Monthly Archives: April 2015

In These Shoes

Vicki

I wanted them to go to a good home. Fifty quid is a lot of money for a pair of shoes, even if I didn’t pay for them and even if they are just about the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

I have to hiss, describing them. They are silver sparkly slingbacks. Sss. They look like they are made of glass (like Cinderella’s slippers) or diamonds. They don’t really fit and they keep slipping off, a bit like the man who bought them for me.

(I say ‘man’, he’s a boy, really.)

That’s what he said to me, too: ‘you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ Weird, that he called me a thing, now that I think about it. But I was just made up, cos no-one had ever called me beautiful before (except my mam, but that doesn’t really count, does it?)

We went out on New Year’s Eve. I wore the shoes (sss) and a gunmetal dress, and he kissed someone else at midnight.

So. My Mam’s is about the best home I can think of. We’re the same size so share clothes sometimes, although she’s pear-shaped and I’m an apple, all boobs and belly. But obviously shoes fit OK.

So.

Angie

The date was disastrous. There’s a reason they call them blind. It’s all fumbling in the dark, for words, and for each other.

I knew he would hurt me, Vicki’s dad. I just didn’t know how he would do it.

The drink, I thought. He’ll be at the pub every night and he’ll come home and he’ll knock me about a bit. He’ll piss the housekeeping money up the wall, like my sister’s fella. Maybe spend a bit too much on the horses.

Maybe eventually there’ll be another woman, maybe drugs. He had it in him, I thought, that look, that shine in the eyes like a camera flash, ready to wink at and follow any new experience, any distraction.

I was chuffed when he married me, mind you. He was meant to go to London. For a big job. It’s written all over his face in the wedding snaps: ‘shouldn’t be here.’ Him not looking, me grinning like a bloody idiot, bunch of roses held over my tell-tale tummy. Him a cornered fox, might snarl any minute.

But he never snarled, he just laid down. He never drank, hit me or messed me around.

In the end he hurt me with silence.

With space.

With waiting.

Not what I expected, really.

He killed me with the wait. Waiting for a hug, a compliment, a smile. Twelve years.

My sister said I was lucky.

He did crosswords ‘to keep his brain active’. Cut the prize crosswords out of the paper week after week and never posted them.

He should’ve been at his big job in London. Instead he ended up with me and Vic and a terrace a hundred yards from his mum and dad’s. He got the factory, the line. Piece work. More boxes you fold and tape up, more money you take home.

In the end, we could neither of us look the other in the eye. Truth is, I missed the shine. I felt really bad for taking it away.

I wore a really nice blouse for the date, and tight jeans, because Vicki says you can always dress up jeans, and look smart, without looking as if you’ve made too much effort. Why is it we all talk about clothes? You’d think working in a place that makes them, we’d be bored of them. We sew up skirts for M&S. Pick the stitches from the faulty ones and sew them again. But that’s all any of them wanted to know, the next day: ‘what did you wear?’

Now, I’ve got my sister, and the girls at the factory. They all say I’ll find someone. Better luck next time.

I took the shoes to the Sue Ryder shop. Call it superstition if you like. Mutton dressed as lamb, he would’ve called me, if he’d seen me, if he’d said anything at all.

Corinne

The things I can do now, here. I can make a mess. I can read.

I’d never been to a ball before, barely even worn a dress. Now I’m a student I thought I’d better keep it cheap so I went to the charity shop. ‘Vintage’ is all the rage these days, apparently. I would’ve just called it second hand! But no, Jen and Flo and Harriet say you just have to wear ‘a vintage piece’. I suppose they know more about fashion than I do.

You learn more at university than what’s in the lectures. I have learned two things already:

  • I can lie to my parents quite successfully. The Sports Science degree I was supposed to be taking has somehow morphed into European Literature. We now have a silent agreement that they will pretend not to know this, will never ask how my course is going (only how my running is going), and in return I will not spend any of their money.
  • The feet can blister in three ways, as a result of three different types of footwear:
    1. Trainers: heels, little toes
    2. High heels: fronts of toes, ankles
    3. Bare feet: balls of

He wanted a boy. He wanted a scientist. Scientist Athlete Boy. I dreamed of the boy I should have been, tall, wiry, strong: Jack. I cut my hair and I ran until I looked less of a girl. I lived in trainers and trackies. And Father was always there at the finish line, and my time was always good, but never great.

Now I want to read; sit still for a minute.

My narrow feet, bony and almost pretty apart from a black toenail, stung like crazy. I felt clumsy and out of place, until Tim picked me up. On his back, skitting through the snow, I laughed my newly smoke-filled lungs out.

Then a skid, screech, thud, and I’m on my back, still laughing. Tim has fallen and taken me with him. The ice is both injurer and anaesthetic. At about fourteen stone, he lies on top of me, his back to my front, gasping, breath forming clouds. Then he rolls over, and I try to roll too and slide out from under him but he’s quick and grabs my wrists and pins my hands over my head and it’s a night for firsts as he kissed me. My coccyx is burning. His stubble tickles.

After he skates off, I skip back to the halls, barefoot.

Simon

Finders keepers.

They fell into my possession under a table, along with a disposable camera, a bow-tie, an earring and a used phone-card.

It’s no fun sweeping up posh kids’ detritus.

In my room I have a mattress and a TV and a full-length mirror. And a cardboard box for my finds.

It has a tiny strap that snakes up my leg. My ugly stubbly ankles are embarrassed by the sparkle. A twist, a glint, and I almost cry, but I’ll keep them on a bit longer.

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God Knows

The door locked behind her. Not noticing or perhaps not caring, she dumped her bag and flopped onto the bed. She could have done without the receptionist being so snooty with her, looking her up and down and saying ‘Mrs Mason?’ Emma herself had been pretty annoyed to find he’d booked her in as his wife when it would have been so much more feasible to say she was his daughter, but now the mistake was made she didn’t need to have it pointed out to her by some stiff-lipped, sour-faced, grey woman who knew nothing about her or Alan.

She exhaled heavily and closed her eyes. Calm down, she told herself, lowering one hand protectively to her belly, getting upset would be no good for the…her eyes flew open and she sprang up as the clock over her head chimed eight o’clock. He’d be leaving Sarah now, kissing her at the door, getting into the company Mondeo, clutching his tan briefcase as a scapegoat. Waving to her as he reversed skillfully off the drive. Work, he’d be mouthing to her with a rueful shake of the head. And she’d be standing in the light of the doorway, smiling and not believing him.

Smoothing imaginary creases in the ivory linen, Emma took a good look at her surroundings. The wallpaper was pale cream, embossed, expensive; the curtains heavy mulberry velvet with matching pelmet. When she pulled them closed they blocked out light and all other signs of life so successfully that they made the windows seem even more impenetrable than the walls. She unlaced her shoes and sank her bare feet into the lush, rose-coloured carpet, feeling a little out of place in the ancient teenage uniform of blue jeans and white teeshirt, a man-size plaid shirt over the top (she never wore a coat), but thinking she might start to enjoy herself all the same. Certainly this was a far cry from her experiences of family holidays with Catholic aunts and leery uncles in huge Butlins hotels with names like ‘The Grand’ and ‘The Metropole’ and rooms like dormitories. Those hotel rooms were asexual places, except on those occasions involving Uncle Bill’s beer-breathed advances dismissed by her stupid mother as ‘harmless’ and even ‘affectionate’.

‘What is it with me and older men?’ Emma said aloud, trying to sound flippant and to pretend that her ‘relationships’ so far had been anything like normal. But there was a crack in her voice.

What could she do for the half-hour it would take him to drive over here? She tried the TV but somehow knew it wouldn’t be working, even before it was proven. This seemed to confirm the sense that here was a place where people came specifically and solely to have sex. It seemed ironic that she and Alan were meeting here only at this late stage, sex the cause but not the purpose of their rendezvous. This was the kind of place – pink-hued, softly lit, plush – Alan could and should have brought her to, long ago, because even a hotel room with all its illicit connotations would surely be less seedy than the car seat after babysitting. She tried to laugh. At least I’ve got experience looking after his baby, she thought, that’s handy.

Convincing herself she was calm, she got up to make coffee with trembling hands. As the water boiled and she toyed with the biscuits, her eye was drawn to the rosewood cabinet resting in the corner of the room. With a little encouragement its door came open like a fairytale drawbridge. After the exotic promise of the delicately carved exterior, Emma was disappointed to find a couple of polished tumblers and only six miniatures. Still, she felt reassuringly adult as she poured herself a Malibu, which she had seen her mother drink with Coke and sometimes pineapple.

The terrible impersonality of hotel rooms hit her as she wandered around, sipping delicately from her glass, and looked for something for read. Accustomed to her own room’s scattered magazines and Sunday newspapers, she was irritated by the accusing presence of the solitary blood-coloured Bible at the bedside, a small but effective and Godly admonishment to the room’s illicit inhabitants. She picked it up and with real force tossed it under the bed.

When 8.30 arrived and Alan didn’t, she decided to risk the wrath of the disapproving receptionist and wait for him in the foyer. The overwhelming pinkness and creaminess of the room was starting to make her feel nauseous. She tried the door and when it refused to yield, realised or remembered that it had clicked snugly into place behind her. She couldn’t recall having been given a key; certainly the door had been open when she’d got up here. She rubbed her eyes. When he arrived, they’d give him a key and he’d let her out, so that would be alright. She waited. But he wouldn’t let her out, of course. What a stupid thing to think! she told herself, don’t be so dim. The point of coming here wasn’t to just go again! They were meeting here to talk, as he’d said gravely on the phone in the adult, businesslike tone that always excited and overwhelmed her.

Emma as fifteen and naïve but by no means stupid. She knew that Alan’s idea of ‘talking’ was telling her what he’d decided, which she knew meant getting rid of it. Her face contorted involuntarily as the words flickered through her mind (he would not use those words, of course: he would probably pat her head and say softly, ‘I’ve arranged for you to see someone tomorrow. He’s very good,’ or something similarly ambiguous. And yet terribly unambiguous). Tomorrow? Yes, it would probably be so soon. Maybe he’d organised it for tonight, even in this very room; had she been brought here under false pretences, to a well-disguised clinic where they authorised the killing of babies by their married fathers?

She felt fuzzy as she drained the Malibu and slammed the glass down, incensed by the thought of Alan planning her and her baby’s future. She leapt up and hurled herself at the door, half trying to escape and half making sure it was locked securely enough. Next she hammered the walls with her small fists, like a surveyor gone frantic, the desperate beginnings of a sob rising and catching in her throat. Her hands grasped the curtains and tugged and tugged until finally, her hands balled into fists, she sank to her knees and began to pummel her own abdomen.

By ten o’clock, still alone and still locked in, she looked like someone about to do a spring clean: sleeves rolled up, hair scraped back, and air of efficiency. Thick curls of steam drifted in from the pearl-coloured bathroom with its gold-plated taps and fluffy towels. She stood at the minibar and picked up the bottles one by one, studying them as someone who’d never had a drink before (certainly her experience was limited), then putting them down again. Eventually she unscrewed the Smirnoff and downed it just for luck, then picked up the two gin bottles and proceeded to the bathroom. Two bottles of gin was good. She remembered the things her mother had said. Considering Catholics were meant to be strictly anti-abortion, her mother and aunts certainly knew all the tricks. She tried to laugh as she started to peel layers from her boyish figure. This way, of course, it wouldn’t be abortion as such, would it? More like a miscarriage. Something she could mourn without shame. Best of all, it would be over by the time Alan arrived, and they wouldn’t have to talk, and he wouldn’t have to decide for her. But it was 10.30 and she knew he wasn’t coming.

Would 10ml be enough, though? Of course not, logically, but by now Emma was starting to embrace wholeheartedly the mythic qualities of the gin, and the hot bath, paying little attention to logic. At any rate, she thought gleefully, pouring, it can’t do me any good! She stopped. But then…if it didn’t work and she was to have the baby anyway, she didn’t want it to come out deformed, like the babies she sometimes saw on TV, the babies her mother turned over. The baby in her mind’s eye was already fully and perfectly formed, even wearing a babygro and bootees that, God knows, her mother won’t have knitted.

But she couldn’t think about that, she had to be organised, be as mature as Alan had told her she was, when he first took her home and spoke in that silky, older voice. She grimaced and unpacked the paltry contents of her bag, arranging them neatly on the bathroom chair. A toothbrush, a clean pair of cotton knickers and a fat, expectant sanitary towel. Perhaps she had known all along.

She sank into the bath, humming to herself, and felt the water turning her body livid pink. She knocked back the gin, feeling the mind and her room, no, her mind and the room, turn furry grey, whose mind? Whose room is this anyway? Whose life?

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The Irresistible Attraction of the Unreliable Narrator

Ah, the lure of the unreliable narrator. That delicious moment in a book when some twist or trickery makes you sit up and say ‘hang on a minute – I trusted you!’

It seems there has been a slew of them recently, especially of the female variety. Gone Girl, Apple Tree Yard and The Girl on the Train, to name just a handful, include flawed female protagonists whose versions of events are, for different reasons, called into question.

It’s not a new phenomenon in literature, of course. From Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield, The Great Gatsby to The Secret History, authors have given us characters who alternately seduce and mislead us, through limited understanding or deliberate misdirection or something in-between.

Probably the best-known and greatest example of the unreliable narrator is of course Humbert Humbert in Lolita. I could rave about Lolita for hours (I won’t, though): it’s beautiful, disturbing, comic, compelling and my favourite book. Humbert is charming, by his own admission guileful, and his spin is so convincing that even today, 60 years after the novel first appeared, some people still buy into it.

In The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels, for example, Robert McCrum has this to say:

Although we see him drugging the love object of his dreams, Humbert is hardly debauching an innocent. In a twist that makes for uncomfortable reading in the context of contemporary anxieties about child abuse, Nabokov establishes that Lolita is sexually precocious already. When it comes to the moment when she and Humbert are “technically lovers”, it was, in Nabokov’s brilliant and clinical reversal, “she who seduced me”.

When I saw this, my reaction was ‘really? You believed that?’ (For an alternative view, which is somewhat closer to my own, see http://www.mommyish.com/2011/11/16/lolita-novel-sex-rape-pedophilia-541/2/ Draw your own conclusions around the fact that one reading of the book is from a man, one from a woman…guess which is which, folks!)

I would have thought that considering the information Humbert chooses to leave in (e.g. withholding the fact of Dolores’s mother’s death from her until after the ‘seduction’; thinking about drugging her so that she’ll be oblivious to his advances; I could go on), most readers might wonder what he’s not saying. Most readers might infer pretty early on that it’s Humbert’s all-consuming self-delusion that causes him to paint his ‘relationship’ with his step-daughter as romance, or to insist that she, the twelve-year-old, was in some way the predator (even though he, in other parts of the book, recognises himself as a monster). Most readers, but not all, evidently.

Anyway. Unreliable narrators are a bit close to my heart as I’m trying to write four of them at the moment. Between them they’re telling the story of Book 2, and if I get their voices right they’ll be convincingly unconvincing. They all tell lies and keep secrets. It’s also been interesting to me that a lot of people have described Fiona from Precocious as unreliable. I don’t think she’s wilfully so. But then (as with Humbert), self-deception is every bit as powerful as other kinds. Haven’t we all met, or worse, been lied to by, someone who seemed to believe their own confection? And the lies we tell ourselves – the versions of ourselves we construct – to make our realities more palatable are particularly convincing.

Why, then, are unreliable narrators so much fun to write, and to read?

As an author, I want to achieve two things: to create believable characters, and to keep the reader turning the pages. People ‘in real life’ are complex, and most people are liars (it’s been said we tell 10 lies a week on average – the most common being ‘I’m fine’) so an unreliable narrator gives the story, paradoxically, an element of realism. Writing a flawed character is always more fun and more challenging than the ‘perfect bore’…I have the chance to explore my own darker side and continually ask the ‘what if?’ questions that I think drive a lot of fiction. What if I found myself in this situation? What if I had a choice between x and y? What might I do, and what would happen next?

The second goal on my writing wish-list is a bit more nebulous; if only any of us held the key to what keeps readers turning pages. It can be great plot, beautiful poetic writing, compelling characterisation, a combination of all of these or more. What the unreliable narrator does for the reader is keeps them engaged as they want to discover the ‘truth’ (what is truth in fiction, anyway? – this brings me to the subject of a future blog…). It’s why detective series like Broadchurch are so popular, maybe – as readers or viewers we like to be kept guessing, to build up our own theories, it involves us in the narrative – but we also like to be wrongfooted, we feel cheated and disappointed in some way if we ‘get it right’ too early on.

Fiction is a ‘safe’ place to be deceived, and we can enjoy it in a similar way to how we enjoy a rollercoaster: being hurtled around in an actual out-of-control car hundreds of feet in the air might be a touch stressful. Being lied to in real life is not much fun.

I write a lot about relationships and it’s a sad truth that it’s often the people we’re closest to who bear our greatest deceptions. Perhaps the biggest appeal of unreliable narrators is that we recognise ourselves in them. The tales we tell ourselves; the glossy picture we sometimes paint of our lives to present to family, friends and social media; the fantasy versions of our partners we create to suit our own ends…in life, and especially in love, we are all unreliable narrators.

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