a short story

In April of this year, I was offered a place in Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy, to undertake a PhD in Creative Writing, starting October 2017. I was proud and excited. I loved my time as a student at Cardiff and I would so love to return.

Unfortunately the only source of funding for me is the SWW DTP and I was rejected. So, because I’m an optimist idiot I’ve deferred the place until October 2018. I’ll apply to the DTP again – but only something like 4% of applicants are successful. It’s a small pool.

I’d had a story in my mind for years, and I finally wrote it up to submit with my application. It won me my place, but not my funding. So I started sending it out to short story competitions until I decided it was time to move on. But I wrote it and it’s not going to end up anywhere else, so I’m putting it here. This is the place for my writing, is it not? I would love to hear your thoughts.

It’s loosely based on three of the most wonderful women I know.

Dora

Dora is getting smaller. She has only just noticed, but her clothes are looser and she’s had to tie on her woollen skirt, one of Miriam’s, with a piece of string. She doesn’t have much need of mirrors and until recently, she hasn’t thought much about herself at all.

At around the time she started feeling she might now be old, she hadn’t thought about herself in such a very long time. It took a while to register. The slowing, the sensation of ache across her shoulders, the mass of constant gloom in her haunches. Steps became an effort, as if her joints were no longer a flexing limb, but were made of fused bone. She began to feel much heavier than she was.

Although, by the time she’d noticed and got used to it all, it was as if those feelings then vanished away. Perhaps that’s what it is to get used to something.

Dora thinks she still sees well, hears everything, is alert. She tries not to think, instead she concentrates. Dora turns the heavy iron key and unlocks the back door. In the chilly, covered passage she slides into large wellington boots. She gathers her basket, the long and flat kind, into which she will pile potatoes and carrots; her secateurs, oiled and clean, and her trowel sit in the bottom with a small ball of twine. It’s all she needs. She dislikes wasted trips. Dora always takes with her all she needs.

The day is crisp. The shadow of the house lies long across the lawn, little shed, log pile. The sun bisects the vegetable patch and Dora heads to the far end, the warmest spot, to tend and fuss.

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The garden is a perfect little sun trap. The trees on three sides and the house on the fourth mean the vegetables must capitalise on the few hours when the sun is at its highest. Her smaller plants grow leggy, craning to the sky, to hit that sweet spot in the sun. Her herbs grow woody, but the tender tips still burst with flavour. Dora feels that her plants work as hard as she does and they are all rewarded for it.

It’s not in her nature to trim back and prune the bushes and trees to let in the light, or the peering eyes of neighbours. Dora has cultivated brambles, not just for their rich fruit, but for security. The cats don’t even breech her defences any longer. If it can’t fly in, it doesn’t come in. The garden, for all these reasons, feels secret, special and enchanted.

Dora digs up little potatoes, dusts them of their sandy soil and takes advantage of the sun, in the same way that her runners  and peas do. When the shade moves round to follow her, she moves over into sun. She removes stones and weeds and still occasionally finds a piece of pottery or china. She and Miriam certainly never threw broken china in the ground, but here is it. Dora likes finding worms. She used to say “Hello” to Mr Worm but now she only thinks it.

Dora rests there on her haunches a moment. The sun trickles down her spine and although she knows it’ll hurt a little to stand up straight again, Dora hunches further, enjoying the stretch and curve.

She hears a knock at the side door and shifts, alert and disturbed. Without too much effort she stands and moves back towards the house, ears pricked. Another knock. She enters through the back and up the passage, edging towards the shadowy side so she can see the silhouette of the intruder, but they can’t see her movement. “Mrs Evans? It’s Sophie. Are you home?”

Dora waits, barely twitching, occasionally blinking. “Well if you can hear me, Mrs Evans, you need to take a look at your letters. Money’s all there. I’ll call by tomorrow.”

There’s a clatter as kindly Sophie drops a letter and an envelope, containing Dora’s fortnightly pension, through the letterbox. Dora knows what the letter says and she can’t bear to think about it all. Instead she leaves it and goes inside.

The teapot is cold under the cosy now and Dora moves about, concentrating on bread and tea; water, kettle, concentrate, don’t think about the letter. She makes another pot and slices the bread thinly. Whenever Dora spreads butter on bread, she thinks of Barney.

They grew up in the village, next-door to one another, and wore a gap through the hedge visiting each other’s gardens and playing all day at chase and soldiers and with all the other children, games of imagination and movement. Barney had a little pond and Dora loved to settle down by it and watch the frogs, the babies most of all, once their tails dropped off and they were tiny and in their thousands – or so it seemed. She didn’t catch them often, because she knew it’d hurt them, but she rescued a fair few if it seemed they’d got themselves in a predicament. She’d stay there and watch till all the other children got bored and ran away to play. She liked when the grown-up frogs would poke their heads above the water and not mind her being there, until one of the others would run by again and the frog would disappear with a ‘plop’.

The children would flit from house to house until each of their mothers had sent them packing. At Dora’s house she’d protest “But mother, I’m hungry” until her mother, Katherine, would give in and say “Well you’re not having a slice each, you’ll share. And you’ll butter it yourself.”

Dora would fetch the bread from the small pantry and her mother would cut two slices and then cut those in half. Katherine would pretend to do it begrudgingly, but really she didn’t mind. However she would cut the slices ever so thin, because she couldn’t afford to feed the whole village. Trudy’s mother up the road would give them sugar sandwiches, but Dora knew what her mother thought about that, and bread and butter would suffice here.

When he came home, father would place the butter dish on the hearth, but in the daytime, Dora would find it in the pantry and just hope it was soft enough to spread. She was frugal like her mother, but whenever she’d spread Barney’s piece, she’d be generous. And he’d say to her, every time, “Go on, Dor, make sure you spread it all the way to the edges” and she would. And as they grew older he’d say “You’ll make someone a terrific wife, Dora Brown.”

Dora married Barney in 1943. She was eighteen and a day. She moved into Hollow Cottage on her wedding day with Barney and his mother, Miriam. That day they had their tea together and went to bed. Miriam said, when he came back, they should have her room, as the married couple. This had been discreetly arranged between Barney and Miriam and was never overtly discussed, of course.

For tonight though, Miriam kept her place. Dora slept in Barney’s single bed and Barney contorted onto the two-seater sofa. Dora wanted to go to him. She lay awake all night, thinking about her husband. In the morning he left, for seven weeks, he said. The following day he landed on Sicily. It was a successful mission, but Barney was shot and killed as he got off the boat, they said. He was eighteen and a half, farther from home than any of them had ever been or would go again.

Funny, that she should find him daily in her butter dish and in the simple acts, where she’d never got to know him in a complex way.

After lunch, Dora puts on her jacket as the top end of the garden is now cool in the shade. Out of the passage, there are piles of Miriam’s things; wooden vegetable boxes and terracotta pots and anything which “might be useful one day” They’re piled up almost as high as the small shed. Beyond that, the brambles run along the left, down to the coppice at the bottom of the garden, which leads out to the fields. Dora orders and tidies, bundling willow sticks she’s grown herself and uses to train her beans and peas, piling flower pots in size order and composting the egg-boxes she’s used to plant seedlings. There’s nothing wasted, all is reused.

In this way, she is meticulous and thinks often of Miriam. In her neat rows and fastidious attention to weeds, she  hears Miriam’s many lessons and appropriations. “A tidy garden means a tidy mind”, Miriam would say, or “a gardener’s work is never done.”

The two of them had spent countless days in this patch and Miriam was keen to pass on all she knew. And not before time, because when that first winter came around, Dora noticed Miriam struggled to kneel and her hands refused to flex enough to grip around tiny seedling weeds in the cold. Miriam stooped and slowed and Dora did for her. She’d walk in to find Miriam, in her chair, and show her the latest harvest or bring her a cup of tea. Miriam would say every day “There you go, Dora, you’re a good girl.” Dora couldn’t ask for more.

Miriam had once been a good host. The women of the neighbourhood had called in for tea, as the children had passed through years before, on an unspoken yet rigid rotation. Miriam hadn’t fussed with expensive china, but she knew how to brew a strong pot even during rationing. Miriam had been prepared to shape Dora in her own image and Dora was proud that she was strong and capable and could do anything Miriam asked her to. But when Barney didn’t come home, Miriam began to turn her guests away, blaming what she called “the girl’s frailty”. Dora didn’t feel frail. She was terribly sad. But she recognised Miriam’s bind – a proud woman, who wouldn’t allow herself to grieve, while the men fought on, and the other mothers who’d lost their sons kept up so admirably. Miriam said that Dora was frail and Dora said nothing.

Sometimes a song would come over Dora now. A bird would chirrup and she would reminisce the smallest fragment of a tune she once knew and she might even open her mouth to sing. That’s how Dora realised she was old. A rasping croak told her more than the lines on her hands and the mottle to her skin and her hair, which had started greying when the war was barely over. She could still bend and dig and hoe. She could heave logs and start a fire same as she always had. But she couldn’t sing anymore. In fact, from lack of practice, she could barely talk.

Twice a week she might see someone. In this part of the world a mobile grocer delivered once a fortnight and a green-grocer once a week. Not that Dora couldn’t grow anything green that she needed. But he would also deliver creamy gold top milk from local farms and pats of fresh churned butter. And lovely Sophie, who Dora had known since birth, would go to the post office and cash her cheques and bring her money, a war widow’s pension, which was all she needed. Dora grew what she ate, for the most part and that was less and less. It was harder and harder to be hungry.

Dora, Dora. She goes to say her name, but stops herself. It’s been so many years since she heard her own name. Mrs Evans. That’s what people call her, but that’s not who she is. How can she be a Mrs when her life was annulled before it had chance to start? How can she be a wife when it was all ended in a second, which should have been the beat of a heart?

A woman’s frailty, that’s what protected her and the mother who’d lost a son. But what had she lost, really? She couldn’t miss a husband she’d never had. She drew the lines of his face in her mind, but had never seen the outline of his body or even knew if he had hairs on his chest. For years she tried to match Miriam’s grief with her own, but realised no one was aware of her real feelings at all. “You poor girl, Dora,” Miriam would say. “I’ve had my life, this is cruelest for you.” But it wasn’t true. She couldn’t know how Miriam felt, because she would never be a mother, but she knew no sadness in that either. Dora had stayed with Miriam, because her own parents still had each other at least. She’d looked after Miriam for as long as she needed it. And now Dora hadn’t heard her name for thirty years.

The afternoon’s work comprises moving things, remembering herself and her stories; in the table which had been in her bedroom when she’d moved in and then became a side table for Miriam when she couldn’t get about and then had been just the right height for potting out in the yard once Miriam was gone. Dora takes the table and lodges it against the side door, just under the handle. Slowly she pile up the larger logs from the log pile, around the table legs, in front of the door, in a neat row. She enjoys piling each of the next row in the gaps and again in the gaps on top of that. All this work should make her tired, but instead she feels invigorated by her purpose.

Once the logs are all gone, she gently stacks the flower pots, each on their side, each in the dip between two logs, largest first, then the medium pots and the small ones on top. She has to climb a little, but she’s never out of breath. She works until the glass is completely obstructed and though the light can’t get in it doesn’t matter, for she can see.

Dora moves vegetable boxes and the old mower. She shifts planks of wood and many things Miriam can’t possibly have had a use for, but could never throw away. At the bottom of every pile she excavates from the garden, a small gathering of baby slugs is disturbed or a community of woodlice scatter. It’s not until the back corridor is almost completely blocked that Dora realises the sun has gone in.

In the back garden, she stops for a moment in the light of the moon and looks around her small vegetable patch. She is drawn to the bottom of the garden, the silver light of the moon. She heads to the bowed fence and the gate which hasn’t been used in ten thousand days.

Dora manages to shift the rusty bolt back, but the gate panel is warped and doesn’t move. Dora puts her diminishing weight behind it, but she can’t get it open. She tries one more time and there’s an almighty crack, as the bottom rail snaps back, caught on a rock. She’s made a gap of just six inches and the top is stuck as firm as ever.

Dora stands and looks at the door, smelling the pine and mulch of the coppice behind and the scent of cold in the air. She stands for long enough to feel the dew form and to miss the moon each time it’s covered by a cloud, before it’s revealed once again.

A fox barks and the hairs on Dora’s body stand on end. Before she can think her body flees, back towards the house. Panting, she stands still in the midst of the barricade, her little ribs heaving, in shock at her own behaviour.

Dora goes back into the house. The letter is on the kitchen side, next to the stove, a kind of eviction notice. A notice of intent to demolish and destroy her perfect little life. All she needs is meagre and even that is being taken away from her. Dora doesn’t want to rely on other people. She wants to leave of her own accord and tonight she feels stronger and more ready to do so than she ever did when she was young. She has her frailty, but that is her nature and she will use it in nature. She understands she has to go.

Dora kicks off her shoes on the kitchen floor. She slips her cardigan off over her shoulders and as she walks off the edge of the concrete step into the passage, her clothes fall away from her. She hops out of her skirt and heads tentatively down the corridor.

The fox is quiet now. In the garden the dew is cool under her feet, between her toes and where it rubs along her furry belly. She stops in the vegetable patch and takes a bite of luscious cabbage. And another final taste because it’s so delicious and she doesn’t know when she’ll eat again. She lollops slowly down the patch, becoming accustomed to her new gait and freedom of movement, the sharpness of everything around her.

With increased confidence and desire she gambols down to the fence and easily slips through the six-inch gap, her long, pointed ears brushing the bottom of the gate. She can barely be seen as she disappears into the coppice, nothing but a flash of her cotton-white tail.

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For the love of love

Last night I had an emotional first-time experience with Tim Minchin. It was a one-off show, tiny, intimate venue absolutely stuffed with industry and me, siting at the back of the stalls. Tim specifically asked us not to review the show, that’s not what this is, but I was struck by the intensity of the feelings inspired.

My friend Charlie (nerdy about everything) is a big Tim fan. She bought a spare ticket, otherwise I wouldn’t have known it was on, and I happened to be in London.

I’ve encountered Tim over the years, mainly on YouTube. I know him to be funny, clever, talented. But live, in this small theatre, as he played a mix of really wonderful new songs and a few of his old comedy songs, with which I was no more familiar, it was pretty overwhelming.

He played a couple of crowd-pleasers from his musical, Matilda. I’d seen this when it first opened, when Charlie and I had tried to make a tradition of taking my Naughty Daughter to the RSC xmas production instead of a panto.

He also played a couple of songs from his latest musical Groundhog Day, which I’d seen last year in its West End preview. Charlie took me to that too, although she saw it seven times, most recently as the Broadway production closed.

I love a good musical, and GHD is a bloody brilliant musical. It’s so cleverly staged in its repititons, beautifully cast and performed, and the songs – including the anthemic Playing Nancy, a feminist ballad about being the pretty bit-part – are to die for. And when I think today of Tim playing Seeing You last night, my eyes well and I’m again overcome.

One of the most satisfying things about the gig was how well Tim Minchin knows his audience. And I don’t mean personally, although that probably accounted for a third of them. But he referenced his front row fans, made in-jokes about his own songs and the few people who didn’t already know his punchlines. He played with them and they loved him all the more for it.

So why am I so emotional about something Charlie’s the actual fan of? Well seemingly, that’s what I do.

I remember when Charlie told me about some rap musical she was excited to see on Broadway and that New Year’s Eve she sat on the floor of my new apartment rapping along to the original Broadway cast recording. Charlie! Rapping! I know! A mere 18 months later and Charlie, ND and I were rapping along to that same soundtrack on our US roadtrip, as we visited Monticello, the Lafayette tour sites of Savannah Georgia, the Richard Rogers theatre – all locations relating to Alexander Hamilton or, more importantly, Hamilton: an American Musical. As I write I’m wearing my cheap knock-off Hamilton t-shirt. Now, whenever I well-up listening to the Broadway cast recording I think of how much I’m going to cry when I see the show live in the West End in December. And I’m taking ND on her 18th birthday next year. That in itself can make me weep.

When someone asked why I was going multiple times I couldn’t answer. I don’t know why this is as important to me now, as I approach forty, as going to see Take That was when I was 12. Or the Levellers at 18. Or Maxïmo Park at 27.

Without Charles I never would’ve wept my way through the heartbreaking Fun Home on Broadway, or seen this weird comedy film Brakes at London Comedy festival, or pretended to be in a meeting and watched the last ever episode of Parks and Rec at work (then hiding for a further half an hour because I’d been crying so hard). Thanks to Charlie, I not only took ND to see her first production of Rent (which I bawled through) but I’ve read Anthony Rapp’s book about the making of the original show and had a much deeper experience of the piece, like the girls who come to it at the age of 16 and become obsessed.

And it’s not just Charlie. I can cry my eyes out when Fulham score in a rare televised match, even though I don’t see them live anymore. I’m banned from seeing Naughty Daughter’s shows because I get so tearful and embarrassing. I saw Zoë Coombs Marr’s show Trigger Warning twice this year in Edinburgh, because I was so off my tits on raw emotion I couldn’t take it all in during one viewing. Tears can pour out of my eyes during any TV show, movie, or even a particularly moving trailer for a movie (again, much to ND’s embarrassment).

Yet I can’t remember the last time I properly cried in real life. My Grandpa’s funeral maybe?

Why do I love Hamilton so much? No idea. Why do I get so overwhelmed when I’m chanting that Fulham are the greatest team, the world has ever seen? Haven’t a clue.

In 2004, when I wrote my BA dissertation, titled Being A Fan is Really Cool, I outlined different types of fans and fan behaviours. Compared to all those types, I’m not a good fan. I don’t put the hours in, do the research. I don’t know when people are touring or who wrote this or starred in that. I’m led by the nose by my friends and family, pointing me in the direction of things I then fall utterly in love with, but I don’t do the homework. I’m just in it for the feels, the glory, buy the tshirt, get to show off that I’m a fan of the thing that other people are talking about. Because I might love so hard I cry, but no matter how you come to a thing, love is cool. Being a fan is really cool.

Say my name

A clever person recently told me “we don’t have to conform to be successful”. I’m not a conformist, but I’m only now learning not to compare myself (negatively) against others, who are achieving their goals and ambitions – when those goals and ambitions are not mine. I’ve felt like a failure and a loser for much of my life, despite the fact I’ve never wanted wealth, a marriage and a mortgage; but because I’ve absorbed the notion of “should”. This is what I should have. This is what I should want.

My wonderful mother has given me an excellent role model, in a woman who has always  gone to incredible lengths to be kind and generous. She has given love and cared for not only me, but the sick and dying, the disabled and troubled, she’s given respite, childcare, foster care and raised so many people, to whom she’s been a loving mother. She is stronger and braver than she’ll ever give herself credit for – in fact she rarely gives herself credit for anything.

It’s with my mother in mind and my brilliant Naughty Daughter, that I’m throwing off the shackles of a man who never cared about me and losing my surname. From now on I’m taking my middle name as my surname and I’ll be a Harley, the name I’ve taken from my mother and passed on to my daughter.

And, in for a penny, I’m also changing my first name, to Jay. I’ve actually been called this for as long as I can remember, by those closest to me.

Jay Harley was going to be my pen name, but I can’t wait for a novel that may never be written. I’m casting off the old now and I’d be grateful if you would, from hereon in, address me as Jay Harley.

The reasons are numerous, complex, spiritual: I want to be myself, I want to be less gendered, I want to make a change and slough off my snakey skin.

At the same time the decision is trivial and spontaneous. Imagine if the only cultural comparison you’d had your whole life was Janine Butcher. And yes, there’s a Janine in the Handmaid’s Tale, but she’s a whacking whackjob too and none of you referenced her anyway. It was always Janine Butcher.

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And please trust that it will be harder for me to get used to than any of you, so slip-ups and misnaming will  be forgiven. But from now I’d be grateful if you call me Jay. And it rhymes with ‘hey’ as in ‘hey Jay, nice name’, so that might help.

Typically, I’ve already bought up jayharley.com, I’m trying to find the perfect Twitter handle and I’m going to try and change my name on Facebook. I already have the signed deed poll, bank cards and driving license in process. Oh yes, this is a real thing. Although I’m not stumping up for a new passport yet, as that’s a ridiculous charge and I can’t afford to go abroad anyway.

Thanks in advance for your support, as your weirdo friend does another weird thing. And blogs about it. Soz, not soz.