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Ella does some remembering

SO A FORTNIGHT ago I walk in and there’s Ella, waving her arms about in the middle of the living room. I don’t notice at first that she’s using some kind of exercise contraption. It just looks like she’s flailing. She’s stepping up and down on two little platforms, while at the same time stretching out two huge black elastic bands with her arms. She is not very coordinated. Our electric fan is balanced on the telly, going full blast into her face. It is wafting her hair out behind her. She looks like she’s fending off an amorous octopus. She has her eyes tightly closed and has a loose, wide smile across her face. I’m about to back into the hall and come in again, this time making enough noise to break her reverie. But Ella opens her eyes.

Oh, Peter, she says. It’s just exactly like it felt when I was seven. I was running across the top of Box Hill. It was autumn. The ground was heavy and I had two kites – mine and Gemma’s – and I was trailing them both behind me. They were quite small kites but the wind was up and they each danced in a different direction and ached my arms all over and oh it was so exhilarating.

I miss the next bit over the whirring of the fan, and when I do start making out what Ella is saying again, she’s reeling off a list of other significant emotional memories that she wants to recreate. As always I say of course Ella. She says it’s called a Twist-Stretcher, by the way.

That night Ella tells me to be gentle, as her calves still ache from all the stepping. I imagine I am an octopus.

*      *     *

We spend most of the next day driving between the various out-of-town DIY stores, trying out the sample doorbells they have on display. This time Ella is looking for a particular sound, one she remembers hearing in a dream a few years back. I find comparing the various ‘ding-dongs’ to be surprisingly absorbing, once I get into it: some have rounded sounds, almost soft and fruity. Others are thin and spiky and unpleasant. I find myself wondering whether the sound of your bell would make a difference to how you thought of the person standing on your doorstep, ringing it. By mid-afternoon we have narrowed it down to three. Ella dashes from one end of the display to another, pressing her head against the fake doors. I try and help by asking what kind of door was it in her dream? Was it a big heavy old panelled door? Was it painted? Was it a plastic ringer, or an old brass one? Ella just looks at me and says oh no, it wasn’t a doorbell. It was a bird. For some reason this makes me angry. I go and sit in the car for a bit.

Ella comes out happy after an hour. She has the right one. She touches my hand as I’m changing gear into reverse and says ‘thank you, Peter’. We drive back via Quiet Lane and I pull in by the old bridge and tell her there’s a few buttons of hers I really need to ring right now.

*      *     *

Then Thursday. I get home to find Ella putting a geranium into the microwave. I hover by the kitchen door. She doesn’t notice me. She turns the dial just a little bit, about the same as to reheat a cup of tea. After about fifteen seconds, the microwave dings. She opens the door and sticks her head inside. There is a muffled sound. Ella is sniffing, loudly and deeply, like she’s trying to clear a cold by inhaling from one of those little menthol sticks.

‘No!’ she shouts, her voice muffled. ‘No, no no!’ She takes her head out and slams the microwave door. The microwave judders. She stabs at the controls, sets them to ‘high’ and twists the knob, this time for about ten minutes. The microwave whirrs away. She is standing with her hands on her hips. Through the crook of her arm, I can see the geranium, rotating slowly behind tinted glass. I cough quietly. Ella turns. She has soil on her face.

‘Oh, Peter,’ she says. ‘This one’s not working. It’s just not working.’

‘It’s OK,’ I tell her. ‘We’ll get it. I know we will.’

It’s a happy feeling she’s after now. She has been talking about a moment when she was around eight or nine years old: she was standing on the back step of her grandparents’ house. There was a metal lean-to veranda. The veranda was full of geraniums. She says the sun was so bright and hot it had practically bleached out all the images – the memory is only a smell and a feeling on her skin. She says the heat came from all directions at once: it filled her ears, went up her sleeves, practically billowed her skirt. She says she’d never felt so happy, so safe, so purely in a moment as on that step, eyes closed, half-suffocated by geraniums.

Behind Ella, the geranium in the microwave gives a soft pop and collapses. I distract her by showing her the assortment of torches I’ve bought at the hardware store. We spend the rest of the evening shining them into her closed eyes from just a centimetre or so away. She says the black one is good as the light is strongest and it also warms her eyelids in just the right way – but it smells too strongly of rubber, which is getting in the way of the scent of the geranium petals we have so carefully stitched into the balaclava. I am frustrated and say we should stop. Ella says the balaclava is starting to itch anyway.

That night I imagine I am the hot fug of geranium heat, breathing over her whole body. I imagine this heat drying the tears I can taste on her cheeks in the dark. Ella asks me if she can take the balaclava off now. I pretend not to hear.

*      *     *

Now this evening. When I got home all the windows were open. The house was dark. I was shouting Ella’s name even before I was in the hallway. There was no answer. I could hear the sound of running water. I ran to the bathroom. The door was shut but not locked. Ella was sitting in the bath. The cold tap was on full but the plug wasn’t in. In the corner of the bathroom was our Hoover. It was all bent and the bag was torn open. Ella was in her underwear. Her skin looked funny. Her eyes were red, rubbed almost to bruises. Her lips were blue. My eyes finally adjusted, and I saw: all over her were stuck little ribbons of Sellotape, each little strip was also thick with the contents of the Hoover bag: clumps of hair; grit; dust. Ella was shivering slightly. And she was smiling:

‘Oh Peter, I’ve got this one,’ she says to me. ‘This is it.  This is how it felt. The first time you looked at me.’

She holds out the half-used roll of Sellotape, and gestures to where the broken Hoover has spilled its grey salad onto the lino, and to a patch on her belly that is still bare. I grab myself a handful and gently kneel down beside her.

by Nick Parker

http://theexplodingboy.com

 

Pay for it

The letters started coming after the twelve-week scan. They know the baby’s going to be healthy so they’ve made their presence known. Every week the letters have been inviting me for my free abortion, reminding us of the situation. The tariff’s going up twice a year now with the new government.

It’s not just letters. Paul gets phone calls and weekly visits at work. They keep picking his brains, trying to get our decision out of him. But the truth is we haven’t made it. He gets rid of them somehow and then we silently worry about it at night.

My thoughts are always on the pile of unopened letters. The red ‘urgent’ stamp branding my conscience every time I see it. I have to look away because it’ll affect the baby. They keep coming and we just get used to the constant ebb.

As the weeks have gone by my sickness has eased off but my belly button’s popped out. They stop the scans and hospital visits after twelve weeks – that’s as far as they help you. Their way of saying that having a baby isn’t the way to go. Not having a doctor around is frustrating. I don’t know if craving pencil lead’s normal or if having balloon ankles is natural. And I’m really conscious of what I think about and what I watch on TV. I’ve been really strict. I haven’t watched any scary films since I found out I was pregnant. Nor have Paul and I had sex. My thoughts are directly linked to the baby so I’ve got to be careful. I don’t want my kid to be violent or sex-crazed. I only have a vague idea of my due date because I remember them mentioning it back in school.

Schools used to have sex education. But by the time I was old enough, they cut it. And before we could find anything else out, they’d brought in the tariffs. I tried asking Mum about it once; I remember it so clearly. I’ve never seen her that angry before. She was insulted I’d asked her. Gave me a lecture on why it’s important and then she just flipped.

‘It’s a good thing they’re introducing free abortions. Then you won’t make the same mistake I did.’ I’m an only child, so that hurt.

When I told her and Dad about this they literally pushed me out the front door. I called Mum in the day and said I had some big news to tell them. So they invited us round for dinner. Mum, being the traditionalist she is, jumped the gun and assumed Paul had proposed to me. We got there and she’d done a slap-up meal, dressed the table with candles and everything. I waited until we were on the third bottle of wine to tell them. But that only dramatised their reaction.

Dad’s still not speaking to me. But Mum came in the shop the other day to say her piece.

‘If you’re doing this for us, we don’t want a grandchild. We didn’t even want you…’ she trails off. Once again, cutting her maternal ties to me, ‘Look, if you want to ask me anything baby-related then you can. But you’re not seriously thinking about keeping it, are you?’

Nowadays, there’s no way my questions can be answered. All the baby books were banned 20 years ago.

I think I’m eight months along but I haven’t bothered asking Mum anything. When I told the neighbours they looked repulsed. And Paul and I still haven’t talked about it. His answers always mirror mine. It feels like my opinion’s out there floating mid-air and his is wedged in his throat, trying to escape through his expressions. Until yesterday.

It was Friday and Paul did a half day at work. He came home with a smile on his face, one I hadn’t seen in a while.

‘What’s up with you?’ I asked, smiling for him.

‘I got a promotion. And you know what that means? More money.’ The relief that covered me came out in tears. But then anxiety started choking me as he carried on, ‘This means we can finally paint our bedroom. And I’ll take you away somewhere.’

I was breathing hard now, trying to break the sealant of phlegm that blocked my throat. I eventually coughed up a wail and cupped my stomach, ‘What about… this?’ I could hardly see through the tears. He really didn’t get it.

That night we didn’t talk. I lay awake for hours, just me and the baby. It kicks occasionally, to let me know it’s there. I respond by thinking of myself smiling and saying ‘I know’ to it. I don’t talk to it because it won’t understand. And it’s like tapping on the glass of a fish tank; my voice is ten times louder to the baby and I don’t want it to be deaf. Eventually I fall asleep to the sound of my heart beating against my temples. Paul stays on the sofa.

The next day we try and talk about it. But I can’t help but think how much I love being alone with the baby. I’ve deliberately woken up in the night lots of times before, just so we can be alone. And I get the same feeling every time. I love what’s inside of me more than I’ll ever love the man sleeping next to me.

I don’t need to say it but I do, ‘I want to keep it.’

He looks at his hands as if they’d have an answer, ‘Are they open now?’ I didn’t know what he was getting at, ‘I’ll go down there and fill out the forms.’

*

By the time he’s back it’s gone six. I’ve made a half-arsed dinner maybe as a thank-you. Or just because I thought I should.

‘Where’ve you been?’

‘To do what you wanted.’ He sits down and starts scoffing some bread.

‘What we want.’ He doesn’t look up from his plate and starts twirling pasta round his fork.

‘So what did they say?’

‘The usual. That it’s not worth it. That the fees are going up and that we can’t afford it.’ His voice is sticky through the carbonara.

‘So. What happens now?’

‘He told me to sleep on it. Then if we still want to, I can go down first thing tomorrow and pay for it.’

*

The last of the letters arrived yesterday. I opened it.

by Jo Wigley

 

Half a sheet of foolscap

26er Sara Westerberg writes…

When I first heard of the Throw Away Lines project, I immediately thought of a short story by one of the most prominent Swedish writers, August Strindberg. He lived and wrote about 100 years ago, and his work has been compulsory reading for Swedish school children since.

Birgitta Prejborn, of the Stockholm Drama Institute, kindly helped me track down a translation of a Strindberg short story which could be seen as a predecessor to this project (although it is not known if Strindberg got his inspiration from a scrap paper found on the street). It has been a favourite of mine since I first read it in school, so I am really glad to be able to forward it to you. The translation is from 1913, so the language is obviously dated, but I think that only adds to the creepy atmosphere.

The following story is reprinted from In Midsummer Days and Other Tales. Trans. Ellie Schleussner. New York: McBride, Nast & Co., 1913.

The last furniture van had left; the tenant, a young man with a crape band round his hat, walked for the last time through the empty rooms to make sure that nothing had been left behind. No, nothing had been forgotten, nothing at all. He went out into the front hall, firmly determined never to think again of all that had happened to him in these rooms. And all at once his eyes fell on half a sheet of foolscap, which somehow had got wedged between the wall and the telephone; the paper was covered with writing, evidently the writing of more persons than one. Some of the entries were written quite legibly with pen and ink, while others were scribbled with a lead-pencil; here and there even a red pencil had been used. It was a record of everything that had happened to him in the short period of two years; all these things, which he had made up his mind to forget, were noted down. It was a slice of a human life on half a sheet of foolscap.

He detached the paper; it was a piece of scribbling paper, yellow and shining like the sun. He put it on the mantelpiece in the drawing-room and glanced at it. Heading the list was a woman’s name: “Alice,” the most beautiful name in the world, as it had seemed to him then, for it was the name of his fiancée. Next to the name was a number, “15,11.” It looked like the number of a hymn, on the hymn-board. Underneath was written “Bank.” That was where his work lay, his sacred work to which he owed bread, home, and wife–the foundations of life. But a pen had been drawn through the word, for the Bank had failed, and although he had eventually found another berth, it was not until after a short period of anxiety and uneasiness.

The next entries were: “Flower-shop and livery-stable.” They related to his betrothal, when he had plenty of money in his pockets.

Then came “furniture dealer and paper-hanger “–they were furnishing their house. “Forwarding agents”–they were moving into it. The “Box-office of the Opera-house, No. 50,50”–they were newly married, and went to the opera on Sunday evenings; the most enjoyable hours of their lives were spent there, for they had to sit quite still, while their souls met in the beauty and harmony of the fairyland on the other side of the curtain.

Then followed the name of a man, crossed out. He had been a friend of his youth, a man who had risen high in the social scale, but who fell, spoilt by success, fell irremediably, and had to leave the country.

So unstable was fortune!

Now, something new entered the lives of husband and wife. The next entry was in a lady’s hand: “Nurse.” What nurse? Well, of course, the kindly woman with the big cloak and the sympathetic face, who walked with a soft footfall, and never went into the drawing-room, but walked straight down the passage to the bedroom.

Underneath her name was written “Dr. L.”

And now, for the first time, a relative appeared on the list: “Mama.” That was his mother-in-law, who had kept away discreetly, so as not to disturb their newly found happiness, but was glad to come now, when she was needed.

A great number of entries in red and blue pencil followed: “Servants’ Registry Office”–the maid had left and a new one had to be engaged. “The chemist’s”–hm! life was growing dark. “The dairy”–milk had been ordered–sterilised milk!

“Butcher, grocer, etc.” The affairs of the house were being conducted by telephone; it argued that the mistress was not at her post. No, she wasn’t, for she was laid up.

He could not read what followed, for it grew dark before his eyes; he might have been a drowning man trying to see through salt water. And yet, there it was written, plainly enough: “undertaker–a large coffin and a small one.” And the word “dust” was added in parenthesis.

It was the last word of the whole record. It ended with “dust”! and that is exactly what happens in life.

He took the yellow paper, kissed it, folded it carefully, and put it in his pocket.

In two minutes he had lived again through two years of his life.

But he was not bowed down as he left the house. On the contrary, he carried his head high, like a happy and proud man, for he knew that the best things life has to bestow had been given to him. And he pitied all those from whom they are withheld.

by August Strindberg (1849-1912) with thanks to Sara Westerberg