Friday, 5 February 2016

Short Story Competition 2015 - THE WINNERS!


We are pleased to announce the winners of the Short Story Competition 2015 are ...

1st Prize £500
Erika Woods I Am Not Afraid

2nd Prize £100
Steve Wade A Temptress on Cloven Hooves

3rd Prize £50
Josie Turner The Co-Operative

Shortlisted entries were ...
Rose McGinty The Nightingale's Song
Will Ingrams Nightscabbling
Nicolas Ridley Compliance 
Sherri Turner You Can Keep Your Hat On
Paul Chiswick Lost Souls
Robin Wrigley Idi's Ark
Anthony Howcroft Race for the Pot
Valerie Jane Wilson The Day Before Thanksgiving, 1952
Valerie Jane Wilson Belle Dame sans Merci
Julia Anderson Word Spittle
Taria Karillion A Eulogy for Boo
Taria Karillion The Stolen Day

Judge's Report by Jan Ruth www.janruth.com

1st Prize I Am Not Afraid
This powerful, lyrical story enthralled, enlightened and entertained beyond its modest word count. Each time I read it, another layer of understanding was wrenched from the words. Some of the subject matter – abuse, rape and death – is terribly dark, contrasting the joy and innocence of youth with all that is raw and evil, and how hate can destroy a life. It’s also about the terrible differences placed on the value of men and women and the sheer strength of the human soul.

The writing is so confident and expressive I wonder if some elements of this story are drawn from experience.

Beautiful, and chilling.

2nd Prize A Temptress on Cloven Hooves
Bereavement through a young boy’s eyes, looking for someone or something to blame. In this case, the goat is in the line of fire, literally.

I was drawn back to this story time and again. It has an old filmic quality in the rural imagery and the cruel, misinformed superstitions of the men. 

Peter, can only see one way out for both of them…
Interspersed with memories of his father and the days of golden farming, the author’s voice is clear and the story is gently compelling.

3rd Prize The Co-Operative
This reminded me of my schooldays – long time ago – but we’ve probably all known a Daisy, and a Sarah. And then there’s Lennox, a middle-class arty sort. Sarah, is the bright popular one and Daisy, the one who tags along in their shadow, seemingly happy to do Sarah’s bidding. 

Until one day, the worm turns.

The style is simple and gossipy, narrated from both girls points of view and sometimes there is much merit from a story which simply entertains. I really wanted more from this triangle of characters.

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And don't miss our First Page Competition 2016 ...

For full details and entry form, click here

The Co-Operative by Josie Turner

DAISY

Before you judge me, you should know that I once did the shopping for a party I wasn’t invited to, and I did it with hardly any resentment at all.

Sarah handed me a twenty pound note and packed me off to the Co-op with a list. She was always so busy. On that day, I seem to remember, she was finishing a mosaic before meeting her psychic at teatime. She didn’t have time for shopping.

“Not that I believe in it,” she winked, handing me the money. “Aurelia’s as psychic as my slippers, but she’s still in touch with an ex who works at the BBC.”

Sarah wanted to break into television as an actress, writer or presenter. She wanted to be a name; she expected flashbulbs to start popping and confetti to rain down from the sky. She tolerated me because I’d once had a poem published in our college newspaper. I became a contact, a connection – a person of no current value, but perhaps someone to watch. Looking back, I can see that Sarah put a bet on me, at very long odds, in the hope that one day I might pay out spectacularly.

Which I have done. But now she’s lost her stake.


SARAH

I felt a bit sorry for her. She was always at the edge of things, poor old Daisy – tagging along, looking for a way in. She was a plump thing in glasses and an anorak – still just a schoolgirl, really, although we’d both graduated – and I kept her around out of kindness, finding little jobs for her to do. People won’t believe that now, but it’s true.

“We were at College together,“ I tell people, “…yes, really, we were! Dumpy, frumpy Daisy. I felt sorry for her.”

Then they start to edge away, smiling, as though pacifying me. They slide along the bus stop bench, or move along the bar. I’m aware that sometimes I inadvertently raise my voice.


DAISY

Standing in that Co-op queue, pushing a trolley full of cheap wine and crisps, I realised that I’d have to lug the shopping back on the bus and unpack it all among the cuttings and beads and fabric swatches of Sarah’s kitchen. Everywhere became a workshop for Sarah’s creative projects; any one of her seedlings might bloom. I wondered whether I’d be allowed a drink of water before her guests arrived – all Sarah’s pub cronies and starlets and fledgling guitarists, with their notable other halves and useful exes: the contacts. It was quite possible that she’d expect me to take the coats and serve the wine, before I left.

I wonder that it didn’t occur to me to steal the wine and crisps, and to hell with Sarah and her party. But I was co-operative, in those days. I remember sitting on the bus with the wine bottles crushing my thighs, looking at the brand name printed on the plastic bag, and thinking – “Yep, that’s me.”


SARAH

I can still see Lennox as he was then – handsome, fascinating, wearing a long military greatcoat that billowed behind him as we strode along the South Bank together. Anyone could see he had prospects. At twenty-five, when we got together, he was directing plays in the upper rooms of Hampstead pubs; his parents had bought him a shoebox flat in Archway, and he and I spent the evenings of that summer – that perfect summer – perched on his roof terrace between the chimneys, smoking and making plans. I lay beside him in bed, watching him breathe; I’d take his name when we married, I decided.

I wasn’t one of those needy women. Sure, he saw other people – so what? He was young. He was an artist. I’ve never been conventional.That’s why he was drawn to me; free spirit that I am. He trusted me to understand. I just preferred to spend my time with Lennox, if I could extricate him from the cast parties hosted by his leading ladies, when their parents were out of town. He’d fold his long body into Knightsbridge courtyards and Notting Hill terraces, letting the girls compete to supply him with cigarettes.

Oh, those girls! All of them fighting to rest their golden heads on his shoulders. Good job I’ve never been the jealous type.

Daisy was always around, that summer. Wanting to be included, as usual. And because I’m a nice person I found odds and ends for her to do, just so she felt needed. I felt safe, having Daisy around. It was like having a pet. A tame little pet.


DAISY

I’d watch Sarah seething whenever other women, and occasionally men, became the recipients of Lennox’s rare and chilly smiles.

Sarah would turn to me and talk loudly, her face reddening in fury as she pulled at the hem of her black tube dress. She wore woolly tights, artfully ripped with a crochet hook; she wore oxblood Doc Martens, and made a song and dance about coming from the North, whereas I was just from Cumbria, which apparently didn’t count. I liked Lennox: she knew that, but she saw no danger in it.

I was always so co-operative, after all.


SARAH

“Meet us at King’s Cross,” I instructed Daisy, over the ‘phone. She’d have to buy the train tickets for us, because I was making a mad dash from work to get to the station. “What time’s the train leaving?”

“Six o’clock,” she replied. She definitely said six o’clock. For some reason that time is easier to visualise than any other, and I saw a white clock with two emphatic black hands reaching in opposite directions. No mistake: she said six. I could hear her shuffling grimy timetables among the takeaway menus and nightclub flyers on her hall table.

This was years before mobile ‘phones and Google and all the gadgets which now keep us informed and connected. We relied on each other, in those days.

It was up to Daisy to supply Lennox and me with tickets to Edinburgh, to be handed over on the platform. He and I were travelling to the festival. It was essential to be seen there - to make contacts, scout for venues, sniff out rivals. We planned to make our mark. And we’d also escape his London entanglements – I knew they were suffocating him, all those Aramintas and Mirandas, with their acres and their breeding.

“I’ll pay you back,” I told Daisy, in case she worried about the money. “At some point.”


DAISY

I had no work, that day. It was eight in the morning when I got the call on the landline of my grotty shared house, and the hours stretched ahead of me. I had some savings; just enough to cover the cost of two tickets. I rang Lennox at noon – rousting him from his bed, I could tell by the laughter in his voice, and the giggles of his companion – to say that he needed to be at King’s Cross at 5.30pm at the latest.

I didn’t mention anything about the tickets. Lennox was already beyond that sort of thing – there would always be people keen to serve him; to arrange his days and handle any tiresome arrangements.

I explained that Sarah was trying to get off work early: she’d join us when she could.
“Ok,” he said meekly. Co-operatively.


SARAH

My bus was held up in traffic. We inched towards King’s Cross while I inwardly wept and pleaded. I held my patchwork bags on my lap, staring at the Euston Road through the filthy window, until I could stand it no longer. I jumped from the creeping bus while the driver yelled at me to stop. I bolted through the grid-locked traffic and ran half a mile towards the station.

I was on the concourse by 5.45pm.

I searched the ticket hall for Daisy and Lennox, imagining the two of them waiting anxiously for me, little Daisy clutching the tickets, fussing like an inept PA around the great man.

Nothing for six o’clock was announced on the departures board. But a train for Edinburgh was leaving at 5.50pm. I looked up at the station clock – white face, black hands, almost exactly as I’d seen it in my mind’s eye – and then a whistle blew.


DAISY

Imagine pulling into Edinburgh in darkness, to see the castle illuminated on the hill! So romantic, I thought to myself.

I recognised Lennox by his flapping greatcoat when he ambled, eventually, onto the concourse. As I approached him he peered at me through unnecessary tinted spectacles, as though I was an autograph-hunter. He was bound to have practised his autograph – it would have a carefully rehearsed air of being dashed-off; perhaps he’d already perfected the lordly initials and straight line he uses now. I grabbed his wrist and pulled him towards the platform – then we both ran, laughing, against the crowd.

“Where’s Sarah?” he called, but his voice was lost in the boom of the air. I found the correct carriage and bundled him aboard, helping him to swing his heavy leather holdall over the footplate.

Then I climbed into the vestibule, too.

It was 5.46pm. “Can I have the window seat?” I asked, and he looked surprised, but said “Of course.”

He put my small bag into the luggage rack above our heads. Then he hoisted his holdall to the same level, with the assistance of a man from across the aisle. I remembered the time I’d carted that heavy bag of wine back to Sarah’s house.

“Sarah said she’d join us later,” I said vaguely, as a conductor moved along the length of the train, slamming its doors.

“Fine,” said Lennox, sitting next to me. He saw me then, I think, for the first time ever. He almost asked me a question, but then seemed to change his mind, shaking his head as though baffled. He leaned back against the seat, and closed his eyes.


SARAH

I’ve never been bitter. She’s welcome to him. Poor old Daisy, let her deal with his sex addiction, his incipient baldness, his furred-up lungs! Just because he’s got a smarter version of the famous greatcoat these days, and a knighthood, I don’t suppose he’s any easier to live with. Harder, probably.

No, I’m glad things worked out the way they did. I’ve got a really nice life here, thank you very much, and I wouldn’t be a celebrity for anything. Not if you paid me.

I hardly recognise Daisy when I see her on TV these days. Not that I watch – I’m far too busy with my creative work, sewing these cushions, and learning to paint on glass. Might get a stall on the market, one day. One day. But, anyway – Daisy: I can see she’s gone overboard with the plastic surgery. She’s usually next to Lennox on the red carpet, with a simpering expression on her face. Not that her face has any expression – it never did. She was just a blank. A hanger-on, a bit-part; content to be in my shadow.

My shadow. Ha! That’s just what she was. Little Daisy, the dark horse. The shadow I dragged behind me.


DAISY
I have often recalled my last glimpse of Sarah, sprinting alongside the train as it began to slide out of the platform – red-faced, weeping, with her hair flying loose. Her bags bouncing at her side, their straps tangling and binding her arms. She scanned each carriage she passed, avid for Lennox, and she approached our carriage just as the train gained traction and outpaced her, leaving her standing on the platform, bags dumped at her feet, seeing nothing but her own reflection flashing past in the black mirrors of the windows.


I leant back in my seat and reached for Lennox’s hand, impatient for life to begin. 

A Temptress on Cloven Hooves by Steve Wade

Twelve-year old Peter makes his way home from school. Already the evenings are getting shorter. Through flared nostrils he pulls in the scented promise of clear frosty days. The type of day Peter’s father used to welcome. A day that wasn’t so cold and wet, or so unbearably hot that a man working the fields and tending his beasts gave praise to the land, his freedom and his god. Those were sentiments his father had expressed often. Peter can still hear his smoky-brown voice: a voice that rolled across the fields, as much a part of the countryside as the neighing of a stallion or the bellowing of a bull.

He turns off the canal dirt path onto the family farm. Absent from the skies is the aerial acrobatics and the uplifting twittering of the swallows. With bowed head, he trudges through the tractor ruts towards the house.

Before going inside, Peter runs to the barn, his heart thrumming in his ears. What if Alex and  the Axe has already been released and has called to the farm? Perhaps he’s come early, while Peter was at school, and has carried out the job? But as he pulls open the large barn door, he catches a glimpse of something white in the loft: Velvet. He calls out to her and tells her he’ll be back soon. This is the first time today that words have fallen from his lips. His voice, to his own ears, sounds like someone else’s. Someone he could despise.

He heads to the house.

While he waits for his dinner, he places his elbows on the table and closes his eyes. Before his mother puts his plate in front of him, he turns his head slightly and sneaks a look at her. She catches his glance. He closes his eyes again. She mutters to herself.

Peter and his mother haven’t spoken to each other since the accident. Well, not since after the funeral - the day when he stopped speaking to everyone.

 Back on the days before the funeral, with his dad’s lifeless body in the front room, surrounded by blood-red lilies offset by others as white as pear blossom, Peter’s mom had insisted he come down to greet the callers. Thick with the cloying scent of the flowers, men and women entered the room like cowed dogs. Many of the women were openly crying, their arms held up and extended before hugging his mom.

The men were calmer, less emotional. They stood behind or away from the women. Many were dressed in their work clothes. They spoke together quietly. Their taut faces waiting a glance from Peter’s mother, so they could nod and mumble their condolences.

When he’s finished his dinner, Peter takes his plate and cutlery to the sink, rinses them and puts them in the dishwasher. He then pours himself a glass of milk, and takes a long drink until his head hurts. He finishes it in a gulp. He wonders, as he always does, if his mother will say something this time - before he leaves the house. He hasn’t yet decided if he’ll answer her. But she’s busy loading the washing machine. Peter takes the note he’s carefully written in red ink and slips it under the TV remote control on the coffee table. His mother won’t discover it till six o’clock when she turns on the TV for the Angelus. He then collects his schoolbag and steps out of the room and the house.

In the barn, he clambers up the ladder to the loft. Swinging from his shoulder his green schoolbag. Almost at the top of the ladder, he speaks.

“Hey Velvet, it’s me.”

Velvet is already staring his way when he pokes his head into the loft. Her rectangular pupils regard him diabolically. She’s sitting in a nest of empty plastic fertiliser bags. She bleats her recognition and relaxes.

“Good girl,” Peter says to the goat, and pulls himself into the loft.

Careful not to disturb her, he tentatively works his way past her to a wooden chest. From the chest, he takes an old brown herringbone tweed jacket. A shaft of weak autumn sunshine draws him to the skylight. There he places his schoolbag on the floor and drapes his father’s herringbone jacket over his shoulders like a cape.

He inhales deeply his dad’s vital, manly smell - the smell of protective, capable hands. And with the smell comes fleeting, out-of-focus images: A younger version of his dad holding onto the pygmy blue roan mare as he helps the four-year-old Peter atop its back. Time bends and he’s standing next to his dad in the cab of the tractor as they plough the field before sowing turnips in late spring for the summer harvest. And then it’s early morning in the milking parlour on the first day of the summer holidays: the satisfying splash of cow dung waterfalling onto the concrete floor. But coming into greater focus are images of his dad with other men cutting the hay, while Peter and his friends from neighbouring farms climb on top of the haystacks, and his mom brings tea and sandwiches for the men and lemonade and custard creams for him and the other children.

Velvet bleats. Peter lifts his head from his father’s jacket. The goat’s soulless, horizontal pupils stare at him accusingly. She bleats again, her tongue protruding, and twists her head about.

From his schoolbag, Peter takes out a photo. In the picture his father is half-kneeling in a wheat field in front of a green combine harvester. Dressed in jeans and a red checked shirt, he’s looking to the right of the picture as it’s viewed. And there, standing on the stone wall to his father’s left is Velvet. From the start the goat followed Peter’s dad around like a dog. And she was there too that awful day when the thing happened. She was right next to the overturned Massey Ferguson when the farm hands came running through the fields.

In the days that followed, Peter heard everyone praising the goat for her loyalty. Just like a devoted sheepdog, they said. It would break your heart, he heard one old farm hand say, to hear the bleating of her, and himself stuck under the tractor, and not a thing anyone could have done for him anyway.

But that praise for the goat had recently turned to blame. Secluded halfway up the Scots pine and hidden in dense foliage, Peter had heard the men below discussing the accident while they sat about having their lunch on the hardened earth. Maybe it was the goat itself that had caused the Massey to upend, someone suggested. Sure wasn’t himself the best of drivers - and a whore for safety. And, in truth, how could you trust anything with cloven hooves?

 Since the accident, Peter has had time to think over all the possibilities - too much time. Lying awake in the sweat-saturated sheets those hot summer nights reliving over and over that terrible day. An idyllic day to begin with when the sun painted the ripened wheat fields gold. A day when the swallows speared, dipped, rolled and dived through the air like twisted arrows.

Although nobody was close enough to observe what went wrong that day, some suggested Peter’s father failed to reduce his speed on a slope. Or he shifted gear while going uphill. But the conclusion that most settled upon was that he had swerved to avoid the goat while travelling at too great a speed. Peter had heard the farm hands using strange words to discuss the goat’s involvement. A cloven-hoofed temptress, they called Velvet; a pointy-horned devil luring Peter’s father to his death. One of Satan’s minions sent forth to undermine the noble work of God.

Peter had heard a rough voice say that someone ought to take care of the goat. At first he wasn’t sure what they meant. But as he listened further, he realised that they wanted to destroy the animal. This made Peter’s head feel strange. A banging sensation started up behind his eyes. Felt like there was some tiny creature trapped inside his head trying to escape.

The conversation between the men grew louder. The best thing to do was to string the goat up – slow and painful and a way of warning and warding off any other evil entity intent on similar destruction. But, superstitious men that they were, not one of them wanted to take care of what they called this messy business. Only one man was there for the job: Alex the Axe.

Alex the Axe was a worker in the region’s abattoir who had been put away for his unorthodox method of slaughtering livestock. As legendary for his indifference to animal suffering as his heresy, the Axe was due for release in the autumn.

Velvet bleats again.

“Don’t worry,” Peter says to her. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

He pushes himself to his feet and goes back to the wooden chest. Rummaging beneath the old clothes he feels on its bottom the cool steel and smooth wood of his father’s .22 semi-automatic rifle. He pulls it free and checks it. It’s on ‘safe’ mode. Flipping the rifle upside down, he presses a small button on the magazine, and then flips the rifle right side up. Out pops the magazine. From the wooden chest he locates the cartridges, loads them and inserts the magazine back in place on the rifle’s underside. A feeling of invincibility surges through him; that same feeling he got the first time his father congratulated him on successfully loading the weapon.

The sound of movement in the lower part of the barn startles him. He works himself from his seated position to one knee. He pulls back the bolt on the rifle, while craning his neck to see through the opening in the loft floor. Nothing. His view is restricted. But he has time. He switches the rifle to ‘fire’ mode, and places the end of the barrel between Velvet’s eyes. It will be messy but instant. And as the weapon is automatic, he won’t need to reload. He too will feel no pain. He squeezes down on the trigger.

“Peter. Peter,” his mother’s voice. “Are you there? I’m sorry love, please.”

Peter’s rationale instructs him to ease off the trigger, but his finger disobeys. The rifle report thunders in his ears, and the recoil knocks him backwards. His head connects with something solid. Velvet, who has already sprung off before the gun is fired, bleats and dashes to safety down to ladder.

Disorientated, dazed and confused, the next thing Peter is aware of is his mother bending over him, her face the face of a tortured angel. She shakes her head and her voice is muted. A hazy conclusion begins to form: He’s dead. So this is what it feels like to be no longer alive. A sense of peace and acceptance washes through him. It feels as though he’s drifting in a raft on a calm sea far out from shore - overhead a cloudless, kingfisher-blue sky, as soundless as deep, unbroken sleep.

But from the shore he hears his name being called, at first faint, but gradually spilling and spreading across the water like the rising of the sun.

His mom, cradling him in her arms where she kneels, repeats that she’s sorry, and that they’ll make it through this. They have to. And she kisses him, on his forehead, his neck, and his cheeks; again and again and again.

I Am Not Afraid by Erika Woods

Two nudges. She knows exactly how far - just wide enough for a slender body to slip through. The kitchen door sighs. Shhh. No one must know. No one must ever find out. This is secret. Her secret.

A clock marks time. Tick Tock. Tick Tock. Her time. There’s not much left. From beneath a heavy cloud moonlight strikes the window, piercing the night’s blackness.

“I am not afraid,” she says over and over. ‘I am not afraid.’

I am on the brink.  I shuffle in and out of infirmity.  My life hangs by a thread.
And I am not afraid. I am not afraid.

Are they watching?
What do they see?

An old woman taunted by delusion; shrivelled with waiting? No? What then?
A child?  A mother’s love overflowing?  Dark days, dark moods?  The father’s disapproval that moulds itself around infant innocence?  The unknown sin heavy upon my fledgling shoulders?

What have I done? My eyes send the silent question to my mother. What have I done? She turns away. I watch. Her very being droops. I see she bears the same heavy mantle as mine. Each time she turns away its weight bows her a little more.

In old age she stoops almost double, with sidelong glances swiping at her adult child - the reminder of her inadequacy and guilt?

The light is dazzling. He is dead! His disapproval evaporates with his withered soul. On high, I weep for him. On high, I shout joyously. On high, the scars remain embedded, streaked tears encoded through the years. My transgression never to be revealed.  My eight year old eyes stare at his still, sickly, waxen-yellow features. What did I do? What did I do?  His eyes snap open. I scream and run from the room.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

I am an island, marooned in a swaying sea of clustered cowslip yellow. Above, a haze of heat is swaddled in a never-ending blue. Happiness, a light breathe in the breeze. Am I happy? Was I happy? What is happy? This moment when only colour touches me? This moment when his eyes close forever. How will I know? 

Are they watching?
What do they see?

Do they see the child with golden plaits that match ripened corn? As she runs barefooted through meadow and forest? As she splashes in streams? As she delights in dappled, silver-flashing fingers that spread, sprawl, dance and fall, cold and fresh from the mountain’s womb?

Do they see the young maiden, with soft, newly swollen breasts pushing into the world, as she welcomes the day unhindered by clothes. No carnal knowledge shackles her natural immodesty. She does not feel the stranger’s presence. His inquisitive eyes penetrating. His desire feeding on her nakedness. Nor his madness.

It is over. Swiftly.

Blood, mud, semen smear across whimpered protests. I lay tangled. A trembling mess of mauve-bruised limbs. Sobs lie, lead ingots, weighted inside me. Wetness trickles shame between my thighs. Putrid breathe stinks in my nostrils; the foulness of his tongue lingers on mine; the rabid touch embedded in skin - my skin.

They find me naked. My hands tear at my rancid flesh. They halt the mutilation, gently binding my strident scratchings. They cover my nakedness. They bathe my body. Blood, mud, semen pool away as if nothing has happened. 

But the putrid breathe remains, as does the foulness of tongue and the rabid touch. A lifetime suppuration. Scabbing superficially, only to be picked instantly raw. A word, a gesture, a sour, unwashed odour or a roughness of hand.

Sobs remain festering lumps plugged within my breast. If I cry I may never stop. So I do not. They question me. I cannot answer.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

The wind whips at oaks, hazel and hawthorn, alder and ash. Browbeating branches. Snatching at leaves. Hurling them groundward. I stride through rustling fear and clamber onto the jagged coldness of ice-scoured rocks.  Below in the valley, one by one, lights flare. Snaking - a flickering necklace slung beneath lofty star-bright shadows.

I am here.
I am not afraid.

I know they are watching.
Is this what they see?

A young woman, hunched into her winter coat? Beside her, a man, a few years older, scatters rusted leafy heaps as they walk. She does not smile as he talks, or respond. Her voice was left behind long ago.

He is sweet- breathed, gentle of touch. He longs to kiss the pale pink fullness of her lips. To bring light to the dullness of her eyes. The Valley has grown up with her horror. So he knows that he cannot - must not if he is to win her. And all the time she watches, elegant, long necked; a gazelle, alert, ready to flee. 

In time I am won over by his patience. ‘Will you marry me?’ he says. And still he has not kissed me, or offered a lover’s embrace, or even held my hand.

Something strange, strong and new surges within me. Unspilt sobs hold still. My voice traces word patterns to my mouth. I shape a silent yes.

‘Hurrah!’ He shouts, ‘Hurrah,’ and flings his arms around me.

I struggle, panic beating fists against his chest.

‘Hush.’ His warm whisper tousles my hair. ‘Hush, Cariad, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.’

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

Away, away, I soar, with buzzard, hawk, kestrel and kite. I bask on the thermals and rainbow prisms of light. Away. Away. I cannot be caught.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

But I’m not here. I am there. There in his arms. I am afraid. Slowly he releases me. I am poised for flight. But my legs are wilful and stubborn. They disobey. Go, I urge, go, run like the wind, down to the valley, back to the farm, to the safety of my mother’s arms.

My mother. Where was she? When I needed her most?

My vows knot and snag at the base of my tongue as I sign to him, marvelling at his kindness, his love. ‘I do, I will,’ his voice rings strong and true across the pews where the valley has come to witness my rebirth.

The ancient chapel stone resonates with hymns of praise to a merciful God. A good God. A fair God. A God who has released my despoiler for good behaviour. Absolved, exonerated. But I know. The deed cannot be undone. Consequences are timeless.

I am resolved not to let my day be sullied. I wear white. A simple cotton gown that curves about my body.  For you are pure, say the Valley women, pure in heart and soul. Virtuous. It is the first time I have seen myself as such, but it is true. The lustrous young woman in the mirror tells me so. I go gladly to my wedding day.

I am there and I am not afraid.

We are to stay in the Valley. My mother is too old to continue working the farm. She is grateful for this virile masculine blood that relieves her of responsibilities: the farm, me. Especially she is grateful that the defiled daughter has been taken from her. She is ready for the fireside and remembrances. We do not abandon her to the sombre sanctuary of St Bernard’s Nursing home, some miles away. She is kept within our reach, within our care. Often she turns her eyes aside so they do not meet mine.

He cradles my rigid body. Kisses play softly on my skin…

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

I am by the lake. Melynllyn, scooped high above the Valley between stark Carneddau peaks. My clothes lay abandoned. I slip between sun-dropped diamonds dancing on the water. And, with the breeze, stir a cauldron of gentle ripples. That caress. Seeking the secrets of my body.

Fingers stroke. Touch. Face, lips, eyes, neck, breasts, thighs. Imprint upon imprint. Where other fingers, thick and demanding, cruelly invaded, his loving touch issues unction until, unbidden, my body acquiesces. Silently I give myself up to an unimagined and unknown pleasure. It is done and he is welcome for all the next times we have.

I am with child! It stirs within my belly. It’s making a joyous thing. Music overflows from me. I hum as I go about my day. Another beginning.

I am there. I am there and I am not afraid.

A life forces itself free. A daughter. Sky. There are no boundaries to joy. We delight as the produce of our loins transforms. Chrysalis to butterfly. A miracle.

The seasons ebb and flow. Farming shifts. Livings are no longer made by such. We labour on. Diversify. A farm shop. Bed and breakfast offered to all who visit the Valley and its guardians.

Over the years speech bubbles and is swallowed to rest in the hollow of my throat. There is no release.

I feel them. Their eyes watching.
What do they see? What do they see?

Do they see the middle-aged figures fold into old age, as the family disperses? One to the grave, no longer needing to avert her life-weary eyes; another, blithely, to unknown adventures. The figures cleave. Uncertain.

Another winter ends. I watch my husband. Our goodbye. His breath extinguishes.  How will I be without him?  This man who healed me. How can I bear to live on? Sky - beautiful, confident, concerned, returns for a while. But life calls and she must follow.

The farm is for sale. A young couple throw open doors and windows, poke and pry, examining, exclaiming. They purchase my world without wonder or care of its history.

The farm is hollow, empty of furniture, empty of living. I go to the back garden. Rosemary, basil, thyme, sage, marjoram share a bittersweet farewell. I gather the last of my tools. And turn.

A shadow stands before me. I recognise the rancid odour.

Blood and mud smears. The earth runs crimson. The axe hacks hatred at his flesh. My arms still strong from years of toil. Our screams crescendo. A schism in the heavy heat-hung summer.

‘You!’ I say, ‘You!’ Words spring.  Released at last. ‘You!’  My alien voice, a frenzied rasping gurgle. ‘You! You! You!’ Tears, snot, spittle hang revulsion on every utterance.  A frenzied, rasping gurgle. My alien voice.

I am possessed. From the barn I fetch a spade. In the far corner I clear compost and dig, and dig. Deep, deep. Harsh sobs rip from within. Panting, I throw slabs of still-warm flesh into the cavity I have made.  I heave the mangled remains, amazed -shocked at my capacity and strength . I look at my hands. Veins, threading pulse blue beneath the blood-scrawled skin that sheathes them. My hands. They have waited seventy three years. They have never forgotten.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

I fly with the bees on their pollen seeking journey. To the Valley flecked gold with broom and coconut-fragrant gorse.  Between heather-strewn purples and wild rhododendron pink. Beyond age-groaned dry stone walls and narrow dirt- drift tracks.

I look down. Earth upon earth. Water dilutes crimson into opaqueness. An arid thirsty ground absorbs the pale liquid sacrifice. In a while there is no trace.

I am found squatting, naked by flames that engulf my blood-sodden clothes. My voice has retreated. They halt my strident scratchings, binding gently. And cover my trembling flesh. I do not move.

They may salvage my skeletal body and carry it down rocky paths, bones jostling painfully to the unsteady rhythm. They can scold, enfold me in wool-made blankets that scratch warmth onto my parchment skin. They can spill hot broth over my thin lips. My body is theirs to do as they please.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

The valleys are below, cocooned in mist, undulating phantom shapes - cattle, wild horses, sheep, emerge and submerge, as it swells and recedes - a spectral ocean with high tides that wash the edges of summer. 

Farmsteads hollowed out in smoky outlines hide shyly within the folds of the early morning.  

I am in time to surprise the sun; her soft golden tongues make ready to lap layers of wynn-skirted grey from the land. A light silent skirmish as the mist succumbs, dissipates and the wanton lands exposed. I follow heaven-stretched  Pines, marking their journey with soft shadowy indents over moist, dew-laden moss.
I am here.

I am not afraid.

The home that evaded my mother now holds me. I learn its secrets so that I can seek and attend to mine. The polished curve of banisters. The knot just before the turn. The creak of the final tread. How far to push the kitchen door to its protest - so a slender body can slip through. The tick-tock as time steals time.

 Along the path, slippers slap, slap. An unsteady crunch across frozen grassy spikes. The farm is in darkness. I edge towards the decay. I inhale its fetidness. Satisfaction warms me. No one will ever know.

I weary and sink to the ground. A hoar frost nestles on my closed eyelids.

Do they still watch?
Ah yes, ever vigilant.
What do they see now?

It matters not.
I am not there.
I am here.
In my valley where ashes scatter and dust meets dust.
A smile settles.
Peace.
I am here and I am not afraid.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Et In Arcadia Ego

By Catriona Troth

credit: Walter White
The young Sunny Singh had a practical approach when she found no representation of herself in books. She rewrote them! So perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the adult Sunny Singh wrote her third novel, Hotel Arcadia, in part in ‘answer’ to Dante’s Inferno.

Last December, I spent an afternoon in conversation with Sunny Singh, author of Hotel Arcadia. In the course of two hours, we managed to take in Dante’s Inferno, Judeo-Christian theology, the teaching of creative writing, diversity politics, gender politics, and the highs and lows of social media. This is my attempt to distil that conversation down into a few thousand words!


ON THE INSPIRATIONS FOR HOTEL ARCADIA

Hotel Arcadia is the story of a terrorist attack on a luxury hotel. The premise could be the outline for another Die Hard film, but Singh transforms it into something quite different. Instead of focusing on the battle between the terrorists and the soldiers, she homes in on two people who would be bit players in any Hollywood movie. Abhi, the hotel manager, trapped in the operations room, watching events unfold on the closed circuit television screens. And high up in the tower, Sam, a photojournalist spending the last night of her assignment in the hotel.

In my review, I described the book as a duet. But Singh herself has gone further and described it as a love story.


“Back in university I discovered Dante’s Inferno, and I always go back to it. I am fascinated by the story of Paolo and Francesca, the doomed lovers, condemned to circle eternally but never to reach each other. I always told my professor that I wanted to rewrite the story – because I wasn’t so sure that the idea of eternal longing without consummation was such a bad thing.

“Even the architecture of the hotel is based on the nine circles of hell. Abhi’s lover is in the second circle, with Paolo and Francesca, and below Limbo, the preserve of unbaptised children and the virtuous pagans. The lowest level –where the great betrayers are (Judas / Brutus-Cassius / Lucifer) –is where Abhi is found.

“It’s a strange choice, to place him there. I do realise that. For me, Abhi is the moral core of the book, and yet every choice he makes in his life is a betrayal, often of himself. After all, it is possible to argue [as the Gnostics did] that Judas’s act was not a betrayal, but an act of love, the ultimate sacrifice, knowing he will be condemned to hell for what he has done, but that it is necessary to enable everything that follows.”

The name of the hotel, and thus the title of the book, is deliberately chosen. There are many hotels called Paradiso. But Arcadia represents an earlier, pre-Christian idea of an earthly paradise – “Claiming space,” as Singh says, “for two people who wouldn’t be allowed into Paradise.

But there are echoes, too, of the expression, “
Et In Arcadio Ego”: even in Arcadia I am there – ‘I’ being Death. The earthly paradise of this luxury hotel is under attack. More than that, Singh adds:

“Genocides are planned in very nice places like that luxury hotel. These places are not safe.”

Book Trailer for Hotel Arcadia

My immediate association with Hotel Arcadia was the terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal in Bombay. But in fact, the inciting incident for Singh goes back much further.

“I was travelling in Peru in 1994 or 95, when the Shining Path planted a bomb in the small hotel where I was staying. The only people killed were the receptionist and bellboy – the very people the Shining Path were supposedly fighting to protect. I was outraged by that. But it was something I needed to park and process. I didn’t have the ability to write about it until at least 2002.

“You know, as members of any society we hand over a monopoly on violence to the state – whether it’s to go to war, or to carry out judicial killings. So it shakes us when an individual takes that power, even if we know that the state is unjust. It seems better for the state to kill than some random person to do so.

“I would never qualify myself as a pacifist. But I have huge concerns about how we perceive violence and the extent to which our reactions are conditioned by who practises it and who is victimised, rather than the act of violence itself. This is why we can accept narratives of ‘the good war,’ ‘the just war’. Our boys are noble. Theirs are evil.

“We have a hierarchy, too, of victims that we sympathise with. Women are valued as victims if they are young and pretty, or if they are mothers of young children. We rarely see women as the ‘great brain’ or the ‘heroic fighter.’ Male heroes are always good husbands and fathers. There is little space for queer heroes.”

ON THEOLOGY AND WESTERN THOUGHT

Singh often challenges – subtly in the book but head-on in conversation - elements of Christian theology that someone from the West might take for granted, or would not even realise are underpinning our ideas.

“It may seem a strange thing for an Indian, non Christian woman. But I grew up attending Catholic schools – so I have a deeply embedded Christian education. There are so many things I can intellectually understand but don’t culturally get. The idea of not being able to be saved – or that the intention of the act is not taken into account - is alien.

“Europe has this idea that its intellectual class is now completely secular. ‘Those crazy people over there follow religion and we don’t.’ So we don’t question the extent to which that long Christian tradition impacts us. As John Gray pointed out [Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions 2004], even the idea of progress as linear is essentially a religious concept! American exceptionalism has grown out of the Calvinist idea of predestination, of a favoured people. Success becomes a sign of your virtue.

“Just because the language has been secularised, it does not mean those ideas are not still there. They impact the way we deal with the world, the way we deal with politics. And we ignore that at our peril.”

ON LOSING A NOTEBOOK AND GAINING A NOVEL

Hotel Arcadia is a story that might never have been written. Before she even began writing it, Singh lost a crucial notebook.

“That was hilarious,” she says (with the gloss of hindsight.) “I started working on the novel as I was trying to finish my PhD. I was taking copious notes and I had gotten so lost in them that I couldn’t write. I had everything. I had philosophy. I had architectural plans. It was comforting but also overwhelming.

“Then one night I lost it on the Tube at Earl’s Court. The bottom of my stomach fell away. I was hyperventilating, completely devastated for about two hours. Then I went to sleep. And when I woke up, the book just took off in a mad rush. I wrote the first draft of the novel in about four and a half weeks, while I was still teaching. I had to tell my class, ‘If I’m not making sense, stop me'.

“I think a lot of it had to do with getting locked into a conceptual space. I bring a lot of philosophical, theoretical ideas to my work, and at some point I have to put all that on the back burner and just tell the story. I think because of the way it happened, I managed to bring in all my key ideas, but they were delivered with a light hand, instead of being hammered home. It was a very strange process and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But it worked.

“There is always a morning. And things look different in the morning.”

ON TRANSLATORS AS EDITORS

Another unusual aspect to the development of Hotel Arcadia was the role of Singh’s Dutch translator in the editing process.

“So many publishing houses don’t have the same editing role as they did thirty years ago. Most books don’t receive that close look from someone with authority.

“In the case of Hotel Arcadia, the Dutch decided to bring out a translation at the same time as the English edition. Dutch is a more restrictive language than English (Most languages, I find, are more restrictive than English, which is why I write in English.)

“I had a very diligent translator, who was sending me long lists of notes, picking up issues like ‘if it’s three hours later, is it still dark?’. She came from a different story-telling tradition, and she needed clear answers on time and place. An English editor, I think, would have let it pass. Willing suspension of disbelief would have carried us through.

“That whole process changed the book quite drastically, made it far clearer and tighter.”


ON TEACHING CREATIVE WRITING

As well as being a novelist, Sunny Singh teaches creative writing at the London Metropolitan University, to a very diverse student group – and she has strong ideas about how appropriate the classic creative writing curriculum is for such students.

“Creative writing courses are based on the idea of ‘finding your voice’. But if you have been told over and over again, by books and by media, that your stories aren’t important, your history isn’t important, and ‘hey, the Empire was great, what are you complaining about?’ – how do you even begin to find your voice?

“I’ve had a global mix of students in my class sometimes realising, ‘we always write stories with white people in them (and not ourselves).’ So we spend a lot of time working on gender and race.

“In that situation, there is an automatic tendency to look towards American authors, which ignores Black British writers and Commonwealth writers. But that’s where most of my students have their roots. They have certain overlaps with the Americans, but also different backgrounds and histories and senses of self.

“Focusing on American writers allows white British people to wash their hands of their own history. Remove Caribbean writing, say, and you are wiping out a legacy of slavery and imperialism and the Windrush generation.

“Lloyd Shepherd [author of The English Monster], is the only explicitly post-colonial white British writer I know, who writes a critique of the self-glorified narrative that ‘Britain abolished slavery.’”

ON PRIVILEGE

I ask Singh about the strong pressure, coming especially out of the US, to examine ‘white privilege.’

“There are layers and layers of privilege. Race is only one axis. There are multiple others: gender, sexuality, geopolitical. If you are a northern, white working class man, you have a larger set of possible texts to relate to, but not by much. We need to understand both own privilege and our lack of it.

“We do an exercise in my class based on Peggy Macintosh’s ‘Invisible Knapsack’. What that reveals is, yes, we’re all British, we’re all in this classroom, but we are not all equal. Unless you can see that, you are not going to be able to write it. But the moment you break it down, you create a space where it’s okay to tell the story.

“Funny how it’s often the straight white male who mocks the idea of safe spaces – because they’ve never needed one.

“In the American debate, the biggest elephant in the room is how much geopolitical power they have. How much their views are being exported and how much they are shutting down others, like African and Caribbean voices, when they are talking about race. That’s also privilege talking.”

ON HEROIC WRITERS

On her blog recently, Singh quoted Tony Morrison: “We don't need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writer's movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.” I asked her what that meant to her.

She cites a series to graduates of her BA programme, including Matilda Ibini (playwright who won the 2015 Alfred Fagon Audience Award for her play Muscavado, set in a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1808); Warson Shire, whose refugee poem, 'Home' was quoted nightly by Benedict Cumberbatch at the end of his performance of Hamlet; Roxanna Donald who wrote a powerful play, Spike, on sexual consent; the children’s writer Lil Chase.

“We don’t have to agree with each other. We don’t have to be friends. But we are all writing consciously and ethically.”

ON ERASURE

Singh has written about her own feeling of ‘erasure’ when she went from India to the US – which put me in mind of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s well known TED talk, ‘The Danger of the Single Story,’ in which she talks of not realising, as a child, that stories didn’t have to be about white people.

“I grew up in India. I read books in Hindi. So unlike Adichie, the idea that women like me didn’t appear in stories never occurred to me. When I started reading books in English as a child, it would annoy me if there were no people like me in them. So I would rewrite them.

“When I was 11, we moved to Pakistan. That was my first exposure to being a ‘minority’. The idea that one part of your identity – your religion, or your nationality or your colour – could become the most important part was a real shock. But at least we shared a similar language. We watched the same Bollywood films. We looked similar. All those things helped negotiate being part of a non-visible minority.

“I think what the US did was to show me that there was a completely different point of identity, where a visible minority can be deliberately erased. Where we inhabit a liminal space. That sticks out to me as a real culture shock.

“At the same time, I am aware of certain literary tropes that diaspora writers have. That sense of ‘over there is bad; over here is good.’ Like the ending of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane – ‘you can be anything you want.’ Really? As a brown woman in Britain? Are you bullshitting me?

“I can’t write about India as Adichie does about Nigeria or Hosseini does about Afghanistan, because in some ways I feel as much a foreigner in India as I do here. But I can write about in between spaces very well!”

ON PROMOTING DIVERSITY

Before the backlash against the ‘lilywhite’ Oscars, came the backlash against the all-white list of authors for World Book Night 2016. How did Singh feel about the Twitter campaigns (first #diverseauthorday and #diversedecember, then #readdiverse2016) aimed at promoting more diverse authors? Was there a risk that these were just another case of ‘hashtag tokenism’?

“There seems to be no winning card. If you speak up, then it’s hashtag tokenism. If you don’t speak up, then you can be ignored.

“The BAME market is worth £3bn a year, and it’s a market that’s not being catered for. So of course BAME readers are going to go online. Of course they are going to buy self-published authors. Because you are not tapping that market at all. You are not even touching them.

“Prize committees say publishers aren’t putting writers of colour forward. Publishers blame the agents. Agents say authors aren’t submitting to them. I look at my agent, who has an extraordinary list, but works twice as hard as anyone else trying to place them. So don’t tell me that the authors aren’t there. In the end it comes down to ‘you are not telling the stories we want to hear.' The ones that will allow us to re-inscribe our stereotypes – Indian women who have arranged marriages; African women who end up raped or killed and so on.

“If I refuse to write those narratives, I’m in trouble. If I write those novels, I am still in trouble, because there is still only going to be one ‘Indian’ book per year, or one ‘Asian woman in Britain’ book per year per publisher. If I don’t critique, I’m in trouble, because I’m not speaking up and it’s my fault. If I critique, then I’m angry and I’m not playing ball, and it’s still my fault. So my logic is it’s too bad. I have readers. I am not in the self-publishing world, but I am doing most of the publicity for my book.

“My first two books were not published in Britain at all. They were either ‘too Indian’ or ‘not Indian enough,’ depending who you talked to. They were published in English in other countries. They were published in multiple other languages (French/Italian/Spanish). But they have never been published in Britain.

“Why can’t we talk about Hotel Arcadia as a terrorism book? Why does the fact that I am a woman change how it is received – not by the reader but by literary festivals. Why am I not being asked to talk about politics? Why must I talk about women’s issues, or diversity issues? Why can’t I talk about literature and terrorism and politics and all the things the book is about?

“It comes back to institutions making deliberate choices. I don’t think it is inappropriate to ask big companies to pay their staff a decent wage. I don’t think it is inappropriate to expect them to hire, deliberately, a wider range of people. But they choose not to do it.

“The publishing industry thinks they can have a little conference every now and again, and we’ll have the same people saying the same things, and then we’ll have done our job and we can park it and go back to doing what we always do. So at least #DiverseDecember, and so on, is getting people talking about the books and the writers. A bit of rattling the cage isn’t going to hurt.”

ON SOCIAL MEDIA

I first encountered Singh on Twitter, where she has a strong presence. Does that mean she sees social media as something positive, at least in part?

“I see it mostly as positive, especially Twitter. I have made so many friends there, both online and in real life. I have yet to meet anyone from Twitter who isn’t exactly how they seemed online. It’s so immediate; it lends itself to a sort of intimacy. You know someone’s politics – but you also know if they are a dog person or a cat person.

“For example, during the time in Tahrir Square, I followed one woman who was very vocal, very passionate, very political. Around two in the morning, I had insomnia. I was on Twitter. There was a lot going on, so they were constantly updating. She suddenly said, ‘I do realise this sounds frivolous, but I need to get my eyebrows done!’

“We have had every last breath of men over the centuries. But we haven’t heard the voice of women like this before. Women talking about themselves. The quotidian. It hasn’t been recorded before. The image is always filtered, and Twitter takes those filters off.

“On the other hand, as a writer, for the first time, I have the ability of the gatekeepers and reach out directly to the reader. And that is quite special. I had one Twitter follower who invited me to his book club – which meant Skype chatting between Seattle and London. The idea that you can do that is extraordinary!

“So yes, I’m a bit of a Twitter evangelist.”

She did, however, have an interesting experience once with changing her avatar on Twitter.

“One of the exercises I get my students to do is to have first a male character and then a female
character walk into a crowded pub, to describe their body language as they walk to the bar and order a drink.

“You always assume that Twitter and 'real life' will be different. But that is not the case. As a woman on Twitter, I get a certain amount of drive-by sniping – the equivalent of cat calls. Men who insult you or mansplain or tell you to shut up or say something quite sexual. No different to walking down the street. To me that is a structural issue. It’s about keeping women in their place, about saying public spaces are for men.

“Then I happened to change my avatar. I had been diving in Egypt, and there was a photo I really like that I decided to use. And because I had a mask on, you could no longer see whether I was a man or a woman. (Underwater is apparently not a female space – don’t ask me!) And the drive-by sniping stopped. No mansplaining. No ‘shut up you don’t know what you are talking about.’ Male journalists that I had followed for a long time started reaching out to me. Suddenly my opinions had weight, because I was underwater with a mask on!

“To me, that was quite telling. Gender still matters.”


Sunny Singh is an author and journalist. She also teaches creative writing at London Metropolitan University. She was born in India, and has lived in Pakistan, Spain, South Africa, Latin America and the US.