Wednesday 31 December 2014

Greenacre Writers Round up of 2014

Greenacre Writers has had another busy year, with the year kicking off with a Writing Retreat at St Katharine’s in Oxfordshire in March.

Josie Pearse ran a new teleconference group: Getting it Written, for writers with a longer piece of work underway. The sessions lasted 75 minutes once a week on a Wednesday evening.

At the end of May, the third Finchley Literary Festival exploded into a week-long event. There were fund-raising activities beforehand, including a quiz and Bettina the Abseiler who abseiled down the side of Church Langley Water Tower in Harlow.

The festival kickstarted with a Poetry and Music Palooza organised by Anna Meryt at Cafe Buzz where we were treated to some moving poetry and music. We launched our third short story anthology and were delighted that Alex Wheatle had agreed to be our judge. Two of our winning authors, Sal Page and Andy Byrne, were able to attend the launch to receive their prizes. We enjoyed the hospitality from Café Buzz owner, Helen Michaels, who plied us with coffee and cake! Read more here.

Finchley libraries and especially, Steve Saunders, at Church End, supported the festival. We held various events including CliFi for Kids with Sarah Holding, How to Kill your Darlings with Bettina Von Cossel, Charles Dickens: Walking and talking in the green lanes of Finchley, Hendon and Barnet with Theresa Musgrove aka Mrs Angry. Paul Higgins and Ruth Cohen from The Reader Organisation, ran a couple of their excellent reading sessions. Maggie Butt ran a How to get your poetry published. The popular Dragon's Pen* with Gillian Stern, Cari Rosen and Mary Musker gave writers the opportunity to showcase their writing. Most of the events were fully booked including Getting Started with Allen Ashley.

A Spoken Word event took place at Friern Barnet Community Library and they also hosted, a children’s workshop with A.L. Michael; Ally Pally Prison with Maggie Butt; and The Story of Private John Parr with Mick Crick.

As well as workshops there was also a YA event held at Waterstones Finchley with Miriam Halahmy, Lil Chase and Gina Blaxill. This proved so popular they repeated it at Camden Waterstones. Paul Baker organised A Literary Finchley Guided Walk. Mr Greenacres organised A Finchley Literary Slide Show with muses who read poems and literary extracts.

The final day began with a Develop your Online Author Profile: A Blog & Twitter Workshop with Emily Benet. The day was rounded off with a lively panel discussion on Men Writing as Women and Women Writing as Men. In between, GW writers read from their works in progress. Guest speakers were Alex Wheatle, Caitlin Davies, Rosie Fiore and Miriam Halahmy. You can read more about the final event here. Moderator was Allen Ashley who kept the passionate writers in line.

Hot on the heels of the Finchley Literary Festival, Rosie Canning, ran a WW1 writing workshop at Stephens House & Gardens WW1 Centenary celebrations. A.L. Michael also ran a WW1 writing workshop for children and Sarah Harrison, invited readers for afternoon tea. Sarah read from her bestselling WW1 novel, The Flowers of the Field.

In October, Rosie Canning and Mr Greenacres led The Walking Writer. Writers were encouraged to concentrate on sight, sound, smell, touch and hearing and there were some poetry readings. Mr G organised morning coffee at the Finchley Golf Club. Later after more walking, writing and poetry, the writers stopped for lunch at the Redwood Cafe in Swan Lane Open Space.

Our members have been busy with their writing and we are always pleased when they achieve success.

Katie Alford, finished her novel and has been published. Atlantis and the Game of Time, Kristell Ink, Grimbold Books (Aug 2014). When Katie first joined Greenacres and brought along some of her Steampunk writing for critiquing, it ended up Katie explaining how the writing should be read rather than the other way around. You may ask, as we did, What is Steampunk?

Rosie Canning led a spring and autumn writing retreat at St Katharine's, Parmoor. See here for the 2015 Early Spring Retreat.

Linda Dell wrote a guest blog about self publishing for GW. In November, following on from their successful self-publishing talk at the Finchley Literary Festival, Linda, and Eliza Jane Goes, also a Greenacre Writer, went on to give another talk about the merits and pitfalls of self-publishing at Mill Hill Library.

Anna Meryt was one of eight members of Highgate Poets who read with a group from Aberystwyth, the Word Distillery Poets, at the London Welsh Centre as part of the centenary of Dylan Thomas. Anna organised a Poetry and Music Palooza, event for the Big Green Book Shop in April where she launched a second collection of poetry by Tambourine Press called Dolly Mix.

Mark Kitchenham has been concentrating on six word stories (which is good practice for writing short stories) and every month has a batch of them going out on the Morgen (with an E) Bailey website.

Kate Wong is the newest member of Greenacre Writers. The FLF Dragon’s Pen event kick-started her to distil her ideas onto paper for her historical fiction novel in progress “The Authentic Voice” which is about a boy born with a supernatural gift for music but at the wrong time in history.

GW ran a couple of monthly short story competitions leading up to Christmas, you can see November’s winning story here.

Our regular groups continue to meet regularly, there is also a new monthly Writers Meet-up. We look forward to more achievements next year.

*14 writers who attended the Finchley Literary Festival Dragon's Pen event were kept on edge for some time while the Dragons decided which writer they intended to mentor. We were delighted when they made the announcement that Lindsay Bamfield was the winner of this year's Finchley Literary Festival's Dragon's Pen for her novel-in-progress Do Not Exceed Fifty. Lindsay will now have the opportunity to be mentored by Gillian Stern, an editor and writer for Bloomsbury, Orion and Penguin.

Sunday 21 December 2014

First Prize Winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story Competition

Shirley Golden - The Mad Schemes of Morris

Morris posed the question a month after he’d retired from the Post Office.  ‘If you could transform into to any sort of animal, which would you choose?’
Karen was at the sink, Marigolds submerged in dishwater.  She gave him a sidelong look, eyebrows raised, but no, she hadn’t imagined his question; he waited in earnest for her answer.  She glanced out of the window and saw Felix, grooming himself with feline precision on the patio. 
‘Oh, a cat, definitely.’  She often daydreamed about spending her days strolling around the lawn, sniffing the Geraniums, and snoozing whenever she felt the urge.
‘Aren’t you going to ask what I’d like to be?’
Karen stacked the last plate on the draining board and pulled free the plug.  Retirement seemed to be having a funny effect on him.  ‘Okay, why don’t you tell me?’  She rolled off her gloves and set them aside. 
He observed her from over the top of his newspaper and cleared his throat before announcing: ‘A hamster.  I’d like to be a hamster in a cage.  And this rag,’ he shook the paper, ‘could serve as my shredded bed.’
She shuddered.  ‘Oh, I’m not keen on rodents,’ she said.

A couple of weeks later, Karen heard hammering and other DIY thuds coming from the spare room.  Morris never did much of anything these days, so the flurry of activity made her squint at the window uneasily as she watered her roses.  She hoped he was not embarking on another scheme that involved dragging her onto windblown heathland in makeshift tents. 
When he was on a mission, it was best to leave him be; she decided to pop round to Marg’s.  Marg was recently divorced and thinking about setting up coffee mornings to get to know the neighbours better.  Morris had absorbed that information with his usual snort, and said it would attract a flock of clucking hens.  Karen suspected Marg planned on roping in some single gentlemen.  But she didn’t tell Morris that.

When Karen returned, all was quiet.  She fed Felix, who brushed around her legs, and then she went to face whatever Morris might have in store.  The spare room door was closed and she knocked as she pushed it open. 
‘Morris,’ she said.
A quarter of the room was sectioned off by vertical, wooden slats.  She wondered if he was considering buying a pet.  She didn’t want any more fuss over the impossibility of keeping a dog.  She stepped further into the room.   Morris was curled up in the corner, naked, on a huge bundle of shredded newspaper.
‘Morris?’  She thought he must have collapsed. 
He raised his head.  ‘I’m hungry.’
He looked fine, at least, not physically ill.
‘I’m sorry I’m later home than I thought…’  She brought a hand up to cover her mouth and tried to stop laughter from bubbling out.  ‘I’ll get started on some tea,’ she managed to say.  ‘Perhaps you should get dressed and come downstairs.’
‘I’d rather eat in here,’ he said.
She stared at him and thought it must be a joke; except Morris wasn’t one for jokes. 
He raised his hands to either side of his face and began to lick, smearing saliva from hands to chin.
‘Would you like spaghetti bolognaise, or do I need to buy hamster food?’
‘Bolognaise is fine,’ he muttered into his palms.
‘Funny diet for a rodent,’ she said.
She returned to the kitchen as if in a dream.  She wondered if she should call the doctor.  She busied herself heating up the sauce and opened the back door.  It was nice to do so, Morris would never usually allow it; he said the cooking smells would attract flies.  She hummed and smiled to herself.  Felix settled on the threshold, and looked out into the garden.  When she fed him morsels, he meowed in disbelief and pleasure.

Karen took charge of the key to the cage door because Morris said he felt safer that way.  She fed him twice-a-day.  He liked to eat cereal in the morning and pie with two veg at night.  She ensured fresh veg was always available as a side dish and he’d cram his cheeks with raw carrots. 
He said he was sick of clothes but agreed to the golden-furred onesie she sewed together and referred to as his “coat”.  She bought a treadmill, set up a circular wire frame around it and said he should exercise.  She drew the line at cleaning up his mess, and insisted he used the chemical toilet and emptied it when she instructed him.  She poked the tube of a sports bottle through the bars for him to sip water.  No, she wouldn’t fill it with whiskey, not even at the weekend; perhaps at Christmas. 
Once they’d established a routine, he said he’d rather not speak anymore because of the difficulties with the carrot and cheek situation, and that suited her just fine.  Sometimes she’d sit and watch him running on his treadmill, and she found it oddly stimulating. 

The coffee mornings proved to be a success, she made many new and interesting friends.  When it was her turn to host, she didn’t have to worry about Morris causing a disturbance as he’d become nocturnal.  Without him frowning when she spoke her true opinions, she felt unfettered.  She spent less and less time tied to the house.  Her afternoons were peaceful; she’d stretch out on her new sofa, watching recorded episodes of “QI” or “Autumnwatch” without his objections.  Sometimes she’d curl up beside the hearth with Felix, splaying her fingers and filing her nails to a point. 
Now that Morris’s conversion was complete, she felt composed and more inclined to nap without guilt.  When awake, she felt totally alive, more determined than ever to pursue her desires.  And able, at last, to pounce if required.  

Sunday 14 December 2014

Second Prize Winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story Competition

Click here for First Prize Winner: Shirley Golden - The Mad Schemes of Morris
Joanne Derrick - Autumn Blues 

Crisp brown leaves curl themselves around blades of fresh grass marking the end of a summer that wasn’t.
            Paige reads the inscription on a brightly-painted blue bench and I take a snapshot of her while she’s unaware of my presence. I often come here early on a Sunday morning and take photographs. They’re not all of Paige, of course. She’s learned to ignore me now. At first she reproached me for following her, but I think she likes it deep-down.
            She walks on, stopping once in a while to throw a stick for her terrier or to scoop up its mess in a turquoise plastic bag. Paige shouldn’t have to do such things. Dirt and mess should be for more slovenly creatures like my landlady or the woman who serves behind the bar in The King’s Head.
            It’s the Blues Festival next week. The weather should have picked up again by then, according to the Met Office forecast. However, friends tell me the Met Office forecast is always wrong. I’m going to play the new number I’ve written for Paige. She’s bound to know I wrote it for her. After all, most of my songs are for Paige. She’ll sit on the bar stool in The King’s Head tonight, twizzling the fluorescent cocktail stick in her glass of Tequila Sunrise, and I’ll entertain her with stories of when I played the big festivals. I’ll tease her, too, of course. I’ll tell her for the umpteenth time how she’ll never make it in the fashion world and how she ought to get a proper job. She’ll spill saccharin sweet words detailing her hopes and dreams, and I’ll pour petrol and poison onto them. Then I’ll turn and look around the bar to see the looks of horror on the faces of the landlord’s guests; the ones who have paid over the odds for plush accommodation and a three-course restaurant meal made up of local produce grown in the fields opposite my home. Those elegant rooms Lillian Bart is so proud of, little knowing that Paige, in her rush to finish her part-time shift, has neglected to clean properly. Those spots hidden from view, which are riven with dust-balls and dead flies. The couples on a romantic break who are too soaked with passion and cheap champagne to notice the scraggy cobwebs clinging to the corners of the beams above their heads.
            The Cider Mill Suite is my favourite room. They’ve changed the mulberry and gold satin bedspread since I took Paige there. I’m not proud of the fact I had to get her drunk on  double gin and tonics first. Not proud that I didn’t even have time to push the bedspread onto the wooden floor or slip on the condom I’d bought from the Gents earlier that afternoon.
            Paige didn’t refer to it afterwards. She used the bidet in the en-suite then dressed quickly, before hurrying into the kitchen to help Mrs Bart prepare the vegetables for evening service.
            I did feel guilty for a while afterwards. Paige stopped putting those pink sparkles in her hair, but to a casual observer she was still the same bubbly eighteen-year-old who gave as good as she got.
            The tinkling sound of water drags me back to the present. I can see Paige walking over the bridge and heading towards the Marina. I know she’s seeing a young lad who works there. He’s tall, too thin and has weasely eyes. I bet he has rough skin and it makes me shudder to think of his bony hands mauling Paige’s young lithe body. Christ, she has a figure to make grown men weep - and I have on occasion, I don’t mind admitting.
            Pine needles lie like scattered hairpins in the entrance to the Marina. Paige is cradling her small dog like a baby as she steps on board a forty foot cruiser, closely followed by lover-boy.
            I sit on a bench and take my guitar from its case. I like to think they can hear my music as they make love. I sing a Joni Mitchell ballad which cascades into some blues by Blind Willie McTell.
            Then a tousled head appears from the galley.
            “Shut the fuck up, Eddie! Just piss off, will you?”
            I’ve never heard Paige use such language before and it sends me reeling. I feel as if I’m being sucked down in a saltwater whirlpool.
            I pack up my guitar, hitch the camera over my shoulder and walk back the way I came.  
            Is it my fault I’m a passionate man? That I have boundless enthusiasm and energy for everything I do? That I have this unflinching curiosity and interest in the world?
            My ex-wife said I was like a child.
            Paige has had her fill of me just like all the other women over the years. Am I too much for them? I can’t tone it down. I have no off-switch, you see.
            On the way home I kick my way through a gown of golden leaves and wonder how I’ll get through the night.
            And then it comes to me. I will write a new song. A new song for Paige. Something about burning boats and blackened bodies. Or death mask faces beneath the water.
            It’s not only her words I’ll pour petrol on this evening.
            The next day I watch Paige and lover-boy climb aboard the cruiser. I shake my head. Some women never learn. I thought Paige would have just enough brain power in that ditzy head of hers to work it out. It was all there in the words of the song I performed just for her last night.
             I reach the bright blue bench before I hear the explosion and something inside me tears a little. 

Sunday 7 December 2014

Third prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition

Dianne Bown-Wilson – Benny and Doll's Nice Day Out

The staff at the Bentley showroom were more than a tad bemused by their latest customers.
Although they didn’t know it yet, the couple that crept in, arm-in-arm, bent like question marks, were Benny Cunningham, aged 88, and his darling wife, Dorothy - Doll, 92. They looked unbearably frail.  
Young Andy on the front desk, still quite new to the job, swore inwardly but felt obliged to offer them a seat. Only a couple of hours until closing on the last day of the month and he was desperate for a sale. And look who he was stuck with – he wouldn’t make his bonus from this pair.
Surprisingly, they got straight to the point. The car they wanted, Benny announced, was “that one over there” but in navy blue with cream leather upholstery. “Plus all the extras,” he enunciated slowly in a whispery croak.
There was only one exception, “No sat-nav.” And one stipulation: “When it’s ready we’d like it delivered to our door.”
 “And will you be trading in?” Andy asked, fighting to mask both sarcasm and exasperation.
“No,” said Benny. “Outright cash purchase. And, naturally, we’d like a test drive.”
 Andy forced a tight smile, “Excuse me a moment.” This was getting ridiculous; time to check with Rod, the manager, out the back.
“Do you think they’re legit?” he whispered.
 Rod shrugged, “Doubt it, but you can never be completely sure.” Certainly with Benny’s three-piece suit and well-trimmed moustache and Doll’s high heels and perfectly upswept silver hair, they presented a picture of decaying grandeur, albeit in a style fashionable many decades before. On the other hand, their accents were more pub landlord than public school. Who knew?
“Do you do much motoring?” Andy enquired later, having finally managed to shoehorn them into a car. It had been an excruciating process; thank God they hadn’t asked to actually drive the thing.  
“Not so much these days,” Doll said, having adjusted her hearing aid to make out his words. These young people did so mumble.  “But we used to do a lot. Rallying, touring, all over the world: Africa, India, Australia…  Oh, we did have fun, didn’t we Benny?”
Benny smiled fondly. “Yes, my dear, we certainly did. And we will again; plenty more fun to be had.”
Andy sighed inwardly. They were barking mad, completely delusional - the likelihood of this going anywhere was absolutely nil.
But he was quickly to be proved wrong. The car evidently met with the couple’s approval and once back in the showroom it only took a phone call to confirm that they could, indeed, meet all the purchase criteria. Suddenly - and ridiculously easily compared to many such transactions - the deal was done!
“I hope you’ll be very happy with your car,” Andy said when the paperwork was complete. He felt completely disconcerted, as if he’d just found out he’d won the lottery without purchasing a ticket.
“Oh, I’m sure we will be,” said Benny. “It’s our seventieth wedding anniversary soon; we’re buying ourselves this as a little treat.”
“Fantastic,” murmured Andy weakly as he ushered them out to a waiting taxi, “Happy driving…”
When he went back into the showroom, finally closing the doors for the day, he found the others in stitches although no-one had a definitive explanation. “Maybe they have a chauffeur,” Ron suggested. “Can’t see them driving themselves – at least I hope not!” 
“Better put the body shop on full alert just in case,” Simon sniggered, and they all started laughing again.
The day of the car delivery Benny and Doll got up early and packed a picnic lunch. However, by late morning when the doorbell finally rang they were exhausted with anticipation.
“Anything you need to know before I leave?” the delivery man enquired.
“No,” whispered Benny. “There’s not much we don’t know about cars.”
The man shrugged, disbelieving, but decided to accept his word.
In the event, they were so tired that they ate their picnic at the kitchen table then spent the afternoon napping so it was early evening before they sat in their new vehicle.
“Beautiful isn’t it, Benny?” said Doll.
“Nothing too good for you, princess,” he replied, stroking the pristine dashboard and inhaling the smell of leather. It was a gem.
“So where shall we go tomorrow then? Seaside?  Town? What do you think?”
“Wherever you like,” Benny replied, squeezing Doll’s hand. “The world’s our oyster now.”
And it was. After a lifetime as a bookie, Benny had recently retired, a wealthy man.  He’d sold up reluctantly, masking the pain of losing his raison d’etre with organising an immediate move to the country. With most of their old neighbours and friends long gone and their surviving son, Maurice, a successful businessman in Australia, there was no reason not to.  They could please themselves now.
These days Benny and Doll go out driving nearly every day. That is, Benny inches the Bentley round from its garage at the back of their huge Georgian house to the old carriage turning circle at the front from where the vista stretches right down to the sea.
There, for hour after hour, they sit in the stationary vehicle re-living past journeys, recalling the route, the scenery, the people they met, for their memory for long-ago events is still as strong as sunlight.
“Bit different from the old East End, isn’t it?” Doll often says and invariably, Benny chuckles.
 Every fortnight, one of them – for they take it in turns - chooses a postcard from the collection amassed through their lifetime of travelling, and pens a few lines to Maurice.
“Dear Son, We hope this finds you well. Nothing much to report here, as all is good with us. The weather isn’t too bad. We’ve had another nice day out in the car.”
Back at the Bentley showroom Andy thinks about mystery shoppers and assumes he passed the test. After hours of wondering, he can find no other explanation.

Thursday 20 November 2014

First prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition

Mr E Plays Dead by Andrew Dutton

With a little practice, it is possible to distinguish footfalls; the familiar from the unfamiliar, the friendly from the not-so, the harmless sort from the keep-aways. Keeping ears cocked and eyes peeled, essential skills, those. Helps to avoid trouble; helps with seeing them before they see. Like an animal on the hot, wild plains.

Staying out of any conceivable eye-line is harder. In a bigger place it wouldn’t be so tough but in a two-up-two-down it isn’t entirely possible to hole up out of sight. There are lines of sight at doors and windows front and back, and a more-than-casual gaze can spot more or less any motion. Not so easy to get a bead on the upstairs but an imprudent movement could be spotted from the street or by a carefully-placed observer at the back. Closing the curtains helps, upstairs, but then even on the best days that makes the rooms a prison of semi-light, and besides who wants to live upstairs all the time? It’s do-able, but it’s not dignified.

We live too much on top of one another these days, just too tangled up in each other’s business like it or not, there’s no privacy even when no-one intends to intrude. God, imagine being famous, being doorstepped, the paparazzi starbursts every time you twitch a finger. Human beings aren’t meant to live like this. Rats go mad in similar circumstances, it’s been proved. Fight and kill, they do.

The windows: dead eyes of a house that’s lost its soul. Keeping the windows dirty helps make the place look neglected, unused. But press up against the pane and the effect starts to be lost. So make sure the nets are up – filthy, old things, keep nothing on the sills but dirt and dead flies, but even that isn’t illusion enough; too penetrable. No mirrors, not anywhere. Why help a predator to see round corners? Lights out and TV off, no light no noise, not even the glow of a fire. Live with cold and darkness and boredom, for safety’s sake.

The rooms must look the same day in day out, so move nothing, clean nothing, not a thing here must look used or loved. It’s necessary to make the place look half- empty and dead, and yet to try to keep alive within. It’s hard: a brown-grey vista, a dull and flat atmosphere, joyless. But the intruder eyes are looking for prizes and gewgaws, so if nothing glitters and nothing shines, maybe they will take their greedy magpie gaze elsewhere. Everything shut and locked, all the time. The doors are solid enough of course but maybe there are forces out there than can cut through the stoutest door like a winter blast. It would need more than a draught-excluder to keep them out, oh yes.

 The back of the place is too open too, no hiding places there apart from curtains and caution. Makes for tidy, thrifty habits; every cup and plate must be washed and put away so the kitchen looks the same every day, not a crumb of food in sight, no sir, the only food in here rotted to nothing long ago, far as invading stares can see. They won’t even find a scrap in the busted old tin bin as they lurk by the one-hinge wooden gate; they’re the sort that would look.

So tough to live like this - hiding like a rat. No, not like a rat – like a possum, playing possum, that’s the phrase. Or a dog playing dead; worse, maybe an ostrich, who thinks it’s hidden from everything but there it is in plain sight, arse in the air, without even a shred of dignity.

Surely they can’t be there watching the whole time, on street corners wearing fedoras and raincoats with turned-up collars like private dicks in a bad film? But it feels like they’re there, every moment. If every move is watched then every move must be calculated. Slow and deliberate, keep below window level where possible, scuttle to cover if out in the open; back to being a rat again. Slow-motion in the semi-dark, glide like a shadow and leave no trace, let them begin to believe in ghosts.  A defensive wall of sham death; there is nothing and no-one here, gone, all gone.

The wolves are at the door–wolves with warrants and the backing of the treacherous joke that is the law. Full of their own importance, biding their time, trying to penetrate the manufactured murk, trickster children tormenting the miser, the misanthrope who won’t open up and offer treats. But who can afford what they want, because they want it all.

When they come in sight they are shadow-figures, silhouettes caught in nets, they are looking, they are seeking, cracks to open, gaps to widen, spaces to climb through, they whisper, they call out; comeoutcomeoutwhereveryouare.

So it’s a siege; now what will you do, old dog, old rat, old comical ostrich: old possum? Succumb? Wait them out? Lie doggo until the flies come for you, uncaring of the difference between dead and alive?

Sunday 16 November 2014

Second prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition

The Scales Fall by Freya Morris

My heart turned cold over the popping bubbles in the sink. I stood there, a palm on my chest, the cold bleeding into my fingers. The pain was crisp, like submerging into liquid nitrogen. But there was no steam for me. My heart had to be pumping hot for that.
The promoter was microscopic; the tiniest of word-sequences. But they always are. At first, I’d hoped it was a glitch and that my heart would thaw in the afternoon sun, or after dinner, or by the end of the week. I strapped hot water bottles around me, drank tea, watched heart-warming films, but nothing worked.
I thought I was lucky that nobody could see it. But I was wrong. This wasn’t symptomatic. It wasn’t a sickness that would go away. It was genetic; an alien gene in my very DNA. Not long after, my blood ran cold too. My son reached for my hand and pulled away. ‘Cold hands, warm heart,’ I said, more to myself than to him. My husband kicked me away under the duvet. ‘You’re too cold,’ he said, and I was.
I hoped and prayed that my heart would spark and spring to life again. But when our Little John came to our room in tears, he asked for his daddy, and the tongue in my mouth flicked out in front, thick and forked. And I was so ashamed, mortified even, that I didn’t speak after that unless my back was turned.
Silence followed, and then scales. They were dull grey. I thought I’d slept on a pumpkin seed, but when I picked it off, it bled. More followed. I scratched them off in the shower at first, bleeding blue into the plug hole. But it couldn’t last. They were coming in thick and fast. People were going to see it soon, my heart on my sleeve, frozen cold. They would see what I had become.
My husband noticed first. I wrapped myself up in reasons, blaming it on the weather, him, work, the weather again, God, my dead mother, my super-sister with five kids, the next door neighbour’s voices that came through the wall, the city, hormones, my age, not being able to have any more children, and then, just when I thought I had more excuses to come, I had none.
He didn’t say anything.
He sent me to hell in a stare, picking out his beard hair, squinting. He pulled his lips in, the way he does when he smells dirty nappies. He was glancing over every scab and every scale I couldn’t scrub off. He had a million ideas that could fix me, and I pretended that they could work, that my genome was pure, untouched, human.
But nothing worked. My eyes were fading to yellow, blank and unblinking. His gaze switched poles, pushing away from mine when I drew near. ‘I’m not sure it’s safe for John to be around you,’ he said.
And he was right. I wouldn’t have a heartless reptile near him either. I stood at the door, a green-grey shadow with no bags, ready to leave. But something inside of me knocked over, spilled out, fowl and messy.
“I’m glad,” I said. I drew a deep breath. A run up. “That we couldn’t have another.”
He tilted his head. “Another what?”
I nodded to Little John’s picture framed in wood.
“Well,” he said. “It’s good we didn’t bring another child into this.”
“No, I mean. I’ve always been glad.”
“I didn’t want another,” I said, and I wasn’t sure what made me say it, or why I hadn’t said it before, earlier, way earlier than now.
“But what about… you cried for days after.”
“From shame.” I felt a bubbling in my stomach, a warming in my veins. “I didn’t grieve for her. I just felt…”
I threw my hand over my mouth. I should have kept it buried. Good people don’t say these things; they don’t think or feel these things. Good people love their children.
“No,” he said, grabbing my arm and pulling it, scales falling to the floor like coins. “Say it.”
My heart broke in two, spilling out fire and pain and heat through me. It melted the ice until it ran down my face. “Relief,” I said, my voice cracking like burning wood. “I felt relief.”
He stepped back. His face was shock and horror, frozen. “But why?”
I shook my head, but I could feel my heart beating again, throwing itself against me, pummelling me until the numbing cold became sore. I felt something again. “I don’t know.”
He didn’t move; he just stared at the floor. He’d gone in, away from me and into himself. “Jim?” I said.
He looked up at me with slow blinks and murky stares. “Your eyes. They’re not yellow anymore.”
“Do you hate me?”
He pulled away. “I…” he sighed. “No, I don’t. Look, let’s go sit down and talk about this.”
He took my hand, but his was cold and clammy, and when his eyes caught the light, his pupil narrowed into a slice of darkness, and I knew then, that he was lying to me.  

Saturday 8 November 2014

Third prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition

Hollow Oranges by Deborah Bowkis

Frank left the oranges so she’d find them. He’d arranged them carefully, in a heap, like cannonballs. Elizabeth looked at them, rolled up the sleeves of her blouse, picked one up and weighed in it her hands; it felt light, as though it was hollow. She tumbled them into the sink where they bobbed about in the water.
            ​‘Seville oranges are in,Frank had said, the day before, and hed dumped a carrier bag, full of them, in the kitchen, ‘make marmalade.
             She pressed down on one of the oranges and held it under.
            ​Elizabeth pulled the plug out of the sink and the drain sucked at the water, like a child drinking through a straw. She picked up an orange and sliced it in half, squashed it in the juicer and the citric liquid gushed out. She poured it into the pan and threw the skin to one side. As she worked the skins piled up; they lay, like empty bellies, only bitter pith left inside them. It beat her why Frank liked the stuff.
            ​‘Course, a blob a jams good enough for you,hed said when she complained about making it, ‘you wouldn’t understand a sophisticated palette.
            ​With the edge of her metal spoon she scraped at the inside of the discarded skins, scouring out the pith and flopping the pulp onto a square of muslin. A faint perfume misted the air but as she sniffed, it faded. Scraping again at orange after orange she pared away the flesh like fat from a hide. Each orange was purged until the mound inside the muslin grew. Finally she tied the muslin tight and plopped the ball of pulp into the pan with the juice, where it bobbed about helplessly. The bitterness would seep out and taint the marmalade.
            ​‘Poor bloody blob,she said as she watched it float.
            ​The hollowed out skins remained, cupped inside each other. She split them apart then shredded them. The tiny slivers scattered about the worktop. As the sun shone beneath her window nets it picked them out like sunbeams. Elizabeth lifted a piece of the rind and put it on her tongue but its bitterness splintered through her mouth.
            ​The marmalade was beginning to bubble. She tipped in the shredded rind and for a moment the pieces of peel glowed like sunshine. She poured in some sugar and turned up the heat. The slivers of orange began to rise up and roll over like dead goldfish. Bubbles rose to the surface turning the liquid the colour of autumn.
            ​‘I want it thin cut,Frank had insisted.
            ​‘But Frank itll take me hours,shed said.
            ​‘Youve nothing else to do woman.
            ​That was true.
            ​In the pan small glass domes appeared on top of the liquid, swollen by the heat, they grew bigger and bigger, like boils. One burst. Then a second, and a third, until the pan bubbled like a cauldron. Elizabeth stirred. The steam rose and her face shone with the moisture; her hair frizzed. She seized the spoon and held it above the broth like a wand,
            ​‘I wish, I wish …’ she said, but no wish came.
            ​ She spooned out the pulpy muslin bag and threw it into the sink,
            ​‘Useless bloody blob,she said.
            ​Scum frothed on the surface of the liquid and settled, like litter, around the rim. After a while it hardened to a white crust. She skimmed it away, glad to be busy, glad not to think. All that wishing ... The marmalade boiled, she stirred the bubbles down, scared they’d boil over. The hands of the clock ticked towards the end of the day.
            ​The old jam jars were sterilising in the oven; she opened the door. A whiff of fusty old air wafted out.
            ​‘Those lids!she said and waved the smell away.
            ​‘Use the old ones,hed said when shed asked for money.
            She slammed the door shut, lifted the pan off the heat and puddled a dollop of the marmalade onto a saucer. Pushing her finger through the warm pool she watched it crinkle. It was set. She licked her finger, and then shuddered at the taste.
            Elizabeth looked at the clock, then at the door. Frank would be home soon. She imagined him walking in and the sound, like sandpaper, as he rubbed his hands together in expectation. She rushed to finish. Sloshing the marmalade into the jars, it dribbled down the sides and onto her hands making them sticky. Pushing jar after jar aside she fumbled, lost her grip, one fell on the floor and smashed. The broken jar oozed its liquid across the lino’. The front door clicked open. Frank. She froze. The metallic zing of his zip undid the silence. He be hanging up his coat, on the hook, then hed walk into the kitchen, and see the mess and…
            ​She grabbed a paper towel and tried to wipe up the goo. Swishing from side to side she wiped frantically but it was so thick. Damn! She ripped another towel and wiped again at the floor. As she smeared she looked closely at the tiny slivers of peel shed cut so carefully. They looked like insects trapped forever in amber.
             ​The door cracked open.
            ​‘You stupid woman!
            ​For a moment she just stared up at Frank. Then she stood. Looking straight at him, she swept the jars off the worktop. A million fragments scattered like spent ammunition across the floor, but the marmalade flowed.