On Edward Hopper’s Automat

Automat 1

I slip off one glove, can’t touch the cup through leather, other skin, can’t feel the heat rise. I want my capillaries to dilate, my fingers to glow, something good, so I slip off my glove. Keep my face down, eyes gaze at coffee swirls, listen to the machines in background whirr. I wait.

He’s watching me, behind the counter. I’m alone, object of curiosity, objectified, warm air on my décolletage, wish I had a scarf, more fur, to shield, drape, hide me. Watch the patterns on the table swirl, white formica stained where he has wiped, cleaned, wiped again, white dance on white spins before my eyes in time with the whoosh and swirl of the drinks machine.

Silk on my skin, silk lining in my dress, my coat, no shield. I can’t go back, won’t go forward, not ready, not yet. Automat coffee, automat life, never tasting quite right, not like the fresh version everyone else is living, having, man behind the counter, going home to his kids, his wife, dinner on the table for him. Not me.

The coffee’s black, too bitter, cooling, can’t face the dregs, still hold the cup, hope of warmth fading. False life, false hope, but as long as I sit here, stay here, nothing will move on. I leave the last inch of coffee, a promise that there’s something more. Soon, I’ll leave, before he wipes the table one more time, before he stacks the chair. Soon, I’ll move my legs, one foot then the other, slip out from warmth to the cool night air, from limbo to action, the next step. But for now, I wait.

For the Book Analyst Facebook Group Writing Exercise

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More writing exercises: 10-1 & A-Z

Alongside the exercises we’ve been doing on writing with constraints as part of the Experimental Writing module, I’ve been inspired by some of the writing exercises that Nikki Young has found and Maddy at WritingBubble has been doing too. Here’s an attempt at a 10-1 story: 10 words on the first line, 9 on the second and so on. I struggled most with the single word at the end – I wanted a 1 word sentence rather than a sentence split over two lines! 10 to 1 “I don’t feel appreciated, you never notice what I do.” “I always notice, even if I don’t say anything.” “So, why don’t you say thank you? Ever?” “I’m grateful, really I am.” “Would you notice if I left?” “Of course I would, love.” The laundry mounted up. Dishes went unwashed. She left him. And an A-Z story, staring each sentence with the following letter of the alphabet. A to Z As she walks down the street she plans her day. Both boys had been fractious, and her sleep had been broken. Coffee is the first thing on her agenda. Depositing the boys at nursery had been a relief. “Escape,” she thinks, cup in hand, but she turns towards home. For a second she isn’t a mother, isn’t due back at midday. God knows who thought two and a half hours of funded childcare was enough to do anything. Hurrying down the street, she flings open the front door, slams it shut and throws off her coat. Ignoring the dishes, the laundry, she opens her notebook. Just enough time, she thinks, as she glances at the clock. Knowing herself, she doesn’t open the computer, doesn’t log on to a virtual world of tempting ways to waste the morning. Leaving her phone in her coat pocket means she’s less likely to be interrupted, too. Mind blank, pen in hand, she stares at the page. No idea what to write, again. Precious moments slip by as she procrastinates. Quite some time back she realised that mother-writer was uncomfortable, impossible. Rarely could she wait for the muse to strike. She has to write now. These hours are it. Under two hours, she notes as she glances at the clock, and not one word on the page. Very often, she struggles for inspiration in the first hour, hour and a half. When twelve o’clock comes, though, when she should be racing down the road, her pen is usually racing across the paper. X, y,z, a, b, c, she doodles random letters, waiting for the words to emerge. Yesterday’s story mocks her, seems flat as she looks back at it for inspiration. Zooming on her way to nursery again, late again, she thinks about the words she finally managed to write, the speed with which they escaped from her pen when the block released, and how she can make more time to write tomorrow.

Muddled Manuscript

 

A memory room – first draft

I’m at the top of the stairs, hand on the cold wooden bannisters, chill air swirling round my legs. Long way down. On my own, away from home, no memorylayers here. Overview, over heads, flowers on green grass play beneath my bare feet. Wriggling toes dart from under my night dress.

Adults downstairs, outside, elsewhere. I don’t know why I’m here, so much I don’t know. Grannie loves me, that I know, safe here.

“She’s had it.”

“Lovely.”

“Another girl,” drifts up the stairs.

Dig my toes in the carpet, listen. Shouldn’t be there, where’s mum, grip the wood and wait for someone to notice me as the smell of toast rises.

 

Slip three years, another house, another bannister, white paint, top of the stairs legs furled against the cold, mix of perfume, wine and smoke rises, dinner party, we tasted the chocolate mousse.

Louise and I, top of the stairs, shouldn’t be there, carpet rough against my thighs, heap of fur coats on the hall, clatter of silver, of glass.

“We have to hide if someone comes out,” I tell her, skirl of white nightdresses as we giggle our way back to our room. Heavy footsteps on the stairs, “Go to sleep, girls, go to sleep.”

 

Too tall now, no bannisters in this flat, no chance to look down on the adult world because I’m in there, part of it, and I miss being small, loss of secrets, loss of looking on, curled up in the back of the car, stories in my head, night darkening as my father drives us home.

For the Book Analyst writing group challenge

Perfect: Frost to Thaw (First Draft)

Part 1 is here

She feels sick as she wipes the counter. Nausea took up residence within days of him being home, and however much she sprays, wipes, polishes, she can’t get rid of the smell in the kitchen.
“Slow down,” he says, “take deep breaths, relax.” They’d taught him all that, in there. She still can’t name the place where he’d been and a tsunami of shame overcomes her and washes her away from the friends they had, before. She is adrift and he is no lifeline.
He’s taken to walking round the grounds since he came home, makes her come too, and almost every day they spend an hour or two, making a new path as they tread the perimeter. Tall pines overshadow the north side of the property, and she shivers as they walk there. He knows that now, notices like he never would have done, and he makes sure to take her arm. Further on, they turn a corner and the view opens up in front of them, smooth green lawns with a covering of frost to the right, chilled brown fields to the left.
“It looks bigger now the fields are bare,” he says, “but I like it better in the spring. Won’t be long now before we start to see green again.”
She pokes at the frozen autumn leaves with her Hunters. At first she’d insisted on washing them after every walk until any trace of leaf and earth was gone and the boots were shop-fresh again, but he puts his hand on hers, warm flesh, stopping her turning the cold metal tap. “Come inside,” he says. “We can make hot chocolate. They’ll only get dirty again tomorrow.” So now, the boots are mud-caked in layers. She shudders as she put them on, but he is right, and his smile as she steps out in them makes it worthwhile.
It doesn’t stop her cleaning, though. Somehow she has to get rid of the stale smell in the kitchen. Something is rotting, she’s sure. She empties the fridge, wipes inside, uses bicarbonate of soda, and still the stench grabs at her throat. He pulls her away in the end. “It’s fine, there’s no smell,” he says, but that only makes her wonder if she is insane, or him. And she remembers clearing away the blood, the broken glass, and knows that back then it was him.
The house looks better now, she thinks as she carried the drinks tray through to the living room, places it on the table, adjusts it so the edges are parallel, each glass of G&T centred, each lemon slice the same. No scars visible here, and when he is dressed he looks fine too, as he sips his drink. She takes one mouthful, then, nauseated, leaves the rest.
In bed, each night, she steals glances as he strips his shirt off. He keeps his back to her, but there are mirrors all down the wall. Livid red lines down his stomach, his arms, reflect, stark against the white of his skin, the walls, the sheets, the curtains. No amount of cleaning will erase those lines, and he always turns off the light before climbing into bed and pulling her close.
She starts to decorate the Christmas tree, means to do it by herself, but he comes in as she is half way through. He picks up a bauble, sticks it on a branch, then grabs a strand of tinsel and wraps it round her. He pulls her to him, steals a kiss, and she finds a smile fighting its way out.
“Not there,” she says as she moves that first bauble, but he keeps putting them on, wrong on purpose, she thinks, and it looks so higgledy-piggledy that she giggles, and the giggle becomes a laugh and they both fall onto the sofa, surrounded by tinsel.
She leaves the tree like that: it isn’t magazine-feature perfect, like it had been in previous years, but perfect didn’t work, and she is ready to try something new.
She sips her Earl Grey, one thin slice of lemon, the only thing she wants to drink now. The early-morning smell of coffee leaves her nauseated, toast turns her stomach, and she reluctantly has to hand over cooking to him.
“I’ll clean the kitchen afterwards,” she says, drawn to the splashes on the chrome.
He frowns. “We should get you checked out. You can’t eat less, you’ll fade away.”
“I’m fine,” she says, and she focusses all her efforts on clearing her plate at dinner that night.
“It’s delicious,” she says, but the venison battles inside her stomach and she has to leave the room before dessert.

He still has to see the therapist every morning, and their days find some sort of routine. She sits and waits in on a bench, not far from the car park while he talks. When he’s done, he suggests coffee. Her stomach churns. “I can’t,” she says. He frowns, and she swallows down bile.
The second week, he asks again if she is okay. She turns away and says, “I’m fine.” She can’t tell him that the months in the hospital have changed nothing, not who he is, nor who she is, nor what cannot be. She can’t explain that every moment he isn’t alongside her she wonders whether she will find him again, guts exposed and veins spilt open. It is months since it happened.
“You don’t need to fret,” he says too often, while for her the spine of every day is worry.

They take the decorations down. She cleans. “It’s spring cleaning,” she says when he suggests she takes a break.
“It’s a bit early for spring,” he says and persuades her out into the grounds to hunt for green shoots. They find one clump of snowdrops, tiny spikes forcing their way through chilled earth.
“See! It is spring,” she says, taking his hand. “I can spring clean.”
His face is serious as he asks, “Are you still feeling sick? Is there still a smell in the kitchen?”
She shudders, and nods.
“Will you see a doctor?”
Out there, where green shoots are growing, his hand warm in hers, she isn’t so afraid for him, but the nausea still roils in her belly.
“I don’t need to. He’ll only say I’m anxious.”
She is sick the next morning, and the one after that.
He doesn’t suggest coffee when he comes out from seeing the therapist that day. “I’ve made an appointment,” he says, phone in his hand, “Three o’clock today. Harley Street.”
She is silent, wanting to argue as she always does that waiting in a room full of sick people will make anyone sick, but in Harley Street there won’t be a room full of people, they won’t have to wait. He is serious about this appointment, and because he wants it like he hasn’t wanted anything since he came home, she goes.
The carpet is soft under her feet, her leather soled silver pumps let feel every undulation in the deep pile. It is so long since they have been to an appointment that is about her, not him, she doesn’t know what to do, to say, so she lets him say her name for her, lets him lead her to a chair.
“You look exhausted,” he says, then he is silent too.
There is a taste in her mouth, like something has died, and it has been like that for weeks now. She cleans her teeth as much as she cleans the house, but he hasn’t picked up on that. Silence fills the room, broken by the tap of long manicured nails on a keyboard. She can feel her eyelashes brush her cheeks as she blinks, feel the silk camisole against her back, the straps of her bra against her skin, her breasts soft, tender, somehow fuller, while her skirt feels a little low, too loose now.
“She’s been feeling sick for weeks,” he says when they see the doctor. “She’s hardly eating.”
“I’m fine,” comes out, but so quietly that even she struggles to hear it.
“I’ve put her through a lot this year,” he says.
The doctor probes her, takes blood, asks her to pee in a cup. She takes her time in the shiny stark white bathroom, doesn’t want to return to be examined, exposed. But in the toilet, hovering over the toilet as her thighs shake, hand between her legs, waiting to catch the urine, she wonders if he worries about her too when she leaves the room, so she pulls up her tights, screws the lid on the pot and returns.
“It won’t take a moment,” the doctor says. “I’ll have some tea brought through.”
“Earl Grey,” he says, “she drinks it with lemon.”
She wants to say I’m fine, I can speak for myself, but when the tray comes in she wants to check the cups are clean, doesn’t want to drink from a cup that has touched someone else’s lips, and maybe she isn’t fine.
“Have you been trying for a baby?” the doctor asks when the nurse returns with a sheaf of forms.
He is silent, this time, and she grips his hand.
“We can’t,” she says. “I can’t. That’s why …” She falters. Everything was perfect, they’d had money, time, a beautiful home, but he’d wanted the one thing she couldn’t give him.
“It’s fine,” he says, face turned to her, wrinkles round his eyes, grey hairs at his temples that hadn’t been there a year ago. “It can’t be helped. I’ve talked to the therapist about it. I’m fine. ” He turns to the doctor. “We’re fine.”
“You’re pregnant,” the doctor says.
Bile rises in her mouth. She swallows. “I can’t. They said … I can’t.”
The doctor holds out the form. “We can arrange a scan and see how far along you are.”
He’s looking at her again, the wrinkles round his eyes have changed shape. There’s an upturn to his his mouth and tears spark as he says, “A baby. Our baby”
She tries to smile back, but hairs rise on the nape of her neck. Discussion about antenatal vitamins passes over her as she thinks about the thing growing inside her.
When they return home she goes through to the gardens, and the snowdrops have come into bud.

TBC

(Part 1 is here)

Theft

Theft I didn’t notice at first, still towelling my hair, feet sticking to the lino, which was never quite clean. Then, flash of image, what I’d left, thin beige duvet, should be a splash of blue green from the phone case, bought in New York before I left. Gone. Heart racing I kneel, scan under the bed, stand, spin, is someone still there? Still only wearing a towel, I pull it closer. Gone. Definitely gone. I ferret in my cupboard, find my bag, my money, my passport. Still there, just the phone. One careless moment. The door had been locked. Had it? I should have been more careful, should have had it with me. How? I was in the shower, only a moment. They didn’t get my passport. It was only a phone. Still. Violated. In my room. Not mine, not really, just for now, stupid hostel, should have had better locks. I shouldn’t have left my phone on the bed. Downstairs, my words falter, my French never feels enough, my Arabic is almost non-existent, but he understands, nods, like it had happened many times before. He shoves a piece of paper across the counter to me. “Allez visiter le poste de police.” He turned back to the computer, job done. I gather myself, my bag across my front, passport, money all tucked away. This time. I check for my phone, even though I know it’s gone, then set off. I pull my coat closer as I get on the train, fix my gaze on the white walls, blue metal work, white and brick houses, which soon give way to the long rail road across the salt lake. The chimneys are still spewing out smoke, a constant in every journey I make to the city. As we pull into Tunis Marin I glimpse the usual flock of greying winter flamingos. I should never have chosen that hostel, cheaper in some sprawling suburb. I’m too white, too tall, too ginger, too obviously a target even amongst all the other transients who stay there. It’s got better the longer I’ve stayed, better, not never good. I’m never relaxed on the way to work, and when I find somewhere else to stay … I’ll try harder, ask the other teachers at the language school. Someone must know of a place where a single woman could …but maybe that’s it, maybe I’ll never feel safe here. As I stride through the crowds on their way to work I glance down at the paper, damp from my hand. “Want carpet? Come and see Exhibition, last day today.” I don’t make eye contact, “Non,” shake my head, move on, navigate the maze. I know where to go now, which route through the medina for bread, for juice, how to avoid the stench and slaughter of the meat market. I thought I could find a way to avoid the touts too, but now I know that will never happen as long as I am who I am. The police station is dusty, crowded. Security checks, carried out by an imposing man, almost my height, make me feel like the thief. The constant presence of machine guns exposes something in me.  The policewoman who deals with me is beautiful, serene in the chaos. I can explain the theft, drag the right words to the surface, jumble them together. She shakes her head, her English better than my French as she says, “You won’t get it back.” We fill in the forms, I leave, carry on my way to school. There’s a phone there, I can make a call, see if my insurance will cover it. Something in me bucks against this futile act, wishes for enough money that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t need to negotiate with insurers, stay in the crappy hostel, work in a country where freedom is growing, yet I have less freedom than I’ve ever known. I pause at the gate of the school, wave of voices from the open windows draw me in. I’m late, my class is waiting. Habib meets my eye, nods, opens the gate. I stand there, and for a moment I’ve walked on, packed my bags, … but I know the wrangles involved in leaving the country. I exhale, turn, and walk through the gate. It’s only three days later when I hear. Arnaud is always the first with the gossip, his words spilling in French and English, we’re used to that strange polyglot in the staffroom here. “Suicide Bomber” comes out clearly amongst the muddle. Three policemen, dead. “She went in to report a stolen wallet, but she had a bomb under her coat.” And I wonder how she got in, why she did it, what balanced the sacrifice? I remember the faces of the policemen, the impassive man who did the security check, the beautiful woman, her face sombre and resigned as she dealt with my report, the shorter man, a little stout, who held the door for me on the way out. And that evening, I stay on at the school and use the internet to look at the price of a ticket home.

Aneurysm -Short Edit

A scarred branch digs into my belly. Sunlight passes in streaks through gaps in the leaves. Lime green, grass green, stripes and splatters hide me.

Beneath me, you’re writing, and I need to see. Are you writing about me? This need consumes me all summer. I look for the book in your room.  I follow you after you have written, but you elude me.

I’ve been here since I ran from the dinner table, her voice screaming after me.

I’m too high. I know that the moment you open the book, pull out your fountain pen. The blackbird-song from the orchard battles with your scratch. Can’t see him, can’t see me. I can’t see. One move, I’m no bird, a twig will crack, leaves will betray me.

I can be cat, brown dapples in the green, unseen enemy of small fur and feathers, slide, slip along. The scrape on my legs tells me I’m making progress.

How close must I be? The bough dips, I’m lower still. Can I see my name in there, or hers? You’re scribbling, black scrawl indecipherable.

I lean. Twigs claw my face, tug on my shirt buttons. I put my hands out, grasp the leaves, then I’m flying like the blackbird, and the text is getting nearer, and you look up.

Blackbird wings beat in my head. There’s grass between my teeth, ink on my skin. A torrent of anger in your voice pours over me.

I sort my limbs from yours, as the script scores tracks through my mind.

I can hear her screaming as she thuds down the lawn, … I’m too old for this … you come here now … what will your mother think … I’m not letting you out of my sight again!

Nothing matters, now. I’ve read the words.

Runner – First draft

His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth as he woke. He tried to open his eyes, resorted to raising his eyebrows to drag his lids apart. He slid and rolled his way across the ocean of greying sheets, tangled, sweaty, the night had started with one above, one below but now he couldn’t separate them and he thrashed his legs until he made an opening and fell to the floor.

Splinters needled at his palms, his knees. One foot on the floor, he levered himself upright and staggered forwards. He grasped the doorframe and stood, wavering for a moment before lurching on into the kitchenette. He wrenched open the fridge door, seized the carton of juice and slugged it back.

Droplets ran down his cheeks, and he drank more, kept drinking until bubbles and gurgles exposed the end of the carton. He threw it down on the counter. It bounced, hit the floor, and he followed its motion until he was slumped, bare arsed, skin on dirty lino, face to face with the cracked melamine of the cupboard door. The stench of his sweat mingled with stale alcohol rose from his skin, and the always present reek of frying from the cheap bar below.

It couldn’t get much worse, he thought. He was too old, too British, too white, to be naked in a one room apartment in Mexico. He couldn’t take the heat, the booze, the bugs, the dogs. Not now. Perhaps not then. He knew they were coming for him, Jesus and the rest of the Sureños, and laughter dragged itself from his mouth. He was going to be crucified by Jesus. Crucified, shot, stabbed, garrotted, 50 ways to kill your … his long supressed inner English professor battled to the surface, and he retched, part digested juice spurting across the floor. He pulled himself back to standing, and for a moment felt goosebumps rise on his skin, something else long forgotten during the months on the run across the southern hemisphere. Cheap countries, cheap plane tickets, no questions asked, his tweed jackets and brogues had been discarded long ago.

He longed for a shower, or maybe a bath, a long, deep, luxurious bath. He wanted to be somewhere cold, damp, grey, where you could come in from outdoors to a glowing fire, tea and crumpets, then retreat to a steamy bathroom and soak, reading a good book until the water went cold. Somewhere, he knew it had never really been like that, but hell, he could edit his memories if he wanted, especially if they were about to be cut short.

No shower, no bath, he filled a bucket with water from the single tap and poured it over himself, the floor, the spreading lake of piss and puke. He didn’t give a fuck if it dripped through the ceiling. Part of him wanted to stay, to wait for the inevitable and say, ‘Kill me now’, but the death drive wasn’t strong enough to combat his innate desire to live. He tugged on a pair of grubby chinos, a once white shirt and battered leather sandals. Picking up a back pack, stolen from a tourist who looked enough like him to confuse things for a while, he climbed out of the window, slid down the tin roof and dropped the last few feet onto the ground. A glance around, and he was in the old truck, hot-wiring it, checking the fuel gauge, foot down, head for the border. Another border, any border.

One day he’d stop running, but not today.