NaPoWriMo Day#3

Today’s prompt was to take a rhyming dictionary and find as many rhymes or near rhymes as I could to write my poem. Now, I don’t have a problem with poems that rhyme: some good poems rhyme and some don’t; but I really don’t like the idea of forcing in rhyming words for the sake of it. However, the reference to near rhymes made me think of Wilfred Owen, a young man who wrote some very powerful anti-war poetry in 1915 when he was recovering from shell shock after fighting in the trenches in World War 1. Owen plays around beautifully with language and his half-rhymes and near-rhymes lend a sense of uneasiness to his poetry whilst still enabling it to flow – something that reflects the unsettled state of Owen and many of his fellow soldiers at the time. Most people are probably familiar with ‘Dulce et decorum est’, and other poems to look out for are ‘Exposure’ (currently one of the poems for English Literature GCSE with the AQA board) and ‘Strange Meeting’ (which my English teacher read to the class when I was 14 and I’ve loved it ever since).

My aim was to channel Owen – which I certainly haven’t done in this poem, so will keep trying. However, you could say I was inspired by him to write a poem that reflects the general unease of the population during this time of isolation – I’m playing with language but I’m also trying to tap into some of the very real feelings and anxieties of people in government-imposed quarantine.

Isolation

Outside, the streets are silent.

The world holds its breath, waiting

to see if this violent

disease is just a siren –

should we expect something more malevolent?


Inside, there is no peace, no quiet:

children and animals continue to riot,

raising their voices in a discordant choir.

Burning up with cabin fever, I feel quite

Delirious. My throat is on fire.

A sudden spasm of fear

Twists my gut, bringing me near

To total breakdown. Does no one care?

I scroll down my phone. My social life is deserted:

Online chat leaves me disconcerted.

I wander through empty rooms in the desert

Of my existence – and loneliness hurts.

A momentary burst of noise

Sends me to the window, expecting boys

Or gangs caught up in a fight;

Instead, outside in the night,

Cheers and whistles echo support for the NHS in their plight.

For now, the streets are empty of violence.

The applause over, the whisper of silence

Hums like a thousand tiny violins.

Day 21 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This time the challenge was to write in a different style to normal – as well as writing on the theme of the Summer Solstice. All feedback gratefully received.

Summer Solstice

From now on, the days would be getting darker.

Daylight was still strutting round as I drove my car through the large iron gates and rolled along the driveway. The building shrugged, as if it recognised me and felt sorry. Its doors stood open to let in the breeze; memories of the day’s heat still lingered.

Hurrying past the deserted Reception, I made my way to her room. Jenny was awake, propped up by pillows, a tiny speck in the sea of sheets and blankets.

She looked up as I entered. “Is it time?”

I nodded.

The nurse on duty in her room helped me lift her out of bed. Six months ago, my wife had been a strong, athletic woman who ran fifteen miles a week and visited the gym every other day; now she was a ragdoll in my arms, her paper thin skin stretched over pitifully protruding bones. To me, she had never looked so beautiful.

I placed her gently in the waiting wheelchair. The nurse handed me a blanket, her eyes expressing the sympathy I so often encountered these days. Carefully, I covered Jenny’s frail frame, not wanting her to be cold as we sat outside to share the summer solstice.

“Any time within the next few hours, Mr Jones.” The nurse spoke quietly, but it was unnecessary: we all knew Jenny was dying.

Once we’d had the official diagnosis, realised that it was too late for any effective treatment, we’d deliberately discussed the things that no one else wanted to talk about. Jenny wanted to spend her last months out in the country, where she could see trees and fields from her window and hear birdsong instead of traffic. The lake in the grounds was an added bonus: when she was stronger, we’d spent hours sitting by the water, soaking in the serene atmosphere. It was fitting that this would be the place where we would say goodbye. 

Slowly, I pushed her wheelchair to the bench that was impregnated with us. Our tears had soaked into the wood as we’d ranted and railed against doctors, against disease, against God. Tonight, though, there would be no talk of cancer or funerals, just the conversation of two people in love. As I placed her on the bench, her fingers stole around mine, a gesture so intimate that my breath caught in my throat.

Gradually, the day faded. The last vestiges of sunlight glimmered on the surface of the water, like memories. In the background, the faint sounds of summer insects were not enough to disturb us.

As the sun finally began its descent, I found I was strangely grateful: grateful for the gift of four years with this amazing woman; grateful that she had enriched my life; grateful to the hospice who had looked after her so well, who had allowed us to say goodbye surrounded by the nature Jenny loved.

My wife slipped away as gently as the sun disappearing behind the trees. I sat and held her for a while, reluctant to let go of the past. Then, as the cold began to seep into my veins, I placed her once more in her chair, ready to take her home.

From now on, my life would be getting darker.

Day 19 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

As a child, I was lucky enough to have a great-grandmother who told me plentiful stories about her life. This piece is loosely based on some of the stories I remember, but I’ve also used dramatic license to embellish these into a complete story.

  The Patient Lover 

Inspired by the life and death of my great-grandmother, Ivy Conway (1893-1991).

Death courted Ivy for the whole of her life.

Born in 1893, the fourth child out of the six her parents would somehow squeeze into their tiny two-up-two-down back-to-back cottage, she nearly didn’t make it. Her mother bit down hard on a stick, thinking that her other deliveries hadn’t been so difficult. As the scrawny mass of baby, blood and vernix slithered into the world, Emily started to haemorrhage; for the next hour or two, the baby was all but forgotten as she lay, wrapped in a clean towel, in a box in the corner of the room. Luckily, Ivy’s older sisters, Mabel and Evelyn, despite being only six and four, knew instinctively that this little scrap of humanity needed taking care of. When Ivy finally let out a thin wail, Mabel picked her up out of the wooden crate and held her tight, whilst Evelyn fetched a cup of milk from the pantry downstairs. For the next twenty-four hours, they dribbled milk off a spoon into the baby’s mouth, until Emily was stable and could finally feed her newborn child. Death shook his head and retreated until another day.

Despite this shaky start in life, Ivy grew and thrived, just like her siblings. Their father was a cobbler so there was little money but a lot of love. Two years later, Renee arrived, followed (after a more respectable three years’ gap) by Charlie. By now, the little house was bursting at the seams: Ma and Pa had the small bedroom and the children shared the larger one, dividing it into two with a blanket strung over a rope that went from one side of the room to another. The girls squabbled and fought for space in the bed they all shared, but it was a companionable relationship and they loved each other fiercely.

As, one by one, the elder siblings became old enough to work in the mill, Ivy found she could earn a ha’penny a week by carrying the lunch pail to the mill and back every day at noon. This was one of the perks of being the next eldest: when she started work herself, it would be Renee’s turn.

On her eleventh birthday, Ivy was treated to a whole egg for breakfast to mark the occasion of her first day at work. She would be going to school in the mornings this week and then doing the afternoon shift at the mill; and this would alternate with a week of mill first, school second. She grew to hate the morning shifts because she always had to go home and change her cotton-impregnated dress before going to school, and this meant she was often late and would be beaten by the schoolmaster.

Death was a frequent visitor to the mill. The cotton dust in the air had a way of working itself into people’s lungs. Many of the older workers died well before their time. Occasionally, he would steal a glance at Ivy, working busily; he always had a particular fondness for those who had eluded him earlier.

He was the uninvited guest at Ivy’s wedding to Alec, some years later. Perhaps it was his macabre sense of humour, but he couldn’t resist reminding her of his presence with the funeral hearse that almost collided with her carriage as she and her husband left the churchyard. The black plumed horses made a startling contrast to the coloured ribbons Ivy’s sisters had tied to the carriage axles; but Ivy was too starry-eyed with love to notice them.

As time progressed, Death found himself busier than ever. The onset of the Great War saw people dying in their thousands. Miraculously, Ivy remained unscathed – although there was a tricky moment when Alec lashed out in a drunken temper: she hit her head when she fell and was unconscious for several minutes. Fearing for their baby’s safety as much as for her own, Ivy fled her marriage and her husband (they were by now living in Scotland) and made the perilous journey back to Hyde and the safety of her family.

Death followed her to her old spot in the mill, watching attentively as she worked a gruelling sixteen-hour day, six days a week. He left her side for long enough to visit her older brother, Harold, as he lay in a hospital bed, his arm blown away by a bomb. Northern grit ran through the entire Conway family, though, and Harold left hospital some months later, living until his sixties despite his missing limb. Death sighed and returned to Ivy. Perhaps the Second World War would push her into his arms. But no, Ivy’s resilience kept her, her new husband, his children and her daughter alive and well. Even the air raids couldn’t touch them – in fact, the only bombshell that did any damage was when her son-in-law ran off with another woman the year before the war ended, so that he never saw his second daughter; but they soldiered on.

Through decades of disease and despair, Death kept a constant vigil at Ivy’s side, more faithful than either of her husbands. The car accident that killed her stepson left her with a slight limp but otherwise unharmed; the byssinosis that choked the lungs of so many of her former co-workers in the mill somehow passed her by. Time and time again, he issued an invitation for her to join him; on every occasion, she declined.

Renee died in her eighties, a casualty of carcinomatosis. The twenty cigarettes a day she’d smoked for sixty years eventually took their toll. Mabel was only seventy-six – but then she’d had thirteen children and the rapid succession of pregnancies and births, coupled with the anxiety of rearing so many at the same time, had aged her prematurely: her hair was grey by the time she was twenty-five. Charlie, who, as a child, had flirted with Death far more frequently than his sister, nevertheless lived to the ripe old age of eighty-one. Ivy often told her great-grandchildren the thrilling tale of how Charlie had stopped the runaway grocer’s horse-and-cart when he was only a teenager; but he was more likely to have ended his days at the hands of an irate husband, since his womanising ways in later life were legendary. Evelyn died in an old people’s home, well into her nineties. Almost totally blind after a botched cataract operation at eighty-four, she claimed that every time there was a power cut in the Home, she could “hear them carrying out the dead bodies.” As a girl, she’d been unbearably bossy towards Ivy and Renee; as an adult, she was equally unpleasant to her husband and daughter, alienating Alwyn to such an extent that she only visited the Home once or twice a year. Despite this, Ivy wept uncontrollably when Evelyn died: she was now the last remaining sibling and the loneliness was unbearable. “They’ve all left me,” she sobbed as she sat by the fire with her great-granddaughter. Emily (named for Ivy’s mother) held the tiny old lady as if she were a child, her fifteen-year-old wisdom realising it was better to let her cry.

Several times, there were false alarms. A bout of severe pleurisy almost finished Ivy off in 1982. Death sat by her bedside, waiting patiently. She was sufficiently ill for her daughter to make the three hundred miles’ trip from Sheppey to Summit, to be with her mother at the end. It was a wasted journey when Ivy rallied unexpectedly, causing Death to retreat once more and bide his time.

The following year, Ivy moved to Kent herself, claiming that she “couldn’t stand another northern winter”. Sharing an isolated house with her daughter and the dog, she was happy enough, walking round the garden each afternoon and watching ‘Songs of Praise’ every Sunday evening.

By the time she was ninety-five, Ivy started planning her hundredth birthday party. She had an ever-decreasing guest list – not just because all her old friends kept dying off, but mostly because whenever she fell out with someone, she crossed them off the list in a fit of childish petulance. “Well, he’s not coming to my party now!” she was often heard to say.

She never made it to her party. Death, who had waited so patiently for almost ten decades, finally managed to entice her into his arms just a few months before her ninety-eighth birthday. Ivy died as she had lived, with a song on her lips and her heart full of love. Death had finally claimed her – and, like all the best things in life, she had been worth waiting for.

Day 18 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Write something Gothic, they said. Great, I thought. Set it in modern times, they said. That could be a challenge, I thought. After all, what’s creepy about the 21st century?

And then I thought about what might freak someone out today and I penned the following. Welcome to

Grandma’s House

As a child, I was always terrified of Grandma’s house.

I had a nervous disposition as a little girl, thanks to the fairy-stories I read. The witches and ogres in the tales I devoured on a daily basis came back to haunt me by night. I would lie awake for hours, eyes closed, listening to the dark. I was sure I could hear them breathing, even if I couldn’t see their shadowy outlines.

            If I was scared in my own bedroom, Grandma’s house was even worse. Every room had a slightly sinister atmosphere, from the ominous ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway, imitating a human heartbeat, to the creepy dolls in the spare bedroom, lined up like miniature corpses, watching me. I dreaded staying there overnight, my imagination working overtime to produce in me a state of frozen fear. I was sure that, once my eyes were closed, they would come to life, slithering off their shelves and approaching me, zombie-like, with outstretched arms.

I may have been scared of their house, but I loved my grandparents. White haired and twinkly-eyed, they embodied everything grandparents should be. Grandma always smelled of baking and bitter almonds; Grandad of Guiness. (The doctor said it was good for him.) I remember sitting with them both for hours, in the safety of my parents’ company, playing Gin Rummy whilst sucking on one of Grandma’s homemade treacle toffees. (She made them with orange juice and claimed they were good for sore throats.)

When Grandad retired, my visits increased – only, this time, without my parents as I found myself being sent there during the school holidays. At first, I quite enjoyed it. They were a happy couple: two old people who had genuinely enjoyed growing old together. Now in their twilight years, they were able to indulge more freely in the pastimes they’d not previously had time for. Grandad was a gardener and loved making things grow: the garden was a blaze of riotous colour, declaring his joyful passion for life. Grandma’s hobby, on the other hand, was the dead opposite – literally. She had spent years obsessed with taxidermy and her living room was now a testimony to this. Perfectly preserved animals sat on tables and filled cabinets: a pair of sporting badgers, glassy eyed, their mouths and bodies twisted unnaturally to suggest playfulness; a moulting eaglewith a mournful expression – I could go on. Their lifeless eyes unsettled me as much as their forced poses.  Faced with this menagerie of moth-eaten creatures, is it any wonder that I often ended up siting there as rigid as these anthropomorphic inhabitants, desperately awaiting five o’clock when my mother would arrive to take me home?

I was fifteen when we finally moved Grandma into a nursing home. She didn’t tell anyone when Grandad died – I’m sure it was from natural causes, but there was something unnatural about the way she arranged his stuffed, silent body in an armchair by the fire, looking for all the world as if he’d just dozed off. It was three weeks before anyone noticed the difference.

“Probably better if she’s got someone to keep an eye on her,” my mother said tactfully as she signed the paperwork.

To begin with, Grandma hated the home. “What am I doing with all these old people?” she’d ask fretfully, staring at the walls of her bedroom, tastefully distempered in a pale yellow. And, “It’s like a mausoleum in here – everyone just sits staring at the TV.”

She had a point: the residents’ lounge was a dismal affair, with uncomfortable looking chairs arranged in regimented rows, facing an outsized television set that seemed permanently switched on. Assorted old people dotted the seats, not one of them with even a fraction of my grandmother’s vitality.

“They just sit there knitting,” she told me scornfully on one of my visits. “That Mabel in the pink cardigan – she’s been knitting a pair of bedsocks for five weeks now and she still hasn’t got any further than the heel.”

“Can’t you play cards with some of them?” I suggested. I was sure that all elderly people loved Whist and Bridge.

She rolled her eyes despairingly. “Most of them can’t even remember what day of the week it is, let alone keep track of the cards in everyone’s hands. Frank and Harold sometimes ask me to play ‘Happy Families’, but the games go on for days because they keep forgetting who asked for what.”

A few months later, I visited again. My usual pattern of going to see Grandma every weekend had been disrupted by mock-exams and a short-lived romantic liaison. I felt guilty as I entered the Home, wondering if my poor grandmother had been slowly dying of boredom with no one to talk to. When I knocked on her bedroom door, however, she seemed strangely animated.

“You’re looking well,” I remarked, thinking there might be another budding romance in the family.

A mysterious smile hovered on her lips. “I’ve been keeping myself busy,” was all she would say.

We spent a happy afternoon in her room, looking at old photograph albums and reminiscing about Grandad. Just before I left, something struck me.

“Where are all your stuffed animals?” I asked, secretly relieved that they were gone.

She shrugged dismissively. “I don’t need them anymore.” Then, as I was putting on my jacket, she added, “I’ve had a lovely time decorating the living room.”

A feeling of foreboding slowly made its way through my veins. Surely she couldn’t have …

Quickening my pace, I hurried to the Residents’ Lounge to be faced with Grandma’s handiwork: a roomful of octogenarian corpses, displayed like dolls in a variety of positions. Mabel sat, as before, still knitting her bedsocks; Frank and Harold faced each other, each clutching a handful of cards. Every figure was perfectly posed and a trace of bitter almonds lingered on the air.

My childhood terrors of Grandma’s house paled into insignificance beside the horrors of her Home.

Day 17 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This time the challenge is to write a story beginning with a famous first line from a novel. This is my offering, based on the first line of ‘Eureka Street’ by Robert McLiam Wilson.

My First Love

All stories are love stories – and this one is no exception.

I was nineteen, a naïve and idealistic undergraduate, when I fell for one of my English lecturers.  Dr Small wasn’t particularly good looking, but his voice, when he taught us about Romantic Poetry, was hypnotic, mesmerising. I used to close my eyes and let his smooth, mellow tones caress me into a state of almost-ecstasy – instead of making notes, which is what I should have been doing.

Martin Green was my tutor for the first term: he specialised in American literature and we read ‘Catch 22’ and ‘The Tenants’, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. At the time, I wanted grand outpourings of emotion – something akin to ‘Wuthering Heights’, which I’d done for A level, or ‘Jane Eyre’. I longed for a brooding, Byronic hero to cast smouldering glances at me, then sweep me off my feet. None of the protagonists in modern literature did anything for me at all.

Everything changed, though, when we went back after the Christmas holidays. We’d been assigned new tutors and Dr Small was mine. Supercilious to a degree, he was, nevertheless, amazingly erudite; and, like I’ve already said, his voice had me from the first moment I heard it. When he spoke, it was a soulful, smoky blues song and a soporific wine; it was plunging into a waterfall of tones and cadences, and being rocked to sleep in a cradle of sound. I listened intently to every word he said about Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats; when he read out loud in his mellifluous tones, I fantasised that he was speaking to me and me alone.

He was married – I think he might have had children too – but none of that mattered. In a way, his unavailability enhanced his attraction: like a trophy of courtly love, I placed him on a pedestal and worshipped from afar. It was the idea of being in love that mattered most; I see that now.

It’s not as if I’d never had a boyfriend before. I’d had a reasonably long-term relationship with a boy at school when I was sixteen and seventeen – you know the sort of thing: friendship gradually deepens into something more and then you start spending all your time together. We were surprisingly innocent though: the physical side never progressed any further than (what I thought of as) passionate kissing. When I later discovered he’d ‘come out’, I wondered if that was why he hadn’t wanted to take things further: had he been secretly aware of his repressed sexuality all along?

Despite the lack of sexual chemistry, it was a fairly successful courtship. I think we both enjoyed having someone to talk to who could give us the opposite perspective. I had close female friends, but there was a different dynamic in talking to a boy. Even when we stopped dating, we still spent a lot of time together, only without any kissing. At the time, he was an important part of my life.

Maybe that’s why I found myself looking for a replacement once I got to university: I wanted a male confidant, a soul mate who was happy to remain ‘just friends’ without either of us feeling any pressure to make it something more. Paul Simms was in my Hall of Residence – I’d spotted him hanging out in the bar several times before I recognised him in one of my English lectures and struck up a conversation with him afterwards. He was Combined Honours, like me; but whereas I was taking English and French, he had Music as the other component of his degree. We spent a fair few hours together in the Arts Faculty Coffee Lounge after that: drinking tea and eating custard creams and putting the world to rights. Eventually, I found myself telling him about my crush on Dr Small and how incapable I was of writing anything down in any of his lectures. He teased me constantly about it – even more so once Dr Small became my tutor – but it was an affectionate ribbing, nothing malicious.

As the second term drew to a close, I found myself faced with an essay to write for my idol. I desperately wanted to make a good job of it: I’d done well in my assignment for Martin Green, even though I didn’t particularly like the texts; surely writing about poetry was my chance to show Dr Small how much his teaching had meant to me?

For two weeks I travailed over text books, sweated over syntax, burned the midnight oil. This essay was my love letter to a man who’d barely noticed me in tutorials: it was my way of saying, ‘Look, here I am. I exist.’ Painstakingly, I researched every last detail of William Blake’s life, wanting to leave no stone unturned. I desperately wanted Dr Small to take me seriously. A week after the essays were handed in, he returned them with feedback. When he asked to see me in his room – just me: not any of the others – I felt delirious with happiness.

It says something about how delusional I was that I actually convinced myself that he was  going to tell me he liked my essay, maybe even suggest he felt something for me; instead, he tore my writing to shreds. “The title of the course is ‘The Idea of the Poet in the Romantic Period’ but your essay reads like the Ladybird book of William Blake!” His voice was as cold as his eyes as he continued mercilessly, “Maybe you should think about switching to a different degree course – something you might be better at.”

I stared at him in disbelief. I had loved him so passionately, so hopelessly, pouring out my heart in seventeen pages of literary analysis – how could he treat me so callously?

A storm was brewing as I walked back to Hall, the purple and grey sky looking as bruised as my heart. No longer starry-eyed with optimism and inexperience, I had learned the difference between love and infatuation – it’s an easy lesson when you discover your idol has feet of clay.

I couldn’t face dinner that evening. Paul came to call for me – at least, I assume the loud knocking on my door came from his fist – but I remained where I was, curled tight in a tiny, broken-hearted ball beneath my duvet. I couldn’t bear to see him or anyone else who would question my red eyes and tearful face.

It must have been about an hour later when a knocking sounded again – gentler this time, as if the person outside my door was genuinely worried about me. I crawled out of bed and let him in, sniffling miserably whilst I told him my tale of woe. I think I half-expected him to laugh; instead, he wrapped his arms around me and enfolded me in a hug that lasted aeons. “Let’s go to the bar,” he said at last. “You need cheering up.”

I said I couldn’t face the bar at the moment, so Paul disappeared for ten minutes and came back with a bottle of wine. It was only cheap stuff – slightly fizzy – but it did the trick. Within two glasses, I was feeling more relaxed; and as we emptied the bottle, he leaned forward and kissed me. “You know I’ve always had a thing about you, Sarah,” he breathed, the longing in his eyes speaking volumes.

I know what you think I’m going to say: that alcohol and vulnerability conspired to push me into his arms; that when our lips touched, it was with an explosion of desire that incorporated Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve, July the Fourth and every other major fireworks display; that all the months of agony and heartache disappeared when I realised that my best friend was also The One … Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not how it turned out.

We sat and stared at each other for what seemed like ages, the silence between us growing more uncomfortable by the second. His declaration had built a wall between our easy intimacy: things would never be the same again and we both knew it.

Eventually, he spoke. “I shouldn’t have said anything, should I?”

My silence was the only answer he needed.

“I suppose I’d better go, then.” The awkwardness we both felt was palpable.

“I suppose you should.”

We never spoke of that night again.

The following day, I took my rejected essay to Martin Green for a second opinion. If he agreed that it was terrible, then I’d rethink my course; but, in the end, his criticism was more kind than Dr Small’s.

“It’s not a total failure,” he told me, having read the first page. “I’d jettison the first paragraph and start from the bit where you talk about Blake’s reception as a poet. After that, it’s not too bad – not as good as last term’s essay, maybe; but it’s not dire.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could have you back as my tutor?” I asked hesitantly. “I think maybe there’s a bit of a personality clash between Dr Small and me.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he promised and, a week later, I was back where I’d started.

After a while, I began to forget Dr Small. His voice ceased to thrill or mesmerise me the way it had before; and now that I no longer hung on his every word, I realised that he wasn’t even a particularly good lecturer. He was adequate, but not that great.

That’s when I finally fell in love properly: not with a man, but with a subject.  I rapidly became aware that English Literature was my true love – my first and last.

When I did finally marry, years later, it was someone I met by chance at a friend’s party: he was a scientist, not an English graduate, but somehow we just clicked.

All stories are love stories; but they’re not always predictable.

Day 16 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is the Post Script to yesterday’s entry – after all, this is a story of only eight words, more like an afterthought than an actual creative composition.

However, telling a story with as few words as possible is a definite art form: several newspapers and magazines regularly run competitions where entrants have to write a story on a given theme, using only 50 words or fewer. As a teacher, I’ve given the same challenge to students in the past: it’s a good way to decide what’s really important in a story.

So, below is my eight words entry, followed by some of the examples of 50 words stories you can find online. Authors have been credited.

My short story entry

The Divorce: their life ended; her life began.

Examples of 50 words stories from other writers

The Scottish Book Trust has some fantastic entries from children and teenagers – here are a few prizewinning stories:

Theme: your story must include a piano

All-age category winner by Lisa Holland:
The boogie-woogie was driving her crazy. 
Every night, downstairs, her brother would practise those songs on the old piano.
Every night, upstairs, the music would keep her awake.
Until the day she crept downstairs in her pyjamas, and smashed the lid on his fingers.
Now his knuckles had the blues.

Theme: your story must include a bike ride

All-age category winner by Giancarlo Rinaldi:

“Look mum, one hand!” cried Luca, excitedly, the first time he cycled past the family home. Then, the second time around, he shouted with even greater delight: “Look mum, no hands!” But, on the third passing, it was the bicycle that spoke. “Look mum,” it said. “No Luca!”

Theme: your story must include time travel

Young Writers (12-18) category winning fictional story by Ashley Willis, age 16:

Travelling back in time to kiss your tiny palm clinging to life. I’m shredding you out of your skin of wires, machines and pushing you on a swing, healthy giggles erupting the sky. Your life isn’t marked on a stone rotting from rain and tears. In the past you breathe.

It would be interesting to see if any of these talented children become professional writers in the future.

Day 15 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

It must be the weekend because I’ve had time to sit and write at leisure instead of squeezing it into the few precious moments between work and sleep. After the recent briefs of writing an epistolary piece and than an ’80s style ‘Write Your Own Adventure’, it’s been good to return to ‘proper’ story writing today.

Three Sides To Every Story

You gaze at the man lying next to you – the perfect husband; the father of your children – and suddenly you realise that you don’t know him at all.

She wasn’t prying when she discovered the email. He’d left his laptop lying open again and she went to shut it, before the kids could touch something and delete an important work file – and that’s when she saw it.

It’s so hard not having you here all the time. When you come round, I think this is what life is supposed to be like, and then you hurry away at the end of the evening and I’m all alone. Get here as soon as you can tonight. Missing you already xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The knowledge was so unexpected that it caught her off-guard. Was that where he was every night he said he was ‘working late’? How long had it been going on for? Her fingers trembled as she scrolled up the screen to see how many other emails there were from this unknown woman and the sick feeling at the back of her throat intensified.

Last night meant so much …

I wish you could hold me forever …

Can you get away for a weekend? I really want to be able to wake up with you.

She’d thought that knowing would help her understand: instead, it just made her feel worse. He loved someone else, was spending evenings with her instead of with his family. Large, salty tears rolled down her face as she wept for what she’d lost.

*

Women! Why did they have to be so emotional?

You think you’ve got it all figured out by the time you hit thirty: you’re married; settled – then along comes someone who wants you so much that you can’t help straying. After all, it’s flattering to be the one being chased. It’s every man’s dream, isn’t it? To have an attractive woman practically throwing herself at you every time you see her?

Of course, the first time he’d met her, he’d had no idea what would happen. She was a new client and he’d been sent round to do her taxes. He didn’t normally make house calls, but she was paying a lot for the firm’s services – and that meant a substantial percentage for him.

It had seemed quite innocent at first. She’d offered him a drink when he arrived and, despite his better judgement, he’d accepted a glass of wine, telling himself that he’d be okay to drive by the time he’d finished checking her accounts.

Her fingers had touched his as she’d handed him the glass. Startled, he’d looked up, detected something in her eye that suggested she might be interested in more than business. Responding to an unspoken question, he’d followed her into the bedroom and towards the large, unmade bed whose rumpled covers hinted at what she had in mind.

Afterwards, as he dressed hurriedly, she watched him from the bed, her face flushed, her eyes sultry. “That was an unexpected treat!” she murmured.

He said nothing, guilt already choking him. What had he been thinking? He couldn’t let it happen again.

But he did.

*

How did you let yourself get into this mess? she wonders. Before him, it was all so simple. You never let your heart get involved.

She’d thought at first that he would be like the others: a brief interlude of pleasure to break up an otherwise monotonous day. When you worked from home, running your own business, it got pretty lonely. She could have hired an assistant – someone for companionship more than anything else; but she was too paranoid of having her ideas stolen. Freelance design was a poisoned chalice: if you weren’t careful, it would destroy you.

Now she realises that he’s just as dangerous. Her heart used to be intact: these days, it’s just a collection of fragments and each one has his name written on it. She’s a stick of rock, stamped all the way through with her love for a man she can never truly have. Why are you torturing yourself like this? she asks herself, hearing the answer in a whisper: ‘Because half a relationship is better than no relationship at all.’

*

Last night, he didn’t come home until almost midnight. By then, you’d read all the emails, waded through all the heartfelt emotion poured out on page after page. You’d torn at your heart by counting all the kisses, listing all the times she told him she loved him.

And now? Now it feels like there’s nothing left. This man is a stranger. You’re suddenly afraid.

*

I think she suspects something. Last night, she was asleep when I got in. It wasn’t that late – only eleven or just after. This morning, though … She’s lying there, watching me, pretending to be asleep. My eyes are closed, but I can feel the disapproval radiating from her. Maybe I should just confess – get it out of my system; clear the air.

But what if she kicks me out? Or, worse still, asks me to choose …

Choose! I can’t choose! How do you make a choice between two things you want equally? It’s like asking someone to choose between eating and sleeping, drinking and breathing.

No, better to say nothing, to let her think she’s imagining it. I can’t give either one of them up. I shouldn’t have to.

*

She wakes, as usual, in a bed empty of anyone other than herself. Every morning it’s the same: the night before always feels like a dream, an illusion. Greedily she clutches at any lingering moments that glitter like dewdrops on the spiderweb of memory, but the mirage melts in her fingers and she is left lonely and bereft.

When he isn’t here, the ache in her heart is so strong it feels like her soul is being ripped out of her body in a grotesque parody of giving birth. I’m pregnant with misery, she thinks sadly, knowing that he’ll never give her a child when he has a family of his own already.

She spotted them in the park once: he’d foolishly told her he was taking the children out for the afternoon on Sunday. He didn’t know she was there: she sat, stalker-like, swathed in scarf and woolly hat, peeping out at them from behind her copy of ‘The Telegraph’. Was that why these papers were so large? So people – spies, rejected lovers – could hide behind them whilst on stake-out?

She’d planned, at first, to wander up casually and say hello. A part of her was curious to see his children up close, to ascertain whether they looked more like him or Her.

She couldn’t do it. This was a part of his other life: she couldn’t intrude.

Bitterly, she wondered why it was that men could compartmentalise so easily: a box for work; a box for his wife and children; a box for his mistress. What was it Byron had said? Something about love being only a part of a man’s life but being “Woman’s whole existence”. And Byron should know! she thought grimly. Didn’t he have something like sixteen illegitimate children? He was definitely the ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ type.

Long after they’d left the park, she still sat there, her fingers freezing in the cold. But they weren’t as icy as her heart.

*

Looking forward to seeing you tonight. I can’t believe how much I miss you when you’re not here. My bed feels empty without you in it.

He stares at the email, his heart thumping. She knows.

“Do I need to show you the rest?” Her voice is tight; she’s holding onto self-control by her fingertips, as if it is a clifftop and she is clinging to the edge.

He doesn’t answer, so she continues to scroll through every damning scrap of evidence:

The first time I saw you, my heart swelled with the crescendo of violins. You are all I can think about, day or night. I love you. I love you. I love you. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

I’ve missed you so much these past few weeks. It’s been the longest fortnight ever. Come round as soon as you get back. Love you xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

All is not lost, though: he’d prepared for this eventuality, deleted his own emails so only her side of the conversation remains.

“She’s a client with a crush on me,” he says confidently. “It’s all one-sided, I promise. Look, all the emails are from her – I haven’t encouraged her.”

She’s less certain now, wanting to believe him – if only to save her marriage; dreading the consequences if she lets him get away with it.

He takes hold of her shoulders gently, twists her round to face him as deftly as he manipulates her with his words.

“Would I really be stupid enough to leave the emails on my laptop if I was having an affair?”

Now he says it, it all sounds so preposterous that she almost laughs. Almost. Not quite.

“What about the email with a thousand kisses?” she asks in a small voice.

He feigns surprise. “Really? I had no idea. I haven’t read any of her messages – she’s obviously deluded.”

“A thousand kisses,” she repeats. “I counted them all. That’s a bit over the top if it’s just one-sided.”

“There’s nothing going on – I promise.”

And his eyes are so sincere, his tone so heartfelt that she starts to wonder if he’s telling the truth.

*

We sit in still proximity as the evening draws to a close. The words you’ve told me are still echoing in my mind; half-empty wineglasses pressed to our lips.

“You always knew it would be over if She ever found out,” is what you say at last, and I nod dumbly, unable to protest.

I’ve already taken you to my bed – ‘break up sex’, that’s what they call it these days. Ironic, isn’t it, that an act of closeness should be the way to say goodbye.

By now, I know She’s seen the emails and that you’ve covered your back by lying. Technically, we could carry on as before – she’s not really any the wiser.

That’s not what you’ve decided, though: even the ghost of a suspicion is enough to make you terminate this contract and take your business elsewhere.

“I’ll pass you on to one of the other accountants.” You’re looking down as you say it; won’t let me catch your eye. “Will’s good – and he’s single. You never know: you might hit it off …”

Beneath the bravado, behind the façade, you hurt as much as I do – only you’ll never admit it.

Time ticks by slowly: each second an unbearable lifetime. The evening’s turned into tomorrow – and instead of making love, we’re waiting for you to go.

Day 12 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Musings on T S Eliot

The clock ticked by as the students sat in silence, writing as if their lives depended on it.

Rachel Wood, a teacher for thirty five years, surveyed the sea of faces in front of her, wondering if this time their writing would make sense. She had tried so hard to make poetry accessible, but ‘The Love song of J Alfred Prufrock’ was challenging at the best of times – and these pupils weren’t exactly the brightest in the school. In the end, she’d just told them that the poem was a whole jumble of thoughts and feelings going on inside someone’s head as he skipped from thinking about asking a woman out to being distracted by the cat-like qualities of fog. Dared she actually hope to believe that they’d learned something? That they’d actually written something meaningful?

Her eye fell on Asad, the pupil on whom she’d pinned all her hopes for the assessment. Last time, she’d been impressed by Rosie, writing frantically for the whole hour and putting her hand up three times for extra paper – until she’d collected in the scripts and realised that the girl had panicked and just written her name over and over again. How many more years could she stand this? she wondered, unaware that Rosie was thinking the same thing. How many more years before she could leave school and do something else? There was no point in English – she could speak it already. And why did Miss keep making them read poems? This Toilet guy was so boring! She wondered if they’d got the new trainers in yet. The blue ones. She didn’t like the black ones – they were too much like Sam’s. If she wasn’t careful, he’d ‘accidentally on purpose’ pick hers up instead of his own and wear them to school.

Perhaps she should have read them ‘The Waste Land’ instead? That was a far better example of stream of consciousness, with its train of thought flitting from one character to another, dropping in casual allusions to any number of literary works that the reader was expected to recognise. Was it true, what she’d once read – that Eliot deliberately removed half of the poem before he published it, to make it as confusing as possible for the reader?

It was too confusing! Sonia thought in despair. She’d revised ‘My Father Thought It’, not this rubbish. She got the idea of the boy rebelling against his dad, but this poem was stupid. What would her dad think if she got her nose pierced? Or her bellybutton? Did it hurt? Kate had said she’d had her bellybutton done and it went all scabby. She had to take the piercing out. Gross, that’s what it was – she remembered Kate showing her in PE. She might have had it done at a dodgy place, though. Did they need licences to give you piercings? What time was it now? She was starving. Hopefully it would be lasagne.

“Eliot captures the indecision of Prufrock as he struggles to make up his mind,” wrote Asad. He knew what the guy was on about: he’d been trying to make up his own mind for weeks now. Was he going to ask Rosie out; or should he stick to a ‘nice’ Asian girl and make his parents happy? The trouble was, none of the Asian girls he knew were very ‘nice’: they were loud and exuberant, talking too much in lessons and plastering their faces with makeup. Rosie was feisty too, but somehow, with her, it was different. She didn’t pretend, Rosie – what you saw was what you got. None of these strange, synthetic perfumes the others doused themselves with: Rosie smelled of sweat and chips and fresh air – natural scents. He was already more than a little in love with her; she didn’t know he existed.

“You have twenty minutes left.” Not that it would make any difference to some of them, Rachel thought dispassionately. They could write for hours and it would still be the same old rubbish. Take Ibrahim, for example: he was absent more often than he was present; and when he did attend, he sat in the corner, clutching his coat and rocking back and forth like a distressed penguin. She’d be lucky if any of his assessment made sense. Samira was another one – lovely girl, but not a brain cell in sight. She genuinely worried what these children would do once they left school.

“The speaker in the poem likes a lady but doesn’t know how to tell her,” Samira wrote laboriously. She sighed. It was daft, if you asked her. What was wrong with going up to someone and telling them you fancied them? She did that sort of thing all the time – had been out with four different boys so far this year, although her parents would kill her if they found out. Well, perhaps they wouldn’t kill her – but they might lock her in her room and not let her out again until it was time for her Nikah. “Also, he doesn’t do himself any favours by asking her out to really cheap places, like the sort of hotels where people go for a quickie.” What did people actually do when they went to hotels together? she speculated. She knew about kissing, of course, but most of the rest of it was a closed book. It wasn’t the sort of thing you talked to your parents about; and the stuff they’d done in science lessons on ‘Reproduction’ hadn’t really been very helpful either.

“Prufrock and Armitage both write about regret.” Sonia had suddenly remembered something Miss had said. “Prufrock regrets not asking the lady out and the teenager in ‘My Father Thought It’ regrets having his ear pierced. It makes him fall out with his dad.”

Rachel had plenty of regrets of her own – this job, for one. Bitterly, she thought of the friends who’d ended up in grammar schools – or even good secondaries. That was the problem with a lot of these academy chains – they were full of rubbish schools that the organisations were trying to ‘rescue’; but what happened a few years’ down the line when the schools were still failing? Who’d bother sticking around then? No, it was time she moved on. She’d had enough of this game of chess, constantly trying to anticipate SLT’s moves and then counter with a defence of her own.

“Ten minutes left. Make sure you’ve talked about the effect on the reader.”

Asad had been profoundly affected himself by the poems this term – not all of them, of course, but ‘Paradise Lost’ had moved him deeply – even more so when Abbas had blurted out, “I wish Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten that apple and then I’d still be in heaven now.” Of course, if Rosie said yes, Asad would be in heaven straightaway. For a moment, he allowed himself to dream of the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. He knew already what his family would say, though: ‘A white girl, Asad? We don’t think so.’ Like Adam and Eve, he would lose Paradise; like Satan, he would be condemned to hell.

“Pens down everybody.” Where had the time gone? “Hurry up, please. It’s time.” Like last orders, she thought, wryly, realising how much she needed a drink. Was it really only one twenty?

A clatter of pens being placed on the table; a rustle of paper as sheets were stacked neatly.

Her brain allowed one half-formed thought to pass: “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

Day 10 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Snail Trail

There was definitely a snail in the orange juice.

*

Back in the early 1990s, I shared a house with four other twenty-somethings in Edgbaston in Birmingham. Not a student house, I hasten to add: Simon, my live-in landlord, had just graduated and – thanks to a very generous inheritance from a recently deceased relative – had bought a five bedroomed detached house on a respectable road. (Edward Road, notorious at the time for drug dealing and prostitution, was only a few minutes’ walk away, but we pretended not to know that.)

Anyway, there were five of us altogether: Simon; a guy called Mark, who was doing Psychology at Aston; Sue, who eventually became Simon’s girlfriend and, later still, married him; Kerry, a second year Medic; and me. It was all very civilised, with a rota for the housework and cooking, and house ‘film nights’ in front of the TV where we’d indulge in a ‘chocolate frenzy’ aka a huge, communal bowl of Maltesers, M&Ms, chocolate buttons and anything else that was bite-sized. Simon had a dining room, and we’d gather in there for our evening and weekend meals, and actually sit down to breakfast instead of eating it ‘on the hoof’.

I was in the kitchen one Friday morning, just the other side of the dining room, when I heard the shrieks and rushed in to investigate. There, in Sue’s glass of orange juice, was a snail – bobbing up and down and looking most uncomfortable.

“Eurgh!” I exclaimed without thinking. “Where did that come from?”

Sue rolled her eyes at me. “The orange juice! There was a snail in the bottle of orange juice!” (We normally bought cartons of Tesco’s value brand juice; but, last Saturday, someone had thought we deserved to try the good stuff and so we’d bought a bottle of ‘freshly squeezed’ juice which had cost an arm and a leg.)

“Are you sure?” I asked doubtfully. (It was expensive juice, after all.)

Sue looked aggrieved. “Well, where else could it have come from?” she demanded. “I’m going to ring Tesco now and complain.”

She grabbed the half-empty bottle off juice and stalked off. I gazed at the glass she’d left behind, wondering how on earth a large supermarket chain had allowed something like this to happen, then turned and went back into the kitchen to finish putting my own breakfast together. I’d been looking forward to sampling the posh orange juice before this happened, but now I decided I’d stick with coffee instead.

*

I was in a rush that morning – I had a nine o’clock English lecture; Anglo-Saxon actually – so I didn’t stop to wash up my own breakfast things, the way we normally did. Mark was just entering the kitchen as I left: he never started until eleven on Fridays. “Help me out and wash up my breakfast things?” I pleaded, not wanting to miss my bus. He nodded, knowing I’d return the favour another day.

*

By the time I got back from campus that afternoon (I’d finished at 3pm), the house was in uproar. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Mark washed up the glass with the snail in it!” Sue told me. She sounded as if she couldn’t believe that anyone would do such a stupid thing. “It was when I was ringing Tesco – he didn’t know about the snail and he just tipped the contents of the glass down the sink.”

“Oh no!” I was suitably interested to express concern. “Does it really matter, though?” I asked next.

“It does when you’ve told Tesco you’ll take the snail in to show them!” was her grim reply. “I’ve been out into the garden to try to find a replacement, but so far, no luck.”

“So are you not going to bother then?” I wanted to know. If you asked me, it seemed that hunting snails in the garden was taking things too far.

Sue snorted. “What, and miss getting some sort of compensation? Have you any idea how traumatic it was to find a snail in my juice? It’s a good job I spotted it before I drank any!”

She was still muttering an hour and a half later, when Simon came home, but by the time we’d all eaten and watched a film together, she seemed to be calming down.

*

Saturday. None of us had to get up early and we all made the most of the opportunity for a lie-in. I didn’t surface until half nine; and, when I did, I discovered there was no milk in the fridge.

“Has no one bothered to bring it in yet?” Kerry remarked in surprise. Back then, more people used milkmen than they did today: you only really bought cartons of milk in an emergency.

I was desperate for a cup of tea by this stage, so I padded to the front door in my nightshirt, thinking I could carry at least two. Grabbing a couple of the bottles that sat waiting patiently by the doorstep, I made my way back into the kitchen.

“Bring a bottle of milk in here,” someone called. “It’s just run out in the jug and I need to put more on my cornflakes.”

I rescued the stewed teabag from my mug, added milk, then carried the bottle through to the dining room. Mark and Kerry were seated at the table, a bowl of cornflakes in front of Kerry and a plate of toast beside Mark. As I handed over the milk, something detached itself from the bottom of the bottle and fell plop! into Kerry’s bowl.

“What the …” she began, looking startled.

The three of us stared at the snail, which was enjoying an unexpected bath.

That’s when I realised what must have happened the previous day: the snail in Sue’s juice must have hitched a lift on the milk bottle and detached itself as the milk was passed down the table. And she’d spent hours convinced that it was all Tesco’s fault.

“Sue …” Kerry said sweetly as our housemate entered the dining room, “look what I’ve just found.”

“My snail!” Sue looked totally mystified.

“No,” Mark corrected her, “Kerry’s snail. It’s in her cornflakes.”

“That’s even more compensation!” Sue breathed, pound signs all but flashing in her eyes.

“I don’t think so.” We gently told her about the milk bottles and how it looked as if Tesco was innocent after all, but she wasn’t listening.

“Give me your bowl, Kerry!” Sue ordered, her voice steely with determination. “I’m going to wash the milk and cornflakes off that snail and then we’re going to Tesco!”

Day 8 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Recently, a work colleague who’d just read my latest novella asked, “Is it true?” I suppose I should be flattered that she found my writing convincing; but for many of us, trying to explain that the stories we write are works of fiction is often an uphill struggle. Whilst we may be inspired by real life people or events, fiction is still fiction. So, for any of you wondering whether today’s offering is based on my own teenage years, the answer is ‘It’s pure imagination.’

First Dates and Football Socks

I was thirteen when I fell for the captain of the football team.

Mark, my brother, was football-obsessed – always had been. I, on the other hand, was a ‘typical’ girl, with only a vague notion of how the game worked and no knowledge at all of the offside rule.

All that changed, though, when I got my first crush. Dave Thomas was fifteen, the same age as my brother, but he looked like a totally different species. Mark was still at the gangly stage, you see – all arms and legs, not quite knowing how to make his limbs move in conjunction with each other; whereas Dave looked like a Greek hero: tall, tanned and toned. I know it’s a cliché, but my heart sort of snapped the first time I opened the door to him, when he came round to see if Mark wanted to fill in for someone else in Saturday’s friendly.

After that, he became a semi-permanent fixture at our house: he and Mark would disappear into the kitchen together and sit at the table for hours, talking strategy whilst drinking copious amounts of Coke and eating crisps. He never noticed me, of course: I was just a little girl, flat-chested and with skinny legs. I somehow felt that if the boys at school were told to choose girlfriends in the same way we chose our teams for netball and football in PE lessons, I’d still be the one left to the end, standing there miserably, hoping I’d get picked.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I was ugly or anything: just that when you’re thirteen and under-sized and clever, obviously the boys are going to prefer the girls with long hair and curves and make-up. It’s how their brains are wired: they never ever look at a girl and think ‘Phwoar! Look at the personality on that!”

I did, however, take a bit of advice from my best friend, Debra. Deb wasn’t much taller than I was, but she had bags of confidence. She loved clothes and her mum had actually given her a clothing allowance once we started in Year Nine. It wasn’t a lot, but it meant that she could update her wardrobe on a regular basis; whilst I was still having to put up with my own mother’s idea of ‘suitable’ clothes, which, to be frank, were quite atrocious.

In the end, I managed to talk Mum into buying me a top that Deb had seen on Amazon and thought would suit me. I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. When it did, though, I felt horribly disappointed: Deb had one like it (only in a different colour) and it fitted her perfectly; but mine just hung off me sadly, as if to draw attention to my non-existent chest.

What would I look like, I wondered, if I had a proper figure? By this time, I’d gone downstairs to the kitchen, to make a cup of tea, and one of Mum’s bras was sitting at the top of the basket full of clean laundry. My mind was made up: I would give myself a non-surgical boob-job, just to see whether it made a difference.

I’d have to stuff it with something, though. I rejected a couple of pairs of tights and picked up Mark’s football socks instead. That should do the trick.

It did. I gazed at my reflection in the mirror, delighted with what I saw. Perhaps I should wear the socks to school and see if anyone noticed the contrast?

Just then, the doorbell rang. It was only as I was opening the door that I realised I should have removed the socks first – or maybe not. A surprised Dave took one look at my visibly enhanced chest and invited it to the cinema the following weekend. (I think I was included in the invitation, although it was hard to tell when Dave’s eyes remained firmly glued to one spot.) As he and Mark disappeared into the kitchen together, I’m pretty sure I heard Dave mutter something like “Your little sister’s really grown up, hasn’t she?” and my heart sang.

It was only as I lay awake in bed that night, too delirious with happiness to sleep, that I realised the potential pitfalls ahead of me. Now that Dave had finally noticed me – or, at least, two particular bits of me  – I would have to keep up the deception; and that meant stuffing my bra every day for school, just in case Dave spotted me in the corridors or playground.

Luckily, once I was wearing my school jumper and blazer, it was hard to tell what shape I was. I’d been having nightmares about some of the boys in my own year group suddenly becoming aware of my changed bosom and teasing me about it. There was still the problem of PE lessons, though: the last thing I wanted was for anyone to notice what was under my shirt and start circulating the story about how I’d stuffed my bra to get a boyfriend. Eventually, I pleaded severe period pain as a reason to get out of PE that Thursday; I’m pretty sure the teacher knew I was lying, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Saturday finally arrived and, with it, disaster. Mark’s football socks were nowhere to be found. I finally tracked them down in the washing machine – five minutes after the load had started. Mum must have seen them on my bedroom floor and helpfully scooped them up with the rest of my laundry. The wash cycle took an hour and forty-five minutes, but I was supposed to meet Dave at the cinema in just under half an hour. What could I do?

I tried to recreate the effect with a couple of my own ankle socks, but it was a dismal failure. As time ticked on, I began to panic. Dave would be devastated if I wasn’t accompanied by the boobs he’d fallen for. I desperately googled the internet to see if it could offer any solutions to my predicament. It didn’t.

When I finally arrived at the cinema, Dave looked at me curiously. “What are you wearing that massive jumper for? It’s twenty-two degrees outside!”

I said nothing, hoping that the baggy garment would disguise my re-flattened chest.

“Hurry up,” he continued, checking his phone. “The others are inside already, buying popcorn.”

Others?

It was as we entered the cinema foyer that I realised our ‘date’ wasn’t as exclusive as I’d thought: I’d been visualising a romantic afternoon with the two of us sitting side by side in a darkened cinema, holding hands maybe, or even kissing (and, yes, I had been practising on my pillow), but Dave seemed under the impression that we were playing football, judging by the number of other people he’d invited along. I think I counted nine other boys, none of whom I knew, so we definitely had enough for a full team, if you included me.

I didn’t get half the names Dave mentioned as he started introducing me to his mates. After dark-haired Baz and chunky Robert, I sort of lost interest. I mean, if you think about it, it was like going out with ten different versions of my brother – and I saw enough of him at home to know that fifteen-year-old boys still have a lot of growing up to do.

Take the popcorn, for instance. Most people would assume you buy popcorn to eat while you watch the film – not this lot. Apparently, what popcorn’s really meant for is throwing at the people who’re sitting in front of you. And if any of it actually hits them, you score bonus points. It was like sitting with a group of six year olds – except I think six year olds would have been marginally better behaved.

I can’t remember now what the film was about because I spent most of the time hiding my face in mortification at the boys’ antics. There was only one who wasn’t joining in – either because he was a bit more grown up than the others or because he was really into whatever superhero was on the screen.

Finally, the film ended, and we all piled into McDonald’s, en masse, to order food. I was already regretting coming by this stage, and the food fight that ensued once Dave and his friends had got their orders just confirmed that feeling. With the exception of Gary, the boy who’d actually watched the film, everyone was flicking fries and splattering ketchup. It was really embarrassing.

After a few minutes, Gary turned to me. “Shall we just leave them to it?” he said.

I nodded, and we left the restaurant. It felt odd to be on my own with a boy I didn’t know, but it felt comforting too. Gary was only a few inches taller than me, a bit geeky looking, with glasses and curly hair. He had a gorgeous smile, though, and a wealth of funny stories which he shared as we sat in Costa, drinking lattes and enjoying a much more civilised time together. After a while, I felt sufficiently relaxed to remove my jumper, noticing, as I did so, that Gary’s eyes never left my face for the whole of the afternoon.

Of course, I knew there would be repercussions for me dumping Dave and going off with one of his friends; but, to be honest, I didn’t care. When Mark told me the following day that Dave was really pissed off with me for what I’d done, I felt a pang of guilt – but that was over very quickly.

“He still doesn’t understand what went wrong,” Mark said, sounding as if he didn’t get it either.

I sighed, remembering how easy everything had been with Gary: how we’d talked and laughed and sipped coffee; how he’d kissed me gently at the bus stop when the number 47 arrived to take me home. Superimposed onto that was the horror that had been the food fight at McDonald’s, the popcorn party in the cinema and the awkward moment where Dave’s hand had tried visiting my chest without a visa. If our date had been a football match, he would have earned not just a yellow card but a red one as well.

“Just tell him,” I said slowly, “that the substitute scored and he didn’t.”

Day 6 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

So, as the challenge progresses, I’m realising it’s not always easy to find the time to write something – hang on: isn’t that the point? The whole idea is to get people writing something every day, isn’t it? y problem is that I want to do myself justice and not just scribble any old rubbish – as I’m sure is the case with the rest of the people doing this.

Anyway, I managed to submit Challenge 6 on time – just; but it’s taken me a while to post it on here. All comments or feedback welcome.

The Letter

I gaze at the envelope in my hand, wondering if life would have been different if I hadn’t kept it a secret.

Back in the 1980s, when we were at university, Andy, Stef and I were inseparable: a sort of unholy triumvirate. I met Stef first: she was in the same Hall of Residence as me, so I suppose our friendship was inevitable: walking to campus and back every day gives you plenty of time to talk. By the time we’d stumbled through Freshers’ Week and found our feet in the English department, we felt as if we’d known each other for years – and that’s why I could never tell her how I felt about Andy.

Andy. He was one of only six boys doing English, the rest of the First Years preferring to opt for more ‘manly’ pursuits, like Engineering or Physics. Back then, girls weren’t pushed towards sciences, the way they are now. Out of the seventy of us on the course, anyone with testosterone was seen as a bit of a novelty. He was a lovely guy too: well-read, a good listener, and an incredibly dry sense of humour. We clicked straight away. All three of us.

And that’s where the problem lay. When you develop a bit of a crush on someone, you could really do with the chance to spend time with them on your own, to put out feelers and ascertain whether this thing between you is just friendship or whether it has the potential to be something more. I couldn’t do that: not with Stef always there, hanging around like Banquo’s ghost whenever I wanted to find out how Andy felt about me. Every time I suggested a drink after lectures, Stef was there too. When I told him about this restaurant everyone was raving about, ‘The American Food Factory’, and asked if he wanted to try out the lasagne sometime, that turned into a threesome as well. It seemed as if I was fated to have my best friend – the Gooseberry – at my side, no matter where I went.

It all changed in our Second Year, though. All three of us decided to audition for the Guild Music Society – they were putting on ‘Oklahoma!’ and we thought it would be fun to mess around in the Chorus together; only, it turned out I had a much better singing voice than they did, and I found myself understudying Ado Annie whilst they were relegated to Costumes (Stef) and Props (Andy).

That’s when the trouble started: although Costumes and Props were vital to the whole production, they didn’t have to attend every rehearsal, like I did; and, pretty soon, the two of them were sloping off on their own for meals and walks and trips to the cinema. I could have wept with frustration – except I didn’t want to ruin my voice.

It came as no surprise, then, when Stef burst into my room one morning – whilst I was still getting dressed, no less – all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and bursting with requited love. I tried hard not to let her know how I really felt: plastered a smile on my face, told her I was happy for them both; but deep down, it hurt like hell.

As one week slipped into another, I felt as if I were being slowly suffocated by their cloying togetherness. How could I stand up on stage in a few weeks’ time and join the rest of the cast singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’!” when I was carrying a perpetual raincloud around with me? And the worst of it was, they were oblivious to my feelings.

Then, as luck would have it, disaster struck. Stef and I had just come out of our Friday morning Anglo-Saxon lecture – sans Andy, who did Combined Honours and had a German Lit class whilst we were struggling through ‘Beowulf’ – when one of the secretaries from the Arts Faculty office came charging up to us with an urgent message. Stef’s mother had been involved in an accident and was currently in Intensive Care at her local hospital.

I saw Stef’s face blanch as she heard the news. “I’ll have to go home straight away,” she said slowly. “It’s what? Eleven o’clock now? I’ll try to catch the twelve fifteen from New Street.”

We walked back to Hall together, my mind rejecting all the unwanted platitudes I knew Stef wouldn’t want to hear. Despite the way she’d stolen Andy from me, I felt sorry for her right now; hoped her mum would be okay.

With my help, Stef was packed in a matter of minutes. “Do you want me to walk to the station with you?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’ll get a taxi – it’ll be quicker.” Hall was deserted at that hour, so there was no problem ordering a cab via the pay phones in the foyer.

It was as we were waiting for the taxi to arrive that Stef suddenly remembered Andy. “Can you give him a note, Jill?” She was scribbling down her parents’ phone number on a scrap of paper. “I might be at the hospital until quite late, but tell him to keep ringing until he gets hold of me. I’ve no way of contacting him myself.”

It’s strange to think now how different things would have been had mobile phones been invented – or even email. As it was, Stef did the only thing she could: she trusted her best friend to pass on the necessary information to her boyfriend.

I stroke the pale blue envelope, remembering. Stef didn’t have an envelope, of course. She just handed me the note and asked me to deliver it.

Once she’d gone, I went back to my room and put the note in an envelope with Andy’s name on it. That was my insurance policy, you see: if Stef ever found out that I hadn’t delivered her message, I’d tell her I put the note in an envelope and posted it under Andy’s door. If she insisted that we went to his flat to check, I could easily drop it down the back of the fridge when no one was looking, and there was my alibi. She’d never know the truth.

But, as it turned out, there was no need for such subterfuge. I knew that Andy always met Stef for lunch at 1.15 in the Guild – there was a bargain price salad bar there and they used to make a couple of pounds last an hour – so I set off to meet him and give him my version of events.

He looked a little surprised to see me. “Hi Jill. Are you joining me and Stef for lunch?”

“Stef’s not coming,” I told him, making my voice sad and sympathetic. “I’m really sorry, Andy – she’s found someone else.”

His face fell, like I knew it would. “No,” he said at last. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know this is hard for you,” I said gently. “They’ve gone to London together, for a romantic weekend. She took a taxi to the station just before twelve.”

At least that last bit was true.

“No,” he said again, looking less certain this time. Then, “Did you know about this? Before today, I mean?”

By the time we’d decamped to the bar and then spent the best part of the afternoon drowning Andy’s sorrows, he’d heard the full story of how Stef had been seeing this other guy behind his back the whole time she’d been dating him. “I had no idea,” he kept on repeating, the words gradually slurring into each other as bewildered incomprehension was replaced with alcohol-induced acceptance. After that, it was simply a matter of walking him back to his own student flat, to ‘keep an eye on him’, and then suggesting that the best way to forget Stef would be to sleep with someone else. Men can be so naïve at times.

I rang Stef myself the following day – ostensibly to enquire after her mother; but then I managed to inject enough guilt and regret into my voice for her to ask what was wrong.

“I’m so sorry,” I kept repeating. “It just happened. Neither of us planned it – honest.”

Stef didn’t come back to Hall until a week later; and, when she did, things were never the same. She didn’t even bother speaking to Andy – she confided to me later that what had hurt most wasn’t the fact that he’d cheated on her but that he hadn’t even rung to ask how her mum was. The light had gone out of her eyes – and pretty soon, it had gone out of our friendship as well.

She and Andy are married now – not to each other, obviously. They never spoke again after my one-night stand with her boyfriend. I had to stop seeing him too: we were both too embarrassed after that single night to look each other in the eyes again. That was when I realised that it would have been better not to know, to hold Andy in my heart as an eternal what-might-have-been.

I gaze at the letter, thirty years after I decided not to deliver it, thinking how different life could have been.

Day 5 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

The Avenging Angel

I don’t usually see anyone I recognise on my morning commute, so I’m somewhat surprised to hear a once familiar voice calling my name as I wait on platform 1 at the unearthly hour of seven thirty am. “Gemma! How have you been?”

Lucy and I were almost inseparable at secondary school: we sat together in Maths and English for the best part of five years and sent most of our break- and lunch-times together. Then, when we parted ways to go to different sixth forms, we still kept in touch, texting and instant messaging at least several times a week. We even managed to keep the friendship going for the first year of university – me in Hull; her in Warwick – but as time passed and I found myself spending a year in Trieste (one of the perks of an Italian degree), we slowly drifted apart.

She’s grinning at me now as if we met up yesterday. “I can’t believe it!” she says. “It must be, what? Four years since we last saw each other?”

So we do the usual catching up routine: love life, career, where we live now – all that sort of thing. It turns out Lucy’s done well for herself: she’s working for the HSBC bank and has been promoted twice in the last six months – something to do with spotting a fraudulent cheque and saving the bank hundreds, if not thousands, as well as being really good with the customers – and she’s renting one of those pretentious new flats just behind the train station. She’s only just moved in, which is why I haven’t spotted her at the station before now.

The train arrives and we’re still gabbing away. She enquires about my parents; I ask after hers. “What about your grandparents?” I want to know, wondering, after I’ve said it, whether they’re still alive: they must both be in their seventies by now.

Lucy pulls a face. “Gran was arrested the other week. We’re really lucky it didn’t hit the headlines – or end up on social media.”

“What did she do?” I ask, fascinated – my mind already constructing scenarios of her being caught speeding on a mobility scooter or getting embroiled in some sort of granny-brothel.

Lucy sighs. “I suppose it’s funny, really – in a way. It was a bit embarrassing for us all at the time, though.”

By now, I’m desperate to find out what happened, so Lucy enlightens me. “It all started when she found out Prince Charles was visiting St Brigid’s,” she says slowly. “She used to be headmistress there, remember?”

I nod. I didn’t go to St Brigid’s myself – my family aren’t Catholic; but there were plenty of people at secondary school who’d done the full seven years there – eight, if you count the pre-school.

“Well, Granny’s never forgiven Charles for the divorce,” Lucy continues. Noticing that I look puzzled, she elaborates: “She blamed him for the break-up with Princess Di.”

I don’t like to point out that this seems to be a case of taking a grudge too far. After all, Diana died twenty-two years ago – I was three at the time, so obviously I didn’t have a view on the matter, being more interested in Pingu than conspiracy theories and adultery plots.

“Anyway,” Lucy continues, “because she used to be headmistress, she was invited to come along and meet Prince Charles with the teachers who’re currently there, and she was moaning about it at her bridge club, saying she ‘didn’t want anything to do with that dreadful man’, when one of her friends dared her to tell him what she thought of his behaviour.”

“You’re not serious!” I breathe, trying to imagine the scene she would have caused.

“Well, you know Granny …” Lucy shakes her head despairingly. “Once she gets an idea into her head, there’s no stopping her. So, she went home and made a big placard, thinking that she could wear it round her neck and then jump out and flash her sign at Prince Charles.”

“The Scarlet A!” I mutter, secretly rather impressed.

“And you know how terrible her handwriting is …” Lucy carries on.

I do indeed: Lucy’s shown me enough birthday cards from her grandparents over the years for me to remember the ridiculously illegible spikes that masquerade as penmanship. You’d expect someone educated, who’s been a teacher and headmistress, to have a beautiful, spidery copperplate; but Lucy’s gran’s writing is so bad that it resembles those hospital charts with all the peaks and troughs to represent heartrate, breathing, and so on.

“… So if she’d written it herself, it would have been fine,” Lucy explains, “only she asked my grandad to print it for her, and he’s got lovely writing …”

“And did she do it?” The mental image of an old lady leaping out at Prince Charles, telling him exactly what she thought of him, is priceless.

Lucy rolls her eyes. “She put on her ruby red mac – to hide the evidence – and off she went, There was a line of policemen outside the school gates – for security purposes – but Granny was an invited guest and an upstanding member of the community, so nobody thought to stop her.”

I can picture it now: Lucy’s granny, looking for all the world like a sweet, little, old lady; and Prince Charles having no idea what’s about to hit him.

“So she stood in line,” Lucy’s voice slows, as if the telling of it is too painful, “and waited with the rest of the teachers who were all lined up to shake his hand. And then …” Her voice falters. “And then … Granny flashed him!”

That’s when I realise that her voice is trembling with laughter, so I join in and we both snort and giggle at the idea of it all.

“At least she didn’t throw a milk-shake at him,” I gasp, thinking of the recent event with Nigel Farage. “Or her false teeth!”

“Would that count as treason, do you think?” Lucy asks, sounding suddenly serious. “I mean, do teeth count as a weapon? Even artificial ones?”

By now we’re both nearly crying with laughter and it’s a good few minutes before I realise I’ve missed my stop. I’ll just have to be a bit late this morning, though, because I have to find out how this story ends.

“So,” I say, composing myself as best I can, “what happened next?”

“She was cautioned,” Lucy says, with a straight face, “and escorted back home to Grandad. He had to promise the policeman to keep an eye on her in future.”

I’m still chuckling as I alight at the next stop and prepare to travel back to New Street.

Day 4 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This writing addiction is taking a hold: awake at 5am, I’d written today’s piece (just flash fiction this time at 349 words plus title) before I got out of bed. Would this have been Britain’s future if we’d all voted ‘Remain’, I wonder? Or if we’d all voted ‘Leave’? One thing I’m certain of is that this writing challenge is certainly keeping me on my creative toes. I’m looking forward to seeing what Day 5’s Brief is …

Susie Sunshine

Susie Sunshine’s birth was a joyful experience for all concerned: unicorns pranced and scattered gold dust from their ivory horns as the future World’s First President of the Happiness Party slid down a rainbow and landed at her mother’s feet in a wicker basket decorated with pretty, pink bows. At least, that’s the version of events Susie’s telling in 2091.

The world in 2091 is very different to the one where Susie grew up. Back then, there were still such things as hunger and homelessness; today, there is plenty of food for everyone and each child lives in his or her own gingerbread house – mortgage free, of course. In the Dark Ages of Unhappiness, tears and torment existed, alongside mayhem and misery; but nowadays, thanks to Susie, everyone has compulsory wellbeing lessons from the age of five – which, coincidentally, is also the age people are when they are born. (Genetic engineering has got rid of all the negative elements of parenthood, such as sleepless night, teething and nappies.)

One of the things that has catapulted Susie into becoming World President of the Happiness Party is her determination to give every individual the happy childhood that she’s carefully constructed for herself in her memoirs. In Susie’s version of events, her drunken mother has metamorphasised into a benevolent angel, doling out lollipops and lullabies in equal measure, surrounding her with hugs and kisses, all but smothering her with love. It’s important for everyone’s wellbeing that she models the ideals and aspirations at the heart of her mission statement.

The history books of the future will look back on the Golden Age of 2091. They will wax lyrical about Susie’s positive innovations: the removal of death and decay, the absence of old age. They will laud the fact that she eradicated misery, outlawed pain. Thanks to Susie, 2091 is full of shiny, happy people, all of them aged between five and thirty, inhabiting a world of eternal sunshine and endless lollipops. Happiness is the only disease in this brave new world – and Susie’s done her best to make sure that everyone’s infected.

Day 2 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Yesterday’s brief was okay, but today’s … A writer friend (the same one who inspired me to sign up) posted her own piece of writing for Day 2 earlier today, with the cryptic comment “I wonder if anyone can guess what today’s brief is?”

To be honest, hers is a much better piece of writing than mine is. I think I took the brief quite literally when I penned mine. And, I do have the added benefit of having been an English teacher since 1992, so my own piece is reasonably authentic in terms of my having seen a number of stories of a similar quality over the years.

I won’t tell you at this point what the brief is – all I will say is that it’s the writer’s equivalent of going out with no make up on, in your onesie, on a really bad hair day. Having said that, it was fun to write.

Take it as you will …

The Best Story Ever

Once upon a time there was a big fat king and he lived in a castle no in a tent because the wicked witch put a spell on him and turned him into a hedgehog into a big smelly man with a beard and he had to live in a tent because a hundred years ago ten years ago the witch asked him to marry her but she was like really ugly and she had a big fat hairy wart on her chin so the king said you are like the ugliest person I have ever seen and first the witch cried got angry then she was going to turn him into a toad but she liked toads too much so she just turned him into a smelly man with a beard because beards are like really gross. And then there was this princess dude who was like really cool because she could skateboard and get really high scores on all the bestest video games and like really cool stuff like that but she didn’t like all the boys who kept following her around because they were like so needy and stuff. And she was really really cool but these guys were like so pathetic that they liked really lame stuff like Ben 10 and that’s what my brother liked when he was three and now he’s fifteen so that’s so obviously not cool, right? And then there was like a monster an ogre with big hands teeth and he was going to eat the princess but she chopped his head off with this really cool sword samurai sword that she found in the charity shop but it was really a magic sword and whoever finds it and buys it will be king of England or some crap like that anyway she bought the sword and chopped the ogre’s head off. Oh, and there were these criminals as well and they had been in prison for stealing cars and taking stuff that didn’t belong to them but they were really vampires because this vampire dude was one of the prison guards and he like bit them you know so they turned into vampires and I mean proper vampires not silly vampires like in the Twilight books where they’re vegetarian and they go all sparkly in sunlight and all that crap. So like they’re proper vampires and first they bite the princess and make her a princess vampire and then they bite the fat smelly king dude who lives in a tent and then they bite the witch. So like now we’ve got all these really cool vampires but you can only have one king chief vampire who gets to boss all the other vampires around so they have this like contest where they all have to prove they’re the best vampire and it’s like The X Factor but because they’re vampires they call it the Necks Factor – see  what I did there? – and they all have to do karaoke but it’s like a song they’ve written that proves they’re better than the other vampire dudes and it’s like Britain’s Got Talent too but if the judges don’t like you they um like they kill you and because they’re like all vampires, if they don’t like your act they stake you through the heart so you explode in a cloud of dust like on Buffy that was so cool when they staked vamps and they just turned to dust. And the contest is going really great and the king vampire gets staked straightaway because his singing’s like so terrible but then some of them like the princess and some of them like the witch and they can’t decide which one to stake so they say the princess and the witch have to wrestle in jelly and the winner gets to be head vampire but the loser can be like vice president or something and so they fight and all the male vampires are like go on you can kill her but then the witch vampire and the princess vampire go all feminist and decide to kill the vampire judges who are all men vampires and so they kill them and they eat the jelly and that’s as far as I’ve got so far what do you think?

NaPoWriMo Day#7

Today’s brief was to turn to newspaper headlines for inspiration; however, the suggestion was to take a light-hearted news article rather than writing about Covid-19. (Perhaps just as well since five of my poems so far have touched on that topic.) I quite liked the headline “People are dressing up in ballgowns and tiaras to take their bins out“, so I’ve entitled this one ‘Bins and Ballgowns’. PS To counteract the rather banal content, I’ve used iambic pentameter – surely a metaphor for the poem itself …

Bins and Ballgowns

On pointy heels, she wobbles down the path.

Her odd attire makes passing strangers laugh.

We must stay home in constant isolation

And not ignore the PM’s information;

But two weeks in, she’s tired of wearing leggings.

Designer clothes hang in her wardrobe, begging

To come out and have a little airing,

And now, she thinks, she really is past caring

What others think – she’s going to do this her way!

So she’ll dress up in style for this week’s bin day.

Her satin ballgown trails upon the floor –

At least her neighbours know she isn’t poor!

Her dress alone cost almost half a grand;

Whilst at her throat, a diamanté band

Proclaims her taste – there’s nothing too outré:

She’ll celebrate good breeding while she may.

Of course, the bin bags in her outstretched fingers

Are made by Harrods – snobbishness still lingers.

Keeping standards up is such a pleasure:

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

NaPoWriMo Day#6

Today’s resource was the online journal, Ekphrastic Review, which chooses a different painting each week and invites readers to submit their own creative responses in the form of poetry or prose. (Last August, they published a short story I wrote, inspired by the painting ‘Frenzy’ by the Polish artist Wladyslaw Podkowinski.) The prompt for today was Heironymous Bosch’s famous (and bizarre) triptych, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ and we were asked to write a poem from the point of view of one person/animal/thing from the painting. (If you’re not familiar with it, google it.) I chose to write about Adam, shortly after the Creator has presented him with Eve (seen in the left hand panel of the triptych), and so I’ve called my poem,

Adam Finds His Earthly Delight

It seems that, as I slept,

My ribs were counted

And one of them deemed fit for transposition:

That solitary bone – just one of many –

Took on flesh

And warmth

And softness.

*

She sits here now,

Her voice a laughing river,

Her eyes two stars,

Her form an unknown country

With hills and mounds

And secret hiding places.

*

Her hand in mine,

We walk this world together;

My skin on hers,

We rise and fall together.

*

Flesh of my flesh;

Bone of my bone:

Without me, she would have no life,

But I cannot live without her.

NaPoWrimo Day#5

Today’s brief was very specific: there was a list of twenty different things I had to try to include, (some of them being writing things that make no sense!), plus a link to T S Eliot’s poem, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’. For those of you who may not be familiar with T S Eliot, he was an American poet (1888-1965) who moved to England at the age of 25 and spent the rest of his life there, writing poems, essays and plays and being a respected literary critic. His poems are modernist in form and content, which means they are often very perplexing. (I studied ‘The Waste Land’ for A level, and it’s a collection of numerous quotations from or allusions to other works; apparently, the original poem was much longer, but then Eliot edited it down to the bare bones to make it harder to understand!) I currently teach ‘Prufrock’ to Year 9 students, who quite often struggle to understand the abstract concepts or the way in which unexpected adjectives are used to describe everyday nouns. The following is my homage to ‘Prufrock’, hence the title.

Prufrock’s Isolation

Let us stay, then, you and I

Within this isolation forest with a ceiling sky

Where arguments spring up around our feet

Like flowers, wreathing round our fragile souls;

Let all our words become hot coals –

Some spark of heat to end our apathy,

To energise, to combat lethargy.

O, let us end this weary isolation!

I smell your fear; I taste your sorrow –

Will there be food for us to buy tomorrow?

The streets outside are filled with empty spaces

The streets outside are filled with absent people

The ghosts of those who walk like hazy shadows

Flit through the empty streets and feel the silence

Their tendrils slipping fog-like

In and out of empty streets that have no voice, no purpose

And Boris Johnson sits in Downing Street

Encased in sterile gear from head to feet

This isolation coffin closes in

Its walls now shrink, compressing hair and skin

And bone into a compact ball of fear and loathing

And so this crumpled ball of stark humanity

Is swallowed by the tiger of profanity

And colours dance before my blinking eyes

And newsfeeds scream their worrying statistics.

The smell of sweat and fear and unwashed feet;

The taste of long forgotten tins of soup;

The dry, cracked skin from washing hands too often  –

All these and more are now our new existence.

The world has changed and we have no resistance.

I smell your fear; I taste your sorrow –

Will there be food for us to buy tomorrow?

But maybe there will be a hope and future:

The sun will shine once more on parks of children

And people litter streets with thoughtless actions;

Down ginnels dark and narrow, drab and twisting,

Humanity will celebrate the end of isolation,

And muggings will resume and theft and arson;

And we will celebrate that we have ‘freedom’.

Pollution will revive and grow much stronger –

“But,” we will say, “we choose to mar our planet.”

Rejoice, o man! For this forced isolation

Has only served to show us the importance

Of hurtling on our own terms to our final destination.

“Now sit thee down” and have a virtual cuppa

For all have sinned – maxima mea culpa.

The frozen butterfly of optimism

No longer flutters freely: wings iced over,

It stares with lifeless feelers, seeing nothing

And symbolising death for many thousands  –

The selfish folk who gather on the beaches,

Dispensing dangerous germs with wine and peaches,

May never know how many deaths they’ve caused

Because they thought they would not stay indoors.

I flit; I fly; I am the butterfly of doom –

My spirit soars, my body in this room.

On fairy wings I sprinkle fire and brimstone

On those whose selfish ways say no to isolation.

The Addicted Writer seeks her retribution.

There is no time for taking tea and toast

For I have measured out my life in Insta posts.

The squealing silence grates upon my nerves –

Like grated cheese it melts into my bones.

The tins of soup gaze at me in a way far too reproachful.

“We’re still in sell-by date,” they say, but I am ever watchful.

(Can someone really die from eating mouldy produce?

Are out-of-date fishfingers a form of child abuse?)

And I shall open up a tin of butterbeans.

Can I, dare I eat the soup?

The butterfly of doom unfolds its wings

Whilst overhead Corona virus sings.

NaPoWriMo Day#4

Today’s prompt was to write a poem based on images from a dream. A few months ago, I had two bizarre dreams in the same night, and those dreams are now the basis of a two-part poem.

Dreams

I.

1. I took the bunch of keys

And unlocked the door.

A tiger snarled at me.

I shut the door again quickly.

2. Behind another door,

A peacock spread its

Wings: colours kaleidoscoped

In shimmering beauty.

3. I remember little of the other doors –

What lay within each sealed wooden envelope;

Only that there was a sense of wonder,

A fizz of excitement

As I chose each key and unlocked

The depths of my imagination

II.

The cat yawned.

Green stars flew out of his mouth

And the world changed.

Bodies filled the kitchen;

A quest was set in motion;

And I pretended to be a waitress.

Saturday prose

Fear not – I’m still doing NaPoWriMo and have just written Day 4’s poem, but I’ve also allowed myself the luxury of writing a short story based on a writing prompt from my local writers’ group.

The prompt I chose (out of four possibles) was a tube of superglue – just in case you’re wondering why my story takes the turn it does. it’s written from the perspective of an adult looking back at her schooldays and it’s called

Stuck in the Midlands With You

Guilt was the glue that held our relationship together.

When people ask me why I hung around so much with Helen Edwards when we were in high school, I never tell them the truth. “We lived near each other,” I’ll say; or, “We both liked the same band”. The real story is far more sinister, but I can’t keep on living a lie.

I was an anxious child at eleven years of age, fearful of everything and two weeks into secondary school still without a proper friend. I didn’t fit in, you see: I was small and skinny and clever, and the girls who were popular all had the right shoes and the right bag and the right make up – yes, some of them wore mascara to school at that age – and an easy confidence which enabled them to sashay around in their unflattering uniform as if they were strutting the catwalk in the latest designer outfits.

The boys in my year group were an unruly bunch – they were still suffering from the immaturity that made them think flatulence was funny or that pulling up a girl’s skirt to see her knickers was an acceptable mating ritual; and when I was forced to spend my hours lunch break with them in the school playground, my misery knew no bounds. By the end of the first week, I’d developed the art of hiding round the back of the science labs, as far away as possible from the raucous games of football and the shouting and screaming that seemed to be the expected form of communication.

That’s where Helen found me. I was standing a few feet away from the wall, bouncing a tennis ball back and forth in a complicated game I’d devised for myself. “Can I have a go?” she asked. I flinched, not liking the idea of anyone else invading my private world.

In the end, I let her join in – not because I wanted her there but because she simply refused to go away. She ruined the game too, claiming that my rules were far too complicated and that my final challenge – back to the wall, legs apart, bouncing the ball and then twirling around in time to catch it as it rebounded – was ridiculous. I could tell she thought she was doing me a favour by replacing ‘double bounce, on the wall, clap and catch’ with ‘left-handed throw’, but it just wasn’t the same. I spent most of the next week trying to avoid her, but she always found me.

And in fact, it was her fault that the whole incident happened. Luckily she was in a different class to me – we weren’t set for subjects until the following year so we were taught in mixed ability groups, chosen by surname: I was an ‘A’ and she was an ‘S’ – and I didn’t have to do any lessons with her. She was always waiting outside my classroom door at break and lunch time though … After a while, I wondered if she left her lessons early on purpose – just to make sure of catching me.

Anyway, on this particular day, she didn’t even wait for me to come out of the classroom – she just stormed in while everyone else was leaving and decided to help me pack away so I could get out faster. (I’d started tidying my desk fastidiously in the hopes that it would keep me in the classroom and away from her for a few more minutes.) Completely ignoring my established routines and rituals, she grabbed a handful of the felt tipped pens I was lining up in alphabetical order and stuffed them randomly into my pencil case. I was so traumatised by this anarchic behaviour that I panicked and dropped my ruler – and then Helen stepped back and trod on it and I suddenly found myself in possession of two pieces of ruler. What was worse, was that the ruler had cracked unevenly, leaving me with one part that was much longer than the other. I almost cried with despair.

For the rest of lunch time, I was too upset to speak to Helen. I had prided myself on my perfect school equipment; and the thought of those two bits of plastic made me physically ill. I still have an uneasy feeling in my stomach even now when I think about it.

It must have been about five minutes before the bell went when Helen had her bright idea. “You could Sellotape the pieces back together,” she said.

I knew that Miss Jones, my form teacher, had a roll of Sellotape in her desk, but I didn’t want a taped-together ruler that looked like one of Doctor Frankenstein’s experiments. What if she had something better than Sellotape though? I was pretty sure I’d seen a tube of glue in her drawer when I stood by her desk as she was hunting for a red pen the other day.

My mind was made up. I would go to the classroom now and ask Miss Jones if I could use her glue. Relief flooded me; the solution brought a smile to my face.

Annoyingly, Helen followed me back into school. “Where are you going? Why aren’t you talking to me?” She was still asking her inane questions as I reached my form room.

Her eyes widened as I opened Miss Jones’ drawer. “You can’t touch the teacher’s stuff!” she hissed.

My fingers closed around the tiny tube – I knew I had been right; but was there enough in here to do the job?

Taking the two pieces of ruler out of my bag, I laid them on Miss Jones’ desk. This should only take a few seconds, I told myself, but although I squeezed the tube as hard as I could, nothing seemed to be happening.

“You have to pierce the end with something sharp,” Helen told me. I hadn’t realised she was an expert in household repairs. She wrested the glue from my hands and studied it. “There should be a pointy bit on the cap. … Here.”

She handed it back and I took it from her gratefully, realising this was the only time in my life I’d actually been pleased to have her around.

Flushed with success, I squeezed again, expecting a tiny dribble to drip onto the piece of plastic I was holding in the other hand. To my horror, what looked like the entire contents of the tube suddenly squirted out in a joyous bid for freedom – right onto Miss Jones’ chair.

Frozen in shock, I gazed at the clear liquid, wondering if I could dip the broken end of my ruler in it before it started to set. Helen looked at me unsympathetically. “You’ll get in trouble for that.”

She was right. My careless accident would be viewed as an act of vandalism. “Don’t tell,” I begged.

She looked at me slowly, Machiavellian wheels already spinning in her brain. “Okay,” she agreed, “but you’ve got to start being nicer to me. I want you to be my best friend.”

The bell sounded before I could reply. As the rest of my classmates streamed in through the door, Helen slipped away quietly, and I slunk to my seat. With any luck, no one would notice I had already been in the room when they entered.

Moments later, Miss Jones appeared and made her way towards her desk. I felt my heart start to flutter. Would she notice the mess on her chair?

Apparently not, because she sat down on the gluey substance without even noticing it and began to take the register.

It was only later on, when she tried to get up from her chair and start writing on the board, that I realised the full implications of my mishap. Try as she might, Miss Jones couldn’t extricate herself from her seat. The veins stood out on her forehead as she exerted every last ounce of energy, but she was well and truly stuck.

Looking back, I realise that I should have said something, but I was so mortified at what I’d done that I couldn’t speak. The superglue had effectively moulded my lips together so that all I could do was watch in horrified silence as she pulled and tugged, growing increasingly more frustrated by the minute.

One by one, the rest of the class began to catch on. The quiet whispering became a louder murmur as pupils turned to their neighbours, nudging them excitedly and speculating about what was wrong until finally, with one last, superhuman effort, Miss Jones wrenched herself free from the chair, leaving most of the seat of her trousers behind her.

I don’t think she realised what had happened because she strode confidently to the board, turned to face it and began writing down simple equations – all the while affording Class 1A a spectacular view of the frilly pink knickers she was wearing on that particular day.

The boys started the sniggering, but the girls joined in pretty quickly too. Before long, most of the class was laughing hysterically while poor Miss Jones kept on writing, every now and then turning around to glare at us for being noisy. It was only as she returned to her desk that she caught sight of the remnants of trouser material stuck to the chair and knew that she’d been inadvertently flashing us for a good ten minutes.

Miss Jones went home early that day and was “off sick” the following week. In the meantime, my year group had a special assembly in which the headmaster castigated us all for the malicious trick that had been played on one of his teachers and threatened to cane the culprit – once he caught him. I stole a quick glance at Helen when he said this, but she was sitting demurely, making her face look as ignorant as everyone else’s – she might have been annoying, but she knew how to keep a secret.

So that’s how Helen and I became best friends. For the next five years, she stuck to me like that damned superglue, boring me to death every break and lunchtime with her eternal anecdotes about her guinea pigs and her horse riding lessons. She didn’t even take the hint when the boys in our year group started growing up and became worthy objects of affection: I had to invent after school flute lessons just so I could meet up with Martin Jenkins in one of the music practice rooms at the end of school instead of walking home with her.

We parted company after O levels: I was going on to do A levels at the girls’ grammar school in Kings Heath and she had an apprenticeship lined up in hairdressing. We promised to keep in touch but we never did – I suppose that was one of the benefits of living in a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era.

I never did mend my ruler.

NaPoWriMo Day#3.5

Since the school holidays are finally here, I’ve managed to write the poem I wanted to yesterday (Day 3) but didn’t have time for, due to working from home, creating English language resources.

I said yesterday that Wilfred Owen was adept at using half rhymes, eye rhymes and near rhymes in his poetry, and so today I decided to pay homage to Owen by parodying his poem ‘Exposure’. So, for any English teachers out there, or for any students studying AQA English literature, this one’s for you …

Isolation

 (With apologies to WILFRED OWEN)

Our brains ache, in the merciless land of isolation . . . 

Wearied we keep awake because the streets are silent . . . 

Vodka and gin confuse our memory of the salient . . . 

Worried by silence, children whisper with anticipation,

       But nothing happens. 

Watching, we see celebrities teaching maths and gym; 

The twitching agonies of dads who only grumble; 

All day, incessantly, the flickering TV rumbles; 

Far off, in Tesco they’ve run out of milk and jam. 

       What are we doing there? 

The poignant misery of home life makes us sweat . . . 

We know isolation lasts; germs breed; and washing hands too much 

Is cracking skin. At least the melancholy march 

To school no longer blights our lives and that is sweet, 

       But nothing happens.

Sudden successive bulletins of news streak the silence. 

More dead than Spain: the number rising fast today,

With countless casualties that cough, burn up and die. 

We watch the UK government’s apparent nonchalance, 

       As nothing happens. 

Pale shapes with fingering stealth go hunting for more loo roll — 

They queue for hours, buy up forgotten treats, and stare, hard-faced, 

At pensioners; the nurses on their breaks are dazed 

By people’s selfishness – where are the police patrols?

      —Why aren’t we crying? 

Slowly our ghosts drag home: clutching our spoils of war: 

Once-crusty farmhouse bread, now past its sell-by date; 

The tins of butterbeans; Dolmio sauce; and don’t

Forget sardines – all food we wouldn’t have touched before.

       For good cuisine is dying. 

Yet we believe we will still see the sun again; 

That parks and schools and pubs will once more fill with noise. 

For that inevitable day we wait; and on the news, 

We look for signs this virus is abating – 

       Yet more are dying. 

Tonight, we’ll stand outside our homes and clap our hands, 

Applauding NHS and other worthwhile workers. 

And then we’ll go once more inside, our minds on Walkers,

To eat our feelings and ignore our misery pangs. 

       Still nothing happens.