Jane Fonda is working out

by miranda

We’re in Saudi Arabia.  My mother and her friends fast-forward the contraband VHS tape that someone has brought back from Seattle.  At her feet lies the discarded box, splayed open and rebranded for Customs as: Kermit’s Swamp Years.  She forwards over Jane’s disclaimer, past the posing students in the magnolia room, past the leg warmers, past Fonda herself, the whirr of the tape gathering pace till everyone is moving at strangled pace. 

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In the West Jane Fonda’s Workout is soft porn, in Saudi it is poison.

The woman bent over the video machine, presses pause.  We quiet for Jane, wearing a leotard the yellow of a Hersheys Mr Goodbar, hair blow dried into a stiff mane. Her eyes meet mine.

‘Stand hip width distance apart,’ she orders. ‘Let’s feel the burn.’

And so it goes, the same frozen enthusiasm each time, the same awful music, me twice the size of anyone in the on-screen-magnolia-room.  In this Recreation-Centre-blue-curtained-space, everyone else is pushing forty, and when we step beyond the compound we must wear full-length kaftans, our hair buried beneath scarves.  I am shifting heavily, one foot to another amongst women who are hungry to take back their bodies and hungry for something to do. 

Anything. 

None of these wives and mothers is allowed to drive, or to work.  Which only leaves leg warmers, a frazzled VHS tape of exhausting, saccharine self-improvement, and though I don’t yet know it, Dad.

I watch Mum’s friends, as they watch the screen.  Instead of seeing what is clearly evident, I am busy with the problem of leg warmers.  For it has not taken me long to come to the conclusion that attaching a massive amount of wool to my ankles only emphasises how elephantine my legs look.  Tree trunks is what the boys sing when, back at school, I walk the length of the pool.  Tree trunks. 

So I have stopped swimming altogether.  Not here in the Saudi Rec Centre pool, or at the beach.  Confidence robbed Mum has taken it upon herself to introduce me to her new friend Jane Fonda, just so as to loot my psyche further.  Because the exercise classes are not working, either for her, or for me.  Lumbering out of time at the back we are about as enticing as a fart.

‘No pain,’ Jane smiles. ‘No gain.’

Watching the mirror’s reflection of my teenage self floundering in the back row, I wonder whether getting out of my stained tracksuit bottoms might help.  If Mum might be in a better mood once Jane finishes. Without realising that here in this blue curtained room Mum has caged herself in amongst women who occasionally, sometimes, and often fuck Dad.  Worse Fonda is working out for them so much better.  Or is it fucking Dad, because since the last time I saw them at Christmas, they do look rejuvenated.

With the gratitude of someone who is longing to lie down, I stoop to roll out a floor mat.  Mum, now puffing and sweaty falls onto her side with a grunt. Ordered here each Tuesday and Thursday, I’m thinking this is just more evidence of my not being the daughter that she wants.  Without seeing that my turning out like her is what she most fears. 

A Cup Please

Anonymous

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Some things are difficult to write about. They either seem overstated or petty.  This account to the reader may sound trivial but it is fundamental to being treated fairly; to being treated like a human being.  The setting is in a psychiatric hospital in London. Which itself conjures up a wealth of descriptions about abuse or failings in psychiatry. It was a locked ward which means you couldn’t go out without permission.  Permission is given in normal situations only after 24 hrs and only when accompanied by a staff member.  So, no nipping to the shops.

This story short as it is, discusses not just fair mindedness, but justice. My right to be treated as my neighbour, to be respected as a human being.

I sat on the torn couch.  It was a dirty shade of green leather with a large tear across the middle; which went well with the “murky” green curtains and the green linoleum, which I didn’t think they sold anymore.  He was an agency nurse.  I stood up and asked him for a cup as there were none left on the trolley and the kitchen was locked.  If I didn’t get a cup of coffee; I wouldn’t have a drink until the next morning at breakfast. This evening's drink at 8pm was the last.  No water was left at our bedside. no luxuries as you would today find in a general ward as I recently discovered on a visit with my osteoarthritis!  The nurse didn’t look at me.  He just stared ahead.  I asked again clearly, but he continued to stare.  I was then asked to sit down.  Well no coffee tonight!

What difference does it make in the big scheme of things if you don’t have a cup of tea or in my case a coffee.  With famine, abuse and whole myriad of disasters in the world, is it that important? Well I think it is.  It feels a little less petty when its written down, because you can embellish it with the action of the nurse or the consequences if you don’t have a cup i.e. you don’t have a drink for twelve, maybe fourteen hours, if they are late with the breakfast. Things are sometimes not as simple as they seem.

Rose-Tinted Glasses

By John Turner

John is an aspiring writer living in Cambridge with his wife, senile old dog, and two cats, all trying to make sense of this strange and wonderful world (except, that’s not quite true – the cats have it sorted!)

I stare lovingly into her eyes. No-one else in the room exists. She glows for me; she shines for me. The band plays only for us; the waiters serve only us; the wine flows only for us; the beautiful people watch with envy only us.

Except, that’s not quite true. There was no real relationship between us. I just needed a partner for the formal dinner at the end of my academic year. She shared a house with my best mate’s girlfriend. And she had agreed – out of pity, perhaps, or looking for a night out with food and drink aplenty and, hopefully, some pleasant company. But there was nothing more to it than that.

Except, that’s not quite true. To her it may have been nothing more – for she had a steady boyfriend back home (somewhere near Newcastle, I seem to remember). But not for me – I wanted her from the moment we first met, although even then I accepted, as the saying goes, that she was ‘out of my league’.

Except, that’s not quite true. I couldn’t accept that. This was my big hope – the night when my natural charm and good humour would win her over, into my bed. Not that sex was high on my agenda (now, surely, that is not true!). The true romantic, I was besotted by my desire to find my one true love. Of course, it didn’t happen.

Except, that’s not quite true. The evening went well, very well. I recall the close dances, the snatched kisses, the walk to her house along darkened streets, the fits of giggles as we raided the fridge, balancing together on the rickety old kitchen chair to avoid the cockroaches, and the final wonderful denouement. My confidence sky-high, skipping home in the cool morning light, liberating a pint of milk from a doorstep, I could do no wrong. I was the consummate lover.

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Except, that’s not quite true. The details are mercifully blurred and indistinct. My first time (if you discount the rather inept fumbling with the girl from the kibbutz), she was probably just mildly amused. I remember the talk with Roger in the pub a few nights later – the gentle way he explained the reality, her as good as married (she was, soon after – I wasn’t invited), this her final fling, nothing serious. The need for me to remove my rose-tinted glasses. And so, I moved on.   

Except, that’s not quite true. I longed for her, certainly for months, maybe for years. Mixed-up emotions never quite resolved. The party a while later, a first reunion, but her not there – by design or circumstance, I often wondered. Everyone else excited about their new lives, planning for the future, but my mind elsewhere, stuck in the past.

Except, that’s not quite true. I did plan, I’ve had a wonderful life. We never did meet again. Although I heard of her often, through friends in common – her married life, her three children, her comfortable lifestyle.  She probably never gave me a second thought. Unlike me. She remains on a pedestal, for other women to aspire to, unsullied by future slights and disappointment. The rose-tinted glasses may have grown old, but I’ve never quite taken them off.

All Adults are Intelligent

By Sue Chase

Sue is a Creative Writing student who's spent the last decade coming to terms with the many untruths from her own childhood.

When I look back I realise that my initial perceptions of life were driven largely by the type of meaningless platitude and overworked cliché that I have purposefully outlawed from my vocabulary when addressing my own children. A young and impressionable child, desperate to fit in and craving acceptance, I was surrounded by dominant women of very little real intelligence who knew everything and explained nothing.

I was a perceptive child and would ponder deeply about some of their offerings, not being able to fully accept, but hampered by some deep rooted belief that it must be correct. An adult had said so.

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Luckily I have managed to delete most of these banalities from my memory bank. Those few that stubbornly remain deep rooted still leap out and wrong foot me on occasion – unsurprisingly when my teenage daughter and I conflict.

“Patience is a virtue” Not true. Then it meant always being last as I waited patiently whilst others, not so emotionally cowed, would demand and grab; in later life aching for an errant husband to return, guilt and inadequacy overshadowing broken promises and infidelity.

 “Only the good die young” To an impressionable and thoughtful child, this was a horror. So, anyone who didn’t die young must be bad? I recall covertly studying family grownups and wondering what they had done to live so long. Out in the street I would stare at the old men and wonder how they could be so wicked when they appeared so ordinary. Of course my knowledge of sin was very limited at that age – lying and stealing – so the novelty of speculation soon wore off and doubt as to the veracity of the statement crept in.

The untruth of my title was not realised until my early twenties when I went to work in the accounts department of a well-known frozen food factory. Here, for the first time in my life, I was mixing with a wide spectrum of people, most of whom were older.

“Adults know best”

“Wait until you’re older” (….wiser, more knowledgeable)

“Don’t argue with your elders” (they know better than you)

“You’re too young to understand”

My formative years were peppered with such sage pieces of wisdom – all with a common theme; adults were all seeing, all knowing, sensible and wise. My early life was overseen by women of strong character who believed they knew everything - and what they didn’t know they had a platitude or cliché to cover. I was a quiet, shy child not given to questioning but to absorbing and internalising. And I learnt my lessons well.

I can still, over thirty years later, recall the moment of enlightenment when I realised that not all adults were intelligent. In a factory block across from mine worked a very chatty administrator; anyone new was easy prey. It took about a week, but having been trapped yet again by a torrent of meaningless gossip from a practical stranger, I could only stand and think ‘How odd. How silly.’ And surging up from some hidden well of understanding the startling realisation that far from being universally intelligent, ‘Some Adults are really quite stupid’

You will be dick

by Miranda

Inspired by Bee Wilson's good, good Radio 4 series: Sweetness and Desire: A Short History of Sugar

‘You’ll be ‘dick’ like your mother,’ my father-in law told me over lunch. He is German. Dick translates as fat.  What he meant though was: ‘You are dick.’ Maybe I had unwittingly exposed myself, by accepting his offer of pudding. 

Mother was dead when he made this observation.  She was also fat.  Lovelorn she was only able to rely on a chocolate and caramel surrogate. Until Motor Neuron Disease made it impossible to swallow.  But my father-in-law has never acknowledged her dying, and has no idea how it went. Motor Neuron Disease robs you of everything, even chocolate.

Mum fell by hours and days and weeks from millionaire shortbread and Diet Coke down through blueing bread to gavage.  Soon we had to pump protein packs directly by tube into her stomach.  They smelt of school dinners, of hospital trays, of wrong.  From the first day that sticky plastic syringe was put to use, there was a yeasty heaviness that hung about her, the house, my hands. 

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Each time we loaded her lunch I wondered whether she had been able to mark the last time she tasted love.  Whether she had enjoyed the soft sweetness, or if that final square of Dairy Milk had been rushed, undone, unenjoyed, forever laced with the sourness of guilt.

Dick guilt. 

ALS, as this neurodegenerative disorder is called in the US, progresses rapidly.  It is fatal.  Nerve cells deteriorate, and along with cell death the ability to regulate muscle.  Yet scientists writing in the Lancet have found that what makes MND blaze slower through a body is a high calorie, high carbohydrate diet.  A millionaire shortbread affair.

Mum first lost control of her mouth - the elocuted sound of her gave into slur. Without the ability to chew and to swallow she lost all motivation to eat.  Loss of weight, both muscle and fat, is common as this disease progresses.  Obese patients, research has found, live longer.  Yet she did not.  Because what had kept her from stepping over the edge into rampant obesity was guilt. 

Guilt killed her months earlier than necessary.  Nerve loss ran down her neck, killing first the swallow, and then, within a year, the breath.

Although my father-in-law uses health as his excuse I have always suspected that what motivates him, when he judges others, is Selbstachtung.  Self respect.  Fat is a letting go, a miserable lovesickness that we should not force into the face of others.  

For me there were only two possible responses: to eat or to starve.  So I went with the latter.  Because much more essential than living or loving, is winning.  Though there is some irony in knowing that if I ever start slurring, the choice to eat would possibly save me months.

The conversation was over as quickly as it began

by Lara Holden

Lara is writing her first novel.  A romance.

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The temperature was unusual for the time of year, the midday sun still blanketed them with warmth despite October fast approaching.

The four of them sat, perfectly content in a small alcove between the evergreen trees.

There was a radiant breeze which smelt delicately of ferns, damp earth and the embers of the disposable bbq which was cracking as it died a few metres away.

To him it was summer, home. 

There was something in the air that day.  It felt as though anything could happen.

It was comfortable, serene and yet held a mystery and wildness none of them could fully explain.

They spent the afternoon in this hazy spot playing innumerable rounds of bullshit and drinking copious amounts of beer.  They laughed endlessly at Callum who had been showing off his new guitar skills, serenading them with rendition after rendition of ‘fairy tale lullaby’ which was, as far as they could tell, the only song he had mastered.

They spent hours mulling over those big life questions, the questions that teenagers often ponder while drunk on Sunday afternoons.

‘I don’t reckon I’ll live past 25 you know. Destined to die young,’ Alfie blurted out in a matter of fact kind of way as the penultimate game of bullshit came to a close.

‘How many of those have you had,’ said Harry, glancing, as he spoke, at the mounting pile of cans at his feet.

‘Ha’ Alfie chortled. ‘Good question, I’m serious though, always known it’

‘You’re mad Alf, don’t be so depressing,' interrupted Sophie, 'I’ll be needing you to stick around until I’m at least 83 and a half.' i

‘Yeah man, 25 is when all the fun really begins, Ill deal,’ said Harry already shuffling the deck.

The conversation was over as quickly as it began.

He thought back to that moment as he walked calmly along the Bridge, four years to the day since that afternoon.

It felt to him a life time ago and yet every moment of the day still played vividly through his memories.

His heart was beating faster than it ever had done. It was an odd sensation as his mind was so still. He could hear every pulse of the muscle in his head as though his heart was trying to remind his brain that it was still here, still alive, to recognise the life left to lead.

It didn’t matter anymore.

He reached the centre of the bridge and looked over absentmindedly at the city below. It seemed so small and insignificant from this height.

He climbed over the thick steel bars and balanced momentarily on the surface. He pressed play on his iPod and turned up the volume to drown out the wind.

All he could hear from that point forward was ‘fairy tale lullaby’.

Then he leant forward and was gone.

Perhaps painted green

By Laura Manzur

Laura was reminded of her earlier love of writing when she started to co write songs with her daughter.  She is currently working on a short story, and also her book of poetry, inspired by family.

 Mike Petrucci from  Unsplash

Mike Petrucci from Unsplash

I think it was a corrugated iron building, perhaps painted green.  It sat on the corner of our street.  Inside was one vast room.  The ceiling seemed tremendously high, and it smelled of polished floorboards. I do not remember the other children, just the noise of playing, so many voices that I couldn't pick out just one.  I recall the wooden painting easels, with big black surfaces.  There were little troughs at the bottom for our paint pots, and big rusty bulldog clips at the top.  I could not reach the apex even when I stretched up high on my tiptoes. I could not reach those bulldog clips.  I believe I enjoyed painting. Dutifully covered with a plastic apron, to avoid thick paint splodging a contradicting pattern to my 70's dress.  A homemade dress my Nan had sewn me.  It was a time before I  knew my picture should be recognisable, when colours were haphazardly splashed across clean white paper.  I can still smell the paint, and the feel of it drying on my fingers, and that pure enchantment at the freedom it offered.

There were little chairs.  We placed them in a circle just before home time, and Mrs Humphry read us a story. I see her dark hair, slightly frizzy, and kind face.  She felt safe.  We had to put the chairs to the sides of the hall at the end.  My grandmother collected me, and even though the story was unfinished, I calmly put my chair to the side, waved goodbye, took her hand, and together we strolled home.

My Nan smelled of face powder, hairspray and cigarettes combined.  She sat chatting, cigarette in hand, with the ash growing longer and longer, seemingly unaware.  I watched that ash, unblinking, convinced it would fall and set the carpet alight, but always at the last moment, with a sharp flick of the wrist, she would tap it onto the awaiting ashtray.  Years later there were dark x-rays.  I can still hear the rattle as she struggled to breathe.

Caught: heavier in the hand, a little lighter in the memory

by Sophie

Sophie is an English teacher living in Cambridge. She is currently working on finding the time and a good enough idea to start writing. Here she is at two with her paternal grandfather asleep on the sofa having finished reading a story, and on a different sofa with her maternal grandfather, again caught unawares.

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The camera catches you when you’re not looking. The captor stalks, approaches quickly, quietly; one disturbance and they’ll startle, wake. A still, silent second passes. She squeezes the trigger and departs, leaving the scene exactly as she found it. She knows this is a rare find, the kind of moment that feels rich with retrospect and posterity even before it is developed.

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Months pass. She can’t believe her luck; to see the same creature, the same familiar and obsequious repose, in a completely separate location under the silent guard of another, seems almost immodestly fortunate. Nevertheless, she knows better than to pass up this opportunity. She knows a gift when she sees one.

Years pass. Birthdays, tantrums, health scares and oh my goodness haven’t you grown appear, disappear, reappear. Periodically we return to the pictures, a welcome still point in an ever-accelerating calendar. They’re striking for both their similarities and their differences, in the way incarnations of love always are. One upright and protective, the other laid-back and companionable. One traditional, the other parodic. But, above all else, what stands out is an unspoken, kindred instinct. Written on each face is an inalienable purpose, to care and be cared for.

Time takes a toll of course; only two of the three original subjects remain. Inevitably, one photograph now feels a little heavier in the hand, a little lighter in the memory. We study it more frequently, ask it more questions. It speaks both less and more.

The pictures still hang, proud trophies of an endangered species.

We Are Being Scammed - Part 2

by Miranda

Twenty months after that first letter from the Finders our family has all been found, a family scattered and fragmented in a tree that stretches horizontally over ten pages.  We are strewn across the Antipodes, North America and Europe, and amongst our number is a policewoman, an engineer, a farmer, a homeless free thinker and a conspiracy theorist.  Many of us believe we're being scammed.

Eileen, the probate genealogist tell us, has nine living first cousins, and seven dead ones.  Then in the next layer down - my layer - there are thirty-one living beneficiaries, two dead, and four ‘adopted out’ (a term used by the courts which means exactly what it seems). 

We beneficiaries who were, gratefully, not given up for adoption, receive a solicitor’s letter, which outlines how much our bequest might be.  At best I was expecting a muffin’s worth.  So when the news comes in I nearly fall off my chair.  It’s a holiday-of-a-life-time, a second hand BMW.  It’s why the ‘We’re being scammed’ mails have a note of hysteria.  There’s far, far too many of us for holidays and cars, AND there’s the solicitors fee, the finder’s fee, and a whopping 40% of tax.  Someone isn’t telling the truth.  Is anyone suggesting that Eileen mined gold?

The solicitors ask us to present a passport, a utility bill and a bank statement before funds can be released. It is this request that increases the unease.  Clearly we will have our identities stolen, and our bank accounts robbed.  But the itinerant free thinker, of no fixed address, is not listening.  First through the solicitor’s door, with nothing to lose, he presents himself for inspection.

It’s the ‘scruffiest London lawyer’s office’ he has ever seen he tells us: ‘mouldy, damp, items of clothing everywhere.’  And when he goes to relieve himself, he informs us that the whole ‘crew’ were just sitting round a table back stage eating fish and chips.   

There is panic.  The call goes out that someone needs to go in.  The itinerant cannot be trusted.  Clothes on the floor.  Fish and chips.  

I get on a train.  The conspiracy theorist imagines that since there are two locations for the solicitors online, the second address must be the scam. So I head directly to the first.  On Tooley Street it’s expensive.  Shard-proximity expensive, and directly opposite the office entrance is a huge suit shop, mannequined with an army of pricey solicitor uniforms. 

Inside, on the ground floor, there’s a security man at a desk.  I am given a badge.  Then told to go up to the second floor.

Everyone in the lift with me is suited, paunched, complaining, and getting off at floor two as well.  There I find the same logo as used on the letterhead, and behind an extremely posh reception desk, an under thirty receptionist, chosen for her presentation skills and her handling of flowers.  There is a large vase.  She looks baffled when I ask whether she is away with the faeries, and whether the letter I have received (I brandish it) is really, really from her firm.  

'Yes,' she shoos me back towards the lift, 'the office you need,’ she stabs the letter with a manicured finger, ‘is further south, on the Walworth Road.’

In the lift, on the way down, I ask the gentleman trapped alongside me what work it is that these solicitors do.  He lists words that I don’t understand: mergers, acquisitions, debentures, conveyancing, probate.  Clearly I must look bored, because he pauses, speculating on what it is that I might need:  'And of course we do marriage mediation too.'  

Two stops further down the Northern line, at Elephant & Castle, I find gentrification has not yet got the better of Walworth Road.  The sub-office looks like it was once a Jobseeker’s stall.  There is a stingy, narrow counter, and glassed off access to a receptionist, who I peer at through the smudgy window.  Screen open on a database the receptionist is stapled to a desk surrounded by mountains of cheap cardboard wallets in the kinds of colours you’d never want to give to a wall, a dress, or a shoe.

The woman is nested amongst the chaos, degrees older than her Tooley Street colleague, whose only irritation was me and the flowers.  When the glass screen opens there is a desk, a cheap table for overflow and more filing in piles across the floor.  When I announce that the family believes that she and her firm are a scam, the woman flumps into her cheap chair. 

She's sick of the sight of the Eileen Freeman paperwork, she tells me, and levers a blue folder from the overflow table, where it is balanced atop a bulging pile of three.  On the flap is written the deceased’s name in felt tip, the word ‘probate’ and a case code.  She shows me the wide, wide family tree and a list of people she has sent letters to, ticks and highlighter slashes marking the margin with a code.  

‘A relation on Eileen’s mother’s side,’ she tells me, ‘organised the funeral and informed us that she had died.  The pity of it is that his own brother was lost in the waiting.  Now it’s only himself left alive.’

While on her father’s side there is me, and a diabolical thirty-nine moaners.

I ask her if I can have his address to thank him. 

‘Did he know Eileen well?’

‘Not so much. They’d not seen one another in those last years. It’s what happens I suppose as the time drifts by.’

This is no scam.

Against the conspiracy theorist’s clear instructions I offer up my bank details.  I am informed that perhaps it would be cheaper if the office sends me a cheque.  

‘It's forty-two pounds for a bank transfer, and that could eat things up,’ she replaces the folder back on its pile. ‘Tell your relations to send in their identities.  Poor Eileen should be at rest,’ she gestures at the gaping blue files.  ‘It’s time we put her away.’ 

 

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Back on the Northern line I think about the forty-two pounds for a bank transfer and it eating things up.  Perhaps, I wonder, it’s the beneficiary letter that’s the problem.  It has a typo.  A too-many-zeros type typo.  The sort of thing that happens amongst cardboard, discarded clothes and smudged glass.  Shall I warn everyone?  No, I tell myself.  I’ll just order them to post in their identities.  Because not one of them will risk being scammed for a muffin sized legacy.  Then poor Eileen would remain on that cluttered desk forever.

We Are Being Scammed - Part 1

by Miranda

We’re being scammed one cousin screams down an email from far, far away.  We are being scammed. 

It has been over two years since Finders, the international probate genealogist firm wrote.  They make money from hunting families for those who die isolated, and alone.  Intestate.  My protestant Scottish relations have too much money & too much anxiety about keeping a hold of it, that there is not a chance they would do something so daft.  But on the other side, for the Catholic Doyles life’s only preoccupation is survival.  As Eileen grew nearer death, her confidence thin, she perhaps believed that she had nothing to leave.  She was worthless.  Literally. 

But Eileen was not.  She was actually worth a great deal.

Not that we know that when the introductory letter from the genealogist comes in.  It writes that Eileen is a once removed cousin and I am the first of our ragged, unwieldly bunch to be found. I am delighted.  The letter lists only one of my brothers.  I wonder whether I should tell the firm about the other two.  Do they count? 

I consult a cousin and am told I need to be fair.  Guileless and gullible as a toddler I shower the genealogist with news of the eleven aunts and uncles that Eileen had, her possible seventeen cousins, and most importantly, because the seventeen are dying off like roses in August, I give them a full list of the next in line – me and a ghastly further forty-six.

The bleating about scams is understandable.  We are a family who have been scammed before, lied to by our parents, who have been lied to by theirs.  It’s bound to make us wary. 

It is months before anyone asks about poor Eileen.  About her life.

Here she is as a girl, standing beside Granny, my grinning Dad out to the far left.  Eileen wears the kind of dress that can terrorize a wearer.  Those white ankle socks too.  Those shoes.  All of them can get dirty, and not through any fault of our own.  This is not a family good at keeping the linen clean. 

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It is one of the few photographs of Eileen that remain.  House clearance has undoubtedly done for everything else.  The rubble of her existence filched and trashed.   But before all that disaster we find her at a family wedding with her hands clasped.  There is still so much story ahead of her, and as she peeks over the edge of her bashfulness to camera, no-one can know how the rest of this narrative will go. 

Yet the family around her know just how things for Eileen have already gone. 

In 1939 her cousin Richard pitched up one afternoon at Glasgow Central.  He had travelled by charabanc, boat and train from Ireland, desperate.  He was thirteen.  His clear instructions were to save his little brothers and sisters from the children’s home and for that he had to find work.  The getting by, the surviving had begun. 

Eileen’s father, John, was a drinker, the kind of drinker that burned a temper.  Self employed, he worked from home, repairing vacuum cleaners, picking broken ones up at auctions, and selling them on.  Richard arrived just before New Year, and for a treat Uncle John took him to Celtic Park.  The boy remembers standing in mud, the snow falling down, miserable.  Not only was Britain at war, but Celtic lost, a loss drowned long and hard in the pub.  By the first week of January the boy had fallen sick. 

When the doctor called, he diagnosed Diphtheria.  In Glasgow diphtheria had broken out, with a mortality rate of over twenty per hundred thousand.  Lancet articles talk in terms of an epidemic.  Within a few days his Aunt fell to the infection too, so sick with it that she spent two months in hospital.  Then four year old Eileen succumbed.  The only person to escape the plague was baby John.  Richard still remembers that when Eileen came out of hospital her leg was in plaster, a deformity that would never be cured.  Then she started to lose her sight.  Richard paused in the telling: 

‘I still think about it you know.  Still think that it was me who brought that diphtheria into the house.’

Did Eileen limp I ask.  Those who met her and knew her once the family moved to London, can’t be sure.  What they can be sure of though is that when it came to Jesus she was devout.  They are also sure that she waited.  Waited till her mother’s death, before she felt able to marry herself.  Here she is, aged twenty-one, with her mother in Princes Street Gardens before the waiting was begun.

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It would be another fifteen years before that wait was over.  Paddy waited too. Was it simply that Eileen’s mother did not like him.  God for sure did not like either of them.  Because within months of marriage, while at work inspecting a trench, it collapsed. Paddy was buried alive. 

Alone again, back in her mother’s house with her little brother, the childless Eileen mourned. Though she prayed each day, confessed freely to the priest, and took communion as regularly as she could, there was still more tragedy to come.  Baby John in his fifties, the one lucky enough to avoid Richard’s diphtheria, committed suicide three days before Christmas, leaving the now blinded Eileen all alone.  Together they had lived twenty five winters in the house where he died.  Where their mother died. A home that was cleared and sold, food for solicitors, for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for Finders, and for us. 

‘The only scam is how these buggers hoover everything up,’ another cousin tells me.  ‘The worst of it is that each one of those scam-accusing-phone-calls the family makes,’ and he’s right, there have been a few, ‘earns them more.’

Apples

by Dan Crego

Dan has started, and occasionally finished short stories for a while now. This time it’s serious.
“Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.”
― Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys

My father sits in his chair and carefully slices the apple into about six or eight pieces. He puts down the knife, one of a silver-plated set that was our “best”. It lies next to the apple slices on the plate, balanced on the right arm of the armchair. The room is quiet, the TV is turned off, dormant behind the heavy doors of its cabinet.

I close my eyes, and I can see him, his right hand holding the knife between thumb and forefinger, poised over the plate; his cheek slightly bulging from the last slice he has placed in his mouth. But I can’t see the room clearly. Sometimes, it is the living room in the small flat over the hairdresser’s shop that my mother owned. We lived there until I was eleven years old. Sometimes it isn’t.

I close my eyes again, and Dad is no longer in the flat over the hairdresser’s, faint smell of peroxide, hairdryer and stale beer (a shampoo for ‘body’) rising through the floorboards, but in our 1930s semi a mile further west and a couple of small notches up the social scale. It is a classic inter-war semi-detached house, with the two reception rooms ‘knocked through’, and a small ‘sun lounge’ or conservatory added onto the kitchen, overlooking the garden. Dad looks relaxed (not a frequent state of mind for him), he is happy and concentrating. Our dog, Sandy sits by the chair, pushing her nose against his arm and wrist, ingratiating herself. Dad looks at her, raises a forefinger, says ‘wait’ and then gives her a slice of apple which she gobbles down. The room, is divided into ‘lounge’ and ‘dining’ areas, the patterned carpet imprinted by the weight of the heavy reproduction furniture and the Ferguson Radiogram at one end of the room. A menorah on the sideboard waits patiently for Hanukah; Sabbath candlesticks take pride of place on the centre of an oval silver-plated tray. All are watched over by Tretchikoff’s Green Lady, her face reflecting love, acceptance and detachment.

On Friday nights, my sister and I wait eagerly. Dad brings us our comics – not available locally until the following morning, but Dad through some mysterious alchemy connected with his working ‘in town’ can source them twelve hours ahead of the rest of the Universe. He stands there in the hall, wearing his overcoat and carrying his homburg hat, filling the hall with his presence, with his male-ness, with the romance and allure of having just journeyed from the centre of the city. He was in no hurry to remove his overcoat, to hang up his hat; he was content simply to watch his children, marvel at his family, imbibe that precious commodity, his home life. I didn’t understand it then, but I understand him better now.

Was he the quintessential 1950s Dad – “Hi Honey, I’m home”? Not really. But it wasn’t co-parenting either. My parents’ roles, particularly my father’s, seem like an English, suburban north-west London version of the American dream - a scaled-down version. Our Ford Consul had chrome and even fins (sort of), everything reduced proportionately to meet the aspirations of a Britain not long out of rationing and austerity.

Almost thirty years later, I am sitting in a quiet room in the basement of a hospital, next to my father. He died a few minutes ago. I look at my father and see the familiar features, even his expression. But everything now is different. His soul has departed; I am alone in the room. How can this be?

I look at my father and imagine him eating the apple. But imagining is not living. Here, in this world which we did not imagine, but has to live in, soon it will be time for my tears. Soon it will be time for me to make the arrangements for the funeral; time to make the phone call to Israel and to cope with the grief at the other end of the phone; time for me to walk with my wife behind the coffin under the bright blue winter sky, listening to a beautiful voice singing Hebrew songs behind us; it will be time to say goodbye. Soon the grief will seem unsupportable.

But now is not yet that time. I sit in the chair in the quiet room from which my father’s soul has departed. The mystery of life and death is here. I imagine the apple, I imagine my father alive, content, in his own home with his family. The Green Lady bestows her benediction; Sandy the dog looks up at her master; the clock ticks; a shout from the alley behind (this, according to Joyce is God); distant rumble of a goods train on the west coast main line. All is still there, as I sit in the hospital basement room: in his noble philosopher’s face, the high forehead, the acquiline nose, receding hairline, long-ish grey hair. I remember the apple. I remember my father.

The Chicken and the Sofa

By Vix Ford

Vix thinks about writing a lot but rarely puts pencil to paper.  Her mannequin blog is available to read here.

I was born out of a lie. My mother stood at the altar,  looking across at my father, bloodied bits of toilet paper stuck to his shaving cuts, with the knowledge that for his nuptials his own mother had shaved his face that morning, and she ignored her rising disquiet. Indeed I come from a family built on lies and truths, like most of us. The lies seem quiet, discovered in dark corners where few people look. They rarely get mentioned in anything but hushed tones. The truths are much more brazen. They are spat and spluttered, quickly and sharp, like knives. They hurt more somehow.

There are lies that are big, there are lies that are painful but the lie that stands out for me, from my own upbringing at least, is not terrible, not life-ending, not based on years of deceit. It was the time I was suspicious of the meat on my plate. I questioned my Mum. ‘It’s just chicken’ she told me ‘Eat it up’. I did. It was tender, tasty and my plate was left clean. I don’t remember how the lie was discovered but it was-the truth was out. It was not chicken. It was rabbit-the same soft, warm, sniffing rabbit I had petted a week previous when visiting my Mums friends who were rabbit breeders. I was heartbroken. My choice had been taken away.

Being truthful in a calm and clear way became more important to me when my own motherhood began. I became acutely aware of the everyday lies we tell our young, to extend their already vivid and colourful imaginations, to smooth over the harsh cracks of life, to get them to eat their peas. None of it sat well with me and I decided to lie as little as possible. I never mentioned Father Christmas. I never said Granny’s pony had gone to fly in the sky on a long holiday (although Granny did). I never told them that greens would put hairs on their chest.

However, in the end I did lie to my children. For all of their lives we had sat, snoozed, laughed, cried and had photographs taken on a giant red L-shaped sofa. It was huge. Great for making castles out of, it cut the open-plan room in half, and was subjected to much jumping, accidental baby wees, spilt teas and crumbs. It provided a comfortable place for years of breastfeeding, reading and cuddles, and it was very much loved by us all. When the father of my children and I finally went our separate ways I found myself desperate to create my own new look, my own way, my own style. I began to hate the sofa for reminding me constantly of that which was now broken. I wanted to get rid of it. But it seemed cruel for them to lose their beloved sofa on top of their Dad moving out, so I lied. I told them it was flea-ridden (we had a flea-troubled cat at the time). They cried. They made me save the corner piece. They asked me to make them capes out of the covers. They drew all over the back in marker pen and we all posed, intentionally, like a pretend happy family before it got carried away to the dump.

I have always known that when my children find this lie out, they will struggle with it. I have been conscious of it every now and again, particularly when they moan about my new sofas. It has been 7 years now but they still miss it. Tonight I have told them. One of them cried and the other questioned what else was not true.

 

Consul

by Dan Crego

Dan has started, and occasionally finished short stories for a while now. This time it’s serious.
“Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.”
― Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys

The photo is black and white, 3 inches by 3 inches, instantly redolent of the Box Brownie camera, picnic lunches, Ambre Solaire suntan lotion, our Ford Consul on whose back ledge, behind the sometimes quarrelling heads of my sister and me, our dog Sandy would sleep contentedly on the long drive back from Brighton, Worthing or Bognor Regis, as we slowly made our way through the endless, mysterious and definitively Gentile south London suburbs, over Hammersmith Bridge, back to the familiar tree-lined semi-detached avenues of North-West London, and finally down the unpretentious self-respecting High Street, with its Odeon cinema, its greengrocers, bakers and butchers, its solid and protective every-day-ness and welcoming banality. Home.

My Dad stands in the centre of the photo, my sister is to his right looking imp-ish and summery, although her right hand is nervously raised, slightly hiding her face, the first hints perhaps of the adolescent storms to come that will tear across our family, rattling windows and up-rooting trees, leaving behind the acrid post-storm smell of ozone, lingering traces of which remain with us and between us today. I am sitting on a ledge to the left of Dad, my spindly limbs on display, angular and alarming enough to have prompted Mum to take me aged five to our family doctor. Dr Cohen, a fleshily substantial and stethoscope-wreathed pillar of our community, living embodiment of all our upwardly mobile ambitions, imperiously waved away her concerns. Fat, thin, or in-between, we were all on the Up. That is what mattered. I was on the studious path, even then Oxbridge and the professions could be glimpsed, through a glass, darkly. Others were on the business track, begging space on market stalls to sell t-shirts and teddy bears, working the angles and the arbitrage and disdaining my path of geekiness as I disdained their worldiness. We were all of us learning, learning, learning.

In this photo, as in many others from that time, I seem to combine equal measures of joy and anxiety into one facial expression, a feat which you may think is either a trick of the camera’s deception or witness to a precocious sophisticated sensibility on my part, a Kierkegaardian appreciation, at age seven, of the angst at the heart of life’s existential struggle.

In truth, it was neither; in truth, it was just the way I was. In truth...But then, how much truth do you actually want?

No-one will find me out

By Miranda

My family are not readers. Inherited wealth often leads to a good deal of inbreeding, or as my husband puts it ‘lack of hybrid vigour’.  Horse & Hound is about the best that they can manage. They will never realise, I tell myself, that I’ve written about them at all.  

That was before I’d wound up on Radio 4 and the broadsheet newspapers.  Then news travels fast.  Especially when it’s bad.

But gratefully there are others in the audience when Auntie C- turns up.  Her hair is a tepid yellow, set like concrete, and her mouth curling down as it always did.  Not the sad face of upside down happiness, but the lip edges dragged disagreeably, permanently south. 

She’s in her tweedy uniform though the sun is shining outside, and she’s driven a whole hour and a half to get here, to this small and beautiful bookshop, hidden down a side street in Stockbridge.  It is clear she is on a mission.  My stomach twists over what that mission could possibly be.  To bully I am guessing, because she has bullied me before.

C- married the legitimate member of the family.  He inherited everything.  I’m not sure then why she is here to bark.  I have not even mentioned her in the Untruths, though I could have.  But it was a lie that I felt too worried to include.  One where she is shouting at Mum's graveside and we’re all having to pretend that she is not. 

So now we have to drag through a ghastly repeat at this sweet, sweet bookshop, Golden Hare, in Edinburgh.  Less a shout than a barbed heckle, which is never loud enough to eject or to yell down. 

Proof that I am not lying, I tell myself.  Look, my family really are bonkers, diabolical. I have not exaggerated them at all. 

I need the loo

by Miranda

It’s 7.51 on a Monday morning. 

Already I’ve been awake four hours groping around for erudite things I might say on Start the Week if asked.  Since we’re supposed to be talking about selves I’m thinking of Robert le Page’s ever changing shirts.

The only self-shirt I have in this empty hotel cupboard is threadbare.  It reads simply: ‘Someone’s going to find me out.’

I manhandle the ironing board over to the window with its view of Broadcasting House.  I wonder if the BBC is the reason why this is the first hotel room I’ve ever stayed in to house an iron.  

An iron, but no wifi. I am bonkers with myself, and without distraction the bonkers is worsening each second that ticks past.

It’s 7.59 and I begin to iron.

It’s 8.27 when I find the first guest in the foyer and am all over him like a dog.  Does he know how much I loved his show?  Does he?  Smelling panic the man keeps well back.

Green Room reached the second guest arrives, in red dress, looking as marvellous as she always did.  Gratefully she has no idea who I am.  My once being her student seems to have passed her by.

Then the presenter, more stroke struck than expected makes his way up the corridor.  As he enters his mouth clenches against our shock. Then his eyes find mine.  He says something about his childhood, which I am too panicked to catch, a swallowed sentence, no detail and no allusion.  This grown man has read me I realise, and his empathy reaches out. 

Finally the fourth guest strides in.  He is complaining that Hay Festival is a bloody nightmare to get to, motoring for hours across grass, whole weekend shot.

It’s 8.49.

A smiley female producer arrives.  Two million listeners she announces, and please on air DO NOT to be nice about anyone else’s book.  Irritates the listeners no end.

I need the loo. 

In the cubicle, pants down, there is no relief.  None.  I don’t want to pee, I realise but flee.  Ironed, or not, the found-out-shirt is fitting.  I will get utterly found out.  This is a live show.

A picture can tell a thousand lies

By Nykhil Emanuel-Stanford

Nykhil is a productive procrastinator. Editor by day, inspiring writer and wine connoisseur in her dreams. She'll be documenting her (real) life and travels shortly, stay tuned...

I have a great smile. I think it’s one of my best features. And my laugh, even better. It warms you, it’s inclusive, it “validates the joke”, as someone once told me. If there’s a camera on me I can’t help but show teeth.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But are any of them the truth? A photo is just a moment in time: a brief snapshot of a wider reality and the events surrounding it. But problematic because we spend the rest of the time trying to either re-enact or fill that space.

This so-called adult life often feels like a party that everyone rsvp’d to about five years ago, and I’ve only just found my invite. I’ve had to rush around to find an outfit and a gift, and now I’m late! All the good nibbles are gone and the prosecco has started to go warm and flat.

In this haze of confusion I often look through my old photographs. For every detail that the memory triggers, another is lost, and my emotions manifest themselves in the strangest of ways. Past doubts seem irrelevant, and what I was once so sure of is suddenly concerning.

Was I really happy then? Did I do or say the right things? Was he the love of my life? (He definitely wasn’t). Those are just some of the small things I obsess over.

I’ve realised recently that the biggest lie that I’ve told for years was to myself;  That I was confident in my choices and living my best life by aiming for the same as everyone else. What I am is a confident performer and that’s a very different thing.

I’m getting closer to myself these days. But she’s changed a lot from the person I thought she was and wanted to be. Life is hard. Pretending to be a fully functioning adult is even harder.

They say that laughter is the best medicine. And the laugh of my thirties is going to be more honest. More bold. More true.

Hugs

By Noemi Olah

Noemi is a strategic marketer and a passionate campaigner, who, after years of fighting for a more humane society, now made peace with her creative self by writing fiction.

In general I like this photograph. It represents a happy phase in our lives. However, this set up, with me and my brother hugged by our father would be unimaginable today. And not because we do not see each other anymore. I and my father have had our fights and even though our relationship now is as peaceful as the Lake Balaton behind us on this picture, it would be simply impossible to take a similar one now. A tiny harbinger on this photograph already signals today’s – arguably – inevitable situation.

My mother took this picture with our old camera and said “smile” before she pushed the little red button. My father hastened her to push it because the sun were blinding us. I remember wanting it to be over, but not because of the sun but because I was thirsty. That’s why I am holding a bottle of Theodora Quelle sparkling water. That was my favourite, but only because my mother liked it and I thought drinking sparkling water was adult-like.

And even though I was eleven, I thought I was mature, because the school year began the week after and I would start it in a new school. I was excited to see my new classmates and was wondering whether they had spent their holidays abroad. But even if they did, I knew I would not exchange mine for theirs.

I loved the Lake Balaton. I loved the sound of the calm waves, loved its sweet taste and its smell mixed with sun oil and Lángos. I loved to play with my brother in the water and remind him that I could swim better. I hated when my father sent us outside claiming that our mouths were already blue.

But when you’re eleven, you listen to your parents and don’t talk back. I couldn’t even tell my father when posing for this picture that his arm was heavy and he shouldn’t have pulled us closer with that almost unnoticeable force. I listened to my mother instead and smiled.

But I would not remain so silent for long…

A Lie in a Jiffy Bag

By Chloe Shaw

After many years working as a marketing copywriter, Chloe now enjoys the freedom and creativity of writing short stories and flash fiction.

The untruth arrives one September morning in a padded envelope and sits composting in the pigeon hole at my hall of residence until mid-afternoon. I’ve no idea what’s inside but delay opening it till I find some breakfast.

As I’m eating, I wonder what the package contains and who has sent it. My sense of anticipation increases until, swallowing the final chunk of sausage, I rip the package open.

First the note – “How dare you!” I reach further inside the envelope and pull out a wilted plant. It’s a common sort of plant and holds no significance. I don’t recognise the handwriting and I find no clues from the post mark. I’m baffled.

Later, back at my room, ‘Anna, Anna, there’s a call for you’. I run to the communal phone and listen to a man telling me in low rushed tones that his wife will be ringing me shortly. I ask who he is. ‘David’ he says and hangs up.

David? The David I worked with over the summer holidays? The quiet, conscientious man who sat at the desk next to mine in the admissions office, processing grant applications? Why would he be ringing?

A minute or so after replacing the handset the phone rings again. This time a woman. She doesn’t introduce herself and I listen to a stream of accusations. There’s mention of a plant and a letter. She tells me David’s bags are packed and he’s waiting by the door.

I don’t get the chance to respond. I want to say ‘Are you joking? I just wrote to thank him for the leaving card and present. Your husband is just someone I sat next to in an office’. But for the second time someone hangs up on me before I can speak and the sound of the handset slamming down rings in my ear.

Then I remember the jiffy bag. Of course, my office plant! That peace lily sat on my desk that whole summer. I left it behind without a thought. Had it taken on greater meaning since?

A lie.

Just off the edge of the remembered

by Amanda Jones
 

Amanda is working on two works of fiction - one a collection of short stories and another longer work that blends historical research and contemporary writing.

I remember the day began with an early start, so we would arrive in time to watch the Spanish fishing boats unloading their night’s catch onto the curved expanse of smooth round black pebbles of the beach. The women gutting the fish without pausing their rapid conversations. Out of sight, in another picture perhaps, nets are mended, bartering continues and news is exchanged but here we are, captured in the aspic of the camera’s eye.

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At five, this was new to my little brother. His face glows with delight. He crows quietly with pleasure. One of the older fishermen, with brown, wrinkled hands cracked and marked by age and grime, had presented Jon with some tiny fish. In the picture, he holds one, suspended delicately between his fingers, while I watch with joy at his pleasure.

The tenderness of our parents frame the picture, Father’s camera lens shapes our image while our mother stands back, relaxed, pleased to observe our unity. We form a tender group, ignored by the bustle of the fishermen and women around us. We have abandoned the villa and my father’s parents for a morning together.

Forty years later, gem-like memories persist. A long drive up a mountain to visit a live spring in a cave, where we collected drinking water and smelt the cool mossy blackness behind the waterfall. The fish market, the plastic covered stool at the metallic bar where we shared a plate of fresh grilled sàrdinas, swimming and trips to exotic (for the 1970s) restaurants with live flamenco dancing.

The villa, with a curved pool whose glittering surface called to us from outside the shutters of our darkened bedrooms.

Here and there are occlusions, ripples of dissonant adult emotions. The darker shades of our grandmother’s erratic moods appear here and there, like a series of tiny unrecognizable insects, suspended in the amber of our childhood. Tears and recriminations appear just off the edge of the remembered, causing a faint distortion. Those were happy days.

The Last Photograph in the Album

By Garry Pope

Garry Pope writes film reviews for Take One, an independent magazine and website, and play reviews for Theatre Blog. He also writes book reviews for Great Shelford Village News. He read Creative Writing at M.A. and B.A. levels. He has written novels, novellas, short stories, plays and film scripts: all successfully unpublished! He is currently working on a novella about a theatre producer attempting to put on one last play before he dies.

23rd July 1989, Gatwick Airport. Left is my father, younger brother George, older brother Matthew and my mother. Our first family holiday, but only my father and George travel, as holidays are expensive, and it’s George’s birthday.

***

Thirty years later, weeks after my father’s funeral, only I attend his one bedroom bungalow and remove his belongings. Flicking through his family photograph albums, this is the last picture he saved.

They flew to Orlando. On their second day, in Disneyland, my brother George disappeared. My father, alone, other than Orlando’s police force, spent the following twelve days searching. He extended his stay for another week, at an astronomical cost. But returned home without George.

Matthew, then seventeen, soon joined the army and had little to do with us.

My mother, a whirlwind of love and anger, blamed my father. When my aunts arrived on Sundays with wine bottles, my mother always slurred, “John lost George in America.”

My father wore a constant smile. When he returned, he never smiled again. He increased his work to evenings and weekends. We saw him only at meal times.

When I think of my father, on his own in Orlando, I choke, as if drowning, wondering what it must have been like for him.

Five years after the disappearance, I turned sixteen and my mother left. I lived with my father until university, and then I too never returned.

I tried keeping in touch, but Matthew stayed abroad; my father seemed pained when he saw me; and my mother, with only anger and not love, distanced herself. Now we don’t even send birthday cards.

Years later, in London, I entered a supermarket, and saw my mother. She must have been forty-five and looked exhausted. She pushed a shopping trolley with a young girl in the seat. My mother smiled at her daughter and her daughter laughed. I didn’t approach them.

Back home, holding my father’s photograph album, I turn to a blank page and slide in a new photograph. This is my future child. If our baby’s a boy, I’ll name him George.

WARNING: Public Health Warning.  This is all made up.  I loved, when reading, the ghastly sense that it was true. Sorry if you feel had, Miranda