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

Authonomy – What’s in it for you?

I have a new addiction – Authonomy. The Harper Collins UK-based website allows writers to upload their ms or partial ms to the site, where others can read and comment on the work. So far, so fabulous.

One of the purposes of the site is that authors can get feedback and guidance on their work. Or is it? The addictive quality is in the stats. The process of rating others’ work and placing favourite titles on your bookshelf pushes an author up the Authonomy chart – towards the Harper Collins’ editors’ desks where a read and feedback is guaranteed.

I’ve uploaded the first 11,000-sih words of At the Hour of the Morning Drink to the site but I’m not driven by the desire to get on the desk – a number of books get there each week but too many to publish so many merely come back with a review or a recommendation to the publishing team. I joined to get my work read.

Regardless of all that, I can’t stop checking my ranking to see if I’ve gone up the chart. To me that rise indicates my ms sounds appealing, that my pitch draws a reader in, that I might be marketable. But does Authonomy really assure that?

Many readers look at the first few chapters of a book and then comment and rate what they’ve read. Many comments are greatly encouraging and most books have a rating of four stars of six. I am grateful that I have had a few people look at my chapters and that the comments have been positive and helpful but I’m not seeing much of a curve across the site. Even the top three books on the editor’s desk this week have 4.5 stars. I find this interesting. No sixes? This observation deserves a blog of its own in the future.

For now, I’ve found my way around a little and I’m now looking out for good-quality authors that I think I would like to get more detailed feedback from – I’m looking for advice on where the arc of the story flags, which parts need rewriting and suggestions on how to make those parts better. I’ll report back on how my community-building in Authonomy goes. Meanwhile, must go and check my ranking!

What communities are you checking out and what discoveries are you making? I’d love to hear how things are going for you.

Aiming for clean writing

A while ago I received a rejection for a short story.

The rejection criticised a word I used, saying it had come to its present meaning through abuse of its true meaning. The word was ‘livid’ and I had used it in its sense of referring to whiteness. I thought this was quite unusual and I liked the way it sounded and felt within its sentence.

The feedback said my use was not also incorrect but, in the form I used it, lazy. Ouch.

After I had licked my wounds I wondered, ‘what happens when the people holding the reins know no more than us. Or, heaven forbid, less!’ Heck, I’ve seen short story markets that insist ‘Do not send us work with typos in’ on pages with typos in.

But the truth is that there will always be people ‘up there’ holding the power that allows us to be published, or enjoyed, or revered – and perhaps, sometimes, they will be mistaken. And sometimes they will not. (That’s when they will lavish me with praise, of course.)

The panel of readers also advised that my story didn’t flow well in places, and it is this solid advice that I have concentrated on as I have rewritten.

I’ve also dispensed with ‘livid’ – it’s possible I only used it because I was trying to be clever.

Where is this story going?

After writing three full-length MS I am in a committed relationship with the short story. I’m not going to get a ring, but it’s serious and I’m blissfully happy right now. I do know there will be a time when I marry another full length beast but at the moment I’m learning something new and fascinating.

I’m rolling about in the hay with all kinds of zappy, snappy ideas, stretching them and moulding them to see what I can make (and how many metaphors and themes I can get away with smearing over them).

It’s a form I am not widely read in. (If you’ve read a Peter Carey short story why go out for hamburgers?) And I’m still figuring out what you can say – what the point needs to be.

My older shorts are generally parts of a larger whole that suddenly stand alone, and that’s how they evolved. But the short stories I’m writing now are beginning life as short stories too.

They often start out as an observation – a point I want to make, or a world I want to explore. But once I’ve drafted that crucial scene or situation I need to build a frame around it with protagonist, antagonist, character arc, so a reader can engage. That’s the part I’m still getting my head around.

What are the ‘musts’ with the short story form?

Amazing rejections

I’ve had some amazing rejections lately. You might think that would be slightly depressing – and you’d be right. It is. A little.

But I’ve received three rejections from two different genres of short story market and all three have given me personalised feedback and encouragement. It feels as though – just maybe – I might be nearly there. (I know – there is no ‘there’. Yet I continue to strive for it nonetheless.)

The first rejection regarded two stories that were shortlisted for an anthology. The second referred to two shorts – and had specific advice on where to rework. Re-writing with comments from a respected editor is like walking with the lights on! Makes a wonderful change from walking down a pitch dark highway. In high heels. In the rain.

Tonight, the third submission didn’t quite fit with the theme of the issue but generated some really positive comments. (Maybe I can save them for the book cover of collected stories?) The editor (who I’m now in love with) added that she’d be interested in reading my full length ms.

Deep breath. Don’t get your hopes up. There is no ‘there’. Etc.

How’s your creative work going? Are you ‘getting there’?

The success paradigm

I have felt very irritable and stressed the last few days and I haven’t been able to discern exactly why. It’s hot, my children have been pushing their boundaries more than usual, I’ve had house-guests. There are so many variables who would know where to begin?

Then yesterday it occurred to me that perhaps my odd mood was down to something good rather than something bad.

I know enough in theory to know that being published is only half the battle in the publishing industry. I know once you get published you have to keep writing. So maybe that’s why I’ve been cranky.

I had my first short story, The Boy on the Trampoline, published – which was great, though I’ve purposely attempted not to place too much importance on it.

But though I have reached a significant writer’s milestone, I still have editing to do, short stories that need to compost, children’s books that must remain scribbles in exercise books for now. There’s also a YA ms to beta-read, my promotional blog to refine and all this while these teenagers continue bickering right beside me!

How are you feeling?

Illusion of love

When Jessica returned the years had changed them both. She had travelled to Australia and New Zealand, stopped at Singapore on the way. The year she spent in a flat in Bristol seemed like a dream, or a joke, or a story she had heard told. Sometimes she would stop what she was doing, not realising she had paused with her pen in the air and her eyes lost in the cold white sky, and remind herself that it had been the same lifetime.

She would remember the time she thought she was pregnant; the thrilling terror, and the relieved disappointment every woman knows. She remembers the sunny day in May when she stood on the platform at Bedminster and watched the city glint in the distance and felt gently peaceful. The night Mal told her of his love; strong and simple under darkness. The small cluster of friends, coffees and lectures, finishing essays, and Saturday nights in The Artichoke drinking vodka and Red Bull and walking home in the watery heat of the dawning sun.

They meet in a bar in town. It’s a new place, called Yates’s. She has deliberately avoided The Artichoke at the other end of the street. It would cloud her memory like pink chalk smudged with a light finger; sweet smoky colour washing over the past.

This time she is staying. She has a third floor flat overlooking a scrap of the Downs, and a job at the University, and a research grant.

Mal has grown fatter while she is almost the same. She lost a few pounds the first summer, in Sydney, trying out surfing and volleyball on the beach. But the barbeques and beers had balanced it out. Mal had loved her large, soft breasts and her steady self worth and her capacity to drink beer beside him.

He looks at her, remembering where they both were, and seeing how far she has come.

So, tell me about your research then, he says.

I’m studying illusion. The way our eyes fool our brain, the way stimuli affect our senses – she breaks off, unless he wants to hear it in detail it sounds stupid. All research does. It probably sounds self-indulgent, she says.


She’s not sure if he’s being truthful. But he had been brilliant. Then. So she tries again. I was looking at ‘trompe l’oeil’ in Paris. It means trick of the eye, she adds carefully, nodding as if he knows. They’re just stunning. And it just struck me – it was the first time I’d felt anything in – well, she rolls her eyes because they both know she has stumbled into that territory. The silent way she left. The silent way he let her go.

The chairs and tables are a cool blonde wood, yet he feels her warmth as he sits opposite her. The atmosphere is lighter, more airy than the pub. The carpet is not yet blistered with cigarette burns. She’s grown into herself: she is excited without trying to please him. But he always knew she would be this way. It was him that would not grow up.

It goes right to the very base of philosophy and psychology, she is saying; the ability to view objective reality. What is true and real? Look. And she takes a thin stack of postcards from her large, pale grey handbag and shows him the Kanizsa Triangle and the Ponzo Illusion and her favourite Dali. He looks at Gala, naked, her erotic backside. He holds the postcard close, studies the tiny insert of Abraham Lincoln down at the bottom, to the left, then moves it back again – arms length from him – watching the image become a portrait of Lincoln. He smiles at it and then looks up.

But what is this supposed to tell us? he asks and she nods and laughs just a little.

You’re right, of course, she says. And she stops to look at him then. His fleshy lips. It’s good to see you.

There’s the searching in her eyes, the warmth in her voice. After the second drink she says that she has thought about him a lot recently.

He wonders if she thought about him when she left, when she took her brown leather suitcase and winked at him. Had she thought about him a lot then too? Or had new adventures beckoned? New cocks with new hair growing around the base; new eyes, and new accents, and new jokes to be made private and exclusive.

They all do this – look at him from under their plucked brows, mascared lashes and wispy fringes when they say this; showing him their soft needy nature, their kind calm warmth.

He doesn’t reply to this. He leaves them hanging, agape; smiles a little.

Another drink? he says, and heads for the bar and orders a double, wanting to tease out these confessions with a greedy masochism. Halfway through the second drink, when their eyes are so bright they are almost translucent, and their cheeks are hot and pink they say; isn’t it a shame we can’t go back? Or something similar.

They look at him when they say it, but something in his eyes makes them look down quickly, and he laughs then and says are you drunk.

She says No! but she is very warm and there’s a sense of holiday in the air. She laughs and puts her hands to her cheeks, rolls her iced glass against the right cheek, lifts the hair off her tanned neck. It’s a laugh she hasn’t felt in a long time.

What do you want to prove, he asks.

I want to find out why we see things that aren’t there.

But that’s easy, he says taking the Dali from her hand – the picture of Mala and also Lincoln. Something can be two things at once.


He says, so tell me about Mike. He sounds like a nice guy. Sometimes he’s a fiancé, or a husband. Sometimes he’s a she.  He always calls them by their name so she is sliced by the dual knife; a sense of loyalty which she needs, so she can be guilty and shamed – and a sense of irritation. He is a nice guy. And she doesn’t want Mal saying that. It makes him appear kind and fair. She needs him to say something cruel so she can pull herself away indignantly. So she clears her throat and sips at her drink, sucking on a piece of Bacardi sweet ice, and tells him a few details, skimming the surface of their life; torn between divulging the boredom, and the gentle bliss.

He’s good. He’s kind. Life is settled and secure. I have things I need. Life is cleaner and calmer and less humiliating.

But he doesn’t need to know these things; these are not the secrets she came to share.

I had a dream about you she says now, which is not strictly a lie.

Oh, yes? he says, and raises his eyebrows just a little.  Now he’s made her acknowledge the third party – once he’s made her bring him into the circle he can play with her; pulling at her pretty wings a little. In the summer they are teal, but when she moves they change to an electric purple.

She blushes, fans at the air like a dog, and doesn’t answer.

Did you tell Michael about this dream?

She looks in his eyes and says of course not, so he knows exactly what kind of dream it was.

He watches her until she feels hot from his eyeballs rubbing her skin.

What were we doing? he says.

He doesn’t say what happened? He knows how to question suggestively, how to guide her.

She feels herself blush against the heat, leans back against the faux leather sofa and waves her hands in front of her face; banishing the crackling ions gathering above them. Then she grins at him and says, do you think we can ever go back? And fights an urge to put her hand on some part of him – his hair, his arm.

He laughs and she forgives him in a moment, without a thought, waiting for him to say yes, but of course he doesn’t.

A girl comes over to clean the ashtray. She turns her body away and sweeps the ash into a small metal bucket with a dry paintbrush. This is how they clean ashtrays in bars now.

He says what about Michael, or Will, or whatever middle class name he has to match his job, and she shrugs and smiles coyly as though she has compassion as well as desires.

The anger he feels is reassuring. He’d like to be Michael; the car insurance on direct debit and enough in the building society for emergency repairs or a new washing machine.  Inside their home the ironing board is put away, the back garden partly landscaped while they wait for spring. Michael doesn’t punch holes in the soft chipboard walls, and she doesn’t cry in the night because he stayed out til dawn.

At other times he merely feels the loss blow through him like autumn winds, signalling long dark nights.

Now he puts his hand on hers and shakes his head, readying himself for the sharp thrill of her pain. Two tears fall from her top lashes because her head is bent in shamed penitence.

Go home to Michael he says, glad to feel his reciprocal cut as he sends her away.

When she leaves she will feel drunk. The spent tears and the cold evening refresh her and there is a renewed sense of purpose as she walks home.

The single lingering kiss he gives her burns on her lips like a fading disc of black sunlight on her retina.  When she is lying in bed she replays it, watches it. She blinks her lips together, searching for the negative of burning sun, checking it’s still there. Watching it fade to a spot on the horizon of memory, knowing it is not really there – that it is gone already.

Illusion of Love was published in Burley Journal Issue Three.

Writing Down the Bones: On Natalie Goldberg

Natalie is so much a part of me she even showed up in my manuscript At the Hour of the Morning Drink. When her voice begins to shine through in my writing it isn’t because I’m sitting with her books in my hand and typing up phrases, it’s because her words have done exactly what she said the words of my favourite writers should do; they have been absorbed into a deeper part of my consciousness.

Natalie has been my greatest teacher for many years – without her I might be typing this blog post but I’d have arrived via a quite different route.

Thanks to her I discovered how to trust everything I had been doing. I’d been on the right track all along! I’d been composting, working with my obsessions, going for the jugular. Practising my craft.

I knew it wasn’t a bad thing to write pages and pages of words. I knew in my belly that somehow I would figure out what to do with them. Now it was writing practise – I was doing the daily exercise that would one day make me a strong writer.

I knew I needed to be observant but Nat put down on the page concrete ways to do this. Sit in cafes and write about the dried blob of barbecue sauce on the menu, the dry grey décor, the little blond boy at the table opposite, whose sleeves are too short.

She nodded – yes, it’s okay to write what’s under the surface. The stuff that’s not nice.

My writing began to extend. Instead of just writing about LL (lost love) over and over, I wrote about my step-father, my brother, my best friend. I wrote about Deauville and Madeira and Cornwall and London. I began to see my passions in black and white – the themes that would separate me from other writers.

I could write about Nat for hours. How I’d like to play word games with her, sit in cafes and write and write, walk the warm evening streets of Taos with her. Share chocolate chip cookies.

So don’t be surprised when she shows up in my writing. She’s there along with my other loves as I strive to be more and more myself.

Who shows up in your writing and what do they say?

Why I Write

I write because I can’t stop myself.

I ‘began’ writing three times. Once at the age of thirteen in an old hardback notebook of my grandmother’s. The second time I was nineteen and wrote two-thirds of a play I had no idea what to do with. The third time was at twenty-four when I decided categorically I didn’t want to live alongside everyone else. I wanted to hide from a life that hurt too much.

Sixteen years later I’m about to have my first short story published. Life still visits me daily and I battle her and also embrace her. And  – as I have done since I was thirteen, and probably younger – I write to feel the pen in my hand, the paper beneath my wrist as I move it across the page. And in the years between I have slowly learned what to do with the words I’m compelled to put on paper because I can’t stop moving my hand.