The Writerly Review of Black Polo-Necks by Frances Holland

Creative Non-fiction

Have you been doubting your writing identity lately? Feeling as if you’re on a par with other people when you know you’re actually so much better than them? Then you need a wardrobe game-changer, and Frances Mulholland* is here to help!

The ‘You look very French today!’ One
This black polo neck is actually more of a dark grey; made from incredibly thin material, it usually retails for around £6 in Asda, and is perfect for when you’ve just bought a new bra you kind of want to show off through the almost-opaque fabric.
Cheap and figure-hugging, team this with black trousers after seeing an advert on Facebook for ‘Les Quatres Cent Coup’ on BFI Player. This will fool people into thinking you possess Gallic insouciance without having to actually download BFI Player, because it’s shit and doesn’t work.
The Investment Piece
So-called because you could have laid down a deposit for a nice semi-detached with front and rear garden for what you’ve just forked out in Reiss or the Autograph section of M&S. It’s pure cashmere, which you have no idea how to wash, and you can’t ask your mam if you can stick it in the machine with some Woolite because then you’d have to admit that you just spent a month’s salary on a fucking JUMPER.
Avoid.
The Magneto
It’s blacker than Jeremy Hunt’s soul, it kind of feels like cashmere but won’t break the bank, and you don’t have to dry it on a flat surface. But it WILL transform you into a human Van De Graff generator, giving out static shocks like Boris Johnson gives out child support payments.
This little number also cannot be worn when smiling as it will transform your face into a grotesque blob of chin and cheeks, so you’ll have to make your peace with looking like a scowling comic book villain if you’re going to wear this. From Dorothy Perkins or somewhere sensible.
‘Just getting some new author photos taken, NBD.’
YEAH right. Such a small deal that you’re now 90% primer and your own parents wouldn’t recognise you. A black slash-neck is the avant-garde alternative to a polo-neck, and when paired with a bookcase background, will make you look astonishingly like Maeve Brennan of ‘The New Yorker’ in a candid shot round Truman Capote’s gaff.
JK, you still look like a butternut squash wearing a binbag.

Other Writerly Accoutrements…
Jewellery: keep to a MINIMUM, or you risk tipping over into “Art Teacher” category. Unless you want to spend six hours talking about Mondrian and Hummus, in which case, knock yourself out with your giant earrings.
Satchel: These are great for carrying notebooks around in. They are, unfortunately, rubbish for carrying anything else in, and don’t even think about putting your keys in it unless you fancy taking up leather-stitching.
Nom de Plume: *See above. Mostly so the kids from work don’t find me.
Freezing cold flat: Perfect for that “impoverished artist” vibe. You already have this, as you’ve spent all your money on fancy coffee, Moleskin notebooks, and black polo necks.

 

About the Author:

Frances Mulholland has been writing ever since she was five years old, when she realised that putting an amusing caption on a drawing of her dad could get cheap laughs. Her inspirations include folklore and mythology, as well as the everyday lives of the people around her. She lives in Northumberland. This creative non-fiction piece has been inspired by her writer’s residency at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle.

The Baffling Case of Burgundy Lake by Mandira Pattnaik

Creative Non-fiction
Zeny

Women by Victoria Holt, 2017

It is unlikely that you’d have missed the baffling case of the Burgundy Lake that hit headlines in the eastern part of the globe. The case was curious. It was the evidence of three pairs of eyes, who happened to present their account to me, against the School of Ichthyology, and the might of documented work and exhaustive taxonomy. That was—well, at best, extremely insufficient.  Yet it did generate a storm as all good controversies do, and in the light of the subsequent events, deserves to be further investigated.

Truth, however well reported, can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

When a hundred and ten girls, some as young as eleven years old, disappeared from their school in Dapchi, Nigeria, the narrative was worse than a poor fiction. The school was only 275 kilometers from Chibok, where Boko Haram militants had kidnapped nearly three hundred girls from their school just four years earlier. The evidence of the kidnapping was, at best, glaring. It was broad daylight, pupils and their teachers milled about, life was usual. Yet it happened. The world shook in outrage and disbelief. You wouldn’t have missed it either.

Living in disbelief in a dysfunctional world is a true commonality. When a loved one goes missing, entwined lives gasp for answers. The world, of family and friends, crumble. Is it not baffling? According to reports, each year more than 25,000 people disappear in the United Kingdom alone. Somebody I knew was one of them. Somewhere in the squirming ocean of humans, another person fell off the grid of relationships he was lovingly weaved in. There was no evidence.

Missing people are lost people—lost to the world and in lost to themselves. Authorities, often handicapped by resources and practicality, act as if it is a loss wished under the carpet.

When he or she chooses to disappear, all that are left behind, people like Sandra Flintoff, mother of Craig who went missing fifteen years ago, become bodies without souls—it means nothing to live or die.

***

When the trio set foot on Quattor Island on a shiftless evening, a steady twilight brooded over the jetty. Quattor means four-sided in Latin. It was never inhabited by any permanent residents; only six square kilometers of flat white sandy beaches, wild forests within which nestles the Burgundy Lake, and infinite serenity.

The regular holidayers religiously avoid it. One takes a forty-five minute ride in the lone steamer from Fraserganz, which pulls ashore first at Alpha Island— the larger one, then takes the scant remainder of passengers, to Quattor Island.

Most enthusiasts rent shacks on the beach where the sea recedes during tides. The rest move inland towards the Burgundy Lake and wait for its enchanting lore.

Is lore a true account? Or was it falsehood disbursed by unsuspecting people down the ages? By the mere repetition of that lore, the fiction transforms into an engrossing truth.

But what happens to evidence? And when there are none? What of the account of the owners of those three pairs of eyes?

Boko Haram, roughly translated from the Hausa language, means ‘Western Education is forbidden’. Dapchi residents like Ba’ana Musa live in the wilderness of anonymity. In the midst of a punitive land, the essence of a better life lies in education. Musa wouldn’t want to send his daughters to school again. The merchants of terror have succeeded.

Over the skies of Yobe State, Nigeria, Air Force planes had flown for over two hundred hours searching for the missing girls. It is not easy to reconcile with disappearances, where the fist of a recalcitrant tiny band is mightier than the collective strength of a nation.

The Nigerian government had released the names of all girls, reconfirmed from registers by the School authorities. Their identities—-contrary to all ethics relating to victim identities and conventions—weren’t kept anonymous.

Missing people are statistics on registers. Not all of them willed to be anonymous. Not the Nepali girls who ended up in brothels in Mumbai.

When a devastating earthquake hit the Himalayan kingdom, they were herded across the border into India with promises of a livelihood. The starving girls were made to disappear, silently, by design. The outrage of their families never shook the world.

***

Let’s keep the three Ichthyology students anonymous as they have requested; and call them by names of fishes they would have liked to be called by— Anchovy, Pilchard and Menhaden, given their deep love for all things fishy!

On the left was the broad stretch of the ocean bathed in ephemeral light and half invisible fishing trawlers in the distant grayness. To the right, between the dark mass of the low dunes and the white sands, dominating the whole view, were colossal trees, which stood heavy and dense, full of the brutal force of Nature left to itself, swaying to the irregular bursts of squalid air.

A dull golden dust hung over the calm bay. Leaving the rest of the group at the beach, the three carefully tread the mud path between the trees towards Burgundy Lake.

A monotonous hollow whisper of the crashing waves sounded feebler as they walked inland. And then— Burgundy Lake was in front of them.

Pitching their puny tents in the clearing, the friends worked towards making a meal on the tiny stove they had remembered to carry along. Beyond them, on the short patch of soft mud, were dirt footmarks of unknown people just visible in the fading dimness. Menhaden lit the portable light, which began to burn condescendingly. Near at hand were ghostly, stunted wild bushes, huddled together in ignominy.

It would be hard to convey the stillness of the place. The wind had stopped, the leaves did not move, not a living soul stirred, like the world had fallen silent, lifeless. Trees were frozen, the waters dense in anticipation, like holding the weight of an enormous secret in their bosom….it was the quiet that struck the trio, calmness—not of peace but of death!

Five girls from the Dapchi School were reported to have met death. Khadija Grema, one of the girls released later, revealed a secret burdening her soul—the thin line between life and death was demarcated by belongingness to a certain faith. It is intriguing how erroneous interpretation of religion can be.

Serenity in death, I believe, is a rare blessing—the finality of death in the contentment of a life well lived. But what of the families that live in limbo for decades in search of closure? About one per cent of missing people never return. The Police files remain open, the families are stranded in a morass of uncertainty, where the news of death would, against the grain of attachments, be hoped for, even welcomed.

The families of persons missing do not cry, instead they question—what went wrong? Through a thousand doors they rummage, through the postcards, flipping through images, through the snippets of memories…they seek answers.

I tried to reason too. I studied philosophy, read the cycle of inevitable repetitions, and prayed for the spell to be broken.

***

A blue haze, half-sand, half-mist, began to shroud the Lake, like the curtain had been drawn to begin the enchanting lore of the Burgundy Lake. The friends were under its spell.

In the pallid light, the Lake seemed to come to life, its banks outlined thinly by intriguing rare dots of burgundy light, bunched together in twos and threes, and then melting away, holding the friends in a mesmerizing trance. This was it! The dots sharpened into lasers streaming through the inky black darkness until the strange rays hovered over the entire lake in a halo of fantastical burgundy.

Next day, a gap in the dense circle of green marked the expanse of the slowly enlivening skies. The eastern corner burst into majestic carmine, in the faint light of which, the friends found, to their perturbation, that the waters were no longer of the vibrant shade of last night; it was in fact an intriguing grey-green, like frozen algae!

Humid air blew in from the sea side, creating alluring ripples on the surface of water; the feeling of mystery lurking, of a story not yet unraveled, hung over the discussions like an apparition.

One mother of a missing child I met, says, would she not know by instinct if her child was dead, taken away to the Heavens? It must have been terrifying to even imagine that, but she believes it is better than living like an apparition, dying a thousand deaths every day. But then, she also hoped her child would perhaps be spotted at a park in another country, perhaps forgetting all about her and happy, living with a kind family in another continent….

Oscillating every waking minute between hope and hopelessness, she said, she might be staring at insanity.

For the parents of the Nigerian girls, hope itself is luxury. So perhaps is insanity. In a world oscillating between starvation and jihadist militancy, life is resigned to destiny.

***

Menhaden suggested a dip in the Lake. They descended the shallow waters, knee deep in the opaque grey-green fluid, almost like mucus in texture but stone-cold like the depths of the deep sea. The smooth pebbles weathered by immeasurable time felt smooth.

In the other-worldly silence, the little aperture of azure sky was stoic, and the wind from the bay stunned into silence.

Something stirred, black against the weltering waters; then the shriek of a man— deafening— like a life on the edge. All happened in a matter of seconds—lesser than the time it would take to read about it. There was a rattling sound as the snout of a Strange being peeped above the waters for less than a second, flashing a red light from its organ at the end of the long barbel that hang down from its chin revealing its teeth-filled mouth. In a moment it brought the six-foot tall Pilchard below the opaque surface of water with its long swaying tail and pinned him down. As the other two panicked, its stalked eyes gleamed, measuring the adversaries. Its back was corrugated, the rough scales standing on ends in the excitement of the battle. Pilchard got up and the managed a punch at its wavering mouth causing it to duck; but it raised again and the two wrestled once more. It was about two meters, an uneasy grey-blue on its skin, the lines of which were shiny in the mucus that it exuded. For once, it opened its mouth on the hinge at the back of its skull. It could easily swallow the man whole within that deep opening. In a swift giant stride Pilchard withdrew to the shoal dragging himself, but the fish hit the man with its diphycercal tail a second time, making him fall. Its barbel wagged languidly through the water, flickering on and off, to set off a trail of luminescent burgundy dots on the surface. In a frightful qualm, Pilchard turned. The evil eyes of the aquatic monster were wriggling on their stalks; its mouth was alive with the algal slime. Presently it descended on the man and sunk its fangs on his right leg as it tried to pull him deeper. Pilchard tried pushing its corrugated back with his free leg but it exuded such oil that it merely slid over its body. The anterior portion of its cranium swung upwards; the gape of its mouth was now large enough to pull a prey inside worth twice its size!

At this juncture, the other two returned to their senses. The man felt a massive surge upwards; his free foot being dragged over the cold pebbles and no sensation of the other foot. At the instant he fainted, one of his saviors hit the fish’s eyes with a dry log, repeating the effort countless times….

When the fish retired from the battlefield, an abominable desolation hung over the place. The injured man lay about on the sand; his mangled leg displaying a gashing wound with the ruthless imprints of the fish’s fangs.

It was, quite unambiguously, related to the Indiana Chalumnae, with its hinged skull and slippery body; a fish thought to have lived only in the deep seas where light cannot penetrate, and which last existed, back in the Cretaceous Period some sixty million years ago!

A year after he had gone missing, someone I thought I knew, returned.

None in the family, none of his friends asked any questions. He offered no explanations. We asked ourselves—who had let him down? Could things have been mended before they broke? The feelings rose, a gathering storm threatening to blow us all. We found ourselves breaking down often. It made us distraught. The fact that he offered no answers and remained in an impregnable bubble, made us wonder why he did not think it worthwhile to love us back? Why he did not care?

***

On the eighth day after the encounter, Pilchard called up his friend, Agatha, curator at the Museum of Natural History, to see if she had any answer to the description they could provide. For one, they now had a solution to the baffling lore of the Lake, and its curious burgundy color. The Chalumnae was known to have emitted a strange laser-like burgundy light from under its eyes to locate its prey in the dimness of the Deep Seas.

Agatha sounded convinced; whether as a friend or as a professional is another matter. But the problem began when Agatha, failing to find reasonable evidence from similar fossils collected from around the world, contacted the Professor Emeritus at the very School of Ichthyology where the three were students. The enormous anomalies—the fact that a creature of very Deep Seas was found in a Lake, whose burgundy color may, after all, be part of some spectacular imagination; the fact that it preyed on human when it was known to have survived in residual organic detritus; and finally, it was thought to have been dead millions of years ago— dismissed the case.

The International Journal of Fish Sciences published the finding, seeming to endorse the students’ views. The School of Ichthyology accused the Journal of ignoring the lack of any scientific evidence. Caught in the middle, the students themselves had to go undercover and have been nameless since.

Months later, buoyed by pressures created as a result of all the public debating, the School of Ichthyology decided to send a team for exploration. The team, a fairly competent one in my view, did not find anything amiss.

Do we publicly debate the growing statistics of people who go missing? Is it not a notion that somehow the family itself was responsible?

Between cursory references and total denial, we all live in limbo.

We are not used to uncomfortable truths.

Most of the Nigerian schoolgirls have been released. Some, it is said, have refused to reunite with the families that brought them up; instead, bearing children for their abductors.

Sometimes the extremes of truth are hard to believe.

Suffice it to say that the case of the Burgundy Lake was buried. At the peril of sounding alarmist, I shall only unfold the series of events occurring subsequently, ones that I have already alluded to. Three people disappeared at the Burgundy Lake— a young boy camping with his parents; another man, roughly the age and height of Pilchard, caught in a mysterious whirlpool and never surfaced. One British biologist, Jeremy Wade, who volunteered to capture the perpetrator after learning of the news, discounted the possibility of turbulence as the Burgundy Lake waters were infinitely dull. Instead, he theorized that a creature matching the description of the three friends, a coelacanth, could be responsible. With a hollow oil-filled notochord and hinged skull, one that had developed a taste for human flesh….

The final attack happened when a Nepalese man was swallowed whole by something his girlfriend described as an “aquatic giraffe”.

In each case, not even their bones were ever found.

Truth meanders; sometimes is trapped forever, gasping for a last breath.

 

About the Author:

Mandira Pattnaik is an Indian writer who lets her Economics degree gather dust while she word-weaves. Her writings have made their way into places like The Times of India, Bombay Literary Magazine, Gasher Journal, Commuterlit, Cabinet of Heed, Spelk, Star82, Lunate and (Mac)ro(mic), among others. She tweets @MandiraPattnaik

 

Explosion by Frances Holland

Creative Non-fiction
83362047_1460924667416259_8096309417940615168_n (1)

Masked by Ida Saudkova, year unknown

 

Death came for us two years in a row at Christmas. The first time it happened, I made myself laugh in assembly the day after, while we were practising ‘Away in a Manger’. Mrs Smith thought I must be very sad about my grandmother dying, and that I was having “an hysterical reaction”. I wasn’t: I was imagining Father Christmas dressed as the Grim Reaper, pulling a sleigh of skeleton reindeer. I told my friend David at break-time, and got a hug for my troubles.

The next year was the Explosion. My mother was screaming, the kind of scream that will eventually cause you to vomit up your own lungs if you’re not careful. Her cousin had been killed in an explosion at the shipyard, leaving behind a wife and four children. The youngest was my age. I tried to imagine my father, his face blown off, white skull fragments and red blood and then I blurted out that I was going to walk my friend home.

My mother was still screaming when Libby and I made our escape into the freezing night. I tried to explain to her who the cousin had been, but Libby couldn’t keep our family ties straight in her head. How do some people only have two cousins? How do they respond when it’s their name called out and not everybody else’s first? Libby had told me that “all your expression is in your eyes” the summer before, and I tried to remember to be cool.

Libby was so cool. It wasn’t cool to worry about all those cousins I hardly even knew. I tossed my head, let my hair fall over my eyes, my beautiful, expressive eyes, like she’d said, pretended it was the frost stinging them. No, I’m not crying.

 

 

About the Author:

Frances Mulholland is a multitalented writer, poet, actress and teacher. She has been writing ever since she was five years old, when she realised that putting an amusing caption on a drawing of her dad could get cheap laughs. Her inspirations include folklore and mythology, as well as the everyday lives of the people around her. She lives in Northumberland.

Miss Peverill by Alwyn Bathan

Creative Non-fiction
82311295_2490538614541544_2618370681078808576_n

Self-portrait by Ida Saudkova, c.a.1997

Miss Peverill was engineered from left-over hand grenades and fighter planes damaged in the Second World War. She had no need of a voice. She wore a tweed suit cut from the finest wire wool, scented of carbolic soap, mothballs and lilac talcum powder. Parents of new starters to the school dared not dally any longer than necessary to deliver their tender five-year-olds to her classroom.

When Michael Brown baulked at being left for the first time, Miss Peverill’s oxter became the weapon of choice. Non-compliant beginners were scooped up and crumpled unceremoniously into the deepest recess of her inner arm and chest, (Miss Peverill had no breasts, just a double string of pearls to clack against the little skulls on the way up). Their arms and legs flailing, they realised quickly that efforts to abscond were futile.

As long days elapsed, escape attempts tailed off, and rewards crept in; crayons appeared on tables in re-used biscuit tins, the milk crate brought in early to allow a few degrees of defrosting before poking a straw through the silver foil cap to the crystalline milky ice-pop below. Even a Friday afternoon Bring Your Favourite Toy from Home session was a cover for Miss Peverill to manually calculate individual attendance, multiplied by the fifty-six pupils in her class.

Her modus operandi was simple: comply or face humiliation.

The tariff of punishments was non-standardised and unique. It included but was not limited to;

-standing in the corridor to allow passing staff the opportunity for casual berating

-standing in a nominated corner of the room facing the walls; back right corner for coughing incidents, back left for scraping chair legs on the floor, front left for speaking when not spoken to, and front right for asking to go to the toilet,

-and, standing inside the grey metal waste paper bin next to her desk for even greater misdemeanours.

Gossip at the school gate had it that Miss Monforte, in the classroom next door, had a policy of keeping her wastepaper bin occupied: it was one child less to supervise.

On Friday 29th September 1961, Thomas Mitchell had nothing to bring to the Toys from Home session. He told William Moore, whose desk was one to the left in the rows and columns of the classroom grid, that there were no toys in his house, and that he preferred sticks. Sticks could be guns or knives or whips and he liked having choice, he said.

Although the boys’ proximity was alphabetical in nature, this was their only similarity. William’s blond hair was parted neatly down the centre of his whistle-clean scalp and Brylcreemed flat to either side of his head. The lenses in his tortoiseshell spectacles were clear and cleaned by his mother every morning, as were his shoes. His striped tank-top, knitted by grannie for him starting school, bore every colour of wool collected since his birth. William constantly pushed up the clean cotton handkerchief which resided inside the cuff of his starched and ironed shirt, first checking that Miss Peverill’s eyes were occupied elsewhere. He assured his mother every day it would not be needed, and it got in his way.

Thomas had an unfamiliarity with the bathtub, or the sink: his hygiene requirements were managed by spit on a tea-towel. His dark hair was matted and cut at irregular intervals using the scissor attachment of a Swiss army knife. Perched on top of his olive skin, it resembled the bird’s nest he stole from Leppy’s copse, similarly full of wildlife.  Sunburnt cheeks and nose and filthy fingernails evidenced his free-range existence; the lyrics to his life-song scribed in utero. He found little of interest in his school environment; the crayons were useless after invading every orifice he could access unobserved, milk made him sick, and he decorated the inside of the waste paper bin with curds and whey for three consecutive mornings before being allowed to drink water from the art sink tap. Neither could he sit still in his allocated place, Desk 3, Row 2. Thomas liked to swing his feet and stub his boots, laces flailing and clicking, against the legs of the desk and as he watched the dried mud clumps decorate the classroom floor while William looked anxiously on.

‘If you have brought nothing, then sitting quietly is what you must do, Thomas,’ Miss Peverill said, ‘perhaps that will help you remember next Friday.’ Replacing the reading glasses tethered by a golden snaking chain, she re-applied herself to the back pages of the green register grids which covered the surface of her desk.

The low hum of herd breathing resumed and was occasionally punctuated by odd shuffles of permitted movement as the children played, mainly solitarily, at their desks. Geoffrey White successfully assembled his Mr Potato Head, popping plastic arms and legs into the hollow brown tuberous body, adding glasses and moustache, and lifted it to show Raymond Tindale next to him. He nodded in appreciation, offering by return and with blue smudgy fingers, a page bearing R-A-Y printed from his John Bull rubber letters and ink pad. The Smith twins brought their Hoover Junior twin tub, and shared it on their desk, Christine turning the handle of the spinner painstakingly smoothly as Pauline lifted out the pretend-washing with her pretend-tong-fingers. They had forgiven Miss Peverill for last week when she had promised to bring a scoop of Daz washing powder from home to let them demonstrate to the boys how a washing machine worked. She then forgot. The contagion of crying that resulted, initially from the Smiths, which then spread through the remainder of the starters who were only just keeping control of their own separation anxiety, taught Miss Peverill an important lesson in teaching; that some promises were best not made in the first instance.

The gridded sheets of the register were turned over with care and attention at the front of the class accompanied by an occasional irritated glance over the black-rimmed spectacles.

Suddenly, the infant purr was ruptured by the clatter of wood upon wood.

The children jumped in their seats.

A lone desk lid, raised and dropped.

And again.

Fifty-five pairs of eyes swivelled to locate the noise whilst Thomas Mitchell elevated his chin and stared directly into the eyes of the woman seated at the big desk. He lifted the lid once more and held it momentarily, surveying the expressions of those around him before allowing it to fall freely from such a height it bounced on the empty desk framework.

William’s face drained of colour.

As the lid crashed against the frame once more, the eyes quickly relocated their gaze.

To Miss Peverill.

Then to Thomas.

And back to Miss Peverill.

Mouths opened. Bodies tensed.

‘Thomas Mitchell,’ she hissed, ‘take yourself off and stand at the front of the class. We no longer wish to see your disobedient face.’

‘I won’t,’ he said, jumping off his seat and brushing against William as he squeezed through the narrow gangway, the width of a puny five-year-old and Miss Peverill’s narrow hips.

William reached into his shirt sleeve and pulled out the crisp folded whiteness that usually returned home in a pristine state. He dabbed it against the corners of his eyes and his nose which were now starting to leak.

Making his way towards the teacher’s desk, Thomas stamped his feet hard on the tiled floor as he walked, releasing a trail of last-night’s muddy scrapings as he muttered under his breath,

‘and there’s nothing you can do to make me.’

 

About the Author:

Alwyn Bathan was a teacher for 39 years before deciding to return to formal learning through the MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University where she graduated with distinction. She works for Unicef UK, promoting children’s rights in education settings. She is keen on social justice and work-life balance, not necessarily in that order!

She won the Evesham Festival of Words Short Story Competition 2019. She has also recently finished writing her first novel. Alwyn enjoys the gym, walking her dog and being life-long learner.

The Flavor of Change by Janette Shafer

Creative Non-fiction
20181105_143241

In the City by Kasia Grzelak, 2018

 

From my vantage point on the 43rd floor of One Oxford Center, a panorama of the city of Pittsburgh unfolds from my office window.  The Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers meet at “The Point,” an urban park with a fountain which designates where the three waters meet.  A train in the distance slowly ambles past Station Square and it seems to go on for miles.  Being the new person at work means I am in many ways back to the beginning of my long twenty-two-year career in retail banking.  Even a welcome career change comes with many stressors; I don’t know what I don’t know.  I’m dependent on unfamiliar colleagues to show me the way, and for the first time in many years, I wait for guidance on my next steps.

The view of the outside world from the high-rise offers a stunning cityscape, but the interior office is bland, with white painted walls, ultra-modern stainless-steel desks, and black padded office chairs.  The decor is sterile; no artwork or photographs on the walls, only mounted dry erase boards with black markers and erasers and the fake smiles of a model family on a corporate poster.

My new colleague Craig has invited me to lunch.  He is fit, attractive, and young enough to be my son.  His green eyes are warm and earnest. His smile offers an innocent sweetness.   I’m grateful for the friendly gesture.  He says to meet him in front of his office where he’ll take me to “this great place across the street, someplace kind of different.”  The elevator, sleek and steel, whisks me down at lightning speed.  It reminds of the scene from Stanley Kubrik’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” when Dr. Heywood Ford takes a stylish transporter with a lounge interior to the space station on the moon.  Outside, the natural light is welcome after a morning of the overly bright glare of fluorescent bulbs punctuated by their perpetual hum.  I follow Craig into a Venezuelan diner called Arepittas.  The bright yellow sign with paintings of corn cobs still half cocooned in their husks promises “Venezuelan Street Food.”

Craig doesn’t know me and has no idea what this has done for my day and for my spirit.  Arepittas is a Venezuelan diner specializing in arepas, my favorite food from what once was home:  Venezuela.

The country of my birth is on the brink of collapse.  My cousin Evangelina posts videos on social media almost daily of protests outside her window, reposts news stories that cry out to the rest of the world, ayuadame!  In one of her recent updates, it is nighttime, and even in the dark resolution I can make out the thousands of people thronged in the streets with their signs.  I tell Craig that I’m from Venezuela and he couldn’t have picked a better place.

I order an arepa with chicken, avocado, cilantro, and guasacaca sauce (a green tomato and garlic salsa.) An arepa is a dense cornbread made from masa flour, served split and stuffed with savory or sweet fillings.  It is my favorite food, and a taste of home.  I don’t expect that this will be as good as the ones my mother and grandmother make, but it is everything I want it to be.  The arepa is golden brown with a crunchy crust.  The shredded chicken is tangy and garlicky, fragrant like the familiar perfume of a loved one.  The avocado is bursting green, as colorful as a vase of nosegays.  The satisfying crackle as the food gives way to my teeth fills my mouth with heritage, tradition, culture, and Latina pride.  An ache springs tears to my eyes as I think of my homeland teetering on the edge of utter devastation.

“Oh wow,” I say.  “This is so delicious it’s making me homesick.  Thanks for inviting me.  How did you find this place?”

“An app.  Or maybe Facebook?”  He shrugs and laughs.  “I never had Venezuelan food before this place and now I’m totally hooked.”

I post a picture of my lunch on Facebook with a note saying, “My new office is across the street from a Venezuelan food stand!  I’m having arepas!”  Many of my friends know what this means to me and more than 60 “likes” pop up in the next hour.  One of my friends, April, asks me in the comments, “What’s an arepa?”  My usual answer to this question is that an arepa is a dense, fried cornbread made from ground maize and that the usual stuffing is some kind of spicy meat with avocado or cheese.  Sometimes I joke that it’s like a Venezuelan taco to help give context.

An arepa is the longing for something familiar in my new corporate landscape.  An arepa is my small prayer against the political corruption that is destroying my country and threatening my loved ones left behind.  An arepa is my small act of defiance against the tyranny of Nicolas Maduro as his greed threatens to upturn our homeland.  An arepa is a twinge of guilt as I start to settle into my new work environment while everything in Venezuela shifts in turmoil and unrest.  An arepa is a memory of Abuelita in her vibrant flowered dress slapping the dough between her hands before lowering it into a skillet of olive oil.  An arepa is a phone call with my Mom when I tell her I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by all this change but that I’ll figure it out.  An arepa is a balm for my wounds.  An arepa is a step towards home.

 About the Author:

Janette Schafer is a freelance writer, nature photographer, full-time banker and part-time rock singer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Her writing and photographs have appeared in numerous publications.  A collection of her poetry titled “Something Here Will Grow” will be published by Main Street Rag in 2020.  She is the Artistic Director and Founder of Beautiful Cadaver Project Pittsburgh.

Heavy Absence by Edward Lee

Creative Non-fiction
Inner spaces

Inner Spaces by India Hibbs, 2019

 

Sunday, 5:00 pm. I have just strapped my daughter into her car seat; she’s perfectly capable of doing this herself, but it gives me a gentle pleasure to do it for her. I give her an extra hug and kiss, tell her I love her and close the door. Her mother starts the engine of the car, pulls out from the pavement and drives away, the two of them returning to the family home. My daughter waves to me through the window and blows me kisses. I wave and blow her kisses in return. I will not see her for another thirteen days.

I stand at the side of the road for a moment longer, a heavy nothingness settling in my chest like a slowed detonation. Over the next thirteen days that heaviness will spread – explode – throughout my body until I can feel it in the tips of my toes and fingers. As it spreads its mass will increase until it seems as though it is weighing down my very existence. At approximately 11:00 am, on the Saturday morning thirteen days away, when I see my daughter again, that heavy nothingness will whiplash back into the centre of my chest, falling into semi-dormancy until the Sunday at 5:00pm when I once again strap my daughter into her car seat and watch her drive away for another thirteen days, and it slowly explodes throughout my body again, an ever-repeating pattern, my own personal circle of hell.

I try not to think about the next thirteen days as I turn from the road and, with slow steps and stooped shoulders, re-enter the house in which I am staying, confined to one room – my home, the family home which my daughter and her mother are returning to, is a locked building to me since myself and my daughter’s mother separated over a year ago. The evening to come will be hard enough to get through without absorbing tomorrow and the twelve days after into my being all in one go, but, of course, by trying not to think about it I am thinking about; there will be entire days over the next thirteen days, as there has been over the past multitude of thirteen days, when it is all I can think about, no matter how much I try to distract myself with writing or exercise or music or reading, when, in fact, I am utterly incapable of writing or reading, of listening to music or forcing my body to perform any task which requires conscious deliberate thought. Walking up the stairs to my room I can already feel my mood plummeting into a watery abyss I feel I could drown in. For thirty hours I felt like a father again, seeing my daughter, being with her, minding her, feeding her, playing with her, putting her to bed and reading to her, waking her the next morning and doing it all again; all those things which when done every day – as I used to do them every day as a stay-at-home dad – can become repetitive and almost annoying, and from which you sometimes wish you could be spared, but when taken from you become everything that ever gave your life meaning, and which you would be willing to make any sacrifice to reclaim. And now those thirty hours are over, and I have been made a distant father once more, and this switch, though I am expecting it, and have been experiencing it every second weekend for over a year now, is as breathtaking and sudden as it was the very first time.

I will sleep little tonight, and the few hours I do get will be broken hours. When I wake on Monday morning I will feel as though I have had no sleep at all. My daughter not being there as she was there only the morning before, will add a hard pain to the heaviness in my chest, stalling the breath in my lungs; I will feel not just like an absent father but like I am not a father at all, that I am in fact an interloper in my daughter’s life – and this sensation too will only increase as the thirteen days proceeds – and I will want to close my eyes and not open them again until the Saturday morning when it is our weekend together. But I won’t. I will rise from the bed because I must rise. My life must be lived and this is my life now, this spreading heaviness and repeated pain, this seeing my daughter thirty hours out of three-hundred-and-thirty-six; the world does not cease its spinning simply because you are undergoing some hardship – even my daughter knows this – though, I freely admit, I sometimes wish, more childish than my own child, that it would stop its turning, or, at the very least, I might cease to exist for a moment, cease to think, to feel, to be spared for a handful of minutes from wondering, childishly so again, what I might have done to deserve this life.

And just as I will rise Monday morning, I will rise Tuesday morning, and every morning after, fighting the urge to not rise at all. I will stumble through my days, because what else can I do? I worry that after all this time – seventeen months to be precise, seventeen months this very day as I type these words – that this nothingness still sits so heavy inside me, that there is still such fresh and eager pain; even allowing for the pain born from the ending of the relationship with my daughter’s mother, pain which, thankfully, has faded away into a dull echo, it still seems excessive for this heaviness to be still so relentlessly prominent. It is not that I have been expecting it to have passed by now, but surely, after seventeen months, it should have lessened as I grow accustomed to it, or if not accustomed, at least somewhat inured – and I have spoken to other separated fathers and they have told me that it does lessen to such a degree that you are barely aware of it, and they are quick to voice their genuine surprise that it has not done so for me after so much time – but it has not lessened, it has not eased, it is a weight so prominent and unyielding that it feels like an extra organ in my body, pushing aside my heart and my lungs to make room for itself, and it does not feel like it will ever lessen; potentially another childish thought, a ‘my world is over’ kind of statement, but one that is solidly real in its sad surety. In fact, it sometimes feels like it gets worse every time, the burst of pain as I say goodbye to my daughter on the Sunday evening a milligram heavier, a millimetre deeper, than it was two weeks before, as though the repetitiveness of it is not allowing it to heal, like a scab that is constantly pulled off just moments before it can become a scar and is made all the worse for this cruel savagery.

Part of the problem might be to do with the depression I have suffered with all my life, how, among the many ways it impacts my life (the unwanted gift that keeps on giving), it can amplify stress and other negative emotions while also allowing them to continue beyond what would be a normal duration of such emotions and experiences. Maybe I simply need more time to acclimatize myself to this change in my relationship with my daughter, as I usually need more time to overcome stress or sadness or anxiety. Maybe another seventeen months. Thirty. Forty. I hope not, because not only does my depression amplify that heaviness, my depression, in turn, is amplified by that heaviness, detrimentally affecting not just my emotions, but all aspects of my life from my concentration to my appetite, and everything in between that make up the day-to-day living of a life.

I find much-needed comfort in the fact that my daughter, in that awe-inspiring way of children, has adjusted to the change in her life, her parents no longer together and living apart; her heart is still kind, her smile is still warm, her eyes still full of love. And as that heavy nothingness which contains her absence at its very centre spreads itself though my body across those thirteen days which seem to progress as though each one contains more than the normal twenty-four hours, it is the thought of her kind heart, her warm smile, and her loving eyes, that gets me through each of those too-long days, until that Saturday morning finally arrives and she is there running towards my arms, her eyes, so like mine, alight, her face shining with her beautiful smile, and the most wonderful word I have ever known rushing from her mouth like a promise that yes, it will eventually get better, someday: Daddy.

 

 

About the Author:

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll.  His debut poetry collection “Playing Poohsticks On Ha’Penny Bridge” was published in 2010. He is currently working towards a second collection.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Lewis Milne, Orson Carroll, Blinded Architect, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com