Caring - High Rise

Caring, by Kate Jackson

How did I come to be lying on my back while clutching a batch of unposted leaflets? The lying on my back part was easy to explain. I had slipped on an almost invisible greasy film of vegetation coating uneven stone steps. The posting leaflet part was a much harder story, one I had not been ready to think about. A few weeks ago, as I waited for the tech repair man to fix my laptop, he asked me what I did. A simple question: “What do you do?” A question I dreaded being asked at social occasions, when meeting someone new. Even the gynaecologist at an uncomfortable appointment had asked about my work. So much seems to hang on the answer to this question. We are identified by our career, employment, job, profession – it is our badge of identity, that tattoo that is impossible to remove.

My response to the tech man was rather pathetic. I told him I didn’t really know. I had taken a deep breath and I explained that I had worked in Health and Social Care, come close to burning out before leaving. I said that I had taken a career break. But I was kidding myself. I had no intention of returning. Fortunately, the tech man was more inclined to talk about himself. He told me, if it made me feel any better (it didn’t), how he had almost burned out in the past when a large corporation squeezed his business out.

After slipping on the steps, and spending a few stunned moments on the ground, I sat up and checked myself for any injury. I was sore but my back had been saved from serious injury by my water bottle. When I pulled it out, I found a deep V shaped indent in the metal where it had struck the edge of a step. For months afterwards, I continued to use the bottle, grateful for its protection despite the fact that if it tilted over in my bag, water leaked from the lip where the paint had been chipped away.

I had been injured earlier in the day; a dog’s teeth scraping the skin on my right hand as I pushed a leaflet through the letterbox. In the early days I had been cautious when approaching houses with pictures of dogs and “Beware” written in large, bold letters below. However, it was rare to hear barking in these properties. At others there was no warning but a sudden cacophony of sound that assailed my ears, and a thud as the body of a jumping dog hit the door. I would cautiously leave the leaflet tucked under the outer flap, not wanting to risk losing any fingers. At one house a silent dog had caught me by surprise, grabbing the leaflet from the other side of the box, tugging it from me like it was a milk bone.

I had developed a good eye for the tougher letterboxes, the small brass fixtures that needed to be opened with force. My fingers marked with red weals, I would push and ram the leaflet, silently apologising for the crumpled state it would arrive in. Sometimes, when I pushed the leaflet through a loose box, I was overwhelmed by the smell of cigarettes, the strong, bitter scent of tobacco, or the rarer, sickly scent of cannabis.

I became systematic in my approach to the job. On the bus-ride out to the estate I would sit and fold leaflets in half. From time to time, I would stop to check my map, use a pen to highlight the properties I had visited. The estates were a tangle of cul-de-sacs and gennels, confusing my tired mind as the day progressed.

I noted the different homes, those with peeled paintwork on the window-frames, the yellowed net curtains. Gardens full of litter where I would be overwhelmed with the stench of cat piss. If the letter box was at eye level, I would glimpse a hallway, the bottom of a set of stairs, a jumbled row of shoes. I contemplated what it would be like to see a dead body lying on the hall mat, imagining a knife in the back, blood oozing, flies everywhere. Who would I ring for first, the police or an ambulance? And would I be a suspect? If I did find anyone, it would put a stop to me reaching my target of delivering 100 leaflets an hour.

Sometimes I would be overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu. I would recognise a stone hedgehog and tub of dead flowers on a doorstep, or a garden filled with gnomes and fairy lights and realise I had just redelivered to a handful of houses that I had visited earlier. Tiredness and my own wandering imagination would cause me to make a mistake and waste precious time. That and the layout of the estate with its intersection of meandering roads and gennels that ran between the properties.

From time to time, I would need to stop to roll my shoulders and stretch, to relieve the ache I felt in my neck, or search for a plaster in my rucksack to wrap around a nail where a cuticle had been caught one too many times by the stiff bristles on some of the letterboxes. Eventually I switched from wearing fingerless gloves to using thin full-sized ones to protect my hands. Finding a small play area, I might sit on a swing to drink water. I liked to be out in the open, to be able to see around me. Unlike my previous job, I felt liberated. Despite the cold air I loved being high up above the city, close to the edge of the surrounding countryside where many social housing estates had been built. I carried a small bag of bird food that I would sprinkle on the ground for house sparrows.

I hated the tall blocks of flats, worrying about who I may encounter on the stairwell. In the summer the blocks often smelled of stale cooking and sweaty bodies. Here too I would worry that there was a dead body, although I had never smelled one, as the stench coming from the flats could be overpowering. It was a relief when I was not able to gain access to some blocks. Others, where residents were not security minded, had entrance doors wedged open with a brick or a piece of wood. Resigned, I would quickly climb to the top landing, my boots a dull thud on the concrete steps, then work my way back down. As I posted leaflets I witnessed small vignettes of peoples’ lives – the sound of children playing, or of a daytime soap on the TV, or of a couple arguing. Some of the people I met on my round would talk to me: a man repairing his motorbike chatting about the weather, another mulching his raised beds telling me about the vegetables he was growing.

If I was lucky, after a couple of hours delivering, I could call in at the community centre to eat my lunch and use the toilet. Sometimes when I was working, the centre was closed and I had to go into the woods to pee. In winter, when the leaves had fallen, it was harder to find somewhere sheltered and I was constantly on the alert for dog walkers as I squatted between the silver birch trees and brambles. There were no cafés in the area, only takeaways without toilets. Even if there had been a café, I would not have wanted to use my earnings to buy a drink, and I would only end up needing to pee again later.

For almost a quarter of a century, long before my walks up and down tower blocks, I had listened to the problems of others, taken in their misery and fear. I had lost count of the number of secrets and traumatic events that had been shared with me. I felt like a priest hearing confession. I had come to realise that each confession was like the heavy, black brick I had learned to pick up from the bottom of the pool as a child during swimming lessons. And I carried these bricks around with me in my bag. As the years progressed, the bag had become heavier and heavier.

I had supervision with an experienced senior colleague. We would talk through tough cases, those that were problematic, where there were sticking points in my practice, new ideas I could try. There was rarely time to acknowledge good practice, success stories, achievements. And I found it difficult to talk about the impact this was all having on me.

I had started my career working with older adults who experienced poor mental health. Over the years I had empathised, soothed, calmed troubled minds. I helped survivors to explore what had happened and how they were coping, what other things they could try that may help. I watched them increase their skills, move on in their lives, not be defined simply by the horrific events they had experienced. Eventually I felt as though the experiences of others were defining me. No amount of supervision, yoga classes or breathing exercises were going to help. Their tales of every kind of abuse possible had worn me down, taken away layers of my skin, eroded my defences over time until one day I felt stripped bare and exposed.

My body had shown the first signs: the migraines, difficulty sleeping, muscles seizing up, stomach problems. Then my mind faltered. My concentration waned. I would sit with service-users, listen and contribute. But when writing up my notes, I was fearful that I had not fully assessed or analysed the situation. I questioned if I had reflected appropriately during the appointments, if plans of care were service user led, and not some creation from years of experience that I had churned out automatically. Would a service-user feel able to tell me if I was wrong?

By chance I read a journal article about the need for self-compassion. It focused on how the things we did away from work were important. We only feel at home when we are not at work. I realised how alienating my job was. As well as the trauma at work, I was surrounding myself with more trauma; the repeats of ‘Prime Suspect’, as well as more recent programmes – ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Bridge’. The documentaries on TV about health and social care services that reflected my own situation at work. I changed my habits, started re-reading books from childhood, yellowed copies of “The Wind in the Willows” and “The Secret Garden”. I read more nature books, books about the environment – James Rebanks writing about his farm, John Stempel Lewis writing about his meadow.

And still, I could not be open in supervision. I never liked talking about myself. I could not see the point. On training courses, I failed to understand why everyone had to take it in turns to say what their favourite film, book or ice-cream flavour was. What did our tastes have to do with how many compressions to use in community resuscitation, or which fire extinguisher to use if the wastepaper bin in the office was alight? Team building days were a source of dread for me. At the end of the day nothing changed. Goals and tasks were added to endless sheets of flipchart paper. Flipcharts that would be put in the cupboard back in the office and forgotten about. Some staff loved these days, eager for the next one. An excuse to have a day away from trauma and misery. I would feel resentful that my workload had to be put on hold.

I questioned where my disenchantment came from. I knew I would always struggle. Offices would always be crowded and noisy, a cacophony of migraine-inducing sounds. Carpets that would have helped to absorb some of the sound of half a dozen people on the telephone were expensive and needed regular cleaning. There were rumours of us having to hot-desk, or even hot-base – carrying our laptops around with us looking for a building with space to be able to write up our notes, plans, assessments. Most people were preoccupied with where they would keep their mug and emergency pot-noodle supplies, paracetamol or spare tights, or if there would be an adequate number of parking spaces. As a team, we relied on being able to seek each other out to discuss concerns and risks, on being able to have a dedicated duty worker for back-up and support. Meeting each morning to discuss and share jobs, deal with crises, sickness and absences was vital. If we lost our base, we would lose the level of responsiveness we had, and risks would increase.

We had debated security and safety constantly. Endless discussions about keeping safe, buddy systems, calling in between visits to say we were safe. Eventually, we were given alarms that were connected to a central control. If we were at risk, we could trigger the alarm and the police could be alerted to respond if needed. A few of us would use the alarms religiously. Others left them in the bottom of their work bag or in the glove box in their car. I had been accosted by an angry parent on a visit, his face red and distorted, fists banging on the bonnet of my car as he shouted and swore at me about news he had received. I had pressed my alarm but, I was later told, not for long enough for it to activate. People at the bus stop nearby watched in silence. No one intervened or came to my aid. Time stretched out. Seconds felt like hours I had never understood the term ‘time stood still’ until that day. I remained outwardly calm; inside I was cold with fear. Then, just as quickly as his anger had arrived, he turned and left. Trembling I drove away, conscious of the people at the bus stop watching me. My then manager had been sympathetic to a point. She sent a standard letter saying abuse and violence would not be tolerated. But she expected me to continue to work with the family, although I felt physically sick at the thought. I was too shocked to tell her how I felt.

My performance reviews were glowing with praise for the quality of my work and commitment. Other aspects were picked over. I was puzzled at a review when the manager had told me I needed to contribute more to our weekly meetings where we met to discuss cases in more detail. There were often people who attended who were silent, experienced staff who had skills and insight but did not share these with the team. There were interminable arguments about how the minutes should be recorded. There was frustration that the same concerns about the same families were voiced repeatedly but plans drawn up were never followed. Others at the meeting spoke too much: irrelevant, repetitive, or inappropriate comments. Holding on to my criticism and the frustration I felt, I would speak in careful, measured tones, to try and help others reflect. With my efforts a parent described as being “over-involved” became a loving parent, frightened and bemused, who needed advice and information, not criticism and exclusion. An irritable, exhausted father was supported to speak to an employer, to have his working hours reduced.

My manager was always very direct when she spoke and acted. On the mornings she joined us, she took control of the team’s diary and job sheet, making decisions about who did what. She was autocratic. At my review she insisted that I spoke very little. Before I could respond to her criticism, she had typed into the review document: “Objective 1- to participate more in meetings”, I watched the curser blink its way across the screen. And so it continued, each objective filled in without discussion. I remember thinking that although these were my objectives, I had no say in them. What was the point? The following day a copy of the performance review arrived in my inbox for me to sign, which I did. The manager moved on. The next manager signed the objectives as completed at the next review. My new objectives became based on targets and statistics.

I was becoming a machine. I also sensed that all my efforts to reach a part in my career, to specialise in a specific area were coming to nothing. The manager did not understand my work – or was choosing not to. There were statistics he had to consider, targets he had to reach. He focused on numbers and quantity rather than quality and evidence-based results. My vital work, and that of others too, was becoming less of a priority. When I spoke to my partner about leaving, he said I should do something I enjoyed, that we could manage financially, that my health was important.

On what later turned out to be my last day at work, I had met with a carer. She spoke about the impact caring had on her. We discussed the need for her to consider her own well-being. Afterwards, sitting in the car before driving back to the office to type up my notes, I was overwhelmed by the thought that I needed to heed my own advice. My empathic GP wrote a sick note. I handed in my resignation.

Snow was falling when I packed up my workspace and left. Heavy snowflakes that disguised the landscape and confused my eyes on the drive home. It was as though the snow was blotting out my past. There was no leaving party organised, no drinks in the pub. There were no speeches. My manger responded to my resignation letter with a few lines of thanks for my hard work and dedication. He did not ask if there was anything that might change my mind, if any support could be put in place or changes made that might help me. I did not immediately withdraw my name from the professional register, and I continued to pay my union fees. It took 12 months of telling myself I was just taking a break before I admitted to myself, and others, that I was not going back. I asked for my registration to end and left the union. I later sold the textbooks I had collected over the years.

Voluntary work helped me. Conservation work on nature reserves, helping a charity that was trying to tackle people who were socially excluded. Richard, who fixed me up with leaflet delivering, was passionate about reaching people. He spoke of areas where services dismissed residents as “hard to engage with” as if this was their own fault. He believed that services needed to try things differently, to offer something that was wanted, not what services felt was needed.

Months after leaving I met with ex-colleagues for a meal. They had hardly seated themselves at the table before the questions began. What was I doing? How was I spending my time? Was I bored? Did I regret leaving? I was exhausted by the end of the evening. Perhaps they thought I was a recluse, that I spent my time in bed, hiding under the duvet, watching “Loose Women”? Afterwards at home I wondered if they thought I never saw or spoke to anyone. My partner said they needed to feel justified in what they do, to rationalise continuing to work in those conditions. He suggested they wanted me to have regrets, to make them feel better. He thought they were envious. I felt sad. I had little in common with them, now we no longer shared work. Perhaps they had concluded that I had left because I was lacking in something and not up to the mark. Today, seeing me confident with my decision, happy with my choices and lifestyle, they may have misgivings. It was as though I should have a sense of guilt for leaving.

Shortly after I left my job, a friend said she was surprised, she thought I cared. I told her I left because I cared.

Kate Jackson is a new writer from Yorkshire. Following a career in health and social care she is focusing on creative writing, often writing about her experiences.
Image: Jimmy Chang, photohunter, ‘Apartment High Rise Building’, Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication.
Rooster by Nikzad Noorpanah

Rooster, by Nikzad Nourpanah


Tuesday

Our office is busier than I’d like it to be. We had meeting after meeting. Ramin attended the first one as well and handled most of the talking. I slumped at the back of the conference room at such an angle as not to be noticed, fiddling with my phone. Tea. Biscuits. Followed by a small plate with cucumbers and apples. I ate two cucumbers; peeled both of them with one of the blunt knives, property of the company. The cucumbers had turned a bit soft and it was difficult to peel them neatly. The knives weren’t made for this task either; cucumber juice oozed and trickled on my wrist. I cleaned it with my sleeve, before it reached the leather strap of my watch. The only good thing about the day was that there was a saltshaker nearby. I cleared my chest, while slipping my hand beside engineer Davoodi to get the saltshaker. Both cucumbers were watery and slimy. By the end of the meeting, I had drunk two more cups of tea. Ebrahim was constantly serving tea.

After the meeting, I told Ramin, ‘You spoke well. You showed them who’s boss!’ ‘Why were you so quiet?’ he said, ‘you should’ve taught them a lesson, too!’ After this pointless exchange, we returned to our office.

I didn’t join the colleagues for lunch. I hadn’t even bothered to get lunch coupons for the whole month of October. All the food from the eateries around the office makes me sick. I believe our firm has handpicked the most disgusting options for us. I’ve brought two sandwiches from home. Willie cream cheese and scrambled eggs. I made these using Nastaran’s sandwich-maker – part of her dowry. It’d been collecting dust for four years until I started using it last month. Once, I advertised it on Deevar classified ads website, but nobody was interested. Someone offered to take it for free. She said she was working in charities, helping newlyweds to build a life. I told her, this sandwich maker belongs to my wife, and if I give it away for cheap, she’ll kill me. And it’s a great sandwich maker. It’s new. It’s German. Or at least that’s what’s written on the box. I was careful to keep the box. I don’t have the stamina to deal with Nastaran’s complaints if I throw away the box of her Braun sandwich maker. She’s looking for an excuse to have a go. She articulates the issue once, and then a bout of silence follows, and after a few days, as you start to believe she’s gotten over it, she resurrects the corpse of the problem. This is her method. She’s not impulsive, she has a gradual tactic that works through patience and perseverance, and finally ripens and explodes.

Ramin insisted I go out for lunch with him. I showed him my sandwiches. He swiftly picked one and finished it off with two bites. ‘This is an appetiser!’ Ramin said, ‘Come on! Today is Gheimeh Stew Day at Khatoon’s!’ When he finally realised I’m serious in my refusal, he said, ‘At least ask Nastaran to cook you a proper meal for god’s sake; she’s a good cook!’

‘She only cooks when her father is around, the beloved colonel!’ I laughed. ‘Otherwise, she has a diet milkshake.’

After lunch, Davoodi treated all four of us in our partition to ice cream. He had bought a new car: a cheap Iranian-manufactured Renault which the National Auto Industries sell at twice the price of the French original to us tame and law-abiding citizens. Davoodi’s treat was spot on, my snack was definitely not enough, and I could hear my stomach rumbling just an hour after my light lunch. The saffron ice cream sandwiched between two wafers helped. Afterwards, Ramin and I went out to have a cigarette, and Ebrahim brought us some tea. My teeth were hurting. Our poor teeth. Mine are a mess. I’ve been using Sensodyne toothpaste to alleviate the sensitivities; although it’s been getting more and more difficult to find the original one since the sanctions. I know it’s my own fault. The status quo is always our own fault. The product of our own stupidity. I clenched my jaw.


Wednesday

Yesterday, I went to see my therapist after work. It’s every two weeks now. Like the past few sessions, I bumped into Sarvenaz in the waiting room. Ramin’s wife. The first few times, it was awkward. A friendly greeting, and a few surprised glances, that was all. I haven’t told Nastaran I have started therapy again. There was no reason to. Dr Hakim Zadeh has also been helping me a lot with asserting my boundaries. He didn’t tell me not to tell my wife for good, but he said it should be my decision, and I should do it only when I feel comfortable to do so. There is no rush, and no rule either. ‘Respect yourself!’ he said. And when I said, ‘I get worried when I hide things from my wife,’ he associated it with my numerous fears. Fear of everything. Fear of my wife is only one of them. He mentioned other stuff as well, but I don’t know if it’s all correct. He’s even asking me to contemplate my relationship with Ramin. I have no idea why. Perhaps, because I’ve mentioned him a few times in our sessions. I told him he’s my colleague, but didn’t say that his wife is one of his patients as well. Has Sarvenaz told Ramin she comes to the shrink? The last time there was a soirée in their house, she and I exchanged a meaningful glance, but neither of us mentioned anything about the therapy sessions. One has to be tactful, this is the right way to behave amongst these judgmental people. But yesterday in the waiting room, I talked a bit more with Sarvenaz. She’d also come straight from work. I mentioned that Nastaran has started her English language classes again, then giggled. Thank god, Sarvenaz didn’t embarrass me and laughed, too. Then we ended up talking about immigration and the whole process. I said I’d have to start my English language classes, again. I need a score of 7 in IELTS, and our immigration lawyer says this one item cannot be messed with, it’s one of the most important criteria. I said Nastaran has threatened that she wouldn’t have children in this fucked up country, only in the holy soil of Australia. I felt close to Sarvenaz, albeit slightly nervous. I felt like talking more to her about having kids; and then stopped myself from telling Sarvenaz that I suspect that last year’s miscarriage was on purpose. It was on the tip of my tongue, but I bit it back. I didn’t want to spill out all my private life like some simpleton. You have to be tactful. I’ve come here, spending so much money to talk about all these things with a therapist. But once it was my session, I didn’t tell him anything either, like the previous sessions. Instead, I ranted about my childhood and the city I grew up in, Qom. About my father’s rice shop, its smell, the rows of fat hemp bags full of rice in the cellar, and how he used to mix cheap and premium in that dark cellar and feel smart. About my little brother. Hakim Zadeh wasn’t listening. He was staring at the framed print of Freud’s house, with its Bakhtiari carpet.

I wasn’t too busy at work. That’s how I like it. I counted my cigarettes. One at 10 am. One at 2 pm. One at 5, after work. I had an unlit cigarette hanging from my mouth as I was leaving the office. The guards gave me a nasty glance. To hell with them! Rabid dogs. I told them once that this is not a state-owned firm, so they have no right to take it out on us. One of them said, ‘Dear engineer, but it’s not a fully private firm either!’ and they barked with laughter. Guards of hell.

Ramin sorted out our tickets for next week. He went back and forth to the admin a few times, flirted with the secretary, then afterwards murmured joyously in my ears, ‘the office guesthouse is full, so I asked them to book us Hotel Homa instead!’ ‘Well done!’ I told him, and we fist bumped. Then he reiterated not to forget our Friday night plans. Of course I wouldn’t, how could I? What fun do I have other than these Friday night hangouts? Then putting on a sad face, he asked me not to bring my dog, ‘because Sarvenaz is allergic.’ It’s obvious he’s lying. He’s terrified of dogs. I don’t give a fuck. Pablo is my dog, and honestly I don’t care at all if others like him or not. Plus, when I was in the therapist’s waiting room, Sarvenaz asked me many questions about adopting a dog and the costs and everything. It was clear she was curious and thinking about bringing a pet herself.

I was relieved when Ramin told me the guesthouse was all full. Last year, we stayed there for two weeks. Upon my return back home to Tehran, Nastaran burst in tears, and told me about her miscarriage. My bag fell on the floor. I still remember the dull thud. She told her story, then calmed down, saying it didn’t hurt much. With all this rather unreliable history, I’m happy I won’t have to return to that horrid guesthouse again. Who knows, otherwise this time upon my return Nastaran might’ve handed me Pablo’s head on a silver plate.


Thursday

After work I was dashing to get out and just then the guards harassed me again. They said my shirt is too tight, they said it’s ‘fashion’. I lost it. I held my belly with five fingers and nervously said, ‘how is this fashion? I’ve gotten fat, so the shirt sticks to my body, don’t you understand? And this is because you give us shit food here!’ One of the guards tried to calm me down. ‘We’re just doing our job, following the rules. The ladies have complained.’ And then he added jokingly, ‘dear engineer, you do know this place is not completely private, it’s ‘privastate’ as we call it…’ and then burst into laughter at their own stupid wordplay, spraying his saliva on my face. Last year, they also harassed me for wearing sandals with no socks.

On my way home, I went to Park Laleh, and did a few rounds at a fast pace, thinking it’d do as a workout. My armpits got drenched in sweat. The inferno guards were right; my shirt was really tight. Then I walked up Amir Abad. The main pavement was blocked due to construction works. I jumped into the street. A bus honked in my ears and passed me by in a hostile way. Perhaps, it wasn’t hostile, and it was my own fault. But either way, my Dorsa satchel and along with it my wrist got dragged a bit. I was so shocked I couldn’t even insult the bastard bus driver. Thank god nothing worse happened. Several passers-by came to check on me, but soon they realised it was nothing serious, and dispersed. How could they tell it was nothing ‘serious’? My heart was jumping out of my chest. In the convenience store, my wrist started to hurt. And also my darling satchel had a scratch; I rubbed it with saliva and the right cuff of my ‘fashion’ shirt, but the scratch didn’t disappear. I took a can of Rani with peach pulps and a pack of Camel Ultra Lights. But couldn’t remember the PIN for my bank card. I rummaged through both pockets for cash but didn’t find any. I was going to put the Rani back in the fridge, but the shop keeper said, ‘don’t bother, I’ll do it myself.’ What a rude asshole. I left the shop.

As I was walking home, I massaged my wrist and my still thumping heart. Nastaran wasn’t going to be home until later. I had a nap and then at dusk took Pablo to the tiny triangular park around the corner. Poor boy was so happy! I feel so guilty about keeping this poor creature in this claustrophobic flat, in this hideous city. I told him, wait until you see the huge parks of Sydney. Spacious. Hundred-year-old trees. With kangaroos and squirrels jumping around. Although I haven’t actually seen the parks myself, and honestly, I’m not dying to see them either. Qom, Tehran, Sydney. If it was up to me, I would flush all the three down the toilet. Except that I think I’d be able to buy original Sensodyne in Sydney. Other than that, the empty corners of Park Laleh are enough for me. With Pablo… No leash… At night-time, suitably stoned, when it’s quiet and there aren’t many people around. The truth is, I haven’t even digested my move from Qom to Tehran. All these years have passed since the first year of uni, and still Tehran seems alien to me. How would I be able to deal with another move then? To Sydney…

Sometimes, I think I need to talk to Hakim Zadeh about my recent interest in weed. And the fact that I haven’t told Nastaran about it. She must’ve noticed though. My red eyes? But this one has an easy excuse. Tehran’s pollution. My short attention span? My mutilated sentences? But this has always been a chronic trait of mine. Also, I don’t think she would care that much. In turn, I don’t bother with all her fashionista and influencer hype on Instagram. But then Hakim Zadeh might relate all this to my surreptitious tendency of keeping secrets. A person who has a secret wants to hide something; wears a mask. Eventually he’ll relate it to Freud or Lacan and spit out a quote. Jacques Lacan; with an emphasis on the soft French ‘J’ as if they’d been old mates. Recently, I have started to read Irwin Yalom. I want to learn to argue with Hakim Zadeh. I hate the fact that he’s the Wise Man, sitting up there, analysing me, seeing through me. And as to that, giving often cheesy analyses and insights really. He bores me. With that closed collar of his. This time, after our fifth or sixth session, I wanted to quit, but the thing is Sarvenaz is still going, so, maybe his sessions do actually help after all? On Tuesday, I waited for Sarvenaz, and we went to Café Koocheh in Yousef Abad. Close to both of us, to Amir Abad, and to Golha Square. At first, I kept my head down, I didn’t know why I was there. Sarvenaz stretched her legs, and I noticed her plump white Nike trainers. I wish Nastaran would wear a pair like these instead of those old-fashioned high heels. And she thinks she’s good at fashion. With her silly Instagram clothes shop, or ‘boutique’ as she calls it. I told all this to Hakim Zadeh. He suggested couple therapy. I didn’t respond.


Friday (weekend)

I woke up at 6 in the morning. I couldn’t believe it. Even on workdays, I sleep more than this. I got out of bed and gave Pablo his food, which he wolfed down in a second, and then licked the bowl clean with his wide pink tongue. My head heavy due to last night’s silly soirée. After a certain point, I stopped losing count of how many drinks I downed. I could only hear Ramin’s roars of laughter. The women were behaving, though. As always. Nastaran is looking after her skin. She doesn’t do anything extreme. Sarvenaz says alcohol doesn’t agree with her. What about weed? Perhaps, next time, after seeing our therapist, I’ll ask her in the café, and maybe even share a spliff on our way back home.

After dinner Nastaran and Sarvnaz went to the kitchen to do the dishes. Ramin prodded his arm against the counter, telling funny anecdotes about the office. Hotel Homa was also mentioned. I shouted from the living room, ‘Well done, Ramin! You did amazing, that fucking guesthouse makes me sick.’ Then I got up and joined him. I took a photo of the two women as they were washing the dishes, their backs to us. Ramin was staring at Nastaran’s back as he was fiddling with his glass. Perhaps at his wife’s back? But logically, it would’ve been Nastaran’s back. No matter how sculpted, he had seen his wife’s back all these years. Other than this, last night was pointless.

Nasataran’s parents came to ours for lunch. Before their arrival, I rushed to move my car to the street, so there would be space for colonel’s Toyota Corolla in the garage. Yesterday, I purchased a family pack of chicken thighs from Shahrvand supermarket. Nastaran was going to cook Zereshk Polo, because dear colonel loves Zereshk Polo. I love it, too. But it was almost noon time and we hadn’t done anything yet. The plan changed. We decided to order kebab from the local eatery, Sabalan, but make the rice and salad at home. I put the pack of chicken in the freezer immediately. I knew from the moment I purchased that chicken that Nastaran wouldn’t be cooking it. I started with Salad Shirazi, and Nastaran kept complaining that the cucumbers were too big, and ‘dad’ wouldn’t like it. I wanted to say I don’t give a fuck. Instead, I slid the knife on the counter top and told her ‘Please, you do it then.’ Of course, she didn’t do it. I have no idea how to describe these small frictions to Hakim Zadeh. I don’t know how to articulate that they are ruining me. I worry he’d say, so what? This is life. This is what marriage is like. I think I hate Hakim Zadeh.

The colonel didn’t eat even a single piece of the lamb tenderloins, even though we insisted a lot. He said he can’t because of his gout. Nastaran’s mother also complained about the traffic from their posh neighbourhood in north Tehran on the way to ours. I said there’s hardly any traffic on Friday at noon. The oldie is going deaf I think. She just continued the same old complaints. Why don’t you move near us? The air is fresher, the people are better, and so on and so forth. I explained that Amir Abad is near my work. I explained that I’m an office boy, an engineer. Told her about the rituals of taking Pablo to Park Laleh. And then I jokingly added, if it’s about distance, we would have to move to Qom, near my parents. Nastaran, don’t you agree? Perhaps, we should move to Qom? I teasingly poked her with my finger. It was like poking a stone. Nastaran didn’t even blink. Pablo was sniffing colonel’s socks, and colonel was batting him away, as he was describing the magnificent trained Dobermann’s of the Shah’s royal army. Finally, I shouted, ‘Pablo, stop it! You motherfucker!’ Nastaran hissed and turned pale. Sudden silence. Soon after they said goodbye and left.

In the evening, Nastaran shouted at me, ‘I’ve told you a thousand times to be polite in front of my parents. Haven’t I?’ She was right. And then she continued, ‘What’s all this nonsense about Qom? Firstly, we’re going to Australia, secondly, your precious mother never ever recognised me as family, perhaps, because I’m three years older than their prince charming!’ She was right. I explained that my parents are just old-fashioned people, but there’s nothing in their heart. ‘There is nothing in their brains either,’ Nastaran said, ‘apart from spider webs and a bit of tradition.’ ‘Please don’t disrespect my parents,’ I muttered. I didn’t say I’ve just realised after four years, that our marriage was a mistake. I haven’t even told Hakim Zadeh. In fact, I don’t even know what I talk about in his office. I’d promised myself to tell the truth during my therapy sessions. But the truth just doesn’t come out.


Saturday

All morning until the afternoon, I listened to Rolling Stones at work. I listened to ‘Little Red Rooster’ on repeat. I was almost dancing while at my desk. A few times, I sang along, I’m the little red rooster… Davoodi asked a few times, ‘What’s up with you? You seem very happy! Strange, you’re always so gloomy on the first day of the week!’ After lunch, he took off his shoes as usual and massaged his left foot with the ball of his right foot. My workload was light. As for Monday, Ramin had arranged everything. I just clicked on Hotel Homa’s website and looked at its photos. I wished it were hot, and I could go to the pool. I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was anxious. I don’t know why. Ramin had convinced the firm to book us with Iran Air. The safe ‘western’ fleet of Iran Air, not the budget airlines with their dodgy ex-Soviet aircraft. Our trip was only two days. I wished I could take Pablo with us, and then it could last for two weeks… Two months… The longer the better. I’d throw his tennis ball into the water, and he’d jump into that beautiful azure of the Hotel Homa pool. Then he’d shake himself, and when he would return the ball dripping with saliva, it would have been as if he was giving me the whole kingdom of the world.

How did it come to this? I don’t remember when I started waning. Perhaps, after the miscarriage of Fariborz. I was an idiot to give a name and gender to a one-month-old blood clot. Hakim Zadeh says I’m a pessimist. He says even my mourning for a blood clot was not authentic, was distorted. ‘You were mourning something else.’ But what? I don’t know. I just know I loathe my current life.

The sun disappeared early. I was still in our offices, but outside the sky was grey. I glanced at Ramin, he was minding his own business. I took my phone, and looked at the photographs from the soirée again. I paused at the picture of the two women. I zoomed in on their buttocks. I coughed and played Little Red Rooster again:

Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Watch out strange cat people
Little red rooster is on the prowl

Davoodi said, ‘Sorry, but could you please turn it down? We can hear it, too, you know?’ I stopped the music, then sent a cute dog video to Sarvenaz on Instagram. The night before, we didn’t have dinner. I’ve been doing all the cooking. I took out a few chicken nuggets from the fridge. By the time we’d returned from the triangular park, they’d defrosted. Amir’s nuggets are amazing. I have no idea how he makes the batter, but I can tell he uses a lot of garlic powder. I made salad. Chunky bits of lettuce, thick crescents of red onion, incidentally, from Qom which has the best onions, and generous splashes of olive oil. Nastaran didn’t eat the onions, she noted she had an ‘important’ meeting tomorrow and could not risk bad breath. She only had two nuggets, and even that after scrubbing away the delicious golden batter. After dinner, her plate looked horrid, like the remains of a war crime. I wish she hadn’t eaten the two nuggets at all, so I could wrap them in some Taftoon bread with lettuce and take to work for tomorrow’s lunch. After all these years, I still haven’t understood her food habits.

At night, I felt a sore throat developing. Before bed, I took Amoxicillin antibiotics to nip the flu in the bud. Monday was going to be the day of my work trip with Ramin, and I couldn’t travel sick. Before bed, as Nastaran was rubbing her face cream in circles, she said, ‘In Australia, you can’t just take antibiotics without a prescription. It’s forbidden.’ ‘Good night,’ I said, then took Yalom’s book from the bedside, ‘I’ll sleep later.’ I went to the living room and lay on the couch. Pablo sprawled by my feet. I could hear Nastaran stuffing a rolled towel under the bedroom door. Good for her. She quit smoking during the first year of our marriage.


Sunday

My voice was gone this morning. I still went to work. I didn’t tell anyone I was feeling unwell and shook hands with them all. I croaked at Ebrahim to pour honey and lime in my tea if he had any, and bring me a cup every hour. ‘Are you ill?’ He asked. ‘No.’ What a nosey guy. My dad called me around midday, asking for money. Told me stuff about someone threatening to take action on one of his cheques. I said I don’t have any money. And I really didn’t. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have given it to him. Why should I help out this randy old rooster? I was set to leave high school when my youngest brother was born; we’re an army! Most of us in Qom. I told my dad to give my love to my mother, and quickly said goodbye, on the pretext of rushing to a meeting.

I really did have a meeting. I was counting on Ramin. He’s great at these meetings with the clients. He knows the ins and outs of our job. He’s sharper than me. Healthier than me. Always making the right decision. One such decision being Sarvenaz. Ramin looks like a gorilla, I have no idea how he ever chatted up Sarvenaz. Sarvenaz told me they also have immigration plans. I didn’t ask the details. I’m like this. If someone tells me something I listen empathically, otherwise, I don’t pry. Especially if that someone is Sarvenaz. Although I’m a bit surprised about Ramin not telling me anything about their immigration plans. I will talk about this to Hakim Zadeh next week. Perhaps, one has to be secretive like Ramin? These are the unwritten rules of this society: a bit of secrecy doesn’t hurt. If someone follows these simple rules, they wouldn’t be in need of Hakim Zadeh and the likes of him. In my opinion, nobody really needs Hakim Zadeh. With all his framed certificates on the wall. Psychoanalysis workshops in Bulgaria. Three-day workshops in Baku. And so on. A wall of awards. But Sarvenaz is happy with him. But then, Sarvenaz is generally happy. Anyone who’s with her would be happy too. I don’t know. This might be her exterior. Like her white trainers. Or her ‘gel’ green nail varnish. Like her loose white manteau, which was floating like a flag of hope in the breezy alley of the café.

Ebrahim brought my fourth cup of tea in the afternoon. I didn’t smoke because of my sore throat. It worked. I wanted to treat myself on the way back home. I was careful not to get run over by the buses again. I even gave nasty glances to a few drivers, but I don’t think they noticed. On my way out, Ramin reminded me not to be late. I wanted to meet him at Mehr Abad airport. But he insisted he come and pick me up, so we could go together. I accepted. As soon as I got home, I brought out my suitcase. Nastaran’s sandwich-maker’s cardboard box was stacked on top of it. I threw it back into the closet, but it tumbled back and landed at my feet. I stamped on it a few times without really knowing why. When the box was good and destroyed at last, I got tearful. Pablo picked up the smashed cardboard box and ran to the living room, thinking it was a new game we were playing.


Monday

Ramin arrived on time. He was at ours at 5 in the morning. It was still dark. The streets were empty, and the trees naked. There was a pleasant heat in his car. When I saw Azadi square, I got tearful again. I didn’t want to leave Tehran. I wanted to smoke, but didn’t want to stink up Ramin’s car. And there wasn’t a long way left to the airport. The empty departure halls. The guard at the entrance put his arms up to my crotch. It tickled. I laughed. He gave me a nasty look, but let me in nonetheless. Ramin suggested going to the cafeteria as usual. Without asking me, he ordered sausage and egg, tea and orange juice for both of us. Then saved the receipt to get the reimbursement from the company. I put two full spoons of sugar in my tea, more than usual. Ramin and I ate everything. We were both hungry. Then Ramin said, let’s leave before it gets late. I swallowed my pill with my orange juice. I said, ‘I need to go out to smoke.’ He said, ‘didn’t you see it’s getting crowded and they are frisking everyone madly?’ He was right. I took my suitcase and we both joined the queue. I could feel the sausages swirling in my stomach. A few soundless burps escaped me, but it was no use. I checked our boarding pass. Iran Air. Tehran to Bandar Abbas. Safe. The queue was moving slowly. I told Ramin, ‘please hold on to my suitcase, I’m nipping to the loo.’ ‘It might get late,’ he said, ‘wait until we get to the other side of the gates, the bathrooms are also cleaner.’ I shook my legs restlessly, ‘I can’t hold it any longer, you go, and I’ll join you very soon.’ Then I gently pushed him in the queue, and went towards the bathroom. When I was done, I peeked at the queue from afar, Ramin was showing his boarding pass. He turned his head. I hid behind a thick pillar. When I was sure he’d passed, I left the airport. I was cold. My coat was only enough for Bandar Abbas weather. Good for sitting by Hotel Homa’s pool. But I was defenceless against Tehran’s cold. Defenceless. When I got in a cab, I murmured to myself a few times, ‘defenceless’. Defenceless against what? Ramin texted me ‘WHERE ARE YOU??????!!!!!!!!!’ with this many exclamation and question marks. I didn’t open his message. I removed the sim card from my mobile. I asked the driver to drive towards Golha Square. Then I consoled myself by putting in my earphones and singing along:

If you see my little red rooster
Please drive him home

When we passed Azadi Square again, I wound down my window. I was hesitant about asking the driver to change his direction and take the highway to Qom. The air smelt like bus fumes. I wound up the window, and asked myself, ‘What is there in Qom? Are you mad?!’ I recalled my Sensodyne toothpaste was in the suitcase I had left with Ramin, and then thought that chalk paste was probably fake anyway. When we reached Ramin’s street, I asked the driver to stop. I thanked and paid him and got out of the car. My heart was bouncing out of my chest. I have no idea why I took off my shoes and threw them in the bin. My feet felt cold on the asphalt. Then I walked to No. 13. I took a few deep breaths. A pebble stuck to my sock. I rubbed my foot against the calf of my other foot to clean it. Simply, I was free. I pressed the bell with such compelling determination that I knew I’d never known it in my life before.

Nikzad writes literary fiction and nonfiction. His debut novel, ‘Disappearance’ was published by Rowzaneh (@rowzanehnashr) in Iran, and his most recent translations include The ‘Last Wolf’ by László Krasznahorkai and ‘Repetition’ by Peter Handke. He is working on his second novel, to be published in 2023 by Saless (@salesspublication).

His blog—running for almost 20 years now—gained a dedicated readership in the Iranian blogosphere of the late 2000s.

The short story Rooster was selected and won an award in the Tehran Short Story Competition, 2020.

This is Nikzad’s Twitter account—although it’s mostly in Persian:
@khers69

Illustrated Woman, Helen Mort

What the wounded heart attempts – review: The Illustrated Woman, by Helen Mort

Craig Smith reviews The Illustrated Woman, by Helen Mort, published by Penguin.
The Illustrated Woman, Helen Mort
The Illustrated Woman - Helen Mort

The Illustrated Woman is the latest collection of poems by Helen Mort, published by Penguin. It is a study of the human form and human agency, predominantly the agency women have for their own lives and bodies, and what happens when that agency is denied them.

I’ll state up front: I love Helen Mort’s poetry. Her writing is taut, lyrical, kind, brave, intelligent, beautiful. She is a writer totally in control of the words on the page. The Illustrated Woman is Mort at her angriest, most righteous, most affronted. It also finds her at her most tender, open, positive, joyful. For example, in the opening poem, ‘Failsafe’:

      Lean towards me
      so September’s a tipped flame,
      your body’s a struck match,

      let all this catch
      and take, sip lager
      from the day’s unsteady glass

But for the reference to lager, this could be a lyric from Cole Porter. The sounds sit together nicely: the rhymes/half rhymes of match, catch and glass; the alliteration of lean, let, lager, flame, glass; the images clear and enjoyable. These are satisfying poems.

When she is angry, Mort’s writing has a dignity that makes her argument persuasive and vital. At her most gentle, her language is strong, muscular, and no word is wasted. Every phrase is taut, like it’s relaxing after a trip down the gym. It would be a fruitless exercise to ask a workshop to strip out the extraneous language from Mort’s poems. It’s as if, when she was a kid, she was told she couldn’t go out until she’d removed every stray adjective, errant sentence construction, dubious syntax from her work, and the message stuck with her. Or more likely, she took her poems to a workshop and they were ripped apart, and vowed not to leave herself open to that humiliation again. Her poems demonstrate not just innate ability, but hard work, the craft of the edit, the refusal to give up until every burr has been rounded off. We, the readers, benefit from this. Here’s an example, from ‘Bearings’:

      Now, south is a lie
      always in my wrist,
      palm and fingertips.
      My clavicle and heart
      must pass for north.

Mort operates predominantly from within a square bounded by Chesterfield (where she grew up), Sheffield, and the Pennines to the west of both. Her poetry is unarguably northern poetry. There is a qualitative difference between writing from the North of England and elsewhere. I don’t mean better or worse, just different. These are poems set to a backdrop of former heavy industries, of transport systems on the point of collapse, of nature and the town side by side, battling it out. She takes to the hills and lakes for peace, for exercise, for perspective, for transcendence. Most of her writing has nature as a backdrop, either explicitly or at the back of her mind:

      makes the woods a mystery
      of dog-scent, winter mulch.

      Pre-dawn, when Sharrow Vale
      and Psalter Lane lie down to weep
      (‘Rain in a Head torch’)

In ‘Love Poem’:

      It’s bee orchids and cuckoo spit, sunk, swollen mattresses,
      a girl’s reflection by the lock, the ghosts of narrow boats,
      the lost dog who lives like a fox, split ear and puddled eyes,
      roaming the undergrowth, finding the copse where a man
      sleeps rough in his orange survival bag.

Though she is utterly her own poet, the writer she most reminds me of in her use of language is Seamus Heaney. They both strip nature and humanity to its essentials:

      the diagonals of her crutches,
      shell-scoops of her breasts,
      the folded cloth of her back
      and the jut of her new hip.
      (‘Dear Body’)

The Illustrated Woman is divided into three sections: ‘skin’; ‘skinless’; ‘-skinned’. ‘skin’ is Mort’s study of her family, her body, of the open air, and the skin she wears: background, backdrop, and her body as her own personal foreground. ‘skinless’ is about motherhood, namely the journey through child-bearing and the young life of her son. ‘-skinned’ contains an assortment of poems, including the multi-part poem, ‘Deepfake: a pornographic ekphrastic’, which I’ll get to in a minute, as it needs to be discussed on its own.

Within ‘skin’ sits the mini-collection, ‘The Illustrated Woman’ (from which the book gets its name). This is an array of short poems that looks at the history, culture and art of the tattoo. In ‘Lou’, she writes:

      … we have chosen to surface
      what’s inside and wear it brightly.

In other words, it’s my body, and I want it to look like this. ‘Creation Myth with Rotary Machine’ is about her own experience beneath the needle:

      & the streams did what skin does
      as it heals
      or what the wounded heart attempts
      and she had to pause
      to soften them.

‘Dime show’ is Mort’s multi-part poem about famous/infamous tattooed women of American burlesque, before tattoos were prevalent as a work of art or statement of empowerment. Most of the women she describes were put-upon and, in the telling of the poem, are shown as victims of a bully, (‘Nora Hildebrandt’). Others were forced to be tattooed, but then owned it, and used the ink beneath their skin as a mark of their independence, (‘Irene Woodward’). Others found refuge in places where the tattoo was a sign of belonging (‘Olive Oatman’), and it was only when they were removed from those settings that they were seen as strange or challenging.

A theme through The Illustrated Woman is the inherited traits that bind or curse, the hand-me-downs which are not always welcome, such as health issues. In ‘Precious’, she writes:

      She has taken
      good care of this pain so that one day I will

      inherit it, slip it on at night and wear it forever,
      gleaming and slim.

These are poems that I am sure were tough to write, because they are tough to read, but they speak to poetry’s ability to prepare us for what faces us.

The hardest poem to talk about purely as poetry, is ‘Deep fake, a pornographic ekphrastic’. This was Mort’s response to a vile, misogynistic, cowardly act that she handled with dignity and bravery. The poem is, among other actions, Mort’s chosen route to take back control.

      II. HOW I WANT MY BLONDE GF USED
      Here I’m grinning from a frame of blue, Ibizan sky.
      Here is a woman with two men between her thighs.
      Here I’m on holiday, freckled and sun flecked.
      Here is a man with his hands around my neck.
      Here I’m pregnant with my son.
      Here is a body overrun.

The poem is full of lines of distilled fury: ‘This is language reduced to words.’ ‘This is me using you hard in a poem/where I decide what’s shown.’ ‘the sound of history forgetting you.’ I could quote the whole poem, and you should read it, even if you don’t read the whole collection. (But really, buy the whole collection!) ‘Deep fake…’ demonstrates the value of poetry to document the emotional devastation behind crimes to the person, and how art maybe cannot heal, as such, but it can start the process, and is vital in its capacity to call out wrong.

The Illustrated Woman is a rich collection of strong, skilful poems that demonstrate bravery and tenderness in equal measure. These are poems to be returned to again and again, with something new showing itself with every reading. I recommend it, heartily.

CRAIG SMITH IS A POET AND NOVELIST FROM HUDDERSFIELD. HIS WRITING HAS APPEARED ON WRITERS REBEL, ATRIUM, IAMBAPOET AND THE MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE REVIEW, AS WELL BEING A WINNER OF THE POETRY ARCHIVE NOW! WORDVIEW 2022.
CRAIG HAS THREE BOOKS TO HIS NAME: POETRY COLLECTIONS, L.O.V.E. LOVE (SMITH/DOORSTOP) AND A QUICK WORD WITH A ROCK AND ROLL LATE STARTER, (RUE BELLA); AND A NOVEL, SUPER-8 (BOYD JOHNSON).
HE IS CURRENTLY WORKING TOWARD AN MA IN CREATIVE WRITING AT BIRKBECK UNIVERSITY, WHERE HE IS THE JOINT MANAGING EDITOR OF MIR ONLINE
TWITTER: @CLATTERMONGER
Woollen socks (NZ issue 1970) - Sergeant - RNZAMC - ANZUK Singapore Forces - 1971-1974 Belonged to Sgt. Colin Whyte, Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps, 1959-1971

Bobby, by Alison Theresa Gibson

Do you remember the day we met? You were driving a truck with CWA imprinted on the side. Country Women’s Association. Those do-gooding women doing good by sending a twenty-year-old girl through the long roads of northern New South Wales alone, in the name of supporting the troops. The fact that Sydney had just been bombed made them more determined to be visible, rather than more cautious with you and your life. The troops needed their muesli bars and their socks, and you had a driver’s license. If it were any other woman in that situation I would have said of course, get on with it. But you, with those pale hands clenching the steering wheel, peering down the dark highway while the ghostly bush pressed in on you, straining to sing your favourite songs over the engine just to keep yourself company – you shouldn’t have been there.

Of course, I was familiar with how oppressive the bush is for a woman alone at night. I had been driving for almost three hours myself, in that rusted up deathtrap I’d ‘borrowed’ from the red-faced farmer. I had thought I could make it to the coast before dark but the jangling of the engine turned into an ominous rattle and I had to pull over. It was fine, of course, I’ve slept in plenty of backseats, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

I heard your truck approaching long before you would have seen me. I kept my head down, presuming whatever country lad was driving would think my car was abandoned and continue past. When your engine stopped I admit I panicked slightly. The silence was absolute once the engine ticked off and I had no idea who was behind the wheel. I kept my head down and listened. You opened the truck door. Cautiously, but softly too. Gently. Like a woman. You probably thought I was reckless, throwing myself out of a broken-down car in the middle of nowhere without knowing who was waiting for me. You had left the headlights on and they blinded me. You were behind the open driver’s door, sheltering in case I was a monster, but something about me kept you standing there. I’m not sure what it was: my dirty white cocktail dress, my bare feet, or maybe just a sense of loyalty to another woman out there alone. Whatever it was, I still remember your voice when you called to me from the darkness.

‘What’s happened to your car?’

You were nothing but a silhouette behind the headlights, but your voice was sweet, concerned, and something else. I had the distinct impression that you would try to fix the car and send me on my way. Already – after only five words – I knew I didn’t want that to happen.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, hopping forward, the tarmac rough on my bare feet. I went straight to the passenger door. The glow of the headlights cast your face into strange shadows, but your features were delicate and your hair was fine gold wisps. ‘Where are you heading?’

‘I’m staying in Byron Bay tonight – ’ you said.

‘Perfect.’ I opened the passenger door. I could see your trained politeness fighting your instinct, or perhaps CWA policy, not to let a stranger inside your vehicle.

‘What about your car?’

‘It’s not mine, darling.’ The affectionate word made you think I was glamorous, the dirtiness of my white cocktail dress an aberration in what must normally be a dazzling life.

I arranged a shawl around my shoulders as I settled into the passenger seat. The cabin smelled musty, but with a sweetness from your perfume. You pulled the door shut behind you, still with that gentleness as though you had to be careful not to hurt the giant metal truck. ‘I’m Bobby,’ I said, and held out my hand.

‘Silvie.’ It was like shaking hands with a child whose bones and muscles have yet to strengthen beneath their skin.

The truck roared as we took off along the highway.

‘Why are you going to Byron?’ you asked. I thought about lying, did you know that? I thought about making myself sound smaller, more stable, a person who would fit in the same world as those fragile hands gripping the steering wheel. But that’s never been my style.

‘My husband lives there.’

You tried to look at me from the corner of your eye and I knew what you were going to ask. I loved that I knew you so well, already.

‘Don’t you live there too, then?’

‘I don’t live anywhere, darling.’

You took a cigarette from a silver case that was propped beside the gearstick. You offered me one and I took it, even though they were too heavy for me. They’re the ones you can get with rations but I have ways of procuring lighter ones. Pre-war cigarettes make life feel normal again.

‘Are you married?’ I asked, when we had both wound down our windows and the truck was full of gushing air.

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

You picked at something in your front teeth, a scrap of tobacco perhaps.

‘All the men are at war,’ you said. Your hands shifted on the steering wheel and the engine whined as your foot grew heavier on the accelerator.

‘And so you work for the CWA,’ I said. It sounded judgemental, although I swear I didn’t mean it to. Perhaps I had just spent too much time alone.

‘I do. There are socks and muesli bars in the back and the troops need them.’

‘Hand-knitted socks?’

You nodded. I had guessed there were muesli bars because of the greaseproof paper you had left under the seat, but the socks were news to me. I scrabbled around in the dark behind our seats. I found a pair of long grey socks and pulled them onto my bare feet. They were knitted for a man and the rounded heel stuck out from my ankle like a growth but they were warm.

‘You can’t take those,’ you said.

‘My feet are cold.’

‘But it’s not like the muesli bars, they only get one pair each.’ One of your hands floated off the wheel like you wanted to pull the socks off me.

‘I’ll learn to knit when we get to Byron and I’ll make them fifty more pairs, how about that?’ I stuck my feet up on the dashboard. The wool was scratchy but soft and I knew they looked ridiculous with my dress but I didn’t care. You smiled.

‘The troops are in Sydney, not Byron,’ you said.

‘You’re driving all the way to Sydney?’

‘Yep.’ You straightened your shoulders a little, and I loved how proud of yourself you were.

‘Now that sounds exciting. I’d love a trip to Sydney, even if it is a bloody warzone right now.’ My feet were wiggling on the dashboard but you weren’t paying them any attention.

‘I wanted to join the Red Cross but they wouldn’t let me. I had TB a few years ago. If they had I would have been in Sydney this whole time.’

‘But then you wouldn’t have been available to drive the socks around!’ I lifted my feet to emphasise their vital role in the war effort.

‘It’s an important job, you know.’ You frowned at me and I was sorry for my teasing. ‘Someone has to do it.’

‘I’m sure someone does.’

As the silence stretched between us, I did what I always do: I started singing. You joined in, quietly, but you grew stronger and stronger until your voice carried over the engine. At Last. We sang together and I knew by the waver in your voice that singing on the open road was the most liberated you had ever felt.

The engine was whining louder again as you slowed down and turned off the highway. The headlights picked up a sign that said Welcome to Byron Bay. We meandered through small, dark streets. The nocturnal birds were loud, even over the truck. I wondered what had happened to the birds in Sydney, and if there were any watching over the burning harbour.

‘Where should I leave you?’ you said, and I wanted to say nowhere, let’s keep driving, but instead I said,

‘Oh, anywhere is fine.’

‘But where is your husband? Where are you staying?’ You were heading towards the beach. I didn’t know if you realised that the darkness ahead of us was the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon.

‘You know, the thing they don’t tell you when you get married is that you don’t actually have to live with your husband.’

‘But don’t you love him?’ There was something about how you said the word, love, that made me realise you had never felt it. It held only the sentiment of novels, a dash of Gone with the Wind, nights spent dreaming alone.

‘I love lots of people, darling.’ I reached over and you let me squeeze your hand where it lay relaxed on the gearstick. You were more comfortable here, in the small streets of a small town, than on the open highway.

‘I’m staying at the CWA hall, it should be down here.’ You peered through the windscreen.

I saw the hall a moment before you did. It was dark. No one had waited up for you, or even left a dimmed lamp on.

You turned off the engine and in the sudden silence you said, ‘I’m leaving early in the morning, but will you bring a pair of socks first thing to replace those ones?’

There was a shout and you jumped as a few figures hurried past on the darkened street. It was a shout of fun though, of mirth not danger.

‘Sure, darling, whatever you’d like.’ Perhaps you believed me, but I suspect not. You surely had me figured out at that point. I’m an open book, unlike you with your pale hands and monstrous truck.

We pulled ourselves from the truck and in the tangy, salty wind I held out my hand.

‘Thanks for the ride, darling.’

‘You could stay here, if you like,’ you said. You kept a grip on my fingers. Your mouth was a black blur in the pale moon of your face. ‘If you’re not staying with your husband, I mean. We could – talk – some more.’

‘Talking isn’t quite what I had in mind for tonight.’ You tried to pull your fingers away as a red flush crept into your cheeks but I held on. ‘You could come with me, if you’re not ready to go to sleep yet.’

Music and voices were drifting over to us from the street where the figures had wandered down. I knew the way. I knew what was waiting for us down there, but you didn’t. You glanced into the darkness, your fingers had turned limp in mine.

‘It’ll be fun,’ I said, keeping my voice soft so as not to startle you.

‘I didn’t know people still had fun.’

My heart broke a little for you then. So young, your adolescence spent in wartime, a country held by fear, driving highways you had no business navigating alone.

‘Oh darling, now you have to come with me! I can’t let you drive into a warzone without a night of wonder.’ I pulled you along and you came willingly. We linked arms and you let us walk slowly as I negotiated the road in my feet, clad only in hand-knitted wool.

The music and voices grew louder. Most of the houses on that street had open doors and windows and there were people, more people than I’m sure you had ever seen at eleven o’clock at night. Women and men in loose clothing with cigarettes dangling from their lips. A familiar voice called to me from a balcony and I called back but didn’t stop. The open doorway beckoned. I knew you would feel better once we were enclosed somewhere safe.

The Blues Shack was the first bar I ever went to, and I wanted to show it to you. I wanted you to experience it the way that I had, as somewhere exciting, oozing joy, and a safe place to experiment with who you might want to be.

The single room was packed with people and the three balconies were open to the night air. The sound of the ocean was a constant thrumming under the crowd. Hands clasped at me as I pulled you through the room, and I smiled and greeted and smiled again but I never let go of your hand, do you remember that? I kept you close to me. The air pressed in on us, thick with musty body odour and sweet alcohol. Jeremiah was thumping hard on the piano, his fingers making the noise of six hands instead of two. He caught my eye and winked. You started coughing from the cigarette smoke hanging over our heads and I wanted to blow it away from you, to let you breathe easier.

‘Will you have a drink?’ I asked, my mouth close to your ear so you could hear me.

‘Sure.’ I couldn’t hear you but I saw your lips make the shape of the word. One of your hands crept up to cover the CWA logo on your chest.

‘What will you drink, darling?’ I asked, tugging at your hand so the world could see the logo.

‘Oh,’ you looked panicked. ‘I don’t know!’ Some people would have faked nonchalance but not you.

A young man was nearby, facing us, and he caught my eye. He was closer to your age than mine, and had red hair. I lay a few fingers on his forearm and drew him closer.

‘Two sidecars, darling. If you wouldn’t mind.’

He watched my teeth as I smiled and then he turned to push his way towards the bar. A man appeared in the parting crowd and winked at me. I felt you looking at him, intrigued, but you became flustered when he winked at you. Your hands flew to your hair as though the wisps needed fixing.

‘Relax,’ I said, taking one of your hands in mine. Jeremiah had started a new song and I clicked along, knowing he had chosen it for me.

‘How do you know so many people if you don’t live here?’ you asked.

‘I visit a lot.’

‘Because of your husband?’

‘Because I like it here.’ I hummed along, hoping you would stop talking.

‘Doesn’t your husband mind you knowing all these other men?’

‘Too many questions, Silvie, just relax.’ It came out harsher than I intended, and I knew using your name instead of darling was an obvious rebuff. I felt guilty and kissed the back of your hand, but that made you look even more uncomfortable, and you pulled away.

‘Here you are!’ The young, red-haired man was at our side with our drinks.

‘You’re an absolute treasure,’ I said.

We cradled our drinks and surveyed the crowd. I saw a white shirt and green bowtie through the mass of bodies and was relieved to be distracted from your discomfort. ‘Gerald!’

There is something about Gerald’s height that means he always makes a good first impression, and that night was no different.

‘Bobby,’ he said, kissing my cheek. ‘You look delightful as always.’ He looked me up and down. ‘I particularly like the socks. And who’s this?’

‘Silvie is my newest friend.’ I took your hand again. ‘She’s driving to Sydney tomorrow and needed a final wild night before heading into battle.’

‘A final wild night?’ Gerald raised his eyebrows, his eyes travelling over your CWA uniform. ‘Or, maybe a first wild night?’

You blushed and stammered something we couldn’t hear, but Gerald laughed anyway.

‘Gerald is my husband,’ I said.

‘It sounds so serious when you say it like that!’ he said.

‘It is serious, darling, haven’t you heard?’

He extricated your hand from mine and held it close to his chest.

‘Ignore her, she takes nothing seriously!’

‘That’s not true at all! Don’t listen to him, Silvie, I take having fun very seriously.’ Gerald and I roared with laughter but you didn’t seem to get the joke. You sipped your drink and looked away.

‘She’s precious,’ Gerald whispered in my ear so that you couldn’t hear him. ‘Don’t ruin her.’

‘As if I would,’ I said, grateful for the heaving noise blanketing our voices. My glass was empty and I tapped at yours to prompt you to finish it. You did, like the good girl I knew you were. Your eyes were on Jeremiah at the piano, who was playing faster, more brash, than ever. A woman slinked onto the stage and whispered in his ear, and in only a moment he had switched to The Way You Look Tonight. Your mouth opened in surprise, in delight.

‘So, what would make Silvie’s night more memorable?’ Gerald asked, dropping an arm around each of us.

‘Let’s see,’ I said. ‘She’s driving alone, for days on end, to deliver hand-knitted socks to troops in Sydney. Those troops will carry those socks to Singapore, or Papua New Guinea, where it will be too hot to wear such carefully crafted wool. What could possibly make her feel better about a situation like that?’ I laughed.

‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard!’ Gerald exclaimed. I thought you would be hurt by our words, thought I would need to comfort you, but you grew taller, squared your shoulders as though ready to fight me and I knew your pride was getting in the way of understanding what we were trying to do. I slipped my hand into yours.

‘Imagine Sydney is bombed again while you’re there. What will you wish you’d done?’ I knew even as I said the words that you wouldn’t answer me, but your eyes darted to the stage where that unknown woman was singing. Your eyes gave you away. A loud man stinking of whiskey fell against us but I pulled you away from him. ‘Come with me.’

I led you onto the stage as the song ended and the woman slipped away. You clutched your empty glass like you could hide your nerves behind it.

‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ I called over the crowd, but it only increased the general roaring. ‘My apologies for being out of town but I was scouting the east coast for the most talented singer I could find. And look…I found her!’ I held your hand above your head so everyone could see you. They cheered. ‘She might be disguised as a CWA volunteer, but tonight, for one night only, she’s going to sing for us!’ Your face was frozen. I pulled you around to face me. ‘Tell me you don’t want to and we’ll leave the stage right now,’ I said in your ear. You looked at me so intensely with those pale eyes glinting in the darkness.

‘I’ll do it,’ you said, leaning forward so your cheek almost pressed against mine. ‘But only if you sing with me.’

I hadn’t realised how much I had hoped you would say that. I turned to Jeremiah and whispered the song title to him. He launched straight into it and we were off. At last. Your voice was higher than mine, and sweet, but we melded together. Our voices flew stronger and the crowd became quieter, listening to us. We stood together, my arm around your waist, and we swayed to the music. At the end of each line, the crowd cheered. Most of them had separated into couples, holding onto each other, moving to the music. It was a room of love, or lust. When the song ended you fell into my arms. There was sweat across your forehead, damp wisps of hair stuck to your skin.

Gerald was calling us down from the stage, handing us drinks, pulling us into the crowd where we were cheered and jostled and hugged by warm smiling bodies. Your face shone and your hands held me close to you.

‘Thank you!’ Your breath was hot on my cheek.

‘This doesn’t have to be the end, you know,’ I said.

‘The end of what?’

‘Happiness.’ I didn’t know if you knew what I meant and before I could be sure, Gerald threw his arms around us and we were all dancing. Jeremiah thumped out tune after tune and we sang until our voices grew raspy.

When we left the bar there was a hint of orange over the horizon. We stumbled down to the beach with Gerald, singing in barely-there croaks, your hands warm around my waist. The air was impossibly fresh after the crowded bar. The sand was soft under our feet and we stopped in unison. The easternmost point of Australia, staring into the endless Pacific Ocean, with just a glint of morning sun. You looked like you had never seen anything so perfect.

We walked with our feet in the water, cold from the lingering night, and talked about everything and anything. The lighthouse sent its beam over us in steady beats. I held your hand with my right, Gerald’s with my left. I had walked that sand with Gerald so many times but it felt different with you. Like I could see each grain as it washed over our feet. Like I could feel each particle of salt air that I breathed in.

‘It doesn’t feel like there’s a war on,’ you said.

Gerald stopped, raised his hands to the sky, and yelled, ‘Come and get us!’

You giggled and pulled his hands down. We walked on and he dropped back, splashing in the waves, picking at shells. I looped your arm tightly through mine.

‘It is like another world here, don’t you think?’ you said, so only I could hear.

‘Stick with me, darling, and it’ll be your world forever. No more driving for hours with nothing but socks for company!’ You laughed but I saw a flash of hurt in your eyes so I added, ‘But of course, someone’s got to do it.’ And you squeezed my arm in gratitude.

A scuffling noise came from behind us and Gerald was there, squeezing between us, his arms around our shoulders. ‘South of the border!’ he bellowed. I wished he would go away. ‘Down Sydney way!’ You joined in so I did too. You knew all the words and we danced as we sang and splashed through the incoming tide.

We lay in the sand, curled against Gerald’s side as the sun rose higher. He was snoring lightly and we were growing sleepy but I didn’t want to let go of the night yet.

‘I mean it, you know,’ I said. ‘You should stay. Your talent is wasted with the CWA.’ I took your hand and kissed your cold fingers. Grains of sand stuck to my lips. ‘This could be your life.’

‘Singing in Byron?’

‘Singing everywhere! We could go anywhere. People would love us.’

‘I’ll come back,’ you said it like you really believed it. ‘After taking the truck to Sydney, I’ll come back and we could – ’

I let your hand drop into the sand.

‘I won’t be here anymore, darling. But, do what you think you have to do.’

There were tears in your eyes and I didn’t know what else to say, so I kissed you until you stopped crying.

Pauline told me that you had come by earlier. Pauline, with her terrible CWA haircut and pink lipstick on her teeth, told me that ‘the lovely young lady’ who was supposed to drive the truck to Sydney had come by that morning ‘and she just up and quit!’ Pauline couldn’t believe it. She said you had sat there while she gave you tea and bread with jam, and you’d eaten it all as though you hadn’t eaten in days. When you were finished you stood up, with a glazed look on your face, and said she would have to find someone else to drive ‘those bloody socks’ to Sydney.

Your tantrum was my lifeboat, although you didn’t know it then.

I can guess where you went when you stormed out of the CWA, leaving behind the truck full of responsibilities and the long lonely drive to Sydney. You would have gone back to the beach to see if you could find me. Our slightly tearful farewell would have been playing in your mind, and you would have hurried along the sand looking for the shape of me among the growing throng of morning walkers. But I wasn’t there. How long did you search for me? Did you grow desperate with the need to see me and tell me what you’d done? Were you bursting with pride that you had done something reckless and impulsive, just like I would have done?

Gerald told me that when he saw you, you had a burning light in your eyes. Almost feverish, he said. You were feverish with the need to see me and hold me again.

‘Poor Silvie,’ he said to me. ‘You really did a number on her.’

‘Are you sure?’ Pauline asked. She didn’t trust me, you see, not after you, a much nicer young lady, had already done a runner. Luckily for me, she didn’t have much choice.

‘Absolutely,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been doing my part for the war effort, this is the least I can do.’

‘And you know how to drive a vehicle of this size?’

‘My father’s farm had much larger vehicles and I was driving those when I was thirteen. I’ll be fine.’

‘Okay then,’ she said. She looked relieved as she handed over the keys, and finally rubbed that pink lipstick off her teeth. ‘If you’re sure. Drive safely, but get there as soon as you can. The truck was supposed to be on the road an hour ago.’

‘I won’t let you down,’ I said, as I took the keys. Not like that other young lady, I could have said, but I didn’t. As I climbed into the driver’s seat, her eyes hovered over the now raggedy socks on my feet. A questioning look flickered across her face, but I slammed the door shut before she could ask. The cabin still smelled like your perfume.

I manoeuvred the truck onto the road and pointed it in the direction of Sydney. I wondered if you could see me. I wondered if you were, at that moment, watching me sitting in the driver’s seat. If you knew what was going on or if you were waving at me, running after me, trying to frantically to get my attention. To tell me that you were staying, so we could stay together.

It was a nice thought, of course, us being together in Byron, travelling the east coast, but it would never have lasted. You would have been in tears and clinging to me long before the next bomb hit, and we would have been stuck together. Life and death situations do that, you see, they make people cling to whoever is closest, and not just for a night. Luckily for me, I had known from the way you clasped my hands as we said goodbye, and in the set of your shoulders as you walked away from me, that you weren’t going to drive to Sydney. You would try, because you were a good girl. You’d go to the CWA hall and try to make yourself get in that truck, but I knew you wouldn’t be able to leave me. All I had to do was wait.

I’ve always wanted to go to Sydney, and I knew way back when we were on that highway, driving together through the dark bush, that that was my adventure to live, not yours. My hands gripped the steering wheel and my voice carried easily over the roar of the truck as I drove away.

Alison Theresa Gibson grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and currently lives in Birmingham, UK. She has words in a number of publications, including Spelk, Litro, Crack the Spine, Meanjin, Sunlight Press, and Every Day Fiction. She was nominated for Best Small Fictions in 2020 and Best of the Net in 2019. She recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at University of Birmingham.

Image: Wikimedia – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Woollen socks (NZ issue 1970) – Sergeant – RNZAMC – ANZUK Singapore Forces – 1971-1974 Belonged to Sgt. Colin Whyte, Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps, 1959-1971

The Fish - Joanna Stubbs

The Fish, by Joanna Stubbs – Review

Joe Platt reviews The Fish, by Joanna Stubbs, published by Fairlight Books
The Fish - Joanne Stubbs
The Fish - Joanne Stubbs

‘It’s a fish.’ Cathy finds a fish living in her rice paddy in Cornwall, which leads to the question: what would happen if fish invaded the land due to the effects of climate change? This is the first fish-on-land incident in a chain of events which author, Stubbs, terms a ‘big existential event’.

This is climate fiction – the ascendent fiction genre. Climate fiction focuses on the effects of climate change on characters and societies, and uses the themes of speculative science-fiction to address the economic, political and social issues of the day.

But The Fish does not search for the reasons behind this fishy invasion. Instead, it focuses on the everyday tribulations of its three main characters in the context of this ‘big existential event’: a young man coming to terms with the possibilities of his future as he comes up to university age in New Zealand (Ricky); a woman questioning her faith and place in the world in Kuala Lumpur (Margaret); and Cathy, who feels the strain of distance from her partner, molecular biologist Ephie, who works away from home due to the fish.

As the plot progresses, these everyday tribulations are amplified by encounters with fish and other once-sea-creatures. Cathy argues with Ephie on the way back from seeing family. The conversation, as with those that follow, is full of interesting turns of phrase and light humour, but is punctuated by the sight of a beach covered in bright, orange starfish. Ricky and his friend Kyle get drunk; we discover that both characters are affected by their parental relationships. The session is interrupted by the sighting of thousands of fish escaping from a shipwrecked boat’s nets onto the land. Meanwhile, Margaret visits the red-light district in KL to pass on her religious teachings to those she believes need it. We see how her faith is being tested. The scene is ended by the necessity to wade through water to return to her Church.

The story continues in this vein. The severity of the characters’ personal issues increases in proportion to the effect of the fish on society. It is the characters’ responses to these trends, however – particularly those of Margaret and Cathy – which demonstrate the difficulty of dealing with everyday problems in the face of big existential events. Though the germ of the idea for The Fish was formed in 2016, it brings to mind the 2020 pandemic.

The reader is left wondering where the central plots of the novel are going, what the personal trials are leading to, whether the fish have any direct effect on the characters’ big decisions, and even why Stubbs has chosen these three characters to follow during the invasions.

Climate fiction is the next big thing out of necessity. If art’s purpose is to reflect society in a way that only a given form can, then society’s biggest concerns must be a big part of the output of that form. This makes speculative fiction a fertile ground for exploration. However, perhaps an opportunity has been missed here to explore the reasons behind the invasion and its potential effect. Climate change is mentioned in a superficial way. We never discover why the threat has arisen, nor is it suggested what the characters or society can do to counter it.

Instead, we are left with what feel like random developments in the characters’ lives, and none of the stories feel complete. Even Ricky, who is perhaps most affected by the fish for the better – he is inspired by the negative public reaction to the fish to go to university – doesn’t show urgency to change his behaviour in light of developments. Meanwhile, Cathy and Margaret are disgusted by the fish, and let their revulsion negatively affect their lives. Margaret is deeply fearful even before the negative effects of the invasion are discussed. At times, her view echoes broader, conservative opinion.

If Stubbs set out explore how humans have the capacity to worry about ‘big existential events’ when they also face everyday problems, she has succeeded. Perhaps the conclusion is that in the most part, humans tend to care only about what affects them directly. This is a sad conclusion, but one we should fight, given that it can only lead to societal failure.

Joe Platt is working towards an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, where he is a staff copy editor on MIR Online.
Sneakers_CARIUMA - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

The Rhythm, by Anu Pohani

It’s English class. You sit behind me. I start the note. Something simple. Not witty, how about – ‘good weekend?’

Your precise handwriting comes back, ‘pretty good. Soccer game.’

‘You win?’ I write back. Each time her back is turned we pass the paper. I wish I could write something cleverer, with innuendo.

‘Nope. 0-1. You didn’t want to come see us get our asses kicked?’

‘Rehearsals,’ I write back. I could have run over after rehearsals, but I can’t bare that face. The face that sees me, waves, and forgets. I want a different face so badly; I’d rather see no face at all.

Can I please be that Girl for you? The one who might wear your varsity jacket someday? And then everything will be ok.

‘Come next time. Might help us win.’

Our fingers touch as the note goes back and forth. ‘Shakespeare is annoying,’ you write.

‘Shakespeare has his moments, but in Mrs __ hands, shoot me now.’

‘If I shot you now, who would make the class go by?’ There it is. Does anyone else see it? I think I see something. Did I put it there, or please oh please tell me you put it there? Don’t tell me it’s in my imagination.

‘OK fine, I’ll live. Only if you walk me to math after class,’ I write. It’s bold. But I must know. I want to pull you out of hiding.

‘I’m going in the other direction. Why can’t you be in my science class instead?’ Of course, it’s not the yes, I want. But please tell me someone, you see, it’s there, right?

‘I think she is on to us. Good thing that there are only innocent, nice things in here.’ I write, hand it back to you.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

For the remainder of third period, there is no small tap or scratch on my back. I think that you think, she is on to us. I think that you think you shouldn’t write back. I am heartbroken. I hope for more. I know I am imagining your breath on my back.

I can see your foot, your scuffed cool-kid sneakers, laces undone, next to my seat. You are sitting low in the chair behind me; I can picture you slouching without turning around. The warmth of your arm radiates against my back. Ostensibly it acts as a shield so no one can see you writing, but the feel of it across my shoulder blades makes me warm between my legs.

I love the way you smell. Sometimes I go to the supermarket with my mom and smell all the different fabric softeners, one by one, to see which one your mom uses so I can make mine use it, too. Then I can smell you all the time.

My book bag is between the chair leg and your leg. There is an outside zipper pocket. I can hear it slowly being pulled open; I can see your hand putting something in there. We start with an ordinary sheet of paper, torn from my notebook. You fold it with precision, sharp corners. Origami. You lean forwards when class ends, before I can turn around.

‘Open it when you get home,’ you say.

Your averted eyes at lunch tell me something else. Your arms around other girls. You took your lunch outside to the courtyard. You are sitting with Ari, Melissa, and Nicole.

I am a simple being, an ugly being. Nose too sharp, and everything brown, way too brown against your pinkness. I’ll eat inside with the Theatre Kids, where I belong. We don’t like the sun; we prefer to be pale, Goth. No amount of shade is going to make me pale.

Faux Theatre Kid, then.

I take a seat with a view out the double doors directly at you. Soccer boys, and pretty girls. What would I do there?

You must feel me staring. Finally, I look away because I have hurt myself enough watching you keep some other girl warm in the way-too-late autumn. I don’t understand. It is freezing cold, and this girl is still in shorts. What if no one cared to keep her warm? I bet that is what would happen to me. It’s fine, I’ll see you at sixth period.

You could have picked the end with the big drums, where all the boys went, but you came to the middle and so did I. It’s here too, isn’t it? We sit and our knees touch. When we stand, sometimes, I lean into you. Sometimes, you lean back, tilt slightly towards me. I think your body is saying, ‘I like it when you are close.’ I’ll hang on to that because when the clock strikes 2:54, you are going to race off with Ari to soccer practice, where you belong.

Today, I can’t bear to feel your heat. I still hurt from lunch, but I smile at you anyway, in a hopefully nonchalant way. You pat the zipper pocket of my backpack, reminding me there is something in there for me, for later. For when I am alone. A corner of my mind wants to set it alight without reading it. I tell it to shut up.

At home, it’s busy. I have chores. Mom sometimes opens my bag and helps to put things away. So, I move the note from my zipper pocket into my jeans pocket. The front one where a sharp corner can dig into my thigh and remind me that the something that might or might not be there is sitting against my skin. Eventually, I hide in the bathroom and open the note.

It’s a doodle of your dog. I think it’s a St. Bernard from all the fur and shading. Underneath it, you write, ‘Can you study with me for History? Come over Wednesday after school? Call me XXX-XXX-XXXX.’ There it is. Your phone number, but you aren’t asking me out.

In the time Mom drives from my house to yours, I sweat through my t-shirt. Mom comes in with me to talk to your Mom. I hear them laughing in the kitchen while you and I play with Alfie in the living room. Mom leaves without saying goodbye. Your mom comes into the living room when mine is gone.

‘So, where were you planning to set up?’ she says. I can feel the blood rise to my cheeks. Good thing for brown skin. Hopefully neither one of you can see me blush.

You shrug and say something non-committal. ‘Why don’t you set up in the kitchen? I’ll watch TV in here.’ The way your mom says it, I know. My mother has mentioned she prefers me not to be in your bedroom with you unsupervised. She sees something: studying as code word for something else. My heart beats faster.

In your kitchen, at your dining table, we sit at a right angle, heads bent over my notes. I hope I don’t smell bad. My palms are wet.

I come over often enough. Mom doesn’t escort me in anymore. It’s a good thing too, because sometimes, your mom is out so we study in your bedroom. A tiny attic room where the only place for two people to be is on your bed. Sometimes our stockinged feet touch.

I’ve never kissed anyone. I don’t want you to be my first. I need to practice on someone inconsequential. Options slim on the ground, I keep my lips a safe distance from yours.

You come to see me in the play. I decide to help the Coach record statistics at your soccer games on Saturdays – goals, assists, penalties, throw-ins.

I have seven neatly folded notes in my sock drawer, in a pair of striped socks that I never wear, buried under the rest of them. I keep my feelings there, too. The notes are sweet. I feel feverish thinking about them there in the darkness. I can’t bear to read them again but, in my memory, they’re a bit flirtatious.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

We move on to Macbeth. Our socks touch, and now our fleece-covered elbows. Finals are coming up. I start to wear cherry flavoured lip balm. Your mom lets us race up to your bedroom after school. My mom honks outside when it’s time for me to go.

At the weekend, you see the new Marvel online with Nicole’s friend. At your house. On your bed. Your mom makes Bagel Bites. I know because it’s in your neat response when I write, ‘How was your weekend?’

I want to watch a movie with you in your bed. I don’t ask if you kissed her. Your lips look different.

Christmas break. Nothing to study for, no school, no reason to talk to you at all. I could call and wish you a Merry Christmas. I have your phone number memorised.

Now, we have English together and also Math. You did so well on the final, they pushed you up to my set. The first day back, I start a note to you. ‘Good Christmas?’

‘Mom got me tickets to Tame Impala.’

‘That is awesome! When is it?’ I want you to ask me to go with you.

‘It was for New Years Eve. SO F*CKING AMAZING!’ You write the last bit in enormous lettering. It takes up the middle of the page entirely. I wonder if it is so I can’t write back. We only use one side of paper normally. I put a smiley face at the end of the ! mark, use one of the dots for an eye.

You keep the note this time. I wait for you at the end of class to walk to Math together. You walk out with Ari. Loud and masculine, you brush past me.

It’s my birthday. Maybe you don’t know or maybe you’ve forgotten. Gabe from lighting brings me a cupcake and the Theatre Kids sing Happy Birthday, in their usual way, making the entire lunchroom turn around. From my chair, behind the cupcake and the candle, I stare at you; silently ask you for a gift.

Acknowledge that I mean something to you and you to me, out loud and in public.

Your face is stoic and when the last note dies out, you continue your conversation. You haven’t asked me to come over to study yet this semester. I know your mom uses Bounce dryer sheets. I buy some.

I can’t give up. Today is lacy and sweet. Today is flowery, sugar-coated, heart-bedecked. Pink and red for lovers. So, I’m wearing red. You will notice me. I will hold your hand. I will give you a red envelope with candy hearts sealed inside. I went through the whole bag to pick the right ones. ‘Be mine.’ ‘Call me.’ ‘Kiss.’

Pick me instead, please. I will be your Movie Girl and your Study Girl all in one.

Today, I won’t see you until Drumming Circle, but it is the perfect opportunity. Still, we are in the middle. Still, you and me, next to each other. It will be the closest our knees have been to one another all week. The closest our bodies have been all week. Then, just when everyone is setting up; people won’t notice me hand you the Valentine, but you won’t be able to ignore it.

The drum master clears her throat as she comes in, calls us to order. Your spot next to me is empty. My heart sinks. You must have a cold.

I leave the envelope in my bag for the next day, when even though I will be in my normal uniform, black on black, I can find another opportunity.

You are not in English. You are not in Math. I think the candy hearts must now be crushed. It’s Friday, drumming again.

‘Hey, anyone know where Darren is?’ someone asks. A weight is lifted off my shoulders.

‘Didn’t you hear about the accident?’ Another weight, heavier, settles in its place.

Hour by hour, the news drips in. ‘They found his bike like fifty metres away.’

‘I heard he went over the handlebars.’

‘Might need brain surgery.’

‘Might need a metal plate in his head.’

‘Might need a metal screw in his leg.’

Even if I call, you can’t answer. Your friends are sad, console each other, hug each other. I stand to the side and force my tears to the bottom of my stomach. Every time the door squeaks open in the middle of a class, I think you are going to walk through it.

‘He has a gash from the middle of his forehead, straight down the side of his nose. It cuts through his lips, down to his neck.’

‘He needed 500 stitches.’

‘He’s going to be on crutches for the rest of the year.’

‘If he makes it out of the wheelchair.’

Please make it out of your wheelchair. I want to come see you. I want to kiss each of the stitches. I want to fix it.

‘I saw him over the weekend. It looks like it nearly took out his eye.’

‘He says the doctor said he flew into the tree. The one by the Science Block, but he can’t remember. Can you believe that?’

‘I signed his cast. It goes all the way from his toes to his crotch.’

That morning, our English teacher finds me by my locker. I am to report to the Office. Her face is sad. Her body is heavy. I have disappointed her somehow, I think.

When I get to the office, your mom is there with the Headmaster, and I start to cry. Silent, guilty, cowardly tears. For hiding where I think I am supposed to hide. For not coming to see you, for not acknowledging how much you mean to me, out loud and in public.

I am not brave.

I am told, you are strong enough to start making up some work. They explain, you can’t come to school, but I can come to you and bring you your work. Your mom thought of me because of all the time we spent studying last semester.

Apparently, when Nicole’s friend came over to study, you were caught doing other things, your mom says with a sideways smile to the Headmaster.

I am the safer and definitely smarter option, the Headmaster says. I can use the photocopier in the Office, so you have all my notes from every class, he adds.

Kissing is for pink people. Work is for brown people. It says so in the name INDUS (as in the river) + TRY (as in harder).

I say, yes. It means I’ll be close to you, again.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Your mom picks me up after school; my mom picks me up from yours. Each time she tsks and shakes her head. She is so afraid for you. She prays to Lord Ganesha for your speedy recovery.

Three afternoons a week. And Saturdays after rehearsals. No one knows about it because no one asks.

We set up in the living room. Because you can’t climb stairs, this is now your bedroom. You say your brain isn’t there like it was before. You are arranged with blankets over your wheelchair. The leg with the cast is stuck out at a right angle. You look at me like you are trying to concentrate, but my words are lagging like there is a weak Wi-Fi connection.

When you get tired, we stop.

You close your eyes. My heart cracks from how much I want to stroke your hair, and kiss the red, dried blood colour scar just on the left of your widow’s peak. You show me the stitches under where your hair grows back. We are so close; I can smell the iodine you dab on the stitches.

It would be wrong of me to take advantage of you when your brain isn’t there like before. I still haven’t practiced by kissing someone inconsequential. I step back to an arms’ length away. I take your completed assignments into school to be graded. I bring them back with notes from the teachers.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Your mom is visibly excited when she picks me up outside the Theatre. She shows me up to your room, where you are at your desk. She just moved you back in. The wheelchair is gone. You are on crutches: a big milestone. It means you are healing well. The cast comes off in a couple of weeks and you can start physical therapy.

The scar that cuts your lips in a jagged half is fading. You’ll be back in September. You’ll play again next season, you hope. You aren’t sure about the schoolwork though. Your laugh is high-pitched, nervous. I remind you that you no longer fall asleep halfway through. That you are getting better grades than you did before, sometimes.

It’s the last weekend before finals; we are done for the day. I am secretly happy Mom is late. I am laying across your bed. Your room is also my room, I spend so much time in here. Time that I wish we spend with me running my fingers across your naked torso. When I have those thoughts, I am angry with myself.

Being with you for so many hours is a gift. Given what happened, just having you alive is a gift.

Your door opens. It’s your mom, and she has brought you a surprise. A blond head peaks around the corner and I scramble upright as soon as I see it.

The blond head is surprised to see me. She wants to know what I am doing there.

‘She has been helping me keep up this semester so that when I come back in the fall, I don’t have to repeat a year,’ you say. Your smile is enormous.

I had no idea that you might have had to repeat a year. I had no idea that I had a purpose. I was in my cocoon, pleased to have your smell to myself, to have your warmth to myself, to be able to study your face without having to worry who could see my expression. It would be too obvious.

‘I could have done that,’ she says, crossing the small room to where you are sitting.

She kisses you, and I watch her do it. She strokes your hair and it’s like someone is scratching open my skin. I can’t bear to look away. When she finally pulls back, I see your face. You look at her the way I must look at you. There is so much longing, but it is different from mine. Your expression knows you will soon be satisfied, whereas mine knows I will never be.

Blissfully, a car horn sounds in the drive. I wish you both a good weekend and tell her I’ll see her at school on Monday. She smiles at me. How you look at her and how you look at me is not lost on her. She has nothing to worry about. Never did.

At home, I take a Bounce dryer sheet out of the box. I lock my room door, and rummage for the stripy socks in the drawer. I shake each note out and watch them fall onto my bed. I inhale deeply and I read our notes slowly one by one, in order. There was something there once, but I was too weak to dig it out, claim it for my own.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

In September, you are spry on crutches. Everyone is so happy to see you. I can’t help but be a little proud of myself, knowing that I helped to make you smile so big. Knowing that all those afternoons meant something. Yes, I hope you see the past tense there. It’s been a long summer, and I have no false illusions.

At lunch, I see you put your arm around Nisha. It is not my brownness after all. It is just me. Too timid, too insecure, too inexperienced.

In English, I take my normal seat and you take yours. I don’t start a note to you. After class, you wait for me. We walk to Math. We talk about how much time you have spare without soccer. Physical therapy is good, but it could be another six months before you run again.

After school, you call me. We talk on the phone, and I find my courage to ask what happened to the blond.

‘We broke up at the end of summer,’ you say.

My breath has new life, ‘Why?’ I ask.

‘She’s moving away,’ you respond. You sound upset, but now the walk from class, the phone call make sense. We talk every night on the phone. We walk to class every day. Melissa asks if we are dating.

‘Melissa asked me if we are together,’ I say one night. It’s bold again, but I have to know. Surely, this time, it is there.

You laugh, and my balloon deflates. ‘So, what did you say to her?’ you say.

‘I said we were just friends, of course,’ I say. It comes out too quickly.

‘Uh huh,’ you say.

‘So, who do you have your eye on next?’ I ask. Please say me. Please. It’s been four months since I have seen the inside of your house, since I discovered that the dryer sheets alone are no substitute. They don’t have that sweet, slightly salty musk that belongs solely to you.

‘I’m not sure,’ you say, ‘Who do you think I should ask out?’

I should say me, but we are dancing again, aren’t we? Neither one of us can come out and say it. ‘Nisha is pretty cute,’ I say finally before I tune out.

I don’t want to hear what you think of her, and the words I want to hear aren’t coming.

On our next call, you talk about Squid Game. I think it is too horrible. You mention about the Scream sequel. You say you can’t believe I haven’t seen it yet. ‘What are you doing on Friday?’ you ask.

‘Nothing,’ I respond.

‘Do you wanna come over? We can watch it?’ you ask.

‘And your mom will make Bagel Bites?’ I ask and laugh.

‘My mom is going out on a date,’ you say.

The world is quiet. My ears hear everything through aspic, like being underwater. My blood pounds in my ears. What are you saying? Are you saying that if I say yes, I get to be Movie Girl?

I say yes.

In the car to your house, my mom asks half-heartedly if your mom is home, I say I think so. She says it’s weird you want to study on a Friday night. I shrug, hope it is the end of the questions. You open the door and wave at her. In the house, it is quiet.

You ask if you should order a pizza. I manage to say I’m not hungry.

When we go up to your room, it is full of the smell of you. Your cast is in the corner, cut in half, a memory of what has been. You put the pillows against the wall, so your twin bed looks like a couch. I take the side by the wall; you take the side by the door. We face the small laptop screen, set up on a bookshelf opposite the bed. You turn off the lights and press play.

I shiver, though the sweat under my arms is threatening to drip down my sides.

You ask if I am cold. I nod. We stand up, and you pull the blanket back. We get underneath and this time we are sitting as close as we do in Drumming Circle.

When the man in the mask appears, I flinch, bury my head into your chest. I can’t watch. It’s supposed to be comedic horror, but I can’t find the funniness. Your arm is around me. Your breath ripples my hair.

‘If it is too scary, I can turn it off,’ you whisper onto the top of my head.

Your voice is thick with something else. Your arm loosens around my shoulder, as you make to lean forward to shut the laptop. A small tilt of the head, a tiny one is all it will take.

I close my eyes as I move my mouth to where it can’t be ignored. As you stretch, you kiss me, and I kiss you. You gather me under you so we lay as we kiss. My lips can’t feel the scar I know is there.

You taste of Big Red chewing gum. I do, too. I must remember that the cinnamon is a key component of your signature perfume. I don’t know what time it is, nor how much time we have left until a mother shows up, yours or mine. I reach my tongue a little into your mouth, I put my hand under your shirt.

Am I doing it right? Am I kissing you in a way that will make you look at me like you looked at her?

I want you to press against me. I want the hand on my back to unhook my bra. I feel a never-felt-before wetness pooling in my underwear.

After Scream comes Kujo, after Kujo comes Silence of the Lambs, after Silence of the Lambs we stop pretending to watch movies. You unbutton my shirt. I pull your t-shirt over your head. The feel of your chest against mine, skin to skin. My nipples harden and so do yours.

We ignore each other in the hallways. You move to the back of English class, next to Ari.

We stop pretending to study. Your hand finds its way into my jeans. Mine finds its way into yours. You put your hand over mine and show me how you like it. I am too afraid, but with your hand over mine, we overcome.

Our cadence is disorienting.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

I learn to drive, unhinging us from our mothers.

In your bed, we push against the edge, find a new limit, and rest there for a while. In the middle of the afternoon, on this sticky summer’s day, there is only one place to go.

I am not ready because there are questions I need you to answer.

Why can’t you look at me in the hallways? Why did you move to the back of English class? Why don’t we ever sit together at lunch? Why don’t we ever talk about this on the phone?

Why, when we leave the confines of this room do we pretend we don’t carry one another in our hearts?

I am sitting astride you. I trace the scar from your forehead to your lips. It makes you more handsome. Most of it has faded to nothing, but just at your chin, there is a small dent. You kiss my fingers. I shake my head, and you nod yours. I can’t bear to look down the lengths of our naked bodies where I hover above you. We are inches away from the next edge. I swallow and lay my head on your chest. Your heartbeat is slowing.

Your strength is coming back. I feel it when you flip me on to my back and look down at me. Your pupils are so dilated, I can’t see the green anymore. Your pectoral muscles and arms are stronger than ever from the crutches, and now that you are walking without the cane, your legs are strong too. You kiss my neck; you kiss my clavicle. You move your hand to the drawer above my head. In your returning hand is a condom.

I shake my head, ‘No.’ Whatever would happen next would be too vast for me to hide. But of course, I am still dancing, aren’t I? Despite the outward appearance of it all, you and I know I’ll say yes only a few moments later. So, we make a new motif. Still, our sequence as everyone watches remains the same.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Anu writes: “My essays and short stories appear in Ruby Lit, Caustic Frolic, The Hellebore, Honey Lit, and Entropy, among others. I can be found walking my unruly, shaggy terrier on the Common or on Twitter @AnuPohani.”
Image: Sneakers by Cariuma – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
PJ Harvey. Photograph: Steve Gullick

PJ Harvey Reads Orlam at Conway Hall

Nine-year old Ira Abel Rawles lives on Hook Farm in the village of Underwhelem. Next to the farm is Gore Woods, Ira’s sanctuary, overseen by Orlam, the all-seeing lamb’s eyeball who is Ira-Abel’s guardian and protector. Here, drawing on the rituals, children’s songs, chants and superstitions of the rural West Country of England, Ira-Abel creates the twin realm by which she can make sense of an increasingly confusing and frightening world.

Orlam is an exploration of Dorset myth, woven into the changing of the seasons. There are two worlds in Orlam – The first is the real world (farm), the second world is made of dreams and visions (the woods). We meet Ira, the child, and less frequently but still present, Ira the adult, looking back.

Harvey takes to the mic and explains that she will read a few poems from each month. Opening with ‘UNDERWHELEM’, from the January section, we are introduced to characters, places and language, all unfamiliar but instantly alluring. Of the selection read, twelve poems are set to an ethereal underscore, composed by Harvey. The music gives the already visceral words, new life. When Harvey later breaks, to discuss the creation of Ira and her world, the drive to give this work a life of its own, becomes apparent. There is a vast difference between writing lyrics and writing poems, Harvey suggests. When writing lyrics, music does half of the work for you; happy or sad, it builds the world around the words. With poetry, the information is there on the page with little assistance. It is in the reading. The reading breathes the life and emotion into the work. Whether you are fortunate enough to hear a poet read their work, or whether the aforementioned life is the meaning and significance you take from a piece of writing – it is all in the reading.

As she reads, Harvey barely glances down at the text, reciting almost all of the poems from memory. She inhabits the farm, then the woods, building the world for the audience as she goes. Illustrations found within the book, drawn by Harvey, are projected behind her as she reads. The poems, the underscore, the line drawings – these elements combined, create an immersive experience that takes hold. The poems take us through the seasons with ease, leading us to ‘Prayer at the Gate’, dated 1st January. The last poem of the collection is where the reading ends, a year in the life of Ira.

Orlam, by PJ Harvey

Orlam is written in Dorset dialect and Harvey reads it this way. Each poem has an English translation on the right page, but the attention to detail does not stop there. There is a translation for every poem, but the fainter the writing, the less need for the translation there is. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the Dorset dialect, the challenge is to read and decipher what the poem is about, without cheating and looking at the English translation first, as this takes some of the otherworldly magic away. There is a clear and serious commitment in this work. The book is steeped in local, historical and mythical knowledge. The eight years of research, practice, workshops, courses and mentorships are evident. William Barnes’ Dorset dialect glossary spans fourteen pages at the end of Orlam, which allows you to grasp a better understanding of the words – and pick up a few – before a second read, if you’re so inclined. Harvey notes that when writing, it was as if half of these words were already in her system, like revisiting elements of childhood, lost but not gone. This parallel set of words already within her heritage, was within her. It didn’t feel like learning, it felt like remembering.

Childhood is where Orlam takes us. An intricate character list introduces nine-year-old Ira among many others including, her guardian and protector, an all-seeing lamb’s eyeball named Orlam. Along with the cast of enchanting characters, footnotes line the pages with wild descriptions of the minutiae which are playful and charming.

‘Hair was never to be carelessly thrown away, because if it was used for lining a magpie’s nest you would be dead within a year.’ – from ‘Cutting with Kane’.

Footnotes such as these leave you unsure whether they are complete fiction, created by Harvey for the book, or whether the origins go deeper. I suspect a bit of both. Either way, the footnotes do a great job of keeping the belief in folklore and the unseen alive.

The world of Orlam is shown from a child’s viewpoint, allowing a sense of wonder and a sense of truth to shine. That sense of wonder is unlocked during the reading, the audience are captivated, there is absolute silence except that of PJ Harvey’s voice accompanied by her enchanting underscore. The atmosphere is electric as each new poem begins. Harvey notes that as a creative, the dream world and the imagination are never very far away. Those places are where the work is drawn from. Adults often close that side of themselves down, or unfortunately have it closed them for them, but that wonder, that magic is still there, just waiting to be set free.


Photo (of PJ Harvey) by Steve Gullick.

Orlam is published by Picador Poetry.

AMY RIDLER IS A WRITER AND ENGLISH TEACHER IN EAST LONDON, WHERE SHE RUNS THE LGBT+ SOCIETY. SHE HAS WORKED WITH THE QUEER, FEMINIST, LIVE ART THEATRE COMPANY CARNESKY PRODUCTIONS AS AN ASSOCIATE ARTIST SINCE 2009 AND CONTINUES TO BE A MEMBER OF THE COMPANY’S ADVISORY BOARD. SHE IS CURRENTLY AN MA CREATIVE WRITING STUDENT AT BIRKBECK.
AMY IS THE MANAGING EDITOR OF MIR ONLINE.
Twitter: @amy_ridler

Penkova

A Marathon of Russian Roulette, a documentary play by Kateryna Penkova

Translated by Helena Kernan.

In the morning the planes started flying.
How can that be?
Well, I thought, they’ll fly around a bit and that’ll be it. We’ve got school in two hours, work.
The first strike came at half past four in the morning, nearby.
We legged it to the school to hide.
I looked at the building’s panels – they’d crumble quick as a flash and we’d be crushed.
We went back home.
Nightmarish shelling. A sea of soldiers setting up equipment. They were already asking some people to leave their homes.
But for some reason I was certain that they’d shell for a bit then stop. This was Mariupol, after all. We’d seen it all back in 2014.

I left Donetsk when it started there. Escaped with my two children. My ex-husband’s on the other side.
I was just very afraid. He’s so domineering. He’s so high up in Donetsk that he could have killed me and got off scot-free. All the guns were pointing at me. He used to threaten me and kick me out and keep me in the cellar.

So, there we sat. Waiting for it all to end. Planes were flying. So low they were right above your head. The building was shaking. Terrifying. We had no more electricity, water or gas. Bitterly cold. We all slept in the corridor in puffer jackets.

My friend rang – ‘Come over and charge your phones, we have electricity’.
So we went.
Everything was screeching, booming, flashing, exploding.
We shouted to each other but couldn’t hear a thing.
My friend’s street was much quieter. Like a whole different world.
There was water and electricity. We charged everything: power banks, phones.
She put us up – ‘Stay the night’. We put the kids in a room, a closet with no windows.
A small one, the walls are thick there.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The little one fell asleep at last.
We calmed down almost immediately – water, light, warmth – we could relax.
Everyone had bedded down and I was lying there on my phone.
They say that if you hear a whistle the shell isn’t coming for you, it’ll pass by.
But there was silence.
I looked up and like in The Matrix…
A shell burst straight into the flat… through the window.
Slowly, for me it happened slowly.
Shards of glass, chunks of plaster, so much dust, so much everything.
It seemed to me that the building swelled up then deflated again.
The shell flew in and I thought that I could stop it, grab it, catch it with my bare hands. Because it was flying towards… Towards the room where my child was.
I jumped up and ran.
I looked, she was whimpering, concrete on her head, you couldn’t see shit, there was a cloud of dust. I had only one thought – please let her head be intact. At home she used to sleep with her pillow over her ear. And that saved her. I looked – phew, seems it’s in one piece. Then my elder daughter said, ‘Mum, her legs’.

What do I remember about bleeding?
There are two types: venous and arterial.
Venous is a stream of dark blood.
Arterial is a fountain and bright red.
For venous bleeding you need to use a compression bandage and raise the limb. For arterial you need a tourniquet a bit higher up, and then what? Then you pray.
Because while you’re figuring out how to apply the damn tourniquet, the fountain will… run dry.

I bandaged her legs as best I could.
No signal. Shock. What to do?
We got dressed quickly, got ready as best we could.
We ran to another building. Somehow found internet connection. I messaged all the group chats.
I messaged Typical Mariupol, gave them the address – a child is wounded.

The police came, giving each other the jitters. They nearly shot us because it was dark, who knows who could have been there.
‘A child is wounded,’ I shouted.
Then they came closer, looked at us – ‘We’ll take her.’
‘She’s eight years old. Where will you take her? My elder daughter’s still in the basement.’
‘Either stay with the elder one or come with the younger one.’

I went with the little one, of course. And my eldest stayed put. We dashed through horrific shelling. We got to one hospital – they didn’t open the door. Either no-one was there or they didn’t hear us. One of the policemen shouted into a loudspeaker. The door stayed shut. We went to the emergency hospital. They took her. What’s going on? I just don’t understand. Soldiers were hugging me. They surrounded me:
‘Oh no, it’s a child.’
‘Stay strong, Mama.’
I don’t understand, I don’t understand anything.
Out came a doctor. I was shaking, my hands trembling. It was agony to look at him. I was so afraid of his face…
And he said, ‘People don’t survive wounds like that. At least they don’t walk away with both legs intact. We removed this. It was a millimetre away from an artery. A little curved cone. It’s not shrapnel. It’s the tip of an artillery shell. Maybe a ricochet. I don’t know. It went through one leg and got lodged in the other. Here in the soft tissue. I don’t know how that’s possible. We just got very lucky.’

After the operation they took us to Hospital No. 3, to the trauma unit. And we slept soundly until morning.
That was 8 March. When it all started.

Sound of an aerial bomb falling.

The shockwave was just… It knocked me off my feet, even though we were quite a way from where it landed. But the shockwave got us.
The drywall shook, the windows were blown out. I grabbed the little one, twisting round so she wouldn’t get hit. She had stitches, tubes, all of that.
I dropped to the ground, turned over, shielded her. A man was running, shouting, ‘My child’s on the first floor!’
Soldiers, doctors… everyone was shouting.
‘Everybody to the bunker!’
It wasn’t far. You could see it from the window. But I went to pick her up and had no strength to lift her. And I needed to take the bags and her bed-pan. Because how else could we stay in that bunker? It was cold and dark. Such fear, such adrenaline. A soldier dashed up, grabbed her and ran. I snatched the bags and followed.
I looked and saw wounded pregnant women running. A sea of crying children.

We ended up there. The hospital was destroyed. But they set up an emergency unit. And people were arriving amid the shelling.
They simply threw some people out on the street, because they knew that they would die. There was absolutely no way to help. If there was nothing left. Barely a head left. No arms or legs. Nothing left at all. Just a stump lying there. I didn’t think people could walk or live with those kinds of wounds. They were crying, begging, ‘Please don’t abandon us.’ They crawled out of that hospital. It was just a horror film.
It turned out that the only doctors with us were two trauma surgeons. And that was it.

There was one 15 year-old boy called Sashka.
The doctor shouted to me,
‘Hold the torch! Shine it into the wound!’
I couldn’t watch them cutting into a person… a child.
I knew that I had to help. But I couldn’t. The smell, the blood, the flesh.
They gave the torch to a guy and – bam – he fainted.
I watched and thought, Jesus, he’s only 15. Same as my eldest.
He was looking at me, going,
‘Will I survive? Will I survive?’
I grabbed the torch, my hands were shaking but I held it and said,
‘Of course. Of course you’ll survive. Don’t go anywhere.’
We couldn’t even count the holes in him. They were poking around for four hours.
We turned him over, he was a mess. You could have stuck two fingers into his neck. My whole hand would have fitted into his leg. And he was still going,
‘Will I survive? Will I survive?’
He so wanted to live. They got everything out, bandaged him up.

There was one woman with two children, Anya. ‘I don’t know where my third child is, a newborn,’ she said. ‘He got left behind somewhere in the hospital.’
The doctors conferred privately. There’s no-one in the hospital. The hospital’s gone. All the children died. Should we tell her, not tell her?
‘We’re searching,’ they said. They were covered in burns. She and the children. ‘We’re searching.’ She kept hoping.
I believe in God. There were no non-believers left in the bunker. I don’t know how to pray, so I just talked,
‘Lord, you saved my life. I’m in a bunker. Why did my elder daughter… where is she? Huh?! Why did this happen? How can I understand it?’
God said nothing. He was probably offended that I’d never come to him before.
We were on the Right Bank and she was on the Left Bank. Separated by Azovstal. Not a chance you could get there.

We started treating people, somehow I pulled myself together.
I got used to that smell. I began to recognise what was clean, what was infected, what needed to be done.
If I didn’t know, I’d shout, ‘What should I do?’ The doctors would reply.
We divided up the wounded – you take those ones, I’ll take these. And we worked like that.

There was a different sensation in the bunker. It would sink into the ground after a blast. The sensation that it was right there, striking the bunker head-on. I just cannot believe that I’m still alive after blasts like that. Before the war it was used for storage. And we were very lucky, because we found surgical lights there. We found operating tables, surgical film. We marked out an area, made it as sterile as possible.

One night someone came and banged on the iron door.
People were screaming involuntarily in pain. Children. You can’t explain to a child that they need to be quiet because someone’s at the door.
They tried to break it down.

Sound of machine gun fire.

It was terrifying.
It was as if the Transformers were on the move. I couldn’t make out any other sounds. As if everything made of metal was shaking, screeching, clanking, trying to get you, hunt you down.
We consulted with each other. Decided that we needed to make our presence known.
We drew red crosses on pieces of film with felt-tip pens.
But how to hang them up? We’d have to go out there. And you realise that out there are bullets and grenades and grenade launchers, equipment.
It was a genuine feat going out there. Because we had to fasten the signs. And that takes time. We rushed out in short bursts and attached them.
Then it seemed to subside. We decided to see if it would last or not.
We crawled out of the bunker. And there was the blackened city. Smoke as thick as fog, only black. It was as if the bunker had been dug out of the ground. Masses of crows all around. Our crosses riddled with machine gun bullets.

That’s when it dawned on us that we were there for the long run. We had to do something.
Our food was running out. We had no drinking water. We’d been collecting snow and rainwater, but it was dirty.
We needed everything. Food, water, clothing, medicine, a generator.
So we walked through the ruined hospital. Battered down the doors. We couldn’t find any food, but there was medicine. I grabbed everything I could see.
The doctor said, ‘That’s for chemotherapy. What use is it to us?’
‘Let’s take it. Who knows? Maybe we can exchange it. Maybe someone will need it. We need everything, because people… From plaster casts to simple aspirin.’
So I crammed everything into my pockets, into my trousers, just to take as much as possible.
I wasn’t a looter. I was a medical professional.

Sound of shelling.

Jesus, it was a kids’ hospital. Not just a trauma unit – a kids’ trauma unit, a maternity hospital, a cancer ward. No military targets in sight.
What do you bastards want here?
We have no water, the kids have fuck all to eat! Kill us already, go on. Grad missiles, mortar bombs, shells, tanks… What else have you got there? Bring it all! Kill us! Go on! Just do it now. And kill us all. Anything but a slow death. From starvation or dehydration. Seeing my child dying in agony… It’s more than I can bear.

And then… we found a large barrel. A huge tank of water, about 400 litres.

Something thuds.

It was March and -12 in Mariupol. So it was 400 kilograms of pure ice inside an iron barrel.
We had to roll it towards the bunker. But how? There were mines, you know.
We stood like Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga. The self-appointed de-miners went ahead. The others rolled. We managed to find some humour in the midst of all this, because it was so unbelievably absurd. We cracked jokes, because otherwise we couldn’t have carried on. What else could we do?

We left the barrel to thaw – we’d keep it as sterile water.
We had to dash outside to cook food and light the campfire.
One person would dash out and throw salt in the pot. The next would run out and throw in the food. The next would run out with a spoon to stir it. A marathon of Russian roulette.
We had to cook something at least. Just something hot to eat. That’s how frozen stiff we were. We warmed each other up, took off our coats and huddled together. Because there was nothing. Nothing to warm us up.

And I searched for my elder daughter. I drove everyone up the wall. I went into every basement, every alleyway I could. I met people, described my child, showed them pictures. I couldn’t find her anywhere. I hoped against hope. She knew we were at the hospital. I hoped she would somehow start moving towards us. Because I couldn’t. The little one couldn’t walk.

We went to a bombed-out military base. We found duvets, there was food there, thank God. We brought back bread for the kids – they sniffed it. We didn’t give them the whole thing. We cut it into morsels. Gave them the morsels. The little one only ate the soft part. Then she slept. It was awful to watch. I used to cook up all kinds of things for them. They were fussy eaters at home. Soups pureed in the blender. And here, you see, my child was eating everything. Porridge, vermicelli. A spoon could stand up vertically in that vermicelli made with dirty water. We cut it off in chunks.
And she ate a little bit of that bread. Put the rest in a plastic bag in her pocket.
The kids constantly needed new dressings. Complications, haematomas. The wounds seemed to be healing but they were covered with huge lumps.
We had to operate on Sashka with no anaesthetic, awake. We looked for some but at that point there was none. ‘It’s fine, I can bear it,’ he said.
And that doctor of ours. He just loved rummaging around. Apparently he had to. ‘Stop, that’s enough,’ I said. ‘No, wait a second, he can bear it a bit longer. I’m nearly done, nearly done.’ There were scissors, he did everything, dissecting, squeezing, opening him up. Then there were the dressings. The dressings had to be opened up constantly too and antibiotics slipped inside. Every day, every day.
But Sashka did so well – he stayed strong.

Then somehow I heard about a well near the Drama Theatre.
Anya and I set off. We always needed more water. Then came the shell. We fell to the ground. Tried to stand up. And she said, ‘I can’t walk. I can’t look, I’m afraid. Please can you look and see what’s there?’ I looked – and there was no heel, no knee, it had just been blown off. I don’t know what it was clinging onto – skin, flesh, muscle…
‘Don’t look,’ I said. ‘Let’s go back’. ‘No,’ she said, ‘let’s get the water, for the kids.’ And she used me as a support. We went there. Got those bloody 10 litres. Dragged them back. Ran into the bunker. I dragged her in. We ran so fast down those stairs together. My legs turned to rubber from fear. The others even gave us surgical spirit to drink.

We had no clothing. I fashioned a pair of leggings from a jumper for my child.
There was a kids’ shop next door. But I couldn’t go in. I knew that I had to clothe my child. People were taking, taking everything. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thought everything would calm down very soon and get back to normal. We’d all go home.
Oi! Why, people? What do you need that for? What even is it? A cot with a changing table, a digital baby monitor, balance bikes, scooters, mini electric cars. Where are you dragging all of that? Is this what it’s come to? What’s going on?

Things got blacker and blacker. Nothing at all was left standing in our district.
Dogs came to us for shelter. We took them in and fed them. I took in a yard dog. You could talk to her, she understood.
‘What is it, doggie? Where are your owners? Did they leave? It’s a good thing if they left. Don’t be angry at them. You’re such a clever thing. Clever girl. You understand me, don’t you? You should be happy if they’ve left. They say some buses are leaving from the cash and carry.’

Then something else started happening. People started coming. A constant stream of people. People were dying standing in line.
Some people brought others in their own cars.
‘Please take at least one person, take him.’
‘Who is he?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. I threw him in the boot and drove him here. He has no documents, nothing.’
We went to look in one car and it was just… Are they even alive?
One had no shoulder left. The doctor with us said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’
‘But look, he’s talking, asking for help…’
‘It’s possible, would be possible to save him, but not with what we’ve got.’

And every day, every day it carried on like that. They just kept on bringing people. ‘It’s too late for an injection. We’ll have to operate.’ And people endured it, watched, wanted to live.

‘I went out to drink some tea and a shell hit. Everyone died. I was standing alone in that kitchen and only my leg was injured. That’s it. My son, his fiancée, my grandson, my wife. They were sitting there smiling just a minute ago. And now there’s no-one left. They’re all dead.’

‘My husband and I lived on the fifth floor. The middle floor. We have a daughter and a one-year-old son. My husband grabbed our daughter and I grabbed our son. We pressed ourselves against the wall. I turned around, and only my husband’s head was left on my shoulder. My son survived, he’s got a broken hip.’

‘I tried to dig my sister out of the rubble at the Drama Theatre. For several hours. She was sitting almost directly under the chandelier. The chandelier fell. There were so many people there when we arrived. With kids, babies. And when I came out, it was just… We couldn’t reach them. The walls had collapsed. From the whole section where there were 200 people, let’s say, we dug out three alive. And that’s it.’

We went out every so often to see who was there. If someone was more seriously injured we took them. I saw a guy standing there in a T-shirt in the freezing cold. With both hands bandaged.
‘What’s wrong with your hands?’ I asked.
‘I can wait a bit longer. I’ll queue.’
There were women and children. So he stood and waited.
Forty minutes passed. He was still queuing.
I asked again, ‘What’s wrong with your hands?’
‘A shell exploded. I fell to the ground,’ he said.
What do people usually do? Cover their heads. But in panic he’d splayed out his fingers like a rooster’s comb.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I bandaged them up. I don’t even know what’s underneath.’
When he opened it up and we took a look – Jesus. We had to amputate. But with what? You can’t just saw off seven fingers with a knife.
We found something, knew there were some secateurs. We cleaned him up. Got to work, one finger at a time. They gave me the secateurs and said, ‘Do it like this, so the skin gets pinched together afterwards. Make sure the bones don’t stick out sharply.’ And I sat there as if I was using nail clippers.
‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘I can bear it, it’s fine.’ But he was shaking. He did really well. He had shrapnel in his back and those fingers. He came back again to change his dressings. Then they decided to flee as a family, they didn’t stay with us.

There was a woman called Zhanna. A very beautiful woman. Her husband brought her, said their child had died – 4 years old. She had a wounded hand, something beneath her breast, a broken hip, a huge haematoma. Huge. She was so beautiful, we were in awe. She didn’t open her eyes, she had amazing eyelashes, beautiful skin. And we knew that she would die. Because she needed an operation on her head. And we couldn’t do it. We took such care of her. She came to. Told us her name and surname. And that was it. She didn’t regain consciousness, didn’t move.
She started breathing with her stomach. She changed, her breathing changed. Her sweat was sticky. It was clear that it was the end. She died the next morning.
It took us three days to take her outside. We couldn’t carry her under the shelling. We tried to carry her, attached a piece of film to her body saying who she was. We’d try to carry her, the shelling would start, we’d go back. But we couldn’t just leave her. We had to move her. There was a kitchen in the grounds. A separate building. The kitchen got hit by a shell too. But at least the walls stayed standing. The roof was gone. We carried the bodies there. Because there were so many corpses.
Amputated arms went there too.
When it quietened down again, we went outside and there were just masses of corpses. Small children. I looked and saw a child with no head. I got fixated on it. I really wanted to find the head. But I couldn’t. So we wrapped her up. A stranger. Because of course we didn’t know who she was. There were so many like that.

We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Anya’s knee. It just wasn’t healing. A decent amount of time had passed and it wouldn’t heal. In the end it turned out a piece of shrapnel was stuck in there. When it came to the surface and we got it out, the wound more or less started to heal. She’d given up hope of finding her child, it seemed. I guess she’d come to terms with it. But we’d hoarded so many nappies, so much formula.
‘Why the hell do we need formula?’
‘It’ll come in useful, everything will,’ I said. People came and took it with them.
In the end – can you believe it? ¬– some people came for formula. And told us that there was a newborn without a mother in another basement. They brought the child – ‘Is he yours?’ ‘Yes, he’s mine’. ‘Damn,’ I said, ‘how is that possible? How?’ Not knowing whose child it was, someone had simply grabbed him. A newborn. Miracles do happen… But rarely.

After that it was so good. People came to have their dressings changed and brought things with them. A guy came and brought a fish. Ohhh, he’d only just caught it. ‘I’ll go and clean it,’ I said. We lit a big campfire and had a feast. Fried fish, fish soup. Everyone was so happy.

We worked like triage in A&E. Recorded everyone’s details. Asked where they’d been injured, under which circumstances, their home address, surname, first name. When they’d arrived and when they’d need their dressings changed.

Young Sashka started getting better. I helped him through. If he needed an injection, he’d go, ‘Hold my hand, please’.
His collarbone was shattered and he was covered in holes, the poor thing. But he so wanted to live. He started sitting up. He started eating.

His dad came and said, ‘I’m taking him.’
‘Don’t, don’t go. There’ll be shelling in a minute.’
We already knew what time it started.
The shelling started around half past five and ended around half past three. It was constant. Only a short break for lunch. So you could travel around lunchtime, at least for two hours. And we knew that they wouldn’t shell our side then. I mean, you could catch a stray bullet anytime. But it wasn’t like when there was shelling.

Sashka’s dad took him. Put him in a wheelchair. They walked about 60 metres from the bunker…. Then the shelling started. Shrapnel slashed through Sashka. Black smoke and white stuffing from his puffer jacket.

Sound of a dog howling. Scrabbling.

Our yard dog howled for a really long time. Then she left us. For good. The most horrifying thing was that we couldn’t go out there. We couldn’t go and get him. He sat there in that wheelchair for a week. His father ran away. There was nobody at all with Sashka.

Then it quietened down. People stopped coming. Nobody thought there was anyone left in our district. The soldiers wouldn’t let them through. People would say, ‘They’re there, they’re treating people.’ ‘No.’ And that was it. Well, power had changed hands. We realised that we needed to make contact with them somehow. We needed to send people away, evacuate them. Get them treatment.
And I needed to find my daughter. I hadn’t had any contact with her for those one and a half months. None at all. The things that went through my head.
‘Why would they bring her in wounded?’ the doctors asked.
‘What am I supposed to think when all this is going on?’
Just imagine – they brought in a girl. And she was covered up, curls like my daughter’s, the same colour hair. I looked at her in the half-light: her legs, they looked like mine. Her head rolled to the side and I saw – the child had no face, it was gone. She wasn’t even bleeding. Nothing in a horror film could compare. Just white flesh. I could see everything: teeth, muscles. I nearly lost my mind.
The doctors said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not her. Her mother’s with her.’ But I didn’t believe them. Maybe they just don’t want to tell me, they’re trying to calm me down. Maybe this woman just said she was the mother so they would take her. I walked up to her and sat down. Asked her daughter’s name.
‘Karina.’
My hair nearly turned white. She’s mine, my child’s called Karina.
‘Are you really her mum?’
She didn’t even seem to hear the question.
‘I was sitting next to her. Why did nothing happen to me but my child has no face?’

Then I went to see those Russian soldiers. I planned to ask them. Because I’d heard there were some kind of lists. Of the living and the dead.
They pointed me towards the man with the lists. He was imposing, obviously there for a reason. One of the high-ups.
Well, what could I do? I went up to him. Asked about my daughter – nothing. She was nowhere to be found. Not among the living, not among the dead.
I wondered whether I should mention my ex-husband or not. I just knew that he’d kill me. I needed to find my child. He had connections, he could find her. I threw caution to the wind. I said his name.
And it turned out I had stumbled upon someone who knew my ex-husband.
Can you imagine? Just like that.
And he said, ‘They’re looking for you. At the morgues, everywhere. Let’s go.’
‘I’m not going anywhere without my elder daughter,’ I said. ‘Until I know that she’s alive.’
‘At least let us know where to find you. Write a note so he’ll believe that you’re alive.’
I wrote the note.

He came by in the evening. I knew that he was coming for me and that it was definitely about my daughter. Once again I was afraid to look at his face. I was terrified. I stood up so tentatively and thought, I can’t even go up to him. I’ll run away. I went outside and he said, ‘Your daughter’s alive.’
‘Is she in one piece? Where is she?’
‘In Donetsk. It’s safe there. She’s okay.’

It turned out that my elder daughter had escaped after a month. They’d seen that there were kids there, five of them. And crammed them into a car. They waited there for 13 days. In a field. The road, the field, the shelling. The fields were mined. The sole of her foot was burnt in her trainers.

I was so happy. I can’t express it in words. It was a miracle. Just a miracle. For some reason I had got very lucky once again.

‘I’ll go to hell and back now, I don’t care,’ I said.
They evacuated a lot of people. Because there was no time to lose – they needed medical attention. The only ones who stayed were the families of the two doctors and people who didn’t want to leave. The two possible destinations were Donetsk or Russia. There were no other routes. People tried to leave on foot. Can you imagine? Going to Zaporizhzhia on foot – that’s 200 kilometres. We only found out when they crossed the border and made it alive.

Well, I left too. They took me to Donetsk. My ex-husband met me.
They say that people don’t change. Now I think that it depends on the circumstances. It turned out he didn’t know we were in Mariupol. He thought we were with my brother in Lviv. He suddenly realised when he lost contact. With all of us. ‘It’s like I could sense it,’ he said. He saw a video of an eight-year-old girl dying. They were driving her to the hospital. He got so obsessed, kept saying, ‘That’s my younger daughter. I can see her. That’s my daughter.’ He searched everywhere. At the morgues, everywhere. He found the doctor from the video. And the nurse. Tracked them all down. Turned everything upside down. Not a trace. Mentally he buried his children.

He was a shadow of his former self. I even managed to raise my voice at him. I said that we would not under any circumstances stay in Donetsk. And he agreed. ‘Go,’ he said.

When I was praying in the bunker… well, talking, not praying, I wondered, why did we get separated? And then it hit me – if there’d been three of us, one of us would have died. Because it’s Russian roulette.

According to official data, 87,000 people died in Mariupol. But how many more are still unidentified, disappeared without a trace, buried under the rubble of apartment blocks?
Before 24 February, 430,000 lived in the city. Which means that approximately every fifth person died.

September 2022, Warsaw

Kateryna Penkova is a Ukrainian playwright from Donetsk. She is a graduate of the Kyiv State Academy of Performance and Circus Arts with a degree in acting. Her texts explore the topics of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea, violence and sexual harassment, postcolonialism, gender and politics. Her plays have frequently been shortlisted for the Drama.UA festival in Lviv and the Week of Contemporary Plays festival in Kyiv.

Her play ‘Pork’ was among the winners of the 2020 ‘Transmission.UA: Drama on the Move’ playwriting competition organized by the Ukrainian Institute (Kyiv). Kateryna is a co-founder of Ukraine’s Theatre and Playwrights and is currently based in Warsaw.

 
Kateryna Penkova is a Ukrainian playwright from Donetsk. Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.
Kateryna Penkova.
Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.

The two documentary plays, ‘Narrating the War‘ by Anastasiia Kosodii, and ‘A Marathon of Russian Roulette‘ by Kateryna Penkova were first presented on stage at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, on the 4th December 2022.

Both texts were translated by Helena Kernan.

The readings were followed by an in-person discussion with the playwrights, together with project curator Molly Flynn and writer/historian Olesya Khromeychuk. The plays were commissioned by BiGS (Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality), in conjunction with the Ukrainian Institute London and the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network.

In the eight years between the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine witnessed an impressive boom in socially engaged theatre and political playwriting. These recent documentary plays by Anastasiia Kosodii and Kateryna Penkova exemplify the remarkable culture of defiance and resistance in Ukrainian political playwriting and demonstrate how theatre-makers are using their craft to speak out against the atrocities of Russia’s ongoing war.

Image: Ola Rondiak, ‘Everybody Knows’ Acrylic collage on canvas.

A-Kosodii

Narrating the War, a documentary play by Anastasiia Kosodii

Translated by Helena Kernan.

Scene 0 – A definition of war porn

How did you decide to flee the country? How does a person make that decision?

Are your parents still in Ukraine? How are they? Are they afraid?

Where are your friends now? Are you still in touch with them?

How has the Russian war against Ukraine influenced your work?

(he wrote ‘the war in Ukraine’ of course)

you have to tell people about it because
you’re here to put words together and pronounce them
dig words out of the soil where Russian rockets land and place them in the ears of people who live on soil where not a single rocket has landed since 1945 if you pick good enough words
then
maybe
these people will say
fine
you are a good storyteller
well done
well done
and as a token of their gratitude
they’ll give you
heavy weapons
ultraheavy weapons
weapons heavy enough
to wipe the country of Pushkins and Dostoevskys from the face of the earth
to protect you and your parents and your friends and your lovers from their great culture
to leave their ‘confused’ boys lying in the green grass with jaws blown apart guts hanging out
brains spilling out
severed cocks
grinning teeth
just
as they deserve

so
listen
now we’ll do a trial blood-letting and as a foreword
I’ll tell you about
the waves of sirens in the Kyiv sky in the second month of winter
the sound rises up and falls
danger above low-hanging clouds
fighter planes cruise missiles aerial bombs and

then
you go downstairs
using the stairs
the lift is too dangerous
from the ninth floor to the first you go into the yard and ask the bewildered parents of small children where the shelter is
they point to the basement
in the basement
small children stamp on concrete dust it’s hard for them to sit still for long in the shelter the grown-ups discuss how to build a toilet
you read the news
you scroll through social media feeds
you think
that you’re late

what are you planning to do writes a man who
I don’t know
a man who
a man that
who you

what are you planning to do
I think I’ll go to Lviv you answer
do
it
he replies
and how do you feel right now what do you feel right now
you feel like
that you’re late
for everything

Scene 1 – I really envy you all

holidays by the sea
planning to have kids
health insurance
no heart palpitations when an unknown number calls you early in the morning or late at night
or even a number you do know
choosing a new sofa
your own flat
your own rented flat
a house
pictures on the walls
flowers in pots you’ve grown from seed
being able to get a dog
sex
photo albums
the freedom to not message your relatives and not feel guilty about it
the freedom to travel
the freedom to not read the news
the freedom to get your nails done and not hate yourself for it
not hate yourself for everything

Scene 2 – The balcony equation

I’m standing at the Fizkultura stop waiting for the trolleybus
in Kyiv it’s mid-December freezing cold -15 degrees
the time 11pm on the app the little triangle of the trolleybus moves from Olimpiiska station to Palats Sportu station (terminus), the driver will take a cigarette break there then start to drive in my direction
if he can get past all the snow heaped
on the roads
I’m waiting for the trolleybus I
don’t value myself enough to call a taxi I
look at the snow
I
think about summer last year
when I got off the metro at Palats Sportu walked to the synagogue went into the courtyards to look for the balcony of an old woman
who was evacuated from Kyiv in 1942 with her aunt the rest of the family stayed they were all shot at Babyn Yar

she wanted to come to Kyiv one last time to see the flat
the balcony
in the building next to the synagogue
she couldn’t because of COVID
she asked me to take a photo
‘go into the inner courtyard there’s a small balcony there the first balcony in Kyiv’
so I did
not because of that woman let’s be honest I didn’t go for her rather
was helping others with telling their story

it was a typical Ukrainian summer unbearable 34 degrees
(I’m inventing all this I don’t remember anything)
I went into the courtyard and asked a local woman if she knew of a balcony here that was the first in Kyiv the woman looked at me wearily
but she pointed at something and I took a photo of something
a balcony that looked like it might be the oldest and the first
it was actually the right one
but maybe that’s just what Rachel wanted to believe
(does she remember her balcony would she recognise it nowadays?)

she said
when her father put her on the evacuation train he knew it would be the last time they
saw each other
she didn’t

I waited until the trolleybus came
it took me up one of Kyiv’s hills covered in snow to a flat with
two balconies this whole story is about the fact that
those were my balconies in the flat I rented and I’m not there
and I know that I did everything right
and I know that I was afraid
and I know that I carry with me the sum of two balconies which have changed in my absence
reality minus your presence plus time equals
a different reality
for the balconies
you’re the one who’s missing

Scene 3 – The most realistic dialogue ever (I feel nothing)

Your driver Roman is arriving.

Roman the driver sends a message:
Ich bin angekommen
Hinter dem Bus

ROMAN: Bist du spät dran?
ME: Sorry I don’t speak German that well.
ROMAN: Are you running late or something?
ME: No. U-Bahn is broken, so I decided to take a cab.
ROMAN: I see. Are you from the UK?
ME: No.
ROMAN: No?
ME: Ukraine.
ROMAN: Oh.
ME: And you?
ROMAN: Russian. I’m Russian.
ME: Oh.
ROMAN: (In Russian) When did you get here?
ME: (In Ukrainian) 2 March.
ROMAN: Huh?
ME: (In Ukrainian) I came here on 2 March.
ROMAN: Sorry, probably better to speak in English. I don’t understand a word of Ukrainian.
ME: Second of March.
ROMAN: And do you like Berlin?
ME: I mean, I’ve been here a lot.

ME: And you?
ROMAN: Me?
ME: Been here a lot?
ROMAN: Since the first grade, almost… almost 20 years.
ME: I see.

ME: Do you consider yourself German?
ROMAN: I mean, I consider myself a human being.
ME: Okay.
ROMAN: Haha. Well, I’m Russian, of course. I’m Russian, but I’m not the government.

ROMAN: And you know, it’s good that people here see these things in a good way… I have many Ukrainian friends, we had no fights with them.

ROMAN: Do you need help with…
ME: Yes, to open the trunk. ROMAN: (In Russian) Have a good evening.
ME: (In English) Have a good evening.

Scene 4 – Obviously I wish death on all Russians

the small village where I spent the months from June to August as a child is now occupied by Russians
according to my grandmother
the witch who lived in the cottage next door on the right
cursed the village back in the 70s
it never rained there
or rather it rained very rarely
deep down the soil was salty
so the water in the wells was salty nobody watered their gardens with it and when they brewed tea it had a skin on the surface
at night you could see the entire milky way above the village

do the Russians notice the milky way
what does the water taste like to them
the fuzzy apricots hanging above the road between villages
the cherries that should be ripe by now
the plums that are still ripening
red grapes and green grapes
pears
apples
redcurrants and blackcurrants more than we could pick in our garden
sloes
raspberries
does the lack of rain bother the Russians how deep is their tan from sunbathing
do the Russians listen to the crickets and grasshoppers in the long grass at night do they smell the scent of wild orchids
do they say to each other look there’s the big dipper overhead

fruit pits will sprout into fruit trees and berry seeds will grow into fruit-bearing bushes
a vine grown from grape seeds will embrace the walls of the buildings and the sun will warm it and the trees and the bushes
the stars
will give the trees and bushes a breather to drink the dew and Russian bones will lie in the earth which naturally will accept them even though it has no use for them because what does the earth need with composted Russian flesh on Russian bones but what can you do if those bones decided to come here from their cold, far-flung cities the land
will give the Russians the land that they wanted it will give
work to future archaeologists future historians when they come
when they dig up
the bones of Russians

Scene 5 – The Russians have stolen summer nights from us

the sun hangs in the sky for hours covers your hair exposes your legs so they match your white dress
when it finally goes down
everyone checks how long until curfew
half an hour or less
they wonder how fast they’re prepared to walk
ask their friends if they’ve been late before and what kind of checks there were
eventually they get up to say goodbye leaving their unfinished beer lighting a cigarette on the way
they walk through the old town touching the pavement with the soles of their trainers looking at the angels wrapped in protective fabric in front of the cathedrals wondering what that fabric will actually protect them from
they realise it’s probably just
to keep the debris in one place
they meet three girls one of them shouts
I never want to leave Lviv!
another shouts
Yana stop pissing around it’s nine minutes until curfew please can we go already

the city is getting ready to fall asleep
the patrols aren’t looking at passersby yet
the loudspeakers at the city hall are silent
buskers finish up their last songs
plucking their guitar strings
pushing their luck for ten or fifteen minutes more
playing songs like Imagine
I hope the stone angels wrapped up in fabric will hear them and think
there’s a certain irony to it

the stone angels have the time and
someone has to

Scene 6 – I hate waiting

some air raid alerts have no all-clear
at first the siren sounds from the phone app, half a minute later all the loudspeakers in
the city join in
you get out of bed
citizens are asked to proceed to the shelters
on messaging services the local authorities write
Warning! Air raid alert!

the sound rises up falls down and repeats

sitting in the shelter or the corridor the bathroom a room with no windows and thick walls
you open the map of air raid alerts
Kyiv region – 25 minutes
Kharkiv region – 41 minutes
Lviv region – 4 minutes
Luhansk region – 114 days 2 hours 4 minutes and counting

war is waiting an activity filled with nothing a non-existent period a duration
you just have to survive it then it will be over
over over

if that’s hard for you to live with
you can pretend there are time limits
make predictions omit the word maybe imbue your words with the power of genuine prescience
we’re not going to buy winter clothes say a mother and daughter who escaped the occupied territories
why would we stay in Kyiv so long?
we’re not going to stay long
Ukraine will be a better place when we win says another woman
she’s travelling from Denmark to see her husband in Kyiv her daughter’s still in Europe
only the people who really want to live here and rebuild will return
lie by a wall where there’s no windows says my mum it’s an old building from the 18th century
walls half a metre thick
it’ll protect us from shrapnel as long as the rocket doesn’t land directly here of course

we’ll go and eat watermelons in Kherson
corn on the cob on the beaches of Berdyansk
cherries in Melitopol
soon

the siren sounds again for the all-clear
a voice says
citizens you have the all-clear you may leave the shelters
be prepared for future alerts the enemy is insidious

in the shower at the shopping centre on the main square at an appointment with the urologist at breakfast again and again and again
until the waiting ends and its absence begins real time begins and it’s over
over over

Scene 7 – Narrating the war

war is a multitude
of things that exist separately and they don’t all describe war you know them

loneliness
time that’s not enough and too much
sleep deprivation
tenderness
the practice of digging trenches
cowardice that’s bravery and vice versa
that phrase from Doctor Who when the Doctor tells Clara that everyone gets stuck
somewhere eventually on the planet Trenzalore i.e. death

writing this
I gaze at the list of things and think about how all together they can sum up war even though they’re equally distributed across the whole world

the morning of 25 February I thought that I’d read too many books about war to be unafraid of dying because I know how people can die I’ve been lucky a lot of people haven’t
and when I think about these people I think about the
long long train to Mariupol the grey Sea of Azov with the silhouette of the steelworks on the right
the minibus to Irpin the pine forest there the patisserie with overpriced eclairs
the Twin Peaks restaurant in Kherson

memory is the ability to tell stories
in spite of Russian rockets and Russian soldiers
a tragic ending won’t define these stories

like war Russian soldiers are a multitude
we all know that stories about the multitude don’t exist
now it doesn’t seem so important
it will become clear afterwards

in short

loneliness
time that moves as it wishes
how are you? and
everything’s calm here
even the smallest donations make a difference
all the balconies we’ve left behind
our exhaustion
dawn at 5am
sirens that protect us
brave people who are also afraid
stories about them
that we are yet to narrate
now and when it ends
to you

Anastasiia Kosodii is a Ukrainian playwright, director, and one of the co-founders of Theater of Playwrights in Kyiv. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, Kosodii often worked with NGOs in eastern Ukraine in towns on the front line. Her international work includes projects at the Maxim Gorki Theater (Berlin) and Münchner Kammerspiele Theater (Munich) and the Royal Court Theatre (London).
Anastasiia Kosodii. Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.
Anastasiia Kosodii.
Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.

The two documentary plays, ‘Narrating the War‘ by Anastasiia Kosodii, and ‘A Marathon of Russian Roulette‘ by Kateryna Penkova were first presented on stage at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, on the 4th December 2022.

Both texts were translated by Helena Kernan.

The readings were followed by an in-person discussion with the playwrights, together with project curator Molly Flynn and writer/historian Olesya Khromeychuk. The plays were commissioned by BiGS (Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality), in conjunction with the Ukrainian Institute London and the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network.

In the eight years between the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine witnessed an impressive boom in socially engaged theatre and political playwriting. These recent documentary plays by Anastasiia Kosodii and Kateryna Penkova exemplify the remarkable culture of defiance and resistance in Ukrainian political playwriting and demonstrate how theatre-makers are using their craft to speak out against the atrocities of Russia’s ongoing war.

Image: Ola Rondiak, ‘Everybody Knows’ Acrylic collage on canvas.

Astroturf, Zute8, Wikimedia

Grass, by Emma Purshouse

What ya doin? I says to the chap who is kneeling in the Sunday evening side street outside the gate to my back yard. I stand up a bit taller, fold my arms, attempt to fill up the gap between the posts with my presence, make it known that I’m not going to take any shit.

To be fair, it’s a fucking stupid question on my part, because I can see quite well what he’s doing. He’s rolling up a ten foot length of astro turf into what looks like a giant sized spliff of fake grass. That said, it doesn’t stop me asking again.

Oi, mate. I asked ya what ya doin?

He’s trying to blank me, but when it becomes clear I’m not going anywhere, he answers, easing his hood up to cover his brass neck and baseball cap as he does so.

Fount it. Nobody day wan it.

He’s broken into a sweat. I can see beads of moisture on his top lip. It’s a warm evening, and his turf isn’t rolling up to his satisfaction. He rolls it back out to flat and begins to remake it, tighter this time. It’s then I notice a square cut away mid turf. I feel like I’ve seen this astro turf before, but can’t quite pin it down.

Wot ya gunna do wiv it eny road?

He gives a shrug of bone-bagged shoulders, and a wrinkle of his nose.

Sell it on, mebee. To a greengrocer… funeral place… or summat.

I let it slide, don’t mention the hole.

Un how ya gunna gerrit away?

He carries on his re-rolling, flicks a glance towards a pushbike leaning lazy and looking the other way under a daub-dribble of white paint that’s run down from the sign above. DO NOT PARK KEEP CLEAR.

I look from astro turf over to the knacker of a bike, and back to the chap again. I laugh, shake my head, go back in. Lock the gate behind me.

The next morning I’m off on my daily walk when I pass the community centre. The woman off reception is standing in front of the automatic doors, vaping and surveying a square manhole cover sitting smack bang in the middle of a bald concrete patch.

Oh. I say. Now it meks sense. She arches her eyebrows.

By way of conversation, I say what I saw. A sharing, if you will, describing to her the novelty value of last night’s scene.

I’m laughing. She’s not.

And then she goes all Columbo on it.

Description?

I’m cornered. Green…plasticy.

I mean him uz took it.

Oh… ya know… skinny… tall.

She moves her non-vaping hand up and down in a sliding scale to verify.

Errr… Taller… not that tall. Hood, black trackies, bike. Car remember. A face……a face ya see around. Dark hair. Mebee.

I give up, go on the defensive, mutter something about me not being a grass, and him doing the community a service anyway because astro turf is shit. I tell her Worrabout the bees… pollinators and that, suggest replacement wildflower planting that nobody can nick, before I go skulking off in search of the real stuff. The stuff that’s filled with Meadow Cranesbill, and butterflies. The stuff corralled behind the pressings factory in the little bit of scrubland that they’ve not yet built upon.

Emma Purshouse is a writer and performance poet from the English Black Country. She performs her work at festivals and spoken word nights across the UK. In 2022 she won 3rd place in the National Poetry Prize. Her first novel ‘Dogged’ was published by Ignite Books in 2021.
Image: Zute8, Wikimedia