From the archives, but rewritten …
Carin stared at the wall of her office cubicle, and the pinned up postcards from Mongolia and Bhutan jeered back at her. She could have been there right now, with muddied boots and a backpack, or developing her horse-riding skills on an empty plain. But since she’d said no, Derek had said farewell to her as well as to everyone else and gone alone. Meanwhile she sat where she had sat for the past nine years, stable in salary, possessing a comprehensive insurance plan, and ready to scream.
Carin sat up straight in her chair so she could peer over the divide and see the rest of the room. Her desk was one of five and was positioned in the corner furthest from the entryway, so she had a clear view of everything. When bored, which was often, she would survey the small week-based world she shared with four female colleagues.
Tamryn, who was just 22, was at that moment rifling through papers in a cabinet drawer in an important fashion, so Carin knew she had no clue what she was doing. Janette was standing by the fax machine, wearing a blank stare and fiddling with her nose ring. Faith was not at her desk, but then Faith was never at her desk. Carin had great admiration for Faith. Finally, if she looked left, Carin could see Sonya in the opposite corner. Sonya had turned 50 yesterday but had the joie de vivre of a five year old. She was presently punching away at the keyboard with her two index fingers and humming to herself.
Carin slid back down into her chair. She put her feet up on the windowsill and considered the sky.
She had ended up staying with the company longer than anyone expected. She would have had her own office years ago if she hadn’t kept moving departments. But changing around within Sutton Ink was her way of shaking things up in life, without ever actually shaking anything up. Right now she was in logistics.
It was 11:50am and Carin had a busy schedule of nothing much to do.
She decided she may as well make her way to see Sean on the ground floor. One of the more tolerable tasks of her new position was that twice a day she had to go down to deliveries to hand over and then later collect paperwork from hairy-armed Sean. She appreciated the legitimate break from not only her desk but also her landing. If anyone whinged about having come to speak with her and not finding her at her desk, she could say, “Oh really? What time abouts was that? Ah, I was probably downstairs at that moment doing paperwork with Sean. So sorry about that.”
The logistics department was on the third and top floor at the back of the building. Carin could see out the window down onto the trucks in the loading zone directly below. There was a stairwell just twenty feet away that would lead her straight down to Sean’s office, so she could be there and back in a minute flat.
She walked towards the stairwell but at the last second swung left, having recollected that she had a question to ask Shona Hartley in marketing (a department on the second floor at the front of the building). It was an urgent question, able to make or break the company, both locally and internationally. But by the time she reached Shona’s door she’d forgotten the question. So she went in, sat down, and said, “How did Molly’s vaccinations go yesterday?”
Ten minutes later Carin meandered through the second floor back towards the stairwell leading to Sean. If you’d asked her how, she couldn’t have explained it, but her route somehow took her past Khosi, who worked in the call centre. Right then Khosi sat with the phone lodged between her ear and shoulder, hands gripping her armrests. Carin slowed down enough for them to exchange a sisters-in-arms fist bump as she passed. The air was thick with Fire and Ice, and Carin caught sight of the slender red and black canister on Khosi’s desk. She knew the deodorant was there to freshen the air after phonecalls with odious customers. The air frequently contained toxic levels of freshness.
While paper-towelling her hands in the second-floor bathroom and checking in the mirror for any wrinkles around her eyes, Carin realised she hadn’t actually brought the papers for Sean with her. She went and fetched them, then walked down to see Sean, stopping by the first floor on the way to steal milk and sugar from the bigwigs’ kitchenette.
Sean was standing outside his office. He smiled when he saw her, bumped her arm with his elbow, took the papers, and said, “All good.”
Twenty minutes after she had first stood up, Carin shambled back to logistics. She deposited her stolen edibles in the little logistics kitchenette and made herself a plain black coffee, then went and dropped into her chair. She proceeded to stare sourly at the postcards on her cubicle wall. Last she had heard he was living in some small Bhutanese village with a name nobody could pronounce. He didn’t write much on those postcards; his scrawl was hurried and loose. He was clearly doing well. He was doing very well, the handsome, saintly scumbag.
Carin turned her head to look out the window at the massive 70s-era block building that pushed down on the earth on the other side of the parking lot. She knew it was the twin of the building in which she presently sat, and had been sitting in for a third of her life. She tried to erase the thought, since counting up years and fractionalising her life only ever led to a tray of lasagne and a large bag of chocolate-covered mints while watching cheap reality shows. But that afternoon her inbox was empty, her desk was all perpendiculars, and there wasn’t any work worthy of a sentient being, so the thought of all her joyless years in that brick mausoleum wouldn’t go away.
Carin looked longer than usual at the wild open spaces portrayed on the postcards in front of her, the number 1/3 like a watermark across her vision. “First-rate baboon,” Carin said to herself. Blinking a long blink, she saw herself wearing muddied boots, a walking stick in hand, and Derek’s sun-ripened face a part of each new scene. There were no open windows in the office, but Carin could feel her fears of the unknown being tugged at by a cold and determined Himalayan wind.
It was night time, I was a woman alone, and I went to investigate the unknown noise in my aubergine flannel jumpsuit
I was drifting off, then my leg jerked upwards and I was awake. Why was I awake? I lay static, trying to figure it out. Then I heard a prolonged scrape, and I knew it was a repeat sound.
I shimmied out of bed and mashed my feet into the loose piles of thread I call slippers. I went out to the landing, put an arm across my chest, and trotted quietly down the staircase.
There it was again. Coming from the kitchen. A shaft of light from the front door transom bisected the central living area. I zigzagged between the closely packed furniture to reach the arch leading into the kitchen.
I flattened myself against the wall alongside the arch, then poked my head around the edge. It struck me as a Charlie’s Angels sort of move, and if I hadn’t been wearing aubergine and starting to sweat I would have rather enjoyed the moment. I saw nothing.
There it went again. Rr-eei-k.
I dropped onto all fours and crawled into the kitchen. As I passed the sink I stretched an arm upwards and felt gently for the peanut butter-smeared knife I knew to be resting on the edge. Whiffy weapon in hand, I edged forward to the far window, my knees bruising as they pressed against the unforgiving tiles.
I reached the window. It started two feet above the ground. I looked up at the thick yellowed netting that served as a curtain. It was there when I bought the place, and I hadn’t got round to changing it. Sliding my head under the netting, which hung a few inches below the window’s lip, I inched up to peer outside. A pair of eyes stared straight back into mine and I choked on air, my eyes welling up from the reaction.
I stood up and yanked the window open. Samuel – at least that’s the name I used for him – barely blinked. There was a complete composure to him, as always, and I thought about shoving him off the ledge.
We stared at each other a moment longer, then finally I said, “If you want to live here – fine. But for this, you’re getting neutered.”
Nothing was to be heard, only the steady plea of the wind across the moor and the susurrus of the grasses closest to me. I knelt down on one knee, intent on listening to this raw environment but also needing refuge from the wind. My fleece was zipped up to my chin, and I could feel cold sweat sliding down my neck.
I had left the sheep farms well behind me to follow a path of heavy slabs that led across the crown of the mountain, past a line of lambing shelters and then on towards what appeared to be nothing but past-prime heather and dirt blending into mud. Tiny raindrops started to settle themselves onto my face as I knelt, but I didn’t turn back. This place – this rough expansive place that belonged entirely to me in that moment – was a place I wanted to store within me. I couldn’t rush it.
So I hovered there for insensible minutes, knowing it would all have to last me a very long time.
Life writing is simply what it suggests – writing that is rooted in the experiences of real life, whether biography or memoir, or something akin to that. One of the best things I discovered through my week-long residential course at Lumb Bank was the clarity and authenticity that life writing afforded me in the story-telling process.
Lumb Bank was originally built by a mill owner in the C18th. Eventually Ted Hughes bought it, and his wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried in Heptonstall, the hilltop village less than a mile away.
This area of West Yorkshire is full of hills and dales, tight lanes, moors and forests, sheep farms, abandoned mills and steep villages.
During an Arvon residence course, which takes in about 17 writers per course, you take part in morning writing workshops, cook one meal (in team), attend evening readings, have one-on-one tutorials with the two published authors leading the course, and still have free time in the afternoons to write, gaze at the abandoned mill, chat in the garden, concoct plum-based mulled wine, and, in my case, hop up and down over every bunny spotted on the lawn and then go get lost on the moors.
We were an eclectic bunch, ranging in age from 20 to 84, coming from England, Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria and South Africa, and presenting a mix of personalities and perspectives. As a group, I imagine it could easily not have worked, and yet it did. It really did. The success of it had something to do with all the hours spent around the diningroom-cum-workshop table where we got to know each other through conversations as well as through each other’s writing. We laughed hugely (sometimes we downright crowed), occasionally we gasped, and also occasionally we cried, because, well, this was a life writing course, and life isn’t always neat or pretty.
Here are the lovely and talented writers that now make up the group Subtext:
Shelley wasn’t the bravest seabird that had ever lived. Far from it. In fact, she was the only storm petrel she knew who lived on the mainland, preferring the stability of her life in the big horse chestnut in Mrs Kowalski’s sprawling garden – with its view of the ocean and the sturdy fence that kept out mammals – to a life at sea, roaming up and down the Atlantic. She had visited her cousins’ rocky, summertime home just once as a fledgling; she had found it desolate and inhospitable, and, after one particularly fearsome night of hunkering down as the small islet was buffeted by winds strong enough to pluck the feathers off any little petrel girl, had vowed to never return.
It was lonely, to be sure, living the years by herself in that big old chestnut on a quiet stretch of Ireland’s coast, and when the colony was far away she had to do her trawling on her own, but Shelley’s parents had raised her with the injunction to be true to her nature, and she had always determined to do just that, even if her nature made the other storm petrels call her names like “deviant”, “landlubber” and, possibly most hurtful of all, “weirdo”.
Feeling shunned by her own, Shelley made an effort to converse with the other genera in the surrounding trees, as well as with diverse and seasonal passers-by. Some would give her strange looks, but others were friendly and the hen two trees over always made a fuss of her when she visited.
It was this mothering friend, called Helga, that Shelley visited the day of her fifth birthday. Helga knew a thing or two about standing out from the crowd; she had once told Shelley that she believed her family to be the only Fea’s petrels in the land.
Shelley had cleaned herself particularly well in mark of her birthday; the backs of her wings glistened jet black in the weak sun and her square tail fanned out neatly as she made the short trip. A moment later she hopped onto the branch leading directly to Helga’s home. “Happy birthday, Elskan,” Helga said when she spotted Shelley, making use of the Nordic endearment she’d adopted for her young neighbour. She fluttered her wings in Shelley’s direction, inviting her to come further in.
“I’m five today, Helga,” Shelley said without any to-do, shuffling along unsteadily on her thin little legs. An unexpected wobble had entered into her voice when she spoke, and she had to swallow hard to repress it, hurting her throat. “I’m getting old.”
“Not so, Elskan,” Helga insisted. “Still lots of time to find a mate and have a chick.” At this juncture she nudged her own hatchling further back into the nest with her beak.
“You really think so? Even for a ‘weirdo’ storm petrel like myself who doesn’t get out much?”
“Algerlega – absolutely.”
Shelley smiled gratefully at the firmness in Helga’s voice. Knowing her to be a forbearing friend, Shelley added forlornly, “But I never meet any other storm petrels, not now my parents are gone. I eat with them, but none ever talk to me. So how am I supposed to meet a good-looking young petrel who isn’t already partnered, or even just a girlfriend of my own age?” She suspected she already knew what Helga’s answer would be.
“By being brave, Elskan, by being brave.”
Shelley started to tear up. “But I’m not brave. I’m the opposite of brave – I’m, I’m … a chicken.” There was a short pause, then they smiled at one another over the little joke.
“Thankfully you are far too pretty and dainty to be a chicken. Look at you – you’re a sweet little catch. And maybe you haven’t been especially brave up till now – but you will be. You can be.” Helga batted a moment with the naughty hatchling. Then she faced Shelley again and said, “You’ve spoken to so many of the other birds around here – some of them big, rough types. Other storm petrels really shouldn’t be so terrible after all that. I even saw you talking with a big, testy Northern Fulmar last autumn!”
“It’s not the same,” Shelley pouted. “They – you – only expect me to be whatever it is I am – you don’t know what a storm petrel is supposed to be and do. Other storm petrels do, and I don’t fit in.” She sighed. “At least almost none of them remember me now and I can go feeding near them without having to endure the insults and knowing looks.”
“You don’t think I get looks, a Fea’s petrel in Ireland? Lots of birds are a bit different, a bit … unanticipated. Interesting birds, like us,” Helga said with a brisk devil-may-care shake of her head feathers. She then settled back down and gave her young friend a long searching look, before finally saying, “Why not stay on the waters a little longer tonight? Don’t just fly home as soon as you’ve eaten. Stay. Chat. Mingle.” Shelley nodded dolefully in response. “You don’t have to do much more than that. The right storm petrel will see you with time and he’ll take it from there. You must just let yourself be seen. Baby steps, Elskan, baby steps – tonight, just stay on the water for a little bit longer. Agreed?”
Shelley sat still, her face down, thinking, then she looked up and nodded decisively, a tiny spark in her stomach making her realise she could actually do it – if she decided to do it. There was nothing stopping her, she told herself. She was tired of being alone. Yes, she was living on her own terms, in her own way, but it was lonely. She wanted something more.
“Tonight I will be brave, Helga. I will make you proud of me.” She shuffled away, back along the branch. Just before she leapt off, she looked over her shoulder to smile at her friend and say, “Thanks, Helga.”
“Any time, Elskan, any time. You just hang in there. And Helga will be here to cheer you along all the way.”
That evening Shelley flew out to sea with a light in her eyes. The sky was dark with clouds, and a fresh north-westerly breeze carried her easily along her way. A short while later she dropped down onto the surface of the ocean, cold as always but with waves that were relatively gentle. No excuses, she told herself, and proceeded to nibble on the first piece of plankton that floated her way.
When her hunger started to abate, she slowed down her feeding and looked about furtively in between mouthfuls at the group of nearby storm petrels, all chattering with each other as they ate. They made it look so easy, and Shelley felt the recognisable anxiety wrap itself around her like seaweed around one’s feet. She contemplated abandoning her plan and just flying home. Her stomach was full enough. But then she remembered what she had promised Helga about being brave. The flicker of determination in her belly was still there, and she focused on it, urging it to grow bigger and help her.
Expelling saltwater through her nostrils, she lifted herself up and resolutely pattered across the water towards two youngish-looking birds on the fringe of the group. Having reached their spot, she plopped down into the water next to them, clearly taking them by surprise.
“Hi,” she said. “We’ve never met before. I’m Shelley.”
It turned out the two petrels she had chosen were brother and sister – Bonnie and Ioan – and they had just been discussing their next trip to Malta. Shelley asked them about it, and instead of making her feel embarrassed because she hadn’t been herself, they began to tell her about it. Bonnie described the warmth of the waters and the colours of the flowers on the trees, and Ioan told her about the taste of the food there, and the gentleness of the air. They asked her about her life, and then listened interestedly as she told them about her horse chestnut and the garden. Before she knew it, all the other birds had left and it was just the three of them that remained, talking. She had outstayed them all!
As she said goodbye to Bonnie and Ioan, having promised to meet them the next evening, Shelley felt lighter. She didn’t know if she was any closer to finding a partner – Ioan was a little young at just three years old – but she had been brave, and she knew it. Shelley-level brave, at least. And her future started to open up in her mind’s eye at the prospect of the other brave things she might surprise herself by doing.
Jemmica always knew who she was, where she was going, and who she would admit into the company of her life. I never knew her to stutter, falter or second-guess herself. She was Confidence in very high heels and smoky eye shadow. I and my old fraying book bag and baggy jeans hadn’t spoken with her in years.
One day, I was walking to the grocery store, my scarf wrapped around my head to fight the cold, and I saw Jemmica across the street. She was bunched over, one hand propped against the gnarled tree outside Mr Grobalt’s double-storeyed house. I assumed she was fiddling with a problematic shoe, and wondered abstractedly if she was ruining a manicure. Then I heard her cry out.
I did a hasty ‘right then left’ before running over the road, almost wiping out on a patch of ice. I reached the pavement and leaned over next to her, asking, “What is it, Jemmica? Are you okay?”
She moaned and leant forcefully against me. I had to brace myself to hold us up.
“What is it?” I repeated, bewildered and increasingly fearful. Her hair was slipping out of its band and partially curtaining her face, but I could see that her cheeks were flushed, and she was sweating.
“It’s gone,” she whined painfully. “I got rid of it.” Then my strength gave out and we collapsed together with a hard thud onto the ground. I grimaced but didn’t make a sound, just held onto her and looked up and around for help.
She leaned into my chest, and started shuddering. “I’m so sorry,” I muttered into her head, horrified at what it was I suspected she had revealed to me. I stroked her forehead soothingly and made subdued sounds. She continued to keen, and I rocked her on that cold pavement as though she was one of my little boys.
Please note: This story is of course complete fiction, and has absolutely no real-life connection with either the photographer or the model. I found the image on Pinterest, pinned by storage.uhqmodels.ru. If anyone knows the photographer’s and model’s names, please let me know so I can make proper attribution.
A ditty was promised, so a ditty must be written! Also, a love poem, an old railway advert & Gibson Girls
One of my readers – Sean Smithson – spotted an error in my “About” page; the underlined “as” had been accidentally omitted: “If you read my posts you’ll inadvertently learn probably as much as you would like to know about how this mind of mine works.”
Well spotted, I say! I promised the reader who found a mistake a ditty, and so the below is what I devised.
But first, in case some of you don’t know what a ditty is, it’s simply a short, simple song or poem (from Old French ditie – poem).
A ditty (that embraces the silly)
Oh, run away word,
where have you gone?
Your home is right here,
are you going to be long?
Sean S., the word catcher,
caught the thing in its haste;
that word was sent packing,
and now sits in its right place.
Perhaps after that I should share a ditty or two as penned by the pros, so as to highlight all that they can be!
A Ditty (by Sir Philip Sidney)
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one to the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven:
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.
His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.
Now, for an example from the early C20th, the image below is one of a series of advertisements used by the Lackawanna Railroad in the eastern US to capitalise on its use of anthracite, a kind of hard coal that burns cleanly, not creating the soot and cinders that normal coal does.
The advertisers came up with the fictional character of Phoebe Snow, whom they used to promote the line they accordingly dubbed The Road of Anthracite.
The quote below, from Steamtown: Special History Study, explains how the railroad developed this advertising strategy:
Early in 1899, […] Mark Twain, wrote the company after a trip to Elmira that he had worn a white duck suit and it was still white when he reached his destination. [The company] seized upon the idea of taking advantage of the line’s clean-burning coal in advertising for passenger traffic and adopted the slogan for the Lackawanna Road as “The Road of Anthracite.” As a symbol, probably for the first time in 1901, the railroad seized upon the image of a demure “Gibson girl” dressed head to toe in sparkling white, and published a seemingly endless series of jingles or poems.
Three more of the Phoebe ditties go like this:
Here Phoebe may By night or day Enjoy her book Upon the way Electric light Dispels the night Upon the Road Of Anthracite Says Phoebe Snow, About to go Upon a trip To Buffalo: "My gown stays white from morn till night Upon the Road of Anthracite. A coach or sleigh Was once the way Of reaching home On Christmas day Now - Phoebe's right - You'll expedite The trip by Road Of Anthracite To read more, you can click here.
During WWI, anthracite was needed for the war effort, so trains couldn’t use it anymore and Phoebe Snow disappeared.
Phoebe was drawn as a Gibson Girl, and Gibson Girls, I’ve just learned with interest, were designed to be the epitome of supposed feminine beauty at the time: gracious, curvy, fashionable, independent, at ease with themselves, and possessing a fragile outer beauty.
The Gibson Girls creator, Charles Dana Gibson, had this to say about his drawings: “I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theatres, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores […] There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.”
– Quote from Marshall, E. (1910-11-20). “The Gibson Girl Analyzed By Her Originator”. The New York Times.
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