Thursday, 26 December 2013


Zhen counted buttons into batches of eight as he'd been trained to do:
Tinker, Tailor,
Soldier, Sailor,
Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief.
This old English nursery rhyme his British employer said was a neat trick, which as well as helping him count would foretell what he might fall or aspire to. To Zhen this rhyme gave him no hope at all, sitting as he was on a garment factory floor sorting buttons. A menial task for a new worker, who had been stripped of his ancestral skill.
But even as a boy, he'd loved buttons. Big, small, metal, plastic, and shiny; their different hues, textures, and shapes. Back then, he had been a respected tailor's son until his father's small enterprise died as the trade was taken over. It was not possible to complete garments in the same speed as the factories, although his work was detailed and finer. 
Cost too much. Cost too much.” People began to say, “Needs to be cheaper.”
So with no business or merit for his boy to inherit, but with tailoring in his blood, the father sold Zhen to a factory owner whose sole business was making clothes. The labour was hard and the daily quotas were high. Stoppages were rare: the air always filled with the sounds of machines sewing seams.
At first, Zhen, as his name suggests, had been greatly impressed; astonished at the piles of jumpers, shirts and trousers that accumulated in a single day, but this he shook off when he saw the inferior quality of the cloth and the machine stitching. His father, and likewise his grandfather, would not have been content to give these to peasants.
Zhen questioned the way these clothes were being made and earned himself more tasks of counting. His employer said he would be sure to fall to the lowest rung of the rhyme: a beggar and thief. Zhen on hearing these words, instead of being deterred, was inspired to do exactly that. He begged and stole rags of cloth, sweeping them off the factory floor and bundling them under his tunic. He often walked out the factory door with his abdomen distended, but the foreman not being quick in thought or youth, dared not challenge Zhen's alteration in physique or the taking of property since verbal warnings, firings, and company medicals meant employer grumblings and extra paperwork. At the end of a long day, all the foreman wanted to do was go home to his wife, smoke and drink.
But for Zhen, working late into the night was the start of it. In a corner of his candlelit shared hostel room he repeatedly threaded his needle. Pushing and pulling the needle and its thread in and out, in and out, of different fabric. There was never enough of the wasted cloth in one colour or pattern and so he patched his collected scraps together. Floral squares and birds caged in rectangles; cranes and rivers; moons and pagodas; emperors and concubines; and Chinese characters. His fingers were nimble, his stitches were neat, and he'd soon completed his first patchwork jacket, but quickly began work on the next.
During this time, Zhen's thieving extended to buttons, zips, clasps and food. He begged from the poor, he stole from the rich, he made deals with soldiers and sailors.
He lived to reclaim his good family name: Hui as the tailor of emperors.
*With thanks to Brandon W Jones for inspiring me to stitch this piece together. Brandon W Jones is the author of All Woman and Springtime.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Fool Moon

There was once a Japanese monkey who by trade was a shrewd businessman. In business, he took calculated risks, but at night he was an impulsive gambler. He played cards in basements and bars, or wined and dined wealthy clients at casinos. If he got bored, he studied the odds and placed bets on horses and dogs. Whatever the risk, he was always successful.
His companies flourished and his wealth grew, as did the card-playing and drinking. He placed higher stakes and downed more shots, yet he never lost big or once wrote an I.O.U. Amazingly, even when he was hung-over he still made lucrative deals, and so it appeared the Japanese gods of fortune favoured his habits.
He was entirely Westernised. Living a Japanese Americanised life was simply better. He had the most obedient Japanese wife and the best cuts of meat money could buy. Nothing said wealth like eating red meat and each year his tailored suits went up a size. He quickly turned into a crimson-faced, sweaty-skinned baboon Sumo Wrestler, but to him this only affirmed he was at the peak of his power. People were alarmed by his largeness and virulent temper. It would not do to upset him, which meant that he was able to outmanoeuvre more biddable associates and with his huge appetite gobble up ailing companies as if they were his favourite premium steaks and beef burgers. He got carried away with outrageous business plans, mergers and takeovers. Nobody ever said NO to Baboon-san.
As he got richer, his corporation ran without him, but fat as he was in flesh and profits there was one item he wanted which could not be so easily acquired. His ambitions filled, he dreamt every night about capturing it, and determined that one day he would have it. The difficulty was there was nobody he could schmooze to obtain the rights to it. The item had never been up for sale and the sky was apparently its permanent home.
The moon was round and solid like the biggest, most valuable gold coin. Astronauts said its surface was scarred, but Baboon-san would not believe it. To him, this golden coin was smooth and perfect, so he told the whole world he would be the first Japanese monkey to bankroll the moon and stamp his name on it. It would soon be a local currency. He would crew rockets to the moon and bring back large slices of it. In the papers, the headlines screamed BAKA! FOOL! And business advisers said, “Baboon-san, Baboon-san, it's just not possible!”
Unfortunately the critics were proved right for Baboon-san refused to slim and would not launch a rocket if he was not manning it. Why should he have to undo his years of ballooning into wealth? Wasn't being thin what held the East back? No, it would be even more of a disgrace to return to that.
But he still thought the moon was attainable, and drunkenly bragged about Plan B to a gambling pal: he was going to captain a ship all the way there and bring the moon back in a bucket. His new theory was that if he couldn't fly to the sky he would set sail in it. This, he said, was achievable, and toasted his genius with a line of whisky shots. Half-seas-over, he stumbled out of the bar and saw the moon in a deep and quiet pond. His alcohol-soaked brain assumed the gods had turned the world upside down so he could finally capture the moon. He didn't hesitate, he dived into the cool, calm pond and instantly drowned.
His cruel lesson is now taught to aspiring Japanese businessmen: Drink to foolish dreams, but don't try to capture them unless you're sober.
*My version of a Japanese fairy tale as told in My Year Of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

Thursday, 12 December 2013


I wasn't always metal-bound. One night it just happened. I was drifting off into the land of nod and then I couldn't move. Literally. My limbs were pinned down, my vocal cords cut and my voice stolen. Frozen, nevertheless I tried to fight this strange sensation. My mind racing with scared thoughts, why can't I move? WHY CAN'T I MOVE? Being unable to call out was far worse for that's what I've always done in sleeping nightmares, even though when you live alone nobody is there to hear them. I couldn't even utter a squeak, yet lying there I made it my goal to say “NO!” I knew this one word would stop whatever this was, bring a halt to proceedings. I would not allow the watchful presence I felt in the room to pull me into this dark, dead sleep.
Somehow, in my fright I forced no out nonoNoNoNONO! A string of them from silent to soft to a boom. Then I found my limbs and body had been miraculously freed from their paralytic state. Bewildered, I immediately reached for the switch on the bedside lamp and flooded the room with pure light. All clear. Everything was still in its natural place and nothing was there that shouldn't be there, even the shadows were right.
Cold, clammy fear. Now I was terrified to attempt to go back to sleep. What if it happened again? What I couldn't get myself out of it? For the rest of the night, I slept with the bedside light on in an unrelieved stop-start doze, and when in the morning I came fully to I wasn't sure if I'd imagined it.
Tired the next day, I struggled to think what to make of it? Then it occurred again and again and again...
But with irregularity. Every couple of months, and each time I managed to prevent myself from being dragged into the black void. What did it want with me? I told myself the next time I'd let myself go, enter it, but the shadow always snuck up and frightened me. It also moved to the daytime too so if I tried to catch some zzzzs, I felt the pull instantly. A dead feeling would come over me; my body was heavy and my mind was a dead weight. Defending myself from these overwhelming effects was futile, I had to head straight back to bed and pull the covers over me. Once there, the experience would be different. I was drawn into a comatose state and a vivid 3D world of hallucination. So real, I could see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and taste it.
There were gospel choirs, sounds of drumming, and marching bands; labyrinths with openings, no exits, and corridors; and insects. Conversations with people I'd never met before that I really thought had taken place. Involved, I was not scared, but the part where I tried to wake up was again a nightmare. Completely coming to, and staying that way, was a tremendous effort. My mind had to fight to regain control until the NONONOs roared out of me, and the after-effects were drug-like. The day starts over as if I'm just overtired or hungover. I rub my bleary eyes and splash my face with tepid water.
The daytime phenomenon is a curiosity. It's the nights that terrify me...
Research tells me it's a form of sleep paralysis, but that hasn't reassured me. No article has described it perfectly, until recently when a novel bizarrely turned its focus to that same dark shadow. Metal-binding, as it's known, is common in Tokyo, which the teenager narrator says is when you wake up in the middle of the night and can't move. A spirit sits on your chest and you hear voices like angry demons, or sometimes while you lying there your body floats away. Metal-bound: rigid like a steel rod.
The fear hasn't gone, but at least I know in Japanese it's kanashibari.

*As revealed in A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Thursday, 5 December 2013


Some words have a special power. Words that are emotionally charged, that speak of love or are sharp and hurt and pierce your heart like a knife. Mercy believed spirits lived inside these and, by chance, she discovered the Japanese did too. They called it kotodama. Mercy's word spirits however only gave her these words as warnings: NO! DON'T! STOP! Especially when she had failed to listen to her intuition or had gone against her instincts. It was the last curtain call before she could back out, and even so she still sometimes thought she knew better.
These words retained their special power, but Mercy received these as aftershocks, low underground rumbles, and not as she once did with the full impact of an earthquake or a tsunami. She was unmoved, unruffled. Her seas stayed calm with only a few ripples. She barely paused in her thoughts or in her activities. Her inner tide washed the word up and took it straight back out where it rejoined the word ocean; in a low tide, it laid among other sea rubbish, in a jumble of forgotten CDs and unworn clothes, while scavenging gulls perched or shat on it. She had grown used to ignoring such messages, regularly bottling these words and their power-giving spirits.
But that was before she knew her sands of time were running out...
Mercy wasn't young, in her prime, or elderly. She was in-between one, and years before the other. Her youth had flown and her mind had grown, but was not quite mature enough. She had blocked ideas, given in to her fears, written down her hopes and dreams and scrolled them up tight in a Promise Box. This she placed on the junk beach with the messages in glass bottles, then she had jumped into her yellow canoe and paddled off, yelling “Goodbye kotadama!” And felt very satisfied when the mountains echoed these words back at her.
She wasted precious years of her life in limbo, drifting in her canoe on a mythical tide. Mercy wrongly thought this life was safer because in the city she sailed on time: borrowed time, wasted time, too much time, not enough time... The city's sea was swallowed up in a time fog. People forgot who they were, where they were, how they got here and where they were going. Mercy too was sucked into this oblivion. Days, weeks and months were all routine; there were no gaps in the fog for dreams. The city's people believed their sea went on for eternity, as did life and time.
This is true, but their perception was screwed up. The passing of time is not important, it's if you're present in it: from moment to moment. Mercy was not. Her mind raced the minutes and hours, it forged ahead without rest. She wasn't happy or unhappy, she was lost. The life she led had no promise or meaning, and for each moment she was not present, she paid a grain of sand.
As the grains trickled Mercy's spirits grew low and her energy dwindled, and still she told herself it was not the right time, the right moment to live the life she wanted. It was too risky to give the city up, even though her seas were permanently unsettled. She was the boulder the waves tried to topple over. They crashed against her, wearing her hard surface down until one morning she awoke on a deserted, but familiar island with a green glass bottle and a box wrapped in a deep purple cloth beside her. She removed the bottle's cork and unfurled the paper: NOW!
Mercy felt herself surge as she read the word, she was finally HERE, present. She knew what she had to do. NOW! She unwrapped the cloth from her old Promise Box and claimed her abandoned treasure.

*Inspired by Ruth Ozeki's A Tale For The Time Being

Thursday, 28 November 2013


In Japan there's a term for someone like me: furiitaa. A word formed from the English free and the German arbeiter which translates as freelance worker. According to Ruth Ozeki, a new author for me, this is 'someone who works part-time jobs and has a lot of free time because he doesn't have a proper career or a full-time position at a company.' Written in English, it's spelt freeter, which, as she says, does indeed look like fritter. Is that what I'm doing: frittering my life away? I beg to differ. I create in my leisure and explore new artists and books. I made a difficult choice to balance part-time work with free time because when I don't the world turns a dizzying black. And believe me, sometimes even this can be a fine line. But I make no claims on anybody – not on the state or other individuals – and yet living like this is seen as lesser. I matter less; I'm putting myself first to fritter, because obviously what I do outside my part-time hours is a not-so-guilty pleasure.
A full-time job carries weight, a part-time job does not, even if you complete more in one day than the average full-timer would. What a part-timer gives is never enough. This frustrates me because this is not a choice I undertook lightly; in some ways, it was forced upon me. If I have to live, then I must live differently. Being single, child-free, or a part-timer does not mean I'm here to prop the coupled up when they play happy families, or that I'm care-free. I too have the normal household chores to do and I do them singularly. I made a choice how to live my life to keep my sanity and you made yours too. It's not up to me or to anybody to help you live it responsibly or more easily.
Do not mistake me. This is not a rant, this is about sacrifice, tolerance and empathy. I've sacrificed all the personal goals most people aspire to: going to university, a profession, house, kids, a life partner to grow old with. Why? Because those kind of dreams are not for me, just as people with those dreams sacrifice their other interests. They put all their energies into raising a family or running their own business, whereas I put mine in space and time. I know what kind and how much peace I need to be me.
I consider myself fortunate to know myself as well as I do, just as I'm sure other women value the joys of motherhood. They prize time with their kids, whereas I prize quiet time with my books and papers. Even as I'm writing this, I'm imagining myself as an early feminist in a white shirt, buttoned waistcoat and tailored trousers, with page-boy hair and a cigarette in my mouth, like a heroine in a Sarah Waters novel, except my lips drag from an e-cigarette. My own childhood playground invention, puffing talc from a tin foil tip, while my overgrown limps dangle out of an armchair and my eyes rest on a half-folded paperback. Or I see myself sitting at a desk in wire-rimmed specs, furiously scribbling and scattering notes filled with my scrawl around me. Often, it's only when I look down I see my true attire: loose exercise pants, baggy wrap-around cardy, and Hello Kitty pink socks.
There used to be a time when being a scholar was respected. Men were esteemed and treated like gods, women were bluestockings.
There used to be a time when a grand European tour was a rite of passage. Men travelled largely alone, women had to be chaperoned.
What I'm doing now isn't so different. My life is studying. In my free-time, I learn psychology, philosophy, geography, history, and culture. Time is invested in my own sense of worth, it's never frittered.
Do not judge a freeter because their world is just as rich and does have meaning.

*Inspired by Ruth Ozeki's A Tale For The Time Being

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Sower

The Sower, Van Gogh 1888
Vincent was preoccupied with a particular sower. In his studio, various depictions of this one peasant returning home were scattered like seed in-between successive sunflowers. The latter was his other obsession, with four already complete in one week, and one hung in his artist friend's bedroom. Paul Gauguin, who shared this yellow house in the South of France, was concerned. Relations were stormy, even though Paul understood too well the whims and fixations artists were prone to. He was exhausted coping with swings in Vincent's temperament, and his behaviour, at times, was irrational. No-one can disturb an artist deep in their work, especially when a subject has hold of them.
By day, Vincent was absorbed in mixing colours and laying them on with a palette knife, but still he could not get the colour quite right, and by night he immersed himself in this own painting. He watched the peasant walk home with a huge yellow globe behind him and tried to commit the land to his memory. Some days, he fixed his gaze on the setting sun, the next a knotty tree, while subconsciously he studied the sower. The way he trudged in the fading light through the darkening fields. A cap pulled down low on his head, a shawl covering his shoulders and back, and clutching a sack to his chest. Vincent was particularly struck by how distance and dim light made him featureless. How being faceless gave him an ruthless, almost raw quality. A blank canvas like earth waiting to be tilled. He made a study of this one man, when any man working the land would be perceived similarly.
Inspired by Jean-Francois Millet, an artist noted for his scenes of peasant farmers, Vincent had been made to see the sower differently. His role helped form the ripening fields, which had brought him to the fore of Vincent's artistic eye. The landscape was the sower's backdrop, as it affirmed his sun-leathered skin, calloused hands, and back-breaking toil. Vincent imagined him blessing the seed as he scattered it evenly, praying for good soil. The sower at ease with earth's rhythms, his work done with the setting sun. He is a mere steward, the land is his master, because land has a certainty and man does not.
Yes, it was this attribute that Vincent was envious of: the land flows with nature as does the peasant labourer, and Vincent could not. He felt ill at ease with the sun leaving, its cleansing rays restrained and virtually gone, and so gave in to his intense urge to use unusual colours as he'd seen once in a Japanese print, and which he later scribed in a letter to Theo, his brother:
'immense citron-yellow disc for the sun, sky green-yellow with pink colours. The fields violet, the sower and the tree Prussian blue.'
Even in these delusional years, Vincent knew he needed bright colours and was drawn to yellow. The brilliant yellow of sunflowers and the pure gold of the sun. The feeling it gave of life and light, which was often contrary to his own emotions. For the sower sunset was the end of another day, a chance for him and the land to conserve energy, to rest, whereas to Vincent sunset was witnessing the sun's and his own death. When the sun withdrew, a part of his soul died too, and became clouded with sadness. He withered as sunflowers do when the sun turned away from his face.
Yellowness, Vincent found, could be bright, comforting and melancholic, but yet in his paintings he tried to deny that colours must fade with daylight. Only the sower knows that both must dim, dark must meet light. Vincent always tried to contradict this and so was never cheered by the departing sun on the sower's back.
*Inspired by Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Lime Tree House

Madame Zest always borrowed some of Katherine Mansfield's words when her guests tried to thank her, “I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor.” She quickly dismissed their effervescent praise face-to-face and proffered the guest book. “Please write your comments here.”
On quiet evenings, accompanied by a large glass of red, she'd leaf through numerous entries of squiggly writing and linger over the remarks guests had left. They were testimonials to her years of service and proof that a woman was capable of running someone else's business, and very successfully too. When she wanted to relax, Madame Zest wrapped herself in a duvet of statements. At least she used to, but over the last couple of years, reading these had not satisfied or relaxed her. They irked her, often making her feel as if she was wearing barbed wire close to her skin, or as if her body was being suffocated by bubble-wrap. The comments guests left were still effusive, but her satisfaction from these had diminished.
As her name implies, all her life she'd relied on her zest, but now she had no more to give. Continuing, as she had done for many years, to single-handedly run front and back-of-house had squeezed the last drops out of her. She carried on meeting every guest's needs, but inside she was bitter and sour.
Every day, she rose at 5am to be the breakfast cook, waitress and dishwasher; at 11am, she stood behind the front desk to check guests out; then she morphed into the chambermaid and housekeeper, cleaning and inspecting the five en-suite bedrooms; afterwards if there was time before new guests arrived, she'd launder pillowcases and sheets, or shop for food and complimentary sachets of teas, coffees, and shampoos. And always the 3pm deadline loomed, for that was when Madame Zest split herself in two to be the Welcoming Committee: alternating between the role of General Manager and Senior Receptionist, with sometimes a third, the Head of Concierge, appearing. Each day was led by the mantelpiece clock and with the more or less the same apportioned tasks.
Guests buzzed and hovered like flies, while Madame Zest's under eye circles deepened from a faint blue to black hue. It was no longer pleasurable to serve the guests that came to stay, but it was unprofessional to swat them away, although inwardly her blood would seethe and her voice would rage. To her, the guests had changed.
Lime Tree House had become a magnet, it seemed, for the strange. The reservations diary was filled with unusual names: Mr. Anxiety, Miss. Panic Attack, Mrs. Resentment, Sir Bitterness, and Dame Impatient. Upon being checked in, they vied for Madame Zest's attention and were impossible to please. Could she confirm a wake-up call for 7:30am? Where were the brown paper bags she said they'd supply? Why couldn't she provide an ironing service? Wasn't the bathroom light bright? And just when would she deliver the extra soft pillow? Madame Zest suppressed her volatile temper and fulfilled all these demands. She entertained and swallowed the emotions of these unpleasant house guests.
This was achieved with such aplomb that in the mornings new, charming guests came down for breakfast. Madame Zest was baffled by this overnight transformation, and even more so when they checked out with different, but still extraordinary, names: Mr. Certainty, Miss. Serenity, Mrs. Twinkly, Sir Joviality, and Dame Contented. Madame Zest found it odd and unsettling.
Lime Tree House had been pitched into Madame Zest's emotional whirlpool. A vortex of conflicting moods and opinions, but as of yet, she hadn't recognised that the emotions she contained inside were portrayed by these guests on the outside. She would not concede that her mind had indeed lost control over its own guest house. 
*Inspired by Elif Shafak's Black Milk & by Rumi who likened the mind to a guest house.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The New Rabbit Emperor

Once upon a time, there was an Emperor who was also a rabbit. He was rich with life: a full belly, a faithful wife and lots of sons, but he was ageing. After a month spent on his death bed with a fluttering heart and dimming eyes, he muttered his last words and died with a huge sigh. His faithful wife wailed, his sons paled, and his principal servant called the priest to ensure his journey into the West was a safe one. His death was publicly announced and his people went into mourning: all wore black furs for forty days and nights after his passing, then the cry was heard for rabbit hunting.
In these parts, being an emperor was not governed by dynasty. The title was not handed down to sons. When an emperor passed, the family became custodians until a successor was found. Huntsmen searched throughout the land, they rested at temples and tea houses, and exchanged sacks of rice for stories of new births. But tracking a new successor down sometimes took years not months, even if the huntsmen were exceptionally skilled. A new rabbit emperor could only be proved by certain markings: unusual birthmarks, scars, deformities, or amputations, as rabbit people believe an emperor's character will always be tested. The predecessor was crippled and had a bald patch on his head, so it was said the next one must show pronounced signs of this.
For seven years, these huntsmen roamed the land, while the custodians grew fat from their fruitless wandering. The previous Emperor's wife no longer wailed and her sons were tanned, not pale. Most had married and now had wives plump with child; their courts were expanding. They overspent on hiring maids and buying furnishings, and did not care for common people. The huntsmen were weary, the people were desperate for a successor, and the custodians were happy the search had been prolonged.
Outside the Emperor's courts, a war had been raging. A few hutches inhabited by rabbits had been claimed by invading weasels, and those suddenly homeless were forced into labour camps. A mother and her young son were rehoused in such a one, in a coal mine outside town. Her son's name was Rabbit No Fur for he was exceedingly anxious and lame. He had once been trapped in a snare and his left foot had not healed when freed, so he now dragged his leg and tread nervously. In response to this latest stressful event, Rabbit No Fur shed all his fur from his ears to his white cotton tail. His tawny-brown coat fell away in one clump, which the camp doctor said was alopecia. Appalled by the taunting her son now received from officer weasels, she swapped his fur for a rich blue cloth with an old peddler, who too was a prisoner. At night, by the light of a concealed lantern, she sewed this into a fine coat studded with rhinestones, but the finished garment was so beautiful, it only made Rabbit No Fur even more noticeable. He was repeatedly punished with hard labour, until one winter's day, his jewelled coat was seized by a high ranking weasel, and so the mother, thinking only of her son, begged him to leave with the other escape diggers.
This he did, but he was recaptured, and along with the others was lined up outside the town hall to be beaten. Fortunately, some huntsmen were among the observing crowd, and upon seeing Rabbit No Fur's naked and maimed form knew this was the new Emperor. They immediately halted all proceedings, recovered his precious jewelled coat from the high ranking weasel, and rescued his mother. Rabbit No Fur was quickly declared the new Rabbit Emperor and the custodians were banished from his courts.
Peace reigned in this provincial town after Rabbit No Fur had been crowned, because unlike his predecessor, he put being a rabbit first before being an Emperor.

Sparked by Jeanette Winterson's 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?'

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Bandits

The Bandits chanted the register, each calling out their own line from the rhyme and hopping forward:

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for a Girl, Four for a Boy, Five for Silver, Six for Gold, Seven for a Secret never to be told. (The last three words were always whispered).

On this bright, cold day, each one was present, but there was a time when their rhyme stopped at ten and not seven. Three verses took their leave as they wouldn't thieve.
The eighth, Wish, asked to part and it was granted; the ninth, Kiss, opened his own business as a matchmaker; and the tenth, Bliss, with help from Kiss, was arranging his nuptials to a parakeet. All three left the company amicably, but Wish's departure eighteen months ago was a mystery. Sorrow, Joy, Girl, Boy, Silver and Gold wondered exactly what he had wished for? And if it had been answered? Only Secret now knew what Wish was up to.
She found this out one Thursday when they had gathered to trade at Thieves Market: an Aladdin's cave of bargains to be made in an underground car park. Each bandit had their own stall, and was in charge of a separate division: Sorrow, cheap booze; Joy, low cost food; Girl, counterfeit handbags and shoes; Boy, replica Rolex watches; Silver, bendable cutlery and poor quality saucepans; Gold, brass plated rings and medallions; and Secret, fraudulent works of art from Van Gogh to Banksy. With their arrogant, almost rude, challenging attitudes, the punters never haggled or argued. They simply accepted the tall tales the bandits spun for, as everyone knows, magpies have been in this trade since time begun.
Mid-morning, Secret gave the usual signal: she wagged and flicked her tail at Gold, who was busy with a Eurasian male admiring a medallion on himself in the mirror. Gold, with pound signs in his eyes winked back, which was code for “Yes, go!” and “Watch me close this sale!”
With a wad of notes in her belt, Secret went to Crow's to fetch them all teas and thick slabs of fruit cake. Trading in fake art could be slow as punters were less impulsive with their cash, and often went away and didn't come back, but dealing in art allowed her to befriend other looters. As Secret's wares were not as competitive as her brothers and sisters, and her conduct was quieter, the tip-offs she extracted here were far more useful. Traders and punters sat at plastic white tables and chairs in front of the van, so Secret had to weave her way through to the open hatch, where Old Beady, with his one good eye and the other hidden by a tartan patch, stood behind the serving counter. As he handed her their order, he hunched down and put his beak to her ear, “The MCs are here.” He whispered. Secret glanced nervously about her. If the Magpie Coppers were here, someone was bound to get busted. She had to get back and warn Sorrow, Joy, Girl, Boy, Silver, and Gold!
Balancing a brown tray of teas and cling-filmed wrapped fruit cake, she retraced her hops, stopping here and there to browse at second-hand clothes and stolen antiques. Be normal, act normally, she thought to herself, but she knew she was being followed. She could feel it. From out of nowhere, a large wing clamped around her shoulders, which made Secret wobble and upset the teas slightly. She gulped and looked up, “Wish!” She exclaimed.
He shushed her as he manoeuvred her into an alcove, “Yes, it is I.” He confirmed.
But your feathers...” She muttered as indeed these gleamed more blue than black.
They're dyed. I switched sides, and now my probation's complete I'm being transferred up North tomorrow.” He explained hurriedly and planted a peck on Secret's cheek. “I got my wish and now you get to keep my secret forever.”
And this is why it's so rare to see a flock of eight bandits together.

Thursday, 24 October 2013


Johnny Gruelle's Rapunzel
A maiden called Gruelle once lived in the attic. Aged 13, her papa locked her in when she contracted diphtheria. She was unconcerned when she heard the key turn for this was her space; her favourite place to be alone, and when she was younger, where she had found her beloved rag doll. Ever since then, Raggedy Ann had been her constant companion, and now through her, she felt connected to her papa, as he had chosen her doll's name and drawn her face. Her papa built walls around the attic so high, nobody could climb them, but once a week he stood outside and bade Gruelle to open the window.
Gruelle, Gruelle, let down your rope, so I may tie the supplies.” He would call, and when he had done, she would hoist the rope up to find out what goods he had brought. There was usually a loaf of rye or pumpernickel bread, porridge, fruit, and a jar of jam, and sometimes he would include a new storybook or a copy of his latest drawing. These surprises she delighted in: she read the stories aloud with a husky throat and pinned the drawings to her cell walls. When she was well, her morning routine was to cook porridge on her stove, make her cot bed, sweep the floor, and wash the window, and in the afternoons she read from her collection of fairytales. Her favourite was Rapunzel, and often at night she dreamt that instead of the rope she let down long, golden hair. But this she knew would never come true for her hair was dirty blonde and as short as a boy's, and with her skin turning blue, she knew she would never have a beautiful hue, but she did have a prince: her papa.
In Silvermine, she was not known as The Maiden In The Tower, but as the contagious girl in the attic. Already her Christian name, Marcella, had been forgot; even her dear papa did not call for her by this. She was Gruelle: the poisoned one. Poisoned with disease: chills, fever, and fatigue, which she could spread just by breathing. And since she could now only comfortably eat gruel her surname as a first name was fitting. But being a spirited child, this new way of life did not defeat her, although she knew there would come a time when this disease eventually would. With her mind, she travelled all over. She visited friends and her papa in his hillside studio, as well as lands she had read about, but never seen. As the illness progressed, Gruelle grew ever more peaceful.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
She slept more in her cot with Raggedy Ann by her side or with her eyes wandered in her papa's pictures. The day came when she could no longer heed her papa's call, although it was painful to hear his distraught cries through the ajar window. That night, her heart beat its last and she slipped away, but to her astonishment, she did not die: she transformed into a graceful butterfly. A purple-black with a yellow border and iridescent blue spots. The next day when her papa stood and called outside the attic walls, she fluttered her new God-given wings and flew through the open window. In her cloaked form, she alighted on her papa's shoulder, and he being a wise man recognised this was his Marcella. He knew this was goodbye and that all dying souls depart as butterflies.

Thursday, 17 October 2013


There was once a young woman who hammered inside an old lady's chest. With pounding fists she yelled, “Let me out! Let me out!” which left the old lady short of breath. She went to the doctor who gave her pills for angina, but the young woman inside her continued to pound her chest. She returned to her doctor's surgery where he said she had borderline dementia and a fear of death, and prescribed more pills and rest. But still the young woman inside cried, “Let me out! Let me out!”
One night, the old lady replied to these cries, “How?”
The pounding stopped and the young woman replied, “Open your mouth wide and I'll slip out.”
The old lady laid down, removed her false teeth to slacken her jaw and let her mouth gape. A smoke-like wisp spiralled out of her parted lips and a young woman materialised in front of her. She was slim with paper-thin skin and fine threads of sliver hair, and was clothed in some kind of mesh dress. Her eyes were like droplets of dew and looked right into the old lady's, “Shut that door, I'm done.” She said in a airy, but nonetheless commanding tone, which suggested she felt at home.
Without her teeth, the old lady couldn't argue, so she obediently unlocked her jaw, closed her trapdoor, and drew herself up to a seated position. This can't really be happening she thought, but even after she rubbed her eyes, the wisplike woman remained by her side and silently handed her her glass of teeth.
You always were good at swallowing.” She said as the old lady gulped her teeth back in.
What?” The old lady exclaimed with gummy spits of water and saliva.
Don't you remember how you tried the nursery rhyme? How you swallowed a fly and then a spider to catch it? Thank god, you stopped there!” The young woman said accusingly as she jabbed a wraith finger at her. 
But that was over sixty years ago! Have you been inside me all this time?” The old lady wailed.
Why now?” She demanded.
The spider died and you ran out of space to house me. The spider's cobwebs which made me also narrowed your arteries. All these years, I've swept and dusted your four chambers, but the spider still spun and you continued to swallow delicacies. Do you think I wanted to leave my cobwebby heart and ribcage home? You and the spider were suffocating me!” The young woman explained vehemently.
The old lady shuddered and the loose flesh on her arms went goose-pimply. She found it hard to believe this gossamer woman had lived inside her. “But what will you do now I've let you out?” She nervously enquired.
I don't know.” She whispered mournfully. “I liked my walls and the spider for a time was good company, but now I'm outside I don't know how to save me and I will begin to age dreadfully.” The young woman's skin was already flaking and covering the polished wood floor in grey clumps.
The old lady stood to comfort her, but instead tottered forward through the young woman's suspended web. Her invisible threads were like a filmy nightdress and wouldn't be brushed off. To the visible eye, the young woman was gone, she'd wrapped herself around the old lady, but the last words she spoke hung in the air, “You'll remember this... You've always known about the other woman inside you pounding to be let out.”
The old lady awoke with a mighty thump to her chest.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Poor Man's Whippet

My Master was four-legged and I was three, so I answered to the name of Stumpy, but Master often called me “Whippet!” Master wasn't his only name as folk when they crossed our path said “Poor Man. Poor Man...”, especially in rain or winter. But it was rare that anyone approached us: folks glanced and scurried past as Master was far from endearing. His manner was gruff and at times insulting. He verbally abused folk, and walked crookedly in front of traffic waving his stick and ranting as I limbed alongside him, but this abrasive attitude was the only language he knew and a play for attention.
Being homeless and drunk on wealthy Epsom streets was frowned upon. Folks didn't like to see hardship and poverty: an unwashed man with a matted beard in worn-out clothes begging on pavements and sheltering in shop doorways. Being vagabonds in this town was tough, and some I heard say, “At least Stumpy, Poor Man's Whippet is quiet and dignified.” This was true: my coat was remarkably easy to keep clean and my breed is not prone to barking. In temperament, Master and I were exact opposites, and therefore good companions. My docile nature atoned for his misunderstood hostility; an ill will he never used towards me as his argument was with society and not with his faithful companion.
Together, we rested in many different places where we were either fleetingly acknowledged or moved on. One day, just before a a storm, we found shelter in an open porch squeezed in-between a pub and a charity shop, which led to offices above. The polished step was just wide enough for Master to sit and for me to curl up beside him. Light drops of rain were beginning to fall and the sky was turning dark and thundery. Master was thinking and so I tried to doze, but before I could slip into the land of chasing squirrels, a young girl carefully stepped over me. She seemed unperturbed to see us there and apologized for having to gain access to the building. As she disappeared behind the door, I dropped my head once more, but was disturbed again ten minutes later when she returned with a flask of tea and a whole pack of digestives, which she handed to Master with “I thought the two of you could share these.”
Master taken aback by this gesture wordlessly accepted and I gave thanks from my eyes, which I saw she recognised, and although this exchange only lasted seconds, it told me she had a whippet's heart: large and slow beating. I sensed she fled because she was embarrassed and didn't wish to alert others to our unwarranted presence. I was relieved she'd not given us money for Master would have used it to drown his sorrows; for a man like him tea and biscuits were safer. As the rain begun to beat more forcefully down, we had to move and so took the remaining biscuits with us.
Over the next few months, we continued to traipse Epsom town, stopping for shelter here, there and everywhere in all weathers, until we took up residence in the derelict grounds of a mental hospital. For a while we called these ruins home. I don't recall the fog of smoke the night we laid down and so I think the two of us must have died sleeping. But a week later, our ghosts saw the same young girl weeping when the fire was reported in the local paper. Her fellow feeling for us was the last we were shown.

*based on a true account, but some characters have been altered and some details embellished.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Silhouette

Mrs. Winifred Banks was the suffragette who became known as 'The Silhouette': a cut-out figure from the movement. After her latest nanny, Mary Poppins, left, she got more involved with her sister suffragettes, and in June 1913 began to dress all in black as a living monument to the deceased Emily Wilding Davison. Since the latter's untimely death, every day was a day of mourning, so every inch of her was corseted in black, even her hat had a black veil. In the winter, she attended rallies wearing a black shawl for extra warmth, whereas in the summer she marched under a black parasol. The only colours allowed to brighten her ensemble were those that symbolised Votes For Women: green, white and purple, and her rule was only one colourful matching accessory, as if too much colour would dilute Emily's bravery. A three-striped scarf might be tied around her throat, or her hat adorned with three dyed feathers, or, as if she were a bride, she might hold a nosegay of white and purple irises, but this aside, she was one solid colour.
Mrs. Banks was not the frivolous Mrs. Banks as she was in the days of Mary Poppins. Her exuberance still shone, but it had been sobered. She still lived at No.17 Cherry Tree Lane as the wife of George Banks and mother of Jane and Michael, but the blue and orange dress, the blue and white sash, and the elegant white gloves had gone. She was no longer as sensitive to the needs of her family and the household was starved of her attention; delicate possessions were not saved from Admiral Boom's twice-daily destruction, and her husband, now a family-man, but still dismissive of the women's cause, had not taken over.
Jane and Michael, although slightly older, had reverted to form and were as rebellious as ever, because despite being indulged by their father, neither of them could understand their devoted suffragette mother. They confided in Bert who still cleaned their chimney and watched his one-man band accompany their mother's solitary, black figure as it paraded up and down the main street. Even Jane's hair and Michael's kite were tied with black ribbons in dedication to this militant suffragette's memory. It was as if with Emily's death their mother outwardly expressed what Mary Poppins had once told them, “I shall stay until the wind changes.” Except their mother had overstayed the wind and changed direction.
The Banks children never forgot that fateful date when their mother had become an ever-present shadow; how she appeared on June 9th shrouded in black at the breakfast table. Ellen, the maid, had to be dismissed due to shock, and their father stayed behind his newspaper. Even after the funeral, their mother could not be reasoned with: she would wear black for Emily and for the movement.
With Mary Poppins and her magical umbrella gone, it was Bert's mission to once again save the Banks family. He befriended Mrs. Banks but when this didn't lessen her depression, he recruited Jane and Michael to bring their mother to the park to see his drawings. Bert was still working in chalk, but now also did paper cutting; sometimes using a model to draw the crowds in. He persuaded Mrs. Banks that dressed all in black she epitomised the perfect silhouette, and it just so happened that day that she had decorated her dark coat with an imitation 1912 hunger strike medal. In capturing her blackness, Bert unlocked a gateway which restored Mrs. Banks to animated colour. She gave up portraying the figure in black and donated her silhouette to the suffragette movement.
These days, it is often displayed as a museum exhibit, where people assume it's the infamous Emily; very few would be able to prove it's Winifred Banks.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Time's Keeper

I used to live on the wrist of a jovial salesman; a man with the gift of the gab who liked his liquor and sweets. He charmed the birds out of the trees and navigated wild seas when he made sales trips to the Isle of Wright. He loved the sea and so was pleased to wear me on his wrist: an Omega Automatic Sea Master. During work or in church I was hidden under the cuff of a shirt or a suit jacket sleeve, but on other days I was in view on his wrist. We were constant companions: I kept steady time and he spent it. My hands kept the hours, minutes and seconds ticking so he could live and be, and oh what a life I was privileged to see!
I was a gift in '77, marking a new passage of time for my new owner; he was leaving his current home to live by the sea. His wife, ambivalent about the sea, was not best pleased; the sea air always affected her, but with a daughter married and a son in his 20s, the time was ripe to commence their middle life and move to a new Dutch barn-style house. Being a Sea Master, I was overjoyed to have been given to a hardy, seaworthy captain. When I was first strapped to his wrist I knew that here was a man not made for the land, but made for water: he was calm seas with a little choppiness under the surface. His emotions, which didn't often brim except to classic music, were like the tide: rough and smooth, and his wise words were brewed with humour. He was built like an immovable boulder with thick hair the colour of sea spray, which magnified his ruddy complexion. Altogether, he was a well-weathered sea-dog; a fair man who was liked by his contemporaries: his colleagues, business associates, and drinking buddies.
His wife was witty, vivacious, and the quintessential home-maker: she cooked, baked, sewed, and made countless cups of tea for unannounced friends and expected family. Together, they made the perfect host and hostess, despite the bickering that dominated their married life. She was like a rare, entertaining bird, who broke into song and dance at appropriate and inappropriate moments, and laughed and exclaimed at everything. It so happened she wore a gold bracelet watch who, despite the difference in our years – she was older than me – became my lady friend. Like her wearer, she appeared delicate, but had a surprising robustness. On rare occasions when we were both unclasped from our owner's wrists, we would be twinned together, our straps and clock faces laid down side by side, almost touching each other, but usually we had our own separate resting places. In sleep, we matched our ticks to our owners' breaths and called out to one another.
However, if too much time was spent at home I hankered for the sea, as did my master. His daily constitution was to promenade with his Labrador on the sand or shingle, even when there were gusty winds and thundering waves. There was nothing he enjoyed better than tasting salt or feeling wave-spit in the air, which in a short-sleeved cotton shirt he found invigorating. We were the same: him and I, but even a storm was no match for his jaunts to the Isle of Wight: the ferry bobbing across the sea and the Islanders hospitality. For a decade or more, it was part of his sales territory, a business necessity but also a pleasure, and when retirement came this feeling remained and so he still made trips from the mainland. Our wives understanding us allowed us to be free.
But good times do not last and along with our owners, we aged. I slowed down more often, as did the mechanics of my owner, until the day came to pass when we both stopped, and on this occasion we were not in tune with each other. Worn by him, I had a place, a function, but now I'm a corpse of time: a dead wrist watch.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Bull's Eye

The Red Bull blazed with fire as he tried to drive the sea-white unicorn towards the water, but she paid him little attention for Prince Lír had fallen. His twisted body lay motionless on the sand, the tide creeping in under a sky that was scarlet, and it was then that the unicorn screamed and charged into battle with her anger. King Haggard watching from the castle's highest tower shrank back as he knew the Red Bull was beaten. The Bull was hunted by the unicorn's horn, and as she had done, he retreated until he pawed the ground at the water's edge and refused to go no further. The Red Bull knew he was defeated, but wanted this final moment: you think I have lost, but I win, before he turned and walked slowly into the surf and began to swim. The waves crashed over him, quenching his fire and submerging his humped shoulders from view. Legend says he sank to the bottom of the ocean, but this is not true.
The unicorns were freed from the rolls of the sea, Prince Lír was resurrected from the dead, and no trace remained of King Haggard and his castle. The last unicorn, having tasted mortal life, took her leave and returned to her enchanted forest, and all this occurred because of the unicorn's courage and the Bull's obstinacy. As Schmendrick the Magician would say the Red Bull never fought, he always conquered; and although he had not captured the last unicorn, this loss had released him from King Haggard, and he would conquer the sea. His pride was wounded, but he was not hurt physically. The water washed over his great bulk, but did not draw him down; he swam against the tide until he passed out, and in this comatose state dreamt a beautiful mermaid with long golden hair and a shimmering blue-green tail rescued him. She guided him to another shore and watched over him while he was sleeping, sitting on a rock and combing her locks until her sweet song wakened him. All the Red Bull remembered was hearing a splash and a glimpse of a tail disappearing; he never knew how he touched the shore and assumed the tide had dragged him.
The shore he lay on was a line of white sand with scuttling crabs, buried shells and seaweed; just like home except the sun was high and the air was incredibly hot and humid. The Red Bull snorted as he clambered to his feet, his large body swaying as he thought he saw unicorns dancing in front of him. The affects of Haggard's bidding, after so many years, still held him, but if he shook his head the white horned mares vanished. He needed to find a lair, but from overhead there came a furious screeching and a bronze bird of prey suddenly fell like a star from the sky and plucked out his right eye. The harpy knew the Bull would not run from her strike and laughed with delight, her breath warm and stinking and, on wings turned red by the sun's rays, flew away. She had got what she came for: half the Bull's sight for letting a mortal possess him. The harpy had never succumbed to Mommy Fortuna, whereas the Bull had willingly let King Haggard's desires ensnare him. The harpy was as ruthless as the King: an eye for losing sight of your power.
The Red Bull with one remaining eye wandered aimlessly until a merchant with swarthy skin captured him and led him to his village, where his nose was pierced with a copper ring and he was made to wear a blindfold, and ordered to walk in circles to turn their waterwheel. As before, without his sight, he gave away his strength, but this time he stayed humble.
In a distant land a riddling butterfly told the Bull's peoples: “The Red Bull pushed and freed all the unicorns from the sea, then lost his eye to a harpy and became a one-eyed steer. On this shore, people trade in Bulls' eyes for peppermints.”

*Inspired from and based on The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Seagull City

There was once a metropolis nicknamed Seagull City. Busy and sprawling, its rich industrial history erased by an influx of gulls who had moved inland to scavenge opportunistically and outnumbered the people. 'A sea of nests' was how the local tourist guides conducting tours described it; a phrase which soon caught on and was displayed across chests, on canvas shopping bags, and leaflets. Tourism boomed, but with the city's new-found wealth came rivalry. Others cities complained their gull colonies had been lured to this Mecca with its poor disposal of half-eaten takeaway food, while many of Seagull City's own residents petitioned the council to control the gull population. Some local businesses, unwilling to change and unable to profit, ranted and raved 'these immigrants were losing them trade, harassing their customers, and thieving food'; others turned this mobbing behaviour into a tourist attraction where people paid to be dive-bombed.
Out of season however the mood between the council, the profiteers and the locals was unpalatable. Visitor-free, the seagulls were a daily nuisance to contend with, a flying pest; nobody gained from or wanted to be held responsible for their residency. The city's people were divided: those working in and benefiting from the tourist trade, and those vigorously opposed to the gull-human ratio: 4 gulls to every human. In the middle of these two factions were those who neither gained or lost; they had no allegiance to either gulls or people, as both had complex methods of communication and a highly developed social structure, and although they were few, it was this group that was the fence between the two. They were considered the real enemy for being too conciliatory: they were the ones that nodded or shook their heads in agreement with whatever was being said, left out their rubbish bags on non-collection days, or brazenly fed the gulls with saved morsels of meat as they traipsed the streets.
The council's pleas to dump waste responsibly fell on deaf ears. The city's people did not believe their filthy habits and extravagant attitudes could be that inviting. They shouldn't have to use their common sense, that's what they paid the council for: to sanitise where they lived and to get rid of unwanted predators. Prosper they would, but without the added expense of feeding these scavengers. The council tried enforcing 'No Dive Bombing Zones' and recruiting Seagull Fanciers, but seagulls, they quickly discovered, are not messengers. Their intelligence reserved for food as they hovered and squabbled over the city with harsh wailing, learnt to use stale crusts of bread to make their own meat sandwiches, and to play 'I spy with my little eye' with fast food containers. Their connection with the sea officially broken.
In this habitat, aptly named for them, they were thriving: building nests and laying speckled eggs which hatched a new urban generation. An army with webbed feet, they plodded through the city's streets with a slight side-to-side motion until they reached their regular stations: fish and chips, kebab, burger, and pizza joints. Some were traditional, some were adventurous, and some were plain garbage scoffers who loved to attack black bin bags. With fish stocks plummeting, they'd had to turn their back on the sea and rely more heavily on humans, but they hadn't expected this animosity. If humans failed to keep their centres free of waste, why shouldn't they create more seagull cities?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Penelope At Her Typerwriter

Click-clack, click-clack, ding! Click-clack, click-clack, ding! A muttered curse, a pause while white-out was applied and blown on, then the click-clacking resumed and carried through to the partner's rooms next door. Every day, without fail, Penelope obediently typed letters dictated by her father-in-law: replies to clients, and strongly worded inquiries to ministers and military personnel. Searching for his missing son, her husband, had hijacked his work and hers at his busy firm of solicitors. Missing in action, presumed dead or deserted was how his regiment conveyed it, but that was almost a year ago, and still they would not reveal whereabouts they might have 'lost' him. Penelope, used to these absences, waited patiently with a photo of him on her desk, and dedicated herself to her typewriter.
The typewriter was a present brought especially for her after her father-in-law had appointed her his personal secretary. An antique, it had quirks: the 'a' had to be pounded twice, 'h' lost it's tall head, and capital 'R' its pointed leg, plus replacing the ribbon was fiddly, but Penelope was comforted by the click-clacking sound and the ding! was very satisfactory. Her father-in-law's firm was progressive, but its office equipment old-fashioned, and Penelope found she preferred the productive noisiness to the unobtrusive hum and tap of computers. The tips of her fingers were sore and her wrists ached, but she was winning this war – she felt useful, but as she grew accustomed to this new forbearing attitude, her fingers craved more exercise. After office hours, she stayed behind to type, improving her speed and accuracy as day turned into night. These efforts soon led to short stories, then a début novel, and a hostile relationship with the cleaner who was forced to clean around her.
During business hours, Penelope doubled her workload as other partners and clients requested her typing services, and with this demand she glowed. Her steady click-clack, ding! was music to their ears and won her many admirers who courted her with scribbled manuscripts and begged her to type them. Penelope refused, telling each hopeful suitor she would choose when her own novel was completed, and so she continued to hold their advances off by crossing out words and crumpling up balls of paper. Every morning, the waste-paper baskets overflowed with her re-workings and a memo was pinned to the noticeboard to say she was not finished. Her objective, in fact, was never to accomplish it and for twelve months she deceived them.
During this time, her relationship with the cleaner had further deteriorated, as she blamed Penelope for the handwritten notes now regularly left about her lax standards: 'Why haven't the bins been emptied?' 'When did you last vacuum?.' 'My desk hasn't been dusted!' Twenty years without a single reprimand and Penelope had tarnished it, but she knew her secret. One evening she arrived before the office closed and stormed in to reveal it: flinging open a cupboard to expose deep shelves of manuscripts. “Completed!” The cleaner declared triumphantly. And there were many... All with the same beginning, but different middles and endings.
Penelope relented and asked her admirers to submit their scribbled drafts. The winner was a page-turner; a fictional narrative based on scraps of memories which seemed to her familiar, and was penned by 'No Name.' This anonymous author, invited to the office, was a man recovering from a head injury, whom Penelope instantly recognised as her husband and proved it to the authorities. Her returned husband in his diminished faculties shredded her admirers' laboured attempts to win her, but Penelope was contented: she had been rewarded for her faithfulness to her typewriter and to her husband's memory.

*Inspired by Penelope At Her Loom by Angelica Kauffman & Homer's Odyssey

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Golden Stairs

As a young man, I intended to become a church minister, but instead I idled hours away reading the poetry of Tennyson and the writings of John Ruskin. I was a dreamer; dreaming of lands no one can define or remember, and it was this awake-sleeping state that later informed my art. In tempered tones, I captured romantic dreams of something that never was and never will be; that's what a real picture is to me. My visions enticed me to draw them, but some of these were not an illusion, they happened, if not to me, then to people who confided in me. Now reader, the time has come for me to divulge such a story.
During a long vacation, a good friend of mine was once invited to stay at a Baron's manor, (he and my confidant shall remain nameless for the latter was notorious and the former does not deserve to have his reputation muddied), and felt pressed upon to accept for this unexpected hand of cordiality was actually a summons.
In the county of this Baron's residence, there were reports of drunkenness and beastly behaviour, and the Baron was known for his stormy nature. He served as the Lord Lieutenant of __shire, a office he held until his death, which commanded respect, but everyone whispered behind his back that 'the Baron is peculiar'. At times he shunned public intrusion, preferring to roam his estate in isolation, but when the moon was up, he openly requested invasion. Messengers on horses were dispatched to present cards to Lords, Dukes, and Counts; politicians and men carving names in their chosen professions, and of course surrounding gentry, but never to Ladies, Baronesses or Duchesses, unless you were hand-picked as a serving wrench or to provide some frivolity. This Baron was not a man to be refused, so wives, mothers and daughters were left in their sitting rooms, and any engagements already made were broken. The invite my friend received was for one such an occasion.
The moon had risen as he travelled there for the first night of this three night affair. The guests having arrived were led into a breathtaking hall, its walls adorned with canvasses and candles flickering in candelabras, and at its centre stood the Baron. A pale, lean man in tailored cloth with piercing grey eyes who carried an air of aloofness. As his staccato voice addressed them, a chill ran through the male assembly, but everything the Baron said was most hospitable: entreating them to sup, hunt, fish, and admire his collected works at their leisure. His only stipulation was that no man should enter the West Wing as these quarters were under restoration. Speech over, the men relaxed, but my friend now intrigued, left the others to their drunken revelling and stole away to the West Wing.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones 1880
The roof was, in parts, open to the air so that warm moonlight fell through on a golden staircase. Hearing faint footsteps my friend, not wanting to be discovered, hid behind a pillar. To his astonishment, a group of maidens descended the spiral staircase; all barefoot, dressed in robes in tones of white and shades of gold and silver, and clutching wind and stringed instruments. They trooped past like spirits in an enchanted dream and vanished down a passage, and his attempt to follow was thwarted as the moon lost its light behind a cloud. The second night he determined he would do so, but the same occurred: he saw them tiptoe down the golden stairs and lost them in the passage. This time he resolved to wait, but fell asleep and did not witness their return. On the third night, the moon was bright, but still the maidens vanished when they entered the passage and did not reappear. My friend dismayed by this outcome said, “Wither they go, who they are, there is nothing to tell.” And this evoked the artist in me to capture the eighteen maidens for myself. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Mistress Muse

The Little White Girl, Whistler 1864
Every girl dreams of their wedding, their big day. Not I; I dreaded it. I never wanted to be that little white girl at the altar, and yet here I stand leaning against a mantelpiece in a pure white gown gazing at a ring on my left hand. Commissioned to pose by one lover, whilst dreaming of another: a new admirer, Gustave. He calls me 'La Belle Irlandaise', whereas to others I'm Jo, the artists' muse with a splendid coiffure of red hair. I'm Joanna Hiffernan, the mistress linked to Whistler.
In this house, I submit to Whistler's whims and model for him, posed and clothed as he wishes. I, who refused to contemplate marriage, portray innocence and virtue, but by choice became an unmarried, kept woman. I'm assured it's not that different; men still grow tired of you, but as mistress muse I can inspire other painters. As I confront my image in the mirror, I think of my developing friendship with Gustave Courbet. He views my Irish beauty with more richness, honesty and less dream-like qualities. If I ever modelled for him, I would be depicted as womanly, painted on canvas as a sensuous 'Eve'.
Whistler, I fear, is beginning to tire of me. Sometimes I hear him muttering as he washes his brushes, 'One more, one more... One more painting', followed by a disgruntled sigh as if my embodied perfection annoys him, but his compositions aren't always true to my features. Last time he ignored my sky-blue eyes and darkened them to complement my hair, so I know the image he captures now may not be the real me. The fiery red of my hair will be toned down and my skin will resemble porcelain. The finished figure will look delicate, almost translucent, and people will speculate: What is this angelic girl thinking? Some will see sadness and others a dreamy contentedness. The interpretation of the painting will change with each beholder. Whistler, in his more enthused moments, has explained, as before, all this to me. His perceptiveness of the human mind never ceases to amaze me.
In the still silence, I try to give her, this little white girl, a contemplative air as instructed. With Whistler deep in his work, my mind drifts easily and the vase dissolves into a white and blue blur of memories. I think of my dear mother, God rest her soul, and of my father and sister, and of how I met Whistler just over three years ago at a studio in Rathbone Place. Even now I'm not sure what drew me to him, perhaps it was his American accent, but he whisked me away to spend the summer in France, and come winter I sat for The White Girl No.1. It was while in Paris we befriended Gustave, who eulogised about my red hair and marvellous eyes. Now, we're here, in London, and Gustave is at his resort in Normandy. I inadvertently part my lips and get reprimanded for it, and then I'm told to straighten up as I'm wilting like a god damn flower! Whistler, the artist, is often harsh with me. I suffer for the sake of his art and so I can continue to provoke his family's and society's disapproval, although I resent having to find alternative accommodation when his mother visits!
What is this life I have chosen? A mistress muse whom artists arrange in languid or risqué poses, and then discard when inspiration no longer comes and the woman has faded.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The King Of Leftovers

The King is coming... The King is coming home... Up and down the streets this news was passed along like Chinese Whispers, whispered from house to shop, and between lovers friends and neighbours, until it got tweeted and it became a lion's roar: THE KING OF LEFTOVERS IS COMING HOME! The local paper even printed an inside guide on how to prepare for his return. People planned their meals and only bought what they needed; they used up or froze anything edible or composted it; while others new to loving food and hating waste wrote questions down to ask him. Excitement soared as the big day drew nearer and the posters pasted everywhere declared his imminent arrival.
With one day to go, roads were closed, bunting was strung, and collapsible tables and chairs were unfolded. Shops donated their discarded food and volunteers set up their stretch-food-more stalls. Anticipation hung in the air like the delicious smell of baking bread. Appetites whetted, many people didn't want to go home and camped out that starry night. People gathered round blazing bins and sang, played instruments or told stories, only retiring to line the processional streets with their sleeping bags and woolly hats.
For these devotees, the big day began with the King's Golden Tip: leftover-made soup in a mug, and anyone that camped was not allowed to refuse, to choose to go hungry. Breakfast, as the King said, was not a meal to be skipped. By ten o'clock, the crowd had swelled and been whipped up to a feverish pitch. “We want the King!” “We want the King!” They chanted, but soon grew quiet at the sound of distant tom-toms. A fevered whisper of “He's coming!” rippled through the throng.
Two tom-tom beaters appeared at the top of the high street, with the King's tall, masculine figure dribbling a basketball behind them. He had dressed for his home crowd on this special occasion: his chef hat upright on his head and in a singlet with baggy shorts and trainers, and with both his biceps tied with a band of banana leaves. He confidently dribbled the ball and shot a few hoops at the baskets strategically placed en route. The crowd whooped as he scored and cheered even more when he gave his basketball away to a wide-eyed boy.
The King high-fived hands until he reached his outdoor cooking station, where he rattled his pots and pans like Ainsley Harriott as he made his signature dish: Banana Skin Curry. Volunteers dispersed tasters in tupperware with leaflets of the recipe, and as they supped the King talked. He began by thanking them for their support, and briefly touched on the success of his UK tour along with his appearances on TV. He said he was on the road to driving the message home: Love Food, Hate Waste, but he had a long way to go. As the crowd listened, rapt by his speech, they observed he had the passion of a Jamie Oliver or a James Martin, and that he too was a force to be reckoned with.
When the applause died, a orderly queue formed for people to meet the King and put to him their leftover questions directly. Some had even brought bags filled with stale bread and over-ripe fruits, and with each he patiently explained a nugget of his Food Waste Philosophy. He made children laugh, encouraging them to try new foods and let them help him in demonstrating another one of his recipes. He visited stalls and talked to shop-keepers, students, and parents; all those who believed in him and supported his campaign.
As the street party came to an end, he held up his hand with a firm “Hush” to the crowd, and imparted a last piece of his wisdom: Keep in mind that leftover food is like poetry. It feeds your mind, body and soul, you should not waste it.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


Once upon a time, a little girl played with her Gran's thimble collection. She'd sit on the floor and wear them like rings on the tips of her thumbs and fingers. The adults would laugh at her absorbed in the task of studying these ten more closely. Some were metal, some were wood, and some were china; some were commemorative, some were decorative, and some were plain, but none of them were the same as each other. When she wore them she knew her different-ness was somehow protected, and because of this habit she was called Thimbelina.
With a fairytale name, when she went to school she invented her own story. She said she had hatched from a Kinder Surprise, concealed as the toy inside, but a passing fairy had touched her with her ring three times and she had grown in size. Her complexion did indeed match the chocolate: white milky skin with brown hair and dark eyes. When she went to bed, she would only be read 'Thumbelina'; she wanted to be small like her and was obsessed with squeezing herself into tiny spaces.
As Thimbelina approached her teenage years, she told her peers her parents had been cursed by a witch and wearing thimbles stopped her fingers getting pricked. What would happen if they did? They asked, and she replied: I'd be no bigger than a woman's thumb. Many asked if the curse could be broken and she said yes, but she wasn't sure of the ending yet. She thought it had something to do with marrying a kingfisher because her Fairy Godmother said his feathers were as bright as her dreams.
In her adulthood, despite her average height, she still looked for that kingfisher. Someone to see the world with, because although her fingers hadn't got pricked, as a grown up she felt smaller. Now 5ft 6 and daintily boned, next to big people she felt petite, and next to people smaller than her she felt huge, but if she stood next to people of a similar height she felt under-protected. And it wasn't just that that pained her, when she tried to do good, her motives were misunderstood and her individuality was incompatible with ambition. The ways of the modern world made her feel tiny, but not like her childhood heroine Kylie. She wasn't a pretty little thing or elfin, she was a plain, scruffy intellect.
Although Thimbelina knew her myth was absurd, a part of her wanted it to come true. Afraid of doing difficult things in a real world, she wanted to be popped into a pocket or ride atop a giant's shoulders. Being genuinely nice, she had found, was too 'alternative'. If she owned her fictional persona, perhaps she too would have adventures with creatures: be carried off by a moth, captured by a spider, and given shelter by a squirrel, although she drew the line at marrying a prince just her size. If she'd been Thumbelina, she would have stuck with the swallow. Nestled by wings the big, wide world wouldn't seem so harsh and unfriendly.
Perhaps like her, her kingfisher was in disguise: attired in a sapphire blue suit with dyed orange hair, or had less obvious flare, but a vibrant personality. Although she inhabited this giant land, Thimbelina still believed in broken spells and fairy tale endings: only a kingfisher would add glorious colour to her dreams.