MIRLive : March 8th 2024

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

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

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

We look forward to reading your work!

The MIR Live team

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

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

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

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


 

They Called Me Kyle, by Owen Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Yes Mrs Turner. –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– I think so. –

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

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

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

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

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

– And then what? –

– He was alright, I think. –

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

– Maybe. I don’t –

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

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

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

– Just having her tea break –

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

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

– I can get those for you, – I say.

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

– Have you found them Kyle? –

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

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

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

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

– That’s right –

– If we didn’t recycle then… –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jesus, what happened here? –

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

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

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

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

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

– I’m ok. I don’t know, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then———


    When Emma met Dr Marshal.

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

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

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

Does any of this sound familiar?

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

That bloody ghost got an attitude an all.

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

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

– All ok? I heard the buzzer. –

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

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

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

– Is it nearly dinner time? – I ask.

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

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

– Bye Kyle. –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing WINNER : Bediye Topal

Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing

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


Statement From the Feldman Family

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


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

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

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

Statement from Julia Bell:

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

The Prize:

 

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

 

The Winner:

 

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

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

Well done me, by Cordelia Feldman – extract

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

3.     Gemcarbo chemotherapy: gemcitabine and carboplatin.

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

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

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

7.     Zolpidem to help me sleep.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

CORDELIA FELDMAN

SONY DSC

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

 

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

X and I, by Bediye Topal

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

Robert Priest

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

****

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

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

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

“Come inside with me,” he ordered me.

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

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

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

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

“Hold out your fingernails.”

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

****

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

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

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

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

****

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

****

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

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

“I would be delighted,” he said.

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

“What would you like to know?”

“Everything,” I answered immediately.

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

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

He said, “It is ok.”

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

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

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

I looked into his wide eyes and long curved lashes.

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

“Oh, yes,” he said.

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

‘I wonder at the wisdom of the Lord

The Kurds in the State of the World

For what reason is their deprivation

For what purpose is their condemnation.’

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

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

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

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

“When was it written?”

“1692.”

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

“Pardon me,” said Kawa.

“Let’s go. This place stinks.”

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

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

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

“Call me Xeyal,” I said.

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

MIRLive : Dec 8th 2023

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

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

We look forward to reading your work!

The MIR Live team


Featured Speakers

Wes Brown

Wes Brown

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

Elsa Court

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

Dead Mouse, by Charlotte Turnbull

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

 

 

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

.

Singapre Skyline

Review: Singapore by Eva Aldea

Katy Severson reviews Singapore, by Eva Aldea, published by Holland House Books.

Singapore - Eva Aldea

In Eva Aldea’s debut novel, Singapore is hot and humid, tense, sterile and slow. There are snakes and crabs, expat housewives with Filipina maids. At the centre of this, there is an unnamed female protagonist who vehemently resents her life abroad. She hates the humid heat, struggles to relate to the fellow expats in her circle, and finds solace, it seems, through violent fantasies of murdering the people around her.

At its core, ‘Singapore’ is an account of a woman trapped by her life as a housewife in a foreign country, and an exploration of the beastly depths of the human brain when left alone to stew. It’s also about the complicated socio-political landscape and dripping heat of Singapore itself. In the background of the protagonist’s personal story is an exploration of class tensions, privilege and colonialism. She is almost painfully aware of her privilege, and she both resents the class system in Singapore and enjoys the benefits it offers her. Singapore, a nation where ‘not all cultures are treated equal all the time’, is called into question—and we’re left meditating on the ethics of capitalism and the impact of British colonialism.

            The writing itself is precisely detailed and cinematic, like a calculated screenplay in which every moment or object feels intentional and significant to the story. We see our protagonist taking coffee beans from the freezer, removing a clothes pin, replacing it. We watch her navigate the packaged rice aisle in a supermarket, picking up each variety and putting it back on the shelf. She moves something from a desk to another desk to the kitchen counter; she adjusts the temperature of the fridge. And we find ourselves wondering where these moments might lead, constantly kept on our toes. These details also have a way of stretching time and rendering an eerie, creeping slowness to the text that’s punctuated by consistent references to violence and death.

            There are venomous snakes and fighting fish. There is the chopping and grinding of coffee beans, the slicing of liver and lungs. Our protagonist sees ‘corpses’ at a yoga class and realises that she likes chopping meat and scooping aubergine flesh, ‘fascinated by these things that once were alive’, interested in ‘the thrill of the hunt’—until it turns into elaborate fantasies of murder. At points, the descriptions are so detailed and elaborate that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s projected. Has she actually murdered the maid? Is she actually keeping a body in the boot of her car? Or are her fantasies simply that calculated, a deeply analysis of what she’d have to do in each instance to get away with it? I’m not convinced we’re meant to know. The book becomes a blurred reality and a manifestation of her manic thoughts.

There are times when the details feel over-explained, the scenes so mundane and so slow that it risks boring the reader. But that, I think, is the sheer brilliance of the writing. Aldea forces us to endure the boredom of her protagonist and the brutality of her thoughts as if we’re right there with her. These mundane details invite us into the confines of the protagonist’s brain in ways few fiction texts do. We see her question whether she should kill herself, watch her spill hot water on herself just for the drama of going to the doctor. And the result, somehow, is a likeable character: someone painfully self-aware and tortured by her day-to-day and someone worth rooting for, even despite her murderous fantasies. The reader is so intimately intertwined with the text that we can feel the muggy heat, the long and languid days spent alone, and we feel trapped right there with her. In a way, I too went mad as I read it.  

This is a book is for anyone curious about exploring the absurdities of the human brain and the animalistic tendencies that exist within us all. It allows a rare look inside a character’s intrusive thoughts—the kinds of thoughts that few authors are bold enough to put on the page. In an article on Books By Women, Aldea credits ‘discomfort and boredom’ as the driving force behind her writing, recalling her own experience living abroad in Singapore and the complicated feelings that arose from it. I like the idea that this novel serves as a means of exploring the depths of one’s brain in ways we often don’t let ourselves. One’s anger and frustration taken to extremes. One’s beastly nature on full, unabashed display.

Katy Severson is a writer and chef based in London. Her work has appeared in Huffington Post, Cherry Bombe, Bon Appetit, Fifty Grande and others with a focus on social and environmental justice issues in food. She completed her MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck University in 2023.

 

Moon, by Jo Stones

For the third time this morning Mary looks through all the spaces, 

turns her head left, right, imperceptibly 

alert 

then tilts forward, bending herself in half, 

walks, folded, with tiny, quick steps, 

searching along the edge of skirting, 

the floor, 

under a wooden chair.

She pulls herself upright, stands,

sighs,

then bends herself around objects, feels pieces of furniture, cushions, 

peers inside a dusty glass vase, 

flicks books

shakes a bottle,

moves her hand along surface after surface.

Inch by inch, Mary scrutinises.

– There’s not enough time for this. 

Her left ear whistles, 

her head fills with a noise not unlike untuned radio stations, not calming. 

No.

Mary looks at the coat-hooks, feels around the last jacket she wore, her fingers digging in the pockets.

Fluff, coin,

the keys aren’t there, she knew that.

Stand, very still, collect.

Mary closes her eyes, slowly breathes in 

through her nose, 

and out through the small opening of her lips.

The key to calm is breathing,

but the key to her flat is missing.

She opens her eyes, swallows then, turning around, with miniscule movements, steps forward, looks back, forward …

And again, through the flat.

‘Retrace every step,’

from the front door and into the kitchen. 

Mary touches all the hooks that she recently screwed to the back of the door, 

a place for storing keys.

She walks from the kitchen to the sitting room. 

Mary drops her body softly to the floor and rolls over, lies on her back.

No.

Time.

Mary sits up, gets on to her knees and crawls across the room on all fours, her fingers widespread, star-like, 

sweeping across the carpet, 

windscreen wipers. 

“You’d lose your head if it wasn’t screwed on so tight.” 

Mary pulls herself back up to standing,  

pushes away the image of a screw-on head,

deleted from her mind. 

Not a time for an annoying turn of phrase, 

… can I pick your brains? 

Why do people say such things?

Worst of all is saying someone is ‘mad,’ as if they themselves are not …

who can measure madness versus not?  

“Retrace your steps,” 

it’s what she always says, 

said …

to Ben.  

He had loved her, or seemed to …

And then he also hated her. 

Which is why he left, or she asked him to leave, somewhere in between that mutual partition,

Ben forever angered by suggestions such as tracing steps …

“But it really does work,” Mary would say … 

and, if he wasn’t too enraged, she might carry on …

“… it’s an extra sense we have when our minds can’t remember.  Inside us we do actually know where we have put things, it’s amazing, our bodies remember everything!”

Her own advice now.

It will work, it does work.

Retrace your steps. 

Mary revisits herself arriving home yesterday, unlocking the door, 

the pockets in the clothes she wore …  

She lifts her arms out and up high, to widen her lung capacity, 

to help her breathe.

She will remember. 

She lies on her back, closes her eyes, and imagines …

walking, 

a miniature Mary, walking through a map, a set design of the flat …

“Fuck.”

She can’t see the moment.

The moment she placed the keys …

Mary pulls herself up and stands, not able to see much, no proper focus,

the veins inside her temples pump,

a sense of nausea …

actual nausea,

dry throat, tongue, teeth.

This time she’s going to fall,

fail.

Moon will be waiting at the train station, cold. 

Sweet as he is, hopeful at first …

searching the faces of disembarking people …

She lets him down.

She will not, 

not today.

That isn’t who Mary wants to be.

You’re on your own Mary. 

So was Moon. On his own. 

There was a time when he had lived like a wild man, on the edges of roads, railway tracks, in prisons, shelters. 

Moon would find his way back, like a cat, to Mary.

He would ask for money, tobacco, food …

and be off again, into the dark night.

Mary lowers herself back to her knees, eyes open, crawls like a predatory cat, across the living room carpet once more. 

Persian. 

Deepest indigo, artery red, clotted cream, a soft sky blue … touch of dusky pink on the petals of the central flower.  

Dyed, thick, hand-woven. 

Mary stretches herself out on the carpet, face down, smells the wool.

Kav and Patena gave her this carpet, 

Iranian friends, she only knew them for a year or so.

They moved cities, lost touch. 

Good, organised, generous people, they helped Mary out when she first moved into the flat.

“I have many rugs, you need a rug, please, take it,” said Patena.

It was a Saturday afternoon. Patena turned up, out of the blue, with her husband, Kav. They walked up the steps, one behind the other, straight through the door into Mary’s new flat, the huge rug, rolled up and over both their shoulders like a prize stag. 

The rug unfolded across the bare wooden floor, magic.

If Patena had a brother like Moon, she would always be on time for him, and bring him rugs.

Keys.

They must be hiding in the carpet pattern, 

They fell from her bag, yes, they are here. 

Mary urges the carpet to surrender them. 

Now’s not the time… 

and

… nothing.

“Fuck.”

She’ll miss the train.

Bad sister, did she do this on purpose?

not caring. 

Is that what Moon will think?

and his carers, they will think that.

Is that narcissism, to worry what they think? 

Does she care enough about her brother? 

or does she care what her brother’s carers will think?

A swelling sensation fills her ears, as if with too much air …

she can’t locate it,

not exactly.

Every part of her senses feels wrong … 

breathe.  

It happens, this.

Mary knows … and she can’t stop it, 

and then she can.

She’s not mad.  

No.

If Ben did ever love her, he didn’t love this.  

He would grow angry.   He would say she was mad. 

Anyway, he’s gone now. So that’s that.

Mary sits up cross-legged in the middle of the rug.

That’s all over now,

like the shift of a scene in a film, wipe.

Mary pulls herself up,

lifts her bag from the chair where she’d placed it, all packed, ready to leave an hour ago

when she was calm

before she knew she didn’t have her keys.

Already checked; the keys are not in the bag. 

Check again.

Mary tips the bag out on to the kitchen counter, willing the hard sound of brass Chubb on wood 

… if only…

She puts everything back …

the navy tissue-wrapped gift; a new phone for Moon’s birthday. 

Moon loves gadgets.

Her wallet; debit, credit, cash …  

She checks the lid is properly on a pen, drops that back in the bag,

flicks open her notebook; the keys are not hidden inside that either…

hand sanitizer, hand cream …mask.

And her mobile and charger, that’s all.

Scrunching her eyes tight, nose wrinkled, like Dorothy wishing, heel-clicking,

she psychic messages her keys …

come on!

it’s an inanimate object. 

That can work.

Mary’s done that before, 

knows there’s a cosmic possibility the keys will appear.

Moon will be upset if she’s late, there’s only one train an hour. 

He’ll think she didn’t want to come.

Did she?

Moon would never miss a train. 

Moon is reset and now lives as perfect order personified,

always on time.

Mary feels hot, clammy, pale…

Moon used to tell her that her lateness could increase his psychosis.

“My stress levels go up…” he’d say.

Mary tries not to panic, 

or cry.

That was before mobile phones and texts,

at least there is that now.

She pushes her bag across the table, lays her head on her hands.

Be there for him.

Be more.  Be the rock,

Be …

normal.

A swollen sounds fills Mary’s ears again.  

… there… it’s there, hovering in the space between her eardrums … temples, throat …

No. 

Go away.

‘Breathe,’

Mary stands, paces around the small kitchen to … 

kettle. 

A cup of tea with sugar, help …

as it would a person who’s been in a car accident.

Breathe, 

she can breathe

“Yes”

Mary fills the kettle, it boils, 

she sits at the table,

stares at the brown, incomplete circular mark from a hot cup, no coasters. 

Mary drinks the sweet tea, feels better

breathing settled, 

inner ears clear. 

No big breaths into brown paper bags, not for her.  

Restoration: Mary is a rock 

… in a forest, patterns spread across its body, 

wiggly lines of whitish, Verdigris lichen, 

fungi meeting moss, a beautiful harmonious marriage.  

Stop

…riddles.

It’s time, come on, find the keys now.

He will have prepared,

impeccably dressed, he will check his watch often.

Mary should call, tell him she’s late.

Text, that’ll be easier…

– Hi Moon, slight delay, don’t worry, I’ll sort it. 

He replies:

– Okay May

Moon started calling himself Moon and Mary ‘May’ when they were teenagers. 

It stuck, just between them. 

Outside chirrups from tits, blackbird, finches, a green parrot squeak, winter’s end. 

Cars hum from the main road.

Mary is breathing, her inner ear, free, her head clear.

She walks into the middle of her living room, the plain tree swaying outside her window, the linen curtains flow back and forth from the window to the chalk white walls.

Mary closes the window, everything settles, all seems clear.  

She hopes Moon won’t be sitting on the station platform,

Moon didn’t used to come and meet her from the train.

He’d be waiting, perhaps sitting on the wall, or standing, outside the door of his sheltered home.  He’d know what time she was due to arrive, would be looking out for her as she came up the hill from the station.  

Sometimes she’d see him stand in the middle of the road, waving his arms, huge waves, as if she was a plane that needed help landing in the fog.

Now he has his own flat. Independent living, home comforts. 

A framed poster hangs on the living room wall:

 “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” 

 “It’s a quote from John Lennon,” Moons says, almost every time she visits.

He loves that he knows this. He agrees with Lennon.

Nothing much happens for Moon except ‘life.’ 

Once a great deal happened. 

Mary was still at school. He’d run away from home, or had he been thrown out? 

He barely ever came back after that, or he wasn’t allowed.  

If he did turn up it was most often at night. He’d call up to Mary’s bedroom window to ask for money and cigarettes, then he’d disappear. And he did that for over a year, then he was missing for a long time.

Even more stick-thin than before, and extremely leather-tanned and filthy, Moon was sat on the front steps one day when Mary got home from school.

Ping-pong eyes, a shock on his face with its hollow cheeks. 

“Bath time,” Mary sang, joking nervously.

Moon followed Mary inside the house, around the kitchen, then to her room and back to the kitchen. 

He stared at her continuously.

“You’ve got a purple aura,” he said. 

His matted hair stood up; his scabbed, bare feet stank.

Maggie, their father’s girlfriend, got back from shopping. She took one look, laughed meanly at the state of him, waving the air regarding the smell. 

“Your brother’s a nutter,” she said to Mary, barely suppressing a mean smirk then,

“I’m going out, your father can deal with this,” leaving them both in the kitchen.

“What happened?” Mary asked Moon.

Moon looked like he’d cry so Mary made tea.

Hearts broke. 

Home from work, Dad was sad. 

He turned, long enough to give Mary a strained, smile.

“Michael, son, let’s go in the front room and have a chat, eh?” 

Only Mary called him Moon. Everyone else called him ‘Michael.’

Mary crawled to a place on the hall landing where she could just see through the jar of the door to the front room. 

Moon, sitting on the couch beside their dad. Awkward, sweaty, mumbling,

and then Dad’s low voice, 

“Have you taken any drugs, son?” 

Moon’s head hanging.

Bless me father for I have sinned.

Silent, enormous teardrops falling, 

Moon tears,

stunned, 

silent as night.

Mary huddled on the landing as it grew dark, endlessly sobbed into her knees.

Keys. 

Mary will find them.

She will leave, and get the next train, arrive, and smile.

What Mary really wants is not to be a rock, Mary wants a rock.  

Dad found it hard to be a rock. He wanted to be a rock, then he died.

In Moon’s clockwork life, he has rocks, paid capable, caring, calm rocks.

Mary’s not his rock. Mary is chaos and causes psychosis. 

…find the keys!

Mary was the well one … able, 

expected not to lose things like keys, to arrive on time.

It was a secret.  Moon’s breakdown. 

Moon went to hospital. Mary went to school.

She hid in a dark cupboard.

There were damp mops standing with their soggy heads up, buckets, brooms and Mary, solitary confined, crying in isolation. 

As if Moon had died. This one who looked a bit like him, is not him, where is he?

…   Come on! 

Keys, Keys. 

stop going back over tracks,

awakening pain.

Moon’s rebuilt now, 

sweet, peaceful, medicated, well. 

Where are the keys? 

Retracing, again, the steps she took the night before …this has become so boring.

Time – 9.20 am. 

Too late for the 9.27 

Mary texts Moon again:

– I’m running late, so sorry … Next train, promise!

– Okay May (thumbs up emoji) 

That’s a good sign, the thumbs up. 

Mary relaxes a little.

– Sorry Bro, just can’t find my keys.

– Don’t worry, May, life is what happens when you’re making other plans 

– Ha, yes! So it is! 

– I’ll be waiting for you, May (smiley face emoji)

– Thanks, don’t come to the station though.

–  I’m already at the station May. 

Shit!

-Okay, sorry! Mary replies.

– Don’t worry. I’m used to it by now, May. You’re always late. I’ve brought my book. I’m reading Lord of The Rings. It’s really good. I don’t mind waiting for you.

Moon speaks to her as if he’s her psychiatrist,

nods, says ‘mmm.’ 

And he uses her name, a lot. 

Mary’s in the room, her kitchen. No more panic.

She leans against the tall fridge; its magnets fall from the door.

She kneels to pick them up.

Partly obscured by the bottom of the fridge, is the Lancashire red rose keyring that once belonged to their dad. He’d bought it on a pilgrimage of his childhood, back in the eighties, she’d kept it when he died; uses it for her keys now,

her door keys. 

She picks them up.  

“You heard me.”


Jo Stones was born and grew up in Sheffield, then New Zealand and then South London.  Aside from ‘Moon’ her non-fiction story, ‘Lotus Instructions’ was published in Wasafiri magazine, 2016.  She is a graduate from Birkbeck’s MACW, as well as University of Westminster’s BA in film, where she wrote short screenplays. Before that she was in three quite dreadful bands where she wrote the songs.  She is currently working a novel, usually at the crack of dawn before starting work in her role as an archive producer for documentary films.

‘A defining message of education and acceptance’ : Dale Booton in conversation with Matt Bates on his debut poetry pamphlet, Walking Contagions.

Dale Booton, Walking Contagions, Polari Press, 9781914237102

MB: Walking Contagions strikes me as being not just a beautiful suite of poems, but also a political act through its – to quote the blurb – ‘defining message of education and acceptance.’ How did you begin to conceptualise the collection and where did your research take you?

DB: When I accepted my own queerness in my late teens, I went on an research expedition into queer history. Obviously, a huge part of recent history has been the AIDS epidemic. It has been a medical, emotional, social, economic, and political topic for so many including those we have lost, and those living with HIV/AIDS who are still stigmatised today. I read everything I could on the subject and watched as many documentaries and films as I could. I just wanted to know everything, nerd that I am! There was a whole history that had been kept from me in education, so I had to find it.

When I sat down to plan the pamphlet, I made so many notes, little scribbles of oh, what about this… or this? I accumulated quite a stack of random pieces of paper, and then, after a couple of my previous poems about HIV/AIDS had been published, I decided to write Walking Contagions. I wanted to mark a journey from the 80s to present day, drawing on the experience of the past to investigate how the medical, emotional, social, economic, and political segments of the epidemic might have changed – or not – over the last few decades. Because I had already written a few poems about HIV/AIDS I didn’t want to just repeat the same content. I had an idea of what I wanted to include: aspects of sexual health, of pain, trauma, a family scene, loss; but I also wanted to have some poems in there that explored queerness in society today as well as the educational side of HIV treatment.

Finding a publisher like Polari has been amazing. Peter Collins, who runs Polari Press, was so wonderful and kind with my work, and Polari have created an amazing cover for the pamphlet. Polari is a queer publisher run by a queer person publishing queer things – what more could a queer writer wish for? The pamphlet I originally sent was very different to begin with, and whilst editing I destroyed some poems completely and wrote new ones because I didn’t like what I had created. Then I sat back down and started to write again, looking at the gaps I thought I had missed, or where I thought I had strayed too far from my concept. My final editing was done over one weekend. I locked myself away in my flat and rewatched AIDS: The Unheard Tapes, then re-read the poems. It took a lot out of me until I was eventually pulled out by some friends and taken out for the night. I just sat in a local club crying, thinking about all those who were lost because society was too ignorant to care and too unaccepting to help.

I wanted to write in a way that was bold, brash and blunt. I didn’t want to overuse metaphor but to say what I really thought on the matter. If my pamphlet expresses an element of the ‘defining message of education and acceptance’, then I have succeeded in what I wanted to do.

MB: A number of the poems are in dialogue with other poets’ works. I really enjoyed the way you use a line from another poet to “push off” into your own poems, offering a multitude of new possibilities by evolving a line. Can you tell us more about this method and how it helped you shape the collection?

DB: I think poets are at their best when they consume other poets’ work, internalise what they appreciate about the poetry, and, – because not everything fits everyone – what they might have done differently if the poem were their own. This is something I have done with various poems and poets’ work, whether that be a specific poem idea or a form, or even just the poem itself. For example, my poem ‘Blood’ is after the poem ‘Blood’ by the wonderful Andrew McMillan, who was such an inspiration when I first started out as a queer poet. Previously, I just rambled on about society and randomness and avoided all ideas of my own queer identity. Reading Andrew’s Physical really helped me to come out of my poetry closet, so to speak. I had moved back to Birmingham for university, I was trying to take my own poetry more seriously, and Andrew’s poetry really helped with that.

So, when I decided that I was going to try and work on more poems in relation to AIDS. The first, ‘Journal Fragments ’82 -’86’, had been published in the We’ve Done Nothing Wrong. We’ve Got Nothing to Hide (2020) Diversity anthology by Verve so I was inspired to keep with the theme. Lockdown had just hit, and I was suddenly very aware of the time that I had to write. I had been re-reading Playtime by Andrew McMillan, which discusses sexual identity, and there is a poem in the collection called ‘Blood’ that I just adored. It explores sex, sexual health, and AIDS history in such a contemporary way. At the time, it had been announced that the twelve-month deferral ban on donating blood for gay and bi-sexual men would be decreased to three months of celibacy, and it really made my blood boil. There was still so much stigma around queer sex and HIV/AIDS, so, I wanted to try educating people about HIV/AIDS through poetry.

I have many friends who are HIV+ and there is still such a lack of education for those that may know little about it. And, sadly, there is still a lot of ignorance within the queer community too. If anything, you should feel safe within your own community, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case. The poems are also for those: the ignorant amongst us who perhaps need some education and reflection of their own. Stigma is dangerous; knowledge and education can help eradicate that. Education is the key, but unfortunately there are people that fight the kind of education that can help save lives, whether that be about HIV/AIDS or about the queer community in general.

I read Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell in lockdown, which is about love, loss, and the destroyed possibility of happiness as being interconnected with another person. As soon as I read it, I thought of Grindr. I wondered how I might merge the two together in some form; and I ended up keeping the title and stealing the first two lines from Rimbaud’s poem.

I did a similar thing with ‘Exposure, Part II’, taking the last lines of Wilfred Owen’s stanzas and using them in a reconstructed effort to show model the “fighting a war but losing the battle” adage, exploring the onset of the AIDS epidemic with activism and an ignorant government. The poem plays on Owen’s ideals of being neglected by those who you once thought might help you, until you are just sat around waiting for death.

‘Wounded I Stand’ is after زخمستان (wounded-i-stan) by Suhrab Sirat. I fell in love with this broken idea of society and efforts within war that Sirat discussed within his poem. It was for a Young Poets competition – as was ‘Exposure, Part II’, actually – and I started working with the ideas of queerness being broken throughout history by those who want to oppress and eradicate, but still we carry on, we fight on, we love on…because we must.

As for ‘Epilogue’…well, that began in a workshop with the magnificent Joelle Taylor, whom the opening line belongs to – from the poem ‘Got a Light, Jack?’ in C+nto & Othered Poems – and it is one where I left the workshop thinking ooh, I’ve really got something here. It didn’t have a title at first, but as I started editing the poem, I knew it would be about passing on from life, in an oddly sweet and sensationalist manner, rather than some negative damnation of misery. The poem rather encapsulates how I would like to go, looking back at life, love and intimacy, rather than in fear of what is beyond the eternal darkness. Quite a few of the poems throughout the pamphlet are rather morbid, but I wanted to end on a note that was looking back with joy and gratefulness for all the men one has known, rather than regret.

MB: ‘Another Season in Hell’ and ‘Epilogue’ seem to express an acute disappointment with the instantaneous sex-based apps of today (such as Grindr), whilst also feeling simultaneously resigned to them. Do you see there being a tension between digital spaces and the (lack of) physical spaces today such as the bar, club or cruising spaces?

DB: I think that a lot of social activity is now done online – there is no denying it, whether that is merely communication (like Twitter, etc.) or for other forms of gratification (such as Grindr, etc.). We are in a technological age, and that often forces us to struggle with the reality of what is right in front of us. In particular, with recent global events, such as COVID-19 and lockdowns, we have been forced to find new ways to stay in contact with those we care about. Coming out of lockdown and going back into bars and nightclubs, I think there was a bit of shift in how life is approached. I mean, I have seen gay men messaging each other on Grindr while being a metre or so away from one another on the dancefloor and I just think, why don’t you go talk to each other and dance? Then again, I wouldn’t be the person to go up to someone in a club really, either, so, I’m a bit of a hypocrite like that!

I don’t know… perhaps it is a safety net, that idea of possible rejection: it isn’t so bad when it is conveyed in a message rather than to your face. These poems sort of fall into the modern idea of intimacy through anonymity. There is always a risk that comes with social media and dating apps, and sometimes that risk is isolation or mental health issues, but we still use them, delete them from our phones, reinstall them, use them again. It is like a little cycle of hope and despair at finding something in a place that perhaps we know might not be good for us. Like the Rihanna song ‘We Found Love’, we move with the times, and sometimes that means putting yourself out there in ways you never though you might, just as one does with poetry.

Dale Booton

MB: Following on from the previous question, I was very moved by the narration in ‘Encounter’ which connects sexual joy to sexual terror under the shadow of HIV. In a state of fever, the narrator sits ‘like The Thinker recounting the faces | of the men I have loved and have been loved by for a night’. There seems to be a further tension on display here between promiscuity and the search for love…can you expand?

DB: Promiscuity is believed to be a very modern idea, and it is also very much connected with the queer community. There is this idea in heterosexual society to find a partner and settle down – but that is utter garbage. Promiscuity has been witnessed throughout history for all sexualities. There is no gene coding for promiscuity. Levels of promiscuity change through a person’s life and emotional states. Some people may have sexual intercourse with one person in their life, others may have sexual intercourse with thirty, seventy, three hundred. Neither is a problem – so long as you are knowledgeable.

By this, I mean, safe sex, regular sexual health screenings, communication with the partner. Promiscuity may have been scarier during the onset of the AIDS epidemic due to the risk that was associated with it, as well as the stigma that wasn’t only caused because of AIDS, but because of the sexuality it was most closely aligned with. However, I do believe that fear has led to queer people being more educated on sexual health than perhaps a lot of heterosexual people. Often, as I have discussed with numerous university friends and secondary students, because a lot of heterosexual people believe that sexual health isn’t something for them to worry about. There are times when students have said to me: “Only gay people get sex diseases.”

Education is a tool, but often it is not being used correctly. Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) has come a long way, but it still has so much further to go, and poetry can help with that. I wrote ‘U = U’ after a conversation with a HIV+ friend of mind, and they described the virus as being trapped in a rosebud that doesn’t open, which I then took, used, and developed. I did an assembly for World AIDS Day last year at my school, and I was deeply shocked by the minimal information at hand, lack of understanding, and, indeed, tolerance around HIV/AIDS from staff alone. Undetectable means Untransmittable, and that is a message RSE and Biology lessons need to reiterate.

As for love – I wouldn’t say I am very successful with that topic. My poems – although they do have romance throughout them – often fail to attribute anything to anything as definitive as ‘love’. But maybe that is what love is – as it is very different to everyone – an undefinable abstract that is woven throughout what we do, rather than projected and instilled in one person or poem. Within ‘Encounter’, perhaps it is that desperation for love that defines the speaker: I am fully aware of my longing for love in my youth, of the desire to fall head-over-heels for a guy, to feel a connection…but, it doesn’t always work out that way. The poem holds that anticipation and fear of what comes next? especially for the poem’s setting in the AIDS epidemic.

MB: I love how this collection of poems is in dialogue with the past, present and future. Focusing on the past, for a moment, I was reminded of Heather Love’s (in Feeling Backward: Loss & the Politics of Queer History) argument that narrations of queer suffering are an embodiment of queerness itself. For Love, texts that narrate queer suffering and ‘insist on social negativity’ can be useful because they ‘underline the gap between aspiration and the actual.’ How do you feel your collection both memorialises the past and articulates a hopeful future?

DB: For me, history in words is a current we have captured, contained, and given a new home. My pamphlet is a little home – it houses change as well as lack of change. To me, queer history is an essential part of growing up as a queer person, no matter when you are born. Perhaps I’m just a nerd but I think that you need to know the history of your own community.

At school, you are taught history – often flawed and Eurocentric – but history, nonetheless. Why then, when you discover who you are, do you not want to know that history, too? There are many young queers oblivious to the history that our queer ancestors have fought through and for us in order for the freedoms we have today, and that fight still goes on. I can’t understand how you wouldn’t want to know about all that. It should be taught in schools as a part of history. I know that in the school I taught at, there wasn’t even an LGBTQ+ History Month until I developed a scheme for it; and that was in English, not History. Queer history is a part of history, so it must be taught.

While my pamphlet mostly deals with HIV/AIDS, there is a current of development and change within society. For example, the development of treatments has meant people living with HIV can live long, prosperous lives…something that those in the 80s didn’t have. Education and activism are the couple that can end the stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS around the world, which is exactly what we need. As I said before: Undetectable means Untransmittable. Education is the key.

MB: More generally, which poets do you particular admire and draw inspiration from?

DB: As I said earlier, a huge inspiration for me has been Andrew McMillan and to whom I am very grateful to for blurbing my pamphlet. He has been very kind about my work, and he is someone I always go back and read. Andrew also introduced me to the work of Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, both of whom have been inspiring. Their exploration of the onset of the AIDS epidemic, of loss, but also of love, is actually really chilling. Their poems aren’t poems that are quick to leave you.

I mentioned Joelle Taylor, whom I adore. Jemima Hughes. James McDermott. Caleb Parkin. Mary Jean Chan. Ocean Vuong. Jericho Brown. Danez Smith. Fiona Benson. Raymond Antrobus. These are all poets I constantly go back to, are constantly re-reading and they aren’t all queer. They each have a different purpose to me, if that makes sense. For example, if I am writing about mental health, I return to Jemima Hughes; if I am writing about family, I re-read Mary Jean Chan or Fiona Benson; queerness…I have a whole deck of poets to keep going back to and re-reading. I always try to think: What have they written? What haven’t they written? What can I write?

I also have some poetry friends and acquaintances that I draw inspiration from such as Piero Toto, Simon Maddrell, Stanley Iyanu, Juliano Zaffino Ashish Kumar Singh, Luís Costa, JP Seabright. These are people I talk to about poetry: their own, my own… or some that I just read the poetry of and adore.

MB: Finally, what’s next for you Dale, writing-wise?

DB: I am currently editing a second poetry pamphlet, which will be published with Fourteen Poems early next year, exploring queer friendship and nightlife. It is kind of based around some of the events in the past two years of my life, moving away from a relationship and falling into a safe queer space. I haven’t really written any poetry in a while, so it is good to push myself back towards it through some editing.

I also have an idea for a novel, but that is something that will need fleshing out before I start writing it. Hopefully, in the near future, it will become a little clearer in my mind…

Dale Booton (he/him) is a queer poet from Birmingham. His poetry has been published in various places, such as Verve, Young Poets Network, Queerlings, The North, Muswell Press, and Magma. His debut pamphlet Walking Contagions is out with Polari Press; his second pamphlet is forthcoming with Fourteen Poems in 2024.
Twitter: @BootsPoetry
 
Matt Bates is the Poetry Editor of MIR.