A Perverse Sort of Liberty

Kinky died. You have to die to become a superhero, so Kinky dies, pukes herself inside out. She’s been sick for years, but now she’s throwing up razor blades in a meaty jelly, snakes, old weak lovers. Heaving them up at two in the morning – waking with a howl because she thinks there’s someone in her room again, but there’s no -one. Just Kinky and her vomit. She went to the doctor but he pulled the waistline of her pants down too far when he felt her stomach and she knew he was one of them.

Her landlord found her metaphorically dead body and called her ex-husband. Together they threw her on the trash heap, and smiled collegially.

Amongst the foul meat scraps and hair and wrapped sanitary wear, fur grew, soft and brown, from Kinky’s pubis, spreading up her belly and over her breasts. It ran down her back warmly, like the stroke of a hand. Her face was horrifying: tiny pink eyes, a nose like a tumour: downy leaves of skin, lips that looked not mutated but unfinished, or eaten off by a parasite. But along with her luxuriant fur was one further wonder – magnificent veined wings, great blankets of leather.
She lifted her arms that were no longer arms. What glory! What grace. A forearm, tipped with five protracted cartilaginous digits, all covered in opaque black skin. ‘I am exquisitely engineered,’ she murmured. Finally, she would be praised for her design. She called out and the soft vibrations returned to her, showing her the silver streaks of cars moving toward the city ­­– the buildings where the men lived.
She pushed herself forward, upwards, let herself fly, falling a little as her small warm body melded with the forces around her. She swam through the night. It was dark blue, balmy and still.
Her sonar told her where the rapists lived. That was her purpose; she was exquisitely engineered, after all.
She knew where they were: the abusers, the subtle mind-fuckers who make you think it’s your fault. ‘You’re mad.’ ‘You’re paranoid.’ ‘You’re fucked up.’ Tapping a finger to their temple.

When she stood on the first man’s balcony, he saw a young blonde in thigh high black boots. Her hair was long, her waist small, of course.
‘Who are you?’ he whispered.
‘I’m Kinky Freedom. Raped crusader,’ she added with a post-modern shrug.
He heard the word but still he grinned. (They don’t recognise themselves. ‘Rapist? Me?’ ‘You’re mad!’ Tap, tap.) He still thinks he’s special and he’s going to get a fuck from this chick at his window. But Kinky does something grand and bat-like: she shows her teeth and emits a piercing screech, bestowing upon him large floppy breasts, and a vagina with pubic hair like a beard. He’s obsessed with getting Brazilian waxes and wonders if his labia minora should hang out like that. Is it vulgar? He wants to know, flicking desperately through another copy of Playboy.
Next she found the one who repeatedly had sex with his daughter. Once nothing more than a little blonde doll, she now gives blowjobs to her classmates and they tell her they hate her. Kinky gives him nightmares he cannot enunciate, and an inexplicable urge to sleep with men that will humiliate him.
The one who held his girlfriend down and fucked her in the ass gets low self-esteem – a mundane insecurity – because there’s nothing worse than being average.

Kinky used to bring home mute 22-year-olds with delicate curls and mallowy lips. Or she drank margaritas and cough syrup and spun to disco anthems. But these days she just takes off her boots, undoes her corset and sits on her windowsill to watch the sun rise from behind the apartment blocks.
In rooms across the city, women have grown fur. They are curling their toes around curtain rods, towel rails, inside wardrobes. They’re wrapping their mink wings about themselves; their kits hang beside them, purring with milky, fermenting breath. The bat-women smile in their safe, daylight sleep.
In those other apartments, Kinky’s men get up. They shower, shaving their legs and armpits and hairy vaginas. They mop their blood. They go to work, wiping their runny, teary eyes. Today they can see how it feels to be hated and lied to and feared.

A Perverse Sort of Liberty was first published in Softcopy

The shape of beauty

Ally lay back on the stone bed. and met the surgeon’s eyes in his upside down face. ‘How long have you been doing this?’ she asked. He was little more than twenty; his cheekbones were strong and high.
‘My father began training me when I was a child.’ His voice was low and soft, like a bow being drawn across a violincello; she felt the vibration in her stomach. He leaned sideward, murmured softly, eyeing the dips of her waist, the dark silence beneath the bridge of her back, and returned to her eyes, her head. ‘How long have you been having these headaches?’ he asked. He fingered each temple. He lifted the butterscotch hair and assessed the white skin beneath.
The stone walls were damp and fresh. A row of skylights illuminated his polished silver knives, the small golden saw and the neat line of drills. He brought her a handful of jujubes from the tree in the courtyard, and manoeuvred her subtly. Beneath the sloping skylight her eyes shone, tawny.
He wore faded cotton trousers and a high necked smock, and pushed his long hair back from his face as he began to work.

His eyes were like sun on steel, like storm clouds with sun behind. She peered in to them freely, secure in his distraction. His nose was too wide. His cheeks were pale. His mouth – she looked away.
‘I’m going to drill through until I almost reach your skull,’ he said. ‘The release in pressure will ease your headache and the increased oxygen to your blood will make you feel much refreshed.’ Moments ago she had handed him a wilted posy of star-of-Bethlehem and he ushered her into his studio. ‘After you,’ he had said. His mouth watered. Within minutes, he would look inside her head. What would he find – a dove-grey expanse? Or will it be pink, newborn, blind as a mouse? He looked once more at her exquisite skin. He recalled the way she had walked across the theatre. Soon, inside, there would be colours, petals, sweets.

Once he had drilled deeply into the crown of her head he reached for his small silver knife and cut a door of skin in the centre of her forehead. He had a steady hand, neat fingers, slim with blunt fingertips.
He cut her so gently she didn’t feel the incision.
‘How are the jujubes?’
He held the shutters of skin open with his thumb and little finger and placed the knife down carefully. He took up the tiny gold drill and pushed it against t the buttermilk bone of her skull. The fruit, she told him, was heavenly. She had a syrupy gloss on her lips and fingers.
As he pushed into her there was still only blackness – the state before colour. And then, with the care of an artist, a botanist uncovering the last flower beneath the dense jungle ferns, he blew the bone dust and held up a mirror, showed her to herself.
It was dark but there were lights – blue-white, violet, and yellow like gold in sunlight. He smelled warm doughnuts and roasting pork. The scents and lights mingled with the organ music – a small warm world of aromas and beyond, a cold mass of night. Children breathed out clouds of air. And in the centre of her head was the carousel.
For Ally, there wasn’t pain. It was only later that she felt the thin stinging wound that seemed to defy healing; for months it crusted a little, fine and glossy like crystallised sugar, only to break open again, oozing mutely. But that morning she remembered only the colours and sounds of his studio – the grey of his eyes as he studied her, the rainbow splitting the sky (or did it come from him?) and the crisp sugary fruit on her tongue.
He clipped her skin back at each temple and moved his eyes down. He cut her from her navel to the top of her breastbone and curled back each slice of skin. She heard him gasp.
There was the Ferris wheel with its seats for two idling in the still night; the tiny orange goldfish in clear sparkling bags of water; there was the candy floss stall, and the perfume of pink caramel sugar.
Organ music and pop songs entwined. Music whirred, running up to speed and emerging as popular melodic tunes with a beat like a pulse, then lilting back toward languid again as the cars slowed down and teenagers jumped out, their eyes huge, their faces shining as they rattled tales of higher and faster and dizzier.
He stood back. In the centre of her forehead was the magical rotating platform, the barley twist poles, the coloured ponies. Hundreds of lights illuminated the gold canopy and heated the black night. The rumps of the horses were painted with bright swirls of pink, yellow and green. Their forelegs pranced elegantly. Their manes were gold.
She was perfect.
He wanted to get in, to hold on to the edges of her skin as though they were walls, lift his leg to her belly and climb over the fence of her body, weightless, in to her world.

‘Look!’ He held up a huge slice of mirrored glass. ‘Look inside your own skin. Here is your blood pumping – look! – here is your warm fleshy brain.’
‘Yes!’ She saw his humid, thundery eyes, reflections of herself, the jewelled lights of him; she saw her blood, her cells and wistful trails of cool blue veins.
He put his hands in her; caressed the bones, the innards.
He watched all night and she sat patiently though she longed for him to take her to his bed. . The weight of his hand on her arm would fulfil a longing she hadn’t known she felt. If he were to kiss her, just once, her head would float like smoke, the demon spirits would shrivel.

As dawn broke the surgeon smiled to himself. He put her in the corner beside the picture window. On the table her fingers drummed quietly.
As she turned a clip came loose and the skin flapped against her head. ‘It hurts,’ she said. ‘Close me up.’ But he shook his head, careful to lurk against the far wall.
He leaned forward and wrote:
Colours: ochre, antique gold, crimson.
There was a heavy banging on the door and Ally started. Even as he walked away, the cold stone walls eating his footsteps, she didn’t believe she would have to leave. She saw the dark triangle of his back, a line of sunlight as he opened the door. A woman with gleaming black hair carried a dark form and her hands trembled as they hurried into the theatre.

The patient was laid on his bench. Both women had dark hair and eyes so black Ally couldn’t breathe. The taller, larger of the women laid the patient down. Her tongue was swollen from dehydration but she explained, ‘This is my mistress, Zelda. She has the evil eye.’ She grimaced and kissed a pendant to her mouth
The surgeon looked at his women expectantly.
Ally stood and wound her scarf about her throat. As she moved away from him the doors of skin swung dangerously and he started, scared that parts of her might fall out, but she remained intact. At the heavy wooden door she stopped and looked at his silver eyes. Tears fell onto her lashes. ‘My headache is gone but now I have some other malady.’ She wrapped the curtains of skin about her chest like a robe and smiled sadly.

The surgeon looked down at his new patient: her eyes had been painted with thick black lines but tears dragged rivulets of kohl down her cheeks. The noblewoman sobbed and muttered.
He drilled a hole the size of a gold coin in the crown of Zelda’s head but he didn’t go through to the flesh. He left a thin layer of her skull intact so she would not attract infection. Through the chalky layer of bone he saw the fruit and flowers of her country and a small, dark boy – newborn, plump and tiny, his eyes shut tight. Her nightmares eased and he made love to her for many nights in his bed at the far end of the long building. She didn’t seem to mind that he would not speak to her.
When Neroli returned to bring her mistress home she was annoyed to see the woman’s ripe belly, but she pretended it was because she had only brought the old mule to carry water and Zelda would have to walk. She paid him with gold which he took without kindness. He looked past her into the evening as they smiled their goodbyes – he could hear the music of a merry-go-round.
Late that night Neroli returned to the surgeon. She put her palm against her forehead. ‘Please. Help me. My head – it hurts so.’ He would find treasures, memories of her family’s orchards, her favourite pastries made with rosewater and almonds. She needed to show these to him.
‘I have patients,’ he said, but he didn’t meet her eyes. He swept his arm vaguely behind him and she saw his books spread open and a stubby candle spluttering but he moved back in to the room. He could not refuse a patient. He loved them all. Neroli followed, pulling a bottle of whisky from her pocket.
‘Open me,’ she breathed. She took his head in her hands, pulling his eyes to her; they were a dark night far from civilization. He imagined himself in the heavy rain, the sky a fog of stars – remembered a desert and yellow mountains. She was like a night in the Negev, alone, and ravaged by torrents amongst a deep bowl of silence.
Obsidian hair flashed as she lunged past him, took the knife, sliced herself open. With deft hands she peeled back the slabs of flesh and pushed her fingers into the mire.
‘What do you see?’
There was a brackish smell, and he quelled a murky cave of revulsion.
Her lights were dim; electricity thrashed along silken filaments, flickered, short-circuiting, fading and cracking as messages ran wild, failing to reach their potential.
‘I don’t want you,’ he said.
‘You don’t know what you want.’

Much later – after she had opened herself – they lay in his bed eating cold lamb with bread and garlic sauce.
‘Who’s Ally?’ she asked with a playful calculated smile, but his silence said more than any lie, and she found she no longer wanted to know. Moments before she thought she could listen to his sad tale of lost love, but the silence became a black stripe between them. She had thought she would smile and, in the candlelight, he wouldn’t notice the hollow pits of her eyes. Now she knew better.
The surgeon rose quickly, pulling the fur around him, forcing her to reach for her robes and go in search of blankets though there were none. Through the length of the theatre she could see him at his desk, his back hunched as though he were cold. Abruptly he started up again, came for her and pulled her roughly by the wrist.
Placing her beneath the skylight – a gauzy purple dawn – he turned her on the stool. Earlier he had sewn her skin roughly, unworried what people might say of his poor workmanship, but now he took his scissors and knives and picked at the coarse black gathers. Inside her a snowstorm blew chaos across a series of mountain peaks. He needed to look inside her and also into her eyes – settled for tilting her chin upward, to the left, pushing her eyes away but allowing the window in her skull fuller view.
‘I love you,’ he said. A long pause. ‘I love you.’ Gradually the winds died and the scene began to shift. He watched the snow melt and slip down the crags of rock. Birds flew in, chattering and trilling, up rose a soft burr of frogs and insects. Hot steam rose and thick green leaves curled in from the edges of the scene. From the depth of the picture a big cat growled low and throaty like a bubbling pot.

Inhospitable, he wrote.

All the while his crude machines measured her vital numbers; pressure of blood, pulse rate, electrical currents. He made a tentative movement, ran his hand down her back. She shivered.
‘No one will ever understand me the way you do,’ he told her, his pen poised.
High and light, an unseen bird began to sing with exquisite purity. A tightness passed across his chest but there was nothing to measure or note it.
‘That’s enough for tonight.’ He clamped the skin and handed her a pill; she liked the red ones. And yet she didn’t move, only swallowed the pill.

‘I wonder what we’ll find in you,’ Neroli mused.
‘When we open you. Let’s do it now, tonight!’ She jumped up sudden and giddy, but he sat still.
‘I’m the surgeon,’ he said, but she fought with him, matched him well and he began to tire. He was curious, he supposed.
She injected him with the morphine as though she had done it before, and soon he sat watching her as she prepared his saw, drills, clips to hold back the skin. She was tall and heavy; the contours of her body swung moodily.
When she turned to him with the drill in her hand he was smiling serenely.
She cut from his solar plexus, up through his hearty bone plate.
‘What is it?’ He tried to sound detached. Neroli was silent.
‘Nothing. There’s nothing there. It’s just black.’
They looked at one another. Neroli reached out her hand and tentatively put it inside him.
‘You’re empty!’ She banged the drill on the bench and reached for a small shard of old mirror on the adobe windowsill. Wordlessly, he took it from her and held it in front of his chest. ‘All this time! All this time I’ve wasted! You’re nothing!’ She began picking things up only to slam them down again on the stone bench. She swiped at the skirts that swirled at her ankles. She left, slamming the thick door.
The surgeon remained beneath the skylight as though he’d been struck by a rock in a clenched fist. Eventually he fetched the bottle of whisky from the bench and began to drink.
When Neroli returned he was sleeping thickly; she could smell the sweet vanilla fumes rising from his skin. Silently, she slid the knife into him a second time, and scooped out a spoonful of soft red entrails/shining red inside-flesh/bowels. Afterward she felt invigorated, renewed. She woke him with murmuring kisses; they made love and he slept again, this time Neroli purred beside him.

Each morning he woke to a coldness in his belly and looked down to see a zig-zag of black stitching.
‘What have you done to me?’
She covered her clean mouth with her hand and hid a smile.
Jujubes fell to the ground. The silver footprints increased across his belly, spread over his thighs, down his back, the exquisite female flesh on the inside of his arms. One morning, just as the sun turned the sky to pink tissue he woke to find her chewing on him; between her fingers was a piece of dark flesh, his sweet marrow glistened on her chin. He turned her out, onto the cold cobbled street but in the morning she was waiting at his door, her thick hands folded in front of her, contrite and obedient, promising to curb her appetite.
‘No. I’ve seen your purple, rubbery organs. You can’t keep your word! Your thick muscles remain gristle beneath my saw and drill!’ Yet he let her in and they brewed coffee together.
When the moon waned he rolled his silver instruments in a cotton rag and sneaked away while she smiled at her dreams, but eventually he returned – some minor need; a scalpel, a sandwich, a smile, the taste of salt skin.

He found Ally in the next village where he silently eyed the single white line – a window of healed skin in the centre of her forehead.
Her hair was cropped close to her skull; her eyes stood out in the milk of her skin and the apples of her cheeks protruded, soft pink, glowing.
He wanted to ask ‘who did it?’, but enjoyed the discomfort of his silence. One of the child slaves, he imagined.
‘You should have left it open for everyone to see,’ he said. But still he studied the scar that served as tattoo, as reminder, for what they did together.
‘Do you -.? The headaches -.’ He said, but stopped. ‘Let me get you something to eat.’
There was a stew that smelled of scalded flesh, from a small man at the edge of the market. As she dipped her spoon, chunks of vegetable floated upward and she ate quickly. Afterward they walked out to the fields. The nights were shorter now, and the evening was warm and fragrant with a buttery sunset.
‘I have another doctor now.’
‘I’m not a doctor, I’m…’
‘ – a surgeon. I know.’
This new doctor studied her curves and moulded them from hot clay. He liked the arch beneath her foot and the dips between the veins on her wrists. He didn’t ask to look at the lights, the music, the aromas of soul food and sweets.
The surgeon smiled, remembering how she had looked, and the way she had turned her head this way and that, proud and defiant and self-contained like a woman wearing a new hat. ‘Does he – ?’
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘He says he can hear the music sometimes. Sometimes he can smell candy floss.’ She laughed and looked down at her fingers.
‘There’s nothing inside me. Neroli looked. She opened me and looked. There was only blackness.’
‘No. No, that’s not right.’ Ally looked into his eyes.
‘What do you know?’ His face glared accusingly, remembering the barren mornings of shame, hot and familiar, the scars he found on his skin, but she shook her head.
‘I didn’t look.’ Her voice was very quiet. She knew there were stars exploding within him. ‘Inside you is blackness – ‘ She looked up, gesturing with her chin for him to do the same. ‘Look. The blackness in you is that mouthwatering density. Inside of you is everything. Every planet, every star, every atom.’
‘I want to kiss you,’ he said.
‘Do you?’
And the kiss hurt more than the drill and the knives and the drugs and the unspoken pleading – hurt like he had removed her, taken everything from inside of her. In poured liquid sun, an anointing – thick yellow light the colour of buttercups – until she was scented and burned.
His tears scattered her eyes, her cheeks, her new lips.
They lay in the damp field, beneath the blanket of stars and dreams, and played with one another, running a finger down the shiny tracks, caressing the dented skin. She put her lips upon his healed wounds, traced gently up and down the paths while he clung to her, wetting her with tears. He dipped his fingertips into the hole in the crown of her head and kissed her once more.
‘This pain is delicious,’ she said.

At dawn he returned to his theatre and the black-haired princess, who stood waiting, with his knife. Her spoon and her bowl.

The Shape of Beauty was published in Lizard Skin Press’s ‘Strange’ anthology.

Robertson’s Dairy

Robertson’s Dairy was published in Visible Ink 25 On the Ledge of the World

While Mylie was in labour we sat in the canteen in a gloomy, humid silence.
Robertson stood near the food counter watching, making sure we ate.
It was Mylie’s first baby, and every one of us felt sick with grief, knowing what was coming, each lost in our own memories of the babies that have been taken from us.
There wasn’t too much noise yet. But it wasn’t the screams of pain that we braced ourselves for; they’re short and easy to recover from in comparison to the screams that come after. It was those screams that held us in silence.
The only noise was the TV. The new advert sprang to life with its innocent jingle. Robertson jumped on the remote, and shut off the set. Most of us have seen it already. Happy Mums, Happy Milk went the childish melody. I looked at Joan, and the older woman raised her eyebrows.
Robertson scanned for signs of mutiny among our organic bean salad, but everyone was eating; chewing slowly and methodically. I know what Robertson thinks. We all do. We don’t deserve any more than this; it’s our own fault. If we weren’t in here all we’d be doing was watching TV and shopping for things we don’t need. We don’t know how to think. I heard her talking to Salim in the canteen once—‘If it wasn’t for me they wouldn’t have their sweet milk. Look at them, looking at me with their cow eyes!’

We knew when Mylie’s baby was born because her cries died away and we were able to imagine her clasping the tiny creature to her breast. When the baby suckles at the breast it releases a flood of love that washes through the mother’s body. We heard the silence and remembered, briefly, the spiritual sedation. We appeared to relax but we were waiting for the real storm. On the fourth day Mylie’s milk came in. Then they took the baby away and hooked her up to the pump, and we heard her screams begin. We stopped at our tasks: I watched a ribbon of carrot peel off, fall from my fingers into the sink before me. Opposite me, Joan stopped twining wool and stared through her fingers, down past her lap, into her baby boy’s eyes; Sheryl, across the room cleaning the kitchen benches, stood quite still with the scrubbing brush in her hand, and thought about her three daughters. They would almost be old enough to begin working themselves now. Not here. Daughters are raised on different farms.
They’re bringing the girls in younger and younger; every morning we can see the girls from David’s Biodynamics taking their exercise behind the north fields, walking their sullen track; tiny bodies laden, bulbous, with hopeless life. I look out for ones with glossy black hair but they’re too far away to tell.

We were the first organic dairy. The first to sell fresh too. Sheryl says we should think ourselves lucky. She says she’s been in places a lot worse than this but I don’t see how.
There are hundreds of dairies now but some are awful—scores of women in long, low buildings with no windows. They sleep in dormitories and are hooked up 24 hours a day. They don’t have TV or books, and every half an hour the comforting hum of the breast pumps begin, and the reassuring suckling starts again. These dairies are financed by the supermarkets. The milk’s cheap. Frozen or ultra-heat treated. There is no vitamins or nutrients left in it by then but that’s all the poor people buy; hoping for a chance at health or intellect like the Superiors.
Flloyds are the biggest. The women there smash windows and cut themselves with chunks of glass. They get infected bedsores which need to be treated with antibiotics and we know what that does to the milk, so in the end it’s no different from the cow’s milk we drank when I was a kid.

When Mylie was allowed to return to the communal areas we clustered around her, holding her weak body upright with our hands.
‘A boy,’ was all she said, and the tears spilled down her face again. Then we all clucked like hens—a fence of bodies, we carried her to a chair and she sank her body down tentatively. And we fell silent again, remembering. Boys were worse. Though we hated to think of the pain of our daughters, we could at least re-create their pretty faces, imagine them growing, surviving. Our boys are spared the years of pain, but right now, I knew, Mylie’s son was alone: a tiny baby, ridiculous defenseless life, being shipped to the continent for food.
‘He was so beautiful,’ she whispered.
‘They all are,’ said Bess.
‘Don’t grieve,’ said Joan. ‘If you lose your milk you’re as good as dead.’ Some of us had heard Joan say this before but no-one wanted to ask if she had seen it happen; we supposed by the heavy ridge of her brow that she had.
I imagined Mylie’s son in a tiny cardboard crib—little more than a packing crate, alone save for the labourer hired to feed him. He, and the other little boys, screaming, fed watery formula to keep them weak and pale. In a restaurant on the continent, he would be eaten by a Superior. She would dab at her feathery lips with a linen napkin and declare him delicious, coldly imitating a woman with a soul. The man she was courting for a business partnership would say how nicely the meat went with the wine and with the two of them comfortingly aligned by their culture he would decide to invest.

No-one dared to tell Mylie about Nate. Her husband was murdered the morning her milk came in; something must have gone wrong—he was virile, square-jawed. Slaughtered is the word they use here. It makes it sound like a war-torn country somewhere far away, where people are stories and platitudes and oh, that’s awful while Superiors peel vegetables and set the table, like the evening news at the beginning of the century.
We’ll tell her soon, when she is stronger—if she doesn’t figure it out before. She’ll notice soon enough though—when he’s not there at lunch or dinner, or the next evening visit. She’ll notice the whispers and the way everyone looks at her.
As we filed out into the yard for exercise I wanted to go to Mylie and put my arms around her and hold her so she could feel the warmth of my body on hers. But she would’ve known then. I stopped staring at her. She looked so pretty, her eyes looked amber out there in the sun, and she was smiling as though she was free, as though she could remember the way things used to be, but I’m sure she couldn’t really.
After lunch and exercise we returned to our rooms. My room is green, which is supposed to be relaxing. I have a TV and a bookcase, but they aren’t my books. Robertson comes to hook me up and stands for a few minutes, watching the milk drip into the glass bottle.
‘Tch, tch. This one’s still a bit lazy, isn’t it, Daisy?’ she says. She speaks as though I’m a child, but she’s not looking at me. Robertson is a beautiful, supple blonde, with smooth skin. She talks to some of the older women like Sheryl and Joan who’ve been here since the dairy began. Joan says Robertson is at least fifty, but it’s hard to believe. If she is, there’s no doubt she drinks the milk.
She sets the suction higher on the cup attached to my right breast. Sheryl says there are places where they kill you for less.
While I am milked I nap. I can sleep now, but it wasn’t always so easy. When I first came I sobbed for Joe. Shortly after, my first child was born and they took her from me. I screamed until my throat bled. At night I longed for death, escape, something I couldn’t express, and dug my nails deep into my skin. But in the mornings, when the quiet hum of the machine began and I felt the gentle pull on my breasts, I bathed in the drowsy hormones and remembered the moments of my life in still pictures. My tiny daughter, newborn and sucking at my skin, her eyes shut tight, her warm skin melting into mine before they took her from me. And later, three boys. Blonde angels with tiny pink rosebud mouths.
Marianne was taken last week. She wasn’t old; she said she’d given birth to nineteen children: ten girls and nine boys, but I don’t know if she can really have kept count. And they say we don’t work. They didn’t stun her at least, but gave her an injection in her bed. They say this is humane. A van came and took her away and not one of us mentioned what would become of her.

They say it doesn’t matter because we’re dumb. They say we’re different. I don’t know if we are or not.
The jingle for the old ad was Superior milk for superior minds. I try to imagine the 22-year-old genius that came up with that. It makes you long for the surrealism of last century. I wonder if he was brought up on Robertson’s milk. Probably. It’s a class thing now.

I hear Nate thrashed and bellowed as they had put his head in the restraint and stunned him. He remained unconscious until they slit his throat and bled him, but the man behind him regained consciousness on the production line. He bellowed as they strung him up. It took more than ten minutes for him to bleed to death.
This makes the meat tender.
I think about Joe; they haven’t let me see him for months. I try to imagine Nate sliced into steaks and sealed in a polystyrene tray and feel nausea wave upward from my stomach.

The masseurs are here, and after them will come the nutritionists. Happy Mums, Happy Milk. At night I curl my arms around my pillow and stroke an escaped feather – it is as soft and downy as hair..
My daughter will feel this loss: the dislocation, the dismemberment as her child is taken from her. My sons: deep frozen, a patty, throats slit. Would you like fries with that? They don’t let us see the ads for that.

© Tanya Davies 2013

Robertson’s Dairy was published in Visible Ink 25 On the Ledge of the World

Keeping motivated

Your 'done' list doesnt have to be fancy!

Your ‘done’ list doesnt have to be fancy!

I admit I can’t remember where I read the suggestion to keep a spreadsheet of everything you do that’s writing related but at some point this year I began making a note of what I do. Thank you to the person who recommended it – whoever you are.

There has been a lot of emailing back and forth this year to sort out formatting and design issues with Sarah’s Song – an individual email is exactly the sort of task that seems like nothing done and nothing achieved. It doesn’t make for a very sexy list either, but looking back over it it certainly helps to acknowledge all the time and effort that went into each milestone.

Behind each short story acceptance is editing, submission processes (all with slightly different rules and requirements), fees paid, rejection, resubmission, reading journals and keeping up with who’s looking for pieces. Not to mention seeking feedback on work and building a community.

For a manuscript there’s literally years of drafting, rewriting, submitting to agents, ms awards, festivals, fellowships. It’s enough to make a sane woman cry! But a look back through your ‘done’ list is a deposit in the self-esteem bank and a real motivational boost. Let me know how it works.

10 ways to improve your writing

Image by woodleywonderworks

1. Take a class or workshop at your local writing centre. You will learn at least three things you didn’t know, you’ll meet other writers, you will be energised and inspired and, best of all, you’ll feel like a ‘real writer’.

2. Buy a book – choose from my top three of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, or check out this list of a coupla hundred on Goodreads!

3. Research a subject – the sky’s the limit (no pun intended). Read about Saturn’s myriad rings, the Milky Way, line dancing, serial killers, war (might need to narrow that field down a little). Much is made of developing character but your wonderfully multifaceted teeming-with-inner-life hero(ine)s need a world to move in – a profession or passion. Reading up on a subject is a guaranteed expressway to inspiration. The odd and fascinating worlds you open can also provide fuel for your theme. My short story ‘Illusion of Love’ began as a simple study of old lovers meeting up for a drink. While reading about memory which I fancied Jessica was studying I came upon the subject of art, and from there allowed my interest and instincts to lead me to illusions. Illusions in art were woven into the story and also helped form the title.

Image by Sathish J

4. Go back to basics – it’s amazing how much we forget without realising. Reconnect with the basics of grammar and you’ll learn new rules or remember others. In my first year as a professional writer I quickly learned there was a different rule for apostrophes and plural possession. I hadn’t even known I hadn’t known.
Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom

5. Study story structure. We absorb much by osmosis – particularly what we love. If you’re writing, chances are you know a good deal about story structure. But what carpenter ever built a house without a plan? Dan Wells’ YouTube tutorial on story structure is excellent. And it’s free! Gotta love the internet.

6. Attend festivals – know what to expect from them and how to ‘behave’ there. I haven’t been to a writer’s conference or festival yet but I hope to soon – and I’m excited. I want to pitch my book to agents, meet up with other writers and feel at home with all the other crazy people who build word-worlds. There’s heaps of advice out there on what to do to prepare for a conference. Research. And get the best from it.

7. Cut – remove adjectives, clean up ambiguous sentences, solidify indecisive statements. Get rid of words like maybe, perhaps and sort of unless they are part of your character. Make your sentences stand with their feet planted squarely on the ground.

Image by runneralan2004

8. Critique someone’s work. Because we are all self-obsessed the process of critiquing someone else’s ms may well shine its brightest light on all the niggles that are present in your own project. It’s also a great way to look objectively at what works in a structure, where and why a story flags, what makes a character appealing, and where a writer is being lazy. Help your fellow writers, build your network, then shine that light back on your own work.

9. Understand the importance of theme – Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is a story about ‘Mischief, Mayhem and Soap’. Why? Soap springs up in many forms in Fight Club; it’s the symbol of the consumer society the unnamed narrator is rebelling against – and it’s made with the fat sucked from rich women’s thighs. The Paper Street Soap Company finances Fight Club and Project Mayhem. And it’s a mere chemical hop from soap-making to bomb-making. Read more about theme in Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s Writing Fiction: A Practical Guide.

Image by Geraint Warlow

Image by Geraint Warlow

10. Care about something. What do you need to say and why? Whether you think the world needs more music, or more meditations on poverty write what you truly care about. Don’t chase fallen angels or zombies or girls in Manolo’s unless you’re sure you can perform seventeen hundred rewrites about them. (Believe me).

George Orwell

Care. Then write.

How was your writing week?

Tangled | Image by sk8geek

Tangled | Image by sk8geek

What did you work on last week?

This weekend I went out to get air and space and write about Josef. He is complex, myriad, messy and he confuses me. From a literary perspective he frightens me. He doesn’t have a neat personality swatch.

I’ve written him already. I’ve written all the scenes he is in – all with Aimee. I have whole dramatic situations which haven’t made the cut – thus far. I’ve expanded him, contracted him, and I still struggle to know what to put in and what is extraneous.

However, I sat down with him, a glass of wine and a laksa and I just kept coming at him. His rules, his cruelties, his obsessions, his sweetness. I aimed to write slowly instead of running at him, over him, trying to skip the hard bits – he is intricate and exhausting. I aimed to drain one whole thread of his being at a time but my thoughts came out of order and I scribbled as much as I could; there were lots of arrows. I drafted analogies and imagery to support my claim that he is tangled and frightening. Soon I will find the way to make him neat enough for a reader – but he’ll never be perfect and I will never fully understand him.

That’s one thing I do know – that Aimee is never allowed to know what is inside him. She can only ever guess.

How did your writing week go?

What’s your favourite children’s book?


I have been lucky enough to read many of my favourite children’s books with my children. Enid Blyton is always the go to for my generation, and it’s been fun re-discovering Moonface and Silky and J’s love of Saucepan man (and 1950s puritanism).

My favourite children’s book is not a book I read as a child – though I loved the old BBC serialisation. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a rich and evocative celebration of the Yorkshire moors that brings me to tears every time. I adore the idea of a secret garden, I love sour-faced Mary (J is endlessly fascinated by a ten year old girl who doesn’t know how to dress herself,) and we both revel in Martha’s breezy chatter and the star character – the Yorkshire dialect itself. It’s too full of prose for today’s child – I skipped text when I read it to J, but its essence remains; friends, animals, trees, flowers, secrets and redemption.

What books did you love as a child? Are they the same children’s books you love now?

A strange truth about writers and writing

When all else fails...sketch.

When all else fails…sketch.

It feels as though I’ve hit a wall this week. Last week I spent one whole day laying on my sofa due to my ongoing back problems – and afterward my back was a lot better. (The medication I’ve loaded up on is a help too).

This week I have begun two blogs but not finished them.

One of the things I have noticed on Absolute Write is how many users list their works in progress. Part of their signature  details just how many projects they have at various stages of development. If I’d had any doubts about my organic methods of working at least that assured me they’re pretty normal.

As it stands at present I have one self-published novel out in the world. I have an adult manuscript which is complete and doing the rejection rounds, a collection of short stories, a draft novella, and various pieces of life-writing. Oh, and a YA ms that’s nearly finished, a sequel planned out with a couple of thousand words written, and a second adult novel swishing about constantly saying, ‘me next, me me!’

Focusing on one piece of work until it’s utterly finished can be tricky for a number of reasons. As the piece comes closer to the finish it becomes harder – there’s a lot of stamina required. Plus, you’re not even sure you’re doing right. You need a professional or a group to work with to help bring it to a shiny glaze. While you wait for a beta-reader to take a look you write a short story to get some air – then you leave that to sit because there’s something missing but you don’t know what.

I’ve begun drafting out three separate strategies to try to get some clarity around what I need to do next. But the strategies aren’t quite finished yet. Sounds familiar.

I’ll keep you posted!

Beat writer’s block – Part II

Girl eating

Are you having trouble with your characters? In At the Hour of the Morning Drink I have a character named Natalie who is not yet as substantial as she might be. She’s not a main character but she’s integral to the plot so she ought to be more rounded. I have a good idea of her personality but I haven’t really written about her physical presence, or brought her face to life when she’s talking.

A good way to bring characters to life is obviously to base them on people you know – but that can jeopardise friendships, not to mention get you in to trouble. An alternative is to work from an image. If you are writing at home in the evenings jump on to Google where there are millions of subjects just waiting to be the muse. Find an image – of someone well known or not – and create an image file of your characters. This is a great way to keep on top of what eye colour and hair colour your characters have, plus it can also be really helpful when selling your book as you can talk about the people you see playing your main characters.

Looking at a photograph of someone is a fantastic writing prompt; notice the angle of the head in different moods, note what happens to their face when they smile, when they look sombre, when they smoulder, when they smoke, laugh.

How do their features combine to make a whole?

Go another step further – find someone in movies or tv who fits your character and watch them – study their walk, the way they move their hands, their head.

Of course, if you can get out and write during the day you can spy on people in cafes too. Write down their conversations, describe their clothes, how they interact; who’s in charge and how do you know? Who’s shy or frustrated or depressed?

Pinterest and YouTube are two great mediums for building your profile, creating interest in your work, and grabbing inspiration.

Pin images that evoke the atmosphere of your writing – pin images of buildings, landscapes and fashions. When you’re depleted visit your boards, add to them, and use them as prompts for your work.

You can also bring your characters to life by making playlists for them in YouTube. In choosing music that evokes their personalities you’ll find new aspects of them to write about. Think about the rhythms and melodies they like, the sorts of music that represents their lifestyle and persona as well as their hopes and fears. Create a soundtrack for your book – and use it later as an add-on to your product.

Now, go be inspired!

Do you need a beta-reader?

Is it any good? Get feedback on your work

Is it any good? Get feedback on your work

Every day I see writer’s asking for beta-readers. Finding someone to read your work-in-progress, or what you hope is your finished manuscript is a bit of a feat. You’ve spent so long cloistered away putting the words down on paper – it’s not surprising that when you need someone to read the work you’re rather lost.

It takes time to make contacts – many writers lack access to physical groups and finding them online can take a while. But it’s by no means impossible.

Absolute Write

AW is a great site for writers. The forums offer the opportunity to share your work and get feedback. Usually this offer is only open to those who have posted 50 times but if you’re not a prolific social media user this can be problematic. However, for the nominal fee of US$20 you can become a Benefactor Member and begin asking for feedback on your work straight away. Of course, I recommend you continue to give feedback on others’ work – just because you’re in cyberspace doesn’t mean you can’t use your good manners.

You can also look in the SYW forums for work you like and suggest a swap. This was how I found my first beta-read – an excellent YA work that was a pleasure to read. In return the author read my YA fiction and offered encouragement and some valuable insights about what was lacking and areas that were confusing. Just what we all need!


Authonomy allows you to upload your writing project – if you have 10,000 words you can make your project public and other Authonomites will read and comment on your work. This is a valuable platform but it has a drawback – albeit a shiny one. The driving force for some is to reach the enormously coveted position of #1 – and therefore the desk of Harper Collins’ editors. Reaching the desk guarantees a written report from Harper Collins and the possibility of being recommended for publication. The problem with this can be that people only generally read a couple of chapters your work – often with the hope of getting a read (and star rating) in return.

This gives you a good feeling for what people think of your writing but doesn’t get you feedback on your overall plot structure, story arc and character development, to name a few. However, snuggled at the back of Authonomy, after the bookshelves and the rankings lay the forums; here you can find crit groups to suit your genre, or start your own. There are a huge number of really talented writers there who will help you polish your book.


As you can see, there are places to get your work read after all! Goodreads is another site that’s easy to use but it helps to know what you’re looking for otherwise it can seem like all you’re there to do is collate an electronic bookshelf of titles you’ve already read.

There’s much more to Goodreads than that though. If you have a published book that’s not getting much attention you can advertise it on the Author Program page. But if you’re not self-published yet go to www.goodreads.com/story/new to upload your writing or work-in-progress. Don’t forget to explore what else is posted and leave feedback on other work.


There’s heaps happening on Wattpad – maybe a bit too much. It’s very popular with young writers so if that applies to you then it’s definitely worth exploring. But for those with finished works, or a large work, it might not be the best place. Let me know if you’ve had a good experience on Wattpad.