Thursday, 27 February 2014


There's a child that never leaves me. A real child, not some figment of my imagination like an invisible friend or ghostly inner child. A REAL female child with a freckled face, sea-coloured eyes, and sun-kissed hair. She follows me everywhere: into shops, libraries, caf├ęs and restaurants, where she skips behind or sits beside me. People say she must take after me, but she's not mine I say.
I don't remember when she appeared and I don't know where she came from. I've tried countless times to shoo her away, but wherever we are she lies on the floor and screams. I ignore her and walk away; she's not with me I say, but she picks herself up and runs to catch me up, dragging an unattractive dolly with a grotesque head in a nylon dress with her.
Why does she cling to me? I'm not her mother! At least I don't think I am, but sometimes I wonder... Is it possible I could have had a child and forgotten all about her? Can you blank pregnancy and the complications of labour? Erase a baby's milestones? Their first word and tottering step?
Each time, I dismiss these thoughts. NOT BLOODY LIKELY!
If she's not mine, then WHOSE IS SHE?
Other people can obviously see her so I'm not going mad. They often comment on her healthy chubby glow, so she's well looked after. I don't see her when I'm in my own home, so where does she go I wonder? I don't recall a sleepy head in my lap or dent next to me on the sofa. But then my internal and external lives are kept separate. I assume different roles at different times in different spaces.
Could I be Mother to a daughter and not know it?
At weekends, she tries to sneak her tiny hand into mine, but I don't let her. People might think I'm abducting her! And I'm sure they would believe her lie over my cry that I'M NOT HER MOTHER!
Sometimes if she follows me to the seaside, she begs for an ice cream or a red balloon. I ignore her pleads and incessant tugs on my sweater. I was taught to never speak to strangers, so why does this child insist on stalking me?
I've thought about reporting her to the police, but the last time I tried, she told the community officer she wasn't lost or missing. And with her apple cheeks and naughty grin, he was bowled over.
Why isn't her own mother searching for her? Doesn't she want to know where her baby girl goes at odd hours? When she tucks her tight into bed at night does she ask her? Does she sing her lullabies and stroke her forehead?
I'm the last to know what a child needs, but I imagine comfort and security. A bubble bath, a mug of milky cocoa and a bedtime story. Has it changed since I was a girl in a cotton nightie?
What does this child need? What does she want from me?
What can I possibly give that her own mother, whoever she may be, can't give her?
Will she always be with me? Trailing behind, walking beside, or skipping in front of me?
A lost child that says she's not lost - SHE'S WITH ME!

*A tale inspired by 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Leaf Man

With his twig-brittle bones and leaf-thin skin, he seemed not to walk so much as flutter... no longer a man, but a phantom.”
The teacher paused and a student raised his hand, “I don't understand – who is this man?”
He's the Leaf Man.”
The students guffawed, but the teacher used to this response ignored them, “He was the last shepherd of elm trees before they succumbed to disease.”
What disease?” A bespectacled young man asked.
DED. Dutch elm disease.”
In measured tones, the teacher spoke about how the disease affected the trees, sometimes for up to fifteen years. At the end of his long explanation, he added, “The Leaf Man has it.”
So what you're saying is, this novel is historical fact and mythological fiction?”
The teacher fixed his pale grey eyes on the boy that asked who was at the front of his class, “No, this account is all true.” Despite his solemn delivery, each student laughed; a belly laugh that rose and fell like a Mexican wave to giggles, coughs, and awkward silence.
The students waited for the teacher, and the teacher waited for the students to react, to realise the gravity of a man living with this virus.
The bell broke the spell and as the students gathered up their books and pens, the teacher entreated them to “Read to chapter ten.”
When the last student had left, the teacher sighed and laid his head to rest on a school desk. Every year it was the same. They thought he was an old man who was losing his mind, who denied that fiction existed. And there was always one who thought he knew better. Who thought he could humiliate or outshine the teacher.
How could he teach this new intake of youth about a landscape they couldn't recognise?
To them, it was so long ago; it was a dream, an old person's memory.
The tree herders had once roamed all the forests; as a small boy, his grandpa had met one, and this book, he was trying to teach, was his grandpa's account of it. He'd loved hearing stories of the Leaf Man when he was young, but the history he now held in his hands, which his grandpa later wrote, was shocking.
His grandpa's voice interrupted his wandering thoughts so that he felt like a boy sitting on his grandpa's knee again.
The Leaf Man appeared in the village one summer's evening. Thirty metres high with hardly any neck and a sweeping purple-black beard. His skin was grey-brown and fissured, and from his head sprouted leaves which had recently yellowed and withered. With each stride, more twigs and leaves died and fell to the ground. When he stopped, you could see beetles scurrying up and down his bark-like skin.
To the villagers, he was a giant in the final stages of a contagious disease looking for a place to heave his last sigh. All closed their windows and doors, and peeked out at him - they thought doing more would be catching - except for my father, who was a caretaker of a country estate. He opened the gates and invited the Leaf Man into the grounds.
They conversed in a language I'd never heard. My father's face turned ashen and he refused to translate, but in English he said “You're starved.” The disease had ravaged his elm tree herd, before moving to him and wasting his branch-like limbs. He begged my father to fetch an axe and chop him down, which my father did crying with each blow.
It was hard for me to see my father distressed, but he always admired a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch a beautiful child in his arms.
*A fable sparked by a sentence in Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Welsh Dragon

Dragon, William de Morgan
I scratched my brain. What was that name? What was that name? Why couldn't I remember? There was Tammy, Barker, and Toby, the sailor bear... There was Fred-bear, an old gentleman bear originally owned by the girl's mother; Alligator with his orange collar; Lamb in her knitted red hoodie; and Scampi, a scruffy toy dog, but the name of the pink rabbit with its blind eyes continued to elude me. A female rabbit with a polka dot skirt, who had turned blind through time and love. She wasn't the most attractive of creatures but the girl wouldn't sleep without her. She hugged her fiercely to her chest and in the night almost smothered her.
Where was that rabbit now I wondered. Perhaps she had retired to a different home, a different pair of hands. Why don't I remember the day she left or the day I arrived? How come I can so easily call up her face, but not her name? Despite her faded looks, she was missed, but the girl had grown, as girls must do, and turned her out of her single bed. The rabbit had been relieved of her night-time duties and had not been replaced by another companion. A fact she had been proud of.
The girl gave us all names, and although she tried hard not to, she had her favourites. I know I was, for a long time, one of them. Christened Darlene, I'm a purple Welsh dragon. I didn't know when I was bought I was waving goodbye to the hills and valleys and the lilts of my mother-tongue. There was no explanation, my maker just sold me from her stall at an aircraft show and handed me to my cooing new owner. I was tempted to escape and hitch a ride in a military truck, but the word 'Home' bewitched me.
Home turned out to be Surrey and West Sussex, both of which I discovered had their own natural beauty. Unlike my other animal friends, 'Home' was never one place for me as I accompanied my owner on many day trips and holidays. I lived a luxurious life and was well looked after by the girl and the adults raising her. I was particularly charmed by the seaside and the girl's grandmother who lovingly fed me chunks of apple and cheese. The girl was instinctively tuned into me: she knew as a dragon that I had an unnatural hunger which had to be regularly tempered. And how I enjoyed those morsels, especially if it was cake or broken biscuits. Afterwards, the girl would have to wipe my mouth and pat the crumbs from my soft yellow belly.
I'm told I betrayed my own kind by being so contented. I should have been playful and fiery like my Chinese cousins, but where I come from dragons are placid. We don't energetically dance or breathe fire; in the valleys we hum hymns and conceal the hills with our misty breaths. Chinese dragons are like fireworks: they spit bright sparks of colour, whereas my Welsh kin lightly fizz like the bubbles in champagne or lit sparklers.
I led an unusual life, but if you want my advice: Never disturb a sleeping Welsh dragon.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Silent Woman

Two women once lived along the path of the Yellow River, but neither was aware of the other's existence. They never met, yet both their towns bestowed them with the name: Silent Woman.
If their lives had crossed, people would have said they were different, but cursed with the same affliction, and as both hid behind docile smiles, people often viewed them as suspicious. They were spoken about and not to: some people shook them or made them drink deadly brews to banish the demon for what other reason could there be for their continuing silence?
The two women knew this was not true; they had their reasons. Both were the same age with thin lips, silver-streaked charcoal hair and deep, dark eyes. One had a husband, a daughter and two sons; the other had no one: no husband, no daughters, no sons, and no ailing parents, but with both the silence came on suddenly. One became silent from unimaginable shock and the other through her own fear. Both experienced life's hard knocks and responded similarly.
One woke and thought her vocal chords had been cut, while the other gasped like a dying fish. Their breaths hissed, but there were no discernible words. Each thought it would pass and so they practised wu wei: deliberately did nothing. They did not act or resist and their voices lodged in their chests. They swallowed their words and locked them inside their beating hearts.
Mute, time passed slowly. Conversations were dead and neither could express themselves in the written word. Their sound had been turned down, but the volumes around them were shattering. Regular express trains of noise punctured their ears and whistled along their spines. This external noise was so unbearable that neither could leave their mud-brick house. They both shut their doors and took to their beds, or on better days would sit and gaze at their mirror reflection and mimic the words that had been stripped from their mouths. Both struggled to find a way to communicate, to be listened to and heard.
The one who would never become a wife, mother, or grandma began to rap with her fists on the kitchen table: one for yes, two for no, and a shrug for I don't know. The one who was all three, as well as a sister and auntie, coaxed a congratulatory word out which was lost in her family's babble, and so she resisted the urge and used facial expressions to vocalise what she felt.
Beguiled by these new communications, people flocked to see these silent women. Turning up in their droves outside their mud-brick and tile houses. The one who knocked was honoured like a fortune teller; questions were asked and she responded with a knock for yes, two for no, or hugged and dropped her shoulders if she didn’t know. The other one was revered as a messenger; she read people emotionally and acted what they in words could not convey.
But even though both women’s fortunes dramatically changed, their stubborn silence remained, and neither ever regained their previous life. Through silence, each had found their true voice, which while not heard, was a language more powerful than empty words.

*Inspired by Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings