MIRLive : March 8th 2024

MIR (The Mechanics Institute Review) will be holding its first live event of 2024 on Friday, March 8th (Keynes Library, Gordon Square 6pm). The event will include eight readings, including six from current Birkbeck BA and MA creative writing students and two guest speakers: Ben Pester (whose short story collection Am I in the Right Place? was published by Boiler House Press in 2021) and Melody Razak, who was  selected as one of the Observer’s ‘Ten Debut Novelists’ for her novel, Moth, in 2021.

If you’re a current student interested in reading at the event, please send a piece of prose (up to 1,500 words) or two poems to mirlivesubmissions@gmail.com by 5pm, Friday 23rd February. Submissions should have ‘MIR Live Submission’ as the subject line of the email. Please include your name, the title(s) of your piece(s), and a contact email address at the top of the first page.

We will prioritise submissions from people who have not had a chance to read at one of our events this year. (Because we expect submissions to exceed available slots, it’s unlikely that everyone who submits will be able to read this time around.)

We look forward to reading your work!

The MIR Live team

Melody Razak is a British Iranian writer who lives in Brighton.

Melody has had short stories published in the Mechanics Institute Review, the Bath Short Story Anthology and the Brick Lane Short Story Prize. She has also written for the Observer Food Monthly and The Sunday Times.

In 2021 Melody was selected as one of the Observer’s ‘Ten Debut Novelists’ for her novel, Moth. Moth went on the be shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, longlisted for the Desmond Elliot prize, and was selected as the readers jury for the Festival du Premier Roman.

Ben Pester’s debut short story collection Am I in the Right Place? was published by Boiler House Press, and was long listed for the 2022 Edge Hill Prize. His work has appeared in Granta, The London Magazine, Hotel, Five Dials and elsewhere. When not writing fiction, he is a technical writer. He lives with his family in North London.
https://www.benpester.co.uk


 

They Called Me Kyle, by Owen Bridge

They make us eat together. Altogether, so were never alone, sing it; – Never ever be alone –

– Don’t sing now Kyle, love –
That’s Mrs Turner, she’s old and from Yorkshire, she calls everyone ‘love’ even though Queen Bitch (I can’t say that word but I can think it) Abigail, big sour face, says it infantilises the service users. (That’s me and my friend Emma, and all the other people who live upstairs. They put bars on the windows so they don’t throw themselves out, not because this is a prison, bad people go to prison. I’m not bad, but I think some of the people here might be, like slack-jawed Billy Bloodworth. He can’t keep his mouth closed when he’s eating, and the other day he was throwing his mashed potatoes at everyone. They made a bloody awful mess, splat, all over the windows, and poor old Mrs Turner had to clean it up. But I made Billy stop with my mind.)

Nice Lady Shan is feeding Nathan, who lives across the hall from me. -You like your Thai green curry, don’t you Nathan -. He can’t really move much or say much, our Nathan, but he’s a good lad; if I see a sticker I think he’ll like then I save it for him, even if it’s shiny. They have a tiny crane they use to hoist Nathan in and out of his giant blue chair.

They can only see me if I let them, not like Emma, she doesn’t like to be seen. When I was little, before I moved here, I lived in a big house in the countryside. Something was living in the attic, you could hear it scratching about, but we just ignored it, till one day, my dad was eating bangers and mash, we could hear the thing start charging about, and a big chunk of plasterboard fell into his dinner and he banged his knife and fork down on the table.

– That’s it, I’m going to get that bloody thing, – he got a pillowcase and a cricket bat, – it’s him or me Kyle, – and he went up to the attic. He was banging around for ages; we could hear him. – Come on you little bastard, where are you? – That’s when he went through the ceiling, just his legs trying to walk on air. – My ———Kyle———are–

– Kyle? – someone shaking my shoulder, – Kyle are you alright, love? –

– Yes Mrs Turner. –

-Ok you went right wobbly then-, smiling, her hand still on my shoulder, -Don’t forget you’ve got an appointment with Dr Marshal. –

Yorkshire must be a wonderful place. Mrs Turner’s always saying the best people come from Yorkshire. I wish I came from Yorkshire, I bet life would be good then. I could have a flat with a lift up to it, so Nathan could come and stay, and I could put up whatever posters I want. The corridors here have funny paintings all along the walls, they’re not like pictures of people or anything good, they’re just like squiggly lines and blobs. If I was in art and just did a load of blobs and squiggles, I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face.

After lunch, we all move back into the activities room. It’s where we go after breakfast, that’s pretty much our day: wake up, breakfast, activities room, then back to the dining hall, lunch, until eventually we go to bed. You feel lucky if you’ve got a hospital appointment, just to break it up a bit (once when I had a hospital appointment Shan took me to a McDonalds, but we can’t let Abigail know, even though I had carrot sticks instead of chips, and I got a turtle toy, but I have to hide it from Abigail, because she’ll know I went to McDonalds if she sees it). I can walk on my own but a lot of the people who live here need help, I’m not very big but when I grow up I could push Nathan. We only have lessons three days a week, the rest of the time Doris reads to us, or Shan does an activity with us, like one time she showed us how to draw a cube. It’s dead easy, even I can do it and I’m awful at drawing. Today we’re going to make masks out of paper plates. You can be a bird or a cat or elephant, I want to be a Pikachu, because when I was very young I wanted to be a Pokémon trainer, I know how silly that sounds, but Billy Bloodworth still thinks he’s going to play for Chelsea, and he’s almost as bad at football as me.

The activities room is big and oblong, the carpets mostly grey but there’s one bit that looks like a city from above, and you can play cars on it. Nathan can’t play cars, because he’s stuck in a chair. No one’s ever told me what’s actually the matter with Nathan, but I don’t think it’s catching. Billy Bloodworth used to make fun of me, saying I’d catch Nathan’s mong, but Shan heard him one day, and told him it didn’t work like that, and that mong was a horrible word, and he should be ashamed of himself for being so rude.

Wendy, who thinks she’s a ghost, is clicking the beads in Nice Lady Shan’s hair like a rosary. I don’t know why Wendy thinks she’s a ghost. The first time I met her she was biting Yannis the giant Greek on the arm. He was trying to pretend it didn’t hurt, but you could tell by the way his voice kept going up and down that it did. – I’m sorry, I’m sorry, little girl if you say you’re a ghost, then you are a ghost please, stop biting me ghost, ahhhh I’m sorry -, and she let go, I expected her to have blood all round her mouth, but she just looked dead pleased with herself.

– Thank you Yannis – she said, – that will be all today, – like she owned the place, which was absolutely hilarious.

Shan turns to face Wendy, – I’m going on my break now, Wendy. – Wendy nods. – I’ll be back soon. – Wendy nods again, just once in a sort of jerky motion.

-Hello Kyle, how are you today? – Abigail looms over me, her face right into mine. All the people who work here do this when they want to talk, but it’s awful when Abigail does it, it’s just awful. Mrs Turner is really funny, she says things like, – I’m too old for this, – or, – They’ll need six strong Irishmen and a winch to get me up from here. – She doesn’t loom over you grinning. That’s one thing I know, you don’t grin, it’s all I can do not to run and hide.

– Hello Mrs Abigail, I’m feeling very well. – That’s a lie, but I need to do good manners, – How are you today? –

– I’m very well thank you Kyle, – she looks like she’s trying to eat her own lip, but I know she’s just thinking what to say next – I see you have an appointment with Dr Marshal. It’s really important, – she puts her hand on my arm, – that you have a good chat and tell him all about Emma, and———Kyle did you get that, are you ok? –

– I think so. –

– Jolly good. Now go make your mask. – Abigail stands up and, as she’s leaving, she stops by Doris, who’s changing the batteries in the telly remote, and real sneaky-like, she starts talking about me.

– Doris, how do you think young Kyle seems? –

Mrs Turner is banging the remote hard against the flat of her hand. – He seems very well to me, have you asked him? Poor lad had one of his funny turns earlier. –

– He did? Why was I not informed? It’s important that all of our service users’ symptoms are documented, so the council gives us a good deal on funding. If he had an accident and could have fallen… – it all comes out fast, like a blur. – You didn’t have to fill an incident form? – Abigail’s face goes all contorted (I learnt that word from Houdini, he was a magician who could do anything, but one day someone punched him when he wasn’t expecting it and he died) and her nostrils go all wide, like she’s about to charge.

– Well no, he didn’t have an accident, he just went a bit wobbly. – Mrs Turner rubs the back of her neck.

– And then what? –

– He was alright, I think. –

– He could have fallen over though, is what you’re saying? –

– Maybe. I don’t –

– I might be able to wrangle more funding, so Kyle can have a one-to-one carer. An extra staff on the floor would make life easier. –

– Oh, he doesn’t need that. It seems dishonest, asking for something that he might not need. –

– You leave it to me. – Abigail turns on her heel, but then stops and turns, – By the way, where’s Shan? –

– Just having her tea break –

A- Oh, well make sure she only has fifteen minutes. –

Finally she leaves. Mrs Turner mutters something and gives the remote one last whack and the batteries come flying out and go skidding under the table. – Oh, marmalade! –

– I can get those for you, – I say.

– Good lad, if I went under there I wouldn’t be getting out in a hurry- she giggles but I can tell she’s thinking about how much she’d like to slap Abigail. The table next to the telly’s big, and going underneath it feels a bit like going to another world. It’s dark, I keep thinking of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I know I’m not going to Narnia but it’s fun to pretend.

– Have you found them Kyle? –

– Yes, Mrs Turner I’ve got them. – I shuffle backwards, out from under the table, clutching the dead batteries. Mrs Turner must have put the new batteries in, because the telly’s on and she’s flipping through the channels.

This is the only thing Shan and Mrs Turner argue about, because Mrs Turner likes to watch Jeremy Kyle, who I don’t mind so much because he has the same name as me, and I like to imagine what it would be like if I had my own telly program. Hello and welcome to the Kyle show, we’ve got a load of entertainment for you tonight, along with my co-host, Nathan, we’ll be bringing you hit music, and zany guests. Instead of interviewing famous people, I’d only interview normal people like Mrs Turner. You know the bit where they’re doing the whole, so Mr Z you’ve sold loads of records, how did you ever manage that? I’d say things like: Mrs Turner, you were out of bed at half past six this morning, so you could get to a job where you spend all day helping other people, and I’d put on the applause sign. I think it would be the best show on TV.

– Good lad Kyle, I’ll put them in the recycling. –

– It’s important to recycle! This is the only planet we’ve got. –

– That’s right –

– If we didn’t recycle then… –

– I know Kyle. Why don’t you get back to your cars? –

Recycling is one of my obsessions, I can’t help it, I just think about how it just makes sense and I get really cross, that some people don’t do it just because they can’t be bothered. Like my nan, she never recycled, I remember when I was small I went to live at her house for a little bit. She lived on the Burlington Estate somewhere in a place called South Staffordshire. The people sounded even stranger than Doris, I could hardly understand a word anyone said when I first got there, Yowalright, was a new word I learnt, it meant hello how are you? But it was all just one word, which I thought was really clever. If you say it to someone who’s never heard it before though, they give you a right funny look.

It was nice at my nan’s house though, there were a load of places to go, like the Sea Life Centre, that was dead interesting, they had fish there that all started off life as a girl, but they turn into boys if they want to. They had a big underwater tunnel, it was like something from the future, and the shark swam right over us. They have sea anemones too, that you can touch. I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while then but I can’t swim, I don’t think they’d let Nathan go out to sea, and I wouldn’t like to not see him for months on end.

I can’t remember why I went to live at my nans, it was just after dad had fallen through the ceiling. Maybe the thing in the attic got out, and he was worried it might bite me and I’d have to get a series of subcutaneous injections (I can’t remember where I learnt that word, but it’s a good one) or I might go septic like mo.

———slap———I———I’m on the floor, and someone is kicking me.

-You shouldn’t laugh at ghosts, – Wendy kicks me, and it really hurts, – I am a ghost – she screams, Nice Lady Shan scoops her up, but Wendy’s legs keep kicking at me. I roll away, my head all bloody. I lose track of where everybody is, and when I try to sit up I feel woozy and sick so I roll the other way onto my side, and I can see Shan telling Wendy off, but I can’t really hear, the only sound I can make out is a sort of whooshing sound, like when you put a shell up to your ear and you can hear the sea. It’s hard to concentrate, so I can’t get Wendy to calm down with my mind. The mask making things are all over the floor, I think I might have bled on some of them a bit.

Mrs Turner comes around the corner, she must have gone on break because she has her phone out and is smiling at whatever is on the screen (Mrs Abigail has a fit if anyone goes on their phone when there working, but she can’t stop them when there on break). She looks up, notices where I am, and her hand flies up to her mouth.

– Jesus, what happened here? –

I try to answer her, but my mouth’s all dry, and before I can, Shan interrupts.

– She just started knocking the shit out of him. –

– God, Kyle, are you ok? Shan go fetch the nurse. –

That’s one of the things that annoys me about this place. We have three floors filled with all different types of people, with different things wrong with them, but only one nurse. What if two people get hurt at the same time? No good, very bad indeed.

– Can you sit up Kyle, love? What happened? –

– I’m ok. I don’t know, really.

Wendy’s pacing the other side of the room, staring daggers at me, – HE DOES KNOW – she screams.

– CALM DOWN – Mrs Turner shouts, but only to Wendy’s back as she stomps her way down the corridor.

I try to stand up, but my legs and tummy don’t feel very good. I think that I might be sick, but nothing happens. They don’t tell you about this in films; you see a load of violence, people shooting and stabbing each other, and maybe they die or lose an arm or a leg, but you don’t see how it makes someone feel. The sick to your stomach, desperate for it to stop, taste the other person’s anger feeling. You might think you deserve it, but you just want it to stop. You see all these superheroes who can shoot lasers out their eyes, or have superhuman strength, but that’s nothing, they can’t really make the world a better place, they just make more fighting happen. That’s why my favourite superhero is Molecule Man, he has the power to alter anything he wants on a molecular level, so if someone wants to fight him he can just go, no, boom you’re a marshmallow. I’d trade in being able to make people stop with my mind, if I could have molecule man’s powers, because he can change anything, cure illness and stop world hunger. I’ll just turn sand molecules into tasty banana bread, that’s what I’d do.

Shan comes rushing in with Nurse Kath, she’s everyone’s favourite. She comes from somewhere called the Czech Republic, and her name isn’t really Kath, it’s something completely mad and unpronounceable.

– Good morning Mr Kyle, now don’t tell me you have been fighting? – The way she’s smiling I know it’s a joke. – Now let me take a look at this booboo. – I can feel her scrutinising my wound. – Kyle, – her voice goes serious, – I believe you will live, but you have taken a nasty blow to the head, you are going to need to stay awake, just to be on the safe side, you know to make sure you don’t have a concussion. –

I like the way Kath talks to me, like I’m actually there.

– You say he fell, did he? – Abigail stands over us now, with her hands on her hips, looking right happy with herself, like the cat that got the cream, as my nan always used to say. – That’s really good, now I can definitely get some more funding from the council. –

– Where’s Wendy gone? – Shan asks, and that’s when we hear the screams. Billy comes staggering in, all caked in something, I can’t figure out what, I can see something sticking out of his head, it’s all white. I think it might be his skull.

And then———


    When Emma met Dr Marshal.

    Good afternoon he says, spends forever in his notes.
    Scribble, scrabble, dibble, dabble, won’t you hurry up. Better things,
    to do with my time, no golf on the weekends for me. you can keep that,
    ratty Mrs of yours mind, that’s her photograph isn’t it,
    nothing to be proud of.

    If you want to know which one of us you’re talking to, just ask.
    Oh, no he didn’t deal with that very well, he blames himself, see.
    Thought he switched her off? It don’t make any sense.
    She was in pain, you Muppet.
    Who am I? That’s a bit bloody rude, I know who you are, you’re a bloody sphincter.

I tell him stories, once upon a time and all that, shall I tell you a story. Once upon a time, in the land of no place else, there lived a doctor, horrible ugly little man, terrible erectile dysfunction, awful, couldn’t satisfy his wife, and what’s more he had the worst dandruff. One day a boy arrives in his office, he’s all types of mental: no mom, his dad is entirely useless.  . The ugly little doctor tries his best, but it’s not good enough, day after day, despite his best efforts, the boy’s still a mental.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I’m his best friend you doughnut, apart from maybe that Nathan, maybe, I don’t know. Should have drowned him at birth.

That bloody ghost got an attitude an all.

Don’t you take that tone with me, do you even know who I am?

———and then my hands are hitting something. I don’t know where I am, but I’m hitting something. It catches me by the wrists, and I realise it’s Dr Marshal. – Hush now, you’re okay, – he says. The door opens, and in steps Kath’s son, Pavel.

– All ok? I heard the buzzer. –

-Yes, we’re fine Pav mate, Kyle just had a bit of an episode. Better safe than sorry. –

– No sweat. – He makes his voice go more upbeat like, – How is little Kyle feeling today, it is Kyle? – Dr Marshal nods. – You want to watch football tonight? Man-U are playing. – Pavel loves football, and because Manchester United are his team, and I’ve been to Manchester once, that makes us friends, I think that’s how it works. I like watching football, and trying to switch people off. It’s the only way to get through it really, it just goes on and on, and then there might be extra time.

– I think this is a good point to end this session, – says Dr Marshall.

– Is it nearly dinner time? – I ask.

– Yes Kyle, we will go straight to the dining room, – says Pavel, ushering me out.

– Goodbye Dr Marshal, – I shout back over my shoulder.

– Bye Kyle. –

Today’s been a really confusing day, I don’t quite know what to make of it all.

Billy Bloodworth’s not dead, which is a little bit disappointing. (That was nasty but I don’t mean it). I asked Shan what had happened. When we were having supper, I walked in and Billy was just there eating pasta.

– Oh that, no Billy wasn’t hurt, – giggling to herself, – Billy had got into the kitchen, someone left the door unlocked, and he stole a tub of ice cream. He must have bumped into Wendy after she stormed off, and the tub ended up on poor Billy’s head. –

So, Billy’s alive and well. Which isn’t really a bad thing, he and I don’t always get on but I think it’s good to have a rival. Where would Batman be without the Joker? He’d spend all day sat in the bat cave, more tea Alfred, it doesn’t look like they’ll be any good crime today, all glum and depressed. It’s funny though I could have sworn Billy had his head bashed in, absolutely sworn blind that’s what I’d seen. I suppose a lot of the time people just sort of trick themselves into seeing things.

Apparently, I went to see Dr Marshal, but I don’t remember that. The last thing I remember is seeing Billy. I get woozy when I see blood, even when it’s actually ice cream. I don’t know why, my Nan was the same, – If I want to see two idiots knock each other’s teeth out, I’d go stand outside the Dog and Duck on a Saturday, that’s what she used to say.

I can hear Nathan being put to bed, it takes two people to get Nathan in and out of bed, or if he wants to go to the lavatory. I don’t really need that kind of help (lavatory is a much better word than Bog). If I had loads of money, I’d leave here, just me and Nathan, we could buy a flat in Yorkshire, and I could get a job at the cricket ground, not for the money but just to stay busy. Me and Nathan could go out whenever we wanted to get a takeaway curry. But I’m stuck here. I can’t really complain, there are folks in worse places than this. Mrs Turner told me about a place she worked at years ago, where they electrocuted people’s brains. I don’t know what they expected it to do, except for making their hair stand up on end. This is the only time of day I get much of a chance to be lonely. Sometimes I get visitors, but not many recently. This is the only time of day I get much of a chance to be lonely, sometimes I get visitors, but not many recently.

This always happens right before I go to sleep, I start thinking about my life and get all maudlin (my nan’s favourite word). I can’t remember big chunks of things that have happened to me, and no one will explain it to me. Maybe they might have and I’ve just forgotten. I can keep hoping that maybe one day I’ll wake up and I’m not me anymore, that instead I’m someone who can do things and who isn’t laughed at when they say they want to be a marine biologist. Maybe I’ll wake up in Yorkshire, the best people come from Yorkshire.

Owen Bridge is a Welsh/English writer living in the wilds of west Wales. Previously published in NAT1 LLC and Brain Mill Press. Currently in the process of completing a PhD at Swansea university having achieved an MA in creative writing at university Trinity Saint David’s Lampeter campus.

Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing WINNER : Bediye Topal

Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing

Birkbeck Creative Writing and the family of Birkbeck alumni Cordelia Feldman, are delighted to announce the inaugural Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing.


Statement From the Feldman Family

This prize is awarded in commemoration of the writing life of Cordelia Jade Feldman (15th May 1979-8th January 2022), who completed the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck in 2007. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, after many years of suffering and debilitating treatment, which Cordelia confronted with indefatigable courage and humour, she eventually succumbed to the illness, but not before she had published two books. In Bloom (Dandelion, 2021), Cordelia’s first book, was conceived and took shape during her MA at Birkbeck. An autobiographical novel, In Bloom is work of young adult fiction concerned with teenagers’ experiences of recreational drug use on the 90s techno and drum n bass scene, and their psychiatric consequences, depicted through the richly imagined interior life of the novel’s protagonist, Tanya.


Cordelia’s second book, a memoir entitled Well Done Me (Dandelion, 2021), is an intimate portrayal of the illnesses from which she suffered and the strategies she evolved to cope with them, mingling pain and humour, the stark realities and indignities of Cordelia’s everyday life and the surpassing optimism and bravery with which she confronted them, retaining always a sense of the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us, the animals and birds and flowers with which she shared her life, and in which she found solace.

In a life bedevilled by illness—Cordelia suffered from bipolar disorder for twenty years as well as cancer—writing gave Cordelia purpose. Writing helped her to structure and narrate her existence, providing a focus for her energies, diminished though they were during her final years, and allowed her to experience forms of productivity and accomplishment denied to her in other spheres of her life. No single experience was more positive or formative in this pursuit than her years on the MA at Birkbeck, where Cordelia found inspiration among her tutors and peers, found community, companionship and a sense of shared endeavour among her fellow students, and a wealth of techniques that would inform her writing process for years to come. Cordelia’s mother and father, Teresa and Keith, and her brother, Alexander, make this award to a Birkbeck student in Cordelia’s name, in recognition of her dedication to life writing. We believe that Cordelia would be delighted by such a legacy, supporting writing as writing always supported her.

You can read and Extract from Cordelia’s memoir Well Done Me on MIROnline.

Statement from Julia Bell:

‘I remember Cordelia well and we stayed in touch after she graduated. I was always in admiration of the way she handled the hardships life threw at her, but also how well and honestly she wrote about it. She had a talent for straight talking prose and I’m so pleased we can keep her presence with us at Birkbeck with this award. I also remember that while she was on the MA she played a prominent role in Stephen Fry’s EMMY award-winning documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, which was also filmed at Birkbeck.

The Prize:

 

The prize is awarded at MA Creative Writing Exam Board each year and is the sum of £150. The prize-winner is chosen from the top 3 highest graded pieces of life-writing from across the Writing the Self and Creative Non-Fiction Courses. The Feldman family choose the winner from the 3 pieces they are sent.

 

The Winner:

 

The winner of the inaugural prize is Bediye Topal with her piece X and I.

Bediye was born and raised in a village in Southern Turkey and came to the UK as a refugee in her early twenties. Her piece X and I is about that experience. You can read and extract from her winning piece on MIR Online.

Well done me, by Cordelia Feldman – extract

I’m sitting up in bed at my parental home, writing this on Mum’s computer.  At the moment I spend about four days per week here, and three days at my flat.  This house, where I spent the first thirty years of my life, is in Radlett in leafy Hertfordshire, just on the edge of the green belt.  My cat Spitfire, also known as the Fluffy Monster, or more recently, Precious Angel Fluffball lives here as I am too ill to look after him. 

 

At the moment, my life looks like this: personal training once a week; two regular dog walking clients, Pilates once a week, Barre Pilates twice a week.  No actual job since being sacked from my dream one at a new bookshop in Radlett.  Before that I worked part-time at an authors’ and actors’ agency for nigh on fifteen years.  Seb, the love of my life, split up with me at the end of March five years ago. We’d been together on and off over a period of eleven years.  More, no doubt much more, to come on Seb later.  My new man is called Film Chap. We will meet him soon.

 

This is the house where A Clockwork Orange was filmed. Designed by Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, it was hailed as a modernist masterpiece and Stanley Kubrick saw it whilst scouting for locations for the film and fell in love with it.  It’s the house of the writer who is injured and whose wife is raped by Alex and the Droogs.  Spitfire has just turned seven and a half.  My brother lives in Haifa in Israel.  The panther is here now.

               “What’s the point of you writing a Memoir?” the panther says, gazing at me with amber eyes.  “Who do you think is going to want to read about your life?  You don’t do anything or…”

               “It’s going to be a book about living with mental illness, living with cancer, living in recovery from addiction,” I say.  “People say that I’m brave and inspirational and…”

               “But you’re not,” the panther says.  “You’re fat, unemployed and unemployable as far as I can tell, lazy…”

               “If I write it, and it’s good they will read it,” I say, feeling unsure about this. The panther returns to grooming his flank with his sandpaper tongue.  I stroke the soft back of his neck.  He rests his enormous head on my shoulder.   His breath smells of rotting meat.

 

I used to suffer with Writer’s Block until I completed a Nanowrimo Write A Novel In a Month challenge, set up by a group of techies in San Francisco.  It’s an output challenge, the aim is to write fifty thousand words of a new novel in a month.  That first November I wrote sixty thousand words.  Ever since then, I haven’t had a problem with writer’s block.  Also: for the last few years I’ve been writing a blog.  First it was a Dating after Breast Cancer Surgery one called Scars, Tears and Training Bras, and now it’s one about exercise and my life, my Bipolar Disorder and Secondary Breast Cancer called The Rapid Cyclist.  So, I write every day.  And people read my writing every day.  As to whether it’s any good or not, I try not to worry about that.  I’ve just published my first novel “In Bloom” to rave reviews.  It’s doing really well.

 

This, though: this has to be good or no-one will publish it.  And no-one will read it.  And ever since a whole army of publishers rejected my first novel some thirteen years ago, I’ve been putting off starting another major project due to the fear of writing hundreds and thousands of words that no-one will read.  But in recent times I have been reading a lot of memoirs: Amy Liptrot’s brilliant The Outrun about her recovery from alcoholism, A A Gill’s Pour Me about overcoming alcoholism and  Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl about her obsessive compulsive disorder.  I’ve just read the Karl Knausgaard series which begins with ‘A Death in the Family’. There’s been a thought at the back of my mind that I’m reading these memoirs for research, that perhaps a memoir rather than another novel is what I will write.  And so at last I’m starting.

 

My psychiatrist Dr Joshua Stein, who I’ve been seeing privately for nearly twenty years – put me on Librium to stop me drinking when I went into hospital for a major cancer operation on 30th August 2016, so I’ve been sober for almost five years now.  Part of me thought that it was the drinking stopping me from doing proper writing.  I no longer have that excuse: I have a clear head, space, time and writing to do. Now is the time for action.  I’m almost forty-two, I wanted to publish a book by forty and managed to publish In Bloom just a year later.

 

I’m tired, so very tired.  I’m on thirteen I think different medications for my breast cancer and my Bipolar and other things.  Let me list them:

1.     Latuda/ lurasidone: antipsychotic for my Bipolar, as a mood stabiliser.

2.     Venlafaxine: SSNRI antidepressant. I can’t take SSRIs due to the ‘manic switch’.

3.     Gemcarbo chemotherapy: gemcitabine and carboplatin.

4.     Fexofenadine: a non-drowsy antihistamine: for my allergies.

5.     Clonazepam: an anti-anxiety benzodiazepine to help me stay off alcohol.

6.     Sodium docusate: for constipation caused by the cancer drugs.

7.     Zolpidem to help me sleep.

8.     Bisphosphonate implant: to seal my bones against cancer and to strengthen them as osteoporosis is a common menopausal side effect.

9.     Colecalciferol and calcium carbonate:  Calcium and vitamin D supplement to go with the bisphosphonates.

10.  Vitamin C to guard against colds, from which I suffer due to abnormally thickened nasal passages.  The result of allergic rhinitis which I have had all my life.

 

So, the cumulative effect of all these treatments is to make me exhausted and nauseated.  Plus I do Pilates or Barre or personal training on Zoom every day.  I tend to sleep for up to three hours in the afternoon.  This book will be written in one late morning session and one early evening session every day.  I’m starting to worry about it.  And my shoulder is hurting.  But I must focus, and write.

 

When he found out that my cancer had spread to my lungs, my oncologist gave me two years.  I’ve already survived another seven years on top of that, so I’m living on borrowed time.  All the more reason to start this book.  It’s going to be tough going though: due to feeling so ill most of the time.  The medical treatment described in this book is a mixture of NHS and private: NHS Breast Care Clinic: Cancer diagnosis at Accident and Emergency; NHS chemotherapy; private surgery; private radiotherapy; ongoing check-up appointments with private oncologist and breast surgeon; private appointments with plastic surgeon, private psychiatrist for the last twenty years and later private psychologist; bisphosphonate and Gemcarbo chemotherapy administered privately  Like various other cancer patients I know, my treatment has been a mixture of some treatments available on the NHS and others – like bisphosphonates – that at the moment are just available with health insurance.

 

As I write this I’m in a period of hypomania which has been going on for six weeks.  Now my mood has come up, writing and life have become easier.  I’m going to do two thousand words of this before turning to the blog, which I have to write and post every day without fail. One second: I must find some lemon squash.  Now I don’t drink alcohol I consume vast quantities of lemon squash and fizzy water, Diet Coke and coffee.  It’s swings and roundabouts once you’re sober.

CORDELIA FELDMAN

SONY DSC

Cordelia Jade Feldman (15th May 1979-8th January 2022), completed her MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck in 2007. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, after many years of suffering and debilitating treatment, which Cordelia confronted with indefatigable courage and humour, she eventually succumbed to the illness, but not before she had published two books. In Bloom (Dandelion, 2021), Cordelia’s first book, was conceived and took shape during her MA at Birkbeck. An autobiographical novel, In Bloom is work of young adult fiction concerned with teenagers’ experiences of recreational drug use on the 90s techno and drum n bass scene, and their psychiatric consequences, depicted through the richly imagined interior life of the novel’s protagonist, Tanya.

 

Cordelia’s second book, a memoir entitled Well Done Me (Dandelion, 2021), is an intimate portrayal of the illnesses from which she suffered and the strategies she evolved to cope with them, mingling pain and humour, the stark realities and indignities of Cordelia’s everyday life and the surpassing optimism and bravery with which she confronted them, retaining always a sense of the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us, the animals and birds and flowers with which she shared her life, and in which she found solace.

X and I, by Bediye Topal

‘Once while the soldiers were asleep a man broke out of the letter X. He burst through its centre and emerged into the world in a loincloth and began to run.

Robert Priest

I belong to a race whose alphabet contains the letters Q, W and X. They are letters. Just letters like any others. But for the Turkish state, these aren’t just letters. They banned them.

****

My journey with the X began with the death of my father. He slipped away quietly in his sleep. We took him to Hançıplak, a village in Southern Turkey, where he was born. The crowd made a circle around the rectangular hole dug into the ground. Men lowered the coffin slowly until it hit the bottom of the grave. The ropes with which the coffin descended wrinkled like ribbons on the coffin. My grandmother said to the men with spades, “Put me there too.” They didn’t. Instead, they held her shoulders to stop her from leaping into the hole like a lizard. When we went home, my grandma said, “Your father wanted to call you Xeyal. From now on your name is Xeyal,” announcing it with a voice soaked in grief. I was fifteen. I knew nobody whose name started with X. I rolled the name on my tongue like a sweet. I wanted it to melt in my mouth and mix with my body. I said out loud, Xeyal, Xeyal, Xeyal. I did not belong to it, nor did the name belong to me.

That day, I wrote an X on plain paper. I stared at it like I was expecting it to talk to me. I remembered:

I was in Year 5 in my Grandmother’s village, Hançıplak. When the school bell rang, we ran outside to play hide-and-seek. I was the seeker. I put my hands on the wrinkled mulberry tree in the playground and placed my face on my hands. I began to count up to ten. Slowly. Yek, du, sê, car, pênch, seş, heft, heşt, neh, deh. Ready or not, here I come. I turned around. To my horror, Mr Mustafa stood in front of me like the bark of a tree. He began to move his eyebrows. They looked like bird wings getting ready to escape from his forehead.

“Come inside with me,” he ordered me.

Hiders stuck out their heads from their hiding places, peering at me.

“At school, we only speak Turkish. Nobody is allowed to speak in Kurdish.”

“I forgot. Cos my grandmother doesn’t know Turkish. At home, I speak… Kurdish… all the time.”

“Get me the punishing stick,” he commanded again.

“Hold out your fingernails.”

I brought my fingers together, facing up. They looked like children making a circle with their heads. Then I extend my hand out to Mr Mustafa. 

****

I began to listen to my grandma’s laments and catch the letters Q, W and X like a cat seizing a mouse, twisting them on my tongue.

I often wondered if these letters could have made themselves invisible among the other letters. Q could have hidden behind O and curled its tail around it. W could have folded its body in half, pretending to be a V. X could have straightened its diagonal lines into one and settled itself behind I. But that would have meant denying their identities, losing their sound, and uniqueness, and living in fear of being discovered. Q hidden behind O would have forgotten its qeh sound, W concealed behind V would have lost its weh sound, and X buried behind I would have lost its kheh sound.

I imagined Q, W, and X locked away behind barred doors and declared guilty for removing their veils.

Would it have been worthwhile to have been veiled and lived?

****

The next time I heard about X alongside Q and W was when a friend from Istanbul visited me. She told me a man got arrested for asserting his name started with an X. I was sixteen, and I was on the lookout for X. But, of course, he did not go to prison solely for that reason. The authorities claimed he was a terrorist, wanting to split the country into two like a watermelon: Turkey and Kurdistan. But people who knew the man said, “He was a poor man who knew nothing.” In fact, he did know P for Politics.

****

When I was seventeen, I met a man and fell in love with him. He was twenty-five. He was a Kurdish activist working for HADEP: People’s Democracy Party. He called himself Kawa. Of course, that was not his real name. On our first date, he took me to a stinky restaurant. The smell of rotten meat escaped from the kitchen and hovered in our nostrils. I wanted him to see me as a girl fiercely passionate about the Kurdish language, especially the letters, Q, W and X. Kawa taught Kurdish to people behind the closed doors of HADEP, filling their heads with dangerous letters like Q, W, and X.

“Would you teach me how to read and write in Kurdish?” My heart was beating against my chest like it wanted to leap into Kawa’s.

“I would be delighted,” he said.

“Let’s start.” I looked into his oval-shaped face like it was a mirror held for me. Just for me.

“What would you like to know?”

“Everything,” I answered immediately.

Kawa scanned my face. I fidgeted on my chair and crossed my legs under the table. My right foot touched his lightly. With the touch, my heart sizzled like butter in a pan.

I looked under the table and said, “I am so sorry.”

He said, “It is ok.”

Kawa began to fill my head with politics and poetry. I did not understand either. The most poetry he gave me was by Murathan Mungan. The first poem he gave me said, ‘If I was a poet, I would have beaten you with each of my sentences.’ And You would have hung yourself from each letter.’ The beating and hanging made me shiver like a branch trembling in the wind, and I thought the poet was very sick and needed immediate psychiatric treatment. But it made me realise something: I wanted to do things with sentences and letters, especially Q, W and X. I wanted these letters to hammer my consciousness.

“Do Kurds have poetry?” I focused my eyes on his knowing face.

“Ahmedê Xanî’s epic poem Mem û Zîn is an extraordinary love story. Better than Romeo and Juliet,” he said.

I looked into his wide eyes and long curved lashes.

“Do you know any lines from Mem û Zîn?” He flapped his long eyelashes like butterfly wings.

“Oh, yes,” he said.

Kawa’s eyes moved to remember lines: they made a pattern as though they were swaying on a swing that swung from side to side.

‘I wonder at the wisdom of the Lord

The Kurds in the State of the World

For what reason is their deprivation

For what purpose is their condemnation.’

Kawa stopped and his eyes focused on me like klieg lights; I returned his gaze with confusion.

“Are you sure this is a love story?” Maybe the love was hidden behind the sentences, I thought.

“Ahmedê Xanî is more complicated than William Shakespeare, at least as a thinker. The pages … are full of thoughts, often dominated by philosophy, particularly Sufism, shades of meanings, double-meanings, metaphors, and symbolic expressions, play a major role.”

I still didn’t understand where the love was. Love must have concealed itself in the language like Q, W, and X. Or maybe the Kurds are shielded in the Love story.

“When was it written?”

“1692.”

We, the barbarian with a language that contains Q, W, X have a poet, and he wrote in 1692, and he is better than Shakespeare, I must let the world know, I murmured to myself.

“Pardon me,” said Kawa.

“Let’s go. This place stinks.”

While we strolled, Kawa gave me facts with no poetry.

‘In March 1924 … the Turkish state had officially prohibited the use of Kurdish in schools and law courts … traditional Kurdish clothing and music were also banned.’ If you publish anything in Kurdish, without doubt, you would be imprisoned, tortured and killed. The official began to describe Kurds as ‘mountain Turks who have forgotten their own language.’ Kurds were told ‘You are not Kurds, but Turks, and we are going to make you see that … You are enemies of the state, and should be destroyed, but instead, the state has decided to educate you, to make you good Turks … We will fit you for society.’

Kawa stopped and looked at the ground wordlessly. Then he peered into the sky, and new words landed on his tongue.

“Call me Xeyal,” I said.

Bediye was born and raised in a village in Southern Turkey and came to the UK as a refugee in her early twenties. Her piece X and I is about that experience.

Drim, by Nick Norton

Inside the villa they are taking no note of lines. Not of lines shall they be ruled, so it was said. Dr Ignatz is saying this.

‘For a day or so,’ (they whisper).

‘Soon enough,’ (they whisper), ‘best bet. They will be putting lines back in pronto.’

The villa was a house on the outskirts of a hospital, green expanse and trees surrounding. Dr Ignatz set the scene and it was she who said no more lines. From then on big V capital letter was quickly heard and so they now lived in The Villa, no longer patients but guests. Ruled and rulers sat down together. Rulers said the ruled could be rude or whatever: their show.

Journo Jim was knocking on the door.

Dr Ignatz wafted lyric-like, said she had wonder-drim and vision pictures. Ruled look to one another with arched eyebrow and mutter.

‘Ain’t that what got us in here in first place?’

‘I have a picture of progress,’ she says, ‘of how we are lifted when our hooks intermingle.’

‘Like Velcro?’ checks Geraldine Gee.

Geraldine is now in the parlance noted as guest but still she flinches at the sound of her own voice, expecting a battering. Expected battering does not come today.

‘Yes,’ smiles Doc. ‘Like Velcro, we lift the material together when our hooks intermingle.’

Journo Jim is knocking on the door.

Villa Velcro is scribbled on a scrap of torn wallpaper and passed out through the letterbox.

‘What does this mean?’ asks Jim.

‘Spacesuits,’ is the urgent reply. ‘We must wear spacesuits.’

‘What?’

‘Gotta go.’

Following on after this phrase, with forensic fanfare and trumpet blare, Journo Jim is back at the office. He is a regular one-person band, a veritable orchestra, a strident jangle of story to be told; he sets forth the alarms and gets them running up and down all over his editor’s desk. Space suits he insists, but Harriet runs a finger down the guest list and says: GG.

‘Wha?’

‘Gotta go was a code. All the inmates are variations of GG.’

Calmer now, Journo Jim turned the paperwork around to see:

Garry Gold

Geraldine Gee

Gorgeous Govind

Genie Genitrix

‘This must. be made up,’ he hissed through teeth and whistled and scratched his head and took up his coffee cup and swilled it around.

‘Surely that’s your job,’ laughed the editor.

Harriet blacked in and buttressed all her staff output. She only drank water during office hours. And the drinking was out of a glass, always.

‘Day or two, not weeks,’ she concluded. ‘Something substantial, please.’ She is shooing her employee out of sight.

In The Villa they now wore grey jumpsuits, Velcro fastening, staff and guest alike wore the same. Ignatz alone wore a white jumpsuit. Everyone looked similar, although Garry Gold smelt very different. Garry Gold smelt as if he had filled his pants. Which indeed he had, several times over. And now it was his pleasure to walk along the building’s north corridor, up and down, shaking out a shitty trail. Gorgeous Govind was very upset about this. He lived next door and the neighbourly stench was creeping into his room, staining every part of his material existence. He washed down his mirror, polished his door handle, pushed cushions along the gap between grey carpet and blue-grey door. He returned to his mirror and practiced his tragic look before running down to the communal area and declaiming woe and begging for the convening of the council.

New thing this, the council. Gorgeous was the first to dare to convoke. It worked. Ignatz appeared as if pulled from a hat.

‘This is a drim,’ she delights, though only Ignatz herself appears comfortable in it. Others are coughing and shuffling, their eyes watering. This physical unease might be a consequence of Gold’s pervasive scent.

‘Now,’ Ignatz continued, ‘I have been busy with my Scribblings and Figurings. You remember how I shared this technique? Has anyone followed up on the Scribbling and Figuring rota? Remember, how we open to well-lit understanding and set to replay, looking in wonder at all that passes? Then, you recall, we turn up the illumination just a little, and look again at what feelings went into the review. After this we concentrate on just a little segment, a single feeling, and this forms the basis of our day’s Scribblings and Figurings.’

‘But I convoked a council, miss. This ain’t to do with any of that.’

‘All can come into the review, most surely.’

‘Then I might scratch about it tomorrow. What about today?’

‘What about today?

‘He stinks of crap. He spreads muck all up and down the north corridor. Why can’t I move to the south corridor?’

‘Can we talk to that my friends?’

‘South corridor is female only,’ points out Geraldine Gee. ‘North corridor is for all the others. Why doesn’t Garry just have a shower?’

‘Garry?’

 

‘Gold,’ he smiled. For a moment this seemed to be all the answer and the only answer he considered to be applicable. Yet he continued. ‘Gold by name, gold by nature. That is… That is to say, inner nature is gold. I just need. I need to get it out. I am waiting on true riches. Yes, waiting.’

‘Golden Goose,’ smiled Genie Genitrix,

‘All very well,’ pouted Govind, ‘only while he attempts to pass out some golden nugget, I am going to pass out from suffocation.’

He paused. He crossed his legs and arched his eyebrow, thumb lifted to touch chin, arousing the sense of canny ploy.

‘What is the line between south and north?’

‘A line between?’ Genie sensed the play.

‘Or is it a line along?’

‘The Villa has always,” repeated Geraldine, ‘always, always kept the south corridor for female residents and the north corridor for all the others.’

Govind crossed his legs in the opposite direction and lent forward, touching side of face with finger and blinking. He was trying to flutter his eyelashes, although he really had none to flutter.

Ignatz unhooked her keys and went to a door to the east of the common room. She pointed out that there are other directions apart from north and south.

‘Up and down, for instance,’ she unlocked the door and shouted upwards: ‘KARIN COULD YOU COME DOWN PLEASE!’ she shifted over to the west of the room and unlocked a second door: ‘KARL COULD YOU COME UP PLEASE!’

The council is as if cudgelled into silence, made dumb by this occurrence. What was coming to be? Footsteps, banging, shuffling – some indecision – then more footsteps. How was it that suddenly The Villa was so crowded?

Karl appeared first. His jumpsuit was grey, like theirs, but filthy; dirt rubbed smooth so as to be a graphite mirror. The room and its occupants moved as if a mirage over the rolling volumes of his legs and belly and sleeves. His hair was unkempt dreck drapery. He lifted previously chewed fingernails to his mouth and continued to masticate, a big grin creeping around the nomnomnom motion of his mouth.

‘Hello Karl,’ smiled Ignatz, ‘come and join us.’

Garry thoughtfully pulled up an extra chair.

Karin wore a white jumpsuit that had greyed with age and perpetual wear. Her hands and face were clean. Her curls were reined in by numerous clips. She walked carefully, and on surveying the meeting she stepped down the last few stairs rapidly and pulled herself a chair toward the circle. She laughed. Ignatz said it was good to hear her laugh and asked what it was that made her so happy.

‘We have not celebrated a rendezvous of this magnitude for many a moon.’

‘Many a moon,’ whispered Geraldine.

‘Ah!’ gasped Ignatz. ‘A celebration, yes!’ she clapped in a manner not to be ignored. ‘Hot chocolate please!’ And quick as you please the person who served in the kitchen hatch appeared with a trolley and on the trolley a jug of frothy hot chocolate and a wildly mismatched collection of mugs. Another cudgel blow: the occupants quietly sipped hot chocolate, and by this sugar and warmth more force fell; the shape of their world beaten and reformed beneath sweet, delicious jolts. Geraldine managed to shift around the seating to be alongside Karin. She gently allowed her knee to touch the new person’s knee. Yes, she was real.

Journo Jim was knocking.

Karl heard the thuds and, slopping chocolate on the carpet, got up and moved out the room as if to answer it. But he does not have a key Genie pointed out. And Ignatz replied that the door was not locked. This was too much for Govind. The mug he clutched, of Santa and reindeer in Bermuda shorts, sunbathing beneath the legend: Have a break. He dropped the mug. It did not break. Remnants of brown liquid spiralled out over the grey nylon expanse. Gorgeous Govind rocked back in chair, scowling. He pulled his legs up, foetal position, arms hugging his lower limbs. Ignatz took in the growing number of stains on the carpet and carefully replaced her cup back on the trolley.

‘What might it be, Govind?’

‘Doors.’

Karl came back thereabouts, large brown paper bag in his hand, stains oozing around the bottom of the bag. He dropped it on the trolley and announced he had Cut off the bastard’s head. Then he began laughing.

‘Why would you do that, Karl?’ Ignatz checked.

‘Journo, asking questions,’ spluttered Karl, immensely amused. ‘Nosey. Knew it was your birthday Doc.’

‘Did he? How lovely!’

‘And you chopped his head, for knowing that?’ checked Genie, shuffling closer to the bag but trying to keep away at the same time.

‘Yeh, yeh… Fruity fellow. Smooth white head… I did not count how many candles.’

‘That might be impolite,’ suggested Ignatz.

‘Would all the candles fit?’

‘Now you are being impolite, Karl.’ Ignatz began giggling. ‘Well, let’s share it out.’

‘Slice each,’ nodded Karin. ‘Although has anyone got a knife?’

‘YOU SEE!’ screeched Govind. ‘Doors! All evil happens at doors.

‘It looks delicious,’ Genie admitted, having overcome her dread and stood and closely looked at the contents of the bag.

Ignatz went to the kitchen hatch and returned with a bread knife and some plates. She ripped the brown paper bag apart and there was an open cardboard cakebox splodged with jam and chocolate, and in the box a cake. The white icing bore in red the word Congratulations and seven candles.

‘Four and three,’ said Geraldine.

‘Oooh,’ Karin clasped Geraldine’s hand, ‘we could not possibly presume,’ Karin’s gesture making a joke, but her fingers twisting around Geraldine’s.

‘I am not saying,’ smiled the clinician, ‘but who wants a slice?’

Jim and Ignatz looked at each other across the table. Ignatz wearing a drab institutional tunic, mark of incarceration.

‘That moment should have been our happy ending. Maybe you and I should not be speaking…’

‘Harriet would not allow anything prejudicial out into the wild, I assure you, she is ferocious.’

‘You know; I am fairly sure our paths have crossed. In my university days I attended Happenings. Body painting and bubbles, inflatables and manifestoes, that sort of thing. Harriet was there. She was pretty much instrumental in this scene.’

‘I’m speechless.’

‘Well, speechless is good.’

‘Do I speak too much?’

‘Perhaps I do. You are obviously good at research. The cake was an excellent approach. Yes, so I am sure Harriet’s history in the Happenings is not hidden. You may not have thought to look, of course.’

‘Only, we are talking about The Villa.’

‘Yes…’

‘And that day.’

‘That filthy day…yes.’

‘I met Karl.’

‘They are saying I unleashed monsters, are they not? This is outrageous. The regime had these poor creatures bolted down, terrible. Truly terrible We were not set up to either enslave or imprison.’’

‘He has chopped off heads,’ Jim checked his notes. ‘Seven.’

‘But he did not chop off your head,’ Ignatz pointed out.

‘Ah, true; only according to these timings you had not yet introduced the knife into the room.’

‘All of which is beside the point. Karl is innocent in this. It was Govind who gutted Garry.’

‘Karl escaped that day.’

‘He went for a walk.’

‘And Karin?’

‘It was love at first sight, Geraldine and Karin.’

‘Was Geraldine aware of the, um, history.’

‘They held hands. They ate cake. It was cute.’

‘Cute.’

‘Oh…well, maybe I am getting sentimental in my old age.’

‘If Govind had been allowed to move away from Garry?’

‘It was voted down in favour of Garry taking a bath.’

‘But that night he was caught straining, mm, passing out, how shall we say? Waste matter in the corridor.’

‘And Gorgeous had borrowed the knife.’

‘He is insisting that the golden egg is his now.’

‘Yes, he does so like things. Look, I know it is all a bit of a mess. My Scribbling and Figurings keep coming around to this.’

‘Coming around…to?’

‘Mess! It was, well, how shall I put it? Harriet would have approved of my little anti-hierarchical experiment, once upon a time.’

‘Who was the experiment for?’

‘That is the question, is it not? I would ask that question, very good.’

‘Who was the experiment for?’

‘This had little to do with my poor cohort. Dear sweet things, they were doing fine. Karl, he of course has a permanent chemical imbalance. Everyone else was set to resolve and move on. Karin’s hunger had abated. But the mess on the carpets? Chocolate stains, and… Honestly, it was a challenge to allow that. One does get challenged by the smallest of details, and on such occasion, one must spend a good deal of time Figuring. Drinking chocolate on the carpet and normally, of course, one does not just forget about a knife. One might suggest that aged forty three I set out to deliberately undermine myself. But let me tell you about Harriet now.’

‘I’m not sure we have time.’

‘Only, I am remembering how the cake was brought in. You collaborated with Karl on that, did you not?’

‘Collaboration is hardly the term I would use.’

‘Knowing that a cake needs a knife to cut it.’

‘Well now. If it comes to this, I must say, I was presenting the cake to you.’

‘With Karl’s help.’

‘It was not for sharing.’

‘A cake that big! Was I to eat it all by myself? Surely, one shares a cake that big.’

‘Which must perforce be cut by a knife. Anyhow…’ Jim scratched his chin, scrubbed the hair behind his ear, made a quick calculation on how calculating his interviewee may or may not be. ‘Let me just rewind the tape,’ he said. ‘I think we might start a way back here.’

‘James you are a drim, a drim and a sweetheart. Such a diligent, clean-cut young man.’

Nick Norton’s Building an Aesopic Body, a scrutiny of tale-telling, is due in February 2024 from Short Pieces That Move! Some examples of his stories can be found on-line: 3:AM, Selkie, Fatal Flaw, Fictive Dream, Punt Volat, Idle Ink. Others can be located physically in: The Happy Hypocrite -Tolstoyevsky, Shooter, Mikrokosmos & AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle, published via Book Works. He has just completed writing a novel: Laughter at the Edge of Tears.

Not The End Of The World, by Annabel Banks

Their fight will begin after dinner, once the plates are in the dishwasher, the surfaces wiped. This is unavoidable. Desperate to stall—her heating works, his flatmates don’t—he potters about in her kitchen, musing aloud on his cooking technique, the need for sugar and salt, and is just remarking upon how burnt onions leave their taste in the air—if a taste can be in the air—when it lands on the roof with a wall-shaking thwop.

He stops, looks up to the corner. A new crack has appeared on the paintwork, thin as a pencilled line. The things seem to be coming more often now, despite the official figures, and her flat is on the top floor—but a crack in the plaster doesn’t mean the bricks are failing. ‘These blocks are made to last, you know.’ A pan scraped, his teacup rinsed. ‘Much better than the flimsy new-builds.’

She comes in behind him, dumps their plates. Says nothing.

‘I was thinking of buying myself, once this is all over.’

Another rumble across the roof, prompting a shiver from the wall, but no response from her.

‘Perhaps by the canal.’ Spoon, forks, knives away, their arrangement backwards to his drawer at home. ‘Vijay says if it’s proved they’re attracted to water, all his clients will leave. I could end up with a penthouse.’ He smiles, inviting her into this obvious fantasy. She knows about his credit cards, the consolidation loan.  

‘You told me that already.’

‘Oh. Sorry.’

The seconds stretch out, and he realises that she doesn’t intend to speak again—not unprompted, anyway—and searches his mind for a new topic, one that will lead them away from this conversational quagmire, but draws a blank.

‘Would you like a hot chocolate?’

She makes a face. ‘God, no. I’m fine with the wine.’

‘Okay.’ He reaches for the kettle anyway, because she’s bound to change her mind if she sees him making one.

‘Actually, there’s not much milk left now. I’ll need it in the morning.’ She crouches, head hidden in one of the cupboards as she matches plastic boxes to their lids, so he can afford to send a scowl her way, double-affronted by the suggestion that he’d wasted her supplies by helping himself to two teas while she showered, plus the implication that she solely deserves whatever is left, leaving him no option but to have black coffee before work, which she knows gives him the shits. 

He drops his hand, frowns again at her back. The walls shake once more, misting the air between them with plaster dust, and it occurs to him that this sort of conflict might work as foreplay for some couples, but that doesn’t work for him: he’s never been attracted to the kind of woman who relished misery, preferring a sense of emotional alignment—in bed and out—and had honestly thought that she was the same. And yet earlier, when he’d talked about wanting to strangle his landlord, whose coughing bike had woken him again at six, her reply had been a murmured, ‘but then you’d go to prison’, and he’d felt flattened by this, suspecting that, by deliberately failing to recognise a joke, she was making a statement along the lines of I misunderstood you because you are too tiresome to pay proper attention to, but you are also foolish, so I must point out the obvious flaws in your thinking.

He frowns over the sink, rinsing away the bubbles. She slams the cupboard door. Through the window he sees the darkening sky, those thick purple clouds from the east come to push the sunset away. He draws the black-out blinds, then the curtains, and—once firm in the knowledge that no slice of light can escape—touches the base of the lamp.

‘Did you check the curtains?’ Even as she speaks, she’s examining his handiwork. Once, just once, he’d left a gap, and this is the result. He chooses not to reply, but the voice inside his head is strident: everyone makes mistakes, even you, darling and then his stomach squeezes—oh no—because he has said the words out loud. Not only that, but they’d emerged in that half-vocalised mutter that obliges the listener to choose between offering no response, a position of silence that either stems from absolute power—I magnanimously disregardor total defeat—I must not engage for my own safetyor, if the type to challenge, will trigger a sharp what? or the so-much-worse I’m sorry?, which every schoolchild knows is not an apology, oh no, but an order to stop, think, rephrase or back down, because shit’s about to get real.

So now he’s caught, waiting for her challenge, the demand to repeat what he thought was important enough to say, but not important enough to say properly, maybe feigning interest in his thought process as she asks him to unpack the psychic balancing act between what is worth saying aloud and what he wants to be heard. She will put her head to one side like a curious bird, an affectation of interest which is actually a sign of imminent predation, for hasn’t he just proved himself a scuttling bug, to be skewered on the beak of her correctly clear communication?

‘What was that?’

‘Nothing,’ he says brightly. ‘Just chatting to myself.’

‘Hmm.’ The tone of this hmm is suspicious yet weary. He keeps his head down, helping her adjust the curtain’s folds, reseal the velcro, and for a moment it is quiet between them, and he thinks that maybe they can start the evening again with a friendliness that might lead to the reset buttons of orgasm and sleep,  when she says, ‘Did you make any noise on your way here?’

Make any noise? She is being ridiculous, and so he tries to illustrate this. ‘Like what, exactly? Letting off fireworks? Banging a pot with a spoon?’

‘Don’t be dense.’

‘So, tell me what you mean.’

‘I mean that you don’t seem to be taking this seriously.’

‘How?’

‘By not doing what you are supposed to do. The curtain…’

That fucking curtain. Was she ever going to let it go?  ‘I said I was sorry.’

‘But it’s not only that. You don’t listen.’

‘I do.’ He stares at her, to prove that he is doing just that, right now.

‘No, you don’t. And I think you deliberately refuse to listen to me or anyone else, because’ —and here she takes a breath, as if deciding whether she wants to actually say the words in her head— ‘you’re a selfish prick who does whatever he wants.’

She’s never called him a prick before, and he feels the word trying to pierce his sense of himself, forcing him to view their conversation from an external viewpoint. Whose side would an observer take, if someone were peeking through the ceiling cracks? His, surely. He hadn’t sworn at her.

‘That’s unfair.’

‘Is it?’ Using her wrist, she pushes back the strands of hair that have fallen into her eyes. ‘You don’t think you’re doing stuff to attract them? Playing music?’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Singing?’

Oh shit. ‘There is no evidence that—’

‘Yes, there is.’ Face purpling, she hisses her words. ‘The party on that balcony. That man with the phone.’

‘That’s not evidence.’ He turns to busy himself with the table, brushing loose grains of salt into the carpet. ‘Look, I get you’re upset, but I don’t feel like it’s my fault you swallow every crazy theory out there.’

She pauses, processing this, and he can tell the exact moment she allows herself to tip over into anger, because she gets so very still everywhere except her eyes, which, oddly enough, call to mind the crackle of burning twigs.

‘So, just to be clear,’ she says, ‘my complaints, my concerns, all the stuff we’ve been talking about these last three weeks, are down to a failure in my critical faculties?’

Oh shit, he thinks again. Out loud: ‘I never said that.’

She touches the tabletop, touches her glass, and when she speaks it’s with the air and intonation of someone offering him a coffee. ‘You think I’m stupid?’

‘I certainly never said that.’

They glare at each other, and for a second he feels them teetering on the edge of a different kind of fightone that would break open this argument’s chrysalis to have it emerge new, unrecognisablewhen another of the things lands on the building with a great thud and starts rolling around on the roof.

It must be a big one, and yet the clatter of tiles shifting under its rubbery skin is not the worst sound he can hear, oh no, for that is the flobble or blobble it makes as it moves, a glooping sound that brings to mind the water balloons of his childhood, only deeper, like they were filled not with water from the tap, but with paint or unrefined oil, and not like that anyway, but quite different, and yet this is the only way he can make sense of what he is hearing. He hears other sounds too, as they roll—an excited guinea-pig’s whoops and chuckles, a washing machine with an unbalanced load, rocking and banging as it spins.

They both stare up at the ceiling.

‘Will it hold?’ she says.

‘Of course,’ he replies. ‘Vijay told me that these post-war builds were made with proper materials. Not like Bristol.’

She closes her eyes, and he regrets bringing up those images.

Another thud. More rolling, bubbling sounds, louder now. It must be overhead, squidging itself as it moves around, the part of it that touches the slate slightly flattened, as though it has a slow puncture.

The roof seems to be taking the weight. ‘Soon be gone,’ he murmurs.

‘You don’t know that.’

‘There’s no reason for it to hang around. Someone will drive past soon, and it will bounce off after the headlights.’

She throws him a look of disgust. ‘And what about the people in the car?’

He could reply that these imaginary citizens would be fine as soon as they hit ten miles an hour, but she knows that, so instead he takes her hand, the fingers cold and stiff, and kneads and warms them with his own until she draws away.

‘Just go,’ she whispers. He’s not sure if she is addressing him or the grey intruder on the roof. ‘I can’t take any more.’

He opens his mouth to rebut this, then pauses. How would he be able to tell whether she was telling the truth, or merely being theatrical? Maybe she

could

take more, but he doesn’t want to be the one to test the weight of her emotional ceiling. Deciding that she needs a moment, he picks up their wine glasses and uses his elbow to switch on the kitchen light, planning a splash more for each, and is just deciding if maybe, as he hands her the glass, he should touch the top of her head in a tender cease-fire, when the window behind him explodes inwards, showering the floor with jagged shards of glass.

They both leap, her forwards, him back, and so come to rest side-by-side, as the thing bulbs its way inside the room. ‘Get the fuck out,’ she screams, catching up the scissors that hang from a magnetic hook on the fridge to poke at the grey, stretched-silk skin. ‘Get away from here!’ And as he moves behind her in an unseen gesture of support, the smell hits him, that hot-fat smell which always reminds him of the beer garden where they went on their second date, that had looked perfect in the pictures but—disaster—had been built next to the kitchen vents, and thus reeked of thrice-fried chips and oil-dunked bean burgers, and where they had both soldiered on, neither wanting to appear an unattractive fusspot, tiresome in demands for olfactory purity wherever they dine, until an older American couple on the table next to them had exited, loudly expressing their revulsion, and he’d met her gaze with amused agreement before following them out.

‘Get back,’ he shouts, trying to take the scissors from her. Spinning, she shifts her grip and attacks the thing over-armed with a frenzied stabbing that has no effect at all, a toothpick to a tyre, until eventually it withdraws from the window and rolls completely off the corner of the block, the both of them so still as they listen to the second of silence, the gravelly crunch, and the sound of it wobbling around the corner in the direction of the main road.

‘It’s gone,’ he says, and turns in time to witness the rolling of her eyes.

‘But why did it come in the first place? The window was blacked out.’

‘It wasn’t trying to hurt us, I think. Just passing over. The glass couldn’t take the weight.’

‘Well, aren’t I lucky.’ She waves the scissors towards the mess on the floor. ‘So now there’s this. On top of all this shit, I have to find the money for a new window.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he says. After a moment’s hesitation, he steps forward to take her by the shoulders, with a pause just before his hands come to rest, waiting for that shake of her head. ‘I can pay half.’

But she neither rejects him, nor softens under his touch. Instead, she stands there, teeth working her bottom lip, eyes on his. ‘You don’t need to do that,’ she murmurs, and he knows the it’s my flat, my private home, you are here on sufferance, and what money have you got anyway might be unspoken, but that doesn’t stop it being real, and anyway, he abruptly realises, the broken window might only be the start of the evening’s events—he’s seen the pictures from Glasgow, the flattened school in Milan—so volunteering to pay towards the cost of any damages before he knew their true extent would be unwise. There’s nothing to do but nod, drop his hands, and move back in an almost ceremonial fashion, like the measured step of a graduate or newly arisen knight. ‘We can talk about it later.’

She shrugs.

‘Do you have anything to cover the window?’

‘Nothing dark enough.’ Another shrug. ‘A blanket, I suppose.’

‘Great. I’ll hang it over the hole and we can wedge a pillow against the bottom of the door to make sure.’

She fetches the blanket—more a quilt, it turns out: steel-grey, slippery, difficult to wrangle—and helps him loop it over the curtain rail, securing the fold with wooden pegs from under the sink. They work in darkness, her face near his armpit, her breasts at his back, and the result is clumsy but serviceable. When they have retreated into the living room, he feels safe enough to bring the conversation back to better things, and is searching his mind for a topic when she speaks.

‘Do you think it will be back?’

‘Probably not.’ She’s upset, of course. The window. The smell. ‘It’s off the building now.’

‘Okay.’ Stooping, she adjusts the pillow by the closed kitchen door. ‘As long as you’ll be safe.’

‘Safe?’ he says, before he can stop himself.

‘On your way home.’ She stands and, without looking, puts a toe over a shard of window glass, shifts her weight and crunches it underfoot, and he knows that she means it, because otherwise she would have wanted to fight for longer, raise their voices and wring the misery from each other like water from a dishcloth, more, and again, until the cloth is dry, the palms of their hands sore, and then even more still, until there was nothing left but to collapse into each other and whisper words like sorry, forgive, try.

There was none of this now, and—as surely as the thing outside would be back—he knew they were done. The realisation made his stomach lurch, but at least it was a familiar sickness, one that he knows will end. Best to start the process right away. He’ll gather the few items left here over the last months, kiss her a firm goodbye and ramble back to his grubby room, singing songs from bands he’d liked when he was still at school.

Annabel Banks’s collection, Exercises in Control, is available from Influx Press.

MIRLive : Dec 8th 2023

MIR (The Mechanics Institute Review) will be holding its first live event of the academic year on Friday, December 8th (Keynes Library, Gordon Square 6pm). The event will include eight readings, including one from Wes Brown (Programme Director of the MA in Creative Writing and the author of Breaking Kayfabe) and six from current Birkbeck BA and MA creative writing students.

If you’re a current student interested in reading at the event, please send a piece of prose (up to 1,500 words) or two poems to mironlineeditor@gmail.com. Submissions should have ‘MIR Live Submission’ as the subject line of the email. Please include your name, the title(s) of your piece(s), and a contact email address at the top of the first page.

We look forward to reading your work!

The MIR Live team


Featured Speakers

Wes Brown

Wes Brown

Wes Brown is the author of Breaking Kayfabe, an autofictional account of his time as a champion pro wrestler. He was awarded a CHASE Scholarship to research Narrative Non-Fiction at the University of Kent, founded the publishing press Dead Ink Books and his stories, reviews and essays have appeared in publications including New Humanist, The Critic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Real Story, Literary Review, Litro, the Mechanic’s Institute Review and 3:AM Magazine. He is the Programme Director of the MAs in Creative Writing and Creative Writing & Contemporary Studies at Birkbeck.

Elsa Court

Elsa Court is a writer and translator based in London. Her short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, The Brixton Review of Books, The London Magazine, The Tangerine, and Worms, and she is the recipient of a 2023 International Literary Seminars + Fence Reader’s Choice Award in the short fiction category. Her essays on contemporary literature have featured in Granta, The White Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement, among others. She is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, and a Lecturer in French at the University of Oxford.

Dead Mouse, by Charlotte Turnbull

When we finally found it in the corner of the downstairs loo – the dead mouse – the children covered their noses with their sleeves and refused to eat breakfast in the kitchen because of an alleged lingering smell. They leaned into the drama. What child doesn’t relish revulsion and swoon? They defined themselves against something – it, or us – and found a purpose, a unity, that morning.

There are maggots, my husband said, taking rubber gloves from below the sink: he was ready to get dirty, but not too dirty. How long has there been a smell? 

A few months, maybe longer, I said, confident and complicit in our marital myth that my larger nose led to engorged nasal cavities, ergo a heightened olfactory sensitivity, along with all my other heightened sensitivities: lively digestion, easy fatigue, wet flushes.

A few months, maybe longer, he repeated, staring at my belly. 

In the kitchen, the children began to mutter – that kind of bored mutter that builds to skirmish, then civil unrest – so I led them, their plates of toast stacked up one arm, into the living room, to the TV, and closed the door on it. The smell. 

*

The children ate their breakfast but refused to leave the living room until I opened the window so they could climb straight into the garden. 

The eldest went first, then climbed back into the house seeing my husband upend a plastic bag into the rhododendrons. Retreat, she shouted. The little one backed away, accommodating and grateful not to be in charge.

We are trapped, the eldest shouted from the window at her father, our home is a mortuary. 

I was impressed with the eldest’s vocabulary, wondering if I had not spoken to her properly for a while, when the little one began to cry from a deeper sense than the rest of us about what was at stake. 

On the lawn, my husband stuck his arms out and lurched about like a zombie, delivering the wrong punchline to the right joke, and I considered whether another coffee would kick me through the rest of the day into the familiar sleepless night.

I took the little one onto my lap and kissed her forehead, but she pulled away and fell to her knees, officiating the marriage of two Sylvanian animals in one smooth, quick movement instead of putting her arms around me: instead of pulling my t-shirt to palpitate my breast.

*

If we had pretended – if my husband and I had frowned at each other, turned the corners of our mouths down, looking from side-to-side, avoiding the hard truth of the eye, the grey frame of our faces – could we not have just left it? Could we not have ignored the smell? 

I didn’t tell the children that a rotting mouse smells exactly like an old, used tampon. I didn’t want an old, used tampon to be their first experience of death.  

 

 

Charlotte’s fiction made the Galley Beggars Story Prize long-list 2023 and the Caledonia Prize long-list 2022. She is also published in Litro, The McNeese Review, New England Review, Denver Quarterly and as a chapbook with Nightjar Press..

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