New Wine in Old Bottles – Writing Fiction for Young Adults

Coming up with a new idea for a book is always exciting. My latest adventure in fiction, though, is quite different to anything I’ve done before. You see, although I write fiction,  I also work for a teachers’ development centre for English teachers. While most of my time is spent working with teachers rather than students, and most of my writing is classroom resources about texts by other writers, I recently decided to have a serious, full-throttle go at writing fiction for students. I’ve written a few short stories for a YA audience in the past, one or two of which have found their way into anthologies but this time it’s a much more serious enterprise – writing a whole collection.

 Where did the idea come from? I’ve been working recently on publications in a series called Cultural Conversations, the idea being to show students how texts talk to each other over time; how they’re part of long traditions, rather than standing in isolation. The resources bring together texts that are considered to be iconic and culturally significant with others that have been inspired by them, drawing on their themes, characters, narratives, archetypes and conventions. So, as an example, Homer’s Odyssey is brought together with the many contemporary re-envisionings by writers like Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood or Madeleine Miller. And Amanda Gorman’s poem for the inauguration of Joe Biden is read alongside Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ that inspired her work, and in relation to the other iconic American texts that she paid homage to.

The most recent publication in the series, yet to be published, is on Antigone. Supported by a grant from the Classical Association, we commissioned four writers to produce new work based on Sophocles’ play. Poets Valerie Bloom and Inua Ellams, fiction writer Phoebe Roy and playwright Sarah Hehir have all written texts for 11-14 year olds inspired by the Greek play. While liaising with the writers and discussing their work, I thought I’d try my hand at a short story myself and ended up writing ‘Being Antigone’, a story about a contemporary school girl whose own life has some echoes of the original. I then wondered whether I might try doing some other ‘versions’, talking back to the famous texts that school students often find themselves studying.

Antigone – painting by Sébastien Norblin

I was instantly captured by the idea, in part because it tied in closely with something that’s been preoccupying me for quite some time . When Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education, his mission was to radically alter the curriculum, especially at GCSE.  Gone were American authors such as Arthur Miller or John Steinbeck. All students were required to study a pre-twentieth century novel. Some kinds of writing were proscribed, others were side lined, and in the supposed cause of ‘driving up standards’, ‘challenge’ and giving students ‘cultural capital’, lots of texts that enthused students and gave them a love of literature were ruthlessly excised. Ensuring a rich mix of diverse writers of different cultures and genders was not high up the minister’s agenda.

So, students are currently reading a diet of mainly canonical texts, which are not always suitable, not always accessible, often seriously hard work rather than pleasurable for all students in that age group. The majority of the texts are by dead white men.

My ‘versions’ idea suddenly sprang to life. What if I could write lots of different angles, re-tellings and interpretations of these texts , to open up new ideas and ways of reading them? My stories could act as fresh ways in; they could offer the viewpoint of a character left on the side lines, be prequels or sequels, pastiches or serious imitations, updated versions or adaptations. Equally, they could offer many different perspectives – for instance female views and voices alongside male ones, with characters and settings that are sometimes marginalised in those canonical texts, at least some of which reflect the realities of students’ lives.

I got started on the first stories soon before Christmas, sending them to colleagues for comment before committing to the whole project. Each time a story came back with a thumbs up, I was energised to have a shot at another, moving from Jekyll and Hyde and A Christmas Carol to The Tempest, from a Shakespeare sonnet to a poem by Thomas Hardy, from An Inspector Calls to Oliver Twist. It’s been a lot of fun writing them and the scope for writing in different genres – ones I’d never tried before – has been exhilarating, taking me out of my fiction-writing comfort zone. An Inspector Calls has become An Inspector Called, where a class, reading and studying Priestley’s play, suddenly find themselves, like the characters in the play, experiencing a spookily disturbing moral wake-up call. Oliver Twist is seen through the eyes of the Artful Dodger and for Macbeth, the story of the teenage Fleance, who only speaks a few words in Shakespeare’s play, is filled out. I thought that young people might be interested in the kind of dangerous world that a boy of their own age would have had to navigate to stay alive.

The Artful Dodger and Oliver

I have looked for angles that might be enjoyable for a young adult audience but not all the stories have a teenage perspective or protagonist. Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’, for instance, imagines the loss of love at the end of an adult relationship, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is given a narrative of her own, and one story is told by an ex-teacher, now a writer. In each case, I’ve been juggling lots of different elements –  how to use the source text itself and do justice to it, the teenage audience (alongside the teacher audience who will read it in the first instance and then share it with their students) and my own aesthetic judgements about what might make a good story and how I want to write it. Not easy holding all these things in mind, all at once, but it’s been immensely enjoyable to have a go at it.

The idea of intertextuality is at the heart of all literary creative endeavour. It’s also at the heart of all literary study – we appreciate Shakespeare for what he’s done with source material, for how he uses and adapts existing genres, for how his representations of race or gender compare with that of his contemporaries, for how his work has been interpreted, re-fashioned, drawn on for inspiration across the centuries. Likewise, all writers are constantly re-inventing traditions of writing, ‘putting new wine into old bottles’, as Angela Carter described it. In this project, I’ve been putting some new wine – hopefully rich-bodied and tasty rather than unpalatable and vinegary –  into a crate of bottles by a range of different writers and, along the way, offering new young readers an inviting way of tasting some old vintages.

Barbara Bleiman

26th April 2022

New Wine in Old Bottles – Writing Fiction for Young Adults

In this blog Barbara Bleiman talks about the idea of ‘cultural conversations’ and how this has informed her new writing project, creating a collection of short stories for Young Adults that are in close conversation with classic texts.

Coming up with a new idea for a book is always exciting. My latest adventure in fiction, though, is quite different to anything I’ve done before. You see, although I write fiction,  I also work for a teachers’ development centre for English teachers. While most of my time is spent working with teachers rather than students, and most of my writing is classroom resources about texts by other writers, I recently decided to have a serious, full-throttle go at writing fiction for students. I’ve written a few short stories for a YA audience in the past, one or two of which have found their way into anthologies but this time it’s a much more serious enterprise – writing a whole collection.

 Where did the idea come from? I’ve been working recently on publications in a series called Cultural Conversations, the idea being to show students how texts talk to each other over time; how they’re part of long traditions, rather than standing in isolation. The resources bring together texts that are considered to be iconic and culturally significant with others that have been inspired by them, drawing on their themes, characters, narratives, archetypes and conventions. So, as an example, Homer’s Oedipus is brought together with the many contemporary re-envisionings by writers like Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood or Madeleine Miller. And Amanda Gorman’s poem for the inauguration of Joe Biden is read alongside Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ that inspired her work, and in relation to the other iconic American texts that she paid homage to.

Amanda Gorman’s Performance at Joe Biden’s Inauguration

The most recent publication in the series, yet to be published, is on Antigone. Supported by a grant from the Classical Association, we commissioned four writers to produce new work based on Sophocles’ play. Poets Valerie Bloom and Inua Ellams, fiction writer Phoebe Roy and playwright Sarah Hehir have all written texts for 11-14 year olds inspired by the Greek play. While liaising with the writers and discussing their work, I thought I’d try my hand at a short story myself and ended up writing ‘Being Antigone’, a story about a contemporary school girl whose own life has some echoes of the original. I then wondered whether I might try doing some other ‘versions’, talking back to the famous texts that school students often find themselves studying.

Antigone – painting by Sébastien Norblin

I was instantly captured by the idea, in part because it tied in closely with something that’s been preoccupying me for quite some time . When Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education, his mission was to radically alter the curriculum, especially at GCSE.  Gone were American authors such as Arthur Miller or John Steinbeck. All students were required to study a pre-twentieth century novel. Some kinds of writing were proscribed, others were side lined, and in the supposed cause of ‘driving up standards’, ‘challenge’ and giving students ‘cultural capital’, lots of texts that enthused students and gave them a love of literature were ruthlessly excised. Ensuring a rich mix of diverse writers of different cultures and genders was not high up the minister’s agenda.

So, students are currently reading a diet of mainly canonical texts, which are not always suitable, not always accessible, often seriously hard work rather than pleasurable for all students in that age group. The majority of the texts are by dead white men.

My ‘versions’ idea suddenly sprang to life. What if I could write lots of different angles, re-tellings and interpretations of these texts , to open up new ideas and ways of reading them? My stories could act as fresh ways in; they could offer the viewpoint of a character left on the side lines, be prequels or sequels, pastiches or serious imitations, updated versions or adaptations. Equally, they could offer many different perspectives – for instance female views and voices alongside male ones, with characters and settings that are sometimes marginalised in those canonical texts, at least some of which reflect the realities of students’ lives.

I got started on the first stories soon before Christmas, sending them to colleagues for comment before committing to the whole project. Each time a story came back with a thumbs up, I was energised to have a shot at another, moving from Jekyll and Hyde and A Christmas Carol to The Tempest, from a Shakespeare sonnet to a poem by Thomas Hardy, from An Inspector Calls to Oliver Twist. It’s been a lot of fun writing them and the scope for writing in different genres – ones I’d never tried before – has been exhilarating, taking me out of my fiction-writing comfort zone. An Inspector Calls has become An Inspector Called, where a class, reading and studying Priestley’s play, suddenly find themselves, like the characters in the play, experiencing a spookily disturbing moral wake-up call. Oliver Twist is seen through the eyes of the Artful Dodger and for Macbeth, the story of the teenage Fleance, who only speaks a few words in Shakespeare’s play, is filled out. I thought that young people might be interested in the kind of dangerous world that a boy of their own age would have had to navigate to stay alive.

The Artful Dodger and Oliver

I have looked for angles that might be enjoyable for a young adult audience but not all the stories have a teenage perspective or protagonist. Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’, for instance, imagines the loss of love at the end of an adult relationship, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is given a narrative of her own, and one story is told by an ex-teacher, now a writer. In each case, I’ve been juggling lots of different elements –  how to use the source text itself and do justice to it, the teenage audience (alongside the teacher audience who will read it in the first instance and then share it with their students) and my own aesthetic judgements about what might make a good story and how I want to write it. Not easy holding all these things in mind, all at once, but it’s been immensely enjoyable to have a go at it.

The idea of intertextuality is at the heart of all literary creative endeavour. It’s also at the heart of all literary study – we appreciate Shakespeare for what he’s done with source material, for how he uses and adapts existing genres, for how his representations of race or gender compare with that of his contemporaries, for how his work has been interpreted, re-fashioned, drawn on for inspiration across the centuries. Likewise, all writers are constantly re-inventing traditions of writing, ‘putting new wine into old bottles’, as Angela Carter described it. In this project, I’ve been putting some new wine – hopefully rich-bodied and tasty rather than unpalatable and vinegary –  into a crate of bottles by a range of different writers and, along the way, offering new young readers an inviting way of tasting some old vintages.

Barbara Bleiman

28th April 2022

What’s Your Story?

Pamela Johnson reviews an essential guide to life writing …

‘Do it anyway.’ That’s the mantra Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of the bestselling memoir The Last Act of Love, uses to quell all writing doubts. Rentzenbrink is full of plain-talking writing wisdom which she has generously shared in her latest book, Write it All Down: how to put your life on the page.

            Do you carry a story around in your head that you’d like to put down – an aspect of your family history or an unusual experience? If new to writing you may think your story is insignificant but if it’s significant to you then it could be worth the effort of telling it. Rentzenbrink’s philosophy is that everyone’s life would be improved by picking up a pen. She speaks from experience. It took her several attempts and a couple of decades before she finally wrote the story of her brother’s short life.  Her new book shares all that she learned about writing in her struggle to get that story down, followed by two other books and a novel.  

            The book is in four parts with plenty of exercises to keep your fingers clicking on the keyboard or pen gliding across the page. It opens with a warm introduction, ‘Dear writer, I am so pleased to meet you. Welcome.’ The warmth of that voice permeates every section.

            In part two, ‘Excavation’ she guides you through many ways to access memories, noting, ‘…it is the act of writing itself that dislodges memory and engenders meaning.’ You might need to write to find out what matters most. She is also very clear on a little-understood aspect of writing:

            ‘… the single biggest thing that trips up inexperienced writers is underestimating how much work, both on and off the page, goes into any project, and  how much of that work doesn’t end up being reader-facing but is essential to the process.’ 

            There’s a section on crafting and editing and another on forming good writing habits that work around daily life. The final section is what she calls ‘An Inspiring Addendum’, which consists of paragraphs of wisdom from other published writers of memoir. Here you will find Kate Mosse, Maggie O’Farrell, Lemn Sissay, Kit de Waal, Terry Waite and many more.

I asked Blue Door Press author, Annabel Chown, if all of this rang true to her writing experience. Aged 31 and working as an architect, she found herself with a cancer diagnosis. ‘I first started writing “morning pages.”  It was awful but interesting. Alongside the therapeutic aspect, I had a desire to capture this surreal world I was now in, get it down on paper.’ Only several years later did material in the morning pages become something she could work with to produce her memoir, Hidden, now read by many others. 

If you have a first-person story that niggles away and demands to be written, whether book length memoir, personal essay or article, and you find yourself hesitating Write It All Down might just be the place to start.

Pamela Johnson, March 2022

Joelle Taylor

In January 2022 Joelle Taylor won the T.S.Eliot prize for her collection C+nto and Othered Poems. This prize, £25000, is considered the most prestigious award in UK poetry.

In this interview Taylor describes her winning collection: it’s the story of the butch counter-culture, mainly in London, in the late eighties, early nineties. There is passion and heartbreak on every page; hearing her perform focuses the intensity of the poetry. It is extraordinary, words imprinted by way of her body, both through her and through the listeners/readers:

“ … there are girls who have nothing to eat but themselves

their small spines flagpoles stuck into soft mattresses in Brixton bedsits all of our mothers are warnings.”

(the Unbelong mother C+nto)

Taylor is from a working class Lancastrian family. She has her roots in ‘physical theatre’, in drama, and through this she has become an educator, writer, performer.

In 2000 she became UK slam champion, founding the UK’s youth slam championships, SLAMbassadors, for the Poetry Society in 2001. When, five years ago, she interviewed Sabrina Mahfouz (for the Poetry Society), they compared notes and Taylor described her own first experiences as a poet. There were two camps: Slam Poetry was seen as dumbed down page poetry and she was one of these “illiterati” in the performance world. Sabrina and Joelle described an hierarchy, obsessed with ordering difference, allowing only the “top couple to have critical importance”. Spoken word was working class and page poetry was “for real clever people”.

But things changed and eventually they were performing “at the ICA not the back of the Betsy Trotwood1.” Now poetry venues are mixing page poets with performance poets, mixing different ways of reading. Taylor says of her performances, they act as

“……a ‘quite primal’ function of poetry: coming together in a space, and seeing how the poem inhabits the body….”.

Here Taylor reads from C+nto, describing this, the second chapter, as the origin of her winning collection. It is memoir, personal history, loss of friends: “written for all those wrong-walking women.”

“& now thirteen a man pulls you over the back seat of a bus

and stubs his kiss out on your cheek”

(Round three the body as trespass C+anto)

In her collection, Songs My Enemy Taught Me (Outspoken Press) Taylor describes her own story of surviving sexual abuse, and how using that experience she set up workshops with vulnerable women across the UK.

“some girls fall from sunlight skies straight down into flat-pack floral dresses grab their smiles from a hook behind the door rescue their faces from the rip-tides of mirrors

some girls are always falling” (C+anto)

The title linking the collection is taken from the Latin verb cuntare (to narrate, tell, or recount a story) an allusion that, apart from the obvious, points to Dante and then cantos by Ezra Pound, cantos being the sections of one long incomplete poem much as Taylor has done here. In the preface to the collection, she says

“This book is a walk through a maze of vitrines, one consistent narrative told in different parts.”

Taylor starts the preface with “This is a book of silences ….there is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in the world…we have regressed as a community.”

“We all walk around with legions of ghosts within us,” she says. “And sometimes they force their way through your mouth, your pen.” (C+anto)

These ghosts force their way through with imaginative and precise and playful language:

“we are untamed a wilderness of women we are waste ground nothing grows on us … snake boy come now, heretic healer where are the maths that solve us? How do we fit into your algebra your binary code?”

(Round Two the body as protest C+anto)

This story of the butch counter-culture – mainly in London, in the late eighties, early nineties – is told through four women, Duduzile, Angel, Valentine, and Jack Catch, composites of women Taylor knew. Those were the times “when we were handsome”. (C+anto)

“I’ll be in the back bar of heaven Cass will be getting a round in releasing that laugh a flock of wild birds

escaping her mouth and none of this will matter I’ll

be riding the ghost roads with Valentine bare back knee clench on her Harley I’ll be stretching skins with Jack

Catch or scuffing the city with Dudizile men will

stare like open shaft mines I’ll be walking white lines

with Angel tight mouth antelope heart.”

(from C+nto – Round Seven the body as uprising)

This collection is not just describing the ghosts of people but ghosts of places. O, Maryville follows the story of one night in a dyke bar (Maryville) that’s a recreated version of lesbian clubs and bars that have disappeared. It has stage directions, scenes, light, sound; these four butch lesbians, Duduzile, Angel, Valentine, and Jack Catch, protect the space:

“o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us/…o Maryville / keep us alive this death/ keep us from prayer/ deliver us from ego/ for thine are the body / the birthing and the burning / forever and ever/ are you a man?”

(Scene One Psalm C+anto)

Taylor says that those lost clubs celebrated unity while “the internet celebrates difference”. She believes “The whole ethic of the live poet is to create poetry for people who don’t like ‘poetry’; it’s to bring people into an understanding of what they already know.”

men are broken things breaking things”

(Round three the body as trespass C+anto)

In a Radio 4 programme2 looking at aspects of butch, Joelle describes it as an armour, walking out in the world and attempting to “avoid male attention, conceal vulnerability”.

“in the morning I dress in the reflection of the class

ceiling careful colours the shade of the UnBelong I

am my mother in my father’s suit still the girl with the

face of a man still wrong walking.”

(the Unbelong mother C+nto)

Yet trying to avoid attention, as opposed to willing it, seems just as dangerous, neither will defeat the fear and hostility. The butch world can be scary and violent, display doesn’t defuse the aggression. And it is mainly violence against butch lesbians. Butch women are murdered. There is rising global homophobia.

‘I ask all who are still at liberty, to take this message seriously and flee the republic as soon as possible.’

Final social media post from a LGBT group in Chechyna, 2017

(Scene eleven December C+anto)

And Taylor incants an extraordinary poem, ‘Eulogy’, the names of dead strangers – murdered lesbians across the world. With her recitation she absorbs each woman and distills an acknowledment of intense grief.

“This town is teeming with invisible women

they are not there everywhere”

(December viii C+anto)

In an interview for The Guardian, Taylor says: “Five hours away from London they are pulling lesbians on to motorways and beating their skulls open. It’s happening in Chechnya, in Hungary, in Russia. It’s happening in Uganda, in Ghana. Three-quarters of Poland now is an LGBT-free zone.

All these little things are very important on an individual level” – a reference to the internet infighting – “but they are literally murdering us. So could we just get together?”

Meanwhile, as Taylor says in Scene Eleven C+nto

“& as the cigarette is lit the smoke that dances from its end becomes a glass bead curtain & through it you are sat, quietly, reading this book.”

Jane Kirwan

28 February 2022

1

2Butch – BBC Sounds

Footnotes – part two by Pamela Johnson

In this second excerpt from a longer work in progress, Pamela Johnson continues the story of her accident while on holiday in Cuba alongside reflections on why the pursuit of healthcare remains central to the island’s history

Sunday 6 December 2015

‘I’m okay,’ my voice tells David, though I’m not okay at all. ‘I’ll be fine now I’m in bed.’ My foot is elevated on pillows, with a pack of ice draped across it, as instructed. Thanks to Tricia and the image on her phone of her metal-reinforced ankle I am keenly aware how crucial ice and elevation is. If the ankle swells too much I will be in for a long stay in hospital.

‘I must make a start if we’re going to catch the flight tomorrow. And I need to see if we can keep the room. They say it’s booked – a party arriving today.’  He can’t sit still, agitated and eager to make something happen, shock propelling him into overdrive. He’s taken on the challenge to find how to make the six-hour journey to Havana with me unable to walk and in time to catch our flight to London tomorrow evening. 

‘Really. You go.’   Please stay.

He gives me the remote for the TV we’ve never watched in the four days here. I switch it on. Some satellite channel from Florida – adverts for triple-decker burgers, outsized pizzas, Hershey bars, dog grooming kits, cat treats.

I have this split-screen mental image: Oxford Street with Christmas shoppers anxiously buying alongside ration shops in Havana.[i]  I switch off the TV and doze.

ration shop, Havana

When I wake, David isn’t back. I need the loo. I tamp down panic by mentally planning a route to the bathroom. I wriggle off the bed onto my left leg. The tiled floor is potentially slippery and my recovering sprained foot too weak; hopping is out of the question. By hanging on to walls and furniture, I use the shiny floor to ease into a one-footed swivel action. I make it as far as the walk-in closet – half way – is it wise to carry on? Only a few feet to go but it feels like miles.

Though I make it to the bathroom and back, it’s exhausting and dangerous.

I need wheels.

When David returns he’s smiling.

‘Good news – we can stay another night. And, I’ve hired a wheelchair.’ Through the numbness, a ripple of relief.

‘It looks like we’ll be travelling to Havana first thing tomorrow.’ The medical emergency company, CEGA – part of our travel insurance – will arrange transport.

‘We’ll catch our flight?’

‘That’s the plan but there’s paperwork to do.’

If we stand any chance of boarding that plane, it seems, I’ll need a certificate of fitness to fly.

‘Here, hold this.’ He hands me my x-ray and gets out his phone. We try different angles until he snaps a decent close-up of the damage. He then shifts the ice pack for a shot of the cast. He’ll email these images to CEGA, so I might be assessed by medical staff in England.The time difference could work in our favour. They’ll have had more Monday than us by the time we wake tomorrow. Our fate could be decided by a GP in Chichester. 

Exhausted, David climbs into bed even though it’s not yet nine. We almost daren’t speak. There can be no giving in to doubt or fear. No panic allowed. All energy is to go towards getting on an aeroplane without further mishap. Sleep is what we need if we’re to be in a fit state for the taxi ride, which CEGA has confirmed will collect us at 11am Monday morning which is tomorrow. I need to remind myself what day it is. This Sunday seems to have gone on for a week.

Lying on my back is simplest though I prefer to sleep on my side but the best I can manage is a half turn before the bones click and shift even within the cast. Try not to mind, you’ll soon be on a flight to London. The phone rings on David’s side. Sleepily he reaches to answer it.

            ‘Okay. I see,’ he’s saying. His tone is downbeat. ‘The airline won’t carry you.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘It’s a rule, apparently. You can’t fly within 48 hours following a fracture.’

            ‘So we’ll miss our flight?’

‘The taxi will still take us to Havana,’ he explains and that, at least, feels like progress. ‘They’re trying to find a hotel near the airport where we can stay tomorrow night and have a Cuban doctor issue a certificate of fitness to fly.’

‘But what about the pictures you emailed to England?’

‘I don’t know.’ He sounds weary, deflated. ‘I get a different story each time I call, never speak to the same person.’

            There is so much pressure on flights in and out of Cuba but I daren’t ask how we’ll get another one.

Monday 7 December

Waking, I remember all over again the fall that didn’t happen, can’t be real. As I ease myself into sitting the clicking confirms what is real – managing the practicalities of a six-hour journey on the back seat of a taxi. That’s what’s real today. It could be okay if we can take the wheelchair.

            The phone rings.  David reaches a sleepy hand to the bedside table.

            ‘Yes. Yes. She’s here. When? Why? Okay.’ He gives them my mobile number and hangs up.

            ‘What?’

            ‘We’re not going today. There are no rooms available anywhere near the airport in Havana.’

            ‘Why my number?’

‘Someone from the medical team in England needs to interview you. They’ll call later to assess if you could manage a flight.’

            ‘But which flight? And will the hotel let us stay another night?’ Tourism is booming. December is high season. Hotels are full, flights overbooked.

I know this because yesterday, we spoke to a young tour guide, Mateo, about the pressures he was under, more so since President Obama’s recent visit. I told him of our surprise at seeing the Stars and Stripes raised on the US Embassy in Havana. European companies are vying to build hotels in Havana and on the Cayos. ‘But we will have to do it slowly,’ said Mateo, ‘it’s a risk. Tourism must develop on Cuban terms. Otherwise what were the last 50 years for?’ Mateo, late 20s, has a masters degree in medical psychology but now earns more in tourism. Though Obama’s visit raised hopes about removing the US blockade it continues to stifle trade. Because of this, a regular ‘export’ from the island since the 1960s has been healthcare. For example, in 2006, funded by Venezuelan oil, a programme of cataract operations was delivered throughout South America. It’s reported that in Bolivia, treatment by a Cuban doctor restored the sight of an elderly man who hadn’t been able to see for years. It emerged this former soldier had been on the firing squad that executed Ché in 1967.[ii]  Teams of Cuban medical professionals continue to be available for the World Health Organisation. During the 2014-15 Ebola crisis Cuban teams were among the first to respond, helping to lower mortality rates and initiate preventative measures against the spread of the disease.  Apparently, this work on Ebola had impressed Barak Obama[iii] who, on his historic visit to Havana in 2014, praised Cuba’s medical achievements, nationally and internationally, suggesting the two countries might find a way to co-exist, ‘There is no need to treat those who think differently as your enemy,’ he said. The next president had a different view. 

David spends most of Monday morning in the hotel reception area where wifi is strongest and he can make international calls.  Back in the room I get washed and dressed which takes a good while. Then I sit in the wheelchair with my phone sending expensive 4G texts and emails – things I must cancel, reassurance to the family.

            The incoming call is from a nurse.

            ‘Where are you right now?’ Her voice pleasant, up-beat.

            ‘In the hotel room in a wheelchair.’

            ‘Can you stand?’

            ‘Yes, on my left leg but not for long and not without support.’ I don’t say I’m terrified of falling. I must pass this test.

            ‘Could you manage to get down the aisle of a plane?’

            ‘Yes,’ I say weakly then muster an eager voice. ‘Yes.’ I see myself, progressing by sheer will power along the length of a 747. ‘I could hold on to seats either side and hop on my left leg.’ This seems to satisfy her. I don’t mention the recovering ankle. That left ankle must buck up. It’s had enough pampering. It’s the only leg I’ve got to stand on.

Shortly after this David returns. He’s up-beat too.

            ‘Paris, Madrid or Amsterdam?’ he asks, excited as if offering a fantastic city break. There are no seats on direct flights to London until next week, by which time my ankle will be too swollen for surgery.

‘But what about the certificate?’

‘Here.’ He shows me an email with the certificate attached, sent by the Chichester GP. I’ve passed! 

            The Amsterdam option isn’t until Wednesday and Madrid seems too far from London, so we settle on Air France to Paris tomorrow night.

            ‘But how will we get to Havana?’

            ‘They’re trying to find an ambulance. If not it’ll be a taxi. Don’t worry. We’re getting there. Juan is on the case.’

‘Juan?’ David now has a direct line to Juan who is to be our dedicated contact, assigned to us until the dots from here to London join up.

I toy with watching TV but I’ve had enough Seinfeld.

Don’t worry. In an attempt not to, I make a list in my notebook.

            Ten reasons to be cheerful:

  1. It happened on the last day of the holiday
  2. Alex was so calm and wasted no time in getting help
  3. Belkis was on hand to translate
  4. The swift action and kindness of Dr Carlos
  5. There was an x-ray machine 7k away
  6. The kindness of Dr DIY willing to help on his day off
  7. We have credit cards and mobile phones
  8. I have a wheelchair
  9. We have robust travel insurance
  10. David is here to look after me, and keep in touch with CEGA and has bonded with Juan

By Monday afternoon new flights are booked. But there’s a glitch: the Air France connection to London leaves us with a long wait at Charles De Gaulle.

‘We won’t be home till late evening,’ says David. Home. What will that be like? It’s all stairs. David finds a better connection with British Airways and Juan changes the flight from Paris to London.

‘And the ambulance?’

‘Not looking good. It will have to be the taxi.’

Somehow the numbness of shock has kept panic at bay but the thought of a six hour ride in the back of a car made before 1959, however lovingly restored, has me on the brink of a major wobble with all of me feeling as fragile as my ankle.

taxi rank, Havana

I know what I’m doing in this room, have it all mapped out, I’m adept with the wheelchair.  Yes, yes, but you also want to get home. Break it down, a kind voice in my head whispers to the old cliché – a journey of a thousand miles etc etc

 A journey in seven stages[iv]

  1. getting out of the room down 2 lots of steps
  2. six hour road journey to Havana in a 1950s taxi – food? loos? wheelchair?
  3. Transfer to Havana-Paris flight
  4. 10 hour flight through the night – foot elevated above heart.
  5. Transfer to Paris-London flight
  6. flight to London with leg elevated – how on small plane?
  7. Heathrow to home? or A & E at The Whittington?

Think not of the taxi but simply the next stage on the list. Getting down steps is impossible. I will have to be carried. Who will do that? The taxi driver? David?

Move on to No 2. Can the hotel provide sandwiches? Could I somehow squat by the road? I look around the room. Two ice buckets, one large, one small. Would the smaller one be missed? Plus the 2 spare loo rolls from the bathroom.

We settle down for an early night. There’s a final call from Juan. 

            ‘That’s it. No ambulance,’ David reports as he hangs up. The taxi will be here at nine. Belkis will come to help. We’ll get a packed lunch.’ And, we can’t take the wheelchair, there’s no way it could be returned to Dr Carlos’s clinic, and wheelchairs are in short supply. We were lucky to get one.

            ‘I’ve been wondering, do you think it would be okay to take the ice bucket? I mean, six hours … ’ 

            I talk David through the mechanics of this.

            Ice bucket and loo rolls are squeezed into hand luggage.

Tuesday 8 December

Awake from 5.30 am, I won’t sleep again. Instead, I doze planning how to get out of this room to the taxi. I play various scenarios in my head; all end in further injury. The phone rings. It’s not yet six. I nudge David awake and he takes the call.

‘Juan,’ he mouths in reply to my questioning face.

At this time in the morning it can only mean bad news. No taxi? Flight cancelled? I don’t want to hear this and consider putting fingers in ears. Despite all the ice and elevation, how much longer will my ankle resist swelling beyond the possibility of surgery? What internal damage are those wayward bones doing?

            ‘Thanks, thanks so much. We’ll be ready,’ says David and hangs up. ‘They’ve found an ambulance. It’s on its way! Juan says to be ready by 8.30.’

            The next couple of hours are filled with purpose. David goes to find us some breakfast. I pull on a sleeveless linen shift and strap a sturdy walking sandal on my good foot.

            When Belkis arrives to tell us the ambulance is here, she and David line up the luggage. I sit in the wheelchair watching the activity and grip its blue metal frame, reluctant to let go of my security, my one bit of independence.

            Once the luggage is loaded a stocky man in shorts and white t-shirt appears. He is not tall but broad, a big man no more than forty, with a big smile. 

            ‘Martez,’ the man says and points to himself.

            ‘Hello, I’m Tamara,’ says the woman with him who is a nurse in uniform! Like Martez she too has a warm smile and a calm presence.

            ‘Ready?’ asks Belkis and she turns to speak rapidly in Spanish to Martez. Tamara encourages me to stand on my good leg. 

            ‘Okay?’ she asks as she steadies me.

            ‘Thanks, but what about the stairs?’

            Without another word, Martez scoops me into his arms, carries me down the three steps from the bedroom to the threshold of the room like a reverse honeymoon gesture, and then effortlessly down six steep steps to where a trolley waits. He shows no strain as if I were no more than the weight of a small bundle. Parked a few meters away is a very smart ambulance. Martez gently deposits me to sit on the trolley. 

            ‘Okay?’

            I’m so grateful I can hardly speak.

            ‘Relax’ says Tamara and encourages me to lie flat.

I’m wheeled to the rear of the vehicle where a ramp appears. In one smooth movement I’m on board. My trolley takes up one side of the space inside, along a window and I’m high enough to see out.

‘You want sit?’ asks Tamara and raises the back of the trolley so I can be upright – I might be on a sun lounger. 

To the side of my trolley are two seats, of the sort air hostesses sit on when the plane takes off. There is a third member of the crew.

‘This Peter,’ says Tamara. Peter yawns, and does not look happy. He does not smile. He takes up his seat and puts on his seat belt. I don’t think I’m imagining his hostility.

            Belkis explains that have come from near Varadero which is 2 hours from Havana on this side of the city. They’ve been on the road for hours already.

            ‘Hello,’ I say to Peter. He shrugs and scratches his arm and the back of his neck.

            ‘El zancudo,’ says Tamara.

            I look blank.

            ‘Zancudo, er er zancudo is …’ She mimes the trajectory of a mosquito.  It seems he has acquired the bites coming here to mangrove territory.

            Poor Peter, sleep deprived and suffering from bites.  He looks at me as if I might be just another mosquito. I don’t blame him for being pissed off. Added to his discomforts there doesn’t even seem to be a role for him and now he must sit for hours and repeat a journey he’s just done. Perhaps they are a team and need always to go where the ambulance goes. He wears a uniform – a paramedic? Well, Tamara and Martez outnumber him.

            David does a final check of the room and comes to see me.

            ‘This looks cosy,’ he jokes.

            He will travel up front with Martez who turns out to be the driver.

 Belkis makes sure I have my hand luggage within reach and gives me a carrier bag which contains a generous packed lunch then waves us off.

Well, that was easier than I could have imagined. I find my notebook, cross out No. 1 on my list. Here we go – No. 2.

We set off along the causeway that skims the sea towards the main island. I settle back on my medical sunbed and try to enjoy the view. Peter has closed his eyes. Silently, I wish him sleep the whole way to Havana. Without his eyes on me I feel somewhat better but still guilty on many levels:

  1. I could have returned the ice bucket to Belkis
  2. Three people have travelled from Varadero and now must do that journey in reverse plus the extra time to the airport
  3. Right now, there might be a Cuban in far worse plight than me who needs this team and this vehicle, a child, perhaps in a traffic accident.

Peter has every right to resent me. Medical equipment is scarce here as the ancient x- ray machine proved.  At least I can rationalise the ice bucket as I haven’t yet established the facilities on board. Thinking the word bedpan makes me want to pee. I send a message to my bladder: Not yet. We can’t wake Peter.

Soon we are off the causeway, passing though Caibarién. I look with fondness at the giant concrete crab that sits on the roundabout into the town. I wonder if Dr DIY settled back to his house repairs? How is his wife managing their disabled son today?

We’re on the A1, the main route through the island. And so we begin the reverse version of the journey we’d travelled over the last two weeks. It’s a road with variable surfacing and an array of traffic that includes: Chinese-built tour buses, ancient cadillacs, pony and trap, tractors.

We pass through Ramedios, a colourful town believed to be among the first Spanish settlements, known for its Christmas festivals and its drag queen community since Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter, campaigned for LGBT rights and gender assignment surgery through the health system. In Remedios only 6 days ago we’d celebrated David’s birthday at breakfast. I’d bought him a Cuban cigar, also one of the balasa wood boxes bearing the cigar-smoking image of Ché.

At college I did not display a poster of that other iconic image of Ché, seen throughout the world on t-shirts and banners. I wore a CND badge on my duffle coat, listened to early Bob Dylan and shared his rage at the Masters of War, but stopped short of manning the barricades. At 18 I understood Ché was a hero who had been brutally murdered, allegedly with CIA backing, but my memories of the missile crisis of ’62 – the terror my eleven-year-old self had felt alone in the girls toilets – still lingered around the idea of Cuba which seemed far away and somewhere to be wary of. Back then, I still felt an undertow of concern around this legendary figure. The child of deeply conservative parents, voting Labour in the general election had been transgressive enough.

If only I could have whispered to my teenage self: one day you will benefit from Ché’s legacy; one day you will learn the significance of that image.

In my student days I didn’t know that image of Ché had been taken in 1960. In March 1960, fearing another US invasion, Castro had ordered rifles and grenades from Belgium. A French ship, Le Coubre, delivering the consignment exploded in Havana harbour killing and injuring many. Castro believed it to be sabotage. As a trained doctor, Ché had administered to the injured and dying. It was at a memorial rally for the dead that the picture was taken by Alberto Korda. Castro addressed the crowds, flanked by Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Ché standing behind the group. For a moment, Ché stepped forward to survey the crowd and Korda, drawn to his pained expression, focused on him before he’d stepped back. But in newspaper reports the next day it was Korda’s picture of Castro and the French visitors that made the front page.

Korda printed and cropped a version of his Ché image, creating a portrait. He kept a copy pinned to his studio wall.  Following Ché’s execution in 1967, a huge blow-up of the picture was displayed on a banner draped over the façade of the Ministry of the Interior, as a backdrop to Castro, announcing Ché’s death.

A steel replica of the image remains in place.

Castro also agreed to an Italian publisher, which was issuing Ché’s diary of his time in Bolivia, using Korda’s photo on the cover. Posters of the image were printed to advertise the book.  These posters proliferated throughout Europe at student demonstrations protesting Ché’s murder. As Fidel had not recognised the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, no fee was received or even sought. Initially, Korda was happy to see the image used in support of the Cuban cause, but he drew the line when Smirnoff used it to advertise vodka. Korda proposed legal action and received a settlement of 50,000 US dollars, which he donated to the Cuban healthcare system. With copyright secured, might Ché, posthumously, have gone on funding healthcare?

When the road signs show we’re approaching Santa Clara, I’m reminded of Ché’s victory here that secured the Revolution’s success in 1959[v]. I flick through photos on my phone, find one I took, less than a week ago, of a crowbar that derailed the train full of arms sent by USA, destined to reinforce Baptista’s troops and so defeat Ché and the rebels.

Messages whispered along the railway line alerted the rebels to the train’s approach, saying which train and its arrival time. A crowbar loosened the points; a tractor raised the railway line, ensuring derailment; an example of communal co-operation, intelligence and ingenuity – a great deal done with very little. Cuban characteristics that, so far, I have been lucky to benefit from.

I take a photo of my legs on the trolley and text it to Jake, my son, and daughter, Izzy, on our way.

Was it the whoosh of the message being sent or the click of the camera function? Peter opens his eyes. Maybe he was only pretending to sleep.

            ‘In your country, how much is?’ he points to my iPhone. And shows me his not smart phone and tells me how much a month it costs. What can I tell him? I don’t honestly know right now without having to look it up. And if I did, how would that translate into Cuban currency?  He’d be appalled and, rightly, resent me even more. I fudge.  When I don’t give him a neat answer he shrugs, checks his bites and closes his eyes again.

            We’ve been on the road over two hours when I clear my throat and whisper to Tamara:

            ‘Bedpan?’

            She looks puzzled.

            ‘Bedpan – I need to pee …’ I say and point, feeling useless.

            A smile of understanding breaks out on her lovely face. She lifts the lid of one of the many compartments and produces a female urinal.  From its wide, vulva-shaped throat I get the idea. She produces a blanket, covers me up and says I can use it lying down. I’m not convinced and neither is my bladder. I try. I really do try. I press the thing close, surely that’s enough of a seal but, no. It’s as if a steel gate has come down inside, a muscle spasm blocks the flow. It’s not happening. And now Peter is awake. I really don’t want to pee on their trolley. The sensation of needing to pee, coupled with the refusal of my body to comply is distressing but I keep smiling and suggest it would work if I could be upright. I swivel my feet off the trolley.

            ‘No, stop!’ Tamara looks alarmed. She signals to Martez to pull over.  Peter has to get out for the sake of my dignity. I stand with bottle in place and, after some deep breaths and much soothing encouragement from Tamara, fill the bottle.

            ‘I’m sorry, so sorry’ I keep saying, alternating with, ‘Thank you, thank you.’

Tamara smiles through it all and strokes my arm as she helps me back on the trolley. Peter returns to his seat and closes his eyes but not before, once again, he points to my phone and asks, ‘In your country, how much?’ Now, it’s my turn to shrug.

We pass the signs to Playa Giron, or as we know it, Bay of Pigs, where there is a Museo de la Intervención, commemorating the event that turned the revolution from green to red, and led to Soviet backing, which, in turn, tightened the US blockade ensuring further reliance on the USSR. I look at Tamara with her Russian name and wonder which of her parents came here.

We stop for lunch, the crew led by Martez heads off to a roadside café, but we call him back to share our provisions. Even though I’m hungry there is plenty for all of us: ham and cheese sandwiches, oranges, bananas and more bottles of water than either David or I could drink. This pleases Peter.

Tamara, Peter and myself tuck into the packed lunch

Close to Havana the weather becomes overcast – grey sky, some rain. I notice an increasing number of Cubans hitchhiking, attempting to get into or out of the city. And here am I riding in like lady muck. 

On arrival at José Martí airport, Martez makes his way to Terminal 3, weaving around a chaos of taxis and tour buses. The ambulance comes with a wheelchair.  Inside the terminal, Martez wheels me to an information point. The crowds and the busyness are overwhelming. We wouldn’t last long if left to our own devices.

Martez is arguing with a woman in uniform, airport staff. He is forceful. What emerges is this: the airport wheelchair service, secured by Juan at CEGA, claims to be unaware of my plight. The woman shrugs. It’s never clear if she is denying all knowledge of the arrangement with CEGA or if they don’t have a spare wheelchair. Martez will not budge. He stands with his arms folded.

‘We stay until they bring chair,’ Tamara is constantly reassuring.

David would like to wade in but doesn’t have the Spanish. Should he call Juan at CEGA? Better leave it to Martez. Peter looks resentful at further delay. He scratches his bites in what I think of, ungenerously, as a theatrical manner. And so the five of us stand the only still group in a fast-moving throng.

Eventually, a wheelchair arrives along with a person to accompany us to the departure lounge. As we say our goodbyes, it is hard to show the deep gratitude we feel for their kindness. Yes, they were medical professionals doing a good job but they were so kind. Peter may have been grumpy about his bites but he stuck with us.

Muchas gracias, muchas gracias. We thank them endlessly. I rummage in my bag – we have no currency and would it offend to offer? I find a sort of bracelet that is meant to repel mosquitos. White plastic, like a watchstrap, supposedly impregnated with slow release repellent. Peter is intrigued.

‘Please, take it.’ He puts it on his wrist, and smiles. I have more and fish them from my bag. ‘Here, taken them all.’

More rummaging through hand luggage reveals the ice bucket and toilet rolls. Tamara and Martez light on these, delighted to have them. We give them the remaining sandwiches, fruit and bottles of water from the packed lunch. Meagre gifts.

For the ten-hour flight I must keep my leg elevated if I am to avoid the kind of swelling that kept Tricia bedbound for 10 days before they could operate.  CEGA has arranged an upgrade to the front row of business class. I’m wheeled to the VIP lounge.

The Air France crew are reassuring and attentive. At the door of the plane I say goodbye to my airport wheelchair and I’m transferred to a sort of stool-on-wheels that fits perfectly in the plane’s aisle; none of the clinging to seat backs and hopping, as discussed with the CEGA nurse. Once in my seat, extra pillows and blankets form a tower on which to plonk my leg. It’s a night flight. David sleeps most of the way. I doze and half watch films. And cabin staff regularly rebuild my tower when it slumps.

Wednesday 9 December

8am. Paris, Charles De Gaulle Airport.  I’m still in a sleeveless dress, bare legs, as I hadn’t found a chance to change into the warmer clothes I’d put in hand luggage. The switch to the earlier BA flight might get us back home at a more reasonable hour but it means having to do baggage reclaim from one flight and check-in to the London one. This requires a change of terminal and a wait on a mini bus assigned to wheelchair uses. Through the bus’s open door, chilly air finds my bare limbs: 4C, apparently.

At Terminal 2A we are greeted by a member of ground staff who wheels me and guides us to the BA check-in. This young man exudes cheerfulness as he asks about my injury. Then, in perfect English with the most attractive French accent says: ‘Do not think – why me? It is has happened. I was laid up for 6 months with my knee. Don’t beat yourself up. There is no point. It will soon pass; you will be strong again. Relax.’ Words I would hold onto over the next few months.

CEGA had booked three seats on the short flight to London so that I could sit with my leg raised. It doesn’t go to plan. Soon two other people are demanding that I put my leg down, ‘those are our seats.’ The plane isn’t full so, thankfully, it’s sorted out and I can maintain the vital leg elevation.   

Wheelchair and baggage reclaim at Heathrow pass without incident. Shortly after, 1pm we are met by Juliana, the driver of a private ambulance arranged by CEGA. She loads up not just me but our luggage. We live near the Whittington hospital where I’m headed but she sees that having large suitcases in A & E is no good for anyone. She swings by our house. David off-loads the luggage while I, helped by Juliana, change into the jog bottoms and sweatshirt. At the hospital, she warns:

            ‘They’re going to wonder why you are coming in on a trolley, so be ready with your explanation. Have your x-ray to hand.’ And with that, the remarkable Juliana is off to rescue someone else.

            I’m soon ushered into a cubicle where I offer the x-ray to a senior nurse.

            ‘What’s this; where did you get it?’ She holds up this two-foot square piece of negative.  A nurse trained, working in the days of electronic imaging, she calls others to come and witness this antique. But this antique was delivered to me within two hours of having fallen and no one asked me to produce a credit card before they’d let me near the x-ray machine; it secured a cast within three hours of the accident that prevented my ankle from swelling; it secured me a flight within 48 hours of the accident.

It’s thanks to the ‘antique’ I’m first on the list for surgery in the morning.

You can download this pdf version of Footnotes, Part 2.

First publication 2021 by Blue Door Press in Altogether Elsewhere, an anthology of writing about place  © Pamela Johnson 2021

Pamela Johnson is the author of three novels Under Construction, Deep Blue Silence and Taking In Water, which was supported by an Arts Council Writers’ Award.  Her poems appear in magazines and anthologies. She has also published short stories, art criticism and journalism. From 2002-2018 she taught fiction on the MA in Creative & Life Writing, Goldsmiths, University of London, and has devised writing workshops in a range of contexts: schools, community groups, U3A, residential courses for The Arvon Foundation.


[i] ration shops provide basic foods at subsidized prices: rice, beans, sugar, milk

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/02/cuba.international

[iii] see Chapter 6, We Are Cuba, Helen Yaffe, Yale University Press, 2020

 

 

Footnotes – part one by Pamela Johnson

On a visit to Cuba in 2015 Pamela Johnson had an accident requiring emergency treatment. Friends back home remarked how lucky to be in Cuba – ‘they have so many doctors, such amazing healthcare.’ In this excerpt from a work in progress, she revisits the experience and reflects on why the pursuit of healthcare is central to the island’s history

Sunday 6 December, 2015

The bus to Havana isn’t due until nine-thirty.  Last night I packed my suitcase so there’s nothing to be done but, at seven, I get up anyway. I want to savour one last outdoor shower in the tropical air of Cayo Santa Maria. David, my husband, dozes on.

We’ve no idea what the hotel in Havana will be like or even if the booking is confirmed; this might be my last shower before home. As it turns out, I won’t have another shower for two months. I head for the tiled area open to the sky. With slatted fencing all around and tropical vegetation on the other side, it’s entirely private and makes perfect sense in this climate.

Enjoying the play of water over my skin as I rinse shampoo suds, I study a line of ants marching up the yellow tiles. They navigate a route that carefully avoids my splashes.

It’s hard to believe it’s winter and only three weeks until Christmas. I’ve not even thought of cards or presents let alone bought any. There’s nothing to buy here apart from rum, cigars or cigar boxes and t-shirts displaying the image of Ché Guevara. There are no shops full of glitter and gifts.

Two weeks ago, en route to catch the Gatwick Express, a minicab zoomed us along Oxford Street at five-thirty a.m. With no crowds on the pavements we had an unimpeded view of the decorated storefronts. The excess of Christmas-stacked windows in the dawn light was unsettling. All that stuff.  It was a relief to be lifted out of the festive frenzy to focus instead on this beautiful, complicated island; to visit its sites of revolutionary history; to attempt to compare first-hand present-day Cuba with my vivid childhood memories of the missiles crisis.

October 1962. There I am washing my hands in cold water that streams from the solid brass tap, trying to get some lather from the block of pink carbolic soap.  Alone in the girls’ toilets in the basement of Bolton County Grammar School where six weeks ago I arrived in the first year, excited by the potential that lay ahead. I’m alone because my period came mid-lesson; alone with time to think about the news of ships heading for Cuba loaded with nuclear missiles. Everyone is talking about it; about a clock that is ticking. If the ships don’t turn back – Wooosh! A mushroom cloud. No one survives. If I’m going to die I want to be at home with Mum. President Kennedy has been on the news for days talking about the man with a big beard and soldier boots. Castro, everyone says, is a dangerous man, in league with bald Mr Khrushchev, who must be dangerous because he is Russian. Handsome President Kennedy will have no choice. If anyone can, he will save us.

So I’m given to understand and I believed it then, though, growing up and growing in political awareness I came to understand it had been more complicated. Still, the memory of that terrified child surfaced often during our two-week tour, especially at the start in Havana, at the Plaza de la Revolucíon where we’d stood opposite The Ministry of Defence, an unassuming slab of a tower block, site of 1962 operations. I wished I could have sent a message back to my eleven-year-old self as I listened to the Cuban version of the events that led to the unforgettable stand-off.

‘Always it was meant to be a green not a red revolution,’ explained Raul, our guide. ‘Cuba wanted nothing to do with USSR at the start. Ernesto Ché Guevara made a speech here in this place,’ he said pointing to the ground. Raul always referred to the revolutionary hero in this way. Never simply Ché. 

In 1960 Ché said: Are we or are we not struggling to be a free nation among free nations, without belonging to any military bloc, without having to consult the embassy of any great power on earth?[i]

‘After Bay of Pigs, no choice,’ our guide continued, explaining how, in 1960, the CIA had plotted to invade the island having trained fifteen hundred Cuban exiles in Miami.

‘They even painted an American bomber in Cuban airforce colours! Kennedy didn’t want the world to know he’s behind it. He thought Cubans here would join his side.’ When the exiles landed at The Bay of Pigs, on the south coast, Castro had the Cuban air force ready, along with 20,000 ground troops. Over 1000 exiles were captured and imprisoned.

 ‘What did Castro do?’ Raul paused for effect. ‘He traded the prisoners for 50 million dollars worth of baby food and medicines,’[ii] he said with pride, to prove that, even after this affront, the welfare of the population remained a primary concern.

 Following those events Cuba became piggy-in-the-middle of the Cold War.  If the Revolution was to be about social justice – healthcare, education, housing – Cuba could not afford to spend already scant resources on defending a small island against a super power.

‘That’s why Castro agreed to missile bases on Cuba – self-defence.  Did you know that the USA had secretly placed nuclear missiles along the Turkish border directed at Moscow before 1962? Self defence. Not aggression.’

When the crisis was averted Kennedy agreed to dismantle the missiles in Turkey but only if that fact was not made public.  ‘Kennedy did not want to been known to the world as an aggressor.’ And he made sure it was kept that way so it was decades before the facts of USA missiles in Europe became widely known.

As I turn off the shower, I’m well aware that the floor is flooded and there’s no bathmat. Don’t step on wet tiles. I say to myself. I’m being cautious, as I had been round the pot-holes of Havana, the cobbles in the historic town of Trinidad and the showers in all the Casa Particulares where we’d stayed these last two weeks. 

cobbles in the historic town of Trinidad

Recently recovered from torn ligaments in my left ankle, I know how easy it is to fall.  The skin of my left foot is still purple from the bruising.  

I reach for the beach towel that I’d hung to dry over the fence, fold it in half, the better to absorb the water, and lay it over the wet patch. Carefully, I step onto it, right foot first.

My heel skids as the layers of fabric separate and slide away from each other.

I’m falling. Falling. Falling backwards.

My head, my back

I picture either or both taking a crack on the tiles. I wait for the impact. But there is no blow to the head, no pain. I’m on the floor. Relief!  I’m not unconscious. I turn my attention towards my splayed legs. My right foot flops inwards, as if it will fall off my leg. And what is that raised red patch, that bulge, on my ankle? It’s a bone pushing against flesh, says a calm voice in my head. Keep still. A Girl Guide knowledge of not moving the injured surfaces. At the same time another part of my mind, the bit that’s still falling, hasn’t caught up, says, this isn’t happening. It’s doing a rewind, mentally fixing the foot back onto the leg, does not want anything to do with my hidden anatomy asserting itself.

How can it be broken?  There is no pain, discomfort, yes, a clicking of shifting bones if I move any part of me but it’s nothing like the searing, out-of-body pain when I tore the ligaments on my other ankle. I’m amazed by this but also concerned. If I move will the bone protrude? Two thoughts: 1. If I can get a cast put on we might still be in time to catch the bus to Havana. 2. Bang goes the Christmas shopping and I certainly won’t be able to cook a turkey.

 ‘David,’ I call calmly. ‘Can you bring the first aid-kit? I need the crepe bandage.’ Though I already know that no amount of half-remembered Girl Guide crisscross strapping will be enough. How will I get up off the floor, never mind back to England?

In the last two weeks we have learned much about the health service in Cuba. Now I’m about to experience it first-hand, I try to recall another of Raul’s talks.

It’s easy to see why healthcare became central to the Revolution. The Cuban war of Independence in the 1890s might have seen off Spanish colonialism but not without some US backing. Although the Republic of Cuba existed from the early twentieth century America retained a prevailing influence.  In the 1920s, Prohibition brought the Mob to Havana. Lucky Luciano controlled many casinos through which to launder money and trade cocaine. A few wealthy Cubans in the capital benefited while the majority of the population outside the city was illiterate, undernourished and in poor health. There was a high rate of infant mortality. 

It was against this background that, in 1960, Ché Guevara gave his address, On Revolutionary Medicine. He described children he’d seen in the Sierra Maestra as ‘offspring of hunger and misery,’ who, ‘appeared to be eight or nine years old, yet almost all of whom are thirteen or fourteen.’  His vision was clear as he urged, ‘Our task now is to orient the creative abilities of all medical professionals towards social medicine … to find out what have been chronic miseries for years…The work entrusted to the Ministry of Health is to provide public health services for the greatest possible number of persons, institute a programme of preventive medicine … If we make war preparations the centre of our concern, we will not be able to devote ourselves to creative work,’ that being the health of the nation.

Five hundred, I remember from Raul’s talk, 500 polyclinics throughout the island, free primary healthcare for all with a doctor in even the smallest community. But we are on a far-flung archipelago off the north coast. We are forty-five minutes from the main island. The only way off here is via a causeway, flanked on either side by sea and mangrove. Will there be a clinic out here? If the main function of the polyclinic is primary, preventative care will they have A & E facilities? 

Undisputedly I am in Cuba but I also inhabit a strange hinterland, the place-where-this-has-happened. In that place, I’m still naked and wet; my mind is still willing my foot back on to my leg and I need the loo.

David hauls me upright onto my left foot. Too shaken to hop, supported by him, I manage a swivelling movement into the bathroom. David is as shocked as I am and still half asleep.

‘Call Alex,’ I say. She’s an English woman on the tour who befriended us, a dentist also trained in facial fractures who regularly works in her local A&E.  Over mojitos the other night she’d described how she had reconstructed the cheekbone of some high-up in the Air Force. In return he’d given her a ride in a Chinook helicopter. ‘Alex will know what to do.’

Alex’s arrives and her voice reaches me in my hinterland. She’s calming David.  Now she’s encouraging me to raise my leg as she piles towels on the bidet which becomes a foot rest.  She administers ibuprofen. I tell her I have no pain.

‘For the swelling,’ she says.

I can hear her on the phone talking to reception, asking them to call an ambulance, to bring ice and a member of staff to accompany us in the ambulance. She is calm, clear, polite, softly spoken yet authoritative. She brings me a t-shirt dress, slides it over my head. Putting on underwear is too complicated. It involves disturbing the clicking bones.

How will I get down the steps – there are at least six to ground level?

Now a man in a white medical coat appears with another man in a t-shirt. And there is Belkis, a member of the hotel staff. They are weighing up the options for a route out of the room. Several arms raise and support me on to one leg. The injured leg clicks uncomfortably as it dangles. I’m scooped into strong arms, carried down the steps to a waiting trolley, then fed into a white van. Apart from me on the trolley and the man in a white coat, nothing about the van says this is an ambulance.

‘Carlos,’ the man in the white coat introduces himself. He is a doctor. He lays a reassuring hand on my shoulder. ‘We go International Clinic,’ Carlos says and Belkis nods and smiles. This clinic is 7 km away. It sounds promising.

I wince as the van bumps over potholes, mainly at the fear of further damage rather than pain.

‘I find solution,’ says Carlos pointing to my foot, ‘I always find solution for my patients.’

Belkis smiles and nods and David explains to me that there is, indeed, a clinic out here on the Cayo. I silently give thanks to Ernesto Ché Guevara. Soon we are pulling up beneath a huge portico of what looks like a new building, the van parks beneath it. It protects us from the warm rain that has begun to fall as they slide me from van to clinic, which, a sign proclaims, is Clinica Internacional Cayo santa Maria.

The grandeur of the entrance disappears once inside. It is bare, as if not yet furnished, as if uninhabited. Then into a room in which there is a cumbersome machine that takes up most of the space. Nothing else except for a medical couch. Discussions in Spanish and broken English. I’m not to be lifted onto the couch. Instead, an awkward maneuvering of the trolley until they can swing the arm of the machine over my foot. Everyone leaves the room as the x-ray is taken. I can see David in the corridor on his phone, calling up the medical emergency service that comes with our travel insurance. I’m wondering, since Dr Carlos is now facilitating a ‘solution’ if a precious phone connection might be better spent alerting the tour company that, though not today, we will be in Havana in time for our flight tomorrow.

Once it emerges, several people gather round to discuss the x-ray; an almost two-foot square sheet of negative is held up to the light. Urgent talk in Spanish.

‘Santa Clara. Santa Clara,’ I hear mentioned several times. Santa Clara means a big town, possibly with a big hospital; it means a bumpy two-hour road journey; it means the site of the final defeat of Batista’s troops in 1959, the site where the Revolution was won by the derailing of a consignment of US-Supplied arms coming from Havana and meant to defeat the rebels. Loyal followers of Ché whispered along the track, sent word to say which train and at what time it was expected. A crowbar loosened the points, a yellow Caterpillar bulldozer slung across the track for good measure. The derailed carriages still lie where they fell, now house a small museum to this victory, the crowbar proudly displayed, and at the entrance to the site the bulldozer sits on a plinth – Este monumento a los combatients de la batalla de Santa Clara.

Now my personal derailment is going to send me back there. It’s thanks to the bulldozer and the crowbar that there will be a medical facility where I can be repaired. I steel myself for two hours of foot jiggling, bones clicking. Trying to ignore the fact that, though Dr Carlos, David and Belkis are all putting on a positive face, something in the mood has changed.

I begin to understand we are not going to Santa Clara, though I’m not sure where we are going only that it is much nearer.

‘Half an hour,’ says Belkis. 

We are on the causeway, the road that skims the shallow sea, towards the main island. Through a grubby window I catch glimpses of mangrove, bits of sky, sea. Lying flat on my trolley, I feel as if I’m the one skimming the water.

Dr Carlos continues to smile and press a comforting hand on my shoulder each time I wince as we hit a bump.  It’s not pain so much, rather the disturbing thought of bones set loose. I can’t bear the sound, the unnatural clicking, from a foot I can’t control, that no longer has any relationship to the leg to which it’s meant to be fixed.

Click, click, click. 

It is not my foot, and I am not me.

 ‘Soon,’ Carlos says, ‘soon find solution.’

Solution? This could mean: amputation, death or, at the very least, surgery. The kind of surgery Tricia had last May. Oh, yes. Tricia. The woman I walked and talked with just 12 days ago as we toured the eco village of Les Terrazaz at Viñales.  I push away thoughts of the image she’d shown me on her mobile phone. An x-ray of her repaired ankle – her fibula with its metal plate pinned in place, the tip of her tibia held secure by a stainless steel screw.

 ‘This is worse than the pavements in Havana,’ she’d said having spotted me being super-cautious over uneven ground.

‘Yea, you really need to concentrate.’

We’d stopped for a rest on a low wall. I’d rambled on about my left foot.

‘A nasty sprain, six weeks ago. Still purple, it swells in this heat,’ I held up my foot to demonstrate. That’s when she pulled out the image, trumped my sprain with her break. Walking in Wales she’d stumbled into a hole in the ground and a rock had fallen on to her ankle.

‘So easily done,’ she’d said. She’d been left to sit in the waiting room at A&E for several hours. Her ankle had swelled so much she needed ten days in hospital with her leg elevated for the swelling to reduce enough to make surgery possible. Surgery. Weeks in a wheelchair. Months of physio. No. This won’t happen to me. I have no pain, only clicking. No rock fell on me.

When he’s not reassuring me Dr Carlos is making hasty calls on his mobile. Belkis explains that the person we need is on his day off. Of course, it’s Sunday. We must collect him from his home. I pick up a tone, a look, the sense of an apology, that this is the only way they can help me, that this is some kind of makeshift option, which on the bright side means it can’t involve surgery.

At last we are off the causeway and turning round a roundabout on which sits a giant concrete crab – through its massive pincers I see its bulging eyes. We are on the main island at the small town of Caibarién on the Atlantic coast.  

We had commented on this crab, four days ago. And the blocks of flats on the edge of the town built in the 1960s. Once state-of-the-art homes, now in need of repair. They were built for workers in the sugar factory and the small harbour from which sugar was once exported, but no more.

Today, we keep stopping to ask directions. Carlos is not clear where our man lives.  In this jumble of tracks, criss-crossed by wires sagging from telegraph poles, it can’t be easy to follow instructions. We drive along streets of much older, colonial style, one-storey houses, with crumbling porticos and faded, peeling paint in every shade: turquoise, yellow, pink.  

Eventually, we pull up at one of these and into the van climbs a man in paint-spattered jeans and t-shirt.  He has a two-day beard and large hands with which he’s been doing up his home, happily engaged in DIY, until we arrive.  He smiles a reluctant sort of smile and Carlos tells me this man has no English. I don’t catch his name and begin to think of him as Dr DIY. He now directs the van to the clinic.

A crowd gathers, a woman holding a baby, children. It’s stopped raining and the sun shines right into the van. I try not to think of my lack of underwear as they lift me out. A horse and cart clip-clops past, hens scratch around the pavement. The kerb is broken; they must lift the trolley to a position where it can be wheeled into the clinic. I notice the words Policlinico II stencilled on the blue-washed wall. Thank you, Ernesto Ché Guevara. No chance of surgery at a primary healthcare centre. Whatever’s happened to my foot can’t be that bad. 

There are colourful walls in the waiting room and many rows of chairs but only one woman waiting. There is a blackboard with a chalked handwritten list that seems to relate to today. I’m wheeled into a room off this waiting area. Along the far wall a sink unit and surface all white tiled but not clean. Above it a window barely covered with a tattered curtain.

Dr DIY finds a bucket and begins to mix what I take to be, hope is, plaster of Paris and try to block out the fact that I have an urgent need to pee. Instead, I begin believe this means an end is in sight – I have a broken bone and Dr DIY’s cast is the solution! He works swiftly, but what he puts on my leg is only half of a plaster cast.

‘Back slab,’ explains Carlos, ‘to hold foot in place.’ In this firm gutter my leg can rest, my foot will be restricted in its movement but clearly, and I see it on Carlos’s face, this not a solution

Nobody has named the injury or explained the protruding bone or said how routine this might be or how serious. But it’s becoming clearer by the minute that treating what they’d seen on the x-ray is beyond this facility.

‘When plaster is set, he will bandage, make secure,’ explains Dr Carlos. Clearly Dr DIY is not an orthopaedic surgeon. He may not even be a doctor but a maker of plaster casts. Will there be a hospital in Santa Clara or Havana that can properly set the bone? With the right expertise bones can be manipulated into a cast, can’t they? What do I know – I’ve never broken a bone before. And, could I make a ten-hour flight with a tight cast on my leg?

I don’t want to be a nuisance but I’ve needed to pee since they wheeled me in.  Now it’s urgent. I don’t want the indignity of peeing all over their trolley but, equally, I don’t want to make more demands. In the end I figure getting me to a toilet is less trouble than cleaning up after me.

‘Toilet? Is possible?’ I venture.

‘Soon.’ Dr Carlos puts a hand on my shoulder and points to Dr DIY preparing to swathe the plaster gutter in lint and bandages.  He leaves the room as the last of the bandage is taped into place, returns with a shiny stainless steel bedpan. Relief.

Back in the van, there are rapid discussions in Spanish between Belkis, Carlos and DIY.  I listen out for the words, Santa Clara. No. This is about money. I have the sense that my treatment has been unofficial. At the first clinic it was agreed we’d pay the hotel with a credit card and they would settle the account. The polyclinic is a place for free primary, preventative healthcare for Cubans not A&E for pesky tourists. Out of kindness they have brought me here rather than schlepped me all the way to Santa Clara. Out of kindness Dr DIY agreed to help.

As it’s our last day we are running low on Cuban currency. David counts all the CUCs[iii] we have and offers the notes to Dr DIY. We’ve been told a CUC is worth 25 times more than the local currency, the CUP. We can only hope the amount we give isn’t insulting.  Dr DIY looks hesitant, awkward, pauses before he takes it. Why? Because it’s unofficial, because it’s too much, not enough?

For the first time he speaks. Pointing to my pristine plaster says:

‘You go your country. See doctor. Soon.’

Dr Carlos looks disappointed but has to agree.

When we pull up outside DIY’s place. He gestures for me to sit up, points towards his house and encourages me to wave to his wife. There, in the doorway, of a modest home that is under substantial repair, sits a smiling woman with a child on her lap. The child is all uncoordinated movement, limbs everywhere, severely disabled. I wave, and his wife waves back.

On the return journey to the hotel, back through the sea, Dr Carlos, with some translation from Belkis, explains that Dr DIY works very long hours. His wife finds it hard to cope on her own with the child and often calls him to come home. And I have taken precious time from his day off, time with his family.

I would like to know more – does Dr DIY work at the other clinics, does Carlos sometimes work at the polyclinic? Clearly they know each other well. Clearly both are committed to caring but are working with scant equipment, doing what they can with so little. I can’t ask complicated questions because I don’t have the Spanish. Even if I did I’m not sure I trust myself to speak because, after all, this isn’t really happening. 

‘What time is it?’ Eventually I try out words that do seem to come from me.  

‘Eleven-thirty.’

Over four hours since something unpleasant happened in the shower. Two hours since the bus left for Havana without us. Now, it seems we are travelling backwards, skimming through sea to the cayo and, hopefully, through time where I may unslip in the shower, watch as the foot realigns with my leg, climb back into bed to start Sunday again.  In reality, as it’s December, high season, with hotels all fully booked, we will arrive at the hotel we should have checked out of to find our electronic room key no longer recognises us.

Part 2 of Footnotes was published on Thursday 31 December 2021 you can read it Here

You can download Footnotes, part 1 here …

© Pamela Johnson, 2021

Pamela Johnson is the author of three novels Under Construction, Deep Blue Silence and Taking In Water, which was supported by an Arts Council Writers’ Award.  Her poems appear in magazines and anthologies. She has also published short stories, art criticism and journalism. 

From 2002-2018 she taught fiction on the MA in Creative & Life Writing, Goldsmiths, University of London, and has devised writing workshops in a range of contexts: schools, community groups, U3A, residential courses for The Arvon Foundation.


[i] On Revolutionary Medicine, Ernesto Guevara, originally spoken August 19, 1960 to the Cuban Militia. Online version at Ché Guevara Internet Archive, 1999, translated by Beth Kurti

[ii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-13066561

[iii] back in 2015 Cuba operated a dual currency system. Tourists use Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), locals use the Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUP is worth much less than the CUC; US dollars aren’t accepted as legal tender. From January 2021 this system is now being phased out.

Lagos, 1971 (Excerpt from Don’t Mention Her) by Jane Kirwan

In 1970, when Nell qualifies as a doctor, she and her Nigerian boyfriend Jerome decide to leave London and the hostility they’re experiencing as a mixed-race couple. They move to Lagos; Jerome hasn’t been back since the Biafran war started in 1966.     

***

Lagos   1971

Jerome was slouched against the hospital gate near where the mini-bus would swerve to a halt. If they were lucky. Nell made herself look relaxed – thank goodness he still came to meet her.

 Jerome straightened up and they hugged; ‘Was the day ok?’  

  ‘It was ok.’

 Nell backed away as a tiny boy stuck a basket inches from her face. Just before sunset, warm, no breeze, smell of rotting fruit. They’d do the long journey home, repeat it early in the morning. Soon, once Jerome’s job came through, she’d face travelling alone.

   ‘The nurses make it easy.’ Nell smiled at the boy and shook her head. ‘But this time Nneka couldn’t help – a man was staring at me with such venom.’

‘Oh, ignore those idiots,’ said Jerome.

‘It was pure hate, his gaze like ice. Nneka said he was a ‘Been-to’.’

Jerome kissed the top of her head, two small girls giggled.

‘So am I, Nell.’

‘I begged her but Nneka wouldn’t make him leave – she said he’d cause trouble.’

The boy was selling peanuts. Nell found a few kobos, bought a paper twist. The child was in rags – he looked exhausted. Not that they must appear so impressive, Jerome was sweating as much as her in the evening heat. They were both scarecrows; at least at work a white coat covered her shabbiness. Jerome was thinner than in London, his shirt patched, jeans worn out.

‘Did you meet up with Ifechi?’

‘I saw him and his smart new office,’ said Jerome.

Ifechi had come back just after the war ended and, like Jerome’s other contacts from London, proved elusive. When they’d first arrived, people confirmed Jerome’s years in journalism meant finding a job would be easy. He was given appointments for the final paper work – just wait a few days. Slowly, hideously, the offers melted away. Whoever promised it, disappeared; suddenly no one knew anything. At least the hospital had given Nell sessions so they could pay the rent. The flat had been hard to find; they were lucky, but it was miles away on the Kiri Kiri road, the other side of the city.

‘Apparently Ifechi got married as soon as he arrived, has a couple of children.’

Jerome didn’t sound envious, just resigned. Thank god they didn’t have a baby. The boy tilted the basket to show Jerome but Jerome was tougher than Nell, brushed the child away.

They crammed into a space by the door of the packed minibus, its sign In God We Trust; after a while they’d have to change, trust another god. Jerome took her hands. ‘Ifechi wondered if we’d really thought things through?’

‘Oh, great help.’  Nell frowned at the blocked road. Nothing was moving.

Maybe Ifechi had also asked if she might have pressured Jerome to return. She wouldn’t suggest that.

She wriggled herself nearer the door, grabbed Jerome’s arm.

‘Let’s get out, it’ll be quicker.’

The buses were always packed, the other passengers checking her like some pathology specimen. At first, she’d complained, ‘have I got horns?’ but soon stopped bothering. All that mattered was finding a space and for the mini-bus not to get stuck in a jam or change its mind and accelerate off to a more profitable route.

Walking was a crazy idea. There was no path for pedestrians; on one side was a stream with sewage and rubbish, on the other the kamikaze drivers: lorries, buses, vans, revving up to the next jam. Everyone used the centre of the road because the potholes at the edge were lethal. The din as drivers sat on their horns, the screeching brakes and tyres.

Jerome was ahead, almost jogging. A motorcycle missed her by inches as she avoided a couple of emaciated cows being cajoled to the slaughter-house. It was clear from the beginning she should stay this side of the ditch; the shacks, kitchens, and stalls were the same as the miles of living space they’d first witnessed six months ago on the journey from the airport. Not their land, they’d be trespassing; each square foot was accounted for: huts, tea-chests, boxes, tarpaulin hooked over ropes, shells of abandoned cars. Villas for the less affluent – old suitcases, tin cans, marking the boundary of each bathroom, kitchen.

‘Jerome,’ she yelled. ‘Slow down.’

The women standing over stoves had been working since first light. It was mostly children who carried water – tottering miles balancing rusty pails on their heads. One infant, she decided, couldn’t have been more than two, water from a chipped enamel basin spilling on the red dust.

At last Jerome joined her. A couple of boys screamed ‘Oyinbos’. Being called a foreigner infuriated him.

‘Let’s have a treat,’ Nell said. ‘You’ve met up with Ifechi: he might help. Let’s get the bus at the roundabout, go to Kingsway, admire the clothes.’

To her surprise, he agreed.

A blind child was begging outside the department store. A skeletal woman, a toddler swaddled to her back, watched as they kept to the shadow of the buildings.

Nell breathed in the stale, cooled air.

‘It’s quiet as a morgue,’ said Jerome, taking her hand.

‘Did you give them money?’

‘What do you think? I wrote a cheque.’

They wandered through the clothes section: neat rows of shirts, carefully arranged scarves, racks of jackets; everything looked irrelevant and grey compared to the colour and chaos of the street markets. The cool musty air might be comforting after the heat but this was dull compared to Ajegunle where they normally shopped. There, the stalls were packed together: tinned milk next to maize; meat beside plantain then rolls upon rolls of material in vivid colours, an abundance of patterns. On a tiny piece of land by a stall of yams, someone would have set out shoe-laces or a couple of tin plates on a rag. Often the only space to walk was the channels of contaminated water trickling into the ditch.

Two nuns stood at a counter in animated discussion over a pair of socks. They must be baking in their heavy habits.

‘Let’s share a Coke,’ said Jerome as they went towards the escalator.

‘This place is unreal.’

Jerome took her arm. ‘And you relish it.’

               .***

It was months before there was any contact from Ifechi and it wasn’t news of a job but an invite to go swimming. Ifechi wanted them to join him at the pool in the Federal Palace Hotel. It was glorious, water slapping gently against the blue tiles; Nell shut her eyes. Wafts of jasmine. August. In England it was probably raining. Blissful to be here. A midday African sun hit the reflections and she sheltered under an umbrella.

‘Why not get in, Nell?’ said Ifechi.

Her swimsuit was tatty, and anyway it was heaven to stay in the shade, admire Jerome doing front-crawl, ploughing his way through more relaxed swimmers. Ifechi poured a cola slowly, watching it drip into the spaces between the ice cubes. He offered it to Nell, she shook her head.

‘I don’t swim either,’ Ifechi shuddered. ‘Never have.’

An overweight, unfit, middle-aged man, this old friend from London, from before, was meant to be Jerome’s most important contact. But Ifechi was unsettling. Jerome insisted he had nothing to do with the vanished job but he looked shifty, and he flirted.

‘Are you homesick?’ said a beautiful young woman. She’d arrived with Ifechi and another woman, and a gang of children.

Nell must be coming over as some kind of misery. ‘No, no, really. I love it here.’

The two women were fascinating; chatted easily to each other or to Nell but when addressed by Ifechi, refused to answer. Instead they sat back and mockingly admired him. Ifechi clearly found this infuriating. Better not notice how charmed Jerome seemed. 

‘Ifechi is publishing a few more magazines,’ Jerome had muttered when they arrived. Well, that might be helpful.

A couple of the tiny children splashed out of the pool, landed themselves in Ifechi’s lap. He hauled one up, swung it in the air. One of the women frowned, brushed water from her swimsuit.

‘Are they all his children?’ said Nell.

‘I guess,’ said the younger woman. ‘Ifechi has several.’

‘Really? Which of you is their mum?’

The girl smiled, patted Nell on the leg. ‘She’s not here.’

Nell winced at herself. What an idiot.

Jerome pulled himself out, dived again into the water, a clean and perfect arrow that just missed two men.

‘Foolish boy,’ said Ifechi. ‘Well, that’s good that you feel at home.’ He wiped the moisture from a glass of cold beer and offered it. Nell shook her head.

‘Star beer. Not your American rubbish.’

‘Not my American.’

‘Don’t get cross. I love Jerome, truly I do.’

She must try to be agreeable. ‘I like the Star ads.’

‘Ah, the movies again? I love the movies.’ Ifechi made a gun with his fingers, took pot shots at the sunbathers.

‘This is a film-set.’ Nell gestured to the ornate tubs overflowing with flowers, the poolside bar. ‘Or an advert.’

Going to movies had become a treat, a rare one they couldn’t afford. The films were usually American gangsters but the ads were made locally. Lagos was a set where beautiful couples drank beer, smoked expensive cigarettes, drove sports cars and wore Western or Nigerian clothes. Nell went mainly to see the ads: the roads were empty, the water lapping the shores of the harbour uncontaminated with rubbish, oil, sewage, dead dogs. Colours were extra intense making up a world which could be day-dreamed into, and it was here. The other doctors chatted about nightclubs and Highlife. Theirs was a world she and Jerome couldn’t quite get to. None of it. No sitting drinking beer as the sun went down, the right camera angle, lazy long shot.

Jerome was doing a perfect crawl down the length of the pool. He swam so beautifully. Ifechi caught Nell’s eye. He was going to be no help to Jerome at all.

***

The miles of interweaving lanes were unlit, no moon. Nell and Jerome were lost. They clutched each other, could barely make out the path.

‘I never thought of a torch,’ said Jerome.

They were late for Nneka’s party. They’d been to visit a couple Jerome met through Ifechi; supposedly their house was in the same part of Lagos, but they got lost going there and lost coming here.

Jerome was still uneasy after the visit, the man was Hausa and had been intimidating. He was angry at having to wait for them and quickly took Jerome off to his study for a drink. His German wife, Ilsa, looked exhausted. As she took Nell to admire the house, the irritating children, she seemed increasingly uncomfortable with Nell’s questions about life in Lagos.

‘You will get used to it,’ she said. ‘Jerome will help.’

‘We’ve been here two years and I know no one, except at work.’

‘It takes time,’ said Ilsa. ‘And having children helps.’

Well that wasn’t about to happen soon. ‘Jerome is bored with my moans, wants me to be positive.’

Nell was about to tell Ilsa about the small boy in the clinic that morning. Jerome would have stopped her if he’d overheard. Ilsa interrupted, muttering that she should go and organise coffee, see what her children were doing. Nell waited in the garden, taking in the silence. Silly to think people would want to know. No point confiding in anyone about anything, let alone that patient. No point imagining anything she could have done differently.

He’d been sitting in a corner of the cubicle resting his hand lightly on a woman’s knee, making no demands. He had his back to the room, was probably about three. His head was slightly tilted as if he was tired, soft black curls resting against the creamy skin of his neck.

Nell had wanted to delay everything. She could run her fingers up his spine, tickle his hair, but she made herself crouch in front of the boy, read his notes. His mother’s expression was blank – she was staring at the wall.

The patient looked at Nell, his huge eyes cautious. She smiled back. His nose was snub and smooth. His lower lip trembled slightly. Where his left cheek should be was nothing, a cavity with no skin or flesh; it exposed the inside of his mouth, his teeth, his pharynx.

The mother knew the loss was irreversible, its progress inevitable, triggered by malnutrition. Nell would give him a pointless injection of penicillin, send him home. The mother would carry him for miles.

How could any woman do that, watch her child die day by day? And so many like this coming to the hospital for a miracle. As Ilsa came into the garden holding out a grizzling baby, Nell knew she’d never have children.

Jerome was as out of place as she was. ‘We’ll be late for Nneka,’ he said.

At last, by following faint traces of music, they found a gate set into a wall. In a large space circled by small huts, people milled around a central pool of light. Nneka looked luminous. Gold earrings, necklaces, bracelets, gold threads studded with gold beads braiding her hair; chains of gold circled her wrists, ankles, neck. She wore a lemon brocade waistcoat over a lemon satin dress, carried a small chest already overflowing with naira. As she greeted each guest, notes were stuffed among the others.

‘You should have warned me about the money.’

‘She’s your friend.’ said Jerome. ‘Is it really only her birthday?’

After handing over their gift – a scarf from Kingsway – shaking hands with numerous strangers, they sat on one of the benches. Young children ran around handing out cold beer and soft drinks. One of the tiny ones stopped, grabbed Nell’s leg. Nell hauled the child up to her lap. How good to feel the girl using her like an armchair, letting herself be cuddled.

‘That toddler suits you,’ said Jerome.

Was that what might happen? She’d end up exhausted and drained, have several rough children, and Jerome away enjoying himself with Ifechi? And if the children got ill? No, the thought was inconceivable.

Oil lamps had been strung along wires between posts. Nneka and her family walked among the guests, in and out of the light. People had started to dance. Reflections spat and shimmered – not just from Nneka’s gold, most people were wearing lavish jewellery.

‘We’re so drab, Jerome.’

Nell kissed the top of the child’s elaborately plaited hair, the girl smelt of rose-water. The women wore expensively designed wrappers and the men, Jerome the  rare exception, were in embroidered agbadas, mostly full length with matching pants. Guests were still arriving, picking their way along the same muddy lanes.

Dishes started to appear, Nneka brought over chicken and rice.

‘You look wonderful, and such a wealth of presents,’ said Nell.

Nneka shooed away the small girl.

‘Oh, no, Nneka, don’t.’ Too late to stop her.

Jerome finished his food quickly, handed Nell the empty plate. ‘How about more? Fast as you can.’

‘And, if I don’t?’ said Nell.

He was showing off in front of Nneka. All of this, the extended family, the party, the glamour, this crowd of people enjoying themselves, was upsetting him. He’d been disturbed by the couple they’d just visited, but Nell could do nothing; she couldn’t conjure up any family, neither apparently could he.

Nneka grabbed her arm. ‘Come, Nell, let’s get the man more chop.’

As they reached the cooking area, Nneka said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to Jerome like that.’

‘He shouldn’t to me.’

Everyone criticising. Why had Nneka sent away that child?

An elderly man joined them, Nneka introducing him as her uncle. ‘Go and dance, Nell. I’ll take the food to Jerome.’

When Nell left the dance-floor, tired but slightly happier, Jerome was gone. He wasn’t at any of the tables where people were slicing cake, carving up chickens, collecting cans of beer. Where could he go? He’d disappeared. He’d been as lost as she had.

There was a dark corner where she could make herself comfortable, watch the entrance and bench where they’d been sitting. Nneka was having a subdued row with a large older woman in red silk; whenever she paused to listen, the woman tugged at an ornate silver necklace. At one point, Nneka reached across, gently touched it.

As the hours passed, people drifted off. A few dancers stayed with the music, a couple giggled in the shadows on the left. Wait till dawn, find her own way home, but the night was never-ending. She must not cry.

Nneka didn’t seem surprised to see Nell appear, didn’t mention the absent Jerome. ‘Come and meet my mother.’

The woman in red was boiling water on a stove in one of the huts; she beamed a welcome. The room smelt  of coffee. Nneka filled a few mugs and her mother added dollops of condensed milk. ‘Mary, give out the cake, I’ll be back,’ and the mother was gone.

‘Mary?’

‘Yes, and what of it?’ Nneka handed Nell a slice of date sponge.

‘She was giving you an earful.’ The coffee was very sweet.

‘She wants me to find a man, have children.’

Nneka had once told her that her mother had left their village during the Biafran war, come with them to Lagos to find Nneka’s father. By the time they’d got here, he was dead. No money. No support. Three young children. ‘The nuns helped us.’

The sweet drink and rich sponge were too much; it was so warm inside the room, some lilac perfume mixed with the smell of coffee. Nell could barely make out Nneka’s face; it would be wonderful to sleep. Then she remembered why she felt terrible – Jerome had vanished.

Nell woke to the sound of muttered voices. It was still dark, Jerome was back, standing under a lantern by the door, talking to Nneka and a lean woman in a blue suit. Should she interrupt them? He looked relaxed, was enjoying himself. 

Two toddlers were lying on her legs. The blanket felt comforting, the children fast asleep and heavy; there was gentle snoring from the far corner.

There was laughter from beyond the entrance. A bright light flashed through the open door, blinding Nell; one of Nneka’s cousins burst in holding a lamp.

‘Oh, I’m beyond tired! Lord save us.’ The cousin tossed her shoe into the corner.

The snoring shape grunted; Nneka’s mother lifted her head from the mound of blankets, threw the shoe back. The cousin clutched Nneka, and both shook with laughter. Nneka’s gold-braided hair flashed in the light, some of the strands were coming undone. Their hug turned into a dance, they looked glorious.

Nell managed to push the children away. She stood up and touched Jerome’s arm, tried to sound calm. ‘Where were you?’

‘I went to meet some relatives,’ said Jerome.

He had never mentioned relatives.

Biography

Jane Kirwan has published three poetry collections, Stealing the Eiffel Tower (1997), The Man Who Sold Mirrors (2003), The Goose Woman, (2019) and co-authored Stories & Lies with Pamela Johnson and Jennifer Grigg. She won a Arts Council Writers Award in 2002, published a prose-poem collection Second Exile with Ales Machacek (2010), and Born in the NHS (2013) with Wendy French. In 2016 she published a novel, Don’t Mention Her.

You can find a PDF of this story here:

Out of the Woods by Charlie Allenby

Charlie Allenby grew up believing that Epping Forest was a place to be avoided, full of ghosts and criminals. It took a global pandemic for him to give Epping another chance. Join him on his morning bike ride as he recalls earlier memories of this ancient woodland

7.30am. Tyres are squeezed and topped up with air in long strokes of the pump. A light breeze whispers against my bare legs, but the empty blue sky and rising sun suggests they won’t be cold for long. Shoes clipped into pedals, transforming man and machine into one being, the journey is underway. Destination: Epping Forest.

*

There was a time when, for me, Epping Forest was altogether an elsewhere place. 

“My cousin said that if you get to the bottom of the hill and leave your car in neutral, it gets dragged to the top.” It’s Year 7, Maths first thing on a Monday after a hot spring weekend, and there’s an excited buzz in the air. Ross Barnwell, my fellow top-of-the-register dweller, is excitedly retelling how a tonne of metal and four pubescent passengers fizzing with hormones were able to defy the laws of gravity in a scary part of the Forest. “It’s called Hangman’s Hill by High Beach. He said the ghost pulls you up the hill with his noose.”

*

7.45am. Cutting east, the bustling streets of Tottenham stand between me and the tranquility of the Lee Valley canal. The sun gleams off of the football stadium’s roof and catches the golden cockerel perched on its south stand. I pass two cemeteries – one for people, the other for cars. The ticker of a black cab has finally given up. After a life spent navigating the arteries, veins and capillaries of the capital, it sits atop a trailer, awaiting its passage to the afterlife. A breaker’s yard on an industrial estate where smog and grime fills every crevice seems like an understated send off.

The footbridge across the Pymmes Brook acts as the fault line between asphalt and escapism. I carefully pick my way through the flotsam that has washed up on the outskirts of the Marshes – two big cement blocks not enough to stop the canny fly tippers.

fly tipping on the outskirts of the marshes

Passing through the barriers and up and over Chalk Bridge, I feel a wave of relief. The satisfying crunch of gravel tells me there’s not long to go now. I’m almost there.

*

The tale of paranormal activity wasn’t the only thing that defined Epping Forest in my childhood. As I grew older, the stories turned darker. Gangland murders, buried bodies, remnants of clothing found within the decaying mulch. “I heard that if you dig a hole in Epping, you’re going to stumble across some bones,” said another friend, Liam Lockwood, who like me, has found it hard to shake the area’s notorious reputation. The Wikipedia entry for Epping Forest has a separate section on ‘murders.’  It currently includes 11 incidents over six-decades. 

Growing up in Chelmsford in Essex, less than 30 miles from Epping, I never had a desire to put the rumours to bed. My horizons extended north and east: screwball ice creams with their bubble gum ending on the promenade in Maldon, avoiding the tide on Frinton’s concrete sea wall, the salty waft of Leigh-on-Sea’s cockle sheds. The nefarious goings on, on the outskirts of London, were a reason to steer clear; the ancient woodland remaining an uncharted territory that I had no urge to uncover

*

7.55 am. The River Lea is glistening in the morning sun as I make my way north on the canal path. A black cat scampers across my path, diving into one of the nomadic canal boats that line the water from the Thameside mouth to its source in Bedfordshire. The touring bikes and pannier racks of the elders usually found perched on the benches by Alfie’s Lock are nowhere to be seen. No doubt they will be in their usual spot in an hour or so on my return journey.

At Ponder’s End Lock, it’s time to leave the tranquility of the river and rejoin the traffic. Flanked by the banked edges of the William Girling and King George’s reservoirs, the tops of oaks flicker into view on the horizon.

*

My first adult visit to Epping Forest didn’t exactly change my boyhood opinion. In 2019, on my 27th birthday, my girlfriend Izzy and I had gone to hire a rowing boat at Hollow Ponds. Our excitement was soon punctured by a gruff middle-aged man with week-old stubble and the hallmarks of a heavy night, who told us that he doesn’t take cards and we’re going to need to go to the hospital if we want to get cash out. In hindsight, he was just telling us that the nearest ATM was in Whipps Cross hospital, but there was a menacing air to his directions – as though he’d be only too happy to give me another reason to visit A&E if the mood took him.

Having dodged Hollow Pond’s collection of swans, Canadian geese and coots, we jumped back in the car and decided to head deeper into the unknown. The feather-shaped block of dark green stretched its way across my phone’s screen from Forest Gate in the East End to the Essex hinterlands. Stabbing my finger at a car park in its centre, it was time to immerse ourselves in the real Epping.

*

8 am. Approaching gate 101 along Hawksmouth, the tarmac falls away and becomes a rugged, pothole-strewn path. Weaving my way through the craters, I feel my serotonin levels return to normal as soon as the grassy fields come into view. My focus shifts from the actions of the drivers to my new environment – roaring engines replaced by wind rustling through leaves – and a maze of trails unfurls in front of me. I have a roughly plotted regular route but the beauty of knowing somewhere intimately means that, even if I end up on new ground, I’m never truly lost.

The Obelisk at the top of Pole Hill is a necessary, if thigh-burning, pilgrimage – especially on a clear day. Sitting at 0° longitude, it was installed in the 1800s by geographers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, who would set their telescopes by searching for the granite landmark exactly 11 miles to the north. A neighbouring trig point marks the hill’s peak, but I’m not here for the monuments – in fact, I turn my back on them. Laid out in front of me is a visual history of London. Although a couple of centuries of population and vegetation growth mean you can no longer see as far as the Meridian Line, the latest additions to the city’s jagged skyline hover on the horizon, while in my immediate vicinity lies woodland that stretches back thousands of years.

Obelisk at the top of Pole Hill. Charlie rests his bike after a ‘thigh-burning’ ride
London’s current skyline just visible above trees that have been there for centuries

Photo snapped, I jump back on my bike and let gravity do the work as I descend into the darkness of the forest. A dog appears out of nowhere, a boxer chasing my shadows until I come to a stop in a clearing. Realising the blurred shape wasn’t fair game, it turns on its heels and scurries back to the increasingly desperate voice in the distance.

The tracks from here vary in shape and size – bridleways pockmarked with the U-shaped shoes of horses, down to openings in the undergrowth no-wider than a rabbit. I settle for something in the middle. A patch of wood anemones in full bloom catch the speckled rays that have broken their way through the thick canopy to the forest floor. The trail hugs the outskirts of the golf course until it is intersected by Bury Road. Despite being in the depths of nature, the brash hand of humanity – the manicured greens and macadam roads  – is never far away.

wood anemones

*

Even now I know the place better, I don’t think I could tell you where we parked back on that birthday visit in 2019. Rucksack filled with sandwiches, we set off in a westward direction, navigating bomb holes and jumping ditches until we came to a clearing. Our ears were met by the growl of motorbikes – the cracks of the carburettors punctuating the low level hum of riders out for a bank holiday run.

Settling down on High Beach’s grassy opening, it was hard to escape the closeness of the other revellers. Tinny, distorted music blared from cheap portable speakers. The smell of burnt meat wafted from disposable barbeques. Giddy children with bright red faces queued for blue ice pops from the rumbling ice cream van. It was a far cry from the place described in John Clare’s poetry – of airy bounds and left feeling high. Retracing our steps back to the car, my opinion of Epping had hardened.

*

8.15 am. I make my way northwards, loosely following the forest’s ‘Main Path’. Runners, walkers, hounds and horses share the wide dirt track. The gnarled trunks and branches of hornbeams are awash with catkins, ready for the wind to spread their seeds.

The undulating up-and-down of the appropriately named Hill Wood gets my heart rate pumping before I find myself back at High Beach. The cooler temperature and earlier time mean it’s a shadow of the bustling hub I encountered on my first visit. Recounting ‘A Walk in the Forest’, I can now see things through Clare’s eyes. I too love the break neck hills, that headlong go, and      leave me high, and half the world below.

Back on the Main Path, I whizz along Claypit Hill’s gravel-lined forest roads, stopping only to take in the views across the Lea Valley from the lofty heights. The expansive opening and its falling gradient is a brief sensory overload for my eyes, which have become accustomed to navigating the narrow, enclosed trails.

Farthest northern point reached, it’s time to make my way back towards Chingford. The Green Ride path I’m following south was built especially for Queen Victoria’s visit to the Forest in 1882 (although she stayed firmly in her horse-drawn carriage). The mounds to my left are in fact ‘Tank Traps’ built during the Second World War by the local Home Guard as part of the perimeter defences surrounding London. And that’s before you get to Loughton Camp – a collection of banks and ditches that were once the site of an Iron Age fort. Used by countless legends of British folklore – whether that was a base for Boudica during her uprising against the Romans or as a hideout for Dick Turpin – it’s hard to escape the feeling that stories are woven into the fabric of the forest.

The Green Ride built for Queen Victoria’s visit to Epping Forest in 1882

*

Since March 2020 when the pandemic first brought me back to Epping, I’ve uncovered a different side to the forest. This circuit now forms the basis of my near-weekly trips to the wild corner of north east London. The dark and murky side to the ancient woodland still simmers away in the background, but its natural beauty has come to the forefront.

*

9am. The final stop of my Epping Forest loop is Connaught Water. One of more than 100 lakes or ponds that dot the heaths, woodlands and grass, it’s another thing we have to thank the Victorians for. Created in 1880 to drain a marshy area of the forest, it soon became a popular spot for paddling and boating, and was named after the first ranger of Epping Forest – Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.

Connaught Water

The only thing swimming in it now are the birds that call the lake home, but it’s still one of my favourite spots in the entire forest. Sitting on a bench, tucking into a slightly bruised banana, it’s a great place to watch the world go by. Mallards scrap over bread thrown into the water by a young family, before the resident Canada geese and Mute swans muscle their way through the maelstrom, bringing calm and grace to proceedings. The sun is fully beating down on my bare calves now, providing a welcome warmth after a long and layered locked-down winter.

Food finished, I join the Ranger’s Road and the start of my journey back home. Loose mud flings from my tyres like mortar boards on graduation day as soft dirt paths are replaced by unforgiving, onyx-coloured roads. Retracing my pedal strokes through Chingford, hills seem easier, passing traffic quieter, my world rebalanced thanks to the restorative power of the forest.

I never thought the darkness surrounding this notorious place could be banished, but there is now a lightness and warmth where there was once fear and trepidation of the unknown.

Charlie Allenby is a freelance journalist for various publications including the Guardian and the Independent and is the author of Bike London: A Guide to Cycling in the City. He is currently working on his second book, a cycling-based memoir.

Square, Kings Cross by Annabel Chown

‘Square, King’s Cross’ is a story from Annabel Chown’s work-in-progress, ‘Blueprint of Love,’ a sequence of interconnected stories, in which the lives of thirteen Londoners interconnect, sometimes fleetingly, at other times intimately.

 The characters in ‘Blueprint of Love’ navigate their individual desires and challenges against the backdrop of contemporary London. Some own multi-million pound architect-designed houses, others live in squats or in homes that are about to be demolished.

This is a book which grew out of Annabel’s passion for London and its architecture. In this story, we meet Ilona, a young woman, who left her small village in Hungary for London, and dreams of creating a future in this complex yet intoxicating city.

Ilona spun the wheel. The ball skittered round and round and hands darted across the board, placing chips. As it slowed down the hands moved faster, until Ilona waved hers across the table and said ‘No more bets.’

            There was a hush, as if everyone were holding their breath. Eyes fixated on the tiny white ball, minds willing it, willing it.

            Fourteen.

            A hissed ‘Shit’ from the young Chinese guy in the baseball cap she saw almost every shift. A sigh of relief from a middle-aged woman with unruly black hair and deep rings under her eyes. What was she doing here, alone at three in the morning, Ilona wondered, sweeping away the chips.

            The room had now thinned, but even at this hour a trickle of newcomers still descended the curved glass stair, sucked into this pit where day and night merged. Fruit machines shrieked and bleeped, chips rattled and clicked, and the music played on and on.

The first time she came she’d been excited by the glamour; huge chandeliers with dripping strings of crystals, rich with gold light. Now she also saw the grasp it had, saw the hunger, the addiction, the same faces appearing day after day.

#

After her shift, she showered and ate a bowl of Rice Krispies and two slices of buttered toast at the casino, before walking the short distance to Leicester Square tube. She caught a grumbling eastbound train, her lower back and feet aching after hours of standing, her jaw sore from so much smiling. At least after a night shift there were always seats. Her few fellow passengers were a random mix of early-risers and all-nighters.

            It was still dark when she reached King’s Cross, and St Pancras was lit up. With its turrets and spires, it was more like a castle than a train station.

Most of the curtains on Belgrove Street were still drawn. One side was hotels, the other taken up by the brick storage building. Her ‘home’ for the moment.

Joe was on duty this morning. 

            ‘Good to see you, Ilona. How’s it going?’

            He was always cheerful, even though he claimed not to be an ‘early-bird.’ She liked this phrase.

            ‘Looking forward to sleep!’

            ‘I’ll bet.’

            She was glad when he was around. Not that the other guys there were unfriendly.

            ‘I’ve explained our arrangement and they’re ok with it,’ he’d said. ‘Just keep yourself to yourself. Management wouldn’t allow it, but no need for them to know. A few weeks I’ve told the boys. Until you get yourself sorted.’

            She’d already been here a fortnight. How many weeks did ‘a few’ mean? It was not a precise expression. She had not yet found somewhere else to live. Had searched only half-heartedly, reluctant to visit tiny rooms, some without even a window, in areas like Leyton, New Cross or Arnos Grove, which would take at least fifty pounds a week from her. She wished she could find another squat. Was ‘keeping her ears open,’ as they said, for these were not advertised. Since she first left Hungary, she’d lost count of the number of places she’d lived in.

            Joe was the neighbour of the friends she’d gone to after she’d left her room in Dollis Hill the previous month. She’d arrived home from work one morning to find her landlord, a man in his fifties who owned the house, in the kitchen, a bottle of whiskey on the table. She was pouring cereal into a bowl, her back to him, when he pressed himself against her and put his arms around her. She turned around and pushed him away, shoving her knee between his legs, screaming as loud as she could. She left that day. Stale breath, hot against her ear, the bristle of stubble against her cheek. She still felt sick remembering it.

            Her friends lived in a tiny studio near Mornington Crescent. The first couple of days there her shifts at the casino finished at six in the morning, and she slept while they were at work, was gone soon after they arrived home. But then came nights with the three of them crammed into the room, Ilona on the floor, her friends in their bed.

            It was lucky she got chatting to Joe in the hallway.

            ‘If you’re really stuck I might be able to help you out with somewhere. Just for the short-term.’

            She wasn’t expecting a storage unit.

            ‘How much will this cost?’

            ‘Nothing.’

            ‘Really?’ People never gave you things for free in this city. Why was he doing this?

            ‘There are always empty units. Seems a crying shame people can’t use them  – I hate to see wasted space. You can buy me a beer in return sometime.’

            At first she’d been on alert with Joe. But he was always just his usual good-natured self.

#

Ilona walked down a corridor, past identical closed doors the colour of egg yolks. Fluorescent lights, evenly spaced, hung from the ceiling and were reflected in the pale grey metal walls to the units. Hers was in the basement, right in the centre of the building. Joe had told her it was one of the warmest spots. And one of the bigger ones. Big enough for the mattress, which he’d got her from an abandoned unit, to take up only half the floor area. ‘You’d be surprised how often people stop paying up and just leave their stuff,’ he’d added.

When she switched off the light, her space, with its four metal walls and metal ceiling, was thrown into blackness. In this respect only it reminded her of her bedroom at home, especially on nights where the moon was barely visible. In London there was always light, pushing through thin curtains or under-sized blinds.

That morning she slept soundly. Sometimes there was noise. The rattle of trolleys when people moved their things in or out. Conversations.

            ‘We get all sorts here,’ Joe had said, describing an actress who lived in a ‘shoebox’ nearby and hired a unit for her wardrobe. ‘There’s an old fellow opposite you. Uses it to store his collection of globes. His wife won’t let him keep ‘em in the house. Comes in most days.’

            His door was ajar when she opened hers. She’d never seen him though. More often than not there was no-one around. Just all their possessions waiting quietly.

#

Early afternoon she stepped through the wide doorway onto Belgrove Street, blinking. It was so sunny for late October. And warm enough to eat lunch in the square behind the storage building. She had been taught that the word square meant a shape with four equal sides, but this one was more like a rectangle, and with its far end on an angle. On the next bench sat a man with very short dark hair, speaking Polish on his phone. He’d also been here last week. And she thought she’d even seen him before, somewhere in the city. At the casino? Or had it just been a person who looked similar?

He’d noticed her too, was looking in her direction as his voice rose. He finished his call and walked towards her.

            ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I know you. We meet before.’

            ‘Maybe. But where?’

            ‘With Antek.’

            Hearing his name, she flinched.

            ‘He bring you to see house we make in Primrose Hill.’

            Of course. ‘Boss man,’ as Antek had described him. They’d been to the house just before they broke up. It was on a tiny street. ‘Is called mews in English,’ Antek had explained.

            ‘Just two people will be living here?’ she asked, walking through room after room with him.

 ‘Boss man’ – she couldn’t remember his name – said something in Polish to Antek after he was introduced to Ilona. They both laughed, and he thumped Antek on the back.

‘What is he saying?’

‘That he is not surprised I have kept beautiful girlfriend hidden.’

Beautiful girlfriend. So beautiful Antek couldn’t stop himself having sex with the waitress from the Moroccan restaurant. The one she’d always been suspicious of. After almost a year it still angered her that she’d had to leave the squat in Mayfair because of what he’d done.

‘What’s your name?’ Ilona asked the man.

‘Pawel. And yours?’

‘Ilona.’

They shook hands.

‘You are working near here?’

‘No, staying nearby. And you?’

‘Working.’ He pointed at a house on the corner, whose dark brick walls and high white-framed windows Ilona had admired. ‘We make refurbishment. So how is the Antek?’

‘I don’t know. We are not together. He is not with you anymore?’

‘No. I have to fire him many months ago.’

She was relieved.

‘Was very good,’ Pawel said. ‘Then he change. I don’t know why. Maybe too much vodka!’

‘Perhaps we are meeting up again sometime?’ Pawel suggested to Ilona before he left. ‘This weekend?’

#

On Sunday afternoon he drove them to Greenwich, crossing the river at the bridge with the two towers. It was one of the few times Ilona had travelled through London in a car.

            The weather was still fine. They walked through the park to the Observatory and took photos from each other’s phones, one foot either side of the meridian line. From the top of the hill the silver-grey towers of the financial district appeared very close. When she’d worked at the Savoy, on a clear day she could see them in the distance from the windows in some of the top floor bedrooms.

            They drank coffee and ate cake in a small white building. Always watchful of how much she was spending, she was relieved when he insisted on paying.

            ‘This building is hexagon,’ he said. ‘In Polish we say szesciokat. I have to learn this word in English as I have client who ask me to make small building in her garden in this shape because she say six is her lucky number.’

            ‘And did it bring her luck?’

            ‘She think so.’

            They laughed. 

            ‘That’s good. Do you enjoy being a builder?’

            ‘Actually I am contractor. Owning company. Interesting work, but also stressful. Complicated clients. Always changing mind. I think is aging me.’ He smiled, touching the greying hair above his ears. ‘And now everyone wanting basements. One even with swimming pool. Another lady ask for two kitchens – hiding maid in one to do real cooking!’

            ‘Lucky people.’ Had any of them come from nothing, or had they been born into such a lifestyle? ‘And lucky for you to be getting so much work.’

            ‘Lucky, yes. And some days I think unlucky too. Everybody always wanting, wanting. Perhaps they drive me to early grave!’

            ‘I hope not.’

            ‘And what are you doing?’

            ‘I work at a casino. As a croupier.’

            ‘You like gambling?’

            ‘I’ve never tried. I used to clean at the Savoy hotel. But I became bored – I was always alone in the rooms, doing the same thing every day. This job has good prospects. And it is interesting to watch all the people who come, to speak with them.’ 

            Most were harmless, many lonely. They told her things – their girlfriend leaving, their business failing – that she would not say to a stranger. Occasionally, inappropriate comments were made, in anger or in lust, but she had learnt the ‘kiss-up’ – making a kissing expression with her lips and placing her hand around her mouth – to call over an inspector to sort it out. After four months there she was still not able to believe the amounts of money people were willing to risk. Yesterday someone had put down ten thousand pounds on her table. And lost most of it.

            ‘You will stay in London?’ he asked.

            ‘I want to.’

            She didn’t tell him her plan to work for a few years and save up enough to study here. To one day be a lighting designer for the theatre. Sometimes it seemed a crazy and impossible dream. This city bled money from you. There were even times she thought about returning to Hungary, days when she could not see anything beautiful about this harsh, rainy northern place.

            But it had a hold on her. Like a lover who could be both cruel and kind, whenever she’d had enough, it would pull her close again, reminding her there was no other quite like it. It might be lying in a deckchair by the river, listening to a free jazz band outside the National Theatre, the sun hot on her face. Or discovering a beautiful room – used for breakfast only – at the home of an architect called Sir John Soane, with a domed ceiling and tiny round mirrors that looked like windows. Or simply the pink of an autumn sunset, surprising her on the Euston Road as she exited the tube at rush hour.

#

‘Do you like him?’ her friend Tatjana asked.

            ‘He’s nice. But it’s not like that between us.’

She didn’t mention how, when they’d met again that last weekend, to go skating at the Natural History Museum, Pawel had grabbed her hand while they were slithering around, trying to balance on their blades, and said ‘We will fly Ilona,’ and how the sensation of his large, warm palm in her own had felt safe, yet gently electric.

            ‘What does he do?’

            ‘Building contractor. With his own company.’ She respected that he had worked hard and made something of himself here.

            ‘Successful?’ Ilona could almost see Tatjana’s brain working, calculating opportunities.

‘If you mean how much money does he make, I have no idea. I don’t want to be reliant on a guy. I’m not even sure I want a relationship at the moment.’

It was safer to stay alone. There had been no-one since Antek. And boyfriends could be a distraction. She wanted to do her job well, save as much money as she could.

            ‘You can’t always plan these things. You have to grab your chances. Is he attractive?’

            ‘Not bad.’ There was a solidity to him, which was reassuring and very masculine. She particularly liked his eyes, large and green with long dark lashes. ‘But at least ten years older than me.’

            ‘Older is good.’

            ‘I am hoping to have family soon,’he’d said over hot chocolate, after the skating. ‘Maybe even with you if I am very lucky,’ he’d teased.

‘You’ll have to wait years then,’ she’d teased back. ‘I am too young for that.’

‘So I wait.’

‘What have you been up to?’ Ilona asked Tatjana, to change the subject.

‘The same as before. But now I’m studying too. In Business.’

Tatjana had the ability to provoke envy in Ilona, a reaction she disliked in herself. It was not just the news of her part-time degree, but also the soft grey wool coat, the fitted pale blue sweater, which looked like cashmere, the golden highlights in her blonde hair. In her eight-hour shift at the casino, Ilona earnt less than Tatjana made in an hour.

‘I think I have a long wait until I can study.’

‘You know how you can speed it up. Have you thought about it any more?’

Of course she had. And when she heard Tatjana describe how she mentally cut off those hours from the rest of her life – ‘almost like they belong to another person,’ and how they were a small percentage of her week anyway, and bought her huge amounts of freedom – it was tempting. In Tatjana’s eyes, living as Ilona did had a far higher price to pay.

            ‘It’s just work,’ she’d once said. ‘Using your body instead of your brain. And the men are mostly ok, some attractive even – normal people. And if I don’t like someone I just imagine they’re someone else.’

            Ilona’s rational mind had brought her close to calling the agency. But something – call it her heart, her soul – always pulled her back, protected her. You did not just let anyone near your body.

‘I have. And it’s not for me,’ she told Tatjana.

            Tatjana appraised her.

            ‘Shame. You’d be popular. We could even do a double act! Blonde and curvy with petite and dark. You can earn a fortune that way!’

            Tatiana always had been precocious, even back home. Ilona had not told her that at twenty-one she had only ever slept with two people.

‘Leave it Tatjana. I’m not going to.’

#

The weather had now turned. In the basement, Ilona shivered and tried to get back to sleep, wrapping the quilt tightly around her. It smelt like it had not encountered fresh air for a long time. It was noisy this morning, and an hour later she was awake again. She massaged wax earplugs in her palms, until they were soft enough to insert into her ears.

            A crashing sound woke her from a dream in which she and Tatjana, wearing only white lace underwear and with white feathers pinned in their hair, were standing on a stage. Tatjana was tugging her by the hand, urging her forward, but she was resisting. For a second she thought the sound was her falling off the stage.

            Instinct pulled her upright. She opened the door to the unit, peering into the harsh light of the corridor. A man was slumped there.

            ‘Help,’ she screamed, when she reached reception. ‘Help.’

#

It had been the old man with the globes. A heart attack.       

‘If you hadn’t heard him he’d probably be a goner by now,’ Joe said later. The ambulance had come quickly, the hospital only a few blocks away.

‘But I’m really sorry, you’re not going to be able to stick around any longer. It’s too risky. If he’d dropped dead, the police would’ve been in, and you’d have been questioned. Management would have found out you were here, and I’d have probably lost my job.’ 

‘I understand,’ said Ilona. Someone like Tatjana might have known to stay quiet at the sound of anything that could suggest trouble.

#

The globe-man’s heart attack was like a forewarning. Four days later, when she was staying at a nearby hostel, twenty to a room and missing having her own space, her father called.

            ‘I’m so sorry. Bad news. Granny has died.’

            Her parents had found her, in her bed, after she’d failed to arrive for lunch. She’d shown no signs of ill-health. 

            ‘I’m coming home,’ said Ilona. ‘When is the funeral?’ She wanted to see and touch her parents, especially her mother, who’d cried when she came on the phone, and not just hear their voices, separated by many hundreds of kilometres.

            ‘You don’t need to come. I know you are busy, it is expensive. Everyone will understand,’ said her father.

            Walking along Caledonian Road, towards King’s Cross, the wind blew in her face. People rushed about their business, eyes fixed ahead or on their phone screens. A car sounded its horn at her when she crossed the street just after the green man had turned red.

Her body felt shaky, the edges of her skin no longer quite so solid. Today she didn’t want to be alone. Yet she realised how few people she knew well enough here to call. She dialled Tatjana’s number, then cancelled it before it even rang. Would she understand? She wanted to speak to Pawel. His voicemail asked her to try again later. She was very near Argyle Square. Perhaps he would be at the building site.

            The front door of the house was open. She heard sawing and a radio in the distance. She went up the stairs, peering into rooms. There was so much wood. Not just the floors, but the cupboards and some of the walls too. Its fresh smell reminded her of home, of logs stacked up for winter, of her grandmother making a fire. Her eyes prickled.

            She found three workmen at the top of the house.

            ‘Is Pawel here?’

            ‘Coming maybe one hour.’

            ‘Tell him to look for Ilona in the square.’

#

‘Probably best you going home. One week, two weeks. Important to be with family.’ He sat next to her on the bench, ignoring the ringing of his phone.

            Ilona nodded. How much would a last minute flight will be?

            ‘You need help to pay for ticket?’

            ‘You are very kind. But I am ok.’

            ‘Tell me when flight is, and I drive you to airport.’

#

Early morning and they headed away from the city centre, towards Luton. Tall streetlamps glowed pale orange. Soon the buildings became lower and she was given a glimpse of the open land beyond. They turned onto a bigger, faster road, the lights now a brighter orange. Inside the car it was warm. Pawel’s hands held the wheel. She remembered the feeling of his palm, the day they’d skated.

            ‘When are you coming back?’ he asked.

            ‘In one week.’

            ‘Good.’

She leant back in her seat. It was good, it felt good.

There was a strange beauty to this dark landscape they sliced through; motorway lights, almost floating in the darkness, tracing the curve of the road ahead like endless miniature suns.

Biography

Annabel Chown was born in London and studied architecture at Cambridge University. She worked as an architect in London and in Berlin, and taught architecture at Kingston University. Her memoir, Hidden: Young, Single, Cancer was published in 2020 by Blue Door Press. Her writing on breast cancer has also been published in Red magazine and The Telegraph.

@annabelchown

http://www.annabelchown.com

You can find a PDF of this story here:

You can find Annabel Chown’s Instagram account here.

Mirror, Mirror by Mary Hamer

The glamorous villa she’s rented for a family holiday is all Serena  hoped for. Why then does she find herself beset by figures from the past?

Verona: a girl steps down from a train. The case she’s carrying is cheap, knocked about. It leaves her ashamed. Stoical, she looks around for the stranger, the father of the children she is to teach.

In the car she knows to make conversation. Later, at the house, she will find the dress she meant to wear is hopelessly crushed. She will put it on anyway. The maid will take her for sixteen.

Back in Italy fifty years on, a grandmother now, she gets out of the car. Driving down from Naples, the map on her lap and a sheet of instructions from the agency, Serena hasn’t been looking forward to pleasure.  Fear—of making a mistake, misreading the map, having to turn round and go back—left no room for that.

She’d do a lot to avoid going wrong, having to turn back.

Plus it’s the whole enterprise: renting a villa, inviting every one of the children and grandchildren. So much to take on.

Yet as she sets out to explore, to take possession, something in her settles.

She is starting to register a sense that she’s been here before.

Where and when she doesn’t ask.

She is just aware of being reminded.

It’s not really the house, satisfying and solid, that feels so familiar, though its long mass of pale stone is faintly glamorous, perhaps out of some half-remembered film. No, it’s something about the setting, the caressing warmth. The pines are so tall, the spaces between so wide. As though she had shrunk, was small once more. The needles are crisp, they tickle her feet through her sandals. She treads over towards the low wall that stands between her and the sea. Beyond, a white sailing boat small as a toy, glitters and rocks.

Now, looking back towards the wide terrace below the house she has a distinct sense of recognition. And of responsibility. As though she’s being invited to accept this place as her own, a demesne. Hers to keep ordered, to protect. Those tall trees, the falls of pink and white oleander too, lift her heart: beyond explanation it’s like coming back home.

She comes to a stop. How could that feel good, ‘coming home’? She has put everything into leaving behind the home she grew up in. She’d got away. Escaped.

Caught out for a moment, she pushes the confusion aside. Concentrate. She had put everything into finding a place for her family. Officially, to celebrate her seventieth birthday. Not with a party, they’d had that months earlier on the day itself: no, she just wanted to bring the whole family together once more. She was aware that some resistance was likely.

 ‘Never again’, one family had said after the trip for David’s seventieth. It never occurred to her that the most powerful resistance might be her own.

Serena had conceived the whole project in terms of practical issues: the question of the number of bedrooms, the location, the distance from the beach. Not least the touchy matter of dynamics between families. Longing on her own account to avoid the tense conjunctions, the furious whispered complaints in private, the pressure on her to make life happy that came with being a mother, especially the mother of a step-family, she’d managed to come up with a plan that would definitely keep family A and family C apart. Above all, with discretion. She really didn’t want anyone to guess or feel cheated.

There were four families to accommodate over the two weeks. With a bit of juggling the cordon sanitaire could be made to work. It would all be fair, she told herself. Glossing over the contortions involved, she was confident she had been fair all round. One way and another it had all taken a lot of managing but she was relieved. Everyone would have their due. 

And it was certainly easier to manage than when she was a girl, dealing with her old family. Then all she could control was her own behaviour. She’d been determined to keep some kind of order for herself and her small brothers when the hands-on mother who used to take care of everything collapsed and seemed to have forgotten them. A frightening stranger who kept kneeling down in the street to pray had taken her mother’s place.

She’d turned away from that sight as a girl but just recalling it still froze her. She refused to be associated with that stranger. But she was pleased, looking back, at the way she’d managed to take care of her brothers. She’d made sure there was always something to eat and read the little boys stories in bed every night, like her mother used to. She’d been good at that.

In the days when they were still getting to know each other, David had been curious about her family.  Had it marked her, he wondered, all that responsibility, not even a teenager.

‘D’you think you still feel resentment?’ he’d asked.

The question came back to irritate her as she stood among the fallen pine needles. What choice had she had? She couldn’t just stand back. Let everything fall apart. Collapse. Be like her mother. Never.

‘What choice did I have?’ she repeated.

But now, spoken aloud here in this place that was inexplicably familiar, this place which enfolded her in warmth, the question refused to die away.

Had she forgotten anything?

Even the bathroom was glamorous, all glittering gold tiles and mirrors. They were still admiring it when the grating of wheels on fine gravel brought them out onto the terrace. It must be the cook. As they watched, a figure emerged and started unloading packages from the back seat. A week earlier in London, sitting at her computer Serena had chosen the menu for that first evening. She made for the kitchen. On her way she barely noticed someone, a scrawny woman lugging bucket and mops in the distance. 

Moving between the formica–topped table and the tall fridge was a woman with a broad pleasant face, who introduced herself as Valeria. She explained that Lilli—that must be the woman with the mops—was the maid and responsible for housework. To Serena Valeria looked as much like a nurse as a cook in her white overall and cap. But there was nothing clinical about her. Laughing, gesturing, she displayed the large rough-skinned lemons she’d bought from a neighbour. The cheeses came from a small dairy she knew: tomorrow a special local variety would be available. ‘Basta’, she apologized cheerfully and stopped herself. ‘I do run on.’

Serena only had scraps of Italian picked up in Verona before she was twenty but it seemed they were somehow going to be enough to make a bridge between them. What’s more, their tastes coincided completely. Hearing that local ingredients, simple dishes, were what was wanted Valeria beamed. Just what she herself believed was healthiest and best. Lunch would be at one, dinner at eight. Did that suit? Menus would be agreed the previous evening and she, Valeria, would shop for ingredients every day.

‘I will take care of everything,’ she confirmed.

In the nicest way Valeria was treating her like a child. Her words opened the door to a world without responsibility.

Serena had loved the idea of being free, not having to shop or cook but she hadn’t imagined how soothing Valeria’s daily presence and their evening consultations would be. ‘Non ti preoccupare,’ Valeria would calm her, using the intimate form as though they were family, whether Serena was at a loss for vocabulary or for ideas for the next meal. She brought a steady rhythm to the days. And neither Serena nor David had foreseen how the tiresome squabbles and decisions around a kitchen and mealtimes— ‘we need to eat earlier’, ‘my children won’t eat that’, ‘I’ll just make a snack’—were transcended at a stroke. Everyone showed up, drifted along, and sat together round the long table on the terrace for breakfast, for lunch, for supper without demur.

It was a pity Lilli was in charge of breakfast—it all seemed a bit beyond her, especially the coffee—but that cast the only shadow.

Serena herself was changing. In this world of calm she felt herself opening, letting go. From the first, she felt no call to organise, to make plans. When David spoke of visiting the Greek temples at Paestum she fell in with him, though with reluctance. Such educated interests seemed to belong to another world, a different life. Children’s stories, with their tales of enchantment, were a better match for the life she was experiencing here. As though under a spell she was all sensation, given up to the heat. Charmed by the sense of being wrapped in warmth—even in the early morning, when she stepped out onto the terrace in her bare feet, the stones were already heating up—she looked for no further explanation for the change in herself.

At the same time, though she’d told no one, she was in constant pain. This did trouble her. Not quite physical but almost, insistent, specific. Nothing like anything she’d felt before, she’d been struggling to give it a name. Turning back to the stories her mother read her as a child, ‘A shirt woven of nettles’, she murmured at last. Like the fairytale about the shirts the sister wove with blistered hands to save her brothers. She’d always rather seen herself in that girl.

Only much later did she think of hair shirts and shame. ‘Saints used to wear hair shirts under their clothes, right next to their skin,’ her Irish mother had explained when she was small. ‘No-one else could see, though. It was a secret. They did it because they knew they’d done things that were wrong, and they were sorry.’

But she really couldn’t see how that applied to her.

Insistent, inexplicable, constant, the sense of discomfort would not leave her. Yet it didn’t take away from her pleasure, the satisfaction in this place she’d chosen. It was as though it went with the pleasure, was its twin, this pain that felt as close as the warmed stones under her bare feet. Like the reliable and welcome heat, pain was the constant medium through which she moved.

She had never known anything like this she told herself.

Simple ease wasn’t possible. Fevered skin nagged away at her, couldn’t be avoided, didn’t allow escape. With no idea what it meant or whether she ought to do something about it, she spoke of it to no one. Not so much stoicism as bewilderment: Serena couldn’t understand what was happening to her.

   *

The first couple of days unreeled without any effort on her part. She really had joined the ranks of the children. Though they were a good deal more active. The undergrowth beyond the pine trees crashed and echoed to wild games. On the terrace the occasional pock of table tennis rallies. Younger children, joined by one adult or another, shrieked and splashed, away beyond the pool-house. Mothers peered over their sunglasses to applaud, spread suncream, then picked up their novels again.

Life at the villa seemed protected, positively enchanted. At all hours the faintly orange scent of the pines. At night a young fox blurred by in the dark beyond the gleam of the citronella coils laid out to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Lit by the glow from the kitchen, Valeria stood chatting with the maintenance man’s wife, admiring their new baby. Beyond the curving black trunks of pine and eucalyptus the sea shone. Serena and David swam twice a day.

There were always new surprises, new cues—as it first seemed—for delight. Until the day she came to a halt touching David’s bare arm.

‘Look, along there, down the lane. It reminds me of that Indian film we saw. The procession. Chanting priests, the drugged widow on the way to be burned…’

Her voice tailed off. The memory stirred something like dread in her. 

Behind them the empty path, pale stones underfoot, overhead dark foliage, formed a tunnel. Brooding, deserted, blank. Waiting, as though an actor were about to appear.

In fact, the person who did actually make an entrance every single day was Lilli, bringing the breakfast. A gaunt half-starved figure, overladen, arms at full stretch around a carton packed with supplies she’d picked up from the supermarket—croissants, milk, bags of coffee, yogurts—she would cry ‘Signora, scusa, scusa’ as though the day had already defeated her.

The very sight of Lilli was disturbing: Serena knew it didn’t bring out the best in her. She wasn’t proud of herself but she did resent being faced with this sad creature. Lilli stuck out in that place.

Besides, Serena sometimes feared she herself might look like that.

Deprived, frantic. Placatory.

Lilli had more to do than she could cope with. She ran between kitchen and terrace frowning. It looked as though it was the first time she’d had to serve breakfast. Every morning there was a meal for eleven to lay out but she made no use of a tray.

They wanted to find a way to help but that only seemed to confuse her. The numbers were too great for making coffee on the stove, the only way Lilli was used to. It meant they all had to hang about while children clamoured for food and Lilli herself was miserably flustered as she ran up at last with the tall metal coffeepots. Yet it was too hard for her to change, to face learning something new, something that would be easier.

‘Non sono capace,’ she quavered, when David offered to show her how to use the cafetières. Instead it was agreed they would see to the coffee themselves.

But there was no rest for Lilli. As soon as the family had taken their places at the table, she hurried off to do out the bedrooms.

Serena tried to see as little of her as possible. 

Unexpectedly, she herself became busy. Once she’d noticed the washing machine in the kitchen it seemed to set off some kind of internal alarm. She couldn’t imagine what had got hold of her. In spite of herself she collected load after load. As if she couldn’t just be on holiday, be free. The others did collect their own clean clothes from the washing lines but she still found more tasks for herself. Her arms full of crumpled dresses, she came to a halt. She was as bad as Lilli. What could be going on?

But she was tired of mistrusting herself, all this anxious second-guessing. She must get a move on. She put the dresses down on the bed and set out to ask Lilli for an ironing board. After all the years that had passed since her weeks in Verona as a girl, she could still remember ‘stirare’ was the word for doing the ironing.

She brightened, stepping out into the dazzling light. It brought back mornings in Italy when she was nineteen: her first long vacation from Oxford. A summer near Verona, in a long low house overlooking Lake Garda, engaged to live with the family and speak English with the children.

A godsend. It had saved her from having to go home.

The household she was joining had a steady rhythm. Before breakfast the clack of high heels on terracotta would tell her that Anna, the mother, was hurrying between the children and checking that the maid had set the table properly and was getting on with the coffee. In the afternoons big cheerful local women came in to take care of the laundry. It was too hot inside, so they set up their ironing boards out in the open on the terrace. In the background songs played from a little radio perched on the windowsill.

Serena stopped in her tracks. She’d surprised herself. She remembered it all in such detail, even that awful crumpled dress she’d put on the first day. It was all coming back irresistibly, in a cascade. How they gave her an evening at the Opera, finishing up sharing pizza round a table out in the warm darkness, and once the mother took her to Venice for the day. Another time there was an expedition to one of Anna’s favourite small shops. She made Serena stand in daylight by the shop door, then ran back and forth trying different shades against Serena’s skin, to find the right silk scarf, in a soft green. Later she’d picked out a dress from her own wardrobe in the same tone and made Serena a present of it, with the right lipstick.

Yet those warm memories were mixed with a sense of her past unease in the face of all that was offered her. It was as though she’d known at the time that she didn’t deserve such kindness. In fact, no longer kept in soft focus, the memories of that Italian summer were edged with shame. She approached that gingerly, not sure now what she was letting herself in for. She would have preferred not to know, to forget but the shame wouldn’t go away. In spite of the strong sun, a shiver crept over her and she sank into a wicker chair.

It was too bright out here after all. She was squinting.

She couldn’t stop the flow of recollection now, it moved on like a film unrolling. Here was the evening when a friend of the husband, an American on vacation, arrived for dinner.

‘What a place you’ve got here,’ the visitor had said, transparently impressed, as they stood with their drinks on the terrace, looking out over the lake.

He’d turned to Serena.

‘We don’t have anything at home like this and I guess you don’t either.’

She had been stung, pierced by a resentment and shame she couldn’t bear to analyse.

Fifty years on she stood cold under the bright sun, arms clasped around her heart, breath short. It was as if he knew. Saw through her to the father who had lost his job, the slumped figure of her mother, ash from her cigarette dropping into the sugar bowl unheeded.

 With relief she came back to the present.  Exhaled. Reassured herself. No wonder she hadn’t wanted anyone to connect her with that home.

Out of the shade it was already uncomfortably hot, not ironing weather, as Serena finally made her way up the external steps leading to the bedrooms, wondering all the while at her own actions. But in a few moments Lilli’s response to her request seemed positively freakish. Without a word to show that she had understood, she led Serena into the upstairs salon. By a small table she paused. From a clutter of bric à brac she selected a metal statuette of a horseman. Lifted, it revealed a key.

Lilli looked round.

Finger to her lips, she hissed, ‘Between you and me. Not the agency. Not the owners.’

Serena recoiled, queasy, as at the whiff of something tainted. Lilli seemed so abject, so sly. Even a bit mad. Ever since her mother’s breakdown mad people frightened Serena. Just seeing one in the street threw her off balance, let alone having to engage with one. But this time she couldn’t get away.

All she wanted was an iron. But her Italian wasn’t up to raising questions, plus she was intent on keeping her distance. That was the way she’d managed with her mother. She wanted nothing to do with this woman, Lilli. She must calm her down, appear to consent to this pact. Smiles, gestures, nods. Keep them empty.

She didn’t register how much it disturbed her, this renewed withholding. Instead, she found herself thinking of fairytales where a girl has to ask an old witch nicely for her help. In reality she found it hard to say how old Lilli was. With that haggard look she could have been fifty. Younger than Serena, anyway. Yet in spite of that, in front of her Serena didn’t feel in charge, she felt powerless, depleted, no more than a girl.

Retreating awkwardly down the stairs clutching iron and board, she hovered between triumph and confusion. She’d got what she needed: whatever was she doing? In 30 degrees of heat, she’d set herself up to do some ironing. She wasn’t sure she wanted the others to know.

 Later, in the shuttered darkness of the afternoon, she took up the iron and reached for her favourite dress, a fine black poplin. Expensive. But it had been worth it, she’d loved how it made her look. She spread its billows over the ironing table.

Sleeveless, buttoning at the front down its full length, with wide skirts, she’d often thought it was modelled on a priest’s soutane. Today though, for the first time she asked herself what she’d been up to, wearing it. For her, with her Irish mother, her convent schooling, there was no question. Putting on a priest’s soutane was an act of sacrilege. She had managed, somehow, to avoid that knowledge when she was admiring herself in the mirror.

The iron wasn’t heating up. She jiggled the lead till the red light came on. She wished she had something to spray the dress with while she waited.

Now she was wondering. Could there have been a certain defiance in flaunting herself in that pretty girly soutane? She’d never imagined that. Yet something in her must have been savouring it: the secret pleasure of mocking priests and their authority just by walking down the street.

The street had been a place of humiliation for her as a girl. She used to shrink at the sight of her mother kneeling down on the pavement, arms stretched out, muttering loud prayers. It was worse in church, where she turned up hunched under a vast shawl and made her way to the communion rail bowed almost from the waist, eyes tight shut, lips in exaggerated silent movement.

Serena always pushed the memory away.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Yet today, all of a sudden, she could see the element of pantomime in that scene. Not piety, but performance. A mockery of the priests up at the altar in their embroidered copes? Mockery not unlike her own gesture, dressing up in that soutane.

You couldn’t put a pin between them.

Her mother and herself.

She paused. Stood the iron back up.

Now without any effort on her part a different memory fell into place, a memory of information that had come to her long after her mother’s death. At the time she hadn’t known what to do with it, the rumour that as a girl her mother had complained of sexual abuse—claimed that a priest had been abusing her.

In her mother’s Irish family it had been remembered as ‘troublemaking’: back then nobody would have listened or believed her. She’d have been shouted down.

Serena stood, her task ignored, shame-faced. How could it have taken her so long to put two and two together, to connect those scenes in the street with that whisper of abuse from the past? Now she was paying attention, the scenes she’d resented because of how they made her feel began to look different. To be a sign of resistance. Mockery, revenge. A claim for attention.

Her mother had not given up. You couldn’t deny it showed spirit.

Except. Except that she, Serena, had denied it, seeing only failure.

She was going to need time to absorb this image of her mother. It wasn’t entirely clear where she was left herself.

Meanwhile, the frivolous soutane was much too dry to iron. She stared at it, distracted.

The following day, she was forced to go and ask Lilli’s help for a second time. It really was the last thing she wanted, more dealings with this sad figure. A child had peed his bed and a clean sheet was needed, no question. But she shied at asking for one, at speaking of something so intimate, even though it only involved a child. She’d have preferred to keep her distance, put a stop to Lilli’s attempts to establish a bond with her.

Dishevelled as ever, Lilli was at work cleaning a shower. Serena had no intention of being trapped in a small space with her again: a hail from the threshold would get her attention. Serena had been pleased when she realised she could at least remember that ‘cambiare’ was how to say ‘change’.

As if at the chance she’d been waiting for, a cue, Lilli dropped her mop and let out a burst of Italian. The words ‘ogni giorno’ were repeated. Serena understood enough to make out:

‘I’ve been changing all the sheets every day. They told me to change them every three days but I took no notice. I change them all every day’.

Serena stiffened, shrinking back in shock. The woman really was a bit crazy she told herself.

Lilli’s ongoing quarrel with her employers were nothing to her. She resented being drawn into any trouble with the powers that be.

It was dawning on her that the name for what she felt was anger. She hated having the business sprung on her like this.

She did know, without being able to name it, that she felt accused. She concentrated on justifying herself. It wasn’t anything she’d asked for or thought of wanting, a daily change of bedlinen. She had simply asked for a clean sheet. She would have liked to keep raging that this tiresome woman was putting them both in the wrong with her unwanted favours.

But Lilli had left her work and crossed the room forcing Serena to step back outside. Lilli’s narrow face, too close to her own, was needy, eager for recognition, for thanks.

Resistance, almost violent, took over Serena.

‘This is nothing to do with me,’ she told herself one more time. She didn’t quite have the heart, though, to hold out. Italian or no Italian—and she didn’t have the language to argue— she couldn’t quiet the sense that raising objections, refusing thanks when they were so much desired, would show a mean spirit.

And besides, it had already happened. Lilli had put in all that extra work on their behalf. Serena had to accept that she was under an obligation. Dimly, grudgingly, she began to concede that perhaps Lilli did deserve some thanks for what would have been sweating labour. They must all have slept in more comfort through those hot nights on sheets that were fresh and smooth.

She couldn’t summon the actual words but did manage to force a smile that she hoped looked grateful. Her only thought was to get away. Away from this woman who kept wrong-footing her.

Empty, exhausted, surrendering, she sank onto a long sunbed and lay back shutting her eyes. Gradually she became conscious of the drone of a small machine in the background. Coming from the house, it was soothing, a reminder that out of sight someone was busy and in charge. It buzzed, she sleepily thought, just like the sound of the hoover when she was small, out in the street on her tricycle. As she gripped the handlebars, feet planted, looking out at the world, there had been comfort in that sound.

Still not quite in command of herself next morning, it was with dread she realised that Lilli was looking for her. She wasn’t sure how much more of this she could take. Beckoning her down the path that led along the side of the house, Lilli paused by a vast arched opening, great wooden doors leaning casually apart. Reluctantly, Serena followed into the shadowy space. She was struck how far it reached back. Once upon a time, she guessed, farm animals might have been sheltered there, a shuffling, nuzzling presence.

Once they were both deep inside and out of sight, Lilli pointed towards a large package she’d evidently parked there earlier. Amongst the rubble of past years—forgotten highchairs and collapsed pool toys stored in there out of the way—the shiny new wrapping paper stood out.

Where it had been torn back, there showed through dark blue—oh no, Oxford blue, how did the woman know that? Lilli ripped away more paper, to reveal a stack of thick towels, a good half dozen of them, rich and inviting. Serena was confused. She hadn’t asked for any such thing.

‘They’re new, Signora. All new. I took them for you. From the store. The owner doesn’t know. For the pool-house.’

Finger at her lips, Lilli smiled, scrawny, waiting.

She was being offered a present, all wrapped with care, and she couldn’t get out of accepting it: this Serena faced, however uncomfortable it made her. However nervous she was of Lilli and of getting involved.

Gaining a moment, scarcely knowing what she was doing, she stroked the towels. They were lush, highly desirable, in line with everything about the life they were living in that house, not anything you’d want to reject.

Reject? Once long ago there had been a pile of towels she’d rejected. The shame of it went far deeper than any passing embarrassment. So much more than the towels had been at stake.

It was at the time when her mother was said to have partly recovered, though she was no longer the woman she had once been. Other people still called her ‘Madge’ but Serena was determinedly keeping her distance. She refused to acknowledge the mother who had gone away, leaving her. She closed her heart.

Her mother was no longer behaving oddly, though now a bit unkempt and hesitant in a way she hadn’t been before. She was well enough to go out alone.

If there was one thing that ‘d always given Madge a kick, that was a bargain.  There’d been a cut-price drapers in the village that she enjoyed going round. When she got home that afternoon she was full of triumph in the bundle of towels she’d bought. For Serena, however, they were a reminder of humiliation. In their drab stripes and thin texture, she saw only the shameful proof that they were poor, now her father had no job.

The very thought of those towels used to make her shrink.

With that thought however, came another. She’d always known that her response, ‘Those towels look a bit cheap to me’ had been cruel. But now for the first time she faced what she’d really done. Rejecting the towels wasn’t the worst of it. It was the woman herself that she’d rejected, the mother who had once taken care of her.

Too angry to forgive her mother for leaving she’d frozen her out.  No more enjoying the warmth of each other’s company in the old way. She had never never once melted, despite what it cost. Cost both of them.

The waste, the sorrow of the past could have silenced her.

Yet she had to act right now, in the present.

Her head was spinning as she fought to make sense, to know how best to respond to Lilli. She hadn’t the tools, the language to insist that the towels should go back. And anyway, who knew how Lilli would cope with being challenged? A scene would be dreadful. And too unkind.

The towels weren’t really that important, Serena told herself at last.

It was Lilli.

But how had Lilli managed to see right into her, to catch sight of things that she had put aside, kept hidden away even from herself? Hidden away as she herself had been long ago, one cold day at a bus stop, when her mother’d held open her own brown tweed overcoat so that little Serena could join her, buttoned up inside it together keeping warm.

Lilli was waiting. The silence felt as though it lasted years.

At long last Serena managed to choke out ‘Grazie’.

Then stumbled back towards the light.

Dazzled at first, she put up her hand to shade her eyes.  A faint alarm came over her as the pots carefully spaced along the terrace caught her eye. Surely those oleanders weren’t drooping like that when they’d arrived? Close up, the jasmines too were limp.

It was all her fault. She’d neglected them.

The sickening moment passed and she came to, embarrassed at her own silliness. Common sense took over and she set off to make use of the house phone. A slender young man duly appeared, trailing a hose from pot to pot, missing out a few and having to be reminded.

She needed time to think.

At that hour of the morning the terrace was deserted. She moved a wicker armchair to the corner of shade and sank into the cushions. This was all too extraordinary. Compelled time after time to face a woman she shrank from, only to come away with a gift. It really was like a fairy tale.

Yet as she began to feel more herself again, slowly the commonsense answer came to her: perhaps Lilli’s strange behaviour was really just about money. About being short of money. If Lilli had kept making certain she was noticed, that might simply mean she wanted to make sure of a good tip.

Just looking at her, you could tell that she was not only hard up but crushed, thoroughly demoralised. The sight of Lilli, with her hungry look, a cigarette at her lips as she waited for a lift after work, had made Serena more uncomfortable than she knew. It was unusual, now she came to think about it, to see an Italian woman cut such a poor figure. Perhaps Lilli had no idea how to make the best of herself. Or perhaps, it abruptly occurred to Serena, perhaps too many bad things had happened to Lilli.

Her feet were getting scorched, stretched out in the sun. She tucked them back into the narrow shade.

If Lilli didn’t have magic powers, if she wasn’t some kind of witch, then it must mean that her own mind had been playing tricks. If that was really the right way to put it. Serena shifted among cushions that were suddenly uncomfortable, too big for that chair.

A suspicion began to creep over her. If this wasn’t a fairy-tale, then perhaps it might be a ghost story. Was it too far-fetched to say she’d been haunted? By the mother who had never wanted to give up on her? By her own heart’s truth?

There were no answers for her questions.  Nevertheless, she wasn’t left irritated. She felt calmed.

Resolute, she got to her feet and made for the glittering bathroom with its many mirrors. The image she found there pleased her. In spite of all her old fears, she didn’t look crushed like Lilli, not in the least. But the lock that fell over her right eye—that was just the way her mother’s hair fell, in the photograph by her bed at home.  A smiling woman, her small son pressing against the silk of her flowered skirts, that last summer when she was still herself.

‘You’re exactly like her, the way she was before she fell ill. You would have loved her,’ an old friend of her mother had once said.

From outside came the sound of high-pitched voices.

The families were beginning to gather for lunch. A few details to sort out here too, now she’d come back to herself.

Now as the little boys arrived, tumbling over each other, pushing, shoving, exclaiming, Serena took charge.

‘Let’s make sure they’re separated from now on at mealtimes’, she said.

The parents were surprised.

‘Oh. Don’t you think it’s rather sweet, the little squabbles and the fights they get into?’ came lazily back.

‘Not at my table.’

Her response, assured, definitive, seemed to her uttered in the voice of a grande dame. She knew it came out of a book, didn’t care how it sounded. She meant it.

Biography

Mary Hamer, educated by the nuns and at Oxford, began as an academic exploring Trollope’s writing practice, long before she began to wonder about her own. The books that followed – exploring the image of Cleopatra, on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and on trauma ( see www.mary-hamer.co.uk) – moved her closer to thinking about living women and the world which shaped them. Turning to biofiction in Kipling & Trix, winner of the Virginia Prize, she called attention to the woman who shared a traumatic childhood with her famous brother. Mirror, Mirror is the first short story Mary has published.

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