A fragment, this one. I do have a few thoughts about where it could go, but anyway, you get the idea. And at least nobody dies! (yet)
“So I hope you all brought your journals with you”, said Leader Len. “Because this week we’re going to do a journal play.”
His name wasn’t really Len, but he was the leader of their
writing circle and she never remembered people’s names anyway, so she’d given
all of the group members onomatopoeic names that describe their main
“A journal play?” asked Suspicious Sheila.
“Yes. We’ll go around the group and you each read a line
from your journal that fits – or doesn’t fit, that’s sometimes even funnier! –
with the line before it. You’ve got five minutes to pick out some suitable
lines and then 20 seconds a go to find a line you like, and no cheating! Anyone
can challenge at any time if they think you’ve made your line up.”
‘I thought the whole point of the creative writing circle
was to be crea… oh, sod it’, she thought as they all flipped through their
diaries and underlined potential lines. Len was getting more and more peculiar
every week – last week’s assignment title had been “Liver and lights”, for God’s
sake – so there was no point arguing.
“OK, so you start”, said Len, pointing at Larry. She stifled
“That girl in the chip shop doesn’t half fancy me”, read
Lecherous Larry with a repulsively oily smirk. Fortunately Brusque Brian was
sitting to Larry’s immediate left.
“I really think she must need her eyes testing”, he said
triumphantly, leaning over to Larry and pointing to a page of his diary.
“Tonight I went to the pub”, droned Dreary Dave. “Three
pints of bitter, a packet of cheese and onion crisps and three games of darts.
“I really must talk to Mrs Stevens at number 21 about her dustbins”, said Haughty Hilda. “I’m sure she’s mixing her plastics with her biodegradables.” Flirty Fiona leant towards Len, giving him a better view down her cleavage. “Spent far too much in the La Perla shop in Maidstone”, she breathed. “Now all I need is a nice man to try it all out on.” Judging by Len’s uncomprehending expression, he’d never heard of La Perla, but Bryan snorted and Larry turned rather red.
She leaves her room and walks towards the lift. She is annoyed to see that there are a load of other people – at least four adults and several children – coming from the other direction. She quickens her pace, arriving at the lift before they have turned the corner. The lift doors are just closing. She is too late, really, but it is either this or travel down in a lift full of people and squawling brats. She dives through the doors just as they shut.
Of course this means that the lights have gone out in the lift. She blunders around in the dark for a few seconds before she finds the buttons, then counts up from the bottom, trying to remember how many floors there are below the one she wants. Her fingers move across the large round buttons as the warm darkness pushes in around her. She presses a button, then another. She has to get out of this smothering darkness, and quickly.
When the door opens, she shoots out of the lift without waiting to see what floor she is on. It isn’t pitch black at least, but the light here is very subdued, painting everything a weird dark orange colour. She is in a large open space, some kind of circular lobby with several corridors leading off it. In the centre of the space stands a tall, multi-armed dark figure, like a cross between a bare-branched tree and a woman, its lower limbs melting into a wide trunk that blends with the slightly sticky black surface of the floor.
“Kali?” she thinks. “Is that who I mean?”
Around the figure are scattered others, smaller, equally black but rounder, grotesque creatures with flexible, rubbery limbs and wide sharp-toothed grins. As the first of them begins to ooze slowly towards her with a horrible sucking noise, she turns and flees into the nearest corridor.
“Um, this is a statue”, she says, struggling to find the right words in the foreign language, “about the lost children. About children who have disappeared, who are… dead.” She looks at the other woman to check that she has understood.
Around them, people walk on through the subway, and in her head are images of the 1960s: Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Olivier, Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. The death of Mia Farrow, strung up like a small bird from a lamppost.
She looks at the small empty bronze shoes and the handwritten notes, each describing the pain of loss.
“Yeah, um,” she says.
She walks along a pale, dusty track between low stone walls and orchards. The road curves around the orchard and splits, one arm leading up over the ridge, the other down towards the blue sea in the distance beyond dark tree tops. Behind her, below her, she knows, is the village, of honey-coloured stone with its strange half ruined buildings. On another day she would explore them, try to lay claim to one of them and hope for peace for a while before someone noisier, more expansive, came to take it from her.
But today she just walks on, in the shade and the sunlight, towards the sea.
She wants to find a beach where she can stand with her toes in the sparkling water, but there are no beaches visible yet. First she reaches a section where the track runs along the steep, almost vertical shoulder of the hill, sloping away both above and below her and covered with dense low foliage. The sea is a long way beneath, on her right, and the view is dizzying. She sees a point, a little ahead, where the foliage shrinks away from a bald headland, and feels the fear/attraction that she knows will take her right to the edge.
Standing there, with the seagulls turning and calling above and below her, and the wind lifting her hair, she feels alive and powerful. She lifts her arms to the sky and smiles broadly.
And then, in a movement so sudden it feels perfectly natural, the ground beneath her shrugs, and she is launched into the air. Her first – only – thought is resignation; how inevitable that she will die in the deep dark water. And then she is falling down past the green solidity of the sloping land, so close but so far out of reach, down, down, to the solid blue-grey mass of the sea.
The scenes in this piece are all from dreams in the last ten days, which have been even madder than usual because I’m still recovering from this bloody flu.
The first one I wrote down when I woke up in the morning.
The second one I wrote immediately I woke up after having it, in the middle of the night (which is just as well, because I’d completely forgotten it by the morning).
And the last one – which is actually two in one – is a recurring dream I’ve been having since I was about 15. Including the ending. Interestingly, it’s getting less and less frightening over the years.
The instant I saw him I fell in love with him. He was so finely dressed, so handsome. He stood on the deck of the ship as everyone paid homage to his royal position and beauty, and I knew I would never love another.
I followed the ship, hoping to catch another glimpse of my dearest love, and that night a terrible storm arose. The ship was wrecked, and my beloved was nearly drowned, but I rescued him. All through the night I swam with him in my arms, leaving him on the beach near a large temple in the dawn light.
I watched as a girl came from the temple and found him, and how he awoke and believed her his rescuer. I watched and wept as he fell in love with his supposed saviour.
I went back to my home beneath the sea. But I could not forget the handsome Prince nor my love for him, and all my favourite songs became sad and wistful. Surely if we were together he would love me as I loved him?
I asked my grandmother if mortals could live in the kingdom of the sea. But she said it was impossible.
Eventually, in desperation, I visited the Witch of the Sea, and she gave me a potion that would allow me to live on land, although I would never be able to return to the sea. I would have legs, and be able to dance better than any other mortal, but only in exchange for my voice. I would never sing – nor even speak – again. And every step I took would feel like sharp knives beneath my feet. Finally, the Witch warned me, if my Prince married another woman I would die at dawn the next day. But I made the bargain willingly for the chance to be with my beloved.
I swam to the surface, near where my love had his home, and drank the potion. It was agony. I thought I was dying. But my Prince found me at the water’s edge, and my joy was overwhelming when I saw his handsome face looking at me tenderly as he carried me to his palace.
Then I was truly happy. Although I could not speak, I demonstrated my ardour in my willingness to dance for him. He loved to see me whirl and leap, and I loved to perform for him, even though at every step I felt like my feet were being cut to ribbons.
I became his favourite and went with him everywhere. Then one day the blow fell. His father wanted him to marry; to marry a princess he had never met but to whom he had been promised all his life. But he declared to me that he would not marry someone he did not love, and that he had only ever loved one woman. I hoped he meant me, but he said that he loved the girl from the temple, the one who – as he thought – had rescued him from the shipwreck.
I comforted myself with the fact that he would never see that woman again. Dedicated to the temple as she was, she would never marry. And so he would always be mine, and surely he would come to love me eventually?
But fate is cruel. The princess arrived for a betrothal feast – and she was the girl from the temple. She had been sent there only to complete her education. I watched him recognise her, and I saw that she returned his love.
Tonight they will be married on a fine ship out at sea, and in the morning I will be nothing but sea foam.
The instant I saw her I fell in love with her. She was so simply dressed, yet so beautiful and graceful. She pulled me from the ravening waves, saving my life yet stealing my heart. Then before I could thank her she was gone, back to the forbidding temple while my father’s servants bustled around me, and I had not even been able to thank her.
I tried to discover her name, but the priestesses would give me no information. I spent many days and nights waiting on the beach in case she should come there again, but she did not.
But I did not entirely waste my time – one morning I found a strange girl, dumb and innocent, who had been thrown ashore there as I had been. I carried her back to my home and had her nursed until she recovered. She kept me a kind of company, dancing for me often and preventing my heart from entirely breaking. But I could not forget the exquisite grace of my love; the shape of her cheek, the curve of her arm.
Not long afterwards, my father reminded me of my impending marriage, to the daughter of one of his friends, a woman who I had never met despite having been promised to her all my life. I swore that I would never marry a woman I did not love, but he would not listen, and soon the bride arrived for the start of the celebrations.
Imagine my joy when I beheld my beloved – the girl from the temple! She had been sent there only to complete her education. As I recognised her, I could see from the light in her eyes that she returned my love.
Tonight we will be married on a fine ship out at sea, and in the morning our happiness will be complete.
The instant I saw the title I knew which fairy tale I wanted to use. The Little Mermaid has haunted me ever since I saw a particularly sad version of the story on TV as a child. I’ve always felt really sorry for the mermaid, and angry about the prince and his coldness and cruelty. So I first wrote a story from that perspective.
Then I thought about the situation again, this time from a more objective viewpoint, and this is the result. Because actually, who is the little mermaid to say that the prince should return her love? She falls for him, she gives up everything – to a ridiculous degree – for him. He doesn’t know what she’s given up, or how much pain she feels; how can he?
So all these years I’ve been feeling sorry for a self-made victim and hating some bloke who just happened to be the focus of what these days we’d probably call a stalker. Guess who feels stupid now?
You don’t always realise, as an adult, how much the things you encounter in childhood have affected you.
“Smells often trigger memories”, people say – and it’s true, to an extent, but for me it’s always been textures that really make the biggest impact.
My paternal grandparents’ house was full of textures; luxurious textures of substances I’d never encountered before and indeed seldom have since.
The house was huge – an L-shaped four-storey Georgian terrace with a cellar and a roof that I was allowed to climb out onto on a few rare special occasions.
And the textures began there, with the house itself. Tall and white, it seemed to be made – or at least coated in – thick white icing, which spread inside to the turgid swirls of the moulded ceilings in the large formal rooms at the front of the house.
Smooth too were the banisters of some shiny wood, starting with a spiral at the bottom and ending blankly in the wall way way up at the top of the house where the maids once lived.
The stair carpet was held down through all that distance by stair rods, exotic and previously unknown fretted pieces of brass clamping the carpet into place.
My grandparents rotated slowly around the house like a pair of nomads, each sleeping in a different bedroom every time I stayed there, and I never managed to arrive at a satisfactory count for the number of rooms.
On one of the half landings was a low upholstered chair, with short wooden legs and a sprung, circular seat. As I climbed up to whichever bedroom I’d been allocated for that visit, I would stop and touch the fabric – thicker, close pile for the raised dark red flower patterns; shorter, rougher cream sections in between.
And on another half landing was a wooden chair with a neat hexagonal seat and a very narrow, tall back incised with sharp patterns.
I liked the upstairs drawing room – a hangover from the days when the ladies would leave the gentleman to their port – with its unusual revolving bookcase, and I always looked forward to sitting in the dining room on Boxing Day, eating my grandmother’s wonderfully wine-soaked gravy.
But it was the living room I loved most.
That was where the enormously thick patterned rug covered nearly the whole floor. That was where I could stroke the almost greasy smoothness of the ebony bookend elephants with their ivory tusks and admire the big elephant supporting the coffee table. There were even more of them in the hall, holding up part of a large dresser. Elephants weren’t just decorative in that house; they had work to do.
The living room was mainly occupied by my favourite piece of furniture – a massive three-piece suite in horsehair, covered with a heavy cream fabric with a kind of indented square pattern that I can still feel under my fingertips to this day. Never will another sofa be as comfortable as that one was. The seat cushions were deep, firm but giving, and the back was so tall you felt like you were cupped in a giant hand.
The animals were mostly in that room, too – with the exception of the two dogs, who were restricted to the kitchen, and the huge goldfish who lived in the bath and had to be removed if you wanted to use it.
Bluey the cat had a breathing problem, and he would lie by choice in what looked like a very uncomfortable position with his head and forepaws draped over the arm of the sofa.
Ginger was a long tailed cat with a timid but suspicious temper who I always picture slinking away under the elephant table. He slunk away for good in June 1973, during TT week, and that was the last anyone saw of him.
The other ginger cat, Veg Veen, had a Manx name and was a Manx cat – something of a runt, I think, as his back end was even more deformed than is normal for the breed and he walked with a distinct sway to his gait.
Also in the living room could be found Brandy the guinea pig, who spent most of his time in a large basket of prickly straw beneath one of the windows. He made lovely friendly squeaking noises – until one day we visited and found him lying still and quiet beneath a heap of straw. Nana hadn’t seen fit to mention that he was dead.
And if I walked from the living room, always smelling of cold tobacco from Grandad’s pipe, through the hall, past the huge oil painting of a flock of sheep being driven home in the evening light, and through the kitchen door, with its distinctive click, I would be greeted by Zeb and Kirk, the two Alsatians, or later by Uncle Fred’s old dog, Fow – a black and white mongrel that Nana insisted on renaming Beauty, but who was deaf as a post and would in truth wag its tail at any name.
Or I could go out into the cold, greenly damp back yard, always in shadow, and look at the mysterious mangles – nobody ever seem to use them, so why were there so many, their rubber rollers all cracking from age? And then to the vast steel food bins full of oats and barley for Nana’s two horses, Tosca and Venus, who lived out in an enormous field way up in the hills and were very rarely ridden.
Or out of the front door and up the long garden, where if he was in the mood Blue would bat at palm tree fronds waved for him for maybe two minutes before becoming bored, and finally to the heavy black gate, it too thickly coated with paint, with its characteristic squeak and its unpredictable weight that left me scarred for life when it suddenly closed on my right ankle.
All this and more was contained in that house – the miniature orange tree in the bathroom and the smell of the orange and lemon-shaped soaps in glass jars.
The ancient liqueur chocolate ornaments that were hung on the Christmas tree on the landing, year after year and which I gradually plundered, the taste of old chocolate and strong alcohol blending on my tongue. Everything was exotic, rich, mysterious, expensive.
And even outside the house; at one point my grandparents drove a Rover – only one step down from a Rolls-Royce, it seemed to me, and I can still feel the hot, cracked leather on the back of my legs, smell that luxurious velvety scent and hear/feel the satisfying thunk as the thick doors slammed shut.
It’s no wonder that my own house – “only” a Victorian four bed end terrace – seemed rather dull by comparison.
Nor, now I think of it, is it any wonder that to this day I like big houses.
I recently nearly bought a 15th century townhouse in a small French town. This sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was – the asking price was €60,000 and it needed complete renovation as there was no electric, plumbing, or even windows in most of the building. When renovated, it would have been beautiful, impossible to heat – and have had 250 m² of living space, not including the huge attic. My friend, who visited it with me, asked, “But what would you do with all that space?”
I thought of my grandparents and smiled. “Live”, I said.