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
German

Zwischen Zwei Sprachen Leben

Lebe ich eine Sprache? Oder bewohne ich sie? Gilt das für eine gelernte Sprache auch? 

Der Begriff ‘Muttersprache’ ist veraltet, das wissen wir schon. Ich bin aber mit einer Sprache aufgewachsen, bis ich meine zweite Sprache gewählt habe. Kann ich sogar meine zweite Sprache beleben, oder eher bewohnen?

Als ich das schrieb, war es mir peinlich bewusst, wie schwierig das Übersetzen davon wird, unübersetzbar sogar. Damit habe ich mich, sozusagen, selbst in den Fuß geschossen. Ich bin Übersetzerin, Lehrerin, von Wörtern besessen. Wie Sprachen einander überschneiden, einander widerspiegeln, aber nie genau einander abgleichen. Weil das nie klappt. Weil das immer eine Fantasie ist. Übersetzung ist das endlose Lernen von allen Möglichkeiten, wie man in zwei oder mehrere Sprachen ähnliche Gedanken erklärt. Ähnlich aber nie gleich. Eine Übersetzung ist immer nur eine Echo, eine subjektive Wiederschreibung.

Wieviel Platz können zwei Sprachen aufnehmen? Ist es endlos, könnten noch weitere Sprachen dazukommen, wie zum endlosen Horizont, offen weit und breit? Oder ist es irgendwie begrenzt? Rutscht was eventuell aus der anderen Seite, wenn was neues rein muss?

Meine zweite Sprache ist gelernt. Mein gespaltenes Dasein, die andere Hälfte von mir ist gelernt. Ich werde oft gefragt, warum ich mich dafür entschieden habe. Warum ausgerechnet Deutsch? Deutschen können doch alle schon Englisch, oder? (nein). Hast du deutsche Verwandte? Bist du von deutscher Abstammung? (nein). Es war eine einfache Wahl in der Schule, sage ich. Aber ich weiß, dass das vielleicht nicht die ganze Wahrheit ist. Die Wahrheit ist immer viel komplizierte, als man denkt. Ich bin mir nicht genau sicher, was meine Wahrheit ist. Ja, warum Deutsch? 

Wir gehören aber zur gleichen Familie. Je weiter man in die Vergangenheit zurückgreift, desto ähnlicher werden die zwei Sprachen, Deutsch und Englisch, Englisch und Deutsch. Die gleiche Abstammung, die gleiche Wurzeln. Sieht man aber nur heutzutage nicht am Ampel, wo die Engländer ungestört zwei Meter vor einem beschleunigenden Taxi bei rot überlaufen. 

Vielleicht war es für mich eher eine Übung der Eitelkeit, weil ich nicht wie ‘alle’ andere Engländer sein wollte. Ich wollte nicht nur eine Sprache zur Verfügung haben, das schien mir zu engstirnig. Die Welt ist voller endlosen Möglichkeiten, sich selbst zum Ausdruck zu bringen. Hätte ich das nur auf eine Sprache gekonnt, hätte ich mir immer gewundert, was hätte anders sein können. Aber bilingual zu sein ist auch weit entfernt von den geschicktesten Linguisten der Welt.

Deutsch fällt mir immer noch nicht so einfach wie Englisch. Ich rede und schreibe wie kein/e Deutsche/r. Manche würden das als Unzulänglichkeit bezeichnen, als Scheitern, als Unvollkommenheit, meine nicht-ganz-Beherrschung. Aber ich behalte gerne meine Makel. Gibt es nicht die Möglichkeit für eine endlose Mehrzahl an Arten von Deutsch in der Welt, genauso wie es ein endloses Vielfalt Englisch gibts? Die Engländer haben es auf Sklaven- und Pilgerschiffe mitgebracht, und dachten, sie könnten die Welt beherrschen wie man eine Sprache ‘beherrscht’. Aber jetzt gehört Englisch jedem, der mit Englisch aufwächst oder Englisch lernt. Es gehört nicht mehr den Engländern. Als ich heute anfing zu schreiben, hatte ich es vor, es meinem deutschen Freund zu schicken, um für Makel und Fehler zu überprüfen. Aber ich habe mich anders entschlossen. Die Makel bleiben. Sie sind Kennzeichen eines langen Weges hinter mir, Brotkrümel der Jahren des Gedulds und der Frustration, wie die Ringe in einem Baumschnitt, Schichten über Schichten aufgebaut. Mein Deutsch war wurzellos, aber jetzt habe sie Wurzeln geschlagen. 

Es ist komisch, daran zu denken, wie diese kantige, eckige, stachelige Sprache mich gerade ablehnt. Nach Brexit, während Corona noch weitermarschiert, im neuen, dystopischen Zeitalter, darf ich nicht hin. Absolutes Reiseverbot zur Eindämmung der Delta-Variante. Im letzten sechs Monaten, gab es ein Fenster von 6 Tagen, indem ich legal nach Deutschland reisen konnte. Natürlich habe ich das Fenster verpasst. 

Ich hatte die naive, kindliche Hoffnung, dass alles wieder fortschreitend besser wird, dass ich diesen Sommer meinen Partner wiedersehen könnte. Aber meine deutsche Hälfte schlummert noch ihren ausgezogenen Winterschlaf. Flüge verschieben, noch einmal, nur noch einmal. Noch einen Monat schaffen mir, dann nur noch einen Monat. Den odenwäldischen Dialekt kann ich nicht mehr hören, melodisch, halb-geschluckt, hoch- und runter in meinen Ohren, die Wörter einander überfallend, während ich mich anstrenge, seinen Opa mitzubekommen. Er versteht mich auch nicht, obwohl ich versuche, mein Deutsch so deutsch wie möglich auszusprechen.

Ich muss immer wieder fragen, wie ein Tannenzapfen auf Odenwäldisch heißt. Oder vielleicht heißt es nur so im Dorf meines Freundes, dass vergesse ich auch. ________. Ich finde es jedesmal lustig, vergesse es aber auch immer wieder. Wieso lustig? Vielleicht weil es so anders ist. Vielleicht weil es so spezifisch ist, ein ganz anderes Wort für etwas, was so oft so unbemerkt auf dem Waldboden liegt, getrampelt, oder von eifrigen Dorfkindern aufgerissen, um an die süßbitter Kernchen zu gelangen. Ich habe auch fast den Geruch von Moos unter Tannen vergessen, wie die Farne über die Sommermonaten sich langsam entfalten, und wie man den Blick für Pilzen entwickelt, wenn man lang genug hinsieht.

Die Trennung ist ein endloses Hinauszögern, verzögern, die Seite neu laden, buchen dann umbuchen und stornieren, Bedingungen lesen, Quarantänepflicht oder nicht? Impfbescheinigung, Testnachweis, Grüne-Gelbte-Rote Liste. Ich verbringe meine Tage am Schreibtisch und übersetzte aus Deutsch, aber ich bin seit Jahren nie weiter weg von Deutsch gewesen.

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.

Categories
Translations

Translating from the Visual

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference, or lack of difference, between the visual and the written arts. Lessing theorizes that poetry or prose exists in time, and the visual arts in space: e.g that you can only experience a poem or piece of prose in one direction- linearly through time, usually from start to finish, but in a painting, the whole and parts coexist simultaneously rather than consecutively. You may ‘read’ a painting, but you still experience it as a whole. People often forget to experience poetry or prose as a ‘whole’, as the whole can only be reflected on afterwards the reader has read the final page. However, although the mediums are so different, the viewer and reader responses to visual and textual art can be the same.

Borges has questioned whether we experience reality successively or simultaneously in his short story ‘the Aleph’, whereas Joyce attempted to convey everything in language in his Ulysses. Borges believed it was only possible to capture the temporality of experience- and therefore any attempt to convey the totality of human experience in language would fail.

We experience paintings spatially. The paint, the brushstrokes, the canvas literally take up space and exist for the viewer as a whole composed of complementary parts. Although we usually experience text temporally rather than spatially, there are ways of creating a spatial experience of a text. Imagine, as an author, visually plotting out character arcs and events in a novel using Post-it notes and string, like detectives in a movie. And what is a graphic novel if not simultaneously spatial and temporal? they exist as both art objects and literature. There are also incredibly visual poems, where the shape reminds the reader of the imagery contained in their words. Some novels are also arranged visually in this way. And while the process of reading may be temporal, the evaluation of said reading is often spatial. Our experience of a work builds up an image in our minds. Zooming out of a book after having read it- making connections, seeing patterns, getting an overview of the totality of the work: these are all spatial experiences of a book or poem. As a translation theorist, Berman places emphasis on the whole, deploring translators who get too caught up in the minute linguistic details of a text.

An interesting example of a spatially-organised text would be Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In a letter to a friend, she drew a diagram of the plot for her text which looks like the capital letter H. There was a part one and a part two, joined by a narrow bridge in between. The bridge is where a time period of 10 years is skipped over in a single page. Woolf didn’t want to explore death as a process, she wanted to explore death as a state of not being, of the effect that death has on those you leave behind. The poet Pizarnik used to draw a picture to capture her mood and feelings before she wrote the poem. The visual and textural are irrevocably linked. Art, whether visual or written, is a way of conceptualizing and expressing the gaps which open between the perceptions and emotions.

The way that literary theory and literary history organises itself is also responsible for our linear understandings of text. Why do we put text in a chronological order, why do we separate them into different eras and epochs? Borges claims that every writer creates his own precursors. We are obsessed with uncovering the influences on individual writers from what came before. Literary theorists are interested in the connections between the ideas of Borges and Benjamin, but there’s no evidence that Borges ever even read Benjamin.

So how does photography fit in with these definitions ? Should we treat photographs in the

same way as we treat paintings? I don’t think so. It’s possible to put things in a painting which do not coexist with each other: think of surrealism. However, it’s much more difficult to fit disparate elements into a photograph. Photographs can be taken in an instant and tend to portray things which are closer to reality. Because photographs can be so quickly and readily taken, yet it takes up to two years to complete a painting, I believe that photographs, or series of photographs, can more easily tell a story. There’s also the issue of space with a single painting compared with a series of photographs or a novel. The amount of scenes in photographs or novels are almost endless, yet it would be difficult to tell a story in as much depth with a single painting.

There’s an interesting parallel here between photographs and translations. Photography captures an exact moment which will never repeat itself, whereas literature is immortal and unreal: it always portrays a fantasy world which never really existed. With photography, there’s the idea of inevitable loss, just like with translation. The moment that a photograph captures is already lost by the time it has been captured. In the same vein, translation documents a text, but many say that something is always lost in the process, that the original can never truly be captured in the words of a new language. 

Ekphrasis is the process of translating an object or a visual piece of art into literature. Ideas about ekphrasis are similar to Roman Jakobson’s ideas on translation: he separated translation into three distinct forms-  interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic. According to Jakobson, intersemiotic translation involves the changing of form- for example, from text to picture, or from poetry to play. But for Jakobson, ekphrasis did not count as intersemiotic translation because, for him, intersemiotic translation had to start with a text. Ekphrasis starts with a work of art and ends with the text. An everyday example of this would be audio description for the visually impaired on the television. 

I have been using the idea of ekphrasis this week to create poetry and prose inspired by three paintings of my choice. I have chosen ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ by Van Gogh, ‘The Sick Child’    by Edvard Munch,  and ‘A View on the River Stour Near Dedham’ by John Constable. I remember writing an assignment on Van Gogh for art at A-Level, and although he has become one of the best known painters in the world since his death, his works still speak to me on an extremely personal level. In some ways he was the archetypal tortured artist, and in other ways he was so much more than that. His free, expressionist style is similar to the style in which I also paint landscapes, no doubt both consciously and unconsciously due to his influence. I have chosen to work from one of his later paintings, one I have copied before,  and one which speaks to his worsening mental state in the same year ear as his suicide. The painting, a landscape, is simple enough, yet laden with emotion and the creeping sense of foreboding. 

I also chose to work from a painting by Edvard Munch because I regret that his talent has been reduced to a single painting since his death: The Scream. Munch’s works go far beyond that. I wanted to include at least one portrait in my trio of chosen paintings, and this scene is laden with such tender emotion that I could immediately visualise it. And finally, I chose a work from John Constable. I wanted to work from one of his sketches rather than one of his finished paintings because I find his sketches so much more lively and vibrant- his finished paintings often look flat and overworked to me. This became my most personal poem. To me, constable is inextricably linked with my childhood experience growing up in Suffolk. Nobody from Suffolk with an interest in art is unaware of Constable’s great legacy, and my grandfather was no exception. My grandfather is a wildlife artist with a deep appreciation for Constable and Gainsborough. This painting reminded me both of going to view these landscapes at galleries and of experiencing these landscapes first-hand on enforced family day trips out in the countryside, which I only became grateful for much later in life.

Categories
Prose Translations

Translating from the Visual 2: Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Child”

Edvard Munch | The Sick Child | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Don’t be sad, mama.”

Astrid’s mother will not meet her eye. The girl’s red hair is plastered to her milky forehead. A sweet, cloying smell hangs in the air. Astrid wants to ask her mother to open the window, just a crack, just for a minute, but knows she’d refuse. Bad for a fever. The room is warmed by a fire flickering in the hearth. It hisses the odd orange ember. It’s too warm: her mother is wasting fuel again.

Outside, snowflakes land on the windowpanes and immediately turn to water, dribbling their way downwards and making tracks through the condensation. When she is alone, Astrid likes to watch them, placing bets on which one will reach the bottom first. She doesn’t like it when they conjoin, it confuses her.

She turns her head to the left, to the mirror on the wall beside the window. She can see herself over her mother’s shoulder. Her reflection is her constant company. Beneath the sallow sheen of her skin, her eyes burn with the intensity of the damned. Her free hand travels to the silver crucifix around her neck. The metal feels hot to the touch. She swallows. Her throat is parched.

“Mama,” she whispers.

Her mother looks up. Her eyes are sadness ringed with blue. Downturned mouth, fine lines. Worry on her brow. Brown bun, streaked with grey. She’s still clutching Astrid’s left hand.

“Some water, takk,” She croaks.

 Her mother nods, stands up to her full height, crosses the room in two long steps. Pours water from the jug on the dresser, and returns. the room is dim, lit only by the small fire and a paraffin lamp. Her mother is wearing a dark dress. Her pale skin gives the appearance of a disembodied head and hands.

Astrid takes a sip from the glass which has been held out to her. She shifts her weight on the pillow supporting her back. Her joints ache. She wants to go out and walk, but Winter has gathered its short days and bitter cold. Her lungs couldn’t take it. 

An icy wind rattles the glass. Now, despite the heat, the heavy snow is beginning to collect in the corners of the window like dust. Her mother follows her gaze.

“Maybe it will be better by tomorrow,” her mother says, but they both know it’s not true. 

“Yes, maybe.”

“You could even visit the Anderssons in a few weeks, if we get a nice day.”

“Yes.” She tries to smile.

“It’s almost spring really, when you think about it. And then, once it’s spring, it’s not even that much longer until we can go cloudberry picking again. You’ll come with me, won’t you?” her words are falling out faster and faster now “Magnus gets bored, and Ingrid can’t carry the basket yet, or she might trip, and we can’t have tha-”

“Yes, mamma. I will.”

Her mother smiles and smoothes the hair from her forehead.

A silence settles. Astrid can hear her family’s feet creaking on the wooden floorboards in the rest of the house. She counts them: two heavy treads and one lighter tread. She knows who it is when they pass by. Her big brother’s loping stride. Her little sister’s uneven trot. Her father’s heavy thud. At least they seem to have made peace with her passing. She only sees her mother now, and only in the evenings. Only when the last of the sun’s weak light has long since faded over the horizon, travelling west. Only when her mother’s bones ache and her hands are red and cracked. Astrid is a ghost in this house. She haunts them.

 Her mother’s hands clutch at Astrid’s, rough skin brushing against clammy softness. She rubs Astrid’s hands as if she could rub the life back into them. 

“Shall I tell you about Askeladden and the forest troll?” 

Astrid’s heard the tale a hundred times. But her mother always embellishes it differently. Sometimes Askeladden’s brothers go back with him into the forest. Sometimes Askeladden’s cheese is too ripe to fool the troll into thinking it’s a rock. And sometimes Askeladden is sent by the troll to chop wood and threatens to bring the whole forest instead.

“I’m too old,” she says, but she knows her mother will tell it anyway, and secretly she wants her to.Her mother takes a deep breath and begins: “Det var en gang…

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words Scene 5

A girl skips home from school. Her long, red hair- the colour of sin- is gathered in a thick braid down her back. As soon as she is home, a tall, proud man – her father- has her knitting and practising her handwriting. He has a good hand himself, and she must learn it perfectly. She often sits by the window and watches the other village children playing in the street. Sometimes, all she can hear is the gentle clack-clack of her needles slowing building row upon row of useful fabric, a warm weave of knots. Sometimes, her father sits next to her, reading the newspaper. Then, the soft rustle of the pages mingles with the clicks of her knitting. But it’s only that quiet when it’s raining or winter and the street is dark or cold and empty. Other times, her father teaches her how to hold a pen. She tries to keep her fingers straight, how he likes it, but her hands are clammy with the effort. Her father stands over her, long and lean, smelling of pipe smoke and lye. He leans forward, supporting his pipe in his right hand and himself on the back of her chair with his left. He chews on the mouthpiece, grinding it between his teeth. He has piercing green eyes and a strong nose. He is a handsome man, the villagers say. The spitting image of the Kronprinz Frederick.

Kitty’s hand slips. Her index finger crooks up. Her father grunts with displeasure and sends the bowl of his pipe cracking down onto the crest of her skull. Kitty feels faint. Waves of pain throb through her, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. She wants to cry, but that’s not allowed. Crying is weakness and girls are weak. Tears would prove it. She grits her teeth and carries on writing. A bead of sweat falls from her nose and onto the paper, blurring the ink. A shot of fear races straight to her heart. But this time she is lucky, very lucky. Her father hasn’t noticed because his eyesight is slowly failing him. 

There’s another noise in the room. She looks up. A woman is curled in the corner furthest from the door. She hangs her head, arms hugged around her knees. Her nightshirt has ridden up, revealing a delicate, lacy network of bruises up her shins. She is crying softly. She knows this must be her mother- her long, auburn hair just a few shades darker than her own. 

Kitty’s writing desk faces the window, so she has had to crane her neck around to see the sound’s source. She remembers her schoolwork and flinches, waiting for the pipe to come smacking down once more, this time for her insolence and unscholarly distraction. But her father is gone. 

Her mother senses Kitty’s presence. She raises her head and must be seeing Kitty silhouetted in the soft, afternoon light which falls through the window and illuminates the dust motes hanging suspended in the air. The room is panelled in dark wood, and bare except for desk, mother and child. She opens her mouth, and Kitty wants to run to her, to rub warmth into her blue-white hands, but she stops dead and the blank fear returns. Her mother is looking at her with her father’s piercing green eyes, full of contempt. It’s not right, it doesn’t fit, because her mother’s eyes were blue, weren’t they?

The woman in the corner raises a long, pale finger and points at Kitty. She speaks with her father’s voice.

“Unnatural child, why don’t you love me?”

Kitty screams until a creak at the door cuts her off. Perhaps her father is back, or is he in the corner? She doesn’t know where to look.

“Hello, Kitty.”

A tall man strolls in, but he is not her father. Her little writing desk has become something larger, more stately, poised on polished mahogany legs. There’s now a low couch in the corner where her mother was crouched just moments ago. An ostentatious chandelier hangs low from the ceiling. Through the window, Kitty can see that she is a few floors up, and that the street below is busy. Women stroll past, clutching decorative parasols or unruly children. Men in tall hats huddle together, moustaches quivering. 

Kitty turns away from the window, from a London both distant and familiar. The man has gotten closer, much closer. Why did she ever let him out of her sight? He has positioned his body between her and the door. His huge desk is behind her. She knows she is trapped, and he knows it too. He is so close she could count the crumbs in his beard and smell the day-old gin on his breath. Gin he keeps in the top left-hand drawer of his desk. She knows because she has seen him taking it out, pouring it and returning it with an almost clerical solemnity. She knows because he has offered her some, and she has seen the flash of indignation in his eyes as she declined. 

“How about a kiss, my dear Kitty? Just a harmless kiss.”

She backs away until her hips collide with his monstrous desk. She makes to slide over it, lithe as a river eel, but he catches her around the waist in one sly, practised movement ill-fitting with either his paunch or his advancing age. Kitty should be terrified. She knows she was the last audition that day. She knows that the others have gone home by now. She did not notice whether his secretary has also left for the day or whether she lurks somewhere, complicit.

“I don’t understand you, Kitty,” he remonstrates, “young girls like you like to be made love to, they like to kiss. You’ll never be a success in the music halls if you don’t, my dear.” There is a malign glimmer in his watery, bloodshot eyes. Her so-called agent presses himself against her, trying to plant his lips on hers, scratching her chin with his wiry bristles. She squirms like a polecat, clawing him and screaming, drawing her knee up to the one place she knows men are vulnerable. He gasps, withdraws, his breath catches, his face contorted with pain, but he still has a vice like grip on her wrist. He’s not going to give it up, he’s not going to be bested. Not by her. He’s panting, a hairline scratch underneath his eye seeping blood, and still he tries to pull her towards him. Kitty feels herself losing her balance in slow motion. She pulls back, tips, falling towards the desk, her leg lifting, wading through treacle. Or is the desk falling upwards to meet her temple?

The last sensations Kitty remembers as she loses consciousness are the running of water, a gushing, rushing feeling, and the ringing of church bells somewhere far off in the distance. 

Suffragettes at Holloway prison, London #HappyInternationalWomensDay |  Suffragette, Women in history, Holloway prison

Kitty wakes up on her narrow pallet bed. She’s glistening with sweat, and her cheap, off-white nightgown has gone almost translucent pressed against her legs and stomach. It’s cold in her cell, and already she starts to shiver. She draws her  scratchy, prison-issue woollen shawl around her. Her escapades the previous day provoked the wardresses to force her into regulation clothes. She looks up at the small, grated window. Weak morning light filters through, and she feels dirty. She feels the same outrage and wounded pride, clenching her fists around the bed frame. They’ve escaped from their drawer again.

She’d come to her senses that day fully clothed. Either someone had heard the commotion, or his predilections didn’t stretch to the unconscious. Either way, she hadn’t stayed to discover which. She remembers the moments after fleeing, after extricating herself from that man’s office. Dazed and bewildered, she had burst out onto the streets of London. She was not yet twenty. She had felt ashamed of something she was in no way accountable for. All she had wanted was to stand under a stream of scalding hot water and scrub herself raw with carbolic soap, but instead she had stood at the railing of Westminster Bridge and gazed down into the sluggish brown waters of the Thames below. She had pulled herself back. That was the day she realised that courage had nothing to do with men.

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words: Scene 3 Part 2

8th June, 1913. Kew, London

Clara is still clutching the carpet. They have no idea what to do with it. Kitty slings it over her shoulder, and they run hand in hand towards the nearby towpath. There’s a ditch and a copse of trees lining the furthest edge of the cricket pitch. They hurl it in and cover it with some hastily kicked earth and twigs. Luckily, it’s not a garish colour, but, sooner or later, it will be found. Their backs are now to the racecourse, but even from here they can feel an echo of its immense heat. Their cheeks are still flushed.

As they near the gas lighting, they stop to rearrange their hair and dress. 

“Do I look respectable?” Clara asks, plaintive. She’s brushing dirt from her sleeves and rearranging her hairpins. 

“Never!” Kitty beams. For practical reasons, they have opted to go hatless tonight. It only serves to make them more conspicuous. 

They set out along the towpath, being the natural choice and much quieter than the streets around Hampton Court Palace, although it is now after midnight – too late for respectable ladies to be out unaccompanied. Too late, even, for respectable ladies to be out at all. Aside from some figures in the distance, the path is empty. 

They finally have the time and inclination to talk freely.

“Did you see that! It went up like a Christmass tree! We barely made it out in time,” Clara squeaks, her voice tight. 

“Well, you know Betty, the best laid plans of mice and men…how could we know the fire would take so quickly?” Kitty’s rush is already beginning to fade, leaving an empty fatigue in its wake. She pinches the bridge of her nose and rubs her eyes. They sting with smoke.

“I wish Pem could see this. It’s spectacular.”

“Yes, but I wish that old turncoat would stop forcing our hand like this. Despite all appearances, I’m not a born criminal.” Deep down, she hates this whole business.  

“We’ll get our way, one day, for everyone’s sake. Until then, this is our duty. Pem may be gone now, but her words live on. Her beautiful words.”

Their boots crunch over the gravel. They are forcing themselves to take slow, measured steps. Clara’s eyes shine with tears. Kitty looks thoughtful. The river is on their right. It reflects the warm orange glow of the blaze, dancing and sparkling on its inky surface. By this point, clusters of onlookers are beginning to gather, men and women. Apparently, there’s no such thing as being out too late when there’s a jolly good spectacle. At first, Kitty can’t decide whether that raises or lowers their chances of getting caught. They may have a chance to blend in, but then she reflects on their hatless, dishevelled, manless condition. Tries to see themselves through a stranger’s eyes. There are now far more witnesses, far more people who could report having seen them, sticking out like sore thumbs along the Molesley towpath. The place is probably already swarming with police. A few men are already running towards the fire, eager to prove themselves. 

Kitty has been putting on a show her whole adult life. Feigning nonchalance is no great strain for her. She dawdles, gazing at the blaze, tipping her head to passers-by. Clara’s jaw, on the other hand, is clenched firmly. Her hair is plastered to her forehead with sweat. One of her sleeves is torn, revealing a flash of milky skin on her upper arm. They are a sight to behold.

As they begin to turn right over the bridge across the Thames, a fire engine screams around the corner, cartwheels screeching over the cobblestones, horses frothed and lathering. The ladies stroll over the bridge arm in arm. It would be easy to miss the conspiratorial gleam in their eyes. They walk in the direction of Richmond and Kew, ducking into sidestreets whenever policemen come dashing along on motorcycles. There really is something eternally enticing about fugitive status, about not quite legally existing in the world. Clara’s dark blonde hair threatens to spill down her back. She’s from a well-to-do family. Kitty effectively has no family at all, nobody to shame.

They meander through the streets of Fulwell, Twickenham and Kew for hours. They desperately try to remember Eileen’s instructions and not to look lost. By the early hours of the morning, they have covered almost eight miles from the scene of the crime, although the women have lost all sense of time. They are looking for the safe house, but London is huge, and neither of them have been to this area before. The suburban streets are quiet as the grave, and had Jesus rode in on a silver bicycle, he would have been less conspicuous than these two. 

“Excuse me ladies, are you lost?”

Kitty and Clara jump out of their skins, and then immediately go about disguising the fact. Kitty’s hand flies to her hair, as if checking it, although it now more resembles mistletoe growing on a tree branch. Clara places her raised hand demurely on her breastbone and looks up at the policeman through her eyelashes. 

“Why yes, sergeant, in matter of fact, we are a little bit lost.” For once, Clara is quicker off the mark. 

He doesn’t look like a sergeant, Kitty thinks. Far too young. He’s puffing up his narrow chest as we speak, and his chin strap doesn’t hide his acne. But there’s no harm in buttering him up. Clever Betty.

“Why are you two ladies out at a time like this?” 

He narrows his eyes. He knows they don’t look like fallen women. He shifts his weight uneasily from foot to foot. His boots look new, too stiff and shiny. Is he afraid of us? Kitty thinks. She almost laughs. Perhaps he thinks we’re going to pull out a horsewhip and start clobbering him with it, like plucky little Theresa and that oaf Winston Churchill a few years back. Unforgettable. Kitty pulls her thoughts back to the question at hand. 

“Sir, we’re music hall performers, you see. We’re often out late, it doesn’t bother us.” She flashes her most winning smile. 

The policeman begins to look mollified, but then clearly decides to put his extremely recent training to good use. 

“Which music hall?”

“The Prince of Wales on Tottenham Street, sir.”

You can see him calculating the distance in his head. 

“You’ve come a long way, then, girls.” Him calling us girls. The tenacity.

“We took the tram.”

“The trams are still running this late?”

The trams are still fairly new to London. Kitty desperately hopes that this green lad isn’t familiar with the timetables.

“It was still rather a long walk from the stop.”

“And why, after your shift, have you come this far?”

“We’d organised lodgings here. A much fairer price than in the City, you see. On West Park Road. But we couldn’t find them, and now we’re lost.”

The policeman nods, seems satisfied. He gives them directions to West Park Road, but the women know they have been rumbled. They hurry off in the direction of his pointed finger. He stares after them. For a few breaths, Kitty hears nothing but their heels clicking. Her feet throb, they’ve been on them all night. 

“We’re finished”, Clara groans once they assume he’s out of earshot. 

“I know.” Kitty grits her teeth. They’re both exhausted. They will be arrested the next morning at the latest. But the police want to see where they will lead them first. They want to know where these dangerous, violent women go to roost. 

They can feel their tail. The faint creak of a bicycle chain drifts on the still air. She wonders if he thinks he’s being subtle. They don’t really have a choice now but to lead them back to Eileen’s. Hopefully, she and her parents will be able to claim ignorance of the women’s actions. But for now, they have finally reached their safe harbour. Clara pulls at the latch key hanging on a chain around her neck, and it rises up from under her dress. They are now before a looming redbrick townhouse, framed by two pruned hedges. Its bay windows ape an unknowing stare. It’s a picture of solid, middle class English life, and here they stand, two free radicals. 

A low, wrought iron gate lets out a reedy creak of discontent as they push their way through. Clara fumbles with the lock before they can let themselves in. All is quiet. A grandfather clock ticks softly in the hallway. Kitty is shocked by her reflection in the hall mirror. She looks sallow, bedraggled. Maybe they are getting too old for this. The excitement of the last few hours has snuck off, taking her complexion with it. 

Kitty thinks of the policeman watching the house. He’s probably throwing himself into the saddle of his bicycle at this very moment, speeding off to the Kenley police station to deliver his prize nugget of intelligence, desperate to make a name for himself as a small fish in a big pond. I’ve got them! I know where they are! The Hurst Park Arsonists. Although, she does admit the title has a nice ring to it. 

She collapses into the soft white cotton sheets of the guest bedroom. As far as they are aware, they’ve slunk in without rousing Eileen, her parents or either of the maids. Kitty doesn’t even bother to undress. All she removes are her boots, still plastered with damp grass. She tries not to think of the ordeal ahead of her, to no use. Arrest, trial, imprisonment. Playing Cat and Mouse at His Majesty’s pleasure. 

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 12 (Final Chapter)

I sunk back into the sofa, clutching the mug with both hands and mentally steeling myself. I sat upright and focused on the television. I would not fall asleep. I knew how ridiculous that sounds, because I was aware that sooner or later you either sleep or you die, but, like a wiry mule come to the end of its useful working life, I focused my remaining willpower on plodding forwards and delaying the inevitable. I didn’t even think about leaving. Why didn’t I think about leaving? Maybe it would have followed me, maybe it couldn’t have. It’s a grey area, a question mark, a scab to pick at. I was in its thrall, a Desdemona waiting to be smothered in her bridal sheets. I couldn’t remember the last time I had left the house. It must have been days, at least. Why hadn’t it occurred to me how strange that was? Why had nobody else noticed? I suppose they expected me to be there when they came home, just like the worn-out rug in the hallway. 

I was staring into the pool. No, no, how could this have happened? I couldn’t remember dozing, I remembered watching teleshopping. By that time, I had switched to Coke because my teeth felt furry. I wanted to scream, to cry for help, but I couldn’t. I had to watch, forced into passivity. How did this happen? I should have run, smashed the mirror, taken Freya and Mabel and James and fled. Maybe James wouldn’t have come. I knew he was still sceptical, I knew he still thought it was me up to my old tricks again. The endearing, slightly shameful family nutter. Looking for attention, maybe? Lashing out after our move? I imagined him as an amateur psychologist, nestled in an armchair swirling a brandy and expounding on ‘trauma’ and ‘the subconscious’. My reflection stared back, cocked its head, reading my thoughts. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was it.

I couldn’t even close my eyes to blot out the arm reaching for me. I felt its slimy chill brush my cheek as it wound its fingers through my hair. I didn’t resist when it pulled me downwards, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I was the object, I had lost the war. Well, you couldn’t really call it a war, more like a minor skirmish. 

By the time I broke the surface of the water, I was almost curious about where it was all going. I had once heard that when you have a dream of falling off a cliff, if you don’t wake up just before you hit the ground you would die for real. Did that mean it’s possible to drown in a dream? It was probably just an old wive’s tale. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. Was there anyone alive who could verify that, yes, they had hit the ground under the cliff whilst dreaming and, yes, they had lived to tell the tale?

The water kissed me with its cold embrace. It felt thick, syrupy and strangely resistant. So I had been right all along. It reminded me of those quasi-scientific documentaries I had watched as a child where they had turned custard from a liquid into a solid by walking on it. So this was it. This was my ignominious end. I felt numb, fatalistic, and only slightly annoyed that it was gripping my hair far too hard. I could only see its arm, the water was that dark. What if it ripped some out?

I wish I could tell you that I’m still here, but I can’t. I see you from the other side. Of the mirror, that is. I don’t think I’m dead. Maybe this is worse than being dead. The glass won’t break. I see you both come downstairs in the morning, put on your shoes, go to school and work. I see the thing that is and isn’t me follow you downstairs in the morning, make your sandwiches, feed the dog. I see her drift around the house. I wonder if you sleep with her. I wonder if she smells weird. I don’t think she does any work, because I never see her with the laptop. She’s the only one who looks at me, who sees me at all. She smiles at me as if she’s grateful that I took her place. It must be so liberating for her, like a veal calf let out of the crate, blinking into the sunlight. Maybe she’s not me, after all. Maybe she’s something else entirely. Or maybe I’m not me. I wonder if you’ll notice.