Categories
Prose

A Short Story Told in Fragments

This week I’ve been attending the BCLT Summer School (British College of Literary Translators). I’m privileged enough to have gotten a scholarship through doing the Literary Translation course at UEA. Non-stop talks and workshops on creative translation Monday to Saturday! And somehow I’m still managing to teach and work on my dissertation in between. And what a perfect week to pick to be constantly on Zoom in the bakingly hot spare room, sun glaring through the glass? A heatwave week with temperatures pushing thirty degrees every day. I am English. Thirty degrees is ten degrees too high, if you ask me. On a beach in Crete? Thirty is splendid. On Zoom in Stowmarket? No, thank you.

Anyway, the creative writing workshop this morning was on fragmented short stories: short stories that the reader pieces back together by reading several subjective accounts. We worked small groups and had to pick a situation, and then write four police testimonies from different people in different voices, each not telling the whole truth or with something to hide. We picked a situation: a protest, during which a shop burns to the ground. I was the shopkeeper. This is my testimony. What am I hiding? That’s the question:


Shop burns down in Greytown: Shopkeeper’s testimony 

I was watching the situation unfold out of the front window of my shop all morning. People were wearing dark clothes, balaclavas and waving clubs and knives. It was all quite terrifying, really. Of course, I didn’t open up the shop that day, I wasn’t going to invite trouble. I sell furniture, so nothing was going to spoil if I stayed closed for one day, if you know what I mean. Of course, I can understand why they were angry, why they wanted to go out onto the streets that day, but whatever happened to peaceful protest, no masks, out in the open? 

I was inside, with the lights off, making used of the shop being closed during the day to do an inventory in the back room when, all of a sudden, I heard a humongous thud and a crash from out front. I’d pulled the bars across the shop window, so the brick hadn’t been able to completely smash through, but it’d made sizeable fractures in the shatterproof glass, like a spider’s web.  

At that point, I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t call the police, no doubt they were all busy with what was going on across the city that day – and, anyway, even if I had called you at that point, how would you have gotten to me in time? The protestors, or rioters by this point, were thick outside my doors like sardines in a tin and moving so slowly it could have been the highway to Woodstock! 

That was about when I started to smell the smoke. Lightly at first, like someone had burned toast. Then more and more strongly, like a BBQ gone wrong, and then I knew that someone had set fire to my shop. My shop, full of flammable, priceless antique furniture! I couldn’t have been more devastated. The shop was my life’s work, my father’s life’s work, my pride and joy! 

The fire was set at the front of the shop, around the door and the wooden windowframes. That’s where the smoke started pouring from first. I immediately knew it had to be one of the rioters. I tried to keep it at bay with the fire extinguisher on the wall, I emptied its whole contents, but the fire was just too strong for it. It greedily devoured all of that tinder-dry, antique wood. I had to abandon my shop and escape through the back door before things got too dangerous for me in there.  

The alley behind the shop is quite quiet, but I could still hear the distant shouts and screams of the protestors from the Main Street in front of the shop, like a pack of wild hyenas. I called the emergency services, I tried to get through to the fire brigade, but of course the line was always engaged. It was chaos all over the city that day. I had to watch as my livelihood burned to the ground.  

By the time the fire brigade arrived hours later, there was nothing left to save. There’s nothing left for me now but to just pick up the pieces and move on, I guess. But I hope your catch the bastard that did it. 

Categories
Prose

Microfiction: Metamorphosis II

I watched it happening from afar. There was no other way around it, no way to stay close to her.

She would cook in the sun, unabashed, unhurried, turning the bright pink of a ripe lobster. Her thin blue veins turned green and bulged from her skin like the ropes of a ship, and she shuffled prison-inmate circles in the garden. She would shush me to listen to the bees when I took my newspaper outside and tried to make conversation. She would close her eyes, tip her head back and smile at their low, robotic drone. I kept leaving bowls of food at her feet like offerings to the gods, but she wouldn’t even look at them. They went cold, solidified and attracted flies until I gave in and took them away again to save myself the tragic sight.

She used to be beautiful. Her eyes were like downturned almonds, peppered at the edges with a blush of freckles. Her hair was the soft, dark brown of ground coffee, her smile like opening the tin. She’d always hated her visible her ears were when she put her hair up in a ponytail or a bun, so she hardly ever wore it up. But I always liked it because it made her look like a forest mouse.

Categories
Prose

Microfiction: Metamorphosis

Somehow things just started getting slower. I found myself spending more time in the garden, stretching my arms out towards the sun. Instead of drinking, I found it much more refreshing to soak my feet in cold water, especially on those hot summer days when the heat seems to echo all around you. I inhaled all day and exhaled all night. I didn’t sleep, or not exactly, but I liked to rest standing up and, by the first light of dawn, my fingertips were often wet with dew.

I stopped eating, but I’m not sure when. Food just slowly became a memory. My stomach turned at the thought of scrambled eggs or even a banana. At first, he would still cook for me and leave the bowls close to where I stood, but then whisk them away again, days later, untouched.

The lazy hum of bees filled my days. And the sunlight. I would bask in its glow. Small animals would shelter in my shade. The bees would throb their way through the blossoms slowly replacing my hair.

When it rained, small drops would filter through my fingers and gather into larger drops before falling to the ground. Sometimes they would land on an insect like divine intervention. When it rained, I could feel my roots shifting, spreading downwards, searching.

That was after I’d stopped moving. My roots stopped me moving, pulled me towards the earth. I was enmeshed, a sentinel. My arms, my branches, would tilt slightly. My leaves would unfurl in the East first. I was a sundial.

At some point, I must have closed my eyes, but when I closed them, I could only see the universe, stretched out before me like a carpet or a Torah roll. A vast nebula, a tight weave of knots. Some of them were burning, some were growing, some were dying.

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Arson Attack on the Hurst Park Racecourse, 1913

8th June, 1913 

Kitty is perched on top of a tool shed. She looks down at Clara, her partner in crime, but her thoughts turn to their friend in Epsom Cottage hospital. Emily is breathing her last: ‘A comatose condition with a fractured skull, unlikely to make it through the night’. It’s been reported in Europe, even America, news reports say. Beamed along cables hidden under the Atlantic. And here they are, attempting to scale the perimeter fence of the Hurst Park Racecourse with the aid of a piece of carpet.  

“Hurry!” Clara keeps looking over her shoulder towards the road. 

The shed is at the edge of a cricket pitch adjacent to the race course. It backs onto the fence, halving their climb. Kitty brandishes the carpet above her head like a hunting trophy, swinging it back and forth and hoping it will catch on the double layer of barbed wire crowning the fence. She’s panting with the effort.  

Clara stands by the base of the shed, taking in the spectacle. Kitty realises that, from this perspective, her friend can see up her skirts. She’s never been seen from this angle before. She notices Clara noticing this too. Clara quickly looks away, but not before glancing at her boots. Kitty is well aware they need a polish. Clara, looking for something to do, hands up their wicker suitcase of munitions. 

Neither of them has much of an idea how they are going to scale the fence in their skirts, coming in at just above the ankle. They should have gotten hold of some breeches, Kitty thinks, and worn them under their clothes. But then what would they have done with their skirts? They would have been a beacon to any passers-by that something was amiss. Could they have hidden them in a bush? In the shed? Too late now, anyway. 

All the while, Kitty has been jumping up and down, swinging the carpet at the fence as if it had just torpedoed the Conciliation Bill. Then it catches, hanging evenly over each side. Kitty’s joy mingles with a creeping foreboding. They’re not new to militancy, but they’ve never done anything quite like this before.  

Kitty kneels down and leans her flushed face over the edge of the cricket shed. Their eyes are aglow with risk, their faces mere inches apart. 

“Bravo,” Clara giggles, “Bravo sister!” 

The night is calm, sound carries. Kitty shoots her friend a look. 

“We can’t afford to forget ourselves now,” she hisses. “You’ll bring the police down on our heads.” Clara looks chastised, and Kitty feels a short stab of guilt. 

Now they must scale it, and Kitty is the stronger of the two. She has been blessed with deep lungs and the statuesque figure so esteemed on the stage. She lays, belly down, on the cold corrugated roof of the shed. She stretches out her arms, and Clara grasps them, shoulder to hand, hand to shoulder. She hauls Clara up. Her shoe finds purchase on a windowpane, and the glass cracks. Even that small sound sends a whisper through the night.  

It’s almost pitch-black. They are surrounded on three sides, four including the track behind the fence, by a sea-like expanse of turf. The cricket shed is a lifeboat, and they are about to disembark. Far behind them, streetlamps form the only tiny pinpricks of light. They are completely alone. Kitty puts her hands on her hips and stares out into the dark expanse, elbows jutting.  

“Well then,” Kitty sighs, “up we go.” 

Kitty bends her knees into a slight squat and braces her shoulders. She forms a cradle with her hands, lacing her fingers together. As the smaller of the two, getting Clara over is their first priority. 

Kitty pushes up Clara’s damp boot with a grunt. Clara grasps at the carpet, pushes up through her elbows. She lifts one leg over, then the other. Kitty sees a flash of panic in Clara’s eyes as she surveys the drop. Gingerly, Clara tries to shift around to face the fence, but it won’t work unless she lets go of one of her hands. She starts to whimper. 

“Clara. Clara,” she whispers as loud as she dares. “Take a deep breath. Calm down. Look at me.” Clara looks over her shoulder and Kitty manages to catch her eye.  

“Now let go of one of your hands.” Kitty keeps her voice steady. 

“I won’t be able to hold my weight.” 

“Of course you will. It’s only for a second.” 

Clara manages a weak nod and slowly releases her left hand. 

“Good. Now swing round, Clara, quickly!” Please don’t fall, Kitty thinks, but Clara manages to shift herself around, before catching hold of the fence again in both hands and lowering herself down. Kitty shifts a step on the shed to get a better view. 

“Now, start working your way to the bottom of the carpet. I’ll hold the other end so it doesn’t slip.” 

A pause. Kitty can hear Clara trying to get control of her breathing.  

“I’m trying.”  

A few seconds later, Clara’s hanging from the end of the carpet on the other side to shorten her fall, but there’s still a good three feet to drop. She plops down onto the racecourse. She’s sitting in a cloud of white, lace-trimmed underskirts, boots sticking out at odd angles like a china doll. She has survived; they are criminals once again. Clara looks back over her shoulder, eyes glazed with shock. But then she grins, and it’s catching. She gets up.

“You did it!” Kitty reminds herself to whisper. 

Now it’s Kitty’s turn. She stares at the fence, willing it to bend, break or melt.  

“Can I help?” Clara calls slightly too loudly from the other side. 

“Come and grab the suitcase.” 

They manage to slide it between the fence railings. It’s a tight fit, even with Clara pulling. The momentum makes Clara stumble backwards as the suitcase comes free. 

Kitty gathers herself. Then, she jumps. Her hands miss the crest of the carpet. She slides back down, jumps again, and again. Her hands are rubbed raw when she finally jumps high enough to grip its peak. She can feel the fence’s barbs and spikes, menacing under the thick fabric. She hopes it holds. She’s not going to end this night in hospital, for Pem’s sake.  

Kitty’s legs are scrambling, looking for toe-holds. She’s slowly managing to pull herself up. This would make an excellent film, she thinks. A dramatic comedy. Two Ladies Versus an Unscalable Fence, so the title would say, overlaid with a jaunty piano tune. But it’s not a film, and anything could go wrong. 

Kitty manages to turn her body and shimmy to the bottom of the carpet. Rammed onto the spikes by the weight of two successive women, it holds. She drops onto the grass with a thud. Clara closes the few steps between them, and they clutch at each other, their success a small miracle. But for the first time, Kitty notices a long, thin scrape along the inside of her forearm, from wrist to elbow. It’s opened up the entire sleeve of her shirt. She doesn’t even remember how it happened. She stares at it oozing droplets of blood. Strange, she thinks, it doesn’t even hurt. 

They pause for a minute to catch their breath before scurrying over the long grass towards the grandstand.  

Clara whistles softly at the imposing structure. “We’re here,” she breathes. 

“We are,” Kitty replies. 

They race up the steps, drunk on adrenaline. In a southwestern borough of London, under a vast black sky, their grand tribute to a fallen comrade begins to take shape. Kitty tries the door. To their surprise, it’s unlocked. They pour out a gallon of oil, spreading it behind seats, in front of doorways. The wood is tinderbox dry; it hasn’t rained in over a week. They converse, when necessary, in stage whispers. Kitty almost forgets to spread out the papers, but then draws them from the suitcase. In the moonlight, she can just about make out the words Rebellion against Tyrants is Obedience to God. Emily’s favourite phrase. She makes a quick lap around the grandstand, dropping them on the grass at regular intervals. 

When Kitty returns, Clara lights the candle stub with a match and places it on the oil-soaked rag. It should give them an hour to make good their escape, but it catches far too quickly, flames licking up the wooden columns. They hear a whoosh as they scamper away. The whoosh becomes a roar. The women’s sharp-edged silhouettes break into an urgent sprint. 

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

WSPU Summer Festival, 1913

Contextual Note:

This work has grown from my research on the WSPU’s militant suffrage campaign in Britain, specifically the life of Kitty Marion‒ a crucial yet under-remembered figure in the movement. The main thrust of my novel will cover the years of heightened violence‒ 1912-1913 ‒however the first chapter in this submission goes back to Kitty Marion’s childhood, a time when she was still Katherina Maria Schäfer: a lone, 15-year-old German migrant on the ferry to Harwich. 

Between the years 1886 and 1913, Kitty builds up a moderately successful career on-stage in music halls and theatres all around Great Britain. Kitty wrote an autobiography which was only published in full in 2019. This has formed the backbone of my research. I have taken the events of her life and worked them into a narrative, rather than lifting description or dialogue verbatim.

Kitty comes from a middle-class family, yet never marries and becomes financially independent from a young age. She joins the WSPU in 1908 after attending a rally in Hyde Park on ‘Women’s Sunday’. Katherina had a traumatic childhood at the hands of her father. This, coupled with abuse and exploitation by her acting agents, forms the main impetus for her involvement in the campaign for the Vote, which she believed would be a means to fight issues such as sexual/child abuse and financial exploitation. As a militant WSPU campaigner, she instigated several arson attacks and was considered one of the most dangerous women in the country by Asquith’s government. These chapters depict Kitty as a militant, talking with fellow militants at the WSPU’s Summer Festival in Kensington, and then carrying out an arson attack on the Hurst Park Racecourse in Richmond. The arson chapter cuts off on a cliff-hanger at around the halfway point.

Aside from Kitty Marion, the characters of Emily Wilding Davison, Mary Leigh and Clara Giveen are all also real. I found out via Kitty’s autobiography that she spoke with Emily the day before her widely-renowned actions at the Epsom Derby, although Kitty does not go into detail. The arson attack was carried out four days later in Emily’s honour. Ilse Brightwell is, however, a figment of my imagination drawn from passages in the autobiography where other ferry passengers showed a concern for Kitty’s welfare.


3rd June, 1913 

“I’m thinking of making a protest.” Emily’s words land abruptly between the three of them.

Mary pauses, cup halfway to lips. 

Kitty arches an eyebrow. Making a protest, isn’t that all they ever do? 

In the hall, waitresses mill around with businesslike grace, carrying trays laden with tea sets and cakes to the eager customers. Their green high-necked dresses and white muslin aprons could look clinical if it weren’t for the purple ribbons fixed around their waists. A few have pinned pristine white flowers in their hair. The mood, aside from their little table, is buoyant. Most of the waitresses are smiling. 

Kitty’s attention turns back to the table. She looks Emily in the eye.

“My dear, you’ll have to be more specific,” Kitty lowers her teacup delicately onto its saucer. She’s had twenty-seven years to grow accustomed to these English habits.  

Above Kitty’s head, purple, white and green banners flutter from the rafters, streaming with ribbons. The colours are everywhere. She leans back and tunes in to the vibrant hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Laughter and chatter rise above more hushed and conspiratorial exchanges. To her left, a group of young women sit huddled around a map, heads almost touching. Towards the back of the tea-room, a group of upper class ladies’ pale necks groan under the weight of their extraordinary hats. At another table, a group of plainly-dressed women converse in the no-nonsense drawl of the East End. So many processions, depositions, marches, speeches, festivals; every time they gather, it’s astonishing. Over her friend’s heads, she can see clusters of schoolgirls pulling at each other’s sleeves so as not to lose each other in the throng. Maybe they’ve begged the entrance fee from their fathers that morning, claiming a forgotten field trip to Kew Gardens. They can’t have seen so many women in one place before, free of men. They must be overwhelmed.  

Emily has been quiet, but now her reply seems to burst from within. “Something dramatic. Something unforgettable. Something to make those bastards at Westminster really sit up and take notice.” 

“What are you planning?” Kitty asks. Her thoughts flash to the postboxes. To the severe burns up those postmen’s arms. It was all over the papers. An outrage, they said. That one wasn’t Emily’s work, it was up in Dundee. But the risks are the same every time.

Emily looks from her fingers to Mary, then Kitty, then back to her hands. They’re clutching her cup, knuckles turning the colour of aged plaster. Kitty wonders whether it will survive the assault. She imagines a brittle hairline fracture splitting and shattering. 

“I keep thinking about how the King will be there, and his wife. Standing in their box, surveying their fiefdom.” Emily’s lip curls, “We need a great tragedy. Every year, a new bill dies, and they do nothing. All the while, the Kaiser’s busy polishing his Dreadnoughts. We’re running out of time, and we have nothing to show for it. Nothing.” 

Her trembling threatens to swirl tea into her saucer like a Channel storm. Kitty sends a hand over the tablecloth in a rescue attempt. An awkward few seconds tick by. Mary looks at Kitty, cocks her head, eyes pleading say something. Kitty sighs.

“I know, Pem. We’re all tired of waiting,” Kitty uses her friend’s nickname to get her attention. Emily looks up. 

Kitty, encouraged, goes on. “We’re not young anymore. We can’t keep doing this forever,” she gives Emily’s hand a friendly squeeze, thinking back to her last great tragedy. A thirty-foot drop from the interior balcony of Holloway prison. A desperate protest, or a cry for help? They know, everyone knows, how she sometimes draws her curtains and doesn’t come out for days. She would never ask for help, but members still leave shopping at her door.  

Emily’s a ticking time bomb, Kitty thinks. She can see the headlines already: hysterical, crazed terrorist. But it doesn’t matter what they do, the words stay the same. 

“I have to disrupt the race.” 

That much Kitty could have guessed. So she asks another question. 

“How?” 

Emily doesn’t reply. Either she doesn’t know yet, or she doesn’t want to say… Kitty hopes it’s not the latter. And she doesn’t look well. Pale, worn. She’s left her head bare today. It’s better not to ask if she’s sold another of her summer hats. 

Mary, across the table, is hiding behind her teacup. Kitty tries and fails to catch her eye. She’s never been particularly tactful. But Kitty doesn’t know what to say, either. Didn’t they all swear to lay down their lives for the Cause? How far is too far? Kitty breathes out in frustration. 

“Pem, you’ve done enough.” Mary finds her voice.  

Emily shoots her a look. “It will never be enough. Not until the vote is ours.” 

“Nobody’s telling you to stop altogether. But you need some time to recover.” Mary’s warming to it now. 

Kitty nods in agreement. Militancy may unite them, but she’s not going to encourage her friend’s recklessness. Not this time, at least. The Cause is devouring Emily. Since Holloway, they can all see how her spine torments her. How she walks, hunched, like a woman twice her age. 

“I am as well as I need to be, Mary.” 

“They stopped paying you ages ago, Pem. They cut you off. They don’t listen to us. Why persist?”  

Kitty wonders who is meant by ‘us’.  

“You know I’m not doing it for the Pankhursts anymore,” comes Emily’s curt reply. 

“Neither am I. But who do you think will wade in afterwards? If you trust us, then you need to tell us what’s going on. Maybe we can help.” 

“I don’t think you can. Not this time, Mary. I’m sorry.” 

Kitty has been watching the exchange, eyes darting back and forth. But now she chooses her words carefully: “By all means, Pem, make a scene tomorrow. But we worry about you. We need you.” They need her alive.

A butter knife would be useless at cutting the atmosphere, it hangs so thickly. The women shift in their seats. A waitress comes to collect their empty teacups. Kitty and Mary look at Emily. Emily looks at nothing in particular. 

“I do not shrink from sacrifice,” Emily eventually replies. Her hands are in her lap now, wringing a handkerchief to death. 

Kitty can’t keep herself from thinking the word. Suicide. The mortal sin. A crime. None of them give a fig for legality, but this is something else entirely. Her heart clenches. Could she do it? Kitty has an image of Emily throwing herself from the grandstand, then one of a galloping horse. She squeezes her eyes shut. She doesn’t know if Emily could do it, and that scares her most of all. Not really knowing if she knows her friend.

Emily retreats back inside herself. She won’t broach the subject again. Kitty makes a few failed attempts at drawing her out. As usual, she has spoken so well yet said very little. Mary has her elbows on the table and is rubbing her temples.

 Talk slowly turns to innocent subjects, to the festival around them; they bury their misgivings under chit-chat. The Actresses’ Franchise League’s performance, the verdant setting. Kitty has been meaning to visit the haberdashery all day. Sweat has been pooling under her collar. She needs a new summer frock, but she hasn’t had work- paid work, not suffrage plays- in months. Earlier that day, Emily and Mary had laid a wreath in front of the statue of Joan of Arc. Emily brightens up at the memory, and proudly recants the words carved into its base: “Fight on, and God will give victory.”  

Eventually, Kitty makes her excuses and says her farewells. Mary pays for their tea. She used to be a schoolteacher, until the headmaster found out about her after-school activities. Luckily, her husband didn’t cast her out. Kitty wonders how they’re getting by. Her own savings are dwindling, and Emily’s threadbare dresses also tell a story.  

Mary excuses herself to go to the washroom. Kitty is passing Emily’s chair when she reaches out and grabs Kitty’s wrist. Emily presses a small, green purse into her friend’s palm. 

“For munitions,” Emily hisses. 

“Pem! What on ear-” 

“Take it.” 

“Where did you get this? Keep it!” What on earth is she up to? 

Take it.” She’s clearly not in the mood for dissent.  

Kitty relents and tucks the purse into her dress pockets just as Mary reappears, threading around the crowded tables. 

On her way out, Kitty almost walks past the haberdashery, but then a white silk scarf catches her eye. Someone has embroidered it with a border of delicate violets and Votes for Women. It costs more than she used to earn in a week, back when mainstream theatres did not baulk at employing her. Careful not to look into the little green purse, she reaches for her own, opens it, and finds a few pennies for some plain fabric she can transform. She’s tired of hoping they’ll make her a paid campaigner. Her mind turns to the women who stand at Whitechapel corners, barefoot and desperate.  

She pushes her way through the crowd. The Empress rooms have been transformed into a summer garden, with borders of pergolas and rambling pink roses. The scent is cloying. Noise echoes around the high-ceilinged hall, and she’s starting to feel dizzy. She impatiently passes stalls selling buttons, jewellery, hats, stationery, sweets, books, tea sets, even board games. There is nothing these women’s hands cannot shape.  

A minute later, she bursts out onto the street. The early summer sunshine feels dazzlingly bright. Kitty breathes deeply. For a woman who spends so much of her time locked in crowds, she wishes she minded it less.  

She touches the statue of Joan of Arc as she passes, for luck. God save the women with nothing to lose. 

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

An Opening: Ferry

Autumn 1886 

Get thee out of Thy country, and from Thy kinship and from Thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show Thee  

Genesis 12:1 

Katherina is standing at the bow of a ship. A ferry. Eine Fähre. It’s evening, and the sun is inching towards the horizon, bleeding crimson. The air is salty and still. She turns her head. Behind her, yellow fades to indigo as a thin crescent moon appears. The stars shine sharp and cold over the continent, but Germany is behind her now. That new country, knitted together by willpower alone. She’s leaving everything. Tante Lisette, Tante Mariechen, Onkel Heinrich, her school-friends and the ruins on the hill behind her grandfather’s house. Can she still call it her country, if she never goes back? 

Around her, a few passengers take quiet evening strolls along the deck. She can hear smatterings of German mixed in with the strange new tongue she’ll have to learn. To her, English sounds indistinct, like someone talking around a boiled sweet. 

She turns back to look out to sea. West, towards her new home. Tomorrow, they’ll be landing in Harwich. For now, all she can see is the sea stretching for miles all around, mirroring the sunset. It’s eerily calm. She tries to picture Tante Dora in her head, but it’s been years since they’ve laid eyes on each other, years since Dora moved to London. Will she even recognise me? Katherina thinks. It’s the same every time she ends up on another relative’s doorstep. Katherina is that you? If you carry on like this, you’ll be too tall to marry!  

Her hand slides into the pocket of her coat and clutches at the crumpled paper covered in her uncle’s scrawl. She’s been taking it out, smoothing it, studying the words for days; the paper is limp and worn from so much folding and unfolding. Katherina could recite the address, directions and names backwards by now. But she’s unsure how to say the English words. London Liverpool Street. It has a strange rhythm. Lon-don Liver-pool Street. The ‘r’ is all wrong, too soft and slurring. She practiced with Onkel Heinrich, but she’s convinced she’ll never get it right.  

A breeze quickens and pulls at the strands of hair escaping from her hat. She stands with her back straight in her first long dress. She is travelling alone; she even has her own cabin. Her uncle has organised everything. 

Get off the ferry at Harwich and find the train station. It should be down the main road towards the centre of town and off to the right. If you get lost, ask someone to help. It’s not unusual to find someone who speaks German in a port town. If you can’t find anyone who speaks German, they can point it out to you. Once you’re there, take the train to London Liverpool Street. Get off at the last stop. Aunt Dora will meet you there. She’ll take you to her home in Epp- 

“Guten Abend, Fräulein.” Good evening, miss. 

Katherina jumps, her hands gripping the railings. A woman is standing next to her, staring out to sea. She is small and slight and elegantly dressed in wine-coloured brocade with a large bustle. The woman’s German has a distinct accent. English, maybe, but Katherina’s not sure. The woman smiles at Katherina over her high-necked collar. Her hands are tucked into a fur muff. 

“Guten Abend,” Katherina’s greeting comes out as an embarrassing croak. She coughs to clear her throat.  

“Aren’t you afraid?” The woman continues. 

“Entschuldigung?” says Katherina. Excuse me?  

“I said, aren’t you afraid?” The woman repeats. Katherina understood her the first time, she just hadn’t a clue what to say. She gathers herself. 

“No. Should I be?”  

“You are travelling alone, aren’t you?”  

Katherina wonders if the woman has been watching her. A hot trickle of anxiety starts to pool in her gut. She decides there’s no point in lying. The ship is neither large nor full. 

“Yes, I am.” 

“I would be afraid.” The woman says, frowning. 

“I’m not sure I follow. And we haven’t been introduced.” Katherina is starting to feel stupid, and she hates feeling stupid. 

“I’m sorry, my dear. My name is Mrs Brightwell. But you can call me Ilse. A pleasure to meet you.” Ilse inclines her head. Her eyes are a deep brown, like the coffee her father used to sip in the mornings. It contrasts with the blonde hair sticking out from underneath her elaborate, feathered hat. The knots and braids are starting to pull loose ever so slightly.  

Katherina has no idea what to do now, doesn’t know if Ilse wants to be greeted as an equal, or be deferred to. Her clothes hint at wealth. Should she curtsey like a girl? Should she offer her a hand? Incline the head, or bow? To get it wrong could be an affront, but so could doing nothing. It’s already too late, she thinks. 

Ilse seems to sense her discomfort, and briefly puts a hand on her arm. It’s warm under her soft leather gloves. She looks to be in her mid-twenties, so she’s not old, just a good decade older than Katherina. 

“Ilse’s a German name.” Katherina blurts out, then grimaces. But if Ilse is bothered by Katherina’s bald observation, she doesn’t show it. She only lets out a short peal of laughter that carries over the quiet deck and the sea. 

“Indeed it is. My mother was German. She fought to name me. She said it wasn’t fair if my father got both names, and I suppose she was right.”  

Ilse pauses for a while, seemingly lost in a memory. 

Katherina shifts from foot to foot. How to continue the conversation? “And your surname?” the question is out of her mouth before she can shut it. Her father always told her to speak less and think more, especially around strangers. But her father is far away now, and this woman has a presence. The warm kind of presence that makes you say things. 

“My husband’s. I haven’t been Mrs James Brightwell for long.” 

“Congratulations. Did you move to England recently?” 

“No. I grew up in London, where my father grew up. So, I’m not quite one or the other. My mother’s family are always imitating my accent.” Her face darkens for a moment, like clouds over the sea. “Actually, I’ve just been visiting them in Kiel. With James,” she adds. 

Katherina is a little surprised at how Ilse seems to take everything in her stride. From the scant details she’s picked up about the English, they’re supposed to be reserved. But then again, having barely spoken to anyone outside her own family, she’s out of her depth. Finally, she remembers her manners.  

“I’m Katherina. Katherina Schäfer.”  

Ilse smiles. She has pretty white teeth. “You might want to re-think being Katherina. Or are you content with it being pronounced incorrectly from now until eternity? By the people over there, I mean.” Ilse tilts her head towards the West, towards the sunset. “Katherina,” Ilse says with an exaggerated English air, drawing out the th. There’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye. 

Katherina grins. She turns away slightly, thinking. Ilse reminds her of happier times long ago, times she spent with Tante Lisette amongst her mother’s friends, talking and singing songs. They would let her try on perfume and tell her stories about her mother before her lungs gave up. Until her father came to take her back. She remembers the flash of sorrow in Tante Lisette’s eyes. Then, home was quiet again. Fraught. 

A nickname. It’s something she’s never considered before. Maybe she’s right, Katherina thinks. A new beginning. 

“I’m only speaking from experience.” Ilse tips her head conspiratorially. “Half of my receipts still have Lisa on them. Part of me curses my mother for not calling me Jane, God rest her soul.” 

A comfortable silence settles between them. Katherina is curious about her new friend’s mother. She wants to tell her that she lost hers, too. That she can hardly remember her mother, not even if she closes her eyes really tight and thinks as hard as she can. But something is holding her back. She hasn’t breathed a word of it for years, not to anyone.  

Ilse looks at her sideways. Part of Katherina wonders if she’s reading her thoughts. Katherina shakes her head. No, that’s stupid. 

“Katherina,” Ilse turns to her now and looks her straight in the eyes again, “be careful. If I’ve noticed you’re travelling alone, so have others.” Ilse darts a look around the deck. Kitty follows her gaze. A few metres to their right, an old man coughs into a dirty napkin. A seagull is perched on top of one of the stacks, squawking. The sky has now faded to a dusky pink.  

“Lock your cabin to-night.” Ilse squeezes her arm. 

“Why?” Katherina asks, frowning. Her mind has been too caught up in other things to give the matter any thought. But Ilse has jolted a vague memory of her uncle telling her something similar. 

Ilse casts her eyes to Heaven and crosses herself and mutters an English prayer under her breath before replying. 

“Have you ever travelled before?” 

Katherina hesitates before replying. She knows that Ilse must look at her and see a child.

“No, I haven’t.”

“I thought as much. And alone at that. Trust me. Don’t talk to any men, lock your cabin to-night, and you’ll be fine.” She smiles again, this time reassuringly. “Which cabin are you in?” 

I’ve already told this woman so much, thinks Katherina. There’s no hiding on this ship, either. She takes a breath. 

“Number four.” 

Ilse smiles. “You’re only two doors down from me, then. I’m in number two. If there’s any trouble, anything at all worrying you, come and knock for me. Any time.” 

All Katherina can manage is a tentative nod. 

“So, I really must be off.” Ilse has turned brisk and smooths out her skirts. “James must be wondering where I am by now. I told him I was only going for a breath of air. He gets terribly sea-sick, you know. Awful company.” Katherina could swear Ilse winks before she walks back down the deck, skirts swinging behind her. After Ilse leaves, Katherina feels strangely lost. The breeze is pulling at her and the air now has a cold edge. It’s September, but the nights are already drawing in. She runs through the conversation in her head, once, twice over. Is she missing something? Katherina doesn’t know why she should be afraid. Strangers had only ever been kind to her. The man stamping her papers had given her a strange look and asked her some questions, but that could hardly be considered an emergency. 

Eventually, Katherina returns to her cabin and undresses, careful to lock the door. She hangs up her coat and hat. In her loose white nightgown, she sits on her bunk in front of the tiny mirror and starts to pull out her hairpins, then brushes through her hair. The same as her mother’s. Katherina remembers it tickling her face as she put her to bed at night. The soft murmur of her voice. 

 She stares at her reflection. Long nose, full lips, tired eyes. At some point, someone must’ve come in to leave a small pitcher of water in the basin below the mirror. It’s gone stone cold, but she pours some out and splashes her face with it regardless. 

Through her porthole, she can see that it’s pitch-black outside. She can hear the gentle creaking and swaying of the ship. Footsteps pass above her and, in the corridor, doors open and shut. The small cohort of passengers are settling themselves in for the night. She’s pleased she hasn’t gotten sea-sick like she’d feared. She opens the drawer in her narrow bedside cabinet. In it, there’s two Bibles: one written in what looks like Danish, and one in English.  

Katherina picks up the English one, leafing through the pages. They’re thin, yellow, and well-thumbed. She wonders how many other passengers have opened this book and looked for guidance. The church in Witten had been a safe haven for her, and her grandmother was devout in the best sense of the word, but Katherina doesn’t often pray.  

If she concentrates really hard, she can guess at one word in ten. After a few minutes, she gives up and lays back on the bed. A wave of fatigue blurs her eyes and a pang of homesickness twists her stomach. What is she doing here? Thoughts of Onkel Heinrich flood her mind. The smell of his pipe tobacco clinging to his scratchy tweed as he hugged her. His kind, crinkly eyes as he waved goodbye to her in Deutz. Don’t worry, my child. It’s for the best. Katherina had cried until her head hurt, but knew it was the truth. Grandfather wouldn’t provide for her. Father had kept showing up on Heinrich’s doorstep, hurling abuse and threatening to pull her back by the hair if they didn’t give her willingly. 

She lays awake, staring at the ceiling, for what feels like hours. Time moves strangely at night. Every now and again, she can hear a passenger coughing or turning over in their bunk. The walls are thin.  

Her last thoughts before finally falling asleep are of seagulls, pearly white teeth, and Onkel Heinrich, dressed as Moses, parting the Red Sea. 

Categories
Book Reviews Prose

Book Review: James Wood’s ‘How Fiction Works’

Only just starting to date around the edges, this is an invaluable introduction to literature and the crafting of fiction.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
How Fiction Works: Amazon.co.uk: Wood, James: 9781845950934: Books

Overview

I hadn’t had much contact with literary theory until this year. I’d studied German and History, and although I’d done a couple of literature modules in German, I’d never grappled with the grand timelines of literary history, from the birth of the novel to realism to modernism to postmodernism and beyond. I bought this book to help me better understand the underpinnings of my MA Literary Translation course, and it was definitely a good idea. It was concise, easy-to-read, and full of interesting references to works I usually hadn’t read- which gave me loads of ideas for my summer reading list (when I’ll finally have the freedom to pick up a novel for myself and read it for my own goddamn pleasure).

Highlights

The sections are rather erratic and staccato – short sections of usually no more than a couple of pages and sometimes as small as a single line. This didn’t bother me, because I have a short attention span and a scatterbrained reading style anyway. I’m usually thinking of exactly 6 other things whilst reading, so the easily-digestible chunks were a relief. Nothing makes me groan more than opening a book and seeing that the chapters are 120 pages long, or that, God forbid, there are no chapters at all.

This book also gave me an insight into the jargon my MA Prose coursemates are often throwing around, as well as a good grounding knowledge of the first great novelists (Flaubert, Balzac). It also helped me to more understand the modernist literary mindset, and how it contrasts with postmodernism.

Lowlights

I have a few criticisms, which basically boil down to:

1- this book is a product of its time and American meta-anxiety during the ‘War on Terror’.

2- the author really could have tried harder to include some more female novelists (the only two which get any kind of in-depth mention are, of course, Austen and Woolf).

and 3-(this is my PET PEEVE) the author repeatedly quotes translated fiction without mentioning the translator or the fact that the fiction is in fact translated, as is the case with all the numerous French novelists he references. He references their work as if it were their original, unadulterated words, thus erasing the translator and their invaluable contributions to making international authors accessible to monolingual Anglophone audiences. Those are not Flaubert’s words. They are an impression of Flaubert’s words via another writer. You are a leading literary critic. Please do better.

Categories
Book Reviews Prose

Book Review: Algernon Blackwood’s ‘Roarings from Further Out’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the genre literally called ‘weird fiction’, Blackwood’s creepy Edwardian, late-Gothic tales from beyond the veil between Heaven and Earth are best read by firelight in a deep leather armchair on a cold winter’s night.


Roarings from Further Out by Xavier Aldana Reyes, Algernon Blackwood |  Waterstones

I like Gothic. I’ve read Dracula and some M.R James. Frankenstein is perpetually on my to-read list. I’ve grown up in an esoteric, half-Roma household full of Tarot cards and stories about Aleister Crowley sending a demon to kill one of his enemies on a remote Scottish Island. I thought I knew what I was getting into with this book, but nothing can quite prepare you for your first experience of Algernon Blackwood.

I don’t know if I ever would have stumbled upon this incredible name had I not decided to translate neo-Gothic fiction loosely based on his autobiography for my dissertation, but I’m glad I did. This is a collection of short stories put together by Reyes with a delightfully short introduction. The stories (“The Willows”, “Ancient Stories”, “The Wendigo”, and “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”) are actually more like novellas, and some are even weirder than others, but there are some overarching themes: nature, the supernatural, occultism, spiritualism, fabulous creatures, philosophy, psychology, dreams and nature. Did I say nature twice? I meant to. There’s nary a paragraph here without a tree in it.

Highlights

The stories are well worth reading. There’s a deep beauty to them, something haunting and almost intangible. They drip with horror and existential angst, but Blackwood never fails to show his deep regard for nature and the Earth we live on. A lot of the prose is incredibly introspective and internal, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just don’t expect much action or dialogue.

Blackwood is good at building a sense of dread and his descriptions are beautiful. His personification of the land we live on, and his deep psychological analyses of the unexplained are things I’d never experienced on this level before. You finish each novella with the distinct feeling that there could be things in Heaven and Earth that we could never even begin to understand, or things working in our subconscious to slowly drive us mad.

He brings in so many fantastical subjects: the weirdest novella of the four covers a tourist who stops at a French village and slowly begins to realise that the people actually turn into cats at night and behave more and more like cats during the day. Despite the utter nuttiness of this, the prose never feels forced or contrived. Blackwood can somehow make a ridiculous premise or situation feel believable and tangible, which is no mean feat.

Lowlights

This prose is incredibly ‘of its time’. I feel like most paragraphs could have been half as long as they ended up. The editor in me wants to put lines through so many superfluous adverbs, adjectives and even whole sentences which say almost exactly the same thing as the preceding sentence. But, then again, this was the style back then. It was completely normal to be verbose, to have purple prose, to add in reams and reams of disorientating description. Sometimes there was so much description I lost sight of what was actually being described.

I feel like these stories could do with a modern-retelling, much abridged. The ideas are so original and the creepiness so acute, but the stories do tend to go on for twice as long as they need to, which does damage the tension and suspense somewhat. The verbosity of the prose also dilutes the action, and the dialogue is lost amongst page-long paragraphs of internal monologue or natural descriptions.

Obviously, these stories were published over a hundred years ago, so it’s not surprising that there’s a bit of casual paedophilia thrown in (a forty-something man falling in love with a seventeen-year-old girl in “Ancient Sorceries”), and the image of women, along with Native American characters, is pretty dim. Actually, there are hardly any female characters at all, and, where they do exist, they are passive, not particularly intelligent, and extremely self-sacrificing. The two N-words also appear (both ‘negro’ and the unsayable one). Again, this was completely normal at the time, but it does make the modern reader’s toes curl.

Categories
Prose Translations

Creative Adaptation: Kai Hermann’s “Engel + Joe”

I really enjoyed this book on first reading years ago, but it’s absolutely jam-packed with slang and colloqualisms. I thought it would be impossible to translate an extract and maintain its German context – because I have to swap the slang for something recognisable in English. I’ve gone for a London idiom instead. This book came out in the early 2000s, when Berlin was still experiencing a huge Punk vs. Skinheads problem. So I’ve swapped it for 80s/90s London, not that there are any particular time markers in the text so far. I’ve worked from my first handwritten draft and did not look at the ST at all in writing it up. I’ve added or taken away words and sentences at whim to try to create an ‘authentic’ voice: Joe is a teenage Londoner from a broken home. The end product is more of an imaginative adaptation than a translation, based on pp.14-17 of the novel.


Joe doesn’t hang around at the bus stop this morning. It would just get her down. There are loads of police around. Wailing sirens are weird for a Sunday. 

A couple of skinheads are standing in front of a Tescos trying to look hard. There’s lots of skinheads in these ends. Joe knows a few of the ones standing in front of Tescos. She wants to switch to the other side of the street, but one of the guys calls out to her. 

“Hey, Joe. Get over here.” 

The guy is called Killer. At least, that’s what everyone calls him. Maybe he started calling himself Killer at some point. To look hard. It’s better not to have any beef with the skinheads when you live in these ends. Joe doesn’t particularly like them. But at least the Nazis in this area aren’t the kind who kick homeless guys to death. She thinks. She’s known some of them since primary school. Boys who didn’t have the guts to talk to a girl alone or do any fucking thing alone. That’s why there’s always loads of them, beer cans in hand, safety in numbers.

Joe walks across the street on autopilot. Towards the guys, even though she absolutely can’t be arsed to let them chat her up. But that’s just how it is. That Joe sometimes automatically does things that these kinds of idiots ask of her. Skinheads, teachers, and even that Mike. When she wanted to show her mum a mock exam, that Mike said “give it here.” She gave him her exercise book on autopilot. Then she kicked herself afterwards. 

When Joe reaches the skinheads, Killer asks “Don’t we get a kiss?”

“Your breath smells like arse,” Joe says. She positions herself as best she can so the skinheads can’t see the swollen side of her face. One of them rips out an enormous burp, and the rest find it amusing. 

“Are you coming with? Squash some fleas?”

“Why?”

“The shitheads wanna kick up a fuss about our demo.”

“No time,” says Joe, “Don’t fuck up. See you around.” She pretends to be in a hurry. There’s nothing worse than bumming around Shoreditch on a Sunday morning. Even worse when you have no idea where you’re going. No window displays. Just dog shit. The big attraction is the posters in the used car salesrooms. At the corner, in front of a used car, a guy is squatting on the floor. Looks like a punk. Doesn’t really belong in these ends. Joe has to get a closer look at him. The guy has a bloody face. Joe wants to get past quickly. 

But the guy asks: “Do you have some shrapnel to call an ambulance?”

Any other day, you can walk about for hours without seeing or hearing a thing. See nobody you know far and wide. Nobody speaks a single word to you. Not even a single dirty builder to whistle at you. And you feel like a spare part. But when you don’t wanna hear or see anyone, suddenly someone’s chanking at you on every street corner. 

Joe rummages for some change in her jean pockets. Automatically. Although she shouldn’t give a shit about this guy. She gives him 50p and asks “Nazis?”

He says “Nope, police.”

The wound on his forehead doesn’t look good. It’s still bleeding. He wipes the blood from his face with a rag. Joe gives him some tissues. 

“You should get that sorted. It looks grim,” she says. 

The guy doesn’t respond. He pulls a rat from his bag. Presses his blood-smeared face into the rat’s fur. Kisses it. Puts it on his knee. 

Joe puts her bag down. Squats down automatically. Has a look at the rat.

“It’s cute.”

“Cute?” the guy puts some glasses on – the only have one lens – and looks at Joe. 

She turns the swollen side of her face away too late.

“Nazis?”

“No, my stepdad.”

“Really?”

Joe stands straight up again and hangs her bag over her shoulder. She has no idea why she bent down and told this guy (of all guys) anything. And then, to top it all off,  she said “my stepdad.”

“If I have to flatten him, lemme know.”

Joe rolls her eyes. She says “you can’t stay here. Nazis are coming.”

“Really?”

“Seriously. You gotta get away from here.”

The guy acts like he doesn’t give a shit. But he’s looking down the street a little nervously all the same. Says: “Thanks, by the way.”

Joe leaves without saying anything. The police cars are out in force again. She’s happy to get away from the guy. He’s probably an arsehole. Although he doesn’t look like one at first glance. How he looked at her through his broken glasses. A guy’s eyes are important to Joe. Not the only important thing, but important. But the guy with the glasses had kind of mocking eyes. Like he knew everything and was taking the piss out of you for it. Although he must have been feeling pretty shitty. He’s probably an arsehole anyway. Up himself. How he spoke to her. Like from his high horse. But the rat was cute. 

For a moment, Joe thinks about what the plan actually is. There isn’t one. Maybe she’ll throw herself in front of the Tube this evening. But that doesn’t seem likely. ‘Cause she doesn’t feel depressed, just lost.

Categories
Prose Translations

Finding Voice in Text: Continuing Andrew Cowan’s ‘What I Know’

This week, we’ve been talking about voice. What does voice mean in literature? How can we find it? What constitutes an author’s voice? And how can we replicate it in translation?

I’ve taken the first page of Andrew Cowan’s novel What I Know, which I know nothing about, and continued it for another page or two, attempting to replicate the author’s and narrator’s voice. It reads like your average white man having a mid-life crisis novel, apart from the deeply creepy, voyeuristic undertones:

 

Our impressions on first viewing were of tightness and gloom, and even at that time, with our second son growing inside of her – not that we yet knew it would be our second son – I had looked at the grey shadows of damp in the corner of the ceiling and at the tiny flecks of black mould huddled in the grouting on the window frames and considered running. I considered pushing past the bewildered, mousy estate agent and bursting out onto the street. I considered running, in either direction, past the rows of narrow, cloistered red-brick boxes with paltry front gardens. But I didn’t, and we bought the house. I convinced myself I saw a flash of sympathy in that mousy estate agent’s eye as she handed me the key. That was nearly seven years ago. I wasn’t brave enough to run, but I wasn’t brave enough to stay properly either. I like to convince myself that I’ve done my fatherly duties. Sometimes I even do my husbandly ones, too. 

Why did I stay? Cowardice? Shame? Societal pressure? Some potent mix of all three?

I shift my head to the side a little to follow her trajectory across her bedroom. I wonder if she noticed me felling the trees. There’s now a space where they used to be. The girl is reaching into the wardrobe and pulling out a towel. She leans forwards, her breasts forming pendulums reminiscent of my vertical wife. She wraps the towel around her hair with a few deft twists, fixing it in place with the same pink plastic clips that Jan leaves on the edge of the bathtub. No, with her arms above her head, her breasts look smaller and tighter.

My attention wanders when she begins to dress. It’s around midday. The clock on the wall marks the seconds. The boys are at school. They gave me childishly homemade cards this morning, and I pretended to enthuse. A spiky 4, an imperfect 0 a sagging oval. Jan has gone out, presumably to fetch me a present after forgetting again. Aren’t husbands supposed to forget these things? Isn’t that my sacred dereliction of duty? I’ve taken the day off, but needn’t have bothered. The world is no more exciting from the dining room floor.