible old apple tree, there now stands a sculpture of Brian and I making love in celebration of that natural and important part of our lives!
We hope all you special people will visit us. My sweet Brian says I’m too modest, but I’m sure you’ll find my cooking is in a different league to Jane’s homely fare!
Yes, friends, come to this joyous celebration of our love!
Once upon a time there was a little box with nothing in it, but it didn’t like being empty and light and wished it could be fuller and heavier. And as the little box grew into a medium-size box, and then into a big box, more and more things collected inside. But the box began to feel so heavy and full it was frightened it would be stuck in one place and unable to move an inch. Then the box began to wish it could be a little box again with none of the weight and clutter inside, light enough to skim across the floor if someone nudged it with a foot, maybe light enough to lift in a wind.
So, the box wished. And wished. And wished. And nothing happened. It carried on wishing so hard that its sides ached but still nothing happened.
Then the box had an idea – it tried opening its lid wide. At first this was very difficult, it was stiff from being closed up for such a long time and its cardboard flaps groaned as they stretched and tried to close back down, but after a while they became more flexible and stayed open.
When the first things started to leave, the box felt sad. They had been there for a very long time and it had become used to their shape, the way they fitted snugly against everything else. But as more and more things left the box became excited – it felt lighter and started to move its flaps. It believed it would become so light that it might fly.
But it didn’t. And after a while the box began to feel empty and light and it wished it could be fuller and heavier. And it wished. And wished. And wished.
When she was about ten she started to play the game with Wendy. They’d go upstairs to her bedroom, lie down on the bed and take turns being the man in the sports car and the girl. The man stopped and asked the girl if she’d like a lift and eventually he got to lie on top of her, touch her and kiss her. At first they kept all their clothes on, but as that became less exciting, they took off their T-shirts.
Then, one day, before they started the game, Wendy told her that her mother had said she could play the game but she had to keep her clothes on. It wasn’t proper touching each other’s chests, she said. But the game wasn’t as good after that, so they went to the beach instead and played hide-and-seek in the sand dunes. Once they came across a man lying in one of the sandy valleys, touching himself. Wendy told her mother about him, too.
She tried playing it with Alison. Alison had a chemistry set and a pet rat and white bedroom furniture decorated with gold swirls, like a human size set of Barbie furniture. But Alison was no good at the words and that was what she liked best about the game, how the man talked the girl into coming closer, are you sure you don’t want to come with me, how the girl resisted for a while, no, I have to go home, so when they did get to lie down she was already tingling and hot. And Alison was bony and her breath always tasted of old pop.
She became fed up of the game shortly after. Then boys began to make her feel hot, though none of them were any good at the words either.
The pavement is sticky like uncooked dough; it lifts in strings under your soles. The sun is hot. The skin on your shoulders and knees is burning. That’s when your father pokes his head out of the door and shouts at you to come in but you can’t tell him about the pavement because you know he won’t believe you, he’ll think that you’re lying or you’ve done something wrong. You wave and watch him disappear down a dark hall, into a room with a tiny window at the other end. He sits at a table and carves his name into the wood.
Each time you have the dream you wake up frightened, then relieved when you remember where you are. You haven’t mentioned it to anyone since one of your boyfriends said that in Freudian terms the knife symbolised a penis.
Your mother once told you the women in your family were cursed with bad love. And you believed her because she was your mother. And because of your father.
When your mother calls and tells you he’s died she can’t stop crying. You say, ‘Mum, you haven’t seen him for fifteen years.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘I always see him in you.’
After you hang up the phone you stare at yourself in the bathroom mirror, try and see him somewhere in your face. You can’t. And you’re glad.
You haven’t had the dream since he died. Or you’ve had the dream, but your feet aren’t stuck and your father doesn’t call you and it’s you walking down the dark hall into the small room. It’s you sitting at the table with the knife, but you don’t carve your name. You walk over to the other end of the room and look out of the tiny window.
She takes a careful look round first. The detective thinks he’s being clever, posing as an ordinary shopper but she sees him straight away. What ‘ordinary’ business man would really spend such a long time trying to choose a baby’s outfit.
She tries to see who he’s got his eyes on. Can’t be her, otherwise he’d be over here where he could see her actually picking up the goods. And it’s then she sees the young mother with the crying toddler in the buggy. She’s done that one before, stuffing goods into the pleats of the rain hood for a laugh, but this one looks as if she’s doing it from real need. The woman’s face is pinched and tired; she’s not even bothering to try to stop her kid sniveling. Bastard detective. Couldn’t he just turn the other way for once, it’s not as if the shop couldn’t afford it. Look at the prices they charge, the jewelry dripping off the shop assistants, the softness of the carpet.
She takes another look at the young mum. She could go over and try to warn her, but time’s short and Kenny’s waiting. She can just imagine his reaction if she came back empty-handed, polishing her halo.
The scarves are light and floating, and in a reverse motion of a conjuror’s trick she waves her arms and watches the bright jewel colours slip up her sleeve. She wants to curtsey in anticipation of applause but when she looks round to see if anyone’s watching, she sees instead the detective walking purposefully toward the mother. She exits quickly, not wanting to catch the inevitable consequences.
In the café Kenny’s stirring his coffee impatiently, barely looking up, not even when a silk rainbow start falling out of her hands and onto the table.
This is what they had to eat: quails eggs, shelled and dipped in celery salt; seared tuna steak, the smallest new potatoes and asparagus spears with little tubs of butter to pour over; bitter chocolate pots (he fed her using the tip of his little finger.)
This is what they had to drink: crystal jugs full of iced sparkling water (she fished out an ice cube and crunched it between her teeth, icicles sprayed from her mouth as he watched.)
This is what they wore: both arrived in black trousers and white shirts. They laughed and clapped hands, praising each other’s taste (he pulled her red leather belt free from its noose with his teeth, it fell curled like a snake to the floor.)
This is what the room smelt of: beeswax, lavender and the faintest taint of fruit (he rubbed an orange from the fruit bowl over her hair and inhaled.)
This is what they looked at: there was only one painting on the white walls, a black and white etching of an Eric Gill nude, her body curved in ecstasy, hands clasped high above her head. (she put out her forefinger and traced the model’s pubic hair so lightly he shuddered.)
This is what they talked about: how the soul would communicate if it could choose (poetry, he said. Painting, she said, my soul would need colour. Mine too, he said, and he whispered poems into her skin until she started to hear the rainbow.)
This is what she had in her handbag: one key, a chip from the roulette table, a pink lipstick moulded to the shape of her lips (he painted her mouth, careful not to go over the edges, and then when he finished he licked the whole thing off before starting all over again.)
If you eat paper you get black eyes; if you see two magpies something nice will happen; if you see a pin pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck, see a pin and let it lie, someone close to you will die; feel happy if a black cat crosses your path; don’t walk under a ladder; never give a dressing gown for Christmas because it will bring illness; lick your thumb, place it in your other palm and make a wish if you see a black car; if you cough, raise your arm up high; always pick up a penny because it’ll mean that you’ll never need it; cross yourself if you see a yellow car; if by mistake you put on something inside out then you need to keep it like that for the rest of the day; never say the word Macbeth in a theatre; break a mirror and have seven years of bad luck; don’t look at a full moon through glass; hold your head tight when you go over a hill in case it drops off; press the cigarette lighter in before you take a long journey; if salt is spilt at the table, throw a pinch over your left shoulder; say bless you after someone sneezes in case the devil crawls into the mouth; wish on the first star; wish on your first food of the season; wish when you cut your birthday cake; don’t sit thirteen at a table; throw apple peel over your shoulder on Halloween and it will spell out the initial of your true love; wish on an eclipse and it will be doubled; don’t cut your nails on a Friday; always burn your hair clippings; be careful what you wish for because it may come true.
It's Wednesday, and another Message day. What are we all going to do when this is over?! Let's not think about that yet.
There are some mornings when you feel like floating away, so instead of getting straight into your car when you leave the house you take off your shoes and stand on the pavement flexing your heels. It doesn’t take much, just a slight shift in the breeze, and you’re up, raising your arms to a T for the current of air to lift you higher. And there’s nothing like height and distance to give you perspective. Your house, for example, looks exactly the same as the rest in the curve of your street – slate roof, red brick, the white flashes of windows. The individual touches you’ve added over the years – the heather bed, the paved driveway, the carriage lamp and house name plate on the wall outside the front door, the brick lawn-edging that took you four weekends last summer – are indistinguishable from here, just blotches, shadows or scribbles. Which is laughable when you think of all that time you spent in Homebase stacking your flatbed trolley with compost, sand, cement, plants, wall fixings.
Even the moving flecks of your wife and children in the garden are the same flecks as every other woman and child down there – they could live in any house with any of the men walking out of glossy front doors, getting into company cars and driving off to work, to return twelve hours later.
You’ve tried to explain all this to your wife.
‘If you want to know about mind-numbing ‘sameness’, she said, ‘you try being at home with the kids all day, every day.’
But it’s not only the routine that’s bothering you, it’s looking in the mirror each morning and not knowing your face or your name, and this floating, how liberating it is and how, each time, it’s harder to come back.
Meet the Authors
of Bluechrome’s collaborative classic
Lynne Rees & Sarah Salway
7pm on Thursday 31st January 2008
The Poetry Café, Betterton Street, Covent Garden
London WC2H 9BX
and celebrate the launch of
an anthology of original writing
selected from thousands of responses.
Lynne and Sarah will talk about their collaboration
and introduce the authors selected for the Your Messages anthology.
And here's today's Message for you. Click on Comments to respond:
It was never like the movie.
Okay, I was sixteen going on seventeen, and I did have a crush on a blonde Hitler youth, but that was the closest it got. The only music in the hills was the goats, and as for us, we hated the sight of each other, couldn’t bear to be in the same room for more time than it took to eat breakfast. They were right about Father (at the beginning), he did have a whistle and used to blow the fucking thing every morning at eight, expecting us to march downstairs and take our allocated places at the table.
The first time I ignored him he stamped upstairs looking for me, dragged the bed covers off then stopped when he saw I was naked. I knew I had some power as soon as I saw his face – his lips quivering and the eiderdown limp in his hands.
‘What?’ I snapped at him, making no attempt to cover my breasts, and I smiled.
He walked out of the room. ‘You’re just like your mother,’ he spat at the door.
He was probably right. She’d been dead for three years, and that’s pretty much how I felt.
The Baroness was a joke. A pathetic simpering twit. And the stuff about all the other governesses was fiction. Father couldn’t bear to have outsiders living in the house but he had to compromise when he was called away for a few months. That’s when Maria came. I can imagine her face if I told her the story about the curtains – she’d have looked up over her black coffee and cigarette, wrinkled her face into disbelief, and screeched with laughter.
It was like this: Father was a Nazi, the nuns betrayed Maria. All I want to do is forget.
A delicious fish and pasta dish of Sicilian origin first introduced to this country in the 1870s by Signor Antonio Vespucci, the Italian ambassador to the court of Queen Victoria. The sauce is a blend of shredded ambry (a shellfish once found in deep waters off the rocky coast of Sicily), green onions, green grapes, white wine, and thick cream.
Signor Vespucci was determined to impress a deputation of Italian dignitaries, including La Contessa Maria Aligheri de Vincenza, reputed to be one of the most powerful women in the Italian court at that time, so arranged a banquet for five hundred guests in the presence of Her Majesty.
Two thousand ambry had been caught, packed on ice, and shipped to London a few days earlier, and when the silver salvers were uncovered by two hundred and fifty waiters and the sweet scent of ambry flesh poached in Frascati with the plumpest green Tuscan grapes reached the nostrils of the homesick Italians, a shout of Magnifico Vespucci! echoed around the Great Hall at Buckingham Palace, followed by spontaneous applause.
Neither Her Majesty or the guests, however, were ever made aware of the outrage felt by Sicilian fisherman whose fishing grounds had been voraciously depleted of this delicacy, an irresponsible act that threatened the shellfish with extinction. They protested at the central government buildings, marching around the main square dragging their nets and spitting as they chanted Vespucci’s name. But they hadn’t counted on the weight of the Contessa’s influence on the island and their protest was broken up by the Italian Royal Guard, two fishermen losing their lives during the stampede of the soldier’s horses.
Within twenty years not a single ambry could be found around Sicily and today’s recipe books use white crabmeat or monkfish in its place.
The white wine was warm.
She could see how cross it made him. He beckoned for the waiter immediately. ‘Ridiculous,’ he shouted.
‘Please,’ she whispered, ‘can’t you leave it just today? I know it’s annoying but this is our anniversary.’
‘Exactly. That’s why everything needs to be perfect.’
She could feel the panic rise in her chest, just like it did at home when he’d come back from work and start to criticise. Why were the children still up? Why were their bags littered round the hall? Why was everything such a mess? Why couldn’t she make more of an effort. Why? Why? WHY?
He was thumping the bottle on the table now in an effort to gain attention. She looked down at her plate, not wanting to catch his eye in case he started on her.
‘All I ask for,’ he shouted, ‘is an evening out with you where nothing goes wrong for once. A chilled glass of wine, some pleasant conversation, no stress. Do you have any idea of how stressed I am at work. How tired. Do you?’
She shook her head. Why couldn’t she have checked the wine first, popped into the restaurant that afternoon to make sure everything was perfect for him? She was such a fool not to anticipate this. She’d spoilt everything now.
‘I could swear that waiter’s avoiding me deliberately,’ he said, waving his hands wildly.
She looked up then, caught the eye of the woman sitting at the next table who smiled sympathetically.
Maybe it was that smile which finally gave her the courage to stand up and pour her glass of white wine all over him.
Then she floated out of the restaurant, curtseying left and right to thunderous applause, as light as a bubble in a fine clear glass.
It was as he was going to the loo for the second time in an hour just to avoid the silence between them that the strange man approached him.
‘What do you want?’ John stuttered, but the man put his hand up to stall him.
‘Couldn’t help but notice the conversation seems rather dry in your corner,’ he said.
‘Have you tried the Jokeman?’ The man gave John a number, told him about this service - a joke for free, the cost of your telephone call, a joke appropriate for any situation, particularly one when you can’t think of anything to say to a girl you’re desperately trying to impress. And John was desperate.
Minutes later he went back to the table.
‘Two fish were in a tank,’ he said to the girl who was frantically trying to hide the fact she’d been making a call on her mobile. ‘One turned to the other and asked ‘do you know how to drive this thing?’”
To his surprise the girl started to laugh. It eased things so he could begin to tell her how he’d wanted to be a soldier once, and it turned out her dad was, and after that there was no turning back.
Of course, it wasn’t always so simple. John had to use the Jokeman several times after that, and he took pleasure in passing the number on to other guys he saw in similar situations. He’d look over minutes later and see it always worked.
Sometimes he’d wonder if girls used a service like the Jokeman but the girls he met hardly ever told jokes, and he’d see them talking to each other in a way that made him sure they’d never dried up.
No, the girls would have no need of the Jokeman.
THE SATISFACTION (OR OTHERWISE) OF LISTS
There are lists that are useful …
a) THINGS THAT NEED DOING IN THE HOUSE
b) COOKING INGREDIENTS FOR TONIGHT’S SUPPER
c) READING LISTS FOR SUBJECTS YOU WANT TO LEARN ABOUT
and those that aren’t:
a) REJECTION LETTERS WITHOUT A PERSONAL NOTE
b) HOW MANY TIMES EDITORS HAVEN’T RETURNED YOUR EMAILS
c) PEOPLE WHO MAY BE USEFUL BUT YOU’VE INSULTED THEM WHEN DRUNK
There are lists that make your stomach turn …
a) ALL THE PLACES YOU’VE EVER BEEN SICK IN
b) THE THINGS THEY DO IN TORTURE CHAMBERS
c) STRAY CURLY HAIRS LEFT IN THE SINK BY THE LAST INHABITANT OF YOUR NOT SO CLEAN HOTEL ROOM
and those that don’t:
a) AN INVENTORY OF YOUR BEST WHITE BED LINEN
b) THE LATIN NAMES OF HERBS
c) YOUR FAVOURITE SMELLS – LAVENDER, RAINWATER, LEMON
There are lists that bring you pleasure …
a) THE COUNTRIES YOU WOULD LIKE TO VISIT
b) THE PLANTS YOU COULD GROW IN YOUR GARDEN
c) THE PEOPLE YOU MIGHT MEET IN THE FUTURE
and those that don’t:
a) THE NUMBER OF FORMS YOU HAVE TO FILL IN FOR WORK
b) OUTGOINGS FOR TAX RETURNS
c) FRIENDS THAT YOU’VE LOST FOR REASONS THAT JUST MAY BE YOUR FAULT
There are lists that motivate you …
a) ALL THE THINGS YOU WANT TO DO BEFORE YOU’RE FIFTY
and those that don’t:
a) TOO MANY THINGS THAT HAVE TO BE DONE BY A CERTAIN TIME
There are lists that aren’t important ...
a) THE RECIPES YOU JUST MIGHT GET ROUND TO TRYING ONE DAY
b) BOOKS THAT AREN’T INTERESTING ENOUGH TO BUY BUT YOU MIGHT READ IF THEY’RE IN THE LIBRARY
c) DESCRIPTIONS OF OBSCURE WORDS
d) LISTS OF LISTS
and there are those that mean far, far too much ever to list.
Last night I dreamt about someone I see regularly on the train.
We’ve never talked, but there’s an energy between us that’s hard to describe, just something you feel.
I knew it was him straight away in my dream even though he was dressed in a long black cloak with a hood that came right over his face. He kept holding out his hand and I tried to grab it but he was always just one step ahead of me. All I could think of was putting one foot in front of the other. The path up the mountain got narrower and narrower but I couldn’t see the end. Even the top of the mountain was hidden in the clouds.
There was snow everywhere that night but it wasn’t crisp. It felt as if I was wading in toffee. My legs were heavy but I knew if I could just catch up with him, I’d finally be safe.
So much snow. The cold circled my heart with ice. In comparison, he was surrounded by a glowing ring of fire. I wanted so much to catch up with him, but his hand was always out of reach.
It was good to wake up.
I was nervous catching the train this morning, but neither of us looked at each other. I tried to forget my dream but when we got to our destination, I couldn’t stop shivering. It was so cold in the carriage. Icy. Then I felt him standing behind me. In my panic, I opened the carriage door too early. The last thing I remember was the feel of him pushing hard at my back, the shock of trying to grab for his hand as I fell back. And back.
But however hard I tried, I couldn’t reach his hand.
Number of children: 3. Number of times married: 1. Number of times engaged: 2. Number of times you have sex each week: 1.5. Number of houses lived in: 6. Number of bedrooms slept in: 48. Number of facials you have had: 2. Number of manicures: 2. Number of meals you cook each week: 18. Number of times you’ve said to yourself, ‘I’ve got to change the way I think about things’: 623. Units of alcohol you drink each week: 29. Number of handbags you own: 11. Number of matching shoes: 0. Number of close friends: 3. Number of husband’s friends you really like: 3. Number of socks you pulled out of the washing machine yesterday: 37. Number of times you were cut off when you called Comet about the delivery of your new fridge: 3. Number of times each day you don’t say what you really want to say: 6. Number of mothers at the school gate you really like: 2. Number of times this week you opened a bottle of wine before six o’clock: 3. Number of pieces of toast you burned this morning: 4. Number of living parents: 1. Number of telephone calls from living parent each week: 15. Number of expensive lacy underwear sets you own: 2.5. Number of cars: 3. Number of children you’d prefer right now: 1. Number of things you wanted to do before you were thirty that you still haven’t done: 19. Number of tiles on the wall in front of you: 36 blue, 24 orange, 28 green. Number of splits in your rubber gloves: 1. Number of yellow roses in the vase on the table: 12. Number of cards: 15. Number of birthdays you’ve had: 39. Number of years you think you’ll live: 82. Number of days: 29,950. Number of hours: 718,800.
She kisses her lover again and again, starting at her feet, the oyster pink of her toenails, the arch of her foot, the curve of her heel. She holds her calf in both hands and brushes her lips along the hard ridge of her fibula, from ankle to knee. She loves her knees, their polished smoothness, the ivory scar on one where she fell walking down the hill from the University seven years ago. She didn’t know her then, but she knows the story of how a road sweeping lorry was edging towards her, its brushes spinning close to the kerb, and how the driver had stopped at the sight of a woman looking helplessly around, pressing a hand to her knee apparently unable to stem the flow of blood.
‘Are you alright, love?’ he called from the cab. Then he got out clutching a green plastic First Aid box. ‘Lean back against the wall,’ he told her. ‘And put your foot up here.’ He patted his thigh.
She imagines him kneeling before her, wiping the blood away.
‘You haven’t got Aids have you?’ he asked, smiling up at her, but he didn’t wait for a reply. He cleaned the wound, taped an antiseptic dressing around it, asked her if she’d be okay, and then he was gone.
Her lover jokes about her road-sweeping ‘Prince Charming’ and still feels bad that she never thanked him properly, didn’t try and get in touch with the local council to tell them how he had rescued her.
She digs the tip of her thumbnail into the centre of the scar. Her lover doesn’t respond. She imagines the man’s hands holding the knee, the nerves in the torn flesh already dying. She kisses the scar again and again.
‘You’re all better now,’ she whispers.
He doesn’t want to talk dirty. It’s not a sexual thing. He doesn’t care if it’s a man or a woman. He just wants to listen to them answer the phone and know if they’re happy or if the day has turned sour and cranky. He loves the anticipatory lift of a voice convinced of the call’s origin, or the bark of someone interrupted, imagines their homes according to the timbre and accent – gilt-framed mirrors, Parker Knoll armchairs, Sky TV, stone floors, white walls, the smell of polish, or dogs, or chips.
Most people hang up within the first ten seconds, after a few hellos. The timid ones squeak, Oh! Some spit down the line – Get lost you creep! slapping into his breath. Though he tries to breathe quietly. He doesn’t mean to frighten anyone.
He has his favourites. The woman who chattered, Hello, hello, hello, anyone there? I can’t hear you, talk to me. I’m going to hang up now so why don’t you call me back? If you can hear me call me back, okay? Bye then, I’m going now, really, that’s it, try again, byeee! He pictured her with long dark hair, about 50, wearing something purple and woolly, with dangling earrings (there’d been a tapping sound against the receiver), and standing in a kitchen where the counter tops were stacked with books and candles, where people came and sat around the table and drank red wine and talked a lot.
But the best one of all was a phone answered and only a sigh released – a single exhalation of breath meeting his. And then a silence gifted to him for nearly thirty minutes before the disconnecting blip. He could see it all – a pale yellow wall, bare feet resting on wooden boards, a curl of smoke.
I’m counting my blessings. There are five of them. Security’s wrapped up in bed, nurturing is in the kitchen, luxury soaking in the bath, love’s waiting for me on the sofa and creativity’s popped out. She’ll be back when she feels like it.
I’m putting all my eggs in one basket. I collect them up each month in soft blankets and keep them in willow nests I’ve made in the trees. At night I go out and listen to the wind whistling through.
I’m seeing the wood for the trees. I spend hours carving the initials of everyone I’ve ever loved into the bark of young saplings. Over the years I’ve watched the love grow until some letters take on a life of their own, branching out in all directions.
I’m running before I can walk. I’m gone before you have time to turn around and tell me to stop, that I can’t do that, that I’ll never be able to do that. See me go. I’m doing all the things you never thought I could.
I’m putting the cart before the horse. It likes the view better that way. It never knew what it was doing before. This way the horse can take an active part in proceedings. Can feel really involved.
I’m falling before my pride. I need to, so I can get to the bottom before it, cradle it safely down in my arms so nothing gets broken, that it isn’t damaged, that it can carry on being so beautiful, so big, so vivid.
I’m a bigger fool than any old fool I know. I’m red-shoed, red-hatted, no knickered. I’ll fly high up to the sun and flex my unburnt wings. I’ll never be sorry one day. I’ll never come to my senses. I’m loving every minute.
He waits until Annie’s asleep before he can do it properly.
It’s not that she resists him. She has no idea of what he’s doing. He knows that by the way she tries to keep secrets from him. It’s just that it feels more proper somehow to have rules.
So, only at night, when she allows the dreams to come, does he slip in too. It’s so amazingly beautiful, her mind. She’s no idea. Keeps saying things like how muddled her thinking is, how much crap she has stored away, so much useless knowledge.
But he walks round the loopy grey and silver corridors breathless with excitement. He’s been in other minds before, but they had regular clean outs. Annie’s kept everything.
He'll never get bored in there.
He goes down her playground memories, listens to the skipping songs, feels the fear as teachers prod and poke at him as he goes past, running automatically to kind playground assistants just as Annie must have done.
He can’t resist stalking her first loves, asking out loud how she could have found this one attractive with his red hair and freckles, or how this one could have found HER attractive.
But it’s the travel aisles he enjoys the most. Here he just sits and lets Annie’s excitement wash over him as she sees a whale swim up to the boat she was travelling to Greece in; snorkels over coral reefs in America, barters for Moroccan jewellery. He sips mint tea with her, scoops up spicy rice with his fingers and lets sweet candies explode on his tongue.
He never gets bored of it.
‘I love you,’ he tells her every morning. ‘You interest me more than any other woman I’ve met.’ And what he loves most is how much he means it.
This is how quickly it can happen, you think. This is how quickly your life can change.
It’s just another ordinary day. You’re crossing the station concourse peering up at the board to see when your train’s due. You’re not looking where you’re going when you bump into a strange man. As he helps you up, he touches your arm and you feel a jolt of electricity. You stare into each other’s eyes and you can’t quite get a grip of reality any more.
I’m sorry, you say after what seems like another life and he smiles. Will you take the package now or later, he asks. You don’t understand and he stops smiling. Don’t fuck with me, he says, this is too important, and then he starts to back away hissing at you. People around you are pretending too casually that it’s not happening. Suddenly you have become an outsider.
This is how quickly it can happen, you think. This is how quickly your life can change.
You run after him. I’ll take the package now, you say, still not really understanding but wanting him to smile at you again. He does and you slip the brown envelope into your handbag without another thought. It hardly makes a bulge. He touches your arm again. I’ll catch up with you later, he says and you nod. You’re both smiling so hard at each other you think your cheekbones might burst.
You float back to the destination board. Trains are toot-tooting in parallel with your happiness. Commuters are turned into angels. When the hand falls on your shoulder you turn in anticipation of something good, something wonderful. It’s two policemen and they’re not smiling.
This is how quickly it can happen, you think. This is how quickly your life can change.
Did you have a happy childhood?
What is your happiest memory?
Are your parents happily married?
Are you happily married?
Is your husband happy?
Do you believe you have a right to happiness?
What would you choose if you had to decide between being happy and being secure?
Are your children happy?
Could you make them happier?
What’s the happiest thing you can imagine doing?
Do you cry when you’re happy?
If you had to locate happiness in one part of your body where would it be?
Do you ask yourself Am I happy?
Do you believe New Years should be happy?
When you are happy how do you express it?
Do you think that searching for happiness is one of the main sources of unhappiness in the world?
Is happiness your goal?
What is more important than happiness?
Would you take a happiness drug?
Could happiness be a negative state, a passive condition, which undermines things you should value more – your striving and yearning, your improving and growing, your inventing and discovering?
Is happiness a side-effect?
Would you rather be a happy pig or an unhappy person?
Is there such a thing as false happiness?
If you went to a fancy dress party that had ‘Happiness’ as a theme what or who would you go as?
What’s the point of happiness?
Is it true that happiness justifies the means to its attainment?
Are serial killers happy?
Who’s the happiest person you know?
Do you know what happy is in any other language?
When was your last really happy birthday?
Do you know the etymology of the word ‘happy’?
Is it possible to dislike very happy people?
What does happiness taste like?
What shape is happiness?
If you were given a single wish would you wish for a happy life?
I guess some people are tolerant, but it’s still not the acceptable thing for a bloke to do, is it? And it’ll be a long time before Society changes enough for us all to be open about it. A girlfriend found a stash of wrappers in my car once.
‘It’s not normal,’ she said.
Of course, there was a gleam of hope with Yorkie bars but you could tell they weren’t thinking of us once you saw the ads – lorry drivers looking more like male models than your average knackered, unshaven juggernaut type.
It’s all women – in overflowing baths (can you imagine the grief we’d get for flooding the bathroom floor?) getting sexy with a Flake, or a couple of giggling girlies sucking Maltesers up with a straw. There is one with a bloke – him and his girlfriend on the sofa watching a horror movie and he pretends there’s a scary bit coming so he can scoff one of her Quality Street. Now that’s good – chocolate and cunning, I like that. But why do they have to use a fat bloke? I’ll tell you why – they want to put us off.
But they won’t. We get it at garages, motorway service stations, in the newsagent’s on a Sunday morning when we’re picking up the paper. Of course, you won’t hear us talking about it like women do. We eat it and we shut up. We don’t even talk about it to each other. You see a couple of women at the supermarket check-out with a few bars and packets on top of their trolleys and they’ll start up a conversation in no time – I know I shouldn’t…, If I don’t have a small bar every day I get really cranky… Not us.
Blokes don’t make comments about other blokes’ chocolate.
It was the change in her knees she noticed first. She’d run further than ever before and was treating herself to a hot bath. She sang as she soaped herself and came to a full stop halfway down her thighs.
After that, she went on and on noticing. Her knees weren’t the only things emerging from the layers of fat, beautifully defined and purposeful looking. There was the faintest shadow of a line down the side of her upper thigh that grew deeper and deeper until she could run her finger along it. Her calves developed until she could cup one in each hand and feel how they moved when she stretched her leg.
Even dressed, she took to stroking her bottom feeling not so much what was there as what wasn’t. She’d tuck her hands into her waistband to feel the narrowness of her stomach. Whenever she went running now it was difficult to stop. She spent hours pouring over the map, planning longer runs. Once she got over the difficult first 100 yards, she felt she was floating. She’d just fly down the street, looking into brightly lit windows and pleased to be outside, to be moving onwards.
Onwards and upwards became the rhythm of her steps. She was levitating.
She used her body at every opportunity. Sitting at her desk, she’d flex her toes so she could feel the muscles react. Walking across to the photocopier she’d force herself not to break out into a skip at the very pleasure of the movement. She got so fit she couldfeel her skeleton moving. Every bone, every muscle, every fibre became a perfect machine that let her move.
Once someone asked her what she did. She smiled broadly, pirouetted on one perfectly toned foot. ‘I run,’ she said.
the coalbunker smelling of earth and onions spades and rakes a hoe garden forks leaning against the cinderblock wall an empty metal bucket some cardboard boxes with dusty overlapping lids the onions plaited into ropes hanging from big nails and kept in the dark all winter their papery skins flaking in your hands when you broke one off the door was latched and padlocked the keys on a hook too high for you to reach
the front room venetian blinds slanted so no-one could see in from the street a dark oak table with flaps that pulled out at each end and pinched your fingers when they dropped into place the stereo you had to be careful with the gas fire’s chalky blocks trapping blue and orange flames the woman who wore a headscarf to say a prayer the books of the bible from Genesis to Revelation you learnt by heart
your bedroom where you could see the sea and hear the sea when you closed your eyes at night the two single beds with yellow candlewick bedspreads yours with a bald patch where you picked at the tufts and always said you didn’t your sister scratching your back the G-Plan wardrobe with sliding mirror doors and a big drawer at the bottom the shell box and the blue glass bambi
the tumps you ran up and down petered out at the BP chemical works the grass was sharp your calves ached in the soft sand you ate picnics in the valleys to keep out of the wind at the Ferry Bend there was a wreck you could see at low tide a girl called Faye pushed you down one once because her boyfriend liked you and Geoffrey Moyle tried to make you laugh he kissed you in Verdi Road
Kumi’s rushing ahead. She always does. It comes from being a two-child
So Kestra went to the Museum of the Past and transferred the memories to
Sura stands next to one. It’s almost double the height she is, and so ugly
We are silent as we walk into the underwear room. We laugh at the skimpy
Thank Femininity, we think, as we hobble through.
He taught you everything you know about snow. You know it’s frozen
vapour, watery particles congealed into crystals that fall to earth. You
know it’s formed in the air when the temperature of the atmosphere
sinks below freezing-point, that the minute crystals of ice form flakes
which present countless modifications of the hexagonal system. You
know these crystals adhere together and form irregular clusters, and
that the incident rays of light which are refracted and reflected to
present individually the prismatic colours, are scattered after reflection
and combine to give the colour sensation of white. It was years before
you realised that this meant snow lies.
In the years you spent together it only snowed twice. The first time,
you woke and knew it was there even before you’d looked out of the
window – something about the light, flat and shadowy. And sound was
flattened too, the cloak of snow muffling everything from birdsong to
car engines. Neither of you wanted to shovel the drive, preferred to
leave the drifts undisturbed. When you had to go out you played a
game of walking in each other’s footsteps. You liked the look of a single
track leading to and from the lane. You made a snow-rabbit together.
The second time there was only a skinny crust of the stuff. The
gravel on the drive poked through as soon as you stepped on it. By the
next day it was a tide of brown slush, by the day after, it only looked
like it had rained.
It wasn’t the snow’s fault, you’re not blaming it, and you don’t want to
bestow it with symbolic significance. It’s only that you can’t think of
him now without thinking about snow. About the snow-rabbit. How
for weeks you watched its slow escape into the melt.